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BLACKOUT

by

Monica Ramirez


Chapter One

Death Wears Jewels

Brussels, Belgium

Firmly centred in the cross hairs, so close in the enhanced telescopic sight that the beads of rain on its feathers could be counted, the pigeon remained oblivious, discontentedly pecking at nothing.

Laurence Fournier watched until the bird abandoned the building opposite and fluttered off in search of either a dry haven or a better prospect of a meal. Once it had disappeared, he brought the sights back onto the doorway. A dark, dreary drizzle had been soaking the city since before dawn and a rivulet of dirty water ran down the gutter. The light was poor, but more than sufficient to watch the movement of the single guard brave enough to stand up to the elements. Other than that, there hadn’t been a sign of movement in hours, not even a random passing car.

Laurence slipped quietly through the night, no sound from his footfalls and no shadow cast against the black night. The guard heard nothing before he died; neck broken, he fell to the ground. Laurence stepped over the body to the door and picked the lock. He turned and motioned. His men filtered out of the trees like ghosts. They stood around him, waiting. They entered silently.

The officer in command sat working at a computer terminal, while three men were engrossed in a game of cards with a pile of money in between them. One of the men grinned and reached out to rake in the cash as the others folded. A soldier was at the coffee pot, pouring himself a fresh cup. Another one sat in a chair with his feet propped on a box, head leaned back at a precarious angle, snoring loudly.

The officer looked up, saw the invaders and snatched for his gun as he rose, but never made it to his feet as Laurence aimed and fired. The man dropped. Laurence’s men took the others down in a bevy of fire. The dying soldier took the coffee pot down with him, the hot brew mixing with his blood on the floor. The card player never collected, the sleeping soldier never woke. One of Laurence’s men laughed and sprayed the office again with his machine gun. A stray bullet hit the computer case.

“Gerbert,” Laurence called and the man turned to him, still laughing. “The computer is our primary target, the arms are extra. You knew that.” He raised his gun and shot Gerbert between the eyes. 

The other men froze as Laurence turned and looked at each individually. They had gotten the message.

“Get the armaments,” he said quietly.

The men entered the warehouse and began emptying it out. Laurence sat at the computer and checked it over carefully. The computer housing was damaged, but the bullet had apparently missed its vitals. As he started downloading files onto a disc, his normally expressionless face registered a dry smile. If he was right, the files should insure him to operate unmolested by the local police, giving him the leverage he needed over the government. And he was usually right.

Laurence-Jacques Fournier was an athletic man with a barrel chest, sharp aquamarine eyes, soft ash blond hair worn in business style and a straight aristocratic nose that won men’s respect and women’s adulation. Although French by birth, he had never really considered himself as appertaining to a specific nation. Laurence was a free bird.

His group was an international mix of thieves, but not just common thieves. They were the elite of all kinds and methods, stealing anything and everything from jewellery to art, industrial and political secrets to top secret military projects and, of course, armaments, which were extremely profitable on the black market.  

“We’re finished, sir,” one of his men said in English, his accent sharply noticeable.

Laurence looked up at him. “Is the area sanitized?”

“Yes, sir. No prints, nothing left to identify us.” He glanced over at Gerbert’s dead body. “Except for him.”

“Take him with you. I’ll be along shortly.”

“Yes, sir.” The man hoisted the body over his shoulder, then glanced around the room once more before making his way out.

Laurence completed his work at the computer and pocketed the disk. The dead soldiers had been returned to their original positions and the coffee pot sat upright. He walked to the table where the money lay untouched. Reaching out with the barrel of his gun, he flipped over the cards of the first player, then did the same to the next. The third one’s hand still stretched across the table to reach for the cash. Laurence flipped his cards over. Aces and eights, a dead man’s hand.

“You won,” Laurence said softly, then turned around and walked out.

***

That evening, Hugues Brinley rapped lightly on Laurence’s office door and waited. He was Laurence’s right hand and bulldog, an English solid man with close-set brown eyes and light-brown hair, sporting a sardonic smile and an extremely colourful language that Laurence overlooked in favour of his efficiency.

“Come in,” Laurence’s softly accented voice said from inside.

Hugues opened the door and walked into the expansive room. The walls were brick broken up by dusky burgundy curtains on the windows, a large Oriental rug in deep bloody tones of red and burgundy dominating the sparsely furnished room up to the desk.

Laurence sat in a black leather lounge chair with a book open on his lap, a small desk lamp the only illumination in the room. He looked up and lifted one eyebrow in query.

“Figures from the arms sale,” Hugues said, as he handed him the paperwork. 

Laurence glanced at the numbers briefly and nodded, then returned to his book.

“You don’t really care about the money, do you?” Hugues commented, unable to remain quiet.

Laurence gave a shrug of his shoulders. “Not particularly.”

“But you always ask to see the numbers.”

Laurence looked up again from his book and considered the matter before responding. “Money is simply a way to keep score.”

Hugues looked uncomfortable. Not caring about money was not a concept his mind could get around and Laurence was aware of his discomfiture.

“That will be all,” he said, then returned his eyes to the book.

I should disburse the entire take, he thought as Hugues left the room. His old associate, Hugues, was a good barometer for the rest of the men. If he seemed uneasy, they all were. The holding fund was more than adequate to cover any new projects or emergencies. Divide the take by ten…nine. He frowned. I need to recruit someone for Gerbert’s position.

Laurence gave up trying to read and set the book aside. He stood and walked to his computer to initiate a search through his possible recruit files, but stopped in the middle of the room and stared absent-mindedly at a painting on the wall. He shook his head. He should take some time off, go ski in the Alps, maybe even sail on the Mediterranean. He couldn’t afford to be this easily distracted. Recruiting could wait.

He focused on the painting that hung slightly crooked on the wall. He felt attached to it and that was a disquieting thought. It had struck a responsive note in him since the first time he’d seen a reproduction of it in an art book as a teenager. It was not much, just a line of monks in dark robes walking through the snow with a ruined abbey in the background, barren trees framing the procession. The brooding intensity of the mood and the surface clarity of the German romantic work foreshadowed the surrealism of the twentieth century.

The remarkable piece had hung in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and was supposedly destroyed during the last days of World War II. To say that Laurence had been pleased to find it among the belongings of a former competitor would have been a radical understatement.

He turned and walked to his desk, where he began putting together a file on the Commissaire Général de la Police Fédérale. Thibault Lennert was about to become a very unhappy, but useful man. Laurence allowed himself a cynical smile. Unaccustomed as he was to actually working, Monsieur Lennert would probably find becoming useful the more difficult of the two to handle.  

Laurence had temporarily established his headquarters to Brussels for a very good reason; as the headquarters to the European Union and NATO, Brussels was the ultimate European city often referred to as The Capital of Europe. In actuality it was nothing more than a mini-Babylon, an international metropolis featuring a mosaic of languages, cultures and traditions. Aside from the splendid and varied architectural styles, Brussels also hosted over eighty museums, numerous tourist attractions, a vibrant nightlife with more restaurants and clubs than one could count, but mostly important, the largest armoury in Western Europe. And that was exactly what had attracted Laurence and his group of thieves.

***

The next morning, Thibault Lennert whisked past his administrative assistant.

Monsieur Le Commissaire,” she called out just as he reached for the doorknob.

He turned and glared at her. “What?” he snapped. “I’m busy.”

“A gentleman is here for your morning appointment. He is waiting in your office.”

“Appointment?” Thibault asked, frowning. What appointment? He didn’t remember any kind of morning appointment.

***

Megeve, French Alps

As the taxi driver unloaded Laurence’s skis and luggage, the bellhop raced to scoop them up and carry them into the hotel. Les Fermes De Marie, once an old farm, was now a very charming hotel a stone throw from downtown Megeve. The cluster of eight chalets provided luxurious suites that were individually styled, the rustic decor of the public interior combining antiques with a mélange of colourful curtains. But what really suited Laurence was that the hotel was only five minutes from the slopes.

Bien venue, Monsieur. Your usual suite?” the receptionist greeted him.

“Oui, merci.”

“A pleasure to see you again, Monsieur. I assume you know Mademoiselle Sybille is here as well?”

Before Laurence could answer, a petite bundle of a female crashed into him. Her blonde curls covered his face and blinded him as she leaped up and crushed him in a bear hug, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Laurence!”

He peeled her off his neck and held her at arm’s length to look at her. “Mon Dieu, Sybille! I didn’t know you were here, what a wonderful surprise,” he said, his smile as bright as the sun breaking through the clouds on a stormy day. 

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? How long can you stay? Are you alone? Come with me,” she said in a rush.

Before he could answer any of her questions, she grabbed him by the elbow and dragged him toward the lounge. He looked over her head and motioned for the bellhop to take his luggage up to his room. Sybille shoved him into a booth in the far corner. He looked over at the amused bartender and waved two fingers in the air. The man started mixing.

“I didn’t plan to come, I’ll be here for a week and, yes, I’m alone,” he succinctly answered Sybille’s questions. “Your turn.”

“I’m here with some friends, also for the week.” Sybille placed her hand on his cheek. “Oh, Laurence, it’s so good to see you…I really missed you. I tried calling you at your Berlin number, but it was disconnected. I wish you wouldn’t be so evasive. How am I supposed to reach you if I really need to?”

He kissed her hand, then pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and scribbled a number on the cocktail napkin.

“You’ll always be able to reach me through this number. If I don’t answer, just leave a message and I’ll get in touch with you as soon as I get it. I’m sorry you couldn’t reach me, mon coeur,” he said, using his pet name for her.

Sybille grinned and took the napkin.

Ever since Laurence was ten years old, his grandfather used to dump him at her family’s house during the summer. That’s how she became his pseudo-younger sister. Being stuck with a ten-year-old boy was pure pain for a seven-year-old girl, who had just discovered that boys were a neat invention and at first she loathed him. But he took it as a challenge, so by the time he was fifteen and had spent every summer with her family, she had practically adopted him. They became as close as brother and sister. She affectionately called him mon amour and he called her mon coeur in return.

She was nearly heart broken when his grandfather died shortly after his eighteenth birthday and Laurence was shipped off to Bangkok to live with his father. They lost track of one another for a long time after that, until one day he showed up at her home in Istanbul. She’d opened the door and there he stood.

“Bon jour, mon coeur,” he had said nonchalantly, as though they had been together only the day before.

She had vowed then never to lose track of him again.

***

Later in the afternoon, Laurence challenged Sybille to a race down one of the trickier ski runs. They called back and forth to each other from their chairs on the ski lift. Sybille was still talking as Laurence took off from the top of the slope. He always took contests so seriously. Sybille lost with graceful petulance, but shoved him into a snow bank when they reached the bottom.

It was a good day, considerably better than the evening when she introduced him to her friends and watched him slide easily from friendly to merely polite. She doubted her friends were aware of the change; they didn’t know him. But she did. His manners were too good for him to become glacial to someone she introduced him to, but for all the warmth he threw off, he might as well have been dripping icicles. What was his problem?

As soon as they had a few minutes alone at the outer edge of the group, he told her in no uncertain terms, “All these supposed friends of yours are nothing but Euro trash, Sybille.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t see you for six months at a time and then you criticize.”

He sighed. “I know who some of these people are.” He nodded toward a blond man leaning on the wall across from them. “Heike there is a heroin dealer.” He then indicated a woman with smooth, fair hair. “And Krista is hooked into half of the drug deals in Germany.”

Sybille shrugged.

“They’re fun and I play with them, not do business. Loosen up, Laurence.”

He clutched her arm and pulled her from the room. In the hall, he shoved her against the wall and held her chin captive with one hand, tilting her head so that the overhead light shone into her eyes. He studied her eyes intently, then released her chin. He shoved the sleeve of her sweater above the elbow and inspected her arm carefully, then did the same to her other arm.

“You’re not using,” he finally concluded.

She pushed him away. “Of course, I’m not. How dare you to accuse me?”

“Sybille, please.” His eyes looked very sad. “Let’s go to my room, we should talk.”

She raised her chin defiantly. “I want to spend the evening with my friends.”

“Sybille,” he insisted, “there’s something you need to know…something I should have told you about. Please.”

She relented to the plea, knowing it was contrary to his nature to ask rather than demand. She loved him, but Laurence was a real control freak. She followed him to his room and sat on his bed, watching him pace back and forth in front of her. 

Finally, he stopped and faced her. “I never told you where I was and what I did before I found you again in Istanbul.”

“I remember asking and not getting an answer,” she responded sarcastically, but her heart started to beat faster. “I respected your privacy and let it go. Why don’t you try it?”

He reached out and took her hands in his, then knelt before her. “Because I love you, mon coeur.”

“Damn you.” She slid off the bed and sat beside him on the floor. 

It was impossible not to remember the number of times they’d sat like that in his room at her parents’ summer home, talking late into the night. She would tell him about her dates and heartbreaks and he would listen better than anyone she had ever known. The staff thought they were having an affair, even her parents worried about it occasionally. The truth was far more complicated than that and much simpler. They loved each other, but there was no click in a sexual way; it never had been.

“Okay, Laurence. Talk.”

He closed his eyes, unable to look at her while he talked. “I killed someone in Bangkok and my father arranged for me to go to prison in England. It was better than the prison in Bangkok, I’m sure. Whatever you do, Sybille, don’t get sent to prison…you can’t know what it’s like. Get rid of this Euro trash, or you’ll end up there.”

“I’m not doing anything bad.”

“You don’t have to do anything, just be in the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong people.” He opened his eyes, but he was staring into the past. 

She looked at his profile, considered his perfect good looks, and wondered just how hard prison inmates would have been on a man like this. He was gorgeous, refined, intelligent. It must have been a horror. She slipped her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder.

“Who did you kill?”

“My best friend.”

They were both silent for a while.

“You had a good reason?” she finally asked.

“I thought there was at the time…on the other hand, I was also very drunk.” He rested his head on top of hers.

“What do you do now for a living, Laurence?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Her breath caught. Her parents had died in a car crash several years ago and his father had committed suicide. They were alone; all they had left was each other. When her silent tears dampened his shoulder, he kissed her forehead.

“Don’t, mon coeur. Please, don’t cry.”

“I’m afraid,” she sobbed.

“Of what?”

“Of losing you, too.”

He caressed her hair. “You won’t.”

“Is what you do illegal?”

He didn’t answer.

“Is it dangerous?”

He still didn’t answer.

“I’ll get rid of the Euro trash,” she promised.

***

Doncaster, England

Hugues stood leaning on the fence and watched his horse run the track. As Lancelot flashed past the finish line in a bay blur, he hit the stopwatch and smiled broadly.

“Beautiful, fucking beautiful,” he said, giving thumbs up to the jockey.

Life was good, especially since the last haul had paid for a new stable. Strange duck, Laurence no-name, as he called him. Fancy working for someone and not knowing their last name, but Laurence was a secretive son of a bitch with ice water in his veins. Took care of his own, though, you had to give him that. He remembered Gerbert. Well, it usually didn’t pay to disobey orders, and Gerbert had never really belonged to the group.

In between assignments, they all returned to their normal lives and the men never contacted each other. Hugues never contacted them until Laurence told him to and Hugues was always one to follow orders.

He looked over his shoulder. The jockey walked Lancelot in a circle to cool him down. Someday he would have a string of racehorses; no reason for anyone to know where the money for them had come from.

Laurence had helped him set up a way to launder the money so it was untraceable. Smart fellow, Laurence no-name. He seemed to know the intricate details of every illegal activity.


Chapter Two

The Hunter and the Prey

Brussels, Belgium

Despite his concern for Sybille, the vacation had helped. Laurence felt focused again. The fact that his life had followed a path not of his choosing was something he had to accept. Not of my choosing? he thought almost furiously. No one forced me to kill Hoshino...the choice was all mine. He didn’t really regret his best friend’s death, especially since he’d caught Hoshino sleeping with his girlfriend. But he regretted the outcome and there was no one to blame but himself. Seeing Sybille and telling her the truth had relieved a burden he had carried for years.

That evening, Laurence stood at the corner of the Avenue des Arts, watching the last people leave the Ministry of Planning across the street. Only the night guard remained. He checked his watch and crossed the street. Ducking down the alley next to the building, he walked quickly to the overhead fire escape. He easily caught the bottom rung of the ladder and pulled the fire escape down into reach, then climbed rapidly to the top floor and paused beneath a window. He peered cautiously over the ledge. No wires.

He slid a thin strip of metal between the upper and lower windows and popped the lock. He waited…still no sound. Very quietly, he opened the window and stepped inside. Shining a miniature flashlight around the edges of window, he was satisfied to see that no alarms had been triggered and hurried to the file computer. A methodical search of the computer and the discs in the desk gave up some of the information he sought, but not enough. Damn! He checked his watch and switched the computer off, then hid under the desk.

Very soon, he heard footsteps in the hall. The door opened and the night guard flashed a light around the room. Nothing appeared disturbed. The man shut the door and Laurence could hear him stopping at the next door to repeat the routine. Sure that enough time had passed for the guard to leave the floor, Laurence got out from under the desk and looked around the office. An entire wall was filled with file cabinets. Paper files, he thought. How quaint. This was going to take forever. He checked his watch again. Just do the job, damn it.

He took his time. If he did it right the first time, he wouldn’t have to come back. Finally, he found the floor plans of the new ministry building. He pulled the file out and placed it on the desk, then began snapping pictures of the pages with a miniature camera. When he was finished, he returned everything to its proper place and looked around to make sure he had left no traces behind. With minimal noise, he slipped back through the window and pulled it shut.

The information he had stolen should enable him and his men to clean out the largest armoury in Brussels and Western Europe. While he didn’t particularly care to supply armaments to the world’s sleaze, it paid the bills and kept the men happy. The plans included a complete layout of the new ministry building and that would certainly come in handy. One had only to be patient. The sloppy security in the Brussels Ministry of Planning had unwittingly handed over the plans to the new ministry building, still in the building stage, to the best thief in Europe. It was time to call in the troops for some action.

As he neared his office, however, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. A hunter by trade, Laurence knew when he became prey by instinct. His discomfort increased as he neared the office. By the time he reached the corner of the building, he was as nervous as a treed cat. He didn’t change his pace, but walked past the office entrance and turned left when he reached the corner.

Paranoia was part of his life, he considered as he continued walking. Was he really being watched? He caught the tram and crossed town, transferring frequently as he did so. By a long circuitous route, he eventually reached his apartment, but watched the building for a considerable period of time before he felt comfortable entering.

He put the Bach Brandenburg Concerto on the CD player and prowled around the room. Bach’s mathematical precision always helped him think. Who? How? Why? He worked his way methodically through all the possible twists and turns. Every piece of logic led him back to the Commissaire Général, Thibault Lennert, who had both the means, as head of the police services, and certainly the motive, considering the compromising Intel Laurence had on him.

He gathered several passports in different names to a briefcase and left. Although it was late in the evening, he caught a taxi and went to the Commisaire’s office. Denise Leville, the secretary, a young woman with black hair cropped short to her head and eyes darker than the night, was still there and judging from her smile, she still remembered him from the last time. He kissed her hand, his lips lingering on her skin a bit longer than necessary.

“You said you would not return soon,” she said, blushing.

“I was mistaken. Is Monsieur le Commissaire in?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I have a wonderful surprise for him.” He leaned forward and placed his finger on her lips. “Shhhhh.”

She smiled as he went to the door of the inner office and entered.

Lennert looked up and turned as white as a bleached corpse when he saw Laurence shut the door behind him. “You!” He stood agitated. “But you’re…”

“Dead?” Laurence asked quietly.

Lennert slumped into his chair as Laurence pointed a silenced gun at him.

“Who and why?” he inquired coldly.

“I…I don’t know too much,” Lennert stammered. “I only gave them a few details.”

“Who?” Laurence insisted.

“A very secretive organization…you’ve attracted their attention.”

“What do they want?”

Lennert shook his head, his eyes fixed on the barrel of the gun. “I do not know, I swear.”

“Thank you,” Laurence said and fired a bullet to his heart.

On his way out, he stopped at Denise’s desk. “Monsieur le Commissaire doesn’t wish to be disturbed for the rest of the evening. He said you may go home.”

“Of course.” She smiled, holding out her hand expectantly.

True to form, Laurence kissed her knuckles lightly before helping her with her coat. They walked out of the building together.

There was no need to return to his office. Hugues would have to wait for a call from him. He would contact him as soon as he would be safely relocated. Time to move on. Never keep anything you can’t walk away from, Laurence mentally recited his motto, even as he felt a bothering ache in his heart as he thought about the painting. He shouldn’t have grown so attached to it. He only hoped it would be recognized and put into a museum.

He had made no personal friends in Brussels and his women were casual encounters, hoping for, but not expecting a call. No one would miss him, no one would care. He would simply vanish into the night.

***

Basel, Swiss-German border

The thin sliver of a waxing moon cast little light into the dark Rhine River. Four trucks loaded with armament were parked side by side, their back doors hanging open like waiting jaws.

Laurence paced along the road and periodically glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. The German clients were late. He started to motion to his men to pack it in and abort the delivery, when he heard the distant sound of rotors.

“Move out!” he ordered.

He jumped the ditch alongside the road and sprinted across the open ground of the field. Behind him on the road, the trucks peeled off, rear doors flapping. One went east, one went west, one went north, and one went south. The rotors grew louder.

Just as Laurence reached the trees along the edge of the field, a helicopter flashed into view overhead. A huge belly spotlight sprang to life, its glare searching back and forth across the field, up and down the road. The light caught the eastbound truck and the chopper veered sharply after its prey.

Laurence stepped out from under the tree, pulled out his Beretta and aimed. Bringing down a chopper with a handgun was impossible, but he could damn well blind the thing. He fired one shot. A hit, and the searchlight blew out. He continued firing, his bullets going through the chopper cabin and into the rotor housing. The chopper shuddered and jerked, then dropped its nose like a wounded bird.

Incredulous, Laurence hit the dirt as the fiery crash lit the night sky in a flurry of blazing eruptions. Three of them, actually. He counted. The first was the chopper, the second was the gas tank, the third nearly simultaneous one was the chopper’s munitions that fired off in random directions, wild bullets nearly hitting him. A plant next to his face blew to dust. Eventually, the bullets stopped. Laurence rose to his feet, dusting off his clothes. He holstered his gun and took out a white linen handkerchief from his pocket, meticulously wiping his face clean.

The trucks returned and parked once again by the roadside. The men piled out and stood staring at the blazing remains of the helicopter. Laurence leaped back over the ditch and walked up to them, looking as neat and unblemished as a fashion add. 

Hugues met him halfway. “Christ Almighty! Never seen anyone take down a chopper with a handgun. Fucking amazing you are, Laurence.”

The men behind him murmured in shocked agreement, but Laurence dismissed the compliments with a casual shrug. As headlights appeared in the distance, he barked sharp orders.

The men snapped back to present, ready for the exchange. When the awaited trucks pulled alongside, it took mere minutes to switch the loads as crates of guns and ammunition were heaved out into the arms of the German men. The trade went down with carefully planned precision, soon the trucks pulling away in their respective directions. In no time the road was dark again, no vehicles in sight. If not for the flickering skeleton of the chopper, the entire evening would have seemed an illusion.

***

Geneva, Switzerland

The next morning, Laurence sat in his new office in Geneva and considered the events of the previous evening. The German crew had been off schedule and that needed to be addressed. As for the chopper, where the hell had it come from? And who had sent it? Hugues could handle the Germans, but the chopper mystery was his.

A knock sounded at the office door.

“Come in,” he called, still pensive.

Hugues walked in with the anticipated paperwork. He handed it over to him and stood at ease. 

Laurence glanced up. “Have a seat.”

Hugues looked around and selected the sofa. Another Oriental rug was on the floor, this one dominated by intense cobalt tones. The office seemed even sparser than the previous one and there was no painting on the wall.

Laurence finished looking over the figures and placed the papers on his desk. “Have you talked to the Germans?”

“Bloody right, I did.”

Laurence suppressed a grin. “I assume they’ve seen the error of their ways?”

“I took care of it.”

“Good, I don’t want to see it happen again. How’s Lancelot running?” Laurence changed the subject.

Hugues brightened immediately, pride popping out his every pore. “Finest fucking piece of horse meat on the track.”

“When are you going to race him?”

Hugues frowned. “I have a problem with the bloody Derby commission.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I haven’t applied yet…my record is not the cleanest and they won’t let me run him if they find out.”

“Don’t let them find out.”

“Thorough bastards they are.”

Laurence smiled. “I’ll take care of it. It would be a shame not to race him.”

“Can you do that? I’d be forever grateful, Laurence.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll let you know when it’s taken care of,” a promise, as well as a dismissal.

Hugues flashed him the biggest grin Laurence had ever seen as he left the room. It should only take a few phone calls; he had enough information on the right people in the right places in Britain to expunge more than one criminal record.

After half an hour, when he got off the phone, the police records in England didn’t know Hugues existed, except as the owner of an automobile with two outstanding parking tickets. Too clean would have looked suspicious.

And now, the blasted chopper. The leak must have come from either Germany or Switzerland. Laurence mentally flipped a coin. Germany. He picked up the phone and made flight reservations.

***

Berlin, Germany

The Branderburg Bierskeller, a bar specialized in beer, overlooked the Spree River, close to the Brandenburg Gate. Laurence, however, was not seated at a table next to the window sipping from one of the local brews for the sheer joy of it, but mostly for the view, namely one of the world’s most famous crystal topped glass domes and one of the most visited by tourists: The Reichstag building, the capital structure of the modern unified German Republic housing the meeting chamber of the German Parliament, the Bundestag. Laurence was no tourist, though, although his eyes closely studied the famous building. He could just make the cone of mirrors at the centre of the dome. He brought the heavy beer mug to his lips and took a healthy swing, then looked at his watch and turned his eyes toward the entrance. Punctual like clockwork, his contact entered and looked around the bar.

Apparently satisfied, he walked to Laurence’s table and seated himself. Volker Sigmund was a small man of fifty, blue eyes set deeply in his skull, a derelict grey beard. As an intelligence analyst for the Federal Chancellor’s Office, he was one of Laurence’s most brilliant sources.

Guten Tag, Laurence,” he said with a large smile. “Wie sind sie?

“I’m fine, thanks,” Laurence switched to English before Volker’s native Berliner accent made his ears bleed, or before he started practicing his French with an accent that was near traumatizing to hear. “I need some information.”

“What kind?” Volker asked, motioning to the waitress for the local beer.

“Two nights ago, one of my business transactions was compromised. A helicopter was involved. I want to know who sent it.”

Volker frowned. “Helicopter? I know nothing.”

As the waitress approached the table, the two men quit talking. When she was safely out of earshot again, Volker resumed.

“I do not like this, I should have known about it. What kind of helicopter?”

Laurence gave him a complete description, including the probable model and manufacturer.

Volker frowned. “You are sure? This is not a model used by the German government, or by any of our law enforcements.”

“I’m sure.”

Volker sipped from his beer. “Interpol perhaps, although I did not think their new helicopters had been delivered yet. I will find out.”

“You do that.”

“And you said this happened on the Swiss border?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Something very strange is going on there. I found a report on my desk this morning about a chemical company blocking off the entire area due to a chemical spill. The local police reported that when the area opened again there were signs of something burning, but no chemicals.”

“The helicopter crashed and burned.”

“How did that happen?”

“I shot it down.”

“With what? You do not use heavy armaments.” Volker chose not to remember the exceptions.

Laurence was not political and didn’t involve himself in terrorist activities, allowing Volker to save his conscience. Everyone had a right to make a living, and Laurence’s protection helped him make a very good one.

“With my gun,” Laurence replied, shrugging.

Volker’s eyebrows rose and he whistled softly. When they finished their beers, Laurence placed money on the table and they left the Bierskeller.

“You will look into it?” he phrased the question as a request.

“Of course. Someone is operating in my territory and I don’t like it. I can reach you at the Berlin number, yes?”

“Ja. Auf Wiedersehen.”

“Auf Wiedersehen, Laurence.”

***

It was a full week before Volker called, and the message was short: Meet me.

Laurence sighed. Not where, not when, not why. He picked up the phone to set up a meet, but then thought the better of it. 

Volker’s home was located in the district of Friedrichshain, adjacent to the district of Prenzlauer Berg and very close to the Volkspark Friedrichshain, a fairly large park made famous by the tree-covered hill at the very heart of it. That evening, Laurence walked around it. He picked a spot and stepped into the bushes. Just to make sure, he aimed a silenced pistol at the overhanging streetlight and shot it out. He waited.

Only minutes later, Volker walked his tiny dog through the park. Laurence stood silently and watched him pass, his eyes carefully scanning the surroundings for anyone following him. A short, stout woman with an overweight bulldog walked from the opposite direction toward the exit. There was no one else. Volker returned, walking more briskly. As he reached the darkened area, Laurence stepped out of the bushes.

Guten Abend, Volker.”

Volker jumped and the dog started barking.

“Keep him quiet,” Laurence hissed.

Volker scooped the little fur ball up and it stopped barking. “You startled us.”

“What did you find out?”

Volker’s head swung from left to right, observing both directions furtively, obviously spooked by more than just Laurence’s sudden appearance.

“You were not followed,” Laurence assured him.

“Nothing solid,” Volker finally replied in a whisper.

“Then why the urgent message?”

“There are rumours…” Volker trailed off.

“Of?”

“An organization…very powerful, very secretive,” Volker’s voice shook a little.

“And?”

“You may have attracted their attention.”

Damn! That was the second time he was hearing those words.

“I have a mole,” Laurence said more for himself.

“Not one that I could discover. A mole would have gone to one of the groups that work for us.”

“Then how they found out about me?’

“They have ways.” Volker clutched the fur ball to his chest, rapidly spilling everything he knew. “It is supposed to be a multi-national anti-terrorist organization, perhaps EU’s secret watchful eye. No one knows whom it reports to, no one seems to have solid proof that it even exists.”

“I’m not a terrorist.”

“Armaments would have caught their attention, too.”

“Part of Interpol, then?”

“Absolutely not,” Volker said convincingly. “But it certainly supersedes them.”

“Why can’t you find out more? Your position should give you the right contacts.”

“If they are real, they are very secret and everyone is afraid to talk about it.” Volker looked around again and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Some time ago, the Belgian and Austrian governments have suggested the creation of a European Union intelligence service modelled on the CIA. Like usual, the interior ministers of the top five European countries were unwilling to agree on how to share intelligence with all the other states members, so as far as I knew, the proposal died there.”

“A super law enforcement agency?”

“Worse. They are not really law enforcement and are not confined by law or rules. At least that is what is being said,” Volker concluded.

“That’s it?”

Ja.”

“Everything?”

Ja.” Volker hesitated, then added, “Except for a name.”

“Which is?”

“SATT.” With that Volker left quickly, still clutching his little fur ball.

The stark light of the moon shone overhead as Laurence walked to his car. The all-seeing, all-knowing, super-secret organization. Right. Then there were also Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Bogeyman. He frowned. On the other hand, something was terribly wrong. And if there was such an organization called SATT, they were probably more than a little unhappy about the loss of their helicopter.

As he drove off, he made several decisions: scatter his group, halt activity until he knew more, harvest every contact he had. If the Bogeyman was out there, he had to know. He called Hugues on his cell phone to make the appropriate calls. Within the hour, Laurence’s entire group of thieves disappeared from the face of the earth.

Laurence relaxed, enjoying the sights. Berlin, the crossroads of the intelligence community. Everything about everyone was for sale somewhere in Berlin, so he went shopping.

***

Alternately lit neon strips seemed to race around the exterior of the Sternradio Klub strategically placed in the Marcusplatz, one of the busiest squares in the city. As the former centre of East Berlin, the square was used as a showcase of socialist architecture. This resulted in some plain bulky buildings and a huge television tower known as the Fernsehturm, one of the largest structures in Europe.

Laurence entered the club. His eyes adjusted to the weird black light interior, but his ears tried and failed to adjust to the deafening house music. He looked at the writhing mass in the dance pit and studied the crowded catwalks around the sides. The person he sought would not be easy to find, if she was there at all. On the far catwalk, swaying and hopping to the beat, was a six-foot woman with impossibly flamboyant red hair piled up in masses of curls. She wore tight leopard pants with matching stiletto heels and a gold sequined top with a tiny beaded purse at her waist.

Laurence allowed himself a grimace as he worked his way through the crowd.

“Helga,” he called her name.

She whirled around and gave a high girlish laugh. “Laurence! Where have you been, liebe? Long time no see.”

“Is there somewhere we could talk?”

She smiled suggestively. “How about my place, liebe?”

“How about somewhere quiet, but public,” he suggested with a smile of his own.

“Oh, liebe, you are breaking my heart always refusing me.” She jumped forward unexpectedly, then spun around and slammed an uppercut into the jaw of the man behind her. As he flew backwards from the impact, her suddenly deep baritone voice almost shocked Laurence.

“Watch who you are pinching, bastard!” She turned back to Laurence and returned to sweet soprano. “The back room. Follow me.”

The back room was thick with smoke and this was no tobacco. Laurence knew what to expect and took a deep breath before he entered, but the air was heavy with body doors and booze, not much of an improvement. Helga guided him to a small table and pulled a small bag and a tiny silver spoon out of the minuscule beaded bag hanging at her waist.

“Never touch the shit myself…junk fogs the brain,” she explained, this time with her normal baritone voice. “But it keeps the sellers away. So, what can I do for you?”

“I need information from every source you have.”

“About?”

“SATT.”

She shook her head and grinned. “You don’t want to go there, liebe.”

“You’ve heard of them?”

“Not much,” she admitted. “Just enough to be scared.”

“Find out everything you can.”

“It’s going to cost.”

“I assumed so.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “Are you in deep shit, liebe?”

“Not yet and I plan on keeping it that way.”

“If I hear anything, I call you on your Berlin number?”

“Yes.” He rose and started walking away.

“You never come to visit me for pleasure,” she called after him in soprano.

“It’s always a pleasure making business with you, Helga,” he said over his shoulder as he left.

***

Thankfully, the rest of his stay in Berlin was less exotic, but also largely unproductive. Helga’s message came five days later. As always, her information was good and concise: SATT, on its full name the European Union Special Anti-Terrorist Tactics, existed, it was real badass and right now they wanted his. They also had a mole in his group. She would have the name in two days, but she wanted more money for that piece of information. He wired her the amount she asked for without question. In the meantime, he changed hotels twice and kept a low profile.

Helga left him another message after two days. The mole’s name was Eric, but now she wanted a new identity to calm her nerves. She would give him the rest of her information on SATT when she was re-established. He agreed, even though he could not imagine her sliding into a new identity and staying inconspicuous. He made the appropriate calls and Helga became Helmut, who had a new identity waiting for him in Morocco.

Laurence started feeling restless. His whole life looked more sordid by the minute. Dirty little back roads, flaming helicopters, transvestite nightclubs, and now SATT. Too much even for him. He needed to see Sybille. He needed to feel clean.



END OF SAMPLE