SO CLOSE & YET...
Sylvia screamed. The driver’s headless corpse drooped onto the passenger seat. His dead foot came off the accelerator. All control of the Land Cruiser was lost. The car’s momentum slowed, but it started to veer wildly off course.
Bond thrust himself forward between the front seats. Scrabbling over the dead body, he grasped the steering wheel with his left hand, trying to retain control. He felt the car jolt off the tarmac and onto the roadside gravel. Stones flew up around the car in a whirling storm as Bond steered in a circle, trying to hasten the deceleration of the vehicle. It was a desperate struggle. A boulder appeared to spring up before the waltzing car. Bond twisted hard on the wheel and the Toyota spun away, lurching to the right, almost tipping as it avoided the obstacle.
Another burst of gunfire ripped through the windows. Bond swore. He vaguely realised the shrieking girl was huddled in the rear foot well. More shards of glass splayed through the cab. The Toyota skidded, finally reaching a standstill.
“Stay down!” he ordered Sylvia.
Bond clambered into the front seat. It was awash with blood. Without hesitating, Bond opened the driver’s door and forced the dead man out. The body landed with a thump. Bond didn’t have time to care. He threw his flapping headdress after the body and it landed tactfully over the dead man’s gushing neck. Bond seized the gear lever and rammed the GXR into first, his feet pumping on the accelerator, and raising the clutch. The car lurched forward with a wild screech, the wheels spinning, moulded rubber seeking grip.
Bond drove the car in a wide arc, searching for the enemy as he headed towards the highway. He took in the Nissan, which had stopped by the roadside in anticipation of an execution. As Bond emerged from the cloud of dust, the startled thugs resumed the pursuit. The Nissan didn’t look to be as fast as the Toyota but Bond couldn’t be certain. He was more worried about the shooting. The GXR jumped as it mounted the tarmac. Bond aimed it straight down the centre of the empty road. He ran through the gears, changing from second to third to fifth in a matter of seconds, hoping to get distance between him and the thugs.
The hot wind of the desert blasted into the cab and Bond tasted sand and parched air. He gritted his teeth against the assault. Sweat had started to trickle down his brow. Bond heard the ominous boom of the big motor pursuing them up the open road.
One look in the wing mirror was enough to tell him the big bonnet wasn’t just for show; Nissan X-terra’s usually had a 4-litre engine, but the thugs had customised this model; it was much more powerful. Bond pressed harder on the accelerator pedal, forcing every last drop of energy from the GXR. But he could see the flight was futile. The big grey box came remorselessly on.
Bond begged for every moment of distance. The stark limestone cliffs started to recede. The high sides tapered into the sandy plains. The two cars sped down the highway and exited the valley. Shadows gave way to bright flat sand. The red mountains sat like an aberration in the desert. Bond felt free of their embrace. Bond remembered that along the desert road were several wattle and daub villages populated it seemed with dozy camels chewing the desert cud. Perhaps, he thought, there might be safety with the Bedouin. He could see the first huddle of dwellings and the small oasis of palms in the distance, touching the horizon and the sky.
Gunfire shook him.
“James!” yelled Sylvia for the umpteenth time.
He wanted her to shut up. Jesus, as if there wasn’t enough to worry about. The Nissan was gaining, not quite in range. The speedometer showed Bond was hitting 190kmh. The engine howled in frustration. The revs piled up. The needles on the dials juddered. The frame of the car complained. It was all too much. Bond had images of smoking radiators and blown gaskets.
More gunfire. Still out of range, but zipping closer. Bond rammed his foot hard to the floor. The whole car seemed to wail in protest. The wheels screamed. It was a corrosive sound. Would the tyres last? The cooling system? Bond didn’t care. He knew where safety lay. A quick glance in the mirror showed the grey hulk had retreated a little. Bond had no plan of action for when he reached the village; but no plan seemed better than trying to outrun the bastards.
Between Bond and the village was another car. He’d not really taken it in before, but now he identified the big Mercedes. It was travelling sedately, probably a hire vehicle like Bond’s, full of tourists on the way to Al Ain. As the vehicles neared each other, Bond deliberately decelerated. He saw the Nissan gain ground. Both the driver and the gunman shifted in their seats. The latter looked ready to open fire, but then withdrew the weapon. Was it wise to shoot? Bond wanted to give him the choice. Would the gun man take the risk? How public could this killing be? Not very, Bond hoped. The Nissan continued to gain. Bond let it, gambling the shooter would resist the temptation.
Bond was wrong. He could see the brilliant white teeth of a wide grin, a smile that sensed the kill. The driver encouraged it, gesticulating and shouting. Despite the proximity of the tourists, the gun man hung out the window and loosened a speculative burst.
Sylvia screamed again.
“Keep down!” shouted Bond and swerved, zigzagging wildly. The slowing Toyota made an easy target. Bond ducked as the next swarm of angry bullets decimated the rear window and thudded into the bodywork. Shards of metal pinged away at odd angles. It was only luck that prevented harm.
The Nissan drew level. The gun man raised his weapon, his face gleeful with anticipation. The grey stock of the small machine gun, one of those folding personal defence weapons, probably a Russian make, leered out of the passenger window.
Bond was concentrating on the approaching Mercedes. It was a matter of metres away. Suicidally, Bond stamped on the gas pedal and pulled the Land Cruiser left, onto the opposite carriageway. As he crossed the Mercedes’ path, Bond saw five alarmed faces. The tourists reacted too late. The Mercedes smacked into the side of the Nissan which half spun. The driver instinctively hit the break, trying to stop the car tumbling over.
The ruse bought Bond precious seconds. He glanced in the rear mirror at the accident. Already the damaged roadster was turning afresh, but Bond was hitting his stride again and the Toyota raced away up the highway.
Shaken, the enemy seemed less inclined for a close confrontation. The cars were so evenly matched in speed and power that the only difference was the sporadic bursts of gunfire from the gun man. His aim was wayward; they were too far off. Bond concentrated on the road ahead and the village which seemed to creep towards him.
The desert horizon swept onward and suddenly, the oasis was there, to the left, as if the last miles had vanished. Bond slung the wheel over. The GXR’s double wishbone suspension complained loudly as it bounced off the road onto the sandy plain. He heard Sylvia complain too. Bond drove into the heart of the little community and brought the car up to a skidding halt. He had parked alongside the only cement building, which looked as if it served for a communal lodge, being daubed in paint and geometric patterns. The local mosque, maybe.
Bond shut off the engine and jumped out the door. He called for Sylvia to join him and the girl scurried from the back. Bond grabbed her arm and pushed her towards the lodge. She rushed up the single step and disappeared inside the arched doorway. Already the Nissan X-terra was turning off the highway, heading straight for them. It had come faster than he expected. Bond yanked at his Walther P99. The smooth metal was a reassuring presence, melding seamlessly into his palm.
Bond took up a stance in the doorway, half in the shade, kneeling, arms straight, the Walther pointing. The grey bulk belted towards him, hardly breaking speed. Bond fired three times. The windshield of the Nissan shattered. The driver’s body jerked back and then dived forward. Bond saw the mouth of the gun man open about to utter a scream. The metal behemoth slewed across the little square. It careered past the static Toyota, past Bond and past the lodge. It came to a shuddering stop against the mud bricks of a barasti house. Brown sun dried palm branches collapsed on top of the car, one roof supplanting another. The engine spluttered to a halt. Clouds of desert sand surrounded the impact zone.
Carefully Bond walked forward. He sensed curious frightened eyes observing him. The gun man was on his knees, having freed himself from the wreckage. Coughing and disorientated, his face, once so excited, now so shocked, arrowed in on Bond. The small machine gun was still in his hands. He raised the stock. Almost imperceptibly, Bond sensed the killer’s finger squeezing the trigger. Bond threw himself to one side and the man emptied his magazine into the air. As he shifted, Bond fired twice into the sand storm. The hot lead hit soft human flesh. The man’s body spun and collapsed in a heap. Bond heard nothing but the sizzle of escaping steam.
People were watching. Bond looked into big round eyes on scared faces. Children started to cry. Bond squirmed at the death he’d just rendered, the scene he’d presented. It was time to get away. He rushed back to the lodge. Sylvia was already outside, her face a mask of fear and concern and uncertainty. It was all too new to the poor girl, too deadly. Christ, he thought, what an introduction.
“Are they dead?” she said, hoarse from the screaming.
He didn’t have any other way to tell it. Bond grabbed her hand and pulled her with him. He bundled her back into the Land Cruiser, took the driver’s seat and without looking back, he drove away at speed, leaving the devastation behind him. It was a horrendous drive. Sylvia started to cry.
Bond ignored her. When they were only a mile or so from the city limits, Bond spied a petrol station and cafe. He pulled into a parking bay. The sun was starting its rapid descent and day was turning to night. Bond turned to look at the girl. She had calmed a little; but tears still ran from the corners of her eyes and her mascara had run in dark blue steaks.
“You look a mess,” he said firmly, “Get yourself sorted.”
Sylvia looked at him in shock. “What? You think I can just... after what you just did... what...?”
For a moment she stared at him in silence.
Bond leant across her and opened the passenger door. Sylvia’s sulky pout returned to her lower lip. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, still staring at Bond. Having weighed up her options, something or nothing, she got out of the cab and walked hurriedly into the cafe and the ladies facilities.
Bond followed her and bought two bottles of spring water. The man at the counter passed a curious glance at the stains on his suit, but made no comment. Bond hardly registered the man’s intrigue. He went and stood by the car and struck a cigarette. There were more pressing worries than the girl and the dried blood. Who had sent the assassins? Could it be Chivry, who had insisted there was no need for him to attend the desert rendezvous, or was it Amin Al Rashid? And what about Scar, the mean cruel figure who escorted Sargon’s advisor everywhere, could he be the architect of the attack? Bond mulled over the puzzle as the cigarette burnt to the filter. He’d hardly smoked it. He realised there was another possibility; the men could simply be bandits, but Bond doubted it. The weaponry was too new. They’d looked like Russian PP2000s, the small automatic machine guns with a folding detachable butt. And Chivry supplied Russian arms.
Bond tossed the filter aside. He took a long scroll of tissue from the dispenser and wiped the last of the wet blood from the seats. Most of it had dried rapidly in the heat and it cracked into dust as he swabbed.
Sylvia was coming back to the car. She looked composed and calm. She’d removed the head scarf and fixed her hair in a tight pony tail, which made her look younger by a few years. She’d washed and applied a dab of fresh make up. Her eyes burnt red and were angry slits. Her delicious lips were fixed in an unbecoming sneer.
“That’s better,” said Bond.
She made no comment and sat in the back seat. If looks could kill, considered Bond. Cleaning finished, he got back behind the wheel and drove the final few miles into Abu Dhabi in silence.
Bond spoke to Datto on his mobile, relating the incident quickly and with economy. The station man was swift with a reply.
“Drop the car close to the hotel and walk in. I’ll deal with it. Give me the registration.”
“You won’t need that. It’s unmissable now. I’ll park it outside the cemetery.”
The walk was hot and sticky. Bond hurried Sylvia along and she panted with the effort. Inside the hotel, Bond stayed close to the girl. He didn’t want her telling anyone what had occurred.
Two minutes later, Bond and Sylvia stood in her room, facing each other. She was tense, her bottom lip quivering.
“I’m sorry, Sylv...”
She let loose. She shouted at Bond, in French and in English. She told him he was a bastard, Satan in satin clothes, Michael thrown out of heaven. Then she launched herself at him, the fists flying and the screaming starting again. Bond held her off with one arm. There was an opening in her futile attack. He took it and delivered a hard, sharp slap to her face.
Instantly Sylvia curtailed the struggle and collapsed to her knees. The tears came again and her shoulders heaved with uncontrollable sobs and wails of frustration.
Bond knelt beside her. He’d been too cruel, too hard. He forgot Sylvia wasn’t an agent, not someone used to death, to danger. Her world was one of books, of museums, of ancient worlds and myths and legends, the musty surrounds of academia and the avenues of leafy Paris suburbs. The harsh new reality that Bond had suddenly fostered on her was like lightning to a child. He held her close and she didn’t struggle, didn’t shy away, but buried her head into his chest and continued to cry.
“I can’t believe I’m alive,” she cried, “It’s horrible. I was going to die, James, I saw it. I was so afraid. Then you, then you, oh God, James ...”
“You don’t need to be scared, Sylvia,” he whispered, “I’m here.”
“But what about when you aren’t?”
Bond couldn’t answer.
“What happens if I’m alone? I can’t kill someone. Oh, God, James, I’m so scared, so frightened. I didn’t think...”
It all tailed off. Bond lifted her head up. Her lips trembled, tempting, lustrous. Bond kissed them. They tasted salty from the tears. For a moment Sylvia’s eyes, already swimming, stayed hazy, distant. Then, fixed on his, they turned lupine, hot, and she returned his kiss, hard and unreserved. They sought each other with fury and passion, like two fighting wolves, hurting, biting and unforgiving. Her arms came up and ruffled his hair. Bond pulled the ponytail loose and the golden mane cascaded about them. One hand brushed against her breasts. The nipples were hard, like arrow heads. Sylvia tugged at his lip with her teeth and her tongue licked its way across his mouth before joining him in another long bitter kiss. Bond squeezed the firm bosom, his hand slipping inside her blouse, under her brassiere. Sylvia gasped. Suddenly, she parted from him.
He looked at her anew. The mouth, the eyes, the face, said ‘I want you, I desire you, now.’ Bond knew he had taken things too far. He didn’t accept the offer. Removing his hand from her breast, he ran his fingers down her cheek. The skin was soft and warm.
“No, Sylvia, it can’t be now.”
She kissed him again, gently this time and stood up.
“I understand,” was all she said and retreated to the sanctuary of the bathroom.
Bond was left on his knees, his heart pounding and his mouth still singing with the touch of her lips. He felt so close to Sylvia, it hurt. He wanted her, and yet he couldn’t, not today, not at this moment. She was confused now, addled by the violent fury and the blessed relief of sanctity. When it did happen, it had to be on his terms, when he was ready. That was how he wanted it to be for Sylvia.
Bond heard the shower running. He stood up and went to the telephone, asking to be connected to Monsieur Chivry’s suite. He had other matters to resolve too.
“I’m sorry, Sir, there’s no reply.”
“Is Monsieur Chivry still in the hotel?”
“One moment, Sir.”
The receptionist wasn’t sure, but understood Monsieur Chivry had received a visitor within the last hour and may have left the hotel.
Bond put the receiver down. That settled it. Chivry must have laid the trap. At the very least he’d organised a clandestine meeting with his partners in crime. Whatever the stakes were now, Bond would have to find out without the help or hindrance of Andreas Chivry. The Frenchman had just made himself expendable.
Bond contacted Datto again. He wanted to know where Chivry went to. Datto knew nothing of it. “Once I’ve sorted the Land Cruiser, I’ll contact my guys.”
Bond lit a cigarette, not caring about the smoking restrictions. He needed to think. Sargon was the key. He was the man with the answers to the questions. Bond needed to find out where Sargon lived, to somehow contact him and force a confrontation, maybe with Chivry and Al Rashid too, or perhaps all three. It was always a risk to enter the enemy’s territory, but Bond felt this was a risk worth taking. He stubbed out the cigarette.
His mobile rang. It was Datto.
“This isn’t good news, James,” Datto was almost choking. Immediately Bond knew what he was going to say. “My watcher’s dead. Knife wound. It’s not good.”
The single expletive wasn’t enough. Bond offered his condolences. Datto would have his hands full for a while. And Bond had wanted his help tracing Sargon’s residence. Now he’d have to do it alone. And he had to do it without Sylvia. Bond had already decided to send her back to Paris. This wasn’t the place for pretty archaeologists; it was a world for experts trained in other pursuits. He wanted her free from harm, not just for her safety, but his to. If she stayed, half his mind would be concentrating on protecting her, and Bond could ill afford the distraction. Certainly not if there was more contact with machine gun wielding bandits.
Bond poured a fruit juice and waited for Sylvia to reappear from the bathroom. When she did, she wore an ankle length Egyptian cotton bath robe, and had scrubbed the make up from her face. She looked fresh, clean and curiously naive.
Bond smiled. He didn’t tell her about Chivry, the dead watcher or his many suspicions. He suggested Sylvia might want to eat from room service. Bond would join her if she wanted.
Sylvia considered the offer, but shook her head. Bed beckoned, she replied.
“I’m going to organise a flight home for you, Sylvia,” he explained, “This has got very dangerous and I don’t want you hurt. It was silly of me to ask you to come in the first place.”
“Don’t say that,” Sylvia said quietly, “I wouldn’t have missed it; not for anything.”
Bond saw she meant it and knew what she meant, without her needing to use the words. She reached out and touched his fingers.
“Go and wash, James,” she whispered, “If you want you can come back and read me a bedtime story.”
“I might just do that.”
But Bond knew he wouldn’t; not until they were both back in Paris and he could seduce her properly, with a single pink rose, caviar and champagne.
Back in his own room, he stripped and spent ten minutes under a scalding shower followed by a sudden blast of icy spray. Revitalised, he shaved and still naked, he telephoned the airport to book a flight for Sylvia. He called her room, even though it was only one door away, and gave her the details. Yes, he would see her over breakfast. Sleep well, sweetheart. Talk of food began to make him hungry. Room service didn’t appeal. He would eat dinner in the hotel. Bond dressed, not formally, but in a casual off white two piece suit, a light blue short sleeved cotton shirt from Lewin’s and Ted Baker slip-ons. Habit made him take the gun. He didn’t expect trouble tonight, not inside the hotel, but it paid to be prepared. He reloaded it, holstered it and picked up his jacket.
The two sharp raps at his door made him pause, with only one arm in a sleeve. He pulled on the other sleeve and walked cautiously to the door. Sylvia? he wondered.
Two men stood outside. The closest was a smartly attired dark skinned Arab. He carried a fraudulent smile with one gold tooth. Behind him and slightly to the side, the man with the scar stood alert. His dull eyes flickered once. The head gave a curt nod, like a reptile, a python or cobra, hissing before the strike.
Surprisingly, Gold Tooth spoke in good English.
The voice was slippery smooth.
“Sargon wishes to speak with you.”
Bond looked at the two impassive faces; one fixed in its smile, the other anaemic, dead, only the scar showed the sign of life. The big red welt ran diagonally across it, creasing the lips into a jagged hole and forcing the right cheek to remain impassive and locked. Bond was reminded of his chief, M, whose face had displayed signs of a likely stroke. This man however possessed a fate deserved, thought Bond.
“Now,” emphasised Gold Tooth.
“Where is he?”
“Come with us.”
Gold Tooth gestured down the corridor and stood back.
Bond hesitated, “I need to speak to Miss Lavoilette.”
“There is no time. Please. Sargon is most interested in your proposal, Mister Aubrey.”
Bond wanted to speak to Sylvia; he felt it was important. He senses were alerted. Destiny, through the wary, shifting eagle eyes of the man called Scar, was walking in his shadow. It did not feel good. Bond didn’t want it to cross into Sylvia’s path.
He made a move to object, but stopped himself. Fate was playing the devil’s game; if Sargon wanted to meet him, so be it. No; tonight he would play the game out.
Bond accompanied the two Arabs straight to the lobby. They walked in silence. Outside was a large comfortable looking white stretch limousine. Scar opened the rear door and Bond sat in the centre of the back seat. The interior was plush, but not conspicuously so. Generous leather seats and a non-alcoholic mini-bar were the only concessions to luxury.
The two men sat opposite him, their backs to the driver. As soon as the door clicked closed, the engine rumbled into life and the long car gently rolled away from the forecourt of the Sheraton Hotel.
“Will I be long?” enquired Bond.
“Perhaps a few hours.”
Gold Tooth offered Bond some refreshment, but he turned it down. Instead he lit a cigarette, sucking the sweet tang into his lungs. As he exhaled, Bond fiddled with the Dunhill lighter, contemplating if the surprise weapon might come in useful again.
Meanwhile Scar closed his eyes and rested his neck against the headrest. He appeared to go to sleep. His breathing was shallow and controlled. The merest flicker of a pulse beat on his wiry neck.
Bond was reminded of the sleek saqr he’d witnessed being exercised only a few short hours ago. Whatever Scar’s meditative appearance, this man was alert and listening, waiting, expectant for the chance to hunt and maim and devour. Bond had met his type many times before: Scar was a professional killer.