For Gemma and Sarah
All characters and events in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons and events, past or present, are purely coincidental.
As Nic Tyler looked across the bleak scene in the fading light, the cold reached through his thin clothes. The landscape was beautiful but if he didn’t find help soon it would kill him.
He knew from the guide book that average winter temperatures in Tiksi were minus 30 degrees centigrade, but often sank far lower. Tonight it was — 45 C, and Tyler experienced every degree through his overcoat. The two men who called told him the journey to the meeting would be short, so he had decided against bringing anything warmer.
But the ride was longer than expected, and he grew alarmed when they left the outskirts of the town. The man with the disgusting breath withdrew a sharp knife that glinted in the reflected glow of the headlights. Tyler feared violence, and he couldn’t tear his gaze away from the blade. After a fearful hush, he pleaded for his life. They ignored him and drove on in silence.
Eventually the car stopped and his heart pounded in his chest. The bodyguard with the knife got out and beckoned. Convinced he was about to die, Tyler shook his head, believing if he stayed inside he might have a chance. The man grabbed him and hauled him out. He fell to the ground and remained there, too frightened to move. He expected they would pull him to his feet and march him to some shallow grave. Instead they returned to the car and drove off.
For a moment, Tyler was stunned. He was alive — they had let him live!
Then the enormity of the problem became apparent. He dived into his overcoat pocket and pulled out his phone. Damn, no signal — but not unexpected. He gazed at the landscape, seeing a carpet of snow stretching to the far distance. The odd group of wizened fir trees stood above the white blanket, swaying in the bitter cold wind.
The road would lead him back. He saw the tyre tracks, and he bent down to scoop away the packed ice. Underneath he discovered black tarmac. The best option would be to follow the path, but with the onset of night he would have to stop. He had no idea how far he was from the town, but if necessary he would build a bivouac in the shelter of the wood. Having eaten a hearty dinner beforehand, he was confident it would sustain him until the morning. He set off, jamming his cold hands into the pocket of the overcoat in an attempt to keep them warm.
An hour later he stumbled over the verge, not knowing he was off course because of the approaching dark. Trudging across a field knee-deep in snow, the effort to lift one leg after the other began to tell. The biting cold wind chilled him to the bone, and he was losing confidence. In the twilight a copse stood silhouetted against the horizon and he changed direction for it. Arriving two hours later, he dropped onto the ground and leaned against a tree. He longed to be at home. After a while a harsh gust blew spin-drift against his face and he made a supreme attempt to gather branches and twigs, piling them up around the trunk. He tried to fill the gaps with some snow to form a windbreak. The exertion was too much and he observed without alarm the loss of co-ordination. His hands were a pasty white colour, and he sank to the frozen ground.
He was in this god-forsaken part of the country because he followed Khostov. Tyler cursed his foolishness again, more loudly this time. He should have trusted his instincts and taken the first plane to the UK. This was their tactic to make sure he didn’t talk. They hadn’t sent him here to get him out of the way — they wanted him dead, never to be found.
He shivered violently and when that subsided he became tired and closed his eyes. The spasms reoccurred, each time shorter than the last. He listened idly to the wind as it whipped through the stand of trees. After five minutes his body stopped shivering altogether. Somewhere within Nic Tyler’s consciousness an alarm bell went off.
He must keep moving!
He examined the contents of his pockets, but found nothing that might help. His phone had shut off with the cold. With shaking hands he slid it under his armpit to warm it up. When he switched it on the battery indicated minimum charge, though he had recharged it fully earlier. His brain felt mushy but he vaguely recalled that sometimes a text message would get through even when there was no signal. He hoped the battery reserve would last long enough to type it.
What should he say? There was only enough time for one message. Should he let someone know about his murder, or tell his wife he was sorry for cheating on her?
He attempted to press the keys. His hand had turned a pale blue colour; the digits were hard to move and intensely painful. The buttons on the old fashioned mobile were difficult to push, and there was a noticeable lag between each depression and the character forming on the screen. Before he finished, his fingers no longer worked. He gripping the phone in his mouth and depressed the Send key with a tooth.
He searched the bleak expanse, seeing only darkness, hearing only the sound of the wind through bare branches. An unfathomable sadness came over him and his eyelids quivered, then closed. After a few moments he fought to open them, and in the distance he imagined a light. Was it real, or just an illusion created by his failing mind? The light swung to and fro hypnotically, as if held in a person’s hand. It seemed to be getting closer. Urgently he retrieved the phone from where it had fallen. It was an ancient device with few extras. But the one gadget he had never used was now vital to his survival. The torch built into the top could be turned on with a long press of a switch.
He employed the same trick of clenching the phone in his mouth, using an incisor to close down on the ‘star’ key. Five seconds later the LED lit up. Though the illumination was weak, Tyler knew it would show for some distance in the dark.
Panting with exertion, his breath formed clouds in front of him. With a last burst of effort he lifted the mobile and waved the torch in the direction of the oncoming light.
Sean Quinlan raised the Steiner binoculars to check the environment. It was early morning and the traffic hadn’t yet begun to build on the Universitätsring. Following the direction of the Rathausplatz, he surveyed the baroque towers of the City Hall opposite.
He examined the nearby surroundings, crisscrossing the landmarks and skyline of Vienna. A glint from the north-east caught his eye and he zoomed in on the location, rapidly adjusting the optics.
Sean shifted position to lie nearer the balustrade. Cold and cramped, he had been on the roof of the Burgtheater for five hours. He should have been used to surveillance for extended periods, but this wasn’t any ordinary reconnaissance operation. An assassination was an unprecedented event in the Section.
Late developing intelligence put the subject in Vienna for a short period this morning. Miss this opportunity, they told him, and there would not be another for years. The briefing had been rushed, and Sean’s principal overrode his objections.
Sean chose the rooftop of the Austrian National Theatre to make the shot. It gave a wide field of view, had an excellent approach and a rapid escape route. But however baffling the assignment, Sean couldn’t fault the tools they had given him. He bent to place his eye to the Schmidt & Bender scope, and the traffic leapt into sharp focus.
Two minutes later he glanced at his watch and pressed the button on his ear mike.
Sean resumed position, placing the stock of the L115A3 long range rifle firmly against his shoulder. The curve of the grip and the slight oily smell from the magazine were immediately familiar. He had used the kit extensively during a visit to Helmand some seven years ago and rated it highly. An adjustable bipod held the barrel at the balance point and he had fitted a muzzle brake to reduce the recoil and flash. On this occasion, with a range of less than a thousand metres and a clip of .338 Lapua Magnum, a kill was certain.
Except for one tiny problem.
He wore thin Nitrile gloves to prevent prints. The skin-coloured thumb of his left hand started to beat a small involuntary tattoo against the stock. Sean stared at the movement, astonished. He pressed the digit against the wood, but still felt the twitch of electric nerve endings. It couldn’t have occurred at the worst possible moment.
He ignored the tremors and continued to check each car as it turned the corner from the Burgring onto Universitätsring. Five minutes passed, and every vehicle proved to be clean. Then a man’s face appeared in the scope; the olive complexion and the characteristic way the head drooped forward were enough for a positive identification.
‘Target in the cross-hairs. Confirm good to go.’
There was a long pause. Sean touched the ear-bud mike again. ‘Confirm good to go.’
‘We’re waiting for clearance.’
The car filled the field of view. If Sean didn’t get a decision now it would be too late.
‘Stand by, we will get back to you.’
They must be gett ...