THE GUN WAS UNDER THE pillow and so I used it, emptying three bullets that tore through his torso before exploding, the crystal casing fragmenting and the blood inside hissing as it touched skin.
He was inhumanly large, and as I sent another bullet his way, I watched the blood—human blood, Whitehall volunteers, probably had a drop of mine in it, I hated to give blood, the needles and the smell of medical alcohol and the nurse watching you like a specimen—burn his skin away.
I turned at a sound like breaking glass but it was only a Chinese urn, Ming clay, they were suckers for Ming vases, and I turned back and shot him again, twice, once in each wing.
The blood exploded when it came in touch with the underside of his wing, and his feathers began to burn, the acrid stench making me gag.
Target reached and eliminated, or something like that. I waited as Raphael’s great bulk fought to stay corporeal and lost.
Raphael’s body shimmered and burnt, reducing to nothing. A halo of light expanded from it, white and clean-burning, almost reaching me.
Then his essence was gone, and it was time to get out of there.
Animal instincts taking over, I was out of the bedroom door and running, scanning for the hidden assassin who could get me at any moment, and then what would they say at the Bureau? We don’t talk about our work, and if Whitehall could help it, we wouldn’t be talking to each other at all, but sometimes you have to, if only to say, “Tomlin, yeah, I was with him in Tangiers, good man, imagine the East Germans cracking his network, stroke of bad luck,” when what we mean is what we know in our hearts, that Tomlin might have been a good guy, but he blew the mission and there was nothing much left of him when they’d finished what they were doing and dumped him in the river, and that this could be us, me, next time, and it was pride, old stupid pride that kept me going as I ran through the mansion and out into the gardens, and continued to run until I reached the gate and opened it and jumped in a taxi and said, “Airport, please.”
He hit the gas and we drove away from Raphael’s House of Horrors, now minus one, at least, and I could feel myself relax and that was wrong; that was dangerous, and when things seem too easy I get worried.
“Which airline do you need?” he said.
“North Western,” I said, which was the agreed code, and he said, “Really? I prefer British Airways,” the whole ridiculous affair remaining ridiculous until the second you forget to use it and it’s the knife in the kidney, the knife you didn’t see inside the wrong newspaper, or the poison-tipped umbrella scratching your leg because you let your guard down for just one second.
“We need to get you out of the country,” he said, switching to English, but he didn’t take his eyes off the road and that was a good sign; the only thing that could get me out of Warsaw alive right now was a fast car on a one-way journey to the border. When you waste someone like Raphael, there are no doors, there are no holes through which you can escape, and they will hunt you. And don’t even think about flying.
He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know, but there was one thing he didn’t understand, and it’s this: I work alone.
I relied on Control to get me a vehicle, but that was as far as it went, and so I told him to stop, and when he did I pushed him out, had to make a credible job of it, his face roughed up just enough so he would have a legitimate story to tell if he ran into them before he got back to the safe house, not that they like listening to stories, legit or otherwise, when they could just as easily kill you, or suck away the very core of you as you tried uselessly to struggle—it didn’t make any difference. They’d take the core of you out and cut it into nice, neat lines and let their disciples snort the remainder of your soul through a straw. If they caught you.
I didn’t intend to be caught.
I drove through a road block, and the nerves started playing up, but I was Merely Mary, I was innocent Mary Webb that day, an English teacher, thirty-one and working for VSO, and the soldier didn’t look more than twenty and cheerful, and his, “Documents, please,” was delivered with a smile, but still—they got Baggott in Iraq with a smile and left him with one, carved like a half-moon into his throat. I never liked the miserable bastard, but still.
The soldier at the checkpoint waved me through. I drove, foot to the accelerator, across barren cold fields.
“The guy you roughed up is going to need a doctor.”
“Better that than ending up dead.”
Ford waited at the rendezvous point, five kilometres from the East German border. When we’re in the field, we expect our Controller to work out the bigger picture, and Ford was good, a short thin man with a balding head and a pair of reading glasses, looking like a maths teacher or a Bible salesman, you’d lose him in a crowd—which is the whole point, really.
“Roads clear,” I said.
Ford looked tired. “Not without a fair bit of muscle,” he said. “We even had to activate a deep-cover mole, a sleeper. I don’t suppose she’ll live.” He said that with a soft apologetic air, coughing, and, “Anderson on the Eastern Europe Desk is rather unhappy.”
Which is Ford’s way of saying “Hopping mad,” but I didn’t care. He wouldn’t say anything without a good reason, but if he meant to push me it didn’t work—you can’t be pushed past a certain point, and your entire being concentrates on one thing: survival.
So I said, “Can we get a move on?” and he said, “Yes,” obviously, and if I was in such a hurry, and I got into the microlight, I’d sit Ford behind me; he was good but I wanted to survive, and when you do, there is only one person you trust.
I’d slid into a pair of overalls and now speeded up along the track road and then we were in the air and climbing, and I was grateful for the overalls. It gets cold quickly up there, and you need the insulation.
Flying blind and in fear of angels, the action is a strange dance, trying to keep between the two realms. There’s the human one below, the realm of the Sluzba Bezpieczeństwa and Stasi, of dank cells and rats and beatings, blood in water—but I wasn’t going to think about that, I was going to think ahead, to safety, to getting away with it.
Just don’t fly too high.
There’s the human realm, and then there’s the heavenly one where the winged predators ruled.
We flew over the border into East Germany and I consulted the map as I let the microlight glide, unassisted, then grabbed hold of the bars again and swooped north, Ford behind me—and I knew the thing with Raphael had been serious, they wouldn’t let someone like Ford out of bed for less than a revolution, nukes, or angels.
And they wouldn’t have asked for me.
Racing through cold clear air, waiting, the nerves on edge, piano wires stretched to snap.
But still we weren’t disturbed; the air remained clear and bright, no sign of unfriendly visitations, no sign of wings, and the ground, as much of it as I could see, remained clear of their agents, and we flew until I could smell the sea cutting like a blade against skin, salty and smoky at the same time, and a flare went up and I made an awkward landing, bumpy, but we rode it until the microlight stopped and I got out and, not waiting for Ford to unstrap himself, jumped onto the deck of the boat without ceremony and commandeered the ladies bathrooms.
It gets cold up there.
At 04:15 we touched Dover and at 05:30 I was back in London, alive, and the adrenaline wearing off and needing release, and I went to find Ben and woke him up, which he didn’t mind at all.
I received a couple of copies of the new Hebrew edition of The Tel Aviv Dossier – shiny! And leafing through it I came across this passage, which made me laugh.
‘It’s a steam engine,’ Dganit said, and you could smear that pride over bread and call it butter – ‘a marvel of engineering and ingenuity.’
‘But, but – but what do you feed it with?’ I said, perplexed.
She looked at me in surprise. ‘Well, books,’ she said.
‘Of course. Do you know how many books there are in Tel Aviv? It’s a great untapped natural resource!’
‘Books,’ I said.
‘We – that is, the Faculty, of which I am Head, hold every branch of Steimatzky’s in town! Not to mention the Book Junction, the independents, and the warehouses of the all the major publishers!’
‘I… see,’ I said.
‘Right now we’re powering the engine with as much Amos Oz to get us to the moon and back! And when we run out –‘
‘You never run out of Amos Oz!’ someone shouted at the back.
‘We will use A.B. Yehoshua! Meir Shalev! Giants in their field! Mines to be, well – mined!’
‘And if that ever runs out, there’s always the Da Vinci Code,’ Dganit said. ‘Excellent book. Many pages. Burns well.
All this week, SF Signal will be running excerpts from The Tel Aviv Dossier, beginning with, well, the beginning:
I’m standing in the old bus station filming the refugees from Darfur when it happens. The sky turns almost imperceptibly darker, and where before the air was hot and still now a breeze picks up, running against my cheek like a wet tongue, and I taste salt. I am annoyed because I need to take another light reading now and the scene in front of me is shifting, but I have no choice. I am making a new documentary, my third. You might have seen my previous work- A Closed House, about that orphanage in Be’er Sheva, or The Painted Eyes, about the Russian immigrant prostitutes that I filmed right here in the old bus station of Tel Aviv. I take social issues seriously- I think it’s important to bring them to the public’s attention, even though it is hard to make a living this way and I still have to work as an usher at the cinema three days a week. I don’t mind, at least it’s still working with films, and at least I don’t have to be a waitress like all the wannabe actresses and singers and dancers in Tel Aviv.
I am here at the station to film the refugees that are smuggled into Israel across the Egyptian border. They’re from Darfur, in Sudan, and they came here looking for a place where they won’t be killed or tortured or raped. In response, the government locked them up. Our local human rights organizations petitioned the supreme court, which held that the imprisonment was unlawful. Following that, the refugees were abandoned in the streets of Be’er Sheva and elsewhere in the country, and today a group of them was being dumped in Tel Aviv.
While I am filming I can’t help notice that the sun seems to dim and the sky is no longer a bright blue but greying and there are streaks of colour running through it, red and black, and clouds are forming in crazy spiral shapes. It is all happening very rapidly. On the ground the refugees are just milling about, looking lost and hopeless, and the few civil rights people waiting for them are handing out sandwiches and trying to see if they can match people to the lists on their clipboards. I hope they can find everyone accommodation. I’d offer too, but I’m sharing a flat with two other people already. Anyway, now almost everyone is looking up too. The wind is picking up and the air feels strange, like there’s a raw current of electricity in it. It makes the hairs on my arms stand and I feel sweaty. I point the camera at the sky. Points of light are prickling in the swirling vista of a storm. They look like stars, but-
The wind picks up even more, pushing me, as if it’s trying to jerk the camera from my hands. I spin around and the camera pans across the old terminal and someone screams. – continue reading.
Over on the very cool The Steampunk Home blog I’ve got a short guest-post and an exclusive excerpt from The Bookman, about – and taking place in – the now-gone Egyptian Hall, which used to stand in Piccadilly.
Everyone has their own secret London. Mine includes Davenports’, the magic shop in the bowels of Charing Cross Station; Simpson’s on the Strand, the restaurant Sherlock Holmes used to dine in; the Red Lion Pub in Soho, where Karl Marx used to drink and above which he worked on Das Kapital; the ancient, hidden Nell Gwynne pub behind the Adelphi Theatre, and others. The Egyptian Hall, sadly, is no longer there. Built in 1812, it was a mock-Egyptian structure in Piccadilly that, over the Victorian era, played host to any number of strange exhibitions – including automatons, freak-shows and magic. The Mechanical Turk, that legendary chess-playing machine, exhibited at the Egyptian Hall. Some of the first moving pictures were shown there. And the British family of magicians, the Maskelynes, have taken it over, when it was known as England’s Home of Mystery.
What better place, then, to feature in my very own steampunk story? Indeed, how could I possibly resist? – Read the rest of the post and excerpt!
SF Signal have posted Chapter 2 of The Bookman (the one with the big explosion).
Who was Orphan and how had he come to inhabit that great city, the Capital of the Everlasting Empire, the seat of the royal family, the ancestral home of Les Lézards? His father was a Vespuccian sailor, his mother an enigma: both were dead, and had been so for many years. His skin was copper-red, his eyes green like the sea. He had spent his early life on the docks, running errands between the feet of sailors, a minute employee of the East India Company. His knowledge of languages was haphazard if wide, his education colourful and colloquial, his circle of friends and acquaintances far-ranging if odd. – read the rest of the chapter.