May, Romney Marsh, Kent
It was like a scene in a war film: three men running through the night towards a small plane, sagging under the loads they carried on their right shoulders. Moonlight glistened on their eyes and on the shiny black plastic that made the packages so hard to hold. Each time one of them stumbled over a tussock, his load slid forwards and he had to haul it back, straining his arm and neck muscles to screaming point.
A tiny slit opened in the plastic. Tim gagged and turned his face away. There was no way he was going to breathe in this stuff.
They had to go back to the van four more times. None of them spoke because speech carried further on these quiet nights than any animal-like sound of grunting or panting. The engines of the van and plane were a worry, but there was no way of muffling them. And there were probably enough roads even on these desolate fringes of Romney Marsh for most listeners to assume it was ordinary traffic they heard, or maybe even a legitimate flight into Lydd Airport.
All three men were breathless by the time the whole lot was loaded. Tim fired up the engines while the other two tied down the packages to stop them sliding around after takeoff.
'Great. Hit the lights,' Tim urged in a whisper that could barely be heard above the engine noise.
Bob tied the last knot and slipped out of the plane, beckoning his brother to follow, and locking the door after him. They ran in parallel down the field, bending every ten feet to set fire to the wicks that floated in big glass jars of oil. The plane began to taxi before they'd reached the end of the landing strip. Bob lit the three flares at the end and stood back as the wheels cleared his head by only a few feet. He could feel his hair lifting in the turbulence under the wings.
'Arsehole,' he muttered, killing the first light.
They had the rest out two minutes later. No one came. No one shouted. It would have been bad luck if anyone had seen them. The flares hadn't been burning for more than five minutes, and no regular flight paths crossed these particular fields.
Bob had made sure of that right at the beginning, when he was checking out the air traffic controllers. He'd learned that the civil ones weren't going to bother a private plane so long as it kept low, and most of the military controllers stopped work at five o'clock anyway. Tim would be right off their radar, so there shouldn't be anyone watching him.
Unless there was a satellite going over, Bob thought, still trying to work out what was wrong tonight. It was as if he had a nail working its way through his shoe, right up into the flesh of his foot. Why?
Even he, with ears like a bat's, couldn't hear the beat of the plane's engine now. They'd always got away with this before. There was no reason why this flight should be any different. But he was jumpy as hell.
'Where did you put the food?' Ron hissed in his ear, making his fists bunch before he recognized the voice or heard the words. His heart thudded in his chest and he could feel his eyes bulging. He rubbed them as he got his mind back into shape.
'Don't creep up on me like that,' he said. 'Can't you think of anything except your next meal?'
'What's the matter with you?'
'There's something wrong. We need to check.'
'Bollocks,' said Ron. 'It was a great takeoff. Let's go and eat.'
'You always were a lazy bastard. Get in the van and shut up. You wouldn't notice anything anyway, even if it hit you in the face.'
Bob prowled around the field, sniffing and peering as he went. Through the oil and the petrol he could smell grass and cow dung and dry earth. There were horses nearby, too, and the warm wind was bringing something flowery from one of the gardens over to the west. That was all OK. Just like it should be. He couldn't see anything wrong either, and there was nothing to hear except the sheep out on the marsh, the wind in the leaves, Tim's hens roosting and a few wild birds scuffling in their nests.
He took one more look around, then swung himself up into the van. The greedy bastard had found the Thermos and the food and was already tucking in. Bob grabbed a steak sandwich before they'd all gone. As he bit into it, the meat juices ran down his chin.
'You can bring something to eat next time,' he said as he chewed and wiped the palm of his free hand across his face. He licked it clean, feeling the ridge of an old scar with his tongue. 'You should be able to lift anything you want from the pub.'
'The boss has eyes in the back of his head,' Ron said, putting his feet up on the dashboard. 'It's easier for you.' He took another bite.
'If you don't get your arse in gear soon and do a bit more of the work, I'll dock your share of the profits.'
It was a long-standing threat, but it didn't bother Ron. He finished his sandwich, rubbing his hands on his jeans. 'If it wasn't for me there'd hardly be any profits. You'd have had the plane coming back empty.'
Bob grunted. 'Better that than what we're doing. I don't like it. I'd rather make less than bring them in. We don't know where they come from, or who's waiting for them, or what they're going to do with them. It's dangerous.'
'So?' Ron laughed. 'We get paid. That's all that matters.'
'Until the day your bloke grasses you up and gets us all arrested. Why won't you tell me who he is?' Bob said, his voice jagged with frustration.
'Because I'm not stupid.'
The man who had been filming them from the trees at the far end of the landing strip waited until he was sure they were settled in the van. He knew they wouldn't move now until the plane came back, so he had at least an hour. He still hadn't figured out where it went, but given the time the flights took and the direction the plane flew off in, it had to be France or Belgium. It definitely couldn't be any further away.
As quietly as possible, he shut up his digital infrared camcorder and stowed it in the pocket of his parka, before sliding his body backwards until he was well shadowed in the trees. There he stood up, grimacing as the blood returned to his cramped muscles. He breathed more freely, too.
It was only half a mile to the place where he'd left his car. He jogged there, moving fluidly once he'd hit his familiar rhythm, glad to be able to stretch properly. The camcorder banged against his chest as he ran. There'd be a bruise later, but it would be worth it. The footage he'd already shot tonight would probably be enough on its own to convince the doubters, but he'd go back to film the arrival of the return cargo once he'd downloaded this lot.
Watery light gleamed ahead of him. There was no real water round here, so it had to be the moon's reflection on the roof of his car. He slowed down and circled the place to make certain no one was waiting for him. He was under no illusion about thelengths to which these men would go if they thought anyone was on to them.
Tonight he was all right. There were no signs of human interference anywhere near the car, and the only sounds were the rustlings of small animals in the grass. A fox had been here, leaving rank and gamy crap somewhere close by. But he wasn't fretting about foxes now.
He eased himself into the car and turned on the laptop he'd left under the passenger seat. It took a while to download tonight's footage and email it via his mobile phone to his secret address. He was about to delete the copy on the hard disk for security when he had a sudden doubt. All servers had problems from time to time; what if his ate the email he'd just sent himself? It would be mad to risk it and have to put himself in this much danger again. He sent another copy of the film to the one person he believed he could still trust.
Waiting for the second email to go through, he thought about the mockery he'd had to take from everyone else in the last few years. It soothed his anger and his bruises to imagine the faces of his tormentors when he slapped the evidence down in front of them and forced them to watch it. No sources to protect this time; no stolen documents to give the lawyers heart attacks; no depending on anyone else for anything: just proof, absolutely incontrovertible proof.
When the coloured bar on the screen cleared to show that the email and its attachment had gone through, he deleted the copies from the computer. An expert would probably be able to disinter them from the cyber garbage on his hard disk, but he wasn't afraid of experts; only the kind of thugs he'd been filming tonight.
With the laptop clean enough to fool any of them, he bent down to put it back under the passenger seat, locked up and jogged slowly back to his observation point in the oak trees at the edge of the cherry orchard.
His eyes had readjusted to darkness by the time he got there, and he could see the old van still sitting at the side of the makeshift airstrip like a ramshackle caravan. The whole expedition had taken well over forty minutes, so there shouldn't be too long to wait now. He extracted the camcorder from his parka and lay down again, blessing the weekends he'd once spent with the Territorial Army. If nothing else, they'd taught him how to wait out the night in the open air and how to conceal himself, making up his face with green and brown gunk and keeping his eyes well shadowed from the treacherous moonlight.
It was weird to be able to think about the future with excitement again. Weird but good. He'd get his career back now. Better still, they'd all be all over him. He wouldn't have to take crap from anyone ever again.
The money spent on the camcorder would have been an investment, not a stupid waste. Even the rapacious interest he was being charged on his credit card would be worth paying. He felt a mad kind of affection for the three thugs who were bringing him closer and closer to everything he'd wanted for so long.
It was Ron who heard it first. He prodded his brother in the ribs and jerked his head in the direction of the coast. Bob wound down his window, listened for a moment, recognized the throb of Tim's engine, then nodded. The two of them clicked open their well-oiled doors and slid down on to the dry grass. They had to judge the lighting of the flares carefully. Too soon and they risked someone noticing the outline of the airstrip; too late, and Tim would have to circle round and make his approach again.
That would up the risk. Worse would be the possibility that he might not have enough fuel for the landing. There were some nights when the tanks were all but empty by the time he gotback. Just as well in one way, with so many naked flames around, but dangerous too. If he crashed, the whole world would know about them.
'Now,' Bob said, bending to light the first flare.
The two of them sprinted back up the field, knowing by now exactly when to bend to the jars of oil. They were a real risk when the weather was like this, with the grass ready to flare up and volatile petrol vapour hanging about all over the place. Months ago, when they'd first made their plans, they'd decided that electric landing lights would be too noticeable by day. This dangerous, primitive alternative was better by far. Each man had a small extinguisher hanging from his belt, ready to blast out any flames before they could spread.
The plane was already down by the time they reached the end of the strip and they ran back, putting out the little flames as fast as they'd lit them. Tim killed the engine and swung himself down from the pilot's seat.
As soon as Ron had driven the van away, Tim and Bob turned the plane full circle and pushed it towards the old shed that served as its hangar.
'Just the flares now,' Bob said when they were safely inside and could talk normally. The pilot nodded, rubbing dirty hands across his face. He looked like shit. 'What's stopping you, Tim? Get a move on.'
'Give me a minute. It's been a long night. I couldn't make them understand on the other side how important it is to keep the plane stable. The cargo was sliding about all over the place on the way back. I thought I was going to have to dump it in the Channel.'
'But you didn't. So we'll get our money. Come on. We need to get the jars back.'
Tim stripped off his flying jacket at last, and dumped it by the plane. 'Let's get it done then; I need a bloody big drink.'
They had this part down to a fine routine. Bob collected the can and a big plastic funnel so he could pour the oil back into it out in the field. Tim picked the wicks out of the jars, stuffed them in a bag, and brought the jars to Bob for emptying. Tim was bending for the last one when Bob's head jerked up.
'What?' whispered Tim.
'There's someone in the trees.'
'Don't be stupid.'
'Shut the fuck up. Wait.'
The two of them stood, silent, holding their breath. Nothing moved. The last of the wind had dropped. Then Tim heard it too, the unmistakable sound of human panting and a kind of sliding rustle no animal would ever make. The body producing it was too big for anything but a cow and no cow slid over dry grass and leaves like that. Bob dropped the can and funnel and sprinted for the trees.
Tim followed much more slowly. In the moonlight he could see the shape of their quarry from yards away and recognized the ungainly scramble as the man tried to get to his feet. There was something metallic in his hands as he brought them up to his chest. Bob flung himself on the man, bringing him crashing to the ground. His head banged against a tree root and his breath burst out in a gasping cry. Bob swore as he stood up and started to kick.
Tim froze. Bob's rages had always terrified him, and he didn't want to get in the way of this one. Then the man screamed like a stoat in the grip of a weasel, and Tim knew he had to intervene. He drove himself forwards, feeling as if he was wading through treacle. His mouth was full of saliva and his hands were shaking. He didn't know what to do.
Bob was working on his victim's head. Blood was flooding out of the man's nose. He was trying to protect his skull and wipe his face at the same time.
Blood was everywhere, pouring into his mouth and choking him. His red-edged teeth scrabbled over his split lips, and his hands smeared the blood over his eyes and up into his hair as he clutched his head to guard it from the rhythmically pounding boots. He groaned. He was gasping as he begged for the agony to stop.
'Bastard,' Bob hissed. 'I knew something was wrong tonight. Bastard. Shut up.'
'For Christ's sake, Bob, stop it.'
At the suggestion of a rescue, the man looked up. Bob's boot landed right in his face. It cracked like an egg. He screamed and rolled himself into a defensive ball, with his ruined face pressed against his knees, but not before Tim had seen the damage to his nose, his eyes, his teeth.
Gagging, Tim put out his right hand, wanting to touch Bob and remind him that he was human. But he couldn't force himself to make contact. Bob's left boot crashed into the man's spine. And again. Just beside the kidneys.
'Stop it!' Tim said, brave enough at last to make a grab at Bob's arm. 'You'll kill him. Bob! Stop it!'
But Bob was out of reach of any words. His hands were clenched into fists, although he wasn't using them. All he needed were his booted feet. One after the other, they thudded into the man's body. Bob's face was set with concentration now; all the hatred gone. His eyes were back to normal. He looked like a man with a job and the determination to get on with it until there was nothing left to do.
Soon, the thuds gave way to crunching sounds as bigger bones cracked under the assault. Yet more blood poured out over Bob's boots and on to the hard-baked ground. It didn't soak in; it pooled, red and glossy, on the dusty surface. At last the kicking stopped.
In the silence, Tim's ears were ringing. He could barely breathe and didn't think his mind would ever work again. Boblooked down at the battered, bloody thing that had once been a man, then up at Tim, as though measuring him, deciding whether he needed kicking into silence too.
Tim knew he had only one chance to save his own life. Forcing himself to forget the man on the ground, fighting the nausea that threatened to choke him, the ringing in his ears and the fierce wish that he'd never met either of the appalling Flesker brothers or fallen in with their plans, he said, 'We'll have to bury him. I'll get the shovels.'
'No,' Bob said at once, then softened it by adding, 'but I'm glad you're on side. They always find buried bodies in the end. And if it's on your land they'll start asking you questions. You'll never stand up to interrogation. We all know that.'
'What then?' Tim didn't risk challenging the insult. 'There aren't any quarries round here to drop him in.'
'We'll take him to the meat works.'
'That's disgusting.' The words were out before Tim could stop them, and he could feel his whole body tense. He clenched his hands behind his back, and dug his top teeth into his lip to stop himself whimpering.
'Don't be stupid.' Bob laughed, which gave Tim the confidence to let his lip go. 'We'll put him under one of the lorries going to Smithfield in the morning. Eighteen wheels and God-knows how many tons of refrigerated container driving over him will make enough marks to hide everything we've done. Safer than trying to hide the body.'
'But what about the blood? It hasn't started to soak in yet, the ground's so dry. Even when it does, the evidence will last for months in the soil. Years maybe. Scientists can find tiny traces anywhere these days.'
'Can't you stop whining for a minute? Get Boney over here and he'll soon lick it up. There's no one going to bother to test soil samples unless they've seen some blood.'
Tim couldn't speak, but he managed to shake his head. Therewas no way he was going to let his spaniel anywhere near this killing ground if he could help it.
'You called him after Napoleon, didn't you, so why d'you always treat him like a poodle? You're happy enough to see him eat anything he kills. What's the difference?'
'How are you going to get the body to the meat works?' Tim asked, because that was safer than saying nothing or trying to explain. 'Ron's got the van, and we can't put it in my car. It would leave evidence. That'd be far more dangerous than burying him on my own land.'
'You've been watching too much telly. We'll use his car. He must have one round here somewhere.' Bob uncoiled the battered body, straightening the legs and torso so that he could feel in the trouser pockets. It looked like a man again, in spite of all the damage Bob had done. Tim couldn't face it. Then he heard a chink and risked a quick glance. Bob was withdrawing a bloody hand from one pocket, and there was a bunch of keys dangling from his fingers.
'See. Now we've just got to find the car. The lock bleeper'll help. And we've got to find out why he was here. What was it he put in his front pocket? Get it out, will you, while I ...'
Tim shook his head. He'd never be able to make himself touch the body. Bob looked at him, his hands twitching. Tim knew how near the danger was, but he still couldn't move. He felt himself swaying as the blood drained from his brain. Bob muttered a filthy insult, then jammed his hand into the big pocket of the dead man's parka. The seams ripped apart like Velcro.
'A camera! A sodding video camera!'
'Who the hell is he?'
KEEP ME ALIVE. Copyright © 2004 by Natasha Cooper. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.