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Dannie Marsden's book Desert Heat

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Desert Heat

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Desert Heat

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Rendezvous in the Himalaya Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

 

 

“Have you been asked to a meeting in Nepal?”

 

The carefully neutral voice of the man from the embassy was contradicted by his aggressive posture and narrowed eyes.

 

UN Secretary Louise Bolingbrook had known many military men from dozens of armies, and she recognized their breed in the man who had driven into the refugee camp and demanded an interview with her. Although he called himself “Davies from the embassy,” she guessed he held the rank of major, maybe colonel.

 

“We’re in Afghanistan, Mr. Davies. The UN has no current writ in Nepal.”

 

Bolingbrook was not antimilitary; her family roots were generations deep in all forms of soldiering. Even so, a UN career devoted to easing the plight of refugees had brought her into contact with a wide variety of belligerent personalities, and the man calling himself Davies was an arrogant, dismissive type that she particularly disliked.

 

 “We aren’t concerned with the where of this meeting, but with whom you’re to meet.”

 

“And who is this concerned we, Mr. Davies?”

 

Davies let the silence build before continuing with what seemed an irrelevant statement. “I believe you are related to Paul Bolingbrook?”

 

“I’m sure you know that Paul was my nephew.”

 

“Do you also know that the person I think you are to meet is the woman who placed the Belfast bomb that killed him?”

 

Louise Bolingbrook’s visits home to England were infrequent, but the last time she’d gone had been to attend her nephew’s funeral. Paul was her younger brother’s son. A wide gap in years separated her from the brother and sister who had been born following the war that she had spent in a Japanese internment camp. She didn’t really know them, let alone any of their children. She did remember the bewildered eyes of Paul’s two small children.

 

Another memory was of her adult relatives discussing, with similar bewilderment, the baffling behavior of Northern Ireland’s rebels. In particular, they spoke of the woman who had killed Paul and was said to be an American, an American who had been in an Ulster prison. Released with the understanding that she leave the country, the American had gone to ground instead and emerged not long after as a very effective terrorist.

 

Commissioner Bolingbrook looked past Davies, through the open tent flap to the bare and dusty plain outside. There, the wretchedly hungry refugees fleeing from Afghanistan waited for the future to alleviate their condition. They, too, had children with bewildered eyes.

 

“I have made no plans to meet such a person. Now, I do have work, Mr. Davies.”

 

The statement was, technically, true enough.

 

 

A baby started to cry and the sound was quickly hushed. Despite the narrow and twisting mountain road, Jeri O’Donnell chanced a quick glance into the rear of the canvas-covered military truck she was driving. The eyes of the small group of women and children met hers. Ezma, the woman nearest the open window, shook her head to indicate there was no real problem. Jeri turned her full attention back to the curving road. Pine trees hid any long view, but according to the map she had memorized, they should be reaching the border crossing in a very few minutes.

 

Jeri resisted the urge to pull her Turkish army cap lower. If she was stopped and questioned, the mission was already in too much trouble for her simple disguise to remedy. Rafi had assured her the border guards had been adequately bribed. All they needed to do to earn their money was let a single truck pass through, even if it was arriving from the wrong direction.

 

The grade grew steeper, and Jeri shifted down a gear and gave the laboring engine more gas. Ezma reached through the open window and put a hand on Jeri’s shoulder, either to reassure Jeri or herself. Once they passed the checkpoint, the road should be free of problems until they reached the meeting point where members of the Kurdish resistance could take over. The U.S. and its allies were still building up troop strength for what Saddam Hussein was insisting would be the Mother of all Battles, and the Kurds of Northern Iraq were trying to prepare for the fallout that was bound to come their way. Memories of villages where Saddam had killed all the inhabitants were still fresh in Kurdistan, and Jeri was conducting one extended family to a safer haven.

 

“We need a country of our own,” Ezma said, more to herself than to Jeri.

 

“Doesn’t everyone?” Jeri muttered, but she patted the hand that rested on her shoulder. She was saved from making any useless assurances when the road suddenly leveled and revealed a guard station. Situated among pine trees and large boulders, it was nothing more than a hut with a flag. Ezma eased back among the other refugees, and Jeri noted that she kept her AK47 close to hand. Jeri checked the green canvas pack beside her on the seat to make sure of her own SIG P225.

 

Not until the truck had stopped with the engine idling did a guard emerge from the small post and hesitate. Jeri considered just driving through. She hated checkpoints. The soldier who finally stepped into the clearing and came toward the truck looked far more nervous than Jeri. He was a stout man, not too far from middle age.

 

“Have you any contraband?” he asked in French.

 

“Just cigarettes,” Jeri answered in the same language.

 

Jeri reached for another pack, nylon, and twice as large as her canvas bag, and handed it through the window. Along with the money Rafi had already paid, the cartons of high-quality cigarettes made for a tidy bribe. The guard tried to smile as he took it and thanked her, but he still seemed very nervous. Something was wrong, but Jeri couldn’t see anything but the guard and his post. Still, her spine itched as she shifted into gear and drove forward.

 

 

A slight breeze ruffled the leaves on the bush the sniper had set up to camouflage his rifle barrel. After a few seconds, the air became still. Hornet checked his scope again. There had been these occasional stirrings all morning, tiny puffs of wind in otherwise calm air, and they were making what ought to be an easy shot rather chancy. He had already compensated for distance and the downhill trajectory, and he was as certain as it was possible to be that a vehicle arriving in the compound would park where his rifle was aimed. But the wind was erratic, and there was nothing he could do about that but wait.

 

Waiting was a sniper’s specialty. He imagined a newspaper ad: Sniper wanted. Applicant must have patience, caution, and attention to detail. A call had told him the truck had arrived at the checkpoint, so he knew his waiting wouldn’t be in vain.

 

Some buzzing bug was taking an interest in the foliage he had tied together and placed on his head like a leafy crown, like part of a summer fest’s Green Man costume. He heard the insect first and then felt it crawl through the leaves to examine his shaved head. His hair had been thinning anyway. There was a world of difference between the projected manliness of a shaved head and one with thinning hair. The fly didn’t bother him. He was aware of it, but where he was living right now was in the trajectory between the end of his rifle and the place where the truck would stop. The target would get out there, and he would shoot. He wanted this kill. Edgars had been a buddy. They’d had drinks together. The target had done Edgars in cold blood. She had tied him to a tree and executed him.

 

He cleared his mind. She was the target. Just the target. Assign anything more emotional to her, and it would interfere with the precision he needed to make this kill. He wanted a slow heart rate when he pulled the trigger between one beat and the next.

 

 

As Jeri O’Donnell swung down from the cab of the truck, she realized how tense and tired her muscles had become from driving the mountain road. She leaned against the cab to stretch each calf and bent to touch her toes. Her passengers were exiting with a minimum of fuss; this was only one leg of their journey. Turkey might be safer than Saddam’s Iraq, but it was still not friendly to Kurds, who thought themselves separate from other Turks. That wasn’t Jeri’s concern. Rafi had only asked her to get them safely across the border. Jeri suspected it was a personal matter with Rafi, not one of his contract jobs. Loyalty was important to him, and as a former KGB agent, it was likely that he had contacts in the Kurdish Resistance.

 

Thinking of Rafi made Jeri smile. Who would have ever suspected that a young Yugoslavian—so inspired by socialist principles that he volunteered to join the Soviet system that he believed was the hope of the world—would discover he had a talent for being a capitalist entrepreneur as the Soviet system disintegrated?

 

Rafi Gregoric was now the head of an enterprise that contracted for information, goods, and services. Want a detailed resource map of the Irkutsk region, or a dozen slightly used tanks, or a few mercenaries to truck some oil? Here’s a phone number for someone who knows someone. Or maybe you want to retire from the Provisional IRA and need work that will use your considerable talents without causing any more harm to innocent people.

 

Jeri’s smile vanished. Remembering was an enemy to her peace. One thought always led to another. She lifted her eyes to the pine-covered mountainside. It was a dramatic landscape, very beautiful. Suddenly Ezma was standing in front of her, blocking her view. Ezma was rather dramatically beautiful herself—strong features, dark eyes, and a wide smile.

 

“We are ready to leave. Rafi wants you to get in touch as soon as possible. And I wanted to thank you.”

 

Jeri was going to miss her. Ezma had been attentive and friendly throughout the trip, and while Jeri had enjoyed it, she hadn’t felt she knew enough about the woman’s culture to interpret exactly what that attention might mean. Eyes that held hers maybe a little too long, a very ready smile, a hand that seemed to find its way to her shoulder or arm quite often—one could get in serious trouble if they made the wrong call about that.

 

“I didn’t do anything but drive.”

 

Ezma favored Jeri with a smile that was only slightly mocking. “But you drove so very well.”

 

Since she was leaving anyway, Jeri decided to chance it. “Are you flirting with me?”

 

“Yes.” Ezma’s smile widened. “Seriously, you should come drive for us again.” She held out a hand, and when Jeri took it, Ezma surprised Jeri by pulling her forward into a hug.

 

Something slammed into the truck.

 

Jeri pushed forward, throwing Ezma to the ground along with herself. They were both familiar with gunfire and, scrambling, reached the boulders at the edge of the drive at the same time. There was silence now as the entire compound held its breath. One shot, that had been all. Jeri looked back at the truck and saw where a bullet had torn a hole in the metal door. She looked at the angle revealed by the ragged metal.

 

“Sniper,” Ezma said.

 

 

“He was a professional, Rafi. If it hadn’t been for your Ezma, that would have been a kill shot. Me.”

 

The hotel in Tajikistan was reputed to be top notch, but the furniture in the room was worn and none too stable. When Jeri had laid out the map on the table, she had felt one of the legs sway. Even so, Rafi had found decent ale for both of them.

 

“Not my Ezma. I just thought the two of you might have common interests.”

 

Rafi managed a look of such profound innocence that Jeri almost laughed. “I can take care of my own private life, if you don’t mind. And don’t change the subject. I climbed the hill and checked out the nest, but of course he was gone. I could tell he’d been there awhile, and from that position, I was the only probable target.”

 

“It was not your time, Stella.”

 

Stella had been Rafi’s name for Jeri ever since Chechnya.

 

“I’d bet good money he was SAS. Is there a price out on me?”

 

“Of course there is. Quite a lot of money. And nowhere near what you’re worth, if you’re worried about me.”

 

Jeri gave him a sharp look. “Christ, Rafi, I owe you so much that if you ever want to sell me out, I’ll sign the receipt. No, I want to know how they knew where I’d be. Any ideas?”

 

Rafi sighed and shook his head.

 

Now that she was looking at him, Jeri saw signs of deep fatigue that she had missed when she arrived. He was adept at maintaining the mask of carefree cleverness that he had worn since she first met him, and his dark, boyish good looks would last until time transformed him into a handsome, white-haired elder. Even so, he had changed since those early days. His eyes had secrets now. She supposed her own eyes looked the same. Initially, each had refrained from sharing their pasts out of concern that such knowledge might one day compromise the other. Now, however, they kept their own secrets out of an even deeper kindness. Jeri hoped that Rafi slept more peacefully than she did, but she doubted it.

 

“You still think we should go ahead with this new project?”

 

“Yes. It’s just the kind of work you asked for when you came to me, Stella. Even though I would rather you were my partner than an employee.”

 

Jeri ignored the veiled offer. She knew he was sincere, and Rafi was closer to her than her own brothers, but she wanted no part of a business or a partnership. “Just think of me as one of your private contractors. Is this a favor, like the last job?”

 

“A favor? It’s true I owed Ezma’s brother for some risks he took when we were both in Iran. That was his family you drove, but now I still owe him. I promised him I would also find a way to take his sister off his hands, and you failed me there.”

 

“Sorry. She wasn’t my type,” Jeri lied.

 

Rafi lifted an eyebrow in exaggerated disbelief. “You have a type?”

 

“Forget it, Rafi.” If she said anything specific, she knew she could expect to find someone outside her door fitting the precise description, probably wearing a red bowtie and holding a Christmas tree over her head. “Let’s just get down to planning how I’m going to get an old Englishwoman to go hiking across the Himalaya with me.”

 

“Whatever you want, but you need someone in your life.”

 

To get them killed? She gestured impatiently toward the open map spread on the table. “What I need is a Tibetan grammar and vocabulary.”

 

“Work, work. Of course I brought you a book. I also have a special present for this job.”

 

“Not somebody’s sister again?”

 

Rafi laughed happily. “No, no. For this work there is only a tough old Sherpa and his nephew.”

 

“What makes you think the Bolingbrook woman will want to go to Tibet?”

 

“The monk told me he thinks she will.”

 

“You’ve met him?”

 

“Yes. I told him I could bring him out, but he won’t leave. Still, he wants to see, in his words, ‘Darling Louise.’ He didn’t say more than that.”

 

“Let’s hope Darling Louise wants to see him.” Jeri’s tone was dry, but in fact the prospect of a trek through the mountains was appealing. With luck, the SAS would lose her trail.

 

Jeri was sure Rafi knew her well enough to recognize that she was actually pleased with the chance to see a new part of the world.

 

“I have something for you.” He walked over to where his unopened bags were stacked and picked one that was long and narrow. With the drama of a magician revealing a rabbit, he undid the zipper and held up what appeared to be a very old, single-shot rifle.

 

“Jesus, Rafi, that looks like something Daniel Boone might have used.”

 

“Just the thing for a poor Sherpa, but let me show you what I’ve done.”

 

Cheerful that he had engaged her interest and humming the unmistakable Ballad of Davy Crockett, Rafi showed her how he had upgraded the rifle that only appeared old.

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