Authors: Bill Napier
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
The Engineer had recovered sufficiently to talk. He sat down again and stared at the AA. “But a hundred-day timescale?”
McNally glanced at his watch. Eight hours.
If Webb doesn’t deliver
. . . Unconsciously, his mouth twisted in tension.
A whistle blew. The grandmother, red-faced, was waving her arms around. The sharp squeaking of trainers on wood came to a stop. An outburst of youthful cheering was followed by a tribal chant: the girls’ team had won.
The Engineer asked, “What instrumentation will be on board?”
McNally tried not to smile. Knowledge of the instrumentation would provide a strong clue to the nature of the mission. He finished his Coke. “A spectrometer for inflight target analysis. A short-pulsed laser for ranging: eight bursts a second and it only weighs a kilo. A high-resolution camera with a light CCD coupled to the laser. The setup has ranging accuracy of one metre and believe me we’re going to need it. There will be a military package on board.”
“You said this is a flyby?”
“A flyby. No slowdown, no soft landing. Vesta will do what it’s going to do on the hoof. The ranging is coupled to
some megasmart electronics, and the probe will have to carry out some very sophisticated decision-making in maybe 0.1 of a second.”
The Engineer stared up at the high wooden ceiling. Finally he said, “I see resemblances to the Galileo project. JPL handled the overall project and Ames managed the probe system. So why not use the experience gained at Pasadena and Mountain View? Maybe we could even use the Galileo flight plans as a template. I’ll bring over key people from the JPL flight design team and get them working with our MOD. Get me your Mission Specialists right away and I’ll throw them into our flotation tanks on their first day. The moment you can specify their tasks I’ll configure the Mission Simulators. If you can get clearance to bring a few Vesta people over . . . and a target would be useful, Jim, when you’re ready to give me it.”
Engineers. Always finding obstacles until they smell a challenge. I’m not on top of these guys for nothing
. McNally smirked.
The AA’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “The onboard military package. Should we be thinking of something like a bomb?”
Screw all Princeton smartasses to hell
The telephone was ringing as Walkinshaw opened the door. Webb had picked up the receiver before the civil servant could stop him.
The voice at the other end spoke in Italian. It was a second or two before Webb recognized it.
“You have an interest in a manuscript?”
“I think I can help you.”
Webb’s heart jumped. Instinctively, he tried not to sound too enthusiastic. “I’m very interested. Where is it?”
“The matter is not straightforward. Do you know the amphitheatre in Tuscolo?”
Webb had a fleeting vision. A picnic. A day out of Rome. Giovanni, and a couple of girls, and wine and sunshine, and Italian bread and cheese. “Yes, I do know it. It’s up the hill from Monte Porzio.”
“Time is very short, Mister Fish. Please be there in twenty minutes.” The receiver went down.
Webb looked at Walkinshaw in amazement. “I have a contact.”
Walkinshaw shook his head. “That’s impossible. This is a safe house. Nobody knows you’re here.”
Webb headed back to the door. “We’ll have to shift. The car will only take us so far and the rest is a climb.”
Walkinshaw held up a restraining hand. “Not so fast, Webb. Are you listening to me? Nobody is supposed to know you’re here.”
“Walkinshaw, I absolutely must have that manuscript.”
Walkinshaw followed the astronomer out to the car. “Are you listening to me, Oliver?”
The ignition keys were still in the car. Webb stood at the car door. “I don’t care. Look, we’re talking about the planet. Do you want to be fried? With your family? And your country? If this asteroid hits America what do you think they’ll do about it? I say they’ll launch a nuclear strike in revenge. The Russians will hit back in turn and we’ll be back to the Dark Ages even before Nemesis gets here. The world’s run by madmen, Walkinshaw, not rational people.”
“Webb, will you calm down. You’re exhausted and not thinking clearly. You are my responsibility. I can’t have you rushing bull-headed into this meeting. I need to know who knows you’re here and what you’re getting into.”
“There’s no time for stuff like that, you idiot. I have to take risks. I’m going. Stay here if you want.”
The car was smelling of hot plastic and the heat was deadly. Walkinshaw took the wheel, and they put the windows down. “Who was it?”
“Did you give him—or anyone—the villa’s phone number?”
“Of course not. I don’t even know what it is.”
“The address, then?”
“Absolutely not. Turn right.”
“Oliver, something is badly wrong here.”
“So you said. Left up here.”
The road took them up past villas with big wrought-iron windows, swimming pools and Dobermans wandering the grounds, and then they were into woods. There was an empty car park. The
had gone home. The sun was low in the sky. Memories came flooding back. Franca,
that was her name; and Giovanni’s lady had been called Ambra.
“Stay put, Walkinshaw. I’m a solitary scholar, remember?”
Walkinshaw looked into the surrounding trees. His face was dark. “This is getting worse by the minute. Look around you. Why would he want to meet you in a place like this?”
“He doesn’t want to be seen talking to me, that’s all.”
Walkinshaw’s civil service urbanity was gone. “You lunatic. You don’t know what you’re walking into.”
There was a path through grass leading up to the little Roman amphitheatre a quarter of a mile ahead. A burly, white-robed figure was standing motionless on the stone steps. As Webb approached, the man moved away and disappeared into a nearby wood. Webb ran up to the amphitheatre. The undergrowth was dense but the monk’s path was clearly visible in the trail of bent and broken twigs. Puffing, Webb followed the trail and found himself in a broad Roman road, the big flagstones still in place after two thousand years. The trees formed a wide overhead canopy, and the road went steeply back down the hillside. The monk was standing motionless, about three hundred yards ahead. Webb walked smartly towards him.
At about a hundred yards, the monk walked off to the right, disappearing amongst the trees. It was getting dark and Webb ran forward, risking a fall on the ancient cobbles. Turning off along the librarian’s route, he found himself back at the car park.
Walkinshaw was standing at the car. He was peering at the monk alertly, as if sensing that something was wrong.
Something was wrong. From close up, the man had the wrong build for the librarian; he was too thin, the hair was not in the style of a monk’s tonsure. Walkinshaw shouted “Webb! Run!” and then there was a sharp
and the civil servant, open-mouthed in amazement and pain, flopped down in a sitting position with his back to the car, with a red spot welling up from his chest.
Terrified, Webb turned to run but a pale, freckle-faced girl had appeared from the trees, and she too was carrying a pistol. She approached to just outside arm’s length and pointed the gun steadily at Webb’s chest.
They did Leclerc and now they’re going to do me
Walkinshaw was sliding slowly sideways; his eyes were swimming in his head; he was gurgling; bright red, frothy blood was trickling from the corner of his mouth. The girl waved Webb back towards the car. He ignored her and moved towards Walkinshaw. The monk hit him in the face with the barrel of the gun. “You can’t leave him!” Webb shouted in English. “He needs help!” The monk understood. He fired into Walkinshaw half a dozen times, the civil servant’s body jerking and the pistol shots cracking into the dark woods, while Webb yelled obscenities and the girl gripped his hair tightly and held her gun at his head.
Then Webb was thrust into the back of the car while the man threw off the monk’s habit. He turned out to be an un-shaven youth with the expressionless face of the psychotic. He turned the key and took off down the Tuscolo road. Through his fear and rage, Webb thought that it hadn’t been necessary to run over Walkinshaw’s body and that the civil servant might still have been alive when the wheels went over him.
In Rome, the youth sped through EUR along the Via del Mare, which transformed into the Via Ostiense, and then they were through the Ostiense Gate, passing a white pyramid and rattling along the Viale Piramide. The woman was breathing heavily. Her pupils were dilated, and from time to time she would giggle for no clear reason. She kept the gun hidden under Webb’s buttock and the thought of an accidental sex change, which recurred whenever the car rattled over cobbles, wasn’t funny. He began to shiver uncontrollably, going alternately hot and cold, and a monstrous headache
threatened. Strangely, to Webb, the emotion beginning to dominate in him was anger. He was angry at being pushed around, angry at being struck in the face, and angry for Walkinshaw and his family if he had one. It was a seething sense of outrage which he kept firmly in check.
They hurried along the side of the Tiber before cutting away from it, and Webb found himself orbiting the Victor Emanuele before speeding up the Via Nazionale. The man turned into the Street of the Four Fountains and pulled the car to a stop.
He turned and snapped his fingers in Webb’s face.
“La chiesa. Vai indietro. Subito!”
The urge to slap the youth’s face was almost beyond Webb’s power to resist. He pushed open the car door, slammed it shut violently and crossed to one of the
. The car horn hooted and the man gestured menacingly, waving him towards the church. Webb thrust a middle finger in the air. He splashed his face with the cool water and then sponged down his legs. There was nothing he could do about the dark patch on his shorts. He tossed the pink-stained handkerchief on to the road and looked at the inconspicuous little church with the flight of stairs leading up to a dull green door. Above the door,
“Santa Maria della Vittoria”
was written in gold lettering.
There was a brief gap in the flow of traffic and he crossed the street. He felt barely able to walk. On the steps he looked back; the young assassins were watching him intently. He pushed open the outer door. Assorted church notices; a collection box for “the deserving”; an inner door, brown and old. He went inside. The door closed behind him with a sudden pneumatic hiss and the Roman traffic switched off.
There was a musty smell, like a cellar or a second-hand bookshop.
Webb let his eyes adjust to the gloom. Rows of pews stretched to an altar, draped with white linen. Cherubim on the ceiling; crucifixes and statuettes; candles burning. And
one human being, a young woman near the front sitting motionless, head down. She crossed herself and walked smartly off, her high heels clattering loudly in the confined space. Their eyes met briefly; she gave no sign of recognition.
Take it as it comes.
He stepped warily down the left aisle, heart thumping in his chest and leaning on the pews for steadiness. In a small transept was a white marble sculpture. The sun was streaming down on it from a high window and the sculpture seemed to glow, floating in space. A white marble woman was lying back and a half-naked youth stood over her, holding an arrow poised to plunge. The woman’s eyes were half-closed and her lips were parted. Around this couple were what looked like theatre boxes. Assorted gentlemen occupied these, their faces leering and gloating, eternally congealed.
It was bizarre.
“The Rapture of Saint Teresa.”
Webb whirled round. Elderly man. Iron grey hair, greying goatee beard, metal-rimmed spectacles. White linen suit, dark tie, expensive shirt; black ebony walking stick. Thin lips drawn into a smile. If he was an immediate threat, Webb couldn’t see how.
“She is three hundred years old and, as you see, very beautiful. Many regard her as Bernini’s finest work. And this church, being one of the best examples of late baroque in Rome, is a worthy setting for her. What do you think?”
Webb said it to hurt: “It looks like a porn show in a Berlin nightclub.”
The man winced. “What we are seeing, Mister Fish, is the climax of Saint Teresa’s mystical union with Christ. I believe that Bernini is telling us about a spiritual experience of such intensity that it can only be described to the herd, even remotely, by comparison with the sex act.”
Webb said, “You could read what you liked into it.”
The man sighed. “That is the way with much great art. But you disappoint me, sir. I see that you are a superficial
man, a child of your time, just another mass-produced product of a technological Reich.”
Webb was trying hard to control his anger. “Was I brought here for this?”
The man’s smile broadened. “That’s the spirit! Actually, you are here because my instructions are to kill you.”
They emerged into the sunshine and walked arm in arm along a noisy, bustling street. Webb, in spite of himself, was glad of the support. The young assassins had vanished. At a small piazza a traffic policeman, dressed in white, stood on a raised pedestal, around which cars flowed like lava. An articulated truck was having difficulty negotiating a corner and the policeman was waving at it furiously.
“This way, cavaliere,” said the elderly man, pointing his ebony stick. “We shall have a beer at Doney’s.”
They turned up into a broad, gently sloping promenade, the Via Veneto. The street was reassuringly busy. Webb let himself be guided to a pavement table under a blue and white-striped awning. A dark young man with long, shiny hair approached. The older man casually placed his stick on the table, its metal tip pointing in Webb’s direction, and ordered a beer. Webb asked for
A whistle blew, back down the hill. The articulated lorry wasn’t making it round the Piazza Barberini. Further up the Veneto, Webb saw a crop-headed marine with an automatic weapon; he was standing at the main door of the American Embassy, and he looked in a bad mood.