Authors: Stephen Leather
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Espionage
|The Birthday Girl|
|Hodder Stoughton (1994)|
|Tags:||Fiction, Suspense, Thrillers, Espionage|
Stephen Leather is one of the UK's most successful thriller writers. Before becoming a novelist he was a journalist for more than ten years on newspapers such as The Times, the Daily Mail and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Before that, he was employed as a biochemist for ICI, shoveled limestone in a quarry, worked as a baker, a petrol pump attendant, a barman, and worked for the Inland Revenue. He began writing full time in 1992. His bestsellers have been translated into more than ten languages. He has also written for television shows such as London's Burning, The Knock and the BBC's Murder in Mind series and two of his books, The Stretch and The Bombmaker, were filmed for TV. You can find out more from his website, www.stephenleather.com
The Birthday Girl
For Philippa It all happened so quickly that it was only after his abductors had shoved the sack over his head and made him lie down on the floor of the van that Anthony Freeman realised he hadn't said a word. He hadn't begged, pleaded or threatened, he'd just followed their shouted instructions as he'd half crawled, half fallen from the rear of the wrecked Mercedes. He was still in shock from the crash and he'd stumbled towards the van as his captors prodded him with the barrels of their Kalashnikovs.
It was like some crazy, surreal nightmare. Only minutes earlier he'd been standing outside the Holiday Inn, hunched into his sheepskin jacket and wondering whether the far-off rumbling sound was approaching thunder or artillery fire. The Mercedes had arrived on time, rattling along the road with its rear window missing and its licence plates removed. The driver was the man who'd picked him up at Split Airport several days earlier and driven him overland to Sarajevo, taking the dirt road used by the Red Cross to ferry supplies to the besieged city. Zlatko, his name was, father to six children, three of whom had died in the conflict. He'd refused to allow Freeman to help him load the bulky metal suitcase into the boot. It had been Zlatko who'd told Freeman the names of the abandoned villages they'd driven by, some of the ruins still smoking in the cold winter air, and it was Zlatko who'd explained that he'd taken the licence plates off the car to give them a better chance of getting through the many roadblocks. There was no way of knowing in advance who was manning the barricades and a wrong licence plate could be reason enough for a hail of bullets.
Zlatko had done everything possible to avoid the truck as it 2 STEPHEN LEATHER braked, and if he'd been a less skilful driver the crash would have been a lot worse. As it was, Zlatko's head had slammed into the steering wheel hard enough to stun him, and he'd been unconscious when the doors had been wrenched open. The kidnappers had raked his body with bullets from their assault rifles, the noise deafening in the confines of the car.
There were five of them, maybe six. All Freeman could remember were the black ski masks and the Kalashnikovs and the fact that he'd evacuated his bowels when they'd dragged him from the back seat, screaming at him in heavily accented English.
Freeman couldn't understand what they wanted from him. It wasn't as if he was in Beirut, where hostage-taking was a way of life. He was in Sarajevo; it was snipers and artillery attacks that you had to watch out for. It didn't make sense. The sack smelled of mouldy potatoes and something was crawling across his left cheek but he couldn't get to it because they'd tied his wrists behind his back with rope. His damp trousers were sticking to his skin. He could barely breathe and the musty smell made him want to gag.
Freeman jumped as whatever it was that was crawling around the inside of the sack bit him on the neck. He tried to move, to ease his discomfort, but a foot stamped down between his shoulder-blades and a voice hissed at him to lie still. He lost all track of time as he lay face down on the floor of the van. Eventually he heard his captors talking to each other and the van made a series of sharp turns and came to a halt. Uncaring hands pulled him out. His cramped legs gave way and as he slumped to the ground the men cursed. More hands clawed at his legs and he was carried bodily.
He heard the crunch of boots on broken glass, then the sound of a door being thrown open. The footsteps became muffled and he realised he was being carried across a carpeted floor, and then he heard the sound of bolts being drawn back and he was hustled down a flight of wooden stairs. More bolts rattled and without warning he was thrown forward. His legs were still weak and he fell to the ground, his chest heaving from the effort of breathing through the thick, foul-smelling sackcloth. He heard THE BIRTHDAY GIRL the door crash shut behind him and the grate of rusty bolts and then he was alone in the cellar, more alone than he'd ever been in his life.
The doorbell rang just as Katherine Freeman stepped into the shower and she cursed. She stood under the steaming hot spray and closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of the water as it cascaded over her skin. The doorbell rang again, more urgently this time, and she knew that whoever it was wouldn't go away. She climbed carefully out of the shower stall and dried herself with a large pink towel. Downstairs the dog barked, but it was a welcoming yelp rather than a warning growl. Katherine checked herself in the mirror. She'd tied her shoulder-length blonde hair up so that she wouldn't get it too wet in the shower and she shook it free. 'This had better be important,' she told her reflection. The last thing she wanted was to go downstairs and find two earnest young men in grey suits asking her if she'd been saved.
She pursed her lips and examined the skin around her neck. 'Katherine Freeman, you sure look good for a thirty-five-year-old broad,' she said, and stuck out her tongue. She threw the towel into a large wicker basket and picked up a purple bathrobe. The doorbell rang again as she ran down the stairs. 'I'm coming, I'm coming,' she called. If it was Mormons, God help them, she thought. Buffy, her golden retriever, was sitting by the front door, her tail swishing from side to side. 'A smart dog would have opened the door,' said Katherine, and Buffy chuffed in agreement.
Katherine yanked the door open to find Maury Anderson standing on the porch. He was wearing a plaid sports jacket and brown trousers and his tie looked as if it had been knotted in a hurry. 'Maury, I wasn't expecting you,' she said, frowning. Anderson said nothing, and Katherine suddenly realised that something was wrong. Her hand flew up to her throat. 'Oh God, it's Tony, isn't it? What's happened? Oh my God, what's happened?' Her voice rose and 4 STEPHEN LEATHER Anderson stepped forward to put his hands on her shoulders. 'It's okay,' he said.
'He's dead, isn't he?' She began to shake and Buffy growled, sensing that something was wrong.
'No, he's not dead, I promise you, he's not dead. As far as I know he's not even hurt,' Anderson said. His voice was quiet and soothing, as if he were trying to comfort an injured child.
Katherine pushed him away. 'What do you mean, as far as you know? Maury, what's happened? Tell me.'
'Let's go inside, Katherine. Let's sit down.'
Katherine's robe had fallen open but neither she nor Anderson was aware of her nakedness. Anderson closed the door and held her arm as he led her to one of the couches that straddled the fireplace. He sat her down and then without asking he went over to the drinks cabinet and poured her a large measure of brandy with a splash of Coke. He handed it to her and she cupped it in both hands. She looked up at him, still fearing the worst.
'Tony's been kidnapped,' Anderson said quietly.
The statement was so surprising that it took several seconds for it to register. Katherine had been sure that her husband had been involved in a traffic accident. Kidnappings happened to politicians or millionaires, not to the boss of a struggling defence contractor. 'Kidnapped?' she repeated. 'You mean the Mafia or something?'
'No, not the Mafia,' Anderson said. He sat down on the sofa, his hands clasped in his lap. 'Terrorists are holding him hostage.'
'Terrorists? In Italy?' Katherine remembered reading about terrorist groups in Italy who'd killed businessmen, shot them in the head and left them in their cars. Her heart raced.
Anderson took a deep breath. 'He was in Sarajevo, Katherine.'
'What the hell was he doing in Sarajevo?' She took a large mouthful of the brandy and Coke and gulped it down. There was a pewter cigarette case on the coffee table. She opened it and took out a cigarette. Her hand shook as she lit it.
'He was there to demonstrate our mine clearance system. We were putting together a deal.'
" 5 'But he told me he was in Rome. He called me yesterday morning.'
'I know, I know. He flew to Split and then drove to Sarajevo. It's a long story, but the upshot is that he's been taken hostage by Bosnian terrorists.'
'What do they want?' Her voice was wavering and she fought to keep it steady.
'I don't know. All I've had is a phone call. They said we weren't to speak to the police and that we'd be contacted with their demands. If we call in the authorities, they'll kill him.'
Katherine's hands shook so much that her drink spilled. Anderson took the glass from her hands. She grabbed at his arm. 'What do we do, Maury? Tell me, what do we do?'
Anderson looked at her levelly. 'That's up to you, Katherine,' he said. Buffy whined and put her head on Katherine's knee.
'The FBI can't help us?' Katherine asked.
'It's out of their jurisdiction,' Anderson said. 'We'd have to go to the State Department.'
'So let's do that.'
'Katherine, Tony shouldn't even be in Serbia, never mind doing business there. There's a UN embargo.'
'So? Tony's still an American citizen. The State Department has to get him back.'
'Actually, the fact that he's Scottish makes it more complicated.' 'Damn it, Maury. He's my husband. He's got a Green Card. The State Department has to take care of him.'
'There's a war being fought over there. It's a shambles. No one's sure who's fighting who. We're not even sure who the bad guys are.'
'Goddamn it, Maury, what was Tony doing there? What the hell was he doing there?' Her voice broke and she began to sob uncontrollably. She stubbed out the cigarette. Anderson took her in his arms and held her, tight.
'He was trying to help the firm,' Anderson said. 'We're desperate for contracts, you know that.'
Katherine dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. 'I can't believe he didn't mention that he was going to Sarajevo.'
'We didn't know until he was in Rome. The Serbs insisted on seeing him on their territory.'
'Maury, this doesn't make any sense. I thought there was an exclusion zone or something around Sarajevo.'
'Yeah, there is. He had to fly to a place called Split and then drive overland. The Serbs insisted, Katherine. We had to do it.'
'We?' Katherine said. 'We? What do you mean? I don't see you out there.'
Anderson ignored her angry outburst. 'We needed the contract,' he said. 'He probably didn't want to worry you. But as you know we're having cash-flow problems and we have to take orders from wherever we can.'
Katherine pushed him away. 'But you said there was a UN embargo? Doesn't that mean we can't sell to the Serbs?'
Anderson shrugged. 'There are ways around all blockades,' he said. 'There are middle-men in Europe who'll handle it. Everybody's doing it. Not so long ago the Russians sold 360 million dollars' worth of weapons to them.'
'Yes, but we're not Russians,' Katherine said. 'We're an American company.'
Anderson sighed. 'Look, the Russians were selling T-55 tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, serious weaponry. We're just talking about a few mine clearance systems. That's all.'
'But you're saying that the authorities won't help us because Tony shouldn't have been there in the first place?'
'That's right,' Anderson said. 'But you're missing the point. We can't get help from anyone. If we do and the terrorists find out, they'll kill him.'
Katherine closed her eyes, fighting the urge to slap Anderson across the face. 'Damn you, Maury,' she hissed. 'What have you done?'
There were six guards taking it in turns to watch over Freeman, and over his weeks in captivity he'd made some sort of contact THE BIRTHDAY GIRL 7 y/
with them all. Freeman knew that the psychiatrists referred to it as the Stockholm Effect, when a hostage begins to form a relationship with his captors, but he also knew that there was a more fundamental reason for his need to communicate with his guards - sheer boredom. They allowed him no books or newspapers, no television or radio, and for long periods he was left alone, chained to a disused boiler in the freezing-cold basement.
Four of the men appeared to speak no English at all and communication with them was restricted to nods and gestures, but even their surly grunts were better than the hours of mind-numbing isolation. The fifth man's name was Stjepan, and he appeared to be the leader of the group. He was in his early twenties, thin and wiry with deep-set eyes that seemed to stare at Freeman from dark pits either side of a hooked nose. He spoke reasonable English but slowly and with such a thick accent that often he had to repeat himself to make himself understood. Stjepan told Freeman why he was being held hostage, and what would happen to him if the group's demands were not met. On the second day of his captivity, Stjepan had Freeman's aluminium suitcase brought down into the basement and demanded that he show him how to work the equipment it contained. Freeman had complied, though Stjepan's limited English meant it took several hours. The equipment was then carefully repacked into its case and taken back upstairs. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Stjepan had punched Freeman in the face, hard enough to split his lip.
A Sony video camera was brought down into the cellar and Freeman was handed a badly typed script to read. As he struggled with the poor grammar and inept vocabulary of the statement, he realised that the punch had probably been planned in advance to give more authenticity to the video, but the thought didn't make it hurt any the less. Freeman asked if he could record a personal message to his wife and Stjepan had agreed. When he'd finished Freeman was given a plate of watery stew and left alone.
While they waited for a response to the video, Stjepan was an occasional visitor to the basement, and Freeman felt it was because the young man wanted to practise his English. There 8 STEPHEN LEATHER was no further violence, which reinforced Freeman's belief that the punch in the face had been for effect rather than to punish him, but Stjepan always kept his assault rifle close by and left Freeman in no doubt that he was prepared to use it.
During his hours alone in the basement, Freeman spent a lot of time thinking about his wife and son, and it seemed that the more he replayed the memories the stronger they became. He began to recall events and conversations that he had thought were long forgotten, and as he sat on the cold concrete floor he wept for the life that had been taken from him. He missed his wife and he missed his son.