Lucky Break

Lucky Break       5,258 words.                            Copyright © Arthur Hall 2016.                                                                                                 Isaura came out of the shadows and placed the food carefully in front of me.  The noon sunlight streamed through the single window, and the faint smell of her cooking had followed her from the kitchen.      'Is all right, Senor?'         I told her she was a wonderful cook, that her paella was the best I'd ever tasted. She gave me a wide white smile and looked embarrassed, as if she wasn't used to compliments.         I thought, not for the first time in the seventeen days since my arrival here, how unusual it was for The Sector to choose a place like this for a safe-house. She was in her late twenties, I'd have guessed, slim and attractive with Spanish swarthiness and long lustrous black hair. But she, like her brother who lived here with her, had an innocence that was distinctly un-typical of the twilight organisation that controlled them and, to a certain degree, controlled me also.           I supposed that they'd been chosen, or more likely coerced, because their demeanour itself acted as a kind of concealment. When you're an opposition cell searching for a place where our agents wait or rest between or during missions, your first expectation wouldn't be a brother and sister who looked too innocent to have had much experience of life outside their village, let alone of this sort of work.  A much-altered attitude from that of the last few decades, yes, but we live in a rapidly changing world. With the advent and introduction of computers, mobile phones and other technology, communications - one of the most vital necessities of a mission - have altered to the point where I'm glad to be near the end of my active service. I'm past the age where unfamiliarity is absorbed easily.   This situation had begun when Ierston had phoned me, while I was on holiday alone in Portugal. He's the right-hand man in The Sector now, whose function is mostly to convey the orders of the unknown Minister who runs it. I managed to control my annoyance at the interruption; it would have been futile to object anyway because there's a clause somewhere in the contract that allows London to call on us at any time if anyone whispers the magic word: 'crisis'. Not that this fitted that description, so far. The orders were to be on the next Lisbon-Madrid flight, then hire a car and make my way to the outskirts of the capital. After that, and a meeting with a local contact, a further half hour brought me to Vista Alegre, a village with, despite its name, no happy view that I could see.      As is usual for him, Ierston had been decidedly uncommunicative. My orders were to establish myself in the safe-house and as a tourist around the village. Not far from the cathedral was the house of Raul Lobato, one of The Sector's people stationed in Madrid who I knew slightly from our training days. If he returned to his home here I was to inform Hickey, my Local Control, at once. From this I concluded
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that Lobato had probably gone missing, but neither Ierston nor Hickey would be drawn on the subject. For seventeen days, I had watched and waited.  I finished my meal and took a long drink of water. I had a standing arrangement with Hickey, to be near the central square every day at 12.25 precisely and he'd turn up if he had anything to tell me. So far we'd met twice, during the period when surveillance of Lobato's house was taken over by local people. Twenty-four hour observation cannot be sustained by one man for an extended period: we all have to sleep.       I said a temporary adios to my hostess and walked unhurriedly through the sunshine. Like the narrow streets, the tall old shuttered buildings gave a lot of shade and I stayed close to each one as I passed. There was very little activity at this time of day - I counted two ancient vehicles and three elderly black-clad women before I reached the square. I took in the scene slowly. On three sides were the blank walls of storage buildings and a couple of small houses, while most of the fourth was taken up by a cantina. Two men sat outside smoking with full glasses in front of them, talking animatedly and well out of earshot. In the centre was a statue of a man in armour - I'd yet to identify him because the inscription on the base was worn - surrounded by a low wall which had once also contained a fountain. On this wall a man in a lurid shirt and shorts sat, eating something out of a packet in the shadow of the statue. I checked all around once more, and went across.           'I hope you're enjoying that, Hickey. It's full of sugar and colouring and has as much beneficial content as a cow-pat, probably less.'     He stood up, looking at his food with distaste. 'Just something to keep me going. You weren't followed here?'        'Don't insult me. I've been in this game a lot longer than you.'   'Sorry,' his eyes swept the square, 'I was forgetting how experienced you are. For the last few months I've been working with new entrants.'    'I know, but this time you can relax. So, tell me what's changed.'   There was a moment's pause while he gathered his thoughts, and I watched him as he struggled with the heat. He was of medium height with a ruddy face, and hair so perfectly in place that I'd decided it must be a toupee. His accent was broad East London with an occasional lilt of Welsh. I'd no idea of his origin or background but I was confident in him because he'd successfully Local Controlled several difficult overseas missions in the last year.       'I've just come out of signals with London,' he said quietly. 'I can tell you now why we're here.'  Communications are different now. The old signals equipment needed an operator in a safe-house and was slower, but since the technological revolution of recent years it's just a matter of access to a tablet or an iPhone, brought in or purchased in whatever country the mission is running. All seasoned Sector agents were suspicious and doubtful at first but, once the secure channels were established and confirmed as 96% minimum effective, the advantages were obvious. Nevertheless, the old rule stood fast: the risk to an agent of being caught with a device connected to London was considered too great. Hence the continued necessity for Local Control, to act as a relay.  'I'm listening.'  'Lobato's been turned.'  I checked the cantina again. 'What a surprise.'
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 'He's made his way back here at last, as we thought he would, eventually. His intention is to give Aguila to the Cali Cartel.'  'I thought that group was finished.'  'They are of course. The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and their partner Jose Santacruz Londono are no longer in business, but their successors from El Cartel del Norte del Valle, that's the North of the Valley Cartel to you, are still active. These bastards still have considerable markets for their cocaine in Europe. Aguila, as you know, is the Sector's man inside the Cartel. For him to be exposed would be a major setback.'  I nodded. 'So the idea is that I get to Lobato, before the Cartel does?'  'That's right. Contact is expected within the next few hours.'   'Be specific, then. How far am I to take this?'      Hickey's gaze wandered across the dried-up fountain bed without turning his head. Then his eyes locked onto mine. 'Ierston says bring Lobato back if you can. Otherwise, well… it's up to you.'        I hate it when they do this. It's called 'agent's discretion' and you can never tell about the outcome. Some London Controls are reluctant to take responsibility for ordering a termination for fear, in these days of political correctness, of career damage if there's a leak to the press, so it's sometimes convenient to lay the blame on the agent concerned. Others don't give a damn, as long as the job is done. On reflection, I put Ierston down as one of these.      'Is Lobato in the house now?' I asked Hickey.     'No, but he'll be there soon. As I said, our information is that he's meeting someone from the Cartel later today, so you'll have to work fast. It would be better all round, I think, if you could be gone before he arrives.'     'Then call your men off, I'm going in.'             #
 
A short while later I left Hickey. I drank coffee in the cantina, to give him time to tell his local men to abandon their surveillance of the house. Then I drove my hired SEAT across the village, past the single supermarket and the half-finished hotels, and parked down the street in the shade of a drooping palm.    I approached the house cautiously, listening for any sounds as I entered through the small front garden. The place showed neglect, the walls and roof needed attention, and the tendrils of overgrown plants wound across the path like serpents.           At the door I controlled my breathing, keeping very still as I listened.  Silence.          I waited for several minutes, hearing nothing but a passing local bus.  The door opened easily, and I stepped into a darkened room aware that Lobato could be expecting me, or someone like me, in which case I was walking into a trap. This was quite feasible: Lobato had, after all, undergone Sector training. Hickey was experienced at choosing local operatives for surveillance work - I'd read the files on his missions as Local Control in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan - but he could have selected badly, for once. If he had, I had no doubt that Lobato would have quickly become aware that he was under observation.  I didn't move at first, as my eyes adjusted to the half-light. Then the heavy blinds that effectively kept out the sun trembled, as I closed the door behind me.
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The room was sparsely furnished, just two armchairs with a table between them, a half-filled bookcase and a large-screen television in a corner. I listened again and heard a door slam. The sound came from the kitchen that adjoined this room. I heard some quick movements, before Lobato came in.  He stopped abruptly, squinting into the poor light when he saw me.   'Lane?' he said. 'My God, I haven't seen you since that bloody training course.'           'It's been a long time. Were you expecting someone else?'    He made an innocent gesture. 'No, of course not. It's just a shock, seeing you after all this time.'               That moment confirmed that he was hiding something. The natural question to ask would have been, 'Why are you here?' or 'How did you find me?' But there was no need for those, because he already knew the answers. He knew The Sector was onto him. I read it in his face.       His years in England had honed his accent, so that his native Spanish hardly showed through. He looked much the same as I remembered, hadn't put much weight on and still moved in quick bursts. The rather sharp features were the same and his hair was still thick, a touch of grey at the temples the only slight difference. 'How are things in Madrid?' I asked him. I meant The Sector's Madrid station, and he would know that.         He shrugged. 'Oh, much the same. We haven't had any trouble with Basque Separatists, for a while. I suppose you have a difficult time with the Syrian problem, in London?'           'They haven't roped me in on that, yet.'      He laughed, rather nervously. 'If I know The Sector they will, before long.' He turned to a decanter, on a side table. 'Care for a glass of local sherry? It's a rather dry Fino, but it's good.'         'Not just now, thanks. I'm here because of something we picked up in London. The Cartel del Norte del Valle are extending their cocaine distribution over here. We wondered if you'd heard anything about that?'      That was as good as telling him that we knew everything because an enquiry like that could have been easily settled over the secure channel in signals. I wouldn't have been sent out on the strength of it. I watched closely, for his reaction.  He removed his hand from the decanter. 'Nothing's come through the grapevine, as far as I know.'  A car backfired loudly in the street outside and I half-turned towards the sound, realising too late that it was the momentary diversion he'd been waiting for. I turned back very fast to face him but he was faster and I moved away instinctively as something burned across my thigh.       He stood in the classical attack stance, and I remembered that he'd achieved the highest score for knife-fighting in the training class. He'd gone for my stomach and would have succeeded if I hadn't moved. His blade was smeared with my blood.  I retreated slowly. 'How could you have been taken in by those bastards? You know their reputation, they're worse than the old KGB. I don't know what they promised you, but what you'll get is a shallow grave out in the woods somewhere.' He made a quick slash that missed my face by inches. 'Not me, I'm too valuable to them.'          'Not any more. You weren't careful enough. The Sector knows all about you.'
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 'The Cartel will protect me. I'll disappear.'       The growing tenseness in his eyes told me that I was seconds away from his next attack.          'Oh, you'll disappear, all right.'         'You're not taking me back!'         'That's right, I'm not.'           The tension had reached the point where he could no longer sustain it, and the quickest way to dissipate it was by its transference into action. This time I was ready, and his altered position told me to expect a straight thrust. I swivelled on my right foot and the blade missed my chest so closely that I felt the air-rush, but he was prepared for evasion and drew his arm back. I managed to get in a short extended-finger jab to his stomach, but I missed the solar plexus and he grunted as he slashed crosswise for my throat. This, too, was as close as it could be without cutting the skin and I knew that his next attempt or the one after would hit something vital.          I turned slightly before he could withdraw, gripping his arm above the wrist and pulling him off balance. He'd dropped the knife already, catching it with his free hand and drawing back for a strike to my kidneys, when I went for his trachea with the stiffened edge of my left hand. The knife fell and his eyes went vacant as I released him. He was dead before he hit the floor.     I stood, breathing hard, for several minutes. I was glad that Hickey had given me the choice, it meant that I was spared a lot of interviews and paperwork when I got back to London. Wrapping a handkerchief over my hand, I went into Lobato's bathroom and found the medicine cabinet. The thigh wound was deeper than I'd expected and bleeding freely. He'd kept his knife very sharp as he'd been taught. I applied some antiseptic and a thick gauze dressing and used a lot of tape to keep it in place until I could get to a doctor. The slash in my slacks I could cover by wearing my jacket, which I'd brought in the car, and I'd just have to hope that the bloodstains wouldn't attract too much attention.  I went back and stood over the body. A quick search revealed a 9mm Glock, which I slid into my pocket after checking that it was fully loaded. All I had to do now was lock all the doors and windows and drive to the airport, phoning Hickey on the way. When Lobato's visitor from the Cartel arrived he'd leave as soon as he saw the situation, but apart from that it could be hours before the alarm was raised. I froze as the kitchen door was slammed back again and someone entered. A boy of about fourteen stood transfixed at the sight of Lobato's corpse. After a shocked few seconds, he turned back and ran out through the kitchen with his loose shirt flapping.          '¡Policia! ¡Policia!'         I looked out of the window. He was out of sight, but I could still hear him.  He couldn't have seen me - the angles from where he'd stood were all wrong for that. I breathed deeply to halt the onset of panic, because he'd bring the local force down on me quickly. They'd take one look at the body and I'd be in handcuffs and on my way to a cell. Hickey might not be able to extricate me, before the Cartel decided to find out who'd disposed of their man, and I'd no desire to take them on without some kind of support.  Similarly, if I left now I was merely postponing the inevitable. At the sight of Lobato the police would launch a local man-hunt, and the first place they'd put under observation would be the airport. If there was no body it would delay the
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proceedings, while it was ascertained if the boy was a reliable witness and while he was questioned.          It took a few minutes to make sure that there was no possible hiding place in the house. The only other option was to remove the body and I couldn't see how to do that unobserved, until I remembered the large travelling trunk with wheels in Lobato's bedroom.  It wasn't easy, fitting him in. I forced his head between his knees and pressed the lid down, feeling relief flood through me as the latch snapped shut. I wheeled the trunk to the front door and looked back. Thank God there was no blood on the floor. On impulse I went back into the bedroom. Lobato had a lot of clothes. I selected some similar to those he'd worn and carefully arranged them in the living room where he'd fallen. It was a long shot, but it might delay things if the police thought the boy had mistaken them for a body. I decided it was worth a try.  Less than ten minutes had passed since the boy had gone - I calculated it would take him that long to reach the only police post in the village - and now I heard the first sounds of a distant police siren. I closed the door quietly and wheeled the trunk along the street, keeping to the shade where I couldn't be seen easily, to the car.          By the time I'd lifted the thing into the SEAT's boot I was sweating freely. The heat and the weight of the trunk had combined to bring on a state of nearexhaustion and I was reminded for the thousandth time, that my youth is now behind me.           I drove away slowly, relieved that there was no sign, as yet, of police vehicles. Then I realised that the Cartel had been waiting for me, as a white Peugeot emerged from behind a parked gravel truck, two hundred yards back at the end of the street. I didn't think they'd followed me here: I would have known. More likely they'd kept the house under surveillance for a while in case Lobato's duplicity was false, and the bait for a trap. They were thorough, these people: if you put one foot wrong, you were dead. It had happened to Olliphant in Cali, and Cartwright, in Bogota. Penetration was particularly hazardous because of their almost paranoiac level of suspicion.          They stayed in the mirror as I turned onto the main road. Two men, darkskinned, their features indistinct in the reflective glare. They were keeping back by about twenty yards, in case I turned off suddenly. I tried brief acceleration and abruptly slowing, and they matched my speed every time. No mistake, it was the Cartel and they were onto me, possibly wondering where I fitted into the equation.  I let my speed drop as we passed through the tiny shopping area. The few tourist shops had drawn customers out into the heat, and there were a lot of water bottles being carried. A woman in a huge brightly-coloured sun hat stepped into the road as I crawled past the rather old-fashioned hairdressing salon and the driver of the Peugeot frightened her with a blast from his horn. They must have had their windows open, because I heard the string of obscenities clearly.  We left the shops behind and I picked up speed again. I knew they'd decided that I was a likely threat to their operation because the Peugeot kept moving into the centre of the road, waiting for the opportunity to overtake. Oncoming traffic was sparse and would soon cease altogether, as we approached an intersection where there was nothing to see but a couple of abandoned cars and some rundown concrete apartments with a washing line strung between them.
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 The Peugeot accelerated rapidly, just as the cathedral came up to the left of us, and I thought that the next few seconds would decide the whole thing because the man in the passenger Seat was holding something that projected out of the window. I caught a glimpse of a light rapid-fire weapon, probably an Uzi machinepistol, and braked the SEAT hard. The brakes needed adjusting because they pulled violently to one side, but they probably contributed to saving me. I forced myself backwards, trying to anticipate his line of fire, as the man in the  Peugeot pressed the trigger and the dashboard exploded. The air was full of the smell of burning rubber and hot metal and the SEAT careered behind the Peugeot and across the carriageway, as I fought to regain control. Flashing sunlight seemed all around me as the car began to spin, and I think they were still firing because a tyre blew. I must have turned a complete circle, since the sandstone wall of the cathedral was now directly ahead, rushing towards me and filling the windshield.   I don't remember the moment of impact. I felt tremendous pressure across my chest from the restraining effect of the safety belt, and the front of the SEAT was buckled against the wall. The door was stuck fast and it took three kicks to free it. I looked back at the road and saw that the Peugeot had burst through the restraining fence and was heading towards me with one wing badly dented. The driver put it into a skid to bring it broadside on and I saw that the man with the Uzi was trying to re-establish his aim. Somewhere a woman screamed, and I realised that a door further along the front of the cathedral had opened, and that several people watched. As the shooting began again they disappeared back inside, and I heard the heavy door slam.  I drew Lobato's Glock. These were among the most callous and ruthless killers in the world, but I had a single advantage: they didn't know that I was armed. The Peugeot's passenger door burst open and I flung myself flat as the windows of the SEAT disintegrated in a spray of bullets. The ricochets still buzzed around as I rolled over to use one of the wheels as cover, lying behind it in a prone position and forcing myself to wait until he came nearer. His feet appeared, running towards me and still firing rapidly until I shot both his ankles. He screamed and I heard him fall, I knew I had to move fast before the Peugeot's driver could leave the car: if he was armed similarly he could launch a fusillade without coming nearer, ripping the SEAT apart.  I stood up and risked showing myself. He was already aiming a weapon that looked a lot bigger than the Uzi, and was probably a lot more powerful. A single loud burst rocked the Seat on its springs. I had dropped to a crouch and was now in a position to peer around the end of the car cautiously. I knew I had seconds to live unless I acted fast, and there was only one way I could win against such superior fire-power. I emptied the Glock into the Peugeot, not aiming properly but estimating where the petrol tank should be. It exploded in a ball of flame and I threw myself to the ground again, shutting my ears against the cries. A wave of intense heat passed over me, and the roar of the fire blotted out everything. The smell of burnt fuel, metal and flesh was sickening but I'd no time to think about it: by now some of those in the cathedral would have used their mobiles to contact the policia, and they would be on their way.   I left the shelter of the SEAT. The man whose ankles I'd shot crawled towards me, his flesh blackened and his eyes wild. Somehow he'd survived sufficiently to retrieve the Uzi, and was intent on finishing what they'd begun. He fired two single shots and I heard glass smash somewhere. I wasn't sure if he'd hit the SEAT or the
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cathedral's stained windows, but I moved fast because he would have little difficulty, from that position, of altering his aim. I used a savate killer blow, where the kick forces the head back to an impossible angle. I heard something snap, and he lay still. I kicked his gun away from him, because we're trained to take every precaution when we can. Our survival sometimes depends on being absolutely sure. I had to get out of here quickly now, I didn't want to be seen as part of this or to be found with a body in my possession.       Delayed shock was catching up with me. As I hauled the trunk out of the SEAT's boot I began to shake. We're taught things that off-set this condition, because even our Controllers appreciate that we're as human as anyone else and would find it difficult to continue without some sort of assistance.    It isn't often that we get any kind of lucky break, in this profession, but I thought I had one now. When I first arrived in Vista Alegre I did a thorough reconnaissance, including this area. At the side of the cathedral was a labyrinth of narrow alleys, the buildings so close together in places that two people could barely pass. I remembered particularly the smell and the darkness, the rubbishstrewn passages where day was little different from night.    I looked all around me. The fire still blazed, beneath a cloud of dense smoke. There was no sign of life from the cathedral. The late afternoon sun beat down on a lonely scene of death. Pulling the trunk, I walked unhurriedly to the steps that led to the network of passages. I ignored the protests from my bruised body because there was now, after all, a chance. If I could leave the trunk in some dark and hidden corner, it would buy me time to get to the airport.  I dragged the trunk to the top of the steps. As I paused, gripping the centre rail, I heard sirens approaching the cathedral. I looked back but it was out of sight now, and the sirens stopped suddenly. Several narrow passages yawned in front of me. I might have imagined it, but I could have sworn there was organ music from the cathedral. It occurred to me that the congregation might be offering thanks for their preservation from the violence outside.  I quickened my pace, the trunk feeling heavier. At the next intersection I had a choice of paths to follow, and I decided on the one leading at a sharp angle away from the cathedral. This was a street with doors on both sides, narrow enough for a man on horseback to pass but little else. At first there was absolute silence, but after a short while I could hear a girl singing off-key. It was a mournful wail, like someone lamenting the passing of a loved one, and I wondered if she sang because of her incarceration in this dreadful place.       The smell of rotten fruit and urine was overwhelming. I needed a place where the trunk would be concealed for long enough to allow me to get to the airport, but I hadn't seen a possibility yet. These alleys were made up of the flat-walled frontages of dilapidated dwellings. They were deserted now, but I knew they'd come alive at night like similar places I'd seen: Mexico City, Haiti and Tunisia.  A wider exit, like a small cavern, opened up ahead. Every movement echoed as I approached, and too late I realised that I was no longer alone.  Six or seven men stood in my path, all shabbily dressed, silent and threatening. Not one of them could have been more than twenty-five, and I remembered that Isaura had mentioned that gangs of young men sometimes roamed the streets looking for tourists to rob. She had called them Los Lobos. They weren't professionals, just unemployed youths seeking an easier way to make money for their cigarettes and evenings in the tavernas.  
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 The worrying thing was the pistol aimed at my face. It looked like a weapon that had seen action in World War Two, but I wouldn't have gambled on its lack of efficiency because it looked well-oiled and cared for.    'What does the box contain, senor?' he held the gun steady. The others crowded around him and leaned forward to inspect the trunk.     He gestured to one of the others, who took two quick steps towards me and snatched the handle.         'Computer hardware.' I lied.        The one who'd taken the trunk picked it up and nodded vigorously, laughing. 'It is very heavy, Juan.'         'And what is it that brings you here, where there are no computers, or shops?' Juan asked suspiciously.         I looked down at the litter-strewn floor, as if ashamed. 'I stole it. La policia are close behind me.'              'We must go,' said one of the others.  Juan looked uncertain for a moment, then the one who had the trunk laughed again. He whispered, 'We can sell this. I know where we can get a good price, in Madrid.'  'Quickly, then.' Juan kept the pistol aimed at my stomach as the trunk was hurriedly wheeled away and the others fled into the shadows. Finally there was only him.           'You would be very foolish to follow us, senor. If you do, you will wish the policia had caught you.'         He backed away until the darkness hid him, and then ran. I waited until the last of his footfalls died away before turning and retracing my steps.   Soon I was back in the square, where the attention of the policia and everyone else in the crowd was centred on the dead men and the smouldering car. I walked around the cathedral to the far side, where I used my mobile to summon a taxi for the airport.   As I saw it approaching I reflected again how rare it is to get a lucky break in this line of work. And then again, to get two lucky breaks is even more so.

Arthur Hall

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