Her eyes would make your fillings melt. That’s if you’re the sort of shallow man who’s attracted to rather obvious sexuality. I went to the window, opened it and let the summer breeze in. It smelt of petrol fumes and street urine.
Running a finger around the inside of my collar, I said it was good to see her again. She cut me off with a “Don’t lie”. There it was – that regal poise. Nothing had rattled her either in Urozgan Province where she’d screwed me over, and not in a nice way. My very own Queen of Hearts. Now we were sitting in a pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake position in my stuffy Kings Cross office. She crossed her legs and the room temperature went up five degrees.
The Queen leant forward. “We were casting around for a shambolic, high functioning alcoholic with few scruples and less dollars. We immediately thought of you.”
“If I were you, I’d ask for a refund on that Diplomacy for Dummies course.”
A small shrug. “Interested, Paladin?”
“Since you put it so nicely, tell me more.”
“We’d like you to find someone.”
“You don’t need me for that.”
“And kill her.”
“Even in Sydney, murder’s against the law.”
“You’re in luck. She’s not here.”
The aircraft touched down with a perfect three-point landing. The Atlas Mountains were in the distance, Marrakesh airport terminal sat in the foreground.
In an open air car park, a knavish character in a black suit only slightly less dusty than his SUV watched me lift my bag onto the rear seat. I returned the stare. “Aren’t you meant to say ‘Welcome to Marrakesh, Mr Paladin.’?”
Sliding into the driver’s seat, he started the engine and hit the accelerator before my door closed. Twenty silent minutes later, the vehicle jolted to a standstill at the mouth of an alley leading from Jemaa el-Fnaa market to a cluster of trinket stalls. The departing wheels showered gravel over my shoes.
“You should’ve been on time,” said a nervous voice behind me.
“We took the pretty route,” I said, turning.
He was standing with the sun’s glare over his shoulder. I could only make out a smallish shape clad in a white linen djellaba. The sunlight made the cloth semi-transparent. Not the sort of outfit to go commando in. Beckoning me to follow, he led me between the stalls. “Oh dear, I shall be too late,” he said, looking at a large gold fob watch, his nose twitching.
At a door marked “Sortie”, he tapped twice. Indoors was cool and gloomy. A dark shape frisked me before taking over as guide. We reached an inner courtyard and, suddenly, the Queen of Hearts was back in my life. I’d swopped my Macleay Street office for a Marrakesh riad – and she was still holding court. The pale, rabbity little man from the alley stood off to one side offering us tea, no, coffee, no, rosé. Why not?
We didn’t clink glasses. Instead she raised her’s, smiled and said: “Off with her head.”
She assured me she wasn’t being literal. I didn’t believe her then nor during the briefing: go into the High Atlas, avoid antagonising the local Berbers, kill a Russian double agent and bring back proof-of-death. The agent had defected in Canberra, worked on the Queen’s team on nanotechnology – code for implanting tracking devices in unsuspecting humans – then two years later, she vanished. The Queen handed me GPS coordinates and a set of keys. “Try to look French and trustworthy,” she said to my back as the dark shape led me from the courtyard.
In Jemaa el-Fnaa, an ageing Toyota wagon with a Médecins Sans Frontières logo on the driver’s door stood waiting. By dusk, the boxes of medical supplies in the rear were bouncing in time with the potholes. Off to the left, a roadside fire threw shadows on a tent. At the tent flap, a turbaned figure in a flowing robe waved a mobile phone. It flashed three times. Stopping, I unloaded two boxes, staggered under their weight and called out: “I saw the code.”
The man’s mischievous feline grin came and went. “Actually, I was just trying to get a signal.” His accent placed him 18,000 kilometres away. “Name’s Chester. I’d give you a hand, mate, but my back’s buggered.”
The inside of the tent smelt of warm goat’s milk. I bent over to drop the boxes. Something hard pressed into my spine. I hoped it was a gun barrel. After yet another frisk, we sat with a small fire between us. “We leave at midnight,” Chester said.
“Do I look like a tourist? No, we’re taking your vehicle.”
The bright moonlight made the mountain road less grim, almost magical. Under blankets on the back floor lay assorted weaponry and two Iridium satellite phones. It’d taken us several hours to assemble the kit hidden amongst the medical supplies.
Dawn did little to warm the air. I straightened a Médecins Sans Frontière-branded jacket. “Am I a plausible doctor?”
“At a stretch: an implausible nurse.”
I left him with a satellite phone, binoculars and a sniper rifle on a hilltop above a Berber village. Hammering down the road between clay and stone houses, the Toyota’s wheels threw up a long dust cloud.
The village’s small clinic looked cool and calm, as did the woman standing on its front steps. Mid-thirties, blonde, tall, Dr Alice Alistratov matched her photo. Two men in lab coats helped me carry medical supplies into the building, then left us alone with cups of coffee. I drank mine in two gulps.
Dr Alice sipped at hers. “My sources say you’ve come to kill me, Mr Paladin.”
“’Kill’ has such a finite ring to it.”
She hung a stethoscope around her neck. “If I’m a double agent, what am I doing openly running a healthcare centre?”
That was a question I‘d already thought of. In the background, I could hear the clinic opening. I followed her into a spartan waiting room, trying to look vaguely medical. The patients didn’t appear convinced. I gestured for Dr Alice to step into an examination booth. “You have one minute,” I told her. Dr Alice wouldn’t be hurried. She explained she’d defected to help humanity. Instead she’d found herself in the Queen’s private wonderland. Hadn’t I ever wanted to do good? she asked.
The sun was directly overhead as I drove up to Chester’s position. Ragged locks of bloodied blonde hair with strips of scalp were stuffed into my trouser pocket. In the village behind me, a siren went off. The Toyota’s dust cloud grew bigger.
Back in the riad’s courtyard, the Queen studied the trophy scalp before flipping it to the rabbity man. Run a DNA check, she ordered.
The rosé she handed me tasted metallic, like blood. It came with a question: had I said anything to Dr Alice before I killed her?
In fact, the last words I’d said as I helped bandage the doctor’s head were: “Find another rabbit hole to go down.”
I looked into the Queen’s dark eyes. “No, Ma’am.”
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* The copyright infringements are too numerous to list ... nevertheless ... Copyright 2018 GREG FLYNN