Sharpe sat in silence for what seemed an age as the president strolled over to the large bow window which looked out across an acre of green and well-watered lawn. The empty glass in his hand had been refilled by his captor prior to the issuing of the thinly veiled threat.
So that was it. He had been suckered in to the dictator’s web of power and intrigue merely as a pawn in some larger game known only to the man himself. For the moment then he was safe, which was more than could be said for a considerable number of other souls whose paths had crossed with the figure now approaching him from the far end of the room.
“You see Mr Sharpe, my country is going through a transition, a series of changes which do not meet with the approval of certain governments in the west. The imperial powers of the past hundred years have not taken kindly to their grip on this continent being loosened, and we have become something of a target for their wrath. It is time for a gesture, and I have decided that I am the man to make that statement.”
He dropped a file in front of the assassin and removed a Havana from the box on his desk. Lighting it, he blew out a cloud of blue smoke and sat down once more opposite the sniper. Sharpe opened the folder, one eye focussed on the man’s face for any reaction.
“But this is………..”
“Yes, I know who it is Mr Sharpe. The man has been at the forefront of European condemnation of my regime, and feelings have begun to polarise around him. The time has come for a gesture. He must be silenced, and the message to all those of a similar opinion stifled.”
“You know he’s a cabinet minister.”
“The workings of your government are no mystery to me, and its ministers should not consider themselves above reproach. You will kill him and send a warning out to the rest of his kind.”
The statement was cold, clear and unambiguous. Take the assignment and disappear freely. Refuse and disappear here, never to be seen again. He nodded and his captor smiled that toothy smile once more. He raised his glass.
“To success, and your freedom of course.”
Sharp reciprocated and downed the Jim Beam in one swallow. The president picked up on the frown which played across the assassin’s face.
“One final word of warning Mr Sharp. Do not for one moment even consider an attempt to vanish once you are out of my country. I have contacts in many lands, and should you attempt to double cross me, you will be found and executed. Clear?”
This foray had clearly been in the planning for some time. He led Sharp out of the room and down to a basement area which was kitted out like something out of an Ian Fleming novel. All that was missing was the figure of “Q” to demonstrate the equipment now on display.
“You will be provided with all of the necessary documentation to get you back into Britain, and passage through your country’s security systems will be very easy.”
He handed Sharp a package, and the sniper had to admit the papers were of the highest quality. He focussed on a table where a rifle was being assembled by one of the dictator’s staff. It was a weapon straight out of Forsyth’s “Day of the Jackal” and could have been made for him.
“You will be shown how to assemble it, and we have a testing range for final adjustments to be made. After that you are on your own, so to speak.”
One week of briefings and ‘final adjustments’ later, Sharpe was leaving the Arrivals lounge at Heathrow. With hair now dyed a different colour, and a suitable growth of beard he would pass unnoticed through the airport security checks. The plaster cast around his right leg also lent an air of ‘ordinariness’ which had baggage handlers and airport staff alike fussing around him like a group of mother hens. Little did any of them realise the lethal nature of the contents of the crutches which now supported him on his journey to the assignment that the president had given.
The Minister’s itinerary and appointments schedule had been included amongst the documents given to Sharpe before leaving Africa, and a visit to Nottingham, together with timings and travel details, had been highlighted. This was obviously the location of choice, and he had no option in the matter. Making for the hotel where he had reserved a room, he was now anxious to rid himself of the cumbersome cast which had hindered his progress.
Removing the rifle parts from their concealed position within the steel crutches, Sharpe marvelled at the ingenuity of the planning which had gone into this assignment. He would have to carry the rifle with him, and the camera case brought through airport security was now adapted to suit the needs of its more dangerous cargo. He cut the protective foam to fit the new purpose and disposed of the Nikon. Later that day he was aboard an Intercity 125 from London St Pancras and heading for the Midlands. Nottingham would soon have a place in history quite different from anything that had gone before.
The day was warm without being uncomfortable, and a light breeze blew from east to west across Old Market Square, where the minister was due to speak that afternoon to a Trades Union rally. There would be a considerable number of participants and onlookers and Sharpe saw no difficulty in merging with the confused masses after the kill had been made. It was now one week after his return to the UK, and he had taken three to four days in selecting the position from which to make the shot, and it would only be one shot.
The roof of the office block gave him a clear and uninterrupted view of the podium where his target would stand, some hundred yards away in front of the City Hall. He had posed as a maintenance engineer and made his way to the top of the building via the emergency stairways. Securing the door behind him, he had started to lay out the rifle parts when noises from the stairwell had him quickly packing them away. The security guard bursting through the door on to the roof missed Sharpe by seconds as he hurriedly concealed himself behind one of the air conditioning vents. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew the garrotte and looked at his watch – time was starting to run away. The man pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one.
Sharpe’s relief at the impromptu break was tempered by the incursion into his timing. The choice was clear – either pass up the opportunity and suffer Maninga’s wrath, or take the man down and risk an early discovery. In the event he was rescued by an irate voice from the stairs.
“Briggs! Put that bloody fag out and get back to work. One more bit of skiving and you’re fired!”
The man jumped as if he’d been shot, crushed the Marlboro beneath his size ten and hurried back down the stairs. Sharpe breathed a sigh of relief. Pausing only briefly to assure himself that there would be no more interruptions, he resumed preparations – now more urgently than before as crowds started to gather in the city centre square.
The shot would be easy. Broad daylight and with no need for night vision equipment, he had only the minimum of kit to burden himself with, and the downhill shot would be a piece of cake. As the minister stepped up to the raised platform, Sharpe’s steady breathing took over as he squinted down the telescopic sight. Sweeping across the assembled group, he homed in on the figure whose picture had been given to him in Maninga’s stronghold – there was no doubt as to the identity of the target. He settled down into his firing position and took one long breath. Releasing it very slowly he brought the cross hairs perfectly in line with the man’s head.
A sudden commotion in the surrounding crowd to the left almost ruined the shot, but with consummate professional skill he squeezed the trigger and felt the gentle kick from the rifle as the armoured round sped unerringly towards its destination. Sharpe watched, very briefly as the suited figure fell and then began his clear-up routine. Time was now of the essence, and with commotion and panic already rife in the city centre, he was down at ground level in a matter of minutes. Now outside the office block and immersed in the confusion, he did not notice the black, smartly dressed ‘executive’ who had been watching him since his arrival at the site. The man began his approach and removed a syringe from his inside jacket pocket.
Sharpe collided with one of the fleeing pedestrians, and asked what had happened.
“Guy on the platform got shot. Looks dead to me, and I’m getting out of here while I can!”
What no-one had mentioned was the Arab student now in police custody. He had moved forwards in the crowd at the last moment with a pistol in his hand. A round had been fired in the direction of the minister and it was this that had set off the panic, not Sharpe’s precision shot which actually killed the man. The assassin smiled to himself at this stroke of good fortune and, carried by the crowd, was spun away into the middle of the street. He never saw the oncoming tram as it ran down the hill from the Royal Centre, once beneath its wheels there was no hope and Sharpe’s screams went unheard amidst the general panic. His weapon case went spinning on to the pavement area right in front of his tracker. The ‘executive’ picked it up, replaced the cap on his syringe, smiled and disappeared into the crowd. Nothing left at the scene would connect the killer to his principal.
“You did very well” The president smiled his toothy smile at the figure before him. “That was quick thinking to remove the gun from the scene. I will ensure that you are suitably rewarded.”
The man bowed in deference, smiled in return and left the room. Charles Adebe stood up from the president’s desk and looked at himself in the full-length mirror which Maninga used to feed his vanity each day. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that he would, one day, be running his country. Sharpe had been quite correct; Maninga had not survived the assassination. The dictator had chosen that occasion to go off on one of his unpredictable forays into the countryside, leaving one of his carefully chosen doubles to ‘hold the fort’.
Secrecy had been the man’s byword, and none of his staff were aware of this last minute change of plan. Now that he was dead, who was to question the word of the man who was, to all intents and purposes, The President? His word was law. Maninga’s body would disappear in some unmarked grave and Adebe’s family would be told of the disappearance. A suitable monetary amount would be sufficient to keep them quiet. The only remaining problem was Serena, Maninga’s wife. She would be the only one able to identify him as an impostor. An unfortunate motor accident would take care of that.
For a man living at the edge of poverty not twelve months ago, life now seemed to hold out so much promise. He smiled that toothy grin which Maninga had made his trademark, poured a glass of Jim Beam, lit a Havana and relaxed into the arms of the Chesterfield – these British certainly knew how to make good furniture.