The three men hustled Nathan along the bar, to a doorway that Nathan had not noticed when he first entered the pub. He realised why he had missed it when he saw that the table of domino players had moved aside temporarily from their usual position in front of a wide velvet curtain, which covered the door. Nobody took any notice at all, as if the spectacle of some unfortunate being all but kidnapped at the bar was an everyday occurrence. The simple truth of the matter was that all the patrons of the pub knew when it was wise to mind their own business, and this was such a time. No sooner had Nathan been pushed into the small back room than a foul smelling Hessian sack was dropped over his head and pulled very tight around his neck. The smell from the filthy rough material was nauseating, it stank of animals and fish, of excreta and oil. Its purpose was not to prevent Nathan from being able to identify anybody in the room, but to incite fear. Even the disgusting smell had been engineered, tried out over many victims and many years until it was perfected.
A pair of expert hands ran over his body, none too gently, and the disembodied voice that the rough hands belonged to declared that he was clean, he carried no weapon and no wire.
"Who are yizz, yank ?", came the first question, the Irish accent heavy.
"Just a guy who needs to do some business", said Nathan as calmly as he could, finding it hard just to breathe through the thick sacking and the constriction to his throat. He had no idea where the blow came from because, in the dark he could see nothing which made it seem ten times worse than it actually was. The meaty fist caught the side of his face, hard enough to turn his head and shock him, not so hard as to draw blood, this time.
"Oi shall ask yizz again. Who are you ?"
"King, my name is Nathan King", he gasped in shock.
"Is that yer real name Mister King ?"
"Yes", said Nathan.
"Do yizz have a passport ?"
Nathan was not sure he wanted to give that up at this point, he was not sure what he wanted if he was truthful, but he felt that if these men took exception to him, what he thought about it would not really matter. As he weighed up the question another unseen blow from the opposite side nearly took his head off and he tasted blood in his mouth. The sudden pain was white hot, searing into his head and he briefly saw a flash of stars, "Okay! Okay. My left shoe", he said dizzily, struggling to kick his shoe off.
"Ah, dere were are now", said his interrogator whose voice had not changed since Nathan had first heard it "well this does indeed look loike you. So what are yizz then, CIA would it be ? Chasing all that money we get from our dear friends in your country ?"
"I don't work for anybody", Nathan protested.
"Why do you need papers ?"
"I need to be able to move around as....as somebody else."
"Do yizz indeed ? And why might that be, a clean cut young American lad loike yer good self den ?"
"Okay, I'll level with you guys" said Nathan. He knew he had completely misread the whole situation in the pub. He thought he was just going to meet some shady character who might sell him some false papers. Now he felt almost out of his depth and began to realise how lucky he had been to have come this far at all, on his personal vendetta.
"Dat is the first sensible ting Oi have heard so far. Go on then, lad, level with us ?"
"I am in some trouble over here, with the Police. I need papers for England, America and South Africa. I can pay."
"What kind of Police trouble ?"
"The worst kind", said Nathan vaguely. He had not expected the kick. It caught him low down, narrowly missing his groin, and he doubled up in pain, gagging for his breath, the sack almost choking him as he tasted the coarse filthy cloth in his mouth.
"Okay!", he groaned, worried now that if he was not careful he might die for the most stupid of reasons and never have his revenge, "okay. That fire in Brixton. That was me. The two men inside killed my father, my mother and a girl I cared a great deal about. They were part of a hit team, and I intend to kill every single one of them". He spoke with a hate and a passion that overcame his fear and pain. This was his real being, and the men listening could understand that passion with ease. This was no set-up, no elaborate plant. Here was a man with a mission, almost a brother in the sense that he too had ideals and a purpose and nothing was going to stop him. When the sack was pulled off, Nathan had to blink a moment to get his eyes used to the dim lighting of the room. The men holding him released him and another offered a wet towel so that he could clean his face. As he handed it to Nathan he said, "why the fuck did yizz not say so in the foist place ? Killed yer ma and yer pa and yer girl too ? Bastards! So, yizz wants the three passports ? Droiving licence too ?"
"Can you do that ?", asked Nathan who had not even thought about it.
"Listen, you can have any damn paper you loikes, at a price."
"I don't care what the price is. How soon ?"
"Yizz don't care ? Well I am getting to like yizz more and more, Mister King. Sorry about before, but we have to be sure, d'ya see now ?"
"Yeah, yeah. How much ?", Nathan asked again brushing the weak apology aside.
"Fifteen grand - that's five a set. You'll get a full set of papers for the countries you said. If you don't mind my asking, why South Africa ?"
"A lot of people over here seem to think that is where I am from, so I figured, why not."
"Fair enough! We will be keeping your real passport."
"We can recycle it. We Irish, we're very into green issues", he said grinning, and the other men all laughed at that.
"How good are the papers ?"
"Perfect. They should be, they come from the same place as everybody else", he said laughing again even louder.
"So when will they be ready?"
"Okay, to business my friend. Tomorrow at ten ‘o' clock in the morning, you go to Kings Cross Railway Station. You know where that is ?"
"I can find it".
"There is a photo booth there, near the newsagents. Tomorrow it will have an ‘out of order sign'. Go in and get four photographs. Then stay inside until exactly ten minutes past ten. Leave the photos in the machine and the money on the seat. Don't look outside when you're in there, and don't look back when you leave. You got that? "
Nathan wiped a dribble of blood from his mouth, "I'm going to look great in this mess", he said ruefully.
"Ah ‘tis but a scratch. By the morning it will all be gone. If we had wanted to hurt you we would have", said the now friendly Irishman. "So, about this team you mentioned. How many were there ?"
"Nine men, and whoever it was sent them, but I am pretty sure I know who that was now."
The Irishman looked at Nathan with new respect, "nine men you say! And you have two in the bag already. You're a very lucky man !"
Before he could stop himself Nathan said, "I have five of them, there were three Americans".
"Five ! Jaysus Croist! Who d'you think you are, fecking Rambo ? Five you say. Mother of god! You must have had some luck there because if you went after them the way you came in here tonight you wouldn't have got past the first one. The devil's own luck, no mistake!"
"I guess they had no idea I was coming for them."
"No, I suppose not. So tell me ‘cos in my line of business I am interested in what you might say, a professional capacity. How did you learn to make the bomb you set in Brixton ? That was quite a bang by all accounts."
"It was no bomb as such. I used the gas cylinders and set a trigger to fire up when the door was opened."
"Very neat of you, I must say. Do you think you will have the same luck with the others, because it strikes me, you have used up a lot of your luck, Mister Nathan King ?"
"Maybe. I don't really care so long as I get them all", he said and the look in his eyes was frightening even to the man Nathan was talking too, a man who had himself killed many more times than nine.
"Your papers will not let you down. Tomorrow at 10. Right ?"
"One thing, how long will it take ?"
"Come back here in one week from tomorrow. They'll be ready."
"Okay", said Nathan and the door was opened allowing him to walk back into the bar and out onto the street - the street upon which he had no idea where he was.
Subconsciously, Nathan engaged his photographic memory, looked at the pub once more, and then began walking towards the distant sound of traffic. Every time he reached the end of a street and had to make a turning it seemed as though the city sounds were just another street away, but they continued to elude him, like a mirage in the dessert. He was glad that he had had the sense to leave his bag (containing his Rolex, and his money belt), in a locked locker at the left luggage section of a large Bus Terminus that he had passed. After an hour walking he had still not reached a Main Road, let alone a bus station, and then he turned yet another anonymous concrete corner and there in front of him was the wide and busy expanse of London's Marylebone Road. To his surprise he found that Kings Cross Railway station was about two hundred yards away. He had followed a river for a while and it was the lane from that river that ran up the side of the big mainline railway station, so at least he knew where to go the next day. All he had to do now was to find that Bus Terminus again, and then find his way back to the hotel he was staying in. It was strange to think that this was the last day he could be Nathan King, stranger still because he knew that in reality, he never was. Who was he ? Who were his French parents ? Soon he hoped to find out.
The next day Nathan hailed a cab which took him back to King's Cross. On the way there he asked the driver if he knew of an Irish pub, somewhere around here called ‘The Gael'. The driver said he most certainly did and so did any of the other cabbies on the rank, so at least Nathan knew that even if his memory let him down (something which had never happened), he would have no trouble finding the pub again. Nathan had already recovered his bag and his money belt, but had put the fifteen thousand he needed in a large packet, ready to leave at the station. As he crossed the concourse he scanned for the photo booth, and quickly found it. It was a quarter to ten so he was a little early and he remembered that the Irishman had been very specific about time. Nathan intended to hang around the area where another passenger killing time would be lost in the milling crowds. Approaching the booth Nathan was puzzled to see that a young man and a woman were inside, and seemed to be posing for a number of photographs. He could see no other booth and yet there was supposed to be an ‘out of order' sign in the machine. What should he do ? The seconds ticked by on the huge station clock that hung overhead, suspended from the roof. At five minutes to ten the laughing teenage couple tumbled out of the booth to collect their photo strip from the slot at the front of the booth. No sooner had they done this, than a man in a railway uniform walked over to the booth and hung on it the sign that Nathan was expecting.
At the exact time instructed, Nathan slipped inside the booth and put some coins into the slot. The machine took four photographs, and then Nathan sat and waited until ten minutes later, when he left the booth, leaving a small package on the seat. He wanted desperately to look back and see who it was that went to collect it, but he avoided the temptation and kept on walking, out of the station. If all went to plan, in another week's time he would have three new identities, and be closer than ever to finding out who he really was. Nathan had seen just about all he ever wanted to see of London by now. He was lucky in that the weather entered a freakish warm spell with clear blue skies and a bright sun, so he wandered through the parks of the vast City, even finding his way up to Hampstead Heath - a large park and heath in one of the most affluent North London areas. For some of the time he visited libraries, carrying out more research to follow on from the facts he had already uncovered, and then thought it a good idea to see if there was anything on record about the man he intended to call upon very soon now, Pascal Rousseau. Following up numerous cross-references, Nathan was surprised to unearth quite a lot of information about Rousseau, including some very good, but dated, photographs.
The reason there was any information at all about Pascal Rousseau was more to do with that most famous of French exports, wine, that it was to do with any great works or literature of art by the man. There are many who would argue that Wine itself is an art, of course. Rousseau was born in the small town of Bergerac in the heart of France's wine country. He was the only son of his heroic father who had led the resistance during the second world war and lived to tell of it, and his mother, the daughter of a local farmer. After the war they had started a very modest vineyard which produced very few bottles of Bordeaux wine, and even fewer that were drinkable. Somehow, they kept the wolf from the door, and struggled from one crisis to the next. When Pascal came along things were even tougher for a while, but as their son grew, he grew into a fit and strong young men, a great help to the vineyard that had at last produced one or two good years of very respectable wines. When Pascal was thirteen years old, his mother was run down by a hit and run driver and killed. Eventually the driver was traced to a British family who were hunting around the region for a suitable holiday home to buy. By some clever legal work and the use of one of France's top lawyers, the Englishman walked free from the courts of France. Enraged at the injustice, young Pascal took his father's shotgun, went to the farmhouse that the Englishman was in the process of renovating, and blew his brains out. Pascal was sentenced to twenty years, reduced to fifteen under the French ‘crime of passion' plea. He begun his sentence in a youth prison, but when reached his eighteenth birthday, he was transferred to a notorious adult prison in Marseille.
While Pascal completed his sentence after twelve years with remission, his father died of a heart attack although many said he never recovered from the loss of Juliette, his wife, and Pascal was not even allowed to attend the funeral. By this time the vineyard was all but abandoned, overgrown with weeds and the house a ruin, but it remained as Pascal's inheritance. When he was released from prison, tough and hardened beyond his twenty five years of age, he joined the French Foreign Legion, who are based in Marseille, not far from the prison walls. He fought with The Legion for ten years, rising to the rank of sergeant-major, an iron hard man whose will bent for nobody. He was an expert marksman with most weapons and a skilled unarmed combat opponent. Pascal was especially useful with a knife, any sort of knife, and was well trained with explosives and demolition. A bad HALO parachute drop damaged one leg badly enough that he found himself with a permanent limp and a desk job, and this was the reason he left the Legion and returned to Bergerac to lay claim to his inheritance.
Over his years with the Legion Pascal had spent very little and left with a sizeable sum with which to embark on the restoration of the vineyard. His leg was an annoyance more than a hindrance and certainly did not stop him climbing the ladders he needed to rebuild the roof and then repair the rest of the structure of the farmhouse. From time to time his leg did cause him pain, but an ampoule of morphine soon dulled it and allowed him to carry on. Single handedly he rebuilt the house, cleared away all the weeds and most of the ruined vines, cultivated the earth and planted fresh vines. For the first two years he produced a small crop and from that, no more than a hundred cases of a very acceptable Bordeaux. Most of his money was gone and he was barely scraping a living, but the crop was improving and he knew that if he could just hold on for one more good year, things would get much better. His third crop resulted in a wine that achieved some minor acclaim and Pascal thought that all his hard work was at last paying off. It might have done had not a particularly nasty insect known as the ‘Grape phylloxera', found his vineyard and wiped out every single vine. The pest had been in the soil from the day he started, but even the few yellowed vines each year had not alerted Pascal to its presence. He had no choice but to burn all of his vines and at great cost ensure that the pest was eradicated from the blackened soil. Facing ruin, a chance conversation with an old Legion comrade in a bar one night led him to a job for which he would earn fifty thousand dollars for one night's work. Knowing that he could take care of his leg with a few more doses of morphine, he jumped at the chance.
It turned out to be the easiest fifty thousand he had ever earned in his life. A private jet flew him and the rest of the team to Hawaii. They spent a week there supposedly in preparation for the mission but mainly enjoying the sun, the women and the bars, and then a luxury yacht took them deep into the Pacific. They transferred into two Rigid Assault Crafts and under cover of the night, made their way to their final destination. One of their number had not boarded the yacht, he was the man who would free-fall onto the island and take out the radar station so that the RACs could close in. Pascal would have loved to make the jump but his leg was to risky for that and so one of the Englishmen, ex-paratrooper Mason Wells, got that dubious honour.
The actual mission went exactly to plan. The two teams killed the few men that acted as guards on the island, and then converged upon the still sleeping house. Because of his old leg injury, which decided to play up at the most critical of moments, Pascal lagged behind the others as they murdered everybody they found. It was all over on a few brief horrific minutes and Pascal never even fired a shot. All the weapons were dumped out at sea on the way back to Hawaii after the yacht picked them up again, and the RACs were sunk. None of the team would ever know that in the act itself, Pascal had played no part, but he picked up his pay like everybody else and returned to France, to rescue his vineyard.
With new vines and well cultivated soil the vineyard soon recovered. Pascal hired two men at first to tend the vines, careful not to miss any tell-tale signs of blight or disease again. The grapes were wonderful and his wine magnificent and he was soon winning awards all over France. Word of his vintage spread like a fire throughout the wine industry, faster than the blight that nearly destroyed him and he was soon employing ten men in the expanding vineyards, and as many in the winery. He opened up his operation to tourists, conducting tours and selling even more, and Pascal Rousseau became a respected and moderately wealth man, in just three years from when he faced certain disaster. It was a remarkable achievement, one built of the deaths of those people that Nathan King had loved, but Pascal would not enjoy the delicious juice laden fruits of his vines very long.
A week after his first visit, Nathan arrived by taxi, back at ‘The Gael', the Irish pub in north London, somewhere in the vicinity of King's Cross Railway station. From the outside it sounded exactly the same as it had the last time, the voices and the music that seemed to erupt at times and then settle back down to a background buzz. Upon entering the pub it was as before, nobody turned to look or to take any notice and for the second time he made his way through a deep crowd, to the bar. It seemed to him that the same game of cribbage was being played at the table by the curtain. This time the landlord flicked his eyes to the left and with the slightest of nods, gestured for Nathan to enter the room behind the cribbage table. There were no words spoken, no smile of welcoming as Nathan edged his way along the bar, those nearest fell back without a sound to allow him to pass. When he stepped behind the heavy curtain, the door was already open and he walked back into the small room.
"Ah, tis good t'see yizz back", said the man who was sitting at a small table, the top of which was covered in a green baize. Nathan recognised him as the man who had questioned him before and who had given him the instructions that he had followed. There were two other men in the room. Both were big men with strong looking arms, slim waists and muscular chests. One stood by the door which he had now closed and the other in a corner of the room, from which he quietly observed.
"Do you have them ?", asked Nathan.
"Take your good self a seat.", the man smiled up at Nathan who pulled out the other chair and sat opposite the seated man. He then lay a numbers of items on the table. Nathan could see that three of the items were passports.
"Three passports. You are Shelby McCrae from Illinois USA , Jan Van Day from Middelburg South Africa, and Rodger Thompson from Berkshire England. Your date of birth is the same as on your real passport and is the same in all three."
Nathan flicked through each one with interest. All had a number of stamps inside suggesting somebody who travelled frequently and whose passport was checked many times. He noticed with surprise that in each of the three his appearance was subtly different, that the photos he had supplied had been expertly changed. The only reason he could tell was because he knew that all three should look the same. Then he noticed that the major details of hair and eye colour were also different in each case.
"You will see that there are a few things you need to change for each one", the Irishman continued "but everything you need is here for that, hair dye, contact lenses. Also, your occupation is Import/Export trader in all. A very general description that you may embellish as you see fit."
Nathan was very impressed, "they look pretty good to me. Are these papers my driving licences?" , he asked picking up the other documents.
"That they are. We gave you a small speeding ticket for the UK one - that makes you the same as everybody else. Unless you can do a perfect English accent I should stick the story of being a naturalised Brit if I were you."
"It feels strange".
"Me, I'm not Nathan King anymore."
"No, you are not and don't you ever go forgetting it now! So, who are you today ?!
Nathan looked at all the documents and decided that for now, he would still be an American because Shelby McCrae still had his hair and eye colour. The other two he would get used too later. "I guess you had better call me Shelby", he said with a smile.
"Right you are, Shelby, and good luck. Before you go though, I have a proposition for you ?"
Nathan was curious at that, "oh ? What kind of proposition ?"
"Well, you are...how can I put this...an unknown, as it were. There are people who would pay a very great deal of money to hire your...err...special talents...if you get my meaning...you being without a trace and all. If you ever find yourself in need of, shall we say, some extra financing, why then just call this number", he said passing a card over to Nathan. It was a plain white card with a single telephone number written on it by hand. Nathan looked at the card and the very idea shocked him for a moment. Was this what he had become ? Was he now no more than a contract killer ? Was he really any better than those who had killed on the Island a lifetime ago ? He really did not know, but at that time he still had more than enough money for the future. He pocketed the innocent looking card without a word, got up from the table, and left the pub.
The next day Nathan was sitting in the First Class section of an Air France flight to Paris. As the aircraft clawed its way up above the low cloud and into bright sunshine, the pretty stewardess offered Nathan a hot face towel which he appreciated. His flight would be about forty minutes, hardly time to think about anything really. He had swapped his soft carry bag for a small expensive suitcase, inside of which he had placed his money belt because it spoiled the line of his now well tailored jacket, keeping five thousand dollars in his pockets, and his Rolex on his wrist. He had intended to carry his small case onto the aircraft, but the stewardess at the gate had been very apologetic and explained in English with a cute and heavy French accent, that even the first class passengers had rules, so she took his bag and it was placed into the hold. He was promised it would be returned to him, the moment they landed. By virtue of the First Class lounge, the questions he was asked, and the sudden switch to the hold, the case had been spared the X-ray interrogation which might have revealed its contents to an alert operator. The flight was without event and they landed five minutes ahead of schedule at Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris. Nathan was the first to leave the aircraft.
The baggage carousel was already in motion when Nathan reached it, expecting to see his suitcase fall down the baggage chute at any time. A few bags tumbled out and the waiting business class passengers grabbed their own had headed off towards the customs area. More bags bounced down the chute, and after a few more minutes, Nathan began to recognise one or two as they passed by for a second or third time. A cardboard carton marked ‘Fragile - This way up', bounced onto the conveyor belt, rolled over, and fell off it to the floor. After a while a man wearing a bright yellow jacket picked it up and tossed it back onto the moving belt, its warning sticker now upside down. When the carton hit the belt it made a worrying rattle. More people recovered their bags and left, but still Nathan had not seen his own. The same man in the yellow coat began to take bags from the conveyor and stack them at one side, as unclaimed so far. The cardboard carton was among them only now it leaked some nasty smelling fluid that dripped over the other suitcases. On the overhead monitor, Nathan saw the flight number change and realised that no more bags were coming from the aircraft that he had arrived in. Where was his case ?
His French was very good, but his accent was stubbornly American and he made no effort to hide it. At the Air France desk Nathan said, "I have just arrived from London. My suitcase did not appear on the carousel. Can you help me please ?" He was more than a little bit worried. Inside was almost three quarters of a million dollars.
"Your French is very good Sir, do you have a baggage reclaim ticket ?"
"Thank you. Well no. I was in the First Class cabin you see, and the stewardess put my bag in the hold."
"Ah, I see. I am sorry but you will have to fill in this form. When we find your bag it will be returned to you. I am very sorry for the trouble but I am sure it will only be an hour or two to find it. We will send it to your hotel Messeuier...?", she said passing a document to Nathan.
McCrae, Shelby McCrae", he replied.
"Do not worry Messeuier McCrae. I am sorry this has happened but we will soon find it."
"The moment you do, it is very, very important" said Nathan trying to hide his worry that almost all of his money was gone. "I'll call you from my hotel", he told her and then left the desk, looking for a car hire agent.