BANG AND BURN
A TOM STILES SPY THRILLER
Lightning speared through the worn blinds of the Motel Voyager. Tom Stiles fastened his Jaeger-LeCoultre around his wrist, his face pulsing between light and dark. Rain plunged down outside.
“Natasha, summer’s over,” Tom said, without turning from the storm outside.
“I’m glad; I hate the heat.”
Tom looked over the grey-brown carpet and followed the trail of hat, dress, bra and stockings to the bed. She lay beneath the sheets with her arm stroking the pillow which still retained the impression of his head.
“It means I have to go now.”
Natasha turned to the bedside table, unclipped a cigarette from her diamond-studded cigarette case and lit it. “So I was just your seasonal lover, is that it?”
“You are more than that, Tash, but we knew this day was coming.”
“Save me the, ‘it’s not you, I still love my wife’ speech!”
“I have to return to my daughters.”
“Don’t give me that, Tom. Don’t tell me you have to leave; you’re volunteering to leave. You could take me with you … At least stay one more night. Come back to bed.”
Tom did not turn around but he could see her reflection in the mirror. She had pushed aside the sheet covering her body. He closed his eyes.
He knew that one more glimpse of her thigh, or her silhouette against the crumpled pink sheets would weaken his resolve. Taking a sip from his hip flask, he picked up his heavy firefighting boots and walked out the door. He heard a glass shatter on the door behind him.
Tom ran through the dark car park, hunched against the storm. His black BMW was parked next to Natasha’s dark green convertible with the number plate MG 1979. He turned the key in the ignition and the radio started up; the 3:00 am news was just beginning.
Tom thought he should sit through the rain. He turned on his mobile. Fifteen missed calls, all from Victoria. Well, what did he expect? He had been due home hours ago. Garth Brooks began singing
and Tom pulled out onto the Great Western Highway.
The city’s silhouette throbbed in the distance but the road ahead was devoid of taillights. Now and again a truck passed in the opposite direction. He came to a complete stop at the intersection in front of a red light, and glanced at the clock—three forty-five. He exhaled for what seemed like the first time that summer.
, he thought. Another summer of fighting fires was over, another few houses saved, some scares but no death, no scars and no harm done … excluding the harm he had done to Natasha. He thought of her lying naked beneath him again and let the thought go. Home soon.
He exhaled again, and asked himself if he really did still love Victoria. He had imagined taking Natasha home with him but that was not possible. Yes, he had contemplated it but knew it would destroy Victoria. And it was far too soon after the death of their mother to turn his daughters’ lives upside down again. The girls were still grieving, as he was, and they had become accustomed to Victoria being around.
He had lost his parents when he was a child and that pain defined him.
There had been other women after his wife Helen’s death, women he had found every summer when he volunteered. He would search them for any resemblance to Helen and judge them against what was now becoming a faded, idealised image of her. But Natasha, he was falling in love with Natasha for the way she smoked a cigarette, the slight Russian accent that became more prominent when she swore and her indefatigable body.
He struggled then, as he always had, to make some connection between all these things. The death of his wife, the death of his parents and his brother … they were like withered bouquets left by the side of the road. The long tuneless white noise of death had followed him his entire life. He felt no sense of resolution; he often puzzled over an indistinct question that woke him, noiseless, always around midnight. But beside Natasha he slept at ease.
A sheet of what looked like lightning illuminated the entire crossroads and shocked Tom into pressing the brakes even harder as he waited for the lights to turn green. Tyres screeched behind him. Suddenly, his body jolted forward and the air bag exploded in his face. Pain seared through him. And then there was no horizon lights, no road, no car, nothing except pain from his spine to his fingertips and a sense of helpless, unbidden flying, as if he had entered a recurring dream. Then the car seemed to gather him back in. A wheel rolled past the driver side window.
In meeting room 811b of the Australian National Security Agency,
Divisional Chief of Black Ops
Paul Henderson and Commander Alexandria Tap were staring at a laptop. Rioting men wearing balaclavas and holding Molotov cocktails streamed across the screen. The men shouted and held up placards reading ‘Free Carraldo’.
“Four Cuban judges were killed last month,” Paul said.
“What are they protesting against?”
“Chief, please drag to 2.12, pause, lift and magnify. Then zoom to under the burnt flag.”
In the dark corner of the screen a man’s face appeared, clean-shaven with one blue eye and one green eye. The man was old and walked with a walking stick and he wore a poncho over what looked to be a white shirt.
“His name is Cerberus, Chief. The dog that guarded the gates of hell. But the funny thing is we believe it is his real name?”
Paul stood, brushed down the lapels of his wool suit
and walked the length of the room. He paused and turned back.
Commander Tap raised one long black eyebrow in anticipation. She had known him long enough to anticipate that his small stroll around the room would precede an announcement.
“Commander Tap. I think it is time to go for a more field-based solution, starting tomorrow. This guy comes out of the shadows and then disappears into the shadows again. We need someone on the ground.”
“We’ll need more Black Ops whizzes for the scheduled bang and burn jobs. So do we have the budget for that, Paul?”
“Leave that to me. There’s a partnership cooking with the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Seems they got intel that Cerberus is heading to Australia and they want him as badly as we do. If judges start appearing dead in this country …”
“Jesus, seriously, is there anything you can tell me right now?”
“I promise to tell you when I have all the details. All I know is the gods may have delivered us an option.”
“Care to share?”
“The man we want is ex-Duntroon and did a stint in Afghanistan with our Special Operation Task Group. SOTG were tasked to provide security during a training validation exercise for the Provincial Response Company of Uruzgan (that’s the PRC-U) in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan. SOTG have worked with PRC-U special police officers since 2001 and turned over operations in Uruzgan province in 2005.”
“Did you know him from Duntroon?”
“I recall he came through the year I got this assignment. Bit of a public face now and he puts out fires, literally. Prior to that, he went to the States and worked for a subunit of the US Marines after six months at West Point to complete his Special Ops combat mustering. Actually, he did two trips through Afghanistan when the shit was at its heaviest. Then, when they were about to promote him, he asked to be transferred home. Said he wanted to start a business!”
Tom felt disembodied, fluid. The sides of the road had become blurred and he faded in and out of consciousness. He turned and looked into the back seat and saw the faces of his dead wife, his dead parents and his dead brother. They looked at him with pity. Helen whispered, “Can you hear me?”
A red light was approaching at speed, coming directly at him, sirens blaring. He lapsed out of consciousness and in his mind he saw a leopard keeping pace with the car as he drove. He accelerated but the leopard stayed alongside, moving at an easy lope. He thought of his daughters, Sophia and Angela, just as his eyes were closing.
“Can you hear me?”
Tom woke wearing an oxygen mask, with two tall figures beside him and the alarm in his car beeping incessantly.
He was stretchered to an ambulance. Pain pulsed through his body and he could taste blood. He tested the movement in his extremities, and cautiously turned his neck left and right.
All in need of repair
, he thought,
but no parts missing
. He heard the paramedic say “rear-ended”. He raised his hands—they were streaked with blood and the face of his watch was smashed. His wrist was bandaged and his shirt had been cut off revealing the thin black armband around his left bicep.
As his breathing began to steady, two police vehicles pulled up. One of the paramedics informed the officers that the driver of the second vehicle had died, probably on impact, and that when the fire brigade had finished cleaning up around the vehicle they could remove the body and begin their investigations.
Tom tried to sit up. He overheard a police officer calling in the details of the accident. “Driver of first vehicle, male Caucasian, alive, condition steady, internal injuries. Driver of second vehicle, female Caucasian, deceased.”
“I’m Senior Constable Peter Collins. Are you alright, sir?’ asked a police officer, as he took out his notebook.
“Yes … yes … I think I’m fine, officer,” Tom replied.
“Can I see your licence, please?”
Tom slowly removed his wallet and handed it over.
“Okay, now can you tell me what happened?”
“I was just driving home, and next thing I knew I was on a gurney.”
“So, what are you doing out here after four on a Wednesday morning?”
“I’m an SES volunteer just coming back from my last job, back burning, up around the Faulconbridge area.”
The officer wrote the word
in his notebook and leaned closer towards Tom to hear him better but also trying to shelter himself from the wind and rain.
“I was a volunteer, 2001 bushfires. Say you know, the heat the last few weeks … thank God for this storm. Do you feel okay, Tom?”
Tom sat up a little and saw the green MG with its front demolished.
Natasha. Tow trucks and police cars surrounded the car. An ambulance drove off. Flashing blue, red, white and orange lights lit up the area, pulsing in the rain. There was blood and glass on the bitumen. Steam rose from the side of the road. Then, from nowhere, a police helicopter lit up the entire area. Tom was blinded. He felt a needle go into his arm and everything went black.
Tom arrived home after being stitched up and kept under observation for two hours. He had no broken bones and the lacerations were not deep. The doctor told him he was lucky to be alive and was surprised he was not in shock.
Tom put it down to being ex-army. After all, he had come through bloodbaths in Afghanistan hotspots. He had seen a man cut in half by a rocket launcher, and another who had stepped on a landmine and all they could bury of him was his head. But Tom was in shock. His lover was dead. He tried to fathom it—a few hours ago she was lying in his arms and now Natasha was dead.
It was daylight when he approached the front door and noticed all the lights both inside and outside the house were on. Tom stood on the jute doormat and wiped blood from his shoes over the word
. He opened the door, entered and clicked his fingers. The lights switched off and he found his twin daughters sitting at the top of the stairs basking in the morning sun. His partner, Victoria, hovered above them, looking as fierce as the huntress Diana.
“Fifteen calls, Tom. Why don’t you answer your damn phone? I’ve been going out of my mind here. Oh, my God, what happened to you?”
“Calm down, Vic. You’re frightening the girls.”
“Oh my God,” she repeated. “Your face is busted up … what … what happened?”
“I’ve been in a car accident. It’s all right, I’m fine. Someone rear-ended me. Some bruised ribs and lacerations but I’ve been sewn up and sent home. I would have called but my head has been all over the place.”
Dressed in their school uniforms, the twins look terrified. Victoria tried to kiss him but he moved his face away. She ran to the kitchen, grabbed ice from the freezer, wrapped it up in a tea towel and placed it gently on his bruised face.
After getting him comfortable on the lounge with the ice and a beaker full of Glenmorangie, Vic got Angela and Sophia to kiss him and then quickly walked them to Tom’s in-laws next door for their routine drive to school.
All too soon she returned. “Now, tell me everything. What the hell happened?”
Tom sipped his scotch and started his rehearsed speech. “After I spoke to you on the phone yesterday arvo, Bill, you know Bill, my SES volunteer area commander …”
“I know who Bill is!”
“Please, Vic, be patient. I’m still a bit foggy. Well, after backburning all day, I gave you a call and then, when I started packing up to go home, Bill invited me for dinner. So I took him up on his offer. I didn’t know I was going to stay that late. It was just past two in the morning when I noticed the time and then left immediately.”
“You rang me and told me you were leaving at six, and I was expecting you home at around eight. You shouldn’t have stayed, especially after being away all these days!”
“Bill was my dad’s captain in the fire brigade. I’ve known him since I was five years old. I couldn’t say no.”
“I don’t care. You told me you were coming home, so you shouldn’t have stayed! Or at least you should have called me. I was worried. Anyhow, why can’t you stop volunteering?”
“For God’s sake Vic, can we talk about this some other time, please? I’m in pain here. You wonder why I go off for days at a time. Is there any wonder? All there is here is the memory of my dead wife and you treating our relationship like a business matter. I need a wash and another scotch, not the third degree and an argument.”
He removed the melting ice from his face, half-expecting his face to come off with it. Then he stole a look at Victoria, following her curves beneath her nightdress, and noting those eyes that were so attentive to his moods. He had betrayed her again. But this betrayal had ended in death.
Why on Earth was Natasha chasing after him? He had always considered her too cool to act the part of the vengeful ex-lover. Men fell at her feet. If she had fallen in love with him he was not sure what he had done to earn that love. He was an adulterer and although he was well paid, he was no millionaire. He was always surprised by love and resented the responsibilities of it.
Victoria’s face had gone white and her mouth was hanging open.
“I am sorry if I worry about you too much.”
“Look Vic, this car came out of nowhere and rear-ended me. It was a savage hit and I was knocked out. The other driver had no chance. I felt like I was flying for a minute there. I guess it was all this rain, the storm, though I could see the road fine …”
“What do you mean, he had no chance? Did he die?”
“Yes, she died.”
“Yes, but that’s all I know about the driver. The police will be getting in contact with me over the next few days for a further statement. The attending cop gave me his card.”
He quickly pulled the card the senior constable had given him to show her.
“Okay, that’s enough, Tom. Go on, give me the ice. I’m glad you’re home and safe. Even if you’d rather be somewhere else. The world is such a dangerous place at times. I do worry.”
She moved again to kiss him but stopped herself. Instead, she went to make him another icepack.
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