Well, the April A-Z challenge for 2012 has finished and with it the end of this story!
'Approaching Zero' was a WW2 thriller, broken into 100-word daily bites, beginning and ending with consecutive letters of the alphabet.
By popular demand (well, a few commenters enquired, anyway!) I'm now presenting the whole story as a standalone piece with the daily break-off points defined by bold type.
As for where this story goes from here....well, let's just say I've been doing some background research to check some of the historical 'facts' with a view to setting this little episode as part of a much larger 'whole'!
Anyway, without further ado, here you go - enjoy! (and as always, I'd love you to leave any comments, whatever you make of it! Thanks!)
A simple flick of her wristwatch told her he was late. Time confirmed itself as she patiently waited under the clock. The station was busy with commuters, day travellers and life in all its variety passing her by. Still she waited, plotting all manner of retribution for his tardiness, growing more vivid and sinister with each passing minute. Slowly, anger morphed into anxiety, imagining accidents belying his delay.
Just as she turned away resigned to the time she’d already wasted, he walked hurriedly towards her and instantly she knew something was not quite right. His eyes stared at her but she could see from his gait that he walked with a limp. Even through the crowds that swirled between them, passing in a blur, her eyes locked on his. Silent questions demanded answers as he closed the distance between them, dodging awkwardly around luggage dragged along behind weary and confused travellers. Her lips opened, forming words that would see her curiosity satisfied but his stern look silenced her.
“Not here!” he hissed, his eyes flicking across the myriad faces as he grasped her arm, propelling her through the crowd in front of them. Fear rose in her throat, choking the very breath out of her as they slipped through the crowded plaza. From behind, urging her along, she felt the weight of him dragging on her arm. She glanced back, noting the sweat across his face and the determined set of his jaw. Looking down she noticed a dark shadow that started at the hem of his jacket, it traced a little way down the front crease of his trousers. He caught her glance, silencing her unspoken questioning with the narrowing of his eyes and a slight shake of his head.
Speed became her adversary as she danced her way past advertising hoardings and street vendors, looking for a safe exit. Presently the crush eased and she reached back blindly, grasping his hand and taking the lead as they made their way towards the gate. Once in the daylight they stumbled along the crowded pavements until he dodged left into a side street, pulling her after him. In the dim sanctuary he rested back against the wall, breathing hard from his exertion.
“A simple apology will do, “she commented jokingly, fear and adrenaline augmenting the panic that was already evident in her thumping heart.
“I’m sorry, Evie, but I guess that won’t cut it as an apology, right?” He smiled through his stertorous breathing, giving in to a cough that made him wince in agony.
She glanced down and saw the reddening shadow had grown, accompanied by droplets of vermilion on his shoes. As she peeled back his jacket the gasp that conveyed her fear was evident.
“Jack! What the hell have you done? How….”
He pushed her hand away, trying to straighten his stance against the wall but his legs refused to accommodate his wishes and he sagged down to his haunches.
“We’ve been fooled.”
“What d’you mean, ‘fooled’? Jack , what went wrong? What happened?” She squatted down and peered into his face, then realised her questions were useless as his chin rocked forwards onto his chest. Scrabbling in her bag she found a handkerchief and tried to staunch the bleeding that spread across the whiteness of his shirt.
The bullet had done untold damage, more than could be remedied in the dark alleyway. He needed a doctor but she was in no position to get him to a hospital. Even if she could get him there, how would she explain a gunshot? Weighing up the options she realised she didn’t have any. The plan had changed and now she knew there would have to be a different outcome. Whatever had happened they were staring at a deadly conclusion.
“Jack, we have to move. We can’t stay here. Can you hear me, Jack?” Her anxious words were answered with laboured breathing as he rolled forward and tried to stand. She struggled to get him to his feet half dragging, half carrying, him along the alleyway trying to keep her thoughts ordered. Staying in the shadows until the evening seemed their only hope; beyond that, Evie could scarcely think. At the end of the alley they came to a halt and Jack lifted his gaze momentarily, muttering to her to turn right; a small dark passageway suggested shelter.
Easing him to the floor, Evie rested back on her haunches. She was tired, physically and mentally and glad of the brief respite, but curious how Jack seemed to know exactly where they were. How much of the plan had been concealed from her? Jack’s words whispered across the still air, with their accompanying rhythm of gasping breaths.
“You didn’t expect this, I imagine?”
Back in London, when she’d volunteered her services, she had only been privy to certain elements of the plan, ‘...to prevent you from giving away information, in case you’re captured...'. Her instructor’s words echoed in her head; she had been too caught up in the excitement to give much thought to that possible outcome. The ‘romance’ of SOE had lulled her into a state of over-reaching commitment to the war effort, at whatever cost.
There was an all-knowing air about this man, this stranger, she’d known only a few days. Evie eyed him suspiciously.
“Who are you, Jack?”
He smiled, wearily raising an unsteady finger and tapped the side of his nose.
“Shh…walls have ears, even here in Panama City!” His voice trailed off into a muffled cough and in the gloom she could hear the bubbling, guttural sound of his life ebbing away. She shuffled forward, examining her earlier futile efforts to stem the flow of blood.
“This is no good, Jack! No good!” She peeled off her jacket and proceeded to undo her blouse.
“Getting fresh with me, Evie?” he whispered, watching her pull her arms from the sleeves. She turned away, suddenly self-conscious, kneeling with her back to him.
“A gentleman would turn his gaze,” she said, lightly, as she struggled out of her blouse. The absurd propriety of the situation made her smile.
He didn’t answer but the rasping breaths from behind snatched the smile from her lips. She pulled her jacket back on and bundled up the discarded garment and turned back to face him. His eyes were dull and lifeless in response.
“Jack? Look at me?” Grasping his jaw she turned his face sharply towards her. “Don’t you dare die on me!” She slapped his face, stirring him into life. He coughed; it was still not a pleasant sound but far better, she thought, than an ominous silence. She peeled back his blood-soaked shirt and fished out the sodden handkerchief. Her instinct was to toss it away but she remembered her training and the necessity to leave no clues. She laid it aside and eased the balled up blouse into its place. Jack wheezed his thanks and relaxed, his gaze settling on her open jacket.
“Better do that up,” he hissed. “Don’t want you taken for a loose woman!” That would be the least of her worries, he mused. The mission was clouded in secrecy, but it involved the Royal family, which made ‘Operation Regal’ more than a play on words and that the stakes were of national importance. He knew well enough that protocols would have to be breached to get this pretty little thing to some place of safety.
As for himself, he was a dead man; had been since he’d discovered Simpson’s true identity and found himself on the wrong end of a bad deal. Perhaps the rumour was right after all; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were not merely puppets of the Nazi’s, they were fully siding with Hitler in the hope of regaining a kingdom they’d turned their backs on.
He looked up at Evie, struggling to see her face in the gathering dimness as he tried to reach into his inside jacket pocket. The exertion made him cry out in agony and he slumped back against the wall.
“Pocket,” he winced through clenched teeth, making vain patting movements to direct her. She slipped her elegant fingers inside the folds of his jacket and pulled out a leather wallet.
“Inside,” he continued. “It’s the crown jewels.” Slowly she flipped it open. Amongst the folded banknotes there were travel documents in Spanish, a British Subject passport and a couple of photos. She saw herself in one, posing like a tourist standing by the gates to an enclosed villa, in a nearby town.
“Is this the place, then?” she asked. It wasn’t a great photo of her but then, she wasn’t the real subject.
“Background,” Jack rasped back, his breath growing more shallow than before, and pointed to the left of the photo. A quick glance would have seen her as the object of the portrait but there were two people standing behind her.
“They look so – ordinary,” she commented. “Do you think they know we were watching?” Their inconspicuous clothing failed to conceal the familiarity of his stance and the trademark coquettish tilt of her head. Jack’s silence made Evie look up, his face was still and his eyes half open. In panic she shook him.
“Jack? Can you hear me, Jack?”
He blinked slowly and tried to swallow. “Evie, you must get the photos back to London. Proof….” His voice trailed off into an ominous gurgling sound as if he was drowning. “It’s the answer to the question!” With a soft, long sigh his jaw relaxed and blood coursed from the corner of his mouth, a crimson snake following the contours of his chin.
“Jack!” Evie screamed, horror masking her need to remain concealed. She grasped the lapels of his jacket in her clenched fists and shook his inanimate body as if to elicit a response.
Eventually she sank back despairingly onto her haunches. She’d met him three days earlier and trusted him with her life, yet she knew nothing more than her briefing from London. Now he was dead; she was alone and on the run.
Evie’s mind swirled with momentary indecision. Their mission so far had been to locate these people but now things had taken a sinister twist. Jack’s death had taken her by surprise but more unnerving was the fact that her final training now began to make more sense.
She picked up his wallet and flicked through the contents, withdrawing the travel documents. Her cover was that she was Jack’s wife, travelling to meet him in Panama and journeying onwards to Caracas. Now that was all changed. She needed to stay and see things though. It was a plan, of sorts, but she’d be pretty much making it up as she went along.
Taking stock of practicalities she searched Jack’s pockets, removing anything that might identify him. The concealed pistol she found in his jacket was quickly relocated to her bag. She stood up, brushing the dirt from her suit and buttoned the jacket. Without a blouse, she was glad of the warm Panamanian evening. The open-necked design would not look so out of place; it gave a sensual, bohemian edge to her character which might come in useful if she came up against bureaucratic officials. A lone woman, travelling in a foreign country was inviting trouble but she had little choice.
Looking down at the man’s body Evie wondered again exactly who he was; stripped of his false identity papers he was even more anonymous. Jack, or whatever his name was, had died knowing elements of their secret operation that were denied her; likewise he’d been precluded from certain facts she held. Briefly, she pondered over the family who would never see him again; the lover whose arms would remain empty, oblivious of his final, squalid resting place. Was that her fate, too? To die alone and unknown? She gave a last glance backwards then turned away, retracing her steps carefully through the gathering gloom until she reached the main thoroughfare.
Taking a deep breath, Evie stepped out into the evening crowds; like any cosmopolitan city, this place never slept. Unlike war-torn Europe, however, there was a piquant sense of freedom here. The notion of simply disappearing into the shadows was enticing; to be presumed missing in action, a footnote in secret government papers that would never see the light of day. But the job wasn’t done yet and it was a train ride to the villa. She turned in at the station and searched the timetables. There was barely time to purchase a ticket from the booth but soon she was making her way anxiously through the inbound crowds, down the steps to the platform.
The heavy weight in her bag was her back-up plan; the pistol she’d taken from Jack’s body rattled against the snub-nosed firearm she’d been issued in London. Being a crack shot, if she had to use one she’d already decided his Ballestar-Molina was a sturdier option. Like a few other details, Jack had been ignorant of her skill with weapons; there was a reason for subterfuge and not all on a ‘need to know’ basis.
She stepped neatly onto the train, weaving her way along the narrow corridor until she found an unoccupied compartment and seated herself as a shrill whistle announced the departure. Once underway, she fumbled in her bag and withdrew Jack’s passport and her own. Realising she was at the point of no return, she tossed them out the window.
Then, reaching into her stocking-top, she retrieved a similar document. The forged exit papers were good but, she wondered, did she really look like a ‘Xaviera Santos'? She tossed that, too, from the window. The game had now changed and with it, her escape route.
Jack had been a casualty of war, a pawn sent to track down an errant Duke and Duchess. Having slipped the leash from their bodyguards in the Bahamas he’d discovered them here in Panama. But London wasn’t merely ‘babysitting’ the Windsor’s, as Jack had thought; they were feeding them false information, hoping it would get back to Berlin.
Evie looked at her watch again and saw it was past midnight. So much had changed when Jack had met Simpson yesterday. It was a flimsy alias David Windsor had employed to lure Jack in. Maybe HRH was more astute than he’d appeared; the once-reckless monarch who’d relinquished a kingdom, now prepared to protect himself by deadly means. If the Duke had realised he was being played for a fool he had to be stopped before he could communicate that to his friends in Berlin.
Evie tightened her fingers around Jack’s gun, concealed in her bag, prepared to do her duty and mused that she would indeed have to fulfil her final instructions as time ran out, her options approaching zero. Disaster loomed if the Duke of Windsor warned Hitler and his cohorts they’d been misled by London.
The suburban train pulled into the station near the Windsor’s villa. Mary Reynolds closed her eyes, thinking about home and a life she would never know again. Sorry Jack, she sighed; even ‘Evie’ was a lie. As she stepped down from the train she knew her one-way mission was at an end. She was the fail-safe, the backstop; expendable.
A story that could never fully be revealed was at its deadly denouement and none would ever know she was a Royal assassin.