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Author Biography: Clive Egelton has extensive personal experience in the intelligence and counterespionage fields and is widely regarded as one of the finest thriller writers in the classic form. He is the author of twenty-seven novels, most recently Blood Money and Dead Reckoning. He lives on the Isle of Wight
All Adam Zawadzki wanted was to be left in peace but the woman refused to listen to him and kept squeezing his right shoulder until he finally capitulated and opened both eyes. Still half asleep he gazed blankly at the illuminated sign four rows to his front before it dawned on him that everybody else in the business class had adjusted their seats and were now sitting bolt upright. After removing the blanket from around his legs and right shoulder, Zawadzki did the same, then fastened his seat belt.
His day had started at six o'clock, when he'd left the house in Putney to drive down to Gatwick where he had caught the British Airways flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. Because BA didn't fly to Costa Rica, he had cooled his heels in Dallas for over two hours waiting for American Airlines flight AA2165 to San José. It occurred to Zawadzki that by the time the plane landed at Juan Santamaria International Airport and he went on to his final destination, people back home would be getting up to face another working day.
He had never been to Costa Rica before and there had been no time to get a travel guide out of the library. As was not unusual in his line of business, he'd received scant warning that he was off to Central America. What he had been told about Costa Rica wouldn't have filled a page in a pocket diary. The most striking thing about the country was the fact that successive governments had never found it necessary to maintain a standing army, largely because there had been no instances of civil unrest since 1949. Bananas and coffee were the two biggest earners for theeconomy, with tourism a close third. Instead of spring, summer, autumn and winter there were just two seasons, the wet and the dry, the latter normally starting in late December and lasting until April. On this night the weather was unusual for early March; after descending through the overcast, the plane's arrival at Juan Santamaria Airport was heralded with a tropical downpour.
The baggage of premier- and business-class travellers was always unloaded first but Zawadzki didn't need to wait for his at all. This was a short trip, four days at the outside, three if the Nicaraguan rep joined him in San José from Managua. Zawadzki calculated two shirts, a change of underwear, spare pairs of socks, pyjamas, a pair of cotton slacks and shaving tackle would be sufficient, and had packed the lot into his `carry on' baggage.
As soon as the plane was positioned at its designated gate, Zawadzki undid the seat belt and retrieved his bag and executive briefcase from the overhead bin. Provided they didn't spend more than ninety days in the country, UK passport holders didn't need a visa to enter Costa Rica. Consequently the Immigration official barely glanced at Zawadzki's passport before waving him on. The same applied to the Customs officer, whose only concern was to make sure he had filled in the standard declaration form correctly.
Although Zawadzki knew the embassy had made a reservation for him at the Hotel Villa Tournon, he hadn't expected to be met at the airport. It had been arranged that he would telephone the First Secretary and Head of Chancery at ho me after he had checked into the hotel but apparently there had been a last-minute change of plan. While his name, printed on a piece of cardboard which the Costa Rican was holding across his chest, was incorrectly spelled, he had reason to assume the man was waiting for him. Underneath his own name was the legend, `Luis, administrative assistant, British Embassy'.
`I believe you're looking for me,' Zawadzki said, approaching Luis.
The Costa Rican turned to face him. He was a small man, standing no more than five feet six, and slender with it. In appearance he was the epitome of Hollywood's image of the Latin American, dark, handsome, fine-boned, suave and a touch menacing, but not so threatening that women would pick up their skirts and run a mile from him.
`You are Mr Swatski?' Luis enquired politely.
`Yes. Actually it's Zawadzki but we won't make a fuss about it.'
`I don't understand what you are saying. My English ... Please, my English is not so good.'
`My fault. Sometimes I speak much too quickly.' Zawadzki smiled. `Do you know the way to the Hotel Villa Tournon?'
`The driver does, he is ready to leave now.'
The Costa Rican turned about and walked off. Momentarily taken aback by his brusque manner, Zawadzki was slow to follow Luis out of the arrivals hall. By the time he neared the automatic doors, the Costa Rican was waiting at the kerbside, one arm raised as if to hail a cab while sheltering from the rain under a small retractable umbrella. The crimson saloon which pulled up outside the entrance to the terminal had obviously rolled off a production line in Detroit not so very long ago. The car was, Zawadzki thought, a singularly inappropriate vehicle for the British Embassy. It certainly wasn't going to do anything for the export sales of Rover and Jaguar.
`A Cadillac Seville,' Luis told him. `The embassy hires it from a limousine company in town,' he added as if reading Zawadzki's mind. `Saves on maintenance and servicing.'
The chauffeur opened the boot from inside the Cadillac, the lid rearing up like a startled horse. Zawadzki dropped his travelling bag into the boot, but decided to hold on to his executive briefcase. `I'm not supposed to let this out of my sight,' he said almost apologetically.
`It's a sensible precaution; you can't be too careful in San José.'
Luis closed the rear nearside door, then, instead of joining the driver in front, he walked round the back of the Cadillac and got in beside Adam Zawadzki. A split second before they moved off there was an audible click which suggested that the automatic transmission was acting up and needed looking at. Zawadzki knew different when he noticed the release catches had been retracted, thereby locking all four doors.
`We also take precautions,' Luis said casually. `At night, the downtown area is not very nice. There are gangs of thieves on the prowl. A favourite trick is to wait at an intersection for a car like this Cadillac to be caught by the lights when they then wrench the doors open and rob the occupants at knifepoint.'
Zawadzki frowned. What Luis had just told him painted a far grimmer picture than the one formed from the briefing at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. True, he had been advised to avoid Avenida 2 and the Parque Central after dark because of pickpockets, but nothing had been said about gangs of violent criminals operating in the area. In fact he had been led to believe that Costa Rica was one of the safest countries in Latin America. The chauffeur, however, had acted as if they were in imminent danger even though Juan Santamaria Airport was a good ten miles from the centre of town. Zawadzki couldn't explain why the action taken by the driver should have made him feel nervous but it had.
`How far is the hotel from the British Embassy?' he asked, trying to sound casual.
`No more than three kilometres.'
Say a couple of miles to be on the safe side plus ten more from the airport. Unable to see the speedometer from where he was sitting, Zawadzki estimated they were doing between thirty-five and forty miles an hour and had been on the move for approximately five minutes. That meant the journey would take about half an hour, allowing for speed restrictions in San José itself.
`I reckon we should be there by nine fifty,' Zawadzki said, voicing his thoughts.
`The hotel, Luis. Where else?'
`There are roadworks on the Avenida Central. We have to go the long way round.'
The rain suddenly stopped as if somebody upstairs had turned off the tap. Way over in the distance, lightning cleaved the black night sky, heralding the approach of another storm.
As in a good many capital cities, the outskirts of San José were pretty uninspiring. There were no buildings higher than one storey in the residential area, and many of the bungalows, sitting back from the road in small isolated and haphazard groups among the trees, had roofs of corrugated iron. The side streets were badly lit and unnamed as far as Zawadzki could tell.
`I'm curious, Luis,' he said. `Just how does a stranger find his way around San José?'
`It's not difficult. The city is laid out on a grid like Manhattan in New York.'
As Luis explained it, the streets running east to west were avenidas whilst those from north to south were called calles. North of Central Avenue the avenidas were odd numbered while those to the south were even. The north-south Calle Central ran through the heart of the downtown area. Working on the same principle as the avenidas, those calles to the east were numbered 1, 3, 5, and on up to 23 whereas to the west the even numbers ran from 2 to 20.
`Whenever you ask for directions,' Luis continued, `you will be told to go so many blocks east or west followed by so many north or south. Most times the direction will be linked to a landmark like the Opera House.'
Zawadzki didn't get the chance to see the Opera House or any other well-known landmark. Before he knew what was happening, the driver had turned off the main road into a dark, narrow side street.
`What's going on, Luis? Why have we left the highway?' Zawadzki asked.
`We have to cross the river. The Villa Tournon is the other side of the Rio Torres.'
`I thought you said the hotel was near the centre of town?'
`Well, it seems to me we're still in the outskirts of San José.'
`There are roadworks ahead.'
`I haven't seen any warming signs.'
`No matter,' Luis told him. `We know where we are.'
The road they were on was not only badly lit, it was also chock-full of potholes. Furthermore it was obvious to Zawadzki that they were leaving the city behind them to head out into the country.
`Pull up,' Zawadzki said forcefully.
`I no understand what you say.'
Luis was mocking him. There had been nothing wrong with his command of English before; now he was acting as if he was incapable of stringing more than three words together. Zawadzki leaned over the seat and punched the driver on the shoulder.
`Stop the damned car,' he roared.
`You will sit down,' Luis told him.
`Who the bloody hell do you think you're talking to?'
`A fool,' the Costa Rican said, and produced a .22 calibre revolver.
Zawadzki stared at the handgun in disbelief. This couldn't be happening to him. For God's sake he was a Queen's Messenger and entitled to diplomatic protection.
But it was. He felt the pain at first, then heard the gunshot and finally caught a whiff of burned cordite. Falling back into his seat, he looked down at his left foot and saw blood oozing from the shoe. He tried to wiggle his toes and cried out in agony; moments later he was in deep shock, chilled to the bone and trembling like an autumn leaf in the wind. A grey mist swirled in front of his eyes and there was this curious and frightening sensation of floating weightless in space.
By the time he recovered consciousness the road had become an earthen track that ran arrow straight through open grassland. There was no sign of habitation, or so Zawadzki believed until the headlights of the Cadillac picked out a large timbered shed with a corrugated iron roof.
The track ended at a parking area directly in front of the shed where a Range Rover was drawn up facing the way they had come. The headlights also revealed that the building was in a bad state of repair, which led Zawadzki to conclude that it had been abandoned some time ago.
The Costa Rican deliver parked alongside the Range Rover and switched off the engine and main beams. As he did so, a figure emerged from the barn-like structure and moved purposefully towards the Cadillac. Broad across the shoulders, he had a barrel for a chest and was bow-legged as if he had had tickets when a child. Zawadzki thought the newcomer was about as prepossessing as an orang-utan.
`Get out of the car, Mr Zawadzki. The Colonel is anxious to meet you,' Luis said, and jabbed him in the ribs with the revolver.
The driver tripped the central locking. Urged on by Luis, Zawadzki opened the nearside door, stretched out his right leg and, putting his full weight on the one limb, he eased himself out of the Cadillac and straightened up. He could only move forward by hopping on his right foot, which didn't suit his kidnappers. He had taken the equivalent of three paces when the orang-utan made his displeasure known by sinking a fist into his stomach hard enough to dump him on the ground. The dizziness returned but this time the Costa Ricans didn't give him a chance to recover. While he was still winded and barely conscious, he was yanked to his feet and marched into the shed on the double. The top of his head felt as if it was lifting off every time his wounded foot touched the ground.
The shed was illuminated by a single pressure lamp, suspended from one of the rafters. Beyond the pool of light from the lamp, Zawadzki could see a wood-burning stove with a metal chimney stack that was red hot at the base. The Colonel was watching him from the shadows. He was sitting on some sort of chair, his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, the only part of him that was clearly visible.
`Good evening, Mr Zawadzki,' he said in a wheezy voice which suggested he was a heavy smoker. `I am Colonel Herrara. I hope you will be sensible and not give us any trouble.'
`He already has,' Luis told him. `Mr Zawadzki attempted to escape and I had to shoot him in the foot.'
`Well, that was very foolish of him but it's too late now for regrets. Let's see the contents of his dispatch case.'
`The key,' Luis demanded, and nudged Zawadzki in the ribs.
`I'm a Queen's Messenger—' Zawadzki began.
`Of course you are,' Herrara said. `That's why I arranged for Luis and his friend to meet you at the airport. Unless you want to be shot in the other foot, I suggest you give him the key.'
Zawadzki didn't hesitate. When the odds against him were four to one there could only be one outcome and he had no desire to become a dead hero. Loosening his tie, he undid the top button of the shirt, then reached inside the collar and fished out the long thin chain to which the key was attached. Before he could take it off, Luis grabbed hold of the chain and yanked it over his head.
Zawadzki hadn't the faintest idea what the Costa Ricans expected to find in the briefcase but their disappointment and anger was only too evident. It showed in the way the driver unzipped his overnight bag and emptied the contents on to the earthen floor before slashing the lining with a flick knife.
`All right, Major,' Herrara said, `where have you hidden it?'
Zawadzki clenched both hands, digging the fingernails into the palms. How the hell did this man in the shadows know that he had been an army officer? Back home you could get a copy of Whitaker's Almanack out of the public library, look up the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the index and you'd find the names and the former service ranks of all thirty-three Queen's Messengers. But in Costa Rica? He didn't think so, and concluded that somebody must have betrayed him.
`Loyalty and devotion to duty are two fine qualities,' Herrara said philosophically. `No doubt you learned that as a young officer in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment but no one would expect you to lay down your life for a scrap of paper.'
`What scrap of paper?'
`Now you're being stupid, Adam.'
Adam. Was there anything the Costa Rican didn't know about him? His date and place of birth, for instance?
`The only documents I have were in that briefcase,' he said, and wished his voice were steadier.
Herrara rattled off something in Spanish too swiftly for Zawadzki to catch more than one word in three. It didn't matter, he found out soon enough what the Costa Rican had in mind for him. Before Zawadzki could raise a hand to defend himself, the orang-utan had handcuffed both wrists behind his back. While the other two held him, the driver pulled off his shoes, then removed his clothing with the aid of a switch blade until he was stark naked but for the socks. They then lashed his ankles together with a length of rope, threw the loose end over one of the transverse beams and hung him upside down, his head only a few inches clear of the ground.
They began to beat him systematically about the legs, buttocks and thighs with bamboo canes an inch or more in diameter — or so Herrara informed him. And always the same question repeated over and over again. What had he done with the memorandum?
They were going to kill him because he couldn't answer the question and they refused to believe he didn't know what the Colonel was talking about. His only hope of surviving the ordeal lay in stringing them along in the hope that the Embassy would alert the police when the First Secretary discovered he hadn't arrived at the Hotel Villa Tournon.
It wasn't difficult to persuade the Costa Ricans that they had broken him; the many abrasions on his body and the way he screamed every time the skin was broken was enough to still any doubts that he was faking it. His story, however, was not so readily accepted.
`Let me understand this,' Herrara said. `You gave the paper to the senior member of the cabin staff and asked him to leave it with the American Airlines desk where it would be collected later tonight by Mr Paul Younghusband, the First Secretary at the British Embassy?'
Zawadzki heard the swish of the bamboo cane, then screamed in agony as it flayed his back and opened yet another cut.
`Why wasn't the paper in the diplomatic bag?'
`It wasn't an accountable document,' Zawadzki told him, improvising. `At least Whitehall didn't want it accounted for.'
`Liar.' Herrara spat it out and the cane drew more blood, this time from the fleshy part of the right arm above the elbow.
`You asked me what I had done with the paper,' Zawadzki groaned, `and I have just told you.'
`And I tell you we won't find it at the American Airlines desk.'
`You're so right, Colonel. Mr Younghusband will have beaten you to it unless your people get a move on.'
There was an agonising silence which seemed to last for all eternity before Herrara finally took the bait and sent Luis plus the driver hurrying towards the vehicles parked outside the shed. A few minutes later Zawadzki heard them drive away. Given a huge slice of luck, Luis might make such a nuisance of himself that the staff on the American Airlines desk sent for the police. It was, he had to admit, one hell of a long shot.
A ribbon of blood from the bullet wound in his left foot ran down the leg, meandered across his stomach and chest to drip on to the earthen floor. Time had little meaning for Zawadzki as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He was dimly aware of the orang-utan raking ash from the wood burning stove before stoking it up again with more logs. All too soon he heard the Cadillac return; then the screaming and shouting began and he prayed when the end came it would not be unbearably painful. But he knew God wasn't listening when they mutilated his buttocks with a red-hot branding iron.
Copyright © 2001 Gene Brewer. All rights reserved.