It really was quite unremarkable, that little bridge, at least when viewed from a distance. To the imaginative, it was a place where trolls might hide, only to reach up in best fairy story style, to snatch little children and gobble them up. Indeed, to the really observant, it might seem to have something mystical or a pervading evilness about it, as many a dog would not walk across it, preferring to take their chance swimming across the swiftly flowing water.
Upon closer inspection, it was in fact an ancient bridge on one of the many old sheep drover trails that crossed the country. Two great slabs of slate resting upon an outcrop of rock, not quite mid-way across the watercourse. To those whose mind might veer towards the practical, the question would be how did those ancients transport those hugely heavy slabs of slate so many miles from the nearest quarry? And indeed why? Was there no better local alternative? Questions never likely to be answered, unless some long lost ancient scroll came to light.
Old it might be, but it was still usable, except by wary dogs of course, as it sat in the bottom of that classic glaciated valley, deep in the heart of Snowdonia.
Like many things in life, discretion, in any form, is where one finds unobtrusive quality. Thus, the small private dining room of a grand old Tudor house, deep in the Cheshire countryside, held only one table. Rectangular, centuries old mahogany burnished to a deep even glow. Designed to seat ten in classically upholstered comfortable chairs
In addition to the table, currently set out for five diners, were three comfy settees and two arm chairs. Placed just so, small elegant tables, not coffee tables you understand in such a setting, upon which were four envelopes, stout manila envelopes sealed with old fashioned red wax.
At exactly seven o’clock the envelopes were opened, the contents, just two pages, were read, studied and then returned to their original envelopes. A tall, clean shaven dark suited man entered, with never a glance left or right, almost as if he was wearing invisible blinkers, collected the envelopes and left silently.
The discrete bulge under his left armpit was observed by all. Top security then, even out in the wilds, and no wonder, given what they had just read.
Dinner was of course exquisite. Small, perfectly cooked and presented dishes, each persons preferences catered for, competent PA’s much in evidence. Although they all knew each other by their given names, it would have been difficult not to considering their overall responsibilities, at such meeting as this, they were only ever referred to as North, South, East and West. A quaint throwback perhaps, to the days when allegiances were not always known and trust was for the gullible. But equally, a first line of defence against inquisitive journalists, when papers, which should never have been removed from their office, were left absentmindedly on trains.
The fifth member and head of the group was simply referred to as either, ‘Arctic’ or ‘Antarctic,’ depending in which hemisphere any subsequently agreed action would take place. Tonight, she would become, ‘Arctic.’
The protocol was to think upon what had just been read, whilst enjoying the food, nothing said, other than to observe the niceties of passing the salt or pepper, or water. No alcohol was served, for clear heads would be needed. Besides, each person present knew that every word spoken, every nuance would need to be committed to memory as no paper notes were allowed and certainly no mobile devices that might either record unobtrusively, or even worse, be bugged.
Arctic raised a freshly plucked eyebrow, bright red lipstick appearing untouched by the meal. “Well?”
North broke the silence, “Possibly too close to home? Last time we operated as such, we had the very devil keeping the press out. But apart from that I have no problem with it, some would say about time, overdue even. Outlived his usefulness, what with the peace accord.”
Those well-manicured eyebrows sought either approval or dissent, for she was not known for being loquacious.
“Whose going to be the operative? Going to have to be good to sort this chappie out.”
“The thinking is Cole, South, given his history and character.”
“Good chap,” this from East.
“Yes, one of our best, But I’ll put in a backup Too important to fail,” at which Arctic rose, smoothed down her skirt and bade them all, “Goodnight, I’ll leave you to work out the details and I’ll have a word in the appropriates ears in Fleet Street and the Media. Perhaps,” a sardonic smile crossing her face, “perhaps a gentle reminder that the Cabinet office is looking at the next Honours List eh?” And with that, she was gone, her aptly named scent, “Poison,” wafting across that rather unobtrusive room.
“Ah, gongs for the boys if they toe the line then eh?” Thus spoke West, ever, after a lifetimes experience of dealing with the establishment and justifiably so, the cynic.
Anyone meeting Ronnie Cole for the first time would be unlikely to pass any later comment of anything exceptional or noticeable about the man. Just under six feet, neither scrawny nor muscle bound, no addict of the gym, indeterminate accent, hair just beginning to thin, shading grey. Clothes neither shabby or smart.
Unremarkable, which is exactly as he wanted it.
He’d been summoned to the presence and as he waited, he wondered would it be the bright red lipstick or the black? The black tended to signify one being asked to do something out of the ordinary and thus potentially dangerous and therefore of course, exhilarating for the men and women who thrived on the adrenalin pumping far faster than was long-term, good for them. The red could mean nothing more than surveillance or guarding some entity the Government didn’t want killed whilst on their doorstep.
It was the black with matching nail polish. “Cole come in. Fully recovered at last I hear, been a long job, getting you back on your feet. The medical men and mind doctors say you’re fit to be let off the lease again, yes?”
“Yes maam, still get the odd twinge, as no doubt you know, but it will help the concentration wonderfully, in not letting it happen again.”
Cole left the building, the long scar in his right side, which had caught the blast from the shotgun, throbbing, a psychological throb. It always did when he thought of Art Finnegan, the only man who had ever bettered him and Cole was not of the character that could easily cope with that.
To a person of dubious character, who wished simply to melt unnoticed into the background, it is not immediately apparent, that the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales, might be a first-choice location in which to do so. Just a handful of main roads, easily blocked by the police should the need arise. But, to a reasonably competent map reader with a good map, the truth of it would soon be clear.
Small villages tucked in deep valleys accessed by narrow roads. Other houses perhaps just two or three, often traditional secretive looking welsh long houses, served by equally restricted tracks, best suited to rugged four-wheel drive vehicles or scramble motor bikes, rather than swish town based saloons. The sheep drovers trails from centuries past still passable, so what at first might seem as an inaccessible swathe of country side, was in fact exactly the opposite.
And the final piece, for almost guaranteed anonymity for the person of dubious character, were the walkers, hundreds and hundreds of them every day, almost all clothed identically, many with facial hair, the women wearing beanies, a multitude of accents, regional and foreign.
A huge area, sparsely policed, usually by men and women coming to the end of their careers, none with anything to prove other than to live quietly to collect their hard-earned pensions. All well versed in the wisdom of turning a blind eye, but of course, there always is an exception to the rule.
Art Finnegan knew that his time was limited. What was left of his organisation was riddled with informers. In his less sanguine moments he never understood why he was still alive, why he wasn’t in some solitary dark grave with an English bullet through the back of his neck. The thought had come more frequently over the last couple of years, sending a shiver of fear through him, bringing home to him his potential mortality. But how, he would reflect, does a leopard ever change his spots? A born and bred terrorist, a red-blooded fighter for the cause he wholly believed in. Or, did he? Still?
That he was still alive could only mean that his protector was still in place, but for how long? Deep down, he knew the answer to that, until political expediency dictated otherwise, for there were some in Government who would never like it to be known of their association with such a man.
Cole pondered his briefing. Finnegan had left Ireland, almost certainly crossing the Irish Sea, landing somewhere in the wilds near Harlech and then, where? Easy territory for a determined man to disappear into and equally difficult for any watcher or follower, no matter how skilled. Finnegan had literally, disappeared down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Instinct told Cole that he would not venture into England, too many surveillance cameras and GCHQ listening to millions of mobile phone transmissions. Computers analysing every conversation for various key words, for speech patterns that could give away a man just as easily as if he had left his DNA or fingerprints casually lying around.
For several weeks after it was known that Finnegan was no longer in Ireland, there was a complete lack of intelligence about him. The rabbit hole turned out to be a gigantic cave. GCHQ drew a blank, so any communication from Finnegan was obviously not by mobile. Cole, following his instincts, gamekeeper turning poacher, requested that the telephone exchanges in the north of Wales and along the English border be monitored with the same speech pattern software. It paid off.
Police Constable Angharad Jones, still lived in the house in which she had been born some fifty-five years earlier. She had followed in her father’s footsteps and after a couple of years had disappeared down south, ‘London,’ the local scuttlebuck reckoned. The woman who eventually returned years later was far from the naive young policewoman who had left.
One is never allowed to truly leave the Intelligence Service, its ways, its ingrained training, thus, Angharad had quickly shed, if not to outward appearance, the air of the nearly retired country Bobby. The instructions were clear, she was to mount surveillance on a tatty, faded red telephone kiosk, at the junction of three minor roads whose main traffic was roaming sheep, rather than anything with an engine.
Cole was edgy, had been since he had left London. The harshness in Arctic’s voice had surprised him, so different form her normal honeyed tones, the instructions concise, brutal even; “Put him away for once and for all, I’m relying on you as never before. He’s up to something and we still don’t know what, other than it will shed blood.”
So now he stood in a shallow valley of some god-forsaken welsh place, the name of which he couldn’t even begin to pronounce, but which his discreet sat-nav informed him was exactly where he should be. The rain drifting sideways, the sort that drenches in a few seconds.
He was dressed as any self-respecting walker would be. He could feel the weight of a small, powerful, non-descript looking pistol, tucked in a pocket adapted to hold it comfortably and without danger of it snagging should he need to quickly bring it into use.
He approached to within twenty yards of a small cottage, a dim light just visible where the curtains did not quite close, that careless gap, unlike Finnegan though Cole, just wide enough to shoot through, head shots. All clean and simple, seconds only required, buzz the disposal team on his encrypted phone and then away into the wind and rain.
“Your version, Cole.” The harshness in her voice matched the lipstick. No pre-amble. Just a total hardness, no femininity, nothing.
“Well, I was within feet of the cottage when Finnegan ran for it. There was a door in the far end of the cottage which he came through at a rate of knots, bowled Angharad, over as if she was fairy dust, which she isn’t. Obviously tipped off, he just ran, no boots, just his ordinary clothing. Couldn’t get a clean shot at him, too many bushes in the overgrown garden.
“So, he got away from you?”
“I went after him, ‘spose he was fifty, sixty yards in front, jinking from side to side to avoid being shot. He literally cleared that old bridge in two steps, whereas I went head over heels into the water. Never saw him again as you know.”
“We searched the whole area, Cole, nothing except we found the bridge had been smeared with grease, except for two narrow strips. Finnegan obviously knew exactly where to put his feet.” With that, Cole was dismissed with a slight turn of the head. He left, wondering if he would ever be summoned to that room again. Finnegan’s escape would be regarded as a failure on his part, perhaps the biggest black blot ever handed out.
Six months later no one was any the wiser as to Finnegan’s whereabouts, other thought Cole, that the man himself and whoever had tipped him off to get the hell out of that cottage. But who?
Cole was aware of the witch hunt that followed, the accidental unearthing of two men whose subsequent allegiance had proved undependable. But, of the person who tipped off Finnegan, there was no sign, no clue, not even the vaguest hint. And that of course troubled Cole, for he had intended to exact revenge for their previous encounter, intended to square matters and not, as had happened, been bettered again by the same man.
As one would expect Ronnie Cole was not the sort of man who gave up on problems, particularly one that tarnished his hard-won reputation as a professional spy, even killer, neither of which either definition troubled him. It came to him when least expected, what was that Sherlock Holmes used to say, something along the lines that when you’ve eliminated all the possible and then the impossible, then what’s left, must be the probable?
She didn’t deny it, sitting quietly in her sitting room, whisky glasses reflecting the red glow of the gas fire.
“So, what now? Turn me in?”
“No, no. No one knows I’m here and no one will. I’m finished with the Service, that’s been made clear, pensions waiting for me to sign for it, but I can’t go on not knowing about Finnegan. Dead,” he paused, “or alive?”
“Dead. Dead as mutton.”
“Yes.” There was a coldness in her voice, hatred, cold stark hatred.
“You can prove it?”
“Oh yes, but you’ll have to be prepared to get wet.”
“Why, Angharad, the killing?”
“Simple, Cole. He murdered my father, broke my mother’s heart. You remember that bombing just outside Conwy, was meant to get the young Queen? Dad was caught in it and ever since I’ve had to listen to Finnegan on the radio, playing the big brave man, a man who never once faced a soldier with a gun, a weasel who slunk around murdering women and children. A coward.”
“So, you tipped him off?”
“No, just pretended to fall over the rubbish bin outside the cottage and out he came as I knew he would, it was his alarm signal, he’d so carefully placed it, almost hidden, with the lid balanced just so. Let him flatten me so that it looked good.”
“And you caught him where exactly?”
“The far side of that bridge. The track narrows, funnels between two walls, put a trip wire across it and that was that. Broke his neck, like they trained me to do all those years ago.”
“I’ll show you, tomorrow when its light, but swear to me Cole, as one murderer to another, that you’ll keep it quiet. Don’t want him found and martyred as some parts of the press will do.”
It really was quite unremarkable that little bridge, at least when viewed from a distance. To the imaginative, it was a place where trolls might hide, safe from prying eyes. A bridge that many a dog would not walk across, preferring to take their chance swimming across the swiftly flowing water.
Two great slabs of slate resting upon an outcrop of rock, hiding a secret. The children of the area knew of the deep recess, in the outcrop, some had even hidden there, the adventurous ones, when the water in the stream was low in high summer. But now, the water never was low, the flow always the same, the overflow from the upstream dam.
A secret hiding place for evermore.