It’s not a good thing when a gun-shot is the most predictable outcome of a meeting, but that’s the way it had always been with Bob and Larry; they just couldn’t express affection any other way. Bob – Robertina to her late, lamented mother – was always quick on the draw, even if her eyes were filled with the tears of laughter. Larry – full name unknown – only ever drew her weapon in self-defence.
It would shock precisely no-one to report that they had been drinking. Two fun loving criminals in want of a good time will always reach for a bottle at some point. It’s the reason that matters here.
Guns are unfeasibly prevalent in Switzerland, a product of their curious and slightly arcane system of forming a standing army on an ad hoc basis out of various rag-tag militia and post-national service civilians, all of whom are required by law to be armed. It makes for a vibrant and thriving scene in amateur arms deals. It makes for an easy way for two wayward daughters to blow off some steam.
A bar, some less-than-sensible tourists with fast moving hands, and a surfeit of pumpkins all met and mixed and became pretty damn combustible. Thankfully Bob and Larry evaded the incoming police.
Heat, sweat and dirt: a face being pushed in to the sticky ground by an unseen hand. Oaths are rent and offers of blinding violence are proffered. A gun is cocked and held to the temple of the man on the ground. He seems not to have noticed; he is too busy spitting dirt and wrestling with tied hands.
The man abusing him – for it is always a man – digs his knee in to the back of his foe. His mercenary staff stand around them both in a circle. They will not move unless they are instructed to. They will not help the man they see being weakened beyond the point of his last resolve. They are as granite.
The dirt is red, and it holds no life. Not here. Where in other places there may have been the scrappy roots of some long forgotten grass, the earth here has been scoured. Rock and mineral are the only truth here, and they are saying nothing. A man continues to struggle at the bottom of a land’s scar.
A man imbued with power is infuriated by the inactions of a man with none. His actions are clearly inevitable. Just as power clings to power and money follows in its wake, death is the language of this world, and the only simple thing on display. A gun-shot rings through the levels of the huge mine.
Bob and Larry wake up on various items of furniture, in a gleaming room, part of a dazzlingly modern house. The floors are polished concrete; the walls are crisp, hard render; the ceilings are punctured with intelligent lights; the surfaces are marble. A drinks trolley, once sumptuously filled, lies empty on the cheap Ikea rug, empty bottles lying like fallen soldiers around the room. Coffee is needed.
The TV is a smashed relic, half dangling from the wall. They would lose their security deposit over that. The table is scarred with the marks of razor blade, greasy with the remains of various powders.
The house – inconveniently located for any of Interlaken’s amenities, it being situated in the sister town of Unterseen – had been rented by an anonymous German family. Their unexpected departure had had nothing to do with either Bob or Larry, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t benefit. Keys were acquired with absolutely no violence, and accommodation was secured for a full month.
A belch rose from the fetid depths of Larry’s insides: cue for the commencement of the activities of the day. Bob scratches her arse and makes her way towards the downstairs bathroom for a shower.
The station of Kleine Scheidegg is an odd place. Situated at a pass below and between the peaks of the Eiger and Lauberhorn, it serves as a staging point for one of Switzerland’s most expensive, and most popular train routes: the Jungfraubahn, a route through the Eiger, up to Jungfrajoch Station.
At all hours of any business day the station varies between thronged and silent. Trains arrive from Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald, disgorge their throngs on to the platforms, who are then whisked away up inside the mountains. The whole transfer takes ten minutes every half an hour, all day.
The bathrooms at the heart of Kleine Scheidegg are a nexus of ascending and descending people, all with singularity of purpose. Eyes are fixed on door and queue; no attention is made to the person not blocking one’s path. That person is an irrelevance; no brain power should be wasted on them.
A tall man with several days of stubble did not look out of place. His green jacket bore the emblem of a famous sports clothing company. He deftly placed his rubbish in the lid of the bin and made his way to a train. A young woman with purple hair watched him board his train, and waited for peace.
Bob and Larry had made to a local café, despairing at the thought of their own accommodation. They were not short on money, only on inspiration. They were glad to be stuck here: anonymous; alone. It was an unexpected turn of events, which neither of them would have turned down. It was clear to neither of them whether the other was in the vicinity for work, and the topic remained off limits.
Coffee, bread and meat: the perfect start to the day. They would have both preferred cereal, but that degree of domesticity was not on the cards today. The silence between them was growing less and less easy: usually a signal to start drinking or stop being together. They needed entertainment.
The dead man lay still in the hot red dirt. He would be mourned by no one. It was not that he was an unpopular man; it was that his friends and family had been butchered. One by one they succumbed to the blade; One by one the Dutchman had nodded to his mercenary squad to move a quick hand.
The man showed no sign of pain, even though each indignity burned through his soul as if hot metal through the wax of a casting. He knew that the pain was temporary; he knew that he was next; he knew that he would see his loved ones in the next life, and that they would understand his choices.
Now dead the man could no longer oppose the Dutchman. However, that did not make life at all easy for him: bribes would need to be paid; documents would be needed; lawyers would be needed. The last of these cut the deepest: he could not accept such a career in a country as corrupt as this.
As the blood dried in the baking heat of the day the new trucks rolled in to take the places of the old. They were the same trucks, only reregistered to avoid scrutiny. The same drivers went about the same jobs, too, aware of their fate if they ceased their relentless extraction of this hot red rock.
You could tell that things were serious by the fact that neither of them had pulled out her gun. Eyes were wet with frustration and fury; hands were shaking with adrenaline and rage. Normal people could sort out their petty differences without recourse to violence, but Bob and Larry were far from normal now. Lives of crime, of hired muscle, had taken them away from the mundane long ago.
A city with two train stations was always going to cause a degree of confusion amongst some of its visitors. Most of the visitors wouldn’t cause this much of a scene, however. People were staring.
They had missed a train in one direction because they had shown up at the wrong station. While Bob was furious with herself, and advocating using a car, Larry was calmer. They had a huge variety of options open to them. One mountain could be replaced by another very easily. Or by a lake: there were two of them. She considered running, but could not bring her legs to begin leaving her friend.
A polite stranger explained that there were two routes up the mountain, and that all was not lost. He pointed them in the direction of the Lauterbrunnen train, and explained their connections.
The platform cleared like a final breath from a corpse. The people were whisked away to the joys of an amusement park in the sky. Soon they would be walking through a glacier, or throwing snowballs off the top of a mountain. A few stragglers remained; staff disappeared as the train doors closed.
A couple with a small blonde child argue over whether they should get a train or not; A man smokes a cigarette next to a tepee, occasionally taking photos of mountains; an old lady walks towards the restaurant, most of her weight pressing through an ancient walking stick. The air is crisp and cold.
A girl with purple hair has waited long enough. She walks towards the bin, removing her very well chewed gum as she walks. She places the gum carefully in the lid of the bin, slipping another object in to her sleeve as she withdraws her hand. She makes her way down the platform, out of sight.
One parent of the blonde child nods to his partner, takes out his phone and makes a call. A report has been made: the location of the girl with the purple hair has been passed on. Action may now be taken. At the other end of the platform, the man beside the tepee opens his phone and moves on.
A short train ride from Interlaken West, changing at Interlaken Ost; From there to Lauterbrunnen, cramped with people heading in the same direction. Larry took some convincing not to call the trip off once she saw the volume of people filling up the train around her. A change on to a smaller, more wooden train: fewer people and far better views as they climbed higher up the mountain.
Their next destination was Kleine Scheidegg, and it is probably clear who they would meet there. A throw of the dice, perhaps, except that Bob was watching the time on her phone throughout.
They arrived at Kleine Scheidegg and consumed gallons of the air; tasting it every bit as much as they were filling their lungs with oxygen. The air tasted cold and fresh. Larry’s eyes couldn’t take in the infinity of the view before her. Bob’s eyes darted around for a colour she would recognise atop a face she would not. She looked for an opportunity to leave Larry behind once and for all. Toilets.
But Larry found her first, and that was that. A young girl, with purple hair, was being threatened by a man with cigarettes on his breath. That would never do, and so Larry’s fists flashed through the air.
Jaap new that Fumu had got something out there; that was why he had had to act so fast, once it was done. It was one thing having evidence of collusion against your business when you’re alive and kicking, but if it follows your death it tends to carry a lot more weight. And Fumu just wouldn’t talk.
It wasn’t clear who Fumu was trying to alert about Jaap’s takeover, but that wasn’t the point. He had contacts in London who could make good on the deal. He didn’t ask any questions; he just picked up the tab once it was all done and dusted. While Fumu and his family rotted, Jaap acted, and quickly.
A white face in a predominantly black landscape will always get one noticed. And, while true colonial misadventures were happily long since over, the real work was still ongoing. Rather than the Belgian Congo, this land was a very Dutch Kilongo. The land was rich, and that attracted the unscrupulous.
Jaap de Joop Jæcker viewed himself as a true entrepreneur, albeit one out of his time. He longed for the days of absolute colonial rule, and the true people economy. His heroes were men like Robert Clive: mercenaries and butchers. He had the will to rule this land, no matter what the body count.
Larry could tell that the girl was running from something, but she wouldn’t say what. She seemed more content now that Larry was with her, as if she had been waiting for someone to show up. Bob bounded in like a cartoon character, in an attempt to brush off the tension and to make her charge smile. Both worked. Plans were changed, and rather than up, they were heading back down again.
Larry was unsure why Bob was so happy to be descending the mountain so suddenly, especially after she had been so ready to come to blows earlier. Her Tigger act was fooling nobody. Larry felt odd.
They descended the mountain far more quickly than they had climbed, or so it seemed. They talked together, made up stories and games. All to take everyone’s minds off the terrible man at the pass on the mountain. The only thing missing was lunch: Bob and Larry both rued the fact that they had not thought to bring anything with them. A nearby family munched on packed ham sandwiches.
Bob dropped the code word in to the silly story she made up, and the girl’s eyes lit up. Discreetly she passed the package over to Bob. Her relief was palpable, even to Larry. She felt increasingly strange.
Two parents and a small blonde child had decided not to go up to Jungfraujoch after all. They felt that the weather was too thick for the views they were looking for, so they decided to head back down the mountain, via Grindelwald this time. They ate ham sandwiches together on the train.
Dad had had a call with Uncle Jaap, and so was more interested in the women sitting next to them than Mum would have ordinarily liked. The fact that it was for Uncle Jaap made it alright, though. They would have cheese for dinner tonight. Maybe Dad would have to pop out again.
It was a good holiday, once it had settled down: her parents had come in to school to pick her up one afternoon, and she had had to get changed in the taxi. She didn’t know why. They ran through the airport, late for a plane she didn’t even know they were meant to be catching. It wasn’t fun.
They had a lovely hotel, with a great view of the landing paragliders. She could have sat there and watched them all day, if there weren’t sights to be seen. She didn’t understand how people could throw themselves off a mountain, even if they did know that there was a soft landing out there.
They sat in the arbour of the Japanese garden, the knife and whiskey shop just behind them. The girl with the purple hair frolicked around the paths, looking at the fish. It was almost as if every weight had been removed from her shoulders. Bob felt the cold of the gun metal in the small of her back before she felt her friend’s breath on her ear. Larry was deeply concerned and wanted answers.
Intimacy came and went; it was never a constant between them. This felt different; this was new: a transgression against their normal relationship. Larry had crossed the line; she felt that Bob had too.
And then the realisation came: they had lost the girl with purple hair. Larry didn’t care; that was not what mattered to her. What was Bob’s mission, and how was she being double-crossed? Bob took a chance and turned around. She looked her friend in the eye and assured her that she had a job there and that it was to protect the girl. It always had been. Now she needed the help of a good old friend.
Larry knew it wasn’t a lie. She had her own orders, and Bob had just confirmed them. She agreed in a trice, holstered her weapon, and set off in pursuit. She had no idea in which direction to start.
Jaap punched an old man in the face when he received the text. It wasn’t an old man he knew; it wasn’t an old man in his service; it was just an old man who happened to be passing at the wrong time. A mercenary stifled a laugh. The old man would be paid a very large sum for his troubles.
Jaap was not a fan of things not going his way, and this was the second example of the unnecessary disobedience of the people around him in as many days. This was going to take some serious work this evening to calm him down. The staff at the house should be put on highest alert at once.
His staff had proceeded well; they had kept the transaction and the receiver in view at all times, and they were still present. The only problem was that there were other actors in the field, and they were of unknown origin. Killing them could precipitate an international incident; or it could not.
The uncertainty was killing him just as much as the threat of failure and the frustration of time being allowed to elapse in front of his eyes. His anger was pooling in his stomach now; his arms twitched. He was a dangerous person to be around at the moment. And then his phone began to ring loudly.
It was unclear who had made the move first, but both Bob and Larry claimed possession of the girl in the strongest possible terms. They had found her being escorted in to the lobby of a luxury hotel by an anonymous looking man – he could be dealt with later – and leapt at their prey. The girl didn’t know the meaning of her mission. Her orders were simple: pick it up and give it to Bob. She did that.
Larry wondered who Bob was working for this time. The usual list of organisations didn’t seem to fit; at least not this time. She couldn’t be working against her usual type; had she grown a conscience?
Every few minutes Bob checked on the girl; was she OK? Did she need anything? She had done this on the way down the mountain as much as she was doing it now, in their safe house. Her reactions were almost maternal, but the girl had not recognised her when they had first met. Larry checked her watch as surreptitiously as she possibly could. Time was running out for them; Bob agreed.
The man hung by the ankles in the stairwell of the luxury house they had inhabited. His mouth was bound and his breathing was deep. He was alive and well, but for how much longer. Bob eyed him.
In an anonymous office in a London office building – constructed from concrete, glass and steel, and designed to blend in with all of its surroundings – sat a woman with yellow hair. She may once have been blonde; that was not the case now. Beside her stood a lackey in a suit, his presence negligible.
A report was open on her computer screen. It read of a network of do-gooders and charitable folk, all of whom supported each other for no better reason than believing in people and fairness. She did not like this, but she didn’t have to: She had video evidence of them in action across two continents.
The report read of a terrible man, bent on making as much money as possible, at the highest human cost he could muster. She was not usually opposed to such behaviour, except for when it opposed British interests. In this case it definitely did, and so the Dutchman needed to be stopped. This time.
The report read of one of her personnel, deep in the field and her relationship with the actors who were currently at play. She understood that one of her own was in a precarious position, and that there was very little which she could do about it. Very little was a lot more than nothing, however.
Night fell and the curtains of the house were closed. In curiosity the girl had switched on a light on a concrete wall: it spelled out the word “Bären” – Bear in the local version of German. She thought it was all very masculine. There was nothing soft or cosy in this place of safety. A flower wilted and died in a tall vase. Even the windows were barred. She wondered when she would be able to leave.
Bob and Larry stood just out of sight, discussing the options. Without explicitly saying so they both acknowledged that they were part of all of this, and that they had a duty to protect the girl’s life.
Bob made dinner from the contents of the store cupboard – dried food left behind by previous holidaymakers. It wasn’t particularly adventurous, but it filled them up. They had raided the house’s wine stock, much against the explicit instructions of the owner, and were making the best of a very strange day. Bob suggested that she could sleep on the sofa, giving her bed to the purple haired girl.
Larry pretended not to see the shadows moving outside of the house. Instead she allowed her vision to linger on the face of her old friend: she studied her reactions and her perceptions of movement.
Blobs of darkness gathered around the house. With alleyways running behind and alongside the house it was an easy building to secure. They had had to wait until at least nine p.m., so that the local residents could be guaranteed to have turned in for the day. The house was still lit up.
The blobs crouched and moved with gentle speed. Guns were within reach as they took their turns for action. A message had been received to say that the door had been unlocked: they were unused to such consideration from people about to be hurried in to an interrogation cell. No matter.
Once the blobs had come in to the safety of the portico they could stand straight and regroup: the door was opaque and they were silent. A hand was placed on the door handle; another hand began a countdown: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The door was freed, kicked open and filled with guns in a split second.
It didn’t take them long to realise that they were going home empty handed. They had expected a degree of resistance; mostly they had expected to be shot at: there was no resistance. In fact there was no one there at all. The house was empty; the only noise was the whirring of the dishwasher.
Larry sat up front, while Bob and the purple haired girl sat in the back. They were being driven by a man, and they had no idea where to. He spoke very little, except to Larry, and even then. It had been clear by the speed at which they had been escorted from the premises that their security was no longer guaranteed. What was not clear yet to Bob was to what extent they were now truly safe.
Larry squeezed the thigh of the driver; he smiled to himself and to her. They were glad to be there together at last. Next came the difficult bit; as long as they could keep up their lead on the others.
Bob was proud of Larry. For all the years of drunken bravado and recklessness in the eyes of the law it was great to see the real Larry for once. Perhaps she would now find out her friend’s name. It was doubtful, but it wouldn’t stop her from pushing it. She pulled the girl with the purple hair – her name was Chloë, but Bob had known that – closer to her. Her mission seemed complete to her now.
Chloë was unsure quite what was actually going on, but she knew it seemed right. She had met the woman who she had been told to meet, and she had given her the message, even if it was nonsense.
Jaap had spent the evening torturing several of his staff members. While their families would receive more than adequate compensation – although, in these circumstances, it would have made him feel a lot better had they not – their deaths, their screams, their agony, had helped to clear his mind.
He had received word that his kill squad had been unsuccessful, and that they would be returning to base empty handed. This displeased him, but he knew long ago that the hand was lost. He would have to be happy with the untold treasures he had taken, regardless of the repercussions to come.
He still did not know what the message was that Fumu had managed to get out before he died, or how it would ruin him, but he was not in the mood to care. As he dined richly upon the kidneys of his now former gardener – served very pink – he could not help but smile at his elegant splendour.
An aria from a favoured opera sung from the near priceless sound system. His hands moved through the air in glee as he conducted the corpses arrayed in front of him. Their deaths were the solution to the ills which faced him in the world; thankfully there were many more potential corpses to come.
The sun rises over a cold city square. Breath hangs in the mouths of the four as they wait patiently for their morning repast: sausages and coffee. The odd covered walkways of the Altstadt provided respite from the ferocity of morning after a night of flight from terror. It may have been the de facto capital of Switzerland, but Bern felt provincial and sleepy. It was precisely what they all needed.
Larry was in a text conversation with her boss about providing diplomatic security for Bob and Chloë. The embassy was still waking up, and Larry was afraid that they were running out of time to help.
Chloë and Bob played a game with a discarded bottle, raising raucous laughter. Larry and her partner held hands for the first time for a long time. Even longer in public. It was not that their cover was blown per se, just that they couldn’t particularly hide right now: Bob smiled lovingly at them, and it was only she who could out them. Larry felt that Bob may be changing somewhat in the near future.
A large black car crept along the ancient streets; flags, hung from every building, almost touched the roof of the car. Its windows were dark, and its tyres showed very little wear. It stopped beside Chloë.
An old lady sits in a well-presented restaurant, her hand resting on the top of her ancient walking stick. In front of her is a plate of beans, cooked slowly in the fat from a lump of bacon. Finely diced onions and parsley fill the gaps between. She looks at the picture of a family and smiles a sad smile.
Jaap updated his phone. The banking software showed profits dripping in to his account like coffee from a filter. There will be no objections to his new found wealth. The business with Fumu had been wiped from his mind: the invulnerability of financial safeguards. His attentions turned to expansion.
The occupant of the anonymous glass office, and her lackey, sit with their attention rapt on screens. Their diplomacy would largely go unrecognised, but it had saved the life of a lost little girl. She could not return to her former life; the turmoil her family had been lost in was too great for her to survive.
Bare feet walk over dusty red earth. The courier dares not show his face near the mine, at least not for the time being. It was the dying wish of his former boss that he get out a message. One of them had been forgotten by the Dutchman; one of them could be saved. Chloë would be their success.
The Ambassador greeted Larry warmly; it had been many years since they had last met. She then turned her attentions to Chloë, falling to her knees to look the frightened child in the eye. She took both of her hands in her soft warm grip and welcomed her. Chloë’s school had been informed that she would not be returning; they had seen Chloë’s family on the news and understood too well.
Bob sidled over to Larry while the formalities were taken care of. She handed her friend something, the transaction hidden from the eyes of the other dignitaries. A package from the lid of a bin.
Larry unwrapped the package and smiled: it was indeed nonsense, just as Chloë had predicted. She understood that the package itself was less important than the events it put in to motion; it was less important than the attention it took away from the real mission: to provide protection for the one remaining child of Fumu M’Barek, Congolese semiconductor pioneer, entrepreneur, philanthropist.
Larry squeezed Chloë’s shoulder and passed her the note from her father. “Thank you” was all that she could muster. “Your father moved heaven and earth to get you here; I was glad to have helped.”