THE MUZZLE OF THE SHOTGUN moved closer. It touched his cheek coldly before Helm jerked his face away. He called angrily to the crowd, pointed to the shotgun and then to the handle of the briefcase. One of the two leaders snapped an order. The Greek Mafioso moved back a couple of paces but he continued to menace Helm with his weapon.
Helm had been studying the separate group of seven for want of something better to do. He had identified the two leaders as the focus of questions. They made the others shut up when squabbles broke out. They were interchangeable figures in camouflage jackets, jeans and black boots. Try as he might, Helm found that he could pick out nothing in the gloom to help with their identification. The face of his aggressive guard, however, was etched deeply in his memory.
Helm caught the Greek word for bomb. It was one that he knew from personal experience. He wondered if the terrorists thought that the briefcase itself was the bomb. He knew that terrorists the world over have free access to Semtex, a Czech-made plastic explosive that is 147 times more powerful than TNT. A common way of transporting it, according to something that he had seen on TV, is as a lining in a briefcase.
Phileros Makronotis was not the sort of man to take kidnapping lightly. His granddaughter was safe now, and if he blew up one million dollars taking his revenge, he would still have nine hundred and ninety-nine million dollars out of his billion left for emergencies.
Helm knew that he had covered that ground before in his thoughts, but he remained well aware that John Scott had been well paid for taking this risk and he had taken the job with his eyes open. On the other hand, he was supposed to return with information on the kidnappers as there was no guarantee that they were all present or that a briefcase bomb would kill all of those who were there.
It was maddening for Helm to have to sit on his rock, menaced by a shotgun-wielding psychopath and hearing the men with his fate in their hands communicate mainly with incomprehensible noises. It was almost as if they were doing it deliberately to annoy him. He could catch the odd word, but the men were speaking a filthy Greek patois and his ear wasn't tuned to their dialect. Someone mentioned an X-ray. That seemed to make everything clear.
If the terrorists wanted to examine the case by a non-invasive means to find out exactly what sort of a threat it posed, then Helm would have further chances to learn things about them. He would also be increasing the risk that they would blow him away as a security precaution.
Makronotis' security advisors would have discussed the probability of his survival, in mathematical terms, and they might even have discussed ways to rescue him. Helm wished that he had been there at the time.
He needed to know three things. The first was whether the case contained a bomb, which could be radio-controlled, he realized, and which a distant observer could detonate if the terrorists formed a tight group around him.
The second thing was whether the bomb could be defused so that he could release his desperate grip on the handle of the briefcase. Thirdly, if there was no bomb and it was all just a bluff, he needed to know whether the terrorists would be so please with their million dollars that they would let him go.
Unwilling to take a chance on a wrong decision, Helm could only sit tight and wait for the terrorists to make up their minds about their next move.
One of the leaders kept looking at his watch. The group kept mentioning X-rays, using the English word. With a frustrating sense of doubt, Helm imagined them hi-jacking a hospital. He was picking up so little information from the conversation that he knew that he could be jumping to a completely false conclusion on the strength of a couple of words that he knew.
The most sensible way to tackle the problem was to use a small laser to melt a panel out of the liner, through which the money could be removed one bundle at a time. But Helm was reluctant to collaborate with the enemy by offering his brilliant ideas. After all, they had done nothing for him recently apart from threatening him and trying to rob him.
Suddenly, the group of terrorists split up. Two men dashed away. Moments later, an ancient taxi and a battered Land Rover bumped onto the road from a place of concealment. Helm was granted a divorce from his shotgun sentry. A younger man out of the same box mid-twenties with hard, dark eyes shoved a pistol against his ribs and pointed to the taxi.
One of the leaders, not the English-speaker, took the wheel. Everyone else piled into the Land Rover, which took off at full speed in the direction taken by the Mercedes. It was out of sight almost immediately, but the two vehicles stayed in touch by radio.
Movement shook Helm out of his apathetic trance. He began to compile a truth table. Erlich had told him that he could expect a twenty-second delay between releasing the handle and the briefcase's eruption fire or explosion. Everything that the German had told him during their brief acquaintance was true, as far as Helm could tell.
On the other hand, Gladwin had led him to believe that the device in the briefcase was just a bluff. Gladwin had told him one lie after another over the past two weeks while using him as a pawn in war games with Erlich.
Erlich had warned Helm not to bale out of the Mercedes with the briefcase. Helm reached cautiously for his door handle. The guard in the back was sitting on his left, holding the gun in his left hand, forearm across his body, cupping his left elbow with his right hand. The muzzle was no longer pointing at Helm. The bumpy road had jolted it off-line.
Helm twitched the briefcase up off his lap, striking the gun barrel, as he pulled the door handle. Explosion! The driver screamed as a bullet crashed through his shoulder. The taxi swerved violently. Helm released his death-grip on the briefcase as the force of inertia threw him against and out of the door. Something sharp hit him on the back of the head as he was landing heavily in a bush. Thorns tore at his face and hands as he rolled through it.
His mental count had reached six when a battering wave of heat and sound flattened him, driving every ounce of breath from his battered body. Erlich had been lying about the twenty seconds. Robert Helm knew that he had just been blown up for the second time in three days.
The taxi was a ball of flames with thick, oily smoke rolling up to the black clouds. Helm trod on something hard as he struggled to his feet. It was the guard's pistol. He found a catch at the base of the handle. The magazine slid out. A slot at the back showed him a dozen or more cartridges in a double column. He worked the slide to eject the cartridge in the chamber. He picked it up, dusted it and stuffed it back onto the magazine. After replacing the magazine in the pistol's handle, he pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked harmlessly. The weapon was safe now for someone who didn't want to be bothered with safety catches.
The pistol was a Beretta it said so on the badge on the grip, below a design of three circles and three arrows. Helm dropped the weapon into a side pocket of his ruined leather jacket. Thorns had ripped apart the black surface layer, leaving him covered with white stripes, like a negative zebra.
Helm realized suddenly that he could see an awful lot of his surroundings. Someone had pushed back the low hills to reveal more bushes and rocky outcrops. The black clouds were thinning. Sunset lay a further ten minutes in the future and the last gasp of the day was brightening up. Helm remembered that the clouds had blown in from the east coast. If he followed them inland, he would have more room to manoeuvre.
The Land Rover roared back into sight as Helm was moving away from the road. He took a moment to realize that the flashes of light meant that the terrorists were shooting at him. Crouching, he ran for a low hill. With some cover at his back, he veered to the right. He felt like the star of the umpteenth remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps. The roar of a shotgun made him dive for cover. This was no way to treat a man with tired blood and waxy lumps.
Helm crouched, breathless and shivering, heart thudding furiously, behind the doubtful protection of a thick bush. He heard another shot further away. He crawled to another hill and saw the trap.
Half a dozen figures were advancing toward him, well spread out and firing into every suspicious corner. Out in the wilderness, they could make any amount of noise without attracting attention. The Land Rover had circled ahead of him on a rough track. Helm could just make out the driver standing on the roof with a pair of binoculars.
He had a chance of survival if he could dodge the gang until it was too dark to be seen. Someone might even report a mysterious pillar of black smoke to the police, but he couldn't count on that. The kidnappers would have chosen an area well away from dwellings with telephones. Erlich had been guided into the area by radio. Helm remembered seeing a wire to his earphone rising from the front passenger seat.
Helm's orders were to stay put when he was released and wait to be picked up by the Makronotis organization. The end of its transmissions would have told Erlich that his bug had been found. A column of black smoke in the sky would tell him that 'Scottie' was history along with the money and some of the kidnappers. Anyone sent to investigate would be in no hurry to witness the horror of a collection of bits of bodies. Helm had personal experience of just how stomach-churning that treat could be. His salvation, if there was to be one, was in his own hands now.
He continued to move to his right, scuttling in a crouch along gullies, crawling when he thought that he might be exposed to either the man on the Land Rover or the line of hunters. He was glad that it was summer. Sweat was pouring off him in the dying heat of the day but the bushes were thick with leaves and they gave him abundant cover.
He came to a rocky area an outcrop of weathered edges thrust up by some ancient act of geological violence. Helm glanced at his watch as he decided how best to proceed. He had been on the run for twenty minutes and his clothing showed it. The elbows and forearms of his leather jacket were a mess of scuffed shreds with ground-in dust. He had worn right through the right knee of a brand new pair of jeans. The left knee was just white threads. Dust stuck to his clothes and sweating body gave him a natural camouflage.
The sun had set. More black clouds were blowing in from the Aegean Sea. He would become more difficult to spot in the darkness. Staying in that area much longer was becoming increasingly dangerous for a bunch of the terrorist kidnappers, however. Helm had turned that into an article of faith. He was expecting them to race away in their Land Rover at any second.
Resting was a seductive luxury. Helm had burned up an enormous amount of nervous energy during his flight and his blood was having to work nearly twice as hard to supply his tissues with oxygen. His nose and mouth felt clogged with dust. He kept having to cough into his handkerchief to deaden the sound and the mint imperials were turning his mouth into a sticky mess. He had learned that fear cripples the hunted.
In theory, there were too few hunters to cover such a vast search area. All that they had been able to do was fan out from the burning taxi. In theory, Helm could find somewhere to hide and let the hunt pass over him.
The distant roar of a shotgun made that plan seem suicidal. If the terrorists were shooting at random, they were sure to hit someone with Robert Helm's rotten luck. After all, he was the idiot who had turned up for a meeting at a café that these same terrorists had selected for demolition.
The roar and an impact came simultaneously. Helm gasped with pain and dived forward to circle a slab of rock. His right hand felt numb. He had been hit by a ricochet from a shotgun fired at random. His luck was as bad as ever.
Helm wondered if the rapid movement and his noisy scramble had given away his position. Directed by an inner instinct for survival, he snagged his handkerchief on a rocky spike, then backed into the shelter of a split in a massive boulder. He took the pistol out of his pocket and eased back the hammer to the firing position.
After an eternity, he heard a scuffling sound, then someone singing softly to himself. The hunters, he realized, had no need of silence. They had guns and clearly, they didn't know that the fugitive was armed too. Acquiring a pistol was a lucky accident, which proved that Helm's luck wasn't entirely bad. He held his breath as a long, dark tube moved into view on his right, and continued to move past him.
A man in a black sweatshirt and dark trousers went straight to the handkerchief. He took a radio out of his hip pocket. Helm pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger. There was a loud click. The terrorist stiffened. Helm gave himself up for lost.
As the terrorist began to turn, Helm remembered that he had to work the slide to load the pistol. Everything seemed to be happening in dream-like, treacle-bound, slow motion. The terrorist banged his radio against the shotgun. Helm's first shot went wild. He had missed from three yards! The terrorist realized that he had to drop the radio to get his finger on the shotgun's trigger. Helm's second shot hit him in the face. The shotgun fired straight up into the air.
Helm fired twice more, hitting the man in the chest. He flopped straight back. As the radio squawked excitedly, Helm advanced on the still figure, pistol extended, finger ready on the trigger. The man was lying on his back with his mouth and eyes open. He had a raw, red spot beside his nose. Helm just stood and stared down at him. It was the psychopath, who had taken such delight in shoving his shotgun into a prisoner's face at the rendezvous.
Helm had seen TV cop shows by the thousand. He had seen police officers portrayed as emotionally destroyed after having to kill an armed and dangerous criminal. Helm could feel glad only that a thug was dead and proud that he had done away with him. He had wanted to take the shotgun off the man earlier so that he could hit him with it. He was delighted to have taught him an even more lasting lesson less than an hour later.
The radio was still squawking. Helm heard the Land Rover's engine start. Keeping the terrorist in view he wasn't entirely sure that the man was dead yet he worked his way round the rocks until he could see the vehicle. The rest of the gang were making their way to the track by their most direct route.
The Land Rover moved off, picking up men as they reached the track. It disappeared into distant gloom, showing no lights. Helm dropped the shotgun into a crack in the rocks and retrieved his scruffy handkerchief. He was sure that the terrorist was dead now. No one could keep his eyes open for so long without blinking.
Helm dragged the body to the edge of a slope and rolled it out of sight among the bushes. When he had been through the performance of making his self-loading pistol safe by returning the cartridge in the chamber to the magazine, he crawled to a rise in the rocks.
The taxi was still smoking but the main fire had burned itself out. There was a Jeep-clone with a high roll-bar on the road, about twenty yards from the wreck. As he watched, a similar vehicle arrived. Helm set off in the opposite direction from the road.
If the new arrivals were cops, he had no wish to answer their questions not with a body in the shrubbery and a recently fired pistol in his pocket. If Herr Erlich had turned up to view the after-effects of his bomb, Helm felt uneasy about asking him for a lift. He was afraid that Erlich would take the opportunity to dispose of someone who had lost a million dollars and who knew too much.
Civilization had barely touched the wilderness in the triangle bounded by Athens, Marathon in the north and Rafina on the east coast. Its main feature was a mountain over 3,500 feet high. Helm had no idea where he was in relation to Athens, but he was bound to reach a major road eventually if he headed west. He could remember that much from the road map supplied with the car for his first job which had also gone up in flames, he recalled.
As long as he could see the clouds moving overhead, he knew where west lay unless the wind had shifted. He found a rocky track that seemed to lead in the right direction. When lightning carved a luminous path down to too-close hills and thunder shook the air around him, he began to look for shelter. He wasn't used to such emptiness.
Robert Helm was a confirmed townie. He kept expecting to see the lights of the odd cottage, or moving headlights that would guide him to a road. Buying a lift to civilization was no problem for someone who could hand out fifty-dollar traveller's cheques. But finding someone to take them was.
He spotted a distant glow as the rain started. It was like standing under a hosepipe. He was soaked from head to toe in seconds. Shivering and thoroughly miserable, he made for the beacon. It went out when he was fifty yards away.
Helm continued to walk in what he hoped was the right direction with his arms extended, wrists crossed in front of his face to intercept any branches and sliding his feet to avoid falling into any more hollows or tripping over more rocks.
He walked into a stone wall, jarring his left wrist. Unhelpful lightning lit the sky a couple of seconds too late. He felt his way round to a doorway, guided, when he turned a corner, by a yellow glow at the bottom of the door.
An ancient man with a shaggy, white beard and a ragged pullover responded to a stranger pounding on his door. Helm stood there in the lamplight, looking soggy and pathetic. The old man waved him over to the bright blaze of a wood fire and slammed his door on a dismal night. Helm began to steam.
"I got lost," he said, hoping that his host understood English. If not, he would have to try his patchy Greek.
"English?" The old man had a creaky voice.
"Irish." Helm remained in character. "But I've always live in England. Good job I found you."
They had to raise their voices to compete with the rain, which sounded as if it was coming down with enough force to wash away solid rock.
"Tourist?" the old man looked doubtfully at the wreck of Helm's expensive leather jacket and his jeans. Even wet through, which makes everyone look distressed, it was obvious that Helm had done some hard travelling.
"Have you ever heard of Phileros Makronotis?" Helm decided that he had nothing to lose by telling part of the truth to some old tramp out in the wilds.
The old man laughed. "What do you English say? That is a silly question."
"Well, I was doing a job for him. I don't know if you heard an explosion and some shooting earlier? Some terrorists kidnapped his granddaughter. I paid them the ransom, then things got a bit hairy."
"I don't know her name. About ten, with red hair and she has her hair in a pony-tail. She treated the whole thing like a game."
"Sophia. His favourite."
The old man turned to a cupboard. Helm noticed that the rain had either slackened or stopped. It was no longer drumming on the roof. The old man offered him a blanket. It smelled a bit ripe but Helm could hardly afford to be choosy.
He spread his wet clothes in front of the fire and stuffed his shoes with old newspaper from the pile used for lighting the fire. He had difficulty in believing that the old man's hut lay on a regular paper round.
Wearing the blanket like a sarong, he turned his attention to the contents of his pockets. His wallet was damp on the outside because rain had soaked down his sweatshirt to the lining of his leather jacket.
The old man handed him a piece of towel to dry the wallet and the plastic cases for his traveller's cheques and his passport. Helm gave his host the simple pleasure of holding the traveller's cheques in front of the fire to dry them.
The rest of his possessions could stand a soaking a comb, keys, loose change and his mirror sunglasses. The old man bumped against the leather jacket as he moved away from the fire with the dry traveller's cheques. He looked thoughtfully at Helm as he weighed the heavy pocket in his hand.
"A gun," said Helm. "From one of the kidnappers. It probably needs drying too. And cleaning."
The old man dipped into the pocket. "Beretta. A new one. Mark ninety-two. I had a Mark thirty-four in the war."
"You can have it, if you want."
"Yes?" The old man looked surprised. Then he stuck out a wrinkled hand. "Demosthenes Taxacaris."
"John Scott." Helm shook the hand, then turned away to sneeze wetly into the fire.
Taxacaris produced a bottle of cheap brandy and poured into two mugs. "Cheers, old boy."
They drank a toast to each other. Then the bottle was empty. Taxacaris looked at it regretfully, then he screwed the cap on and deposited it in a corner with other empties. He had his own, personal bottle bank.
"Pity there's not a shop nearby where we can get another," said Helm.
"I have some ouzo."
"I'm not too keen on that." Helm considered the Greek national drink a poor cousin of Pernod.
"The village is just three miles," said Taxacaris. "If I had money."
"I only got here this afternoon. Pity I didn't get a chance to cash any of my traveller's cheques." Helm had 6,000 drachmas, but the notes were in his blue, zip-up jacket back at the villa.
"My friend in the village will cash them."
"Will he? Will the shops be open? It's after nine."
"When there is money," Taxacaris said wisely, "they are open. You need clothes and food. And a toothbrush."
"What about getting there, though? Three miles in the dark and the rain is no joke."
"I have motorbike. B.S.A. From the war."
"World War Two?" said Helm incredulously. "You mean it still runs?"
"I was mechanic then," Taxacaris told him with modest pride.
He opened a cupboard to reveal a plastic over-suit and an old leather helmet with goggles attached. Helm signed two fifty-dollar traveller's cheques. It was Makronotis' money and he could afford to be generous. Then he made a list of his sizes, using the international conversion tables in his diary. He needed a pair of jeans and a waterproof jacket of some sort. The rest would be all right when it dried.
Taxacaris wrapped the pistol in a piece of cloth and put it away in a cupboard. Helm spotted a portable radio as the old man was changing into his motor-cycling gear.
"Does this work?" Helm tried the on-switch.
"Dead batteries," said Taxacaris. "You want to hear the wireless?"
"I'd like to hear the news. The BBC news."
"Old wireless. Maybe new one would work better."
Helm signed another fifty-dollar traveller's cheque. It was only money. He felt rather guilty about sending a pensioner into a filthy night on a motorbike but the old man seemed happy enough about what he was doing and only he knew the way to the village. His motorbike sounded healthy enough as it puttered away from the hut.
Helm took stock of his surroundings. He was in a one-room hut with walls of local stone and a wooden ceiling. It had the great advantage that no one would ever think of looking for him there. The floor was dressed stone slabs a real craftsman's job, with each slab fitted exactly to its neighbour. There were neat curtains of blue denim at the windows. His beacon earlier had been the old man moving a curtain aside to look out at the rain.
An oil lamp, looking like a prop from a Western film, hung from three chains attached to hooks in the ceiling. Combined with the fire, it created a warm, friendly atmosphere. There was a shepherd's crook beside the door and a dog had looked at him suspiciously from its box in a corner before going back to sleep.
There was a two-tier bunk against the wall opposite the window. The room looked very tidy. Helm assumed that everything had its place in one of the cupboards to create as much room to move as possible. Two wooden chairs were tucked under the table at the right-hand window. Helm could see no signs of another occupant.
He felt better when he had put on his dried clothing. Robert Helm had not been brought up to feel at home wearing nothing but someone else's blanket. His jeans would look all right with two large patches on the knees but the leather jacket was a write-off. Helm felt the loss keenly.
He had started to save for the jacket from his first salary payment. A large piece of his self-image had gone with the jacket. It was a good quality garment and he had kept it looking like new. The jacket announced that the wearer had good taste and high standards no more after a crawl through the Greek countryside with terrorists chasing him and death at his ragged elbows.
Demosthenes Taxacaris stopped his motorbike at the door while Helm was still brooding about his jacket. He had two cartons, which were wrapped in polythene sheet and perched on the pillion. One contained clothes, the other stock for a small pub. Helm found all sorts of odds and sods as he unpacked the clothes. The new radio was wrapped in a dark blue, nylon anorak, which looked sturdy and waterproof, and proved to be a good fit. The jeans were all right when Helm had created six-inch turn-ups.
He found a packet of toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste at the bottom of the carton, a pack of disposable razors, a camping knife, fork and spoon set, two china mugs with pictures of the Parthenon, antiseptic cream, cotton gauze and surgical tape for his scratches, and two glass tumblers.
Taxacaris made a concoction of chopped onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and tinned corned beef, bound together with beaten egg and seasoned liberally with his supply of fresh herbs. Helm drank two-thirds of a bottle of red wine. The old man helped him out with the rest when he had finished his own bottle.
A large meal, the wine and the exhaustion of fleeing for his life caught up with Helm while the coffee was brewing. He brushed his teeth and retired to the top bunk, leaving the old man sampling his bottle of Courvoisier. Demo Taxacaris had expensive tastes in brandy when someone else was buying.
It was bright morning when Helm opened his eyes again. There was no sign of the old man or his dog. The new radio was hanging on a nail at the head of his bunk. Helm switched on and tuned in to the BBC World Service. The announcer was working through some sports reports. Then someone began to play an acoustic guitar.
Helm dressed slowly, feeling stiff and sore. He had been asleep for eleven hours but he still felt tired. The feeling would pass. Anaemia had made him a slow starter. He found a sink that he hadn't noticed the night before. He washed and shaved in what felt like icy spring-water.
The fire was out but his host had a bottled-gas stove. Helm made some coffee, hoping that boiling would kill any bugs in the water, and fried two eggs, refusing to think about salmonella. He ate the eggs with chunks of unbuttered break, feeling quite proud of his ability to rough it.
He was finishing his coffee when the international news round-up got round to Greece. The police had found the bodies of two terrorists in a burnt-out car twenty kilometres from Athens. Weapons found in the wreck, and the driving licence of an Irish tourist found nearby, had set the police on the trail of a connection between the IRA and the current plague of Arab bombers.
Helm dived for his wallet. John Scott's driving licence had gone. Some light-fingered bandit had lifted it the previous evening and then discarded it before beginning the hunt for its owner. Throwing away a document that belonged to a doomed man made a lot of sense. The bandit's prudence had put Helm into serious trouble, however.
He had no confidence in the Greek police. They would throw him into a tiny, dank cell with about four dozen other unfortunates, if the experience of other arrested Britons was general. They might teach a violent lesson to someone who had sneaked into their country on a false passport to spread madness and mayhem.
He couldn't rely on Phileros Makronotis for help now. Helm had lost one of his millions and he had accounted for just three of eight known kidnappers. Rather than admit that he had paid a ransom to terrorists, the billionaire was liable to deny everything and leave Helm to save himself. If he died in gaol, Robert Helm would never enjoy his £75,000. The alternative to surrendering to depression was to think of a way of fighting back. Unfortunately, good ideas weren't exactly queuing up to be heard.