Lacour tensed. Something rustled... Down there, in the trees.
The noise came indistinct again and he froze halfway through turning. He
calculated the instants to reach the bag, the zipper, the Browning. He
reminded himself that was part of the earlier calculations, to use a weapon
that could plausibly have been brought into the country years before as
an old soldier's souvenir. A check on its serial number would have revealed
its manufacture in Belgium in 1943. A Barratt 12.5mm semiautomatic rifle
with a telescopic image intensifier would have been better suited to the
job, and there would have been no need to get so close to the target with
a weapon accurate from a mile away, but the unexpected had to be taken
Plausible now; impossible with a sniper's weapon. Even if the police here
had not seen a Barratt, every officer had heard of IRA contracts done with
one shot from an unseen gunman too far away to identify who he was or where
he was. One round heavy enough to counter wind deflection and errors in
elevation up to a mile off. One man working patiently, on his own, so far
away that he was already out of the cordon before anybody thought of putting
it in place.
No, the Browning would suffice.
Even on the other side of the world he had planned carefully, from the
names on the passports, the ordinary maps from the Automobile Association,
gloves made in Taiwan and bought from a discount warehouse in Auckland,
spare change in brightly coloured Australian banknotes, a used Air Niugini
ticket under the rubber mat on the floor of the Jeep, major and minor details,
down to thick grey socks any tramper could have bought from any outdoor
Only his eyes moved, out to the limit of his peripheral vision, then down,
sweeping, across. Out on Lake Wakatipu a small boat came into view past
the end of Frankton Arm, skimming across the ripples. It spun and left
a tight circle of foaming wake settling in the ruffled water behind it
as the tangent of its new direction came straight into Queenstown.
"Sure, anything you want. It's my treat."
"Great, let's have some fun. We can gawk at the loopies for a while. You
know how I always like looking at new faces."
"Professionally?" Mike Hayes looked ahead as he spoke, checking a side
road for traffic before closing the gap on a stationwagon crawling along
in the gravel. A couple on a scooter wobbled out of a motel entrance and
he whispered under his breath as he avoided them.
"Sometimes." Brigitte Hammond said. She had her feet up on the dashboard
and her hands stuffed in her jacket pockets. Her butt was sore after a
hard fall on ice at Coronet Peak and she had twisted an ankle before a
binding gave way after a rude Australian slammed into her on a snowboard.
The ankle was behaving all right now but the Range-Rover's stiffened suspension
wasn't helping her bum any. Tourists dawdled through the mall on Ballarat
A tour coach bumped around a tight corner, one rear wheel up on the kerb
to manoeuvre through the thickening traffic. Two Japanese honeymooners
on mountain bikes pulled out of the way at the last second as the big blue
and white Volvo coach growled around a doubleparked Ferrari with dark slushy
mud from the Crown Range road caked on its tyres and sprayed down its rosso
corsa flanks. A little girl in a pink jacket and shiny boots tugged at
a fluffy puppy on a short white leash. She was upset that the dog was trying
to do its business on the pavement. The crowd parted for her tolerantly
and an older boy looked on in brotherly disgust as he waited for the dog
to finish before he could drag little sister back to their hotel and complain
about her to their parents again.
Across the lake a steam whistle moaned, its echoes carried near in the
wind then cut off short. The Lady of the Lake, the TSS Earnslaw, was leaving
Mt Nicholas, bringing another load of tourists back in time for dinner
after an afternoon playing high country cocky at Walter Peak sheep station.
"Aren't you glad we found the time?"
"Time, eh? I never seem to have any in Wellington," Hayes said. "I'm glad
I don't live in Auckland, so I guess this is one doomed union we have here,
"I suppose so, unless we go all adult about it and compromise. I could
shift the agency to Taupo and do all my fronting by fax and videoconferencing
from some beauty spot beside the lake, and if you cut down just a bit you
could do most of your work from home too, couldn't you?" Brigitte grinned.
"That way you wouldn't be exposed to those undergraduate temptresses looking
for better grades. They'll do anything for an A, won't they?" She summed
him up again. She still couldn't decide how she felt about him. She knew
what she told her friends. What she told her mother was different, designed
to keep her from being too inquisitive. The plain version of the story
was that he was 34 and still single, despite hints from too many others,
especially his mother. He was also getting selfish, Brigitte thought. He
was just over six feet tall and in pretty good shape but inclined to laziness,
or maybe he just needed something more challenging to do. He could never
forget the number one obsession, rugby, with two seasons on the wing then
one at first five for the All Blacks, bowing out at the end of the second
last tour with three tries against Ireland's best at Thomond Park on a
sloppy day in Limerick. Since then nobody let him forget. Boys recognised
him in the street and asked for his autograph. Strangers in bars bought
him drinks and bored him with stories of what they might have achieved
if life had turned out differently, with "a break, mate, you just never
get the breaks".
Philippe Lacour had reached Queenstown by a longer route, through the storm
that had lashed Southland and Fiordland and petered out as it moved north.
Days and nights were chilled, streams had frozen over, bleak silent landscapes
were repeated across empty plains and barren valleys. Across the Maniototo
plain and through the Clutha Valley, trees laden with ice reflected shades
of sunset. In the stone-walled gorges across Central Otago, back roads
were lit up in alloys of copper against charcoal hills.
Scenes from the trip returned; a tight corner dropping steeply around a
spur before a slushy bridge past Rocklands; sleet hammering into the Jeep
on a track past another frozen lake in a dark twisting valley behind ancient
gold mines and dredges rusting in icy ponds in the Lammerlaw hills behind
Beaumont. From the swamps at Outram his route had lifted high on tussock
- covered moorland above Hyde and Middlemarch, crossing the Rock and Pillars
in snowdrifts deeper than the wheels, where twenty years before the maps
had shown a dotted line of rough track but only the older folk and the
shepherds on the sheep stations remembered the stories of pioneering days
and only in summer were the trails supposed to be passable.
Drifts of snow stopped him on the Old Dunstan Road, the goldminers' route
from Dunedin, where the sailing ships brought tens of thousands of hopeful
diggers seeking gold, bright fine gold, on the rich claims a century and
a half ago. But the same snowstorms that killed off the weak in those days
set Lacour to digging, winning progress yard by sweated yard, his extremities
frozen but his clothing soaked in perspiration, till the Jeep crawled into
Paerau and reached a short stretch of newer made road.
Still two days to make Queenstown; he had earned every mile. Sitting up
against a rock, he watched the scene in the town below. Queenstown and
its incivilities were a long way from discreet afternoons with Delphine
at the Regence Etoile in Paris. A man his age, 49, and he could keep up
with Sophie as well as Delphine. He gave himself a compliment and promised
himself another reward. Never together... the idea... he smiled. Sir Bretton
Clifford and his kind, lording it over such a place as if it were of importance...
Lacour snorted. Quelle cambrousse. Clifford would self- destruct. His own
weaknesses would see to it.
Once he discovered that the phone in the office on Fuk Lo Tsun Road, in
the dirtier part of Kowloon, went unanswered, once he knew Lacour was gone,
Clifford's pride would not let him rest till he had hunted Lacour down.
The view was limited, from halfway up a steep cut in the trees on Bob's
Peak. Down there an arcade in the mall sparkled neon and lines of streetlights
stuttered on. Across to his left, where a green army truck drove into town
slowly, ahead of a cavalcade of beige government cars and a motley procession
of tourists, a motel sign beside Frankton Road had lost a letter, leaving
a dazzling red 'Mote' flickering. He had been in that slum too many nights,
so too many people knew he existed.
On the first morning he had taken a coach up the winding Coronet Peak road.
He skied a few runs but the boots from the hire shop chafed his ankles
into raw meat and the long lift queues meant too many people with too much
time and too many eyes behind their Vuarnets, cheap mirror lenses, clumsy
yellow goggles, Carreras.
Any of them might remember...
To any observer, he was on holiday... He stopped at noon and killed a couple
of hours on the deck outside the cafe with his boots off, his feet up and
his ankles aching, a cold beer and a magazine on the table and the anonymity
of Joe Cool shades like all the other bunnies. He spent the time watching
girls and learners falling over. As a breeze got up he followed colourful
hang-gliders, bright against the snow and a clear blue sky, soaring over
the valley to Arrowtown and swooping back in wide loops to land by the
derelict sod homestead at Speargrass Flat.
Late that afternoon he had started exploring Queenstown on foot, wrapped
up against the wind in a sheepskin jacket and fur-lined boots. He took
the long way round the gardens on the point beside the bay and the short
trip across the waterfront, watching children throwing breadcrumbs for
the giant trout that circled under the jetty. He sat there for a while
and read the Mountain Scene newspaper.
Staying outdoors so long without moving was colder than necessary, so he
spent five minutes in the cafe upstairs in Ballarat Street where the museum
used to be. After dark he checked out the bars, quickly, no more than half
an hour in each, and walked back to the motel. A working girl in a thin
vinyl coat suggested a "party" but the frozen assets she showed him under
the cheap coat made him think of necrophilia. Reruns on the flickering
TV, a leftover dogsickburger dribbling out of the microwave and another
bottle of the local vinegar: not a lot of entertainment. That was the last
sorry detail, he couldn't even get a decent drop to drink in this place.
No phone call. He could not trust the cellphone. Poor atmospherics were
one thing but it was too easy to listen in. The local criminals probably
did it all the time to see who was where, who was away on holiday, whose
houses were empty and what was happening to occupy the police in Gore,
Cromwell, Invercargill and the other towns within striking distance when
the overworked force in Queenstown couldn't cope.
No sign of Andrew Spence.
One of Clifford's dogs, no doubt.
Lacour would have preferred to spend the time waiting in one of the bars
but again, there were too many eyes.
Back at the motel he snatched short naps between blasting eruptions as
the drunks came back from the nightclubs and staged drag races in the parking
lot. In the hours after midnight the noises changed, to impromptu parties,
fighting, and screaming from the frazzled blonde in the end unit who had
arrived on her own. She was not alone for long. He was tempted to ask her
how much, but decided to avoid the possibility that she was straight and
might be offended. She would remember him for sure if she was.
The motel was a hole but had the standard blessing of its kind, shelter
for the whispering mutant creatures who arrived in the dark and left before
dawn. Nobody commented within his hearing about a foreigner staying on
his own but he knew anyone could have noticed. Mr Whoever ordered early
breakfast with the multiple choice card left on his doorknob each evening.
The Jeep registered to a company in Invercargill remained parked around
the back with mud splashed down its sides and caked over the back door
and number plates, nothing to connect anyone to anyone else. No doubt the
cleaning staff liked a squint in guests' bags each morning as they did
their rounds, but their screaming tyrant boss could sing for his high-season
tariff after this and the bacon fat would congeal on the plates in the
formica kitchenette before any of them knew he was gone.
He was tempted but knew he would settle up. Again, they would remember
if he disappeared or did anything else unusual.
Four nights and nothing left behind. To stay longer would be a risk.
He fumbled the gloves off to blow some warmth back into his fingers. His
back ached where a rock had dug in. He squirmed around and propped himself
at another angle against another rock slippery with lichen. He looked up
and saw figures moving far above him on a balcony outside the Skyline but
he knew he was in shadow and too far down to be seen. They would be looking
out at the view, across the lights of Queenstown, the dark expanse of Lake
Wakatipu and the outline of mountains, not down into the gloom where he
The cutting through the trees rose past him steeply to the base of a tall
pylon. A line of these T-shaped towers stretched up the hill, carrying
steel cables that curved according to some mathematical formula of weight,
distance and relative height up to the restaurant and its fairground lights.
For a moment the air was still and carried up a murmur from Queenstown.
He looked down and listened, turning his head slowly to identify directions.
Tourists were roaming around the town and staggering off to more of their
apres ski games, nothing nearer. A big motorbike slowed down for a corner
somewhere on the road to Arrowtown and accelerated away, snarling each
time the revs climbed, quiet for an instant as they dropped to pick up
the next gear. A nearer and more distinct rumble drifted through the trees,
subsonic muttering from the ventilators at the gondola terminal. Lacour
realised the noise had been there all the time, familiar and absorbed into
He kept his eyes on the terminal building, reached behind for his airline
bag and struggled with its zip to extract the Leitz binoculars his grandfather
had looted from some dead Boche officer at the liberation of Paris. Clothes
were disposable, passports used and discarded, luggage abandoned in hotel
rooms from Acapulco to Zanzibar. But he never left home without the binoculars.
They were so old that the black enamel was wearing off, leaving brass highlights
on the focussing rings. He shivered; the binoculars twitched. He braced
his arms against his chest and narrowed the view to grainy overlapping
circles that shifted and separated. To the side of the terminal was a brightly
lit parking area formed by a turning at a gravel dead end at the top of
Brecon Street. Another car arrived with a family group heading up the hill
for dinner. He followed the six of them into the pillared entrance of the
terminal and out in a blue gondola, with a pair of small twins first and
their father last. Lacour looked past the terminal, street by street, across
the town. At a jetty opposite one of the waterfront hotels, a row of cabin
lights on the TSS Earnslaw left the bow of the old steamer in shadow, with
faces at some of the windows. A man in a dinner jacket and a scarf round
his neck walked the gangplank under a lamp by the ticket office.
Lacour shifted sideways, slipped, and left the binoculars hanging by their
strap till he could secure his grip on an angular rock. When he recovered
and looked below again, two more cars were already parked. A van nosing
in slowly beside the terminal turned its lights off. The nearest vehicle
was a Holden Commodore with a ski rack on its roof and a hire firm sticker
in the back window. Past the van was a Landcruiser with chrome spoked wheels
and a spotlight bar across the cab. Next, slowly wheezing up the hill,
came an old Bedford ambulance, long since out of commission but still in
its grey and white livery, shabby and dented with the front bumper missing
and no hubcaps. It disgorged five laughing youngsters who backslapped their
way into the terminal. A minute later a gondola climbed near, its cable
sagging before the steep lift to the pylon above him. The next gondola
was swaying as it reached the first pylon. The loopies, as diehard locals
called tourists while taking them as painlessly as possible to their credit
card limits, had choreographed a dance that took them leaping from side
to side in unison, seeing how far the gondola could rock. Lacour smiled.
In the Commodore, the orange flame of a cigarette lighter lit and was extinguished.
Seconds later the passenger door opened. A big guy in a dark parka and
bobble hat got out, turned to say something to whoever was left inside,
and walked away into the trees and shadows by the motor museum. Inside
the car, a cigarette tip glowed, lowered in an arc and curved back up to
a face in shadow. One window opened and a fan of smoke wisped over the
roof, curling over the side of the car and dissipating into the night.
The face in shadow turned and the window closed. The face turned forwards.
The car backed away from the building and stopped sharply with its brakes
locked, the noise of its tyres skidding in gravel reaching up to Lacour
a fraction of a second after he saw the car pitch back on its springs and
jerk to a halt. It took off just as fast, leaving long skid marks and dust
that drifted through the trees and settled quickly.
Lacour was on his back trying to think of anything except the cold when
he heard voices. Someone in a gondola was yelling, "No, don't, you fat
berk," and others were laughing their heads off. He watched the gondola
climb, fading into the shadows up the hill. Indistinct faces stared back
over the lake. One of them tried three times to light a cigarette or maybe
it was a damp joint. Another car arrived in the parking lot, an older metallic
green Porsche Targa with the early forged wheels and a ski rack up the
back. He had the binoculars tracking it as it nosed in fast and the driver
lost it completely. The Porsche spun and gravelblasted the parked cars,
hanging the tail out all the way out of view, the distinctive moan of its
flat six still clear through the trees.
Lacour rested the weight of the binoculars on their strap, reached over
and dragged his bag nearer. Buried in it was a plastic torch. Taped back
to back and folded into a side pocket were two faxed photographs of a face
he'd learned by heart: Andrew Keith Spence. Lacour gave himself a minute-long
refresher course studying the photos, then examined the Browning wrapped
with its silencer and spare clips in a rustling sheet of bubble packing.
The silencer went on crookedly at first. On the second attempt he backed
it around till its fine threads met those on the barrel with the softest
of clicks as the first tapers married, then he screwed it on and nipped
up the thread, adjusted the sights and laid the weapon down carefully.
He picked the binoculars up and kept them aimed downhill till he grew tired
of pushing them into painful eyesockets and held them a fraction of an
inch clear. Two more groups and an elderly couple left the terminal. A
short while later a young Japanese woman on her own walked away slowly,
looking back up the hill. Lights stopped part way up Brecon street, near
the motor museum, but they were too far away for him to identify the vehicle
by their pattern. He checked the time, 10.48, and considered giving up
to go back to the thin walls of the motel unit and the continual arguments
of his honeymooning neighbours.
The lights moved closer. They came into the clear, a red Commodore... the
same car. One in front... it turned in and stopped... another in the back...
grey hair... maybe. The passenger turned. He climbed out of the car with
a coat folded over his left arm. He stood holding the door, talking across
the roof to the driver, who was facing away into the trees. It was indeed
Spence, looking prosperous, too well tailored to be a public servant, 45ish,
maybe 50. He turned and put the coat on, a Burberry or Aquascutum. The
face again, to be sure.
Lacour watched him take the twelve steps to the terminal. The driver stayed
at the car. He was a short lump of gristle in his mid-30s, wearing a leather
bomber jacket, a heavy rollneck jersey, stubbly beard a fortnight since
his last shave, and wire-rimmed glasses.
Lacour put the binoculars down, relieved to be rid of them. A yellow gondola
started uphill, creaked over the first pulley and joined the steep haul
away from the light. He waited. Well out of earshot from the terminal,
past the third pylon, he guessed. He'd heard someone else in the pines
but that was a fair while ago now and he wasn't going to let that bother
him. Probably a couple looking for privacy. Merde, he'd do any bothering
anyone was planning.
When the gondola arrived almost level he aimed one through the roof to
drive those inside to the floor. As it rose he dared a flash with the torch.
No faces at the windows. Another three rounds just above the floor divided
the area inside too small to support human existence.
When the gondola arrived overhead he had a new clip in and a two-handed
grip straight up. One in the centre of the floor, two misses at the edge.
Forty-nine nights since the nocturnal friend rang again and barked out
the name. "We don't want any thanks and we don't want to hear from you,
Mr Lacour. You can have Spence as a present from us. He just keeps on pissing
people off, right? He really blew it this time, didn't he? There's a coupla
photos, they're pretty ratshit Polaroids but we can't do any better right
now. They're in the mail, okay? Just so you can be sure who you're getting.
They ain't very good but they're the best we can do at short notice. You
can be damn sure nobody's gonna miss him."
Lacour leaned against a boulder and took all the time in the world, two
careful seconds, to take aim and decide on a new pattern of fire. The gondola
was lifting past a pylon now and almost levelling off.
A brand new clip of softnosed handloads for Spence where his Crown Law
Office heavies couldn't save him and the undertaker would need to do some
clever patching. Forty-nine years on, he didn't have time to work out that
he had chosen the wrong side of the ledger as 70 grains of linotype alloy
mushroomed through his jaw, palate, and upward through the cerebellum and
the night lit up with a starburst, the last thing he ever saw..