April Devere: Think Outside The Box

(Note: This is a preview version. I'm currently writing a series of longer stories about the daughter of April Devere, and sidetracked into a couple of short stories about April herself, of which this is the first. It will eventually move onto a more permanent website, but for now, those very few reading this get a sneaky first read. Some of the speech may look a bit odd - for translated speech I'm using the typographical conventions of the language concerned, which in this case is Polish. Speech in Polish is bracketed by double-quotes like English, but the opening quotes are at the baseline of the text. Hopefully this should be fairly obvious in the text).

I checked the corridor before I made my break for it - at least, that's what I told everyone afterwards. The simple truth of the matter is that after the fact it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference whether I checked it or not. I braced myself against the door and launched out into the corridor, and half a second later I was crashing into the carpet with Romanov's tranquilliser dart sticking out of my left arm and the contents of the dart pumping round my veins. I felt everything, and my body struggled to make sense of the confused signals that poured out of my head.

Move, legs! My brain ordered. Move, arms!

But nothing moved, nothing except the heart that was thundering in my chest, and the lungs that drew in ragged breaths through the carpet, bringing me the smell of nylon and cleaning solution. The same carpet that had burnt my face as it hit it, and was tingling under my right wrist where the batteries on my watch (I would learn later) were shorting through the casing. I could feel everything, the shuddering in the floor as Romanov walked towards me, then the bowing of the floorboards as he stood there, silent, watching me. He was careful, Romanov - more careful than I'd just proved myself to be, and that was bad for me.

I hate careful people.

I much prefer arrogant people, they're easy to trick.

Romanov knelt down (I suppose, because I couldn't see him), and fumbled around at the back of my trousers, retrieving the M1911 from where I'd tucked it into my belt. I was a bit relieved, to tell the truth, because it had been rather uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I was annoyed to have lost the gun. I've always thought them very useful, especially in situations where I might have to kill someone. But you have to put these sort of things into perspective - people did manage to kill each other before the invention of gunpowder, and I was sure that there would be some other opportunity to finish Romanov off. Having had the sanctity of my clothing invaded, I was sure that I knew what was coming next, but then Romanov surprised me. He did nothing.

Here's an odd thing about my business - there's so much power going around, that you can't help but get a bit caught up in things sometimes. You know, power being an aphrodisiac and all that. You fight people - and that's pretty sexual in itself, but then you add to that all the spying, all the voyeurism. You've got people doing it for the money - and money's just a way of scoring sexual attraction. You've got people like me who are in it for Queen and Country, and you'd better believe that there's some kind of submission to a higher authority thing in there too. Even the people back in GCHQ and all those listening posts - they've got nothing better to do than sit at a desk all day listening to other people's secrets. It's like a hothouse for affairs, that place. Maybe it's just me, but I find that Bond novels tend to understate the average randiness of secret servicemen and women. Of course, Bond gets to actually act on his desires, so there's that. If sexual desire is the dynamite of spying, sexual frustration is the detonator.

Many a time, in a similar situation, I've played dead and waited for the opportunity that my opponent thinks is his (or in one case hers). Prone on the floor, as unconscious and defenseless as a new-born babe, I wait for that tell-tale flick of my skirt (I don't usually wear a skirt while I'm working but it's not unknown, and this is the kind of business that doesn't clock off when I do anyway) or that tentative hand groping a tit, and that's the point when my enemy is thinking about my tit and not about the rest of me. That's the moment when bits of me start to move, and bits of him start to break.

Of course, those were situations in which I was playing at defencelessness, whereas now I actually was defenseless. So I had mixed feelings about Romanov picking me up by the back of the belt and dragging me along the corridor. On the one hand I couldn't help being relieved that he hadn't decided to cop a quick feel. On the other hand, I was worried that, yet again, he was proving himself careful. In the long run, that was probably going to be more troublesome than a trivial act of lese majeste against the sovereignty of my bra.

The electric burn of cheap nylon carpeting against my face quickly became the number one thought in my brain, however, knocking all such tactical considerations aside. I felt a brief flash of sharp cold against my cheek as Romanov dragged me over the metal door jamb, and then we were in one of the other offices. A phone was ringing, loud and brash in the otherwise deserted factory. I wanted to turn to see where it was, but I could barely move my eyes, let alone my head. The phone clattered as he answered it.

„I have her” My Polish was good enough to decipher Romanov's accent.

A pause. I could just about hear the faint murmur of the caller's voice, but couldn't make out any words.

„Really? She's harmless for the next half an hour at least.”

Another pause.

„Well, you're the boss.”

Romanov hung up the phone, then dropped me unceremoniously onto the floor.
Fortunately, he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me up almost instantly. Unfortunately, he then hit me across the back of the head with something hard.

Something very hard.

When I came to, I was alone. I will say one thing for him, Romanov was undoubtedly the world's premiere expert in the art of coshing. I had gone out like a light, and now I woke up with little more than a bad headache. I've been knocked out before, and sometimes you can hardly think for hours afterwards. A Cuban girl once punched me so hard in the face that my cheekbone broke, and I was unconscious for a whole day. I regretted losing that fight - mainly, I have to admit, because I didn't enjoy being punched in the face - but also because of what happened next, which is that my backup shot her. Don't get me wrong, I'm not sentimental about killing. I've done it, and if I wasn't out of the business now I'd still be doing it. But I didn't do it often, and that girl - well, it's like putting down a dog because it bites a person. She believed in her country, and she was doing her job. She wasn't in it for the profit, or the opportunity to stand on people, or because she was one of those people who just liked to fight. She was a guard, and she was guarding. In a perfect world I'd have knocked her out, and she'd have woken up twenty-four hours later to find a burnt oil refinery. The refinery burnt, but she didn't wake up to see anything.

I was lying on my back in a large metal box, which I realised after a few moments must be a shipping container. It was closed, but an electric lamp was hanging from the ceiling. A pair of bare copper wires led from the lamp through a pair of Bakelite brackets to a blocky battery mounted in the corner of the container on shiny new brackets. The box smelt of rust and mold, and felt cold and damp beneath me. I was laid out flat with my hands over my head and my arms pressed against my ears, which made it difficult to hear anything around me. From the feel of my wrists, I was handcuffed - and tightly. No chance of getting out of them by wriggling, not unless I fancied losing the flesh from one hand.

No, not that day.

First things first. I pulled up my legs and rolled over, grabbing the bar my hands were cuffed around to prevent myself getting too cut on the cuffs. When I was over on my knees I pushed myself up a bit, and then upright when I found that my hands were free to move up the bar. It was slightly awkward having my hands crossed over, but I felt a bit better being off my back. I could also hear now - although not much. Seagulls calls, and a distant bell tolling irregularly. The signal bell on a buoy, perhaps? I was at a docks, then.

I sat, collecting my thoughts, for what must have been a good ten minutes. I had no way of knowing whether or not I was still in the city. If I didn't get in contact with him by sometime tomorrow, Johnson would make a break for it. That was the safety they'd agreed on, but that had been before I'd made my discovery at the factory. Now - well, it was poorer than even odds that Johnson would make it to the border alive, depending on who the mole was. I had to get out of here.

There was no easy way to get the cuffs off, I decided. It was probably more fruitful to try to break the bar that they were attached to. I examined it carefully - a metal tube, probably steel, similar circumference to my wrist. I tapped it, and guessed that it was probably a millimetre or two thick. Far too think for me to do anything to. At the bottom, however, the weld looked very bad (to my untrained eyes), and there was definitely some fairly heavy corrosion around it. I awkwardly pulled my crossed wrists this way and that, drawing the links of the cuffs across the back of the pipe like saw teeth. To my satisfaction some reddish dust was visible. That was something, although I still thought that it would take too long. I wondered if there was any way that I could reach the top - if the welder had cocked up the easy job down here, perhaps he'd had to stand with the torch above his head for the top of the bar - that would surely have been even worse, right?

I had just pulled myself to my feet when there was a loud clunk from the front of the container. I jumped away, and saw that the door was to my right as it began to creak open. Outside it was dark, but as the door swung further open I could see a smallish middle-aged man in front of the larger Romanov. Without any ceremony, Romanov gave him a violent shove with his left hand, sending him flying forwards into the container, tripping and falling onto his right shoulder. He hadn't had a chance to stop his fall - his hands had been cuffed behind him - and he cried out in pain as he hit the floor. His face was hidden from me.

Romanov took a step forward. The weak light from the electric bulb made him look sickly and yellow, but he wore a healthy and satisfied look on his face. I could see that he had a pistol - my pistol - in his right hand, and he waggled the muzzle at me carelessly.

„At last, we are all here. Now we have a little bit of an accident,” he said carefully, gesturing around him. „The container is lowered into the bay, and in a little while we have two less problems. Unless you have friends amongst the mermaids!” He laughed.

„What is all this about?” I asked. „Do you think I will talk?”

Romanov smiled.

„No, Panna Devere - I think you will drown.” He slammed the container door shut, and bolted it. I tell you, if I ever meet Sean Connery, he's got something coming.

For the next five minutes I worked furiously at trying to get myself out of the handcuffs. More rust was dislodged from the back of the pipe, but I could see that it was hopeless. My wrists were beginning to get raw, and I could tell that if I did them any more damage I would end up breaking the skin. I wasn't keen on the drowning I'd been promised, but neither did bleeding to death really meet with my hopes and dreams for the future. I gave up, turned around, and sat down with my back to the pipe, hands cupped behind my head (the only comfortable position I could put them in given the cuffs).

My companion hadn't moved at all. He was small for a man - probably a couple of inches shorter than me. I've never been attracted to small men. Simple prejudice, it seems to me now, and there was one that I should have given it a go with, but at the time I was young and thought that I had clear ideas of what I wanted in a mate. This one, though, seemed so helpless that I felt sorry for him - perhaps it was a bit of motherly instinct kicking in.

"We're going to die," he groaned. I looked over, but he hadn't moved at all.

"What?"

"We're going to die, aren't we?"

"That's the last thing I'm planning to do," I said grimly. Apparently the joke was lost on him, because he started to cry. I let myself slide down the side of the container and back into a sit. "Can you move?"

There was no response. At that moment a deafening rattling of chains began. I could feel the rumble through the walls of the container, then the whole thing shook as we began to lift off the ground.

"What's happening?" He rolled over, and I could see that he had been beaten harshly. His left eye was puffed up almost closed, and a crusty line of dribbled blood was visible on his cheek. I didn't recognize him. His accent was - what, American? Canadian?

"We're being lifted up."

"What?"

"Lifted. We're being lifted up, shipping container and all. I imagine what's going to happen is that in a minute the crane will stop lifting, and then.." The crane's brake kicked in suddenly, with a loud bang above us. "There we go. Now we'll swing out over the boat, or the quayside, or wherever it is that we are." With a sickening lurch the container slewed and then began to swing out, rolling my companion back over the other way. "Excellent. Can you get up?"

"I.. I think so."

"You might want to do it. There's a bar welded from floor to ceiling, right in front of you. Can you see that?"

"I see it."

"OK, get over there and pull yourself up."

"I'll try."

As he wormed his way to the other wall of the container, I got carefully to my feet. When I turned back, he'd made it to the bar and managed to pull himself upright.

"OK, now hold on, but not too tight."

"Right."

"And bend your knees."

"I.. why are we doing this?"

"Well, because in a minute they're going to drop us. If we're lucky, they'll let us down gently. If we're not quite so lucky, they'll drop us into the water. There's just a chance that Romanov is lying completely, and they're going to drop us on the quayside. Either way, when we hit whatever we're about to hit, it'll be better if our legs aren't straight."

Above us, the crane stopped moving, and we swung forward. As we reached the apex I was thrown away from the wall, then stopped by a painful yank to my wrists. We pendulumned to and fro for a few seconds, clasping tightly onto the bars. The oscillations died down. Silence.

"Remember, bend your knees."

The container groaned suddenly, the sound of weary metal. I wondered if it was going to break before it was released. That might be more dangerous, but any opportunity to escape was worth considering. If the roof snapped off, that might break the weld at the top of the pole I was cuffed to. Would I be able to swim with the cuffs on?

"Maybe this is just to scare us," the little man said hopefully.

"Maybe.." I nodded. "Is it working?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah, me too." I put my head back and yelled: "WE'RE SCARED! YOU WIN! YOU CAN LET US OUT NOW!"

My shouts echoed around the inside of the container.

Nothing happened.

"Nothing," he pointed out astutely. "They must be coming to let us down."

He was so hopeful that it was heartbreaking, and I'm afraid that I couldn't stop myself from laughing. He stood up, and smiled at me.

"Bend your knees," I told him.

His smile faded, and I nodded, and at that moment the container dropped, faster than you'd think a big box like that could drop. I know all about gravity, but there's something a bit disconcerting about being in freefall inside a big rusty metal box - it really does seem like you're falling down and up at the same time. For those few seconds I felt my body rising up, and I struggled to hold onto the bar to keep my feet on the floor and turning my so that when we hit the water I didn't....

We hit the water.

Both of us were slammed onto the floor of the container, our knees buckling forwards safely thanks to our preparation. We weren't so lucky in other ways, though - I was thrown down so fast that my arms were pulled down and out, the edges of the cuffs ripping open the skin on the sides of my wrists. My companion lost his grip on the bar and toppled sideways, and as the container bucked his head was thrown against the wall and he staggered back into the container and fell to the ground.

Our prison listed slightly and began to sink. The floor below me got noticeably colder, and I felt the chill begin to creep up the walls.

"Hey! Hey, are you OK?"

Nothing.


The box got steadily colder and colder over the next few minutes, and by the time the beaten man woke up it was getting decidedly nippy. I'd dressed for stealth rather than warmth when Romanov took me - black wool trousers and a charcoal blouse, but I'd left my powder-blue cardigan in my hotel room along with my concealed radio and the papers identifying me as Joanna Stridington-Batterly. I was pretty sure that Romanov did not know about the hotel room, and he would, at any rate, know me for who I was.

"Uhhh," my fellow prisoner groaned. I decided that I'd have to introduce myself and find his name out - which in hindsight was convenient, because nowadays whenever I tell this story I run out of ways to describe him at about this point in my narrative.

"You OK?" I asked.

"Uhh, kind of. I hit my head."

"Yeah, I got that. Listen, I'm April. April Devere."

"The April Devere?" He asked. I'm willing to admit that I hadn't expected that.

"Uh, I - maybe. Which April are you thinking about?"

"We knew you were working on Romanov, we just... Well, I didn't think I'd actually
meet you, that's all. Not here."

I looked around.

"Well, yes. I'm certainly wishing we could have been introduced under better circumstances."

"I'm Jonah Lewis."

"Jonah. Well, that's not ominous in any way."

"What? Oh." He was silent for a few seconds, then: "I don't think there are any whales near here."

Jonah rolled over and managed to pull his legs under him, then stood up with a kind of half-lunging half-jumping action that caused him to stagger forwards precariously. Just when I thought he was going to fall over again he veered into the wall and managed to hit it at enough of an angle that it held him up. The whole place began to list again slowly with the displaced weight.

"Get back to the bar," I told him, and he followed my order. "I'm cuffed to this one, but I think the weld is bad at the bottom. Can you help me try to break it?"

"I think I can do better than that," he told me. The bottom edge of his jacket began to jerk back and twist around his torso. When the bottom button reached his right hip the resistance was too much to move further, but with a few more yanks the buttons began to pop open. "Almost there," he said. "Ah, got it!"

He turned round and wiggled his right hand. Something small and metal glinted and jingled, and he turned back to me, smiling.

"I haven't managed to find out much," he told me, "but I did find out one thing. I found out where one of Romanov's goons stole twelve sets of handcuffs a month ago. Turns out the place uses cuffs from a manufacturer that only has four key patterns." He jingled his hand again, then with a click and a flourish he brought his hands around front, swapped the keys into his left hand and undid the remaining cuff. "Tada!" He smiled for a few seconds, then grimaced. "Shame we're still going to die."

"Let's put off the depression until we get to read our obituaries." I rattled my cuffs. "Would you mind?"

"Oh! Oh, yes!" He ran across the container, which caused it to start listing again, which in turn caused him to stop in confusion. "What's happening?"

"We're in the water. We have to try to keep balanced, or the container will start to tumble over. I'm not sure, but I think that might make it sink faster." He looked at me, unconvinced. "I don't know. But please, come and unlock me first. Then we can argue about it."

He hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward carefully and stood over me to undo my cuffs - in the same order, left first, then right. I examined my wrists. They were in a bad shape, raw all the way round, and bleeding at the back from horrible grazes that the blood just welled up in.

"Shit, are you OK? Your wrists..."

"I'm fine, I'm fine." I thought about this for a moment. "Well, not fine, but - you know."

"Stiff upper lip," he said, tapping the side of his nose, then grinned. "Wow, I just can't believe it. I mean, I know we're not rescued rescued, but - April Devere, man. I kind of rescued April Devere."

"Yes, it's quite a romance. What say we work on getting out of here, so that you can boast about it to your grandchildren?"

I bit at the elbow of my blouse, trying to tear it so that I could use it to bandage my wrists. As usual, the movies had lied to me - it was almost impossible to tear clothing with my teeth. It was silk, of course, that might have had something to do with it. I eventually managed to snag it on the edge of a rust hole in a metal bar that ran along the wall of the container at right-angles to the one I'd been chained to. The bandages weren't comfortable - my wrists still hurt, but now it also felt as though I was wearing sweatbands that had been soaked in warm liquid - but at least I couldn't see the wounds, which made me feel a lot less nauseous.

"What happens now?" Jonah asked.

"Well, we keep sinking until we hit the bottom, and then we either do something to get out, or we wait here until the air runs out. Either by us breathing it all, or by it literally running out." I pointed to a point on the ceiling that I'd spotted earlier. Every few seconds a drip of water fell from it. "The rust must have made a tiny pinhole up there. Air's getting out, and water's getting in."

"We're going to die."

"Sshh."

"We are, though, aren't we?"

I moved towards the leak, forgetting the balance. Jonah remembered, though, and moved to the opposite point of the container. I let some of the water fall into my hands - it was very cold, although that wasn't much of a surprise - and salty to the taste. They'd definitely dropped us into the sea, then; we weren't approaching the bottom of some river. That made sense - there was much less chance of us being found if we were permanently deposited in Davy Jones' locker. Maybe one of the ocean listening posts might be able to hear us, or a submarine if it came particularly close. Romanov was probably a bit too smart for that, though - or, I suddenly remembered, whoever was giving Romanov his orders. Coming in, we'd figured Romanov for the top dog. He always had been before. But I'd picked up a few hints that suggested otherwise during my stay, and then the mysterious person on the other end of the phone. Romanov had called him "boss".

"Sea water," I reported to Jonah.

"I've always had a morbid fear of the sea," he told me. "My name, you know."

"Maybe we'll get out of here if you promise to go to Mosul."

"Not funny."

I moved back to my pole, and Jonah mirrored me by returning to his.

"I don't suppose you have anything other than those keys?"

He patted himself down, then retrieved something from his inside pocket.

"Restaurant receipt," he said sadly. "I'm afraid they took my gun."

"Mine too. Probably not much use, anyway."

"You got anything?"

I rifled my pockets. Nothing, not even a hotel bill. Of course, I'd emptied my pockets of anything that might identify me before I'd headed out to the factory. My watch was gone, not that it would have been much use anyway - it was a perfectly ordinary digital watch which I'd soldered a big capacitor into to help me destroy electronic devices. (Don't ask - if everything had gone according to plan, it would have come in useful).

"I'm empty."

"So we've got nothing."

"Not nothing. We've got two sets of handcuffs, a set of keys, a car battery and an electric light." I gestured up. "Odd. I wonder why they bothered putting a light in."

"Probably more ironic if we can see ourselves drowning," Jonah said glumly. "Romanov's a sadistic bastard. Oh god, why did I get involved in all this? I could have been sitting in some listening post in Greenland with dental benefits and all the seal blubber I could eat."

Right, I thought, so he's American. Just my luck to get stuck with whiny Yank. Still, at least he's too depressed to get all handsy. The last thing I need now is the old "before we die..." speech.

"Just try to think about getting out of here," I told him. "We'll have you back in brass-monkey land before I can explain what that means."

He groaned, and slumped down onto the floor, his head in his hands.

"What have we done to deserve this?"

I didn't dignify that stupid question with an answer. I got up to look at the light, but as I stood up Jonah wailed again.

"Calm down!" I ordered.

"Do you know why I'm here?"

"Because you got caught," I told him, "same as me."

"I look like him," Jonah told me, in a whining voice. "That's all - I look like one of Romanov's colleagues. One he's never seen. Or, I mean.. one that we thought he'd never seen. I'm just a radio operator, but because of that I get stuck here."

"Harsh break."

"They wanted me to get in here, help with infiltrating Romanov's gang. Find out what the plans were for. When I went for the interview, they told me it was for the flag - you know what I mean?"

"Queen and Country, we call it."

"Sure. I said I'd think about it, but I went for a drink with them afterwards, and that was when they did the real selling. Like James Bond, they told me. Neck-deep in pu..uh, ladies." I gave him a hard stare, and he had the decency to blush and look away. "Casinos, the ritzy life-style. Gadgets and all that. Know what they gave me?"

"A gun."

"That's right. That's my gadget. Not even a Walther PPK, either. A stupid service revolver. Right now," he said, indignantly, "one of Romanov's goons had got a gun that probably last saw action in Normandy."

My irritation started to soften a little. Whiner though he was, it did sound as though his team had run a real scam on him. I tried to imagine him in a dinner jacket, putting it all on black and wrapping his arm around some vapid blonde in a sequined dress. I couldn't do it without also imagining him getting slapped just as red came up.

"Not too much like the movies, is it?" I asked.

He shook his head, then shrugged.

"I am stuck in a deathtrap with a beautiful woman, though."

His attempt at smoothness was hardly Sean Connery calibre, but at least it was a sign that he had some kind of sense of humour hidden underneath his yellow streak.

"That's true," I agreed. "I'm sorry my name isn't a double-entendre."

He laughed. I turned back to the light.

"Why are you here?"

"I got caught," I told him again, looking round to catch him staring at me intently. He looked away quickly. Perhaps I'd overplayed my hand with the movie thing. I'd have to find some way to subtly point out that good-looking as I was, I wasn't going to hop in the sack with him just because we'd escaped from certain death together.

"No, I mean - what do you do? Where do you come from? What country, what service?"

"You ask a lot of questions."

"Well, I'm supposed to be a spy." He barked a single humourless laugh. "Apparently my espionage abilities don't even extend to small talk."

"You must already know that I'm English."

"Well, yes. And we know that you're not one of Sir Oldfield's staff."

"Sir Maurice," I corrected him, turning back to the light. Perhaps I can use the battery acid for something, I thought to myself. How much acid is there in a car battery, anyway? To this day, I don't know.

"What?"

"A knight is referred to by his first name, not his surname. So he's Sir Maurice, not Sir Oldfield. Do you think you could lift me?"

"I - uh, what?"

"Lift me. Do you think you could."

"I guess so. Why?"

"I want to get a closer look at the light. I want to get the battery down."

"But we won't be able to see."

"Maybe. Are you going to help me or not?"

"I'll help you up," he said. "But promise me you won't disconnect the battery without giving me a chance to come up with a better plan. I don't want to be in the dark with battery acid slopping down onto my face."

"Alright, alright."

I stood under the light and Jonah walked round behind me and clamped his arms around my thighs, so that his face was just above arse level. I put one hand back and onto his shoulder to steady me.

"Ready?" He asked.

"Yes."

Jonah straightened his legs and stumbled forwards, almost throwing me back over his shoulders. I jerked upright and he somehow managed to get his feet under him. I could feel him shuddering with the effort. I was no Twiggy, but I found it annoying that he was making such a big effort out of lifting me.

"Back a bit, back a bit."

"OK!" His voice was muffled against my back, where his face was pressed. Let him enjoy it, I thought to myself, this is the closest he's ever going to get to me. I balanced myself and started to examine the light. The Bakelite fitting had been screwed into a block of wood - I couldn't see how the wood had been attached to the ceiling of the container.

"To the left, slowly."

"I'll, uh..."

Jonah stumbled sideways, and I had to duck to avoid hitting the exposed wires that hung between the light fitting and the battery.

"Be careful, for God's sake!"

"I don't think I can.. hurry!"

I had just enough time to examine the nearest bracket - it had been welded onto the container just as inexpertly as the bar I'd been cuffed to - when Jonah's strength gave out, and with a yelp of surprise I was jerked backwards and fell. Fortunately, I managed to land on him (my bottom hitting his chest), and then roll off in an odd kind of breakfall. Jonah wasn't so lucky - he avoided hitting his head, but of course he took my whole weight in his lungs. He yelled in pain, and as I picked myself off the floor he just lay there, clutching his chest.

"My God - are you alright?"

"My...ribs..." He wheezed weakly. I knelt down by him and gently pulled his hands away to examine the damage. "Can't... breathe.."

He was breathing well enough, though. I tried pressing his ribs in turn, and when I got to the fifth on the right side he suddenly screamed and rolled away from me.

"What.. get away!"

"You've just cracked a rib," I told him. "Your lungs are OK, I think. Just lie there for a while. Let me worry about getting us out of here."

"I'm going... to die.."

"You're not going to die," I told him. "Don't be so melodramatic."

"Let me... tell..."

"Shh. Just lie there, you idiot. You'll be fine in a few minutes. You've just had the stuffing knocked out of you."

He gasped and nodded. I stood up again. As I stepped back from him, there was a little splashing noise from my foot. I looked back to see that a thin lake of water was now spread over the floor, from a wetting where we were to a couple of inches at the far end of the container.

"We must be at a few degrees tilt," I said. "Maybe that much water will balance me out. Whatever, I'm going to take a look at the doors."

"Don't... leave me.."

I turned round and knelt next to Jonah again.

"Look, I'm not going anywhere - and if I do, I'll take you with me. Alright?"

He looked up at me. I've rarely seen anyone as terrified without the muzzle of a pistol pressing into their forehead.

"We were... after the plans." He whispered.

"I know."

"Romanov."

"Be quiet, save your strength."

He shook his head.

"Romanov.. caught me. Before I could get to the factory."

I could barely hear him now, and I bent down to try to catch what he was saying.

"We couldn't.. couldn't stop them."

"Don't worry about it," I told him.

"But the plans..."

"We've got them," I told him. "Now please, shut up."

I got up, and he tried to grab at my hand.

"Where..." He said.

"Safe."

I started to move towards the door, but I heard movement behind me and I turned to see Jonah propping himself up on one arm. I tried to get back to him, but his strength gave out before I could get there, and he collapsed forwards onto his chest and screamed. I turned him onto his back again, and he batted at my hands ineffectually. Christ, I thought to myself, every damn time I try to...

A frozen wash of ice shot through my arms. I could feel every artery in my body tighten up, and I struggled not to gasp.

"Take it easy," I told him. I was sure he would be able to hear it in my voice, my face felt paralysed, and my lungs could hardly choke out the words. "Just relax." I laid his arms down by his side, and forced myself to stroke his head. "You're going to be fine," I lied.

"Romanov knew.." he said. "Knew about me.. about you."

"Yes, he knew," I confirmed.

"He knows.. about the.." He burst into a fit of coughing.

"The safehouse?" I asked carefully.

"In the vill.. village."

"It's OK," I told him. "We moved the plans. They're not in the village any more.
There's a hamlet just short of the border. Just rest, he won't get away with it." I clambered to my feet again. "OK, look away. I think I can pull the battery down."

With my back to him, I unbuttoned my blouse and thanked the stars that I'd put the sports bra on today - it was much more concealing than the other numbers I'd brought to the country with me.

"What.. what are you doing?" Jonah croaked. His voice had got stronger.

"I think I can get a cuff over the wire if I tie it to my blouse. Hopefully I can pull it sideways. If it's just resting on the brackets rather than attached to them, that might help."

"You... can't..." He said. I continued undressing, and slipped out of my shoes. I heard him getting to his feet, and clipped one of the cuffs to the wrist of my blouse. He got closer, but I could tell that he was trying to move slowly and quietly. This was it, then.

Bending down to pick up my shoe, I whirled round suddenly to see that he was almost on me, looking much healthier than he had a few moments ago, and with a knife in his hand.

"Oh, feeling better?" I asked innocently.

He hesitated for a moment, and in that split second I threw my shoe at the lightbulb and jumped to the left. The container was thrown into pitch darkness for a millisecond, and I kicked out at where I thought he'd been. My foot caught him full in the stomach. As I withdrew I felt him begin to double over, and I took a risk by rushing forward to grab the unseen arm.

I got lucky, catching his elbow. Sliding my hands down his arm, I twisted it with all my strength, and as he started to overbalance sideways my questing fingers managed to pry the knife out of his hand. I followed him down to the floor, and pushed his face into the metal and lay on him, face up, his right arm twisted up by my left, and my right hand holding the knife to his neck.

Overhead, a constellation of tiny stars were visible. Exactly what Jonah had wanted me not to see. The arc lights of the crane, shining in through the tiny layer of water that must be covering the top of the container and the tiny pinpricks of rust-hole that were letting that water in.

"You won't escape," Jonah's muffled voice from underneath me.

"I have a hostage."

"They'll pick you off the minute you get outside," he rasped. I laughed.

"What, you've got The Jackal working for you, have you?"

I stood up carefully, pulling Jonah up after me, and walked in the direction that I remembered the door being in.

"Where's the handle?"

"There isn't one. You can't open it, we're underwater, we'll drown," he said desperately.

"Don't be an idiot." I pushed the point of the knife, and I could feel his skin
yield. "You wouldn't have got in here without a way of escaping."

"OK, OK. Let me lean down a bit."

"No funny business," I told him.

I felt Jonah lean forward, and I rested my left hand on his arm. It was outstretched. He jerked something to the left, and there was a satisfying clunk from some kind of mechanism. I reached out and pushed the door.

"Don't shoot!" I called, and as light flooded into the container I moved sideways out of sight, holding Jonah in full view. Water gushed in around our ankles, and for a moment I thought that I'd made a mistake.

Outside, I could see the docks. We were about five feet off the ground, suspended in what appeared to be a small swimming pool. The container was underwater, but only by about a foot, and it was this water that was pooling around our ankles. A temporary pontoon quay lay about two feet outside the door, and Romanov was standing on it, my pistol in his hand. Behind him, on the edge of the pool, was an ugly thug in a surprisingly well-fitting suit. The effect of stone-age dandy was rather spoilt by his machine-gun. I stuck my head out carefully, sheltering behind Jonah.

„Come out of there,” Romanov ordered.

„I'll kill him if you try anything,” I said.

„Come out and you won't be harmed.”

„Don't,” Jonah said suddenly. His Polish was thickly accented. „I'm pretty sure
she'll do it.”

Romanov looked surprised.

"You're the boss, eh?" I asked.

"Maybe," he croaked, then to his cronies: „Back up, let her out.”

I moved forward cautiously, knife to Jonah's throat.

„Guns down”. Romanov and the heavy hesitated, and I felt Jonah nod, carefully and slowly. They carefully bent down and placed their weapons on the ground, then stood up again. „Take two steps back”.

They did, and I manoeuvred Jonah out onto the pontoon. For a nasty moment I thought one or the other of us was going to lose their footing and I'd end up with a dead hostage. We made it, though. I knelt carefully, pulling Jonah down with me, and picked up the pistol. I felt for the safety (it was off), put it up to Jonah's head, and cocked the firing hammer.

"Please be careful," Jonah begged. I scanned around, spotting a black Mercedes sitting a way away behind the two goons.

„That your car?' I asked Romanov. He nodded. „Keys.”

„In the ignition,” he told me.

„OK. Start walking.” I waved them ahead of me with the gun. After a few seconds, he and the goon turned and began to walk towards the car. I followed them, with Jonah. The four of us walked through the dockyards in a tense silence - I could feel a furious, terrified pulse, but couldn't tell whether it was mine or Jonah's. The gun grew heavy in my hands, and I noticed a trickle of blood run out from under the bandage over my right wrist. At every second I expected another of Jonah's men to open fire from some obscure shadow. We reached the car without incident, though.

„Open all the doors.” Romanov and the goon complied. There was no-one inside, thankfully. „Now close all the doors but the driver's door, and keep walking.” They did so, with glances back at Jonah.

I pushed Jonah's head down, and into the driver's seat. Fortunately, it had an American-style single front seat. When Romanov and the other had got far enough, I pushed Jonah across and clambered in. I was relieved to see that Romanov hadn't lied - the keys were in the ignition. I transferred the gun to my left hand and laid it across my lap, still pointed at my captive. Then I started the car and pulled away, letting the forward motion of the car slam the driver's door shut.

Once out of the docks, I found myself on the main road into town. Perhaps I could drive all the way to the pick-up point. Perhaps I could stop somewhere and get a message to Johnson. No, it was impossible. I pulled over to the side of the road.

"What now?" Jonah asked me.

"Open the door," I told him. He did so.

"You can't stop me, April."

He was wrong, but I also couldn't kill him here, and I couldn't take him with me, useful as that would be. I couldn't risk his escape, and without anyone else to help me, I couldn't drive and hold him here for long. I put the gun on the dashboard, leant forwards, and placed a hand on his chest.

"Perhaps we can make a deal," I said slowly. He looked down at my hand, and then back up at me. I smiled. That's all it takes with some guys. The smile. He smiled back.

"Yes, perhaps we...hey!"

I pushed hard, and Jonah flew out of the car and onto the pavement. I stamped on the accelerator and tore away from the curb, one eye on the rear view mirror. Behind me, Jonah slowly picked himself up and dusted himself off, clutching his chest.

Well, I thought to myself, at least the broken rib was for real.


(...April Devere will return in "Brick and Mortar Business")

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