Clock Work by Rafe McGregor

“You will use the name John Daniel,” said the tall, clean-cut blonde from behind her desk.  “Put your bag down.  Sit.”


Her visitor nodded once, and did both.


“What have you been told?” she asked.


“Yesterday I was called to the director general’s office.  His secretary instructed me to take the twenty-fifteen South African Airways flight to Heathrow and report to you, here, as soon as possible.”


“That’s it?”




“Good.  You’ll be needing these.”  She stood, took a black leather wallet out of a drawer, and picked up a briefcase Daniel hadn’t noticed.  She brought both around to him.  “You’re a South African born British subject working as a security manager for Exall, Guest, and Cotterall, an auditing firm in Canary Wharf.  You live in Putney.  The cover won’t hold, but you won’t need it to.”


Daniel checked the wallet.  There was a debit card, two credit cards, a full UK driver’s licence with his photo on it, and a hundred pounds in cash.  There were also two train tickets with today’s date on them, one for the Underground, and one to Oxford.  He stood up and pocketed the wallet.


She continued, “Be very careful with the briefcase.  Make sure you’re alone when you open it.  All the information is there.  The combination has been set to your code.  You’re booked into Linton Lodge in Oxford.  It’s a Best Western about a mile from the city centre.  You have a meeting with an access agent at seven o’clock tonight.  Any questions?”


“Not if it’s all in there.”  Daniel indicated the briefcase.


“It is.  Everything you’ll need for the job.  And remember, this is from the director general himself.”


“Then I’ll get started.”  Daniel slung his sports bag over his shoulder, and picked up the briefcase.  He was surprised when she wished him good luck.  Daniel had grown out of the habit of smiling since the scar, so he just nodded again and left.




The door opened with a plastic key, which was unfortunate from a security point of view.  Daniel put the briefcase and the bag on the bed.  He checked the wardrobe wasn’t fixed, then shifted it until a few inches blocked the door.  He returned to the briefcase, laid it on the desk, and caught his reflection in the mirror.  He looked as tired as he felt.  He glanced at his watch: quarter past twelve.  No wonder, he’d been in Johannesburg sixteen hours ago, and Pretoria three before that.


He manipulated the combinations on the briefcase, clicked the switches, and opened it.  Inside the top half he found a pistol and a hand grenade.  They were held in place in the foam rubber lining with plastic ties.  Below: a handgun cleaning kit; a mission briefing consisting of five loose sheets of A4 paper; ten A5-size colour photographs; an Oxford A-Z; a bus ticket and timetable for the Airline Company bus from Oxford to Gatwick; and an airplane ticket for a Lufthansa flight from Gatwick to Berlin, leaving at midnight tomorrow.


A murder kit complete with instructions.


The mission brief was divided into five sections: Agent Cover, Target Information, Target Confirmation, Target Execution, and Agent Extraction.


The target was a thirty-four year old South African citizen named Siyabonga Mchunu.  Daniel recognised the name immediately.  ColonelMchunu had been adjutant to Lieutenant General Mthimkulu, the Chief of the South African Army.  Last year he’d been investigated for fraud before deciding to leave the country in a hurry with a large amount of Department of Defence money that didn’t belong to him.  Daniel remembered communiqués placing him first in Abu Dhabi and then Switzerland.  The ID photo clipped to the second page was unnecessary, as were the A5 photographs; he hadn’t altered his appearance.


Daniel had two questions: why were the Secret Service using an intelligence officer instead of an agent, and why did they want Mchunudead?  If the Secret Service had to hunt down everyone who defrauded the government, they’d need a full time death squad and plenty of dissembling diplomats for the subsequent denials.  His second question was answered in the last paragraph of the second page.


The president’s granddaughter had recently suffered a nervous breakdown.  This was common knowledge.  During psychotherapy she’d told her therapist that Mchunu had raped her five years ago.  She’d kept quiet about it because her grandfather had been up for re-election at the time and she’d wanted to avoid any scandal.  She still didn’t want anyone to know, but the therapist had taken the news straight to the president.  Absconding with hundreds of thousand of Rand was one thing, but raping the president’s granddaughter was guaranteed to reduce one’s life expectancy.  Drastically.  Daniel thought it was probably the reason Mchunu had taken the money and run.  Not that he cared. He was just there to do a job.


But he still wondered why he’d been selected for it.  Despite the misconception propagated by the mass media, intelligence officers didn’t go about breaking and entering, stealing secret documents, or killing people.  They recruited intelligence agents to do that for them, and thus remained once-removed from the actual dirty work.  Perhaps there was a shortage of suitable agents for the job, although Daniel found that unlikely with something like three million expatriate South Africans in Britain.  Maybe there wasn’t one who could be trusted to keep his mouth shut if he was caught.  That was more like it.


The access agent’s name was Lily.  Daniel didn’t remember her from his tour with the Economic Reconnaissance Office in South Africa House.  She must be new.  Her profession was listed as prostitute, which was unusual.  Access agents were routinely of high social standing, people who assisted intelligence officers to recruit suitable and useful agents.  Daniel was to meet her in The Turf at seven tonight.  She would find him.  He looked at the mirror again, saw the thick, white scar that ran from his left eye, down the side of his cheek, almost to his mouth.


Ja, she probably would.




Daniel woke at five.  He dressed quickly, left the hotel, and walked into Jericho, a small suburb of Victorian terraced houses immediately to the north-west of the city centre.  The target execution was scheduled for the corner of Cranham Terrace and Jericho Street, outside a pub called the Harcourt Arms.  The pub was right on the corner, at the end of a terrace row.  Opposite the entrance, across the narrow street, a beech tree grew out of the pavement.  Daniel committed the terrain to memory, but was careful to keep moving so as not to draw attention to himself.


Thirty minutes later, he found The Turf, hidden away in an ancient alley off New College Lane.  The pub was a long, low building with a raised section serving food at the far end.  It was busy, but not full.  Most of the clientele looked like students.  Wealthy students. Daniel ordered a pint of Hoegaarden blonde beer and took a stool along the wall.  He wasn’t a great reader, but regretted not bringing a book to the pub.  It seemed quite a normal thing to do in England, particularly here in a university town, and he had no idea how long Lily was going to be.


Howzit, do you mind if I join you?”  The woman stood very close to him, almost touching.


“No, please do.”  She was short and slim, with skin the colour of milky coffee, long curly black hair, and bright red lips.  She could have been anything from fifteen to thirty.  She smoothed her short skirt over her thighs as she sat.  “Would you like a drink?” Daniel asked.


“No, thanks, I doubt you’re gonna make it worth my while.”  Her accent was South African.  Daniel guessed Cape Town.  “My name’s Lily, by the way.”  She held out her hand.


Daniel took it.  “John.  I’m afraid you’re right about me not making it worth your while.  Is this your regular place?”


Ja, I pick up tourists or students here.”


“The manager doesn’t mind?”


She smiled at him.  “My customers don’t complain, John.  I’m good for business, not bad.  In a few minutes I’m going to move on and mingle, cos that’s what I usually do.”


“Okay, do you have a message for me?”


Ja, the message is that you have confirmation.”


“That’s all?”


“That’s it.”

“Is he expecting to meet you?”


“No, he’s expecting a man.”




“Lovey, that’s very sweet of you, but neither of us has time to chat, do we?”  She smiled at him again, squeezed his forearm gently as she rose, and moved off to a table with three young men.


Daniel finished his pint without hurrying.  When he left, Lily was still at the table with the three men, a glass of white wine in front of her.




The pistol was an HS95, a Croatian imitation of the famous Swiss SIG Sauer nine millimetre.  Daniel removed it from the briefcase, leaving a handgun-shaped space in the foam rubber.  It reminded him of the old toy he’d had as a child where you had to put the right block into the right hole.  Except that this was a little more obvious.  He slid the magazine from the pistol’s grip.  He removed the bullets, placing each on the desk top, and counted sixteen.  He checked the chamber: empty.  He opened the cleaning kit, and began disassembling the pistol.  He wasn’t happy about having to use a weapon he hadn’t actually fired, but he had no choice.


There was no choice in any of it.  Every detail of the murder had been pre-planned and prearranged, even down to the specifics.  The briefcase contained everything he needed: information, instructions, and tools for both the assassination and the escape.  It was like those colouring-in books from junior primary.  What were they called…colour by numbers?  Ja, colour by number.  All Daniel had to do was turn up in the right place at the right time, and follow instructions.  He was purely a tool, no more and no less than the pistol provided.


Murder by numbers.


He finished field-stripping the pistol, cleaned the separate parts, and checked the firing pin.  Then he re-assembled it, using an oiled cloth to prevent leaving fingerprints.  He replaced the empty magazine, and dry fired double-action: click.  Perfect.  Next, he loaded the magazine, slid it back into place, cocked a round into the chamber, and eased the hammer down.  He flicked the safety catch on, wiped the outside of the pistol with a clean cloth, and put it back in the briefcase.


The hand grenade was an HG85, British Army standard issue.  It was an incendiary model, which meant that the forty-nine millimetre aluminium case was filled with thermite instead of steel balls.  The thermite would burn for forty seconds at around four thousand degrees Fahrenheit.  It would ignite everything it came into contact with, including metal.  The detonator was fitted with the standard four second fuse.  Daniel removed the extra safety clip and returned the grenade to the briefcase.


The plane ticket was in his own name.  John Daniel would cease to exist once he left the Linton Lodge tomorrow morning.  He checked the bus timetable and ran through the plan in his head.  Mchunu was meeting him opposite the Harcourt Arms at eight tomorrow night.  He would pull up next to the tree in his black Citroen C5.  He would be alone.  Daniel would shoot him as he exited the car, push him back in, and administer the coup de grace.  Then he would throw in both pistol and grenade, and flee on foot to Gloucester Green bus station.  Busses left at eight-thirty and nine o’clock.  The flight left at midnight.  It was as simple as that.  The straightforward plans tended to work the best: there was less that could go wrong.


Like clockwork.


Daniel opened his window and burned each A4 page and each A5 photo, transferring the remains from the ashtray to the toilet when he was finished.  He’d already found a skip to dump the briefcase and sports bag when he checked out.  He switched on the TV as he undressed, thinking about morality.  It hadn’t even occurred to him not to kill Mchunu.  Had he left his morals behind when he’d joined the Secret Service, or had it been before that, in his previous life?  He couldn’t remember.




At a quarter to eight Daniel was in the small, Victorian cemetery of St Sepulchre’s, at the other end of Cranham Terrace.  There were no benches, so he sat on the raised stone of John Wilson, a porter who’d died a hundred and fifty four years ago.  He’d been aged seventy. Daniel wondered if he would live that long himself.


He was wearing a reversible weatherproof parka, with the black inner lining on the outside.  In the poacher’s pocket – unzipped – was the hand grenade.  Daniel’s passport and plane ticket were in the inaccessible pockets on the other side.  His hands were snug inside a pair of tight-fitting dark blue police marksman’s gloves.  He wore stretch denims and brown hiking boots.  The denims held his wallet and bus ticket.  The pistol, safety catch off, was tucked into his belt, just to the right of the buckle, concealed by the jacket.


He glanced at his watch, stood up slowly, and walked out into Walton Street.


Two minutes past eight: Daniel was standing in the doorway of 4 Cranham Terrace, facing the bright blue door.  He was nestled in shadow, out of the light from the Harcourt Arms.  The beech tree – across the road – was fifteen metres away.  The street was quiet, except for the occasional car or pedestrian.  Two women strode past him without a glance.  They went into the pub, two doors down.  Daniel waited.


A car slowed, and stopped next to the tree: a black Citroen.


Daniel took the pistol from his trousers, and cocked the hammer back.  The car door opened.  Daniel took a deep breath and walked into the road.  He kept the pistol low, gripping it lightly with both hands.  A tall black man climbed out the car.  Daniel stopped five metres away.  He slid into a side-on stance and raised the pistol.  He looked over the front sight and squeezed the trigger once.




Mchunu was facing Daniel.  Both men reached inside their jackets as Daniel dived behind the Citroen.  His pistol clattered uselessly on the road.  He landed heavily, using his left arm to break his fall as his right removed the grenade from his pocket.  He crouched against the corner of the car and twisted the pin out.  Mchunu’s first shot cracked over the boot.


One second.


Daniel scrabbled round to the passenger side of the car, keeping low.  The second shot lodged in the boot.


Two seconds.


Daniel heard Mchunu move and saw the muzzle-flash of the third shot.  His heart thundered a relentless tattoo.  He crouched even lower and backed around the bonnet, keeping his head down.


Three seconds.


Mchunu stepped from the rear of the car onto the pavement.  He saw Daniel.  Daniel lobbed the grenade high.  Mchunu fired.  Daniel threw himself under the engine block.


Four seconds.


The grenade detonated into the night, and the thermite illuminated the entire street.  Daniel waited a single second, then leapt to his feet.  The tree and the Citroen were both burning.  So were two cars parked outside the pub, and a garage door at the end of the terrace. As Daniel jumped back he smelled the burning flesh.  He heard the sizzling and crackling of Mchunu’s torso as his body flamed.  There was nothing where his head had been.


Daniel turned and sprinted down Hart Street.


Right, into Cardigan Street, then left into Albert.  He bumped into a couple on the corner, kept moving.


He crossed Clarendon Street, crossed Wellington, sprinted past the new synagogue and the Lebanese restaurant.


Richmond Road, then hard right into Worcester Place.


Daniel slowed, and stopped outside a wooden door set into the high wall on his right.  He checked up and down the street, saw no one, and opened the door.  He stepped inside a small, overgrown garden behind another row of terraces.  He took off his gloves, threw them away, and reversed his parka.  He stood in the cold for a full minute before putting the beige jacket back on.  He fought to breathe through his nose and stomach, gradually slowing his heart rate.  Composed, he walked casually out into Worcester Place, careful not to touch the door with his fingers.


Twenty-three minutes past eight: Daniel was standing in Bay 7, under the long bus shelter at Gloucester Green.  There were ten buses in the dozen bays, but the eight-thirty to Gatwick hadn’t arrived yet.  Daniel noticed movement to his left and turned to see two policemen walking through the crowd.  One had a Heckler & Koch submachine gun, the other appeared unarmed.  They were in Bay 3.  He looked to his right, and saw another two in Bay 11.  Also one armed, one not.


Daniel stayed where he was.


The policemen on the left were moving quicker.  They were looking at everyone in the crowd.  He checked the right again: they had reached Bay 10.  They both stopped, and the unarmed one spoke to a man in a leather jacket.


Twenty-four minutes past eight: the Airline Company bus pulled up.  Daniel was fourth in the queue.  As the doors opened, the two policemen came up from the left.  They stood at the entrance to the bus.  Everyone in the queue was staring at them.  Daniel was careful to do the same.


No one moved.


The first passenger climbed on, then the second.  As the third followed, the unarmed policeman put his hand out in front of Daniel.


“Hold it.”


The armed policeman walked in front of him to Bay 8.


“Thank you,” said his colleague as he followed.


Daniel stepped onto the bus.

The End