The mission was simple: book in at the ski resort, find Brooks, shoot him. Then get on the next bus to Turin, and take the first flight back to Dublin. He should have been dead by Thursday at the latest. But he wasn’t. Creek had held back because there were too many players on the field. He didn’t know who they were. Mafia, spooks, undercover cops, other assassins? Whatever they were, they’d had plenty of opportunities to pick Creek up. He’d even left the Beretta in a sealed plastic bag in the toilet cistern on Wednesday. He couldn’t think of anywhere more obvious. When he returned in the evening he could tell someone had been in the room. But the Beretta was still there. And two days later he was still on the slopes. So the spooks also wanted Brooks dead.
Creek was surprised he’d been given the mission. There’d been rumours of a purge for a few weeks now. The word was, everyone who’d been in the security forces prior to the 1994 elections was being retired. Police, Defence Force, Intelligence Agency, Secret Service – no one would escape this time. And Creek was old school. Only by a year or so, but that wouldn’t make any difference. So when he’d received his third summons from the Director General’s office, he’d assumed they were letting him go. But it was another job, a favour for the Americans this time. It seemed the new government needed reliable killers just as much as the old.
Creek realised he hadn’t paid enough attention to the turn ahead.
The orange plastic safety netting loomed rapidly. He twisted into a parallel left turn, kicked up a flurry of snow, then hopped to his right, braking sharply. The deceleration was just enough to allow him to take the turn without ploughing through the netting into the trees beyond. Creek heaved a sigh of relief – straightened up – and found himself a metre away from a skier who’d stopped to take in the view. There was nothing he could do except save himself, so he crouched low and hit the man with his right shoulder. He heard a grunt, veered wildly, corrected himself, and skidded to a halt.
When he turned back to look, the man was gone.
Creek left the run, skiing down to the pine trees. A couple of metres into the wood, he saw the man lying on the snow. He must have bumped him off the slope. He’d only fallen a couple of metres down the bank, but Creek scissored his skis forward to give him a hand. The man was lying on his back, motionless. Creek wondered if he’d hit his head on one of the trees – then he saw who it was. First Sergeant Arnold T. Brooks, US 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment D. A veteran Delta Force Operator and a serial killer who’d notched up twenty-eight women in thirteen countries. And those were only the ones the CIA knew about. Creek stepped out of his skis, dropped his poles, and stamped his way through the last few metres of powdery snow.
Brooks groaned, and started to push himself up into a sitting position.
Creek glanced up to the slope to make sure no one was there. Then he moved in behind Brooks, pulled his head back, and slit his throat with an Eickorn combat knife. Twenty-three years of covert operations and three wars didn’t make the skin any tougher. Creek kept himself clear as the blood spurted out over the snow, and dropped the twitching body. The blood steamed in the cold air as flakes of snow began to fall.
Creek hurled the Eickorn further into the trees and returned to his skis. He had just enough time to get back to the Sporthotel, pick up his rucksack, and ski down to Cesara for the last bus at five. By the time they found Brooks, he’d be halfway to Turin. By the time they found he was missing, he’d be back at Alexandra House. Creek bent down to turn his skis around and heard someone on the slope above skidding to a halt.
Quickly, he picked up the poles and slotted his boots back into the skis. He heard a couple of men speaking Italian on the slope – no, they’d come down the bank into the wood – they were heading his way. The man in the lead and Creek saw each other at the same time. It was one of the spooks. Creek pointed his skis down slope, off-piste through the wood, and pushed himself forward. He saw the man draw a pistol. Creek crouched low, and winced in anticipation.
The shot rang out behind and Creek heard the bullet thump into a tree trunk. Crack, Crack! More shots. He ducked even lower, weaved in between the trees, and careered wildly down the mountain. More shots – shouts – then shots again. Creek threw himself around a tree – was caught by a branch – regained his balance – and hurtled down towards the bottom of the valley.
Three minutes later.
Creek slowed and stopped, heart pounding and chest heaving. He listened for a full ten seconds. Nothing. The snow was falling thick and fast. It would cover his tracks. He swivelled to his left, so he was facing north, and moved off abreast of the river flowing far below. The spooks had been following him. It was the only way they could’ve found him so soon. And they weren’t cops either. Cops identified themselves before they started shooting. They wanted Brooks and Creek dead. Two deaths: nice, neat, no questions asked.
Change of plan.
No going back to the hotel now. Creek had everything he needed on him: wallet, passports, compass, binoculars, map. He would stay off-piste until he passed below the Sporthotel– which should be coming up on the left shortly. Then he’d join the blue run down to Cesara Torinese. Once he was on that he knew it would take no more than twenty minutes to reach the bus stop. He checked his watch: sixteen twenty, plenty of time.
Creek still hadn’t seen the Sporthotel, or found the blue run, but there was a helicopter circling overhead. Somehow he didn’t think it was mountain rescue. He took out the binoculars and read the markings through the snow: Arma dei Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police. They must’ve been on standby.
Did they have orders to shoot on sight?
The snowfall showed no signs of abating and Creek knew he was safe in the trees, but he was running out of time. He slid forward to the edge of the wood and turned the binoculars down the valley to the town below.
It was a trade-off now.
He could keep skiing north until he found a run to take him down to the town. But if he didn’t find one in the next five minutes he’d miss the bus and be caught by the police. Alternately he could take a bearing on the road winding along next to the river below, and head straight for it. He’d have to ditch the skis because the ground was too uneven. It was less than three kilometres away, so he should reach it in time if he didn’t twist and ankle or worse en route. But if he did fall – well, then it would be just the same as if he’d missed the bus. Creek ditched his skis and poles and set off at a jog.
Creek was puffing and panting, fighting his way through the thick blanket of snow on the ground, but he was making good time. The slope was steep, and gravity was doing most of the work. He just had to keep his balance, and keep watching where he put his feet. Less than a kilometre to go: nearly there.
Creek could see the river now, about fifty metres ahead. He forced himself on – stumbled – couldn’t regain his footing, and tumbled head over heels. He went over once, twice – couldn’t pull out of the fall – and pitched headlong. He bounced off a tree, hit the ground heavily, and rolled down slope on his side. He spun around and around until – thump – he stopped suddenly. The impact winded him and he felt pain shoot through his right thigh. He kept still and forced himself to breath deeply. Then he looked down: he’d rolled into a fallen tree, and the jagged edge of a cracked branch had impaled his right quadricep.
He heard a voice – voices. Three men were walking up from the river. Wearing Alpine camouflage and balaclavas; carrying rifles. Then a fourth. They were fanned out across to the south, walking up to Sagna Longa and the Sporthotel. Creek kept still as the heavy flakes fell on his face and covered his body. More voices – to the north this time. Another four cops sweeping up the slope to Sagna Longa. He shuddered at the pain, but forced himself to hold still. At least the wood sticking in his wound kept it from bleeding heavily.
Two deaths: nice, neat, no questions asked. Brooks, an operator discovered to have a penchant for torturing young women to death, no longer any use to Delta Force. Creek, an officer who knew too many secrets and had been around too long, no good to the South African Secret Service. No good alive. Welcome to the purge.
When the men were out of earshot Creek tightened his abdominal muscles to keep his lower body still, and pulled off his jacket, sweatshirt, and thermal vest. He put the sweatshirt and jacket back on and tore the vest into three strips. He folded one of the strips into a small, thick square. Then he clenched his jaw tight and used his left hand to shove his leg off the spike. The blood gushed out and he clamped the makeshift bandage over it. He tied the other two strips tight around his thigh. Then he pushed himself to his feet, and put a little weight on the leg. It hurt like hell, but it would work.
Change of plan.
He dismissed the alternate escape route he’d been given. Everything from the Secret Service was part of the trap. Time to take the quickest route out of Italy on his own. He took out the map and compass. Claviere, on the border, was about six kilometres west-north-west; Montgenèvre, the closest French settlement, was a further two kilometres.
He dropped John Creek’s passport in the snow and set off for Montgenèvre.