I’ve heard people say that Columba was a nasty drunk. It’s true, he could be a mean bastard when he’d had a few drinks, but that was only half the story. Columba was far worse sober than he ever was when he was drunk. He might shove a broken bottle in your face after a few too many beers, but that was only because you’d made him angry. At least then there was emotion in it.
When he was straight and sober Columba could rip out a man’s heart and move on without ever blinking or looking back.
If Columba ever had a relationship that lasted more than a week, I never met the girl. Sometimes, when he was drunk, he’d tell me that he envied Annie and me. When he was really drunk, or high, he’d say that what he really wanted was to find his own soulmate.
Tonight was one of those nights. He came back from the toilets wiping at his nostrils, his pupils huge.
“We’re not all as lucky as you,” Columba said. There was a venomous edge to his voice. “We don’t all find our perfect match.”
“Columba,” I said, recognising the signs of an oncoming train-wreck and hoping to change the points. “Have you ever thought that you might be looking in the wrong places?”
“What do you mean?”
I looked around. It was three thirty in the morning and apart from two of the owner’s men taking their time beating up some madman who’d complained about the bill, we were the only customers left in the bar. The manager had turned the lights on about an hour ago, hoping to persuade us to leave. It had nearly worked. The place, a cellar that stank of damp, decay and stale alcohol, had been bad enough in the dark. In the light, with cracked and crumbling walls stained brown by centuries of cigarette smoke and its sticky carpets splattered with an infinity of Rorschach test stains, it was miserable.
“Do you really think you will find your perfect woman in an Armenian mobster’s strip club?”
Columba just shrugged and emptied his beer.
Columba was cleverer and meaner than I was. Even with the scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to his right ear, he was better looking than I was. But when I finally made it home at the end of this trip, Annie would be waiting for me. It was a kind of armour. I had the moral high ground.
Still, Columba was a priest. Maybe he should have thought of all this before he’d taken The Pope’s shilling.
I met Columba in ’92 on the outskirts of Haifa. I was pretending that the shallow scrape in the sand where I was hiding was a foxhole. Around me the Arab Union was doing a very fine job of pushing a hundred and fifty thousand of my brother Christian soldiers back into the Mediterranean.
Columba landed on top of me, his black cassock billowing and flapping and his metal biretta cracking me in the face. He was followed to the edge of my scrape by an angry downpour of missiles. Flechettes hissed around us like angry snakes, pat-patting into the hard-packed sand.
I didn’t want a Jesuit in my foxhole. There wasn’t a target in the world the Arab Union liked better than a Loyolan. Now I had one sitting beside my and it felt like every gun in Asia Minor was pointing our way.
“Bless you too, my son,” he pulled a handful of flechette clips from beneath his cassock, slapped them into my lap, took a deep breath, pressed his biretta back onto his head and pulled himself up into a crouch, getting ready to move on. He had a wild grin on his face.
“No!” I grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him flat onto his back.
A high velocity round slapped into the sand a few feet away, leaving an impressively large crater.
If anything, Columba’s grin widened.
“God bless you,” he said.
“How’s the crusade going, Father?”
The priest’s eyes narrowed.
“This is not a crusade, my son,” he’d said. “This is a peace-keeping mission.”
I laughed in his face.
A fortnight after my first meeting with Columba I was badly injured and airlifted out of Haifa to the New Templar hospital on Malta. For two weeks I’d done nothing more heroic than hug the sand in the bottom of a foxhole and stay alive but I’d been field promoted from corporal to lieutenant, which tells you everything you need to know about the progress of our peace-keeping mission.
In the hospital the doctors kept me drugged-up and I drifted between sleep and wakefulness – never entirely in one camp or the other – dreaming of Annie and home. When the drugs started to wear off I fought consciousness, enjoying the safety of oblivion. In the end it took a slap to the face to bring me round. The first person I saw when I opened my eyes was Columba. He was standing over me, grinning.
Then I saw the flash on his uniform, the seal of the Inquisition of the Faithful and the pips of a Jesuit colonel.
I groaned. “Please, piss off!”
He raised an eyebrow. Not many people swore twice at an officer of the Inquisition.
“Captain Fallon,” he said. “That attitude could get you in serious trouble.”
“Captain?” I stared at him sullenly.
“You have been volunteered for special service on behalf of his Holiness and have been temporarily promoted.”
“You speak Arabic?”
I nodded. My father, a professor of comparative literature, had worked in Al Iskandariyah’s library for six years when I was young. I was fluent in Arabic and Coptic.
“You know the region?”
I nodded again. I’d lived in Palestine and The Hijaz, before the war. Working, travelling and learning about life.
“I’m a conscript.” Even as I spoke I found myself embarrassed by the whiny tone of my voice. “I don’t want to be a spy.”
“Captain Fallon?” Columba straightened himself up, becoming more formal. “Are you really going to turn down the Inquisition’s offer to let you aid the work of His Holiness?”
I knew when I was beaten.
“Excellent,” he said. “We’re going to Jerusalem. You will be my assistant.”
He laughed at me.
One of the last things the United Nations ever did was to persuade the great powers that a modern war in Jerusalem would succeed only in levelling everyone’s holy shrines. In an impossibly rare moment of good sense, a treaty had been agreed to protect the city.
While the rest of the Middle East, from the Sinai Peninsula to the Lebanon Mountains and from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Oman, was burned, bombed, mined and poisoned, Jerusalem sat untouched and officially off-limits to everyone’s military. Which, of course, made Jerusalem a perfect location for the far nastier and far more polluting battles fought by spies, spooks and assassins.
I wasn’t thinking about that as I strapped Sister Samantha to a chair in the garage of a plush executive home in a Jerusalem suburb. I pulled out the heavy Para-Ordnance forty-five I kept for this kind of job. The nun’s eyes widened as I pointed the pistol at her. I smiled and she looked confused. I wasn’t going to shoot her – bullets for this antique cost a fortune and my flechette pistol was a cheaper and more efficient killers. But a flechette gun’s plastic casing was too flimsy if all you just wanted was to smack someone hard without breaking your knuckles. A job like that required an antique.
Backhanded, showing off a bit, I smashed her across the side of the face with the butt of my pistol.
Sister Samantha screamed, spitting blood ineffectually in my direction.
“Who is your contact?”
“Please,” the nun was crying. “I don’t know –”
I looked at Columba. He nodded.
I hit her again, this time on the other side of the face, maybe a little harder, and found myself disappointed at how quickly her defiance was turning into whimpering.
Columba waved me away, stepping closer to the nun.
“Who are you?”
The nun stared at him – she was afraid, I suddenly realised, but not of anything Columba or I could do. She looked down, just for a flickering moment.
She was wearing a white “missionary” habit that was popular in the heat of Jerusalem. Her scapular was splashed with spreading pink stains, blood from her mouth and nose. She wore a simple crucifix.
Columba froze. He was staring at the cross.
“Is this place secure?”
I shrugged. “The techs said so.”
“Did you check?”
“I didn’t have the time – I was with you.”
Columba ripped the crucifix from the nun, and threw it at me. It bounced against my chest but I caught it with my free hand and pulled it up towards my face.
A lens. There was a tiny lens in the eye of Jesus.
I dropped the cross on the floor, stamping on it with my foot. The veneer of wood splintered revealing threads of electronics.
“Is this place secure?”
“I don’t know!”
“You’re both dead.” It was Sister Samantha. “Unless you do as you’re told.”
“Shoot her!” Columba shouted.
I paused, the useless Para Ordnance in my right hand.
Columba pulled out his own flechette pistol and shredded the nun’s face.
“We’re in big trouble,” I said for the fifth or sixth time. The nun had been a set up, and we’d fallen for it.
I did a quick check with some portable gear and the location seemed secure, but we had to assume that a signal had got out. They knew where we were and what we looked like.
Columba checked the street from an upstairs window.
“We still have to assume –”
“I know!” Columba came stomping down the stairs into the hallway. “We’re running. Have you arranged a safe way out?”
“Yeah, I can get out through –”
Columba slapped me.
“Don’t tell me you idiot! I don’t want to know anything.” I stood stunned for a moment rubbing my face then followed him into the kitchen towards the back door. “Jesus if they catch me how long do you think it would take them to get that information out of me?”
Columba opened the backdoor, peeking cautiously out once then twice.
“We’re running,” he said and stepped out into the garden.
We jogged across the backyard, a scrubby brown patch of grass surrounded by a high wooden fence. A child’s tricycle lay upended and long forgotten in one corner. Columba let me open the gate, very cautiously, and then we were on an empty service road. The rental car we’d taken was sitting there. Columba shook his head.
“Too dangerous. We’ll split up here.” He held out his hand. I took it and we shook. “Remember, all roads lead to Rome.”
I smiled then began jog away.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shape flash low over my head.
A moment later the cruise missile flattened the nice suburban house and half the street around it.
When I picked myself up, my jog turned into a sprint.
I got out of Jerusalem by going south. I grabbed some clothes and papers I’d stashed and caught a bus to Bi’r As-Sab, guessing that no one would be looking for a fleeing officer of the Inquisition on a Palestinian bus heading deeper into Arab Union territory. I kept going south through Nedj and Yemen to Mocha and caught a ferry to Mogadishu. Staying within Arab Union nations made travelling easier and aroused fewer suspicions. I was on the run but it was almost enjoyable to be revisiting places from my youth that were familiar but still exotic. It was an adventure in strange, noisy lands.
In Somalia I made my way to Jilib and up the Webi Jubba by boat to Luuq and from there into neutral Kenya. In Mantera I introduced myself to the bishop and he arranged my transport back to Italy. It was a long route, six weeks of moving slowly and avoiding attention but it was safe and easy.
I expected to find Columba waiting for me in Rome but he wasn’t there and no one had heard from him. I made a report and was offered a full-time commission in the Inquisition by a skeletal priest with nicotine stains on his fingers.
I asked for time to think about it and they sent me home on my first leave since I’d been conscripted.
Annie met me in Dublin. We took my back pay and locked ourselves in a hotel room with a view over St Stephen’s Green for a fortnight, only putting clothes on for room service.
When Annie was asleep, I checked the news – it was all bad. One afternoon, as I sat on the edge of the bed, pictures of the aftermath of an artillery bombardment on a field hospital flickering across my retina, I felt Annie shift in the bed and tune in.
“You can’t go back, Paddy,” she said.
I couldn’t turn around. I wanted to tell her what I’d seen and what I’d done, but couldn’t. I didn’t want her to know that that however bad it had been, and at times it had been horrible, it was also exciting. That there were times when I’d enjoyed it all. I didn’t want to be that person for her.
“I’m a soldier,” I told Annie. “I don’t get to choose.”
“But if you took the commission…”
“That work is just as dangerous.”
There was a knock at the door.
There was a man in the corridor. He seemed to be crouching, almost bent double. He looked up at me. A fresh, livid scar ran from the corner of his mouth up to his right ear. His face was bruised, swollen and misshapen, and he was using a cane to support his weight.
“What?” I asked.
“Paddy,” he said, a sly grin stretching his face. “Won’t you let me in?”
He stepped into the room, edging me aside.
“And you must be Annie.”
“Jesus Columba, what happened?”
Paddy hadn’t made it out of Jerusalem. He hadn’t got more than a couple of streets before he was caught, dragged away and tortured. It took him weeks to escape.
We took him back to our place in Kinvara to recover. The steady beating of the Atlantic and the comforting familiarity of the land eased my mind and Annie looked after Columba while the treatments started by his medics did their job. It took only a few days for the physical effects of Columba’s ordeal to fade. The bones knitted together, swellings eased and bruises faded as the medicules did their work. But as fast as his physical well-being improved his mood seemed to darken.
“What is it?”
Columba didn’t answer. He was wearing my old parka, hands buried in the pockets, hood up obscuring his face. I’d found him sitting looking over the ocean with his back to the walls of Dungaire Castle. It hadn’t been hard to guess where he’d go. The castle’s tall keep rose far above anything else on the coast, a silhouette of ancient power against the dusky evening sky. The weather was turning and the sixteenth century stones of the castle walls seemed to take on the blackness of the sky. The Atlantic was restless, its heavy grey water surging against the stones below us.
I sat down beside Columba, flicking a stone away with my foot, watching it bounce and tumble into the waves.
“Crisis of faith?”
He turned to me for the first time, an expression of contempt on his face. Then he looked away.
“What are you fighting for, Paddy?” His words were soft, almost lost in the rising wind.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m a conscript, remember?” I picked up another rock, tossing it down into the ocean. “You’re the one who volunteered for all this.”
“But I’ve seen you in the fight,” he said. “You’re good at it. You enjoy it.”
“I…” I was going to say I was only fighting to stay alive, but I knew it was a lie. I rested back against the cool rocks of the castle wall and looked back towards Kinvara. I could see my home, the kitchen light on against the gathering gloom. I imagined Annie there, busy, happy, and with our baby growing inside her. “I have a lot to fight for.”
Columba laughed. “Have you told her about what we did Jerusalem?”
“No!” I twisted to face him. He was leering at me. “I don’t want her to know…”
“Well then don’t bullshit me. You didn’t do those things to protect your family or your country or any of that crap.”
“You gave me orders.”
Columba waved me away in disgust.
“Then why do you do it?” I asked him.
“We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you.” He jabbed me in the chest. “But since you ask, I do it for the thrills, the power, the money and because chicks dig scars.”
Columba roared with laughter at that, his voice reverberating off the castle walls, bouncing across the ocean.
“I don’t think you’re as cynical as you pretend,” I said.
“Don’t be sure about that, Paddy, one day I might surprise you.”
“Then why take the cloth?” I pointed to his dog collar. “You must have had faith once. And the Jesuits? Soldiers of god? That says something, doesn’t it?”
“It says I think chicks like men in fancy uniforms.”
“But I’ve seen you in a fight,” I said, throwing his own words back at him. “You’re good at it. And you like it more than I do.”
“You know you’re a liar, Paddy,” Columba was stroking the grass, letting the rabbit-cropped green stalks run through his fingers. “You put up this front, the conscript, the unwilling fighter, but you’re a believer. You believe in people. You believe in causes. You believe whatever they tell you.”
“And you don’t believe anything?”
“I believe…” Columba trailed off, he ran his palms over the coarse stone of the castle walls. He muttered something to himself but it was lost in the wind. “I believe in what I’ve seen with my own eyes. That’s it.”
“That attitude won’t make you very popular with your friend in the Inquisition.”
The wry smile on Columba’s face twisted into a grimace and I saw something flash in his eyes. Pain or loss, and I remember thinking that, apart from anger, it was the first honest emotion I’d ever seen him allow to surface. And then it was gone and he pulled the hood of my parka tighter around his neck, hiding his face.
“It’s all crap,” he said. Then he turned to me, a look of absolute sincerity on his face. “I like you Paddy, I mean it, so listen carefully. Don’t think you know me. Don’t think you can trust me. Don’t think the fact that I like you will make me hesitate for a second if you get in my way.”
I looked at him for a moment, uncertain of what to say. Then the grin returned to his face, thick and convincing, and I slapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s get some dinner,” I said, and he nodded.
The next day I told Annie I was going to take the commission in the Inquisition and she cried with relief. A week later, Paddy and I were in Armenia and back in the war.
Columba raised his empty bottle in the air and roared for more.
Jesuits take only four vows: poverty, celibacy, obedience and loyalty. I never saw Columba pause over breaking any of them. Everything was up for grabs. Once, after an argument, I’d asked him if he even believed in God. He turned away from me saying: “To devote oneself earnestly to one’s duty to humanity, and while respecting the spirits, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom.” Later I ran a search for the quote, it was from Confucius, but I wasn’t sure that it answered my question.
A waitress, tired and dishevelled from the night’s work, put two local beers and two balloon glasses on her tray. She wiped a stray strand of sandy hair from her face and started over from the bar.
Columba watched her weave between the tables. His eyes narrowed and his shoulder’s hunched. He seemed to lower himself, like a lion on the stalk.
Close up the waitress looked older than I’d first thought, but she was still pretty. She put the bottles of Kotayk, an unpleasant local brew, on the table. I smiled at her, but if she noticed my presence she gave no sign. Her eyes were on Columba, like a mouse facing a snake.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
She looked him up and down, pausing for a while on his two most distinguishing features, the dog collar and the scar.
Columba reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills, mostly thousands, six month’s salary for this girl – maybe more.
“What’s your name?” he said again.
“Serpuhi.” She reached out and took the cash, a sly smile on her lips.
“Serpuhi? That means the holy one.” Columba turned to me with a theatrical wink. “A sign!”
He stood up, grabbed both cognacs and the girl, and left me with the beers and the bill. He didn’t look back.
I gave it ten minutes then went back to the hotel.
Columba didn’t return to the Hotel Ara for three days.
I was having breakfast in what was called, a touch ambitiously I thought, the restaurant, looking down over Yerevan as it struggled to life. Beyond the city was Mount Ararat, still snow-covered and shining like a beacon in the bright morning sun. Sometimes the sun would flash off metal or glass on the mountain’s lower slopes. The Turks were digging gun emplacements and Yerevan was going to take a hammering when they opened up.
I tried to keep my eyes down. If the view of the holy mountain crawling with enemy soldiers wasn’t disconcerting enough, the crumbling concrete of the hotel made me even more nervous. The trucks that rumbled past at night, the Armenian army on the move, shook the whole building, showering powdered plaster in wintry skiffs onto the floor. It was only a matter of time before one of the region’s too frequent earthquakes shook the whole place off the hillside and brought it crashing into the valley below.
Columba walked over with a cup of coffee and sat down without saying a word. I glanced up from my breakfast to confirm that he looked terrible and then got back to concentrating on my food. I had two cups of coffee while he downloaded the most recent news and intelligence.
All the news was bad. If this deal wasn’t sorted out soon, Columba and I were going to get first hand experience of the quality of Turkish artillery. And if we survived that, we were going to have to explain to our colleagues in the Inquisition why we’d failed to help protect our (admittedly apostate) Orthodox Christian brothers from the armies of Islam. A month’s shelling would be easier.
Columba sat sipping his coffee without saying a word.
I left the bitter dregs in the bottom of my cup and stood up. Columba blinked.
“I guess she wasn’t your soulmate after all,” I said.
“Jesus, Paddy,” he rocked back in his chair, scratched his crotch and leered. “Sure there has to be more things to life than love.”
The Holy Father, or someone close enough to him for it not to make any difference to us, had sent us here to help the Armenians. No one wanted another crusade, not after the mess we’d made of the last one, but no one was going to sit back and let the Turks slaughter the Armenians a third time. So, instead of God’s Armies, the Armenians got Columba and me trying to arrange a deal with a warlord called Haroutyoun Adoian in the shadow of a fifteen hundred year old monastery dug into cliffs in the mountains outside Yerevan.
Adoian was what passed for government in Armenia these days. We had money, trained mercenaries and access to enough good quality ordnance to fight a war, obviously. All Adoian had to do was demonstrate that he was capable of being more of a danger to the Turks than he was to his own people. I doubted he could manage it.
The sun was coming up and I wanted to be back in bed.
Columba, leaning against a tree next to me, was idly playing with the silver crucifix that he’d hung round his neck. I’d never seen him wear one of those before, but I didn’t ask questions. There wasn’t any point.
Just then I heard a rumbling, the drone of a heavily souped-up engine.
The drone got louder and louder until a black Range Rover, all smoked glass and bulges of menacing modifications, rumbled around the bend in the road below us. The engine was working hard dragging the weight of its heavily-armoured shell up the steep slope. Two lorries trundled and bounced along behind the Range Rover. They were full of soldiers. From the colour of their berets I could see they were what passed for special-forces in Armenia. I wasn’t impressed.
“Our friends have arrived,” I said.
Columba muttered something to himself.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, but if Columba heard me, he wasn’t letting on. He fingered the crucifix again.
Adoian’s Range Rover stopped at the monastery’s main gates. It bulged with modifications, weapons, countermeasures and communications and was too bloated to pass through the narrow opening. The Armenian troops leapt from their trucks. We watched them deploy with a professional detachment. I sucked at my teeth.
“If that’s their best…”
“Adoian buried all his competent soldiers in a hole near Dilizhan months ago,” Columba said.
The Armenian troops clumsily formed a perimeter while one squad rushed up the hill to frisk us physically and electronically. They took our guns and other gear, tossing them across the courtyard. A corporal nodded to his lieutenant who muttered into a sub-dermal.
At the monastery gates the door of the Range Rover opened and the troopers herded us downhill. Columba stayed quiet, still fingering his crucifix.
Four Chinese men in black suits and dark sunglasses stepped from the Range Rover as we got closer. These guys at least looked the part. They kept their right hands poised close to their weapons and moved like they knew what they were doing. One of them raised his hand to adjust his sunglasses and his cuff slid back enough so that I could catch a glimpse of a tiger’s head tattoo. Chinese special-forces, Brave Tigers dadu, from Nanjing. They were the real deal and they must be costing Adoian a fortune.
Finally one of them nodded and Adoian squeezed himself out of the door. He was a big man but not fat. Over two metres tall and heavily built he was wearing a suit that probably cost an appreciable portion of Armenia’s gross national product and carried most of the country’s gold reserve in a heavy chain around his neck and in the rings on every finger. He had a broad forehead, dark hair and a cragged face that was streaked with scars. A good surgeon, or even a half-trained Armenian one, could have smoothed them out, which meant that they were for show. He was proud of them. At a casual glance Adoian could have been dismissed as a middle-ranking thug in any Eastern European crime syndicate. But his eyes, clear and bright, betrayed the ruthlessness that had allowed him to grab power across the whole of Armenia.
Columba muttered something.
He was holding his crucifix out in front of him, as if to ward off some demon, and stepping backwards.
Then he dropped to the ground, hands over his head.
The shockwave hit me hard in the small of my back.
I lost a moment and, when I got my bearings, I was slumped against the pillars of the monastery’s stone gates. There was smoke billowing from a hole in the ground where the Range Rover had been and there was no sign of the car or of Adoian and his expensive Chinese bodyguards. The Armenians were panicking, firing randomly into the tree line above the monastery and getting cut down by precision fire. Flechettes slipped through the air. A nearby tree trunk disintegrated under a thousand hissing impacts. The soldier behind it screamed, briefly.
Two aircraft flashed across my vision, black hawks swooping silently along the contours of the valley. Mechanically I noted their markings, Turkish VK-34s, stealthy, unmanned fighter-bombers of the Messina Squadron. I recalled a briefing that said they’d been relocated to Kars after a recent posting on the Danube. Nice to know our intelligence was right about something, I thought to myself.
Everything went black.
I came to again.
Columba was standing over me. He said something but I didn’t catch it.
“That was close,” I said. My throat was dry. I tried to move but a flash of pain in my leg brought me up short. Broken bones. “We’ve got to get out of here. Get me up.”
I held up a hand.
He didn’t move.
“Come on, Columba, get me up.”
He shook his head. The sly smile was back on his face.
Something was wrong. Then I remembered the moments before the attack.
“How did you know?”
Columba took his hand from behind his back. He was holding my forty-five.
I was amazed how large the open end of the barrel seemed. I remembered the look on the faces of everyone I’d pointed it at and realized why they’d looked so scared.
Then without flinching, without a flicker of regret in his blue eyes, he pulled the trigger.
I never kept the forty-five loaded, I used a flechette pistol to shoot people, the gun was just for show. I did have bullets for it, four, but they were in my jacket pocket.
Columba looked at the gun, confused.
I tried to stand but the pain caught me again and I slumped back to the ground.
Columba reached for his flechette pistol.
Over his shoulder a dark shape rose silently, silhouetted against the morning sun. It hovered, the down wash of its engines making the air seem liquid, like a desert mirage. I saw the gun turret swivel, the sixty millimetre cannon taking aim.
Columba levelled his pistol at me.
I forced myself up on my knees.
The cannon flashed, the ground behind Columba began to rip.
I pushed. I screamed. Everything went black.
When I woke I was face down and half covered in rubble from the walls of the monastery gates. I lay still, first trying to work out where it hurt – everywhere – and then listening.
It was quiet.
I lay still a little longer, putting off the inevitable pain movement would bring.
After a while I began to feel cold and I started to worry about shock. I didn’t think I was bleeding, but I couldn’t be sure.
I shuffled my left leg, the one that hurt the least, underneath me. The rubble, mostly small pieces of stone and dust, shifted and fell away. I put my arms out in front and braced myself, pushing upwards, trying to straighten my back. Pain flashed across my shoulder and my chest. My right leg just burned, it could take no weight.
I heard a strange, almost musical whine. It seemed to be coming from far away.
So did the sound.
It took me another moment to realise that I’d been screaming.
I bit my lip, reached out for the remnants of the monastery wall, and forced myself upright.
The Turks were gone. The Armenians were dead, their bodies were scattered around the road and mountainside. I slumped against the monastery wall, it took all my strength just to stay upright.
There was no sign of Columba.
I needed a plan.
I noticed my forty-five, discarded in the dirt. That was a start.
I scavenged food and medical gear from the dead Armenians and spent a week in the woods recovering, letting the medicules mesh my bones. Another week of cautious travelling took me back to Yerevan, now occupied by the Turkish army and tearing itself apart in a bloody insurgency. I expected Columba to be half way across the world but since it was going to take time to arrange a way out of Armenia, I decided to poke around the city.
My only lead was the girl, Serpuhi, but I wasn’t optimistic that she would know anything useful. My way back to the club involved twisting through the narrow streets of the Opera district – a slum of low mud and brick building chucked together after the earthquake flattened half the city thirty years ago. Only the statue of Khatchaturian, strangely twisted and truncated like a paraplegic, remained to mark the site of the concert hall that had once stood here and given the district its name.
The streets were sullen, quiet and menacing, but the basement club was busy. A scattering of Turkish soldiers mixed in with the regulars were the only signs here that anything had changed in the world outside. There were girls writhing on three different stages and others struggling to carry drinks through the crowd’s ocean of grabbing hands. A traditional Armenian band was running through its repertoire of Beatles’ songs. I found a booth at the back, ordered a whisky and a beer and sat back.
I got distracted for a moment when the band burst into a rendition of “Back in the USSR” – the drummer going nuts on his little hand drums, the dulcimer and flute fighting furiously. The Armenians in the crowd all stood, singing the words and roaring with laughter. The song had become an ironic anthem across Eastern Europe.
A shadow passed across my table.
Columba stood over me, smiling and singing along to the band but staring straight at me.
The song finished, the crowd roared for more but the band started up with Dear Prudence and I wondered if they were going to go through the whole of The White Album. Columba lowered himself onto the seat across from me. The girl, Serpuhi – or whatever her name really was – dressed in a business suit and looking younger, sexier and altogether more dangerous remained standing just behind him, her left hand resting on the butt of a pistol.
“You survived then, Paddy?”
I shrugged, no point stating the obvious.
“No thanks to me, eh?”
I just stared at him.
“You’re a brave man, I never thought you’d come here looking for me, especially not alone.”
“What makes you think I’m alone?
“You always were a funny fella, Paddy.”
I shrugged again.
“So are you going to ask me your big question?”
“What question?” I was genuinely confused.
“Oh Paddy, I know you too well.” Columba was laughing but Serpuhi stood silently. “You want to know why I did it.”
“I don’t care why you did it,” I said. “I just want to kill you.”
Columba laughed again.
“Okay, since you obviously want to tell me,” I said. “Why did you do it?”
I looked around the bar – it was still dirty and smelly and unpleasant. “It wasn’t enough.”
“It’s more than you’ll ever see in your life.”
“If I had that much money,” I said, “I wouldn’t be hanging around in places like this.”
Columba conceded the point with a curt nod.
“It came with conditions,” was all he said.
“So is she,” I nodded towards the girl, “your bodyguard or a prison guard.”
“Oh a little of both, I suppose,” Columba leered back at Serpuhi. “And a bit more.”
For the first time the girl’s face cracked and she grinned slightly.
Somehow the idea that Columba was happy made my anger boil over. I felt my face redden, my fists balling on the table top, my muscles tightening.
Columba was watching me carefully. He shook his head. The smile faded from Serpuhi’s face and she tightened her grip on her pistol, freeing it slightly from its holster.
I sat back and took a deep, shuddering breath.
“So you’ve betrayed everything, you betrayed me, for cash.”
“I didn’t betray you Paddy.”
“You tried to kill me.”
“But it wasn’t betrayal,” Columba took my whisky and swallowed it in one gulp, wincing as the cheap alcohol burned his throat. “It would only be betrayal if we’d ever been fighting on the same side.”
“I thought we were fighting on the same side.”
“Which is why I’ve always liked you, Paddy,” Columba said. “You think the best of people. Even me. Even after I told you not to trust me.”
“Your semantics don’t change the fact that you tried to kill me. That you lied –”
“Never!” Columba slapped the table with his open palms. The slapping sound echoed around the bar, audible even over the music and the roar of conversation, but no one looked around. It wasn’t that kind of place. “I never lied to you, Paddy. You might have lied to yourself about the kind of person you thought I was, but I never told you a lie.”
He was serious. I could see it in his eyes. This mattered to him.
“You were my commanding officer,” I said. “You had a duty to –”
“No!” Again he cut me off. “My only duty was to myself.”
“You took oaths of loyalty. You swore to serve the church and the army.”
“That’s no sin,” Columba said. “If they ever knew what the truth was, they forgot it centuries ago.”
Columba was angry in a way I’d never seen before. He was jabbing his finger to emphasise his words, his reddened face emphasised the dead white skin around his scar.
Serpuhi stepped closer and, keeping her eyes on me, whispered into Columba’s ear. He shook his head fiercely, snapping his head around to stare at her, his anger transferring momentarily from me to her. But she rested a hand on his shoulder and, almost instantly, he relaxed. He really did seem to care about this girl.
“It seems I have another appointment,” Columba said. “So I’m afraid this is goodbye.”
He stood up.
“Are you going to shoot me in the face this time, or would you like me to turn around so you can get a clear shot at my back.”
“I want you to put your gun on the table.”
I moved my hand towards the holster under my left arm.
“Slowly,” the girl said. “Pick it out with your thumb and middle finger. If I see you put your hand on the trigger I’ll kill you right here.”
I picked out the flechette pistol and laid it on the table.
The girl moved to pick it up. Columba put a hand on her arm, stopping her.
“And that antique cannon of yours,” he said.
I reached round and pulled the forty-five from behind my back. The girl pocketed the two guns.
“Now, we’re going outside,” she said. “I’m sure our security services can have fun chatting to you.”
“I don’t know anything he doesn’t” I said, nodding to Columba.
I stood up and let them guide me to the doorway and up the steps that led to ground level.
It was April but the night was still cold enough for clouds of our breath to fog the air. The sky above was bright with stars but there was no moon and no one had bothered putting up street lamps in The Opera, so curtains of shadow draped the street. Columba nudged me towards a backstreet and a waiting car.
I clicked my tongue.
Three pools of blackness detached themselves from the shadows and levelled guns at the heads of Columba and the girl.
“Don’t move,” one of the shapes said, his English heavily accented.
Columba and the girl froze. The girl looked shocked and angry, but Columba’s expression was calm. He even managed a smile.
Gradually the three dark shapes resolved themselves into the outline of men as their stealth cloaks powered down. Three Chinese faces emerged from the night. Their faces were hard, their bodies naturally falling into stances that suggested poise and alertness.
“I’ve underestimated you again.”
“Silence!” One of the Chinese men shoved him.
“I did tell you that I hadn’t come alone,” I said. “And our friends here were most keen to meet the man who’d betrayed their comrades.”
“You won’t get away–” The girl started to speak.
“Kill her,” I said.
“No!” Columba’s eyes widened. His smile disappeared and for the first time I saw him look scared. The girl took a step back, preparing to run.
One of the Chinese assassins stepped up behind her, placed his pistol against her back and pulled the trigger, all in one swift, unfussy movement. Silently the pistol punched a fist size hole through the girl’s chest. She gasped in surprise and then her face relaxed.
“Neylan!” Columba reached her before she collapsed. He lowered her gently to the ground and crouched beside her, desperately trying to staunch the thick-flowing blood. “Neylan. Please!”
Columba looked up at me, blood covered his arms and chest, his face was twisted into a mask of hatred but his eyes were filled with tears.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“You know I did.”
I watched him fight to compose himself. I could see him calculating his next step.
“Don’t touch her guns,” I said, pre-empting him. “I want you alive, but that doesn’t mean I need you in one piece.”
Columba rocked back on his heels.
“You’ll never get me out of Armenia,” he said.
“That’s already been arranged,” I smiled at him, nodding towards my Chinese friends. “You really pissed them off.”
“You’ve become a proper bastard, haven’t you Paddy?” Columba’s shoulder’s slumped, his eyes dropped. He was beaten.
I leant in close, and whispered in his ear.
“I had a good teacher.”