He dropped down into the back of the car and the driver closed the door behind him. He wound down the window and reached out to shake the project manager's hand, but still could not look into his eyes. He freed his hand and waved at the crowd by the double doors as the car pulled away.
They drove past the three-storey dormitory block that was used by the Chinese. He had never met them; he had seen them from a distance; they worked on Project 193, where the lathes shaped the solid fuel charges...and past the tennis courts, which were floodlit in the cooler evenings and had been built for the Russians, to whom he had never spoken. He had passed them in corridors but his friends had never made the introductions; they worked on Project 1478, where the machines he had supplied mixed the coating capable of withstanding the temperature of 3,000 degrees generated in the core of the missile tube...and past the volleyball court scraped from the coarse sand and stone by the North Koreans and played on in the half-light of dawn.
The driver slowed as they approached the main gate of the complex. Gavin Hughes was sweating and he loosened his tie. He twisted and looked through the rear window, back at the small group still standing by the main doors of the administration building, toy figures waving him on his way.
Two guards came forward. When he had first come to the complex they had scowled and taken their time over studying his papers. Now they grinned and saluted, their automatic rifles slung casually on their shoulders. Three visits before he had brought one a Zippo liquid-fuel lighter with a Harley-Davidson motif. On the last visit he had brought the other a carton of Marlboro cigarettes.
This would be his final visit. He would never see these men again. It had been made plain, at the last briefing. In a discreet second-floor room of a Georgian house behind the line of gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall, the satellite photographs of the complex had been mounted on a display board. The images of the roofs of the buildings were pinpoint sharp, and the entrances to the underground workshops, the tennis courts, even the volleyball area, and the positions of the antiaircraft defenses.
This was Gavin Hughes's kingdom. He had access. He was a salesman for standard engineering machines and could tell them what they needed to know when the images failed them. At the last briefing, the night before he had flown, over the tired sandwiches and the stewed coffee, he had told them why his visit had been moved forward a week, what was happening at the complex on the days that he should have visited if the original schedule had been maintained. None of their satellites and high-optic lenses could provide them with that kernel of detail. The meeting had been suspended. For two hours he had been left in the room with only his controller, an ungiving and aloof woman, younger than himself, for company. When the meeting had resumed, the senior man requested he repeat the ground covered earlier, why his visit had been put forward. In the second session two new men had been present. An American, perspiring in a suit of brown herringbone tweed, had sat behind him and to his right, and never spoken. A leather-faced Israeli, a Star of David in gold hanging in the chest hair under an open-necked shirt, had been equally silent.
Afterwards the controller had walked him back to his hotel, and warned her agent to go carefully on this visit, take no risks. Her last words, before they parted, reiterated what would be his fate and his death if he created suspicion...as if Gavin Hughes did not know.
As the guards shouted their farewells, the barrier at the gate was lifted and the car powered away on the straight road through the dunes. It would be half an hour to the airport and then the feeder flight without formalities to the capital.
If...if he made it through the security check, another car, another driver, would be waiting the next morning for him when he came off the flight at Heathrow, to ferry him to another briefing. If they knew the depth of his betrayal and were waiting for him at the final security check, then they would hang Gavin Hughes, as his controller had told him, from the highest crane...He didn't know what would happen at this place in the next few hours or days, and hadn't an idea what his own future held.
Copyright © 1999 by Gerald Seymour
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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