Sweat started to trickle down the spine of the middle-aged man as he meandered through the ancient, narrow lanes of the medina, near the Old Port of Bizerte in Tunisia. His linen shirt stuck irritatingly to his back as he passed the time until his late-afternoon meeting. Staying at the hotel had given him cabin fever, and patience was not one of his strengths, so he had left the hotel to explore. However, lugging his large and heavy shoulder bag around in the heat had soon made him wish he had stayed put.
The hot afternoon sun occasionally made its way into the narrow lanes that bustled with life as the locals went about their business in the souks throughout the medina. Shadows were long, so the man had no need of sunglasses, nor a sun hat, which was as he liked it. His sparse, slightly curly blond hair and fair complexion marked him out as a foreigner, but he was not a tourist. Despite the city’s rich history and sandy beaches, Bizerte was still not fully on the tourist map. Many eager traders tried to attract his attention with their wares but failed dismally; he simply was not interested.
Feigning nonchalance, he turned this way and that, completely lost. Pride prevented him from asking for directions from his two bodyguards, who hung back a few metres. He was sure that the dim-witted thugs would have less of a clue than he. However, he was unconcerned; he had ample time and appreciated the multitude of rich colours and variety of smells that assailed his senses. Eventually, quite by chance, he emerged back at the Old Port and made straight for a café where he ordered a fresh lemonade, leaving his bodyguards loitering on the pavement. Pretending to read a book, he surreptitiously looked at a map of the Kasbah, trying to memorise the route he would take to the meeting place.
An hour later, after another drink and something to eat, he paid the bill and set off. The Kasbah gave the impression of a small fortified town from the Old Port’s dockside, with its many brightly coloured fishing boats. Within those high stone walls, however, it was no different from the medina. The narrow lanes, which only pedestrians and the occasional scooter could access, twisted and turned between white buildings, many with pale blue doors and shutters. The peeling paint and heavily-worn cobbled streets gave credence to the two thousand years of its existence.
The man was nervous but refused to show it. Nowadays he rarely dealt directly with new contacts, which was why he had employed some expendable thugs, just in case something went wrong. But this was different; this was not going to be one of his usual consignments and he wanted to meet the seller as well as test the merchandise. This was for his own, special initiative.
His eyes flicked all around, checking off the landmarks that he had committed to memory; thankfully, he had been sent detailed instructions. Eventually, certain that he had found the correct address, he knocked on yet another blue door and walked in, stifling a cough from the heavy, swirling smoke that hit him as he entered.
“Mr Norcott, I presume?” came a thick, growling voice from somewhere deep inside the gloomy space. “Please, invite your friends inside as well.” Having waited for Donald Norcott to oblige, the voice continued, “If you don’t mind, my colleagues will now make sure that we are all comfortable.”
With no further warning of what was about to happen, a number of figures emerged from the shadows, and silently frisked Norcott and his two bodyguards. Having removed a number of handguns, one of the figures broke the silence.
“They are clean, no wires, and now harmless.”
“Good! You must excuse me, Mr Norcott; one can never be too careful nowadays when meeting a new customer for the first time. The number of people the authorities persuade to wear electronic devices is quite astounding. Now, come, take a seat.”
Norcott’s eyes had started to grow accustomed to the gloom and he could make out the source of the voice. In the far corner, seated behind a rough wooden table, the silhouette of a large, imposing man waved an arm, inviting Norcott to sit. An oil lamp in the centre of the table was lit and threw eerie shadows that flickered about the room.
Norcott moved forward with a sense of purpose and confidence that belied reality, and placed his heavy backpack beside the chair as he sat down. “I thank you for seeing me, Mr Smith. I always like to meet those whom I do business with, and after so many telephone calls and emails, I thought now would be a good time.” Norcott had no compunction about lying. He still struggled with firstly not knowing the true identity of the man, and secondly, the idea that a Tunisian would go by the name of Smith.
“I do agree. Nothing beats actually meeting people and seeing where they do business, although in our case the place frequently changes!”
They both shared a laugh at this witticism.
“Quite right. We can never be too careful. And, of course, it is always good to find new partners to establish long-term arrangements.”
“Exactly. So, do I understand from that comment that you intend to acquire more merchandise?”
“Absolutely. This is just the start.” Norcott hoped that his voice did not give his lie away. He had a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about this man, but Smith had been the only contact he could find without becoming beholden to others, and he didn’t want that. Norcott had had enough such meetings to recognise that the posturing on both sides was not conducive to a long-term relationship, but he needed this man, at least for the time being.
“May I ask, are the items for you, or for onward transportation?”
“Oh, mostly for valued clients.” Norcott lied again.
“I see. You have the money, I presume? That always helps a new relationship.” The man fixed Norcott with a steely stare.
“Yes. Five million US in total. Two million in used US dollars upfront, as agreed. Half here, half when I see the sample merchandise.”
“What?!” the man roared, slamming his hand down with a sudden, loud, resounding thump that rattled the table, making the lamplight flicker on the dark walls. “I said the two million down payment was to be made today!” Spittle sprayed Norcott’s face.
“Yes, you did,” Norcott replied, trying to sound unfazed by the outburst. “And I responded very clearly that as a sign of good faith I would pay one million today and the balance upon seeing a sample of the merchandise being tested. That has not changed since we first spoke.”
“You don’t clearly understand business here, Mr Norcott! Good faith means that you deliver the money as I require, and know for sure that I will deliver. Are you questioning my good faith?” The threatening tone was evident.
Norcott realised with shocking certainty that he was cornered. He could not insult this hot-tempered man by acknowledging that he was, of course, impugning the man’s integrity. Likewise, he had no intention of losing face when he now suspected that he would not see any merchandise.
“That was never my intention. I propose that—”
“No!” Smith barked back. “What I propose is that you leave the money you have here with your two men, and one of my men will accompany you to collect the balance.”
“That seems reasonable,” Norcott replied carefully, bending down to pick up his bag. He placed it on the table with a thud, and with a slight hand movement, reached inside a secret pocket in the base of the bag.
A loud boom echoed around the small room, numbing everyone’s eardrums. Smith was thrown backwards. Norcott swung round and fell to the floor, shooting at any shadow that moved. He didn’t give a damn about his bodyguards. He just wanted out. There was an instant’s bright light as a door opened, then closed at the top of some stairs immediately behind the table. But there wasn’t anyone else, Norcott thought, momentarily confused as he slammed yet another magazine into the handle of his gun.
Darting beneath the table as the bullets started to fly, Norcott headed for the stairs. He was confident that if his bodyguards were still alive, they would provide adequate distraction as they fought for their miserable lives. Fortunately, the small weapons hidden in their underpants had not been found during the search.
Bugger it! Smith’s escaped. I need to get him otherwise I won’t be going home! Norcott concluded as he came across an upturned chair.
Norcott was a realist. He knew he lived in a kill-or-be-killed environment, and after the stunt he had just pulled, one of them had to die! Leaving the bodyguards to fend for themselves, he sprang after Smith, hoping that his men would take care of the others. It would be for the best if all witnesses were eliminated. The likely loss of his money was of small consequence now, however unpalatable.
At the top of the stairs, Norcott barged through the flimsy door and immediately rolled to the right on the roof. Two bullets narrowly missed his head and slammed into the door frame. It took a couple of seconds for him to get his bearings, and for his eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. Smith had the advantage, and Norcott knew it, so he rolled again as another bullet kicked dirt into his face.
When he was able to focus, Norcott saw Smith fleeing across the flat roofs, making his way from building to building, gingerly traversing the many arches spanning the lanes as though they were wide tightropes. He chose this place intentionally, Norcott realised as he set off after his quarry.
Smith, with his bulk, was far slower than Norcott, and continuously looked over his shoulder. A long minute later and Norcott was nearly upon the man, who ducked for cover behind a small rooftop construction. Smith started shooting at the exposed Norcott, who rolled to one side and out of the direct line of fire. Norcott emptied his magazine of bullets into the wall close to Smith’s head, sending him scuttling behind the wall for protection as plaster fragmented, kicking out clouds of dust.
Norcott sprinted across another arch over a separating lane and came up behind the structure where Smith was hiding. As quietly as possible, Norcott pulled himself up onto the roof of the hut and eased towards the edge.
“An English name doesn’t suit you,” he hissed viciously, looking over the edge and seeing Smith clearly for the first time, a bulletproof vest evidence as to why he was still alive.
Smith looked up, horror and hate burning in his eyes as he stared into the barrel of Norcott’s gun. He rolled backwards, bringing his own gun to bear on Norcott, but was far too slow. Norcott nailed the Tunisian with three shots, all in the head.
Norcott jumped back down onto the main roof, reloaded, and tucked the gun into his waistband. Having, brushed himself off and dried his sweaty brow with a handkerchief, he opened the door and made his way cautiously down the stairs. Making his way through the house, he quickly tidied himself up in front of a mirror, then bowed apologetically to those he disturbed in the house, and wordlessly let himself out into the narrow lanes. Outside, people were rushing about, shouting and looking up to find where all the noise had come from. Not understanding the language, Norcott had no idea what they were saying, or whether they realised it had been gunfire they had heard.
As he walked away, Norcott passed a corner shop that he recognised and took the risk of heading back to the meeting point. Once there, he drew his gun and pushed the door open. When he entered, he immediately stepped to one side and into the gloom. He could hear strained breathing from at least two people, but no movement. Once his eyes were accustomed to the dim light, he found a light switch and flicked it on to reveal carnage.
All furniture was upended, and bodies lay sprawled on the floor. Both his men were there; one was pointing a gun at him, although upon seeing Norcott, he lowered it, relief crossing his face. “No one followed you, boss and no one left. One of them’s still alive over there, but not going anywhere,” the man said limply, waving a hand towards the stairs.
Norcott walked over to his man, crouched, and patted him on the shoulder. “Good job. Let me see to that other one and then we’ll see about getting out of here. Hold on in there.”
Norcott walked over to, and looked down scornfully at, Smith’s wounded man. He prodded the man with his foot, gun trained on his head. “What’s your boss’ real name?”
When there was no response, Norcott kicked a little harder and the man groaned. “What’s his name? Who does he work for?”
There was still no response, so Norcott crouched down and tugged the man’s head around roughly to face him. The man’s eyes were bright with hatred.
“Your boss is dead, so are you going to answer me?”
The man shook his head, so Norcott picked up a nearby cushion, placed it over his gun and shot the man in the head.
Keeping the cushion wrapped around his gun, he walked over to his man, looked down at him, smiled, and shot him. Picking up his bag with the money in it, he left the house and returned to his hotel, dumping his gun in the waters of the Old Port on his way.
Norcott’s run of bad luck had now continued with his failure to secure the weapons he wanted – without help, that is. In recent months, he had lost a significant part of his operations, a part that had generated huge amounts of clean money. Somehow, the British secret services had stumbled upon those operations, raided his operating centres, and closed them down, both in Britain and abroad. Now Norcott wanted to vent his anger with a show of strength and something that would shake the British establishment to the core. That would renew his self-confidence and restore his credibility with the man to whom he would now have to turn.
Late that evening, Norcott sat back in a lounge chair in his hotel room with a deep sigh, placing a satellite phone down on the table next to him. He was both disappointed and satisfied at the same time. It had been the second call with a man he had gotten to know over the last year, Emilio Arroz. Both calls had been equally long and equally tough. While Norcott was happy to work with Arroz at times, he had not wanted to be beholden to the man, for he had a truly vicious reputation. However, with nowhere else to turn to obtain the weapons he wanted in the time frame he needed, it had been necessary to contact Arroz. Having initially told Arroz that obtaining the weapons would not be a problem, the first conversation had been an embarrassing admission of defeat, and left Norcott in no doubt that he was now beholden to the man.
During their second conversation, Arroz confirmed the arrangements he had made for Norcott to meet one of his contacts – someone who could provide the weapons Norcott wanted. He would be met at his hotel the next day and taken across the border into the Libyan desert to witness the testing of the merchandise as proof of its quality. It would be a dangerous trip of three days, but proper weapons testing did not occur in Tunisia, and he had been gullible to think otherwise.
Arroz had also confirmed that the police were working on the assumption that everyone involved with the earlier gun battle had died in the house. Clearly, then, Smith’s body had not been found yet. Once it was, the investigation would surely heat up. Therefore, it was best for Norcott to leave Bizerte as soon as possible, so the proposed trip addressed that problem as well.
Norcott picked up his phone once again, for he did not like this situation. The contact who had introduced him to Smith would die.
Two days later, Norcott was indeed not only witnessing the testing of various weapons and explosives, but using them himself. They were hidden among towering sand dunes in the searing desert heat, but Norcott did not mind; if the heat became too much, he could retire to the comfort of a luxurious air-conditioned Range Rover.
After using a few dozen stationary targets to get used to the new weaponry, blasting them to smithereens, his hosts unlocked the doors to a large truck. Fourteen distraught men and women ran out in all directions.
“They’ve been told that they can try to escape, and if they succeed we won’t come after them,” his host said casually. “We don’t want that, for they are our friend’s enemies.” The man was clearly referring to Arroz as he handed Norcott another weapon, picked one up for himself, and started shooting.
The two men gave bloodthirsty yells with each shot that found its mark, whether a kill shot or not. When one of their targets was wounded, they watched the jerky and increasingly desperate movements for a few moments before delivering the kill shot. Each time an escapee died, the host’s entourage cheered. One and a half frenetic minutes later, fourteen bodies lay in the drifting sand, the wind gradually covering all evidence of the nameless dead.
Finally, there was a display of explosives. Impressive, but a let-down after the earlier adrenaline-fuelled killing spree. As vehicle after vehicle disintegrated under the power of the explosives, Norcott contemplated the inevitable; he was being reeled in by Arroz and could not avoid it. His secret boss, Burak Demir, had warned him about Arroz, but Norcott had ignored him. Now he found himself in a predicament like none he had faced before, and was too proud to ask Burak for help. It was equally unrealistic to tell Arroz that he was not the top man.