The Himalayan Assignment
The Himalayan Assignment
Stanley, Hong Kong May 2006
In the split second after the handover he thought he had counted at least three of them. He'd heard harsh commands in Cantonese followed by several shots. Then he was running.
He passed a restaurant at full pelt, its name a brightly illuminated smear in his peripheral vision. From behind him came a rhythmic drumming, and he registered the looks of alarm on the faces of early evening al fresco diners. His pursuers were on the boardwalk, which put them no more than a few seconds behind him.
He swerved left then right, down the narrow side roads, desperate for the safety of the market. He spotted the side alley and ducked in, hoping he had the crucial seconds he needed. Bracing himself between the wall and a street lamp he started to climb, trying to control his shaking legs. He reached the narrow ledge and leant back, exhausted, against a twisted and rusting corrugated iron roof. The vent of a restaurant air conditioning unit pummelled him with hot acrid fumes. He fought hard to control the sound of his breathing as he heard the running catch up and then stop.
The sweat was pouring off him, blurring his vision - the street light a smudged halo of white. In the dark shadows behind its glow he could only hope he was safe. He was unarmed and cornered; if they spotted him he stood no chance at all.
Directly beneath him a man advanced slowly, arm outstretched, a gun in his hand. From his vantage point in the shadows he could see the other two, covering their lead man expectantly, presumably calculating that their quarry could not possibly have covered the distance to the far end of the covered market in the time elapsed. His heart pounded away, there was nowhere else he could be hiding - they had only to look up. But after a moment's hesitation new instructions were shouted and all three pursuers took the only obvious route; a left-hand turn out of the market and up towards the main road. An immense wave of relief surged through his body. The afternoon's reconnaissance had paid off. He knew it would be no time before the net closed again and he threw himself towards the lamp post, slithering down on a slick of his own sweat, landing hard. He sprung forwards, aiming at the opposite corner of the narrow side alley, stopping only long enough for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Behind him he could hear the muffled sounds of a Chinese family cooking their evening meal and through a half open door he saw an illuminated fish tank, its inhabitants a myriad gold, orange and black. Ahead he could see nothing but the long covered passageway through the heart of the market, weakly lit, neon grey and metallic. Cockroaches scuttled under his feet.
In a couple of quick strides he crossed the narrow expanse of the deserted main thoroughfare, and crouching behind the rusting and graffiti-strewn shutters of a market stall, he looked up the road to his left. The last of his pursuers was disappearing up a flight of stairs near the taxi rank. He darted across the ten or so metres of open ground on his left, praying that no one would see him. Back under the cover of the market, he gunned himself onwards, clutching at the minute or two of advantage he might now have. He had no idea why the operation had crashed and, running for his life, there was no time to think. He could see bright lights ahead and what looked like the fence; a subconscious recollection intervened and he swung left at full speed up a gentle incline, his progress echoing back at him from the walls and the ramshackle stall fronts. It sounded like he would wake the dead.
In front a brick wall loomed; he veered sharp left again into a small square. It looked right. Dead ahead he could see the V-shaped outline of a low roof, clear against the dark sky, the building seeming to block any escape from the square. He felt a moment of panic, then saw the rectangle of