THE PERFORATED EDGE
The fog began to roll back from the air above Düsseldorf airport as the Gulfstream jet began its final approach to the barely visible strip of runway. On board the pilot kept the jet skilfully on the exact glide path. Touchdown was announced by a brief squeal from the tyres as they touched the concrete. The pilot selected reverse thrust immediately but for not more than about five seconds. The aircraft slowed until it reached a truck at the end of the runway displaying a “Follow me” sign, its yellow glow clear enough through the disappearing fog. The pilot knew they would be taken to a remote corner of the airfield because of the nature of the cargo they were carrying; not that he had any idea what it consisted of other than it was non-volatile, non-explosive and worth a considerable amount of money.
The marshall’s truck took them to a strip of apron close to one of the airfield crash gates. Visibility was poor, but for the pilot he had only to keep the nose of the aircraft a safe distance behind the truck. He glanced at the instruments, seeing that the outside air temperature was as low as two degrees — almost freezing, but it wasn’t his problem; once he delivered the cargo and passengers, he would be refuelling and heading back to England.
The names on the passenger manifest were Alistair Collins and William Jennings. Neither of the men knew each other; they were perfect strangers. They had been introduced briefly at the start of their journey, but beyond that very little was said. Collins had a briefcase manacled to his wrist by a short chain. There was no real weight to the briefcase, but its contents could have been said to be worth their weight in gold. Jennings, on the other hand, was carrying a gun: a Sig Sauer P224 automatic, carefully concealed in a leather holster beneath his coat. Collins was unaware that his travelling companion was armed, and if he had been asked, he would have said he saw no reason for an armed escort considering the low-grade nature of their journey.
The Gulfstream came to a halt. Its twin engines began winding down. The interior cabin lights flickered momentarily before coming back on. The co-pilot came through from the flight desk and released the cabin door, pushing it out so that it opened out into a short stairway. The cold air immediately rushed into the cabin. It felt damp. Collins gave an involuntary shiver. Jennings ignored the chill and got up from his seat. He asked Collins to wait and went ahead as they stepped down on to the tarmac. In the pool of light spread by the overhead lamps, Collins could see two police escorts sitting astride their motor-cycles. Although he felt that unnecessary too, he felt strangely comforted by it. Jennings simply looked around, seeing very little beyond the yellow arc of the lights. He expected nothing out of the ordinary. He spoke to one of the police escorts, then went across to the panel van and spoke to the driver. The driver handed him something which Collins could see him reading. He thought it looked like an identity card.
A uniformed customs officer approached Collins and held out a clipboard which Collins took from him and signed. The cargo, including the briefcase, was listed as part of the British Embassy’s diplomatic bag, so no inspection was required. Once that formality was over, the customs officer turned away and signalled to the waiting van. It came forward and stopped behind the aircraft. Two men who so far Collins hadn’t noticed appeared and manhandled a crate from the aircraft. They carried it to the back of the van and pushed it in through the rear doors.
The cold was beginning to penetrate Collins’ inadequate clothing, and he was anxious to get into the van and to get on with the journey. He said as much to Jennings but received a monosyllabic reply. Collins wondered what kind of man his escort was as he clambered into the van and into a seat behind the driver. Jennings sat in the passenger seat. He waited until the driver was in before turning to Collins.
When he saw Collins nod, he motioned to the driver to move on. It was warm in the van and surprisingly comfortable, but Jennings gave little thought to comfort because he was focussed on the job in hand. Once he had delivered his charge, he would be free to return to England and some down-time.
They drove out through the crash gates, turning on to the airport ring road which, despite the poor visibility, was showing signs of increasing traffic. This proved no problem to the small convoy as the blue flashing lights of the police escorts cleared a path on to the road. The van driver muttered something, laughed quietly to himself and moved into place behind the police bikes.
It didn’t take long before the two bikes led the van out of the airport conurbation and on to a minor road which took them into a less populated area. Collins peered over the driver’s shoulder, hoping to see something of the area through which they were driving, but the fog was still hanging around in patches, so he gave up; it was too much of an effort.
The main road became a side road, and the towering street lamps were soon lost and replaced by tall trees, almost invisible in the gloom. The police bikes increased speed as the traffic thinned considerably and the procession settled into a steady pace, untroubled by outside influences.
Twenty minutes after leaving the airport, they crossed a small bridge, dropping down an incline towards some large gates set back off the road. The escorts turned into the gates which were already open for them. The van followed the bikes in and continued along a gravelled driveway. The lights from the van and the police bikes picked the driveway out like a ribbon in the gradually clearing half-light. It looked ethereal, like something out of a dark novel.
Beyond the reach of the headlights, but clear enough through the thinning fog and bathed in sodium light, was the house. Collins had been told it belonged to Josef Eckmüller, a man he had never met. The van slowed as the driver spun the wheel to bring the van round in an arc to stop outside the huge front door. The two police escorts remained on their motorbikes, their engines running.
Jennings stepped out of the van and told Collins to wait. He walked across to the front entrance to the house, but before he could reach it, a fusillade of machine gunfire burst out from the trees at the side of the house. Jennings dropped to the ground and rolled away, drawing his Sig Sauer at the same time, but before he had chance to raise his arm and return fire, he was cut down.
Collins was about to step out of the van when he heard the incredible noise of the machine guns. He saw the two policemen fall from their bikes. In a moment he saw Jennings drop and roll to one side then stop and lay motionless.
Collins started to run. He had no idea where he was going, but just blindly ran until he felt the stinging bite of the bullets as they ripped into him. He fell forward, his arm dragged out by the weight of the briefcase and collapsed/ He was dead before he hit the ground.
The firing stopped. There was silence save the soft noise of one of the motor cycle engines still running, which stuttered briefly and stopped. A figure ran out from the trees wielding a short-handled axe. He came up to Collins’ prone body and tugged at the sleeve of the manacled arm. Then he lifted the axe above his head and smiled as he brought it down in a vicious arc, severing Collins’ hand from his wrist.
He snatched up the briefcase and shook the chain so that the bloody hand fell free. A car came from the shadows and stopped beside him, its passenger door swinging open. The axe man leapt in and the car accelerated away.
Suddenly it was quiet and the pungent smell of cordite hung motionless in the still air as the noise of the car faded. And all that could be heard was the sound of a police Martin-horn sounding somewhere in the distance.
Düsseldorf was beginning to wake and rub the sleep from its eyes.