Seconded to MI6, Charles and Helen are in Pakistan on a mission in the Hindu Kush to neutralise Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion), leader of an international terrorist network.
Last paragraphs of Chapter 109 ...
"Perhaps we should go and tell Kayla her trip won't be necessary now," I said. "After all, without the ransom money, what's the point?"
"You're not quite such a fool as you look, Mr Brandon. How long have you known about the money?"
"That's not important. The thing is - what are we going to do next? The clock is ticking."
"We're going to track down the thief and get the money back. First, we must find that scoundrel, Chaprasi, and get him to summon the police." As he left the room, he added, "By the way, that's a nasty cut on your hand. You ought to get it seen to."
Bisto looked at me. "Well, that's a fine how-do-you-do. Was it really you that broke in? Not saying it was wrong, of course. He's a nasty bit of work and had it coming to him."
"Do I look as though I've got a briefcase stuffed with money?"
"If you have, I hope you'll share it with an old pal. Perhaps we should scarper with the goods before he comes back."
"Be serious for a moment. Who do you think could have broken in? Despite all the evidence, it certainly wasn't me. Unlikely to have been Chaprasi either. After all, why would he have gone to the bother of breaking the window, when he could simply have opened the door with a skeleton key?"
"Perhaps he wanted to make it look like an outside job. How much was in the case, anyway?"
"The ransom money to secure Helen's release. Two million euros in 500-euro notes."
Bisto whistled between his teeth. "Phew! That's a lot of money. How could Chaprasi deal with notes of that denomination? For that matter, how would he have known that Ash was carrying it?"
"I doubt he would. I think it's either a put-up job, and Ash intends to abscond with the money and leave Helen in the lurch, or else it's Kayla. She's the only other person to know about it."
"There's only one way to find out. Come on - we need to get back to Auntie Mozama, and fast."
However, that wasn't going to happen. Ash met us in the foyer. The exertion had taken its toll. His face was grey, and he was shaking. There were beads of sweat on his forehead. "Come and sit down, old chap," I said, steering him towards a chair. Now that the adrenalin rush had subsided, it was obvious that he'd taken a turn for the worse overnight.
He looked up at me with a pained expression. "My leg's on fire. I can hardly walk."
"Then we're going to have to get you to the hospital in Chitral. That wound's infected. Did they test you for rabies at the clinic?" Ash shook his head.
"You'd better bring the car around to the front door, Ian. There's no time to lose." I turned to Ash and said, "I wouldn't be too hasty about going to the police if I were you. I haven't stolen your damned briefcase, and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been Chaprasi. That only leaves Kayla. Besides, the border police might draw the wrong conclusions about a foreigner carrying that kind of money."
The expression on Ash's face was unfathomable. I suspected that, on reflection, he'd come to the same conclusion himself.
"I suggest you try to be civil to Ian. An apology would go a long way. He's a pretty forgiving sort of chap, you know." Ash remained poker-faced, so I continued, "After the way you behaved yesterday, it's a big ask expecting him to drive you back to Chitral. I'm going over to Mozama's house to see what's happened to Kayla. If my guess is right, she's decided to take the ransom to the caves alone."
"Then she'll get blown up. There's a homing device in the handle of the case that will be activated the moment the hinges open. That is the signal for the French Air Force to attack. They have two Mirage jets armed with laser-guided missiles on standby in Kabul. There's little chance that either she or Helen will have time to escape without outside help."
"We guessed as much. Does Madame Durand have no qualms about using both Culverson sisters as expendable pawns? I don't intend to let that happen." I spoke with confidence as if I had a plan. "I must follow Kayla and stop her. Dear God, I hope she doesn't open the case while she's with her aunt."
Ash smiled. "She can't," he said. "I have the key."
"Have you, indeed? Then you'd better hand it over, or ..."
"Bisto and I will overpower you and take it by force."
Ash slid his hand into his coat pocket and drew out a gun. "I don't think so. You and your friend, Bisto, are going to drive me to the Bumburet police checkpoint. I have a perfectly good relationship with the authorities here - unlike you. After they've taken you both into custody, they'll get me to the hospital." He staggered to his feet. "You go on ahead of me and open the door. Don't try any funny business, or I'll shoot you behind the knee."
Realising that I was cornered, I did as he asked, but as I went to turn the handle, I heard a dull thud behind me. I turned to see Chaprasi standing over the prostrate body of Ash. He had a sock full of sand in his hand and a broad grin on his face. Ash's gun was lying on the floor about halfway between the two of us. I went to pick it up.
"Good idea," said Chaprasi. "That may come in handy where you're going. I'm sure Mr Kidman and I can manage your friend, while you return to Mozama's house."
I put the gun away and knelt to rifle through Ash's pockets. It didn't take long to find the key. "You're a good man, Chaprasi. I owe you a debt of gratitude."
"Don't mention it, Mr Brandon. As I said before, any friend of Mozama is a friend of mine. Now, you'd better get going. Kayla has a head start."
I needed no second invitation. Bisto's car was already drawn up outside the front entrance with the engine running. I knocked on the window. "Sorry to do this to you, Ian, but Chaprasi will need help dragging Ash to the car. I doubt he'll be giving you any trouble as a passenger this time around."
Bisto looked confused. "What's happened?" he asked.
I didn't hang around to answer his question. Time was of the essence. "Go inside," I said. "Chaprasi will explain."
I jogged back towards Mozama's house, hoping I wouldn't be too late. When I arrived, Minaxi and Geeta were in animated conversation on the front veranda. A fine layer of hoar frost still covered most of the wooden surfaces, not yet burnt off by the early morning sun, but despite the cold, I was breathless and red in the face.
"Gone," they said in unison.
Mozama came to the door and beckoned me inside. She led me to Kayla's room. The bed was dishevelled and Ash's briefcase, or what was left of it, was lying on top. A short Kyber knife lay alongside it, a vicious, sharp-pointed weapon with a damascene blade and a handle of inlaid horn. It seemed she had used this to hack through the side of the case, which now lay empty.
I was about to pick the knife up when Mozama placed a hand on my arm. She reached in front of me and lifted the weapon with reverential care. She kissed its blade and, holding it in both hands, offered it to me. Minaxi had also entered the room, and she picked up the leather scabbard from where Kayla, in her haste, had cast it aside.
"Take the knife," she said. "My mother is offering it to you. It belonged to our father. The handle is of markhor horn, which has magical powers. Its blade has killed many enemies."
As I took it, Mozama held my gaze and intoned words in her own language, Kalasha-mun. It sounded like an ancient blessing or, perhaps, a curse. Minaxi came to my rescue. "She says this is a knife of great age. It belonged to our forefathers. You are to take it as protection on your journey, and you are not to bring it back without blood on its blade."
I nodded, accepted the family heirloom, and thanked Mozama. God alone knows what I was expected to do with it. I was about to strap it to my waist when Minaxi shook her head. "Keep it hidden until the hour of need. It's not wise to show that you bear arms. Surprise is the best way against a stronger foe."
What a wise girl, I thought. Perhaps she, too, was a Monty Python fan. Michael Palin's words echoed in my mind, 'Our chief weapon is surprise ... surprise and fear ... fear and surprise ... Our two weapons are fear and surprise.' I had no difficulty with the fear. No doubt ISIS were as ruthlessly efficient as the Spanish Inquisition. Now, at least, with Ash's pistol and Mozama's magic dagger, I was building elements of surprise.
Since a guided missile had not yet blown the four of us to Kingdom Come, I realised that either the French Air Force was not all it was cracked up to be, or Kayla had avoided activating the homing device in the handle of the briefcase. There, within my grasp, was the potential for a third element of surprise.
I asked Minaxi if her mother might have any duct tape for repairing the hole that Kayla had cut. She gave me a puzzled look, as if I were speaking a foreign language, which of course I was. Finally, she seemed to understand what I wanted and rushed off, returning a few minutes later with an awl and a large needle and thread.
Mozama dragged me off into the front room, where the map was still laid out on her kitchen table. Geeta was at the sink cleaning purple carrots. "Surely this map hasn't been spread out since yesterday afternoon," I said. "Isn't it in your way?"
"No," she replied cheerfully. "Mother was showing it to Kayla again this morning just before she left."
Mozama tugged at my sleeve. She pointed to a place marked with a cross, which I knew to be her house. She then traced a route to the caves. It was a circuitous route, quite unlike the one she'd shown us the previous afternoon. Geeta was looking over my shoulder.
"That's a secret way," she said. "It's a hard climb in places but well hidden from the main track. Minaxi will guide you part of the way."
I looked at the map again, with greater concentration, trying to memorise possible landmarks. Mozama said something to Geeta that made her giggle.
"Don't worry," she said. "Mother says you can take the map with you." She then disappeared into one of the back rooms, and I was left smiling rather foolishly at Mozama. She broke the ice by coming up to me, squeezing my biceps, and punching me in the arm. I wasn't sure if she was testing how strong I was or how weak. Anyway, she seemed satisfied.
A short while later, both Geeta and Minaxi reappeared, one with a bundle of clothes in her arms and the other with Ash's briefcase, which she held up proudly. She had stitched the loose flap back into place with strong twine.
"You must wear these clothes," said Geeta, handing them to me. "If anyone sees you, they will think you are one of us."
I looked aghast as she laid out a pair of coarsely woven woollen pantaloons; a loose-fitting cotton shirt; a Chitrali cap of the kind that had caused Bisto and me so much amusement the evening before; and a homespun woollen coat, or chugha, intricately embroidered at the neck and cuffs.
After donning the fancy-dress costume in the privacy of Kayla's bedroom, I returned to the parlour. The women twittered behind their hands and then clapped. Minaxi held up a mirror. I looked every inch a hill tribesman. Pirouetting like a fashion model, I joined in the fun and suddenly produced the Khyber knife from beneath the folds of my garments and brandished it in their faces. Their stunned silence made me realise I'd caused offence. My red face and muttered apology seemed only to make matters worse. There was an awkward silence before Minaxi said, "We should leave."
I picked up the briefcase and followed her down the veranda steps. Before we reached the corner that would take us out of view, we turned around. Mozama and Geeta had their arms around each other's shoulders as we waved goodbye.
List of Characters
Charles Brandon - the narrator, a well-known travel writer.
Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion) - Coordinator of an international network of ISIS cells
Helen Culverson - A Kalasha woman,
Kayla Culverson - her older sister
Auntie Mozama - their aunt
Minaxi and Geeta - Mozama's daughters
Chaprasi - owner of Markhor Lodge Guest House
Madame Jeanne Durand - a French magazine editor and undercover agent with the French Drug Squad.
Ash - a French liaison officer attached to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Also a member of the French anti-drug squad (la Brigade des stupefiants), whose operations are directed by Jeanne Durand.
Alain Gaudin - brother of Francoise, a gardener at Monet's house in Giverney
Francoise Gaudin - Alain's intellectually disabled sister.
Rasheed - a taxi driver in Lahore, radicalised by ISIS
Abdul - a taxi driver in Islamabad, working undercover for the British High Commission
Hassim - a tour operator
Montague (Monty) - a member of staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad.
Sir Robert - the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Islamabad (a personal friend and confidante of Group Captain David Bamforth, the British Air Attache in Paris)
Tariq Habeeb - the Senior Superintendent of Police in Chitral
Group Captain Bamforth (alias Sir David Brockenhurst) - an intelligence officer with MI6 and Air Attache in Paris
Madame Madeleine Bisset - Helen's landlady in Paris
Mr Bukhari - a Pakistani businessman (now deceased)
Ian 'Bisto' Kidman - an ex-RAF friend of Charles's.
Monsieur Bellini - a denizen of the French Underworld.
Andre (aka Scaramouche) - an actor in Montmartre and friend of Kayla's
Dr Laurent - a veterinary surgeon in Versailles.
Father Pierre Lacroix - vicar of the Versailles Notre Dame church.
Madame Lefauvre - an old woman living in Versailles - the town gossip.
Estelle Gaudin [deceased] - mother of Francoise and Alain, a prostitute
Mademoiselle Suzanne Gaudin [deceased] - Alain's grandmother, to whom the mysterious 'French letter' of 1903 was addressed.
Jack and Nancy Wilkins - a Wiltshire dairy farmer and his wife.
Gaston Arnoux - Owner of an art gallery in Paris. A triple agent, who infiltrated the ISIS network in France and fed information to MI6, but who is now providing information to Abdul Jaleel Zemar (The Lion).
Colonel Neville Arnoux [deceased] - Gaston's grandfather. Author of the infamous letter of 1903