The China contract

(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)



That afternoon, Auckland International Airport –

Inside the Departures Hall, Richard Telford wheeled his luggage trolley toward Air New Zealand’s First Class check-in. A thin, bespectacled man, Telford flicked specks of lint from his chalk-stripe, navy blue suit, a custom-tailored garment by which his body would later be identified.

Once at the agent’s counter, Telford handed over his tickets and passport to a liveried woman who spoke with the sharp vowels and wayward “r”s of a down-country New Zealander.

“NZ6 to Los Angeles?” Enzeed-seeks toe Lohs Ain-juhleez?

He’d grown used to the accent. “Yes, that’s right.”

“You’ve been here six weeks, Mr. Telford? Did you enjoy your stay in our wee country?”

Telford said he had, and expected to return soon, but the complexity of his plans, the motivations that consumed his life and compelled him to travel to this faraway corner of Western Civilization, were beyond the grasp of anyone not immersed in the science of nanotechnology, a discipline global in impact and microscopic in scale.

“Now, sir, before we check your bags, has anyone asked you to carry . . .?”

The assassin who had come to New Zealand to kill Telford watched from across the passenger hall. He was much taller, with a rat’s nest of brown hair and an ugly gray suit that camouflaged a war-hardened body. Scanning the front page of The Dominion, one of New Zealand’s dailies, he seemed oblivious to any movements around him.

His check-in done, Telford pocketed his documents and headed for the escalator up to the second-floor boarding gates. The other man folded his newspaper, swept up a brown carry-on, and followed Telford to the escalator, closing the gap between them. As they rode up, the man gazed around idly, slipping something onto his left ring finger. When Telford stepped onto the second-floor landing, the killer, close behind now, raised his left hand, smacked it down on the American’s shoulder, and swiveled up to his side.

“G’day, Gordy, me old mate! ‘Ow’re ya goin’?”

The hand-slap had masked the jab from the poisoned barb on the ring. Telford turned his head, still relaxed, accustomed now to the inordinate friendliness of New Zealanders. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ve got the wrong—”

“Bloody Hell, mate!” the tall man said. “My apologies! I thought you was a bloke I used to work with, eh.”

“That’s okay.”

The wild-haired man shook his head. “No, crikey, mate, I’m sorry. A fella can’t go ’round sneakin’ up on blinkin’ strangers like that, can he?”

Telford’s vision began to blur, and the floor melted under him. The garrulous stranger grew a second head.

“Say, mate, you okay?”

“No,” Telford said, “I . . . it seems—”

“‘Ere, ‘ere, let me getcha to a seat, old son. Over ‘ere, ‘way from the crowd.” He reached for Telford’s black briefcase. “I’ll hold this for ya, now.”

“No, not . . . not my . . . I . . .” Saliva spilled from Telford’s lips, and the other man led him off to a padded bench, lying him down under floor-to-ceiling tinted windows overlooking the roadway.

Bystanders turned away, not wanting to stare at a man suddenly taken ill. As his victim’s functions collapsed, the killer loosened Telford’s necktie and shirt cuffs, and stole his platinum cufflinks. He slid a pen-sized device under the sleeve of the blue suit and injected its contents into a limp arm. While straightening Telford’s clothes, the assailant lifted his passport, wallet, and boarding pass and dropped them into his own carry-on. He took out a small, firm cushion, placed it under the American’s head, while applying a skin patch on the man’s bare neck. Then he rose, picked up Telford’s black briefcase, and walked briskly away.

Forty minutes to take-off.

The tall man strode out of the terminal under ranks of granite-gray clouds rolling in from the sea. Acrid jet-exhaust hung in the air. He crossed the parking lot to a solitary white van, climbed in, removed his wig, and changed his suit and shoes. He stripped Telford’s wallet of money, IDs, and credit cards, put them in a used, empty wallet, and stowed it and the boarding pass in the black briefcase. He waited ten more minutes, tossed a second doctored passport into the briefcase, and then strolled back into the terminal with it and the brown carry-on.

A woman’s voice on the public address system chanted, “Last call for boarding NZ6 to Los Angeles. Will the following passengers please report to Gate Number 8? Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Burcher, Mr. Richard Telford . . .”

The assassin rode up the escalator, bought some chocolates and a book, and saw that his target lay undisturbed.

Fifteen minutes to take-off. Five more minutes passed.

“Last boarding call for Flight NZ6 to Los Angeles,” the woman announced. “Last and final call.”

At 2:08 PM, NZ6 lifted off the tarmac. A large, athletic man with trim black hair and tinted, horn-rim glasses jogged up to the Air New Zealand check-in counter.

“Oh my God! I’m awful sorry. I just missed my flight!”

The woman agent looked him up and down. “Are you Mr. Telford?”

“Yes, yes, I am.” He rummaged in the black briefcase, grabbed the counterfeit passport, and pushed it across to her. She examined it and handed it back. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “There’s been a mix-up at the lab on the Shore. I’ve been on the phone more than an hour trying to fix it, but no go. I’m going to have to stay another day or two. I suppose my bags are on the plane?”

“No, sir, security rules—we have to off-load unaccompanied bags.”

A grimace of contrition. “I really am sorry. I feel terrible.”

She nodded. “Emergencies happen. May I see your boarding pass?” He held it out. “Very well,” she said, and pointed across the concourse. “Baggage Services there will help you reclaim your bags. They’ll want to see your boarding pass and passport again.”

Twenty minutes later, carrying Richard Telford’s luggage, the man in the glasses left the building for a final visit to the white van. Half an hour later, he was at Singapore Airlines’ Economy check-in. In his one large bag were certain of Telford’s belongings packed alongside his own, including several more forged passports.

“It’s close to boarding call, Mr. Telford,” said the coffee-colored gentleman at the Singapore Airlines’ desk, “but you’ll be fine. Here you are, sir, your passport and boarding card. Enjoy your flight.”

“Telford” rode up to the Embarkation Lounge and sat down within sight of the real Richard Telford lying on the bench, the pillow under his head. Twenty minutes passed. Passers-by glanced over, but no one disturbed the tired passenger dozing through a long layover.

Telford’s assassin stood with his belongings, checked through immigration and security, and boarded Flight 286. Twelve minutes later, through veils of drizzle, the airliner, bound for Singapore, began its take-off run. The tall man in spectacles reached down into the carry-on and, unseen, switched batteries on a cellphone. As 286 lifted off with a whine and a shudder, he switched on the phone and pressed SEND. A millisecond blip flashed on the pilot’s instruments, and the abandoned van in the carpark below exploded red and golden against a cloud-packed horizon.

At the same instant, inside the terminal, a second, smaller blast decapitated Richard Telford, blowing out the windows beside him and scattering fragments of his skull and highly prized brain over the crowd of waiting passengers.

Nigel Hawkins got the call from Ted Johns within the hour.



By Lance Mason