Like any major city, Port Elizabeth hosted a myriad ways for a fugitive to make his or her escape. Though an international airport in name only, the Port Elizabeth International Airport did, in fact, deliver over a million passengers a year to other major cities in South Africa and Africa. Most of these had very active overseas terminals. Should Harper manage to grab a flight out of Port Elizabeth they could very well lose her.
Then there were the rail lines, bus terminals, road transports, car rentals—the list went on. Once again Kramer decided to lean on the expertise of his associates, Darci and Maria. As he and Brandt followed Shadow, Kramer called corporate HQ.
“How’s it going, mate?” drawled Darci.
“We found her corporate jet,” answered Kramer. “The police caught the flight crew but Harper got away.” He heard the sudden intake of air. “That’s why I’m calling.”
“Go on. Maria’s here with me listening over my shoulder.”
“Great. Hi, Maria. Listen, I want you to hack into every security camera system possible here. We’re on Harper’s trail—literally—but we need your eyes scanning way ahead in case she reaches downtown Port Elizabeth.”
“Can do, Kramer,” Maria said. “I’ll get onto that right away. I’ll have my ops people in Australia on it as well.”
“Fantastic, I knew I could count on you and your team.”
“And just in case Harper does manage to get through the net in your area, we’ll widen our search to Cape Town and Johannesburg. Valdiron was the one who kept a very low profile, but we have more than enough images on file for Harper. If she passes a security camera there we’ll get her.”
“Okay, thanks. Gotta go, sorry. Shadow has picked up on something new. Will keep in touch.” Kramer hung up. He had absolute confidence in Maria’s wizardry with computers. “Hey, Shadow, what’s up, boy?”
The dog wandered in circles sniffing an area of the roadway. Car horns blared as traffic passed the man and dog on the R102 and the vehicle trailing them slowly.
Brandt pulled over and leapt out of the Land Rover. She jogged to where Kramer stood watching his dog.
“What’s going on? Did Shadow lose the scent?”
Kramer shrugged then saw his dog had stopped sniffing and stood motionless at a particular point in the road. He and Brandt walked over and immediately noticed the skid-marks. A truck of some sort had screeched to a sudden stop right here—as if the driver made a last second decision to pick up a hitchhiker.
Kramer crouched down and examined the ground closely. He pivoted slowly on the balls of his feet as his eyes scanned the area.
“There.” He pointed.
“There what? Oh yeah, I see them.”
Both could clearly see the signs made by someone in high heels first walking along the roadside then running—right to the tire marks.
“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, boss?”
Kramer nodded. He rose and looked down the road and the stream of vehicle taillights.
The Land Rover followed the R102 right into Port Elizabeth Central. While scanning the streets and pedestrians in the off chance he might spot Harper, Kramer admired the influence of the early European settlers on the town. He saw that the place also had its fair share of Cape Dutch style architecture as well as Victorian and Edwardian styles. What the city lacked though was any sign of their fugitive.
He pulled to the side of the road when his phone buzzed.
“Darci here, mate. We think we have a hit from a security camera.”
“We’re pretty sure then. A camera has a woman who looks very much like our Harper at a ticket counter in the Port Elizabeth International Airport.”
“How long ago?” Kramer asked.
“Ah . . . the time stamp shows 1623. Where are you now?”
“Hold on . . . okay. We’re in downtown Port Elizabeth Central on R102. I just checked Google Maps and it tells me it’ll take us fourteen minutes at this time in the afternoon to get to the airport.”
“Get goin’, mate. The woman just bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town on South African Airways flight 6835 that’s due to depart in twenty-five minutes.”
“We’re on our way.” Kramer hung up and whipped the Land Rover into the traffic flowing past.
“Better stow our hardware,” Kramer growled. They were a quarter mile from the airport and frantically weaving their way through evening traffic. “The local cops could frown on a couple charging into the terminal carrying weapons.”
“You reckon?” Brandt set to work packing their guns away. She barely had time enough before the Land Rover screamed to a stop in a loading zone outside the departures terminal.
A couple of uniformed police converged on them as they jumped from the vehicle. “Sorry, sir. You cannot leave your vehicle there like that,” one of them said politely. “We must ask you to—” They jumped back at the sight of Shadow.
“We’re special security.” Kramer brandished an official-looking gold badge. “We’re trying to apprehend a woman we believe is here attempting to flee the country.”
“But, sir, we—”
We haven’t time to spare, officer. Please watch our vehicle.” Kramer, Brandt and Shadow dashed into the terminal leaving the bemused cops standing on the sidewalk.
“What’s that badge you’ve got there?” Brandt asked. “I don’t have one.”
“It’s something Darci knocked together for situations like this,” Kramer said as they sprinted through the crowd of travelers. Shadow loped along at their side. “It works so long as no one looks at it closely. And I’ll see about you getting one if you work out.”
If I work—”
“Airport security coming up. Stick with me.”
Lines of corralled passengers, air tickets and identification in hand, shuffled slowly towards the serious-looking security staff manning the checkpoints and screening stations. Jaded expressions turned curious at two strangers and a huge dog rushing headlong at the officials. A heavyset uniformed woman stepped forward and held up her hand.
“Halt. You must both get back in line. And that dog cannot—”
Kramer skidded to a stop. He flashed his badge. It disappeared before the woman could focus on it. He adopted his best Marine officer’s commanding tone.
“Good work, Officer . . .” he glanced at the nametag pinned to the ample chest, “ . . . Kruger. There’s a woman boarding a plane at this very minute who we’ve been sent to apprehend.” Kramer noticed a uniformed guard approaching with his hand resting on his holster. “If we miss her and the Secretary of South Africa Security hears about it heads will roll. I hope you understand.”
The woman hesitated and eyed Kramer and Brandt up and down. Her eyes fixed on the dog. He hoped that, like almost all government servants who avoided responsibility like the plague, she would balk at any adverse attention by superiors—especially the Secretary.
She stepped aside and waved them through, motioning to her colleagues looking on worriedly that she had everything under control.
Kramer and his teammates hurried deeper into the terminal.
“Who’s this Secretary of South Africa Security?” Brandt asked.
“I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m not even sure that there is such an office,” he said then pointed. “Hey, there’s the departures board.”
They scanned it for South African Airways flight 6835; saw that it was departing from Gate 5, and boarding was currently in progress.
“Hurry, they’re making last calls.” Brandt hurried after Kramer as he bolted down the passage heading for the departure gate. People leapt aside as Shadow brushed past.
Harried airline staff made vain attempts to bar their way but Kramer held his gold badge up and they promptly stepped aside. He ordered Shadow to remain behind. The loading ramp was congested with passengers loaded down with strollers, children and too much cabin baggage. Kramer, with Brandt on his heels, struggled through the people as politely as possible until they finally gained the door into the aircraft. Counter staff must have called ahead because the cabin crew tried to clear a path down the aisles for the two security people.
“She’s not here. I even checked the lavatories,” declared Brandt when they reached the rear of the cabin. Her face was flushed and her hair was in disarray.
“I didn’t spot her either,” Kramer said exasperated. “Search again on the way out then we’ll see if she’s actually been checked aboard.”
His phone was vibrating against his thigh as they arrived back at the check-in desk. While Brandt perused the passenger manifest with one of the staff peering over her shoulder, Kramer took the call. He listened for a few minutes, growing angrier at each passing second.
Finally he grabbed Brandt by the elbow and ushered her away from the boarding gate area. He looked positively livid. Shadow eyed him warily.
“I take it we missed her somehow,” Brandt said quietly. She felt his anger wash over her.
Kramer didn’t answer; couldn’t answer because of the ferocity of emotions coursing through him. He was angry because they’d missed Harper; angry at the woman for outsmarting them and changing flights at the very last minute; angry at himself for letting Darci and Maria down—and furious at himself even more for letting Sarah down. He had a score to settle with her killer and felt he’d personally fouled things up. He knew deep down he was beating himself up for things beyond his control but that was of little comfort as he stared blindly around the terminal.
“Okay. Darci must have given you some idea of where the bitch went. There’s no point in moping around here and wasting valuable time. Let’s get our butts into action,” Brandt said pragmatically. “Kramer?”
He blinked rapidly until his brain refocused. He gazed into Brandt’s frowning face wondering where and when he had changed. There was a time when he was the same as her–eager, resolute, mission-focused. Somewhere along the way Kramer had let those attributes that he was best known for bleed away. He’d balked at the prospect of having a partner, let alone a woman—but maybe Brandt was exactly who he needed right now.
He shook his head slightly. “Thanks, Charlie.”
He smiled. “Nothing.” How Sarah had detested hearing him say that. “Yeah, Darci did catch Harper’s switch. Instead of Cape Town, she’s headed for Johannesburg where she’s bought a ticket on an Iberia Airlines flight to London.”
“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s—”
“Not so fast, partner.” Kramer had to smile at Brandt’s impulsiveness. “In London Harper has a connecting flight to Belize. After that we don’t know what her plans are.”
“Shit. She’s sure bouncing around the globe. Well, where do we go from here?”
“Our ride is already on its way. Darci has the company jet coming from Cape Town to pick us up then fly onto Belize. For us it will be about a nineteen hour non-stop flight.”
“And for Harper?” asked Brandt.
“Hers will be around thirty-six hours, give or take.”
“Crikey, we’ll have time enough to grab some shut-eye and relax a bit and still be there in time to welcome her when she staggers off her flight.” Brandt grinned. “Sounds good to me, boss.”
If only I could feel that positive.
The Liberian flag hung limp in the heavy humidity. Movement onboard the container ship was sluggish at best as crew and port workers went about the business of offloading the dozens of battered shipping containers. Mexican custom agents, uninterested in the tedium happening outside, favored the comparative coolness of their air-conditioned office and the scratchy telecast of a soccer match coming out of Mexico City.
For one customs officer though, the day was proving particularly lucrative. He accepted the thick envelope from the ship’s captain and turned a blind eye on a group of middle-eastern men going ashore and boarding a waiting luxury bus. As the vehicle left the port of Puerto de Altamira the two men silently shook hands and went their respective way.
After weeks of unaccustomed sea travel, the group’s leader was happy to have dry land underfoot again and despite their stoic expressions he knew his men felt the same. He monitored his men closely. Some of the twenty men sought sleep, while others stared with glazed eyes at the passing terrain not unlike their own homeland in many respects. A few, mostly the youngest, concentrated on their smartphones contrary to orders given them before leaving on their mission.
Their destination lay over three hundred miles north and he just wanted this leg of their journey behind him. He sat close behind the driver and tracked their movement on the onboard navigational system with the wild-eyed mien of the fanatic as if he alone could will the miles to fly faster.
* * * * * *
The statuesque blonde shifted on her deckchair and peered over the top of her expensive sunglasses. The cruise had been aggravatingly uneventful, even male crew members had failed to hit on her, despite the obvious signs she had dropped. She blamed it all on the boy whom she felt forced to drag along with her.
The cruise line provided a long list of attentive programs for younger passengers and she took every opportunity to enroll the kid in each one. The more time away from her the more chances of her finding a lonesome gent to amuse her. There were several thousand passengers onboard the floating city, and with a few days left of her cruise she still held high hopes.
She couldn’t remember her last real vacation–it was lost in the dim memories of her past—times from her youth she had worked hard for years to put behind her. Then a good-looking guy approached her one evening at her favorite bar. At first she thought he was feeding her a line. Whoever heard of a stranger offering a free all expenses paid cruise and a wad of spending money? But when he showed her the cruise tickets and cash she had no choice but to reconsider everything.
The one stipulation of the arrangement was she had to have a young kid. The fact that she didn’t have one, let alone that she hated kids of any age, sex, and size almost proved a deal breaker—almost. Thankfully there was a young street kid who hung around the apartment block and who, for some unknown reason, had attached himself to her.
She assured the guy she did in fact have a son, and he was at home watching TV and doing his homework. It was that easy. Of course, when she caught up with the boy the next morning he had no qualms about joining her on an ocean cruise—it would be his very first adventure.
So here they were, enjoying a luxury cruise without a care in the world, with free money to spend, and time enough to spend every cent of it.
The blonde let out a languid sigh, signaled the barman for another umbrella drink, and resumed her watch for the right man to come along and whisk her off to his cabin for a little romp on the high seas.
“With one foot in the Central American jungles and the other in the Caribbean Sea, Belize may be small but it’s packed with adventure and culture. Belize is endearingly rough around the edges, but thoroughly traveler-friendly.”
Brandt tossed the brochure onto the mahogany side table. “So writes Paul Harding for The Lonely Planet.”
Kramer brought two bottles of a local beer from the room’s bar refrigerator and handed one to his partner stretched out on the lounge. He took the single chair for himself and took a swallow of the dark gold ale. Their balcony overlooked the Belize City Tourism Village and cruise ship terminal providing them with a good view of the waterfront streets, meandering tourists, street hawkers, and the steady stream of boisterous traffic.
A tangy sea breeze wafted in from the east alleviating some of the humidity and carrying with it sounds of the working city. He gazed lazily at the numerous water-taxis plying their trade, taking visitors out to the cayes and atolls that were among the most popular of attractions in the region.
“Oh? The writer must have missed the potholes that can swallow small cars, the poor or no drainage, and not to forget cops and paramilitary tearing around on ATVs chasing down street gangs. Belize is nice, per se, but certainly not for the faint-of-heart traveller.”
Brandt shot him a look. “Ooo, who got hit by the grumpy stick this morning? If it’s because of your decision to leave Shadow with our flight crew at the airport that, my friend, rests on your shoulders.”
Kramer kept gazing out to sea and took a swallow of beer. “Nope, that’s not it. Shadow’s earned the break.”
The issue was that right now he wasn’t in the mood for waiting around like this. His partner, on the other hand, had the typical Aussie “she’ll be right, mate” laid back attitude that gave her the knack of letting adverse situations wash over her like so much water off a duck’s back. At that moment he envied her for that.
At the start of this assignment Kramer had been uncertain of the woman’s qualifications. Darci had handed him her packet prior to leaving for Cape Town and the long flight gave Kramer the time to read it over for himself. While seemingly impressive on paper, Kramer had enough military savvy under his belt to know that it wasn’t until he saw Brandt in real action that he could assess her properly. Begrudgingly he had to mark her down as so far, so good.
Since losing his parents and Sarah, Kramer had thrown himself into his work in an attempt to dull the pain. He’d heard the same story from numerous troops under his command while still in the Marines; how they’d done the same in the hope to handle the loss of a loved one. Ultimately they’d only succeeded in fooling themselves that their efforts worked. And Kramer knew full well he was doing exactly the same to himself. But knowing it was one thing; doing what was really needed was something else entirely. His time in the military hadn’t trained him for real life issues such as this.
So, here he was again with a beautiful female partner. He ran his eyes over Brandt’s tanned curves, the light catching her sun-bleached hair and those eyes of hers. He certainly couldn’t deny she was attractive—too damn attractive. But that’s as far as his emotions ranged; they just couldn’t get past the wall he’d built around himself. He wasn’t about to fall for another partner only to have her taken from him—once was enough in anyone’s lifetime.
“What are you lookin’ at, boss?” Brandt wore an impish grin.
It took a few seconds for Kramer to break from his reverie. “What? Oh…nothing…nothing in particular. Just mulling over a few things in my mind.”
“Hmmm, like what exactly?” Her fascinating eyes dazzled him.
“Like what? Oh…just Darci’s call this morning, Maria detected Harper arriving in London. It didn’t look like she was carrying the diamonds with her, though we’re certain she had them when she boarded the flight out of Jo’burg.”
“She doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of person who’d walk off and leave a briefcase full of bling behind.” Brandy swung her legs around and sat on the edge of the lounge. She took a long swig of her beer. “She must have passed the case off to someone. One of the crew, maybe?”
“That’s possible. Maria’s team is doing its best to run through a mountain of security videos to see if that’s the case. At least we know what the briefcase looks like.”
“I forget,” Brandt said. “When is Harper expected to arrive here in Belize?”
Kramer checked his watch. “If the flight’s on time it should touch down at 08:15 tomorrow.”
“And that’s assuming she doesn’t switch flights on us again,” Brandt said.
“It might not even come to that.”
“Oh, how come?”
“Darci mentioned this morning a plan to intercept Harper at Heathrow,” Kramer replied, referring to the United Kingdom’s busiest airport, as well as that of Europe.
“You mean to tell me that after what we’ve been through someone else might have the fun of taking the bitch down?” Brandt swigged her beer and plonked the empty bottle on the coffee table’s glass top. Her attempt to look angry didn’t fool Kramer.
“That could well be the case.” He grinned.
Brandt sprang to her feet. “Well . . . shit.” She went out onto the balcony. After staring for a few minutes out over the city’s waterfront area known as the Tourist Village she turned ‘round with her back against the railing, her elbows resting on the wood’s peeling paint. The pose stretched her T-shirt taut across her breasts.
Kramer grabbed his beer, took a long pull, and looked away.
“Well, if we have to sit here twiddling our thumbs while we wait for a call to tell us Harper’s in custody, I, for one, intend to make the most of that time.”
“Meaning?” asked Kramer.
“Let’s play tourists and do a bit of sightseeing.”
Kramer considered Brandt’s idea and couldn’t fault it. They’d have their phones with them all the time so when Darci called, who’s to say they were still not in their hotel room waiting? He rose from his chair.
“Good idea. Let’s do it.”
The elderly gent perused his copy of The Times as passengers exited the bridge attached to the flight from Johannesburg. As was the custom, First and Business Class passengers appeared ahead of the main flood of international flyers. He could see an exceptional number of young children and they filled the arrival gate with tired screams and struggled with their weary and thankful parents and guardians.
He waited patiently for a particular woman to pass then he carefully folded his newspaper, rose from the airport chair and followed her. He made certain to keep several people between them.
Several yards ahead in accordance with his plan, an airport employee whose job entailed servicing the restrooms fussed with her cleaning equipment. Standing against the wall across from the cleaner, another uniformed employee offered a glazed expression to passengers hurrying past.
The woman worked her way through the throng impatiently. She’d ordered one last drink before the bar closed as her flight approached England. It was the first time in all her years of flying that a drink had upset her stomach. She needed the women’s restroom in a hurry.
She rushed past the cleaner. As luck would have it the place was empty, and she took the first stall, slamming the door closed behind her. Not a moment to spare.
The cleaner stepped into the restroom just as the elderly gent happened to trip over her cart of equipment. A bucket of water tipped over sending its full load of water gushing onto the carpet and across entrances to both the men and women’s restrooms.
The employee at the wall immediately jumped into action and dashed through the stream of people. He snatched up the Wet Floor sign, placed it in the center of the saturated carpet, and then took up his position to stop other passengers from utilizing the facilities.
The old gent ducked quickly in after the cleaner.
The moment she heard the toilet flush, the cleaning woman kicked the stall door open.
Shelley Harper was a fitness fanatic. She also had an intense passion and appreciation for anything to do with martial arts. And her instructors had always commended her for her cat-like reflexes and agility.
The stall was restrictive, but not quite enough. Her right leg shot out straight as a spear, struck the cleaner’s hand that held the stall door open and broke her wrist. The cleaner grunted aloud but clenched her teeth tight against the pain. She brought her left hand up and aimed her pistol.
But Harper was still in motion. A second kick caught the cleaner under the chin. A loud crack echoed off the tiled walls and the cleaning woman rocketed from the stall and slammed into the counter opposite. She buckled at the knees and instinctively steadied herself with her broken hand. She stifled the scream welling in her throat by biting down on her tongue. Blood trickled through her lips and dribbled down her chin.
Harper pirouetted, swinging her leg and aiming a kick at the woman’s temple. A hard blow slammed into her shoulder and sent Harper staggering off balance. The elderly gent grinned viciously and moved in. He had entered the room unnoticed during the fight.
The two fell into a whirl of punches and counterpunches that resolved into a breathless standoff. The cleaning lady wasn’t done. She shoved away from the counter, her breath rasping loudly as she raised her pistol.
Harper noticed the gun’s silencer. If the woman fired at her no one outside would hear the shot. Harper could cry for help but she had no way of knowing if her attackers had friends waiting outside. The cleaner and gent separated so as to come at her from different angles. Big mistake.
Harper hunkered down slightly, feigning injury and enticing her opponents to make their move prematurely. They hesitated a split second, glanced at each other then followed Harper’s lead. Which was good, because it indicated they wanted her alive.
The couple took a step forward . . . a second . . . then a third with more confidence.
Harper leapt into the air and executed a double kick. The cleaning woman took her second blow to the head and went down for the count. The gent ducked but Harper’s foot glanced off his temple and sent him whirling away. He crashed against a stall door with Harper close behind. She stiff-armed him once . . . twice . . . three times. Each blow rocked his head back against the door. Blood gushed from a split lip and broken nose. Harper pulled back her arm prepared to deliver a fourth strike but the gent’s eyes rolled up into his head and fell face first to the floor.
Harper sprang to the entry at the same instant the employee standing watch outside stuck his head around the corner to check on his friends. He squawked as a hand seized his collar and hoisted him into the restroom.
She sent him flying onto the counter and pounced at him as his hand moved inside his coat. She rammed his face hard into a large basin and heard his nose crunch. He flayed about as blood began choking him but Harper was unrelenting. She heaved him off the counter, spun him, and shoved his face into the mirror. A starburst radiated over a large portion of the glass from the contact point. She stepped back and watched as the guy slipped slowly from the mirror onto the counter then slumped onto the floor. A bloody streak marked his path.
Harper moved to another basin and dashed cold water at her face. She raked her fingers through her hair, straightened her clothing and composed herself. Letting out a long steady sigh, she walked from the restroom and bumped into a middle-aged woman hurrying inside.
“I’d find another restroom if I were you,” Harper said. “It’s quite an ugly mess inside.” She gestured with her thumb.
The woman gawked at the closed door then turned back to Harper but she had already melted into the crowd flowing past.
* * * * * *
Fifty miles short of the United States border, the luxury bus left the highway and drove into the desert for two miles until it arrived at a turnaround point surrounded by stony ridges on three sides. The passengers peered through windows caked with dust to see their next mode of transport. A bus, so decrepit looking that the group wondered if they were expected to actually push the vehicle most of the way to their next destination. Standing beside it was their new driver who looked as questionably reliable as his vehicle.
At a signal from their wild-eyed leader, the men filed off the air-conditioned bus and onto their new ride. The process took only a few minutes and was done in complete silence.
With his vehicle filled with its consignment of stoic passengers, the new driver used a length of hardwood to literally beat the engine until it coughed into life, belching a cloud of black smoke. Then both vehicles left the rendezvous point; one returning to the highway while the other headed deeper into the rugged terrain.
The heat, dreary countryside, and the incessant rocking lulled his men to sleep, but the twenty-year old maniacal leader thrived on uncomfortable conditions. After a few hours he leapt to his feet. This leg of his group’s journey was over. The sudden stop and heavy silence stirred the group awake.
“On your feet. C’mon, move.” The leader stormed down the length of the bus rousing his men out of their comfortable seats. “Form up over there.” He motioned to a small forlorn wooden building that appeared to have survived as a backdrop to decades of old Hollywood western movies.
He bounded off the bus after the last of his men and strode through the milling group to open the structure’s rickety door. The men filed silently inside.