Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk
By David Ambrose
Published by Warner Books
March 2003; 0446527963; 288 pages
THE SEA WAS a slab of cold gray steel beneath a moonless sky. Only as they descended almost to its surface did it come alive, its ceaseless motion growing more visible with every foot of altitude they lost.
A few yards above the rolling swell, a door was hauled back in the helicopter's side and a blast of cold air hit the four occupants-two pilots, the operator of the winch, and the man in wet suit and helmet who was to be lowered to the black waters beneath.
Charlie Monk watched as the torpedo-shaped object on which his life would depend for the next few hours descended before him and lay bobbing on the waves, attached to the hovering chopper by a single line. Then he hitched himself into a body-harness and prepared to be swung out into space.
As he descended, he used the line to pull the floating object into position directly beneath him. He dropped onto it like a man astride a motorbike, his legs in the water up to his thighs. Before releasing his harness, he pressed a switch and started the battery-operated motor. Satisfied that it was running smoothly, he released his harness, detached the line from the dinghy, and waved all clear to the chopper. Moments later, it had disappeared into the night, the clatter of its engine replaced by the lazy, timeless sound of wind and waves.
Charlie stretched out on his stomach and fixed his feet into the cavity provided. Then, lying flat along the craft, he began traveling over the water at a little over five knots. The electric motor was virtually silent, and the only proof of its surprising power was the hard slap of water as the tiny craft skimmed and bounced its way across the choppy sea. When he really opened up the throttle it would do far more-up to fifty knots in the right conditions, though out here the ocean was too rough for top speed: The craft would merely bounce and capsize.
But if he dipped the nose and plowed beneath the waves, it would become a supercharged submersible, fast enough to catch, invisibly and silently, just about anything at sea.
A control panel set into the smooth surface of the machine gave him its speed and exact position according to satellite. He calculated that in ten minutes at most, the lights of the luxury private yacht with which he was to rendezvous should become visible.
He opened up the throttle a fraction. The little craft bucked and slapped the water harder than before. It was an uncomfortable ride, even painful after a while. The trick of enduring it was more than simply to ignore it; what Charlie had been trained to do was empty his mind of everything except the task ahead. His reflexes would take care of the rest. One of his instructors had called it a state of active meditation. Charlie had never been sure what that meant; all he cared was that it worked, helping him curb his impatience despite the adrenaline that was pulsing through his veins.
Another glance at the panel under his chin told him that the boat he was looking for should be in sight by now. He lifted his gaze to the horizon, but could see nothing. He slipped his night goggles over his eyes-and immediately saw a cluster of lights in the distance, no more than pinpricks in the darkness. The Lady Alexandra was exactly where she was supposed to be. He set course to intercept.
The standard maneuver was to submerge and approach from behind. On a night like this he could stay on the surface until he was almost level with the vessel; there was little chance of being seen. However, he could save time by diving now and opening up the throttle underwater. He reached down to the side of the craft and pressed a catch to open a panel. From the cavity behind it he pulled out an air line with a mask, which he attached to his face.
Moments later his world was transformed into a silent, inky blackness that he sped through with exhilarating speed. The computer kept him on course and would slow him automatically when he drew close to the yacht. It would also negotiate any invisible obstacles picked up by his sensors: Sleeping whales, for example, were best avoided.
But tonight his trajectory was swift and direct. When he felt himself decelerate, he looked up through his goggles and saw the hull just ahead, its twin screws, each powered by a thirteen thousand horsepower diesel engine, churning through the water. He knew the vessel had set sail from the Canaries and was heading for New York, planning to make landfall at the Ambrose Lighthouse. Although she would be capable of twenty-eight or thirty knots full speed, she could only cover such a distance by keeping her speed to something between twelve and fifteen knots. As he tracked her, he found she was doing thirteen.
Staying beneath the waterline, he brought himself alongside toward the stern. As he closed in, he pressed another switch to inflate an air bag that would cushion his contact with the aluminum hull. From the nose of his craft he extended a steel arm with a suction cup on the end that would hold it in place alongside the yacht until he needed it again. Only then did he kill the motor.
His head broke the surface of the water and peered up cautiously. He saw that only a handful of cabin windows were lit; it was 3:00 A.M. and some of the eight-strong crew would most likely be asleep. The yacht's owner, he knew, had a reputation for working and making phone calls late into the night, so he expected to find him awake, along with anyone he might consider necessary to his comfort and convenience.
So far as he could see, there was no sign of any movement on deck. The yacht's engines had taken on a different note now that he listened to them from above the waterline: a distant, muted hum had replaced the throbbing growl of sheer brute power.
Using two suction pads like the one he had fixed underwater to hold his torpedo scooter in place, he began to haul himself up the hull. Each pad was fixed and released by the operation of a tiny valve; the rest was muscle power, each arm and shoulder in turn taking the full weight of his whole body. When he reached the rail he paused to check again that there was nobody in sight, then left the pads where they were and swung himself over and onto the deck. He had been briefed on the precise layout of the vessel, even studying copies of the builder's plans. He had committed every detail to memory, so that he knew precisely where he was and what to look out for.
He moved swiftly, the blackness of his clothing making him all but invisible. Only the wet footprints he left behind showed that anyone had been there, and in a moment they would disappear. When he reached the double doors that he was looking for, he dropped one hand to his hip and slipped the silenced automatic from its holster. His other hand pushed one of the doors silently open, and he slipped through, scanning the space inside for signs of movement. There were none.
A staircase appeared ahead of him, reaching a landing ten steps down, which then forked into two more flights that doubled back beneath the first one. He took the right fork, then headed down a corridor toward the prow. The concealed lighting provided a soft, luxurious glow. Ahead was a corner, and he could see that the light beyond it was brighter. This meant that there was probably a bodyguard, maybe two, outside the stateroom of the man he was looking for.
He stopped, pressing his back to the wall, listening. The distant vibration of the engines traveled through every surface in the ship-almost imperceptibly, but enough to mask the faint sounds of movement or even breathing that he was straining to catch.
Then he heard it -- the unmistakable crack of a tendon as a leg was stretched or crossed, plus the heavy yawn of somebody bored and making an effort to stay awake. There was no other sound, no spoken exchange, no grunted acknowledgment by one man of another's presence. He concluded there was only one of them.
Charlie turned the corner with a movement so swift and balanced that it was almost balletic. The big man who had just rearranged himself on his tubular steel and leather chair had barely time to realize what was happening before the edge of Charlie's hand slashed against his throat-so hard that his windpipe was snapped, the shock causing an instantaneous cardiac arrest.
The moment had been almost soundless, nothing but a dull gasp of air escaping the dead man's lips. Charlie grabbed him so that he didn't fall sideways and hit the floor with a warning thud; there was an anteroom between the corridor and the boss man's stateroom, and Charlie knew there was a chance that some other goon might be on guard in there.
He lowered the dead man gently to the floor, and was still bending when the door behind him opened. The man who emerged opened his mouth to shout a warning as he reached for the weapon under his arm. But Charlie sprang, covering the space between them before the big gun was out of its holster. By the time the two men connected there was a thin-blade knife in Charlie's hand that plunged, as part of an unbroken movement, into the man's heart. Charlie's other hand was over the man's mouth to stifle the cry that had not yet quite reached his lips.
Before doing anything else, he pulled both bodies into the anteroom and locked the outer door. Then he approached the second door and listened. Music played softly, a piano concerto- Mozart perhaps. Charlie thought he recognized it, but wasn't sure.
He grasped the doorknob, turned, and pushed a fraction of an inch. It was unlocked. He waited, but there was no reaction from the other side. He pushed the door farther open, gun in hand, its miraculously compact silencer adding no more than a slight bulge to the barrel.
The man in bed looked up from the papers he was studying. He was obese but solid-looking, with thick dark hair and hooded eyes. There was an expression of annoyance on his face; he was unaccustomed to having people enter his presence except on his orders. But when he saw the black-clad figure standing there, annoyance turned abruptly to alarm. His hand shot out for the panic button at his side, but it was barely halfway there before a bullet split his skull between the eyes. Charlie moved closer to make absolutely sure that the man was dead. Part of his job was to make sure, to leave no room for doubt. There was none. All he had to do now was finish up. It wouldn't take long.
Five minutes later he was back on the water, slowly circling the Lady Alexandra until he heard the muffled detonation of the explosives he had planted in the hull. He waited until she sank, turning in the water like a wounded turtle before spiraling out of sight. Then he pressed the signaling device that would bring the chopper to collect him.
Flying back to base, he looked down at the sea and remembered the phrase he'd thought of earlier to describe it. "Like a slab of cold gray steel beneath a moonless sky." Where had he got that from? That wasn't the kind of thing that usually came into his head.
Still, he thought, wherever it came from, it was true.Copyright © 2000 David Ambrose
Reprinted with permission.
Charlie Monk is the ultimate spy, willing to do absolutely anything to accomplish his mission. He has no conscience, no fear...and no memory. Charlie's friend, Dr. Susan Flemyng, thinks she may have found a way to give him his memory back. As the two of them embark on a series of scientific experiments to try and recover Charlie's long-lost memory, they find something terrifying in the deepest recesses of Charlie's mind. Their discovery will turn science on its head, call reality itself into question-and force Charlie and Dr. Flemyng to risk their lives for the entire human race.(back to top)
David Ambrose began his career as a screenwriter for Orson Welles. He read law at Oxford University and has worked internationally in films, theater, and television.