gave the boy a thumbs-up.

“They were flying at about three thousand five hundred feet here, there’s a map in the file which will show you their exact position. The local police are conducting a search of the area now, but it’s going to take several days.”

The camcorder panned across the cockpit windows giving them a view of the desert far below. Sandra’s voice called out above the noise of the engine: “Don’t use all the tape.” There was a flicker showing that the video had been turned off and then there were two adults in the frame, the man and the woman standing proudly in front of their plane. It was a small Cessna, with one propeller. The man was holding in his stomach and his young wife patted him as if telling him there was no need.

The picture flickered and then there was another view out of the window. There was no way of knowing how long it had been switched off. A sandstone butte filled the screen. There was a figure lying on the top, with what looked like a rifle in his hands. The camcorder wavered as the lens zoomed in and focused on a close-up. Then the camera angled down and far below amid the cacti and brush Howard could see some sort of a tower which had been built of metal scaffolding and wooden planks.

“At about two o’clock in the afternoon they saw this structure, and another just like it, and went down to take a closer look.”

The picture swung from side to side as the boy struggled to keep the structure in sight. There was a man on the top and Howard saw that he was holding a rifle. The plane levelled off again and in the distance Howard could make out a group of figures.

The little boy played with the focus control, zooming the lens in and out on the figures standing below in the desert. It wasn’t a pleasant effect and Howard averted his eyes for a moment.

There was a sudden cracking sound and then the woman began screaming. The camcorder swung round and Howard could see there was blood all over the front of the cockpit. The top of the pilot’s head had been blown away. “My God,” whispered Howard.

The boy began screaming and the picture lurched as if the camcorder had been thrown to the side and all Howard could see was the blood-spattered material of the seat cover.

“Mrs Mitchell also had a private pilot’s licence and she took over the controls. Within thirty seconds after the first shot, eight more hit the plane.”

Howard heard the small explosions as the bullets struck home, then he heard the engine splutter and cough.

“The engine went at about the same time, and we think the plane was between a thousand and fifteen hundred feet high at that point.”

Howard heard the woman make a disjointed Mayday call, but there was no reply.

“She put out a distress call on the emergency frequency and set her transponder to the emergency code: that’s how the local Flight Service Station got her position.” Sheldon’s voice was clinical and detached.

The engine noise died and the camcorder must have moved again because Howard could see the ground rushing up.

Howard listened as the boy began to scream and his mother tried in vain to calm him down. The last thing she said was “Please God, no. .” and then there was a sickening crash, and the sound of metal grating and what sounded like the wind.

“At this point the plane is down and the occupants are dead. The camcorder continued to record for a further twenty minutes until it came to the end of the tape. You might as well switch it off now.”

Howard leaned forward and pressed the ‘stop’ button. Just before he did he thought he heard the boy call out for his father but it could have been the desert wind.

“Luckily they didn’t hit the fuel tanks. When the local sheriff got there the camcorder was intact. What you’ve got there is a copy we made. The original is in one of our labs in Washington.” Howard sat down and toyed with the cassette as he listened to Sheldon. “The towers you saw in the video had been pulled down and set on fire by the time the sheriff got there. All the vehicles had gone. There’s no sign of it in the video, but we suspect they also had a helicopter. The investigation you’ll be leading is unusual in that we’re not actually concerned about the victims in the case. All the signs are that they were merely innocent bystanders, in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we want to know is who those people were in the desert, and what they were doing.”

“So it’s not a homicide investigation?” asked Howard. He couldn’t get the woman’s voice out of his head. Trying to reassure her son as the plane plunged to the ground. He shivered.

“Those men weren’t shooting duck out there,” said Sheldon. “They’d spent a lot of time and money setting up those towers, they were obviously rehearsing something. It was a practice run for an assassination. And only an assassination of the first rank would merit such a rehearsal.”

Howard nodded. “The President?”

“Possibly. Or a visiting head of state. Someone with protection, someone they can’t get close to. It wouldn’t be a gangland hit, they prefer to get in close with a shotgun or a handgun to the back of the neck. It has to be political. And it has to be soon. Your job, Cole, is to find out who the hit is, and to stop it. Do that and you’ll hopefully also catch the men who killed the Mitchell family. But that’s secondary, you understand? Your first priority is to put a stop to the assassination.”

“I understand. Do we have any idea who the men are?”

Sheldon shook his head. “The tape is being examined by our experts now. The camcorder is one of those new models with a high-powered zoom lens, which has very high resolution. Our lab will do the initial work on the tape, but I gather that they don’t have the capability for the sort of analysis we might require. That’s one of the reasons I want you handling the investigation.”

“My father-in-law?”

Sheldon nodded. “Theodore Clayton’s electronics company is one of the few at the forefront of this technology which isn’t based in Japan. His help would be invaluable, and the request might be better coming from a family member, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure it would,” Howard agreed. He knew exactly how much Theodore Clayton would appreciate a call for help from his son-in-law.

“I want you to act as FBI liaison with the local investigators, and to organise the analysis of the tape. Any questions?”

“You said it has to be soon. Why do you think that?”

“Whoever is behind this already has his assassins in place, and obviously has a specific venue in mind. The longer they wait, the greater the risk of the whole operation falling apart. I doubt if they’re planning more than a few months ahead. It may be only a matter of weeks or days.”

“What about targets? Do we issue a warning to the President’s security people?”

Sheldon sat back in his leather chair, his palms face down on his desk like a pianist about to begin a concerto. “I’m sending a memo to the Secret Service’s Intelligence Division in Washington, of course, but at this stage I don’t want to go overboard. As yet we don’t know for certain who the target is, and I don’t want to be caught crying wolf. As soon as we know for sure who the target is we’ll throw a cordon around him, but not until then. And there’s no point in issuing a general warning — that would scare too many people needlessly and we’d run the risk of the snipers going to ground. No, Cole, you tell me for sure that it’s the President and we’ll sound the alarm.”

Sheldon paused for a few seconds as if he was having second thoughts. He tapped his fingers on the desktop. “But I think it would be a good idea if you got hold of the President’s itinerary and see if there are any situations where snipers could get at him.”

Howard left Sheldon’s office with the tape and file. He wasn’t looking forward to asking his father-in-law for help.

Mike Cramer looked at his watch, pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk and put his hand on the bottle of Famous Grouse he kept there. He took it out and weighed it in his hand. It was a powerful hand, the fingers strong and the nails neatly clipped. There was scar tissue over the first two knuckles and the skin looked as if it had been out in all weathers. It was the hand of a sailor, a hand used to doing manual work. It was shaking as it held the bottle and the whisky slopped against the glass. Cramer tightened his grip but that just intensified the trembling. He stood the bottle on the desk and looked at the label as he used his foot to close the drawer.

He looked at his watch again. Nine-fifteen. He’d only bought the bottle the previous evening in the off-licence down the road but already it was half empty. Cramer smiled to himself. There had been a time when he might have

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