The Key to it All by Joanna Rees – Extract

The Key to it All

August 1985

‘Where are you?’ muttered Mack Moncrief, adjusting his grip on the night-vision binoculars. The hard eyepieces pressed painfully against the swollen skin on his cheekbones, but he forced away the discomfort. He concentrated, slowly caressing the grooves on the dial, so that the distant hills on the other side of the valley came into sharp relief, the eerie green of the night vision making everything seem charged with danger.

An owl hooted in the forest behind him and he felt rivulets of sweat on his temples. He’d thought there’d be some let-up in the temperature tonight, but the summer here in France had been a scorcher and the air felt close and still. Mack knew the weather would break, that a thunderstorm was imminent; it was just a matter of when.

Another mosquito screeched past his ear. The high-pitched whine stopped. He slapped his neck where he sensed the insect had landed. Had he got it? He was too tense to tell. It wouldn’t be the first or the last tonight. He thought of the midges he used to endure while night-fishing on the loch back home. He’d take Scottish midges over these rude French mozzies any day.

He swallowed, annoyed that Hackett had lit up another one of his filthy Gauloises cigarettes in the truck. A puff of acrid smoke filled his nostrils and he resisted the urge to cough. He glanced over to the truck, to where Hackett was preening the curly fringe of his mullet in the visor mirror. The guy was such a philistine. When he’d finished, he’d probably flick the cigarette into this tinderbox and send the whole mountainside up. That sure would be one way to cover their tracks, Mack thought wryly to himself.

There was a faint beeping sound from the new digital watch on his wrist and Mack gripped the binoculars tighter, his gold wedding ring tapping the casing.

Then . . . he held his breath . . . There it was. Right on time.

The express train burst from the tunnel in the far-off hillside. Mack glanced up, away from the binoculars, his eyes adjusting to the mauve of the night, his feet crunching quickly over the bed of pine needles on the forest floor as he stepped towards the truck.

‘Now,’ he told Hackett.

Hackett, in the driver’s seat, put the headlights on full beam, then turned them off. Then twice more.

Mack stood on tiptoes, his eyes straining across the valley. Two reply signals from headlights there. Two pinpricks of light to tell him that the job was on.

‘Move it,’ Mack told Hackett, getting in the driver’s door. Even before Hackett had fully clambered over to the passenger’s side, Mack had revved the truck into reverse. It handled strangely now that the axles had been reinforced, but Mack’s army training was already kicking in, a silent stopwatch playing in his head. All he had to do was get to the train, do the job and then . . . ?

He didn’t dare think about then.

Twelve minutes, fifty seconds. That’s all they had, he realized, checking his watch as he drove the truck down the final part of the path towards the all-important stretch of disused railway track.

He thought of the insane amount of preparation that had gone into making sure that the train would be resting in the siding at the end of this track. Would Vincent, who’d hidden overnight in the train, have successfully managed to subdue the driver and slow the train exactly as planned? Would Eddie – also on board – have got to the guard? Would Anton – most crucially of all – have got into place in the control centre, so that nobody could raise the alarm until the job was over?

Mack thought about the safe house on the outskirts of the ugly French village and the board on the wall in the rough kitchen where he’d drawn endless plans. Drumming the details into the crew.

Voss’s ugly, argumentative crew.

None of the men had been Mack’s choice. He just had to trust that after all these months of training, each man was a cog in the wheel of this operation. A wheel that was hopefully still turning. Gathering momentum.

It better be.

Voss was relying on Mack Moncrief. He’d told him so. Right before he’d shown Mack exactly what would happen if he got ahead of himself or didn’t follow the plan to the letter. The memory of it made Mack’s beaten face ache and his heart rage with anger.

They clattered over the rotten tracks, the tyres bumping over the ruts. He drove quickly and precisely. Round the bend. And there, right at the end, was the sight he wanted to see. On a track at right angles to this one, intersecting it, was the high-speed express mail train to Paris – at a very definite stop.

Vincent was standing by the exposed carriage – the one nearest to the track they’d travelled along. The door was open, a yawning square of black behind him. He stood nervously, his gun at his waist, his baseball cap pulled down low, as he looked along the track.

Hackett was up in his seat.

‘He’s done it. He’s done it!’

‘He’s done nothing . . . yet,’ Mack reminded him.

In a moment they were out of the truck, Mack grabbing his heavy holdall from the back.

‘Turn and reverse it up,’ he told Hackett, ‘then check the driver.’ Mack strode towards Vincent and, without saying anything to him, jumped on board.

It was dark in the carriage. Two feet inside were thick steel bars – a cage to protect what was on the other side. The bank had been taking no chances when they’d built the safe for this train. They just hadn’t figured on Mack having helped with the designs for it at the security company he’d worked for. A job that had made him come to the attention of gangland criminal Voss – and brought about the whole sorry chain of events that had led to today.

But there was no point in being bitter. Not now. Not now that this was finally happening, Mack thought, reaching out to grasp the metal bars. What looked like a fortress to anyone else was a simple puzzle to Mack. A puzzle he’d spent months solving. He clicked on his headlamp.

Now he delved into his holdall, firing up the industrial steel saw. As the blue sparks flew, the noise seemed to rip through the fabric of the night, but Mack knew that there wasn’t a house around here for miles, and no way of getting to this part of the train from either end of the track.

He made four neat cuts and two sections of the bars fell away. Then Mack crawled through and wasted no time in checking the safe was the same one he knew had been ordered at the bank in Edinburgh for the train transfers.

Semtex. That was all he’d need, Mack thought, his fingers feeling expertly around the edges of the black steel safe. Semtex and luck.

He checked his watch again, then carefully took from his bag the state-of-the-art plastic explosives that the army were beginning to trial, working out where to attach them to the safe, all his years of training as an army bomb-disposal expert giving him a confident hand. Vincent watched him anxiously from the bars.

After a few minutes Mack was satisfied. Coming back out through the hole in the cage, he dragged Vincent with him. ‘Keep down,’ he said, as he set the detonator.

He waited.

Three . . . two . . . one.

The blast made the whole track shake.

Suddenly, Eddie jumped down from the train and Mack saw that a man in a dark blue jacket was behind him, holding a gun to his head. Eddie had his hands up next to his skinny neck. He had a tough-guy crew cut and an ugly spiderweb tattoo, but he was the youngest member of Voss’s crew. Mack had been an idiot to trust him.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Mack swore at Eddie, before he could help himself.

The man, clearly the train guard, started babbling in French, his eyes wide as he realized what Mack was doing.

Hackett was out of the train in a moment, stealthily jumping down behind the guard. In a second he’d fired at his back. The guard fell face first onto the track as Eddie jumped out of the way. The sound of the gun ricocheted up the valley wall.

‘Why d’you shoot him?’ Mack said. ‘Idiot. Nobody was to get hurt.’

‘He’s too dangerous to keep alive.’ Hackett reached into his jacket for another cigarette. As he lit it, he punched Eddie in the back of the head, annoyed with him. Eddie shook as he wiped the guard’s blood from his jacket. The bullet that had killed the guard could have gone right through him. It could have killed Eddie too and Hackett clearly wouldn’t have cared.

Mack fought down his rising nausea as the Frenchman bled out on the hard ground. He had no stomach for the kind of violence towards civilians Voss’s men were so unbearably blasé about and now panic was rising. Nobody was supposed to get hurt. Let alone cold-bloodedly murdered. This was a robbery. Just a robbery. Of a passenger-less mail train. That was what he’d signed up for. Not this.

He jumped back up inside the carriage, forcing himself to focus, and waved the smoke aside. He was all too aware of the seconds ticking past.

The blast had worked. Mack kicked the back off the safe and it clattered onto the reinforced boards of the train carriage. He knelt down and looked inside. The sight of the gold blocks made a dull disappointment creep into his guts. A sinking sensation at the inevitability of it all. That men like Voss, with his mahogany tan, ugly gold chains and fat, cigar-clenching fingers, always got what they wanted.

‘Holy sweet Mary, mother of Jesus!’ Vincent exclaimed, wiping his cap away from his head in awe as Mack reached in and grabbed two of the gold bars. They were heavier than he’d expected, even though he’d fortified the truck for the purpose. He handed them through the cage to Vincent without a word. Vincent kissed the gold, then quickly passed them to Eddie, who loaded them into the back of the truck.

Mack checked his watch. Four minutes left.

He picked up the pace, sweating now, his back aching in the cramped space, as he swivelled to get more of the gold. Then behind them, the bags of cash. And there – in the secret compartment in the bottom – the case.

His ticket to freedom.

Mack popped the clips. Inside was a large velvet bag, but he didn’t have to pick it up to know it held the diamonds. They were the reason they’d chosen this train. It would only have taken one person to change their mind and not put the diamonds in with the gold for the plan to fail. Mack felt the enormity of his fate as he stuffed the bag inside his jacket, feeling the soft velvet against his heart.

‘That it?’ Vincent said, turning back from the truck to Mack. ‘Yep. Let’s go,’ Mack said, squeezing through the bars.

The truck was slower going the other way. This time, they were travelling along the old railway track for a straight five miles. Mack and Eddie had cleared it yesterday, so they knew the path would be good, although the trees at the side of the track were overgrown and branches slapped the top of the truck, looming out of the shadows like ghostly fingers.

In the back, Eddie was laughing, weightlifting the gold bars. ‘Cut it out,’ Mack said, trying to concentrate on what lay ahead. As well as the shot guard, Mack had a horrible feeling there might be another hitch sooner or later. The Presbyterian pessimist in him told him so.

He couldn’t wait to drop that goon off in a minute, when they reached the end of the cutting. Then Eddie would drop down into the field and make it cross-country to the safe house, where Mack and Hackett would meet the others later on.

As soon as they were at the safe house, they’d split up the gold bullion and load it into the false bottoms of the small Fiats Mack had worked on. Dressed as holidaymakers, they’d take the cars down to the costa, to where Voss would reward them for a job well done. And fulfil his promise to Mack.

Please, God, let him be true to his word, Mack prayed. Please let him get back the thing that was most precious to him. The one thing that Voss knew would make Mack complete the job.

In the front seat next to Mack, Hackett was fiddling with the dials of the radio transmitter. The aerial stretched out of the top of the window. He was trying to find the police channel, but the static and hiss were making Mack feel nervous.

The radio was just a precaution. They’d secured the train and Vincent was already driving it onwards to Paris. By the time he got there, he’d be hundreds of miles away from the scene of the robbery. He’d stop the train at the signals outside Gare du Nord and leave before the tunnel. Dufont would be waiting in a car for Vincent.

The plan that Mack had finessed was happening. Events were rolling out ahead into the future like a carpet and yet . . . yet with each passing moment, Mack felt more and more uneasy. Could it really be this simple? Could they really have got away with such a heist? All his nerve endings jangled with adrenalin. He should be feeling euphoric like the others, but instead he felt sick with dread.

Mack stopped for a moment and Eddie jumped down from the back of the truck.

‘Go quickly,’ Mack told him. ‘Stick to the path we agreed.’ ‘Nice job,’ Eddie said.

Mack scowled at him. It was Eddie’s fault that the guard had been shot. Eddie who’d got himself overpowered. He had no right to take any credit.

Mack watched Eddie scramble down the siding, through the farmer’s gate and onto the small country road.

‘Wait a moment. I need to piss bad,’ Hackett said, dumping the radio on Mack’s lap.

‘Jesus,’ Mack said. ‘Hurry up. It’s like a fucking kids’ outing. We are trying to get out of here.’

‘One minute,’ Hackett said, already out of the door.

Mack watched him walk behind the truck in the wing mirror and unzip his flies. He felt tension rising in his shoulders. What the fuck did Hackett think he was doing? They’d just robbed a bank train and now he was taking a piss? Anton would only be able to cover up the unscheduled stop for so long. They may have already raised the alarm when the train was late into Toulouse. Despite all of Anton’s intel, it wasn’t clear how many people would be monitoring the bank train on its journey through France.

He stared ahead. He should just go, he thought. Leave Hackett. Take the whole goddamned lot and see how far he got. If Voss had taught him one thing, it was that money could buy anything. And Mack had millions in the back of this truck.

Hundreds of millions. Enough to disappear and make a totally new life out of the one he’d messed up so badly.

But he couldn’t. Voss had made sure that such an urge was impossible for Mack. He’d taken out the best insurance policy possible to ensure Mack finished the job. Because it wasn’t just his future at stake.

Just then the police channel crackled into life on the radio and there was the unmistakable panicky sound of a report . . .

Mack gripped the radio set, holding it in both hands and staring at it. It couldn’t be, could it? They couldn’t be on to them already?

Panic swept over him, goosebumps erupting like a Mexican wave over his skin.

He looked in the wing mirror. If the police were called, it wouldn’t be long before they discovered Mack’s getaway route and a net closed in on the safe house.

‘Hackett, come on,’ he shouted. ‘Now.’

But Hackett was whistling, his back turned to Mack.

Mack snarled with frustration, dumping the radio on the passenger seat.

‘We’ve got to go,’ he said, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as he climbed out of the truck.

There was still no response from Hackett. Mack took three strides towards him, away from the truck.

It was only then that he saw Hackett wasn’t taking a piss. He was holding a gun.

He turned and aimed it at Mack’s head.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Mack stared at him.

Hackett didn’t look so dim-witted now. His eyes had a steely glint in them as he walked right up beside Mack, his nonchalant manner all gone.

‘Voss says, “Keep your mouth shut in jail,”’ he said, his breath stinking of cigarettes. He aimed at Mack’s leg and pulled the trigger.

Pain exploded in Mack’s knee. He collapsed to the ground, gasping, as Hackett strode to the driver’s door and got in. Without a backwards glance, he revved the engine and was gone.

In the stillness that followed, Mack heard a distant clap of thunder.

chapter one

Julia Pires walked into her classroom through a shower of paper missiles. It was noisy and hot, the kids hyper at this time in the morning. She glanced across the mass of bustling children and saw that nobody had bothered to open the windows. Through them she could see the slum rising up the mountain on the south side of Rio de Janeiro, like the contents of an overturned rubbish skip. Rocinha was said to be the largest slum in Latin America and she was tasked with educating the children from it – or at least those who bothered to come to school. This lot were, apparently, the good ones.

‘Hey,’ she shouted, but there was no response. Over in the corner, there was a scuffle going on. She noticed an arm flailing out, knocking over one of the pots of pink orchids she’d been growing with the class to celebrate the national holiday.

‘Hey!’ she shouted again, striding over and pulling two of the boys off the top of Eduardo. ‘Sit down, all of you.’

She looped two fingers in her mouth and emitted a shrill whistle – the only useful thing Uncle Marcello had ever taught her. Reluctantly, the crowd dispersed to sit on the neat rows of desks. Above them, pictures and photographs were looped on strings across the classroom, the walls decorated with brightly coloured maps and photographs. Julia’s effort to make a pleasant environment for the kids had taken several weekends of her time.

Julia helped Eduardo to his feet and put her hand on the boy’s bony shoulder, checking he was OK. He was a bright kid. That was why he was a trouble-maker, but he was small and she knew Paulo and his gang picked on him.

‘He’s being a pain in the ass, miss,’ Paulo shouted, dusting himself down. Julia ignored him. He already had the arrogance and swagger of a street pimp. Julia knew his occasional visits to her classroom were merely a distraction from his real education on the streets. She dreaded to think what went on in his domain –  in that warren of lanes in the top reaches of the favela – where she’d never dare to go for fear of her life. Even the BOPE were cautious up there.

‘What’s up?’ she asked Eduardo, ignoring Paulo and picking up the orchid pot and returning it to the side, gently pressing down the warm earth with her fingertips.

He shrugged, not meeting her gaze, wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Eduardo came from a broken home with a mother who never fed him. What chance did the poor kid have? Surely he wasn’t high, she thought, registering his vacant gaze. Or was it something worse? She knew how many of these kids ended up as child prostitutes on the streets, selling their emaciated bodies for a few reals. When she looked again, she could see that Eduardo’s grubby cheeks were pale . . . too pale. She put her hand on his shoulder and felt his light body swoon against her.

‘When was the last time you ate anything?’ she asked him quietly.

Again he shrugged, but as his eyes met hers, she saw the truth in them. She turned him by his shoulder and led him towards the door, as the rest of the class whooped and catcalled Eduardo for being in trouble with Julia.

Outside the door, away from the prying eyes of the class, she reached into her handbag and pulled out her purse. She saw the pile of change in it, remembering that Vovo, her grandmother, had given her money for a lottery ticket this morning and had made Julia solemnly swear she’d buy one. Vovo’s belief that one day her luck would come in was unshakeable. But now Julia handed the coins to Eduardo. She’d have to work out the lottery ticket later.

‘Go on,’ she urged him with a gentle smile. ‘And, Eduardo, try and drink some water too, OK?’

Julia stared after him, then was distracted by her phone ringing. The beautiful strains of the bossa nova track ‘Ela e Carioca’, which was everywhere thanks to a mobile phone ad, were coming from the deepest part of her bag. She remembered now that her nephew Fredo had changed her ringtone last night – a task that had kept him occupied in their cramped apartment whilst she’d marked her books. She dug it out, checked the screen and saw that it was her best friend, Natalia.

‘Hey. What’s up?’ Julia said, lowering her voice. It was against the rules to take calls in school time. She glanced along the empty corridor.

‘I have tickets to the party in that bar tomorrow night. You know, that new one I told you about, down near Cinelandia,’ Nat said.

Julia pictured Nat in her air-conditioned bedroom in her high-rise apartment, trailing her hand along the clean windowsill in her short robe. Today was her day off from the travel agency where she worked.

‘Tomorrow? I can’t,’ Julia said. ‘Vovo is bad. Her heart is playing up. And I’ve got school work to do.’ The thought of actually being out in downtown Rio seemed impossible. Nat might as well have suggested that they go for a drink on the moon.

‘Julia!’ her friend protested. ‘How are you expecting to ever meet a man if you won’t come out and meet one? And me too? We always work better in a pair. And I got two tickets from a client. It was a really big favour. Some of my colleagues are going, but there’s an extra ticket for you and me . . .’

From the way she said it, Julia knew that Nat had already rehearsed this answer – had already assumed that Julia was going to say no. She knew her better than anyone, but that wasn’t surprising, as they’d been best friends since school.

‘Besides, it’s a Thursday night,’ Nat went on. ‘You’ll only have one day to get through afterwards, then it’ll be the weekend. Come on, girlfriend. Let’s party, party, party,’ she sing-songed, making Julia smile.

In her heart of hearts, Julia knew Nat was right and that she should be biting her hand off for the opportunity. The problem was that, whilst Nat was looking more and more like a good prospect these days, who would ever want Julia? A twenty-nine-year-old, living in a dingy apartment – albeit in one of the better parts of the favela, who looked after her uncle and grandmother, not to mention nine-year-old Fredo, with a demanding job that was her first priority. She was hardly baggage-free, or the kind of girl to pamper a man’s ego. Which, in a macho city like Rio, was generally a prerequisite for getting a guy. The rich men that Natalia wanted to go after in the bar she had tickets for went for an altogether different sort of woman to Julia – who looked different, dressed different, was different. In every way.

Julia looked down at her shabby dress and cheap sandals which were the smartest she could muster. She didn’t own any clothes that could get her into the type of bar Nat was talking about, even if she wanted to go. She thought about the slick women with their perfect hair and toned bodies. What chance did Julia have of being noticed when they were the competition? ‘I can’t think about this now, Nat. I’ve really got to go. My class are waiting. I’ll call you later. I promise.’

‘But you will think about it?’ Nat sounded forceful and Julia knew the face she would be pulling all too well. ‘If you come early, I’ll do your hair . . .’

‘Okay, okay, okay,’ Julia said, glancing up to check that there was still nobody in the corridor. ‘I’ve got to go. You’ll get me in trouble.’

The morning’s lessons passed by in a blur and Julia barely had time to sit down. There was a staff meeting at lunchtime, during which the police took yet more statements about the stabbing in the canteen last month. She was about to go to the scene of the crime itself and grab a coffee when Senhora Azevedo, the tough headmistress, came out of her office and fixed Julia with her hawklike gaze.

‘Can I have a minute?’ she asked, taking off her red-framed glasses.

‘Sure,’ Julia said, already dreading what Azevedo might say. She’d already roped Julia into far more extracurricular activities than she could possibly manage with her workload, but the businesslike headmistress was difficult to say no to. Julia, like most of the staff, was terrified of her and tried to keep below her radar.

Today, Maria Azevedo was wearing a dark green linen trouser suit. She stared at Julia’s skirt as she came into the office, making Julia self-conscious about her legs. Then she closed the door softly, muting the sound of the kids in the corridor and the slam of the metal lockers. She walked to her desk, while Julia perched on the low leather sofa. The staff all knew that the diminutive Azevedo did her hiring and firing standing up and now Julia tensed as she towered above her.

Behind the headmistress was a glass cabinet filled with two pitifully tarnished trophies, and behind that, the wall was covered with a scuffed tile mosaic of Copacabana Beach. Several tiles were missing.

‘Julia, you can’t personally finance these kids. It’s favouritism. How are you going to stop Eduardo wanting you to pay for his food every day from now on?’ Senhora Azevedo asked, dispensing with any social chit-chat. It was her trademark to be so abrupt, but it immediately caught Julia off guard and she felt herself bristling. How did the headmistress know about Eduardo already?

‘It was just a one-off. I couldn’t teach him. He was almost fainting with hunger,’ she explained.

Maria Azevedo rolled her eyes and pointed the frame of her glasses at Julia. ‘All the kids in your class are hungry. Your job is to give them knowledge. Not food.’

Julia stared at her boss, knowing that she was right, but hating her for it too.

‘I’ll let it go this time,’ she said, ‘but don’t do it again.’

Julia nodded and stood up. She started backing towards the open door.

‘And, Julia?’ Senhora Azevedo said, making Julia freeze in her tracks.

‘Yes?’

‘I’d like to go over your lesson plans.’ She put on her glasses again.

‘Lesson plans? Why?’

Yet, as Senhora Azevedo picked up a pen, Julia already knew the answer. She’d obviously found out how much time Julia had spent on the off-curriculum class project – a look at all the tourist attractions of Brazil – and how enthusiastically the kids had thrown themselves into the creative-writing project she’d set, asking them to write an account of an imaginary school trip round Rio.

‘Julia, I don’t think you understand . . . This school is about getting the kids a basic education. We’re not trying to give them ideas.’

‘Ideas?’ Julia couldn’t help the tone of her voice. Surely the whole point of school was ideas.

‘Most of these children will never leave the favela, or their kids either, but that doesn’t mean to say they won’t or can’t be happy. Don’t fill their heads with dreams they’ll never fulfil.’

She smiled sadly at Julia over the top of her glasses, and shook her head briefly, before returning to the stacks of paperwork on her desk.

‘Oh, and Julia,’ she said, ‘I take it you’re aware of the rules regarding personal calls in school hours?’

Julia’s head was aching by the end of the day. It had rained in the early afternoon, so she’d had to supervise a deafening basketball lesson indoors, which she always dreaded; then she’d had to fill out more paperwork.

By the time she had a chance to leave school, the sun had broken through, but it was that biting-hot afternoon heat, Julia noticed, as she stepped back out through the yellow doors. With

the humidity still high, Julia squinted through the glare and walked past the corrugated-iron panels that had a spray-painted scene of a voluptuous black woman in a vivid green, yellow and blue bikini – a street-art project she’d instigated – towards the car park. A gang of kids bounced a football between them, and the traffic roared in the distance.

As she reached her moped on the scrubby patch of grass beneath the trees, she considered driving straight to Nat’s apartment. She could borrow a bikini and they could swim in the complex’s pool, or even hit the beach. How long had it been since she’d been to the beach? Months and months, she realized.

And she would go to the bar with Nat tomorrow too. Who cared if she had a hangover? Why shouldn’t she enjoy herself? It wasn’t as if Senhora Azevedo expected her teaching standards to be high.

Not trying to give them ideas – Julia had never heard anything so ridiculous. She was still smarting from their encounter this morning. Why shouldn’t the kids have dreams? Why shouldn’t they aspire to a better life? To see the world they lived in? That was why Julia had trained as a teacher: because she was passionate about giving these kids a better future. It infuriated her that her headmistress, of all people, didn’t share her vision.

But now she remembered the lottery ticket and her promise to her grandmother and cursed. She’d have to stop in town to buy one, and the traffic would be hell at this time of day. She reached into the pannier to get her helmet. Which is when she saw the black wallet.

The glossy black leather rectangle was wedged underneath the back wheel of her moped as if it had been put there deliberately. Julia stooped to pick it up. She examined the wallet, confused. None of the kids could possibly own a wallet like this.

Which meant that it had to have been stolen. Had somebody deliberately planted it on her, or had one of the kids found it and put it under her wheel so that Julia would hand it in?

She opened the wallet. Inside were crisp banknotes. It was unheard of for a wallet to have money in it around here. Especially this much. As Julia pulled out the notes, she gasped, counting 2,000 reals. More than a whole month’s salary, she realized. Enough to buy Fredo his football strip, and a new TV for Marcello. More importantly, it might even be enough to get Vovo into a private clinic, where they might be able to treat her heart condition before it was too late.

This must be drug money, she thought, her mind immediately going to Paulo, the thug in her class. This must be connected to him, or his relatives. Was he setting her up for some kind of sting? Just because she’d taken Eduardo’s side this morning?

But something still nagged at her. Gang money was dirty, surely. Clandestine and illicit. If it was drug money, it would be in grubby low-denomination notes. Not pristine and smart, like these.

She quickly looked through the rest of the wallet, but apart from the cash, there was only a single card inside. She pulled it out to examine it.

It, too, was glossy and black – the kind she imagined only the most classy of businesses might commission. On it, embossed in silver, was a picture of what looked like a key. Beneath it in neat silver letters was a number.

She should go and report this to Senhora Azevedo, Julia told herself. She should go straight to the school office – even report the wallet to the police, who’d only just that morning counselled the staff to look out for anything suspicious and out of the ordinary.

But as Julia put the card back in the wallet, a peculiar feeling spread through her and she remembered Vovo’s words this morning: I have a feeling today is a lucky day. That something good will happen.

Without giving herself time to think, she slipped the wallet into her backpack.

chapter two

Christian Erickson hung on to the rusty bar in the back of the truck as it jolted over the bumps in the dirt track. Behind the truck, dust billowed up in an ochre cloud, and a small child dressed in a brightly coloured tie-dyed shirt ran after it, waving. Christian waved back and the kid stopped and smiled, his crooked teeth white in his black face. In a second he was obscured by the dust.

Christian knew seeing such a kid was a rare sight. And that he was one of the lucky ones. He was still able to stand – and to smile. Here, in central Somalia, where the drought and fighting were the worst Christian had ever seen in Africa, thousands of children like that little boy were dying of starvation every day.

And thousands more made the dangerous journey with their entire village on foot to the camps in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. Places like Dadaab, where Christian had come from, where half a million Somalian refugees crowded into the makeshift shelters that were built for a tenth of the capacity and where many would be living for generations. There seemed to be no end to this hellish mess.

He rearranged his checked scarf over his nose as they passed the rotting corpse of a camel on the side of the track, vultures picking at its flesh. The camels had been an Oxfam initiative, but Christian knew that most of them in this region had been slaughtered by the offshoot of the militant Islamist al-Shabaab group who ruled this area with senseless violence.

In every direction, the earth was a scorched, dry brown. Ahead, through the mirage, Christian could see ruined roof-less farm buildings, overturned burnt-out vehicles scattered next to them. He stared up for a moment at the sun through his shades and saw the relentless yellow eye staring back at him. He wondered how many times he’d looked at that sun with scorn. You couldn’t help but let it get personal here in Africa.

‘So, how long you been out here?’ Dan shouted over the noise of the truck’s clanking engine.

Christian stared across at the new recruit he’d just picked up, sitting on the bench in the back of the truck. He had dark curly hair and bright blue eyes and a freshness to him, an eagerness that made Christian nostalgic. Like remembering the scent of a flower.

Had Christian really been that green himself? he wondered. He must have been. Back when he hadn’t seen death and famine and bloodshed and experienced all the horrifying heartbreak of life as a front-line doctor.

Why on earth they’d sent him this guy, fresh off the plane in Mogadishu, God only knew. He’d been expecting an experienced nurse to replace Kali, although it would be impossible ever to replace Kali, with her mad hair and infectious smile. He fought away images of his trusted, treasured colleague and the way she’d stared at Christian for that fleeting last moment, even though the bullet had taken off half her skull. But Kali – barely twenty-five – had been gone for over three months, Christian reminded himself, and he could no longer work alone. When he’d got a message out that he wanted backup, he’d hoped for someone from his old team, not someone who looked like he was barely old enough to shave, let alone to have qualified as a doctor.

He hated to be cynical, but Christian wanted to tell Dan to get out right now, before he was suckered in, like he had been. He wanted to tell him to take his fresh face elsewhere while he had the chance. Because if he didn’t . . . well, he’d become like Christian, and before he knew it, death and famine and bloodshed would become his way of life too. And that, Christian wanted to tell him, was a dangerous way to live. Because it meant you couldn’t ever give it up. Couldn’t ever stop.

But something in Dan’s eyes made Christian refrain from spouting his cynicism.

‘I’ve been here too long,’ he replied. ‘Way too long, in fact. I was a surgeon in a hospital in Norway, but after my mother died, I took a sabbatical to go travelling and stopped here on the way. Somehow I never left.’

‘Hey, man, they say that you’re, like, the best,’ Dan said enthusiastically, his American accent full of sincerity. ‘They said I’ll learn everything from you.’

Christian was both flattered and dismayed by Dan’s open reverence. How he’d achieved such status baffled him, but looking at Dan, Christian realized that his fearless attitude had probably been noticed back at HQ after all these years. Christian was their main Afri-Aid man on the ground, the doctor who went right to the heart of the conflict, where the help was needed most. It seemed like the only logical way to be to Christian, but to his superiors, behind their desks in their air-conditioned offices back in Nairobi, he guessed he must seem brave.

It wasn’t bravery, though. Not in Christian’s book. The women who held their starving children were brave. The villagers who endured torture at the hands of the rebel militia, they were brave. The elderly women dying from Aids . . . The list went on.

But yes, he thought, smiling wearily at Dan, he had once had that enthusiasm, that belief that he was helping, that he could solve problems and mend lives. Back before he realized that as far as saving this country was concerned, most of the time their efforts were as effective as putting a Band-Aid on a fresh amputee.

‘I forgot,’ Dan shouted, grinning. He opened his heavy bag and pulled out a small white padded envelope. ‘I’ve got mail for you.’

He passed the package across to Christian, who held it in his tanned, dirty hands. He stared at the postmark and the Norwegian stamps. It must be from Kenneth, he thought, realizing with a stab of guilt how long it had been since he’d been in touch with his brother back home. Or his father, Teis, persevering as a lonely, belligerent minister in an empty church up in Senja. Their sterile white and grey snow-bound world seemed so far away from this scorched brown land.

‘Thanks,’ Christian said, putting the package inside the front of his jacket. For a moment he felt a pang of real homesickness, remembering the smell of his father’s pipe-smoke on a snowy day and the Northern Lights above their holiday cabin in the hills.

But home wasn’t the home of his dreams. Not any more, he reminded himself. He often thought about the old days just before he went to sleep under the stars, wondering if his mum was up there, watching over him. Wondering if she’d be proud of the direction he’d taken. Wondering if she found it comforting that he’d followed in her footsteps. She’d been one of the first aid workers to get to parts of Rwanda back in the 1970s. It had been her love of Africa that had led him here.

‘It’s up here,’ Olu, the driver, shouted, interrupting his thoughts.

The truck slowed. Using the bars for support, Christian negotiated his way round the boxes of medical supplies and the tank of fresh water under the tarp, so that he could talk to Olu. He’d stopped by a fork in the road, shaded by a scrappy baobab tree. A rusty signpost had bags of litter scattered around it.

‘What do you think?’ he asked, putting his hand on the driver’s shoulder. Olu was in his late thirties and exuded a competence Christian admired. They’d been together now for several years and he trusted him completely.

‘It’s dangerous,’ Olu said, staring at Christian. ‘Too dangerous?’ Christian asked.

Olu shrugged. ‘Your call,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure if it’s clear. And the radio is still dead,’ he said, picking up the radio and clicking the button.

Christian ran his tongue round his teeth, looking at the barren road ahead, knowing it would lead to the village he’d heard was in trouble. Knowing, too, that the rebels who had killed Kali would almost certainly be nearby. This was the heartland of Colonel Adid’s militia, a brutal guerrilla guard who had drained the region of all its resources through taxes and draconian rule. Their group was said to have links to al-Qaeda, and their morals were non-existent. Christian thought back to the children he’d treated last week who’d had their hands chopped off – supposedly for stealing.

Christian knew how dangerous this was. The tyrannical colonel had eyes and ears everywhere, and if Christian’s truck was spotted, they’d be in deep shit, especially without radio backup.

‘What are we waiting for?’

Christian turned to see Dan standing in the back of the truck. His eyes shone, eager to get to some action.

OK, well, if it is action the guy wants to see, then I’d better show him the way, Christian thought, burying his misgivings. After all, he’d gone in where angels feared to tread plenty of times before. This wasn’t the moment to start being cowed.

‘Let’s go,’ he told Olu, slapping his shoulder.

Christian had the kind of gut feeling he knew he shouldn’t ignore, but even so, he didn’t turn back, cajoling Olu to drive further into the village. The further they went, the more the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Several of the huts were still smoking. A dog limped among the debris. The silence was the most frightening thing of all.

As they came into the centre of the village, rather than little children running after the truck, as he was so used to, they sat at the side of the road, their wide eyes accusing him through the flies.

Too late, their shocked looks said.

In the centre of the village, in the clearing where the well was, Olu slowed the truck to a stop. The ground was strewn with bodies – women and children mostly; the men were gone. All except the elderly leader, who was hanging from the hook above the well, blood dripping from his severed toes. His eyes were closed with bruising, congealed blood like dark jewels on his naked torso.

As Olu cut the engine, Christian heard the all-too-familiar wailing of the women break the silence. They came then, out of nowhere – from behind the smoking huts, women with haunted looks in their eyes, on stick legs, starving. They came with their hands outstretched, too parched to speak, desperate only for water.

‘Get the tank,’ Christian said, springing into action. ‘You OK?’ he asked Dan, who shook his head. Christian could see the disbelief and shock in his eyes.

‘This is where things start to get better,’ Christian said, trying to sound reassuring. He instructed Dan how to manhandle the tank, and in a moment they were bailing out water to the crowd, who clamoured for more.

Christian jumped down from the truck and with Olu started to talk to the chief’s wife. His grasp of the dialect was basic, but Christian could pick up what she was saying. The rebels came and rounded up all the men before beating them. The chief was tortured. They fired shots. Lots of shots. Then they put the men in their jeeps and left.

Christian followed her as she led them away from the main square along a blood-spattered path, the colourful cloths hanging to dry in the sun smeared with blood and mud.

‘Get my box, Dan,’ Christian shouted.

The chief’s wife led them to the largest of the huts and pushed open the woven door.

Christian swallowed hard. Of all the makeshift hospitals he’d seen, this had to be one of the most grizzly. Inside, the sick and wounded covered the whole floor, lying where they could, bleeding and crying. The air was filled with the metallic stench of damaged flesh and the low-pitched resonance of despair.

He nodded to the old woman, stunned by her courage, determined to help whoever he could, his medical training kicking in. He began firing out orders to Dan, barely managing to avoid tripping over bodies as he tried to find enough space to erect a simple workstation.

Soon they were both covered in blood, their foreheads drenched in sweat as they helped each child in turn. Christian glanced at Dan, seeing the horror on his face, the disbelief that this scene could be possible in the modern world. But whoever had trained this new rookie had done a good job, Christian thought, watching him bandage up a kid’s arm with calm proficiency.

Christian hardly noticed the door opening and Olu coming in and waving to him to come. He was too busy setting up an IV drip for a five-year-old boy who’d been shot in the leg. If they didn’t get antibiotics into him soon, they’d have to amputate. And amputation – especially of a kid’s limb – was Christian’s worst fear.

‘You’ve got to come,’ Olu shouted across the bodies. ‘It’s not safe.’

‘Olu, no. You’ve got to give me time,’ Christian said, sticking a plaster over the drip in the boy’s arm. A woman on the floor beside him was shivering with fever. Dan had started wrapping a bandage round another woman’s head. ‘We can’t leave now.’

‘Christian, we gotta go,’ Olu pleaded, glancing at the door. Gunshots punctured the wailing.

‘Shit,’ Christian said, his eyes locking with Olu’s. And in that instant he knew that he should have listened. Olu’s eyes said the same.

‘What’s going on?’ Dan asked, worried now, but Christian didn’t dare tell him. Saliva flooded his mouth.

‘Come on. Quickly,’ he said. ‘Leave what you’re doing.’

The women and children had started panicking now, the whole atmosphere in the hut changing, everyone tense with fear.

By the time they made it to the door, an open-backed jeep was pulling up outside in the square next to Olu’s truck, followed by another truck, guerrilla soldiers hanging from it at all angles, some with their heads entirely covered with checked scarves, apart from a slit for their eyes. They were all carrying Kalashnikov rifles. Belts of ammunition criss-crossed their torsos.

‘Stay behind me,’ Christian hissed to Dan.

A man – clearly the leader – jumped down from the first truck. He flicked back his scarf and rubbed the side of his nose, then looked at Christian. His yellowed eyes had the dullness of someone inured to death. Despite how long he’d worked in the region, this was the first time Christian had come face to face with a group of rebels. He had to consciously stop his legs from shaking.

‘What are you doing here?’ the rebel leader asked Christian in English. ‘You should not be here.’

‘We came to help the people. The women and children,’ Christian said, trying to keep the fear from his voice. ‘We’re doctors, from the aid charity. We’re here in peace.’

The rebel soldiers were jumping down from the second truck now, spilling like vermin into the square. A young boy fired his weapon into the air and laughed in a chilling display of machismo. He was still a child – twelve at most.

The leader flicked his head towards the hut. Three of the rebels pushed past Dan and Olu, and tore off the door.

‘Please,’ Christian begged the leader. ‘Don’t—’

But his words were cut off by the rattle of machine-gun fire and the screams of the women and children inside the hut.

‘No!’

It was Dan who’d shouted.

Christian saw anger flash in the leader’s eyes. He walked up to Dan and punched him in the face. Dan stared back in horrified disbelief, blood streaming from his broken nose. The leader watched him, waiting to see how the Westerner would react. Dan had already learned his lesson. He stared at the ground.

Christian couldn’t believe how brave he was being, how he hadn’t been cowed by pain, even though the punch must have hurt. Or maybe Dan was just numb with shock.

‘You will come with us,’ the leader told Christian.

Two other soldiers now rounded up Christian, Dan and Olu. ‘You have been very foolish this time, Doctor Erickson,’ the leader said, as Christian stumbled towards the first truck, his hands on his head.

How did they know his name?

Christian felt real fear – the worst he’d ever known – flooding through his veins. He watched in horror as the second jeep swung round, the soldiers clamouring on board.

‘I told you, man,’ Olu said, his voice choked with tears. His eyes locked with Christian’s, fear and blame clearly etched in them.

‘If they take us now, they’ll torture us,’ Dan said. His voice was an urgent whisper. His eyes suddenly seemed much older than his face. ‘We have to run for it. Get to the trees over there. Buy ourselves time.’

Christian stared at him and then glanced over at the scrappy outcrop of trees at the edge of the village. Was he crazy? The plan would never work. But there was no time to think of an alternative.

Ahead of them, the guards had piled into one of the trucks and it was moving away fast in a cloud of dust. Now the guards immediately in front clambered up into the next truck. Only one guard, with a rifle, remained behind them, pushing them forward.

Suddenly, Dan broke away and turned, smashing the guard across the side of the head with his elbow. The guard fell.

‘Now,’ shouted Dan. ‘Run.’

Christian set off sideways, his heart racing, as all three of them barrelled towards the trees.

Commotion behind them. Shouting.

‘Don’t look back,’ Dan said, gaining on him. A few more metres and they’d be in the trees. They could get lost in the village huts. Escape back to Olu’s truck . . .

Bang. Bang.

The shots rang out. Olu was down, staggering ahead of him, kneeling in the dirt, then collapsing.

Bang.

To his side, Christian saw Dan hit the ground.

‘Stop. Stop now.’ It was the rebel leader’s voice.

Christian staggered to a halt. He put his hands up in surrender. His breath heaved in his chest. In a moment, the guards yanked him back towards the truck. He felt a rifle in the small of his back.

Christian’s vision was blurring through his tears as he stumbled between them. He looked over his shoulder one last time. Dan and Olu were motionless in the dirt.


Excerpted from The Key to it All by Joanna Rees. Copyright © 2014 by Joanna Rees.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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