I grew up watching Westerns with my Dad, from Shane to Jesse James, from High Noon to True Grit. Probably the Magnificent seven would be my favourite. But can you imagine how to write something like that, to capture the dynamics, in a book? Not so easy.
I often get a bit lost when reading fight or shooting scenes in books. I end up thinking, oh – he’s there, I thought he was somewhere else. Or, gosh, he must have extendable arms and triple-jointed elbows… Like I say, not easy. It has to be visualised, and then described in a way so the the reader can see it.
I used to do a lot of martial arts. One regular practice session I always remember, with a sense of unease, was called tanto randori, which is Japanese and means knife fighting. It usually involved someone in the centre of several attackers. armed with wooden knives. The one in the centre was unarmed, and had to disarm and defeat the three or four attackers. What it makes you do, if you’re in the centre, is keep.a helicopter view of where everyone is around you, in real time. Even when you’re fending off one attacker, you have to stay aware of the other one to your side or behind you, otherwise…
When I was writing 37 Hours, I needed to write a scene involving Nadia and another, called Bransk, fighting off a number of attackers, all armed. It is modern day, but I wanted it to have a slight Western feel… It happens right outside Chernobyl’s Reactor 4, where Nadia’s sister is being held captive…
Nadia hit the deck as a white minibus trundled into view, ‘Kiev Tours’ in bright purple letters painted on its side in English and Russian. It bounced along the makeshift road, crammed full of tourists. Dammit, they weren’t allowed to get this close, and she had no real cover, her forest camouflage barely masking her against the wide open space littered with chunks of concrete and discarded machinery, all smothered in white dust, as if it had snowed cement powder.
The bus stopped with a jerk, and tourists poured out, cameras dangling from their necks, guys in baseball caps, a couple of girls with hair tied back in ponytails, the whole group mid-twenties. None wore any protective clothing or masks, just jeans, T-shirts and jackets. They pointed, gesticulated and took photos, some with old-style video cameras.
She was tempted to think ‘bad timing’, which was the same as ‘bad luck’. Her father had always said there was no such thing, neither luck nor coincidence. Only patterns. Master the pattern, or it will master you. Salamander had set a trap. It was logical to assume the trap was inside the reactor complex. But the drone had picked up nothing. Also, the more she watched, the more something wasn’t right with this group. They were behaving too exactly like tourists, yet they were young. Why did they have all these old-style video cameras, with their pistol-grip handles and long lenses?
Bransk strode past her, his long leather coat open. He stopped about twenty metres from the pack, ten metres in front of her. He glanced over his shoulder to her, then let a magazine of fresh bullets for her Beretta drop to the ground. Why there? Because she was out of decent range with her pistol. Which meant she would have to run forward, rather than retreat. She was grudgingly beginning to like Bransk. Her father would like him for sure.
Nadia eased out her pistol. Nine bullets. Behind her, fifty metres of no-cover to the forest. They’d pick her off if they had a rifle. Bransk was right. Long ago, back in Kadinsky’s training camp, the instructor known as the Chef had taught her one of the five golden rules of battle, whether for large battalions or single hand-to-hand combat. When the enemy moves forward, move towards him faster. Not away. Never away. Forward. Upsets their psychology. Messes with their brains. Not the smart brain, but the instinctive one, the so-called reptile brain. Triggers a mental flinch, a split second of indecision. Which was all you needed. She fixed her eye on the magazine.
‘You are not allowed this close,’ Bransk shouted. ‘You must pull back to the four-hundred-metre marker.’
Several of the pack – there were eight plus the driver, still in his seat – turned towards Bransk, as if bemused, or confused. Just dumb tourists. Except that all of them had tensed, ready. She could see it in their postures, heads slightly bent forward, listening, knees bent a fraction, ready to move. The two girls looked first at Bransk, then spotted her, prone on the ground. They didn’t look away. Their sunny smiles shrank to thin lines of concentration, probably judging distance, angle, wind speed. The one with a video camera – probably an Uzi – raised it, as if to take a video of Nadia.
Not going to happen. In her current position, Nadia’s head was the first thing a bullet would find. Uzis weren’t accurate at that distance, but if the girl knew what she was doing, she’d spray up and down, and at least one bullet would ricochet off the ground straight into Nadia’s face. But just as Nadia was about to get up, Bransk walked a few steps sideways, placing himself between her and the two girls.
One of the men swaggered towards Bransk, hands in his belt. He spoke in English with an American twang, though there was that whiff of Russian lurking underneath.
‘What’s the problem, pal? You’re here, after all.’
Nadia did a quick sweep of the area to check there was no one else. No snipers, as far as she could see, no reinforcements creeping around to flank her and Bransk. Only this gang. She wondered if they were there to kill them or take them alive. But now all nine were facing them. The charade was about to be dropped. It was going to be a kill zone. She tensed her muscles, and drew back into a crouch. She could see three to the right of Bransk, two to the left, and the driver through too much glass to make it worth wasting bullets.
Bransk pulled out his shotgun. ‘Leave,’ he said, in Russian.
The guy continued walking towards Bransk, talking as if this had all been a misunderstanding, while his hands left his belt, and the two girls walked a few paces to the side, just enough to draw a bead on Nadia. This pack were good, gaining advantage, counting on the fact that most people wouldn’t fire first, because there would always be some uncertainty. Perhaps, after all, they were just dumb tourists.
But Nadia wasn’t most people.
And neither was Bransk.
He raised the shotgun and fired, and blew the man’s head clean off his shoulders. Nadia kicked off high into the air, aiming with both hands as she pulled the trigger and kept it there, squeezing off a spray of four rounds towards the girls, before she had to brace and roll. The girl without the Uzi went down.
The air crackled with rapid gunfire, bullets fizzing past her, high-pitched twangs as lead met concrete and machinery, small puffs of dust spitting upwards. Two more shotgun booms were followed by a constant stream of Uzi and small arms fire aimed at Bransk.
Nadia rolled and came up standing, then took aim at the girl with the Uzi. Their eyes met. First one to kill, won. Nadia needed to aim properly. In a game of spray bullets the Uzi would always win. Two shots slammed into the Kevlar protecting Nadia’s thighs, and she fell forward, onto her knees. She took aim again. Not quite there. Another bullet punched into Nadia’s left shoulder, making her let go with her left hand. The girl’s smile had returned. She thought she’d won. Another second and she’d be right. Nadia aimed one-armed, competition-style, locked target, breathed out a fraction and fired.