The wind whistled its way eerily through the craggy outcrops of rock that were jumbled together to form the cheerily named “Death Head”. (Otherwise known as “Satan’s haemorrhoids” to the locals. No more pleasant but, arguably, a little more cheery.)
Geologists may have got excited by the interesting combination of sedimentary foliation and exposed igneous intrusions but the man currently hanging by his fingertips, two-thirds of the way up the most exposed northern face of Death Head, was not. But then, he was no geologist.
While he had the natural tan of a man who had been in the field a lot, and the well-defined muscles of someone who could chip away at rocks with the best of them, he did not look like the sort of man who would be at home in brown tweed. In fact, even though he was wearing a skin-tight climbing outfit, comprising black shorts and a sleeveless Union Jack vest, an observer would get a strange sensation that he was actually wearing a designer tuxedo; whatever he was wearing, Charles Bartholomew Wainbridge somehow managed to look like he was wearing a designer tuxedo.
Charles blinked a drop of sweat out of his eyes – clear, blue eyes, in which many a woman had lost herself – as he shifted position, dangling for a moment by one hand. His powerful biceps flexed as he hauled himself upwards, regaining a second handhold plus a foothold scarcely large enough for an anorexic puffin to nest on. He was here for the rocks alright but not their scientific value.
Death Head had got its name from two sources. The "Head" was a reference to the fact that from a distance, and with some imagination (plus a lick or two of the local frogs), the rock formation resembled a human head. It was the head of a human who must have suffered from really bad acne as an adolescent but a human head nonetheless. The "Death" part referred to what anyone trying to climb unaided to the summit usually met with.
"Chuck" Wainbridge was trying to climb unaided to the summit. But then, Chuck Wainbridge was not anyone. He had often looked Death in the face before redirecting him toward someone less fortunate with the aid of a sniper rifle, silenced pistol or even, on one occasion, his little finger and a cocktail stick.
Fluent in six languages and familiar with two hundred and eighty-seven different weapons (or two hundred and eighty-eight if you include cocktail sticks), Wainbridge had joined the British Secret Service a decade earlier and he loved it. Chuck Wainbridge was addicted to adrenalin and when he wasn't spying on spies or assassinating assassins, he was always seeking new and interesting ways to push himself to the limit.
The wind around Death Head was beginning to pick up, ruffling Chuck's dark hair gently. He had a quick look below. It was a long way down but that did not bother him. He was only using his estimated altitude as a means of estimating the distance to the top, which was impossible to see directly due to a large outcrop above him - the head's left ear. Chuck was going to have to circumnavigate the outcrop using a horizontal crack that was only just wide enough to get a fingertip grip. Although this would have given other men pause for though, it was OK with Chuck - his fingertips had gripped many cracks in his time. (He went to Eton, after all.)
Steadying himself for a moment, Wainbridge stretched his right arm out and felt for the crack. Finding it, he cautiously began transferring his weight, feeling along the rock for the best grip, alert for any looseness that might indicate that it could crumble under his weight. It was at this crucial moment that a vibration from his belt caused Chuck's concentration to waiver and his foot to slip from his narrow foothold.
Grabbing quickly by reflex, he managed to find a solid grip in the fissure just in time to stop himself from becoming the next victim of the Head. Dangling from one arm once again, Chuck rolled his eyes and tapped the earpiece in his left ear.
"Wainbridge," he said.
"Ah, Charles," came a terribly well-spoken voice in his ear. "Not a bad moment, I hope."
"No sir," lied Wainbridge. "Just hanging around. You know how it is."
"Yes." He did not. "Well, I'm afraid that you're going to have to cut your holiday short again, dear boy. I've just had a call from Sir Henry. There's a situation in Swansea and he wants our best man on it. You're the best, Charles."
"Thank you, sir." Chuck frowned. A 'situation'. They were always messy. A 'job' was easy. A 'problem' was simple. A 'situation' was always messy. "I'll get right on it sir."
"Good man. You can take your holiday after the assignment but, right now, I need you on a plane back to Britain, ASAP. Sooner, if you can."
"Yes, sir." Chuck looked towards the hidden summit. Death Head would have to wait. "Wainbridge out."
He tapped the earpiece again, cutting off the call and hooked his left hand up to the grip the crack before looking around for an easy way down. When his foot had slipped earlier, the ledge had given way; there was no going back the way he had come up.
Over to his right and below him, however, was an outcrop from a neighbouring rock formation known as "Laughing Point" (it was a good place to go and laugh and point at the fools stupid enough to climb Death Head). It jutted out towards him at this point; if he could just swing himself enough to clear the ten foot wide chasm in between and catch hold of Laughing Point, he'd be laughing himself and down in no time.
Edging along as close as he could, Chuck used his arms to get a pendulum motion going. The trick was to swing slightly more each time, without swinging so hard that he lost his grip. At the apex of the fifth swing, he released, kicking off with his left leg for extra boost and windmilling his arms for balance as he flew across the gap.
The landing on the other side was heavy and, while sloped in his favour, not as easy to find handholds as he had hoped. Scrabbling for any kind of purchase he could find, Wainbridge slid inexorably backwards towards the edge - and a very big drop. At the last moment, when his legs were already dangling over nothing, he finally managed to grab hold of a branch belonging to a plant that was inadvisably trying to take root halfway up a mountain.
As Wainbridge looked around for his next move, he felt another vibration from his belt. He tapped the earpiece again.
"Yes?" this time his voice was coloured with just a hint of irritation.
"Chuck!" It was Phillipa Carter, his field operator and occasional bit of crumpet. "I saw that! Are you OK?"
Chuck wondered whether the director had Samantha spying on him, or whether she was doing it of her own volition. Working for MI6 gave you the best tools to be a stalker. He glanced at his Rolex. It was just after noon. That meant she must be using satellite K36, which would be crossing from North-North West and passing overhead just south of his position in about 15 seconds. He quickly calculated its approximate position and flashed a dashing smile heavenwards. Behind her monitor, Phillipa swooned.
"I'm fine," he told her, giving a little wave at the sky. "Make sure a plane is waiting. And tell them to make sure First Class has a decent bottle of Krug on board. The stuff on the way out was swill. Now, stop spying - that’s my job, remember! I'll be back with you soon."
He clicked off the earpiece and returned to a two-handed grip. "And when I say with you," he added quietly to himself, "I mean with you."
Now, with transportation sorted, his only problem was getting off this mountain. He looked around again. There must be a quick route down. An ominous cream overhead was followed by a heart-stopping snap. There was indeed a quick route down but it was most unwelcome.
Charles Wainbridge, 001, had a very long fall to rue his decision at breakfast not to wear the Timex with the built in grappling-hook.