A Festive short Story: `It's a one-man court of justice. You have just failed an official IOC test, and I'm here to enact sentence'

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THE HEAT. Unremitting. Merciless. Whatever word you choose to describe it, the heat just keeps coming at you from all sides. It has no pity and no conscience, so I guess we're alike in that respect. How could I forget just how goddam hot the desert gets? But then I've forgotten millions of more important things over the past three years. Like who I really am. I check my driver's licence and it says "Bill Penfold" and there's a photo I half recognise from the shaving mirror. But that's about as personal as my memory gets.

On good days I tell myself that memory is just so much unwanted baggage, soiled laundry waiting to be cleansed, photos looking for an album. But on the bad days like today, I could almost cry. I have no home, no special person in my life, no country even. If I find myself thinking about these details, I feel tears waiting to form and drop, but they never come.

It had all been going pretty well. I thought that I'd had my first positive lead that morning from a roadside diner at Stovepipe Wells on Route 190. The guy cooking my ham and eggs told me about a bunch of very fit looking individuals that had passed through a day earlier. They were travelling in two big trailers. They ate steaks and drank only fruit juices.

Just as my hopes were raised, the guy told me he'd gotten a business card from somebody who looked like their road manager - they were, still are presumably, a group of circus-style gymnasts headed for a residency at a Lake Tahoe hotel. So much for my detecting skills. Now here I am, with my car over-heating, its air-conditioning broken, trying to find some shade as a first priority. And there are just four days until Christmas.

I was due a downside. The last "hit" had been almost too easy. I had tracked one of the Steroids - I refuse to think of them as individuals - working out in the muscle-park at Venice Beach. He thought he could blend in with all the local bozos and TV extra wannabes, but I know a Taker when I see one. What's more I can prove it. The LED projected on to the cornea of my right eyeball gives a complete read-out of a target's internal biochemistry, picked up by the H P L C (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) unit implanted in my right frontal lobe. This guy had cherries in all three windows, but it was me who'd hit the jackpot.

I read off the display, from the top down. There was the anabolic steroid nandrolone; human chorionic gonadotropin, a growth hormone; then probenecid, a well-known masking agent - this Olympic hopeful was so full of junk he could have opened his own pharmacy.

I waited around the muscle-park until dusk. Once their passing audience finds better things to do in the evening, the iron-pumpers drift away, their narcissism neutered by the absence of drooling spectators. My guy, short-listed for the US team in the decathlon at next year's Olympics in Las Vegas, was among the last to leave. I trailed him back to his car, parked close to a 21st Century Fox TV news station.

"How's the training going?" I asked him as I approached. He turned to look at me. He must have guessed that I was some kind of reporter or a TV stringer heading back to the office. He looked me up and down, and smiled - OK, his lips curled to be more accurate.

"No interviews. If you wanna talk to me, you talk to my agent first," he snapped, throwing his kit bag into the trunk of his electric-powered, soft-top Porsche.

"This isn't a request for an interview," I told him. "It's a one-man court of justice. You have just failed an official International Olympic Committee extraneous substance test. And I'm here to enact sentence."

Before he could even call or e-mail his lawyer on his mobile communicator, I'd taken out my official, IOC-approved rectifier-unit and had shot 300 millilitres of Grade One universal antidote into his system. A live bullet would have been less traumatic, but the guy didn't know it at the time. He screamed at me. Went to throw a nose-breaking karate blow, but then flopped over on his ass. The antidote is that effective, stripping out all the chemically acquired strength that a Steroid has gained in a matter of moments. Muscle wastage sets in almost immediately, rendering any athletic activity redundant for close to a year. Sure, they get better, but not in time for them to strut their illicit stuff in front of billions of television viewers and advertisers.

"What happened? What did you just do to me?" he gasped, sitting on the sidewalk like a puppet whose strings had just been cut.

"You filled your body with shit, man. You've been doing it for three years. You traded whatever integrity you ever had as an athlete for the steroid-enhanced certainty of a medal at next year's Games. But now you have just been D-selected."

I began to walk away. I am not encouraged by my employers to offer written explanations to those who I choose for D-selection. And the yellow press usually cleans up the mess I leave behind anyway. But this time, I got hit too.

`Who are you, man?' the ex-Steroid screamed. "WHO ARE YOU?"

And, you know what, I couldn't give him an answer.

THE OLYMPICS of 2008 in Sun City, South Africa, had lived up to the location's name, with a mild winter's climate enhancing all performances and creating a distinctly feel-good atmosphere. This was almost certainly helped by the emotional roll-over from the country's hosting of the 2006 World Cup tournament which had proved a great success, despite fears about crime and violence on the streets. But then there had been a high-powered crack-down by security forces of all levels to make sure that the big show wasn't ruined.

The same intense circle of steel, had surrounded the Olympic Village and Stadium, and had been reciprocated by the IOC, who decided that a "clean" Games was the only possible response to the effort being put in by the hosts. It would have been farcical to bring on to such a new international sporting stage the squalid spectacles of hormone and steroid abuse that had previously defaced the competition in the so-called civilised arenas of Europe, America and Australia. So the IOC had made pre-tournament testing a condition of entry for every competitor, with the intention of demonstrating that justice was not only being done but also being seen to be done.

By staging the doping controls at two strategic times - three months before the opening ceremony and then again when each of the national teams arrived - the IOC were effectively able to ring-fence the tournament. Only the clean could get through was the logic. Those athletes who'd taken themselves off to secret "training camps" with their "medical advisers" were given a clear message that they shouldn't turn up. Anybody failing a dope test at either of the two stages would be expelled from the Games forthwith, and no appeals would be heard until after the competition had finished.

This was fine and dandy in theory, and the practice would have been perfect but for the fact that many of the athletes had already been put on to a new combination of steroids that had its own built-in masking agent. Detecting the prophylactic in the dope-tests was still relatively easy, but any athlete subsequently accused quickly had a lawyer in to warn the doping control regime of its massive financial liabilities from potential legal action. Traces of the masking agent were, legally speaking, not sufficient evidence for an ad-hoc "conviction". And with winning athletes set to receive millions of dollars too much was at stake to make a thorough cleansing of the body athletic worthwhile.

So, as usual, only a few small-time third-world competitors were caught and publicly staked out before the world's media. But there were lots of rumours about high-profile competitors being caught by doping control, but then daring the IOC to ban them, or to go for disclosure. It was said that on each occasion, the IOC backed down. But the biggest whisper of all was about Katya Mutor, the winner of the women's 5,000 metres in a new world and Olympic record time.

Katya was already a headline story in her own right before she ever ran an inch. For she had been plucked as an orphan toddler from the horrors of Kosovo in the late 20th century by a CBS reporter, who brought her to America and adopted her as his own child. With no special training a prodigious athletic talent had emerged, before Katya was taken on by one of the major sports agencies as an 11-year- old.

Given the best sporting scholarships available, Katya made rapid progress into the travelling show that is modern international athletics. Still, there were doubts about picking one so young for the 2004 Olympics, so she was passed over. Almost overnight, the cute teenager became the great sulking monster of the circuit. Aloof, reclusive even, the only emotion seen on her face was raw ambition.

But even the most hard-hearted of spectators were moved to tears by Katya's triumph at Sun City. The whole stadium roared as she took her lap of honour, holding the flags of both the United States and the Democratic Republic of Kosovo into the warm night air. Her previous surliness was forgiven. She was a star, a triumph of the human spirit and the world of advertising and movies soon pounded their way to her front door. The actress and director Jodie Foster bought the screen rights to her life story for $30m. But there was to be no happy ending for Katya. Less than three months after her Olympic triumph, she was killed in a tragic car accident in Southern France, the burnt out wreck of her Mercedes lying undiscovered at the foot of a bleak ravine for several days. The whole world wept.

AS THE sun fell behind the Inyo Mountains, I made it up to the top of Daylight Pass, leaving the flat, sunken desert behind me. I crossed into Nevada and found a motel in a small town called Beatty that stood at the junction of Routes 96 and 374. The town had a few strings of coloured lights along the main drag to celebrate the season, and the motel was playing Phil Spector's Christmas Album from way back whenever it was.

After a shower, I went across to the bar not just for a cooling drink, but for the chance of further clues on the missing. A clutch of six elite athletes, all gold medal prospects for 2012, had just dropped out of sight, right off the radar. They weren't even on the same team, these guys, but IOC intelligence had suddenly lost track of their movements. The suspicion was that they had come together for "treatment", way out of reach of the doping controllers. But this time round, the IOC had decided to play hardball, getting their retaliation in first, with me as their agent of enforcement - not that my work is in any way attributable, you understand. Deniability is the keynote to what I do.

"You on your way down to Vegas or up to Lake Tahoe?" the bartender asked as he poured me a cold beer, presumably long accustomed to the fact that nobody stayed on in Beatty.

"Yeah," I said, leaving him to guess the direction. "I got an act of mine to see at Caesar's."

"You in showbusiness?"

"Client representation, the backroom."

"Second time this week I've had famous people through here."

"Not the circus gymnasts?"

"No. These guys said they were singers. Are you old enough to remember those groups from the 1970s? You know, like Tavares, or Shalamar?"

"I'm afraid not. Even the Pet Shop Boys were middle-aged men by the time I got interested in music. Maybe I should try and catch their act when I'm in town. Did you get a name for them?"

"Yeah - The Night Runners."

I finished my beer, and crossed Main Street to a restaurant serving Mexican food - I was going to have a restless night anyway, so why not have my stomach join me for company. I tried to figure out whether I was getting clues or bluffs. It made sense for this absconding group of elite performers to head for the desert, because that was where they would be competing next year. Vegas was built out of desert, and now its new Trump Olympiad Stadium, fetchingly designed as an imagined version of the original, but rendered in Liberace white marble specially imported from Greece, was now rising from the sand too.

Athletes are nothing if not literal in their preparations, seeking to work in conditions as close to those that will prevail at an upcoming event. So if a meet is at altitude, they'll train at altitude. If it's at a stadium cursed by headwinds, then they'll train by running straight into a gale. The Vegas Olympics would mostly take place in the evenings when the desert heat had burnt off. So the athletes would indeed be night runners.

But this mass desertion by six athletes from their usual places of preparation troubled me. If they were up to no good, it was more logical for them to drift away, one by one, filing excuses to the IOC along the lines of returning to their families for the Christmas vacation. But to drop out almost simultaneously felt as though they were almost determined to draw attention to their movements.

Later that night, I discovered another reason for what looked like amateurish subterfuge on their part. It enabled the people who were minding them to track back and stomp on any schmuck who might be following their trail. I had the Mexican food to thank for the fact that I was still awake when two heavies kicked in the door to my room, but my reaction was still not quick enough to prevent me taking the first blow to the face. But with the mattress sprung like a trampoline, I was able to rebound my head into the first guy's nuts and take him out for a while.

The second heavy looked trickier, because he had all the right, black- belt first-dan moves. Fortunately, he didn't look too smart once I'd pulled the central lampshade over his head and tipped him into the bath. I took the ignition keys from their car as I left. The tag bore the name of a Vegas hotel. It was enough of a lead for me to leave Beatty behind. The first mailbox I came across I posted 30 dollars back to the motel for the bed I'd only half-slept in and the breakfast I never had.

Two hours later I was cruising the strip in Vegas. Only the addition of dozens of flashing Santas and reindeers defined the time of year. Otherwise the neon lights of the bars and casinos strobed on as they did every hour of every day of every year. It was 5am but people strolled around like it was mid-day. I found the hotel on the key tag and called in at its car rental garage pretending that I'd found the keys on the sidewalk.

The teenage clerk happily vouchsafed the name of the corporate rental after I'd offered to split any finder's "reward" with him. The car had been paid for by Spike.com, the recently amalgamated sportswear and Internet combine with billions of dollars in turnover a year. I asked the kid if he knew whether the Night Runners were playing in town, and then he sang one of my favourite songs.

"They're staying right here, I believe."

I bought myself a breakfast in a bag and then staked out the hotel car park where I could see two, state-of-the-art, chrome-plated campers close to the forecourt. If the two bozos back at my motel in Beatty were connected, and had the balls to admit their bungle, I had to stay awake for the possibility of an early departure. It was tough going. Vegas is a night city, and its biggest commodity is artificial light. Its desert dawn therefore assumes unnatural qualities that almost hypnotise you to sleep. My eyelids began to flicker shut as the fatigue set in. I must have been on the very meniscus of sleep when I saw these figures silently padding across from hotel lobby to the campers.

Dressed in Vegas-style clothes, neither fashionable nor restrained, I could nevertheless recognise the Night Runners for what they were - two American sprinters, an English 5,000 metre runner, two African distance men and a pole-vaulter from Finland. Accompanying them were a handful of nerdish types with business-style cases. Last out was a face that brought back a stab of memory sharp enough to penetrate my hardware- filled brain. It was John Necessary - or The Witch Doctor, as he was known in the trade. It was said at one time that every athlete who had been coached by him had wound up as a Steroid. He'd been banned for life after the Sun City Games, and then gone underground. This was the first time I'd seen him since...well, since.

THE DOPING Control Centre had seemed to be so stark and white that floor and ceiling merged as one plane. I remember the overhead lights like those that hover above a dentist's chair. And then that voice.

"You have tested positive in both your A and B samples for nandrolone. You have the highest steroid readings I have ever seen in my career as a dope-control scientist. There is also a disturbing percentage of Human Growth Hormone in your system. The committee will be looking for an immediate suspension and for the stripping of your title and the return of your gold medal. Your times will also be expunged from the record books."

Necessary began to shout and scream and threaten all kind of legal action if an appeal wasn't called and the suspension put on ice. He lost it completely, and was physically escorted from the room. And then I heard a different voice. Very English.

"Of course, you are a very, very popular athlete, Katya. We might be able to reach a compromise, whereby you keep your medals, and your glory and your money."

"In exchange for what?" I asked as my tears dried.

"We are undertaking a change of policy for the next Games. We plan to take the abusers out before they get to the stadium, humanely of course. But we need someone who has been down that route, Katya. Who knows the methods. Nobody else but you and I need know about it."

"You want to retire me?" I asked.

"As an athlete, yes. Then reactivate you as our enforcer. We will give you a new identity of course. Katya, as such, will have to die. But you are, in any case Katya, already a long way down the road to becoming a man..."

I FOLLOWED the campers north out of Vegas. They turned off on to a track and headed out into the desert, towards what had been in the last century, a nuclear testing site. I waited until nightfall before driving up the track, across scrub and sand, before it ran out. Out in the vast darkness of the desert, I could see lights at a low level. The sort of things that have local folks running scared of alien landings. I took the car further in towards the ring of illumination, driving with all my own lights off. Then I parked and began walking. It took a hour of stumbling and falling before I could make sense of it all.

Beyond a barbed-wire area the sand had been harrowed and rolled into a running track. The athletes I'd observed worked round it, all in Spike.com sportswear. They stopped only for consultations with the nerdish types who I could now see were no such things at all. They had charts on clip- boards and their business bags opened out into pharmacy trays. John Necessary supervised all the individual dosages.

I lay on my back and looked up at the stars. Necessary had corrupted the course of my life to the extent that Katya was destroyed in all but memory. As Bill Penfold, I didn't even have the consolation of remembrance. If I D-selected these guys now, I'd hurt them more than Necessary, and their ring-masters at Spike.com. They would always find kids with more ambition than self-respect.

So I took out my satellite phone and called in the Nevada State Police. I also called a Vegas TV station. An hour later, squad cars and a police helicopter had the training camp under arrest, while the TV crew beamed the story out to the world. This time, there would be no back-stage deals at the Five-Ring Circus.

Stan Hey's latest Frank Brennan Mystery, "Scare Story", has just been published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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