/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

A Deniable Death

Gerald Seymour

A Deniable Death

Gerald Seymour


The bell began to toll, and Doug Bentley was one of the first to stiffen, straighten his back, and wipe the smile from his face. The sound always killed the quiet chuckles and murmured stories. The former lance corporal in the army’s Pay Corps had come to do a job, as had the friends around him. It was the forty-eighth time he had been to the town’s High Street in the previous eighteen months, and he had missed only a very few of the occasions when the tenor bell, cast in 1633, had been rung with the slow, sad beat that recognised the approach of death and its cortege.

The town, its bell, the church of St Bartholomew and All Saints, and the High Street had become part of Doug Bentley’s life in that year and a half and, truth to tell, he wondered sometimes how he had found any purpose in his life, since retirement, before the opportunity had arisen to make the regular journey there. He knew all about the town: the coaching inns and the fine fossils that appeared in the mud springs, the unusual architecture of the town hall, built on columns more than four centuries before and donated to the community by an earl of Clarendon… He knew all of these historic points because the town was now central to his existence, and Beryl seemed not only to tolerate what he did but supported it. He needed her support each time they came on the number 12 bus from Swindon – no charge because they were senior citizens. This day, as on every day he came to the town, he had checked the varnish on the staff for his standard and satisfied himself there were no blemishes; he had renewed the blanco on the large gloves he wore until they were virgin-snow white; he had buffed his black shoes, shaved carefully, and put polish on the leather support for the bottom end of the staff. Beryl had pressed his grey slacks, ironed a shirt and inspected his tie; she had brushed dandruff flecks from his shoulders, picked fluff from his beret, and made certain that the bow of black ribbon that would top the staff was not crumpled. When the bus dropped them off, she would leave him to the company of his new veteran comrades, and he would not see her again until the ceremony was finished. The bell tolled and, as always at that moment, he felt his stomach tighten.

Doug Bentley lived in a village to the east of Swindon. Beside the infant and junior school a squat brick building was home to a small community of the Royal British Legion. It could support the part-time services of a bar steward, and they had a committee that had met there, eighteen months before, and agreed that Doug Bentley, volunteer, should go to Wootton Bassett, on the far side of Swindon, to represent the branch at the next repatriation of a serviceman killed in action. The former Pay Corps lance corporal, a member of the armed forces for two years of National Service in which he had never been posted overseas and – of course – had never heard a shot fired in anger, had preened with pride at the award of this honour. That he had never been in action, or ‘up the sharp end’, in no way diminished, in his eyes, his right to be regarded as a veteran; he had done his time, done what was asked of him. He had the respect of his colleagues in the Legion and they’d chosen him. The same pride captivated him on this summer’s day as it had on the forty-seven previous times he had made the journey there with Beryl.

He was in a line with around a dozen others. They represented the Royal British Legion branches of towns and villages as far away as Hungerford, Marlborough, Bath and Frome, and RAF Associations, Canal Zoners, one-time paratroops and… They formed their line just on the road, off the kerb, and crowds had gathered to press behind them. Doug Bentley thought there were more photographers and cameramen than usual. He would not have admitted it to a stranger, but he always watched the TV news on those evenings after he had returned home to see himself, and was always pleased when he went down later to the Legion if members remarked that they had seen him. They made a neat line, old men re-creating parade-ground disciplines. He could be a tough old goat, had earned his living as a long-distance haulage driver, but would admit – only to Beryl – that when the tenor bell tolled and the line was formed, his gut churned, and sometimes there was a smear of wet in his eyes.

He had read of the one who was coming home. Aged eighteen years and four months, just accepted into a Guards regiment and killed by an explosion three days earlier in bloody Helmand Province, five weeks after arriving in Afghanistan. The family, friends and supporters were dribbling out of the Cross Keys public house and were crossing the road, weaving between the last traffic that the police would allow up and down the High Street before closing it. It was a good word that was used, repatriation, and he liked the thought of it for a fallen squaddie. The town, Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, with a population of about ten thousand and nothing special to say for itself, represented – as the quiet fell from a sunlit blue sky – the mourning of a nation for a soldier who had given his young life that a greater number might walk in freedom and in peace… Well, that was what the tabloids printed.

No more traffic now. The relatives, friends and supporters were in place, and some of the kids among them wore T-shirts with a picture of what seemed to be almost a child soldier with a smiling face and a battlefield helmet that was a size too large. They all had flowers and some had already started to weep. Every eye, and Doug Bentley’s, gazed left down the street, towards the raised town hall and the top of the hill, beyond the church and its bell tower, where the road came from the RAF base into which the coffin had been flown. He saw women in floral dresses, kids in jeans and sneakers, men standing straight and clutching shopping bags, the staff of shops, banks and coffee houses, and people with dogs that sat still and quiet at their sides. Early on, Doug had realised this was no place for generals, admirals, air marshals or senior politicians. The tabloids called it ‘the tribute of Middle England’.

Three police motorcyclists led the convoy, coming at a crawl, heads appearing first, then the fluorescent yellow of the shoulders and last the blue lights on their machines. The bell had stopped and the engines made a mere murmur, but the sobbing of one woman was clear. The motorcycles went on past Doug Bentley and the others, then a marked police car, but the hearse halted to the far side of the town hall and the funeral director climbed out of the front passenger seat. The local man who did the drill calls for Doug and the standard-bearer party gave the command and the dozen were raised, the tips dropped into the leather case that took their weight. He felt the sun full on him and a bead of sweat trickled down his cheek.

The funeral director wore a top hat and a morning suit; he had a fine walking staff with a silver-topped handle. As he moved forward a woman opposite Doug Bentley seemed to contract in a convulsion of tears and a man beside her, who had pink knees below the hem of his shorts, rubbed her neck gently. As the funeral director reached them, top hat now carried, the command came – softly spoken – and the standards dipped. All those years before, as a lance corporal in the Pay Corps, he had loathed drill sergeants, had been clumsy and useless at the co-ordination required, but he could do this now. The hearse eased to a halt and Doug Bentley dropped his head, as if in prayer, but he could see, beyond the glass, the closely pinned Union flag over the new clean wood of the coffin. He often wondered what they looked like, inside the shrouds and below the lids: at peace and unmarked, or mangled beyond recognition… It was those bloody bombs that did for them: what the TV said were IEDs – improvised explosive devices. Eight out of every ten who were brought through the town on their way to the hospital in Oxford, where the post-mortems were done, had been killed by the tribesmen’s bombs. Doug Bentley didn’t know about war, and his military service as a conscript had been about ledgers, officers’ expenses and other ranks’ salaries, but men in the branch in his village, who had been in the paras or the marines, spoke of the bombs and what they did to a body. Just eighteen years old the guardsman had been, and the picture on the T-shirts showed a face that was immature, arms and legs that had most likely been skeleton thin, all ripped apart by a bomb.

He saw the mother of the boy soldier, and the middle-aged man with her stood back a half-pace. He saw the father, with a woman in black behind him… It always struck him how few of the dead soldiers had parents who still lived together – he and Beryl had been together for forty-six years, had reared two kids and… Flowers, single roses, little posies of the season’s last daffodils and pretty sprays of chrysanthemums were being laid on the bonnet of the hearse, against the windscreen and on the roof. The grief was naked and raw. It hurt Doug Bentley to watch. Some of the family had laid their open hands on the glass sides as if in that way they might touch the body in the coffin.

How long were they there? A little more than half a minute.

The funeral director, who had faced the hearse, now swung round, as if he had been a military man in his time, and waved his stick dramatically. He had the top hat back on his head and started to walk forward, up the empty High Street. The hearse nudged along after him, a few of the flowers sliding into the road.

The hearse left the relatives, friends and supporters clutching each other, wiping eyes and sniffling. It edged past old men who had brought out their medals for the day, the television satellite dishes, scanner vans and cherry-picker cranes. Another police car came behind it, a back-up hearse and a four-wheel drive for the Military Police. Some, he knew, had predicted that what they called ‘grief tourism’ would suffer from ‘fatigue’, that the crowds would dwindle – but they had been bloody wrong. The kid – the guardsman with a child’s face and a helmet too big for him – had been shown the same respect as any serviceman coming through six months and a year before.

Up the High Street, the hearse again stopped briefly. The funeral director and the driver gathered up what flowers had not fallen away and laid them inside with due but brief reverence. Then the party drove at growing speed, with the motorcycle escort, down the road and towards the motorway.

In the first minutes after the convoy had cleared the town, the standards were raised, then lowered, and the command was given for the old servicemen to fall out. A few words of conversation slipped between them but the appetite for jocularity and the recall of times past seemed spent. Hands were shaken and they moved off to start the journey home. The family and its party had returned to the room at the Cross Keys, where the management provided coffee and biscuits, but a few lingered outside to drag on cigarettes. Most of the crowd who had borne witness to the sacrifice of a young life in Helmand Province stood around on the pavements, as if unsure what should follow: pensioners, veterans, shop workers and the idly curious seemed reluctant to break the mood of pensive resignation and quiet… The traffic managed that. Petrol tankers, removal lorries, supermarket delivery trucks jostled to accelerate up and down the High Street. Doug furled his standard, collapsed the staff and threaded the parts into the canvas carrying bag. He said his goodbyes, almost stepped on a single red rose and went to look for Beryl.

He went past a dry-cleaner’s, a bakery, a motor-accessories business, a fish bar, the Oriental Aroma, a picture-framer and a charity shop. He remembered what someone had said about IEDs – that the bombs were a new form of warfare, more deadly than anything the army had faced in the last half-century. He knew next to nothing about explosives, but could reflect on the T-shirts and the mother’s weeping. He thought that by standing in the road with his lowered standard he had played his part. And he knew he would not be able to do so much longer. They were planning to move the repatriations to Brize Norton. He dreaded that: much of the purpose of his life would be extinguished when the hearses and their escorts no longer came through Wootton Bassett. The mood of the town would never be recaptured at another location. He didn’t want to think about it.

He searched for Beryl and couldn’t see her. She might be in the library, or in a bank, just window-shopping or- Damn near bumped into a woman on the pavement, tears streaming down her face. Quite pretty, she might have been in her early thirties. She had fluffy blonde hair in sort of curls and her mascara was smudged. She wore a scarlet skirt that Doug Bentley reckoned was some way short of decent and a white blouse that was not buttoned high. At her neck was a thin gold chain and a pendant that spelled out her name: Ellie. Ellie cried from her soul and gazed up the road where the hearse and its escort had gone.

‘Are you all right, love?’

Just a choke, as if a sob was caught in her throat.

‘It’s these bloody bombs,’ he said. ‘The bloody bombs… Are you family, love?’

She sniffed heavily.

He produced a handkerchief, and she blew hard into it, then used it to wipe her face. She grimaced. ‘They’re all heartbreaking, love,’ he said. ‘I’m with the Royal British Legion, represent my branch. We’re here every time to show our respect… It’s a terrible loss to you and-’

‘I’m not family.’

‘Just came to give them solidarity. Most people do that and-’

‘They’re heroes, aren’t they?’

‘Serving Queen and country, making the ultimate sacrifice. Heroes? Yes.’

‘The bravest of the brave. Heroes, all of them.’

Doug Bentley still couldn’t see Beryl. He didn’t know how to react to this woman’s grief. His wife wasn’t there to tell him, and he thought it was probably only five minutes now until the bus left. ‘Just take it one hour at a time, then one day at a time, then one week-’

‘They’re heroes and their families must be so proud of them.’

He saw a broad wedding ring on her hand and with it a diamond-crested engagement ring, which looked expensive. ‘Are you from an army family, Ellie? Is that why you’re here?’

She seemed to snort, as if the question invited derision. ‘Absolutely not – no heroes among my lot. His people must feel so honoured by him.’ She shrugged.

He was confused now. ‘It’s none of my business, and I don’t want to intrude, but did you come today to be with the boy’s family, show your support?’

‘No… God, no. I was filling up with petrol, at the Shell. The road was blocked and I wandered down. Seen it on the telly, of course, but it’s different when you’re… you know… I’m all right now. Thanks for your time.’

She wandered away without a backward glance, and he realised Beryl was now close behind him. Ellie’s backside swung as she walked.

They went for the bus, where already a good-sized queue waited. His wife told him he had been chatting up a bit of a tart. He said that one minute the woman had been in floods of tears and the next quite off-hand but jabbering about ‘heroes’.

Beryl followed her with an eagle eye. ‘You know next to nothing about anything, Doug,’ she said. ‘Not that I’m holding that against you.’

They walked together to the bus stop, her arm tucked in his.

Chapter 1

An unobtrusive man, he was noticed by few of the pedestrians who shared the steps with him that climbed to the pavements of Vauxhall Bridge in the November rain. He left behind him the cream and green walls and the darkened plate glass expanses of the building that those outside the disciplines of the Service called ‘Ceausescu Towers’ – the headquarters of MI6. He walked briskly. It was his job to move unseen and not to attract attention, even inside the Towers. Len Gibbons was known to few of those who passed through the security gates, morning and evening, alongside him, or shared the lift to and from the third floor where his desk, East 3-97/14, stood, or waited in the canteen lunch queue with him. The few who did know him, however, regarded this middle-grade manager as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and in the trade that was about as good an accolade as could be handed out. As a ‘safe pair of hands’, he was entitled to trust and responsibility and he had received both that afternoon at a meeting with the director general: no notes taken.

The word of the day was deniable. The meeting in itself was deniable, the matter discussed was deniable, and the conclusions reached were deniable. The actions that would be taken were also deniable. Len Gibbons had been called to the upper floors and briefed over a pot of tea and a shortbread biscuit. Take the bastard down, Len, would be the vulgar way to put it. Take him down and leave him on a kerb so that his head rolls in the gutter and the blood runs down the drain. Not, of course, that we like vulgarity. We might more politely call it ‘interdiction’. Actually, I prefer ‘take the bastard down’. It’ll be deniable. My diary has me in the Cabinet Office fifteen minutes ago, and there all afternoon. So, go to it, Len, and know that many men – and widows – will be cheering you on. If you bring him down there will be cheering to the rafters. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve done in years – a first in my time – but it has my total support… as long as it stays deniable.

Half an hour later he had cleared his desk and, with a filled briefcase, had allowed his assistant to leave ahead of him. He had switched off the lights, locked the doors, and they had gone down to the central hall in the lift. They had swiped their cards at Security, walked out into the rain and headed for the bridge. He did not look back at the building, did not know how many days he would be away from it, and whether he would win or lose… But the job would get his best effort. That, Len Gibbons guaranteed.

Across the bridge, he headed for the Underground station. He preferred to mingle with the masses that crowded the trains. He bought the two tickets and passed one over his shoulder, no turn of the head, no smile, to Sarah and felt her take it quickly, discreetly. Descending on the escalator he had the briefcase held tight across his chest, his coat sleeve hanging far enough forward to mask the chain linking the handle to the handcuff attachment on his wrist. Inside the briefcase were the maps, charts and lists for coded contact that would assist towards the state-sponsored killing of an individual whose life was considered forfeit… all, of course, deniable.

He wore the years well, fifty-nine, and was physically fit, mentally alert, with good colour in his face. His trade demanded ordinariness rather than eccentricity, and there was little about him that those on the platform would remember: no sign of the hairstyle under the trilby and behind the beige scarf, no sight of his shirt or tie because the raincoat was buttoned high. The briefcase bore no EIIR, embossed in gold, which would have shown he was a servant of the state. If any had noted him, glanced quickly at the trilby, they might have thought him a rather boring man whose employment shelf life drifted to a close. They would have been wrong. God, in the Towers, had known Gibbons the length of his professional career, would have judged him a man of insight and acumen, but handicapped by a throw of the dice: those damned events that could derail any intelligence officer’s career. He might appear a buffoon, might cultivate that image, might use it as a cover to divert attention from the reality of a stiletto-sharp mind. He trekked into the heavier rain as the afternoon closed dankly on Central London.

The Underground behind them, they passed the entrance to the Ritz Hotel, then skirted the south side of Piccadilly Circus – neither looked up at the Eros statue – and turned down into Haymarket. She came level to his elbow and murmured the number they should look for. He nodded. They were a team. The rain’s drips fell regularly from his hat brim and her hair was soaked, but they made no small-talk about the awfulness of the weather. Probably her mind was swamped as his was with the enormity of what they hoped to achieve in the next hours and days – not weeks.

There was a doorway and, inside, newspapers were scattered instead of a mat. A man in commissionaire’s uniform sat at a desk but they were not challenged and declined to use the lift. Instead they walked up two flights and slipped along a corridor of closed doors, none of which boasted the legend of a company or business. She had a Yale and two mortise keys out of her handbag and he stood at the side while she unfastened the door. Gibbons did not know when the Service had last used the premises, whether they were regular or occasional visitors. He assumed that a front company held the lease and that all connections to the Towers were well disguised. Old procedures died hard. No interior lights were switched on until Sarah had gone to the windows of both main rooms, the kitchenette behind a partition, the toilet and shower room and pulled down the blinds. There was a room with a desk, a chair, and a small settee for him, and a room with a desk, chair, portable TV and a folded single bed for her; there were cupboards for each of them, a safe with a combination lock. Now, the reserve on his face faded: that buzz, the adrenalin flush and the excitement surge replaced it. He was a bureaucrat and a small cog – by fate of circumstance – between large wheels and he accepted that, but he took pride in what he did. Usually he succeeded in providing what was asked of him. Bare walls confronted Len Gibbons and a wintry smile settled on his lips. She had emptied his case of photographs and the big folded map, and had the roll of Sellotape in her hand. She did not bother to ask him where she should display the images.

A ceiling light lit the desk on which were his phone, lap-top, notebooks, pencils and the paraphernalia that travelled with him. She chose the wall in his direct eye-line as the place to stick up the photographs. Some were classified and others were not. She fastened them in the same haphazard jumble in which they had been displayed before. There were pictures of armoured vehicles, all shapes and sizes, all wrecked – some turned right over, some on their sides and some left as debris because the wheels had gone, or the tracks. The craters in tarmacked roads leading straight across flat sand landscapes were great gouges – in some a soldier could have stood, the top of his helmet hidden. Still-frames, a quarter covered with Arabic text, showed a moment of detonation that had been downloaded from websites. There were clear portraits, taken with a macro-lens in extreme close-up, of the gear used in the bombs and their sophistication. He liked to know his enemy and thought it important to display the enemy’s work and skills, to have them present around him at all times… There were photographs from the party last Christmas at a rehabilitation home where young men with military haircuts, all amputees, waved stunted limbs defiantly at the camera. .. and there was one magnified picture of a procession, slow and black, in the High Street of a country town. He had been with the operation from the beginning and thought now that, if his Maker was willing, it approached the end. At the beginning, two years and three months before, a man had sneezed.

He might have caught the mild dose of influenza from his wife or children. He had sneezed and gone back to his labour on the electronics bench.

He did not know that the sneeze would kick-start an operation launched from a far-away city. He had been bent over the bench and was wearing the magnification optics he used when working on the software he adapted with kit brought in from the United States. From the land of the Great Satan, he could obtain dual use passive infra-red devices or high-powered cordless phones with a range of near to seven miles from a base station, and dual-tone multi-frequency gear: the PIR, HPCP and DTMF, and the zappers for unlocking car doors and… The Engineer used them to provide the electronic signal to improvised explosive devices and to his design of explosive formed projectiles. From the safety and security of his workshop he created the bombs that would be carried along the rat-runs that criss-crossed the border of his country with Iraq to kill and maim. The sneeze had been perfunctory, and he was able to get his handkerchief out from his trouser pocket to smother the second. He had not stopped in his work and had not thought through the consequences of that minor eruption in his nose.

Had he done so he might have realised that a fine film had scattered from his face. Some minuscule droplets had wafted down on to the bench and a few had come to rest on the circuit he was putting together.

He had gone on with his work methodically and carefully. He had built the explosive formed projectile. He had a production line in a small factory area behind his workshop and the shaped copper charge was manufactured there to high-precision standards by experienced technicians. By his late-morning break, he had completed the electronics of a killing kit capable of defeating the electronic counter-measures of his enemy, and had begun on another, using the same procedures and techniques. They could almost have been described as a signature. The device onto which he had sneezed was now sealed, boxed and ready for transportation.

He did not know that the device had failed to detonate. A ‘trigger man’, as the Great Satan’s troops described the bomb layer and the peasant charged with firing the device, had panicked when an attack helicopter had flown low over the sand scrape in which he had hidden himself, some three hundred yards back from Highway 6, the convoy route. He had broken cover and run. Later, to gain the reward of ten American dollars, he had fabricated a story of an advancing foot patrol, the need to destroy the firing software, its burial and his flight. The Engineer did not know that the sight of the man emerging from his hiding place and sprinting towards nowhere had alerted the Apache crew: a follow-up had been mounted and the abandoned device retrieved. That had been four weeks and two days after the Engineer had sneezed at his workbench and given forensic scientists something akin to gold dust: a sample for DNA analysis.

At a laboratory in the west of England, a woman in a white suit with a face mask over her mouth and her hair in a shower-cap, would say: ‘Christmas has come early. It has to be the man who put it together.’ There had been a meeting of ammunition technical officers and explosive ordnance disposal experts and the intelligence had been fed to them. One, who had been to the Palace for a gallantry decoration and was said to have exhausted more lives than any streetwise tom-cat, had said, allowing himself a gallows-humour grin: ‘We chance our bollocks when we’re out in the donkey shit trying to defuse these things in the hope that we can get fingerprints, anything, a speck of blood, because the trigger rag-head cut himself on a thorn – and that’s just to identify a foot-soldier. Here we have the DNA of the top man in the chain. We’ve got it on a plate. That’s a hell of a start.’ The chair of a committee of intelligence officers and agent handlers, gaunt from the weight of responsibility, had briefed: ‘I’m assured that only a small number of men, experts in micro-engineering, are capable of making these things. As you all know, but it’s worth repeating ad nauseam, four in every five of our own and US casualties are laid at the door of these wretched things.’

The Engineer knew nothing about the basic information his sneeze had provided. He had gone on working through a full day until a car had taken him home. He had eaten with his wife and he had told his children, Jahandar and Abbas, the ancient Persian fairy story of Simorgh, and of God’s three sons, Prince Jamshid, Prince Q-mars and Prince Korshid. He had not known of the chasm he had made in his personal security when he sneezed… Neither did he know that fifty-one days later a slim file would be handed to a journeyman intelligence officer charged with the co-ordination of an intelligence trawl.

She had to stand on tiptoe to fasten the top corners of the map to the wall with lengths of Sellotape.

He didn’t help her, but sat down and swivelled away from the pictures of bomb damage. His shoes were on the corner of the desk and his chair tilted comfortably as he gazed at the map. Because Len Gibbons had never been to Iraq, let alone visited Iran, he had little understanding of the terrain, topography and general culture of the area. There were large yellow patches – desert – and a pair of narrow green strips that represented the cultivated, irrigated areas beside the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as they came to a confluence at al-Qurnah before going south as one. There was blue for what seemed to be great inland lakes with little symbols of marshland printed on them. Across the extreme eastern corner of the water-covered area was the bold mauve line of a frontier, and almost on that line, in what was marked as Iran, there was a bold cross in black ink.

She looked at him, and he nodded, all he would offer in the way of praise but Sarah would take no offence. He was, to her, a good man to work for, and she was on board for what the operation sought to achieve. She had no qualms about its morality. She stood for a moment, hands on hips, legs slightly apart, enough to tighten the skirt across her buttocks – but it would have taken more than that to awaken any interest in him. They shared the scent of pursuit and the excitement. She went to make a cup of tea, leaving him to stare at the map.

She could remember the day when his screen had exploded into life, when a sparse file had started to thicken. No one forgot such rare, febrile days.

It was three hundred and nineteen days after Rashid, the Engineer, had sneezed over his workbench that a man walked into the lobby of the British Consulate in the Gulf Emirates city of Dubai and requested a meeting with a diplomat.

The Engineer had gone to work late because he had spent the morning with a doctor in the town of Ahvaz. His wife had been examined because of the persistent, but still relatively mild, headaches that sapped her concentration at work. The doctor had prescribed aspirin and rest, so Rashid had taken Naghmeh back to their new home, then set off for his bench at the small factory. He did not know that an Iranian had requested asylum from the British authorities and would therefore be challenged to explain his value. He did not know that a spook attached to the staff, operating under consular cover, would say, ‘You claim you are a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – you said your unit was from the al-Quds Brigade – but I have to ask what sort of information you might bring with you that would justify from us your asylum and safety. Facts, my friend, are the currency needed.’

And, of course, Rashid, the Engineer, did not know that a traitor who had been assigned as a guard to an inner perimeter of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps camp on the road south from Ahvaz, was now in flight, and faced – if again in the custody of al-Quds – either stoning to death or strangulation at the end of a rope. Perhaps Rashid, the Engineer, had seen this guard as his Mercedes swept him through the gates of the compound; perhaps the man had swung them open and saluted. Rashid did not know that the man had denounced him because death faced him in his own country: his crime had been to defile a commander’s daughter – the girl had been a willing party but now cried rape.

The man said, ‘I can tell you about the Engineer who made the bombs that killed so many of your soldiers, in Maysan and Basra Provinces, and many Americans. I can tell you who he is and where he is from, and where is the camp that he uses for the building of the bombs.’

And he was left in the bare interview room, with a well-muscled security guard, while the intelligence officer composed the signal to London that would ask whether such information was indeed sufficient currency for a promise of asylum – only a promise, of course… And Rashid, the Engineer, knew nothing of this.

It was fifty-one days ago – two years and six weeks after a sneeze – that the defining moment had been reached. Sarah did not have a photograph of the features of the bomb-maker to fasten to the wall on his right; instead a black outline of a head and shoulders was superimposed on a white background with a name: rashid armajanrashid armajan. The moment, savoured with strong coffee, had provided confirmation that the DNA sample extracted from the abandoned workings of an explosive formed projectile matched that of a target identified by a ‘walk-in’ at diplomatic premises on the Gulf. Meetings had started and Len Gibbons had bustled between them. He had contributed little but had taken brief notes. He had learned the requirement of his seniors and how it would be achieved. Matters had been moved forward at a location he could not picture and was marked in his mind only by a crude cross on a map, but that was immaterial to him. He could reflect, gazing at the featureless face and at the name in her bold handwriting, that the moment had brought him considerable satisfaction. The collection of a used cigarette end, smoked only a third down and tossed aside, had supplied the opportunity for the moment, had involved considerable resources, a budget allocation – all handled by Gibbons – and manpower deployment.

He told Sarah that the positioning of the sheet of paper on the wall was excellent, and almost smiled… The child molester from the al-Quds Brigade of the IRGC had said that the Engineer was a prolific smoker. That had been enough to determine Len Gibbons’s course of action in confirming the named target.

They had told Rashid and Naghmeh that the tumour inside her skull was now the size of a songbird’s egg. It cut across the nerve routes that controlled speech and mobility. Her condition had deteriorated over the previous weeks, with more intense pain in her head, increased dizziness, inability to move and great tiredness. She could no longer look after her children. The doctor in Ahvaz had realised the importance of her husband and had pulled strings to raise funds for the couple to fly to Tehran for more detailed scans and biopsies. They had stayed two nights at the medical school attached to the university. Rashid Armajan could not fault the treatment and respect they were shown: an official car had met them at the airport to drive them to their accommodation and had been available to take them back for the return flight. They had sat numbed and silent on the aircraft. The enormity of what they had been told had cudgelled them.

She had gone inside their house and would be with her mother and the children now. The Engineer walked on the concrete paving in front of their home. He could see out over the water in the lagoon to the reed beds. Where there were gaps in the reeds he could see more water and the berm, which was the border, hazed in the afternoon sunshine. He lit a cigarette and dragged on it. He smoked the Zarrin brand and had deflected or ignored his wife’s pleading that he should give up. His concession to her was that he did not smoke inside their home. Many men he knew believed, and told him so, that he gave up too much for her when he went outside each time he needed to smoke.

He supposed that the two medical men who had faced them across the table in the neuro wing made a habit of telling patients and their loved ones the brutal news of imminent death. It had been suggested to him that he alone should hear their verdict after the test results were back, but Rashid and his wife had refused that option. They were a partnership and a bond of love held them. They had been together when the assessment was given them. It had been done without sentiment: the condition was inoperable, given the equipment and talents available in Tehran; the condition would deteriorate rapidly and she had a few months to live. She would be dead within the year. He was forty-one and she a year younger; they had been married for fourteen years.

Tears welled in his eyes and cigarette smoke ballooned in front of his face. He wore better clothes than he would have chosen had he been in the camp at his workbench. Good trousers, a good shirt and a lightweight jacket. The sun was tilting and much of its ferocious heat was now dissipated by palm trees to his left, just short of the small barracks where his own security was housed and border guards were stationed.

An old man came towards him, bent in the back and shoulders, harmless and feeble. He carried a plastic bag in one hand and a broom of dried fronds. He crouched to pick up unseen pieces of rubbish, swept the pavement and gutter, then cleared the dried leaves that had fallen. Rashid thought he was an Arab – there were many in the region of Khuzestan. They did the menial work and had no education. In Ahvaz, some police and IRGC members thought of them as terrorists, but this was an old man and…

He threw down the cigarette, turned on his heel and fished in his pocket for the packet and his lighter. He looked for a kingfisher over the water and saw a heron poised and still; a hawk flew low past him. He would not accept what they had been told in Tehran. His wife and he had gripped the other’s hand and she had choked a little. He had sniffed hard. It was not right that a man who worked for the al-Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps should show emotion and fear of death. His own father, nineteen years before, had gone into an unmarked, unlisted minefield to rescue a pupil from his school who had wandered into it after a puppy. The dog had tripped an anti-personnel device. In the end, the puppy was dead, the pupil alive. His father had tripped another mine and had lived for four or five hours. He had shown no fear from beginning to end. The hawk had gone past the barracks and the heron was in a statue pose; another cigarette was thrown down, and another lit. He would not accept that the wife of an individual of his importance could be sent home to die because of the state’s medical inadequacy.

His status? He was not praised or decorated in public. If a security chief, a brigadier or general came to Ahvaz, Rashid Armajan would be an invited guest. He would sip coffee or juice and describe his newest work, the research he did and the effectiveness of the killing devices he created. He built the best. He was, almost, the father of the EFP. Many coalition troops had gone home in bags from Iraq because of explosive force projectiles that had come from his workbench. The software firing mechanisms he put in place were ahead of and defeated the electronic counter-measures they employed. He was proud to be supreme in his field. Now that Iraq was almost purged of foreign military, he concentrated on developing the roadside bombs, of great sophistication, that would be issued to units of the Revolutionary Guard Corps if his country were invaded by Americans, their poodles or the Zionists. He was also called upon to instruct leaders of the Afghan resistance in the manufacture of simpler devices, and he had heard they had learned well what he had taught them; the best of his work, as used in Iraq, would repel any invader of his beloved country. He thought his status should afford his wife the help she needed. Another cigarette was thrown down, another pack opened. He heard his name shouted.

It was part of the Engineer’s status that he was allocated a personal security officer. He turned. The officer was ten or a dozen years younger and walked with a limp, but would not use a stick or crutch. He had no love for the man, objected to his constant presence round their home. He would have thought the secrecy surrounding his name, his work, made protection unnecessary, but the man was evidence of status. A stream of apologies babbled from the officer’s mouth: he had been told that the Engineer and his wife were due back on the last flight of the evening from Tehran.

He said they had caught the first, that two passengers had been dumped off the manifest. His face would have shown the grimness of his news. He walked back towards the house and heard the officer, Mansoor, yell abuse at the old Arab man.

His status permitted him to demand better. He did not know that a cigarette end had already been picked up and placed in a plastic sachet to be taken across the frontier along one of the many smugglers’ routes that passed through the marshes.

He did not know that the cigarette end, with his spittle on the filter, would be flown to Europe for examination, or that men and women, privy to the result, would clap and cheer.

Sarah had come off the phone and read to Len Gibbons the dishes on the takeaway menu from the trattoria at the top of Haymarket. Beyond the drawn blinds, the evening had closed quickly and he thought the central heating in the suite needed a tweak – there might be a frost before morning. He was on expenses and there was a quite generous allowance for evening meals on duty, but he had never been one to abuse a system’s finances. Just a pasta dish with some chicken and tomato sauce, a bottle of Italian mineral water and… The matter of the Engineer had seemed to be stymied, and the momentum had seemed to have died.

He had not made the presentation, but had sat silently on a hard chair in the corner while men and women of greater rank did the talking. His own section head had read verbatim from Len Gibbons’s brief. The great and the good, two weeks and a day before, had cringed.

‘What – go on to Iranian territory? State-sponsored terrorism, by us, inside Iran’s frontiers? Ask our Special Forces to violate that hornets’ nest? They’d be entitled to refuse point blank. It would be an act of war, and the consequences of failure too awful to consider. I couldn’t urge my minister to permit this action, however much of our blood is on this reptile’s hands. Out of the question even to consider assassinating an Iranian on his own territory. Simply not possible.’

But a woman from the Foreign and Commonwealth office rapped her pencil on the table for attention. She did liaison between the Towers and government, had grey hair styled close to her skull, a lined face and wore a blouse that some might have described as stuffy with jewellery that had probably come from a grandmother. Len Gibbons noticed her beacon eyes, jutting jaw and narrowed lips. She spoke rather quietly: ‘Any former students of ancient history here done Mesopotamia? No? Well, there was a king of Babylon, Hammurabi, powerful enough to have left a Code behind him, written in Akkadian. It was passed to the writers of Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy. Broadly, all those years ago, it was stated, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ Legitimisation for an act of revenge. Would it not send a message if it were done with discretion? Done “somewhere”, wherever “somewhere” might be. My summary: we couldn’t approve any act of extra-judicial murder and would wish to separate ourselves from any such folly. We would not wish to hear any more of this nonsense. And I’m as busy as the rest of you and have other matters more pressing to concern myself with.’

He thought she caught his glance and that she winked fractionally at him, the barest flutter of an eyelid.

All except his section head and himself had left the meeting convinced that a plan of outrageous folly and illegality had been roundly squashed by the lady from the FCO.

Back in his office that evening, the daylight ebbing, his screen had lit with a message relayed from another floor of the Towers. A man had, apparently, been selling dates at a border settlement. It was a good part of the world for dates and they were a local favourite: many sellers roamed communities for the opportunity to trade.

The Engineer saw the date seller when he came out of his home and walked towards the palm tree that threw shade on the chair that the security officer, Mansoor, used. The man carried a pair of baskets, each slung from the ends of a pole that he balanced on a shoulder. The Engineer saw that Mansoor had a handkerchief on his lap and it was loaded with dates. The seller had scored once at least. When he himself was approached he waved the wretch away. He had never, of course, heard of Abigail Jones – known to a choice company as Echo Foxtrot, a code-sign for the Eternal Flame – and had never, of course, imagined that an itinerant date seller could earn five hundred American dollars for each day he spent loitering at the border settlement.

He had come back from their doctor’s surgery at the hospital in Ahvaz and had received the answer that had been telephoned from the headquarters building – in the former Tehran embassy complex of the Great Satan – of the al-Quds Brigade. He had told his wife the news he had been given and they had clung to each other. She had wept on his chest and he on her shoulder, and then he had sat her by a window where a light curtain would shield her from the sun. He had come out to smoke a cigarette and inhale the relief.

The date seller had heard part of what he said to Mansoor, but the Engineer could not know that: ‘A second doctor, abroad, more experienced with the brain… as soon as arrangements can be made because time for her is so short and…’ He could now cling to hope, and the security officer nodded, sucked another date, then spat out the stone.

He had never spoken to Echo Foxtrot – the Eternal Flame. Had he, Len Gibbons would have congratulated her without reservation, and if the information had come at a cost of five hundred American dollars a day then it was cheap. The Yanks would likely have paid five times that for it and thought it a bazaar bargain.

It was the end of their day. She would guard the phones during the night and use the collapsible bed, and he would go to his club: not the Travellers or the Reform or the Garrick, but one that specialised in discounts for couples from the old empire. Sarah had cleared away their supper and the tinfoil would go into a rubbish bag, which he’d take down to the security desk when he left for his accommodation. His last job before shutting down for the evening was to make phone calls. The list in front of him was written in her neat hand. The number of the American who would be waiting in his office on a side-street off Grosvenor Square and, further west, that of the Israeli in the fortified wing of their place in Kensington abutting the park. Both men would be similar to himself: facilitators, not movers and shakers. They were functionaries, the oil in the wheels that made things happen. After that – their photographs were on his desk and later they would go on the wall – two more men would be contacted.

It was rare for Len Gibbons to entertain ideas that were not necessary to the business in hand. He lifted the photographs in turn, one of a younger man and one of an older, and held them where she could see them. Ridiculous, unnecessary, but he did it. ‘For you and me, Sarah, our moment in the spotlight is nearly over. We’ll be moving into the wings and it’ll be their turn to hog the stage… If they’re any good, we’ll win. If they’re not, we’ll… I hate to think of the end game if they’re not good enough and where they’ll be. Anyway…’

‘I’m sure they’re good men,’ she said gently. ‘The best available.’

He reached for his phone. ‘Which they’ll need to be.’

He was a star, his exceptional abilities accepted by all who came into professional contact with him. He knew the range of his talents and treated less skilled ‘croppies’ with disdain, something near to contempt: he had childhood friends, no boozing pals. The best relationship currently in his life was with his ‘oppo’, Ged. There were some on the team who murmured, behind their hands, that Ged deserved beatification for tolerating ‘stags’ with that ‘cocky little prick’, but everyone acknowledged that Danny Baxter – called Badger to his face – was the bee’s bollocks when it came to the arts of working in a covert rural observation post, where he and Ged huddled against the elements on a freezing night, halfway up a valley’s slopes in the hide they’d built.

Aged twenty-eight, and still nominally a policeman, Badger had been transferred the previous year to the surveillance teams of Box – their call-sign for the Security Service. There was always work for the men, precious few women, who were best at ‘shitting in a bag’ and whose creed was to take in and take out: then excrement went into nappy bags, their urine into plastic milk bottles, and they left behind no sign of their presence. Badger and Ged’s stag in the hide had less than fifteen minutes to run. Their effectiveness was already stretched to the limit and they had been there since a little before first light. The darkness was well set now and the rain was coming down hard. It buggered their efforts to keep the ’scope’s lens clear, and the audio stuff was on the blink. He’d give the guy on maintenance, back in the police station at Builth, serious hassle for the audio’s failure and won no friendships there, but he couldn’t give a damn.

They were off the Beulah to Abergwesyn road and overlooked a track that led down to a farm that had a field with a half-dozen fixed-site mobile homes, holiday caravans. Three that week were taken by eight Muslim kids from north Luton. That day there had been physical-endurance stuff, filling big rucksacks with stones and cantering up steep fields, scattering the sheep, and they’d done jerks like they had a physical-education pamphlet around. They must be thick. The farmer who owned the caravans had a nephew in the Birmingham Police and had rung in to report his guests’ behaviour.. . Always the way with town people, believed that the countryside had no eyes. They could have run round the streets of north Luton and not been noticed.

It had been a good stag for Badger and Ged. The hide was close to two hundred yards from the caravans, up the hill on the far side of the valley. They’d crawled into the gorse from where the sheep had grazed in summer and tunnelled through it – it was a useful hide because none of the outer foliage was disturbed. Both wore issue gillie suits that broke up the lines of their bodies, and similar headgear. Badger had made his own, and when Ged was assigned to him he’d told the man, four years older than himself, that what he’d concocted was crap and had made him a new one. The others on the team were astonished that the ‘arrogant bastard’ had done something for someone else, and the new camouflage headgear was best grade. Their faces, beneath the scrim netting that hung over their eyes, mouths and noses, were smeared with cream in green and black slashes, and the ’scope’s lens had more scrim over it… The bloody rain dripped on them.

It had been a good stag – good enough to justify the damp and the hunger: they’d eaten only a muesli bar each over a fifteen-hour period and drunk minimum water. Badger had identified the natural leader among the Muslim kids – bad not having the audio working, but the ’scope lens was enough to sort out the men from the boys. There was one to whom the others seemed to respond: he gave the instructions, didn’t do the runs up the hill with a weighted rucksack. He was a tall man, wore hiking boots, jeans and a heavy anorak; he didn’t have the trademark beard of a jihadist or the close-cropped skull. He wore thick rimless spectacles and might have been a library supervisor or a junior accountant – could have been anything – which meant he had worked on his anonymity with the help of a razor.

Badger wasn’t armed and Ged had a disabling spray canister on his belt under the gillie suit; the power of the ’scope’s Leica lens, and the 500-ml one on the camera, meant they didn’t have to be closer. There was support at the pick-up point, with Glocks and H amp;Ks, but that was down on the road and in a lay-by closer to Beulah than Abergwesyn. The kids from Luton would have been fired up with holy-war stuff, and the discovery of a covert team watching them would have bred – no argument – angst, and from angst came violence, and from violence came a knife and a bared throat when a victim’s head was yanked back. The lenses they had been issued with meant they could stay a decent distance back, up the hillside, and do their business and… It was useful intelligence they had gained, and they had high-quality pictures and the number-plates of a Transit van that would be picked up when it was back on the road. Then it would be urban surveillance, and the guy with the rimless spectacles would be flagged for major attention. They’d each used a plastic bag, tinfoil and three bottles. Ged was wriggling to get them into the Bergen.

The leader guy and one of the others had been outside a caravan, had stood and shivered – the ’scope’s night-vision attachment had shown this to Badger – and must have talked, something serious and not to be shared. Badger and Ged had identified a lieutenant, more trusted than the others, and could match up the night-vision image with the pictures taken in daylight so that he, too, could be marked out for extra attention. There was a scenario: in it, the leader and his right-hand guy did the speeches, talked of the sacrifice and might even have chatted up the prospect of the famous Seventy-two – the virgins waiting for a dismembered suicide warrior behind the gates into Paradise. Then they slid away and left the bastard dosed up with fervour to walk on to a train or a bus or into a shopping mall. Leaders and lieutenants did not do explosive vests wrapped round their own chests. The rest of the group would be fodder for the tailor who made the vests and wove into them the pouches for the ball bearings, screws, tacks and razor slivers, but they’d likely be rendered harmless if the top man and his bag-carrier were taken down at the knees.

Lights burned now in two of the caravans and the booking with the farmer was until the following day. He reckoned the lads would be gone at first light. There’d be one surveillance vehicle facing down into Builth, another towards Abergwesyn and a biker was floating.

They left the way they had come, and not even the farmer who had made the first call and who had worked that hillside with his dogs and sheep would have seen a sign of their approach or their departure, or noticed anything disturbed in the gorse.

In the back office of the police station, where local priorities were listed on a poster as combating anti-social driving and curbing speeding on the Llanwrtyd Wells road beyond Beulah, the staff had all gone home. They did the debrief and the pictures were downloaded on to a laptop and…

‘There was a message for you, Badger.’ The team was run by a an officer from the Box and he’d looked pleased to have the clear-cut portraits of the guy in the rimless glasses. The tails were waiting to track them back into Luton where the van had been hired. ‘A call for you.’

He was looking for a shower, and a meal to warm his guts, and his bed in the small hotel where they were billeted – and where they were thought to be from a flood-prevention unit. He took the piece of paper from the hand offering it and shoved it into his smock’s inner pocket.

‘I’d read it if I were you, Badger, and I’d call them.’

He hadn’t taken it out again. ‘Actually, boss, I’ve done a bloody long stag – and a pretty good one for results. A wash, food and bed are my priorities. Who called?’

‘I’m not your fucking answer-phone, young man. A guy from Six, actually. From the dirty-raincoat crowd south of the river. Maybe he wants to take you off our hands. I’d say that work from Six would suit anyone with as high an opinion of themselves as you, because it would be exacting and likely tax a genius. We’ll miss you. Do me a favour? Just ring him.’

He called the number, and it was answered. He said who he was and that he was replying to the call. He’d expected to be told why he’d been singled out, but heard a monotonously flat voice tell him where he should be and when. There were no plaudits, just brusque business. He said, into the phone, ‘If it’s a job for croppies, I like to work with my mate as oppo. He’s Ged…’ The suggestion was ignored. The voice repeated where he should be the next day, and at what time.

Others around him drank gin, but Joe Foulkes stayed with the tonic. He had been invited to spend a full day with the battalion’s Recce Troop, then stay the night in the officers’ mess. He always enjoyed time spent with any of the Parachute Regiment’s specialist units, found them receptive to the experience he had accumulated in a career of covert surveillance in UK conditions, through the four seasons, in rural and urban locations. They’d enjoyed his anecdotes over the meal… it had been a good day.

The man who called him gave no name but instead offered the Box’s poste restante number, a code good enough to tell him the Secret Intelligence Service had sought him out. After a surprisingly brief exchange of pleasantries – barely civil – he was told he should be at Northolt main gate, the guardroom, no later than 07.30 hours. He had started to explain that the call had reached him at the mess of the Parachute Regiment, 2nd Battalion, which was – didn’t the man know? – in Colchester, a hell of hike from the other side of London that would mean a bloody awful early rising, but his destination was repeated and the time at which he was expected. Then the call was terminated. He had not taken offence, and was more than interested that Six wanted his knowledge first hand.

He thought of himself, at fifty-one, as a bit of a legend in the field. Joe Foulkes had been a policeman since the age of eighteen, and a surveillance expert for more than twenty-five years; he had a good command of one of the more impenetrable languages on the planet and had, therefore, many seams of information ready for mining and extraction. That day he had been back to his first love. He seldom used it for real, these days, but he kept his veteran gillie suit in the boot of his car and always brought it out when he gave lectures and supervised field exercises. He had worn it when he had lectured Recce Troop, and his audience of young soldiers had been rapt.

He’d said, out in the rain and scrub beside the shooting ranges, that the basics should always be observed, and he’d used the buzz words that anyone attempting rural surveillance, in Iraq, Afghanistan or Northern Ireland, should have at the forefront of their mind. The outline of the human body was so distinctive that its shape must always be broken. Shadows were an aid, and should be hugged. The biggest giveaway, unprofessional and unforgivable, was the silhouette . Any kit surface, the bulk of binoculars or the length of a spotter ’scope, must be broken up. When a team moved, spacing was critical. The last of his six bullet points was smell: he’d talked of how long it lingered on open ground if there was no wind, and not just fags, toothpaste and weapons oil but the insect repellent you needed to keep man-eating Iraqi mosquitoes at bay. They were terrific, those young fellows, and they gave him respect.

He’d ended the outside session with a popular theme: how useless the Americans were – and the story of the FBI agent in the hunt for a red-neck abortion-clinic bomber in the mountains of North Carolina. The agent was supposed to be on a covert lie-up and had freaked out because he couldn’t take the darkness or the silence. Another, from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, had started to shriek because he wasn’t permitted, in his hide, to smoke his daily ration of Marlboro Lite.. . And a sheriff’s deputy, gone for a week’s duty in a forest, had broken his spectacles on the first day out: he hadn’t brought a spare pair and could barely see his hand in front of him for the rest of the stag. If Foulkes had been talking to an American audience, then FBI, ATF and the deputy would have become British, and if it had been Germans, the miscreants would have been Poles. It had been a good dinner and he had felt valued. At the table, they called him by the name he’d been given a couple of decades earlier: he was ‘Foxy’ Foulkes.

He’d wandered away from the group, had faced a fading print of paras in the heat of Aden, snapped more than forty-five years earlier before any of his hosts were born. He’d taken the call and felt perplexed by its brevity, the lack of information, but elated. The mood had stayed with him during the rest of the evening, but there was an early start and he needed some sleep before the wake-up call and the long drive. Now he thanked them, grimaced, and said something about an old dog needing its rest. A major asked him for his card: ‘Difficult to get hold of you, Foxy, through the proper channels. Prevarication and obfuscation at every corner. We’ve really benefited from your time and would like you back. The boys enjoyed it hugely, and learned a great deal.’

‘Delighted to.’ He took out his wallet. He fingered in the pouches for his card and a photograph floated down to the carpet. A lad crouched, picked it up and glanced at it. There was an admiring nod as it was handed back to him. ‘That your daughter, Foxy? Pretty girl.’

He flushed, then pride caught him. ‘My wife, actually.’

‘Lucky you. Congratulations.’

Foxy Foulkes warmed. ‘Yes, we’ve been together seven years – second time round for me and the same for her. Frankly, we make a good pair. She works in navy Procurement in Bath. I think we can say, no hesitation, we’re both happier than we’ve ever been. I’ve felt blessed every day since I met Ellie. We complement each other. As you say, I’m lucky to be with her. Anyway, time for bed, if you don’t mind.’

He wouldn’t call her that night – she didn’t like to be disturbed late if he was away. He would call her in the morning. Truth was, he yearned to call her and drop a hint that it was secret business he was wanted for, but she’d be sharp with him at this time. She would have been impressed, of course, if he’d called her with his news, but it was too late. He couldn’t imagine why he was wanted by Six at short notice and at an airfield. What for? Where?

Chapter 2

A man with an angular face and a weary voice had greeted him. He seemed to have the organisation in hand and had told him, ‘I understand people call you ‘Badger’. If you have no particular hostility to the name then that’s what we’ll use. If you don’t know somebody’s name and title – and you don’t know mine – what would you call them?’

He’d said that if he didn’t know the name of a man who ran a show he’d refer to him as ‘boss’.

‘Oh, I’d like that… and over there, that’s Foxy. I don’t think anyone else will need identifying. Foxy and Badger. Very good. We’ll talk a bit when we get there, but in the mean time I’d be grateful for your patience.’

They had been led by ground crew towards the Lear jet, its engines ticking over and the steps down. All bizarre, but Danny ‘Badger’ Baxter was not one to be fazed by lack of information. The flight was smooth, they were above the clouds and…

He had shown his documentation at the gate, and the RAF police hadn’t jotted down any of the details listed on his Box ID. He’d been told to park his wheels in a space outside the perimeter fence, like no one wanted to acknowledge that he had ever been here. Then he’d been taken in a minibus to a prefabricated departure annex. He was half dead on his feet, had left Builth before five, reached the airbase a half-hour before dawn and hadn’t spoken to either of the other men waiting for the flight call. He had almost been asleep when the boss had spoken to him.

When he’d left home to take up the work in Wales, locked the door of his bed-sit in the hostel the police used in Bristol, he had been wearing clothes that could either be described as rugged or vagrant’s gear, but he had clean socks and underpants that probably stifled most of the smell; he looked ragged, and felt out of sorts because of it. He’d noted that the other two had eyed him as if they expected dog-shit on his shoes and fleas in his clothing. He was unshaven and hadn’t run a comb through his hair.

It was a black-painted American aircraft, with no markings that he’d seen. The pilot spoke with a drawl and dispensed minimal information. How long would they be up? Wasn’t told. What was the flight’s destination? Wasn’t told. Would there be in-flight coffee and a bacon sarnie? Wasn’t told. The boss sat in the front seats, and across the aisle from him there was a heavy-set guy, who also had an American twang but a more civilised one than the pilot’s. There wasn’t a girl with a coffee jug or anything to eat. The remaining passenger, Foxy, had what Baxter reckoned was a death pallor, and there were nicks on his throat, from shaving; one had transferred blood to the collar of his clean shirt. He wore a blazer, and the tie knotted at the collar might have been a military one; his hair was neatly cut and brushed, his slacks had knife creases and his shoes were polished. Badger didn’t own a blazer, had precious few shirts that were smart enough for a tie, and the only one of those easily at hand in the hostel would have been black – for funerals. The man had looked exhausted in the departure area, out on his feet, and by the time they had been up a half-hour a gentle rhythmic snoring was coming from Foxy’s den. Badger knew about foxes, had often enough lain up in hides at the edge of woodland to watch a remote house. The foxes, cubs and adults, would come close to him and scratch for worms or sniff around him. He was fond of them.

There weren’t many that Danny Baxter was fond of. His father and mother lived in the shadow of the nuclear-warhead factory at Burghfield, near Reading, in Berkshire, had a bungalow there and a second-hand vehicle business. He reckoned the location, close to Armageddonville, meant they’d picked up a property cheap to live in and work from. He saw them no more than twice a year and there was nothing of his work he could talk about and nothing of their lives that he was much interested in.

No one at the hostel would have cared that he was being ferried – destination unknown – in an executive jet, and probably by now his regular oppo, the faithful Ged, would be heading east to Leeds in Yorkshire where he was based. He would be thinking more about how much of his gear he could get into the washing-machine than about where Badger was going.

No woman to care… There had been Fran – ‘Frances’ to her developer father who owned the harbour-side flat overlooking the water in the Bristol dockland. She’d been a third-year student, history of art, at the university and might have found him exciting, might have craved a bit of rough. They’d been together a bit more than six months but it was never going to last. No row, no flying plates: he’d left a note for her one day, propped on her pillow, which had an epic view over the water. Keep safe, have happy times, and best luck, Badger. He’d loaded up his big Bergen and a little rucksack, all he owned in the world, closed the door, locked it, put his keys through the letterbox and tripped down the stairs to the little van, nondescript, that he used, and driven out of her life to the hostel. A bloody awful exchange, but the time had arrived when she might have thought him right for moulding to her style or chucking out. He had done it in his own time and at his moment of choosing.

About the only thing that owned Danny ‘Badger’ Baxter was the job. It ruled him. It exerted enough of a pull that he wasn’t concerned that no one had told him where they were going, when or why.

The man in front – Foxy – still snored.

He was woken by the steepness of the descent. They had come through the cloud, and there was a cross-wind, but the pilot flew as if he had the controls of a fighter aircraft. The lights for belt-fastening were late coming on, and Joe Foulkes was jolted forward in his seat, damn near catapulting into the back of the one immediately in front – the man sitting in it had introduced himself as Gibbons. He’d only given his name to Foxy, not to the fellow in the back who looked like a tramp waiting for a night shelter to open. He hadn’t spoken to Ellie that morning – hadn’t wanted to from the prefabricated lounge. He hadn’t had the bottle to explain he was on a magical mystery journey to God alone knew where and wouldn’t be home that night. If he had made the call, explained he would be absent again, he would have listened to the inflections in her voice, whether she seemed to regret it, whether she was indifferent or unable to disguise a riffle of anticipation because he would be away. But he had sent a text: Tied up workwise/called away/will ring when possible/luv massive Foxy. One had come back before they’d boarded: Shame – missing you. Love, Elliexxx. His phone was off now, would stay that way till whatever, wherever, whenever had been done.

He assumed he was to give a lecture. What else did he know? He knew that the greeter from Six might be the man of the moment and in charge, but he was shit-scared, halfway to terrified, of flying – Foxy could see the way the fists held the arms of the seat and the face was white. He knew that his best instincts were usually the first ones, and he had formed an immediate dislike of Badger, but that could be managed: his own age and seniority would determine they were not equals. He would have rank on the younger man, whose appearance was simply inappropriate and It was the sort of landing an aircraft might have made on a carrier’s deck: abrupt, short on the taxi, jerking to a stop. The big sign over a distant terminus was just recognisable as ‘Prestwick’, and a helicopter was waiting close by on an empty desert of wet concrete. Its rotors idled, then picked up speed as the Lear’s engines were shut down. The pilots came out of their cockpit door, and the main man – the one who’d have had battlefield wings over Kuwait or out of Da Nang – spoke briefly to the American passenger. He didn’t make eye contact with any of the others. Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes had several failings but idiocy was not among them. The helicopter, like the Lear, was black-painted, he could see no flight-designation markings, and they were a hell of a way from the tower and the Prestwick buildings, out of sight and out of mind. He reckoned this was a flight that had never taken place.

They came on to the apron and scurried for the chopper. The rotors blew rain into their faces, and a crewman gave them a hand up into the hatch door. They strapped the harnesses into place. The military canvas bucket seats and the frames hurt Foxy’s thighs. It was years since he had been in the close confines of a helicopter’s cabin, with the noise growing until the ear baffles were passed to them – hadn’t been in a helicopter since leaving the base at Basra after a four-month tour seven years back. A shitty place, horrible and…

A man who might have been Middle Eastern stared at him warily and didn’t respond to Foxy’s cautious smile: short, dark-haired, swarthy and stinking of cigarettes; the Six man, Gibbons, had tried to take the fellow’s hand but it had stayed buried in a pocket. The other, taller and pale-skinned, with curly blond hair, lolling comfortably and chewing gum, was late thirties or early forties – Foxy recognised the military uniform of mufti: a double-breasted navy suit with a prominent stripe, black ankle boots and a waxed jacket that might have been useful out on a moor. The eyes seemed distant and didn’t focus on trivia, such as what Foxy wore, Badger’s messy hair or the white knuckles of the Six man. They lifted sharply.

They were in cloud, buffeted by winds, and the pilot made no effort to get below the weather, above or round it. They rocked and shook, and Foxy wondered if the intelligence officer might throw up. He played games in his mind. A business heavy in secrecy and international flavours: it reeked of deniability. He supposed that at Six, if they planned a deniable operation, they dusted down a cardboard file that would have been written in the fifties or sixties and dictated a quiet, remote location suitable for briefings, lectures and… The Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash had taken the lives of police and intelligence officers from Northern Ireland who were heading for a meeting at a garrison camp close to Inverness; the various arms had needed to be brought to neutral territory if jealousies and conceits were not to stymie co-operation. Perhaps tensions and stress points were yet to be revealed. Foxy almost chuckled.

The beast seemed to stumble through the cloud. Then – it might have been thirty minutes after take-off – light flooded through the small porthole windows, and rain distorted the view, but Foxy made out the shape of a castle keep in grey stone that matched the cloud. There was more grey from the breaking waves in a bay, and from the stones on a geometrically curved beach. Back from the sand and shingle, a field was half flooded, and behind it a grand house, on three floors, with a portico. Could they not have booked a house in south-west London – or anywhere north of the capital but closer? It spoke of delusions. They were down, but the engines were not killed.

He was last out of the hatch and the crewman steadied him as he jumped clear. The others were ahead and hurried between the puddles towards the main entrance where the rendering was chipped.

Out in front, moving easily and light-footed, was Badger. The American and the foreigner kept pace with him. Foxy felt the rotors’ pressure blasting him from behind and staggered as the beast, anonymous and black, rose again and headed back over the bay. Gibbons was beside him.

‘Why this place?’ Foxy might have nudged a hint of sarcasm into his tone. The outside of the edifice seemed to drip water from roof gullies and guttering, and he expected that half as much again would be falling through the ceilings into the salons and bedrooms. He held tightly to his bag and thanked the Lord he always packed more socks, smalls and shirts than he anticipated needing. All of them had overnight bags except Badger, who likely stank and would be higher by the evening.

‘Not down to me. He who pays the piper calls the tune – know what I mean?’

He blinked in the rain. ‘I don’t.’

‘All in good time, Foxy – if you don’t mind the familiarity. It’s always best if names are in short supply. Our esteemed colleague from the Agency is paying the piper. The Americans are doing the logistics, which means their bucket of dollars is deeper than our biscuit tin of sterling. It’s the sort of place that appeals to them.’

‘And people live here – survive here?’

‘There is a life form in the Inner Hebrides that probably needs to huddle for comfort in the kitchen. I’m assured we won’t be disturbed by the family. Truth is, for this one the piper needs quite a bit of paying because it’s not the sort of thing – Monday through Friday – we usually do. Let’s get out of this bloody weather.’

They went in through the high double doors, but no warmth greeted them. Foxy had good eyes and a good memory, and his power of observation in poor light was excellent: he noted the washing-up bowl in the centre of the tiled floor, the portrait of a villainous-looking kilted warrior above the first bend in the stairs, the faded pattern on the couch, that the paint was off all the doors, the smell of dogs and overcooked vegetables, an older man in earnest conversation with the American and a woman with bent shoulders, a thick sweater and a bob of silver hair. The rain beat on the door behind them, water dripped into the washing-up bowl and Badger sat on the bottom stair, showing no interest in anything around him. Foxy noted all of it.

The voice of the greeter was soft in his ear: ‘Their grandson was Scots Guards in Iraq, attached to Special Forces, didn’t survive the tour. They’d want to help and, as I said, the Americans have a deep bucket. Improvised explosive device, on the al-Kut road. You’re going to hear a bit about improvised explosive devices, but I’m getting ahead of myself.’

Foxy said vacuously, ‘I have some experience, but this should be interesting…’

The man laughed without mirth, and Foxy couldn’t see what had been funny about his remark – about anything to do with improvised explosive devices.

When the Engineer worked in his laboratory, or was on the factory floor checking the craftsmanship of the machine-tool work, he could escape from the enormity of the crisis that had settled on him. It was like the snowclouds that built up over the mountains beyond Tehran when winter came. When he played with the children he could briefly think himself free. When he walked on the track in front of his home and watched the birds hovering, swirling and wafting, there were moments when the load seemed to slip away. When he was at his bench, working on the use of more ceramic material to replace metal parts and negate the majority of the portable detectors… When he was out on the long straight tracks that had been bulldozed beyond the camp into wilderness and studied the capability of his radio messages to beat the electronics deployed against him, he sometimes forgot… The moments never lasted. There was laughter, rarely, and there were smiles, sometimes, and there were those times that the work was successful beyond dreams – counter-measures failed, detonation was precise and a target was destroyed in testing – but every time the cloud formed again, and the pleasure of achievement was wiped out. He could see the ever-growing weakness in his wife, the depth of her tiredness, and could watch the bravery with which she put on a show of normality. She was dying, and the process would each day be faster, the end nearer.

He could not acknowledge it to her, but he realised his fingers were clumsier and his thoughts more muddled. He suffered. He couldn’t picture a future if – when – she was taken. Only once had he called in the debts owed him by the revolution of 1979 when the Ayatollah had left Paris and flown back to his people. He had been nine years old and had watched the television with his father, who taught mathematics in Susangerd, as the Imam Khomeini had come slowly down the aircraft’s steps.

He had been three years older, and had wept when his father had dragged him back into their home: he had been about to join the child volunteers who would be given the ‘key to Paradise’ in exchange for clearing the minefields laid by the Iraqi enemy, making safe passage for the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia. His father had locked him into a room and not permitted him to leave the house for a week. He had gone back to school and there had been many empty places in the classroom. It had been said that when they had ran across mined ground they were killed by the explosions, their body parts scattered, that rats and foxes had come to eat pieces of their flesh. It had also been said that on the third day of the clearance operation the children, his friends from school, had been told to wrap themselves in rugs and roll across the dirt so that their bodies stayed together, were easier to collect after the line had moved forward.

He resented not having a plastic key to Paradise. He did not believe the lie of foreigners that a half-million had been imported, at a discount rate for bulk, from a Taiwan factory.

He had been twenty-two years old, a second-year student of electronic engineering at the Shahid Chamran University in Ahvaz, when his father had died. The martyr Mostafa Chamran, educated in the United States and with a PhD in electrical engineering, had fallen on the front line and was revered as a leader and a fighter. There had been many around him to whom Rashid could look for inspiration, living and dead. He was the regime’s child and its servant, and he had gone where he was directed, to university in Europe and to the camps in his country where his talents could be most useful on workbenches. This once he had called in the debt.

In the afternoon he would be on the road that led away from Ahvaz towards Behbahan. A new shipment of American-made dual-tone multi-frequency equipment had come via the round-about route of Kuala Lumpur, then Jakarta, and he would test it for long-distance detonations. The Americans, almost, had gone from Iraq, but it was the Engineer’s duty to prepare the devices that would destroy any military advance into Iran by their troops. He would be late home, but her mother was there – the message had come by courier the evening before.

Neither he nor his wife ever used a mobile telephone. In fact, the Engineer never spoke on any telephone. No voice trace of Rashid Armajan existed. Others communicated for him from his workshop, and he used encrypted email links. Messages of importance were brought by courier from the al-Quds Brigade garrison camp outside Ahvaz. One had come the previous evening.

He and Naghmeh should be prepared to leave within the week. Final arrangements were being confirmed. He was not forgotten, was honoured. The state and the revolution recognised him. At his workbench, out of sight of others, he prayed in gratitude. Was there anything another doctor, a superior consultant, could offer? Would a long journey weaken her further and bring on the end? But the courier had brought a message that gave hope. He saw death on Internet screens and from recordings on mobile phones. The killings were caused by his own skills. He lost no sleep over that knowledge, but had not slept well since the Tehran doctors’ verdict when he had seen the bleakness in their eyes. Now hope, small, existed.

They would be in God’s care.

‘Before we concentrate on the individual who has brought us together today, who and where he is, there’s something I’d like you both to respond to. First you, Foxy. In your long surveillance career, what was your most satisfying achievement?’

It was, of course, a trick question, and it was not unique to Len Gibbons. He’d heard it put twice during his thirty-five years at Six, in seminars when individuals were being evaluated. The answer usually revealed much about the subject.

They were sitting in a horseshoe on hard chairs, and no notes were taken, but away to the side a board was balanced against the back of an armchair, covered with a drape. He sat at the extreme left, and had introduced himself as ‘Len’. The American was ‘the Cousin’ and the Israeli, from Unit 504 of Military Intelligence, was ‘the Friend’. There was Foxy and there was Badger, and between them the tall, handsome, suited man, ‘the Major’. There had been time for them to go to allocated rooms, have a tepid wash, meet a pack of Jack Russells and spaniels, and drink instant coffee from petrol-station mugs.

Then Gibbons had shepherded them into what might have been a ballroom – no water came through this ceiling – where the main furniture was cloaked in dust-sheets, but at the far end, to the left of a huge, unlit fireplace, there was a small table with a vase of flowers on it and a silver-framed photograph of a young face smiling above a Guardsman’s ceremonial tunic. Gibbons thought it appropriate, and would refer to it. He had set out the chairs while the others were on the first floor – had borrowed enough from the dining room. He had gone to the sister service across the river, the Box, the anti-terrorist command and the Branch. The Box had come up with Badger, and Special Branch had said that Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes was the only one worth considering.

It was a good question because it gave a man enough rope either to climb to a higher level, or to hang himself. He saw Foxy – a capable man with a number of successes behind him – stiffen. Well, he would be evaluating the audience of Gibbons, the Cousin and the Friend, and wondering what Badger’s take on it would be. Gibbons knew the record of Foxy Foulkes: a policeman of thirty-three years, a nine-year spell with Special Branch, four months in Basra, and a further seven years of lecturing in the arts of covert rural surveillance. He was a man who expected to be listened to and was.

Foxy’s tongue flipped over his lips to moisten them. Gibbons saw that. The tie was straightened, which bought another few seconds, then a cough to clear the throat. The man was dependent on his instinct.

Foxy said, in a good clear voice, as if they were his students, ‘Satisfying, yes? Interesting one. There’ve been a few – more than a few. Could be when I was with the Branch and we were doing the business on two Iranian attaches on a Manchester visit they’d made twice before. Our stake-out was on a golf course and there was snow on the ground. I had a youngster with me, didn’t know his arse from his elbow, and we came in close enough to see the drops on their noses when they did their contact – a Muslim kid working in the club’s kitchens. We did the approach so that not a flake of snow was disturbed within the arc of their vision… Yes, that was a pretty good one… And early in my time with West Yorkshire we had a budding PIRA cell on our patch. The Irish were clever by then and knew the procedures. They had a meeting and stood out in the middle of a football pitch. There was no way we could get close enough with a directional microphone. I had the answer. I picked the lock of the groundsman’s hut, took out the line marker after filling it with the white stuff and went right round them, then did the goal areas. By the time they were used to me I pushed the marker right up the halfway line and they actually apologised for being in my way and stepped aside. They’d been swapping phone numbers, so we had those and bust them up. And another. I did a hide in County Tyrone, up by the village of Cappagh, which was difficult country, populated with very difficult and very suspicious people. The hide was in a hedgerow and looked into a cattle barn where a Barrett. 50-calibre was hidden. We thought it needed the human touch, not a remote camera. I’d dug the hide out and the first afternoon a sheep got caught in the hedge not fifteen yards from me. The farmer, a committed Provo, considered reliable enough to have responsibility for the weapon, came up to free the ewe. He walked right over my hide and his wellington boots would have been less than two feet from my face in the camouflage headgear. It was an exceptional hide and we were able to report when the weapon was moved, but the military weren’t fast enough and lost its tail. Anyway, they were three of the best.’

Did the man expect a ripple of applause? He might have done and, if so, was disappointed. The Cousin gazed at the ceiling, the Friend at the floor. The Major had been paring his nails but now reached down to the case resting against his ankles and started to ferret in it. Len Gibbons wished fervently that Sarah was there, with her competence and reassurance. It was ridiculous that the players should have been carted up to this pile of old stone, but the Cousin must have felt this to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for baronial glory, and the Friend had demanded remote anonymity. He thought the old couple would be rattling around in another wing, and had learned that a divorced daughter lived with them. She would have been the mother of the officer killed by a roadside bomb, and he wondered what delicacies would be provided at the lunch break. Time to ask the other man the question designed to disrobe, expose.

‘Thank you, Foxy – very comprehensive. So, Badger, what in your professional career are the achievements that give you most satisfaction?’

The man looked straight at him, unwavering eyes, direct and challenging. ‘None, boss, and I don’t send hero-grams to myself.’

Silence. Len Gibbons realised he’d win nothing more from the younger man, no point in demanding it, and he thought Badger had played with Foxy’s ego, tossed it up into the air, let it fall on the bare patch of carpet and ground a heel on it. The veteran had laid out the depth of his experience, put it in a showcase so that the rookie boy was bound to fall short. Each had done well and, like two dogs, they’d circled each other, hitched up a back leg and pissed on the available lamp-posts. He wondered how they would do together.

Gibbons said, ‘A difficult moment now confronts us. We will soon enter realms of great secrecy. You will have seen its quality – the secrecy, this place, your journey here. You both come with your praises sung, but after we begin the briefing process it’s too late for one of you to say, ‘I don’t think I really want to pull the shirt on for this game.’ Put crudely, you either piss now or get off the pot. Are you in, gentlemen, or out? Foxy, first – are you staying or going?’

‘You’ve put me in a difficult position. I don’t know what you’re asking of me. I’m a married man, the wrong side of fifty. I’d have appreciated the chance to talk to my wife but… I’m staying.’

‘And you, Badger?’

‘I go where I’m sent.’ Again there was a spark in the young buck’s face and a short, wintry grin.

Gibbons said, ‘It starts now with a young woman, call-sign Echo Foxtrot, and those are the initials of Eternal Flame, which some colleagues call her because the Eternal Flame never goes out. It’s a little joke – a joke because it’s so inappropriate in her case. She’s out a great deal more often than is usually sensible. Step by step, gentlemen, but we’ll start with her and she’ll lead us to the meat. So, Echo Foxtrot…’

For her and for the guys with her, known to her inner circle – those entrusted with life-and-death confidences – as the Jones Boys, it was a half-hour of maximum danger. They had been at the roadside, in the shade of some trees, in excess of thirty minutes. Their two SUVs, Pajeros from Mitsubishi’s factories in Japan, were battered and abused. They looked like heaps of sand-scarred, rusted crap but the armour-plated chassis, doors and windows were hidden from any but the most persistent observer. The vehicles were off the road but the engines murmured, and their weapons were armed.

She stood nearest to the road and the dust from lorries’ wheels and pick-ups flew on to her burqah. The Yank was Harding and the Irishman Corky. They were close to her, khaffiyeh s draped round their faces and covering their hair. They had on dirty jeans, and jackets weighed down with grenades and gas in the inside pockets; each had a pistol at the hip, held in by his belt. In the Pajeros, with heavier firepower on the empty front passenger seats, were Shagger, the Welshman, and the Scot they called Hamfist. They were employees of Proeliator Security, a private military contracting company, and were paid to be bodyguards to Abigail Jones, a Six girl.

Without them – and their show of grudging loyalty – she would have earned the title ‘Eternal Flame’, the one that never goes out. She was far from her secure base in Baghdad’s Green Zone, or the premises at the Basra airport complex, because she trusted, with a degree of fatalistic humour, the Jones Boys’ dedication, the quality of their noses and their understanding of when stupidity overtook duty. She did not deal with them on a need-to-know basis but talked each move through with them so that Hamfist, Shagger, Corky and Harding were privy to the secrets of the Six operation that had now run for some two years – ever since an unexploded device had been recovered and subjected to analysis for the uniqueness of a man’s deoxyribonucleic-acid deposits. She had been permitted two four-month extensions of her posting, almost unique, but she hoped to see the operation to its conclusion, to have a part in its death. The Jones Boys would be on the ground as long as she was. It was a commercial relationship that had become family, but they called her ‘miss’ or ‘ma’am’ and took no liberties of familiarity. Each time, though, that she went out and they hit the road, she took care to explain where they went, and why. Now it was to meet an informant.

He hadn’t shown.

There should have been, approaching through the mirage mist of the road, a motor scooter with an old man astride it. The heat would have distorted their first view of him from perhaps a mile down the straight highway; and as it had cleared they would have known him by the matted grey beard. Many months before, the informant had gone through the marshes and along the berms crossing them, with the papers in his pocket to identify himself as a resident of the Ahvaz Arab community on the far side of the frontier. The scooter had been left well hidden and he had walked, waded where there was still water in the lagoons, and had cut old reed fronds to make a broom for sweeping. He had cleaned a road and a pavement, pocketing cigarette butts strewn behind a man who smoked as stress gripped him.

A few days before, the relative by marriage of the ‘cleaner’ had travelled as a pillion passenger on the same scooter with two baskets of dates. He had had similar identification papers – forged but good enough to pass a check by Iranian police, border guards, even men of an al-Quds Brigade detachment posted for the security of a valued man. He had asked vague questions in a coffee shop, had had gossip answers, and had overheard enough of a conversation to win the glowing smile of Abigail Jones, Echo Foxtrot. A fistful of dollars had been paid to the informants for the retrieval of the used cigarette filters and for a snatch of talk. She thought it most likely that either the informant and his relative had decided they had made enough money for their needs, had been intercepted and robbed, had unwisely shown a glimpse of riches in a coffee house, or had boasted and been heard by any of the myriad Ali Babas who lived in what was left of the marsh wilderness.

‘Shit,’ she said. ‘But it was good while it lasted. Enough?’

Harding’s eyes raked the road. ‘Has to be, ma’am.’

Corky, wilting in the heat of over a hundred degrees, said, ‘Too long, miss, that we’ve been here.’

‘Shit… So, the heroes coming from home will have it all to do for themselves, without a local hand to steady them. No, guys, don’t tell me this is lunatic. They’ll have to go in there and do the business on their own. Shit…’

She walked to the lead Pajero. The two vehicles pulled off the dirt and on to the road, accelerating fast.

Five miles down the road, towards Basra city, they saw a huddle of men and a police car. An ambulance was coming towards them. They would not slacken their speed, and their faces were covered, to hide the pale Caucasian features, as were the automatic weapons, loaded and with the safetys off. Easy to see: a small scooter on the sand beside the tarmacadam, a body with its head covered but new shoes exposed. They would have cost in the city what a man survived on in the marshes for a month. A second body was covered, except for the head with its grey beard.

Corky, beside Shagger, said quietly, ‘So they got greedy and were bumped. My thinking, ma’am, they were lucky. If the bastards of the VEVAK had picked them up, then to get robbed and shot would have seemed a blessing. The shoes will be gone before they get put in the ambulance, won’t go to waste – but you had your money’s worth out of them.’

She did not respond. Under her codename, Echo Foxtrot, she had her satphone out of her bag and was tapping out the numbers.

Badger listened as the call was wound up. ‘No, I’m not suggesting there’s anything else that can be done. I appreciate we’re not talking about a flat tyre or an empty tank. I accept also your assurance that neither party would have been where hostiles could lift them. Paid too much – pretty ironic if you try to buy a man and end up going over the top of his avarice quotient. But it is still possible to go forward with this? It’s a setback but not terminal – we are still on course? I value the reassurance… You will, of course, be given travel itineraries as soon as… Thank you… Stay safe, please.’

It was not possible, as Badger saw it, to conceal rank disappointment. It was in the Boss’s voice as he spoke softly into the receiver. They had all watched him: they were the sort of men, himself and Foxy, the Cousin, the Friend and the Major, who made an art form of studying weakness, setbacks. Badger, briefly, let his imagination wander to the big map on the board propped on the easy chair that the Major had unveiled before uttering that first sentence: ‘… changed the outcome of a war from a triumphant…’ That contact: a remote, clipped accent somewhere along Highway 6, between al-Amara and Basra, probably near the town of al-Qurnah – all marked on the map and linked by a ribbon of red – where the Tigris and the Euphrates met, fuelled his understanding of the heat, the hatred and the sheer danger of the place. The Boss sat very still and seemed to ponder. Then he shook his head, as if to clear his mind, and pocketed the phone.

He said, ‘I can promise you, gentlemen, that in this matter you will not get half-truths and evasions from me. In the business that confronts us, we had a hope of local resources, but no longer. So, it is in our hands alone, which is probably a disappointment but perhaps a blessing. I apologise, Major, for the interruption… Please.. .’

They were no longer fighting cocks, Badger reflected, not pirouetting or prancing in rivals’ faces. Linkage with a faraway place had rendered that sort of pride second-rate. On the map he could see the road, the line of an international border, the symbols of lakes and marshlands and… The Major breathed in hard, as if his mood also was altered. Before the call, he had started by saying that improvised explosive devices had changed the outcome of a war from a triumphant and victorious mission accomplished to something that was close to mirroring ignominious retreat. Then the phone had trilled in the Boss’s suit pocket, and the Major had stood silent while the call was answered. The frown had set in his forehead and he had scratched the back of his neck.

‘Back to where I began… The improvised explosive device is the weapon that has snatched victory from the coalition and replaced it with a very fair imitation of defeat. It’s a poor man’s weapon, deadlier and more influential than the famed Kalashnikov rifle. I would like to quote from Kipling:

‘A scrimmage in a border station – A canter down some dark defile Two thousand pounds of education Drops to a ten-rupee jezail. The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride Shot like a rabbit in a ride.’

‘Written more than a century ago, I suggest that the “education” was heftily expensive, and that ten rupees in the bazaar at Jalalabad or Peshawar bought something pretty cheap. Nothing has changed. We take the modern ten-rupee jezail – that’s a long-barrelled flintlock or matchlock rifle – extremely seriously. How seriously?

‘Between 2008 and next year, the United States defence family will spend in excess of thirty billion dollars – yes, you heard me – on all aspects of research to negate the effectiveness of these devices, from scanners, to detectors, and into the world of vehicles that can survive an attack. I said, “in excess of thirty billion dollars”, and the principal parts of such a weapon can be bought for five or ten dollars in any Iraqi souk. More sophisticated parts are brought into the Middle East from American factories. It’s a bewildering, crazy world. The most sensitive devices deployed in Iraq were to beat our strategy of putting a convoy inside an electronic counter-measures bubble that has a safety range of around a hundred metres. The enemy developed the technology of sitting off maybe a kilometre away and using combinations of passive infra-red and telemetry modules, and even such simple kit as car-key zappers, household alarms, the workings from inside a cheap wristwatch bought off a pavement stall. Right now, in Iran, they’re ahead of the counter-measures. The roadside bombs, often deployed in a daisy-chain configuration – that’s half a dozen devices linked over a couple of hundred metres – or in fake rocks made of papier-mache or replacement kerb stones, create fear among troops. For every fatality, they knock down four, five, six wounded. They destroy morale and drive our armies into overhead flights by helicopter or overland drives in a truck with plate armour sides. Then along came the EFP, the explosive force projectile, which costs next to nothing to build and can destroy a main battle tank worth ten million sterling. The EFPs crushed us, and-’

The Cousin said, ‘I know all this. I don’t need a high-school lecture.’

The Friend said, ‘We have experience of this. It is taught in military kindergarten.’

The Major’s eyes narrowed. ‘It’s gratifying that some of you are so well informed. Is anyone not familiar with EFPs? Anyone?’

Foxy said he had served in southern Iraq, and shrugged, and the Boss smiled limply as if to show he was up to speed.

Badger said, ‘I’ve never heard of an EFP, and if you think I should know – and it’ll be important when you get around to explaining this business – then I’m all ears.’

‘Thank you, Badger. Does anyone want to go and make coffee or walk in the rain? No?’ He paused. He was a handsome man and would have fitted in on Horse Guards, or anywhere else in full dress uniform. Danny ‘Badger’ Baxter understood. There had been a time when he’d been on a week of stags watching a remote parked caravan where a nutcase guy was thought to be building a device to use against a supermarket chain. When the guy was picked up, the bomb-disposal people had moved in. Above the suit, the laundered shirt and the smart tie Badger had recognised the bleak, worn gaze. Maybe the Boss, the Cousin and the Friend didn’t know about the people who did bomb disposal and made things safe. To be different was Badger’s thing.

‘Right, then I’ll continue. The EFP involves a shaped charge, and we call that the Munroe effect. Charles E. Munroe, an American, worked out the theory of the shaped charge a hundred and twenty years ago while stationed at the Rhode Island base where they had a naval torpedo station. Jozsef Misnay and Hubert Schardian made refinements as they developed anti-tank weapons for the Wehrmacht in the 1940s. There is a metal tube, with a shallow copper bowl, factory-machined, at one end, and behind it explosives – perhaps military or perhaps triacetone triperoxide – a detonator, a trigger apparatus and a method of sending the signal for firing. The copper becomes a molten slug, travelling at a thousand yards per second, and will penetrate the armour of a tank, a personnel carrier, pretty much any vehicle on wheels or tracks. The EFPs are deployed at predictable choke points – where a road goes from four lanes to two, where there’s a bridge, an elevated highway or repair work. The devices have been tested thoroughly across the frontier and inside Iran. The range of the radio signals will have been determined, and “dickers” will have been used on the Iraq side to watch the procedures used by the coalition and to report back on them. Several times the convoy will have gone by, not knowing it was under electronic surveillance, and the results sent back across the frontier. They’re in no hurry. They have endless patience. They test and experiment and don’t move until they’re satisfied. Still with me?’

What could they say? The Boss nodded. The Cousin and the Friend forced a smile. Foxy shrugged. Badger said sharply, ‘With you.’

The Major said, ‘And I’m coming to the core. This is a peasant’s weapon. I repeat, it’s a peasant’s weapon to deploy, to activate, to see it kill and mutilate. But it is not a peasant who builds the electronics that run ahead of the counter-measures, or who oversees the factory where the shallow copper dish is milled to high standards. The view is peddled by the Pentagon and the MoD that the bomb-maker is a low-life rag-head who deals in very basic science concepts. Such assessments are dangerous, misleading and wrong. A small number of clever, innovative men is capable of wrong-footing us so consistently that the body-bags keep going home, and the injured with wounds they’ll carry to their graves. This particular individual – Rashid Armajan – is a man whose professionalism I would have, reluctantly, to respect. We know him also by the title given him by his employers and on the base where he works. He is the Engineer. Because I have looked at these people I feel free to offer a stereotypical image of him with some confidence. His family would be of huge importance to him. Alongside that we can say that religion is a major motivation, along with a profound love of his country. He’s a perfectionist, and with that comes personal egotism. He believes himself the best. Religion and nationalism give him the right to butcher the troops of the Great Satan and the Little Satan – anyone on the wrong side of God’s will. I’m not exaggerating if I say that this one individual is responsible in no small degree for the foul-up that is the coalition campaign in Iraq… and don’t forget how many casualties, killed and wounded, were caused by roadside bombs. We call an enemy a Bravo. Rashid Armajan is a big, bad Bravo, and we should take every opportunity to locate him and-’

The clap of the Boss’s hands cut off the Major in mid-sentence.

Badger had been concentrating and hadn’t anticipated the interruption. Then, as if satisfied that he had eye contact with the Major, the Boss softened. ‘Thank you very much, Major, for that comprehensive and thorough study of our target. It’s time for a break, and a sandwich.’

A frown settled on Badger’s forehead, and he thought vaguely that part of an agenda had slipped by him, as if it flowed through a separate channel. His mind moved on because he had seen TV clips of the hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centres where the amputees were taken, and of men struggling to hop along a corridor of parallel supports. He thought that after the sandwich he would be told what the mission was and what was expected of him.

She told her mother what had been agreed.

The children were at school and would not be home for two hours; her husband had been driven at dawn to the laboratory workbench. In darker moments, she would have said she competed with soldering irons, circuit boards, little silver detonators, alarm devices and… Mansoor, who oversaw the security at their home, had seen her husband taken away and the escort car that had followed, and would now be in his room in the barracks. She walked with a stick, held in her right fist, and her mother supported her left arm. She did not care that the sun was high and burned her face. Perspiration dribbled under the loose black robe and the scarf was tight round her head; she could feel, inside the material and pressed against the bone, the size of the growth.

She said her husband refused to accept the verdict of the doctors in Tehran.

Her mother walked with her, would not interrupt.

She said that her husband had demanded of senior officials that she be allowed to leave the country and visit a more advanced centre of medicine, that funds be made available for such a journey and that arrangements be made for her to travel.

They walked past the lagoon in front of their home. Birds flew low over the water and skimmed the tips of the reeds. The light played on the ripples where fish fed at the surface. She said that her work with the mine-clearance programme was not finished, and that if she was snatched away the deadly beasts would continue to take lives and maim children… She told her mother that Rashid could barely contemplate life without her. She urged her mother, now in her sixty-fifth year, to look after the children if… Then she smiled and declared she had faith in the consultant she would see.

Where? She did not know.

When? She had not been told.

Her mother cried softly, and the wife of the bomb-maker – who organised the clearing of old minefields for which there were no charts – tried to hold her smile. It had to be soon, she said, that the arrangements were made because she did not believe she had much time. She was in God’s hands. And with her would be her husband, the only man she had loved, a good man.

She thought the ibis the most beautiful bird that flew over the reeds as it turned towards the raised island beyond them. To Naghmeh, it was frail and vulnerable, so delicate, and she scanned the skies for the eagles that swooped on the ibis.

In his experience, men who had been at risk of assassination for months or years became careless.

When they first believed themselves important enough to be targets of their enemy, they would slink in the shadows, but few could sustain the effort. Also, when the target was away from his base and the familiar streets where the safe-houses were, he would consider himself untouchable and go to cafes or restaurants if he were flush with his organisation’s cash. He would sleep with his mistress in a hotel, hire a car and… To bring his mistress from Sidon in Lebanon and fly her on a budget airline to Malta International and have her share his double room in a waterfront hotel in Sliema was careless.

The man was not a fighter but a strategist and a tactician, and some in the higher echelons of Unit 504, intelligence gathering, believed he was among the principal architects of the hidden tunnels and underground strong points from which a blood-letting had been wreaked on the Israeli Defence Force among the bare, harsh hills in the south of Lebanon where the common border was. A target did not have to be a fighter. To be a strategist or a tactician was cause enough for a file to be lifted down and put into the tray of High Priority when an asset told of an extra-marital affair, the name of a mistress and her travel bookings. Few informants were governed by ideology and principle; many were alert to good payment.

The target would have left the girl in bed. She would have screwed him until he’d wondered whether he was close to a coronary. Then he would have pushed her off, showered and walked to the Internet cafe. There, he would have finalised a meeting with a colleague now based in Tunis and another in Rome, and walked back to the hotel.

When Unit 504 went to war it was not with a straitened budget.

An aircraft loitered outside Maltese air space and held together the facets of the operation. The controller in the air was in communication with the slight young man who stood near to the taxi rank in front of the hotel, like any other hopeful stud waiting for his girl. At the end of the esplanade a motorcycle engine was ticking over, the rider helmeted, with a second helmet on his lap. Along the coast – two or three kilometres – a high-powered launch was moored as a concrete jetty. Further out to sea, on the edge of the radar horizon, a merchant ship registered in the port of Haifa was on course for a rendezvous. On occasion, the unit used a mobile phone loaded with enough military explosive to destroy the side of a man’s head when he answered a call, or they might have built a bomb into the headrest of the driver’s seat in a car, or put one under the nearside front wheel. They might attack with a commando squad of up to eight men, or there would be a single assassin with a short range ‘Barak’ SP-21 short recoil-operated and locked-breech pistol with fifteen 9mm rounds in the magazine; only two would be used. The target came close.

He was careless enough not to see the young man, wearing a nondescript grey T-shirt, lightweight windcheater and faded jeans, ease away from the lamp-post and wave to somebody down the road, behind his target, who did not look over his shoulder so did not see that no one was there. Carelessness killed.

Two shots to the head, one through an eye socket and one into the brain via the canal behind the ear as the target stiffened, went rigid, then sagged to the ground.

The target was in death spasms. Tourists and hotel staff ran up, then stood, petrified, as the blood came close to their feet. The young man was gone, and the motorcycle – stolen three days earlier – powered away. In the marina a launch revved its engines.

The older men who had planned the killing believed that a message was given when a body bled on a pavement, and that such a message was always worth sending.

‘You’re good?’ the Friend asked.

‘Fine, thank you,’ Foxy answered. ‘Looking forward, though, to finding out what’s asked of me.’

‘We wouldn’t be in this circus ring if it wasn’t considered important.’

‘It’d be more respectful if a man of my experience was brought inside the loop rather faster than this.’

Foxy had done enough buffet lunches to be able to balance a glass of mineral water and a plate of sandwiches. The Friend smiled with ice in his eyes. He’d met Israeli counter-terrorist officials at Special Branch meetings, with suicide bombers on the day’s agenda, and had thought them unemotional, uncommunicative, untrusting and, above all, arrogant. He’d heard it said by a Branch veteran that the answer was to get them into a bar and force drink down their throats until they pissed their pants without knowing it. Then they might behave as human beings, as colleagues.

‘You’ll hear soon enough. When you need to know, you’ll know.’

‘If I don’t like what I hear it’ll be goodbye and I’ll be at the bus stop, waiting for transport home.’

‘With a broken leg, perhaps a broken neck – whatever needs to be broken to prevent you walking out of here. Walking out – you lost the chance hours ago. Does the rain stop? Do they grow rice here? You’ll know soon enough and then, I guarantee, you’ll be frightened – and so will your young colleague.’

‘He’s not a colleague – I know damn-all about him.’

‘You will. You’ll learn everything about him. Everything. And be frightened together. Fear is good. It bonds men and makes them effective. I think we’ll go on, and then you’ll understand why we’re in this shit-heap, and what’s required of you. Be brave, Foxy.’

Never before had he been spoken to by a foreign-agency officer as if he were of similar importance to a drinks waiter. His shoulder was smacked, water spilled from the glass, and the Israeli smiled coldly. He must have flinched, and he thought Badger would have seen him take that step back. They were led again into the briefing room. He believed the Friend. He didn’t want to, but he believed that the time for quitting was long past, and that fear would be justified.

Chapter 3

To Foxy, it was choreographed: nothing was here by chance. It was as if they had both – himself and Badger – been manoeuvred towards the proposition. And it had been done quickly, like he supposed a good hanging was, with a pretence of casualness.

‘Times have changed. Things are different,’ the Cousin said.

‘Who can be trusted? Never many, but now the number has shrunk,’ the Friend said.

‘What I’ve learned, you want a job done well, you get your own people to do it. Then you know you’re in the best hands,’ the Boss, Gibbons, said.

They had been together in the afternoon, and the Cousin had talked – an accent that was distant tyres on gravel, pronounced but not harsh – and had shifted awkwardly on the chair. He seemed to come alive when he spoke of the marshlands east and west of al-Qurnah, and north and south of the town, the drought there, the dried, cracked mud and stagnant pools where water no longer flowed because of the great dams built far to the north in Turkey, Syria and Iran. He spoke of a cradle of civilisation and the location of the Garden of Eden – did it well – of cultures that stretched back several millennia and a people who had been bombed, gassed, hit with napalm jelly and driven from their homes. Then on to ‘rat-runs’ and the smugglers’ trails along which the padded crates brought the bombs into Iraq. Through doors left ajar, and along corridors with stone floors, came the wail of a kettle boiling. That would have been the signal to the triumvirate – Boss, Friend, Cousin – that business should have been done.

Praise from the Boss: ‘You’re both the best in your field, excellent and professional.’

Admiration from the Friend: ‘Your files tell us you’re of high quality. This is not work for men at the second level.’

The proposition from the Cousin: ‘We can identify, gentlemen, the target’s location. He’s about two kilometres inside Iran. He’s protected – but he’s about to travel away from his guards. We don’t know where or when he’s going. We think – are pretty sure – that you are the guys who’ll give us the answers. That’s what we’re asking of you. Be there, watch, listen, and tell us what you see and hear.’

He was the older man. Predictable that their eyes should bead on him first. He could see, had adequate eyesight and wore glasses only for close work or with binoculars; he could listen because Six and the Agency, and whatever gang the Israeli was signed up to, would have top-of-the-range audio equipment; and he was almost fluent in Farsi, not interpreter standard but the level down from that. It would have been the language that had ticked boxes when they had trawled the files. He had also, rusty but never forgotten, the skills of a man trained in the techniques of covert rural surveillance. He had served a few days less than four months on attachment to the Joint Forces Intelligence Team at the Shaibah Logistics Base, where the questioning had been ‘robust’ or, in more legal phrasing, had involved ‘coercive interrogation techniques’. His breath came harder and almost, he realised, whistled through his teeth. Did he want to go? Did he hell. Where did he want to be? The map was fastened with drawing pins to the board, then propped against the back of the chair. A dull ceiling light, economy bulbs, fell on it. Nowhere near east or west of Highway 6, or near the Hawr al Hammar marshes, or within spitting distance of those turgid, stinking cess-pool rivers, and the towns that smelt more of human excrement than of donkey shit.

He wriggled on the hard seat of the chair. He was given no help. Would have gone down on his knees in gratitude if he’d heard, ‘Of course, Foxy, this is just a fishing exercise and if you don’t want to bite we’ll forget you were ever here.’ In the Cousin, the Friend and the Boss, he saw no mercy. If he had been given further explanations, perhaps on the physicality of the operation, he might have been able to peddle excuses about the state of his hips, his ankles or the cramps he was subject to at night – but his file would have stated that his condition was first class, the product of gym work and, once a week, an hour’s cross-country. He would have liked to be at home, with a malt in a crystal glass and Ellie in the kitchen, maybe humming to herself… He would have liked to be at a seminar, in a mess or at a conference, maybe, in Wiesbaden, or Madison, Wisconsin, with a spotlight on him and his words heard respectfully.

He wondered how long they would let him writhe before coming to his aid – ‘Look, Foxy, if you’re not up for crawling in the shit across the Iraq and Iran border with a directional microphone, your language skills, and that little creep alongside to carry the gear, you only have to say so, and there’ll be no criticism of you.’

The room was at the corner of the building and the wind caught against the stone and howled. The branches of an overgrown shrub lashed the windowpanes. The wind came through and lifted the curtains, and there was the sound of waves on shingle. Two small truths gnawed at him. First, Ellie, his wife of six years, was less often in the kitchen now and his dinner was more likely to come from the microwave; also, the chance of sex had become remote. The second truth was that the invitations to talk and lecture and address were fewer and now he never had to concern himself with two clashing on one date. Allowing a pall of silence to hover was a tactic used at the Logistics Base by the interrogators of the Joint Forward Intelligence Team. Foxy, as the interpreter, had played the game. Silence disturbed men. He didn’t know how to break clear.

Beside him, the quiet was broken.

The voice of the young man fucked Foxy: ‘I’m assuming I’m next to be asked. So’s we don’t mess around till Christmas, I’m on. That’s it.’

Smiles broke their faces and there was light in their eyes as they reached to shake Badger’s hand – the Cousin and the Boss had to stretch across Foxy. If the bastard had asked about the positioning of back-up, what fee would be paid and how much up-front, what the insurance aspect would be, Foxy might have been able to keep the wriggle going and find a sticking point. Too late.

‘Sounds important, sounds necessary.’ He thought himself truly skewered, managed a thin smile. ‘I’m taking it that the ground work’s been done. I’m on board, of course.’

His hand was shaken: the heavy fist of the Cousin, the light, lingering touch of the Friend, and the cursory grip of the Boss. None of the bastards thanked him. It was like he’d jumped a river and there was no going back. He assumed they were unable to put a drone over a house and a barracks inside Iran, and that they didn’t trust locally employed assets, or didn’t have them. The three sat back, and Badger’s arms were folded across his chest. He seemed relaxed.

Gibbons said, ‘I think we might take a break now. Tea and, hopefully, cake. Plenty after that to push on with-’

‘I said I was accepting your offer, but there are matters outstanding.’

‘What matters?’

He hesitated – could have done with Badger’s support, but was denied it. No damned response. Felt the loneliness. ‘For a start, what’s the back-up?’

‘Very adequate, and you’ll be well briefed on it before you’re inserted.’

‘Is that all I’m getting?’

‘It’s enough at this stage. Tea will be waiting.’

He blurted, ‘The business of remuneration. Well, where we’re being asked to go… am I not entitled to know the recompense?’

The Cousin said, ‘We were under the impression that you were still, Foxy, a serving police officer, therefore salaried and liable for full pension if you care to quit and take it. Probably there’s an overseas per diem allowance, disability stuff and widow’s entitlements in the package. I’d say you’re well looked after.’

The Friend said, ‘Your remuneration is a great deal healthier than anything my government wants to or would be able to pay.’

The Boss said, ‘If you’re having trouble in the cash area, Foxy, I can always arrange for a diversion, on the way to the airport, via Headley Court. You’ll get a chance to talk to amputees, victims of IEDs and EFPs, and see them learning to walk again or eating with artificial aids. You can discuss disability payments, your money and a soldier’s wage.’

Badger gazed at him. No contempt there, but a dry smile.

‘I was just checking because of my wife – because of Ellie. Tea would go down well. Thank you for your understanding. I suppose I’ll want to learn about the target, his security and…’

He touched her hand. There were few gestures of intimacy between them when they could be observed. He did not care then that her mother watched as he let his fingers fall on her wrist. He saw the thinness of her arm under his fingers. He didn’t care that Mansoor, the security officer, eyed them. Dark thoughts flitted in his mind. He could imagine her mother making love to her father when he was still alive – she had comforting weight about her hips and stomach, warm against a man, a sparkle in her eyes.

He couldn’t imagine this for Mansoor, who limped from the rocket fired by the Americans’ drone. Mansoor’s wife worked as a typist for the intelligence officer in the Guard Corps barracks, the Crate Camp Garrison off the Ahvaz to Mahshar road – he had never seen her without her burqah. Mansoor seemed devoid of tenderness and without the need for a woman.

Rashid, the Engineer, yearned to celebrate triumphs with his woman underneath him, her nails in his back and her small squeals in his ear – not loud enough to wake the children – when his work in the factory and on the testing ground went well, or when she cleared a minefield sown three decades earlier or gained new funding from the provincial government. They would not lie again together. He did not believe that medical success could be snatched abroad… but he had demanded it. He smiled weakly. He said that very soon he would have the detail of where they would travel and the name of the expert she would visit.

He went again to read to their children and tell them more of the three princes. The story was about lions that terrorised a farmer’s oxen and how Prince Korshid took the harnesses from the oxen, captured the lions, harnessed them to the plough, worked them and freed them. They went back to the hills and left the farmer in peace. It was a story his children loved. He saw the sad way Naghmeh watched him, sitting in her chair with her mother beside her, her eyes never off him. There had once been a girl, in Budapest where he had studied, who had terrified him with her openness. Memories of her and of that time reared more often now that he could only watch his wife’s growing fragility. He would do what he could – he would fight, bluster and argue – for her, but he had no faith in the miracle required when they travelled.

It was ‘interdiction’. Badger had heard the word spoken twice.

The evening session had been given to the Friend. The Israeli had talked of the al-Quds Brigade, its place in the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its influence in Gaza and south Lebanon, its authority throughout Iran, the discipline, commitment and elitism of its members. He had talked like an academic, a schoolmaster, and had not used the rhetoric of an enemy combatant. It was relevant, hugely so, because the home of the target was under the protection of both the Border Guards and the al-Quds crowd. They lived beside the small garrison barracks because his wife, Naghmeh, was influential on a steering committee dedicated to mine clearance along the frontier. Her work would suffer if she was shut away in a guarded compound far from the ground where the personnel and tank mines had been laid, where children and adults died, or were mutilated, as regularly as once a week. He talked well, was interesting, and did not demean his enemy: he spoke of him with dislike but not contempt, vilified his cruelty, admired his commitment and gave respect. And if they, whatever organisation the Friend represented, knew so much, why did they not themselves provide surveillance expertise?

Badger had been to a moderate-performing school on the outskirts of Reading and had left with qualifications only slightly better than mediocre. He had been idle and unmotivated, had not gone to university. Lack of formal education did not make him a fool. Why did not the Friend’s crowd do it themselves? Simple. They would have wanted a broad church, a coalition of the willing: they were akin to bookmakers who laid off the risk of financial calamity by slicing up big wagers. It had been a good talk. Then supper, no alcohol: a meal that must have chilled in the kitchens because it was hardly edible. It was brought in by the house owner – the grandfather of a dead soldier – and left on a sideboard. Most had not finished their plate of the main dish – stringly beef, boiled vegetables and heavy gravy. Some had toyed and the Boss hadn’t tried, but Badger had done well. He wasn’t fussy about his food. He’d heard little hisses of dissatisfaction from Foxy. While they ate, the Cousin had returned to the marshes, and the Major to the sophistication of the bomb-maker. Later the Boss had led them back to the lounge and the fire had been made up. Badger had done what he was good at, had sat, listened and watched. Twice he had heard the word ‘interdiction’.

The Major had said to the Friend,’… care about passionately is interdiction. I used to lie awake at night, at the Basra Palace, dreaming of it. Better than a wet one. What needs to be done and.. .’ The Friend had nodded in fierce agreement.

The Cousin had said to the Boss, ‘… every time it has to be interdiction so the mother-fuckers get the message…’ And the Boss had sagely inclined his head.

It was a word beyond Badger’s vocabulary.

Later, when Foxy talked to the Cousin about heat exhaustion when wearing gillie suits in the temperatures of the marshes, Badger had sidled towards the Boss, and asked what ‘interdiction’ was.

The Boss had said he thought it had stopped raining, and he wanted fresh air and the wind on his face.

They were outside, had taken faded old coats from hooks by the door. The wind had come on as a gale – there might have been hail in it – the seas crashed on the rocks, and he could make out the shape of a sheep flock huddled at an angle in the fence.

The hand pointed to the outline, indistinct, of the ruined castle keep. ‘You know, Badger, there’s history here and violent history at that. That place was the seat of clan mafia, gangsters and thugs, and they’d been there since the fourteenth century. There was a banqueting hall inside and, sunk in the floor of an annex, a dungeon that had a water level of three metres. There was a round stone in the centre that topped the surface. A prisoner consigned there had to sit on the stone and pray he didn’t fall asleep after two days or five. He might stay awake for a week, but it was inevitable that he’d drown. I fancy they wouldn’t have screamed, the victims, or begged. They wouldn’t have given the bastard up above that satisfaction… A serious place, and damn-all to do with this operation.’

‘Yes, Boss.’ Badger wanted to trust, to believe. ‘What is interdiction?’

A pause. Badger couldn’t see the Boss’s face, and couldn’t imagine why he had been brought outside to shiver.

The answer came. ‘Latin stuff – something about hitting communication lines in a military context. But I think you’re asking, Badger, what this plan means for our target, and what your role in this is leading up to. Am I about right there? A very fair question and one that deserves answering.’

‘What it’s about, yes.’

‘I’m being very frank, Badger, and probably going past my remit. But where you’re going and what you’re doing entitles you to total honesty. We hope to track Rashid Armajan to a place where we can approach him. We can’t do it where he is.’

‘Have I been naive, Boss?’

‘Not at all. With your help, Badger, we get up close. That’s an approach. You understand?’

They’d bung him, cart him to a safe-house and turn him. The Engineer would sing. ‘I understand. Thank you.’

‘That was indiscreet, and I’d get my wrist slapped. It’s time to get back inside, and tomorrow’s a hell of a day. What a dreadful wind.’

‘You did absolutely right, Mr Gibbons.’ He and the Major were in the hall, out of earshot.

‘An untruth, but justified. He seemed to swallow “approach”. ’

The Major murmured in his ear, ‘He’s a young man, hasn’t been where killing and mayhem are. Maybe he’s good at his job, but he’s not hardened in the way the older man is. He’s going to be staring through a ’scope and binoculars at a target and he’ll bond with him after a fashion. They all do. He’ll get caught up in the trivia of the target’s life, and the medical condition of the wife. There are kids, aren’t there? He’ll see them. He’ll get to be, by proxy, a part of that family… at home, at his work. He’s looking at a man who’ll be arrested and sent to gaol. We’re talking ‘interdiction’, zapping the bastard. Our Badger might not cope too well with that. You did right.’

‘Which was why I did it. Serious business, killing a chap, don’t you know.’ A smile flickered at Gibbons’s mouth.

Some days it was hard for him to remember his name. That day, his identity hovered between Gabbi who worked, occasionally, as an investigator into tax avoidance from an office near the Ministry of Finance, and Zak, and Yitzak, which was how the sailors on a freighter had known him, as well as the embassy people who had seen him out of the airport at Catania, in Sicily. He had many names. In the last year he had used Amnon, Saul, Peter, David and Jakob, and had seemed to have many places of work. On occasions his hair was blond but it could also be jet black or mouse, and cut short or topped with a flowing wig. The debrief would be the next day, and he had gone home and would sleep until he was woken by the clatter of keys in the door, the tap of her stick and her footfall.

He had been met at a military airfield. No trumpets. He had come down the short steps of an executive twin-engine plane and the unit’s driver had had the front passenger door open. The woman, in an adjutant’s role, was on the apron, her hand out for the passport with his last, now discarded, name and the photograph with the light hair. She had also taken from him the unused float for incidental expenses on Malta, and a mobile phone that had been operational. She had returned his own and asked if he was well. He’d said he was, and she had told him at what time he was expected at the unit in the morning. He had been driven to their home in the suburb of Ramat Gan. He’d made one call on his own mobile and had left voicemail for Leah, telling her he was back.

In the apartment – one living room, one decent bedroom, a small bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen – he sprawled on the sofa with the bamboo frame. He had eaten yoghurt from the refrigerator and some cheese, and drunk juice. He might read later if he had slept and she hadn’t come back from her desk at the defence ministry in the Hakira district. On the stairs to his second-floor door he had met Solly Stein and his wife, Miriam. They would have noted he was back and would have known that the apartment had been empty for four days. They would have thought he had been away on Revenue business, chasing a fat-cat crook who was – perhaps – a politician. The apartment was always empty when he was abroad because Leah slept at her mother’s. Solly Stein did not know, never would, that the hand of their neighbour across the second-floor landing, the one Miriam held as they’d talked briefly – the weather, the price of milk – had the previous day fired two killing shots into the head of a Hezbollah strategist. If they had known, she would have kissed his cheeks.

He did not endure agonies of conscience as he lay on the sofa. He never had. Nor was he cold, unfeeling. He had been told that the resident psychiatrist attached to the unit regarded him as unique among his colleagues. Without remorse, rabid xenophobia, regret or triumphalism: like a man who worked in an abattoir and earned a monthly wage. An enigma, and not understood, but depended upon. There were some in clinics and others who beat their women, and a few who thought themselves so above the law that they hit banks and were now locked up.

He heard the tap of her stick against the door, must have dozed but was immediately awake. He rolled off the sofa and his bare feet slithered across the tiled floor. He heard the key go into the lock. She knew what he did, but never spoke of it, or of her own work at Camp Rabin, in Military Intelligence. She had been blinded in Lebanon by the shrapnel scattered in the explosion of an Iranian-built missile. The wounds inflicted were beyond the skill of surgeons, and she lived in a world of black and grey shadows. They hugged and the love shone.

‘You’re good?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘I brought supper.’


They clung and kissed.

‘Are you home for long – if you can answer?’

It was possible, in what she did at the ministry, that she helped choose the targets allocated to him. She might have worked on the selection of individuals of Hamas, Hezbollah or the Fateh Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade who were thought of sufficient importance.

‘Perhaps, and perhaps not. Soon I will know. I am home tonight.’

They were lovers, and she was Leah. She could not have said what name, in their bed, he would answer to.

The pool in the Zone had a bad end-of-season look about it. If she had been a holidaymaker and paying good money to lie beside it, with her book, she would have thought the place was up for sale, or that the maintenance money had run out, or that this was yesterday’s destination.

There was a better-kept pool in the embassy’s garden but she preferred the dowdiness of this one. The weeds that grew between the tiled and paved surfaces gave it more of an office feel and negated any guilt at apparently skiving off for the day. She was happy, anyway, to be far from her office in the secure section, distanced from the interminable gossip of the diplomats and their support staff. Her guards were not permitted at the pool and had to sit in an air-conditioned shed by the entrance to that sector of the Zone. The book, actually, was interesting.

On one side of her, quietly snoring, a towel across his face, was Hamfist, his flak vest beside him with the rucksack in which his gear was stowed, and an AK-47 assault rifle, with a magazine loaded and another taped to it. Her mobile lay on her thigh, the back smeared with sun cream. She took breaks from the book to make calls and check texts. Hamfist was a Scot, a ‘clumsy sod’ – as she called him – with any refined equipment other than one that fired a high-velocity shell. He had been in a Scottish infantry unit, had done nine years that included a spell in al-Amarah up on Highway 6. He had come through a mild load of post-traumatic stuff – better than the clap – but civilian life had not welcomed him. Instead he had signed for Proeliator Security and close protection for a Six officer. She thought he took more pride in wearing the newly washed and ironed T-shirt with the logo of the Jones Boys Band than almost anything else. She read about the birds in the marshes, on either side of Highway 6, that stretched in places to the border dividing Iran from Iraq. Pretty birds, majestic birds, endangered birds, some so small she’d need a telescope to spot them.

On her other side was Corky, not from the south-west of Ireland and County Cork but from the Andersonstown quarter of west Belfast, but there was no logic in acquired military names. He had been mentioned in despatches for his reaction in an ambush in Basra seven years back, and was in awe of her, but he allowed her to help him choose birthday and Christmas gifts for a son in Colchester aged eleven, and a daughter in Darlington, aged five. Her phone vibrated, and she raised her eyebrows – gold, the colour of her hair – lifted it, read the message and cleared it. She had organised the paperwork by which part of his salary was paid by Proeliator Security to each of the mothers. He had the same gear as Hamfist except that his rifle was an M16A1, with a muzzle velocity of 3,200 feet per second and a catastrophic hydrostatic shock effect on tissue when it hit, which Cork swore by. He wore a rumpled T-shirt, camouflage trousers, big wraparound shades, his boots, and was always a tousled mess.

Somewhere behind her, out of view, Harding and Shagger would be on plastic chairs or hunkered on their haunches, ready to go. She knew she merely had to hitch a leg off the lounger and drop the book – Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East – into her bag, on top of Birds of Iraq, and they would be on their feet. By the time she had draped the towel around her legs and knotted it at the waist, all four would be wearing their flak vests and rucksacks, with their weapons in their hands. When she stood and lifted the bag, Shagger would come forward with her own vest and hold it up so that she could shrug into it. When she quit Baghdad, at the end of this show, took the Six shuttle flight down to Kuwait, then headed for the Towers, she reckoned they would be devastated. Not her problem, but it nagged. She thought often – with relief or ruefully – that the Jones Boys ensured her celibacy. It would be a rare bastard who ambled towards her and began a chat-up routine: Hello there. Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by you again? Or, Excuse me, I’ve left my wallet behind. Do you mind if we share an armoured personnel carrier home? If an officer, American or British, Latvian or Australian, a diplomat or an administrator, had tried to get his hand in her pants, most likely he’d have ended in a Casevac tent. There were times when she ached for She had long legs, tight waist, fair bumps, pretty mouth and a good sun-kissed complexion, but no man. She called quietly, ‘Guys, can you come over? Guys, please.’

She had the four around her. ‘Don’t get me wrong, this is serious and not bull. We’re concerned about the survival prospects of the Basra Reed-warbler – smart name is Acrocephalus griseldis – the Black-tailed Godwit, the Greater Spotted Eagle, the Sacred Ibis, Threskiornis aethiopicus, and a few others, how they’re dealing with drought and what effect renewed oil exploration in their habitat will have. Two supposed surveillance experts are taking off tonight and will hit here tomorrow. The ecogame is the cover. Questions?’

There never were. They relied on her to tell them what they needed to know, and she gave them more than was necessary, which showed her trust in them. In their world, and hers, trust was a big factor, sometimes the biggest.

‘And there’s people we have to see and bits of paper we have to collect. What do I think of it? Doesn’t matter. We’re back, they’re forward and over the frontier, at what you guys call the ‘sharp end’. We’re supposed to be their support, but easier said than done. Rather them than me. It’s all a bit old-fashioned, a bit of a shout from the past – but I’m up for it. Anyway, if the birds get oil on their wings, they’re bollocksed.’

She went to get dressed in the female changing area, where they wouldn’t follow her, and now felt challenged. She sensed she was heading, roller-coaster, towards an end-game more hazardous than anything she had experienced before, and that the risk factor had ratcheted.

The piper played what he assumed was a lament. Their host and his wife were on the front steps. In their foreheads, the positioning of their eyes and the push of their jaws, Foxy Foulkes thought he could read something of the grandson in the photograph. The old man and woman had shaken hands as they’d left. By chance Foxy was last out of the door, and they had gripped his. Might have been because he was the last, or that small morsels had dropped from the table and they knew a little of what was planned in the Iraqi marshlands. Maybe intuition told them that in their home an act of revenge was plotted against someone, anyone, who had worked to kill the grandson who might one day have taken over this pile of damp grey stone. It was grim stuff that the piper played. A light rain fell on his shoulders, and there was a stag in the field that seemed forlorn, lost. The dogs ignored the helicopter and chased furiously after crows that flew away from them. The grandmother held Foxy’s hand and shook it. Foxy didn’t know whether he should thank them for their hospitality or… They willed him forward. A murmur of ‘God keep you safe’ from her and a growl from him: ‘Remember us, and go after them wherever you find them.’ It was all theatre, had a majesty to it – decayed but there – and the piper’s cheeks puffed with his efforts and the dirge was fit for a funeral but went mostly unheard as the rotors gathered speed.

He raised his voice: ‘We’ll do what we can.’

It was rare for Foxy Foulkes to feel that his words, drowned by the helicopter’s engine and the piper’s efforts, were utterly vacuous. Felt it then, could have bitten his lip. What he thought of as banal was a beacon to the couple. He saw their eyes blaze and wetness formed in the grandfather’s. She stood tall and kissed his cheek – roughly shaven that morning in tepid water. He freed his hands and scurried past the piper. The crewman waited on the lawn for him, near to an old rose bed. The others had boarded. He thought the American would have paid in cash for the privilege of using the house and that there would be no paper trail. The helicopter’s flight plans would have been listed as ‘training exercises’ and the flying logs would have perpetuated the lies. There would have been, Foxy realised, elderly men and women the length and breadth of the country who mourned grandsons cut down by the bombs left at the side of a straight road traversing a desert, men and women who had lost children, young women whose husbands had come home in coffins, and children taken to full military funerals who had no father. He was as trapped as if they had taken him to a pathology theatre at the John Radcliffe in Oxford where the corpses were brought, to the military hospital in Birmingham or the Headley Court rehabilitation clinic. He could never have refused. The crewman put a gloved fist under Foxy’s arm and heaved. He flopped into the cabin.

The others were already belted to their seats, and he saw the looks of impatience because he had delayed them – for a minute and a half.

He wondered what he would tell Ellie, what sort of phone call was permitted, how long and how detailed… where the kit would come from, and what the duration of the operation would be. He knew so little and there was an almost infuriating calm about the little beggar sitting across the cabin from him. They were airborne, and there was a view of the once grand house, the couple on the steps who waved, the castle keep, the grey sea, the grey rocks and the shingle beach. Then they smacked into the grey clouds – and the little beggar showed no sign of letting the lack of information fester in him. Of course, he hadn’t been there.

The helicopter shook and the pilot made no concessions to the comfort of his passengers. If ‘Badger’ Baxter had been to Iraq, he might not have been slumped in his seat, apparently relaxed about close support, how near they were expected to get and – Foxy’s knowledge of the language raced in his mind – what the quality of the directional audio would be. Had he been able to reach across the width of the cabin, he might have kicked the little beggar’s shin and wiped the calm off his face. It was his language skills that had done for him.

They powered through dense cloud. The Cousin and the Friend talked into each other’s ears, protectors lifted. Foxy could not read their averted lips. The Boss, Gibbons, sat upright, hands tight on the frame of the canvas seat. Foxy met Badger’s glance. Hadn’t intended to. Was rewarded with a brief smile, as if they were equals and shared authority, responsibility. He wouldn’t tolerate that. They were not equals.

He shivered. Couldn’t help himself. He hoped the thick coat wrapped round him would mask it. He shivered at the thought of the reed beds, the water in the lagoons and channels, the heat and the hatred – and saw again the faces, some bloodied but not pleading, some bruised but not begging, in the interrogation rooms of the Joint Forward Intelligence Team. God help them if they were taken because of the hatred that had been incubated in that fucking place.

He was walking with his daughter when the mobile phone warbled. He let Magda’s hand go, reached into an inner pocket, saw the number and did not recognise it. Few people had his personal phone details, and the majority of those he worked with did not. It was a way to protect his privacy. Had the number been generally available his phone would have controlled his life. He answered.

‘Yes? Steffen…’ There was a pause. A wrong number? He spoke again. ‘This is Steffen.’

It annoyed him. He was a busy man, sometimes almost overwhelmed by the volume of work that his success and reputation brought him, and he valued the moments he spent with his daughter, who was seven. She had been talking about her day at school, the art lesson.

His own number was given by the caller, but not in German: the man spoke in the Farsi of his past. The caller waited.

He repeated, in German. ‘This is Steffen, yes.’

The caller persisted, again in Farsi. Was he not Soheil, the Star? Was his name not Soheil? He called himself Steffen. He was married to Lili, who had been a theatre nurse at the Universitatsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf. From the day of their wedding, he had cut his links with an old world and his history. Lili and her parents had expected it of him, and his patients did not wish to be treated – at a time of personal crisis – by a specialist who was obviously an Iranian immigrant. He had a pale complexion and his German was excellent; the habits and culture of the new identity had been easy to acquire. His wife was blonde and pretty, and his daughter was not obviously mixed-race. They had settled well into the prosperous society of the city they had chosen as their home. His daughter tugged at his arm, wanted his attention.

Again, was he not Soheil, the Star?

It was fourteen years since he had left Tehran. On the day he took the flight to Europe, he had recently qualified at the Tehran University medical school. His talents were such that he had been sent to the neuro-surgery wing of the UKHE to study under the tutelage of a Chefarzt. He had not gone home. He had married, changed his name, had believed he was forgotten – it was now four and a half years since the embassy in Berlin had last contacted him to make certain he was ‘happy and content’ and to tell him that his achievements were watched with pride by those who had provided him with the opportunity to go abroad. Magda tugged harder. He let go of her hand and she sagged back – he thought she might fall.

He could have cut the call. He could have switched off the phone, taken his daughter’s hand, walked on beside the Hansahafen and put the contact out of his mind. He was asked if it was convenient to talk. There was an edge to the voice.

His thoughts meandered: to speak in German or Farsi? To answer to Soheil or demand to be called Steffen?

‘The professor of oncology in Tehran, almost your foster-father, asked to be remembered to you. He is old now, and his wife is in poor health. Times at home are difficult, in what is their country and yours, Soheil. There is violence, and there are difficult people who exercise authority in some areas. The taint of treason is attached to those who befriend the few who distance themselves from the Islamic revolution. Is it convenient to talk?’

He asked for the identity of the caller, and was told he was just a humble functionary at the embassy in Berlin. Magda had gone to the edge of the quay, where there was a drop of three metres to the waterline. She was beside a gap between two traditional sailing boats. He could not shout at her because she might flinch and trip. He remembered the professor who had reared him from the age of nine after his parents, both doctors, had died in a forward medical post, under mortar attack during the battle to liberate Khorramshahr, when tending the wounded. The professor and his wife, childless, had taken the orphan into their home… He understood the nature of the threat to them. He did not contradict and give his German name… He had qualified with the highest marks, was the son of martyred parents and had practised for a year in a slum district of the capital. He had therefore been permitted to study abroad – but had not returned. He answered in his native language. His wife and daughter, his colleagues at the Klinik in Hamburg and the medical school in Lubeck, between which he split his time, understood no Farsi. His daughter reached into his overcoat pocket for the bread they always brought when they walked beside the harbour.

The blunt question: ‘You work in the field of brain tumours?’

‘I do.’

‘There is a procedure called “stereo-tactic”?’

‘It is in my field.’

‘There are cases where a condition is inoperable in conventional surgery, but where stereo-tactic is an alternative?’

‘There are.’

‘You have a high reputation, but you have not forgotten your family’s roots – your parents’ heroism, your foster-father’s sacrifices, the state’s generosity?’

‘What do you want of me?’ His daughter threw bread into the air. Gulls flew close to her, screaming. They had huge predatory beaks.

‘That you see a patient.’

‘For whom nothing can be done in Tehran?’

‘Nothing.’ It was a cold voice. He presumed the patient, terminally ill without a procedure that was always a last resort and fraught with complication, would be a senior man in the clerical or revolutionary hierarchy. ‘We are talking to you because nothing further is possible in Tehran.’

‘The patient would come here or to Hamburg?’ The bread was gone and the child was at his side, tugging his sleeve, and saying loudly that she wanted to go home. She started to pull him towards the Burgtorbrucke, and he let her take him.

‘It is intended the patient would travel.’

‘There are more experienced consultants in Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris and London, men better qualified than I.’

‘We would not have the discretion that we gain from you, the confidentiality. There will be no electronic messages, only brief telephone communication. I will come to visit you, Soheil, when the travel arrangements are complete. I am so glad that I can report your co-operation.’

The call ended. He understood. Discretion and confidentiality were the keys. Perhaps it was a prosecutor with blood on his hands, who now faced his God, would imminently be with Him, and was important enough to demand the full resources of the state to buy him a few more months, or a general in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, or an imam. He could not run from them. He held tight to the little girl’s hand as they crossed the bridge and headed for the fine villa that was their home.

His daughter – also perhaps vulnerable and a weapon to be used against him – sprinted ahead. He shouted at her to slow down, and she turned, wide-eyed, shocked by his anger. He accepted that even here, in his adopted town, he could not be free of them – ever.

He let himself into the office, closed the door behind him and locked it.

She was at her desk. Len Gibbons noted that, in his absence, she had turned her room and the one allocated to him into something that was as much a home as a workplace. She had arranged two small vases of flowers, one on his desk, which he could see through the open connecting door, and one on hers, and a tray for tea-making lay beside the electric kettle, with a biscuit tin. On a wall away from the photographs of bombs, the featureless picture of a target and the enlarged map of the marsh region between the confluence of the rivers and the frontier, she had hung a picture. He smiled as he dumped his bag down and shrugged off his coat. There was a big sky in which birds flew and a long meadow between forests, in which an elephant wandered, a scarlet parrot perched and a deer grazed. In the background, far down the meadow, a robed man led two naked – or near naked – figures.

‘Enlighten me, Sarah.’

‘It’s the Garden of Eden. God’s there with the two innocents. It’s by Jan Brueghel the Elder, painted in 1607. Adam and Eve before the apple upset the cart. Appropriate, I thought. How did it go?’


‘Are they all right?’

‘We call them Foxy and Badger. They’re probably just about all right.’

He was leaning over his desk, checking the notes she had left him and pitching them into the shredder.

‘Is “all right” good enough?’

He looked up sharply. ‘Has to be. We make do with what’s given us. I must cut my cloth according to my means. Very thoughtful of you, Sarah, as always, and such an appropriate image.’

They were in business class. Foxy said that ‘they’ would have pulled a heavy one – a favour required – with the carrier. They would be up for around six hours on a non-stop flight to Kuwait City. Badger said nothing.

They took off.

Gibbons had seen them into the terminal, then shaken their hands and left. They had carried their bags of one change of clothes – dirty – and washbags to Check-in. Badger reckoned he was expected to carry Foxy’s while the older man did the talking at the desk. He did his own talking, interrupted to make the point, left the bag on the floor and Foxy had had to go back for it.

They went up into the night, and Badger felt more gut knots than he’d ever known. Beside him Foxy was biting hard at his lip and was close to drawing blood. Badger didn’t like to be afraid: it unsettled him.

Chapter 4

A wall of heat hit them. Badger saw Foxy recoil from it. It seemed to suck the energy out of his own chest, his lungs – and he had walked only a few paces. The sun’s light smacked upwards from the expanse of concrete, its force mocking the effectiveness of his sunglasses. Everything that was beyond a hundred metres away was distorted and bounced like a mirage. He could barely make out the distant terminal buildings, but the flags topping them hung limp. Foxy seemed to stagger – as if the wall not only surrounded him but punched hard.

Badger heard him: ‘Fucking place, fucking weather. By the by, here, you’re Badger and I’m Foxy. I don’t want any mucking with proper names. Enough on our plates without chucking identification around. To whom it may concern, and us, those are our names… Nothing fucking changes.’

A fuel truck drove slowly towards their helicopter and a Humvee had parked on the far side of the cockpit – it would be for the crew. There were two Pajeros in front of them. A woman stood tall in front of one, scratching at her loose robe. She wore a head scarf close round her hair and Badger thought it was against the sun, not for modesty. There were two men in each vehicle; the windows were up and the engines were turning over, which meant they had air-conditioning.

Badger assumed Foxy was talking to him, not to himself: ‘Nothing changes except the flags… My place was about a quarter of a mile the far side of the terminal. Any time after about seven in the morning and before five in the afternoon you could hardly walk that quarter-mile without dehydration. You’d need a couple of litres straight down, and if you walked it before seven and after five you had to wear a flak jacket and helmet and be listening for the mortar’s whistle, or there were rockets incoming. I loathed it then and I loathe it now.’

Badger said, ‘Nobody cares, Foxy.’ He had stamped on the moan. Not the first, and it wouldn’t be the last. During the long relay of their journeys, he had felt no inclination to humour the man. He’d seen Foxy crumple, as if the wind was squeezed out of him, when the request for permission to call home was curtly refused; he’d had to make do with a text of about five lines, and show it to Gibbons before he sent it. A poignant moment: Badger had been close by when the message was punched out and the mobile switched off. The Boss had taken it and put it, with Badger’s, into a plastic bag, which he had pocketed. There was no one that Badger would have called. He had had his boots in the car and been able to bag them, but Foxy had only been carrying a pair of heavy trainers, which would not have been waterproof. Badger should have been sympathetic about it, but was not, and should have been grateful that Foxy had negotiated the fee with the Boss at the eleventh hour but he had not thanked the older man for winning payment over and above their salaries.

There had been the flight to Kuwait City, where they’d been met by a corporal, American, from a logistics unit, who had escorted them out of the civilian area to a military annex. They had spent three hours in a departure hut with air-conditioning chilling them and had been offered upright chairs. Foxy had sat in one with his back straight, but Badger had made a space on the floor, wedged his bag against the wall, lain down with his head on the bag and slept. Later, the same corporal had driven them in a minibus to the pad where the helicopter waited. There had been machine-gunners on the cabin doors, weapons armed, and they’d done contour flying, hugged the dirt, woven and come up where there were cables slung between pylons, but otherwise kept low. Badger had never been in a war zone, too young for the Northern Ireland experience, and he noticed that Foxy stared straight ahead, looking ill at ease.

Roads with occasional cars and ancient lorries. Homes were single-storey and surrounded by dumped vehicles and giant refrigerators. Kids waved, women ignored them and men looked away. Goats and thin sheep stampeded. A checkpoint where the Iraqi flag – red, white and black – fluttered briefly as the helicopter drove draught across it, and there were local soldiers or policemen. The gunner cleared phlegm from his throat and spat.

The sand stretched away until it reached green corridors that would have been vegetation alongside rivers. They went up one of the beds and were over mud and exposed wrecks. It was like the life had been taken from a waterway. They had not been issued with headphones and were given no commentary on the route, the security scene, the duration… nothing. Might have been junk and on the way to a refuse pit. They had come fast over a perimeter fence, and the huge scale of the base, the empire it had become, was exposed: a place built to survive for ever. As far as he could see, there were prefabricated constructions, hangars and maintenance bays, blast walls and stores warehouses. They had hovered, then the skids had touched and the heat wall had clutched them. When his feet had hit the concrete, Badger had wiped a handkerchief across his face. His body under the loose T-shirt was wet, but Foxy still wore his blazer and tie.

Foxy led; Badger let him.

They walked, him three paces behind, towards the woman and the vehicles.

He heard Foxy mutter, ‘Could have opened his door – could have damn well stepped out to meet us.’

‘Yes,’ Badger said, barely audible. He was not used to meeting Six officers and didn’t know what to expect.

‘He’d better be bloody good, as good as he’s arrogant.’

‘Can’t argue with that.’

‘Do they think we’re temporary staff for the kitchens, washing up or- Him not being here to meet us is just bloody ungracious. Discourteous prat. Christ, this bloody sun… I won’t be quick to forget Alpha Juliet’s breach of manners, and I expect your backing when I take him to task.’

They were close to her. Her hands were on her hips and she swayed a little on the balls of her feet. Badger thought she had control, and could have described it as authority. There was a wildness about her appearance that appealed, a raffishness, and he made that judgement in spite of the full robe, the trainers that peeped out below it, the headscarf and the dark glasses.

‘Welcome here, gentlemen, and thanks very much for making yourselves available. I’m Abigail.’

Badger was alongside Foxy, and said softly, ‘So that makes you Alpha?’

‘Alpha Juliet, correct.’

‘I’m Badger, and he’s Foxy.’ He grinned. ‘We’re the sweepings off the floor.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Badger – and good to meet you, Foxy.’ She’d shaken Badger’s hand first, briefly, then took the older man’s. Badger saw the confusion and near embarrassment in Foxy. The cussed old thing would be wondering how far his voice had carried in the stillness once the helicopter’s rotors had shut down. There was something about her mouth that was mischievous and he’d have bet that behind the glasses there was a sparkle – might be fun, amusement or even contempt. Before he had gone off to work for the Box, and he’d been a croppie with his local force, a judge had been under threat during an organised-crime trial. He was wanted off the case and violence was in the air so the surveillance team was holed up for days at the back of the property on the edge of a Cotswold village. The judge had a younger wife with a flash of cheekiness in her smile and she’d brought them, in the hide, at the start of the second week of observing fuck-all, a tray of tea and shortbread. She’d had that gravel growl in her voice, sort of husky and deep. She hadn’t cared that she might have blown the exercise. The voice had said old money. It had been raining and Badger and his oppo were well into their stag, cold and wet and… Old money, good breeding and the rule of instincts. It was the only time he’d ever climbed out of a hide in his gillie suit, pushed back his camouflage headpiece, sipped a mug of tea, dunked a biscuit, offered thanks and told a woman to ‘bugger off out of it’.

Foxy said, ‘Good of you to meet us, Abigail. Appreciated.’

She took them to the vehicles.

Foxy said, ‘We’d like a chance for a wash, maybe something to eat – light, a salad – then some sleep and-’

‘Could be a problem, the bit about sleep.’

‘We’re very tired. I have to say, Abigail, that we haven’t been treated well since being dragged into this mission. The briefings have been general in the extreme, all detail excluded. What’s called for now is rest, then a comprehensive evaluation of the ground, the equipment, back-up and the time scales – that’s after we’re satisfactorily acclimatised and-’

‘Sorry and all that, but those scales are pared down to the quick. I can do you the shower and some cam-clothing. Everything else is on the hoof.’

Maybe it was his tiredness, maybe the heat or the weight of the blazer, but Foxy barked, ‘It seems pretty much of a shambles to me, and we deserve better. The man in UK – Gibbons, he called himself – who put this together, he warrants lynching. It screams wishful thinking and incompetence.’

She had the door of the back Pajero open for him. Foxy seemed to huff, then slid on to a back seat strewn with weaponry, magazines and vests.

She said, like it was no big deal, ‘I put it together, it’s my shout. If it fouls up and you lose your head, it’ll be my neck on the block for decapitation. It’s the best I can do.’

The door was slammed on Foxy. With a thumb she gestured for Badger to follow her to the lead vehicle. He had to burrow for a space on the back seat. When she was in and the doors were shut, they were driven away. He didn’t catch her eye, didn’t see the point in trying, and kept silent. Best to stay silent as he couldn’t picture where the road led or who it led him to.

The Engineer’s car had diverted in the city of Ahvaz, off the route that was shortest, quickest, to the camp. It had crossed the Karun river and gone to the principal clinic in the town where his wife’s medication awaited collection. But the painkillers were not on the usual shelf and the man administering the pharmacy had not come to work that day. The woman who replaced him was unfamiliar with the stock held in storage, and there was a delay. By the time the plastic bottles containing the pills and capsules were in his hand, he had lost the first half-hour of an appointment awaiting him when he reached his workplace.

Not his driver’s fault that they were late, but the man – his driver for nine years, loyal and fully aware of the importance of Rashid Armajan to the al-Quds Brigade – went now for a back-street cut-through to get them onto the main highway out of the city. They were away from the wider boulevards and the big concrete housing blocks, the post office and the railway station were behind them, and the homes were smaller, more roughly constructed. Cyclists, men on scooters, women walking with children and carrying water cans from or to the standpipes blocked and slowed them. The driver blasted the horn.

Rashid knew Ahvaz, had spent three years at the university in the city, but this was a district he had not been in, and the size of the Mercedes in the narrow streets made it an alien object. He warranted, as a senior man, tinted windows and blinds that covered the back windscreen: none of those who peered resentfully into the back of the car could have seen him, but the Engineer could see them, and when the Mercedes nudged the rump of a donkey or made children skip and women stumble aside. They would have known from the car that its passenger was esteemed by the regime.

At a crossroads, three policemen stood warily by an open jeep, holding carbines. Another was behind the wheel and had the engine running, fumes spilling out of the exhaust. The Mercedes braked sharply and the Engineer was jolted forward. Some of the papers he was trying to read spilled onto the floor by his shoes. Through the front window there was a brief exchange between the driver and the police sergeant, who pointed away from the direct route the driver was headed on. His arm made the sweep gesture of a long diversion. The Engineer could not hear them above the noise in the street, but the driver shook his head vigorously, as if rejecting advice, and the sergeant shrugged. The window powered up, and they went over the crossroads.

He asked what had been said.

The driver did not turn, was concentrating and weaving through obstructions. They were on the route to the gaol, the most direct way out of the city. There was a demonstration at the gaol, and they must pass it. To have taken the diversion would have added twenty minutes to the journey, and they were late.

A high-ranking official would be waiting for them, but the Engineer had been instructed never to use a mobile phone. There were satellites above that trawled for calls, did voice recognition and located the source of calls and their destinations. Mobile phones were the enemy of a man seeking discretion. The Engineer did not know of any specific threat to his life but the security officials had emphasised to him that anonymity was his best protection. The official who had come to see him from Shiraz would have to kick his heels and sip coffee or juice and… Why would there be a demonstration at the gaol?

The police had not said.

It was an Arab quarter they had been through. The street widened and they were edging clear of the alleyways. He reckoned his driver had done well to ignore the sergeant’s directions. The gaol’s wall was ahead and there was a rumble in front of them, like tyres on an uneven surface, but muffled because the windows were up and the air-conditioning was on. They came round the corner.

A crowd enveloped them.

He saw the faces through the windscreen. Arab faces, not Iranian. Ahvaz was the city of Arabs, and the Sepidar gaol was their prison.

It was as if the car was not seen and the mass of chanting, shouting men had their backs to the bonnet. The driver edged forward, and ahead the yellow-painted arms of two construction cranes jerked upwards. The men suspended from them kicked in their desperation but the arms rose until they were raised high enough for all the crowd to see them. A line of policemen, with riot shields and helmets, made a cordon between the crowd and the cranes, which were mounted on the flat beds of lorries: the gaol’s gates were behind. The driver was able to go forward, slowly. The hanging was outside the gates, in public view, so the condemned were rapists, narcotics smugglers or robbers, and would be Arabs. The movement of the legs, had slowed, and the nooses had tightened. Rashid Armajan had never before witnessed a public hanging. He tried to bury his attention in the papers on his lap – but sneaked another glance at the bodies. The spasms had ceased now, and they spiralled on the ropes.

His driver murmured that they had been ‘scum’ and it was good what had happened to them. They were Arabs… The crowd, having watched the deaths noisily, seemed to the Engineer to be at a loss as to how to respond. Until some noticed the Mercedes.

He was an influential individual, a Persian, or he would not have had a big Mercedes with blackened windows, so he was a target. A fist beat on the bonnet, another on the front passenger window, then more on the other windows. Within seconds faces and bodies obscured the sky, the hanged men and the raised arms of the cranes. Faces pressed against the glass, and there was darkness. He could not see the papers in his lap. Hatred boiled around him. There were enough of them to lift the car, then let it fall and lift it again, higher. One more heave and they might tip it over. If the Mercedes overturned, he was dead- A gas canister exploded above the car and the crowd. The faces contorted in loathing as the white gas spread.

It came in through the air ducts of the Mercedes. His driver had spat on his handkerchief and held it as close to his eyes as he could while leaving himself a view of the open area in front of him. The crowd had melted away. Sandals lay crazily on the tarmacadam, with some shopping bags. A separated child howled. The crane arms were still high, the bodies still turned, and the gas dissipated.

He had never before witnessed an execution – but then, the Engineer had never made the journey over the frontier to Highway 6 and taken up a position to watch a convoy pass and the lethal force of his work. He had seen it only on the video screens of hand-held cameras and phones. He had never been close to death, never near the explosions, as he had been when the cranes’ arms had been hoisted. He had never known how the soldiers of the Great Satan – or the Little Satan, also called the Poodle – were when they spilled out of their vehicles, or were lifted clear by medical teams, or were brought out as charred, unrecognisable shapes. He did not know if they screamed, or thrashed what limbs were left to them, or lay supine on stretchers, with their faces covered.

The windows were down. The gas was blown out of the interior and the driver swerved. A police officer shouted instructions as to which road they should take. The crowd had retreated to the edge of the square in front of the gaol, and the bodies would soon be lowered. Rashid Armajan would have said then, if asked, that the deaths of and injuries to soldiers in Iraq, foreigners or Crusaders, were matters for those in greater authority than himself, that his responsibility lay with the electronics on the circuit boards he manufactured. Some said, to his face, that he had done more to drive the Americans and the British from Iraq’s cities and deserts than any other individual. He could feel pride in that accolade. They drove on, and left the gaol wall behind them.

He hoped that day to hear when he and Naghmeh would travel to visit a better-qualified consultant. Quite soon, breaking onto the main road and with the car speeding, he had forgotten the faces pressed to the glass. His mind was on his meeting – and when he would be told of his departure date. He felt calmer, the gas was gone, the windows were again sealed, and the little tremor of fear was lost.

She had left them to shower, and the Jones Boys had a bundle of kit for them. An officer who was more junior than herself, based at the Basra airport complex as Six’s representative, had made himself scarce – run like a scared rabbit. With cause. Neither the junior, billeted on sufferance with the Americans and rarely allowed within the Agency’s wire-protected compound, nor the seniors in the Green Zone attached to the UK’s embassy, nor the team at the airport in Camp Cropper would have wanted to be contaminated by Abigail Jones’s mission. There would have been no volunteers to step outside the protection of diplomatic status that Six personnel enjoyed in this lice-blown, donkey-shit country. But it was her shout, and Abigail Jones would see the thing through. She understood the pitfalls of deniability and would live with them; most would not. The junior wanted nothing to do with them and had scooted as they’d pulled up in the Pajeros.

She called in, was connected to a Len Gibbons. She had taken the incomers to the shower room and shown them how it worked. The older one, Foxy, had waited for her to get out before even starting to unbutton his shirt. Not the young one. Badger was stripped down in seconds – muscled back, a close waist and clean-lined buttocks – and had gone into the shower, turned on the water and looked at her. There was soap but he didn’t reach for it, and she’d seen all of him. There was a store room off the office area and Hamfist was in it with Corky and a heap of clothing, all the kit they might need and the dinghy, everything, if they could carry it.

Badger hadn’t spoken. Foxy had talked for both of them, but she had seen the light in the young man’s eyes, and amusement. He’d looked clean into her, through her.

On the link the voice was curt, clipped, as if Gibbons disbelieved manufacturers’ claims on scrambled protection. She said that the younger one, Badger, seemed fit and was likely competent, but that Foxy looked on the edge of capability for where they were going.

‘You have to imagine the problem we had in locating covert rural observation post experience, along with decent Farsi. Doesn’t grow on trees. For CROP, I had a half-dozen to choose from, but Foxy’s the best qualified. For the Farsi aspect, there were no alternatives. It was him or we were into the business of an interpreter listening and translating, then having that fed to the rear, or of putting in someone like yourself, Alpha Juliet, who has the language but no experience of sitting in hides. You are, anyway, ruled out because you’re on the inside. They’re ignorant, they’re capable and, most of all, deniable. They’ll do because they have to. Time is not with us.’

She told him when they were leaving, and at what hour each morning and evening she hoped to make contact with him – if she had anything to report.

His response was sharp over the distorts on the link. ‘Not “if” but “when”. Please understand that a lot hangs on this.’

The call was cut. She looked through the door, not as a voyeur but to learn. The older man was in the shower now and the screen was misted so he was only an outline. The younger one was towelling himself hard, full frontal. He did not turn away from her. Not brazen, though. She saw that the soap was still in the bowl, seemed dry like it hadn’t been used. She would have lathered herself from toe to scalp. She wondered how well, in London, it was understood what was asked of these two men, who already displayed raised hackles when confronting each other. In London, in an office that had been set up away from the Towers, would they have the slightest comprehension of the resourcefulness required? Easy enough to flick across files, draw out names and proposition in such a way as to make it near bloody impossible to back out with self-respect intact. They would have been skewered, those two, and… Her mind moved on. Did she have the slightest comprehension of how it would be to lie up in a hide while the clocks ticked, the hours dribbled by and they were beyond a frontier, out of reach of back-up?

Abigail Jones, career intelligence officer, was not certain she did. She called, loudly, for Harding and Shagger to get the vehicles ready, then to Hamfist and Corky to hurry with the kit. Foxy had hung his clothing on two wire hangers, except for his underwear, which he dropped into a paper bag. He put his wallet into his blazer pocket – he glanced wistfully at a photo – with his wristwatch, a fistful of loose change and his wedding ring. His shoes slotted into the bag, then went into his overnight grip. The younger one threw his clothing, wallet and watch into a plastic sack. All their possessions were secured in a steel locker. They trooped, the two of them, with towels round their waists, into the storeroom.

It was a long drive across bastard country. Nobody in their right mind would want to be on that road when darkness had come.

Where they were going, they might as well send a telegraph by Western Union if they took a lift in a helicopter.

The sun was sinking when they pulled away from the base. She thought the older man was steeled for a fight about lack of sleep so she put him in Harding’s Pajero and let the younger man, Badger, ride with her. They were her eyes and ears. Without them the mission was doomed. With them it had a chance – not great, but a chance. They wore camouflage fatigues and Foxy had borrowed a pair of boots, and they had a bergen of food, water, medicines, whatever. A second bergen held the binoculars, the audio probe and directional microphone, the cameras, the batteries that everything needed, the radio, the sleeping bags, the scrim sheets, gillie suits – God alone knew how they’d get it off the ground and shift it on foot – and a shovel with a collapsible handle. They had flags, Iraqi pennants, on the front off-side wings.

When they were past the forward sentries, and the perimeter lights were drifting away, Hamfist armed his weapon. The rattle tore into Abigail’s ears, and she thought that, beside her, Badger flinched. There were two handguns in the bergen with their supplies, ammunition for four magazines, flash grenades and gas. He’d looked at them carefully, then deliberately shaken his head. Was he firearms trained? He’d answered, almost apologetic, that he was not. She cocked her own weapon, a Browning 9mm pistol, and checked again, with her hand, that the rifle was on its clips along the bottom of the bench seat in the back behind her ankles.

She had done what was demanded of her, and a little more – and had no fucking idea if any of it was sufficient.

They hit the road and Shagger said they’d burn some rubber. They went north, and the sunlight, low, bathed her. If she couldn’t comprehend what it would be like in the marshes over the border, who else could?

‘Are you all right, Mr Gibbons?’

It must have been three-quarters of an hour since he had spoken with Abigail Jones on the link, and he had sat through that time with his chin on his hands, staring across the room at the map with the lines marking the rivers, the route of Highway 6, the edges of the marshes, the larger islands and the canals. The strongest line was the border with Iran, and his focus had been the cross in black marker ink that located the household of Rashid Armajan, the Engineer, a bomb-maker of great skill.

His head jerked up. She had allowed him his chance to reflect, had twice put fresh tea beside him, but neither mug had been touched nor the biscuit. She would have thought his mood had lasted long enough. He twisted to face her. ‘Thank you, I’m fine, Sarah.’ He grimaced. ‘What do we say at these moments?’

‘We say, Mr Gibbons, “on a wing and a prayer”.’

‘A dodgy wing and a big prayer.’

She turned to the window. The rain ran hard on it and seemed set in for the afternoon. He drained the lukewarm mug, then crunched the biscuit. He clicked on the memory of his phone and called the Cousin first, then the Friend.

The American told him that all was in place. ‘Whatever we can give you, Len, we will, but at day’s end your guys have to deliver.’

The Friend said his people waited to be told of developments. ‘We’re ready to go, but we need the ticket filled out, and that’s for your people. At our end, we can run.’

Len Gibbons did not doubt what he was told, that the Friend could produce a killer.

Gabbi asked, ‘Don’t you have others?’

The man did not take offence at the challenge. ‘There is a file. Read it.’

‘Do you not have others?’ It was not a complaint, more with amusement that he was asked again so soon.

‘Do you want a state secret revealed? Do you wish to know how many competing operations are in discussion, development? Do you have to be told who has influenza, a hernia, who has a pregnant partner about to give birth? Do you concern yourself with who is tired, who might have lost the faith? The file is thin, but will thicken.’

He opened it. In the unit there were still older men, conservative, who preferred to use paper rather than rely exclusively on the electronic screen. The file contained four sheets of A4 – no photograph, no street map. He had driven in from his home, had dropped Leah at the defence ministry; they had talked about the coming public holiday, whether to go to the beach – not about choosing targets or killing them at close quarters – and why the refrigerator failed to achieve its maximum chill range. There was a concert at the end of the week, at the Mann Auditorium, and the Israeli Philharmonic would be playing Beethoven. They’d talked of that, and he had left her at the gate, seen the greetings of the sentries as she flashed a card at them and started to walk with her stick swinging in front of her. Many in the ministry, her section, would have wanted to bed her: only a few tiny fragments of the rocket’s casing had blinded her and she was not scarred, her skin without flaws. Many times on his travels Gabbi could have called whores into his hotel rooms. He had not. He believed she had not. The file had a name, a cursory biography, a map of a border area and an Internet digest on ‘brain tumours for beginners’, dummy-style. The last sheet told him that the wife of the target was believed to be about to travel abroad for final efforts at treatment.

His smile never carried humour. A finger stabbed at the map and found a point fractionally on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq. ‘I’m pleased to read this. I thought you wanted me to go there. How soon would I travel, wherever I travel to?’

‘There are surveillance people who go close today or tomorrow to watch the house and try to learn. Perhaps it will happen, perhaps not. If word comes, there’ll be a stampede.’

‘And you are giving it to me?’ He shrugged. He might go to a sales conference and he might not; he might be heading for a marketing seminar and might not; he might be called into a research-and-development brains trust and might not; he might be sent to shoot a man at close range but might not. He had been present at the killing of Moughniyeh in Damascus, of Majzoub in Beirut; he had been in Gaza, and in Turkey for a Syrian. That morning he had gone through the debrief and had told it factually, without remorse or triumphalism. He had reported that the pistol issued to him kicked to the left when fired. He had sat with the unit’s psychologist, and they had talked of the programme the Philharmonic were offering at the Mann. The report the psychologist would write might have been dug from the records: it would be the same in essence as that produced after his return from Damascus, Beirut, Gaza City, Istanbul… He changed little and was not scarred by his work.

‘Stay close.’

‘Of course.’ He finished the glass of water offered him, and stood. He had heard it said that the man behind the desk, elderly, a little obese, bald and almost haggard, had been a junior on the planning team for the incursion into Tunis when the life of Khalil al-Wazir, who rejoiced in the title of Abu Jihad – Father of the Holy War – was taken, and the blueprint of the operation was taught to recruits as a model. Gabbi would not have considered flippancy with this man, who had much blood on his hands. It was the end of a long day: the dusk fell on the city, throwing shadows on the buildings. The last of the sunlight blistered on the sea beyond the empty beach. ‘Call me.’

‘We hope to hear soon. The Americans bring the money, the British bring the idea and the location. We bring you. It’s a good arrangement, and gives us currency for the future, which is leverage. I do not know, no apologies, where you will go.’

‘I have, my darling Lili, a problem.’ He had been in Hamburg that day. He had operated. After seven hours in theatre – the patient was a prince from Riyadh who might, if he survived, buy a new wing for the neuro-surgery section – the consultant drove slowly and carefully home. He had been, unusually, complimented by the Chefarzt for the skill and precision of his work, but he could not be sure that the beast was fully extracted or whether enough remained to grow again beyond the most delicate reach of his knife. He had done his best and been praised. ‘It is from Iran, from my past, and it pinions me.’

He came off the autobahn and turned for Lubeck. His pleasure at the praise was diluted. What he might say to his wife, after he had read a story to his daughter, as they sat at dinner and she poured wine, served the food she had cooked and told him of her day played on his mind. When he interrupted her, she would hear him out with a frown and an ugly twist at her mouth. Then she would snap, ‘Tell them to go to hell. Put the phone down on them. Reject them out of hand. If they persist then call the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz. It’s what they’re there for, to deal with foreign threats. They’re in the book. Are you intimidated by those people? Are you, Steffen? They’re no part of your life.’ She could not understand. He would not know how to explain to Lili – a little thicker on the hips since childbirth, and fuller in the bosom, with the first grey hairs that needed the salon’s attention, dressed from the best of the shops in the Konigstrasse – the power and reach of the al-Quds Brigade and what could be done to the elderly couple who had fostered and mentored him. They would end the meal shouting, and doors would be slammed and the little girl would be crying on the stairs. No one who had not lived there would understand.

He came off the big traffic circle and headed for Rockstrasse. Sleet was in the air, and there might be snow before morning.

She might throw at him, ‘Are you not prepared to stand up to these people, tell them to go fuck…’

He owned a fine villa. Much of the old part of Lubeck had been devastated by British bombers in the spring of 1942, but the grand properties beyond the Burgtorbrucke had survived untouched. He was proud to have been able to buy a home on this street. It was an accolade to his work and endeavour. The light was on in the porch to welcome him, and the sleet flew in lines across it.

He would say nothing. She would not understand. Neither would her father, nor counter-intelligence officers. He thought himself alone, isolated.

He parked his car, went inside and told Lili of the praise heaped on him. He read the story to Magda, sat at the dinner table, complimented Lili on the cooking and asked about her day. He said nothing of the cloud hanging over him.

He had been dozing, might have been snoring gently, when the first shot hit the Pajero.

He was thrown forward, bounced off the back of the front passenger seat, then cannoned into the door. More shots followed.

Badger had woken fast. Since they had been on the big drag, which she had said was Highway 6, she had opened her window, unclipped the rifle and let it rest on her lap. The guy called Hamfist had a weapon peeping out into the growing darkness. He was awake. There were men milling in the road, lit by the Pajero’s headlights and probably half blinded by them. One crawled and seemed to scream up into the night. He might have had a broken leg.

‘What the fuck…’ Badger murmured, for want of something sharper.

The road was clearing and the girl was shooting, Hamfist too. He heard her say it was thieves, and that Harding had hit one with his front fender. Corky might have winged another. They had gone straight over one of the tyres left in the road to slow vehicles down.

He could see the lights of the first Pajero, where Foxy was, then the flash and the screaming moving light – it would have been about a hundred metres in front. The light went past the front of that vehicle and carried on across black open ground. There must have been a berm or a dune because it exploded. Shagger swore and called it an RPG round. Hamfist matched the obscenity. They’d gone off the road into a ditch and Badger’s elbow was driven sharply into his ribcage.

He thought they bucked over the sand and scrub for about a quarter of a mile. Then the wheel was wrenched again and they tilted, climbed and ground up onto the road. For a few seconds the two vehicles were side by side, stationary. The Six lady didn’t speak, but there was a fast exchange between Harding and Shagger in a military patois. Badger deciphered enough to learn that thieves had put tyres on the road to slow vehicles, then stop them to rob the passengers of valuables and cargo. One thief had been run down, another had been shot. Around thirty bullets had been fired at the two Pajeros, and one rocket-propelled grenade.

Was it par for the course? Badger didn’t ask. Neither Harding nor Shagger reckoned their tyres had been damaged.

Now she spoke: ‘Can we, please, move off and get the hell out?’

They went on in darkness.

Mostly the road was clear, but a few times men emerge would from the dark, dragging along a pack-beast, and a few times great lorries drove towards them and made a chicken-game challenge. There were dull lights at a shack that seemed to serve food but had no customers, and there was a police road-block, but the Pajeros had their pennants up and were waved through without having to slow. Badger reckoned they wouldn’t have slowed anyway, would have kept going and might have started shooting again.

They’d come into a town. She whispered that it was the Garden of Eden and Badger hadn’t any idea what she meant, but again the windows were down and the guns readied. They crossed a bridge, and there was enough light for him to make out a sluggish, stinking flow of water. It looked a crap place, and he didn’t see an orchard with apples, any naked girls or a fellow with a fig leaf for modesty. Out of the town, the bridge behind them and the road emptying again, they were on a track and the front Pajero threw up a dust storm they had to drive through. There was enough moon for the surface to be visible without the vehicles’ headlights.

Badger closed his eyes, clamped them tight, and the pain lessened in his ribs and arm.

The end of a road, at a broken gate that had posts set into a sagging wire fence: through the gate there were heaps of discarded, rusted piping that went nowhere. He realised it meant oil and that it had been bombed. He’d carried his bergen, the fullest and heaviest, and had made certain he accepted none of the Jones Boys’ offers to help. There was a single-storey concrete building with little compartment rooms that were filthy, shrapnel-spattered, looted. He’d taken one, and Foxy had been next door – but there were no doors. There was pain, though.

Badger was on the sleeping bag spread on the concrete floor. He didn’t realise she was there. He could hear a constant drone of mosquitoes in flight but they had not bothered with him yet. There was no light, but the subdued sound of a radio playing soft jazz, maybe New Orleans – he’d have had to strain his ears to hear it better.

Staying still on the bag killed some of the pain. She was standing over him. ‘Are you bad or good, hurt or in one piece?’

He blinked, tried to make her out in the darkness, couldn’t. The movement he made in reacting to her voice hurt his ribs and he bit his lip. ‘Thanks for asking. I’m fine.’

‘Are you injured?’


‘Does that mean “wrecked”?’


‘I have to ask.’

‘I’ve answered.’

‘Can I see it?’

‘What for?’ Badger shifted to face her. He had told the truth, and he would go on.

‘Because I want to.’

He heard authority in her voice and doubted there was a future in argument.

‘I want to know what state you’ll be in when you go forward.’

‘I won’t be a passenger – not alongside him.’

‘Open your shirt.’

He did. He could smell her breath and sweat – no deodorant. Excellent, professional. In this sort of place, Badger reckoned, you wouldn’t know when you might have to burrow into a hole while the bad guys went by, and the smell of toothpaste or deodorant was the worst giveaway. Now he rated her higher than he had just on the evidence of her skill through the ambush, shooting well and fast, leaving the driver to do the driving and Hamfist to put down the main suppressive fire. He had the buttons on the camouflage top loose and rucked up the lightweight khaki T-shirt. He wouldn’t show that it had hurt. She didn’t use a torch but moved her fingertips across his skin, paused when he winced. Her face was close to his and the darkness was around them. A guy did a trumpet solo on the jazz that was playing, and he had to lift his arm so that she could get more easily onto the place where the elbow had hurt his ribs. He couldn’t see her eyes, but her breath was on his face. The pain seemed to go.

She eased across him, slipped a leg over his hip and her fingers played on his skin.

Foxy Foulkes was dreaming. He had forgotten the name of the hotel and which junction he had come off at, and had forgotten the number of the motorway. He had forgotten, too, what the room had looked like, its decor, and what was in the chilled mini-bar. He had not forgotten, over seven years, that a lift had been offered from the training course for Greater Manchester Police, that she had been in the force’s computing team and was going to a seminar in London. He was going south. She had put her hand on his thigh, and music had played. He’d wrenched the wheel at the junction, and they’d checked in without baggage. Both had been half stripped before they used the little key to open the fridge and take out a half-bottle of fizzy stuff. It was a hell of a good dream, him with Ellie, now his wife.

His blazer was on the floor, in the dream, and his trousers and underpants, her clothes scattered over them. It was passionate, even frenzied, at the start, but the second time had been calmer and quieter. He’d told her they were soul-mates, and in the dream they did it a third time – nearly bloody killed him – and she’d sighed… He had dozed, and then thought he was dreaming, but he was awake.

He heard a grunt through the wall and struggled to find Ellie. Then he sat up, listening. Bloody hell, were they at it?

Abigail Jones asked herself, ‘What did you do that for?’ And answered, ‘God only knows.’ She could have talked through a hundred reasons, or ten, and could have decided that none made sense. She used a tiny beam from a pocket torch to guide herself down the corridor, past the open doorway into the older man’s room, and came into the big area where the gear was. She let the beam rove around. Shagger and Corky were on their sides, on the bags, and seemed to be asleep. Hamfist was hunkered against a wall, facing the outer doorway. He had an AK assault job, with two magazines taped, on his lap. He reached towards the small CD/DVD player to cut the music, but she waved a hand and he let it play on. Harding, the American, would be sitting on the building’s outside step, with an image-intensifier sight on his weapon, watching the broken gate and the parked Pajeros.

A burr in the accent, and a whisper: ‘They all right, ma’am?’

‘They’re fine.’

‘They know what they’re into, ma’am?’

‘Probably as much as is good for them.’ The torch was switched off and the jazz lulled them. She sat, cross-legged, with her weight against a loaded bergen.

‘Rather them than me, ma’am.’

‘A fertile imagination isn’t called for… Foulkes – Foxy – told me what he regretted most was that I’d taken his wallet off him. He’d got a photo of his wife in it, and wouldn’t have it with him. Maybe other aspects bothered him, but that was all he let on.’

‘I don’t have a picture of the wife, the ex, or the kids. I sent them money for new bikes last Christmas, didn’t hear back. Doubt there’d be any tears if an RPG aimed straighter, except that the money would stop.’

‘The younger one, Badger, reckoned I was good. Why? Because I hadn’t used toothpaste or soap today or yesterday. His story – the best of the South Africans when they were fighting Cubans in Angola had their teeth falling out. Why? Because they were the most dedicated covert-skills guys in the bush, and toothpaste is like soap – the scent lingers. No soap, no toothpaste, no cigarettes, no alcohol, no curries and nothing spicy. I suppose it was a little lecture in how serious the work is, the way that scent and smell last. I may just have been too damn idle to use toothpaste and soap. Oh, and armpit spray would be an appointment at Abu Ghraib. I learned that this evening.’

She asked herself again, ‘What did you do that for?’ And answered, ‘God only knows.’

They were in grey light. Grey sky before the sun came up above a berm on the left side of the track, to the east of them. Grey water, brackish and stagnant in the centre of a lagoon, and grey mud with dark cracks that showed how far the marshes had been drained artificially, then flooded, then drained again by the dams upstream and evaporation; drought from lack of rain. The reed banks, also, had no colour – that would come with the morning.

Two Pajero jeeps, low on their chassis from the armour plate fitted to the doors and engine casings, the added layers of reinforcement underneath, kicked up dust trails as they took a raised track between what had once been lakes, and went east. No radio on in either vehicle, and no conversation: the briefings were finished and had been reiterated over sips of bottled water before they had loaded up.

They drove along an old bund line, packed dirt and mud thrown up three decades before in the early months of the war with Iran, by bulldozers and earth-moving gear, for the convoys of Iraqi tanks to traverse the marshlands and reach the border for the drive towards Susangerd and Ahvaz. The four employees of Proeliator Security, the officer of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service and the two deniables had no interest in the history of the terrain they crossed.

There was no talk of them being in the lost Garden of Eden, or having passed alongside the Tree of Life in al-Qurnah during the night, or that they were where the Great Flood had occurred and the Ark had grounded. They did not observe that they were in the ‘cradle of civilisation’ where cultures had emerged five millennia before, and where a people, the Madan, had existed among the marshes since before history. Neither did they consider drainage, dam building nor drought. But they had gone by two tiny encampments, shanties with corrugated-iron roofing and other buildings in the traditional style of woven reeds, the mudhifs; children and dogs had chased after them but the thump of generators had not penetrated the thickened windows of the Pajeros. All of the buildings had been adorned with satellite dishes. The armies of the Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs had been here, and the Mongol hordes. British infantry had fought a battle close by ninety-seven years ago, and had struggled in the same heat that would rise later in the day. The marshes had been places of refuge for malcontents, rebels, insurgents, smugglers and thieves. There would never be, nor ever had been, allies here for a stranger.

Ahead, the grey landscape took on light colours – red in the sky, green in the reed banks, mud brown in the water – and dust coated the vehicles. Pigs and otters took cover and birds flew away from the intruders. They could no longer see the derricks of the oil platforms – discarded, damaged, awaiting new investment in the Majnoon fields, but ahead was a horizon.

The vehicles stopped. The dust settled. In the few seconds that it hung, obscuring any view of where they’d halted, two men pitched out, then the woman, and two more men, festooned with weapons, pulled the bergens clear and the small inflatable boat. No hugs, no exhortations about the importance of a mission across a frontier, just a brisk cuff from her on their shoulders, and a nod from the two armed men. The two slid down the bund line onto cracked mud and into crackling dead reeds. The others were back in the vehicles and the wheels spun, forward to the limit of the track’s width, then reversing, and they were gone.

The dust clouds thinned.

Who might have seen that the Pajeros were lighter by two men and two bergens? No one.

The silence fell around them, a lonely quiet, intense and frightening, as it had always been for strangers who came unannounced and unwanted into the marshes.

Chapter 5

They went forward, and were into the third hour since they had trudged away from the drop-off point. Foxy Foulkes still led. There were no maps to follow and this was ground that Ordnance Survey did not cover. Anywhere he had worked in Britain or Northern Ireland there had been big-scale maps with signs marking telephone boxes, churches, pubs and points of interest, like the summit of high ground. There were no buildings and no elevated terrain. He was slowing but he’d be damned if he’d allow the younger man to pass him and take on the role of pace-setter.

There was emptiness and stillness. Both, in Foxy’s mind, were delusions and delusions bred a climate of danger. Among the reed beds and on the little mud islands that rose, perhaps, a metre above the waterline of a channel or an open space, or two metres above a dried-out bed, there would be the small villages of those marsh people who had survived the persecution of the dictator, the ebb and flow of the war fought along the frontier, an invasion of foreign troops, gassing, bombing and shelling, drainage, reflooding and drought. There would be tiny village communities that had TV screens but no schools or medical care. They could exist through murder and thieving, and by being paid for information. Foxy did not doubt that small craft, of which he had seen photographs in the intelligence reports at the interrogation centre seven years earlier, nudged through the passageways between the reed banks. He did not doubt that their progress, not as fast as when they had started out, left a track of sound. The sun was climbing.

It was now ‘bare-arsed ground’. He and Badger had, an understatement, insufficient cover, and no map that helped; the GPS handset guided him. They had been through water to their knees, in stinking mud to their ankles, and in reeds that towered over their heads. The option now was to walk in more water or climb a bank, scramble to the top on all fours, and get on a bund line, or it might be a berm – there was a difference. A berm was an earthwork thrown up by bulldozers as a military defence or a flood barrier, and a bund was a raised road. To go up would make an easier route but they would be exposed – ‘bare-arsed’ – which would break every rule in the croppie’s bible. He wanted water… Better, he needed water.

And speed. He realised he couldn’t set the pace required. To get onto the flat top of the bund, or the berm, would ignore one of the core basics – Foxy taught them when he was out with recruits: Shape, Shadows, Shine, Surfaces, Space and Silhouette. If he went up onto the bund, and took the young’un with him, he would be silhouetted against the skies, the reeds and the mud – might as well have brought a bull horn with him and shouted that they were coming. He stayed down.

His boots went through the water. It was a small satisfaction that their prints in the mud would be hidden by the water.

There was clear, quiet breathing behind him, like the guy had no problems with the weight of his bergen. If they were seen, they would be at the mercy of thieves, who lived off what they could steal and sell on. They would be stolen and sold on, and then they’d be right for the orange jumpsuits, and for what used to be called ‘the Baghdad haircut’ in the interrogation centre. The sun’s light and strength drained his energy, and the cloying mud sapped the muscle power in his legs. There would be plenty of groups ready to stand in an orderly queue for the chance to bid big money at any auction if a pair of Crusaders were up for grabs. Orange suits were the uniform for the camera shows where poor bastards pleaded for their lives and rubbished their politicians’ policies: the jihadists put them always in the same colour as the Americans’ prisoners wore at Guantanamo, as if that legitimised the killing. The ‘haircut’ wasn’t a short back and sides but the head wrenched back and the throat exposed so that the blade had an easier cut… and the same bloody camera would be running. The bastards in Luton and the West Midlands, Bradford and the north-west, who lived in the mean terraces and who – between their prayer sessions – flitted between the Internet sites that showed the beheadings, would likely get a hard-on if they had a fuzzy view of Foxy Foulkes’s head going back and the flash of the knife… Damned if it was him who was going to stop first, and he didn’t know how far they had still to travel to the frontier. The symbols and numbers on the GPS were blurred with the sweat dribbling off his forehead into his eyes.

They stayed in the lee of the bund, and there was a toppled battle tank ahead. His feet sloshed in water, and his stride was shorter. It was only the third hour and there might be another three to the border, then two more at least to where they would make the hide. He wore his gillie gear, and the bit that covered his head and face. A ‘gillie’ was a man who held the rods for the gentry on a salmon river, or guided marksmen towards deer; they’d been called up in the Great War from the estates to match the Prussian snipers with their skill in concealment, their knowledge of the elements and cover, and they’d developed their own suits, which gave them greater protection from searching eyes and lenses. The camouflage was good for the mud and dirt wall of the bund, but poor in the reeds. He listened for a gasp behind him – exhaustion, at the limit – but heard nothing.

Should have concentrated. Had the orange suit in his head and a man – himself – pleading to a lens for mercy. Guys were behind with rifles and one had a knife. He went by the tank. Its body was intact and he couldn’t see the entry hole of an armour-piercing missile but one of the tracks was broken. It would have been a mine, then an internal explosion and fire. The plate on the turret was rusted by the wind and dark from the fire. It could have happened thirty years ago and they might still be inside. Thieves would have stripped the interior, the wristwatches and jewellery from the dead crew, if they were salvageable, but would have left the bodies. The thoughts of the jumpsuits and then the rotting dead brought him back to Ellie.

A car’s wheels on the gravel, its door slamming. A key in the lock, her coming in.

Him: ‘Hi, darling, where’ve you been?’

Her hesitating, then: ‘Up to see Tash – didn’t I tell you I was going?’

‘Do I know Tash?’

‘Course you do. She used to work with me. You never listen, love. Course I told you.’

‘Made it home earlier than I’d thought…’ He’d moved to kiss her, but she’d averted her mouth and he’d just caught the back of her neck, but he’d smelt the perfume, lovely scent. He couldn’t see her face.

A sort of distant voice: ‘I came back through Wootton Bassett, love, and got held up. They were bringing home one of the soldiers. The traffic was stopped. I couldn’t go anywhere. I watched. They’re all heroes, aren’t they? His coffin had the flag on it. The Legion was there. Everyone stood to attention. Old blokes had medals on. There was a family with flowers, people crying, loads of them. It was for a real hero, fantastic.’

He’d said, ‘Well, love, I’m not a hero but I negotiated the motorway all the way up from the far west and…’

It was a poor effort at a joke. She’d rounded on him and the rant had started. ‘You don’t bloody listen, do you? I’m talking about heroes; the bravest of the brave. Real men. It’s about sacrifice – a man told me that at the petrol station. Giving their lives for us. He called it ‘‘paying the ultimate price’’. That’s nothing to make some stupid remark about.’

And there had been a slammed door. The bloody irony of it. He was slogging through mud at the edge of a bund, had a bergen on his back and a gillie suit that about suffocated him, and he was doing hero stuff. His throat was parched, and he was dehydrating, and they’d not allowed him to send a decent text. Irony was cold comfort.

Two trucks had come off the bund and gone engine first down the sheer slope. Their bonnets were in the water. Maybe they’d been bulldozed off to make way for more tanks. The water was stagnant, and the smell was bad. He retched, and had to step further into the water until it was lapping his knees. He saw three legs of a creature stuck upright, and wondered where the fourth was. The carcass was of a water buffalo, and it was about fucking landmines. He was swaying. The heat and smell were destroying him. He started to sink.

‘It’s not the promenade at Bognor,’ a voice behind him mocked. ‘Shift it.’

He must have opened his hand, let it slip. The stink of the animal clogged his nose. He scrabbled for it, couldn’t find it. The weight of the bergen seemed to pull him back.

His voice croaked: ‘Give me a hand, Badger.’

‘You a passenger, Foxy?’

‘A hand.’

‘Want me to lead? That it? Do a donkey’s job?’

‘I want to stop. Rest.’

‘We have to get there before dark. That’s what the boss lady said.’

‘A drink, and some help.’

‘Say it properly, Foxy.’

‘Some help.’

‘Properly, Foxy.’

‘Please. Some fucking help, please.’

And his voice must have lifted. A flight of ducks lifted out of dried foliage on the far side of the lagoon, and he remembered what Alpha Juliet had said. He wondered, rambling, if they were Marbled or Ferruginous or White-headed Duck. A hand came under his arm. He felt himself propelled forward, and they rounded the sunken trucks, leaning behind the buffalo carcass.

With the hand in his armpit, the weight of the bergen lessened. They edged back under the bund. The mud seemed thinner now and the pace quickened. A water bottle was passed to him, and he swigged.

He couldn’t hide it. ‘Back there, I dropped the GPS. It sank. I lost it.’

No answer. Not even a look that killed. He passed the bottle back. He thought they were heading in the right direction.

The bloody irony of it. When could he have refused, stepped back smartly and walked away? The opportunities were never available for little people like Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes…

She was still in bed, alone. The central heating had failed in her workplace of the last two years, Naval Procurement in Bath, and the buildings on the hills south of the city were as little ‘fit for purpose’ as the communal boiler system. They’d shivered all through yesterday, and the decision had been taken to close down until the problems were fixed.

She heard, below the bedroom, the front gate squeal. It needed oiling. She’d asked Foxy to do it twice, reminded him only last week. A vehicle swung into the drive. Ellie got up, shivered, remembered she’d turned the heating up last night to twenty – Foxy didn’t like that, and said sixteen was high enough. But Foxy wasn’t there… She’d had the text.

There were footsteps on the gravel, and two men’s voices. One was by the front door, the other beyond the gate. She hooked on her dressing-gown and parted the curtains. A man was leaning on her gate and his car half blocked the lane. Her eyes tracked across the drive, and there was Foxy’s car. The bell rang.

She had had the text two mornings before: Hi, love. In a hurry – have to be away, work, don’t know how long. Verboten to phone. Luvya Foxy. She had rung his mobile eight, ten, twenty times, but it was switched off.

She went downstairs. It was a decent cottage, in a country lane in a village outside the Wiltshire garrison town of Warminster, pretty with climbing roses over the porch, wisteria on the front walls, small mullion windows, a garden, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a new kitchen she’d chosen. When they’d met, she’d been coming out of a divorce, with most of her savings gone in legal fees. She’d probably have ended up in a studio flat, if Foxy hadn’t offered her the lift down from the north-west. No way she could have afforded a chocolate-box cottage in the country. She had something to be grateful to Foxy for, but over the last two years that ‘something’ had become vague – almost out of sight since she’d met Piers.

She opened the door. The man wore a white shirt, a chauffeur’s style black tie, probably with an elastic band round the neck, and an anorak. He held out the keys. ‘Your husband’s, Mrs Foulkes.’

Half asleep, early in the morning and no alarm set: ‘What?’

‘Bringing back your husband’s car. We picked it up from the car park where he left it. Sorry we couldn’t manage it yesterday.’ He was turning away.

It was a forlorn chance. ‘And where is he? Where’s he skived off to?’

In mid-stride he paused, angled his face to her. A laugh without a chuckle. ‘Don’t imagine they tell me things like that. Not for the likes of me to know. Just a thought – if he’s away more than a couple of weeks, I suggest you turn the engine over, so’s the battery’s not flat when he gets back.’

She closed the door on him, failed to thank him. Upstairs, she checked an Internet site, a town hall’s page, learned a date and a time, then called the guy who did accounts at the Naval Procurement offices.

He stood under a palm tree and gazed out over the marshes.

They were a source of fascination to him, an endless pleasure. He enjoyed little in his life. Mansoor was in his thirty-first year. He should, by now, have been prominent in the al-Quds Brigade, looking for further promotion and higher command, but the chance was denied him because of the explosion of the Hellfire missile fired from the Predator drone, neither seen nor heard, and giving a warning in fractions of a second as the light stream and the roar of power fell from the sky.

He could stare out over the marshes, watch the wind move the reeds and ruffle the trees on the island across the lagoon, see the hunting herons and kingfishers, the ripples on the water when the fish rose and always there was the changing weather – threatening, benign, calm, dramatic – and the light. No two days were similar.

He would not advance because of the injuries. Muscle, tissue, even some bone had been torn from the back of his left leg, above and below the kneecap. He would have recovered better if he had been close to medical aid: he had not. Numb with pain, Mansoor had been carried on a litter from northern Iraq across the mountains. The hospital where he had received the first serious treatment had been in the Iranian city of Saqqez. There had been traces of gangrene in the poorly bandaged wounds and the surgeons had deemed it necessary to take as much again of the remaining muscle, tissue and bone as the missile had. His limp was pronounced and his future as a combat officer was finished. He had been sent to the marshes on the border as security officer to the Engineer, Rashid Armajan.

He would not have believed it possible. He knew the names of the birds that flew over the water and nested in the reeds, those that were gentle and harmless and those that had sharp talons and wickedly curved beaks. He knew also where the otters lived and bred, where there might be pig with young, and which island had the greatest infestation of poisonous snakes. He also knew that in these marshes, half a century before, there had been striped hyenas, wolf packs and, rarely, a leopard. Crippled, he provided security for the Engineer and learned about the beauty and life of the marshes.

At first, while his wife continued to work as a computer operator at the Crate Camp Garrison, he had loathed the prospect of guarding this man. He had, almost, considered leaving the al-Quds. He had arrived at the house, had been billeted in the barracks that fronted onto the lagoon, had come to know the family, and the wild life of the marshes and could not have said now which mattered most to him.

There were godwits and a small swimming group of pygmy cormorants and babblers, and he kept Japanese binoculars hanging from his neck. It the birds panicked he would look hard to see if a pig had disturbed them, a large dog otter, even a leopard or a wolf. It might be pilgrims going to and from Najaf across the border, or smugglers bringing opiate paste from Afghanistan and crossing Iranian territory. The birds were, almost, the sentries that watched over the little community, and more efficient than the men he commanded. With time, he had realised he was honoured to have responsibility for a man as important in the defence of his country as the Engineer.

That morning he had been called by his father, an informer for the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was a part-time postal official and also helped with the executions at the city gaol. He was a man of few talents and many interests, who let it be known that his son had failed to fulfil expectations. His father would have expected to ride on the back of his son’s successes; he had been uninterested in the medical prognosis after a section of his son’s leg had been gouged out by a missile, and more concerned with his return to authority and influence. That day his father had telephoned him from the prison with details of the public hanging of two Arabs. He had been the link between the hangman and the crane drivers in their cabs, telling them when to hoist the arms. He had enjoyed the morning; it had gone-well. From his father’s knee, through his time as a recruit of the Guard Corps, during his selection for the elite al-Quds, and lying on a makeshift stretcher to be hauled across mountain tracks, he had honed a hatred for all enemies of the state, whether Arabs in Ahvaz or the distant operators of the remote guided Predators. He could not salve his loathing of the Great Satan, take revenge for his damaged leg, but the Engineer had hurt them, which enhanced Mansoor’s loyalty.

In the evening, he might bring out his fishing rod to catch a carp and then, too, he could watch the marshes. He was devastated by what he knew of the illness of the Engineer’s wife. He was, he thought, almost a part of their family.

There was stillness in front of him, safety. The lenses of the glasses roved over the water and the flourishing reed beds. No creature moved sharply or thrashed to escape.

In the heat of the afternoon, the police came. They had two battered pick-ups. Corky had alerted her when the dirt trails were still more than a kilometre away. She had shrugged into a robe and her face was part covered with a scarf. Both Corky and Hamfist had done this territory with their regiments and would have regarded the police as deceitful and treacherous – they had probably sent a few to martyrs’ graves. They had talked this through and the drills were understood. Two spotter ’scopes up on the bund line round the wrecked drilling camp looked down into the marshes that surrounded the site. Harding was behind one and Shagger had the other; both had bird books and pamphlets beside their stools. Abigail had not seen an individual come close to the camp, and none of the Jones Boys had warned her of a ‘dicker’ looking them over from cover. They would have been told, and they would have come. The routine was that she would explain in her halting Arabic that they were a part of a UNESCO-sponsored eco-watch, additionally funded by National Geographic. They had the full support of the ministry in Baghdad, and the provincial governor’s office. She had the papers of each organisation to prove her point: a clutch of ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letters, all with impressive headings, a fifty-dollar bill attached to each one. She had anticipated that after each paper was examined the money would have gone. She knew what they earned, and remarked that she and her colleagues were grateful to the local police for watching over them. She could bore, and did so: her anxiety about the potential for oil pollution of this amazing habitat, unique in the world to Iraq; the species of bird and animal life here, needing monitoring, which were not found anywhere else in the world. Iraqis, from across the country, could be proud of it. Had they not been told she was coming with colleagues and an escort? She had the smile and her appearance was harmless, but the policemen would have seen the two men gazing out over the marshes through ’ scopes, breaking off to write in notepads. They also had cameras, while two more carried automatic weapons and were in the shadow of the buildings. When she had bored them enough, they left.

She said to Harding, ‘That was probably good enough for today, and maybe for tomorrow, but they’ll be back. I don’t think in a couple of days they’d manage enough links to unravel it at Baghdad or Basra level. Three days, maximum four, would push against the limits.’

He nodded. Truth was, she liked him more than the others. The original quiet American, he spoke rarely but, of them all, he was the one Abigail trusted with her life.

She said, ‘I doubt the Fox and the Badger will be in much shape after three or four days.’

Was it flawed? Two men who might have been inserted too late and find the bird flown, or had gone in too early and would be unable to sustain the watch. They might be there too long and show out. She had liked the scrapping between them. There was no way other than to have men on their stomachs, peering through lenses with earphones clamped to their skulls. It couldn’t be done with satellites on the electronics in the drones. It would be their shout. The mission depended on them. She had thought the antipathy, at each other’s throats, more likely to raise the competitive streak that would dominate their relationship. Too cosy, and they wouldn’t be efficient. It was personal to Abigail Jones because she had examined Badger’s bruising and had worked a leg over his pelvis to see it better. He had said something about the smell of her body, then the taste, and she had done as much stripping as he had. She had made a complication where there should have been none. She always kept a couple in her wallet, and when she had gone at first light to clear her system the condom had gone into the hole with their rubbish for burial. All a complication, but Abigail Jones did not do regret.

It couldn’t last more than three or four days.

He met his wife, Catherine, in a coffee shop on Regent Street.

She told him what was in the bag. Two shirts, three pairs of underpants, four pairs of socks, and a new pair of pyjamas. Len Gibbons thanked her, awkward – he had been since they’d first clapped eyes on each other thirty-five or so years earlier.

He couldn’t tell her how it was going. She could ask him nothing about what kept him in London, or why he needed changes of clothing. He couldn’t tell her how long he would be there. She couldn’t ask when he would need replacements and whether he would need another suit brought up, heavy- or lightweight. Nothing to say about the garden because of the weather, and she hadn’t heard from either of the children, both students. The job ruled him, not that it had treated him well. Another woman, in her place, might have harboured doubts about her husband’s staying up in London and sharing an office with Sarah, the faithful assistant. She didn’t – had actually said so last year. Catherine Gibbons thought that, most days, he didn’t notice what his assistant wore, probably hadn’t registered what she, his wife, had dressed in. She was a widow to the Service. They sipped coffee and nibbled shortbread. He looked at his watch twice, and flushed when she caught him at it.

Naughty of her, but she challenged him: ‘Important, Len, is it?’

He surprised her, didn’t change the subject or sit in silence. ‘Important as anything over my desk in years, and we have no idea how it will end or where. We’ve people out at the end of a line and… Does that tell you anything?’

Her eyes were bright and mischievous: ‘Is it legal?’

He didn’t bat her away. ‘Most would say it’s illegal. No one would say it’s legal. A few would say they don’t bloody care… Thanks for coming up.’

She persisted: ‘Those people at the end of the line, do they know whether it’s legal or not?’

‘They know what they need to know. Yes, I appreciate your coming up.’

He left her, had already outstayed the time he should have been away from his phone. He knew Badger and Foxy had been dumped, would be moving forward towards their lie-up and soon be at the border – which was, sort of, a defining moment. Legal or illegal, he didn’t bloody care – as long as it stayed deniable. It would be a huge step, as big as anything he had handled since he was a ‘greenhorn’. Should it have been asked of them?

Bit bloody late, Len, to be worrying on that.

He was like a donkey refusing to go any further, its hoofs stuck into the mud. He thought of Foxy as a stubborn, thick-skinned ass, but the guy had stopped, and he was a hell of a weight – heavier when the momentum was lost. Badger swore softly. He tried to take the next step but couldn’t tug Foxy forward. He turned. His face was in the older man’s, whose lips moved.

There was more water ahead of them, but they had stopped on a small raised platform of mud and rotted vegetation. Foxy’s right trouser leg was caught on a strand of barbed wire. His lips kept moving, but Badger couldn’t hear what he was saying. He had been thinking about Alpha Juliet – and that their approach through the shallow water and scattered reed beds had been about the most feeble and unprofessional he had ever attempted.

Foxy’s lips were still moving. Badger bent and freed the trouser leg, tearing it. The lips moved.

‘If you’ve something to say, then say it.’

‘Nothing to say to you.’

‘Who to, then?’


‘How knackered you are, and unfit? Not up for it?’

‘Something you wouldn’t understand.’

‘Try me.’

Foxy said, ‘Try, smart-arse, “ Halae shomaa chetoreh? ” Answer, khoobam mersee. I asked how you are and you told me you’re well and thanked me… We’re at the border, and there’s something called the Golden Hour, which you wouldn’t know about. We’re going to stop and rest for an hour, Golden or not. Got me?’

‘We don’t have an hour.’

‘Then you can go on ahead, and when you find a friendly policeman you can say, “ Raah raa beman neshaan daheed mehmaan-khaaneh, otaaq baraayeh se shab ”, but it’s unlikely he’ll drop you off at a hotel where you can book a room for three nights. It’s – don’t curl your lip at me – Farsi, which is spoken from where we crossed that wire. It’s why I’m here: I speak the language. You’re just the fucking pack animal that helps me to get close to the target. I matter, you don’t. If I want to rest then-’

‘Then you rest.’

It was a quick movement. A twist of the shoulders, a half-swivel of the hip and a step to the side. Badger extricated himself from Foxy’s weight.

He took a pace forward, then another. He was over the wire – would have given a hell of a lot to have Ged alongside him, quiet, authoritative, more than able to take his share. He spoke not a word of that language, and neither did Ged. There was a channel in front, sliced through the reed banks, and open water beyond it. He thought it would be a kilometre and a half to where the cross had been on the GPS screen, their destination. He detested the man he was shackled with, but Badger had no Farsi. He took another half-dozen steps, stopped and heaved off the bergen. He tilted his knee, rested the pack on it, out of the water, and rummaged. He found the packaging, ripped out the plastic inflatable and fired the air canister. It hissed, grew and floated.

He worked the bergen onto his shoulders again, turned and beckoned to Foxy. The heat blistered up from the water, and the gillie suit was one more burden. He didn’t know how much more of his strength he could depend on – but he was not about to show weakness. Foxy came to him. Another gesture, for Foxy to get into the dinghy. The little craft – not much bigger than a child’s on a beach – bucked under his weight. Badger lifted off Foxy’s bergen and dumped it on the man’s lap. There was a length of nylon rope, which he slipped across his shoulder and pulled hard. He walked, skirting the channel’s edge. The water was level with his knees. They went by a collapsed watchtower, which would have been felled three decades before. Two of the wooden legs were out of the water and half of the platform. They rounded a sunken assault barge.

He asked, from side of mouth, ‘What’s the Golden Hour?’

‘You want to know?’

‘Wouldn’t have asked if-’

‘It’s army speak. It’s the time the back-up should take to reach an FOB – that’s a forward operating base – when it comes under sustained attack and risks being overrun. The men know that back-up will reach them within the hour, by land or by helicopter. It’s the pact between the military units, an article of faith. At the FOB they have to hunker down, hang on in there, and know that within sixty minutes the cavalry will be coming over the horizon. That’s the Golden Hour – there’s other uses, like getting treatment to the wounded, but that’s the relevant one.’

‘And her and her lads, they’d get to us inside an hour?’

Almost droll from Foxy, like he enjoyed it. Like he had hold of the balls and squeezed them. ‘Do you want it gift-wrapped? Grow up, young ’un.’

‘Meaning?’ There might have been a tremor in Badger’s voice, but he swallowed hard and hoped it was hidden.

‘They’d get to where that watchtower was, and the wire – the border. They wouldn’t cross it. That’s how far they’d come forward in the Golden Hour, not a metre further. They won’t cross into Iran. They won’t discharge firearms at personnel inside Iran. They’ll lift us out from behind the border but won’t come in and get us. They’ll be there within the hour, was the promise. Maybe now you understand why I was reluctant to take the next step – and why only an idiot would rush on. Got me?’


‘God… Did you take it all on trust? Didn’t you think of asking one important question? Like “Where’s the back-up?” ’

‘Took it on trust.’

He started again to pull the nylon rope, and the water deepened. It was at the top of his thighs, clammy in his groin. In England, on operations, the back-up was never more than ten minutes away. Here, to hold out for the Golden Hour, they would have to retreat to the border, and there they would have handguns, one each with three magazines, gas, fists and boots. It had an emptiness to it, ‘take on trust’, that echoed in his head.

‘I asked. It mattered to me because I’ve a wife… Didn’t you ask that woman, the clever bitch?’


The van was driven into the car park at the rear of the hostel, and a car followed it. To both drivers, it seemed a desolate place of stained, weathered concrete and – late morning – it was deserted. Most of the windows had the blinds up but no interior light on; a few had the blinds down. They might have wondered whether this anonymous block, with no name, only a street number, was the correct destination, but a woman came out of the doors in part of a police uniform, which matched where they were supposed to be. The door clattered shut, and was self-locking. The van driver was sharp enough to register the difficulty and called to her.

He’d brought a car back. And?

He’d need somewhere secure to leave the keys.

He had a name, Daniel Baxter.

Was she supposed to have heard of him?

He’d kick the door down, if he had to, to find somewhere to leave the keys safely. The policewoman grumbled but took them. They were attached to a ring with a picture of a badger’s head. She punched the door’s code and dropped them into one for each resident’s locked boxes, and was thanked. She ran for her own wheels.

The van driver said to his colleague, ‘I don’t know where he’s gone, Baxter, but I’d bet my best shirt that nobody here’s even noticed he’s away.’

The consultant came out of the doorway, hoisted his umbrella and started to run. He saw the man. His principal theatre was in Hamburg, but he also had a clinic in Lubeck, at the University Hospital and Medical School, with scanning equipment, where he could see patients. His was a new block, but there were many old buildings on the campus that had stood for more than seventy years. On the far side of the street was the cafeteria to which he liked to slip away in the middle of the day for a baguette and coffee and to glance through the day’s paper – the Morgenpost. The football reports cleared his mind before he returned for the afternoon. The man, not a German, was in front of the cafeteria.

It had been raining all morning. If the consultant had kept running, heading for the cafe’s door, he would have had either to sidestep or collide with the man. He slowed in the middle of the street and found himself anchored there. A delivery van hooted at him. The man had no umbrella, no raincoat. Water glistened on his short hair and the shoulders of his jacket. The shirt under the jacket had no collar and was buttoned at the throat, and the cheeks were swarthy. He thought the man was from the east, perhaps Baluchistan province. The trousers were baggy at the knees and the shoes dulled by wet.

The man had the appearance of a guest-worker in the northern German city. He could have been a bus driver, a plumber, a construction-site worker, or a book-keeping clerk in a warehouse – and would have been a ranking intelligence officer, working under diplomatic cover. He was rooted in the road, and a car swerved past to his left. A trio of students on bicycles trilled bells at him. The man had dressed, the consultant realised, to emphasise the old world of an orphan in Tehran, and of a student who had prospered because the state had paid his way.

There was a smile from the man, as if they were old friends. He came across the street with his arms outstretched. He ducked under the canopy of the consultant’s umbrella and kissed Soheil on both cheeks – not Steffen. There was a whiff of a spicy sauce on the man’s breath and a hint of nicotine. He would have been an official of Vezarat-e Ettela’at va Amniat-e Keshvar, and any official of VEVAK was to be feared. He had not told Lili of the call, and through that morning he had thought only twice of the contact.

He blurted, ‘I’ve just come out for a sandwich. I have little time, and-’

‘I have driven from Berlin and you have – distinguished Soheil – as much time as I need you to have. So, do we stand here and cause an accident or go somewhere? Your office? Can’t someone go out and fetch coffee for you, juice for me, some food? Will you entertain me in the rain or in the dry?’

Would he take an Iranian intelligence officer into his sanctum? Hang up a wet jacket beside a radiator? Introduce him? My friend here is from the Ministry of Intelligence and State Security in Tehran. Everybody knows – don’t they? – that I’m not really German, that I’m Iranian by birth. My education was subsidised by the Ministry of Health in Iran, and now the debt has been called in. They want a favour from me. Please, make him feel at home and bring him juice and a sandwich – salad with fish would be best – and see if his shoes need yesterday’s newspaper in the toecaps. He took the man’s elbow and led him towards the cafe.

There was a table by the window, and three chairs. They took two and the official kicked away the third so they had the table to themselves. From the wet on the man’s face, hair and jacket, the consultant thought he had waited for him for at least a half-hour, and knew he would have stayed there all day if necessary. No appointment had been made, but that screwed the pressure tighter.

He brought the tray with coffee and juice, a sausage baguette for himself and another with salad and fish. The man was reaching into his pocket and a cigarette packet emerged. The consultant – Soheil or Steffen – hissed that smoking was forbidden on all the university sites.

The man smiled. ‘We can bring the patient at any time now.’

He was known for his cool head, and was said to be as sure as any in the big Hamburg hospital if he was faced with potential catastrophe in theatre. He stammered that he had not yet had the chance to check the availability of facilities. The stammer became meandering waffle: he did not know what was required, would not know until he saw the patient, had read the case history and examined the scans. The man let him finish. He might have fought, called a bluff, but he didn’t dare.

What he did dare was to ask, ‘My patient, who is he?’

The smile was laughter. ‘Who? We have not yet decided on a name for them.’

The man took the consultant’s hand. As a surgeon he was reputed to be slick and fast, which kept anaesthetic times to a minimum and lessened the dangers of internal bleeding. Now the pressure on his fingers showed him how vulnerable his talent was.

‘I will see the patient.’

‘I didn’t doubt it.’

‘And I will look into the availability of theatre and scan equipment. I know we are heavily booked, but I will look into it.’

‘You will do what is necessary.’

His hand was freed. He was given a card. The man’s baguette was finished, his own not started. The juice glass was empty, and his coffee cooling. They could come with a hammer, force his hand onto a table, or one of the low walls around the canals of Lubeck, and break every bone. They could destroy him. The man stood up. The printed card had a first name only on it, with the address and numbers of the embassy in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. The man put euros on the table, as if it would sully him to accept the consultant’s hospitality, and slipped out through the door into the rain.

Back in his small clinic, the consultant checked the availability of scanners in Lubeck and the theatre in Hamburg. Then a patient was shown in. He forced a smile. His daughter had a toy marionette: he understood the way it danced to its handler’s tune. If they had not yet determined the identity of the patient it was a security matter, sensitive… He thought his life teetered as a chasm yawned.

It had been a day like many others. He had finished the debrief – had enjoyed the session with the psychologist – and had been shown a file that told him little. Then he had walked out of the building into the winter sunshine of the Mediterranean, pleasant and clean, and had gone to eat on his own.

Gabbi did not have a living soul in whom to confide. Had he been dependent on company – his wife’s, the regulars in a bar, even others making up the numbers on the team – it would have been noted and the information tapped into his file. Any form of dependency, alcohol, bought sex or company, would have been noted and he would have been sliding fast out of the unit’s building, down the steps, across the car park, past the sentries and into the street. It would have ended.

It would end one day. It was not a pensionable activity. Long before old age caught up with him, he would be gone from the unit. There was no ‘former employees association’, no reunions on the eve of public holidays, no gossip opportunities with veteran campaigners. It would end when exhaustion dulled his effectiveness, and the psychologist would call it ‘burn-out’. He would be gone, and might get a job in a bank, or sell property, or just waste his days on the beach. His work for the state of Israel would be complete, and his pension earned.

He had sat on a bench and watched the sea, had had a book open on his knee but had watched the sails beyond the surf, the fitness joggers and dog walkers, the young soldiers who had their rifles hitched across their backs. He knew the case histories of the great failures of the unit’s work – he knew more about the failures than the successes. He could talk through, if he had to, the minute by minute intricacies of Lillehammer in Norway: wrong man shot dead, the team captured by local police – catastrophic. Could relate the disaster of the botched poisoning of Khaled Mashal in Amman: a toxic substance, lethal, squirted into the ear, but the unit’s people being held in police cells and their government having to deliver the antidote that would save the bastard’s life – humiliating. A wry smile, because the killing of the state’s enemies could be complex. But he did not make judgements, and the file he had been shown would carry the same importance as that of the man, buried the previous day in Beirut, who had stood outside a Maltese hotel. It was always best when he stood in front, blocked the path, looked into the face.

He headed for home and would reach it only a few minutes before she was due back. It was a day like many. The shadows fell, the sun dipped on a far horizon, and he would wait, as he did so often, for his pager to bleep or his phone to ring.

At last light they had their view.

Foxy was beside him.

It seemed so ordinary, so close and yet so remote. He could not have said, without hesitating, what he had expected.

‘You all right, Foxy?’


‘Just that you sound clapped out.’

‘I’ll manage.’


‘And don’t bloody patronise me.’

The evening cool didn’t penetrate the gillie suit. The hood was like a heated wet towel on his head, and his hair would be flat and wet under it. Not only ordinary, but dreary and cheap, the sight gave out no atmosphere of danger, or of a place where an enemy of importance was bedded in. An enemy. A target, like any other. Could have been organised crime, or a serial-rapist inquiry, or a training camp for the rucksack guys or the vest ladies. Just a target, and the only difference was that the Golden Hour would be a fine-run thing, if push came to shove.

They had come past a herd of water buffalo that had gone on grazing while half immersed, and there had been no herdsmen with them. They had seen small columns of smoke to the left, the north, and once there had been voices, kids’, and the sounds of distant life carried across the marsh. He had dragged the inflatable, with Foxy and Foxy’s bergen, and if he hadn’t they would still have been back at the wire. They had gone slowly and twice he had been up to his chest in the water. Once he had gone out of his depth and had had to cling to the side of the craft and grip Foxy’s sleeve. There was a narrow strip, going north to south, of land and they had come onto it. He had gone forward and dared to stand beside the sole tree there. He had gazed out and seen enough, then gone back for Foxy and found that the inflatable had been folded away and was tucked into the top of a bergen. They were together, on their stomachs. The tree was beside Foxy and they had a view that went through slow-waving reeds, then across water and over the brow of an island that was some eight or ten feet above the waterline. A lake stretched away, perhaps three hundred yards across and then there was a steep bank, palm trees and buildings.

To the right there was a group of huts, put together crudely with concrete blocks. Badger had his glasses on them, the start of his traverse, going south to north. There were men in uniform at the huts with infantry weapons. They wandered and smoked, sat and talked, hugging the shade. He scanned to his left and followed two children who kicked a ball without co-ordination. One of the soldiers joined them and squeals of delight carried to him. Tracking further left brought him to the mooring in front of the house where a uniformed man squatted and fished. The lenses picked up a little red dot on the water, a float. There was a block-house building behind the man, and its front was in shade, but Badger could make out a woman sitting in shadow. She was on a hard-backed chair and held a stick. The bright colours close to her were a child’s plastic tractor and a tricycle. He thought where they were now was safe, a decent distance from the target zone. In the last light, a vehicle’s headlights lit the dullness, and the man who was fishing reeled in his line, stowed the rod on the bank and hurried towards the single-storey house. The kids abandoned their game and ran to the woman on the chair. She pushed herself upright with the help of the stick. Where they were was safe, and useless. He didn’t have to ask Foxy’s opinion on it. It was useless because it was too far back, and they would have been voyeurs there, wasting their time.

‘We have to do it now.’

‘You asking or telling me?’ A snarled whisper.

Badger said he was ‘telling’. He was rummaging in a bergen for the audio-direction stuff and a spool of fine-coated cable when the car pulled up and they saw him.

Quite a good-looking guy, hurrying from the car to the woman and hugging her.

It couldn’t be left to the morning. It would be hard in the darkness but he had to hack it, get closer to the guns and where the kids played and the woman had sat. He watched them and they had their backs to him. They went inside… a good-looking guy.

Chapter 6

The dawn was coming up, and the niggle prospered.

The geography of the location dominated, as it always did when cameras or microphones were involved. Distances were crucial. A light wind in the night had rustled the reeds. Barely audible to the ear, they rattled – almost clattered – against each other when heard through the earphones.

Foxy whispered, ‘The sound quality isn’t good enough. I’m here for conversations, maybe half a sentence. The audio’s beam is having to travel through the reeds and that’s dominating any talk by the front of the house and the door inside. I didn’t set the parameters of this caper. I’m the poor bastard that has to get here – wade, paddle, damn near swim. I didn’t choose the ground.’

‘Did I hear that right? ‘‘Wade, paddle, damn near swim’’? You were on your backside, floating and being dragged along.’

The sun was a gold sliver peeping up, far away, above a flat horizon that was unbroken by trees or high ground, only by the reed beds that moved endlessly with the wind’s force.

‘What I’m saying is that where we are now is unsustainable. More important, where the mike’s placed is-’

‘By me, of course.’

‘By you, yes. Where you placed the mike isn’t good enough. If that’s the best you can do we might as well load up, turn round and walk out.’


‘I came here to do a job, not for my health. I see little point in staying if I can’t do the work.’

‘So I have to go forward and move the mike?’

‘About right.’

‘And how close do you suggest I go – the front door, into the kitchen?’

Foxy could have stood up, stamped and shouted, but he didn’t. One thing, verbally, to clip Badger’s ears for his rudeness, but another to break the rules of thirty years’ practice. Badger ought to show him respect for his accumulated knowledge. ‘You should get the mike into a position where its beam doesn’t cross a bed of reeds, so screening its access to the front of the house. Simple enough. You up for it, or do I have to do it?’

A shrug from Badger, sour little beggar. The sound was too poor for Foxy to identify more than occasional words. The one who fished had come by the house after darkness and spoken to a soldier, or trooper, or Guards Corps man, but the words had been muffled by the reeds’ movement. The same man had again come into the magnified vision of the image-intensifier, and the night-sight had shown him talking to the target. Both had smoked and their speech had been distorted.

In a half-hour, the house and the low quay in front would be bathed in low sunshine and movement would be dangerous, or stupid.

They had good cover where they were. Off to the right, which was south, there was a bund line that bypassed the shallow island where the mike had been placed by the young ’un the previous evening. It marked a boundary to the lagoon onto which the target’s house faced and came to the main shoreline on the far side of the buildings he’d identified as a barracks compound. The bund line was too far away for the mike to be set, but might make a better route onto the island.

More argument? Not then. Rolling away from him, Badger let his hands slide over his suit and checked it, involuntary and instinctive, then his headpiece. He put more mud on his hands and wrists and was gone.

What else had they bickered over?

The Meals Ready to Eat. One chicken and one beef, both with rice, and he had wanted the chicken. So had Badger. Foxy had insisted, had had the chicken.

The stags… He’d had to sleep, had been dead on his feet, but when the young’ un did the watch Foxy had been woken five times. Hard to get to sleep in the scrape, but he’d been woken five times, and five times could hear sweet fuck-all because of the motion of the reeds. He had let Badger know he needed sleep, not the sound of a reed hitting another reed and a thousand more doing the same.

Using the bags had been a point of conflict. Badger had said they should carry them out. Foxy wanted to bury them. They had a dozen, enough for a little cache of excrement, and a couple of bottles to go with them. He hadn’t done it for years, been a croppie in a hide, having to bag and bottle. He could lecture on it, could make men’s faces fall at the thought of the bag and doing the business a couple of feet from an oppo. The bags were in a hole and covered over, but whether they’d be carried out was not yet settled.

They had stripped in the night, and that had made for more tension. Their gillie suits and the clothes under them were soaked. Their boots were sodden. Badger had lain on his back and wriggled out of his gear. His skin was white, had no cream or mud on it. It was too many years since Foxy had bared all in front of strangers, except in the changing rooms at the gym where he did work-outs. Inhibitions, which he would not have entertained ten years before, had stressed him. When he had slid off his boots, wrung out his socks, then pulled off his trousers, he had turned away from Badger – and criticised: ‘You’re stark bollock naked – what happens if we have to bug out fast?’ He had heard the sharp breath and had known he was held in contempt, not given the respect he deserved. The boots had dried partially, the socks mostly, but the gillie suits were still sodden and heavy.

The light came on fast.

Foxy remembered that from his weeks in the interrogation centre. It came on fast in a surge and the shadows were shortening. He looked with his glasses for movement in the reed beds or ripples. He searched for Badger. He saw the target, in a vest and pyjama trousers, sandals on his feet, come out and drag on the morning’s first cigarette, then go back inside. A car came, the Mercedes saloon that had brought the target home the previous evening. It parked and the driver stretched, spat, then lounged. He saw two sentries on plastic chairs under the low trees but they stood, reluctantly, when the officer came by them. The children appeared in nightshirts and chased each other. One fell and seemed to graze a knee – there was wailing, which he heard on the headset. Everything he saw he noted in his log, and on the first page was his sketched map of the location.

The sound failed. There had been, quite piercing, the crying of the child above the reeds’ motion, then silence. There was water in front of him beyond the reed beds, which were at the edge of the ground they had reached, and then there was the last island, lower and more exposed, without cover, then more reeds, denser than the others, and the lagoon in front of the house and the barracks. He had keen eyes. Ellie had told him his eyesight was above average. She liked to say, in company, that he could see a flea move on a carpet. Ellie’s job at Naval Procurement kept her out of the house too long for her to hoover up any fleas. He ached for her, always had and always would. He’d never ached for his first wife, Liz, who might still be a radiologist in Yorkshire, he didn’t know, with the two daughters, who’d been barely civil the last time he had gone up from London for a birthday… A uniform, out of sight of the house, stood on the bank of the lagoon and urinated into the water.

Foxy brought the lenses off him and was traversing towards the house when he saw what seemed a snagged mess of dead reeds caught on a little promontory. There were two others out in the water, moving languidly with the flow, but the one on the promontory, which stretched out to form a mud spit, was anchored. He hadn’t seen it before, and assumed that the wind, more powerful in the night, had dislodged it from the foot of the reeds.

His shoulder was tapped, and he started, half turned.

Foxy Foulkes’s reactions weren’t failing: his sight was good, and his hearing, and he would have claimed that his awareness was as sharp as it had been at any time in his life since he had been awarded his own Blue Book for passing out as a qualified CROP man. He had not seen or heard him.

‘Come on.’

‘Where to?’

‘The mike’s out in front. It’s another fifty, sixty metres forward. We don’t have that length of cable.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘You want to hear anything? We go forward. See that kind of island? It isn’t one. We get to the far end of it on the bund line, and we can hook up. You’ll have no interference there. We have to move now. Come on.’

‘There’s not cover there,’ he said sharply, almost out loud.

‘Then we make some.’

Foxy bit his lip and didn’t say what he thought. It was too close. No cover. What the hell was he doing there? He didn’t say anything.. . Thought plenty, though. Thought about the ground on which they would lie up and where he would have a decent link with the microphone, where the beam would be clear of obstruction, and about the sun’s climb, the spreading light, the soldiers who were drifting from the barracks building and the faint smell of cooking. He was there because he couldn’t have refused. The young ’un, Badger, had challenged him, and he thought one argument was settled: the shit would be left buried with the bottles.

He crawled away to get his gear together as Badger reeled in the cable.

If he looked for the target, and the target’s home, he could see the weapons, and far out in front of him was the island-shaped platform on which there was little cover.

What to say? Nothing.

The Engineer had gone early. The sun had been barely up, and the heat haze had not yet formed when he had kissed his wife and waved briskly to Mansoor. The Mercedes had pulled away, and the day had begun.

A few months ago, before his new-found interest, Mansoor would have started on the many texts available to him on the types and maintenance of weaponry available to the al-Quds Brigade. He would have taken books on military tactics, particularly those describing the fighting methods of the Iraqi resistance, the Afghan Taliban, Hezbollah and the North Vietnamese from the library of his headquarters at the camp outside Ahvaz. In his convalescence he had read everything available on the methods used to defeat the American military, the forces of the Great Satan and its ally, the Little Satan. He knew what had been done in Falujah, Helmand and Beirut, where the marines had been bombed, and at the plateau of Khe Sanh. Then he had nurtured his new interest.

It did not make him less alert.

He would have said that his sense for danger or threat was greater than if he had been sitting in the shade with his head buried in a book or pamphlet. He knew about the battle of the marshes, the battle for Susangerd, the battle for Khorramshah and the battle for Abadan, and each move that had been made in the Karbala offensives, which were legend in the history of the Guards Corps. He had done that work, and had found a new focus.

He sat on a plastic chair in front of the Engineer’s house – where the sentry would have been at night – and looked out in front of him. He had good binoculars.

His own wife, Golshan – flower garden – had told him, when she was angry and bold enough to speak directly to him, that he had come back from Iraq and the hospital a changed man, embittered. She worked long hours at the Crate Camp Garrison, and came home late on the bus to her room in his parents’ house. He rarely saw her, so she had had no chance to learn of his obsession. He sat with his binoculars on his chest and waited for the movement of the birds.

He looked for the African Sacred Ibis. He could have seen it in East Africa, South Africa, Taiwan or on wetlands on the east coast of Australia, but he had never watched it fly low over the marshes in front of the house. They were there, he had read, but they were endangered and near extinct. It would be a cause for celebration if he were to see one, and even more so if a pair came close.

He had not yet seen it on this stretch of marshland. Naghmeh had told him she had watched one drift over the lagoon, but it had gone when he had come from his office. He watched, waited, and would break away only for coffee in the barracks, and his salad sandwich. Otherwise he would keep the vigil. He had his rifle across his knees and could tell himself – in true honesty – that he was conscientious in his work. He believed that the Engineer had told them so at the camp.

There were days when he thought he had seen one, neck extended, legs tucked up and powered by wide wings, far away over the reeds. Each time his excitement had surged as the speck had come closer, until he could see it was a slow-flapping heron. He looked also for the predator. Mansoor, the security officer, indulged himself with his search for the Sacred Ibis, but he was also on constant watch for the threat, for danger. The White-tailed Eagle had been up that morning, the hen, but he had not seen it now for an hour. The eagle had no equal, would swoop and kill the gentle bird.

If the Sacred Ibis came, if his hope was fulfilled, it would likely come low across the reeds, and he watched them closely. There were ducks and coots, and an otter. He thought them his allies. If the threat was alive, the waterbirds would panic and the otter would dive, telling him of a killer’s approach…

The visitors arrived. Three cars had brought them from Ahvaz, Susangerd and Dezful. They would have gathered in Ahvaz and come in convoy into the border zone, which was under military control, and to which access was restricted.

He went to check the papers, to satisfy himself. He would get two of his men to move a table under the trees, set chairs round it and carry over a tray of glasses and a jug of juice. He would put more cushions on the chair for Naghmeh, whose pain was worse this week. Then, when the meeting had started, he would come back to sit and search for the ibis among the reeds.

Foxy listened. The sound was good – clear and clean. The technicians he had met on courses and field trials swore that this version of the shotgun directional microphone yielded quality results at three hundred metres, and he estimated it was now secreted no more than 240 metres from the front of the target house. He was using around a hundred metres of cable, sunken, from the microphone to where he lay.

No way he would say it. The position was good, the voices were crystal. He would have claimed they were exposed and at risk from being so close to the target’s zone, and to the bastard who sat and tracked across the lagoon area, seeming to search it. The sounds of visitors and greetings were boosted by the walls and windows of the building behind where a table and chairs had been set, and bounced back.

He realised the skill Badger had shown to get forward to the lie-up, and more to go along the mud strand and place the microphone in the heart of what seemed to be snagged-up debris. He was so damn good – but Foxy wouldn’t say it. Where they were had been dead ground to the view from their night-time position, and a track of sorts led off the bund line to the right. There were more reeds nearer to where he was – on his stomach; the bergens were hidden there and Badger slept there. Foxy needed to have a view of the target house. The weak point with covert listening gear, the technicians always said, was keeping the power going, having battery strength and replacement when recharging wasn’t an option. What they used had Output Impedance of 600 ohms and a frequency range of 50Hz-10kHz and an S/N ratio of 40 dB plus, and he’d thought Badger hadn’t understood any of the specifications. But he had done well to get them there.

He reflected: two kilometres across a hostile frontier, they were alone, exposed. He also reflected that the chance of success was minimal. He knew about the landmines sown in this area by the Iraqis during the war three decades earlier – the woman had a fine voice that commanded attention.

Naghmeh, the Engineer’s wife, was at the centre of the table and around her was her committee. She talked of a village: ‘The new well that was dug fourteen years ago was not deep enough and the water it reaches is inadequate. The answer is for the village to go back to the old well, but that is where the mines were laid. They are not mines against tanks and personnel carriers, but against people. They are the Belgian-made PRB M35 and the NR417. Also put there were the Italian SB33 and VS50, and there are the jumping American mines, the M16 A1 and the Bulgarian PSM 1. If – if – it is possible, I will go to Ahvaz with you to demand funds for the clearance programme. It is owed to the village, which should have decent water. I will go myself.’

Across the table from her, a man and a woman, representatives of a village to the east and a half-kilometre outside the border’s restricted zone, wept quietly.

She spoke of the farmers: ‘You have good sheep, of the best quality, and good goats, but the good land where your flocks and herds should graze is denied you by the mines. You have there the Yugoslav-manufactured PMA 3, which is primarily of plastic and rubber casing. It resists the pressure of flails to detonate it, but tilts on a foot’s weight and explodes. It does not kill but takes a leg or a foot, or a manhood. The shepherd and the goatherd cannot use those fields, and cannot put their beasts onto them. You have waited too long. Too many of your families are crippled, and your children cannot be out of your sight. I will go to Susangerd and not leave until I have the guarantee of action. I can be formidable.’

The peasant farmers, who lived on a poverty breadline, wrung their hands and lacked the courage to look into her eyes.

She talked to the man and his wife, who had spent their own savings and their extended family’s money, to buy a building and develop it as a hotel because they were near to a route used by the pilgrims going towards Karbala and Najaf – the shrine of Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law of the Prophet, where each of the minarets was covered with forty thousand gold tiles. The side of the bund line that led to the border and crossed it, the tracks through the marshes on military roads constructed by the old enemy were mined, and the devices came from Bulgaria, Israel and China. The minefields were not marked and no charts existed to show their placement. The Iraqis who had put them in the ground did not care and the pilgrims would not walk or ride on a narrow track but spread across the elevated ground. Enough had been killed or crippled for no more to come. ‘I will go to Tehran if I have to. Where there is oil there is mine clearance. When the drillers and pipe-layers have to come in, the ground is cleaned. Not only are people and animals killed but the potential wealth of the area is blighted. I will demand that something is done so that pilgrims can use that route and stay at your hotel. I will burn their ears, I promise.’

The couple choked back tears, and the woman let her hand rest lightly on Naghmeh’s.

She turned to two younger women who wore headscarves but not veils. They would have come from a city and had education to go with their intelligence – as she had. ‘I have complained frequently, and will continue to do so, against the corruption that afflicts the mine-clearance work. I will not tolerate it. Corruption is a stain on the Islamic state. We cannot get the clearance teams without bribing officials first – or giving them “bonuses”. Then, when a contractor is appointed, has paid for that privilege, he cannot operate without further theft by officials. I will see whoever I have to see, and sit on their doorstep for however long I have to sit there.’

Her voice was quieter as if the effort of talking through the morning had exhausted her. She sucked in her breath and felt the pain. The silence was broken by a sob from the slighter of the younger women.

She could endure pain and extreme tiredness. She slapped her hand on the table. ‘Now, where is our action campaign? Let us consider where we can advance.’

They all knew of her illness, and that the diagnosis was terminal. They also knew that she was due to travel abroad to consult with a foreign specialist, and that her life hung by a thread. She had their love and respect. Naghmeh could have made a short speech about her condition, telling them of her certainty that they would carry on with the work of mine clearance regardless of whether or not she drove the programme. She did not. None would have believed her.

She thought few of them reckoned there would be another meeting such as this, outside her home in the warmth beside the lagoon where the birds roamed. She faced the water. It jarred that the security officer blocked part of her view, and that his weapon was displayed. .. The pain throbbed, a drum beating in her skull.

They did the charade and logged birds; some species they could name but most they could not. The spotter ’scope, used by Shagger, stood high on a tripod, and Abigail was beside him with binoculars. The sun was high enough for the heat mist to have formed.

Where they were, the marsh waters were blocked and the ground around the raised walls, bulldozed to safeguard the oil-drilling site against flooding, was bare and cracked. There were precious few birds, endangered or common, to look for and she thought they might have to resort to throwing down bread if they were to get a decent entry into the log.

They were watched, mostly by kids, but there were adults, too, men. When the first half-dozen kids had turned up, seemingly materialising from open ground without warning, and the first couple of men, Shagger had murmured, ‘Had to happen, miss, like it was written down on a tablet. Two sets of wheels and us, no escort, and out here, putting up the tripod and the telescope. Always was going to create interest… and the chance of acquisition. I don’t know how long we can sweat it out.’

She had said, ‘By now they’ll be in place and will – I hope – have their eyeball.’

The sun beat down and she sweated. They were, predictably, the main attraction. She could have hoped that the area around the devastated drilling site had been abandoned by the marsh people – that the war and the draining by the dictator, followed by persecution and uncontrolled flooding, then four years of brutal drought, had driven them away. That would have been optimistic. Harding and Hamfist were sleeping, and Corky sat by the broken gate, his face half hidden by his wraparounds, the weapon lying on his legs. By the end of the day it would come to giving out sweets and they would be wrapped in five-dollar bills. Here, co-operation was bought with a high-velocity bullet and blood in the dirt, or by shelling out bribes. Might be why she detested the place and was counting the days till she was out of it – when this piece of work was finished, wrapped up. There might now be forty at the gate.

They stood and watched. She thought they had a degree of patience unmatched anywhere she had been by any peoples she had known. They stood in the harsh light without water or food. Their entertainment was herself, Shagger and Corky, blocking the easy way into the compound with his rifle. She did not think them hostile yet, merely inquisitive. Later, they might resort to showing pictures, blown up on the photocopier, of a bustard, a bittern or a darter. If they were lucky they had another day in place. If Fortune smiled, it might be three days. Out ahead the mist settled on a horizon of flat earth and reed beds, and far away there was water – where he was. She could remember each cadence of her voice: ‘What did you do that for?’

And the answer had been that God only knew, an evasion. She did not, would not, make a habit of crouching over a strange man to check the extent of bruising and finding her hands, fingertips, running over a flat stomach and going lower, then grabbing one of his hands and dragging it behind her so that it was under her T-shirt and on her skin. Difficult for Abigail Jones to know why she had made a pitch for this quiet, sometimes taciturn, sometimes mocking man who had walked into her life. It had been a compulsion. Regretted? Shit, no.

She had not met the guy in Basra, Six, Baghdad or her last London posting who did the business for her. There had not been a lawyer, a banker or an army man who had interested her. The last had been a teacher, mathematics for fourteen-year-olds, in a Lambeth comprehensive. She’d almost lived with him – three nights or four a week. He’d had no money and no prospects, but was fun and intense. He had jacked in the job, put the pension-scheme payments on hold and sold almost everything he owned, then gone to teach – mathematics or anything – in up-country northern Cambodia. He was Peter. He’d asked her, take it or leave it, if she wanted to come with him, but that would have meant resignation and a bust career.

There hadn’t been another guy since, not in London and not here. .. none of which answered her question. On top of a sleeping-bag in a ruined concrete office building with shell holes to view the stars and glass carpeting the floor, why had she hitched up her robe and lowered herself onto him? She didn’t know. She could still taste him, or imagined it. No regrets, none. What was best, he hadn’t thanked her. He hadn’t assumed he was going into harm’s way with the dawn, and this was a little boost to courage that might have flagged. He hadn’t even seemed surprised, but had been deep in her and had said nothing. It had been good… no regrets. He wasn’t out of her mind – and was beyond the haze on the horizon. She wore a moulded earpiece that doubled as a microphone, and the transmitter/receiver was on her belt. It was her link to them, and she wouldn’t anticipate the code message coming through unless their mission was complete and successful, or they needed to abort fast.

She didn’t expect Shagger – or Hamfist, Corky or Harding – to remark on what had happened in the derelict building that night, but she wouldn’t object to his operational input. He had the experience, which gave his comments value. He was the wrong side of forty, with a little weight gathering across his belt, and he came from the extreme south west of the principality. His parents had slaved through his childhood on a subsistence hill farm, breeding sheep, White Welsh Mountain ewes. He’d gone into the army on leaving the grammar school, joined a para battalion, whereupon his father had ditched his pride and gone bankrupt. Shagger had fought in Africa and the Balkans, done time in Ireland, had been in Afghanistan in 2001 and had left the army the next year, a sergeant. He was one of the drain who had quit to make big money with the private military contractors. He knew about every yard and feature of the road from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone, but he had never quite raised sufficient funds for his goal. He intended, one day, to have the cash in the bank to buy back that farm in the Preseli hills. With each contract he took, Shagger learned more. He gave advice only when it was asked for, and she never rejected it.

She said, ‘They’re fine for the moment. Nothing hostile.’

‘They can see guns and it’s daylight, miss. They’ll chance nothing till it’s dark. They thieve, miss. Always have.’

‘To pull back is a last option.’

‘It’s the worst option, miss. Here, at least, we might be inside the Golden Hour, or on the edge of it. We have to sweat it out.’

‘Would they know about the Golden Hour?’

‘They know that back-up’s guaranteed. Act of faith to them. Where they are, they’d need the faith.’

Badger listened as Foxy murmured translations and interpretations: ‘He’s the security man, the chief. Has a limp so he’s been hurt somewhere. If he was hurt in an accident, it would have been on their roads. If he’s a military casualty it would likely have happened inside Iraq or up in Lebanon. He’s mumbling, doesn’t know what to say, except that she should have faith in God.’

A benchmark of the work of a croppie, as Badger knew it, was to have binocular or ’scope vision, camera lenses or a directional shotgun microphone aimed at a target, eavesdropping, watching, noting, and be able to strip away the armour with which people tried to shield themselves if they expected to be observed. Few did. Not many understood the qualities he brought to his work, and the capabilities of the gear. It was a basic intrusion and he didn’t care. His life was spent watching men and women, noting small private happiness, tension and moments of pleasure. He was a voyeur: he might have been standing on a street in darkness and gazing at the gaps in bathroom curtains as a target prepared to wash, or looking into lit homes and seeing bitter domestic arguments. He might have been watching a killer burn a victim’s clothing, the sharing of the cash, the arming of a group on their way to a hit, a man weeping or a guard fumbling for words to a terminal patient. The gear enabled croppies to peer inside minds and souls. It didn’t bother him. It was his work.

‘She says her committee don’t believe they can carry on without her. The mine programme will fold if she isn’t there. She’s the icon figure who demands action – she repeats that. He nods, doesn’t answer, only says something about belief in God.’

They had developed the hide through the morning. It was as good as anything Badger could remember. Normal: go in at night and do the construction stuff under cover of darkness, be cosy and covert when the light came. Abnormal: to burrow out the scrape and cover it, do the work in the sun’s glare, and have a man with security responsibilities sitting in a chair two hundred yards away. Something to be proud of. He had called the tune, and Foxy had stayed with the earphones clamped on, hadn’t acknowledged that the work was well done – was brilliant. They were on the extremity of the reeds where they were thin, and had taken over a narrow strip of the bare ground, the dried-out mud. He had worked a shallow dip for them no more than fifteen inches deep, and had made a rim wall of the soil. All of it was covered with debris he had painstakingly collected further into the reeds, the same dead fronds that hid the microphone on the mud spit. More fronds masked the cable where it came up out of the water and ran across the mud towards them. A work of art, a collector’s piece. Often the guard raised his binoculars and scanned. Then Badger had been statue still on his stomach, and the gillie suit was embedded with more reeds… There’d been no praise. He thought of Alpha Juliet. Difficult not to think of her. Impossible to imagine why she had done it, but he was glad she had.

‘He’s called Mansoor – that’s what she calls him. He says he hopes God will watch over her. She says her committee depends too much on her. She says it’s time to go and prepare the children’s food for when they come back from school. I think he’s near to tears. Right, she’s gone, and…’

He was no longer listening. Fran had been good enough to run for a few months, but he’d left and she wouldn’t have cried. There had been two girls while he was still at school, and he’d shagged one while her parents were out at the supermarket, every Friday evening, for a month, the other in the woods near the nuke-weapons factory at Burghfield… And a woman PC called Brenda, who ran the organisation side of the team that did surveillance on the gypsy camp where the tinkers who did the country-house burglaries up and down the Thames-valley corridor came from. Nothing important to him. She had been, Alpha Juliet – and there was no one to tell him why she was locked into his mind.

He wasn’t handsome, had fuck-all talk. He felt the warmth of her, and the moistness… He couldn’t have said that any woman before had mattered in his life. The heat burgeoned and his throat was crisp, dried. His eyes ached from the glare of the water, and the man sat in front of the house, the rifle across his legs. Badger’s head turned slowly as he watched, through his glasses, the reed beds, the spit where the microphone was disguised and the open ground into which he had scraped the hide. They were pressed hard together, his hip into the slack part of Foxy’s stomach wall, and Foxy’s hip bone sharp against his thigh.

Foxy whispered, ‘It surprised me, how well my Farsi’s lasted.. .’

If the man was fishing for a compliment, Badger wouldn’t take the bait. He answered, ‘It’s what you’re here for – what you’re paid for.’

‘You know why we’re here?’

‘Are you going to tell me?’

‘We’re here because they – the spooks – don’t have an asset to put in here. They would have wanted a local, some guy who could wander around and chat in the coffee house or the garage and talk to the goon guards. They don’t have one. So it’s us. There isn’t a turned Iranian they could put in and trust, and there isn’t a lieutenant of the Republican Guard, who thought Saddam was the bee’s bollocks, or a slimy little sod from the Ba’ath Party they can rely on. They’ve reached down to the bottom of the barrel, and it’s us they’ve pulled out. It’s crazy, daft, idiotic.’

‘You volunteered so stop whining.’ So close together, like lovers, that the words barely needed articulation. Badger’s murmur in Foxy’s ear, and the two camouflage head kits were almost meshed.

Foxy’s response: ‘We’re the end of the road for them or the barrel’s scrapings, whichever. And they’ll feel good. They ’ve done something – put two arseholes, daft idiots, into harm’s way. It’ll go on the papers they write and they’ll get congratulated. What chance is there that the target will walk out of his front door and shout in Farsi I can understand and no fancy dialect, to the bloody sky, “Heh, anyone there? If you are, and you’re upset about the growth in my wife’s head, you need to know I’m off in the morning to Vienna, Rome, Kiev, Stockholm, any place where there’s someone with good knife skills. Hear that?” We’ll see him go, perhaps. Where to? We’ll see farewells, tears et cetera. Where are they headed? We’ve no chance.’

‘You could have refused.’

‘And they’d have let me walk away? Grow up, young ’un. They’d have made sure it haunted me the rest of my days. No more work. Considered “unsuitable”, branded “lack of commitment”. You’re held by the short and curlies. Didn’t the lady tell you? Or wasn’t she talking too much?’

‘Best you shut your mouth.’

‘But they can have their lunch and their gin, and can congratulate themselves that they tried, were audacious, and when we crawl out of here and get back, don’t expect a load of back-slapping and gratitude. They won’t remember your name. It has no chance.’

Badger murmured, ‘Saying that because you’re scared shitless? Or do you mean it – “no chance”?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I think you’re crap. Try it again. I know you’re crap.’

He thought Foxy was close to hitting him, and they both lay motionless. Badger watched as the security man roved the area with his glasses. He didn’t know if Foxy had spoken the truth – that they had no chance, were small pawns and served other agendas.

‘I will do it, subject to satisfactory arrangements.’

He was asked what arrangements would have to be satisfactory.

The consultant had gone out of the building and loitered in front of the cafe. He was not overheard. He had dialled the number given him, had been held at the embassy’s switchboard for perhaps a half-minute, which he thought excessive, and when the call was answered he received no apology.

‘The patient must have a name. There must be a date of arrival and-’

He was interrupted. The life of the hospital and the medical school flowed past him; the rain fell and snow threatened. There was often snow when the Christmas market began in Lubeck, in the square in front of the Rathaus and beside the Marienkirche. Then it was prettier and the traders coined cash. He was not, of course, a Christian but his wife went to services most Sundays and took their daughter, and on special saints’ days he would attend with them. The patient would arrive as soon as it could be arranged, and the name would be given him when he saw the patient. Did anything else need to be ‘satisfactory’?

‘What would be the method of payment? These are expensive procedures. We require guarantees, money lodged in escrow, a banker’s draft, a credit card or-’

A hardening of a faraway distorted voice. Had he forgotten who he was? What he owed? Did greed govern him?

‘I’m not talking about myself. There are technicians, scans, X-rays. Assume that surgery is a possibility. Then you have theatre, and intensive care.’ His temper was shortening. ‘The patient cannot have that type of intervention, hours of it, then be put out into a winter’s night.’

He would be told about financial arrangements when the timing and date of the patient’s journey to north Germany were known.

The call ended. He pocketed his phone, went inside the building and sucked in a long breath. He wrapped a smile of confidence and competence around his face and greeted his first patient of the day.

His wife waved to him. From his car, he watched her go. All the sentries and security guards knew her. If they hadn’t, there would have been bedlam at his stopping so close to the main gates and inside the concrete teeth placed to prevent access to a car bomber. Gabbi watched her and, for a moment, almost unseen, his lips moved in to kiss her. She swung the stick in front of her legs and went to the guard who controlled the pedestrians’ entrance. With her free hand, she would have gestured towards the ID in the plastic pouch that hung from her neck. All the sentries and guards would greet her – they saw her coming and going, swinging the white stick and getting to work or heading home, as if there were no impediment in her life. He shared her with many. He left the ministry building and took a route from the city to the south.

There was a complex at Giv’at Herzl that had a small-arms firing range, soundproofed, at the rear.

Those who used the range, as many women as men, were from the National Dignitary Protection Unit and the Secret Service, and there were soldiers who did bodyguard duties for senior military staff. The instructors knew most of the client base. Some fired at circle targets, others used life-sized figures. Gabbi had asked for a figure, a head wrapped in a keffiyeh. He did the fast slide of the pistol from a waist holster, then the double-tap shots for the head. They did not consider chest shots, or those aimed at the stomach, to be of any value. The instructors taught that bullets should be aimed at the skull. That day, his weapon was the Baby Eagle, the Jericho 941F, with a nine-shot magazine, manufactured inside the country. The instructors would never have been told of the role he played in the affairs of Israel – would not have expected or wanted it. They had seen the clients come and go, and could make judgements on the work the shooters did, what they trained for. Gabbi used a different technique on the range from that employed by protection or those who hoped to be close enough to take down a suicide bomber. They fired in screened booths, and only the instructors would have seen Gabbi with his back to the target shape, then producing the weapon from under his lightweight coat, spinning, whipping the pistol up, aiming, steadying it, holding it cleanly, doing the squeeze – and it was double-tap. The instructors would tell him, each time he fired twice, where his bullets had struck.

They had nothing to teach Gabbi.

He would not have claimed his skills were too great for him to need practice. Sweat ran on him, clogging at the edges of the ear baffles. He was a man apart and did not laugh with others and had no friends there, but he had the instructors’ respect.

It was somewhere to go, somewhere to pass the time while he waited for the call – and he never tired of the cordite whiff or the rippling recoil through his wrists, forearms and elbows, and the kick of the Baby Eagle.

The instructors could have made a judgement on his work because he always fired at the head, was only interested in head hits that would drop a man dead.

Others would not have coped with the waiting, but Gabbi could.. . Later, after a wasted day, he would be at the ministry’s gate, watching for the woman, pretty, with the white stick, and would pick up Leah. All the shots he had fired had been at the head, and all would have killed.

Time to think, time to reflect and time to brood. Len Gibbons waited and the phones stayed silent.

Other officers in the Towers, with time on their hands, would have been with Sarah in the single room allocated him at the Club. Not Len Gibbons and not Sarah.

She had made fresh coffee, and brought with it a plate of biscuits. He owed his wife, Catherine, too much – not that it made a jot of difference in Sarah’s case as she rebuffed all advances from whichever direction and had done since a captain in the Life Guards had dumped her in favour of a girl from the Intelligence Corps – that had been after the first banns were read. He was hugely in debt to Catherine, and doubted he would ever pay it off. He was – to everyone who knew him in the Towers – Len Gibbons. When he was young, and Catherine was his new wife and the world had seemed at his feet, he could have anticipated that, within a few years, he would be Leonard Gibbons and on a fast track to the higher ranks. His career had come to a juddering halt and the scars were still on his back. But for that impact, he might have climbed to great things, and had not. By a thread, by a fingernail, he had survived – damaged – a professional debacle and she had stood by him when the scale of his failure had made him nearly suicidal. With her encouragement, he had hung on, and had known that on his record was the condemnation of what had been codenamed Antelope, that the best he could hope for was to be labelled ‘diligent’ or, worse, ‘conscientious’. The debt ran wider than his wife: it permeated the building from which he worked. He could, therefore, be given any bag of excrement and the safety of his hands would ensure that the job was done.

If he set his mind to it, he still had good recall of that bloody border, the watchtowers, the dogs and the guns.

He called through the door that the coffee was excellent, and thanked her for the biscuits. His phone stayed silent and he waited.

The Engineer explained to the brigadier the first principles of the bombs he had made, which were now stockpiled and kept in underground storage. They would use ‘low explosives’ and he spoke of TATP’s contents: triacetone triperoxide had minimal scent, emitted no vapours, and would go undetected by even the best-trained sniffer dogs. He told the brigadier – who sat stern, rapt, not interrupting, as if he recognised the privilege of access to a man of renown – about the blast effects of the larger-scale bombs he worked on. There was, first, the ‘positive phase’, when the windows of buildings adjacent to the bomb were blown in, then the ‘negative phase’, when the debris and glass shards were airborne and dragged out again to refill the vacuum created by the blast. Calm, emotionless, he told the officer – who would have responsibility for the defence of the province if the troops of the Great Satan were unwise enough to invade the Islamic Republic with ground forces – of the effects of explosives detonating: ‘blast lung’ injuries from the thrust into the ears, nose and throat; more injuries from the high-velocity impact of the ball bearings incorporated into the bomb and the glass splinters raining down on a street or flying inside buildings. Further injuries, as soldiers of the enemy were thrown across a street and careered into buildings or cars, their brains bouncing against the inner wall of their skulls.

With a dry smile, he indicated a photograph on the wall of an American soldier’s helmet: an arrow pointed out of a ventilation hole in its side. He said that such openings provided a conduit that concentrated blast into the hole, like the driving in of a nail. He spoke, too, of the medium-term damage to troops’ psychology, if they had been exposed to situations where bombs were widespread, particularly if there had been casualties in their unit: a large number of enemy combatants in the Iraq war had gone home with post-traumatic stress disorder, as sick as if they had been severely wounded, and would not return. The brigadier grimaced as the Engineer finished and told him that he – almost alone – was responsible for the defeat of the coalition inside Iraq. His weapons had destroyed the will and resolve of the enemy. He had smiled and shrugged. Many this year had come to his office, had sat where the brigadier sat, and congratulated him on his achievement.

What news was there of the war in Afghanistan? Did it affect his work? the brigadier asked.

He said it was a low priority, that the devices used by the resistance were simpler than those employed in Iraq… They had been taught, had been supplied with chemicals and explosives, and he had written papers, but he kept them at arms’ distance. It was Iraq that had mattered, where the true victory had been won.

Then they drank sweet tea – with cardamom, saffron, rose water and liberally spooned sugar – from small glasses, and smoked.

The brigadier raised it. He had heard of the illness of the Engineer’s wife, and was privy to plans for sending her abroad for consultation and, hopefully, treatment. They talked about suitcases, what sort and size would be best for the journey. The brigadier had recently been in Damascus with new baggage and could offer advice.

When the tray had been cleared, the Engineer spoke to the brigadier of the theory of roadside thermobaric bombs, the ability of fuel-air explosions to devastate, and their potential inside trucks and saloon cars that could be driven by a ‘martyr’ into the doorway of a building. There, the blast would be confined and enhanced. He was working on that, on miniaturisation of the circuit boards for the explosive formed projectile, on extending the range of passive infrared beams and… He yawned, then flushed, embarrassed. He apologised.

He was told he had nothing to apologise for.

He said, confiding, that it was difficult to focus on his work.

He was asked if he knew an itinerary.

He hoped to hear that day, or the next, when he would travel with his wife.

It had simmered, but had been below boiling.

The spat stayed with them, but was carried along on whispers, almost soundless, and the voices played like soft winds on the front of their camouflaged headpieces.

Foxy said he needed water. Badger said he had drunk his ration for the morning.

Foxy said the biscuits tasted foul. Badger said he thought they were good.

Foxy said they should move to their right, maybe forty paces, and be deep in the reeds for greater protection. Badger said it was important they had an eyeball on the property and could ping the target.

Foxy had looked at his watch and wondered, barely aloud, what his Ellie was doing at that moment. He had started to relate how they had met and- Badger had cut him off, said he wasn’t interested.

Foxy hissed, ‘Are you contrary for the sake of it? You think I want to be here with you – the fuck I do – the most difficult, awkward oppo ever given me? I make a remark about my wife and you’re not interested.’

‘Correct. I’m not interested in your wife.’

‘Who’s special. Who I miss. Who I-’

‘Not interested.’

And Badger, as usual, spoke the truth. He wasn’t interested in Foxy’s wife and didn’t want to talk about her. He was interested in the one-storey house of concrete blocks, the big front windows, which were open, the door, ajar, the chairs and table outside in the shade. And he was interested in the guard, who sometimes sat on a chair and sometimes walked, sometimes coughed and spat, sometimes smoked, and who had now started to fish with a short rod, worms and a float. He watched the boat that was tied near the little concrete pier. He saw the wife, who was dying and walked with a stick, and the children who were chided by an older woman when they screamed too loudly and too close to their mother… If he and Foxy didn’t talk, they didn’t argue.

He knew that the long, motionless hours played havoc with Foxy’s knee and hip joints, but couldn’t bring himself to sympathise. Hours passed and the sun cooked them. He thought how vulnerable they were, vulnerable enough for him to bloody near wet himself… He would never again volunteer, never again shove his hand up.

The explosion burst in Badger’s ears.

Chapter 7

Foxy knew the sound of an artillery shell exploding. There had only been a slight squirm of the young ’un’s body but it was enough to show him Badger was ignorant of weapons’ detonations. It gave him pleasure. He twisted his head slowly, cranked his neck round far enough to see the smoke pall, first stationary, then climbing into the clear blue of the sky.

It was off to the right, near to the raised bund line. It rose, spread and began to lose shape. Silence fell.

He felt, now, a heavy pressure on his shoulder – as if a hand was spread wide and forced down. He could move only his head, not his upper body. Badger had hold of him. His pleasure at Badger’s initial reaction had dissipated. He couldn’t move, was treated like a passenger who wouldn’t know how to react in a crisis and needed to be held still. What did the man think he was going to do – jump up, yell and bloody run? He couldn’t free himself of the hand, but could manoeuvre his head, tilt his neck and look to the front. There was shouting.

The goon, the one he had identified as Mansoor – who had the rank of an officer and was in charge of security, obviously – was on his feet, out of the chair quick enough for it to have toppled behind him, and there were yelled instructions coming into Foxy’s earphones. The guard was to be called out, weapons drawn from the armoury, the sergeant to be found, a patrol prepared. The pressure of the hand on his shoulder eased, a gradual weakening of the force.

He thought that Badger regarded him as old and second class.

The officer had stopped yelling and now stood rooted in front of the fallen chair. His binoculars were at his eyes and he traversed up and down from the bund line to the reed beds and on to the far end of the open ground. The lenses would have covered – with each sweep – the apparently snagged mess of dead reeds in which the microphone was hidden. They would have gone over the water under which the cable was sunk, across the sand where it was buried and travelled on to the heaps of dried leaves that the wind would seem to have whipped together. In the lenses’ view would be the shoulders of the gillie suits, and the tops of the headgear, and perhaps the hands caked with mud, and the optics that had scrim netting round them and were tilted down so that the sun didn’t hit the glass. It was a test.

A good one.

Instinct told Foxy to duck his head further, chin against chest, fill his face with mud and lower the headgear the last half-inch that was possible. Not to look… not to dare to see whether the glasses had moved on from the points that could identify him and Badger.

They did. He watched and the glasses scanned where the microphone was, the cable was buried and where they were… He wriggled. Couldn’t help himself.

It started as a moan, had gained in pitch and was now a scream.

He had to twist his pelvis, lift his hips and backside three inches, get the bottle under his crotch and feel the relief.

The voice in his face had a harder edge. ‘What the fuck’s the matter with you?’

‘I was pissing.’

‘Couldn’t you wait?’


‘Not the best moment, under close observation, an alert. Tie a bloody knot in it.’

Not the best moment. The scream had raised the birds in panic flight, disturbing them more than the explosion had. He shifted the bottle so that he could cap it, then pushed it back under himself, using a knee to get it down by his boots. They were still wet from the insertion march, but manageable – wet boots and socks were the least of the problem.

Not the best moment because of the screams, now behind them, and the sight of troops jogging along the bund line. Could have been a half-dozen and the officer was on the low pier that jutted out into the lagoon, waving directions.

He had had to use the bottle.

Men were coming close and frightened little voices edged nearer. Carefully, minimum movement, Foxy raised a forefinger and eased one of the earpieces back. He had, now, the officer in his left ear and the noises off to the right, stumbling, curses and whimpers, in the other.

He could see the troops on top of the bund line. Most had rifles and two had machine-pistols.

The woman had come out and used her stick to take her weight as she made her way from the door to where the officer stood. She asked if a mine had exploded and was told that it was more likely an artillery shell, maybe 105mm calibre. She asked if pilgrims had detonated it – he heard the quaver in her voice and assumed it was concern, not the severity of her illness. The officer said it was more likely to have been thieves – there were dumps in the marshes from the old war and this one might have been stockpiled Iraqi munitions, perhaps for the artillery pieces of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. She knew of the abandoned dumps… He sent her away, but with courtesy, and urged that the children be kept inside: all the family should be at the back of their house, not by the front windows. That made sense to Foxy Foulkes, familiar enough with the ways of the world in Iran, or in Iraq, to comprehend why an educated woman and her young children should stay away from their windows and not see what… There had been enough of it in Iraq when he had served there, and the ammunition technical officers had spoken of it.

They said that the main targets for looters were the copper wires from telephone cables and the casings from artillery shells. If the shells were live they would reckon to know where the detonator was, belt it away with a sledge and free the casing. The casings made good money in the souk, and if a few entrepreneurs didn’t make it to the market, God would take care of their families. The ATOs said they saw too many broken bodies – limbs left up trees, guts smeared on walls – when the sledge hammer had hit the wrong part of the shell. The casings could be brass or chromate steel or anodysed aluminium. A primer and a propellant of black powder were inside the casing; at the tip, the warhead might have held high explosive or mustard gas.

The next scream was closer and the hushing increasingly desperate of those around the casualty. They might have been stampeding animals as they ran. Foxy had lost sight of the soldiers who had come along the bund line, and he realised that the fugitives were driven by a cordon of guns towards the reed bank that protected him and the young ’un, the open ground and the water either side of the raised mud on which they had their hide. Some luck, the way the dice came down. Foxy thought his freedom depended on the young ’un’s skills. Might be more than his freedom: might be his life. The skills were those of concealment.

What Badger had done with the scrape in the mud and the camouflage covering it, the mud on what little of their skin might be visible, the weaving of dead foliage into the gillie suits and the headgear might be good enough to save him – and might not. It had been painstaking. At the time, before dawn, Foxy had thought it exhibitionist shit, pernickety little movements that tested the weight and colour of individual fronds before discarding them or threading them into the suits. If the work was not done carefully enough, there would be a rifle barrel against the nape of his neck. His bergen was on his right side and the other on Badger’s left. He himself lay on the spotter ’scope and its small tripod.

The first of them, in flight, broke through the wall of the reed bed.

They stopped dead in their tracks.

They wouldn’t have known where they were running to. They had lost cover, were in a cul-de-sac as far as flight went, boxed in.

The stomach wall of the one who had screamed was split open and his T-shirt was dragged up. He seemed to be trying to hold in his intestines with his crossed forearms. Another man had hold of his elbow and tried to support him, but scarlet fluid was running onto his trousers. Two more carried a dead man, who hung like a rag doll in their grip. Another, with ashen cheeks, hopped forward in their wake, holding upright a teenage boy in a long bright shirt. It was bloodstained from navel to knee. He had to hop because his left leg had been taken off immediately below the knee.

They would have seen the open ground, and the water, and they would have heard – those not screaming or moaning – the pursuit behind them in the reed bed, and might have seen, across the lagoon, the officer waving his little force forward, and heard the bawled orders. They crumpled, all of them, into the mud.

Soldiers came through the reeds, and hope died.

One walked so close that his foot must have come down on the young ’un’s bergen. It was a dust-smeared boot and would have sagged as it stepped on the lower half of the rucksack, but the rifle was aimed at the gang, cowering, and the next step missed Badger’s feet.

He took little breaths, just the barest amount of air, while ants or small spiders half drowned in the sweat on his face. He endured the irritations. He had forgotten, almost, that Badger was beside him. He didn’t hear any breathing or feel any movement, but he heard the officer’s shout across the water. He couldn’t see him now but imagined that he cupped his hands in front of his mouth to give the order.

Foxy gagged. He had heard the order. It would have been faint to the soldiers, but it was loud and clear to Foxy.

He tried to swallow but there was no moisture in his throat. Worse, vomit seemed to creep up to the back of his mouth. Foxy had been with the army in Northern Ireland, in the bad days, when feelings had run high with the military, and he had been with the interrogators at the Basra airport complex when tempers were lost, but he had never heard an order given by a uniformed man such as the one that drifted over the still waters of the lagoon and was crystal sharp in his ear.

They were shot one by one.

It wasn’t a killing where an automatic weapon was aimed in their general direction. Foxy couldn’t see it but assumed that the sergeant – a short man with a machine pistol, in a tunic a size too small for him – had done the shooting. Single shots. A stench of cordite. A whimper from some, a curse from others, quiet from a few. Under any circumstances would Foxy have intervened? No. They could have been raping grandmothers, pushing down hooded prisoners onto soft drink bottles so that the neck penetrated, and he would have stayed silent.

The corpses were dragged away.

He heard the slither of the bodies on wet ground, then the cracking of reed stems as they were pulled through denser concentrations. Later, when those sounds ended, he heard the far-away splashes of burial in water, and wondered if they had found stones to weight them. They would have been Arabs, most likely from Iraq. They had come across the border because this was more likely to be virgin ground for the collectors of shell cases. Their crime was to have crossed the frontier, and what had made it a capital offence was that they had strayed into a most sensitive part of the restricted zone.

It was a dangerous thought, one he had not entertained during his four-month posting to the interrogation team. It risked sapping his commitment. What in God’s name had he and his comrades been doing there? What were they doing there now?

What had they been doing there in days gone by when British squaddies had patrolled, Yanks had driven by in their armour-plated carriers, the foot-soldier was pleased to get a ten-dollar bill for putting the roadside bomb in place, and some damn man – who had glasses, good-features, a fine-looking wife who was dying and kids who were frightened – had laboured at a bench, making the bombs that took the lives in this place, which stank of donkey, dog, fly and human shit? The rant rioted in his mind. What were they doing there? The answer: would need a cleverer man than Foxy. He could have praised Badger for making the scrape, constructing the hide, saving them, but he didn’t.

Perhaps he was too preoccupied to hand out praise. He would have given his left testicle bollock for the chance to hold on to Ellie, cling to her – would have given the whole handful of his tackle for the chance to hold her and be loved. Fractionally, beside him, Badger shifted, his arms moved and then his elbow dug sharply into Foxy’s ribcage. He passed Foxy a flapjack. Foxy ate the flapjack, then said, wiping crumbs, ‘Life’s cheap, worth nothing, especially an Arab’s. Iranians would see it like shooting a diseased dog. Don’t expect there to be a court of human rights getting steamed up about it.’

Badger said nothing. They should have been bonded by the experience, but Foxy realised that neither would offer anything to the other.

The officer was back on his chair and his glasses were at his chest. The ducks and waders were again on the water, and the officer had his float out, watching it. The woman had come out from the house with her mother, who carried the washing basket, and the kids had their plastic toys. The guards had resumed their watch from the shade of the palm trees. Hard to believe it had happened, that anything had happened. He thought he and Badger would not have been so fortunate. It would not have been quick: interrogation, torture, slow execution – and not by a bullet. He had no idea what he was doing there, then and now, what was his business.

He would have liked to talk about Ellie, but the man beside him had no interest in her.

The washing was pegged out in the sunshine and the children played. The officer caught two small fish, which he unhooked and threw back. Nothing was said and nothing was learned.

Then the shivers started, rustling the old fronds that covered them, and he couldn’t help himself – so nearly dead, and so damned isolated.

‘The marsh area is one of the great wonders of the world. It is a unique and precious place. We’re doing everything we can to protect your homes, keep you safe, and to maintain the habitat of many centuries…’

The crowd had more than doubled, might have trebled. Abigail Jones was at the broken gate. She had put a scarf over her hair and still wore the loose cool robe. She had a bag, a local craftwork effort, slung on her shoulder and in it were her communications, her medical pack and her pistol, with two spare magazines, three flash grenades and a purse with some money. She had reflected that the bag contained all that the modern young woman needed if she was promenading in sunny Iraq… Different from what would be in the bags of the girls she had been at school with or shared benches with in college lecture rooms. She’d have said that the comms, the pack with the dressings and morphine syringes were the most important items – not the weapons because she had Harding behind her: the M-16 would be slung across his chest, his thumb would be on the safety, his finger on the trigger guard, and there would be a bullet in the breach.

‘… We’re trying to let the whole world know how beautiful, and how important, are the marshlands where you live. We want to establish the extent of the wildlife that has survived the war with Iran, the persecution by Saddam and now the drought. We need to say with accuracy what birds are here and what animals. We don’t want to interfere in any way with your lives. The whole world knows of the hospitality of the madan people, but we ask that you leave us to count the birds and other creatures.’

If they believed that shit they’d believe anything. They didn’t. They were close to her. There was no hostility in the eyes, but the sort of deadened dullness that came from poverty, hardship, and the sense that an opportunity had presented itself. Two vehicles, good for stripping; radios, binoculars and telescopes that would fetch useful money in the souk at al-Amara; weapons that would augment those filched from previous conflicts fought out in the marshes – she had heard that old Turkish rifles retrieved after the battle of al-Qurna, December 1914 and British-issued Lee Enfields were still seen on a tribesman’s shoulder. There were also food, medical supplies and money. Little whistles of breath came between Harding’s teeth, his way when he was tense. He would have known she was talking shit and convincing none of them, but she had started and would finish, and her Arabic was fair enough for her to be understood.

‘… We ask you, please, to leave us so that the birds and the creatures are not disturbed and we can count and observe them. Later, when we have finished, we will reward your co-operation generously. We’re doing this for you.’

She thought she had sounded so hollow.

They gazed back at her. They might decide that she and her guards were weak and rush the gate, might decide that they could shift around the fence – down in many places – infiltrate and overwhelm, or they might conclude it best to wait till darkness, not many hours away. The eyes stripped her. She had – like everyone who did a Baghdad posting – read the works of the explorers, mostly British from a half-century or a century before, who lauded the culture of the madan men and the lifestyle of many millennia. They would kill her, steal from her body – maybe rape her after death – and blood lust would determine that the bodies of Corky, Shagger, Hamfist and Harding were mutilated. It wasn’t political, nothing to do with the offensive intrusion of a foreign army. It was all about the economic necessity of survival, requiring items of value to be taken to the souk at al-Amara, even Basra, and flogged off so that a new widescreen television could be bought with the generator to power it.

She smiled to the front and said, in English from the side of her mouth, ‘Not an overwhelming response. I’m getting nowhere.’

‘It wasn’t my shout, ma’am.’

It had been Abigail Jones’s decision to seek out the abandoned exploration site, and the more reliable maps showed no settlements near to it. There had been no alternative. Actually, she didn’t know Harding’s given name, and knew less about him than she did about any of the rest of her detail. She had never learned what military units he had been with – airborne, armour, marines, military police? He stayed apart from the banter of the others, but when he spoke it was worth her while to hear him out. All that was personal about Harding – who had been with Proeliator Security for eight years – was in his wallet, a photograph of a woman: a frail face under sparse grey hair, not his mother but the aunt who had brought him up in abject penury somewhere in the Midwest. She thought that, when this was over, he’d hit the Russian whores in the Dubai hotels. He was the smartest of the team, immaculate each day in his fatigues, and careful. She liked that, valued it.

‘I don’t see this as sustainable.’

‘When they’re hungry enough, ma’am, or thirsty, they’ll come. Could be tomorrow or the day after, could be tonight or in half an hour. We’d have to drop a hell of a number of them to win.’

‘Not what we’re here for – it would be a disaster. Don’t even think about it.’

She kept the smile fixed, but none of them stepped a half-pace back, and nobody answered her. If they’d heard Harding’s voice, recognised him as American, he might not be killed but sold on. There were chickens in cages in the souk, waiting to be sold and slaughtered, goats and sheep that were worth good money. They’d get a better price for the American than they would for Corky, Shagger and Hamfist. She turned to Harding. ‘Talk to me.’

‘It’ll be hard to stay here, ma’am, but here is within an acceptable distance of our people. Further back, wherever that’s possible, is not acceptable. Already they’re hung out, rags in the wind. I don’t see an option, hard as it is staying our ground.’

‘I hear you.’

‘My opinion, ma’am, it’s not possible – and the other guys would say it – to leave them out there beyond help. Wouldn’t be able to hold my head high again.’

‘Then we’ll hack it. Somehow. Thank you.’

They might be lucky and they might not. They might have time, the angels singing with them, and they might not. She bit her lip.

‘Have I spoken out of turn, ma’am?’

She shook her head. He had spoken with politeness, respect, but had given a clear message – rags in the wind – and two men far forward couldn’t be left, after guarantees had been given. She had little sense of honour, obligation, when she gave the Service’s word, but her men would have believed in necessary trust, and she had felt the younger man against her body, inside it.

‘Hack it and sweat it out.’ She walked away from the gate, and considered how many dollars to feed out now, how many later.

The consultant phoned Berlin. He leaned back in his chair and gazed through the window at the sleet spattering the glass. He gave the switchboard the name and was asked his own.

‘My name is Steffen. I am calling from Lubeck.’

The connection was made. He didn’t waste time on pleasantries. He began with the costs, in euros. There was the fee for his own time, for the clinic nurses, for the scanner, and the fee for X-rays, for the staff operating the scanner and the radiology team. He continued with the potential sums required if the examination showed that a stereo-tactic was possible and that an operation had a chance of success, then added, ‘You should have no anxiety that we would conduct the procedure merely to gain the payments when we have no hope of a favourable outcome. We have a long waiting list. We only take a patient into theatre when there are grounds for optimism.’

The numbers were in front of him and bounced in his eyes. A consultation and examination – and a verdict that denied hope – would cost thousands of euros. Surgery, then close supervision in intensive care and a further period of convalescence would add up to tens of thousands. He said that debit cards could be used, in advance, but not credit cards or cheques; a money order taken out on a German bank would be acceptable.

Were discounts available to the Islamic Republic? He said that his own remuneration might be subject to a realistic adjustment, but all other fees were non-negotiable. He had made provisional reservations for facilities on the following Monday.

The fees were agreed.

He finished, ‘Such a reservation will attract comment because, as yet, the patient has no identity. I am not interested in the patient’s name, but would be grateful for one that matches a passport and the medical records brought from Tehran. I would suggest a name is furnished as quickly as possible, or suspicion will be aroused. We are talking about an initial appointment for nine in the morning, Monday.’ He allowed a whiff of sarcasm. ‘I trust that finding a name for the patient will not prove too great a problem.’

The consultant rang off. He had pushed to the limits, but he had won nothing, and danced to their tune.

In his office, Len Gibbons moved paper round his desk, sent it in clockwise circles, the other way, then north, south, east and west. The phone did not ring. The sheets were the contents of two files, cardboard and downloaded from the computer. The phone did not ring because there was – obviously – nothing to report from that far-away front line, nothing of significance. It was the life of intelligence officers, such as Len Gibbons, who handled men and women who were sent across borders and were at the extremities of survival, that the phone only rang when matters reached breaking point. He liked to have paper on his desk and regarded the screen as a poor substitute. Through the door, which was open, he could see Sarah was at her desk, typing briskly, not in the style of his own battering two fingers. She would be busying herself with the detail of the accounts for the operation – wise, sensible, and mind-destructively dull. Nor had there been contact from the Towers.

The paper he moved anti-clockwise was headlined Joseph Paul Foulkes. It wasn’t the first time he had read the resume of a biography, or the tenth, and wouldn’t be the last. Foxy to his friends – not many of them. Aged 51, brought up in West Yorkshire, grammar-school educated, joining the local Police at eighteen marrying Liz (Elizabeth Joyce Routledge), a hospital worker, fathering two daughters, and specialising with the force in the elite Covert Rural Observation Post unit. Noticed. Advised that a careerenhancing move would be a transfer to the Metropolitan Police and Special Branch, then sent to Northern Ireland and given commendations for his work in dangerous country. A flair for languages. Courses at a language laboratory in Whitechapel, one on one, then six months of cramming in the culture aspects at the School of Oriental and African Studies, then Bristol University, and the military’s Beaconsfield camp, culminating in a useful knowledge of Farsi, the principal tongue of the Iranian diplomats based in the capital. Where they met contacts – woodlands, parked cars, remote country hotels, restaurants and lorry drivers’ cafes – he used the shotgun microphones or the larger parabolic versions and listened. Twice he had provided evidence leading to conviction and imprisonment. The marriage had not survived. Posted to Basra, Nov 03-Feb 04 for work with Intelligence and Interrogation, utilising his language skills in Farsi. Second wife was Ellie (Eleanor Daphne Wilson), now aged 33, employed by Naval Procurement in Bath. Remains a serving police officer, with good reputation, running CROP skills courses. Summary: Reliable, self-opinionated, wealth of experience. Gibbons would say that Foxy Foulkes was as good as any spewed up by the computers – he was what he had, and almost as old as himself.

Gibbons could not imagine, or have survived, the privations of where he had despatched the man.

No call came through from the Towers. No colleague rang in to offer moral support. He was isolated. He could have contaminated others so they had, effectively, consigned him to the leper colony. He had the funds, the contacts, the links, and was cast adrift. If it all fouled up it would be deniable in the Towers, and a whisper would be passed that ‘A junior official overreached himself, exceeded his powers, acted with no authorisation’. The great and the good would wash their hands of him. And if it succeeded?

The paper manoeuvred clockwise was headed Daniel George Baxter. It said he did not have friends, was generally known as Badger, and was 28 years old. He had been brought up by his parents, Paul and Debbie Baxter, on the outskirts of Reading. His father sold second-hand cars and his mother took care of the books; they lived at Burghfield close to the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Schooled at a comprehensive and regarded as an under-achiever; criticised in school-leaving report as a non-contributor. Accepted into the Thames Valley Police in 2001 and initial reports described him as quiet, resourceful and utterly dependable. What had changed? Gibbons could almost have recited it – he’d read it often enough. One referee had been a doctor, an obsessional ‘birder’, who treated Baxter’s parents. Baxter had taken him to flooded gravel pits west of Reading where he had led him, on his stomach, closer than he’d imagined possible to the perch from which a kingfisher dived; he had raved about the mind-set and calm of the applicant. A second referee had been a local accountant who prepared the business’s final tax papers, and whom Baxter had taken to the Kennet where they had sat through a summer evening watching a female otter with her cubs, feeding and playing; he had written of the young man’s patience and dedication. Had been taken into the force CROP unit at 22, extraordinarily young, after three years as an undistinguished beat constable. Had found his vocation: court evidence for a narcotics ‘untouchable’ at Wantage, and the principal surveillance on a tinkers’ site at Windsor, doubling as a thieves’ kitchen. Had been drafted into the West Country regional office of the Box. Reported to have the highest standards of professionalism. Not academic, not particularly intelligent, but an operator of genuine class. Almost teetotal, does not smoke. No known hobbies but holidays are spent hiking, alone, in the west of Scotland.

If they won through – him on the back of Foxy and Badger, in co-operation with the Cousin and the Friend – he would be able to go back to the Towers, to a place dedicated to ‘need to know’. Word would have seeped through the cracks in the walls and he would be the star of the moment. Few would know what he had done, what had been gained, only that a triumph lay at the Service’s feet. For many years, almost the totality of his career, a catastrophe in the terms of intelligence gathering had dogged him. Triumph, wherever it was to be found, would help to wipe away dim memories of the watchtowers, fences and deceits of the trade… but it would be on the backs of those two men, Foxy and Badger.

He was skilled at judging others, gutting their files, and could assess himself: he still suffered from a cruelty in the youth of his career, seemed to make a virtue of dullness and reliability, and kept his passions covert from work colleagues. He had the chance, now, to walk tall in the corridors of the Towers and take what he thought was his rightful place on the benches of those with influence… if two men performed, if luck favoured them, and if the dice rolled well, if

The telephone didn’t ring, and he moved the papers until they seemed to have little meaning. Then he looked at the pictures Sarah had pasted on the walls, and an outline of a face gazed down at him. It had no eyes, nose or mouth and was an enemy… He couldn’t imagine where they were, Foxy and Badger, or how they were.

She was in front of him, inside the bakery, waiting to be served. He and Beryl were next in the queue, and he must have banged her elbow with the sleeve that held the two parts of the pole that carried the standard of his Royal British Legion branch. She turned, and he recognised her. She smiled, and he sensed that Beryl didn’t understand.

‘Hello,’ Doug Bentley said. ‘So, you’re back again.’

‘I come to quite a few,’ she answered, and gave a little shrug. ‘Afterwards I get some bread here.’

It had been a big turn-out that day. He and Beryl had done their usual thing. One bus from their own village into Swindon, then the 12 from Swindon to Wootton Bassett. They had met friends – the new colleagues they had come to know from their journeys to the town… too many of those journeys.

He did not think it impertinent to ask: ‘Are you often here, in the town?’

She said, ‘Only when they’re bringing the heroes through. It’s so moving, so emotional. I come when I can. I always see you.’

He had his position, with his standard, in the line and opposite the war memorial. He was well placed each time and faced the relatives who had brought flowers, usually roses from the florist behind the library. ‘I wouldn’t miss it,’ Doug Bentley said. ‘It’s a responsibility I’ve been given by our branch to be here. The way I see it, I’d be letting them down, those coming through, if I wasn’t here, if I just reckoned to be too busy. It’s a responsibility and a privilege.’

‘You’re right.’

The customer at the counter had paid, picked up the paper bag with chocolate caramel slices and now eased out of her way. She asked for a loaf and he took a step forward. Beryl was fidgeting in her purse for coins. It had been a big turn-out because of the work the serviceman had done in Afghanistan. Ammunition technical officer – explosive ordnance disposal – down on hands and knees, defusing roadside bombs. Many photographs of him, young, a sergeant, had been held up by relatives, and posters with messages of love and admiration. So many of those who came through Wootton Bassett had been cut down by the bombs, and this man had lost his life in trying to make the wretched things safe. In his own military service – Pay Corps, National Service, never out of the UK – Doug Bentley had never come across any officer or NCO who would have attracted the level of support that the bomb men had when the bell tolled in the High Street, the hearse came up the incline and the funeral director walked with his top hat off and his staff in his hand. When the relatives had had their chance to put the flowers on the roof and touch the shiny black bodywork, that day, there had been rivulets of rain running down through the flowers, and tears cascading down faces. Doug Bentley had had his head lowered in respect and his eye had been on the black ribbon at the top of the pole above his standard. He did not know why good men, so loved and held in such regard, needed to chance their lives in defusing dangerous devices out in the middle of deserts, and in ditches beside fields.

She paid. She faced him and smiled. ‘I’ve changed my hair. Fancy you recognising me.’

He’d known her because of the chain round her neck and the name in gold letters hanging above her blouse, resting on the skin where the cleavage started.

He lied, with a grin: ‘I’m good with faces – and good with names, Ellie.’ He didn’t say he recognised her because the buttons of her blouse, worn under an open winter coat, were out of order, as if they had been fastened in a hurry.

She was gone, and the shop’s doorbell rang as she closed the door behind her. He asked for a loaf, a cob.

His wife’s voice grated in his ear: ‘She’s been shagging again, hasn’t she? It’s that tart you spoke to in the summer. A woman can always tell. She’s wearing a wedding ring, so it’s a boyfriend she’s been shagging, and she’ll have a husband who’s being two-timed and is too pathetic to know it.’

‘Can you not, Foxy – for fuck’s sake – stop your hand moving?’

‘I’m trying.’

‘Can’t you try harder?’

Rare for Badger to criticise, and rare for him to be with an oppo he hadn’t chosen, doing continuous stags with only faint chances of a doze, not proper sleep. Last time it had been like a holiday-camp talent contest, except that Ged hadn’t been stripped down to a bikini. He had chosen his oppo after going to the line manager and complaining they’d shown out because George had coughed in a bush and they’d had to bloody run: George was dumped; feet didn’t touch the ground. He would have preferred a rookie with him now, someone who had no knowledge of the tradecraft of covert rural work, who would take orders and do as he was instructed, and who had been there only to listen for Farsi talk. Badger had good hearing, and the shake of the hand beside him was an increasing irritation, like a dripping tap. They’d had the confession about the language.

‘I can’t stop it.’

‘You’re tired, I’m tired. You’re hungry and thirsty, so am I. You’re stressed, I’m stressed. You’re shaking, I’m not.’

‘I’m doing my best.’

‘Not good enough. Try biting it.’

The confession had been the final issue. He could almost take the shake of Foxy’s hand, with the rustle of the dead fronds. It was what he had said to Badger that had made a tipping point. He’d hidden it, and now he’d trotted it out.

A car, with a military escort riding inside the cab, had pulled up at the front of the house. A man had climbed out, then gone to the back and opened a rear door. He had extracted a bouquet of flowers, massive and colourful, then gone towards the officer, Mansoor. They had spoken, the man had been taken to the door and the wife had come out. She had accepted the flowers, and the car had driven away. Badger had seen in the glasses that she had had to fight to control her tears.

‘What happened?’ he’d asked.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Isn’t it working? Is the gear down?’

‘Gear’s great.’

‘Why don’t you know?’

‘It’s the language.’

The children were out again, and the officer had gone back to fishing, no bites, and smoking. Badger could see the flowers inside, through the open window. Hadn’t anyone known? Not the Boss, the American, the Israeli, or fucking Foulkes himself? Had they known and kept quiet? In the confession the star word had been dialect. There were dialects in Farsi. Tribes had dialects, regions had dialects, the north and south had dialects, as did the east and west. There was the vernacular and there was the classical. Foxy had classical, but the vernacular was what the troops spoke and the officer spoke. In the confession it was stated that half of what came through the earphones was ‘rough translation’ and half was accurate. How had Foulkes managed with the interrogation team? He hadn’t enough of the language to grasp the nuances that betrayed a man’s lie. The diplomats he had tracked out of London, who had talked with young militants in students’ unions, were educated and spoke classical. What could he not understand? He hadn’t understood what the officer said to the man who brought the flowers, or most of what the Engineer had said to his wife, but he had been fine on the meeting she’d taken because that had been formal.

The hands shook.

They were together, hip against hip, shoulder against shoulder, two plastic bags by their knees and four bottles of urine. They might not even understand the mention of a destination, if they were lucky enough to hear one.

Badger said, ‘You’re useless, full of shit.’

‘You’re arrogant, full of conceit and piss. You – you wouldn’t even have scraped through in my day.’

‘I passed out well.’

‘My day it was a proper test. Your day, Health and fucking Safety killed the hard bits. You wouldn’t have come through.’

He was drawn in – shouldn’t have been. ‘I was top rated in marks.’

‘Did you do the claustrophobia one, buried in a box with a pencil-wide air vent, in darkness, silence, and last thing you hear is the instructors walking away? Left for half an hour. You do that?’

‘They’d scaled it back, wasn’t permitted.’

‘Send you up the Fire Brigade Tower, did they? The vertigo test. No restraint harness and lean over the edge of the tower’s top to read the number-plate of a car parked right under you. How were you at that?’

‘As you well know, it had been banned.’

‘Dump you in a car boot, did they? Drive you over rough ground, bouncing, bashing? The boot opens and there’s a German Shepherd looking to make a meal of you. Was that tough?’

‘It had been ditched.’

‘And isolation. What about water and a biscuit pack, driven to the far end of an airport fence, dropped off and told to sit against it, never lose contact with it. There’s a car parked two hundred yards away and you have to log everything that happens to it, moves near it. The hazard lights might flash at midnight, a guy walks past in mid-morning. You’re there as many as sixty hours, and you miss anything, you’ve failed. How did you do?’

‘They’ve cut it back, it’s not the same.’

‘Did you do a run with a twenty-kilo pack, two and a half klicks in twelve minutes?’

‘We did that.’

‘Anyway, I did Claustrophobia, the Tower, the Boot, Isolation and Stamina, and I came out top in my class.’

‘They give you a medal?’

‘The training counted for something, and should be respected.’

Badger said, ‘Assuming it’s not the wrong dialect, and not the wrong tribe, and you can manage what you’re here for, what’s being said?’

They lapsed into quiet, and watched. The Mercedes pulled up, left the dust cloud to fragment behind it.

The driver was out snappily, came round the front of the car and opened the door for the Engineer. They had been together enough years for them to do small-talk on journeys: football teams that the Engineer had never seen and films he would never go to, but he valued the conversations. His own door was opened and he was handed the bag that held his laptop and the papers he had worked on. He stood, arched his back and stretched out the stiffness from the journey. The driver opened the boot and lifted out the new suitcase, carried it to the door, then bobbed his head dutifully, and was in his car, driving away.

Mansoor came to him. ‘I think your wife is resting, and that her mother is with the children and their books.’

Mansoor’s voice was breathy, hoarse, as if he had shouted and strained his throat. He demonstrated the wheels on the new case, ran them on the concrete of the patio in front of the door, showed how they went in all directions and grimaced. He asked what, that day, had happened, and was told men had been close, in the marshes, thieves, but they had been intercepted efficiently. How was his wife? he asked. Good, but tired.

He could smoke in his car but not in his house; he could smoke in his office and in meetings, but not in the presence of his children. She dictated the rules. He could not say how long remained for her – a month more, or the duration of his life. He did not know how long the rules she had laid down would exist.

There were two pigs in the water, near to a reed bed and close to the spit that came off the open ground some two hundred metres from their pier. He watched them, a full-grown boar and a young sow, emerge from the reeds and sink themselves into the water, only nostrils and eyes above the surface. Huge creatures, they moved effortlessly and with grace.

Mansoor told him that, before the thieves came, he had been watching for the African Sacred Ibis, but had not seen one. After the thieves had been intercepted, he had fished but had not caught a carp worth keeping, large enough to eat.

The Engineer had no interest in the bird, had less than no interest in the fishing. He did not share his cigarettes but smoked and walked to the limit of the small pier where the dinghy was tied. He was glad that Naghmeh was resting, that she had not been at the door to greet him and see the new case with the special wheels. Him bringing the case home marked a moment of virtual finality: when it was filled and they left, the road ahead might fork in two directions. They would head for recovery or death. There was no middle way.

Mansoor interrupted his quiet. He did not wish, of course, to intrude in private matters, but when was it likely they would travel? The Engineer said, distant and distracted, that the final arrangements were being put in place, but soon. Soon. They agreed it was a fine suitcase

Mansoor hovered behind him.

What did he have to say?

The voice was still throaty, as if there had been crisis and shouting here. The Engineer was told he should not permit his driver to take him through Ahvaz the following morning. There would be another hanging at the prison – a terrorist of the Ahvaz cells, an Arab. ‘He confessed his crime, placing a bomb near the headquarters of the police, and named associates. The sentence of death by hanging will be enforced. Another was with him. He did not aid the interrogators and committed suicide. I am told there will be powerful emotions in the city tomorrow, and after the last experience… There have been too many bombs from Arab terrorists. The penalty must be exacted. You should keep out of the city.’

He nodded, watching the pigs swim and feed. When the cigarette was finished he threw it down and watched it gutter in the water. He went back to his house to find his children and show his wife the suitcase he had bought for their journey.

Foxy whispered, ‘Try this for a bedtime story to make you feel good. The advice is to keep clear of the centre of Ahvaz tomorrow because they’re hanging a terrorist – sorry, probably a joker that we or the Yanks shoved funds at so he’s a freedom fighter. The Arabs reckon they’re third-class citizens in the blessed Islamic Republic and risk their necks trying to blast the mullahs. Anyway, he’s going to be strung up and it’s likely to make people angry. That tells me the local good guys are infiltrated, compromised, have snitches and touts in their cells, and aren’t secure. That’s why you and I are here. There was another who would have been sharing the gallows tomorrow but he topped himself. When the goon speaks to the boss it’s good, educated Farsi, and I can follow it.’

‘Have you anything else to say?’

‘Like an apology?’

‘For bitching, then sulking,’ Badger teased coldly. ‘You ready to say sorry?’


The house was bathed in light from fittings screwed to the top of the walls. It fell on the patio and across the track to spread over the pier, where the dinghy was tied, and the water. The Engineer sat on the plastic chair and smoked. He could have lived inside the camp of the al-Quds Brigade, in a fine bungalow near to the commandant’s residence, or had an apartment overlooking the Karun river near to the Hotel Fajr Grand. He might have been accommodated in a government-owned villa near to the Ahvaz airport, but he lived here. Her choice. It had been her decision that, when the Americans began to crowd onto their aircraft and head for home, taking with them the body-bags, so many of which he had filled, they should make their home near to the water, the marshes and old civilisations that captivated her, and where she was close to her life’s passion: the clearance of land mines. She had supervised the renovation of the building, had bullied architects and pleaded with builders, had created the world she wanted… and the pain had come. There was moonlight on the far water, the reeds and a spit of mud, beyond the throw of the security lights, and he saw the ripples, the movement of the birds and confusion where pigs browsed. He heard the racking cough of a sentry. He had thought he understood it, but he could not, now, imagine the future.

Chapter 8

Foxy pinged her… He thought the temperature inside the gillie suit was in excess of 50 degrees centigrade – more than 130 Fahrenheit. He could have drunk water until his belly distended, but would not. They had carried in the water. Water, where they were, was more important than anything other than the audio-capture gear. They could survive on little food, concentrates with high protein, and minimal sleep. If the water was exhausted they would suffer dehydration, which meant muscle and stomach cramps, headaches, weakness, dizziness and heavy sweating.

Foxy had heard, on his Basra tour, that the body could lose a quart of moisture through sweat per hour. He lay still. Ping was croppie talk for having a close view of a target. Could have been eyeball, which was general for all police agencies on surveillance duties, but the guys who bagged the shit, bottled the piss and were an elite talked of pinging a target… It was the talk that kept Foxy alert. Good to think of himself as ‘elite’. He deserved it.

She moved slowly in the sunshine at the front of the house. Her man was Tango One and she was Tango Two. Foxy reckoned her more important to their endeavour than the husband, and more likely to cough up the evidence of a destination. When she was outside, or when she was inside the room with the open window and he could see her shadow move or an interior light lit her, he eased the controls, lifted the volume and struggled for greater clarity in his earphones. He believed it was from her that he would break the damn thing, then get on the move, retrieve the gear and head for the extraction point. After this, Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes – not breaking any confidences, of course, and not spitting too much phlegm into the face of the Official Secrets Act – would be a big man, a valued man, a man in demand. ‘Elite’: he deserved that title, had done since the days he’d lain in the hide on the hill above the farm near Cappagh in County Tyrone and been there long enough to feed the warning that the Barrett 50 calibre was on the move. Guys from Intelligence, and special forces, had called his stake-out ‘epic’, and the battalion adjutant, the unit that had fouled up the cordon and missed the damn thing when it was moved, had made a personal apology, saying that ‘such outstanding surveillance was short-changed’. This was beyond any category he had before been involved in.

The young ’un slept beside him.

There was more washing going out, more pegs slotting on the line, children’s stuff and her husband’s clothing. She would not, of course, hang out her intimate clothing where it could be seen by the guards from the barracks. Her mother followed her and carried the plastic basket with the shirts, shorts, socks, the kids’ dresses, towels and washing-up cloths. He had the binoculars on her, 10?50, but didn’t use the spotter ’scope. The visuals were of small interest compared to the audio system – wouldn’t have said it into Badger’s ear, but the microphone was well placed on the mud spit and well camouflaged. The gear was good and the sound quality was fine but their language was difficult for him because they didn’t speak, mother and daughter, in the classical but in the vernacular. He understood each time she wanted another peg, that the small boy’s shirt had not washed well, and that the girl had torn a skirt playing outside. He had to believe that the clue would be given him.

The young ’un slept. It was unequal. Badger could sleep for the full three hours while Foxy was on stag. When Foxy slept, Badger would elbow him if there was conversation on the patio. He had been woken when the Engineer had come from the house at dawn and paced at the water’s edge, enjoying his cigarette and talking about football scores with two of the guards. He had been woken again when the car had come and the goon, Mansoor, had repeated the warning about keeping clear of the centre of Ahvaz, then asked about the Engineer’s day. He had seen the shrug and heard a remark about ‘meetings, all the day is meetings’. And a question was asked about the suitcase, but he had not caught the reply and had assumed that the wife approved of it. Then he had been allowed to sleep again. Twice he had received the elbow and been told that he was snoring. Foxy, as routine, dug his fist into Badger’s hip each half-hour to wake him and then lie that he was talking or grunting in his sleep. If Foxy couldn’t crash out for three hours, he was damned if Badger would sleep without interruption.

Yes, it would be good. There would be nods and winks, hints-offered, but the secrecy governing where he had been and why would be preserved. He would be introduced as the man who had gone into opposition territory, who had lain up in circumstances of quite extraordinary privation, had witnessed mass murder and delivered, had won through. He would talk about the skills and disciplines needed to achieve aims and ping targets. Who did he have with him, or was he alone? He might be asked that. He’d had a greenhorn, something of a sherpa, there – basically – to hump the gear. He’d enjoy that, and would be feted. Ellie would be proud and… The washing was out on the line and hung limp; there was no wind. There were more flies than before.

The flies had been bad the previous evening, had disappeared during darkness and been replaced by mosquitoes. Now, in the full glare of the sun, the mosquitoes had gone and the flies were back – big bastards. They droned and probed at the scrim mesh on the camouflage headgear and they were on the mud-caked skin of his hands. He thought it remarkable that they didn’t wake Badger, that he could sleep through their persistence. In the night, Badger had taken the shit bags and piss bottles out of the hide, wriggled on his stomach into the reed bed, dug a little pit – on the water line – buried the bags and emptied the bottles. Without the bags the flies should have been less interested. Didn’t work that way. They’d come on in swarms and searched for routes through the scrim into his ears, mouth and nose, settling on his hands. He felt the prick as they bit, but he couldn’t anoint himself with repellent: it would provide an alien scent.

She had the line filled with washing. Ellie often asked him to empty the washing-machine and put their things on a line when she was in a hurry for work and doing her makeup or running late. It was usual for him to iron his shirts and her blouses. He had learned to iron after he’d gone to London, leaving Liz in the north with the children, and did it well: Ellie was sometimes too busy with overtime at Naval Procurement to get home early and iron. Quite often, Foxy cooked the dinner.

He thought she’d have been a fine-looking woman if the illness hadn’t ravaged her. She was quite tall, not dwarfed by her husband. The lenses showed her figure when she moved and the robe was pressed against her body. She would have seemed handsome from fifty or seventy-five yards, with a strong nose, good cheekbones and a chin that gave off authority… Different when he watched her through ten times magnification. Harsher lines, a greater stoop in the shoulders and the wince at the mouth when she turned or reached up with the clothing or a peg. He sensed a steeled determination to complete the basic task. He watched her. It was what he did well.

Abigail Jones had not met Len Gibbons. She imagined, because he was ‘old school’ that he would have moved to a temporary billet, a London club or a camp bed wherever he had set up his operations centre, and that he paced, even chain-smoked, while he waited for a telephone call.

It would have been three years ago, just before she was shipped out to Iraq when she was coming to the end of her London duty, that she had been leaving the canteen area, and the older woman with her, whom she’d known from the Balkans, had stage-whispered a choice morsel about the man standing, seeming elderly and vacant, at the counter, then moving his tray.

The telephone would not have rung because she had sent no message. There was to be no radio traffic, and no satphone communication other than to transmit information categorised ‘critical’. She had nothing important to report.

The woman, Jennifer, famed for indiscretion, had been in Belgrade while Abigail worked in the Sarajevo embassy and they’d become friends, distant, when sharing escape weekends on Croatian beaches. ‘When you get down to Baghdad, darling, don’t eff it up like that one did in his youth. In this hateful place they like to deal in one-chance-only scenarios. A good man, a nice man, and they said he was really capable. He was advanced, given responsibilities. Such a sad story. Never recovered fully, like blight in an apple orchard, and it was thirty years ago.’ Gossip was forbidden, mortal sin. Abigail had asked what the man had done and where he had done it. Jennifer had chuckled and declined to expand on her story – except to tell her that the man was Len Gibbons, left for ever like a bit of driftwood, high and dry, when the tide slipped out. They had parted, gone off in different lifts to different floors, and she had forgotten about the tale until, six years later, she had been told Len Gibbons would field her reports when there was news worth imparting.

He was hardly going to want to know that she had lain in the sand, swaddled in a mosquito net, with her firearm on the ground beside her, fastened by a lanyard to her wrist. He was hardly going to be concerned that she had barely slept, and that Corky and Harding, Hamfist and Shagger would have slept less, that those she proudly called the Jones Boys had used two flares and a thunder flash and had maintained a perimeter of sorts. There hadn’t been a charge but a creeping infiltration, the creaking of stressed wire as the fences, already sagging, had been flattened. The flares had stopped them, had held them in the shadow at the edge of the light pool. The thunder flash had scattered them, driven them back. Hamfist was the one who knew most of this sector and he’d claimed to read the madan mind. ‘You can give the feckers – ’scuse, miss – a flash and a flare and we’ll be OK. If it gets to us chucking about the lead we’ll have to quit.’ The flares and the flash had stabilised it during the night and, first light, Corky had urged her to get the treasury open. ‘We can’t shoot them all, miss, or it’ll be worse than Bloody Sunday. We should try to buy them. Do it like an auction – start small and haggle like it’s the bazaar. They’re all Ali Babas, miss, and don’t forget it.’

She could picture him: she’d seen him once in the canteen and a couple more times when he’d been near her as she’d come off a bus near to the Towers’ entrance. There had been a weighted look to him, that of a man burdened: she’d define that as pallor in the complexion, straggling hair, a shuffle walk, clothing that was a little too loose and, above all, wariness, a sense of being left outside any loop that existed. Jennifer had spoken of ‘one chance only’. It was where Abigail was now. The one chance to make it work – so she could justify rare interest in Len Gibbons, who waited for her call.

She had taken twenty five-dollar bills from her money belt, which she wore against the skin at her waist. And almost, taking the notes out and peeling them off the wad, she had giggled – but to herself. It had made a dent in his skin: she had not taken off her money belt when she had been over and across him. The buckle had gouged his flesh.. . Regret nothing. He had not seemed to notice that it had pressed into his flat, muscled stomach. She had gone down to the gate, Shagger yawning behind her, and Corky halfway between them and the vehicles. Hamfist and Harding had been near enough to the Pajeros to start them, and fast. She had called forward the twenty men she thought seemed oldest and had put, into each of the palms offered her, a five-dollar bill. Her own ancestors, a century before, might have given out beads or anything shiny… She’d closed each fist on the note. It had humiliated her, the crudeness. Then she had tried to persuade them to head home, get back to the huts built of reeds and the floating island shared with the water buffalo that gave them dung to use as their staple fuel for heating and the high-definition TV. Five dollars was meagre. None of them had shifted.

It had been Len Gibbons’s turn, three decades earlier – if Jennifer’s rumour was to be believed – to have ‘one chance only’ and to ‘eff it up’. She thought she was now presented with a copper-bottomed opportunity to join his team. The crowd at the gate, in the half-day that had passed from her handing out the trifles, had doubled. The threat when the next belt of darkness came was, likely, twice as great. She couldn’t get the boys to drive her back to al-Qurnah and try to rustle up rooms at the one building in the town, beside the big river and adjacent to the dead tree claimed as the ‘Tree of Life’. One of the Shia zealot movements had control of that building. The alternative was to leave the site, drive onto a berm or a bund and park there where they were visible for ten miles or more. She couldn’t call up a friendly UK platoon and have them do their security because the Brits were now in Afghanistan, and the marines, the Fort Bragg guys, too, had switched wars, had quit their last combat with a chorus of ‘Fucking good riddance to a motherfucking place.’ There was nowhere else to be. It was her ‘one chance only’ and she assumed that Len Gibbons, far away, doodling, would understand.

She asked the boys how much they reckoned she should shell out.

She went back inside, and hitched up her robe – did the act of a Basra tart – offloaded an additional two hundred and fifty American dollars and split the notes ten times. Twenty-five dollars each, and a demand for some action.

It was a weak hand, the worst.

This time she had Corky on her right and Hamfist on her left. Again she called out the oldest men, with those who wore clothing of the best material, and pleaded for the space they needed to monitor the wildlife successfully. Corky had said they could not be further back and do their job. Hamfist had said that any guy at the sharp end had to believe in the honesty of the people in support. She handed out money, repeated the pleading and went back towards the building.

She was a tough girl. Abigail Jones, convent-school educated, red-brick university, only took the bus in grim weather and ran to work most days in London along the Embankment, and home again. She could sleep on shit-laced concrete, hike and trek – and could almost have wept. There were more coming and none were leaving, and some now had rifles. In these parts any man with balls had access to a rifle.

Harding asked, ‘How long do you think we have until we lift them out?’

She shrugged.

Shagger asked, ‘What do we do, miss, when this crowd start coming?’

‘Let me think about it, and give me some fucking space.’

There were two Black Hawks on the apron in the sun. One of the crews was in an annex where a room offered bunk beds and thick enough window blinds to blot out the ferocity of the sun’s glare. They would be wearing ear baffles so that the roar of the aircon systems wouldn’t keep them awake. The second crew, four personnel, was in the annex rest room and sprawled in easy chairs. They were in the dog days of the empire, and the final evacuation from the one-time colony was mere weeks away so little more than skeleton forces remained. The buildings they occupied were tired, the paint scuffed, and would not receive renovation. Inevitably they had caught the mood of ‘drawdown’, and had taped in their lockers at the Baghdad base a pencil picture of a snake divided into segments, one for each day they would serve on that posting. Most were now filled in and only part of the tail remained.

That crew who were awake, supposedly ready to kick themselves out of the chairs into the open-top jeep and have the bird airborne within three minutes of the bell going, found this assignment littered with unanswered questions. The four-blade twin-engine helicopter, with a lift classified as ‘medium’, was the workhorse of the American military, and carried stores – Meals Ready to Eat, the chemicals for latrines, home-town hacks looking for stories that didn’t exist – and also flew special-forces units. It was reliable, flew like a dream, caused little hassle and less grief. But the American military effort was now scaled down, the troops reduced to spit-and-polish bull-shit in camps, so the guys in the two crews were generally just bored shitless. Each bird, each crew, could lift an additional eleven troops with full combat gear. They were on standby, but they didn’t know when they would be called out or whom they would pick up; they had not been given an exact extraction point. New, out of the Sikorsky factories, the Black Hawk had set their taxpayers back, minimally, $14 million. It was expensive hardware that sat on the tarmacadam outside the annex, and the ‘ready’ crew waited to be told something.

No one came.

Normally when special forces were involved – infiltration and exfiltration – herds of liaison men and women hovered, their cell phones ringing and their comms busy. There were none.

The pilot, Eddie, read a comic book and his co-pilot, Tristram, turned the pages of a Bible, the Old Testament. A side gunner, Dwayne – trained to use a 7.62 calibre machine gun – studied a puzzle book, and Federico, who had the weapon on the starboard side of the cabin, was deep in an aviation engineering magazine. They were not disturbed.

Any other time they had done the lifts for special forces there had been a presence alongside, checking every few minutes that their flight plans were ready and understood, that they knew where all the pylons with slack electricity cables were and which they could fly under, and that the fire power of Hellfires and machine-gun belts had been tested. They’d even demand a check on the fuel loads in the tanks. No one bothered them.

All they had been told was that a phone call would come through on the green handset, and a voice would give co-ordinates to an area approximately sixty kilometres away. That distance, going east, would put them hard against the Iran border.

They read, killed time, waited.

Badger had her in his glasses. Then, alerted, he swung them round, went through a full 90-degree arc with them, and picked up the bulldozer.

The big plant vehicle, with a bucket on the front, had come from behind the barracks and now powered along the bund line to the right. He fancied he understood. Past midday, with the sun at full strength, the smell was sweeter, more foul, and had seemed over the last hour to hang in the air close to him. The one they called the goon, Mansoor, hung onto the outer handles of the cab.

Badger had been up and awake most of the night, and had allowed the older man to sleep from the time that the house lights had gone out until dawn, had let him sleep through for six hours before waking him and starting the routine of three hours on and three hours off. He had let him sleep except when the snores came on too fierce.

In the first light, grey and almost chill, with the sun not yet peeping up from a horizon of reed tops and water expanses, Badger had crawled out of the hide, taken care to rearrange the cover of dead reeds, then had moved away and scouted the bare ground, on his stomach. He had been in the reeds and had seen where a spur came off the bund line and towards where they had made the hide. Then he had reached the open water beyond and the little light flecked the bodies in the water. Already they were swollen, gross – the smell had been building and had not dissipated in the cool of night. Now, in the middle of the day, he imagined the corpses would be even more distended. He understood that men had been tasked to retrieve and bury them.

At dawn he had seen the bodies floating with clouds of insects over them, and in the middle of the day he saw the bulldozer. He didn’t need to see much else. In this little corner of the world, far from anything he had experienced before, men could be shot dead, dumped and the evidence buried. The bulldozer went from his view and the sound drifted and was fainter… It was, after a fashion, what they did to their own. What would they do to those who intruded on their space and affairs, broke the boundaries of the borders and spied – he had read about spies. In the last war spies had been hanged in London, electrocuted in the USA, marched to the gallows in Syria, with a placard round the neck denouncing Israeli espionage, and to an execution chamber at the Sugamo prison in Tokyo: Richard Sorge, Communist agent, spying against Japan on behalf of Russian Intelligence, who denied all knowledge of him… denied all knowledge. It had a ring to it. Almost, in that heat, a shiver convulsed him. Fear? Apprehension? He put it down to the sweat running in the small of his back, where the fingers of Alpha Juliet had been. Denied all knowledge: up in Scotland, with the theatre of that house and the bay with the waves crashing, the cold, the rain and the howl of the pipes, denial had seemed unimportant.

He had the flies and the smell, the sun flaring up off the water, dazzling him, and a mirage haze.

She came back out. His hand hovered, ready to shake Foxy awake.

Her mother followed her, but held back in the shade at the front of the house. Badger thought her beautiful, regal yet doomed. Through the glasses he could see the effort it took for her to walk from the patio to the water’s edge, then little flecks of colour on the ground close to her feet: a flowerbed. Badger swore. She had made a flowerbed, and weeks before there would have been vivid colours in it. There was, against the house, a tap, and over the patio a discarded hose pipe. He thought it reasonable that the tap had not been turned on and the hosepipe aimed at the flowers – maybe his mother’s favourite, geraniums – since her diagnosis. An ex-infantry soldier he had worked with had once said that shock spread in a life much as a hand grenade rolled, bounced and slid erratically across the floor in a bunker or a slit trench. It would have been like that when the news was given them. He thought it would have seemed a waste of time and energy to continue watering the flowers.

She captured him.

She sat alone in front of the water and close to the pier. The children were not back from school, the mother was inside the house and the goon was with the bulldozer. The guards would not approach her. Badger would have woken Foxy, given him a hard nudge in the ribcage – where it might hurt – if anyone had come close to her and talked.

She watched the birds. Did she know that men scavenging for artillery-piece casings had been shot – he assumed for being inside a restricted, sensitive zone – then dumped, were being retrieved now by a bulldozer to be clawed into a pit? Did she know that that was the price of keeping security tight around her? Her work was mine clearance. For Badger the world played at riddles.

What would happen to her?

He had not worked in Northern Ireland. He was too young, and the war there had lapsed to a ceasefire by the time he was trained and operational. He had come across enough who knew the Province. A paratrooper, off the hills above Brecon when Badger had been with them on exercise, had talked of doing back-up protection for handlers when they met with potential Provo informers – touts – in the shadows of pub car parks, in the empty darkened spaces of beauty spots. It always bloody rained, they said, when the proposition of betrayal was put, the approach made. Some, the paratrooper had said, spat it out, some hesitated, and some came on board – bloody ran up the gangplank… Then – this was the rub – they had to go back and tell the wife they were changing sides and taking the Queen’s shilling. He hadn’t forgotten that conversation long into a night. If her husband accepted the offer made, and she came through surgery, they would face a new life, and convalescence in an English seaside town or a suburb of any city in the United States. First, how would the man respond to interdiction, approach? Badger couldn’t say, couldn’t imagine it. But he was sure Mr Gibbons, the Boss, had his finger on the pulse of it.

There was, he decided, something totally elegant about the woman. Something utterly dignified. He would have been hard put to explain his thoughts.

She gazed out over the water. He watched her through the glasses, ten times magnification, and there were moments when he believed she looked straight at him, must see him. The heat in the suit sapped him and he fought to maintain his concentration. He had to make his water last – and in his ears were the sounds of the ripples against the pier’s supports and the scrape of the dinghy against the planks. He reckoned, couldn’t be certain at two hundred metres plus, that tears ran down her face.

Badger could not, in truth, take his eyes from her. He didn’t know how her husband, assuming a surgeon could work a miracle, would respond to the approach.

They had done more war games at the camp. Through the morning there had been a theoretical headquarters-command scenario of an American invasion pushing in from Iraqi territory on a front south of al-Qurnah and north of Basra. The Engineer’s role had been to describe the new generation of explosive formed projectiles, their deployment, and effect against the enemy’s armour, and the forces of any ‘poodles’ that the Great Satan could whip into line. They had not stopped for lunch, but took a break for coffee.

When would he be away?

Again, he found himself alongside the brigadier who had responsibility for this sector.

He grimaced. He had the suitcase, and they awaited final confirmation of the itinerary… very soon.

After the refreshment stop, they would move on to the area of counter-attack, and the Engineer had prepared a paper on the value of deflecting armoured convoys to specified roads where the bombs could be more effective and more concentrated. He would speak of the value of choke points into which armour would be drawn. He would quote the disproportionate success of the defenders of a Croatian city, two decades before, who had ambushed main battle tanks, hit the first in the convoy simultaneously with the last and then, at leisure, destroyed the wallowing beasts that could not manoeuvre. He would say this could be done by civilian fighters if they had only rudimentary skills in warfare. He would tell his audience of the effect that the explosive devices – manufactured under his direction with minimal metal parts, instead incorporating plastics, ceramics and moulded glass – had on units’ morale, and give them, as a rallying cry, the conclusion that one casualty, without a leg or an arm, needed four men to bring him back from the explosion and a helicopter to fly him to the rear. Ultimately when one man hobbled down the main street of his home town and the civilians living there watched him, sympathising, support for the war would drain away. ‘Let them come, let them face us, let them know the smell of defeat,’ he would finish.

He was not an easy public speaker, and he tried to memorise what he would say and how he would deliver it, but the brigadier broke into his thoughts. Did his wife approve of the case?

She had not looked at it, had refused to open it, would not discuss with him what clothing she should take – whatever destination was chosen for them. She had sat in her chair in the kitchen for much of the evening after the children had gone to bed, when he had told them more about Prince Korshid and his brothers: the time he had gone to the bottom of the deep well and had found there a girl of unmatched beauty. On her lap was the head of a deav, a serpent, that snored foully. The prince would rescue the girl, but that was for the next evening. He did not say that tension cut the mood in his home, or confide that she had thrown back at him the riposte: ‘If God says it will happen it will happen. Do you attempt to obstruct God’s will with temporary relief? Better to die quietly, with love and in peace, than to chase a few more days of life. Are we justified in fighting it?’ Her mother had watched them, silent, and he had not answered but had gone to tell the story to the children.

‘My wife thought it a very fine case.’

‘Her morale? Her attitude?’

‘Very positive. She is focused on getting treatment she needs for recovery, and is most grateful to those who give her the chance of it.’

It was rare for the Engineer to talk on personal matters with a senior officer of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He knew this man’s importance in areas of military responsibility, and also because the papers regarding Naghmeh’s illness would have needed his initialled acceptance. Just as this officer procured for him the most sophisticated and recent electronic equipment from the USA, reaching him via Dubai’s container port, so he had the power to arrange the funding of such a journey and subsequent medical attention.

‘You are important to us, brother.’

Others, in uniform, stood patiently behind the brigadier, waiting for an opportunity to speak with him, but he waved them away. It was a short, clipped movement but unmistakable.

‘I know much about you, brother.’

‘Of course. I accept that.’

‘You live by the water, close to the border.’

‘It was the home my wife chose, before the diagnosis, and a place of rare beauty, near to a command post. It is very peaceful, and-’

‘May I offer advice, brother?’

‘Of course. I would be honoured to receive it.’

Which was the truth. Advice would not be given lightly, or be ignored when offered by a man of such seniority.

Blunt words, the veneer of concern stripped off. ‘You cannot return there.’

‘I am sorry, did I misunderstand you? It is where my wife is-’

A searing interruption. ‘Whether your wife is alive or dead, whether she is happy there, whether she likes to view the water and count mosquitoes is, brother, not of importance. A man of your value should be better protected. You will not go back there.’

This brigadier had been in place for some four months. The Engineer did not know him well. He could not argue, remonstrate or dispute. If she survived, she would be devastated. It was unthinkable that he should challenge a decision by so senior an officer.

‘Of course.’

A wintry smile. ‘I would suggest that if the Americans invade you go to the deepest hole you can find that a fox has dug and settle in it. Hide for as long as you can, and emerge when you have a new identity. If the Americans come, the shockwave will likely bring down the regime of the Islamic Republic. Revolution will rule. Do you watch CNN, brother? You do not. You are good, patriotic and disciplined. I watch CNN and I see the demonstrations in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashhad. We attack the websites and the mobile-phone links, but we cannot prevent the images escaping our borders. We can hang people, abuse them and lock them away, but when revolt has taken hold it cannot be reversed. There is an expression, ‘a house of cards’, and I fear that is what we will be. We conceive martyrs, we shoot at unarmed crowds but we do not cow the masses. When their time comes, when our authority is fractured, they will rise up, as the crowds did in the last days of the imperial family. The officials serving the Peacock Throne were shot by firing squad, butchered with knives or hanged in the Evin gaol. If our regime collapses and I am still here, I imagine I will be led out to the nearest streetlight and a rope will be thrown up. I will be hanged, as will most of us gathered here today. We appear invulnerable but strength is often illusory. You, brother – maybe you would be on the streetlight beside me. If the Americans come, brother, how many will face the prospect of a rope over the arm of a streetlamp and will trade information to save their neck from being stretched? What better piece of information to give up than the identity of the man who designed the bombs that crippled the Great Satan’s war effort inside Iraq? An American said once, of Serbs who were hunted and accused of atrocities, ‘You can run but you cannot hide.’ It was a popular phrase. It frightened men, intimidated them. You would be named, I would be named and most of the men in this room would be named.

‘There is, of course, a solution to the problem of regime collapse and vengeance turned on former influential people. I can go abroad. I am authorised to fly to Damascus. Under deep cover I can travel to Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The American consulate in Dubai is in the World Trade Center, and the embassy in Abu Dhabi is located between Airport Road and Coast Street. They would not, if I walked in cold off the street, treat me like a friend, but they would show me respect, and I would avoid the rope suspended from the streetlamp. If you were to take a similar course when you go abroad, you also would be safe from the rope. Could you do that, brother, to save your neck?’

He saw that a trap yawned in front of him.

First there had seemed to be sympathy, then there had been honesty and, last, conspiracy. He was not one of them. He did not wear uniform, and was inside no inner circle. They were military men and he was a scientist in the field of miniaturised electronics. They used him. A trip wire might have lain across his path. If he had snagged it he would have gone into the prepared pit.

The Engineer said, ‘I am completely devoted to the Islamic Republic, its leaders and its future.’

He was rewarded with a smile, slow but broadening.

He went on, ‘I am devoted to my God, my country and my work.’

‘I hope your journey is fruitful, brother. We will be waiting to welcome you home and pray God for the best outcome.’

The brigadier was gone from his side. He realised he had been taunted, also that he had been warned against making unwise contacts outside Iran. He could not remember when, before, he had felt such keen anger towards a senior officer of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. They mocked and threatened him. While they strutted on parade grounds, lined up their men across wide streets, then ordered baton charges or the firing of live rounds to disperse crowds who protested that an election had been stolen, he – the Engineer, Rashid Armajan – had been creating the weapons that defeated an enemy that was a super-power. He could not tell the brigadier to go fuck his own mother because that man had to initial the final authorisation for the journey in search of a consultant. He felt blood on his lip, and realised how hard he had bitten it, how much pain he had absorbed. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and hoped no stain remained.

They were called into the next session, and the brigadier did not catch his eye as they went back into the operations area.

Badger had rested, but not slept. He had eaten some biscuit and drunk sparingly, had defecated into a bag and urinated into a bottle. He had done all of that within six inches of Foxy, without disturbing the leaves spread over the hide. He had thought more about the woman in the plastic chair across the expanse of water than he had about Alpha Juliet.

She was still there. She might have moved, or not, in the three hours he had had his eyes squeezed shut while the sun was still crystal bright.

Her children were close to her. Their toys were out. He thought the kids more subdued, less raucous, than the previous day. Once, the girl fell and screamed and her mother did not move, but the old lady came out, waddled to the child, swept her up and cuddled her.

The smell hung rancid between them, around them, with no wind to drift it.

‘Anything happened? Anything said?’

A slight shake of Foxy’s head, insufficient to rustle the dead stuff over him.


The slightest nod.

The flies crowded above them and surged on his hands as Badger lifted his binoculars and adjusted the focus so that he could see the mess of reed leaves and stems where the microphone lay, then sweep on from the bund line to the barracks and a few of the soldiers playing basketball, then across the palm trees. He saw the head goon sprawled on a sunbed, and picked up the house and the kids, then the old lady who banged dust from rugs. He went by the flowerbed, abandoned, and reached the chair.

It annoyed Badger that he had twice asked the question and not been answered, annoyed him that he had felt it necessary to make bare, semi-civilised talk – like it was a weakness in him. He had ticks on his legs – could have been three bites or four. If he scratched hard, broke the surface and drew blood, the itch would be worse. They had to be endured. He would not fidget, give Foxy the pleasure of seeing his discomfort.

He wasn’t proud of himself. He didn’t ask, just pulled the headset from under Foxy’s head covering. To achieve that he needed to get his fingers across Foxy’s face, touch his cheeks, then go up to the crown and drag forward the arch linking the earpieces. His wrist was gripped.

‘On induction courses, do they teach wet-behind-the-ears recruits, rookies, that courtesies matter?’

He had a hold on the headset.

‘If they don’t, they should run one for beginners in basic manners. Fucking ask.’

He didn’t. A stand-off moment. Badger had hold of the headset and Foxy had hold of his wrist. Three seconds, five, ten. Badger let go and Foxy let go, and managed to choreograph it so that neither was the outright winner nor loser. He was given the headset and slotted it under his camouflage covering with small, slow movements. He thought he had lost high ground, which seemed – hard up against his oppo – to matter. What also mattered was his own inadequacy. He could watch the front of the house across the lagoon, and track the movement of the wife, her mother, the kids, the officer and the other guards, but if she spoke, and he was the one on stag, he must break into Foxy’s rest time. It hurt him that he was reliant on the older man, hurt more than the tick bites bothered him.

She was very still.

There were birds on the water in front of her and they fed, ducking and diving. An otter swam close to the main wall of the reeds: the first he had seen that day. He knew otters from the islands off the west coast of Scotland. Only a glimpse, and then it dipped, showing an arched back and a stubby tail.

He didn’t think she watched the birds or had seen the otter. On his earlier watch, a pair of pigs had crossed in front of him, would have swum over the sunk cable from the microphone, with just their snouts above the water.

The light had changed and was no longer on her face, but the sun’s force was now more to her left side and her cheeks were not in its glare. Badger couldn’t say whether there were still tears. Maybe earlier she had looked too closely into the sun’s reflection from the lagoon and her eyes had watered. A woman who ran a mine-clearance campaign might be made of stern material – or might weep in private because of what had happened to her, to her man and her children. He didn’t know.

Foxy farted. The foul smell hung around them, the residue of the last Meal Ready to Eat they had shared – beef in some congealed liquid. If someone had walked over them, he or she might have thought they’d picked up pig shit on a boot.

He reflected: there was no other way to do the job that the Boss, Mr Gibbons, had set them. They had to be there, marooned and… He watched her.

She was not the woman of a drugs-dealer he had once kept pinged, day after day, while she lounged in a summer garden close to her pool, wearing not much on a rare warm week, and she was not one of the women from the tinkers’ camp who had pegged out washing, lounged and smoked while the men planned thieving, and she was not the woman with the mousy hair and pale face, mistress to the man whose wife was under the patio extension and who would be led away, handcuffed, as the digger moved in. He had pinged many women who were consorts of a target and had not felt any of them were special or worth interest.

The Engineer’s wife dominated any thoughts of Alpha Juliet. An instructor on the last week before Badger had been awarded his Blue Book, certifying his surveillance competence, had told the group that thinking of sex, stripping down women, doing business with them, was excellent for holding the concentration needed in a hide when paint drying might have seemed interesting. He had said that far and away the best shagging he’d had in his life was when he’d been lying on his belly, enveloped in a gillie suit, with nothing happening. It would have been good to remember Alpha Juliet – a fine, strong girl who didn’t blather, didn’t seem in search of commitment and seemed to have chosen him for better reasons than that she had gone without for a week: unfathomable – but he couldn’t remember Alpha Juliet now. He stared through the glasses at the woman, and because he kept the focus on everything familiar about her, he knew which crow’s feet were deepening at her eyes. Her breathing seemed harder, and her mouth would twist when the pain dug.

‘You’ll call me.’


‘Because without me you’re worse than useless.’

He didn’t answer.

Foxy went on, ‘And keep watch all round.’

A point of principle: he didn’t react and kept the glasses on her. He didn’t take orders from the older man.

‘Why are you only watching her?’

No response. He held the focus. Her hands were very still, and he thought she had a serenity.

‘You gone soft on her, young ’un? Unprofessional if you have.’

Badger held his silence.

‘If you’ve gone gentle on her, just remember who she is. She’s the wife of Rashid Armajan, bad bastard, bomb-maker and enemy. She shares his bed and, before she went sick, used to spread her legs for the guy who spent his days planning the next generation of nasties to kill our boys inside Iraq. I feel nothing for her. She would have kept a nice tidy household for him, left him with no worries in his life other than working out the best way to blow up, mutilate and kill coalition troops. He was pretty good at it. Forgotten what the man said? ‘A small number of clever and innovative men is capable of wrong-footing us so consistently that the body-bags keep going home, and the injured with wounds they’ll carry to their graves… We call an enemy a Bravo. Rashid Armajan is a big bad Bravo.’ That’s what the man said. She’s that man’s woman and what she has in her head is immaterial to me. It matters that, because of what’s in her head, he’ll travel away from here. Nothing less, nothing more. In case you’ve forgotten it, young ’un, the ceremonies at Wootton Bassett when the dead come home didn’t start with Afghanistan killed-in-action troops. They started with Iraq. We couldn’t stay in Iraq because of the bombs, his bombs, bombs turned out on a production line to the Engineer’s blueprint. My Ellie calls them heroes, the soldiers brought through that town. It’s fantastic, such an honour to those soldiers, to have thousands line a street in respect. Only, sad thing, they don’t see it. They’re in the box. A good number of them were put there by that man and his talent for bomb-making. Because of him, all that the rest of us can do is stand on the pavement and give them respect, which is something but not much. A good number of the first heroes who came through were victims of explosions, his bloody bombs. And maybe by now his gear’s in Afghanistan, I don’t know. So, I have no love for him, and I’m not going soft for her. My Ellie talks about Wootton Bassett and the heroes… Are you getting my drift?’

A crisp whisper. ‘So much of an enemy that we’re going to turn him.’

Surprise, a murmur. ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’

‘It’s interdiction.’

‘So, it’s interdiction. Yes.’

‘I checked it with the Boss. It’s their way – spook jargon – of describing an approach. “Interdiction” is “approach”. They hope to turn him.’

‘Is that what he told you?’

‘They’re going to turn him, Mr Gibbons said – like it’s a defection.’

Foxy muttered, ‘Time for my sleep. Wake me when there’s something you can’t do.’

She had fine features and she sat so still. Her back was straight in the chair and she gazed ahead. Almost, her eye line was on him. Nobody came to her, she had no one to talk to, and Foxy slept. The wind had gained strength and he heard its rustle in the reeds.

Chapter 9

‘What the hell are you-’

‘Wake up.’ As normal, when Badger used his elbow to dig into Foxy’s ribs, he held the palm of his hand across the older man’s mouth, loose but a reminder.

‘Where am-’

‘In the hide in the marshes in Iran. What more do you need to know? Could give you the co-ordinates, except you bloody dropped the


The voice whistled back, almost shrill, between the teeth: ‘I was saying, before you fucking interrupted, “Where am I looking?” That was my question.’

‘You don’t have to look anywhere. Just listen.’

The headset was already off Badger’s ears. He tried to pass it to Foxy. Foxy muttered that he needed a piss, always did when he woke up. Badger told him to wait. The cable was caught in the front of Badger’s gillie suit, had fastened itself among the material strips sewn into it and the dried-out reeds. You couldn’t pull a cable tight and hope it would free itself, and it was underneath Badger. They were in darkness, hip against hip, elbows locked and legs bloody nearly entwined. Their movements had roused the mosquitoes, and there were convulsions under the covering that shielded them. The cable wouldn’t come free. Insults were swapped.

‘Be careful, you clumsy bastard.’

‘Use your fingers!’

‘How did you snag it?’

‘If you stayed bloody still I could free it.’

Badger laid down his night-sight kit. It was the hour before dawn. His fingers felt for the tangle in the cable. Foxy had his head down, grappled for and found the headset and put it over his ears. God alone knew how, but the cable’s snag was near Badger’s groin, and Foxy’s head was halfway there. Time for a laugh? Foxy’s head had moved to a comfort zone below Badger’s ribcage. His fingers were under Foxy’s chin and tugged gently. Twice Foxy gulped, then the cable came free.

He would be told, and didn’t ask. To ask would demonstrate dependence on the older man. Nor would he get, now, a running commentary from Foxy.

He settled again as best he could. Difficult while Foxy used the bottle. There was no relief from the mosquitoes and when they crossed the moon, almost full, they seemed dense enough to throw a shadow. They had both been out of the hide during the night, and Badger had buried more plastic bags. He had gone as far as the wall of reeds to their right, where it bordered the open ground, and done exercises there, had moved his limbs and stretched his back. Foxy had gone further, almost as far as the mound of mud, but had stopped short of the bulldozer tracks. He could go further than Foxy. Anytime Foxy left the hide, the translation of remarks passed at the house was zero.

It was the time of morning that medics said was when people died – and well known to police crime squads as the best time to hit front doors, break them down and get up the stairs before weapons, narcotics or documents could be hidden. The target had emerged from the front door and started to pace.

She had joined him. He would have been well on with his first cigarette, a white glow in the dull greened wash of the night-sight lens. He wore cotton boxer shorts and a vest, and she had a shawl across the shoulders of her nightdress and was barefoot; he had put on sandals. The guard using the plastic chair by the pier had already scrambled away when he’d appeared, before she’d come – and Badger had woken Foxy.

It was going to be soon.

They had logged the carrying into the house of the new suitcase – black, with no motif that would stand out on a carousel. She had greeted him and her voice had been easy, clear, in his ears. He dreaded most that one dawn or evening, that day or the next, the black Mercedes would come, the driver would go to the door, bring out the case and lift it into the boot. The targets would climb into the back seats, the engine would rev, the goon – the officer – and the guards would straighten, the old lady would wave from the door, the kids at her knee, and the car would go. Where? Which airport, connecting with what flight? It was what he dreaded most.

The Engineer talked and his wife listened. He smoked, then threw the stub into the water. He walked with his hand under her arm and she had the stick to support her. There was no fat on the man, and Badger could see her contours, breasts, waist and hips, because a light wind was off the water. He would have had a better view, through the night-sight, if the moon had been smaller or had gone down over the horizon.

He dreaded most that he and Foxy would lie in the scrape with the bags and the bottles, their food; the bergens, the ticks, mosquitoes and flies, and the microphone would not pick up a remark on the destination. To have gone through this and not heard it… It was more than he could have endured.

They walked, and Badger watched.

He described the man, his arrogance and authority, and what the brigadier had said to him.

He explained his confusion. He asked her opinion: was he teased, tested? Mocked? Was it possible the Islamic Republic was a house built of cards and could be blown away?

He supported her and she followed his slow steps but was heavier on her stick.

Did they regard him with such contempt that he needed threats on the danger to him of defection? Was the regime’s strength so fragile? He did not know, and there was no other person alive with whom he would have shared thoughts so heretical.

Why had it been said? Why did they doubt his patriotism and loyalty, the faith that governed him?


When he had nothing more to say, she dug in her bare heels, spread her toes in the dirt and twisted him to face her. The light came up off the water and bathed her. Ducks’ splashes made ripples.

‘It is unthinkable. You will see this Guard Corps officer today. You will not bow in front of him. You will stand your full height, and you will tell him his words are fit only for the tip where the city’s trash is dumped. The thought of you betraying the nation is rubbish, and you will tell him so.’

‘I will tell him, to his face.’

‘It is rubbish because you would not leave me.’


‘Do they think that I, whether I am destined to live or to die, would go with you? It is inconceivable.’

‘I shall tell him.’

‘I would not go with you because I would not abandon my children. If I live a week, a month, a year or go my full span, I would not leave them. I would leave you before I would leave my children.’

‘He said also that, because of my work, I would be hunted down and hanged if the regime should fall.’

‘Is it more important what might happen to you than what will happen to me?’

She had shamed him and he lapsed into silence. He sensed that now she felt the chill of the night: she was shivering. He put his arm around her shoulders and started to lead her back to the house. He could feel her bones. Everything in his life revolved around the regime of the Islamic Republic that had come to power when he was nine years old. He had been to their schools; he had listened to their mullahs as a teenager; he had walked behind his father’s coffin as a procession wound towards the cemetery. His father’s life had been given in a minefield in defence of a child of the regime, and his mother had died of wounds received from shrapnel in the air attacks on Susangerd. He had struggled for the best results at university – electrical engineering – in Ahvaz, and for thirteen years had laboured over the workbench in the camp. He had made the devices, done what was asked of him, and now he was teased, taunted. It was as if the suspicion of treason was laid at his door. She had hard bones now and they were angled against his hand. The weight seemed, each day, to drip a little more from her. He had only once been outside Iran.

He thought of that journey more often now, where he had been and whom he had met.

His journey had been to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, the course at the University of Technology and Sciences had lasted two years, and he had learned areas of electronic engineering that had served him well at his workbench. He could remember his fear at the levels of drug-taking and binge-drinking, the rampant sexual appetites of the students. As a defence against corruption, contamination, he had wrapped himself in work… and there had been a girl.

She was in his mind more often now because each time he touched his wife, Naghmeh, he felt the sharpness of her bones and believed her life was slipping away. He had little faith in a foreign consultant. Romance was gone. Lust and love were strained to breaking point. There had been a girl in Budapest, who had never aged because she was locked in his mind as she was then. It had been the one time in his life that he had felt weak. He had yearned for her, and had been a virgin, experiencing new longings. She was Maria, from Austria, studying industrial psychology. On some occasions he had sat, in great boldness, beside her for lunch in the canteen. They had been to films on the campus and had held hands, and they had gone once to hear a pianist play Chopin. She had come to his room one evening in April, when the days lengthened, flowers bloomed and spring burst. He knew her as a good Catholic, and that she drank alcohol. Her parents were divorced, and she would work after her degree, she hoped, in the Swarovski glass factory as part of the workers’ support programme. She had come to his room in the students’ hostel: her blouse had been low-cut, her skirt short, and he could smell the schnapps on her breath, and her perfume. She had reached up from his narrow bed, caught his arms and tried to pull him down. He had slapped her face hard. She had left him, face pale except where his fingers had met her cheek and a nail had scratched her nose. He had never seen Maria Ohldorf after that day and he had the picture of her face, frozen, in his mind, her shock and bewilderment. She had been pretty, and he had yearned to hold her, but had not dared. He thought often of her now as the weight slipped off his wife’s bones.

He saw, on the edge of the shadows, Mansoor watching him. They went inside.

The Engineer cursed himself for thinking it – but she would not be saved. It was the stuff of dreams, false dawns. Sharp in his mind was the defiance, the extremes of rudeness, that he had hurled at the medical team in Tehran: almost the implication that they were peasants and ill-qualified. If he had listened, then had brought Naghmeh back to her children, there might have been a calm, loving parting, not preceded by a journey of desperation. But arrangements were made and could not now be cancelled.

The moon had gone, but first light was not yet on the horizon, above the far reeds and the water behind them.

Foxy eased off the headset, then pushed it across the little space to Badger. He expected to be asked what he had heard. No question came.

Had he been asked, he would have whispered, airily, that he had heard nothing of importance. It always threw interrogators waiting for an interpreter’s translation of a suspect’s fifty-word statement when a digest of around five words came back. He would not have said that the talk was of ‘defection’, rejected, and ‘abandoning family’, out of the question. He could have added that the Engineer and his wife spoke quality educated Farsi to each other. He could have latched onto a discussion, brief, that the Engineer would himself be a target if the regime failed and his association with the Revolutionary Guards Corps became general knowledge. He could have finished with an assessment, from the Engineer’s voice pitch and the wife’s, how their morale stood, and he would have assessed that her nerves were near breaking point and she was depressed. He said none of it.

It annoyed him that the query did not come – annoyed him enough him to hiss, ‘Not interested? Don’t you want to know?’

‘If there was anything I needed to know you’d have told me.’

‘I thought you’d want to hear their talk.’

‘Only if I need to know it.’

The headset was taken. He felt the strength of the young ’un beside him, little bastard, eased over and broke wind again. The bloody flies were swarming over the scrim of his headgear.

Would they come to blows? Foxy reckoned there was a chance of it. He closed his eyes, thought about sleep, and more about Ellie. He wondered where she was and what she was doing. He could have drunk a two-litre bottle of water straight down, but it was rationed, a discipline that couldn’t be broken. They had the water they had brought in – the greatest weight factor in the bergens was water. Only thinking of Ellie could clear his mind of the need for more water than was allowed. He rinsed some in his mouth, then swallowed it but eked it out. He couldn’t think when he had last disliked a man – loathed or detested one – as much as he disliked Badger, and he thought it mutual. It was probably inevitable that they would fight. The quiet closed round them.

It was the last hour before the grey smears appeared on the horizon in the east. They were all exhausted and needed sleep. None of them would get it.

It was the crisis time. The Jones Boys had usurped her. She didn’t give the orders, didn’t open her mouth and make suggestions – she did as she was told. The extent of the crisis yawed ahead of her.

Each of them – Hamfist, Corky, Shagger and Harding – wore their T-shirts: they had gone into their bags, dug them out, stripped off what they already had on and had done a fast change. The extent of the crisis brought them together, made them a team, and a team needed a uniform: from a uniform came strength. They were paid to protect her, so they would. She had passed control to them. She knew them like the callouses on her hands, the virtues and weaknesses of each man, but she could not have said who among the four would emerge as the leader. None had. Interesting to her, because the sharing of their responsibilities showed – her opinion – stunning trust. But they were trained as fighting men, when trust was implicit, and now they were fighting.

She thought it medieval. Abigail Jones had childhood memories of traipsing around castles, mostly motte-and bailey, in the Welsh Marches – Ludlow, Caus, Wigmore, some that were shoulder-high ruins and others that were towering relics – and her father, the barrister, had lectured on battles, sieges, the storm tactics of attackers and desperate defenders, and she had imagined men-at-arms running from one battlement to another to stem the latest thrust, knowing that if the line was broken, the wall fell, they were gone, throats slit. Shagger had the vehicles, Harding had the door of the building, and Abigail tagged along with Corky or Hamfist.

They chased shadows caught in the beams of the big torches. It was not the ultimate attack, but probes – and if they found weakness they would come on, do it big-time. A mob always knew how to sniff out weakness, and she thought a crowd of men from out of the marshes – gassed, bombed, their habitat drained and their buffalo dead – would know how to scavenge for weakness, would be bloody near gold-medal standard at it. At first the shadows had kept back, hugged the no man’s land between light and dark.

They were bold now, and the crisis had come.

They must defend the building alongside which the Pajeros were parked, and try to keep clear the approach ground between them and the broken perimeter fence. In front of them was the familiar track to the dragged-back gates, but behind them, inside the compound, was darkness.

The first blow was from Harding. His weapon was his M-16 Armalite rifle’s stock. Two had come, light-footed and silent, from the shadows, and were a moment away from getting inside the building where the gear was, the water and rations, some of the ammunition and enough of the grenades. Abigail, chasing after Corky, had seen them and Corky had shouted the warning.

It was the crisis because Harding hit one in the testicles with the stock of his rifle, then struck the second across the face. A double-tap, of sorts – one movement, two casualties. The first went down and was retching at Harding’s feet, might have thrown up on his boots, and the second was reeling back, clutching his mouth. Blood was easing out between his fingers, and she fancied he might have spat away a tooth. The first act of physical violence was the start point of the crisis.

She had ceded control.

It would have been the grossest impertinence for her to shout, ‘Don’t shoot! For fuck’s sake, don’t use live rounds.’ A killing would be a disaster. A wounding and hospitalisation would be a catastrophe.

Bruising, missing teeth, abrasions were manageable.

Knives were shown at them when a larger group, six or seven, ran towards the vehicles from different directions – the nearest thing to co-ordination. If the first strike of a knife had hit, and one of them had gone down, they would have been dead – all of them. Dead meant Harding never getting back to see the aunt who had reared him in the trailer camp and never again getting value for money from the Russian whores in Dubai. Dead for Corky was a telegram to a housing estate in west Belfast, being opened by old people he had not seen in twenty years, and two kids who would not have a father. Dead in Shagger’s world was a farm never bought and reoccupied by an elderly couple, pedigree sheep never grazing the fields that looked onto mountains. Dead was Hamfist’s divorced wife getting a large cheque from Proeliator Security and maybe going as far as digging out a photo of him and putting it on the sideboard for a week. And, dead was Alpha Juliet – surrogate mother of the Jones Boys – never again looking into the face of Badger, deciphering nothing, learning less, and seeing in the eyes a message of self-sufficiency and reliance on no one. It had captured her… And dead was having the smelly rag-heads crawl all over her and likely shag her carcass. There were knives in the torch beams that might have been used to gut a good-size carp or skin a dead buffalo calf, or to slash the reeds from which their homes were built.

The alternative to being dead was to quit.

If they quit, they left behind Badger and Foxy, and a mission that had taken months to put together was aborted. She remembered the sergeant who had explained, shyly, that his work was routine, quite boring – he’d spent three and half hours on his knees while he dismantled a device left in a shallow hole near Highway 6, made it safe and gave the forensic people the chance to trace a DNA sample and to find the date-seller and the road-sweeper. She wouldn’t quit.

Hands were on her. She smelt sour breath and felt long nails catch the waist of her robe, then the pressure pushing her downwards. Beside her a knife flickered in Shagger’s beam, and might have been about to close on Hamfist’s chest. Corky came. He had an iron bar. It might have been used once to support barbed-wire defences. Corky was from an estate where knowledge of street fighting came at about the same time as primary school and first communion. He lashed around him. There were groans, a scream. The hands were off Abigail. There were no faces, only hands, and some had their own blood on them. Three knives were lined up. They were at the edge of Shagger’s torch light. She recognised it. They were together to feed each other the courage to charge forward, and the knives were raised boldly. If one of her Boys was down, it was over.

More had gathered behind the knives. They would swamp the Boys and her – there were so few of them, four guys and their ma’am, because the wisdom said that the fewer bodies on the ground, the greater the chances of going in and out without being identified. She hadn’t argued with the wisdom – and the knives’ blades flashed. She didn’t know which, but either Corky or Harding threw the first gas grenade and it rolled among them. The smoke burst from the canister and enveloped them. They were pale figures caught in a white cloud and they seemed to dance as they choked. Another grenade was thrown and the cloud thickened. It was harder to see them, but easy to hear the choking and the coughs.

They took their casualties with them, five who were helped towards the gate.

She knew what she had to do. Her head ached, and the gas was in her eyes, making them water with needle pains.

Abigail walked away from her Boys, following the gaggle of men, towards the gate. She reached it and shouted, in good Arabic, what she wanted. She had resumed her role of authority.

She sat down in the dirt and folded her legs in the middle of the track. She waited for them to do as she had instructed. It was a gamble – as was the whole goddamn thing. She waited, and soon dawn would come.

When would he know? Mansoor asked him. And caught him flustered, having had to duck back into the house because there were papers he had been reading early that morning and he had forgotten to replace them in his briefcase. Know what?

Mansoor said it slowly, as if he talked with a demented man. When would he know the date on which he travelled, and when would he know where he travelled to?

The door of the Mercedes was held open for him and he threw the briefcase towards the far side of the seat. He said he would know that day – he had been promised.

A radio had been switched on in the house.

The security officer had fine hearing. He realised that the wife, Naghmeh, had not packed the new suitcase. He had been roused by a sentry in the night, and had gone half dressed from his room alongside the communal dormitory of the barracks. He had seen them – washed in moonlight – walking beside the water. He understood that the two were, almost, crushed. He had thought in the night that the wound on his leg was healed, and that the muscles and tendons that had been ruptured were knitting well. He had pondered, watching them walk together, that the time would come soon when he could apply for service with the al-Quds again, in Lebanon. It was an honour to be chosen to protect a man of the Engineer’s prominence, and it could not have been said that he was careless with the responsibility, but it did not extend him. He was asked by the driver what the situation was that morning in central Ahvaz.

A news bulletin came on the radio.

He could answer. His father had telephoned that morning. The hanging of the terrorist the previous day had gone well. There had been militia and Guard Corps personnel on the streets; no live rounds or gas had been fired; the crowds had dispersed quietly after only one charge with batons. His father had said that the hanging had been witnessed by the family of a bystander who had died when the bomb the youth had placed had exploded; the mother had spat at the condemned as he was lifted, trembling, onto a chair with the noose round his neck and the hood over his face. The father of the bystander would himself have kicked away the chair if he had not been restrained. His father loved to watch the hangings… His father had said that the streets were calm. He said it was safe to take the quicker route through the centre of the city.

He was surprised. The question had shocked him. Never before had his charge, Rashid Armajan, made such a query. It had been asked from beside the open rear door of the car, as if an afterthought: ‘Do you believe it possible that the regime governing us is, in fact, similar to a house built of playing cards that can be blown down, destroyed?’

The security officer, a true believer, gagged and must have betrayed his shock.

The Engineer was sharper: ‘Could the regime collapse? Is internal dissent, external aggression – combined – enough to break us?’

He sensed a trap. The question was close to treason. Men, and women, were hanged for treason. Did the question test his loyalty? Was he doubted?

‘Can the regime be swept away? Are we merely temporary? Are we like the Fascists and the Communists, the Ba’athists, the apartheid oppression in South Africa and the…?’

He stuttered it: ‘The regime is strong, is a rock. Those who denounce it and look to betray it will fail. There are spies everywhere, and danger. Vigilance must be rigorous. I tell you, should I find myself confronting such an enemy, he would know pain the like of which he has never experienced before. We are strong.’

‘Thank you. You are a good friend.’ The Engineer sank heavily into the car, swung in his legs and the driver closed the door after him.

Mansoor pondered. He could – and most probably should – report such a conversation. Who would be believed? Himself, a junior functionary, or a man who was feted by the high command of the al-Quds Brigade and who was about to travel abroad on the state’s funding? Could he, by implication, accuse such a man of treason? The car turned a corner beside the barracks and disappeared, dust billowing behind it. Always it was necessary, if denouncing a man of prominence, to be certain. He was prepared to dither.

It would have been the wife’s mother who had the radio loud because she was partially deaf, had been afflicted since the enemy’s artillery had pounded Ahvaz.

He went to his chair in the shade and sat down with his binoculars. He wondered if this would be the day when the Sacred Ibis came over the reeds fringing the lagoon and settled on the exposed mud spit.

Foxy whispered brusquely, ‘The radio knocked out the long conversation at the car. Before it was switched on he said he would be told today the “when” and the “where”. That’s about it. For me it’ll be some sleep.’

Soon he would start to snore.

Badger felt alone. He had lost count of how many hours, days and nights it had been since they were scooped from their lives and taken north to the house facing out over the bay. The hours, days and nights since he had met the girl, Alpha Juliet, had merged too. He had taken the headset. Most of what it picked up was the babble of the radio. The heat inside his suit climbed, the sweat ran and he felt the weakness that lack of exercise produced. Those people at the house with the ruins of a castle and the pipes’ wail were too distant: he could no longer put faces to them. Time dripped, the images blurred. .. He couldn’t bloody remember them.

‘The carvery is always good value,’ Gibbons said, ‘and the fish is usually passable.’ He played host to the Cousin, the Friend and the Major. It had been Sarah’s idea. She had suggested it that morning, had made the phone calls with the invitations, had booked the table and appeared to believe he needed respite from sitting in the inner office, contemplating the wilting flowers, the pictures on the wall and the silence of the telephone. It had been sleeting in central London when he had walked from the office to the club.

A bottle of red was brought, a bottle of white and a small jug of water.

He smiled, a little deprecating. ‘Always the hardest time for us, the waiting. We’re all from that neck of the woods… I often think that others who are parked at their desks in our place and write those analysis pieces have little idea of the strains placed on us by our work in the front line… very little idea.’

Sarah had bundled a wad of cash into his hand, the implication being that she would lose it somewhere in the budget – elastic bands, highlighters, paper clips. In the club’s restaurant, rarely used by him because of its expense, she had reserved a corner table where they could speak and be free of eavesdropping.

The Cousin remarked, ‘There are people in Langley who drive up the Beltway before it’s light for half the year, look at a screen all day, and it’s dark when they’re back in the car and off home. They tell the little woman, ‘It’s been a hell of day, sweetie, just one hell of a day.’ They have no idea, and less concern, about the pressures we’re under when we’re running sharp-end stuff… But I take comfort from the feeling in my water that we’ve gotten close to the serious time. I’ll start with the white, Len, thank you.’

The Friend said, ‘I don’t intend to badmouth my own people, but Israel has the world’s highest proportion of jealous bastards who think they know better than the man of experience. We have awards that would fill a wall for interference and shit-chucking. What we do is difficult and stressful and you can piss against the wind for all the appreciation you’ll pick up. The red would suit me as a kick-off, Len, and I’m grateful for the invitation.’

The Major grimaced, smiled. ‘I can remember a day when I’d been out on those open-sewer streets of Basra from dawn till dusk and I’d killed five IEDs. Each was complex and would have been shipped in from that bloody production line across the border, and one was for me and complicated. There were bad guys on a roof, watching to see how I went about it – hoping also to see the big flash and hear the bang. I went back to the mess. Believe it, please. There was a colonel in there – using the Basra Palace, Saddam’s old watering-hole – for a farewell bash. He and his guests had put on their fancy-dress outfits and their gongs for smart dining. Flopped in a chair, feet on the table, beer bought me, and this bloody colonel wants to know why I haven’t washed, shaved, changed before entering the mess. Didn’t understand there was a life outside the limit of the air-conditioning system. I told him to fuck off – took my brigadier in Baghdad a week to smooth the waters. People have no idea about the real world. I’ll start with the white and then try the red. Thanks, Len.’

They ordered, drank and ate. Another bottle of red was required, but the water lasted. In a vacuum of information, responsibilities were reiterated and guarantees given. Coffee was accepted, but no brandy – an indication of work taken seriously.

The Major said, ‘I just want to put it on the record in this rather select company… People, these days, are pretty squeamish about what they call ‘extra-judicial’ interdiction. I think it an excellent way of dealing with an extant difficulty. Identify, locate and…’ He slapped a broad hand – with chunky fingers that seemed to lack the sensitivity necessary for the dismantling of improvised explosive devices – on the table. The cups rattled in the saucers, the unused cutlery banged against the glasses, and he’d done a passable imitation of a shot being fired, and another. Then the Major wiped his mouth with his napkin, and dropped it as though business had been done and procedures agreed.

The Friend used a toothpick. ‘We have a mantra that we neither confirm nor deny, and are consistent with it. It can, however, be let slip through many channels that the target was in trouble with his own people for fucking the wife of a man more influential, or for fabricating his expense accounts. That confuses the general public of many nations – but not the associates of the target. They know, they fear… The greatest source of the fear is that their small corner, that most secretive part of an organisation where they exist, will be penetrated… But we have to wait.’

He smiled and let slip a small belch, then meticulously folded his napkin and smoothed it.

The Cousin gazed around him wistfully, as if a small chance existed that, in a gentleman’s club, he might be permitted to smoke a cigar. ‘A Hellfire, if aimed accurately and carrying a punch of eight kilos of metal-augmented charge, can do a fair bit of ‘extra-judicial’. We don’t have – at this moment – a judge and jury sitting in north Waziristan, in the Haraz mountains of Yemen or in the sand round Kandahar, so what we do there has to benefit from lack of contact with a courthouse. I hear no great wail of protest. Go back two decades and a Canadian citizen was taken down, Gerald Bull, shot by – of course – persons unknown while earning big moolah for building the gun that was going to fire chemicals and biological out of Iraq and into Israel. Did the Canadians shout and yell? Deafening silence. The furore of the hand-wringers lasts a week at maximum – and it keeps the motherfuckers looking over their shoulders. There is only one law in this business. Don’t get caught. It’s a good one to remember. It has legs and has lasted years. A grand meal, Len.’

The Major and the Friend agreed. Gibbons raised an arm to motion for the waiter and his bill, then reached into an inner pocket for his fattened wallet. He said, ‘It’s not the easy time. When we have – and I’m confident we will – the direction to head in, it will all get easier. You’ve met the two men who are up front, know pretty much the same as I do about them. What I would like to say, though, the officer we have in support of them is first rate. Very dedicated. Yes – at the risk of landing hard on my arse – I’m very confident.’

The Cousin said, ‘And you’d know about that, Len, as I hear it. You’d know about landing hard on your arse.’

The Friend said – and would have read the filtered reports reaching foreign agencies, ‘Dogs a man, doesn’t it, when he has to be lifted out of the shit?’

Gibbons offered no denials. ‘Didn’t like it, but lessons were learned.’

The Major, not privy to secrets of the trade and historic foul-ups, pushed back his chair and made ready to stand. ‘I see, looking out onto the street, that nothing of the weather improves, sleet gone to snow. Hard to have a decent sight of them, in the mind, in the heat. It’s merciless, the heat is. Brutal. Anyway, what interests me are your good words on the officer on the ground who directs all this, and your confidence.’

On her haunches, Abigail Jones sat alone. Behind her, fifteen yards back, was Corky.

He accepted, they all did, that she had taken control again, and would call the moves.

Somewhere under the robe she wore – now mud-stained and dusty – was the holster that hugged her waist. The pistol was in it and there was a slit at the side of the garment that her fist could be shoved into if she needed the thing. She had tucked her gas mask behind her backside so it was close to hand but not visible.

She had called for a leader to be sent. The rag-heads always liked – at a time of confrontation – to have a meeting, a conference; then they would hector and bluster, give themselves the opportunity to preen and usually to walk out. A meeting, at a time of substantial dispute, was the way they usually went. She sat in the dirt in the centre of the gateway and waited for a leader to come.

Corky could see, from the tilt of her head, that her eyeline was down. Her focus point would have been about half of the distance between where she sat and the line of men facing her. One had a scarf, bloodstained, across his face, and another could only stand with the help of two others; one had weeping abrasions on his shin where the bar had been used on him, and another tucked his wrist between his shirt’s buttonholes and had a broken collar-bone. There were others who might have fractured ribs or dried blood on their scalps, but no shots had been fired and that was a miracle. He thought they had done well.

His rifle was slung across his chest and he had two magazines, filled, taped together. His flak vest was over his Jones Boys shirt, and the gas mask was hooked to his waist. If any of them had run at her, he would have dropped them.

Behind him was Shagger; Harding and Hamfist were at the Pajeros. Pretty feckin’ ridiculous but they still had the tripod up, the spotting ’scope mounted on it. The identification pictures were on the ground, held in place by a quarter of a mud brick: by now Corky might have been able to spot a Marbled Duck. He might have known the difference between a Ferruginous Duck and a White-headed Duck, and definitely he could have said which was a Basra Reed-warbler and which a Black-tailed Godwit. He had a sunhat on, camouflage type, while Shagger and Harding wore the Proeliator Security caps with the big peaks; Hamfist’s was from a pizza-delivery service in the east of Scotland. She wore nothing on her head other than a wispy scarf. Her body threw off no shadow because the sun was above her.

She waited. It was all bluff.

Harding’s take on it was that had it been American spooks a close-support airstrike would have been called in during the night, and Black Hawks would have come to lift them out. Shagger had said that if the mission had been run by any of the other Six officers from Baghdad they’d have called a taxi and quit.

She sat very still. Corky couldn’t see her face but thought of her as serene, so calm.

The heat made him wobble on his feet, the shimmer came up from the sand and the faces in front of him distorted. There was pain in his eyes behind the wraparounds, he craved a drink, and his concentration was going. Harding must have seen him rock.

The drawling voice was in his ear: ‘Go get yourself a drink.’

‘What about her?’

‘Go close to her, break the mood she’s set, you’ll get bawled out.’

‘I reckon.’

Harding murmured, ‘She’s remarkable.’

Corky did it side of mouth. ‘No one like her, an ace lady… You have any idea how long this needs spinning out?’

‘Beginning to think it’s closing down on us. Don’t reckon, up front, they have much more time. I saw how much water they took and it’s the heat… I don’t think they have a heap of time.’

He moved his hand and felt the coil.

It had been a better morning. The Engineer had gone. The goon, the officer, had driven his jeep away and might have gone to a village nearby to shop or to a town. The wife had not come out and the children had been taken to school by the older woman, in uniforms and with heavy rucksacks. The head of the guard who sat in the plastic chair with the rifle across his legs was lolling back. Badger had moved, at a slow crawl, to the reed beds. It was the first time either had moved in daylight, and it was incredible – like a liberation – simply to stand and stretch, arch and flex. He could move more than he could in darkness and was freer because he could see what his boots landed on.

There was the rhythm of Foxy’s breathing beside him. He was asleep. Badger’s hand had slipped underneath the folds of his gillie suit and rubbed – not scratched – one of the many tick scabs on his hip. The hand had come out and reached for the water bottle and he had felt the smooth, cold line of the coil.

He couldn’t drink the water that lapped the bottom of the reed stems, but he could scoop it up in his hands, strip down to his boots and socks and wash himself. He saw the pocked skin of the ticks’ bites and had prised others off his body, working as carefully as the contortion allowed to see that none of the bloody things was close to his backside. He was cooler and cleaner, a rare joy… It was the bottled water that would kill them: Badger reckoned there was enough for that day and one more, but he felt better for the wash, almost human. He had gone back on his stomach, doing the crawl that took him from the line of the reeds across the open ground. Then he had insinuated himself under the cover of the fronds, burrowed forward until his head and his shoulders were level with Foxy’s and taken over the headset.

He flinched, drew his hand sharply back. The touch told him this was not wood, plastic or rubber. The coil might have been six inches across, but could have been as much as nine. It filled the gap between his body and Foxy’s, was level with their hips. He thought his touch on it had been merely the gentlest brush. Foxy slept. Badger knew what he had touched. He had not seen it, but the texture against his fingertips was evidence enough.

Foxy had gone into the reeds with the collapsible shovel, had defecated, urinated, and buried the plastic bag and bottle. Badger had not known whether he had stripped down to his boots and socks or whether he had just wiped water under his armpits and in his groin. His breath had stunk when he came back. Badger’s would have too, but the smell of their breath would have matched the general stench of the marsh and the trapped water of the lagoon. Foxy had been careful coming back, had taken an age, but had smoothed the dirt behind him and scattered more dead stuff, leaving it haphazardly put down – had done a good job. Together they had made an inventory of the water remaining: three bottles, and it should have been seven or eight in that temperature. After the exchange of the headset, Foxy had taken the watch and Badger had slept.

It could only be a snake. Badger had seen snakes in zoos when he was a kid, and there were snakes on the warmest days up in the Brecons that he had known about when stalking paratroops on exercise. There were also snakes in gaps in the heather and on flat stones, which he had seen when edging close to red deer in the Scottish hills, testing himself against their eyesight, hearing and the quality of their nostrils. Anyone who knew had told him that snakes were most dangerous when disturbed suddenly from deep sleep. Then they lashed out. He twisted his head, a considered, slow movement, and looked down into the darkened gap between his body and Foxy’s. They were both in the scraped hole and across the top of it was scrim net, camouflaged and lightweight. Reed fronds were on top of the netting, and some light seeped through. The snake filled the space between their bodies, and it was coiled tight. Its tail was towards him and he couldn’t see the bastard’s head, where the fangs would be.

It had been another hand-over with nothing to be said, and Badger could listen to the breeze in the reed tops, and the charges of birds across the lagoon. Up to the moment when he had slipped his hand down in the hope that his fingers could massage some relief from the irritation of the scabs, he had been desperate for water. But the rules were that water should only be drunk when both were awake and the watch changed. He thought Foxy slept easily, head averted, breathing regular and with a light snoring in the throat.

It was important to him that Foxy slept easily. If he was restless, he might pitch over, roll onto the snake and panic it. It would have slithered into the place it now had, between their legs, and settled itself. If Foxy’s arse landed on it, it would retaliate, it might go right and it might go left. It might go for Foxy’s hand or arm, or try to bite through the suit and the lightweight trousers, or the leg below the suit and above the socks. It might launch itself at Badger. He lay so still, barely daring to breathe, and reckoned the head, with the fangs and poison sacs, was against Foxy but less than a foot from himself. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so bollock naked with fear.

And remembered… Talk in the Pajero, not from Alpha Juliet but from the Welsh guy. All said with the lazy casualness that veterans use to frighten the guts out of rookies. ‘Couple of years ago they was overrun with snakes. The marshes shrank and there was only a quarter of the water there had been. The snakes were disorientated and came into the villages, like they were looking for people and beasts. You watch out for snakes, bad bastards. The main one to watch for is the arbid. It’s bigger than our Welsh viper, goes to about four foot in length. If you see it, you’ll know it, and I hope you never see it. Thick body, black mostly but with red on it. I don’t know about an adult, but I was told its bite kills a kiddie in around twenty minutes. Do we have serums? Sorry, no.’

Could remember it now, word for word. There was a knife in his bergen, but not on his belt. Badger tried to work out how much of an effort it would be to wriggle his body to where he could get down into one of the pouches and extract the knife, but didn’t have a clear view of it. His mind seemed closed down, not functioning for solutions. Shagger had talked some more about the mosquito problem, the tick problem, the foot-rot problem. He had gone through the list of problems as the Pajero had driven north, and one had seemed much like another – until now.

How to wake Foxy? Not easy. How to wake him and not have him thrashing around? He checked ahead and there was no movement at the house.

He imagined the prick of the fangs. He would lash at the fucking thing, but it would be faster and would hit him again in the wrist – where the veins were – and the poison would start to flow… Maybe the morphine they carried would kill him. Couldn’t have him standing up on the clear patch of mud, two hundred yards across the water from the target house, using what strength he had left to rip off the suit and his underclothing, because the pain of the venom was unsustainable, and howling…

He didn’t know what to do. With his head tilted, he could see the coil.

Foxy didn’t seem to move, but his voice was clear, soft, conversational: ‘Is this, young ’un, what you’re looking for?’

His hand came out and was close to Badger’s. His hips rolled and his arse shifted. His legs twisted inside the suit and his body tipped. Badger tried to stop him, to arrest the movement, and hissed for him not to move, but was ignored. Foxy rolled onto the snake. His weight pitched onto it.

‘Is this, young ’un, what you needed to find?’

Chapter 10

There was a low chuckle, no humour.

The clenched hand, three or four inches in front of Badger’s face, obliterated his view of the house. He couldn’t speak. He waited, in that moment, for Foxy’s backside to heave up in the air, the gillie suit to convulse, a scream, and then for the body to heave away and the snake’s- The chuckle became laughter.

The fist, under his eyes, opened.

The dirt was caked in the palm. Badger realised that what bound the mud, stopped it disintegrating as dust, was old blood. He thought the head was an inch long, the neck a further inch.

He couldn’t have said how long it had been since the snake was decapitated – might have been an hour or done in the night, the carcass kept for the joke to be played. The lustre had gone from the wound at the neck and the tissue had whitened. He saw, protruding from the snake’s mouth, open in death, the right fang. It would have been attempting to defend itself when it had died, and it was frozen in that last act of attempted survival. He tried to drag his face away from it, but the headset’s cable trapped him.

Foxy, deliberately, let it slip.

The snake’s head came to rest on Badger’s hands where they held the binoculars, and he felt his temper go into free-fall.

Foxy said, ‘You see, young ’un, you’re so full of cock that you needed pegging down a notch, maybe four or five. I meet too many kids who reckon they’re special and have achieved fuck-all that impresses me. I reckon then that it’s as good a time as any to peg them.’

He had never hit a man, or a child when he was at school. In the police, in the years before he had gone into surveillance, he had never operated in a public-order environment when the order was given to display the batons and break up a crowd. People in the section house, and those on the team, would have called it ‘red-mist time’, but he’d despised that type of violence. If the psychiatrist who had an overview of them and saw the croppies once a year had known he was liable to the mist, the fast breathing and the burn in his brain then, likely, he would have been pulled out of the job and sent home. Might have been told to find a dark room, lie down and stay there till his head went cold.

‘You were right for pegging, young ’un, because you have bullshit coming out of your mouth, ears and nose. When I get back I’m going to tell my Ellie about you, and we’ll have a good laugh. Her, me and a bottle. I’ll tell her what I did for a guy who thought he knew every answer to every question. Would you have wet your pants or shat in them? I’d like to know so I can tell my Ellie. You went into the reeds, down to the waterline, and I could see your boot treads when I went, where you squatted and where you washed. Some of the time you were about a yard away from where this creature was. It was asleep, and I’ll bet big money you never saw it.’

They did unarmed combat training in the team, and there was talk that they might – soon – be issued with Glock pistols. Arming them was a divisive issue among the croppies, but there was anxiety that a jihadist, in search of the key to Paradise and the beauty pageant of virgins awaiting him, might get a strop if he realised he was under observation, come after the officer and put him – the image fitted – in the orange jumpsuit, then do the video. If there was a chance to go for suicide and the virgins, or the Central Criminal Court and thirty years banged up in Belmarsh or Long Lartin, it was likely he’d go for short-term freedom at the expense of the officer’s life… But Daniel ‘Badger’ Baxter was not classified as violent, knew little about self-defence and was more likely to back off, sneak away. He felt it come to boiling point. He had about forgotten what he was there for and the purpose of the headset on his scalp.

‘It was there – where you bloody nearly stepped on it, and that’s from footmarks – and I had my old man out and was about to pee when I saw it. I took the knife out of my pocket, made sure my shadow didn’t fall on it and did it first time. I can tell you it was one hell of a strike. The little fellow never knew what hit him. One minute he’s dreaming of eating a rat and the next he’s short of a head. One stab, straight down, a bit of sawing and the head’s off. You didn’t tell me whether you wet your trousers or shat them. I’ve a good mind, young ’un, an innovative one, and I reckoned the atmosphere in our little love nest was a bit too solemn, needed lightening up.’

They said that the two basics of managing building anger were to count to ten – or fifty or a hundred – and breathe in slowly. His fist was clenched. He was not certain what sort of blow he could land in the confined space. More of a gesture, but a good one. Worth it.

‘So get off your high horse, young ’un, and stay off it. Hang around me and learn, think yourself lucky and-’

Something of a right jab. The punch only had some nine inches to travel. It would have been, if it had landed square on the cheek or on the forehead, little more than a slap, but it caught the end of Foxy’s nose, and had enough force in it to make the older man jolt. There was a moment of shock in his eyes.

The blood came, not much, a run from the left nostril through the moustache, now ragged and untrimmed, to the upper lip.

Nothing was said.

He didn’t know what he could have said.

Badger’s father sold second-hand cars… not top-of-the-range but the sort that boys bought when they had their first job and that girls shelled out for when they worked at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and there was no bus route to bring them in. Paul Baxter did tight margins, bought cheap and sold cheap, was nearly honest and kept a couple of good mechanics working for him in the repair shop round the back of the show room. There was a warranty of sorts but difficult to enforce. Most of the cars stayed on the road long enough for his father not to be embarrassed by the sale, but a few did not. He never apologised and never explained – never said how sorry he was that the carburettor had blown up on the motorway, and never explained that a nine-year-old carburettor in that model of Fiat was a driving disaster.

Like father, like son. Badger didn’t apologise for hitting Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes across the nose and making it bleed, and didn’t explain that the heat and the dehydration were wrecking him, destroying him and that snakes were bad news for him.

He had his binoculars up.

If they had been in England, and it had been witnessed, there would have been a disciplinary hearing and a kangaroo court. Foxy would have been censured for the jape with the snake and Badger would have been suspended on full pay, pending further inquiries, for striking a fellow officer. It was, actually, quite a good joke with the snake.

They settled and the silence nestled on them. A good joke, yes, but he wouldn’t say so, and Foxy wouldn’t tell him he was ‘sorry, and out of order, no offence meant’.

There would be another flashpoint. Badger did not gamble, but he rated it as a banker that they would explode again. No voices were on the headset and the thirst scratched his throat. They wouldn’t allow themselves another drink for an hour, minimum. The sweat took more moisture from his body, and the house seemed to sway in the binocular lenses. The lagoon shimmered, and his eyes hurt. He had to grind his fingernails into his palm to hold some, any, concentration.

There was washing barely moving on the line, and a guard asleep. An otter swam by languidly, and time was running out for them. He didn’t know what would cause the next explosion of temper.

Hamfist had come forward.

She hadn’t moved, still sat cross-legged. He had brought a bottle of tepid water and put it down beside her hip. He’d seen that her gaze didn’t confront the crowd but was on the ground a little ahead of her. The crowd had just done prayers, had swung away from the gate and taken a line to the east. The stand-off began again.

They reckoned – him, Shagger, Corky and Harding – that she had, temporarily, calmed the crowd. For all the broken heads and probably broken bones, the men seemed comatose. Might have been the heat. He’d had a company commander, up Highway 6 at al-Amara, who daily blessed the heat of the day and thanked the good Lord for any temperature above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit because it drained hostile energy out of the young bucks. The crowd had no shade. Neither did she.

He stood tall. If it had not been for the alcohol he’d have been promoted above his last substantive rank, corporal, could have made it up to platoon sergeant. The drink did him and there had, often enough, been that regretful look from officers when they’d busted him down. He denied to himself that he had a problem with drink: Hamfist had heard it said, and clung to it leech-like, that an alcoholic was a man who couldn’t remember the last day on which he hadn’t had a drink. It was yesterday, and the day before. If they had charged at her suddenly, he was confident of the quick reaction that would have dropped them on the dirt track before they were halfway. If the weapon on the strap across his chest had jammed, he had grenades – gas, blast and fragmentation – and a pistol. If the weapons had jammed and the grenades had malfunctioned, he would have used his hands and boots to protect her.

They would have had to take his life before they reached her. The other Boys were the same.

He was thirty-one years old, and his thirty-second birthday would come round in eleven days. She knew the date. Shagger, Corky and Harding didn’t. She had known the previous year, his thirty-first, and he hadn’t broadcast it but it would have been in the file she’d have flipped through before he’d joined her protection detail. God knew where she’d bought it. It was wrapped up in smart paper, and there was a little card on it, Hamfist, Happy Day, Best, AJ, and inside was a crumbling cake, with fruit and orange rind and sliced almonds in circles on the top. The best Dundee cake he’d ever eaten, for all it was damaged in transit. There had been nothing from his wife. He’d not shared the cake but had eked it out and made it last into a seventh week.

He understood what she had done and how she hoped to extricate them, her decision to use the site where there had once been oil-drilling exploration teams. Her decision, too, that they were close enough to the surveillance boys, and inside the Golden Hour of protection. Her decision, now, to sit in the dirt, exposed to the sun, face the crowd and wait. If it came to fighting, they wouldn’t survive another night.

Hamfist couldn’t know whether she had called right or wrong. If a leader came, she might have called right, and if there was no leader and only darkness, she had called wrong. It was a big call, and it would matter for the men up front. The hours drifted, and time passed. The sun had started to tilt and he no longer stood astride his own shadow – it had begun to nudge out towards his left side, and the soft shape of his body on the dirt was broken by the rifle’s barrel.

Not for him to say that they walked a line, a high wire, and that maybe they headed for disaster… not for him to say that.

She didn’t drink the water he had brought her. She sat and never moved.

They started up the engines every two hours. One Black Hawk crew would go through the procedures while the other rested, and an hour later it would be reversed.

Each had a pair of General Electric T700-GE-70 turbo shafts and each manufactured a power of 1890 h.p. While the pilot and his colleague sat up front and did their checks, the cabin guys did the look-over on the M240 machine guns. They were ready, and each hour a few of the men and women not yet due to return to the States – or to be shipped to Kabul – would stand in little huddles in what shade they could find to watch. Before the draw-down was well advanced, it would have been possible for the Black Hawks, with their unmarked black fuselages that were the signature of special-forces operations – the covert stuff – to be parked out of sight where only a chosen few maintenance technicians had access. Times had changed. The end-of-empire days dictated that a hefty chunk of the base was now in the hands of local forces and only an area inside a contracted perimeter remained for the Americans. Clerks, typists, cooks, marines off duty from security rosters would watch the exhausts spew fumes, feel the draught of the rotors and dream.

Inside every American compound life was now stultifyingly dull. No fire fights, no patrols, no finds of arms caches, and no bodies to be photographed They stayed behind the blast walls and saw nothing of the country but its skies, blue and merciless. They pumped iron, played basketball and smoked what they could find. The helicopters broke the monotony and intrigued them. On immediate stand-by. Prepared for a mission. Cloaked in secrecy. They attracted attention. When the cabin doors were pulled right back, medical gear and stacked gurneys were visible.

Tristram closed down the engines and Eddie did the calls as the switches were flipped. Dwayne wrapped a tea towel round the breech of his machine gun and the rounds in the belt, then secured it with tape. Federico aped him.

For those on the ground, the rubber-neckers, the attraction was that they might see – a final time – the birds take off and fly low over walls and fences, then across the desert and go into actual mother-fuck combat. The suppression fire of the machine guns would be called for, and there’d be blood on the cabin floor, lives at risk and

… It was a dream, and good enough for the voyeurs. In draw-down days, excitement was sparse.

They jumped down, boots hitting the tarmacadam of the apron. A few pocket cameras were pointed at them, but their shades were good enough protection.

Tristram said, ‘I got the whole lot of charts and the software fed for the Iran frontier.’

Eddie said, ‘Up to the frontier, not over it.’

‘I have that. The far side of the frontier and they’re on their own. Not negotiable.’

‘Wherever they’re coming from, how far over the frontier, they have to get this side of it. For us to go over there is classified as an act of war. Into Iran, and when we land back I’m up for court martial, bet your life, and castration. No one will believe the navigation screwed me.’

‘But it would be good to fly a last time.’

His voice dropped: ‘Problem is, if we get called they’re in deep shit out there. At the edge of survival. For the sake of those guys, I half hope we don’t get to fly a last time.’

‘I don’t want state secrets, but are you any further forward?’ She had come into central London carrying a plastic bag filled with clean clothing.

‘Can’t say.’ Len Gibbons’s shrug was expressive. ‘Honestly, my love, I don’t know.’

They were in the same coffee shop across Haymarket from his office, and she had already shown him the shirts she had brought on the train. Pity there were no shoes – the only pair he had with him were damp from so much rain and sleet, and now from the sprinkle of snow.

‘Just trying to plan. Audrey said there’s a meeting at the garden centre, advice on how to protect shrubs in winter. It’s next Monday. I didn’t want to accept her invite if you’d just come home that evening. Is it likely?’

He grimaced. ‘In the dark and I haven’t a candle. Be on the safe side, and go.’

They had been through much, had walked those routes together, and he’d valued her as a crutch when the world had caved around his shoulders. Her hand had come across the table to rest on his fist. Her rings were witness to the commitment they had made to each other before marriage and before the career setback. He would not have survived it without her, and he had often speculated which dreary branch of government he would now figure in if he had allowed himself to walk away from Six: Work and Pensions, Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, Education and Sciences?

She had a habit of lowering her voice until it dripped conspiracy. ‘Is it a big one?’

‘By my standards.’

‘People on the ground, at the sharp end, in danger?’

‘I carry the responsibility.’

She looked far into his eyes. ‘Is it like the old days… when you were young, tilting at windmills, the world yours, and me running to keep up? Like that?’

They might have been alone on a Suffolk beach, in a Scottish forest or on a Welsh hillside, and only honesty counted. Len Gibbons said, ‘I can hide it pretty well, but I’ve not felt such excitement in thirty years. I’m alive with it. I’ll go to the end of any road in front of me to see this one through and make it work. Three decades of sneers and titters, I’ve lived with… This sort of makes it worthwhile. All those bastards who put me down, I think I’m going to walk all over them. I feel blessed to be a part of it… Is it going to happen? God’s truth, I don’t know. I’m willing it to… Just have to believe it will.’

She smiled, would have tried to offer encouragement. ‘It’ll be all right, Len.’

‘If it’s not, and goes public, they’ll crucify me at the Towers. .. but it’ll be worse for those at the sharp end, on the ground.’

He lifted her hand, kissed it, passed her another bag, the dirty bundle, and was gone out of the door. The snow had eased, but the sleet drove hard. They were never out of his mind, those for whom he carried responsibility – and the man he targeted.

It was the end of his day. The Engineer stood in the anteroom outside the brigadier’s office and the secretary gave him the fat envelope, telling him it contained his travel documents. He opened the envelope, glanced at the top sheet and said the itinerary would exhaust his wife. She shrugged. She reached down for the big envelope at her feet and said these were the X-ray and scan results requested from Tehran. She unlocked a drawer. From another envelope she took two passports, both bearing the crest of the Czech Republic. Finally from a plastic pouch she took a mass of euro banknotes and ostentatiously counted out a thousand in different denominations.

He read her attitude. Were there no better calls for foreign currency? Was there not a medical framework inside the Islamic Republic superior to any other? Why was so much deference shown to him?

The items went into his briefcase. She rang through, then indicated cursorily with her hand that he should go inside the office. He was greeted. Did he have everything? Was he satisfied? He did and he was.

He wondered whether this ranking officer knew of the questions put to him by a colleague and whether a crude trap had been set for him, or whether the regime was indeed a house of cards. But, that early evening, he was not to be tested and tricked.

‘Come back to us soon and safe with the best news of Naghmeh… I would like you to consider who you are, and therefore understand the esteem in which we hold you. You are, to us, our Nobel or our Kalashnikov, even our Oppenheimer. You are the father of the bomb in the road… Do you know of a town in England, Rashid, that stops when the coffins come through, or of the crowds that line the bridges of the Highway of Heroes in Canada? Do you know of the communities in the United States that come to a silent halt when a local soldier is brought back? You sapped their will to fight, Rashid. You broke their commitment. When the time is judged correct your devices will be shipped to Afghanistan and the sophistication of the war raised. Afghanistan will be fertile ground for you. We will not tolerate the Great Satan’s military – or the Little Satan’s – against our borders. Our prayers go with you.’

He was kissed on each cheek and went out of the door. He hurried to the parking area and looked for his driver. He could not telephone her, never did, so he could not tell her what was in place until he was back at his home.

Stomach runs had arrived, one of the many strains of ‘Basra belly’. It was early evening and the air was cooler, but without a wind, so the smell in the hide was foul. It had come on fast.

Bowel movements were not a chosen subject for conversation among croppies. Nor likely to be, Foxy would have said, among astronauts. How moonwalkers or surveillance men did their business was not big on the talk agenda among colleagues. One minute Badger had been lying beside him, on his rest time, and the next he had been squirming to turn over, and the top of the hide’s camouflage, above the scrim net, had jumped. He had scrabbled for the plastic bags.

Not a smell for living with. Foxy – relief writ large – was more constipated than the other way. There was nothing he could have done – had he wanted – to help. Diarrhoea was part and parcel of a croppie’s job. Foxy did not know how much was in Badger’s trousers, how much in the bag and how much had spilled onto the earth of the hide. Badger was wiping hard, almost furiously. They had with them tubes of sanitary jelly that cleaned hands and that was next on Badger’s list. Then the pills. They hadn’t spoken since the punch was thrown.

On the headset there was only the crackled voice of a radio announcer and music. He watched the front of the house and waited for the car to come, for the children to run out and the target, the Tango, to get home. Strange old life he lived… Because of RIPA, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the trade of law-enforcement surveillance was watched, eagle-eyed, for abuses. Couldn’t call a bad guy a ‘target’ in a briefing because it might come up in the legal process, and to name the accused, in court, as a ‘target’ was likely to be prejudicial. He watched for the target and the target’s wife, and wondered whether she was resting or filling the suitcase that had been brought for her. The goon, the officer, had been on his chair as the sun had started to dip. He’d had the binoculars on his chest and seemed to use them to watch birds. Maybe birds were his turn-on… There was nothing for him to listen to but his nose was filled with the smell.

Badger did not apologise.

Perhaps it was not appropriate to apologise for diarrhoea. Maybe Foxy would have done if he’d had any other oppo. No apology… and no wind to freshen the air. Possible to go in reasonable secrecy from the hide after darkness came, but that was more than an hour away. Badger had swallowed Imodium, which would, sort of, plug him. Probably taken enough to stop Niagara in full flow. He hadn’t asked what the correct dose should be. Foxy watched the goon, and couldn’t get the stink out of his nose. When darkness dropped, Badger could move, with his bags, whatever was soiled and the collapsible entrenching shovel, to dig the pit.

The pig came, the sow. He knew stories about pigs, had heard them from the base medic, an orthopaedic specialist, who had talked about them after he’d put an interpreter back together – the man had been out in the marshes with a patrol when he was charged; a thigh bone had been broken and a knee smashed. When the big beast came out of the reed bed to the right of him and Badger and moved purposefully over the open ground, grunting, Foxy thought they faced a problem.

The problem worsened: the boar followed the sow.

Badger swore.

The sow led. Old teats hung slack from her underbelly and the mud glistened on her, was caught among the whiskers at her mouth. The boar had big bollocks and – more important – tusks jutting from the lower jaw. Badger thought the sow looked dumb, hungry, inquisitive, but that the boar was menacing. He could see why: at each side of his mouth, where the cheeks were, there were twin welts – the skin was broken and there were weepy patches. Badger realised that the tusks were in-growing and pierced the flesh, which would have been enough to make the brute mean.

They came closer, were within twenty feet.

They stopped. Now they were wary. Badger thought the sow might be the more cautious. The little eyes gleamed bright, tracking towards them.

In the last years, Badger had had birds come and perch on him, little songbirds, blackbirds and pigeons, and once a snipe had walked on elegant legs across his hands. Rabbits had played a few feet in front of him, and a fox had been over his back, jumping to clear it, as if his spine was a fallen log. Mice and rats had used his gillie suit for warmth. His ability to blend into nature made him good at what he did, as good as any – better than the old idiot beside him. A rat, heavy with the young it was carrying, had made a friend of him, enough for him to worry that he might be playing midwife when its time came. He could be still, and didn’t know how still Foxy could stay.

There were flies round him.

Badger could accept rats, mice and birds sharing his space but the flies fazed him during the day, and the mosquitoes were worse in the evenings. All irrelevant. The sow mattered most. Badger thought that if she backed away, or lost interest, the boar would tuck along. Her interest was aroused but she did not yet seem to feel threatened. The boar’s size was intimidating: he would have been more than a yard to the shoulder and the tusks were four or five inches long – the creature must live with perpetual discomfort.

Foxy had wriggled a little, making enough noise to raise the sow’s ears. He murmured, ‘I’ve a pepper spray.’

Badger thought he read it better. He had four plastic bags, all partially filled, one pair of fetid underpants and a body that stank. He flicked his eyes away. The kids had come out of the house with the old lady, and the goon was out of his chair. There was, far away, dust rising between the trees, where the road was, and guards were coming out of the barracks, rifles loose on straps across their backs and chests. The wife came, leaning on her stick. Foxy passed Badger the pepper spray, then clasped the headset tighter against his skull, tiny movements; he would have been straining to hear any remark made. Badger’s own movement was to take the penknife from his belt and unclasp it; the blade was only two inches long but he thought it enough, and preferred it to the spray.

He saw the car, the Mercedes saloon. It was driven past the barracks and veered towards the house.

At that distance, the cries of the children were faint but clear. Their excitement carried.

He might as well have laid a trail of aniseed, grain or swill. The sow came forward. Badger could not stand up, clear away the scrim and the camouflage, get hold of the plastic bags, chuck them out and wave a deodorant spray to replace the smell of his shit with lemon fragrance. He thought, now, the pig knew he was there.

She was beside the edge of the scrape, where the scrim and the dead leaves covered his bergen. She was two feet, perhaps a few inches more, from him. She pawed the ground. The boar followed.

The target came out of the car and his driver carried his briefcase. The children were around him, and he lifted the little girl. The goon faced out across the water, and the open space that flanked the reed bed would have been in his view. It was the wife who saw the pigs and pointed at them. The boar was pushing at the shoulder of the sow, trying to come close. Badger saw the eyes and each whisker, each bristle, the sharp broken end of a tusk. The boar panted…

Now the boar led. He had pushed aside the sow. He drove down with his nose. The scrim snagged on a tusk. The snout pushed. The beast might weigh a hundred kilos, a hundred and fifty. It routed in the scrim for the bags and… Badger had the knife.

The boar’s weight pressed down on him, and he used his left hand to hold the scrim tight, then jabbed the knife blade upwards and hit what felt like thick rubber or a leather wad. Blood spurted from the space between the nostrils. The pig reared back. The scrim ripped, the foliage fell away, and he let out a scream of pain, loud and shrill, parading that he was hurt. Maybe the boar didn’t know what had made the pain, who had hurt him. He ran across the mud of the open ground, heading for the lagoon. The sow followed, seeming reluctant and confused.

They hit the water.

In front of the house, everyone watched.

The sow and the boar lumbered at speed towards deep water until only their heads remained visible. They seemed to make for the end of the mud spit where Badger had built the platform, with foliage washed away from the reed bed, where the microphone was mounted. In front of the house, they turned away as if the spectacle was over and Badger chose that moment to congratulate himself. The pigs swam towards the spit.

Foxy’s head jerked forward. His turn to swear. The cable to the headset had tautened. The boar broke the surface close to the mud spit, kicked, rolled and tried to throw off an impediment. The cable was pulled up from the mud in front of the hide. Badger saw it rise in the water. There was a final convulsion and the cable from Foxy’s headset went slack…

There were gravel pits out to the west of Reading and alongside the motorway. The teenage Danny Baxter had known them as well as any heron did. It was to one of them that he had taken his dad’s accountant and brought him close to an otter’s holt. The man had never seen the creature up close and was thrilled enough to become a referee of status when Danny had gone for the police job. Anglers patronised the gravel pits. Once, from the hide he’d made for himself, he had watched a bent, straining rod, a tight line and huge swirls from the depths. It had gone on for twenty minutes or more until the line had floated back, loose, nothing to hold it. The guy hadn’t known he was watched, had sworn, kicked out and sent his stool and a rucksack into the water. It would have been a big pike that had snapped his line. Danny had seen it.

Now the line was exposed on the mud spit and floated on the water’s surface. He saw where it ran up the spit and went into the mess of foliage where the microphone was.

It hurt to speak to Foxy, but he had to know. It was like he took a backward step. One question. ‘Does it work?’

A nod, as if he were an interruption to concentration, therefore a goddamn nuisance. Then, ‘Yes, but couldn’t you have done a half-decent job with the cable? Bit bloody obvious, young ’un, because you didn’t bury it properly.’

It was. The cable was a dark line across yellow mud, then a black thread over the water. If the goon, the officer, went back to his chair and used his binoculars to look again for the birds, the otters or the pigs, he must see, had to, the cable on the mud and where it floated. He thought he’d done well in concealing it and better than that in getting rid of the pigs, but his efforts had been ignored.

Everyone except the security man was now inside the house, and the light was failing. They had nothing. His throat hurt from lack of water. The irritation of the tick scabs and mosquito bites was acute, and the plastic bags were by his knees. The quiet came and – almost forgotten because of the sow and the boar – the smell returned. Time was running out, their covert rural observation post was near to compromised, and they had nothing to report.

There had been a re-evaluation, he was told. When he had been called to the unit’s offices, he had brought his bag.

He was taken by one of their drivers to the airport.

It had been decided Gabbi should fly that evening to Europe. A neurosurgeon at Tel Aviv’s Assuta Hospital – the most expensive and discreet in the country – had been asked, late, to advise. The medical opinion was that several European capitals had capacity beyond the best in Tehran, that a consultation at any one of a dozen locations might take little longer than the time needed for an examination, consideration and the decision to operate or not. It was explained that the couple could, within a dozen hours – twenty-four at most – be back at whichever airport they had flown into and looking for a flight home. The unit planned on the basis that information on a destination would be fed to them, and any who were privy to the surveillance mission mounted from the south-eastern Iraqi marshlands and harboured doubts did not share them.

He did not know whether Leah had worked on this last stage of preparation. She had been normal in bed the previous night, and over a light breakfast, then had left on the bus. He had planned a gym work-out, and the phone had rung: the call to come in, and the instruction that he should bring a bag. She might have known, she might not.

He would go to Rome. He had collected his passport: the Republic of Ireland was the flavour of that month. The days of big operations, he had been told, were over. There would never again be deployed as many as had gone down to the Gulf with tennis recquets and wigs. Nor did they look for the spectacular of the exploding headrest on a car seat, the detonating mobile phone when held against an enemy’s face, or the poison squirting into an ear. One bullet, two maximum, was the day’s order.

On arrival in Rome, he would be booked into an airport hotel, within sight of the terminals, and the call would come to send him forward or bring him home. He was not one to complain about the vagueness of the plans. He accepted what was put before him. If Leah had known, her kiss that morning as she went to work would have been no different.

They would not hold the El Al flight for him if he was late: to delay take-off could only draw attention to him. The car went fast on the airport road. A poem was in his mind:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!

He was the servant of the state, and did not doubt what the state asked of him.

Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d, As home his footsteps he hath turn’d, From wandering on a foreign strand?

He would not challenge what was asked of him, and did not believe he could look into a face, see life and humanity, and hesitate. He liked the poetry of Walter Scott, but most of all he loved ‘Patriotism’, and he had faith. He did not query where the road took him.

When he’d boarded he would have forgotten the poem and would be engrossed in a business magazine.

The arrangements were in place.

It was a black-tie evening.

The consultant had used his authority to make the booking for scan facilities and X-ray without the usual requirement of a patient’s name. It had, predictably, been queried. He had snapped back that there was more to medicine than filling in forms, and had seen a long-serving assistant wilt. He did not feel able to tell his staff that an unidentified Iranian, with the co-operation of the Berlin embassy and the likely support of an intelligence agency, suffering potentially terminal illness, was to be inflicted on them, so he had blustered and been unnaturally rude. His status at the university medical school was such that no complaint would be lodged.

Her parents would mind Magda for the evening. The black-tie occasion was a celebration of a local politician’s birthday, an influential woman from the ruling party with the ability to dispense patronage. He and Lili would be with the great and the good of the city. In such company, his given name was Steffen and his family name was that of his wife. He was Steffen Weber, and soon there would be a prefix to his name, the title ‘Professor’. He changed in the bedroom. Lili was at her dressing-table and sat in her underwear to apply her cosmetics. He could have said that until the last week he had been successfully absorbed into the German dream – the downturn in the economy seemed not to affect him – but he had brought the mood home.

If he had talked to her, it would have been a burden shared. He had not. He carried it alone. Easiest would be to look the patient in the face – he did it often enough – assume a look of principled sympathy, and say it straight: ‘I am so sorry, there is nothing I can do. I regret that the question of surgery does not arise.’ Those patients hurried away, and he had a cup of coffee, then carried on with his day. That evening in the Rathaus, there would be good food, fine wine and a string quintet. He would be among the elite and accepted… He sensed a shadow hung over him.

Dust trailed behind the big car. Abigail Jones had heard all four of her Boys arm their weapons.

It was a defining moment. The crowd ahead parted, the car was driven through it and came to stop in front of her – had to, or the BMW 7 Series would have gone right over her, squashing the life from her body. The driver braked with a certain flamboyance, and the tyres scattered dirt, some falling on her. It was about appearances and postures, and she took her time. She did not stand until the man had emerged from the darkened interior. It was a start, a good one. She had demanded that a leader come and he had. He was gross at the waist, wore a bulging thobe, long but cut like a white nightshirt, a ghutra on his head, chequered cloth with woven ropes to hold it in place, and sandals. He carried a mobile phone in one hand, his beads in the other. An assault rifle hung from a shoulder, and over the shirt he had a well-cut and discreetly patterned sports jacket that would have come from a London tailor, or from Paris. What else for Abigail to learn? He used a potent eau-de-Cologne. He had brought a youth with him, perhaps a son or nephew, who carried a briefcase – and two men for security, along with the driver.

As he approached her, she stood. Did it easily – did not betray exhaustion, dehydration or stiffness. It was Corky who had read it. The Irishman scurried forward with two old packing cases from the buildings. He put them down as if they were good-quality chairs, and used his sleeve to wipe them… The defining moment. She knew it, and her Boys. It was down to her skills as to whether they stayed or whether they were hoofed and in the process lost the mass of their gear. If they were hoofed, the guys up ahead were beyond reach.

She smiled – always did that well. Seemed to show frankness and honesty.

She called him ‘Sheikh’ and invited him to sit.

It was over water.

‘You’ve had a drink.’

Only the quality of the microphone and its cable link were more important to them than water.

‘I haven’t.’

The light was sinking. Badger had been out of the hide and had gathered more dead fronds from inside the reed beds. He had waited until a rare cloud was over the last of the sun’s brilliance, then had scattered pieces over the cable. He could not affect, without going far out into the water, the part of the cable that floated. Why not wade out? Too knackered. Badger had never known such tiredness. He could hike in bad weather, trek on moss and bog, and lose sleep. He didn’t have the strength he’d needed those hours before when he’d scraped out the hide, moved the surplus earth into the reed bed, then gone out into the lagoon – his gillie suit absorbing water, weighing enough, almost, to drag him down – and built up the flotsam on the mud spit to hide the microphone.

‘We’re not due to have a drink for three-quarters of an hour – forty-three minutes, actually.’

‘Don’t make accusations, young ’un, that you can’t prove.’

He came back, groped his way into the hide, and the cloud was now off the sun. One last beam of gold light penetrated the scrim, and he’d seen the glisten at Foxy’s mouth, the dribble on his cheek.

The diarrhoea had weakened Badger. He had come back to the hide, crawling, feeling faint, worse shape than he’d known, and the job of hiding the cable only half complete. The exchange was in cutting whispers, neither voice raised.

‘You’ve been at the water. It’s on your bloody face.’

‘You can’t prove it.’

‘We’ve enough for today, enough for tomorrow. We’re supposed, in this heat, to drink seven or eight litres a day each. If we have a litre and a half each, we’re lucky. It’s despicable to steal water.’

‘Shut your mouth, young ’un, before I shut it for you.’

He did so – but intended it to be temporary. He went into his bergen and brought out the bottle. He held it up and squinted at the level. It was about halfway down – he hadn’t marked it. There was no indent on the plastic where his thumbnail had gouged a line. Had it been spit on Foxy’s cheek? He reckoned not. His own throat was too dry for saliva, and he was dehydrated enough for there to be no sweat coming off him. If he’d tried to spit he would have scarred the skin in a parched mouth. Badger was sure. He pushed the bottle at Foxy, right up to his face. ‘You want to drink, help yourself.’

‘Don’t bloody play with me, young ’un.’

‘Go on, drink it all. Have yours and mine.’

‘Watch it.’

‘Finish this bottle and start the last. Swig your way through that too.’

‘You’re pushing me, young ’un.’

‘And when it’s all gone, we can fuck off out of it… if that’s what you want.’

The scrim netting that held together the head covering he wore was gripped. ‘You’re shit, young ’un. When this is over I’ll tell the world what shit you were here – tell all Gibbons’s crowd. Tell them everywhere I get to take a seminar. I’ll wreck you.’

Badger thought he was right, but the light had gone and he wouldn’t know. Apologise? No. Might he have been wrong? No – and there was no worse crime than taking rationed water… The security lights came on outside the house. The goon paced, and the children came out to kick a ball.

Foxy said, ‘My misfortune was to be teamed with a kiddie who was so ignorant, and had so little comprehension of the English language as to be at moron level. Know what “moron” is, young ’un, or is that too big a word for you?’

Again, he couldn’t help himself: Badger did the short-arm jab.

The head was twisted so the blow cracked into the right side of the headset. It fell apart.

Foxy said, ‘Not just a moron, but an ignorant one.’

The woman came out and Badger saw her through the glasses, a misted figure against the background lights. The children still played with the ball. She looked proud, he thought, and brave. She had dignity. He watched and admired her. She stood alone, leaned on her stick and didn’t speak to the goon. He wondered how it would be for her: a sea change in her life, when it hung in the balance, was in a medical man’s hands. He couldn’t say how it would be for her if the approach was made and her man was turned… and he couldn’t shift further from Foxy. It was as if he were anchored to the man.

Chapter 11

They had drunk water, two mouthfuls each, and it had been Foxy’s turn to finish the bottle. He had held it longingly to his mouth and sucked the final drops. One bottle remained. The silence wouldn’t last through the night.

The moon climbed. Foxy, Badger realised, was exhausted and close to breaking point. He couldn’t sleep. Not until the house lights were put out and conversations were stilled would Foxy pass over the headset and close his eyes. The anger each felt for the other was raw, of course. Badger was labelled a moron and ignorant, and Foxy was accused of being the cheat who stole water.

The light had gone; the moon was on the climb. The target, the Engineer, was out, smoked and walked, but he was alone.

There were birds in the water ahead, splashing, and Badger thought that once he heard the convulsion of a pig and wondered if the wound he had made in the nostril was infected.

He sensed Foxy would break the silence first, felt him to be increasingly restless. It was worse to be branded a cheat than to be called an idiot without education. Was he certain that the water level had been lower than it should have been? ‘Certain’: a big word. Foxy could not move from the hide and go into the reed bed to crap or piss. It was two full days since the new suitcase had gone inside the main door. It would not have been bought to be shoved into a corner but because travel was imminent. There would be – if fortune favoured them – one remark, half a sentence, or a throwaway comment.

He didn’t think Foxy could last much more than the night and another half-day, and didn’t reckon he himself had the strength to go on past the end of the following day… He hadn’t seen Foxy’s skin. He assumed it would be the same as his own, mottled with tick scabs and mosquito bites. Not possible to lie still because the itching was so great, and the flies came for their ears, noses and mouths, could burrow under the scrim net. Never again would Badger complain about a Welsh hillside: rain, a low mist, night frost, a view of a farmhouse with a field for campers would be paradise – if there ever was an again. He had twice punched a fellow officer, another croppie, and had allowed himself to be niggled by rank and personality. If it were ever revealed by his oppo that twice he had thrown punches, and had accused a colleague of cheating and stealing, there would not be an again.

The thought jagged his mind. What did a croppie do with himself after he was booted out for gross misconduct? For assault? For screwing up in the field and going unprofessional? He’d go to work for a local authority, tailing disability-benefit guys who did half-marathons and played golf twice a week after limping down to collect the hand-out dosh… He’d be on the phone, burning the ears of former policemen who ran PI firms and found evidence of marital infidelity, or did in-house security on companies that were leaking petty cash and equipment… He would have nowhere to go that was anything like satisfactory to him. Would he jack it in? He wouldn’t grovel. He’d lose his job before Foxy broke. There was a trace of a whine: ‘There was no call to hit me…’

Badger gave him nothing.

‘… and no call to make that accusation.’

Badger thought Foxy had broken because, having barely moved since the hide was made, he would not be able to get out and do the legging back to the extraction point.

‘I’ve tried to do a good job in extraordinarily difficult conditions and…’

Worth thinking about. The retreat from the hide – because the mission was fucked and the target had been driven away, or was complete because the information had been radioed out – was well worth consideration. A repetition in his mind of what he dreaded most: the car came, the new suitcase was loaded, and there might be a label on it they could not – with a ’scope or binoculars – read, and the Engineer and his wife, the goon, the wife’s mother and the kids didn’t say where they were going. To have done this for nothing would be the humiliation of his life, and he would stand accused of misconduct and professional failure because Foxy would nail him. Badger would make no apology, would not help in going to the extraction point in exchange for two punches being forgotten, and a cheating call being wiped off a slate.

‘… and I’ve had no co-operation from you, no support, no comradeship.’

Badger watched the Engineer. Could have been his fourth cigarette. He was still alone and walking, no longer in silhouette from the lights behind him, thrown from the house, but moving away from the little pier where the dinghy was tied. He passed an old iron crane that in daylight seemed rust-coated – it was beside the water and might have dated back to a time when the water was the main highway – and went on towards the duller lights that fringed the area round the barracks. He was heading for the bund line to the right.

‘Of course, I shouldn’t have expected more from you. Too easy for you newcomers. And “too easy” makes for arrogance, and arrogance makes a kid useless. What did I say you were?’

Badger raked the shore with the binoculars, which were good for watching the house, but had the night-sight ready for when the Engineer was walking towards the raised track of the bund line. He could have scripted the line that would follow.

It did. ‘I said you were moronic and ignorant. I had that right, double time.’

Hours of building resentment were over; a dike had been breached. Foxy had the verbal shits, Badger thought. He himself felt calmer and was not about to hit him again. It was likely that the water had been drunk out of hours.

‘Did I say without good cause that you’re moronic and ignorant? Are you fool enough to think that?’

His head was nine inches from Foxy’s. Their shoulders touched, and their hips. Their smell mingled. The compulsion to scratch the scabs on his stomach was worse now, and the mosquitoes swarmed. If they made it out, reached the extraction point, loaded up the Pajeros, and ‘Foxy’ Foulkes – pompous, old-world – did not put in a career-killer report on him, his life would resume alongside Ged in hides, sodden ditches and damp hedgerows. He would tell the stories with relish. He followed the Engineer with his binoculars, then laid them down and took up the night-sight. The moon climbed higher and the birds were noisier on the water.

‘How much of a moron? Enough of a moron to buy the shit they gave you?’

The goon, the officer, was out of the barracks and walking towards the house. The flash of a cigarette lighter burned out the night-vision image. He watched the security officer, used the binoculars. He felt tension coming in his shoulders, a tightening in his gut, and was confused.

‘You bought it and believed it. They must have pissed themselves – Gibbons, the Yank and the Jew – laughing at you because of your ignorance. Back of the classroom, were you? Put your hand up, did you? “Please, sir, what’s interdiction?” They gave you a bucket of shit, and you swallowed it. Want to know what “interdiction” means? Want to know that it doesn’t mean an “approach” and turning an enemy? Want to know what you’ve signed up for, young ’un?’

All the muscles had stiffened, and his stomach had knotted. Cold had settled on the back of his neck and he held his breath.

‘You volunteered for a spook-sponsored stake-out on what is bloody near enemy territory without the finesse of a war declaration. The target for surveillance is the man who makes the bombs that kill our boys, and he’s right for interdiction, and you think that means some sort of cosy approach, a buttering-up in the hope the bastard will fall into our arms? You’ve all this shit about sitting in the countryside, wildlife around you, joys of bloody nature, and maybe you get to have a little cry because a deer’s snagged on barbed wire, a rabbit’s choking in a snare or a fucking rat has a thorn in its pad. A wanking dreamer, that’s what you are… The military use of the word “interdiction” is about taking down with the use of fire power. It’s the destruction of the enemy’s potential to fight. How does it relate to this guy, the Engineer, builder of bombs? “Interdiction” for him means that he’s killed. It’s why I’m here, and why you ’re here. .. Difficult when you’re ignorant, maybe a moron, to know what’s real. He’s for killing, taking down, and you’re a part of the process, a big part.’

It was as though he had been hit in the stomach. But he held onto the binoculars and could see the goon near to the house speaking to a guard, an arm pointed away towards the bund line.

‘In your education, the little of it you had, did they tell you about killing? We use fancy words. We harvest fish, cull deer. When we bomb a village and get the wrong target, that’s not a screw-up but collateral damage. It’s bollocks, intended to soften actuality. He’s going to be killed. Didn’t you know that, smartarse?’

The officer was striding out of the light, going at pace…

He could have been sick. It was that sort of blow that he’d taken, the one that made a man double up, then heaved the puke into his throat. He didn’t know, now, how he could have swallowed what he’d been told. He almost cringed.

Foxy warmed, would have sensed he’d hit home. ‘It’s deniable. We finger the man. They move in a hit team because we’ve told them where to look. He’s stabbed or strangled, poisoned or shot, and you’re a part of it. Does that put you, young ’un, outside your comfort zone?’

He had the binoculars down and held the night-sight hard at his face. His eyeline took his head away from Foxy’s mouth, but the voice dripped on, and there was triumph in it. ‘Don’t think it bothers me, young ’un, because I’m an old bastard and there’s not much can happen to me. Different for you. Your age, that stage in a career when you reckon you’re the dog’s bollocks. Instead you might just be in shit. An integral part in an extra-judicial killing, which is at least accessory to murder. You’re a part of it and your defence is that you didn’t know what interdiction meant. Reckon they’ll be queuing up to believe you? Extra-judicial is what you’re into.’

He came level with him. For Mansoor, with the muscle wastage in his leg from the wound, it was a struggle to catch the Engineer.

It should not have happened. He had hurried, as best he could, from the house and past the barracks, then onwards until he saw the silhouetted figure in the moonlight high on the elevated bund line. The struggle to get the breath into his lungs, the pain from his leg and anger fuelled his aggression.

‘You should not be here.’

Defiance from the Engineer, lit by Mansoor’s torch: ‘I walk where I care to walk.’

‘My responsibility is to protect you. You ask me where you walk and when.’

Said softly, and with no trace of resentment: ‘You forget yourself, Mansoor.’

‘I do not.’

‘You forget who you are and who I am.’

‘I do not forget that it is my duty to protect you. I do my duty as best I can. I cannot protect you if you walk far from your home in the night and I am not warned.’

‘Here – at my home – there is a threat?’

‘There are thieves. There could be smugglers bringing drugs. There are the marsh people who would slit your throat for a packet of cigarettes or the coins in your pocket.’

‘You are dutiful, and I am grateful. Do such imaginary threats equate with the threat to my wife’s life? Call it a matter of perspective.’

‘It is my duty.’

‘And tomorrow – for how long I cannot say – you are relieved of that duty.’

‘It is wrong that I will not be there. I should go with you.’

‘Security, I think, is the smallest problem that faces Naghmeh and me. I wanted to walk and think. Now, to please you, Mansoor, we will walk back together.’

They did. The Engineer had lit another cigarette and Mansoor stayed a half-pace behind him. The moonlight was on the reeds and reflected in silver lines off the water; birds splashed and there were ripples from an otter’s hunting. He apologised – it could go badly for him if the Engineer reported his rudeness. It was accepted and hand slapped his shoulder. It irritated him that he was not permitted, on the ground of cost, he had been told, to travel with them.

‘And when we are gone tomorrow, Mansoor, what will you do?’

‘Be certain that the old lady does not want for help… and I will watch for the ibis. I hope to see it… and my prayers will be with you. I will look for that bird. What else?’

It was, thought Harding, a master class from her in avoidance and evasion.

He was the only one of the Boys close enough to hear. He didn’t understand everything because they flitted between English and local Arabic. The rest were back, relaxed now, and would have let their weapons hang loose across their legs.

It was a strange way to do business: he used English and most of her answers were in Arabic, but it helped Harding that he repeated most of what she’d said, translated it. In the business, she represented a charity from Europe of eco-freaks who wanted nothing more or less from their money than to have the most complete survey of flora and fauna in the marshes, with particular emphasis on the bird life. He did not contradict her, but pointed out that the area of the marshes she had chosen for her valuable, welcome research was not inside the triangle that had as its apex the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and was the widest, most accessible part of the wetlands, but was hard up against the Iranian border. She spoke of the importance of the habitat. He spoke of the sensitivity of the frontier zone. She told him of the value placed on the wildlife of the marshes, its uniqueness and also its vulnerability. He told her of the suspicion, if her presence were known, of the Revolutionary Guards who patrolled a few kilometres down the bund line. She said she carried references and letters of introduction from people who were in the elite of government. He said it was ‘interesting’ that none had accompanied her on her research journey.

She held her line, Harding reckoned, and he held his.

She said she was trained in the preservation of wildlife. He did not accuse her of being in the employ of Britain’s intelligence service.

She sparkled and flattered. He had mischief in his eyes and humour.

She remarked that the charity backing her could be generous to those who smoothed paths. He responded that the marsh people would always be grateful to those who showed meaningful generosity.

It was, to Harding, obvious that her cover story wasn’t believed, nothing of it.

They liked each other. The sheikh let her know he had a brother who sold real estate in California, and that another brother had been hanged by order of the old regime in the Abu Ghraib gaol, that he himself had been imprisoned, then released, and allowed to return to lead his people but – of course – had never willingly served Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists. Harding watched the dance played out. The sheikh could drive away, head for the army camp at al-Amara, report her presence and earn credit for future favours. Also, he could send someone across the border to the first road-block on the Ahvaz road and tell the men manning it that he had brought a message for an officer of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. That would earn him money and he’d be repaid also with safe passage for smugglers bringing him opiate paste for onward selling.

Harding, seven years with Proeliator Security and fourteen with the American marines, did not play cards for money – never had. The aunt who had raised him regarded any form of gambling as the devil’s work. Card games, he assumed, were about bluff and trickery. Who, now, tricked whom? Who could depend on a bluff not being called? He watched, listened, and his mind flitted from the sheikh sitting on the crate and his Jones lady now cross-legged in the dirt. His thoughts had moved on… Strange guys, neither to his liking. He didn’t think that the older man or the younger one would have joined him on the whore hunt in Dubai, or would have been with him when he shivered at night on street corners or shared the lie he lived. Neither would have made him laugh or drunk with him until they were unable to stand, but he would go to his Maker defending them. Why? Loyalty was the creed he lived by. As loyal as the men from a marine platoon had been who’d fought their way through towards four of them holed up in a house as crowds gathered and cut off a retreat route. Loyalty was a duty. Whether they could stay in place and exercise the loyalty owed to the two men who were forward depended on her ability to negotiate.

The radio stayed silent, and the guys up ahead had nothing to report. Hours ticked by and little time was left. He could imagine a scrape, the weight of the camouflage gear, the flies, ticks and mosquitoes, the smells, hunger and thirst.

The sheikh might sell them to his own military or to the Iranians across the border, and be well rewarded by either. She might buy them time. They negotiated: a local leader of education and authority over a swarm of peasants and an officer of an intelligence agency; they were equals. He didn’t play card games but had watched others: she had only a fistful of dollar bills and a sweet, girlish charm.

He couldn’t say how the game would play out. He thought hard on the guys up ahead and the moon had risen high, and the mosquitoes had gathered in droning clouds. If the sheikh reckoned a better deal lay elsewhere, pushed himself up off the crate and walked back towards his car, then it was over for all of them, and loyalty to the guys, far forward, was well fucked and bust.

‘It is deniable because…?’

‘It is deniable because it is illegal.’

‘Who sanctioned it?’

‘From high up, someone sitting on the top of the mountain, but don’t look for a written minute, young ’un. You’ll not find an electronic trail, and don’t imagine there’s schedules of meetings. Look back at it.’

‘What am I looking back at?’

‘Start with the people you met, the transport there and the place, then focus on the people. The transport was unmarked and you can lay good money, or bad, that somehow the flight records have been mislaid, and no flight path was filed or can be found for the chopper, and the big house takes guests but nobody signed a register. Anyone goes back to that house and tries to prove we were there in the face of bland denials, it won’t be provable. Their grandson was killed by one of those bombs, side-of-the-road IEDs, and they’d rather like the bastard who built it to be killed, put on a flat slab of granite in a wilderness, left as carrion for the birds. Are you getting the picture?’

‘What about the people?’

‘Was there anybody of seniority, anybody who cut the mustard – had authority, was natural with power, expected to be listened to? If this had been a police operation there would have been a commander, perhaps an assistant chief constable. They weren’t there. Nobody of rank was. .. Had one of them been allocated he would have called in sick. Any bastard with a career worth preserving, a pension to look after and the hope of a gong, would have stayed away – and they did.’

‘You called him Gibbons and I called him “Boss”. What was he?’

‘A journeyman. They’re stacked shoulder to shoulder, that type, at the Box and Six. They’ve reached a plateau of promotion, going no higher and too bloody frightened to quit, walk out and find a job in the marketplace. They hang about, do what they’re told. They thank God they’re still coming up to London on a commuter cattle truck, allowed to have a bloody briefcase with EIIR in old gold on it and still – just about – belong. Maybe, in his time – forgiven, not forgotten, held in the files – there was one of those messy little matters that he could be reminded of when they wanted someone to go down into the sewers. The American was Agency, would provide the cash and be looking for one last hurrah before heading to Florida and condominium life. Then there was the Israeli, humourless little bastard, the liaison for the hit – it’s sub-contracted out and the Israelis are happy to slot Iranians of sufficient sensitivity, likely queue up for the chance. The major is exactly that, not a general or brigadier but a man who will have dirtied his hands in the sand defusing those bombs. What I’m saying, young ’un, is that these are the people who fight wars, not the ones who start or finish them. Then there’s us.’

‘What are we?’

‘We’re deniable. We never existed and never came here, and there’s no record of us… And then there’s only the lovely Alpha Juliet. I wouldn’t hold your breath.’

‘Hold my breath for what?’

‘For the belief she’s different from any of the rest.’


‘It’s her shout. Miss Alpha Juliet’s the instigator. Put it together. Give you a good ride, did she, young ’un?’

‘None of your business.’

‘My business, that she handled the recovery of a device from which DNA could be extracted, and put assets on the ground to verify that this target matched the sample. Why not have those same folk keep hanging round there and listening for the gossip, whatever? Because they’re dead, and because the likes of them have fast burn-out. Luckily dead because they were thieved from, could have been worse. There’s a security apparatus in Ahvaz, down the road from here, where they’re skilled at doing things to fingernails and testicles. They know where the body shows up most for pain. In case you listened to the rubbish talked at home about torture, truth is that it works. Locals don’t have fieldcraft – they don’t have the backbone of training and skills, so they bring in you and me. I’m vain and like to be asked, and you’re an idiot who doesn’t know what questions to put. The whole operation is down to pretty Miss Alpha Juliet, who’s hard as pig metal and would lie through her teeth for the cause.’

‘What’s the cause?’

‘We came to Iraq looking for flower petals thrown under the tracks of the tanks. We were liberators. The politicians basked in it, and it lasted a few weeks, but we hung around a few years. We destabilised and put a new kid on the block as far as power went. We handed influence to Iran. They, the good mullahs, didn’t want Caucasian troops right up close and personal on their borders and set their clever people to work on shifting us out. Their bombs did it. They reduced us to regiments of men and women cowering in barracks, and our military operations ended up as “force protection”, which is army jargon for looking after your own arse and your own base and searching for an “exit strategy” with a whiff of respectability. But when that’s inflicted on you it’s predictable that you’ll hate. Hate who? Hate the bastard that tweaked the old lion’s tail. The lion now is moth-eaten, has bad teeth, and fleas crawl over him. The target had a hold of the tail and abused it. The lion wants to show it still has some useful claws.’

‘Nothing to do with turning a scientist, bringing him over, getting him to switch sides and provide intelligence?’


‘About revenge?’

‘An act of vengeance. Some caution against, and others revel in it. But we’re not, young ’un, in the hands of the cautious. The ones who’ve won the day would talk of “the long arm” and “making the bastards look over their shoulder”. Most of all they talk about “sending a message”, and the Israelis like sending them, and that’s why they’re on board.’

‘You know all this because?’

Foxy growled, ‘Because I’m smart enough to listen – and while you’re chatting her up in the vehicle, then screwing her, I’m talking to her guards, rather sad guys who are growing old but don’t know how to, who’ve gone out of the military family and can’t replace it. They like to talk. I don’t suppose you did much talking or listening while you were screwing her.’

‘It’s illegal?’

‘Of course it is.’

‘Under international law?’

‘Under international law, and likely under the law practised on the High Street in Wolverhampton, Warrington or Weymouth.’

‘That wasn’t explained,’ Badger said, flat.

‘You seemed up for it, a chirpy volunteer.’

‘I was.’

‘Sow the seed and reap the whirlwind.’

‘Yes. Thank you, Foxy.’

‘Pity you never had an education, young ’un, and ended up so ignorant.’

It was time to open the last water bottle.

He packed the case. She sat on the end of the bed.

There was little talk between them. She spoke only when she needed to indicate to him which clothing he should take from the wardrobe, and which underwear from the chest. Earlier she had asked him what she should take, and he had replied that it would be better if she did not parade her faith: she should be modest but within limits. She had allowed him to choose what was appropriate. It was the only time in their married life that he had decided what she should wear. He was concerned that she had lost the will… Her last decision had been concerning the children. He was quiet as he moved about the room and his voice was subdued. The children, Jahandar and Abbas, were in his and Naghmeh’s bed: he and his wife would sleep that night till dawn, when the car would come, with their children between them. It had been her decision. He had not argued.

The blinds were up and some of the glow from the security lights played through the open windows. She should have had the windows closed, the air-conditioning switched on, the flies and mosquitoes kept out – she would have slept better. He had not challenged her. A mosquito flickered close to Jahandar’s face but she did not swat it away. He had suggested Naghmeh undress and get into bed, but she had shaken her head. It was because he, in the consulting room at the hospital in Tehran, had demanded more expert attention. Perhaps he refused to accept the inevitable, perhaps he denied dignity to her and heaped stress on her.

It was past midnight.

He closed the suitcase and applied the small padlock. He carried it outside the bedroom and put it by the front door. He looked out. There was purity in the silver strips of the moonlight, and crudeness in the bellowing of the frogs. It was said that the marshes, the waters and the reed beds were the cradle of civilisation. He felt humbled – and unworthy. It was the place of great artists and great scholars, great scientists and great leaders: he was the maker of bombs that killed young men.

He went back into their room.

She asked, ‘How will it be in that town?’

‘It is where they make the sweet that is marzipan, with the almond taste. They have been making it there for two hundred years. I saw it on the net. It is very famous, the marzipan they make there. We will bring some back for the children.’

He could say no more. He would have choked on his sobs. He turned from her so that she should not see tears on his face, and she held him.

It should have been a night of triumph but, with the food barely eaten, conversations hardly started, introductions not completed, the consultant had pleaded a headache.

He could not have said that his wife, Lili – elegant in a gown of understated expense – showed any sympathy. He said he wanted to go home, to the villa on Roeckstrasse. There was no headache. It did not concern him that she had entered this reception in her social diary some four months earlier, that friends and peers were there, and that it was an opportunity for her to show off her husband in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege. He held her hand tightly, said that the headache destroyed his enjoyment of the occasion and demanded that she accompany him home. She stood her ground, dug her stilettos into the Rathaus floor.

He did not belong. Never would and never could. In the afternoon, or early evening, of the following day it would be demonstrated to him that his life was not berthed in the pretty, affluent city of Lubeck, capital of the historic Hanseatic League of celebrated traders, home of the writer Thomas Mann, given the accolade by UNESCO of a World Heritage Site. It was not his home. It was where he lived courtesy of marriage, and where his name had been altered to make it more acceptable, his ancestry disowned. The next afternoon he was to be ‘called back’, as if a long unused door had been opened again. His home was not Lubeck – the restaurants, the beer, the river trips, the quaint passageways and homes so lovingly restored from war damage, the boutiques and the university – but was across continents. The man who had come from the embassy in Berlin, his cheeks encrusted with stubble, had dragged him back from the dream. He had no place here. He was from Tehran. His father and mother were martyrs of the war with Iraq, had given their lives to the Islamic Republic, killed in the front line while helping the wounded. He had been educated in Tehran; the state had trained him. A professor of oncology at the University of Medical Sciences had given him love and a family. He had shown his devotion to the state by working in the slums of south Tehran. He thought that a rope was tied around his ankle and he had been allowed a degree of freedom, as a horse was allowed to graze. Then the rope had been jerked and he was dragged back into a compound.

His wife, Lili, had started a strident conversation with the wife of a property developer who had big sites and big contracts for holiday homes up the river and at Travemunde on the coast. His headache mattered little. He could forget it, manufacture a smile and return to her shoulder, or he could walk out on her.

He went to his car. He had turned a last time in the hope that she would be hurrying after him, but her back was turned and her laughter rang out. He drove towards home and did not know how, if ever, he would regain his liberty. He did not even know the name of the fucking patient… and there was no headache, only anger.

The ring of the telephone would sign a warrant on a man’s life – condemn him.

Gibbons yearned for it to ring, as if he was pleading for permission to kill the man himself. There were a few still left at Vauxhall Bridge Cross – a little rheumatic in the joints, from a long-gone age – who would have understood his feelings. Not many. They were the unreconstructed warriors of the Cold War, and saw the bloody mess that was the Middle East as a self-inflicted wound that had bred many uncertainties. This band of brothers was left in the shadows of the corridors at the towers, and a younger generation – dressed down, more often than not, in jeans or chinos, shirts without ties or revealing blouses – preached an ethical manifesto, as if such a thing were appropriate in the new world order. Gibbons doubted it. Some shared his view; many did not. The arrangement for the communications was complex, but that was to hide them behind smoke. A message from the forward surveillance men would be sent on shortwave radio – brief transmission because to linger was to leave a footprint – to Abigail Jones and her back-up location. She would communicate with an Agency cell in Baghdad, who would onpass to the NATO base at Vicenza in the foothills of the Italian Alps. From there the message would go to technicians answerable to the Cousin in his service apartment behind Grosvernor Square. He would taste the message. A negative report would be transmitted electronically but an affirmative enough to kick-start the operation, would come through on the telephone. Complicated, but necessary for the process of denial.

He watched the telephone.

She had argued, but he had insisted. Len Gibbons had ordered Sarah to take his room key at the club and use the bed booked there. He had felt, increasingly that day, a point was about to be reached of success or failure, and he wanted to be present when the dice rolled, rattled, came to rest. He was now fifty-nine. His wife, Catherine, would have been disarmed to know that her bed partner, soul-mate, craved for a telephone to ring and therefore to consign a man to his death – not a fancy one in hospital with pain-relief drugs available, but in a street, spluttering blood as passers-by hurried on their way. She would not have believed it of him, that he tried to achieve anything so intrinsically vulgar as state-sponsored murder. She didn’t know him, which was as well. If his children, at college, had known their father plotted a killing they might have disowned him and slunk away, ashamed. The neighbours, in a quiet road of semi-detached mock-Tudor homes on a suburban estate in Motspur Park, on the Epsom to Waterloo line, would have winced had they known what was done in their name, as would the members of the gardening club, and the choir he hoped to join at some future date. He willed the phone to ring.

He had a sandwich to eat and a Coke to drink. He sat at his desk and his universe was the telephone in front of him and its silence.

It had been a dream but was unfulfilled. He would have liked to visit ancient, historic Rome. He dreamed of walking on the old stones and being among the floodlit temples and squares; it would have been a pilgrim’s journey for Gabbi.

He could not. Some of those attached to the unit who were sent abroad would have slipped out and taken a fast taxi into the centre of the old city, then walked to the tourist trail. He would not. The magnificence of a great civilisation was a forty-five minute ride down the road, a wonder of the world, but he was a mere functionary. So he did not leave his room, go to the lobby and shout for a taxi.

A message had been put under his door. He had not seen the courier. Neither had the courier seen Gabbi. From midnight, because time drifted fast, an executive jet aircraft was on standby. If it were needed, he would be told.

He sat in the darkness of his room, on the unmade bed, and waited.

She had said, with the light of the fire in her face, ‘It’s very important for the integrity of the survey, and its science, that we are able to work here undisturbed for three more days, maybe two, certainly one.’

He had said, the brightness of the flames bouncing on his jacket, ‘What is “undisturbed”? How is that important?’

Abigail Jones said, ‘The arrival here of a military unit would disturb the wildlife we’re observing, and would obstruct our efforts at serious study.’

The leader of a marsh tribe, the sheikh, said, ‘And your proximity to the border with the Islamic Republic of Iran, your work close to the border, does that require the co-operation of our Iranian friends?’

‘Better that co-operation is not requested.’

‘And better that information on your presence, as you seek the “integrity of the survey”, is not passed?’


‘So many of my people here are confused by your presence. Some who came innocently close have been injured, and some resent strangers near to their villages. These are difficult times for them, times of great hardship. I try to give leadership, but there will be some – younger than myself, with hot tempers – who will say that the military will pay for information about this expedition that surveys our wildlife, and others will believe that the Iranian authorities would also pay handsomely for knowledge of armed men coming close to their border for the purpose of evaluating the flora and fauna of the marshes. I have to lead, and I cannot lead if I am an obstruction to the young.’

Harding came past her with more wood, from broken packing cases, for the fire. She heard the bleating of sheep. The animals were behind the wall of men waiting close to the sheikh. There would be a signal from their leader. A knife waited in the hands of a man near to the front. Abigail Jones thought the operation hung now on a sheep’s throat. If the signal were made that it be butchered, according to halal methods, negotiations had been concluded satisfactorily. If the sheep was led away, throat intact, and the knife was sheathed, the negotiations had failed and she doubted they would last there through the night. She was not about to back off, and there was in Abigail Jones a powerful sense of the value of retribution. She had served in Amman and Abu Dhabi, but also in Sarajevo as the second officer on the station. She knew the stories of the siege of Sarajevo and the atrocities inflicted, the massacre at Srebrenica and the close-run thing that had been the holding of the Muslim lines at Gorazde; she had been involved with the teams of special forces who hunted down the war criminals. There was, familiar to her, a small Serb town named Foc? a. She’d operated there openly and searched for the mean-minded bastards who had done the bulk of the killings: two had been arrested, not important enough to go to The Hague but convicted in local courts. She thought it good that they whiled away their days and nights in cold damp cells… There had been a fling with a Bosniak artist down in Mostar, who had thought she was an aid worker. He had painted well, but she no longer had any of his work – the last had gone to the Christian Aid shop down the road from her maisonette. ‘Retribution’ did not cause her any difficulty. He was a man who made bombs. That was enough.

She asked, ‘What is the cost?’

‘The cost of what?’

She slapped her hands together as if the play-acting was over and business was to be settled. She thought the change of mood necessary. ‘How much for allowing us to complete our survey without interference from the military at al-Amara and al-Qurnah, and without the knowledge of the Revolutionary Guard Corps across the border? What will that cost me?’

The sheikh wetted his lips and the sheep bleated harshly – she reckoned they had bloody good cause to. She might, then, have killed for a beer.

Not much more to say, so neither had said anything.

Foxy slept now. Badger lay beside him and the other man’s light snoring was soothing, little more than the wind on the reeds. If he grunted he made less noise than when the birds splashed. Best to think about anything else… About the scabs on his hip, the back of his thigh and his stomach, under which the wounds oozed and might be infected. About the long and earnest-seeming talk between the Engineer and the goon, which had been too far away to be picked up. A little had: ‘And when we are gone tomorrow, Mansoor, what will you do?’ Gone where? Not said. Foxy had typed it onto the small screen he carried, his notebook, and pushed it towards Badger for him to read. And under it was written, ‘Look for a Sacred Ibis [whoever that is, whatever].’ The suitcase had been packed in the front bedroom and a lamp had been on beside the big bed. Badger could see the children asleep in it. The gear was good, but it wasn’t magic and they had no Merlin. The parents had kept their voices down so as not to wake their children. Nothing went onto the screen of Foxy’s notebook. Twice Badger was passed the headset and was able to listen through the earpiece where he’d broken the plastic coating, but he couldn’t make out the voices. The parents whispered, murmured, and the children slept.

It was the saddest thing Badger had ever seen. Nothing in his life compared with it. The parents had packed their case and made ready to fly – somewhere – in the morning, and she was dying and the children were being left behind. They had decided – the mother and father – to have the kids in their bed with them this last night. He could look through his life, like a drowning man was supposed to, and he could not recall anything as gut-wrenching as what he saw in the lit bedroom. His mother and father, Paul and Debbie Baxter, had good health except that he’d had a hernia operation four years ago and she had pain in a knee if she walked more than a couple of miles. A grandfather had died on one side and a grandmother on the other, but they’d had good years, good lives, and it had been welcome at the end to both. No car accidents in the family, and no cancers. He had no best friend, so no one he was close to with a crisis to face, and Ged, his best oppo, was fit, and Fran, whom he’d lived with, was in good nick and her father worked out at the gym three days a week. He had been out of general uniform duties too long to remember how it was when he’d been sent, blue lights and sirens, to an RTA and found a guy’s head splattered across the windscreen, or a woman thrown off a bicycle. What was different when he had been at the roadside was that he hadn’t seen the victim before, hadn’t witnessed the man kiss his woman on the step, hug his kids and drop down into his car. He hadn’t had the ringside seat when the woman came dripping out of the shower and her man was giggling, tickling and flicking at the knot that held up the towel. He hadn’t seen them wolf breakfast or make sure that the bills were out of sight and not spoiling their precious time together. They, the bomb-maker and the bomb-maker’s woman, were the saddest couple he had ever watched.

He could see the hands of his watch. If the case was packed they were going early. When they had gone, it was over. Nothing to stay for. Failure. If they went and there was no destination, it was down the pan – and had failed. The message would be sent. He would retrieve the microphone and draw in the cable. The Bergens would be packed and he would likely carry Foxy half the fucking way to the extraction point. What would he remember of her? Maybe when she’d sat on the bed, the kiddies slept and the case was filled – or when the committee of de-miners had come to the house, sat in the shade to say farewell, and some had cried… or when she’d stood alone in the light by the pier and the dinghy, leaning on the stick and watching the birds. Perhaps she saw an otter or followed the pigs with her eyes and enjoyed the peace.

It was illegal.

Danny ‘Badger’ Banks had put up his hand, volunteered, had signed up, and it was deniable, outside the law. Not about harvesting and not about culling, and not about the blank images, unseen, between the animals in the market pens and the meat hanging from hooks in a butcher’s shop. About an illegal murder. They had talked of the bombs in the shit beside the road, and the mutilations. The major had said, The improvised explosive device is the weapon that has snatched victory from the coalition and replaced it with a very fair imitation of defeat… There is a small number of clever, innovative men capable of wrong-footing us so consistently that the body-bags keep coming home and the injured with wounds they’ll carry to their graves

… We call an enemy a Bravo. Rashid Armajan is a big bad Bravo and we should take every opportunity to locate him and… It would be murder, and those helping in the killing would be charged as accessories.

The night was quiet around him.

The lights inside the house were out, and the curtains were drawn at that bedroom window. He had not seen her undress, didn’t know with what intimacy her husband might have helped her with straps and fastenings. The man was not a jihadist who would explode himself in a carriage in an underground tunnel, and he was not a smuggler of Class-A stuff, polluting streets and youngsters and breeding addicts. He was not a break-off from a splintered Irish republican team. The man, the Engineer, did not threaten Danny ‘Badger’ Baxter, or anyone he knew.

They had talked about the town the coffins came through, the military wing of the Selly Oak hospital, of the place in Surrey where the prosthetics were fitted and mobility was taught again. It was not his agenda.

Badger reckoned he walked at others’ beck and call. Like he was a dog and a whistle blew. Foxy had told him he was deniable and an accessory, that it was illegal, and he had answered, ‘Thank you.’ What to do?

His mind churned, and his eyes hurt from exhaustion. The scabs hurt worse, and the last water bottle was dry. The mosquito bites itched and his guts were full but he couldn’t empty them. He didn’t know where to find answers.

It was the last morning. He had the headset on and waited for the first light to be switched on in the house. Then he would wake Foxy, whom he had thanked. He saw the flash of a cigarette lighter to the right and the goon came out of the barracks. There was a slight smear on the horizon, and the day started.

Chapter 12

When it had the light to see where it flew, the bird left its perch on a broken tree. Its place, a favourite for two years, was now dried out, and the mud under it had become a wizened mosaic so it could no longer wade there and hunt. It had not fed for three days, but the bird was a creature of close-governed habits and its instincts preserved its loyalty to that place. Hunger drove it to abandon its perch.

It laboured into the air, weakened by lack of food. It was up before the dawn light had spread, and before the eagles had soared high to search for prey. It worked hard to get elevation and to feel the draught of wind under its broad wings.

It went over areas of sunbaked mud, once covered with a film of water, and over what were now narrow drains and had once been deep waterways, and skirted a collection of huts that would have been in danger of annual flooding when the bird was young but now were marooned. Below it a few skinny, undernourished water buffalo meandered in search of lakes and lagoons.

The ibis flew towards water, to the east where it would find food: small fish, frogs, mice or immature rats, beetles, spiders, butterflies and moths. The bird was female. The last year, her eggs had addled. Hunger had driven her from the stick nest in the tree and she had spent too many hours away, looking for the food that would sustain her. The ground had been arid and without life, and the village where in previous years she had scavenged was now deserted. Once she had seen the carcass of her mate but she had not fluttered down to feed off it, had left the mess of bones and feathers for the crows to peck at.

She had broad wings, white with black-tipped feathers. As she flew, climbed, a rhythm returned to the flaps that took her forward. It tired her to fly any distance, but she would go as far as her strength permitted in her search. A column of smoke spiralled near to some buildings and she saw people there, swung away and did a half-circle around them: she had no love of people.

When the sun edged over the horizon, she felt the first of the day’s warmth on her wings and back, white-feathered, and on her neck and head, black-feathered and with a black beak. The sun encouraged her to beat her wings harder, and soon she found a rivulet to follow. Then it became a stream, and a different smell seemed to come from the ground. There were reed banks.

She flew lower.

Beyond the reed banks there were expanses of water, not clear and dark as it would have been if the level was deep beyond the length of her wading legs. She looked for water that reflected the skies and in which she could see the mud bottom, not thick weed.

She saw a building that had small lights around it, the green of the reeds and a bare space of dried dirt on which debris had accumulated, and she saw a little promontory just above the water and at the end a mass of dried leaves. She made a clumsy landing because of the time she had been flying. She settled, had barely steadied herself, then readied to strike. She was listed as a bird deserving the status of ‘conservation concern’ and ‘threatened’. In the last survey of the marshlands, while warfare raged around the dedicated lovers of the ibis, it was estimated that only twenty-six adults lived in this habitat. She hit with her beak. The strike was brutal, fast: she had a frog.

It was a fat frog and it struggled, but its existence was already forfeit. It was put down on the reed fronds, and held by the beak until the claws at the foot of the bird’s left leg could pinion it down.

It was eaten, swallowed whole and alive. Digestion would take time, and the water level around the place where she settled was good for her wading.

She squatted, preened herself, pecked at insects real and imagined. She gazed around her and felt comfortable.

Badger watched. He had had the glasses on the bird as it circled the landing place twice, each time lower on the circuit. He wondered what species it was, but thought it pretty – and effective in the art of killing.

The bird, hunched down, lancing its body feather with its beak, was welcome – a relief to Badger from the options, from breaking disciplines and scratching bites. The mosquitoes had gone now, the flies were gathering, and the wind coming from Foxy was foul. Twice he’d elbowed the man’s ribcage to stop the snoring, but then the options had been uppermost.

A man of ethics? A police officer bred on morality? Badger didn’t know if he was or not. He believed in getting a job done and not much more. He had never fabricated evidence, had never claimed not to have seen another constable strike a man with a baton, and had never fiddled expenses. He had never done anything he would be ashamed of, had never risked his career with a criminal action. The rip-off culture at the police station in Bristol where he had started out had passed him by. Almost, in fact, he had been bollocked for insufficient arrests, relying on cautions and verbal warnings rather than hoicking the arrest statistics for the division. He had a moral code, not flaunted when he was in uniform or out of it, not based on any religious teaching and not worn on his sleeve. The code gave him – he recognised it now – a sort of naivete. Maybe the naivete had come on heavier since he had gone into rural surveillance and after he’d nagged Human Resources for the chance to go on the CROP course. Options? They had nagged at him through the night, while Foxy slept, and the one factor making the matter bearable was that nothing had materialised for him to report. He was watching the bird scrabble with its big feet for better grip on the reed fronds he had put there. More serious than ‘options’, it was kicking at the camouflage he’d made.

The bird hacked hard, thrust dried stuff back and seemed anxious to work down to a hard surface. The glasses showed him the slim, long body of the microphone and, once, the drive of the right foot lifted the cable… If the bird kept going, the microphone would be pushed into the water. Down to options that mattered. Out of his mind went I was, sir, only following orders that I believed to be legitimate. No more baggage about I’m not prepared to be involved, Foxy, in extra-judicial murder. I’m not some fucking Israeli. I will not allow any message that contributes to the target’s killing to be transmitted. Pushed down the agenda was I’m walking out now and having no further part in this, and at the bottom of the heap was I’m a moron and ignorant, and I didn’t understand. More important, top of the pile, was how to stop a pretty bird – a bloody nuisance bird – kicking out the microphone and drowning it. Couldn’t stand up and shout, couldn’t go walkabout to look for a stone and lob it. Once more it scratched. The shape of the microphone was clear now and the cable was well visible and… It stopped, seemed to compress itself down.

The door opened – the front door.

The goon was walking from the barracks towards the house. Lights had been switched on inside and, faintly, a radio played. The door was wide open and the kids spilled through it. Then the case was lifted out. Maybe it was the Engineer who brought it, maybe the older woman.

The case didn’t bulge. It had a green ribbon tied to its handle. Badger saw that the small girl was crying and the boy went to the water’s edge, threw in a pebble from the track, watched it bounce. The bird was hunkered low on what was left of the foliage. Maybe it thought this was a place to stay, where frogs were available on order. Maybe it was not about to shift out. He jabbed Foxy.

Him and Foxy? Between them now a sort of tolerance existed, like a ceasefire. Not peace and not war. When the car came, the suitcase was loaded and they drove away, the mission was done, whether they had anything to radio or not. He doubted he and Foxy would speak much on the way back to extraction, or while they were driven to the base, and not at all when they were helicoptered to Kuwait City. Likely they’d be in different rows on the flight, which Foxy might demand and he himself might insist on. There might be a handshake at the terminal but it would be transitory and neither would go on the other’s Christmas-card list. They’d never meet again.

One jab was enough. He passed him the headset. When the bird had kicked, noise, explosions, had been in his ears, but the bird’s chest – small mercy – did not cover the microphone tip and he could hear the little girl crying.

There was more wind, then a murmur about needing to piss, then the question: how much water was left? None. Then the statement: without water they were screwed. The headset went on Foxy’s ears and Badger whispered about the bird. ‘… and can’t do much about it. The goon has it in his glasses, looks excited enough to do a jerk-off. What is it? Not anything I’ve ever seen.’

‘It’s called an African Sacred Ibis. Pretty rare. Big in Egyptian mythology. Do me a favour, just shut up.’

Foxy looked wan, weak, about played out. A day wouldn’t have gone by in the last ten years without him shaving and examining his moustache in a mirror, without him putting on a clean shirt and polished shoes. He looked sad and a frown cut his forehead. Then he grappled in his pocket for the notepad and flicked the switch to light the screen.

The wife came, and the children ran to her. The Engineer peered up the track and past the barracks, then looked down, savage, at his wristwatch. The goon gazed at the bird. She had the children against her knees and bent awkwardly, held them tight and tried to comfort them. What comfort, Badger wondered, could she offer?

The car would come and the bird would fly. The noise of the car and the crying of the boy would be too much for it. Many weeks, several months, Mansoor had dreamed of seeing the bird, Threskiornis aethiopicus, merely fly low over the reeds and be in the lenses for a few seconds, half a minute, but it was down and he had a fine view of it, and could not believe that the moment would last, but she comforted the child.

He heard her. He had no children. He did not know if it was his fault that his wife was barren or hers. She said, in their bedroom at the back of the house that was owned by his father, in a low voice, so she should not be overheard, that he was responsible for her inability to become pregnant. He could not believe that. He refused, of course, to go to a doctor and have tests done on his wife, Safar, and himself. So, with no child to look after, she went each morning on a shuttle bus from their home in Ahvaz to the Crate Camp Garrison on the road to Mahshar, came back each evening and helped his mother to prepare a meal, then did cleaning and went to bed. They had sex every weekend, quietly so as not to disturb his parents, but her period never missed. He saw how Naghmeh, wife of the Engineer, comforted the children. He had looked away from the bird that was on what seemed to be flood debris that had snagged at the end of a mud spit.

‘You should not be frightened.’ She held tight to the children. ‘There is nothing for you to be frightened of.’

He thought she did not cry because it would have frightened the children.

‘We go to see a very clever doctor, and he will make me better.’ He looked up but the bird had not moved.

He did not know if he would ever see her again.

‘We will bring you back sweets, because you will be very good when your grandmother cares for you…’ If she died in Germany, the children would go to her mother, and their father would be found an austere room in the Crate Camp Garrison. He would visit them only at the end of the week and on public holidays, and would bury himself in the papers and circuit boards on his workbench. ‘The reward for being good and brave is very special sweets.’

Then Mansoor would be recalled to the ranks of the al-Quds Brigade and most likely a desk would be found for him, papers to process and a keyboard to hit. He might be in Tehran or Tabriz or in the mountains on the Afghanistan border… if she did not come back. She had quietened and calmed them. The car was late. It reflected on him. It should by now have been at the house.

‘We are going to a far-away country, to Germany. There is a town in Germany where they make wonderful marzipan…’ The sun edged higher and he saw that Naghmeh no longer shivered. Its first warmth fell on him – and on the bird. It was a clear two hundred metres from him, but he could sneak the binoculars to his eyes and see its markings. It had been venerated in ancient Egypt, had been thought so valuable that it was sacrificed to appease gods, and in one archaeological site the mummified remains of a million and a half ibises had been uncovered. He believed himself blessed, and turned away from it. The weapon hanging from his neck clattered against the magazines in the pouches of his tunic. ‘… which is made from almonds and sugar.’

She looked up at him sharply. He had not seen it before. She seemed to despise him. It might have been the weapon that caught her attention, or the magazines into which the bullets were pressed, or the two grenades at the webbing on his waist, or the flash of the al-Quds shield sewn on his olive sleeves. It might have been because she knew his father helped to hang men, or because his wound crippled him – or because he had produced no children. He wanted them gone, but the car had not come.

‘The best marzipan is made in the town we go to, Lubeck, and there we will go to the shops and buy marzipan sweets for you, because you will be good and you will look after your grandmother. Your father says Lubeck is a very pretty town, and is famous for the marzipan we are going to bring home. You will be very good.’

He walked away from her and the children, and went to the Engineer. He shrugged and said that the car was not late for its departure time, but should by now have arrived. If a few minutes more passed without it coming he would get on the radio and demand an answer. The Engineer looked at him as if he was dog’s mess on a shoe heel. The sun rose, carrying the day’s warmth with it, and the bird was still on the mess of leaves. He thought he heard a car, far away.

It was repeated by Foxy, the third time. ‘I heard it. I don’t doubt what I heard. “The best marzipan is made in the town we go to, Lubeck.” She said that. Also she said, “Your father says Lubeck is a very pretty town, and is famous for the marzipan we are going to bring home.” About as clear as it could be.’

‘You going to send it?’

‘Of course I’m fucking well going to send it.’

It was like a new man had materialised beside Badger. A bloody kid had scored a goal. Foxy had learned where a targeted man could be killed, and Badger wondered if that counted for more than scoring the goal.

‘Illegality, deniability, extra-judicial killing.’

Dismissively: ‘Do me a favour, young ’un, and pass the kit.’

His hands burrowed into the bergen beside him and Foxy was flicking his fingers in front of his face, as if time was not to be wasted. Badger felt dazed. A moment of truth had come, missile speed, from the clear blue skies above the scrim net. There were the seconds when a crisis developed – armed police had told him – when anticipation and training were overtaken by actuality. One thing to think about it, talk about it or practise it, another when it happened. It had been Badger’s job to look after the communications: the comms should have been ready, kept in place for immediate transmission, only needing the battery to be activated. They were not. Foxy’s snapped fingers and the irritation said they were there, flying high, and his voice had been quiet but he had made no effort to hide his elation: I heard it. I don’t doubt what I heard… Of course I’m fucking well going to send it. Badger had the comms gear in his hand and was levering it out of the bergen.

‘What’s the matter, young ’un? Just shift it.’

He had to push aside a bottle half filled with urine, and two sheets of the tinfoil that was there in case the Imodium wore off. He brought the kit up under his stomach and then his chest.

Badger could have done it himself – could have thrown the button, let it warm, made the link, sent the stuff, like passing down a death sentence. The kit would have been snatched from his hands. Foxy would not give up the glory moment. He could see the man: another cigarette, another glance at his watch, another spin on his heel to show anger that the car hadn’t come. The goon was on a radio or a mobile, had it clamped to his face, his weapon and binoculars bumping on his chest as he bent some poor bastard’s ear about the car being late. She stood with her mother and the kids were calm. The bird was still in place.

Emotion melded with the professionalism dinned into him.

His eyes flitted from the distance view of the woman and her husband to the near ground where the bird squatted, part covering the microphone. The length of cable that was exposed before it went into the water snaked out from under its tail feathers.

There was a soft whine in his ear as the comms kit gathered power. A red light glowed, and he sensed Foxy’s exhilaration. He felt a sort of flatness.

They had the link. Foxy murmured his call sign, Foxtrot and something Badger didn’t catch. A query on Alpha Juliet, a pause. Badger sensed that Foxy was at bursting point, and it flushed out of him.

The town was named. It was spelt out. Lima – Uniform – Bravo – Echo – Charlie – Kilo. They were ‘leaving any time now, route unknown’. Badger turned his head away from the house, the family, its guards and the bird, and stole a look at Foxy’s face. Something almost manic, something of achievement not reached in a lifetime before, and he could see a clenched fist, the knuckles whitened. Then, an afterthought, Foxy said something brief about recovery of kit, a further transmission about extraction, and cut it.

The car came. It was the Mercedes. The goon bawled at the driver, who pointed to a tyre and bawled back. The case was carried to the car and the boot was sprung open. The kids had started to cry again. The bird was sitting on the microphone. He could imagine that pandemonium had broken out on receipt of their report, and he had done nothing about agendas, had failed to scour the options.

He and Foxy had done something huge and the response would be awesome. He knew it. Foxy might have forgotten himself: an arm had snaked out and was around Badger’s shoulders. ‘We did it. Against everything, every count of the odds, we did it. We scored.’

There was a photograph. The frame was expensive enough to have a hallmark stamped in it, which guaranteed its pedigree. It was on a table beside the bed.

The photograph had a message handwritten in heavy black ink: Ellie, With love to my darling girl, Foxy. The picture in the frame was of Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes with camouflage cream daubed on his face and wearing a gillie suit, but not headgear. He was grinning. It was a portrait of a man of action.

Neither of them, in the bed, were embarrassed or distracted by its presence. It was face down.

‘I’m not having him giving me a cold eye, the old bugger,’ Piers had said.

‘About all he’s capable of, these days, is watching,’ Ellie had said.

He’d arrived late at night, and his car was parked down the side of the garage, well inside the gate. It was pretty much hidden from a casual glance. She’d thought that a bottle of wine, on the carpet in front of the fire in the sitting room – Foxy’s chair pushed back to make more room – would ease them into what was a momentous time in the relationship. It was the first time he had been there. They’d been at his place and in the pubs there, where she was anonymous, on the far side of the motorway beyond Bassett.

It hadn’t worked out as she’d planned. Time had not been wasted on Foxy’s rug in front of a fire blazing with logs that Foxy had cut, and none of the wine had been drunk from the bottle that Foxy prized. Straight up the stairs, past the collection of cartoons, police stuff, that Foxy had collected, into the bedroom and onto Foxy’s bed. They’d stripped, and the light had been on, and he had crawled over her and looked up into Foxy’s face. His hand had come from between Ellie’s legs, reached for the frame and flipped it. Her hand had come off the small of his back and given it a shove. Now it was mostly hidden by the clock radio that had woken Foxy when he was at home. It had been Ellie’s decision that Piers come to the house.

Where was he? She didn’t know. What was he doing? She’d only had a text. What had she been told? Pretty much nothing, and the guys who’d brought the car back had just been peasants. Would he just turn up? Always rang first, something about getting the wine to room temperature or decently chilled.

They’d slept, knackered, and the dawn had come and she’d woken him.

Rain beat on the mullions. It was a grey dawn, a miserable one.

‘Not to worry,’ Ellie said. ‘You’re back here tonight.’

‘Am I? You sure?’

‘Too bloody right.’

It was eleventh-hour stuff, and she had jack-knifed up when the chimes had gone. She’d had to rummage in the robe to get the receiver, would have shown a mass of leg and didn’t care. The haggling, pure bazaar, had gone on through the night and into the small hours.

She had nothing in her hand except money. Probably they could have ignored the bartering and come and taken the money by force, and would have lost a few, or several in the fight. She and her guys, if still upright, would have been unable to prevent it. So, money had been on the table and the sheep had gone quiet – they might have thought, as the night wore on, that their throats were safe. And had been wrong.

There had been a bare apology, first light and a grey mist over the desert dirt, and she had been listening to the fucking thing, and then had run to the front Pajero, and her laptop.

The sheep had been skinned, then skewered and cooked over the fire. Bowls of rice were passed round, and bread brought from a village. The sheep had been slaughtered when the deal had been closed. Not an easy one for her: no chance of getting on a satphone and calling up her station chief in the Baghdad compound and asking him what ceiling she could reach to: he was outside the loop and would want to stay there. It was her decision alone, and she had pledged the lot. Her bundle of dosh, each last dollar, would go into the sheikh’s pocket. It carried no guarantee of honesty – he could trouser what she gave him, then drive away, call his friend, who would be a full colonel, and pass on information about Jones and her Boys to another colonel on the far side of the frontier. No guarantees, except – she had the laptop out and it was powering up – she had dropped in an aside. Ground troops of the coalition no longer did grunt work in the field, but the firepower of the air force was still available. She might be able to call out an F-16 Fighting Falcon with a load of missiles and maybe a pair of CBU-87 bombs.

She had power up and the satellite signal was locked.

It would have been in her eyes – lit by the fire: she had co-ordinates of where the sheikh lived and where his extended family were gathered, and the implication would have been that a bomb could go astray and she would give not a flying fuck if it did…

Abigail Jones opened a link to the Agency in the communications area of the station, in the fortified, sanitised sector of the capital. She was answered. Could she identify herself? She was Alpha Juliet. She gave her message, spelled it out again, but with a codified alteration. Kilo – Tango – Alpha – Delta – Bravo – Juliet. She added one word, ‘Enroute’, then ‘0647’. The cut-out process had begun. She didn’t know to whom she spoke, and a technician didn’t know who had sent him that brief message, or the identity of the receiver at the Vicenza base. Cut-outs bred deniability and fogged a trail.

She turned off the laptop and walked back towards the fire. Abigail Jones might have welcomed the thought that word of this would seep through the firewalls of need-to-know inside the Towers. It would be the same for her as for old Len Gibbons; whispers, nods and no complete picture. She would be noticed in the atrium hall, the canteens and corridors. She felt a little whiff of pride.

Shagger broke the indulgence. He asked, ‘When do they come out?’

‘They have to retrieve the gear, then shout and start moving. I don’t have a time yet. Now let’s get these bastards on the road, and what’s left of that mutton. The big part’s done and we know where he’s headed. It’s a fantastic result.’

He came into their darkened bedroom, hoping she was still asleep, but Lili’s voice was sharp: ‘Steffen? How is your headache?’

When he had come home from the Rathaus, alone, her parents were already in bed. He had gone to the remaining guest room, where he had tossed and turned. He had heard the crunch of tyres, long after midnight, on his drive, then laughter – hers and a man’s – talking and finally the key in the door. The car had driven off. Perhaps a man she had known from childhood had brought her home.

The bedside light came on and she sat up, her back against the pillows, the sheet tight to her throat. She wore nothing.

He had been nine when his father and mother had been killed in the battle for Khorramshahr. They had died in the liberation of the city after nearly a year of Iraqi occupation. He had been told they could rejoice in martyrs’ deaths. He struggled to remember them, to picture their faces and hear their voices. His father had told him once that there was never a good or bad time for confession. It had involved him taking a handful of piastres from his mother’s purse to buy sweets from another kid at school. His father had told him that confession was a fine purging agent. He had gone to his mother, interrupted her work on medical case histories and seen her brow furrow with annoyance. He had said he had taken some money and bought sweets. She had shrugged and returned to her work.

Now he said, ‘There was no headache.’

‘What, in God’s name, were you up to?’

‘I did not want to be there.’

‘That is pathetic. It was important – we talked about it.’

Something of his pain would have been in his face. He was wrapped in a bathrobe, had come to their bedroom to find clothing for the day: he wore a suit, shirt, tie and polished shoes when he saw patients; he dressed down only for days with his students. He sat on the side of the bed. He took a deep breath – he was not Steffen but Soheil. He was not from Lubeck and German, but from Tehran and Iranian. He spoke the truth, bared himself.

He spoke of a phone call from Berlin, a meeting with an Iranian, who might have been an intelligence officer of the VEVAK. He said he had cleared facilities for a patient to come for consultation, and had been rude to his staff who had queried why he had agreed to see a nameless patient with no medical history. He said he was trapped, that his past and origins had claimed him.

The sheet dropped. Her hands reached out and gripped his shoulders. ‘You are German! You do not have to-’


‘You are German. You are Steffen Weber.’

‘I was, but am not now. I am Soheil – I am my father and mother’s child.’

‘You do not know who you are treating? You do not know who their secret police are bringing?’

‘I do not.’

Her back arched, and he saw the upper curve of her chest, which had been on show at the Rathaus. It would have been covered only with a loose wrap on the ride home.

She shook him. ‘Call the police or the security people. This is not a banana country. You cannot allow thugs to manipulate you.’


She flared, ‘Are you married to me? Yes. Are you their servant?’

He could not answer her. He pushed himself up from the bed and went to the wardrobe. He took out a suit and a folded shirt, fresh socks and laundered underwear, a quiet tie and shoes that glinted with the polish the maid had applied. He closed the wardrobe, turned and knew what he would see.

His wife, Lili, held the sheet high, covering herself. He thought that a woman would always cover her body if confronted by a stranger. He went to dress. He faced a long day in Hamburg before he returned to the medical school at Lubeck for his evening appointment with a patient whose name he had not been told. He did not think, then, that her marriage to a stranger could be saved.

He reached the door and said. ‘They would hunt me, track me, find me if I refused. They will have chosen me because of my birthright. I assume that the patient is someone of military importance or in intelligence gathering. If you wish, Lili, to condemn me, you could lift the telephone and speak to the police or the security apparatus. I ask you not to… They have a long arm and a long reach, and I would spend the rest of my life searching the shadows at my back.’

He closed the door after him.

Sarah knew.

The telephone on the desk had rung. He had been sitting on his desk, feet dangling, when it had screamed for his attention. He had picked it up.

She knew the story.

His face had seemed to contort as he’d listened. A greyness came to his skin, followed by pallor, and Gibbons’s tongue had flipped over his lips. She understood that a location had been given. Then Gibbons shook, as if throwing off an unwanted skin, a burden, and his back straightened. His only question: which airport were they going out from, City, Heathrow or military? It was as if, by the time he hung up, he had regained control.

She was in the outer office and it was not her place to pressure him for the information so she’d kept her head down.

He called to her that the town named as the target’s destination was Lubeck. She asked if the transport was taken care of, and he nodded, but without excitement. Well, perhaps anticipation of ‘excitement’ was unrealistic, she thought, as she looked through the open door at Len Gibbons, whose office – and professional life – she ran. She knew why the name of Lubeck had stopped him dead in his tracks. She knew the story.

The story held in the Towers’ archive was titled The Schlutup Fuck-up, and not many knew it, but she did.

When Sarah had gone to work for Gibbons her friend, Jennifer, had quietly let her know about the Schlutup Fuck-up and its effect on his career, the struggle the man had put in to shift it off his shoulders. A veteran in the archive and able to ferret in restricted areas, Jennifer had unearthed the story. To Sarah’s knowledge, Len Gibbons had never been back to that northern corner of Germany, up by the Baltic coast and close to the Trave river. Small wonder the poor wretch had blanched. The pain of the Fuck-up would have been acid-etched in his mind.

She disguised her privileged knowledge with apparent indifference: ‘Will you be wanting me to come with you, Mr Gibbons?’

‘I don’t think so, Sarah, but thank you. A pretty ordinary place, Lubeck, and unlikely to present problems. Not a place to be mob-handed on the ground.’

She wondered how he would be – in a modern world of supposed integrity – when he was there, in Lubeck, and deniability might be hard to rustle up. And she wondered, all those years ago, how much tittering there had been behind hands in the previous home of the Service, and how much a Fuck-up of dynamic proportions would harden a man – a man such as Len Gibbons. He had not mentioned the men in Iraq, not expressed praise or admiration for their work, nor sympathised with the conditions they would have operated under, nor referred to the back-up team. She could do jargon with the best of them: Sarah considered the lack of praise, admiration, of any acknowledgement for what others had achieved to be part of the ‘collateral’ of the Schlutup Fuck-up and the scars it had left.

‘Whatever you say. I asked…’

‘Good of you. Pretty straightforward stuff, and an experienced team around me.’

It was a cold morning in the city but the early sun gave beauty to the skies. The blue was cut by the exhaust fumes spewed from the engines of a Boeing 737, bound for the Swedish ferry-port city of Malmo. Gabbi did not query whether the most effective route had been chosen for him, or the quickest, or the one that would provide greatest security. He would land by noon, would be met and driven to the departure point. Layers of people worked on the problems and came up with answers that he would not second-guess. It gave Gabbi satisfaction to reflect that so many laboured behind him. He was launched, and had no thought for those who had gained the information that had set him on his way.

The car had taken them.

There had been a further delay when Mansoor had looked down at the nearside rear tyre of the Mercedes and thought it too smooth, barely within legal limits, not fit for carrying passengers of such status. He had queried the tyre’s safety. He had almost accused the driver of taking a good tyre to the market in Ahvaz, selling it and replacing it with an inferior one, then pocketing money. They had argued, until the Engineer had clapped his hands and demanded that he and his wife left.

The dust cloud thrown up behind the car had thinned, and the children had left cheerfully enough with their grandmother for school.

The bird had stayed. He had as good a view of it as he could have hoped for. He did not tire of watching it. His father would not have understood, or his wife or his mother. Himself, until he had been allocated to the security of the Engineer, he would not have believed that a man could watch a bird that sat across a hundred and fifty metres of water from him, and pray that the moment would not pass. The focus of the glasses was on the feathers of the wings and neck, the clean lines of the beak – and on the expanse of mud behind it that was broken only by the debris of dead reeds.

‘What’s special about that bird?’

‘It’s endangered, rare – his obsession.’

‘We’re screwed. We can’t move while he’s there.’

‘State the obvious, young ’un.’

‘We can’t leave it but we can’t go to get it.’

He couldn’t leave the scrape and move in the gillie suit across bare ground to the reed beds, then go into the water, wade to the mud spit and give the bloody bird a shove while binoculars were on him. He couldn’t tug out the microphone because the cable would be out of the water and visible. He couldn’t leave it there either, because that would break the disciplines. It would be the equivalent of leaving a semaphore sign that ‘UK was here’ when the microphone was found – as it would be.

‘Then we stay put. Night follows day, right? We go at dusk.’

‘That’s a whole day to kill.’

‘So sleep a bit, think of water.’

‘We haven’t got any.’

‘You ever get tired of stating the obvious, young ’un? Apparently not.’

‘I have to go forward and collect the stuff. I have to get…’ Badger didn’t finish. Foxy had grunted, sighed, turned his back on him. Maybe it was nine hours before he could move out to collect the kit. He could reflect and evaluate. He could count the flies that swarmed above the scrim net. He could watch the goon in the plastic chair and wonder how a grown man had such an empty skull that he needed to sit with a rifle across his knees and watch a bird that was not much different from the herons Badger had seen in Wales, and half as interesting as the eagles he knew from Scotland. He could think of Alpha Juliet and holding her, of sending the call-sign code back for a meeting at the extraction point, and… Time for interrogation.

Badger asked, What was our justification for coming here?

He answered himself: They said it was a rogue state and reckoned there were weapons that could nuke us, gas us, poison us.

Were we surprised that they wanted us out so shot at us and blew us up?

He answered himself, Gob-smacked.

Did no one question the inevitable bit? That clever bombs might be provided by a neighbour and laid by a local? he asked. Did no one reckon it might be none of our business?

He answered: Plenty did, but they were ignored, out of step with policy.

Us coming here, was it done in my name? Badger asked.

He answered, and his words rang in his mind, Who needed the opinion of a moron? The big people knew what was in your best interest.

The big people – were they right to say that the man I fingered was our enemy?

Irrelevant. It’s done, can’t be undone.

Badger asked, Do I take pride in what I did – getting here, surviving here, fulfilling the mission – or am I ashamed?

He paused, then answered, A luxury and an indulgence. A waste of space – and breath. Done and impossible to undo. You are, Danny Baxter, the little fellow who is told what to do and does it. A man will have his head blown off and a good woman who clears minefields – who is dying – will be widowed. You are a part of it, and it’s done in your name. Perhaps they’ll give you a fucking medal to polish.

The sun was higher, and his need for water was cruel. His stomach was distended by the Imodium tablets, and the sores were suppurating. Their mission was complete… except that the bird sat on the microphone. There was nothing else for Badger to look at. He could see the bird’s back and fancied that a small loop of the cable had hitched up and was near to its folded legs.

The goon sat in his chair. A guard had brought him coffee and a plate of sandwiches.

Hours to kill before he went into the water. They had done their work and should by now have been with the guys in the Pajeros and Alpha Juliet. Congratulations should have been gruffly conferred and he might have had cream on the scabs and sores. He worked out which route he would take, and considered how dark it should be before he moved. The time dragged and Foxy slept. Then the pigs came and an otter passed by. Ducks were there, and coots, and the hours crawled. Badger’s body was racked with pain. He knew each step he would take when he went into the water.

Chapter 13

The sun had dipped and started its slide.

Badger moved. When he shifted it was better for some of the sores and worse for others. The flies still swarmed and it was not yet dark enough for the mosquitoes. He could see the face of his wristwatch.

‘Not long, thank God,’ he murmured.


‘I said, “Not long.” ’

When he was out of this hell hole, Badger reckoned, he’d want to shout. He would need – maybe at the airfield at Basra, or at Kuwait airport – to get up on a table in the spooks’ office or in a coffee lounge and bawl the roof off, yell, scream, shake the walls. He’d shout in the shower, and louder in the surgery when the medic examined the wounds that the biting creatures had given him. He craved to shout now at the goon who sat in the chair, facing the lagoon and the still water.

Another thing he’d do, when he was back at any imitation of civilisation, was take the gillie suit, and the vest he wore under it, the pants and the socks, maybe even the boots, and chuck it all into one of those oil drums used as an incinerator, spill some fuel in and throw into it a lit roll of newspaper. They’d burn: the lice and fleas, ticks, ants and little red spiders. It would be sheer pleasure to watch them. Through the day, the thought of stripping off that gear and of the flames leaping in the drum had been companionship for Badger. He envied little about Foxy but his ability to sleep wherever and whenever.

He squirmed a little. Any movement seemed to set off the irritation of the insect bites. The next evening, those that weren’t lodged in the gillie suit would turn up and find the meal ticket had moved on. His mind jostled between reality and fantasy, as it had done to kill the hours: fleas, ticks and ants who found the empty hide should consider themselves lucky not to have been in the suit when it went into the drum… Maybe he’d gone a little mad. Maybe ‘a whiff of insanity’ was part of a croppie’s job description. But it was good to let the madness take hold because then anxieties about it’s in your name and it’s done, can’t be undone were pushed back. He stretched his legs to the limit and his left thigh cramped.

‘About another hour, then I’ll be moving.’

‘That so, young ’un?’

‘The bird’s awake, seems it’s getting some life back.’

‘Should be hungry. It’ll need to go and feed.’

‘The further away the bloody better, and him with it.’

The goon, the officer, had finally stood. He took a last cigarette and tossed the empty pack onto the ground beside the quay. He stretched and walked to the far end of the short pier, but hardly looked right or left. His eye line stayed with the bird. Now it was upright and seemed to test the ground and the debris under its feet. It stamped a little and eased the weight from one leg to the other. Then its head lifted, its neck straightened and it croaked, a harsh sound. The wings opened and flapped.

‘Go on, you bastard. Get yourself up and away.’

It subsided again.

‘Whether he’s there or not,’ Badger muttered, ‘I reckon in an hour I can go and get it.’

‘You got eyes, young ’un?’


‘See anything with them, or are they crap?’

Badger bridled. ‘I can see better than you.’

There was a silence, and self-satisfaction on Foxy’s face. The silence meant there was something he should have seen but had not.

Badger backed off. He was not prepared to beg for an explanation. He bit his lip and looked again. The bird hopped twice, then came down heavily. The goon was most of the way through the last cigarette and kicked the packet along the edge of the quay. For the first time in that long day he did not seem totally engrossed in the bird. The woman – the mother of the Engineer’s wife – came out through the front door with a glass in her hand, went to the goon and gave it to him. They talked. The children might have had a meal or a story, might have watched the TV. They had been lively when they had come home from school in the middle of the day – one had played with a ball, the other a skipping-rope.

The shadows lengthened

The heat of the day dissipated.

His throat was dry.

Foxy was now fully alert and used his glasses to rake over the bird, the house and the goon. His view slid between the pier where the dinghy was tied, and the barracks and the bund line beyond.

‘Where all this began… I said that in an hour it’ll be dark enough for me to get forward and bring back the microphone and the wire. Are we arguing?’

‘Heard you the first time,’ Foxy said.

Many hours dead, one more to kill, then the journey to the extraction point.

He was breathing hard.

He threw down the cigarette, stamped on it.

There had been months of boredom in Mansoor’s recent life, weeks of tedium that had seemed to drift on with neither high spots nor low moments, merely ordinariness. He had to stifle the panting. Tension gripped him.

He could not show it.

His back turned now to the lagoon, as the light fell and shadows stretched far behind him, he walked with a clipped, slow step – as if he had no further interest in what he had turned away from – towards the door of the house. He took the mother back her glass, then called to the kids. One was playing football with two of the guards and the other had a toy pram. He took them inside and tried to suppress any hint of authority in his voice that might frighten them; he gave no appearance of uttering an order.

With the children inside, he told their grandmother to keep them there, to wait two or three minutes and then to close the door. He thought her a strong woman – anyone of her age would have lived through the battles in either Susangerd, Ahvaz or Khorramshahr and would not have survived if prone to panic: they had been vicious battles with few prisoners taken – women had been killed, women had been raped. She should close the door, bolt it, move the children to the back of the house, but leave the radio or TV on in the front and not draw those curtains.

He walked now across the dirt, saw the cigarette packet, picked it up and headed for the barracks. He did not speak to the two guards who were still sitting in the shade of the trees. He would not have trusted either to act out the relaxed and typical scene – its tedium – if he had spoken to them of a security alert. They would have run round like headless chickens. He kept to the tree line where the shadows were thickest and would go to the barracks by the side entrance. He would not be seen and would give no warning to a watcher.

The bird had moved, had stood.

The cable had been pulled up and had made a loop. He would not have seen it unless his glasses had been on the bird. The loop had raised a length of black-coated metal, which he estimated at between thirty and forty centimetres long.

Mansoor had been in Iraq. He had been there during the difficult days when the troops of the Great Satan had attempted to load maximum pressure on the resistance and on the al-Quds teams sent to guide and advise. He and his colleagues had been lectured that they must always be vigilant against surveillance: no use of mobile telephones, no meetings with sensitive personnel outside buildings where they could be identified by the drones in the skies – the precaution of changing meeting points so that patterns were not established and bugs installed – and he did not think his eyes had deceived him. He had seen a loop of wire and a length of tube, and they were among the dead leaves on the mud spit. How long had the debris been wedged there? Two or three days, no more. Had there been, three or four days before, a sufficient storm to flush out those leaves and dump them high and dry? There had not.

He went into the barracks and woke the men who were sleeping, tossed those who played cards from their chairs and switched off the television. He told the armourer what he wanted and how many rounds of ammunition should be issued to each man. The light was slipping and the high lamp on the post by the barracks, where it ran alongside the far end to the quay, had lit. Evening was coming, and he had only glimpsed the loop and the tube. He did not feel confident enough to demand reinforcements from Ahvaz, and did not wish to hand over the matter to a more senior officer.

He could hear, down the corridor, the chains rattling as the rifles – Type 56 assault weapons, made in the People’s Republic of China – were freed from the armoury’s racks.

‘Do I take a Glock?’

‘You won’t need one.’

‘It’ll be out of your weapon’s range.’

‘I won’t be behind you.’

Badger spat, ‘ “Won’t be behind you!” Great. I seem to remember I half carried you here.’

Calm, authority, a voice used to being heard, not contradicted: ‘You won’t need a Glock. And I won’t be behind you.’

‘I don’t understand what shit you are coming with.’

‘It’s about the quality of the eyes.’

‘Mine are as good as any – all the tests show it.’

‘It’s what you didn’t see, young ’un, when the bird moved.’

‘The bird moved, didn’t take off, settled. Perhaps, last light, it’ll get a frog and-’

‘You saw nothing. You don’t need the Glock and I’m not behind you. You’re not as good as you thought you were.’

‘Which means?’

‘I’m going forward – and I’ll decide when – and I’ll retrieve the microphone and the cable. Clear?’

‘It’s my job.’ The calm fazed Badger, made him uncomfortable – always difficult to argue when a man refused to be riled. He wondered if the older man was capable of getting across the clear ground, through the reed beds, then wading fifty yards and doing the reverse trip. Badger reckoned, when they came out, he would be carrying two bergens and likely have Foxy hooked on his back. ‘I’m going.’

‘I make that decision.’

‘No. I do that sort of thing. It’s for me to do.’

‘I’m going to tell you two things, and do me the courtesy of closing your mouth and listening. If I could square it with any last vestige of professionalism that I have, I’d get you to load up the bergens – now – and we’d sneak out. We’d leave in place the microphone and the cable. They’re found and the balloon goes up. The effect of that is that calls are made and they end up in Lubeck, having been processed through every floor of the Ministry of Information and Security. He will be pulled out, meaning that everything we did was for fuck-all of nothing, and he can make some more of his little toys. Hearing me?’

‘That they’ll find the gear within the next twenty-four hours? A big ask.’

‘You don’t know what to look for – and you’re blind. It’s already been found.’

He might have been punched in the crotch. Badger folded. He could still see the bird and it could not have been famished sufficiently to go hunt another frog for itself, and the feathers on its back were pink from the last of the sun that would be down, buried, in the next fifteen minutes. Changeover time coming. The flies would have been exhausted after bombing the scrim net for all the daylight hours and the mosquitoes would have rested and would be hungry for flesh and would be coming out, hunting. He stank. His stomach was bloated from the tablets, could hardly make wind, and precious little of his body was free of the bites and the scabs had bloody grown and the sores oozed. He looked for the goon and couldn’t see him, then for the cable and couldn’t find it.

‘Are you sure?’ he asked.

‘If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have said it.’

‘If they know about it, why you? Why is it your job?’

The shadows were on them and he couldn’t see Foxy’s face. He thought he heard a sob, not a choke, but something softer, sadder.

Foxy said, ‘It’ll take me a while, young ’un, to think through what I want to tell you.’

‘I’m the one who’s supposed to have all the answers,’ Abigail Jones said.

Corky was beside her. ‘Why haven’t they come? That it, miss?’

‘It’ll do.’

‘They have kit in front of them and can’t retrieve it till dark. Would that fit?’

‘Snugly, Corky. Hard, though, isn’t it? More than us, they want out. We want it badly, they want it more. A whole day to wait.’ It was unusual for her to muse in public, wear frustration on her sleeve. Normally she bottled such feelings, which might have been partly why she lived alone, when based in London, in her two-bedroomed maisonette. It cost her a fortune, and it would have been useful to have a guy living there, on her terms, to chip in with the expenses. She didn’t know one she could allow to copy her front-door key, and have access to her space. A man who had been a senior clerk in the old Bank of Iraq now looked after the incidental finances of the station in the Green Zone. He had supplied her with the dollar bills she had given to the sheikh. He also did invoices for food, fuel, clothing, and could switch handwriting patterns effortlessly. At the end of the tour she would take a bucketload of cash to a respected dealer in gold and precious stones and buy items of quality but not enough to attract the attention of a Customs nerd. She’d be wearing them, looking expensive, when she came back through Heathrow, and would sell the stuff on in London. That way, Abigail Jones could afford a maisonette with a view over the river. She’d learned the methods on her first trip to the Gulf and on the posting to Bosnia.

It was coming up on her fast, the bug-out from Baghdad. Soon enough there would be the round of parties – her people, Agency staffers, the embassy, hand-chosen Iraqi army officers and intelligence men, and a general melee of multi-national spooks. The best part would be the knowledge, shared in a tight circle, of the ‘taking down’ of an Engineer. It would be a pleasure to know he was dead, and that she had played her part in it. There would be an office car from Heathrow to her home, and she would sign the docket and have the driver lift the bags to the front door, then fish out her keys and step inside her home, alone. She wondered if that evening, when they hit the Basra road, Highway 6, there might be a swap of mobile numbers, done in the lead Pajero, if he would be there – giggles about where it had been last time and…

Corky said, ‘Because their gear is forward they need darkness to get it back. Shouldn’t be long.’

‘I have to say it, Corky – I’d have been tempted to ditch the stuff, and we’d have been out of here seven or eight hours ago, if they’d made good time.’

The crowd had gone, drifting away in the wake of the dust cloud from the big BMW in which the sheikh rode. There would have been what Corky called ‘dickers’ who watched them, but for now the wads of banknotes had bought emptiness round the perimeter. The light on her communications kit hadn’t flashed. No message from London, no acknowledgement and nothing to tell her that a hit was on course. Nothing from ahead, from beyond a horizon of dirt and soft-coloured reeds.

They had spent their day cleansing the building they’d used. Now it was as they had found it, every fag end picked up and bagged. The vehicles were loaded with the sleeping bags and mosquito nets, the spotter ’scope for bird-watching, the spare weaponry and ammunition. She had done the rounds and was satisfied. She had paused in the doorway of the room where he had slept and seen a smooth part of the concrete flooring where the dust had been swept away by the motion of his hips. She regretted nothing.

‘Only thing, miss, that’s worse than ditching gear and leaving it behind is doing that to a comrade, your mate.’

‘I think I understand that, Corky.’

‘You don’t, young ’un, interrupt or contradict me.’

Badger reckoned he was composed now, ready. ‘Heard you.’

‘You’ll watch my back and I’ll retrieve the stuff.’

Badger didn’t interrupt, or contradict.

‘I’ll go in about fifteen minutes when the light’s gone. It’s not acceptable to leave the gear, so we won’t. We get the stuff and leave the hide covered. We have to hope it’ll stay that way long enough. The goon’s watched the bird all day. He’ll have seen the cable and now he’s gone back to where his guys are. His own people are poor quality, but I doubt he is. You saw the limp, which means he’s been injured – I’d imagine it was a combat wound. He may act with his own people or, more likely, he’ll have sent for decent back-up from down the road. When it’s dark, I’m going.’

Badger lay on his stomach and listened. The sun tipped the tops of the reed beds in the west, and the skies over the palm trees across the lagoon and the house, where nothing moved and few lights showed.

‘When I come back to you, I may be coming fast, and we don’t fuck about, young ’un. We’re going for speed and distance, and I’m thinking that the first quarter of a mile is the critical bit. We manage that and use the comms. We try to find, without bloody drowning, the extraction point. That’s what’s going to happen.’

Still no contradiction, no interruption.

‘I’ll go forward to retrieve the stuff because I don’t know what’ll be waiting there. When I don’t know, I won’t ask anyone else to do what I should be doing. In case there are any misunderstandings between us, young ’un, don’t ever forget that I’m in charge. I lead and I decide. You don’t. Before you ask, my memory of the plug from the cable into the microphone is that it’s a straight socket, not robust. Giving the cable a yank will do the business and they’ll come apart – surprised the pigs didn’t manage it. I’m going, and you’ll have everything, the bergens and the rest, ready for a fast break-out.’

‘You’re not capable of it.’

‘I’m going forward – it’s the burden of leading.’

‘Because getting a cable and a microphone back from fifty yards is dangerous? That’s rubbish.’

‘It’s dangerous – which you’d know if you had eyes. And-’

‘And what?’

There was a pause.

‘It’s better that I do it.’

‘For Christ’s sake, Foxy – you’ve got a wife, a home, respect. Love.’


‘My home’s police quarters, a dump. I’m a squatter. I don’t have a woman.’

‘You have Alpha Juliet and something might just-’

‘You have a wife – a wife. A home and a wife. Why-’

‘Try this proverb by John Heywood. He wrote it in 1546, which was the last year in the life of Henry the Eighth. “An old fool is the worst kind of fool – as in, he’s marrying a woman fifty years his junior.” Actually only eighteen years, but I’m the worst kind of fool.’

‘What’re you saying, Foxy?’ Badger cursed himself. He knew what Foxy meant and should have buttoned his lip.

A quaver in the voice. ‘There’s an ex-policeman who transferred a few years back to Ministry of Defence security at Bath. He told me. The guy she’s with is in Accounts. All of Naval Procurement knows, and probably most of Accounts, but I was one of the last. She’s shagging him. You want some more, young ’un? My wife isn’t likely to be at home, sitting in front of the TV with a supermarket meal for one, yearning for me to be home. She’s more likely to be in my bed, drinking my cellar dry with her legs spread. It hurts more than anything I’ve known. I pretend, I talk about her, and it’s all lies.’

‘You didn’t have to tell me, Foxy.’

‘They watch me at work, people who know I’m married to her and who’ve seen her picture. I know I’m drawn, pale, and they snigger that it’s because I’m getting it night after night. But they’re not from Naval Procurement – they know. It’ll be their daily soap-opera episode. She goes to Bassett – you know what I mean? Wootton Bassett. She sees them bring the soldiers back from Afghanistan, up the High Street, and uses it to taunt me. These are “heroes”, and I’m the old fool who gives lectures and is half buried in the bloody past. I think they have sex when she’s claiming to be sick and doesn’t go to work. She goes through Bassett on the way home. It’s like she thinks you’re not worthwhile unless you’ve earned a Bassett job for yourself. Don’t ever forget it. No fool like an old fool. I think that’s enough, young ’un.’

‘You didn’t have to.’

‘I’m grateful to you for listening.’

The light had slipped some more.

The binoculars no longer showed him the bird, and the dim lights on the far side of the lagoon only outlined the walls of the house. The big lamp, the high one in front of the barracks, had come on, but there seemed to be no movement. Badger wondered if that indicated the guards’ mealtime. He didn’t know whether he had missed things he should have noted, or whether Foxy had lost his marbles through heat and dehydration. No one, before, had confided in him like that. He felt uncomfortable. They would get to Kuwait City together, then split and be in different rows in the aircraft. They’d head for the Green Channel separately, and cars would take them in opposite directions. He thought also there was an evens chance that he’d be going into the water to get Foxy back. No one, before, had ever talked to him with such raw unhappiness.

He wriggled over to lie on his side, his back to Foxy, and started to search in the bergen beside him for what he might need when Foxy went to get the microphone and the cable.

They had reached Frankfurt. There was fog over Hamburg and the airport there was closed temporarily, but would reopen within two hours.

She was exhausted. They sat on the silent stationary aircraft, with a full cabin of other passengers, and waited for the announcement that the pilot would soon be starting up the engines. They were now on their fourth leg. Ahvaz to Tehran. Tehran to Vienna with the national carrier. Vienna to Munich with the Austrian airline. Munich to Hamburg. She was tense and quiet. There was little the Engineer could do to comfort her, and old inhibitions died hard in him: he thought it would be ‘unseemly’ if he held her hand, with every seat occupied and a feeling that he was watched. Paranoia – what else? She was dressed as he had never seen her before. She had been given, in the toilets off the VIP lounge at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International, different clothes to wear, which she had protested she had never seen before. Now she sat in a skirt that reached a little below her knee, a thick cotton blouse and a solid jacket of deep green silk. It had been suggested that she no longer needed to wear a headscarf. They had Czech passports. She had whispered hoarsely, ‘Do I have to renounce my nationality, of which I am proud, and my religion, to which I am devoted?’ He had said, hesitantly, that concerned officials in the ministry considered she would attract less attention if she was not an obvious Iranian citizen. ‘Is attracting attention so important? Are we ashamed of ourselves?’

Now her breathing was forced. He rang the bell above his seat, and when the stewardess came, he asked for water for his wife. It was brought, without grace.

Through the porthole windows, the Engineer saw that lights glistened on the apron and that rain spattered down. He looked at his wristwatch and made the calculations. He said that by now, at home, it would be dark. She swallowed hard and said she hoped the children were in bed and would sleep well and… There was little to talk of that could be, in any way, appropriate. His only previous flight abroad had been as the student who went to Budapest. She held on her lap a briefcase that contained a full digest of her medical history with X-rays and printouts of scans. Abruptly, the music cut and a woman’s voice boomed. To ribald cheering, the plane shook as the engines ignited.

‘I think it is an hour to Hamburg. We take the local train to the centre of the city, then the faster one to Lubeck.’

They were good boys, peasants, but not trained like the men of the al-Quds Brigade.

He had drilled into them three times what they should do, where each would be. They were from the ranks of the Basij and they looked at him with the sort of awe that was predictable in simple youths who found themselves under the command of a war veteran of an elite force.

They sat on the floor of the main communal area in the barracks and asked no questions but seemed to absorb what he told them.

‘It was always the duty of the defenders of the state’s frontiers to be on constant alert to prevent incursions from spies, terrorists, criminals, anyone who sought to undermine and betray the revolution of the imam. Perhaps, tonight, such a risk exists from our enemies, but we are ready.’ He dropped his voice, a trick he had learned many years earlier when he had been attached to Hezbollah, in the Lebanese Beka’a Valley, from a Syrian intelligence officer. ‘I could delay, do nothing, send for help from Ahvaz, and the senior men there would know I had no faith in you, that I did not think the Basij capable of confronting the spies, the terrorists, the criminals. If the threat is there, we will destroy it, and in the morning we will send for help from Ahvaz.’

He had made a plan, on the table using sand from a fire bucket and coloured sheets of cardboard, that showed the house, the quayside and the pier, the lagoon, the barracks and the bund line that ran along the southern edge of the water. He used grass where the reeds should be and blue card for the water. He had been through the plan three times. He thought his wife, working on the computer at the al-Quds camp, would hear him praised.

It was a simple plan, and he thought it a good one. The boys listened intently and held tight to their rifles.

The landfall was lost behind them, taken into the mist.

The ferry carried long-distance lorries and their trailers and was en-route from the Swedish port of Trelleborg, to the south of Malmo. It would reach its destination, Travemunde, after a 16.00 departure to sail across the Baltic, at 23.00 hours. It had been a close-run thing, but a representative in the Swedish capital had achieved, in eight hours, what had been asked of him. A passport had come from an embassy safe, and Gabbi’s photograph put in place. He was Greek Cypriot, living in Norway and working in the haulage industry. He was a driver’s mate for a shipment of bulk timber. To have created the passport, the biography and gained the necessary seat in the cab was a triumph for the representative, and the driver’s mate had a foot-passenger ticket to return on the ferry the following morning or on the additional sailing in the late afternoon. He would not have said it himself, but the representative, who had met him at Malmo’s airport, Sturup International, had told him that no other intelligence-gathering agency in the world could have put together such a package so quickly. They liked cargo ferries, from which cars and holidaymakers, passengers not connected with long-distance business, were barred. Customs and Immigration checks, and those for embarkation, were bare formalities and the representative had said it was a perfect route.

Gulls wheeled over him.

He stood at the rail, in fading light, and watched the long, straight line of the boat’s wake. He shivered, sucked in air and used his tradecraft. He wore a long-peaked baseball cap, a scarf covering his mouth, and gloves, and would spend the entire sailing on deck, not inside where it would be noticed if he kept on the cap, scarf and gloves – and on deck no cameras would record him. The wind was brutal and there was sleet in the air, but he stayed at the rail.

The men were in place where he had positioned them. He was ready. Mansoor’s last action was to take out from a shed behind the barracks a small inflatable dinghy capable of carrying four men.

He did not have night-vision – such equipment was kept by combat forces – but he had good eyes, and the moon would be up soon. He had good ears too.

He watched and listened. He did not know what he might see or hear, but he felt confident. If he saw and heard nothing, if he had imagined the loop of wire and the tubing on which the bird sat, then he had not called out a platoon from Ahvaz and could not be ridiculed.

The dark had come and sounds rippled from the lagoon, from the birds and frogs and the pair of pigs, and he believed – concentrating his gaze into the darkness – that the Sacred Ibis, a bird revered for three millennia, had not moved. It was the key.

He stood in the middle of the road and gave his memories full rein.

The road – once the northern trunk route from old West German territory to the German Democratic Republic – ran between Lubeck and Schwerin. East and West had met here, separated by a white line that had been painted across the tarmac. It was natural that Len Gibbons should come to the village that straddled the road and was called Schlutup.

He stared into the middle distance. The dusk was coming slowly and the wind whipped him. He saw only desolate heathland, where no trees grew: dead ground. It had been his place, his territory. He had been ‘Gibbo’ then, and considered bright enough in his twenty-ninth year to be sent from London to join the Bonn station and be given responsibility to run assets in the northern sector. Not as exciting as Berlin, but good work that would have been the envy of the peers who had joined the Service with him. The man had been codenamed Antelope.

Where he looked now there had then been the Customs post and the base from which the Grenztruppen and the Staatssicherheit had been deployed. It had been a complex of buildings, reached by a corridor between high wire fencing, a minefield, dogs, watchtowers – all the paraphernalia that awful state had needed to keep its citizens from flight – and now was levelled. The barracks of the border guards from which they deployed to the watchtowers and patrols in the killing zones had been flattened; the cells and interrogation rooms of the Stasi had been bulldozed. It had been Gibbo’s ground when he had run Antelope. He accepted that a bewildering coincidence had brought him back to Lubeck, extraordinary and unpredictable. He thought that the Fates had dealt him a fine hand, the chance to obliterate old memories and wounds. A successful killing would wipe clean the slate of the Schlutup Fuck-up.

They had travelled – himself, the Cousin and the Friend – on separate flights. His had taken him via Brussels and then a connection to Hamburg. The Cousin had also gone to Brussels, but had had a fixed-wing charter bring him on to the smaller airfield outside Lubeck. The Friend would have travelled in his own mysterious way, by his own routes and channels. Another hired aircraft, most likely, and documentation that would fool most experts and certainly would have been accepted by local officials. They had met by the canal in Lubeck, near to the gardens between the Muhlen and Dankwarts bridges and sat on a bench. The Israeli had smoked cigarettes and the American a small cigar – Gibbons had yearned to ditch his abstinence. The pieces of the jigsaw had come together.

It was where the story of Antelope had been launched by a pastor. The young Gibbons, fresh-faced and revelling in a job that brought him to the cusp of Cold War action, had been standing almost at the point where he was now and had been staring up that road past the barriers. Dogs had been leaping on their leashes at him and he would have been under the gaze of half a dozen pairs of binoculars. Three or four Zeiss and Praktica cameras would have been focused on him. He had known, then, so little of the East. He had once been on an Autobahn drive direct to West Berlin, and on the military train that ran across communist territory to Berlin from Helmstedt in the West. There was little to learn from watching the empty road, the ground where no cattle grazed and the expressionless faces of the guards, so he had turned and walked down the hill.

The pastor had approached him, sidled to his shoulder… The pastor had a friend who was trapped in the East. There was a cafe down the road from which the old border had run and they had gone there. The Pastor had refused alcohol and drunk tea. He had talked more of his friend. Where did the friend work? At the telephone exchange in Wismar – where else? Trumpets had blasted, excitement had gone rampant. Soviet military formations were close, naval forces had moorings on the Mecklenburgerbucht to the north and at Rerik and Warnemunde to the east, and the telephone exchange had the potential to offer up the pouches of gold dust so coveted by the Service. He had filed his report of the meeting for consideration in Bonn and London. With reservations, and instructions for due care on Gibbons’s part, Antelope had come alive.

He stood in the road and was oblivious of the traffic. The dusk had arrived sharply enough for the oncoming lights to dazzle him. Cars, vans and lorries swept past, the slipstreams buffeting him. He stood his ground. The jigsaw’s pieces had slotted together well. He had remarked, without apparent humour, that the marzipan factor had clinched the location, Lubeck. The Americans had the database, and were able to name an Iranian-born neurosurgeon resident in Lubeck who practised there. He performed complicated surgery either in the city’s medical schools, or in Hamburg; there was a home address on Roeckstrasse. The Israeli said that a man would come from Berlin and would have with him necessary equipment. The facilitator was in transit and would reach the city late in the evening, but had not volunteered details of the man’s travel plans. They had gone their ways and would meet again in the late evening. Hands had been shaken. A course of action had been launched and would not now be revoked. They had stood, and the Cousin had remarked, off-hand, ‘I say this, Len, with real pleasure. Your boys who went forward – that old guy and the youngster – they did us proud. My sincere congratulations to them.’ He’d answered that they were unable to beat it straight out because there was kit to recover, but about now they would be on the move and, yes, it had been a first-class effort. He had not thought about them before or since the Cousin had spoken of them.

It was, in a sense, a pilgrimage that Gibbons had made to Schlutup, straight from that bench in his hired VW. There was a small centre, deserted, but dominated by the church where the pastor retired now, had stood in while the incumbent was away. Then there were residential streets of bungalows with a sprinkling in the gardens of the winter’s first snow. He had parked and walked past a lake – ducks had scattered off it. He had remembered the lake, and there were concrete bunkers that British military engineers had put in place when the borders were defined and the barriers had gone up; the structures were now collapsed and overgrown. There was a paddock with horses. One was old, a skewbald, and had had its head down with tiredness. There was a trace in his memory of a young horse, roan on grey, possibly. He had walked onto the death strip where there would have been smoothed sand, firing devices and patrols, and the bankruptcy of the regime was on show. He had found an apple tree. A few rotten fruits had survived the autumn and he imagined the bored young guard, a conscript, far from home, who had tossed down a core and bred the tree. The death strip was now in the possession of hikers and dog-walkers, and he had met children out with a teacher, a man with Schnauzers and a woman with a yellow Labrador. He had walked along the strip where the fences and towers had been dismantled two decades earlier, where few signs survived to corroborate his past and the Schlutup Fuck-up.

The place, and Antelope, had governed his life, fashioned and shaped it, and had made him the man he was. So much had been expected – based on recommendations from young Gibbo – of a traitor working inside the Wismar telephone exchange. Few escaped their past, and actions of many years ago, and Len Gibbons was not among those who did. The pastor had introduced him – tantalisingly brief – to a man in the cafe, and had murmured that he was indeed from the exchange, allowed across the frontier to watch a football match between Dresden and Hamburg. Bundles of phone dockets were passed, with red crosses on them if they were between military units, and spools of tape. He had been with the man no more than fifteen minutes and had thought him brave, committed and, almost, a hero. He had seen him walk to the pastor’s car outside the cafe and be driven away. The pastor then had access to the East and became a regular and reliable courier, until his health was said to have failed. The question was raised: did the Service have potential couriers in the East, men and women who could be trusted? The question had been answered, and the Schlutup Fuck-up was born. They were old wounds but had not healed.

It was an indulgence for Len Gibbons to have come here. He knew all the escape stories from this section of the Inner German Border: home-made balloons, gliders built in garden sheds, tranquilliser pills buried in meat and thrown to the dogs, then payment to the traffickers, who would attempt to hide a client under the back seat of a car, with sedatives for a child, and bluff a way past the border troops and the Stasi. One appealed to him hugely. The next day, while the hitman worked and while his own presence on the streets was unnecessary, he would go a little to the north to where he had walked for comfort and peace thirty years earlier, and he would think of Axel Mitbauer of the East German national swimming team. He would be there the next morning because it was unnecessary for him to witness a killing, merely to have a role in its organisation.

He turned away. A car blasted its horn at him, but he ignored it and began to walk to Schlutup’s church, dedicated to St Andrew. He had spent much time there and thought that being there had sculpted him, made him the man he was – whom some hated, some despised and few admired.

‘You didn’t have to,’ Badger whispered.

Low, but almost brusque from Foxy: ‘ “Didn’t have to”?’

‘About you and her. You didn’t have to tell me.’

‘Don’t remember telling you anything.’

‘Please yourself.’

‘I usually do.’

It was enough and couldn’t be put off longer. Did he regret the agony-aunt session now? They hadn’t spoken in the last quarter of an hour and the light had failed. Badger would have gone out, loosed the cable, then faffed about until he found the microphone. He would have come back, reeled in the cable and not thought too much about it. Foxy had made it a big deal: he had talked about danger, and the wire, and suggested the goon had seen and noted. God’s truth, Badger had observed nothing that rang alarm bells, and he’d thought he had a good nose for them.

‘And you don’t have to.’

‘ “Don’t have to”?’

‘You don’t have to go. I can do it.’

‘Far as I’m concerned you can barely wipe your arse. What I told you to do, do it and be ready. Then we shift straight out.’

‘It’s done and checked.’

‘Well, check it again.’

Foxy started the slow wriggle backwards, using his elbows and knees to move himself, and his head went past Badger’s chest. Badger ducked – shouldn’t have spoken, but did anyway. ‘Is it her badmouthing you, sneering about heroes and Bassett, letting you know you’re second-rate, that hurts?’

‘You’re out of order, young ’un, and taking a liberty. I don’t remember telling you anything. Reckon I’ll be about fifteen minutes.’

He was gone and Badger was alone. The space beside him gaped. He began to clear out the inside of the scrape and shove their rubbish into his bergen. He took out the Glock and could do the business by touch: he checked the magazine and felt that the safety was in place. He heard, very faintly, Foxy’s crawl towards the reed beds. He pulled their kit out of the hide, lay in silence on his stomach and waited.

Chapter 14

Foxy went forward. No call for farewells: no last handshakes, no clenched fists punching against shoulders. He crawled to his right, leaving the mass of dried fronds behind him, and used his fingertips to guide him. He reached ahead to check for obstructions, anything that would break as he went over it.

The moon would be up later. Now it was not much more than a silvery wedge behind the mist that came up off the lagoon. It was the best time to be on the move, and the creatures in the water helped him: the frogs, the birds, and the pigs that had moved on and were almost up against the raised bund line that divided the lagoon beyond the beds. Croaks, splashes and grunts broke the quiet, and he felt good with the noises around him – not that the goon or the guards, who were more than two hundred yards away, could have heard the crack of a twig breaking.

He went into the reeds, and wriggled on elbows, stomach and knees. He felt a great stiffness in every joint. He had assumed it would be hard to get his muscles supple again after the hours in the hide, but hadn’t imagined it would be this bad. He had never done such a long stint in a cramped lie-up before. It would make good copy in a lecture hall, with the same old curtains drawn as before: ‘Sorry and all that, guys, but I’m not at liberty to tell you which corner of the world I was in – enough to say it was hot and the donkey shit smelt recent enough. I hadn’t moved more than a handful of yards before every muscle had seized and…’ Couldn’t say where, but his audience would be total pillocks if they didn’t understand he’d been behind enemy lines, alone, and going forward. Ellie was forgotten, and Badger, as was a monologue that had demeaned him. He thought about faces in grey light stretching away from him in an auditorium. A spotlight was on him and the men and women in the audience – from an infantry unit, a logistics regiment, the cavalry or the intelligence family – would listen to what he had to say. There would be no when or why but they would finish up with a good idea of what it was like to lie in a hide in the thick fabric of a gillie suit. At the end, there might be a little hint of what it had all been for: ‘You won’t, of course, expect me to break the Official Secrets Act, but out in that dismal wasteland, where the sun shines and we’ve had few thanks for the sacrifices made, we lived with the curse of the IED, that wretched little package at the side of the road, in the body of a dead dog, behind a kerbstone, and always cleverly made. Let’s just say that one man who made the damn things is now pushing up the daisies. Thank you all for your attention.’ He’d smile a little, and take a step back from the lectern, and they’d have learned about the privations of being a croppie. He would expect a brief moment of stunned silence. Then a colonel or a brigadier would stand and lead an ovation.

He was where the reeds thinned and there was open water ahead. He didn’t know – hadn’t asked Badger – how deep the water was, or how far he had to get from the hide to the mud spit. Most of the time he had held the binoculars in front of his face and the magnification had foreshortened the distance to the concealed microphone. The water lapped in his boots and saturated his socks. So damn tired because they had finished the drinking water some twenty-two hours before and his body had no more moisture to lose in sweat. His mouth and throat felt like sandpaper, and his muscles were slow, unresponsive. He was wading. He made each step forward with huge effort, which became greater with each step he took. He could see the back of the bird ahead, a slight blob of soft colour. If, then, Foxy could have found the cable, he would have yanked it.

He would have ditched the old discipline that said all gear should be brought out. He would have dragged at the cable, broken the connection and abandoned the microphone. The bird would have flown, spooked by the commotion. He would, too, have made some excuse about having the microphone on the way back, stumbling and dropping it. But he didn’t have the cable in his hand.

Foxy would not turn around, retrace his steps through the glue that the mud made, and return to the hide – acknowledge failure, exhaustion, fragility – and ask Badger to do the job. He couldn’t. He had opened his mouth and blurted stuff, made a fool, big-time, of himself. He struggled to get the boots moving again and the water level was past his waist. His stomach growled for food and his throat choked for water. He had weakened enough to spill the story of his marriage, then weakened further and done a volunteer. Now the mud was above his ankles and the gillie suit was a lead weight. The smell of the mud was in his face and he thought he was making more noise than the pigs when they had stampeded. Coots ran from him on the water surface and took flight, screaming.

Far in front of him, past the outline of the mud spit – his target – was the house with its security lamps, and away from it the old lamp-post on the quayside in front of the barracks. When he rested and was quiet, he could hear a radio playing softly in the barracks. It had been folly to say he would do it. He was bloody near marooned, unable to move.

He took another step. Abruptly he was in open water and the reed beds were behind him.

Foxy realised he should have discussed with Badger how best to approach the spit where the microphone was. He should have worked his way further to the right and nearer to the bund line where he would have avoided the deeper water. But he hadn’t – he had been too proud.

Another step, and he lost his left boot.

He could have screamed, but took another step.

The church was a fine building of weathered red brick. Len Gibbons had walked down the hill from the old border-crossing point, past homes with gardens scoured by frost and a snow shower. He had hugged shadows and felt that the journey to Schlutup was a demonstration of indulgence and weakness. He remembered it so clearly. Sometimes Len Gibbons would meet the part-time pastor, status never quite defined, inside the church, and sometimes outside. They would talk close to the old lifeboat, preserved and mounted on wood blocks above gravel, and the renovated clock, with gold-plated hour symbols and hands, would chime. The church of St Andrew had seemed a safe, reliable, trustworthy place to meet, and the pastor had seemed a man of integrity… The young Len Gibbons had seen an opportunity for advancement and had wanted to trust. He went into the churchyard and passed ancient headstones. There were lights inside, a final blaze of organ music. He had wanted to believe, and urged his seniors to accept his judgements. Many said later that it was against their better judgement that they had acquiesced, and had shifted the blame for the catastrophe to the slight shoulders of the young Len Gibbons. But an asset in the telephone exchange at Wismar was of prime importance. An old lesson had been learned; great danger hounded intelligence officers if they believed only what they wished to believe.

The clock struck the hour, the doors opened and light flooded out. The music was finished but voices came through the doorway, clear and bright.

He could not have said why he was there, why he had driven out from Lubeck to the place that had altered his working life and reconstructed his values. At first, the pastor had been able to travel into and out of the German Democratic Republic. Stories had been planted of elderly parents living behind the Curtain and to the south of Schwerin, and passes being issued by an official who was a long-standing friend of the family. The pastor had brought back printouts of the numbers called by units of the Soviet Army, Air Force and Navy. Useful? It had hardly mattered. The presence of the agent, Antelope, in such a sensitive position, was important.

He watched the doorway, and the first of that evening’s congregation emerged and stood for a moment on the step, their breath vivid in the cold. They shivered but did not break off their conversations.

There had not been sufficient rigour applied to the asset and the story he had told. The pastor had announced, one May day, that he would no longer be able to travel back and forth into the East, as the official had been transferred. Was it possible that the asset, Antelope, could deliver his stolen material to a courier regarded as honest and reliable by the spy masters? Over the following five months, three couriers were identified, then names and addresses given for the pastor to pass them to the asset.

The man came out of the church in a small group, talking earnestly. Gibbons stayed back, let no light fall on his face. The silhouette of his body was masked by the trunks of the plane trees. Then, the man had always shaved closely and his hair had been cropped short. Now he wore an old coat against the evening chill, and his hair was in a ponytail held by an elastic band. His beard grew randomly across his face. The last he had heard of the man, still recognisable, was that he had started a sentence of six years’ imprisonment at Hamburg’s Fuhlsbuttel gaol. The end of the first week of October was Republic Day in the East. On that day the decision to arrest a pastor had been taken after joint consultation between British and German intelligence officers: the British in Bonn had gone cap in hand to their ally and grovelled on the failure of an operation that had cost the freedom, perhaps the lives, of four couriers. The information had been unwillingly accepted that Antelope was a sting operation conducted by the Stasi from Berlin, that a treacherous telephone operator in Wismar had never existed. Maybe the gullibility of Gibbons’s seniors had saved his own skin. Others would have gone with him to the guillotine had he been too heavily punished for the capital crime of naivete. He had survived by a thread, but was an altered man.

He did not spring forward to greet the man: How the devil are you? Looking well, considering. In work, or dependent on hand-outs? Do you still believe in the clapped-out empire that faded to dust overnight? Was it all worth men’s lives, the ones you condemned to years in cells or for hanging? He watched the man, once a pastor, go out through the gate, and those around him laughed at something he said… All so long ago, but relevant to Len Gibbons.

That night, he had met the man, had walked away with a package in his hand, then lit a cigarette, which was the signal. German police, plain clothes, had come forward and snapped on the handcuffs. He had killed, in his soul, any last trace of humanity. He no longer believed in mercy. Now, a servant of the Service, he obeyed orders. It was why he had been chosen. All agencies in this field of work needed men like Len Gibbons.

He turned on his heel and went back to the car park where he had left the VW.

Foxy reached the mud spit. He had fallen once. The booted foot had tripped against the one that wore only a sock and he’d gone down into the water where it was shallow. His head would have gone under if his hands hadn’t found the bottom, but water – foul-tasting – splashed onto his face.

He was there. Foxy sucked in air. There was a flap in his face, desperate. The bird’s wings beat, but it failed to launch itself. There was no one for Foxy to ask what the fuck was happening. He had no idea why the bird just flapped its wings hopelessly. He might have figured it out if his mind had been clearer.

It gave a croak, like a death rattle, and he had his hand up, protecting his eyes from the wings. The cable whipped against his cheek. His fingers found it and ran along its length, then collided with the bird’s body. It went into spasms of action, then was still. The beak hit him.

The African Sacred Ibis was snagged by the cable. He let go of it and the bird rose a foot off its perch. The cable tautened. The ibis croaked, and the claws on its feet came against Foxy’s hands and ripped at them. The flesh tore. The beak came back at him, was used as a spear. He grasped the cable again and the bird hung from his arm.

Foxy lashed out with his free hand. It didn’t matter to him that the bird was endangered, that its presence was a jewel in the eco-system of the marshes. He struck out, used full force. He couldn’t see it beyond the vague shapes of the wings as they beat at him but he recalled a long, slender neck – he had seen it when the bird had flown in, and while it had cleaned the feathers on its chest. He knew that his target was the neck, and the blow was hard.

He was Joe ‘Foxy’ Foulkes: he had taken on the full might of an African Sacred Ibis, worshipped as a deity in the civilisation of the Pyramids and pharaohs, and had broken its neck.

It hung from his hand. There were no reflexes, no shuddering death throes. Foxy had killed it. It hung from the entanglement of the cable. It had seemed large when the wings had beaten, the feet slashed and the beak stabbed, but now it was shrivelled.

He heard only the lapping of water, maybe against the reeds behind him or away to his right. He heard rippling. Maybe the wind had risen with the darkness. He tried to pull the cable free but it gouged against his palm and the limp carcass prevented him tugging it free. Foxy knelt on the mud spit. He could hear his heart, his breathing and the rippling of water, but could see nothing except the patch of white, the wing feathers and the back of the bird. He started to disentangle the corpse from the cable. It would have realised it couldn’t lift off and had sat still, hoping that the approaching beast would somehow avoid it. Only at the last, when the cable around its left leg and body had tightened, squeezing air out of it, had it reacted.

Foxy didn’t know how long it had been since he had left the hide, not even how long he had been on his knees on the mud spit. A degree of tenderness held him as he slackened the cable and started to free the bird’s body. He found the microphone wedged among the reeds and branches Badger had used to give it stability. When he had freed the bird he laid it down and put reed fronds over it. He took a deep breath, and slipped the microphone into the poacher’s pouch inside the gillie suit. Then he began to coil the loose cable.

He didn’t know why, then, the frogs’ croaking was silenced, but he could hear the water rippling.

‘Did you think it would be like this?’

‘I did not,’ the Engineer answered.

A shuttle bus had brought them from Hamburg airport, and they had been dumped with their bags on the pavement outside the Hauptbahnhof. The rush-hour crowds surged past and towards them. His experience of a European main-line terminus had been in Budapest as a student in his early twenties. He knew crowds from Tehran, but there he had command of language and the status of chauffeur-driven transport; Naghmeh flinched away from the press of people around her.

He had seen her gaze, mouth slack and eyes wide, at the prostitutes outside the station and under the street-lights, waists exposed in the cold, skirts barely covering their upper thighs, their faces painted. He had said nothing; neither had she. They had come inside the high arched building and loud music had greeted them. He had known it was Beethoven. She had asked why they played it so loudly in the station.

‘It keeps away the drug addicts – I read that. Users of heroin do not like such music,’ he had said.

‘Why do they allow those people on the streets in a public place?’

He had studied the board, searched for the train going to Lubeck. She leaned on his arm, needing its support. He said it was the way matters were handled in Germany, France, Spain and Britain. She had snorted.

Had he known it would be like this?

He did not lie: he had not.

‘Do they have no respect for us?’

‘I cannot argue with them. We are here. We will take the train to Lubeck. At Lubeck we will go to the hotel. I can do no more. Would you have me rant at the embassy, call the ministry or the commanding officer of the al-Quds? Would you have me complain?’

She looked into his face but could not meet his eyes, which were locked on the departures board. ‘We should not have come.’

He said what platform the train would leave from and started towards the steps going down to it, pulling their bag.

‘Did you hear me? We should have stayed where our own God is.’

He told her how long it would be before the train left for Lubeck. It was heresy to suggest they might turn back, and they went slowly down the steps.

He had started on the return.

Impossible to go quietly now. Each stride forward taxed him to his limits. He gathered in the cable and looped it on an arm. Badger would maybe have to pull him the last few yards into the depths of the reed bed, and he might need, there, to flop and rest. Before he accepted any help, or rest, though, he would get there. He had a stubborn pride.

The light came on.

He was too exhausted, his mind dulled, to realise in the first seconds what the light that trapped him meant.

No panic, not in the first moments after the beam caught him. For Foxy, it was a time of innocence. To him it lasted an age but it would not have been longer than five seconds. Then the panic broke, and he started to thrash. He was up to his groin in water and the weight of the gillie suit tugged him down. He had one boot for a good grip in the mud and one foot with a sock that slithered and gave no purchase. He flailed his arms as if that would help him to go forward, but the mud had trapped him as effectively as the beam. There was shouting from close by, near to the source of the light, and answering calls from away to the right, where the bund line was.

The beam closed on him, and he heard the splash of paddles, then the guttural cough of an outboard. Foxy understood. A craft had been paddled towards him, then allowed to drift closer. If he could reach the reed beds there was a chance… He dragged his knees up, one after the other, tried to stamp, but the water held him, the gillie suit dragging, and the mud oozed deep beneath his feet. Foxy had done time in the Province, had been on attachment to 3 Brigade, Armagh City, in the ditches, the winter hides, and camouflaged in thick summer scrub, sometimes with an oppo beside him, sometimes reliant for his safety on back-up that would be ‘down the road’. There was fatalism in all of those who did the work that the guys supposedly watching their backs would never react in time if they showed out. He wrestled with the suit, hitched it high and was able to get his fist into the poacher pouch. His hand locked on the microphone. He dragged it clear and dropped it. He felt it knock lightly against his knee, then his ankle. The bootless foot trod it into the slime.

The beam of the light was off him. He splashed, heaved, charged and thought each step the last he was capable of. The light raked the reed beds, then passed over the open ground and the hide. Nothing there. He didn’t see Badger, crouched, holding the Glock locked in both fists for a steady aim. Neither did he see Badger in the throwing position to arc smoke or gas in his direction and towards the boat. He saw only a scurrying pair of coots, then a drake stampeding clear.

He dropped the cable.

His feet tangled with it, then he was beyond it, one more step. The light swept off the open space and across where the hide was, tracked over the water and locked on him. Two shots were fired.

In the Province, it had been taken as read that a croppie who had shown out to PIRA would be captured, tortured for information on his work, call-signs and targets, then trussed, blindfolded and put in the back of a van. It was assumed that the last sound they’d hear would be the scrape of metal on metal when a handgun was cocked, and that death would be ‘a bit of a bloody relief’ after what had gone before. That had been drunk talk, subdued and slurred. No bastard would find the microphone, and the cable had gone down. He’d lost sight of it.

Where was Badger, and where was the fucking cavalry?

Two more shots fired. Could have been from a rifle or carbine, but not a pistol. The light lit him well. The bullets were aimed close enough to him for a spatter of the lagoon water to come up and into his face. The engine had power and the light surged closer. He heard the shouting more clearly.

He should keep still. The voice was shrill and he sensed that adrenalin surged. It would be the goon, the fucking officer, who sat in the chair and watched the birds. Wrong: watched one bird. He took a deep breath and flopped down into the water. It came over his stomach, then his shoulders. His head went under and the foul stuff was in his nose, mouth and ears. He tried to push himself away and the light was over him.

Foxy used his hands on the mud and pushed the cable aside. He felt the air forcing itself free of his chest. It was lodged in his throat and he knew he couldn’t hold it longer – and didn’t have to.

A hand clenched hard into the gillie suit. It had been pathetic: he would have been, when he reckoned he had dived, no more than a foot below the water’s surface, moving at the pace of a bloody great slug and kicking off a trail of mud. The hands had him, heaved him up, and his head was clear of the water. He heard laughter – not of humour but of contempt – and the breath spurted from his mouth. Then he cried out because he couldn’t replace it fast enough and panted.

The light blinded him. He couldn’t see who held him, who laughed at him. The laughter was killed, and the shout was of real anger – as if he had inflicted pain – the reprisal a blow to the side of his head. He didn’t know what had aroused the anger and stifled the laughter.

A rope was looped under his arms and across his chest, then drawn tight, with a jerk that squeezed more breath from his lungs. The pain pinched, and another hand had caught at the neck of the suit. The engine pitch rose and the boat gathered speed. He was dragged through the water. If his head had not been held up by the fist he would have been swamped and gone under.

He wondered where Badger was, what he had seen.

The engine noise softened. He felt his feet, one in the boot and one in the sock, scrape over the mud. The engine was cut and the big light went out but a torch was in his face and he squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t know how much time was needed, but thought it would be many hours.

The rope was used to pull Foxy over the quayside and onto the ground. He was on his stomach, but a boot went into his ribcage and pushed him over. He rolled on his side and came to rest on his back, like a fish hauled by anglers into a boat, then left to gasp on the deck. There was a jabber of voices around him and rifle barrels close to his face.

Many hours were needed, and Foxy didn’t know if he could give them, in Lubeck, enough time.

He sat in his office.

To those around him, who worked late in the treatment rooms at the university’s medical school, he was Steffen Weber. To himself he was Soheil, in Farsi, the ‘star’.

He did not need to ask. He had seen three patients that day and conducted lengthy examinations of their conditions. One he could help, with surgery, but two had conditions beyond his skill. He would deliver verdicts, positive and negative, the next afternoon. He had seen the patients, been in and out of the office and had gone past the desk his secretary used. She had left no note on his own desk to tell him: Your wife rang and requested you call her. She will be at home.

He had not telephoned her.

He could have; she could have; neither had.

What should he do? He did nothing. He did not call his home and tell her he was sorry for their argument, that he loved her, and their daughter, that nothing should be allowed to come between them. He did not ask her if she had had a good day, did not apologise for being late that evening. The consultant, a man revered in his circles, did not lift the telephone on his desk. She could have rung, spoken of her love for him and her gratitude for him working his fingers to the bone to buy their home, that kitchen, that life for her, and she might have said she accepted his judgement on what he could do and what he could not avoid. She, too, had done nothing.

Around him he felt a growing tension among his assistants, as if they believed him responsible for a situation in which an unidentified patient had obtained an appointment without the prior submission of X-rays and scans. It insulted them.

He could not respond.

As the hours of the day had gone by, his temper had shortened. The last of his patients – the forty-nine-year-old senior officer from the fire station in one of the Baltic coast towns north of the city – had been clearly beyond help, but the visit to the consultant, with his wife, would have marked a closure point from which the patient could prepare for death. The man should have been treated with courtesy, sympathy and understanding. The examination had been short, almost brusque, and the patient had been told that the consultant could offer a final verdict the next day but he should not hold his breath. He had noted that a nurse had stared into his face as the couple had left, showing rank hostility. The distrust proved widespread among his staff. The next target for a vicious response was a mild-mannered clerk from the fees office. There was a hesitant rap on his door. He waved the man in. ‘Yes?’

‘You have a patient visiting you tonight, Doctor?’


‘Facilities were originally booked for next Monday morning, but have now changed?’

‘How does this concern your office?’

‘The patient as yet has no name, address or-’


‘We have no record, Doctor, of how the account will be settled. We have no debit-card number, no banker’s order.’


‘Please, Doctor, how will the account be settled?’

‘I have no idea. We will wait and see. Now, fuck off out of my room.’

The clerk did so.

He saw Foxy on the quay and the guns pointing down at him. There were torches and a flashlight on Foxy, and the picture in the view-finder of the image-intensifier was pale green, washed out at the fringes and burned through on the focus point. Badger watched.

What could he have done? Could he have intervened? Might he have saved Foxy? He slapped it from his mind. Badger thought it indulgence to consider what he might, could, should have done. He had done nothing. It would have been dishonest to claim he’d liked Foxy, been fond of him, even that he’d acquired a degree of respect for him. He was not dishonest, never had been. To a fault, Badger spoke it like it was. He couldn’t have said it was anything other than gut-wrenching to see, through the lens’s soft focus, the man he’d shared the hide with – had slept alongside, had eaten, defecated and urinated next to, and from whom he’d been given the big confession of life with a woman who shagged around.

On the quay they were searching Foxy, had the suit pulled up, his legs, arms and chest exposed. Then hands seemed to go down into Foxy’s underpants and scrabble there for anything hidden. The boots came at him to pitch him over, and they did his backside, searched in there. He couldn’t have done anything because he had seen little of Foxy being taken – he’d been on the far edge of the clear ground, away from the hide, and had the bergens beside the small craft, with the air cylinder used to inflate it. He’d reckoned that he’d pull and Foxy would ride. He hadn’t seen the light come on, and had become aware of the crisis only after the shots were fired. Then he had scrambled, leopard crawl, and seen the scale of it. There had been a light on the boat and more lights along the raised bund line out to the right. They would have had automatic weapons, assault rifles, with an accurate killing range of four hundred yards, and he’d had a Glock with an effective hit chance of thirty yards. He had seen, with the image-intensifier, Foxy ditch the microphone and the cable.

Badger thought they were like kids up early on Christmas morning. The goon strutted around his prisoner, and the older woman had come out of the house.

He went to work. The cable came easily. He drew it out of the hide and pulled it up from the slight trench in which it was buried. The main length came sparkling from the lagoon water and made a little wave, which was sufficient to draw in the bird’s carcass. It was dead and he didn’t know how it had died.

The old woman came close to Foxy, who was near naked now, on his back and exposed. She gave a keening cry and lashed out with a foot. Badger saw Foxy’s head jolt. She managed one more kick before she was pulled off him. Two guards escorted her back to the house. He felt sick. He went on with the work. He coiled the cable, walked across the open space and down a shallow slope, hidden from the lagoon, and stowed it in the bergen that was in the inflatable. From the other, Badger took out his own Glock and the spare magazines, the gas and flash grenades. He didn’t know what he would do with them. If Foxy had had a Glock, grenades and the gas it was unlikely he’d have made it back from the mud spit.

When there was no more to be done, he sat down. With the image-intensifier, he had a poor view of the quay, the buildings along it, the lights and the cluster of men standing over the stretched-out shape. He reflected on the scale of the catastrophe. A word kept coming into his mind: deniable. He saw a bruised face, bloodied, one or both eyes closed, the broken look of a man without hope, and a voice in monotone denounced a mission of espionage. Hardly, not at all, deniable. Time to tell the news.

He had the communications, made the link, said it like it was. Didn’t expect a coherent answer from Alpha Juliet and didn’t get one. Silence hung. After a few seconds he thought the connection had already been open too long.

Her voice, strained: what did he intend to do?

Badger said, ‘Hang around, while I have darkness cover. See what happens, what shows. Not come out till I have to.’

They would be on stand-by for an extraction, but on their side of the border. The shit was in the fan, she told him grimly – unnecessarily.

‘Plenty of it,’ Badger said, and cut the link.

They read their stuff.

When the door of the ready-room opened, the co-pilot, Tristram, did not look up from the Old Testament. Dwayne allowed his puzzle book to drop into his lap and chewed his pencil stub. The side gunner, Federico, was deep in Aerospace amp; Engineering magazine, but shifted his feet without taking his eyes off the pages to allow the pilot to go to the door where a communications technician handed him the scrambled receiver-transmitter.

When he came back in, no more than a minute later, Federico again swung his legs to give the pilot, Eddie, space to pass. Dwayne and Tristram did not look up but waited.

The pilot said, ‘We can go at any time from now. If we go it’ll be into a hostile environment and close up against the border. There are two guys up there and right now it’s a bad time for them. It’ll be us that goes in for extraction – if that’s the call – and the others do top cover. It won’t be a night for sleeping.’

The pilot, his side-kick and the gunners looked up from their reading matter and sat taller in their chairs. They peered through the open window and could see the helicopters, floodlit, on the apron, fuelled and armed.

The old woman, the mother of the Engineer’s wife, had shown them the way. When Foxy was dragged off the quayside, kicks were aimed at him. He was cursed and spat at.

All his senses reacted. He could feel pain from the kicks and the wetness of spit. He could smell the sweat on their bodies and the food they had eaten on their breath, and he could hear them. Not easy to understand because they used the vernacular of country people from the south, and he thought they’d have been recruited from farms and villages, not a major town. He was dragged. They had stripped the gillie suit off him and he was left with his underpants, socks and his one boot. The rope was still below his armpits and across his chest, burning the skin. He was on his back and more of the flesh was stripped raw on his buttocks and the back of his thighs. He reckoned the heel without the boot bled from the sharp stones embedded in the ground. They thought he was a spy. They didn’t know if he was alone. Some said he was because no attempt had been made to rescue him or to shoot at them as the boat had closed on him – they argued about it. He could measure the excitement of those who had taken him. Was he American, British, or a pale-skinned Iraqi – a Sunni bastard from Baghdad or a Kurd from the north? That was also an area of debate. The goon, Mansoor, strutted beside him. Foxy was bumped along the dirt track away from the house and he saw the old crow woman, in her black, framed in the window, watching. His eyes met hers and he read hatred. He felt a growing numbness to the pain.

It wouldn’t last. He had seen men who had been taken.

The rope was tight on his chest and seared him. He had seen men taken in the Province, had stayed on in the hide and used his encrypted communications to guide in the arrest team. He had had image-intensifiers if it was dark and early on a winter’s morning, or binoculars if it was summer and already dawn. All of those taken had been experienced men, well practised in the techniques of resistance. All would have regained composure within a half-minute of the door being flattened, the kids starting to bawl, the dog kicked into the kitchen by troops and the woman scratching at the faces under the helmets. All – by the time they were brought out of the door into the fresh air, frosted or already warm – were calm and their composure came from the knowledge that they might endure a kicking or a slapping, but not much worse, then go into the cages at the Maze and mark time until freedom came. He had not seen one Provo plead and weep – they’d had no cause to: they were not about to be killed or to undergo severe torture. They might have done at the start, in the old days when the war was coming up to speed and when ‘robust methods’ had brought PIRA to its knees, but a halt had been called long before Foxy’s time. And he had watched once from a distant ditch, in the Somerset hills west of Taunton, the Quantocks, when an animal-rights activist had been taken from a cottage at dawn: he had burned a laboratory to the ground and driven the scientists working there close to suicide, but he had seemed to think little of going into custody. He had not been about to go through any hoop, and had known it.

It would be the goon’s finest hour. What every security man dreamed of.

Foxy’s head bobbed, rolled, and the back of his skull found stones to bounce off; some of the chips were razor-edged and slashed him. He could be thankful that the pain, for now, was numbed. He had done time with the interrogation unit at the Basra base. He had seen Iraqis brought in from the cells of the Joint Forward Intelligence Team – a separate camp within a camp, not answerable to local commanders: those men had known fear, and had cowered. They had had the scars to show what had been done to them. Foxy had sat at bare tables alongside the men and women who organised the inflicting of pain. He had been opposite prisoners who shivered and mumbled answers that he had had to strain to hear, then dutifully translated. It could, of course, be justified. The men under interrogation knew the inner secrets of the enemy’s principal campaign weapon: the improvised explosive device. They might know who made them, who trafficked them, who laid them, and their answers could – a big word, could, often used by the team – save the life of a nineteen-year-old rifleman, a teenage driver’s limb, or a lance corporal’s sight. People said, from far away in the safety of London, that torture did not provide truth. Foxy would have said they were wrong. He would have claimed that, delivered as an art form and from manuals, it made a man cough. He was not given the freedom of the team’s mess, but they couldn’t operate without his language skills so he had been tolerated, given an occasional beer and told that information extracted and translated had led to the finding and defusing of a weapon, or a raid on a safe-house, or the interception of a courier.

He knew that pain worked miracles.

So Foxy understood what was coming to him. When his head twisted, lolled, he could see the barracks, and the light shone down from the street-lamp and fell on the door. The rope went loose and the goon called for a rag to be brought. A guard ran inside. Foxy kept his eyes closed. There were Escape and Evasion people at the base and they said eye contact was bad, that being a sack of potatoes was best. They did the SERE courses, and talked of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Few people listened closely because the lectures seemed to add to a nightmare – as they had when men talked in the canteens about what to do if PIRA took them.

Foxy’s head was lifted and a hand tried to get into his hair for grip but could not, so grasped his ear, lifted, and the cloth covered his eyes. It was yanked tight and the knot hurt at the back. His ear was let go and his head hit the dirt. Then the rope bit again under his arms and he was dragged some more.

They went onto concrete. He rocked on a step after the top of his head had cannoned into the raised bit – that provoked laughter. There were no more kicks, and he thought that already he was less cause for amusement. There was a fucking cat that lived two doors down from his home, and it liked to come into his garden, pull down songbirds and disable them. Then it would walk away, interest waned… He was pulled down a corridor, then to the left. A door was unlocked. Predictable that they’d have a lock-up: for a criminal, a miscreant on a discipline charge or a foreign-born agent who was deniable.

He lay on the floor and the concrete was cool. He waited for the pain to start, and wondered how long, in Lubeck, they would need him to resist, and how long he could last. A match was scraped and he smelt cigarette smoke. It came close to him, closer, past his head and over his chest. The agony was on his stomach as the lit cigarette touched. Foxy screamed.

‘He’s switched the damn thing off,’ she said.

‘Well, he would, miss,’ Corky said.

It was the fourth time she had tried, the fourth time she had been answered by a crackle of static. The weight lay on her shoulders. She would carry the glory of success and bear the burden of failure. It was a problem with these wretched deniables that the responsibilities were not shared. There was much that Abigail Jones now regretted. She had agreed that he should stay in place, watch and learn, and not come out. Not shared, because there was no bank of bureaucrats in an open-plan office who all owned a piece of the operation. She had it on her own. She could talk only with her bodyguards – not her mentors or her think-tank: none of them had a degree from Warwick in politics, economics and modern history, or Six’s training on grappling with the ‘consequences of actions’ or ‘cutting and running on the Iran-Iraq border’. Had the problem concerned single-parent fatherhood from a distance, Hamfist might have contributed, and Corky if it had been regeneration of Provo heartlands (West Belfast). Shagger was big on the economics of hill farming, and Harding on trailer-park life.

It had been sharp of Corky, close to insolence.

She was curt, as if her control was ebbing: ‘What does that mean, exactly what?’

They could play dumb, be on the edge. ‘He would switch off, wouldn’t he, miss?’

‘Why? It’s hardly professional.’

They had a fire in the scorched oil drum, and there was enough timber from the buildings to keep it burning. They were sitting around it, and she reckoned that the crowd would be back at the gate in the morning, and that the bribe chucked at the sheikh hadn’t a long life. There was a grunt, almost derision, and she reckoned it was Shagger’s. Was any of it professional? Any of it?

She said, ‘It’s unprofessional to switch off communications. Is that an area of debate?’

Hamfist was quiet, reflective: ‘His partner’s been taken, miss, and if he’d left the radio on, the chance is you’d have ordered him out.’

Shagger had a good voice, might have been to the standard a choir wanted: ‘He’ll go when there’s nothing else he can do. Won’t be before he has to. He’d think, miss, the most unprofessional thing he could do is to turn his back on a mate, go before it’s time.’

From Hamfist: ‘He’d have to live with it the rest of his days. And it would track him every hour of every night.’

She snapped, with bitterness: ‘But there’s nothing he can do.’

From Harding: ‘It’s like keeping a vigil, and it’s what a man owes to another. First light, ma’am, he’ll come. Forget about Badger, think about Foxy. Badger’ll be good, but Foxy’ll have it bad. How much time is needed in that German town? How much is that time going to cost him? The time Foxy buys’ll come expensive. You with me, ma’am?’

She felt small, shrunken. They’d swamped her irritation at a radio being switched off and turned her attention, four-square, to the man with the trimmed moustache and the clipped voice, who was beyond reach and in need of prayers. The flames played on her face, and she shuddered.

Chapter 15

He said nothing.

The questions came in Farsi and Arabic, in halting English and Pashto. English was always the last of the series.

He answered to none.

Who was he? What was his name? When the bedlam of languages had been used, and he’d answered none, he was beaten.

The goon did not use any special weapon: there was no hardwood truncheon, no lead-tipped baton, no leather-coated whip. The instrument was a length of builder’s wood. Nothing refined.

His underpants had been taken off him. They stank. He thought they would be soiled. His boot, also, had been dragged off, but his socks had been left. They, too, stank, and were sodden and tight on his feet. He could see. The blindfold had been removed. The room had no window and a light burned in a ceiling recess, covered by a wire-mesh grille that soaked up some of the bulb’s power so the room was in shadow. Two guards stood by the door. He reckoned they’d have been Basij, conscripted, part-time warriors and the lowest of the low – Home Guard stuff. They had automatic rifles that they held warily. There was a ring on the wall, and a rope was tied to it. The far end was lashed to his right ankle. He was no threat to them, and had no chance of escape. He couldn’t have risen to his feet, bullocked past the goon, incapacitated or disarmed the two guards, opened the door and charged off down the corridor. Even so, the guards were tense, and armed. He couldn’t have done anything because his arms had been pulled behind his back, and his wrists were bound together with farmers’ twine, the knot tight enough to restrict blood flow.

He didn’t answer, and couldn’t protect himself.

When he was beaten, if he tried to wriggle away, get onto his side, face the wall and present his spine, his head or his upper arm was grabbed. He was pulled back and turned, with a boot, onto his back, his privates and lower stomach targets for the wood. Twice more he had been burned.

Who was he? What was his name?

There was blood on his face from the cuts on his cheeks below the eye sockets and from his nose – already broken, he thought – and from the split on his upper lip. He didn’t answer, although he could have done. I am a detective sergeant of the Metropolitan Police Service and currently attached to Box 500. His name was Joseph Foulkes, born 8 April 1960, married first to Liz and second to Ellie, two kids the first time round.

It would have been hard to answer, though: bits of his teeth lay on the concrete floor and his tongue had swollen to double its size. Had he given his name, it was likely that more of his teeth pieces would have worked loose and had to be spat clear.

He said nothing. Defiance was natural to him. So far – cigarettes stubbed on his stomach, blows from the wood and kicks – he could absorb it. Bloody pain was manageable. It wouldn’t last long. The defiance was melded with sheer obstinacy. He was of the age when kids had gone to see black-and-white films, had read close-print books and knew of Odette Hallowes, and Yeo-Thomas, who was the White Rabbit, and of Violette Szabo. He was of the age when he had passed judgement on naval personnel captured in the Shatt al-Arab waterway who had seemed to thank the bastards of the Revolutionary Guard Corps for the humiliations and mock-executions and had almost apologised for navigation cock-ups. The stories of childhood had stayed with him. The memory of news bulletins, and older men’s disgust, was sharp. He told the goon nothing.

There was a table in the room. There had been a moment when the blindfold had been stripped off and he had seen a clean notepad on the table, with two pencils. The top page was blank. The bastard expected to fill it when he, Foxy, did the canary bit. The page stayed blank. It was his target to keep it so.

The goon did not know who he was. The goon moved on. What was his mission? He was asked in Farsi, Arabic and English, then again in Farsi and finally in Pashto. The wood was raised as he was given a second to show willingness to answer. He could see the wood but his eyes were misted and narrowed from the blows. He could have said: A colleague and I are on a deniable mission to observe the home of Rashid Armajan, bomb-maker, and using techniques of surveillance as practised in covert rural observation post procedures, with a shotgun mike. We learned that Armajan and his wife were headed for Lubeck where she has a medical consultation and he has an appointment with. ..

It was about time drifting, and he didn’t know how much was needed. What was his mission? Maybe, already, the Engineer had reached Germany. Maybe, the following morning, afternoon or evening he would be targeted – if Foxy answered the question What is your mission?. Telephone or radio calls, text messages or emails would fly, and a shield would be placed in front of the man. He would be inside a security bubble and the chance would be gone. A shite-face would say that Foxy Foulkes had not delivered and there’d be a cock-sucker on hand to agree. Pig obstinate, and knew it because Liz – first wife – had told him so.

The wood came down. The goon bastard swung it with full force. Foxy’s problem – there were many but the one topping the list: he didn’t know where the blow would land and couldn’t wriggle to avoid its impact. It was on the shins. No flesh there, just skin on bone. Done with the flat of the wood to inflict pain, not the edge, which might have broken the tibia. He might not say anything but he was near to screaming.

The wood was lifted again. Foxy looked up at the face. He didn’t see hate, only frustration, and the wood came down. He jack-knifed because it was in the groin, on the shrivelled little thing that Ellie – two months back – had laughed at when he’d walked naked into the bedroom from the bathroom. She’d turned her back on him and gone back to her book. Great waves of heaving, wanting to vomit, convulsed Foxy. The wood went up again and he couldn’t help himself. He no longer had the strength to cross his legs. He was humiliated, helpless and the pain sources competed, from his feet to the crown of his skull. He didn’t know how much time they needed.

He was hit there again.

The questions came in a babble of languages. He didn’t answer.

He used the tactic he had been told of.

He hit the prisoner again with the wood. He couldn’t see the man’s privates but he could aim for the stomach, and was rewarded with a grunt. The breath bubbled blood in the mouth. When he had been in the north of Iraq, before the injury, men had been taken by the resistance – under supervision of the al-Quds – and denounced as collaborators. Those who served the Great Satan were condemned, but first they were encouraged – with planks, boots, lit cigarettes and fingernail extraction – to tell of their contacts, the safe-houses where they met intelligence officers, and the targets they spied on. Some died prematurely under questioning. Others talked in hoarse whispers and had to be carried outside to be shot. A few surrendered what information was wanted at the sight of the match lighting the first cigarette and walked to the killing place. Sometimes electricity was used but not often, or a man was hooded and made to kneel, then would hear a pistol being armed. He would feel the muzzle against the back of his head, then hear the click as the hammer came down. There was no bullet in the chamber, but he would foul his trousers and wet himself. They did that as much for amusement as to break a man.

He sweated. No window, the door shut, no fan. He had started with blows that had not exerted him and had won nothing. Now he hit with all the strength he could muster. They had been very few, the collaborators who had not bent under a beating.

His father had told Mansoor of what was done in the gaol at Ahvaz. The bombers and assassins – Ahvaz Arabs – suffered heavily as the interrogators built pictures of the networks controlling them, and were not pretty to view before they went to the gallows.

Mansoor had no doubt that pain loosened tongues and broke resolve. The frustration: he did not know who he had.

Mansoor had assumed that the man now stripped and spreadeagled in front of him, unable to protect himself, would talk after a brief display of defiance. The message sent by radio to the security section of the IRGC had not identified him as an al-Quds Brigade officer, although his name was on it, and his location at the border post on the sector that faced the Iraqi town of al-Qurnah. There, An intruder has been apprehended. Investigations are ongoing, and an officer with an escort should be sent tomorrow morning to take the prisoner into custody in Ahvaz. All deliberately vague.

The frustration grew with each blow he struck, and the silence that followed it. Twice, he had crouched beside the bloodied face and put his ear near to where the front teeth had been battered out because he was certain the man would answer him. He had heard coughing and groans. He did not know the identity of the man, or the purpose of his mission. It would have helped Mansoor had he gone outside, into the evening air, taken a chair close to a fire that would disperse the mosquitoes, and not allowed anyone close to him. Had he sat, sipped some juice and calmed, matters now clouded would have clarified. He stayed in the room, used the wood again, and yelled the questions. Who was the man? What was his mission? No answer came.

It had been a dream of glory.

In the dream, men came from Ahvaz in the morning. A prisoner would be brought from the cell at the back of the barracks and given to them. With the prisoner there would be an envelope containing a full confession, listing his name, his operation, his controller. The light would be coming up. His men would be armed, ready, and he would tell the senior investigators who had travelled from Ahvaz that he had no more time to talk with them as he would now be making a complex search of the area and would conduct a thorough follow-up. In the dream, he was congratulated for his diligence, and shown deference. In the dream, later, further praise came from his own unit. He had dreamed of the praise, had even recited in silence the words of congratulation showering down on him.

He hit the man again, and again, and again, drew more blood and darkened more bruises. The control had gone from Mansoor’s voice and the questions were no longer soft-spoken but shouted, high-pitched.

He lit another cigarette.

He started again, at the beginning, and asked the first question: who was he? As he had at the beginning, he dragged on the cigarette, let the tip glow, then bent over the stomach. His hand crossed the skin and went towards the hair. The urine ran. He pressed the cigarette down. The man screamed.

Badger heard him.

The scream – Foxy’s – was a knife cut in the darkness. Before, there had been the dulled sounds of the frogs, the coots and the ducks, and of the pair of pigs that still rooted in the edges of the reed bed. There were sprints by water birds and territory scuffles, but Foxy’s scream was a slicing wire, and another followed it.

He sat very still and very tense.

Badger would go when he had to. Then he would switch on his communications and make a last staccato call. He would give an ‘expected time of arrival’ at the extraction point, but not yet.

He expected that the dawn would come, the sun would poke up, announcing one more stinking hot day, and he would see – in the magnification of his binoculars – the arrival of military transport, lorries and jeeps. Soldiers, not these crap guys but trained men, would spill out and the search would begin, with cordon lines and others sent forward at the sides to give cover fire. Then it would be right for him to quit. He might also see, before he slipped into the water behind him and the forest thickness of the reeds, them taking Foxy away. He might be on a stretcher or might be dragged. If he was upright, his head would be slumped and a cloth bound around it. The blood, the cuts and bruises would be easy to see, even at that distance. He would have done what he could, stayed to the limits of obligation, and he would track back towards the extraction point. He was confident he would be ahead of the follow-up force – and two things were certain.

Two? Just two.

First: no bright young spark from the Prudential Insurance sales team was going to write a life policy for Foxy. A slow smile played on Badger’s face. There had been a funeral for a CROP technique instructor, young, killed by stomach cancer, before Badger’s time but still talked of. When the coffin had been carried out of a packed church to go to the crematorium, a crackly recording of Gracie Fields doing her hit song, ‘Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye’, had played and the whole congregation had begun to clap. Many were weeping buckets, and they’d kept the nearby pub open till past midnight. It was said to have been the best funeral moment ever. Badger always smiled when he thought of it – he wondered if Foxy had been there.

Second: an operation was unravelling and its security had been breached. There would be Cancel flashes and Abort instructions. Humour was good for squaddies and croppies, fire teams and ambulance people, but outsiders – other than the psychiatrists – reckoned it offensive and loutish. They understood fuck-all.

The scream came once more.

Fainter, with a blunter cutting edge. That would not mean that the pain was less: it was a sign that his strength was down, and the fight was draining.

He had no protection now from the mosquitoes. The clear ground where the hide had been made was around four foot above the water level. Badger’s place now was on the reverse slope from where the hide had been and his boots were just clear of the water. His body was on the incline and only his head, covered in camouflage scrim net, broke the top line. He had the binoculars with him and the night-sight. One of the bergens was against his boots and the thin rope, holding the small inflatable, with the second bergen in it, was round his ankle. He was ready to go, but not before the time came.

Badger remembered when he’d been a young police officer and they’d escorted ambulances into Accident and Emergency with knife and gun victims. He would see men and women sitting on plastic chairs in the corridors and know that behind doors or screens a life was ebbing; they were there to express solidarity, a sort of love and friendship. He would stay as long as he could. Badger could picture them now: they had politeness and dignity, and seemed grateful to him for his concern. There was often a bit of a choke in his throat when he slipped away to resume his duty, and went out of their lives. It was an obligation to stay – here and at the Royal Bristol Infirmary or the Royal United in Bath.

When he left, the location of the hide would have been cleansed. He had used reed fronds to brush around where the hide had been, smoothing out boot and handprints, then scattered the reeds they’d used for cover. He’d gone over the footfall into the reed beds, the clear ground that led over the rim where he was now and down to the water. The microphone was buried in mud and the length of the cable had been retrieved. The bird’s carcass was beached in front of him.

There was nothing more he could do.

It had gone well – well enough for the spats between himself and Foxy to have been dismissed – and now it was worse than anything imaginable. Foxy taken. He would talk, of course he would. The screams he had heard said that Foxy would talk. In a week’s time, or two weeks, Badger would be in his room at the police hostel and the TV would be on in the corner, half hidden behind a hillock of kit, and he would hear the voice, and look up, and Foxy’s face would be on the screen. He would hear Foxy’s confession in a flat, rehearsed voice, and would remember the screams. The screams said he would talk.

Didn’t like him, did he? Never had – not that, now, it mattered much.

Foxy could barely see. The swelling under and above his eyes had almost closed off his vision. Difficult for him to hear anything because his ears had been beaten and sound was dulled. But he was lucid and could analyse the pain. The cigarettes were worst. The beatings were repetitive and taking their toll of him. What had made him scream was when the cigarettes scorched his skin. Each time it was done he had wet himself. They were the worst because his eyes could pick up the flash of the match and his nose could smell the smoke and he could make out the descent of the hand that held the cigarette. He had started to scream before the fag’s tip had touched him.

An image came into his mind, was clear, then hazed and faded. It was of a small, cramped-up guy who had been brought to speak to them in the base outside Basra. He had been an expert on SERE, American. He wore US combat fatigues and had a flash on his left arm. It showed a shield and a double-bladed military knife, vertical, that cut two lengths of barbed wire. The man said, in a deliberate, far South accent, that the symbol was of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape through the wire barricades of the enemy’s gaols and territory. He had gestured towards the shield, and his right lower arm and hand had been missing, replaced with a multi-purpose hook.

None of the Brits had come into the lecture hall if they were off-duty; the only ones there were happy enough to have a minor diversion from their work. The others, who were resting or in the canteen, hadn’t thought it worth their time. Foxy had been at the back of the small lecture hall and had listened, half awake; like most of them he had not rated it likely that he would face a situation where he needed to know how to Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape. The start was clear: the man, the shield insignia, the hook, and the introduction by a British officer, and the story of how a man, now in his mid-fifties and therefore a veteran, had lost an arm three decades earlier and learned enough lessons from it to have been kept on in the military well past all normal retirement dates.

The next part of the memory was hazy. Something about being the number-two flier in an F-4 Phantom and hit by surface-to-air near Hanoi, limping back and getting close to the DMZ, then having to bale out, and being captured with a broken arm and escaping before the local medics had fixed the damage. He’d been with the air-force pilot, walking and getting gangrene, then the pilot, using a sliver of glass from a broken bottle, washed in a stream, had amputated at the wrist. They had come through.

The guy was a primary expert in his field, but an audience had been pressed into attending and had thought what he said irrelevant to life in the base. What had faded was what the guy with the hook had said. Foxy struggled for recall, and watched for the fucking cigarette packet to be dragged out of the pocket.

The goon would lurch towards him, drag up his head, get a handhold on his hair or ear, then use the fist on his face.

Foxy struggled to remember what the SERE guy had said, but the memories were gone. The goon, Mansoor, limped. He could give no indication that he understood a word of Farsi. Nor could he give any hint that he had watched the house and listened to conversations. He was in the business of buying time.

The time between each cigarette seemed the most important measure. Not the hands of a clock or watchface, but the time between the last cough on the cigarette, then it being dropped and stamped on, and the next brought out from the pack, put in the mouth, the match scraping the box, sometimes failing to ignite, and the delay while another was pulled out. For fuck’s sake, Foxy, not a fucking laugh. Get out of this fucking place and apply for the franchise to build a decent factory in these parts for the manufacture of good-quality matches, By Appointment to the Ayatollah. A business opportunity – for fuck’s sake, Foxy. The goon had a bad chest and had had, also, a bad wound.

Much had been lost, but not the logic. The view Foxy had of him was difficult through swollen eyelids. The goon leaned on the table and gazed down at his prey, seeming to consider how next to inflict pain and win answers. The pages in the pad stayed clean, the pencils unused. Logic told Foxy that a military casualty was posted away and out of sight. No army unit wanted disabled men hobbling about the garrison. One had ended up with the work of overseeing the security of a bomb-maker, was posted in Nowheresville, off the map, and forgotten. Good name for him: ‘Backwater Boy’. The Backwater Boy wasn’t stupid, was switched on enough to pick up whatever signs had been left for him. He had made the trap and left it on a hair trigger. Foxy had gone into it, led by his bloody chin. Logic said, also, tha