/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Holding the Zero

Gerald Seymour


Gerald Seymour

Holding the Zero

Prologue

What he feared most was fire.

He was wedged into a shallow space between the slight angle of the tin roofing and the beams to which the rough planks of the room’s ceilings were nailed.

The darkness around him was total.

If the hut were set ablaze, if the flames licked up and the smoke surged, he would be flushed out, roasted or suffocated to death.

Where they had put him, he thought, was the most precious and secret place in the village, where an honoured and respected guest would be hidden from danger. He lay on their cache of rifles, angular and hard under his body, and was pressed against the sharp shapes of the ammunition boxes. Because he was the guest, he – alone – had been thrust up with their hands, as his feet scrabbled for a grip on their shoulders into the hidden cavity. He had been granted their hospitality and therefore his life was more important than their own.

He could hear the voices around the hut, some raised and abusive and some that wheedled and pleaded.

It had been late in the communal meal he had shared with the village men when the jeeps had come up the barren stone track towards the village, their lights shafting ahead and on to the mountain scrub flanking the track. As the guest he had been sitting cross-legged at the right side of his friend, sipping the juice that was poured for him, dipping his fingers into the iron pot to search for scraps of meat, scooping the palm of his hand into the rice bowl, and then the jeeps had arrived. Moments after they had heard the engines, as they had seen the lights, he had been plucked up and dragged like a rag doll away from the rug on which he’d sat, and the clutch of men around him had stampeded him into the hut, had opened the trapdoor and pushed him into the small cavity. The trap had been closed and he had heard scraping fingers smear mud and charcoal over the outlines of the opening. The darkness had been around him and he had lain so still, barely daring to draw breath. He had listened and he had prayed that the hut would not be fired.

He heard the abuse of the soldiers, the pleading of the village men, the screams of the women, and the single shots. He did not know the language of the soldiers, or of the village men, but he understood the sounds of the women’s screams and the message the shots sent.

The soldiers would have come from the garrison town of Amadiyah to the west or from the camp at Rawandiz to the south. The information would have been given, for reward, that he was in the village. He would be a prize capture. He would be portrayed as a spy, not as a harmless, innocent guest of the mountain people. He understood, lying on his stomach on their old firearms and against their ammunition boxes, that the soldiers shouted at and abused the village men to make them reveal his hiding place. The men would be pleading that they did not know, had not seen a foreigner, a spy, and they were beaten, taken from the main corralled cowering group, while the women screamed for their lives as they were shot.

There was the smell of fire and the crackle of it from other huts in the close-set village that perched above a patchwork of fields and below the steep orchards. A few huts, chosen at random, were burned but it was a still, cool night and the flames did not spread from those to the adjacent ones.

The soldiers were in the hut, moving below him. He heard them rummage in the bedding and there was the crack of plates breaking as a cupboard was emptied. He stifled his breath. As a spy he might be hanged or shot, he might be tortured, and his protestations of a simple friendship would be ignored. When the soldiers left the hut in which he hid, the sound of the chaos they brought continued. Any of the village men who were condemned, or their women, might have saved themselves by denouncing him and showing the soldiers the camouflaged trap-door. He was in their hands, they held his life.

He lay in the roof space all through the night, and he was not betrayed.

The jeeps drove away down the track and headed back to the garrison at Amadiyah or the camp at Rawandiz. He was in debt, he owed his life to the silence of the people of the village.

The trapdoor was opened.

The light of the dawn flushed onto his stiff, shivering body.

He was helped down. He walked out into the low early-morning sunlight.

They had already started to dig the graves in the burial ground beside the grazing meadow that was closest to the village. He saw the sweat beading on the faces and chests of the men who swung pickaxes to break the concrete-hard ground, while others shovelled away the rocky earth. The women cradled the heads of the dead and keened their sorrow. He stepped around the ejected cartridge cases and the pools of drying dark blood that had been spilled so that he, their guest, should live.

The burden of obligation crushed him.

He said to his friend, ‘Tell them that I will always remember the value that they have given my life and the depth of their sacrifice, that the shedding of their blood for me is something that I will never forget to my last, dying day. Tell them that I will, and I do not know how or when, repay the debt of blood and life.’

His friend translated, but the repetition of his words in their own tongue seemed not to be heard by the people in their grief. Then, his friend said quietly to him, ‘It is time to go, esteemed Basil, time to leave.’

‘I meant what I said.’

‘Of course, esteemed Basil, of course – but you did not say how or when.’

He was put into an old, rusted truck and driven away from the village, where some of the huts smouldered, away from the deepening grave pits. They would have thought his words were empty and his promises worth nothing. They drove towards Nimrud where he had left his car in the care of the archaeologists before taking the journey into the mountains in his friend’s truck. He would be back at the base beside the Euphrates river by nightfall, in the officers’ mess in time to celebrate the third anniversary of his Queen’s accession to the throne that night, and the talk around him would be of Prime Minister Churchill’s health, and rising taxation at home, and the worsening security situation in Kenya, and the new Bob Hope film. He would say nothing to his fellow officers of where he had been, and of the debt that he owed.

Many times, as they went down the track, he looked back at the smoke spirals and the diminishing figures of the men who swung the pickaxes, and he thought of the blood that was dry on the earth and the bright sheen of the cartridge cases.

He had pledged his word.

Chapter One

Their home was a single-roomed building for the family to live, eat and sleep in.

Augustus Henderson Peake sat cross-legged on the floor of stamped-down earth within the circle of women around the fire.

The stones of the walls, some roughly shaped and some rounded by the torrent in the gorge below the house, were held in place by mud substituting as cement or mortar. In places there were gaps through which the wind off the mountains came in stiletto stabs.

There were no windows and the door of crude-cut wood planks was closed on the night, but the wind shook it, and the penetrating blasts whipped at the smoke from the fire inside the circle. It scurried up towards the room’s rafters of tree branches with peeling bark. Nailed above them was a sheet of flapping white plastic, and through the plastic’s ripped tears he could see the dried-out underside of the turfs that were laid over the roof.

There was a hole in the centre of the roof through which the smoke escaped.

Against one wall was an old mattress covered by scattered sacking and blankets, and he thought it was where the parents of the children would sleep. The children’s beds were at the wall facing the closed door, more sacking and blankets but no mattress; there were four children pressed close to each other for warmth and each of them, in turn, hacked deep coughs from their chests and throats. The light in the room, by which the women worked, was from a single stinking oil lamp that threw cavorting shadows of the women’s heads and shoulders against the upper walls and into the ceiling where the smoke gathered before finding the release of the hole.

There were no hand-woven tapestries on the walls, nor any photographs, but on the wall in front of him, hanging from a hook where it was at an easy height to be snatched down, was an assault rifle with a magazine fitted.

Behind him, against the door, the men watched in silence and waited for the women’s work to be done.

Gnarled fingers with broken nails and dirt-grimed wrinkles fought with needles to gather in pieces of the garment. It had once been a suit of overalls that a mechanic would have worn; it was drab olive green. Two women were busy sewing the heavy canvas strip that had been cut from an old tarpaulin to the front. Another pulled for possession of the knees and elbows, to sew smaller canvas squares onto them. Another stitched a veil of soft, sand-coloured netting to the front of the hood, which had already been fastened to the collar. Three more women clawed at the back, shoulders, body, legs and arms, wherever he pointed, and sewed to them short-looped straps of hessian fabric. The garment was wrenched from hand to hand, over the smouldering fire of wet wood, past and around the hurricane oil lamp. Each time a strap was in place and the cotton snapped, the eyes would look to him and he would point again to a place where the surface was not broken, the hessian strap would be torn for the necessary length and the needles would dive and flash in the light. They talked softly among themselves. It was a language of which he knew nothing, but when they caught his glance the older women cackled, gaptoothed, in amusement, and the younger ones, who were little more than girls, dropped their heads and giggled.

The fire gave little heat, only smoke; the lamp gave a small light and many shadows.

The smoke was in his eyes, watering them, and the smell of the oil from the lamp was in his nose and his mouth.

The shape of the overalls was changing. The clear lines of the body, arms and legs were gradually distorted by the mess of hessian straps; the sharpness of the outline was broken in a hundred places. The needles darted, disappeared, then rose again. Each time the garment was pulled by a new hand the smoke billowed under it and fanned into their faces and his. It was good work, and he could not have accomplished it himself. When they were finished he thanked them. There was laughter all around the room as he stood and held the garment against his body.

A man stepped forward and tugged at his arm, as if to tell him that his time had run out.

Gus untied the laces of the old hiking-boots he had brought with him, then kicked them off. He pulled on the loose overalls over his denims, shirt and sweater. He wriggled and shook into the garment, pulled up the zip from crotch to throat. A woman broke the circle around the fire, went to the mattress bed, took a small broken shard of mirror from a plastic bag of her treasures, and handed it to him. He stood to his full height, his head close to the plastic-sheeted ceiling, and the smoke curled around him. He looked into the mirror to study the front, then held it out to the side at arm’s length and tilted his head so that he could see part of his own back. He pulled up the cowled hood and dropped the veil over his face. There was more laughter.

He told them that, in his own country, this was called a ‘gillie’ suit, and he said it was the best he had ever seen and that, pray his God and theirs, he would be invisible to the enemy of them all – and they seemed not to understand a word he said. And he thanked them. With his hands and his eyes, he thanked them, and there was a murmur of appreciation. The oldest woman pushed herself up arthritically from her place by the fire and touched his arm, a gentle, sweeping brush as if now he was understood.

After he had laced his boots, the oldest woman took the mirror from him and held it where he could best look into it. He lifted the veil then bent to take the small tubes of camouflage cream from his rucksack. He smeared lines of ochre, black and green on to his hands and throat, his nose, cheeks and chin.

The door opened behind him. The wind howled into the room, guttered the fire, spread the smoke and flickered the lamp. The children cowered under their tent of sacks and blankets.

‘It is time, Mr Peake? You are ready?’

‘Yes, Haquim, I am ready.’

Kneeling beside the rucksack, he put the tubes of cream back into a side pouch and gazed down at the rifle around which the hessian bandage was already wound. The lens of the telescopic sight flickered in the lamplight. Abruptly, he zipped shut the camouflaged, padded carrying case that held the rifle. He turned for the door.

They would be finished now. The night would have fallen heavy on Stickledown Range, his colleagues of the Historic Breech-loading and Small-arms Association would be gone. They would have had their last beer, worried over their scoring charts, packed their cars, locked up their caravans, and would be on the crowded roads going their separate ways to their homes. He doubted that they would have missed him… The owls would be out now over the quietness of the range, hunting for the rabbits that would have emerged once the boom of the old rifles was silenced. He breathed hard then rocked slowly on his feet before slipping the strap of the carrying case over one shoulder and the loop of the rucksack over the other. His shadow leaped from the assault rifle on the wall towards the children shivering on their bed. He wondered if any of those in their cars at the end of their day’s target shooting knew the true force of fear. But it had been his choice to come, his decision… Without a backward glance he went out through the door.

The men were around him. The wind gripped at the hessian straps and caught the billows of his gillie suit. He thought of the Lee Enfield No. 4 Mark 1 (T) in its secure cabinet at home, and the collection of silver teaspoons, awarded for competition marksmanship, in the sideboard drawer. He walked towards the lights of the vehicles.

Close about him was the darkness, the smell of fighting men and the scent of struggle

… It had been his own decision, his own choice.

It is a place that is an afterthought of history.

The Tarus and Zagros mountains are the kernel of this region and its people. The natural limits, recognized only by the inhabitants of a harsh, wind-stripped land, are the plains below the mountains to the south and east, the upwaters of the great Tigris river to the west, and the Black Sea shores to the north. The modern frontiers, created artificially by long-dead diplomats in faraway chancelleries, have divided up the territory with a confluence of boundaries scarring that kernel. The present-day nation states of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq now have uncertain stewardship of the towering mountains, the razor-edged ridges running between them and the cliff-faced valleys below, and jealously guard their sovereign rights with aircraft, artillery pieces, armoured vehicles, infantrymen and the shadowy agents of the secret police.

The people of this arbitrarily carved land are the Kurds. They have an old history, a culture unique to themselves, a language that is their own, and no country. Only when they are useful in gaining greater political advantage to outsiders is their dream of nationhood supported, or when their pathetic lot in defeat pricks foreigners’ consciences.

Most days of the week, most weeks of the year, most years of a decade, most decades of a century, their dream and their struggle are ignored by blind eyes and deaf ears. They are not Arabs, not Persians, not Turks; they do not fit conveniently.

A war progresses fitfully in that part of the Kurdish heartland that is nominally within the territorial boundaries of the Republic of Iraq. It is like a restless man’s sleep, sometimes aroused and flailing intensely, sometimes dormant. The enemy of today, as he has been for twenty years, is the President in his palace in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein.

Since the Gulf War, the modern army of Saddam has been kept out of the Kurdish territory by the threat of aerial action from American and British warplanes based at the Turkish NATO base at Incerlik. The army waits for the opportunity. It is a poised cobra watching for a prey’s moment of weakness.

Some Kurds say that the life, always waiting for the cobra’s strike, is not worth living, that it would be better to sidle up to the reptile and lie under its protection. Other Kurds say that the comforting words from Washington and London are hollow, spoken from toothless mouths. And a few Kurds say that the present time offers the last best hope of a military thrust to recapture their old capital city of Kirkuk.

By the frail light of a small torch, a child was buried beside the road going south to Kirkuk, her legs taken off by a V69 Italian-made anti-personnel mine laid by Iraqi army sappers.

The girl’s legs had been severed at the knees when her running footfall triggered the tripwire. She had been gambolling ahead of her father towards a meadow of yellowed grass where the family’s four goats grazed. He had known there were mines close to the small collection of homes that made a village, but it was the first day of April, it was eleven days after the sparse celebration of the Kurdish New Year, Newruz, and the winter fodder for the goats was exhausted. They must find their own food if they were to fill their udders and give the family the milk of life. Had there been a hospital close by, had there been a four-wheel-drive vehicle in the village to take the child to it, then a life might have been saved. As it was, the child had died of trauma and blood loss.

Her father and brothers paused by the pit they had dug beside the road under the shelter of battered, stormtossed, leafless mulberry trees. The father slid down into the hole on his backside, and the eldest of the brothers took the small wrapped bundle from the mother and passed it to him. The tears ran on the father’s cheeks, dribbled with the rain on his face, and all the time the mother cried the dirge that was familiar to all women, all mothers, in northern Iraq.

‘Saddam! Saddam! Why do you sow mines in our fields?

‘Why do you hang our sons, why do you bulldoze our villages?

‘Why do you bury us alive?… We beg you, America!

‘We beg you, United Nations! We beg you, God!

‘Help us and save us…

‘For our lives are destroyed, and we have become beggars.’

The small convoy of vehicles passed her as she sat swaying her shoulders and crying her song. Her hands were folded tightly against the emptiness of her chest, where she had held her dead, desecrated child. The vehicles were travelling slowly along the rutted track on dulled sidelights. The torch that lit the burial of her child, with a weakened, failing battery, threw a wide cone of grey light into the first dun-painted, mudscarred truck that passed her. She did not recognize the man who drove, or the men squashed into two rows of seats behind him, but she recognized the young woman sitting beside the driver. The mother had never before seen the young woman, but she recognized her from the rumour slipping through the villages. It had been brought, as surely as the leaves of autumn eddied from the orchards, by nomads. She saw the young woman’s face, the combat fatigues on her upper body, the rifle against her shoulder, and the chest harness to which the grenades were hooked. All the mothers in her village had heard the whispered rumour of the young woman who had come from the north, many days’ walk away, where the mountains were highest.

She shouted at the limit of her voice: ‘Punish them. Punish them for what they have done to me.’

More vehicles passed.

Her child’s father and brothers were pushing the clods of wet soil and the stones back into the pit. Then the father stood and held up the torch so that the brothers might better see stones to heap on top of the shallow grave to protect it against wild dogs and foxes.

There should have been a man of God there, but they lived too far from any mosque to receive that comfort. There should have been neighbours and friends and cousins, but they were too close to the positions of the Iraqi murderers and the front line of their bunkers for any but the close family to venture into the darkness. The boys gasped under the weight of the stones.

The light of their father’s torch caught the last vehicle in the convoy. It had a closed cab and an open back in which were huddled men in fighting clothes who clutched weapons to their bodies. The men saw the mother, they saw the father and the brothers, they saw the stones that marked the grave, and all but one raised their fists, clenched, in a gesture of sympathy.

One man, squatting in the back of the last vehicle, was different. He gazed at the mother but his hands remained firmly on the straps of a many-coloured container, green and black, white and deadened yellow, and his rucksack. The beam of the torch caught the smeared lines on his face. He was different because he was not of their people. The mother saw the strange garment that the man wore, bulky, covered with the little strips of hessian net in the colours of the hills and earth, foliage and stones among which she lived. She thought he came from far away.

‘Kill them,’ she shouted into the night. ‘Kill them as vengeance for taking my child.’

And the line of lights drifted into the distance. She knew nothing of history and nothing of politics, but she knew everything of suffering, and she knew what the rumour had told her of the young woman who had come from the distant north.

When his bed was cold, long after his woman had left it, the shepherd crawled from under the blankets.

He heard the sound of the generator throbbing, and he smelt the rich coffee that she had already placed in the pot for heating. The fire was lit but its warmth had not yet spread through the room. With the coffee was the scent of bread baking. She worked hard to look after him, but he deserved a good woman because he had brought her the electricity generator and fuel for the fire, ground coffee and sugar and food and money to spend in the bazaar in Kirkuk away beyond the checkpoints and road blocks. He gave her the money to buy carpets for the floors, and bedclothes and drapes for the walls, which were dry under a roof of new corrugated iron.

He waved to her and she scurried from the stove to the window and pulled back the drape. He saw the slow-moving clouds against the light gold sky of the dawn. He knew the colour of gold, the best gold, because sometimes he could buy it at the bazaar in Kirkuk. It had been a bad night, but the storm buffeting his home had moved on. The shepherd usually slept well. He was a contented man. He had a fine house, a fine flock of sheep, he had a generator for electricity, he had food, he had an old biscuit tin filled with dinar notes issued by the Central Bank that he kept against the wall under his bed, and a smaller box beside it held four chains of eighteen-carat gold… and he had their equipment.

By taking their equipment, the shepherd had sold himself.

He pulled on his loose-fitting trousers, knotted the string at the waist, then drew over his head that week’s shirt and a thick woollen sweater, gently unravelling where the thorns had plucked at it, then a heavy coat. He sat on the bed and slid into his still-wet shoes. He wound a turban loosely around his head. From a hook beside the door he took the Kalashnikov and the binoculars that had come with the equipment. She gave him his first coffee of the day in a chipped cup. He grunted, drank it, belched, and returned the cup to her. He lifted an old television set from the floor – wires snaked from it across the room and climbed the walls before disappearing into the ceiling – pressed down the button and waited for the picture to form. It showed, in black and white, a steep-sided valley, and at the bottom of it were the gouged lines of a vehicle track. It was the same each day, and each night, deserted. But he checked it many times each day. The shepherd was conscientious because he valued the things given him when he had sold himself.

He went out into the dawn light. He cut along the side of his home, shielding his eyes from the low slant of the sunlight, and hurried to the small building of concrete blocks that protruded from the end of the one-room house. He rapped three times on the wood door, the signal, heard the footfall within, then the grate of a bolt being withdrawn. The door was opened. As he did every day at the end of the night watch, his son embraced him, kissed both his cheeks.

The shepherd stepped inside. There were no windows in the room. The generator chattered in the corner. In the dim light the dials of the military radio glowed brightly.

The television on the table beside the radio showed the same picture of the valley floor.

His son shrugged, as if to say, as always, nothing had moved on the track below in the night, then ran for the door. His son always went first to the pit at the back to shit and piss, then to his mother for his last meal of the day; his son would sleep during the daylight hours then resume watch as night fell.

It was a few minutes before the time when the shepherd was scheduled to make his morning call on the radio. There would be another call as dusk fell but there was, of course, a frequency he could use in an emergency. He threw the switch that killed the television picture, and the second switch that governed the alternative camera capable of thermal imaging, and the last switch that controlled the sound sensors at the floor of the valley. He did not know the age of the equipment or its origins, but he had been taught how to operate it by men of the Estikhabarat in the headquarters of the Military Command at Kirkuk. Everything he owned – the gold, the money in the biscuit tin, the stove, the fresh coffee, the oven for baking bread, his flock – was his because he had agreed to work the equipment they had given him.

He went outside and padlocked the door behind him.

On the south side of the valley, above a sheer cliff face, was a plateau of good grazing grass covering an area of a little more than eleven hectares. Though he did not have the education to measure it, the shepherd was some 150 metres above the valley floor along which the rough track ran. To the left and right of the plateau were higher, impassable cliff faces. Three kilometres down the track, past two sharp bends in the valley’s narrow passage, was the nearest Iraqi checkpoint. The cliff below the plateau was climbable, with great care, by a sure-footed man, if he followed the trails used by the shepherd’s animals. The shepherd was a tripwire, an early-warning system for the troops at the checkpoint.

He was not aware that the summit of the valley on the far side was exactly 725 metres from the front door of his house, but he knew it was a distance far greater than a Kalashnikov rifle was capable of firing. He believed himself impregnable, safe from his own people, and he had the big radio to back him, if men tried to climb the sheep trails to the plateau.

He stood by the door of his home, drinking the air. He watched an eagle making slow circuits above the summit of the far valley wall. He had strong, clear vision. The far side of the valley was as it had been, exactly, the day before and the day before that. He raked his eyes across the landscape of yellow grass tufts, grey stone, brown, exposed earth and the sharp greens of the bilberry leaves. If anything had changed, if man or animal were on the summit across the void, the shepherd would have seen it. His stomach rumbled, called on him to return inside, take his first food of the day and more coffee. But he stayed the extra moments and gazed at the simple peace around him. Later, while his son slept, he would lead the sheep towards the west of the plateau, but always he would have his rifle with him and his binoculars, always he would be able to see the track along the valley floor and he would be a few seconds’ hard running from the room of concrete blocks and the live radio. He had lost sight of the eagle. He blinked as the sun was in his eyes… and then the blackness came. He heard nothing.

The shepherd felt as though he had been hit by a great iron hammer full in the centre of his chest. He slid, against his will, down onto the short, sheep-cropped grass in front of the door.

His life had passed within a second. He had no knowledge of a. 338 bullet fired at a range of 725 metres and fracturing his spinal column between the second and third thoracic vertebrae. He could not know that his wife and his son would cower under the table of their home and be too terrorized to open the door, run to the radio and send the coded signal summoning immediate help. Nor would he know that, as the dawn spread light on the paths made by his sheep over the precipice face of the cliff, men would scramble up the heights, break his radio, smash his television, cut the cables to the cameras, drink his coffee, find his biscuit tin and the smaller box holding four gold chains, and he could not know what the men did to his wife and son – the jahsh, the little donkeys, the traitor Kurds who sided with Saddam. And he would not know that amongst the men was a young woman, sweating and panting from the exertion of the climb, who summoned the spittle in her mouth and spat down onto his still-open eyes.

The first hour of the day shift was the busiest for the technicians in Kirkuk working at the radios of the Estikhabarat al-Askariyya. Early in the morning the new shift handled the volume of check calls and radio signals sent to the Military Intelligence Service. At the end of the day, the new night shift would be deluged by a similar number of calls. There were transmissions that were classified as important, and there were the regular checks that had low priority because nothing of worth was ever reported on them. In a cubicle compartment, four yawning, scratching, smoking technicians listlessly ticked off radio calls received, and wallowed in boredom.

The role tasked to the regional office of the Estikhabarat in Kirkuk was to provide military intelligence on armed Kurdish factions north of the army’s defence line, and to infiltrate the factions so that a peshmerga commander could not shit, could not screw his wife, without it being known and reported on down the line to national headquarters in the Aladhamia area of Baghdad. Low priority, bumping the bottom of the barrel, was given to Call-sign 17, Sector 8.

Call-signs 1 to 16 had reported in, nothing of significance. Call-signs 18 to 23 had been received on clear transmission. Only Call-sign 17 in Sector 8 was not ticked off.

The technician who should have received the call alerted his supervisor when the transmission was forty-eight minutes late.

‘Probably poking sheep,’ the supervisor said, and walked away. ‘He’ll come through in the evening.’

But the technician, a conscript who would follow military service with an electronics course in higher education in Basra, was not satisfied until he had personally checked the file for Call-sign 17. Call-sign 17 was issued with a Russian-made R-107 radio. It had a four-to-six-kilometre range, which meant it relied on a booster antenna in the mountains.

The radio, in the opinion of the conscript technician, was poor and the antenna, during the night, would have been battered by the storm that had raged over the high ground north of Kirkuk. He made a note to refer it to the technician taking over from him at the end of the day. Of course, the sheep poker was low priority or he would have been given more sophisticated equipment than the R-107 radio.

At dawn that day, a little crack had been opened in the many-layered lines of defence separating the Kurdish enclave from their spiritual capital of Kirkuk, and it was not seen by the technician, or by his supervisor.

They had all played a part in moving the letter. Written in a spidery hand by Hoyshar, the father of Jamal, father-in-law of Faima and grandfather of Meda, it had begun its journey six weeks earlier, while the snow was still falling in the northern mountains and valleys.

Now in his eighty-fifth year, a remarkable age for a man who had lived the greater part of his life in a village community where the houses clung to the steep slopes, near Birkim, of the mountains of Kurdish Iraq, it had been a great effort for Hoyshar to write to an old friend whom he valued as a brother.

There was no postal service out of the region, and Hoyshar had no access to a facsimile machine or to a satellite telephone. The letter had moved by hand, growing grubbier, accumulating the fingerprints of people Hoyshar did not know. The young woman, Meda, had started her march out of the northern fortress uplands in the week that the letter was written. All of those who had moved it woke that morning unaware of the small fissure opened in the outer extremity of the Iraqi army’s defence line.

The letter had been given by the old man to Sarah, an Australian working in northern Iraq for a London-backed children’s charity. She had been in the mountains investigating reports of a diphtheria epidemic, and the letter had been pressed into her hand… That morning, an hour after a single bullet had sung across the emptiness of a steep-sided valley, she nursed an aching hangover from the farewell party for her regional director…

She had passed on the letter.

Joe had taken it from the aid-worker. He was Scots born, a one-time soldier in the Royal Engineers, and was in northern Iraq to clear minefields. She had pleaded, explained, and he had stuffed it into his shoulder-bag and gone back to the ground around a village well where he taught local men, by example and practice, how to kneel and probe for the anti-personnel mines… That morning, with his bodyguards, interpreter and three Kurdish recruits, he was staking out the pegs round a field of V69s and POMZ 2Ms and Type 72As that had been laid in an orchard of pomegranate trees… Three days later he had handed on the crumpled envelope.

Lev had taken the letter, been told its history. Everybody knew the overweight and balding Russian. He was equally loved and loathed: loved because he could smooth paths and provide comforts, loathed because of his corrupt amorality… That morning, he spat orders to his houseboy, who carried to the boot of the Mercedes two crates of bourbon, a video-cassette recorder and an Apple Mac computer… He had slid the envelope down into the hip pocket of his trousers, where it wedged against a gross roll of American dollar bills, and delivered it at the end of the week.

Isaac had been given the letter and had, of course, steamed open the envelope. If it had not interested him, it would have gone into the plastic bag of shredded waste-paper beside the table where the banks of monitoring equipment were stacked. He was an Israeli, an employee of the Mossad, in charge of the most Godforsaken post offered to any agent sent from Tel Aviv. His equipment, his dishes, his antenna, in the high, empty country south of the Arbil to Rawandiz road, could eavesdrop on every communication between army headquarters in Baghdad and Fifth Army headquarters in Kirkuk, and the signals of the Estikhabarat, and he could monitor the SIGINT and ELINT operations of the Project 858. As a result of the strange alliances of northern Iraq he was protected in his eyrie by a platoon of Turkish paratroops. That morning, he had listened to Call-signs 1-16 and 18-23, in Sector 8, broadcasting news of nothing to Kirkuk, and he had noted that Call-sign 17 had failed to make scheduled contact. Then he had begun to listen to a radio conversation between armoured corps commanders in the Mosul area… A Turkish air force Blackhawk helicopter, with no navigation lights, came in at night once a week to the small LZ, shaking the roof of his building and tugging at the tents of the paratroops.

The helicopter had taken the letter, resealed.

The letter handled by the aid-worker, the de-miner, the entrepreneur and the intelligence agent had been delivered four weeks after it had left the mountain village to a vicarage in southern England, and none of its couriers yet knew of the consequences of their actions.

Sometimes their voices were raised, at others they bickered quietly. Gus Peake did not know the cause of the dispute. He sat on his haunches with his back against the wall of the shed, with the map and plan they had drawn across his knees. They were within earshot but out of his sight, around the edge of the shed, and beyond the thorn corral where the goats were. Nor did he know why the advantage from his single shot was not exploited. He had seen with his binoculars how the men had swarmed on the cliff face and run to the building in front of which the body lay. He had seen the main door of the house beaten down, and he had heard the screams, the smashing of the equipment from inside. And she had come back down the cliff, descended nimbly, as easily as a deer, and later she had reached where he waited. He did not understand why they had not, immediately, pushed forward. He tried to shut from his mind the argument raging near to him.

Gus worked on the plan of the bunkers they had given him and married them to the old map. He used a compass to measure distance, because he had been told he should never rely completely on the technology of his binoculars. From the map, he tried to locate a vantage-point amongst the whorls of the contours that he could approach using dead ground. He accepted that luck had been with him that morning, that a clean kill at 785 yards without a sighting shot was more than fortunate. He had little conceit, and less arrogance. He believed in himself and his ability, but he was seldom less than realistic.

He had been lucky, more than fortunate. He tried to find a point on the map that he could reach in darkness, that would offer him cover and protection and give him a range of not more than 650 yards.

Their voices were angry again. He pictured them, toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball. Some of the men had been left on the plateau, some had come down, and they sat in the shade of trees where the vehicles were hidden around a small fire. Their faces were impassive, as if they heard and saw nothing of the argument.

He did not know if the map was accurate, or whether the plan that had been given to him of the bunkers was loosely drawn or to an exact scale. Then he heard the silence. The lines on the map seemed to bounce in front of his eyes. She was walking away, crossing open ground, skirting the clump of trees where the men sat and the vehicles were hidden.

He saw her sink down and her head fall into her hands. Suddenly the smell of the goats seemed revolting. He folded away the map, dumped the plan into the rucksack’s pouch, threw his calculator and the compass in with it. He kicked at a stone and watched it career towards the track.

‘You have a problem?’

Haquim limped the last few strides from the corner of the shed to where Gus sat and used the butt of his rifle as a prop while he clumsily lowered himself down.

‘Only that I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why we are here. I don’t know what everyone is arguing about. I don’t know why she’s not speaking to me…’

‘Why do we not go forward, Mr Peake? Because we wait for more men. I try to tell her and she abuses me. Why do we wait for more men? Because there are very few who will follow me, and many who follow only the orders of their agha. Yes, because of her, because simple people believe in her, illiterate people, people who have old rifles to keep bears and dogs away from their livestock, she can raise an army that would be butchered by machine-guns, artillery and tanks. We need trained men who are familiar with the tactics of battle, who will receive and carry out orders, who know how to use weapons.

The men we need, the peshmerga, which in your language means “those who face death”, are controlled by the two agha of the Kurdish people. They have promised a few men, only a few. They want to fight a war, yes, but only if they believe they will win that war.

So, the supply of men will be like a drip feed. Each time we advance, a few more men will be sent. I cannot change it. I have to wait for more men… She does not understand

… I tell you, Mr Peake, sometimes I can be angry with her.’

‘I was called, I came, and now I am ignored.’

‘Also, I tell you that without her we would not have started to march, we would not have had the dream. Without her there would be nothing. Being ignored is a small price to pay… I am experienced in war. She has no experience, but at every step she will question me. But without her nothing is possible, and I believe you know it.’

‘Thank you.’

‘We move at last light… You want to hurry to war, Mr Peake. You will be there soon enough. In a week or two weeks, tell me then if you still want to hurry…’

Carried on the wind, he heard, faintly, the sound of the furious revving of a vehicle far down the track, around a gentle sloping escarpment that rose to the valley’s cliff wall, beyond his sight. Haquim had stiffened, lifted his head to hear better, then pushed himself up with his rifle. He said coldly, ‘When you meet a target that can shoot back, Mr Peake, then you will have found a war.’

The first fires of the day pushed up a pall of hanging smoke that merged with the fumes of cars’ exhausts, which hung as a thickening carpet across his view of Baghdad awakening.

He had stayed too long, should have been gone before the sun was up. It was suicidal for him to have remained there until daylight broke over the city.

He had stayed too long because, for the fifth night, the target had not appeared. The frustration bit into him. He should have been gone an hour earlier, at least, while the shadows still hugged the streets. Although the sun’s early warmth was on the flat roof beside the water tank, Major Karim Aziz shivered. Throughout the last hour he had known that the chance of the target coming diminished with each passing minute, and yet he had stayed.

His legs were cramped and stiff, all feeling gone. His eyes watered from the long hours of gazing into the aperture of the sight’s lens. His shoulders ached from holding the rifle butt at his shoulder for so long. He realized that for the last fifteen minutes, as the smoke and fumes had formed a cloudy haze, he had barely been able to see the driveway, the steps and the door on which his telescopic sight was locked.

He took a last look through the sight, cursed, then began to pack his gear quickly. He wrapped the sight in a loose towel, snapped the butt-release button and reduced the weapon’s length so that it would fit easily into the anonymous sports bag, then his binoculars, then his bottle of water, and his box for salad and bread, then the larger bottle, tightly corked, to hold urine passed during the night. He rolled up the thin rubber mat on which he had lain motionless for eleven hours and dropped it inside, zipped the bag and stood up. As he had calculated it from the city’s maps, it was a distance of 545 metres from the leading edge of the building’s water tank to the front door, across which, up which, through which, he had now waited five full nights for the target to come.

He checked around him. His life and the lives of those he loved depended on the care with which he checked the concrete of the roof beside the water tower for scraps of paper and drops of urine or water.

Below him were the sounds of radios, shouting children and banging doors. He pulled the hood of his army windcheater up over his head so that his features were masked, and hurried towards the service door to the roof of the block. Behind him was the view across the apartment blocks between Rashid Street and al-Jamoun Street, past Wahtba Square, across lower blocks between al-Jamoun Street and Kifah Street, and into a gap on the far side of Kifah Street that offered a small window view of the few yards of driveway to the villa.

He took the rough concrete service steps three at a time, clattered down them. He had spent a week searching out his vantage-point, trudging into building after building, gaining access by his military uniform, giving a false name on a forged identity card, claiming he was looking for accommodation for himself and his family. He had made a great circle around the villa to which he had been assured the target would come, and found only the one rooftop, of a seven-storey building, which was between 400 and 700 metres from the villa and offered a view over the surrounding wall of the short way the target must walk between his bomb-proof car and the front door.

Maybe the bastard’s penis did not itch enough: when it itched, when it needed stroking, sucking, then the bastard would come. He passed two smoking, gossiping maids on the service stairs. They saw him, looked for a moment at his army coat, then flattened against the wall and averted their gaze. They would have assumed that he, too, had an itching penis, and they would not dare to speak of an army officer’s assignation for fear of a beating from the Military Security Service… It was all about the President’s itch, and the visits to the villa of his current mistress.

Major Karim Aziz let himself out of the side fire exit of the building, and joined the pavement throng heading for the Shuhada Bridge that crossed the Tigris.

He walked quickly, imagining that every eye was on him, believing that every eye was in the head of an agent of the regime. The weight of the sports bag banged against his thigh. At every step, he expected a hand to grab him, a body to block him, and the bag to be snatched and opened. He crossed the bridge over the wide, slow-flowing mud brown of the river, swollen from the thaw of the snow in the mountains far to the north. The tiredness bred the fantasies of danger.

He reached Haifa Street, crossed it near to the central railway station, and came to his home.

Major Karim Aziz’s home was a modest two-storey house, with a muddy front garden where the roses that Leila tended would bloom in a month’s time, where Wafiq and Hani played football, where her parents would sit in the summer months. They were all in the kitchen. The boys were gathering their books together for school. His wife was shuffling through papers she would need in her day’s work at the hospital. Her father was listening to the radio’s news bulletin, and her mother was clearing the table. His own place was laid, a piece of melon, a slice of bread, a square of cheese. They all looked away from him and he gave no explanation as to why he had, for the fifth time, been away from his home for the night. It was impossible for him to give any.

He kissed the boys sharply, touched the arm of his wife and nodded to her parents.

They would have seen the tiredness in his eyes, and they would have looked down and wondered what he carried in his sports bag.

It was too late for him to sleep.

He showered, shaved. By the time he had changed into a clean uniform and come back into the kitchen, the boys had left for school and Leila had gone to the hospital where she nursed children. Her father stared at the radio while her mother rinsed the plates at the sink; they wouldn’t have understood even if he had been able to tell them. He thought it was better that he had not come home earlier. The previous time, he had slipped into his home, a thief in the night, and snuggled against her back and known that she only pretended to sleep, and he had heard the tossing in their beds of his sons, the cough of her father, then the fear of the consequences he might inflict on them had ravaged in his mind.

Aziz took the family car, the old Nissan Micra, to his workplace at the Baghdad Military College.

Chapter Two

After the engine of the distant vehicle had stopped, he saw them come round the escarpment’s bend. There were two men with rifles, the escort, and a man and a woman who were unarmed and European. When they’d passed a small clump of winter-dead trees, the woman pointed to the smoke of the fire near to the track and ahead of them, and their pace quickened. They would have seen the spiral of the smoke, then the vehicles parked in the trees close to the shed.

They had started to run. The unarmed man, the European, ran badly as if he had wrenched his back, but the woman turned, grabbed his arm without ceremony and heaved him forward to keep up with her. He stumbled and seemed to cry out, but she just tugged harder at him.

Gathering strength to climb the other side of the valley and witness the result of his shot, Gus sat in the sunshine against the wall of the shed. The sweat ran in faint driblets against his skin under the weight of his gillie suit. The woman saw Meda sitting alone in the pasture grass, released her burden, let him slip then fall, and waved to her. He heard the broad ring of her fierce Australian accent.

‘Christ, am I glad to see you. We are in shit, Meda… You might just be a goddam angel… I’m trying to get my regional director to the border. Too much Irish last night -

Christ, do we have hang-overs. The driver, the arsehole, took the wrong turn – alcohol poisoning’s his bloody problem. Obstinate bastard won’t admit he’s cocked it. We’re in the back end of bloody nowhere and aren’t the Iraqis just round the corner? Christ… We tried to turn but the bloody Cruiser’s stuck over a goddam rock. Do you believe it? We don’t have a bloody rope on board it or on the back-up. Do you have a rope? And maybe some bodies to help? If I don’t get him to the border, it screws everything, all the schedules, the exit visa, the flights, every bloody thing…’

She was laughing, and Meda with her.

‘I mean, Meda, that arsehole was taking us into the Iraqi army checkpoint. Christ, they’d have thought it was bloody Christmas.’

She was mud-smeared, her hair a flash of blond in the wind. Meda was leading her towards the shed and shouting to her men under the trees. And because she pointed to the shed, and the men ran ahead of her towards where he sat, the European man hobbled faster towards him.

He didn’t know what he should do. He sat rooted to the ground, his back hard against the wall. A stampede was closing on him. He heard Haquim’s whispered voice, but didn’t respond. And then he saw the way the European man gazed at him with bright, staring eyes. He had been wearing the gillie suit for so many hours that it no longer seemed special.

Haquim’s fist closed on his shoulder. ‘Get in, Mr Peake, get out of sight.’

He was wrenched up, pitched inside the windowless shed, and crawled towards the far corner, into the darkness where his rucksack and the rifle he had cleaned earlier were.

Perhaps he should have been sleeping, perhaps he did not realize the necessity of taking any opportunity to sleep. He had been too captivated by the tranquil beauty of the valley, and the eagle’s soaring flight, and too angered that Meda ignored him. Now, exhausted, he did not know why he was hurled into the back of the shed.

The doorway was crowded, a torchbeam roved over the floor of stamped dirt and goat droppings. Before they found the length of rope among the ammunition boxes and the stacked heap of armour-piercing grenades, the beam of the torch discovered him. He couldn’t see the face of the European man who was framed in the doorway with fierce sunlight behind him. The beam lit him and the rifle propped against the wall close to him.

‘ Mr Peake? Is that English, American?’

Without thinking, he muttered, ‘English.’

‘A long way from home. Where is home?’

Still without thinking: ‘Guildford.’

Haquim spat at him, ‘Don’t give them your face. Shut up. Don’t say anything.’

He was startled by the venom of the order, flinched instinctively, turned his head so that the torchbeam fell on his neck, then moved to the rifle and lingered on the camouflage strips of hessian material wound round the barrel and the telescopic sight.

Then it jumped away because the coil of rope had been found. As fast as it had filled, the shed emptied. He sat in the darkness. His mind cleared. He did not need to be told that he had made a mistake, but he knew that when the aid-worker’s vehicle had been pulled back on to the track and had driven away, Haquim would return and batter him with criticism.

When he had climbed down from the cab of the lorry that had brought him from Guildford in south-east England to Diyarbakir in south-east Turkey ten days before, he would have said that he could cope with isolation. He would have said just as firmly nine nights ago, when he had been taken along a smugglers’ route over the mountains, the border and into northern Iraq, that loneliness did not affect him. He sat in the darkness with his head drooping – he had wanted to talk to somebody, anybody, in English and about home, about what was safe. He clenched his fists and ground his fingernails into the palms of his hands so that the pain would wipe out the guilt of making a small mistake… and then he closed his eyes.

It was about visualization. It was about each crawling movement towards the firing position, each moment of preparation, and each controlled breath when he aimed at the forward bunker that was on the plan drawn for him, and each contour of the map over which the. 338 bullet would fly.

But it was hard for him to erase the memory of the mistake.

The regional director, Benedict, waited until they were back on the open road.

‘Did you see that man?’

‘What man?’

‘Called Peake. Said he was English, from Guildford.’

‘Didn’t see him.’

‘He was a professional soldier.’

‘I see what’s good for me to see – and I get on with my job.’

‘He had a sniper’s rifle in there.’

‘It’s not my business.’

‘It’s my damn business. Don’t bloody laugh at me, I worry about you more than any other of Protect the Children’s field-workers. That’s honest, more than the guys in Afghanistan or Somalia. Yes, you’re protected by goons, but we all know that’s just show. The Iraqis could take you any day they want.’

‘You’re a bag of bloody fun today, Benedict. It’s best you forget it.’

‘No way. If the British military is deploying expert snipers in northern Iraq, that jeopardizes the safety of British-employed aid-workers.’

‘Leave it.’

‘I’m raising the roof when I get back.’

She turned away, shut her eyes. Her head throbbed. It was a good place to be drunk, pity was it didn’t happen often enough. She heard his breath hissing through gritted teeth.

She knew he would raise the bloody roof, and she knew the Iraqis could kidnap her at any time they chose.

‘And who was that woman?’

She didn’t open her eyes. ‘You don’t need to know, so don’t ask.’

They crowded around Gus.

Haquim said they had all seen Russian-made sniper rifles, but never a weapon as large as the one he carried.

The hands groped towards it, but he did not let any of them touch it for fear that they might jolt the mounting of the telescopic sight.

Four days before, he had zeroed the sight. He had gone off alone on to a flat, sheltered meadow of grass and spring flowers. He had paced out a distance of 100 yards and left a cardboard box there with a bull blacked in with ink. He had paced out a further 100 yards, and left another cardboard box, and a final one at 300 yards. He had gone back to his firing position, turned the clicks on the distance turret of the sight to the elevation for 100 yards, fired, examined the target with his binoculars, found the shot low, had made adjustments to the mounting, fired again, checked with his binoculars where the shot had clipped the top edge of the four-inch bull, had made more adjustments, fired and been satisfied. Then he had moved to the 200-yard target, and then to the 300-yard target. Only when he was completely satisfied with the accuracy of his shooting had he packed away the rifle. Then, an hour later, he had met Meda. No talk, no gratitude, no curiosity as to how he had made the great journey, nothing about family, no recall of the past. She had handed him on to Haquim, and had not spoken to him since.

Gus let them look at the rifle, but he would not let them touch, feel or hold it.

He counted forty-two of them. There were forty-one men and a boy. He was slim, had stick-like wrists and a thin throat. On the smooth complexion of his cheeks and upper lip there was a haze of fluff, as if he was trying to grow a man’s beard. Most of the men were middle-aged, some shaven and some bearded, some in fatigues and some in their own tribal clothes. There was one who pressed closer than the others – turbaned, an old torn check shirt under a grey-blue anorak with a face masked by stubble and dangerous flitting eyes. They were bad, hostile eyes, and they raked him. His mouth had narrow lips, between which the tongue was turned and rolled in the mouth to gather the spittle. It was directed down between his boots. There was the single croaked word, spoken with contempt: ‘American.’

Gus stared back into the man’s face, shook his head and said, ‘English.’ He saw the eyes and mouth relax, then the man turned his back on him.

He thought them proud men, but with the common features of cruel eyes and brutal mouths. His grandfather would have described them, in the language of long ago, as

‘villains’. They carried assault rifles and grenade launchers; one had a light machine-gun and was wrapped with belts of ammunition. Then, in a moment, he was no longer the centre of attention because they had seen her, Meda.

They were around her. She spoke softly, with the glow in her eyes. They hung on her words. The one who’d spat, his mouth gaped open as if the foul old bastard had found the light of God and was mesmerized. Gus thought they danced for her.

Haquim, at his shoulder, said, ‘I can tell them about the tactics of frontal attack, and about clearing trenches with grenades, and about enfilading fire, and they tolerate me.

She tells them of destiny and freedom, and they will follow wherever she leads. I fear where she will lead us, Mr Peake.’

‘When are we leaving?’

Haquim said dully, ‘We go when she says we go.’

‘I counted forty-two new men – is that enough?’

‘Forty-one men and a boy, Mr Peake. Forty-one fighters and a boy to wash and cook for them. And there were eighteen of us, and you, and her. You go to war, Mr Peake, with fifty-nine men, a boy and her… It is what we have, it has to be enough. I told you it would be a drip feed. Today, agha Bekir has sent us forty-one men and a boy from the slum camps of Sulaymaniyah. In Arbil, agha Ibrahim will watch to see if we are successful. If we are he will not wish to lose status and he will send a hundred men, who will also be the scum from the slums. I told you how it would be.’

Her hands moved, outstretched, as she spoke. They seemed capable of carrying the weight of the world. He watched the power with which she held them, then ducked inside the shed.

When he came out, the rucksack and the carrying case hooked over his shoulders, Meda was leading and they were following up the narrow paths on the cliff face that generations of sheep had made. He heard their singing, in quiet, throaty voices. Haquim was ahead of him, labouring over the rocks. He climbed slowly and carefully, never looking back or down. Around him, he heard the songs of men going to war.

Sarah stood by the two Landcruisers, the bodyguards crowded around her. The customs men on the Syrian side of the river were waving urgently for him to hurry, and the man in the ferry-boat was shouting for him. Her regional director kissed her awkwardly on the cheek. She didn’t know whether she believed what he’d said, that he worried more about her than any of his other field people. When he was back in his London home, with his wife or partner or boyfriend, would he be worrying about her? The visits were little light lines in the darkness of her everyday life, but they unsettled her. It would take a week to reassemble her existence, fall back into the routine of the isolation and exposure to suffering that were commonplace.

‘Keep safe, Sarah.’

‘Give my love to the office,’ she said flatly.

‘I’m going to do what I said I’d do.’

‘What’s that?’

‘British snipers hazarding your safety… raise hell.’

Under the glare of the afternoon sun he scrambled down the track towards the ferry.

She waved desultorily. She watched him climb aboard and the ferry carried him across the Tigris, towards Syrian territory, towards safety. Tomorrow she would be back in the high villages and her concern would be for children who had no school, no clinic and no hope. What could one sniper do, however fucking expert, however big his fucking rifle, to give the children hope, a clinic and a school? The ferry reached the far side of the river, and he ran to the car that would drive him to the airstrip for the feeder flight to Damascus.

She shouted after him, ‘I hope your back’s better in the morning. Don’t tell them in the office that you did it getting the Cruiser back on the road. Tell them you were escaping from a battalion of the Republican Guard…’

Gus had made the climb up the far side of the valley his bullet had crossed.

Only once before had he stood, silent, and looked down on the dead. Then, more than nine years before, he had steeled himself, erect, tall, and adopted a concerned expression.

Hands had plucked at the sleeves of his coat and led him between the clusters of wrapped shapes. He had tried, then, to close his ears to the persistence of the sobbing of the living.

Men had wept and women had cried out in their anguish and the tears had rolled down children’s cheeks. He could remember, then, that he had worried how they would bury so many bodies because there was little earth between the rock outcrops and that was frozen under the sporadic patches of snow. He could remember the endless crawling line of people coming down a track on a far slope towards the swaying rope bridge with their bundles, bags, cases and more dead. Sometimes, that was clear in his mind, the cloths that wrapped the corpses had been unwound so that he could see the faces of the dead, as if it was important to those who lived that he should share with them the agony of their loss.

They had died from hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, from wounds into which gangrene gas had spread infection, and from the cruelty of eccentric accidents. She had been with him as he had toured the panorama of the dead, always behind him and never speaking, never interrupting her father and grandfather, never weeping, never crying out. Her gaze had been impassive as her father had drawn back blankets and sacking to show the crushed faces of her sister and brother killed by a pallet of grain bags parachuted down from an American mercy flight. He had witnessed her strength.

Before they had left, then, the mountain slope of tents and plastic sheeting, the shivering living and the cold dead, he had said the unthinking words that he had mouthed several times before and since. At the doors of English crematoria and at the gates of cemeteries, he had taken the hands of mothers, widows and daughters, and murmured, ‘If there’s anything I can ever do to help, absolutely anything, then make contact, and I’ll do my best…’ It had been the decent thing to say. Empty words spoken before he had turned his back and hurried for the border, the car, the hotel and a damn great drink, all long ago, and the chance to put the dead from his mind.

Again, he saw the dead.

Again, the plucking hands pulled him forward.

The flies were on the face. They flew, buzzed, settled around the gaping mouth and the wide stare of the eyes and over the stubble set in the opaque skin. He saw a fly go into the man’s mouth while another rested on his eyeball.

Gus was brought closer.

He wanted to shrug their hands off him but he did not, could not. There was a pool of blood on the chest and more blood, which had earlier seeped from the hole in the corpse’s back. That, too, was a focus of the flies’ feeding frenzy. The coat and shirt that the living body would have dragged on in the dawn cold a few minutes before its owner’s death were pulled back to reveal the matted chest hair and the neatly drilled hole into which a pencil or a biro, of less than. 338 diameter, would have fitted comfortably. He remembered the moment at which he had fired, as the target had seemed to arch his back and his head had tilted to face the heavens and his god, to drink the freshness of the air. A man clawed a hand around his shoulder and cackled, squeezing his flesh as if to offer congratulations at the accuracy of the shot. He thought he belonged. A bullet of. 338 calibre moving at supersonic velocity, killing, had won him the respect of the men crowded close to him.

With a babble of voices around him he was taken into the home of the carcass, through the door that had been hammered down. The table was toppled over, the food trodden into the floor: there was a woman’s body and a young man’s, and the flies were worse.

They rose in swarms from the bloodied wounds at the corpses’ throats. He understood why the woman and the young man had been killed: they should not be able to carry away news of the attack over the plateau to the military position. He knew why they had been knifed: if they had been killed by gunfire the crash of the shots might have carried in the stillness of the early-morning air across the roll of the hills to the bunkers.

Gus thought of Stickledown. It would be quiet there after the previous day’s shooting, the targets would be lowered and the flags down. Would any of those who had fired the old weapons the afternoon before, his friends and his fellow enthusiasts, the other lunatics, comprehend what he had done, what had brought him to this place?

Perhaps the men around him had seen him rock on the balls of his feet, perhaps they had seen the pallor spread over his face… They took him out and around the building, through the crazily hanging door and into the annexe block. He was shown the smashed screen of the television, the cut cables and the radio. Grimed fingers jabbed at the typed sheets of paper that he presumed carried the codewords, frequencies and schedules of transmission.

Outside, with the sunlight on his face, he too drank at the air, gulped at its purity.

They ate from an iron pot that the boy had heated over the last embers in the stove inside. With his fingers he snatched saffron-flavoured rice, and palmed up the juicy swill of tomato and onion. Twice he found small scraps of meat, goat or mutton.

She had not eaten with them.

As the light sank they moved off.

She was ahead.

In the middle of the straggling column of men was the boy, burdened by the bags of food and the emptied iron pot. He skipped between the men, talking all the time, and stayed with each one until their patience was exhausted and he was cuffed away to dance on, light-footedly, to his next victim.

Gus trudged alongside Haquim at the end of the column, and realized the mustashar, the commander, was finding the going hard over rock and scrub, over shallow gorges and up rock inclines. He saw the pain in Haquim’s grizzled, heavy-boned face and the sharp biting at his lower lip to stifle it. When Haquim stumbled and he put out his hand to offer help, it was pushed away. He wished he had slept more in the day, when the chance had been given. They would march in the evening, then he and Haquim would go forward in the night. The sun was dazzlingly fierce and starting the slide below a rim of granite rock.

Twice, now, Haquim had stopped and steadied himself, breathing hard, then sighed and gone on. At the head of the column, he saw Meda drop down into a gully, near to the last ridge. He stayed with Haquim. He did not know whether he should insist on carrying part of the load balanced in a backpack on Haquim’s spine. The column ahead waited for them in the gully.

Gus hadn’t seen the boy turn when he materialized from among the rocks and wind-bent scrub close to them. All the time that he had been walking alongside Haquim, peering into the sun’s fall, sometimes blinded by it, he had not seen the boy’s charge back towards them. The boy said nothing, came to Haquim, stripped off the backpack, heaved it up alongside his rifle, the food bags and the cooking pot, and there was no protest.

Then, again, with the sun in his face as it cringed below the ridge, he lost sight of the boy between the greying rocks and the darkening trees.

Haquim challenged him. ‘You think I am not able?’

‘I think nothing.’

‘I am able.’

‘If you say it then I believe you.’

‘You, you are the worry.’

‘Why am I the worry?’

‘I doubt your strength. I may have a broken knee but I have strength. When I look down at a body, at a man I have killed, my stomach does not turn, I am not a girl. Let me tell you, Mr Peake, what you saw was as nothing to what the Iraqis would do to any of us, and to you. Do you know that?’

‘Yes, I know that.’

‘Today, for you, it is simple. Tomorrow, perhaps, it is easy. After tomorrow nothing is simple, nothing is easy. After tomorrow you will not look at me as if I am an aged cripple worthy of your sympathy, you will look at yourself.’

The first shadows of darkness cloaked them as they moved towards the second target.

He had showered, cold water to keep himself awake, eaten with the family, and gone out into the evening darkness.

Major Karim Aziz had yearned, again, to give some sign to his wife as to why he went out with his heavy waterproof tunic on and with the sports bag in his hand. There was nothing he could have told her. He could have lied about ‘Special Operations’ or manufactured an excuse involving ‘continuing night exercises’, but she always knew when he was lying. She’d done her best with the cooking for the family meal, and her mother would have spent hours on her slow old feet going round the open market stalls for the vegetables they could afford and a little meat. He had risen from the table, circled it and kissed in turn her parents, his boys and his wife. Then he had dressed for the night and left them.

The colder night air had cleared the smoke and smog. His view of the edge of the driveway, the steps and the villa’s main door was crystal sharp through the sight.

As a trusted professional soldier, with twenty-six years of proven combat experience behind him, Major Karim Aziz had access to any equipment he cared to demand. It would be bought abroad and smuggled by lorry from Turkey or Jordan into Iraq. But his needs were simple. He told the officers and senior NCOs he taught at the Baghdad Military College that in the area of infantry operations the art of sniping was as old and as unchanged as any. They should beware of state-of-the-art technology. He would say that if a child learned only to count with the aid of a pocket calculator, then went into a mathematics examination without it, he would fail – but the child who had learned to add, subtract and divide in his mind would pass that examination. He had learned the measuring of distance as a primitive skill, and had never asked for range-finding binoculars.

The distance from rifle barrel to target was critical, but he was satisfied he had made an accurate measurement. With correct adjustment to the elevation of the sights, the bullet would be two metres above the point he aimed at before dropping for the kill. Too great an estimation of distance, the bullet flew high and the target lived; too low, the bullet dropped too far and the target suffered a non-fatal wound… but he was satisfied with his appraisal of the distance. It was the freshening wind gusting around the edge of the roof’s water tank that bred the anxiety.

In daylight, he could have watched the flutter of the washing hung out on the roofs of the blocks of apartments fronting on to Rashid Street, al-Jahoun Street and Kifah Street.

Through his binoculars, he would have seen the mirage of dust and insects, carried by the wind, and there would have been the drift of smoke and smog. At night, peering through the black curtain of darkness towards the illuminated window of the driveway, the steps and the front door, there was no accurate way he could tell the strength of the wind beyond the blow around the forward edge of the water tank. At that range, his bullet would be in the air for one and a quarter seconds; one surge of wind gusting for two or three hundred metres between buildings would bend the bullet’s flight a few, several, centimetres and make the difference between killing and missing. But, with his experience, he did not require a calculator to make the adjustment to his PSO-1 sight. His intuition told him to compensate for a 75-degree wind direction at a strength of ten kilometres per hour, and his adjustment to the windage turret meant that his actual aim, if the target came, would be some eleven centimetres to the left.

If he was wrong, the bullet would miss, and if the bullet missed, a black hell would fall on the conspirators and on their families. What Major Karim Aziz feared most was that he would shoot and fail.

But he believed in himself, in his ability, in the certainty of his intuition. If he had not, he would not have been chosen.

An hour after he had taken up his position, he had seen car headlights sweep in a half-circle on the driveway 545 metres from him. The radio linked to his earpiece had remained silent. He had stiffened – in case the radio malfunctioned – aimed, and rested his finger on the trigger. He had watched the woman go up the steps and through the villa’s door. She’d been flanked by men, but she was tall and they were a step behind her.

He had seen, through the sight’s lens, the auburn richness of her hair, and the proud swing of her shoulders. She was carrying boutique bags… The target had not been with her, and his finger had slid away from the trigger. A shop, importing Italian or French clothes, would have been opened especially for her in the evening. The dresses she carried in the bags would have cost, each, more than he earned as an army major in a full twelve months. Not that she would have paid, not that the bastard’s most recent mistress would have been asked to delve in her wallet or purse for banknotes.

If she had new clothes to show off, then perhaps the bastard would come.

Aziz lay on his stomach on the mat, and the stiffness crept through his limbs.

The villa in the side road behind Kifah Street was closed off behind road blocks. The pedestrian public of Baghdad were denied access to that side road and to others in the city where high dignitaries lived or kept their women. From the end of the side road, when he had reconnoitred, Major Karim Aziz had seen a wall, a patrolling pair of sentries and a solid gate. There was no chance of inserting a culvert bomb in the streets at either end of the side road, and less chance of putting a marksman closer.

He had once met the target, in Basra, in the third year of the war with Iran. He had stood in a line and waited for an hour, had been frisk-searched for weapons by agents of the Amn al-Khass. He had shaken the limp wet hand and had gazed for a moment into the cold power of the face, then watched the armour-plated car drive away. Aziz thought of himself as a patriot, but there would be many who would denounce him as a traitor.

The radio stayed open. In his ear was the constant murmur of static. If the target came, there would be three tone bleeps in his ear. The man with the radio was above a butcher’s shop on Kifah Street, opposite the side road.

The night wore on, and the streets below him gradually emptied. All the time his skin nestled against the cheek-pad on the butt of his rifle. It was because of his experience and his skill that he could concentrate totally on the small, brightly lit area enclosed by the telescopic sight.

The concentration dulled the enormity of the risk he took with his life and his family’s lives.

‘All I can tell you is that there are no British military personnel – I repeat no – stationed in northern Iraq.’

‘Are you calling me a liar?’

As soon as he’d reached a payphone at Damascus International, the regional director had called the embassy and demanded of the duty officer that someone with the rank of first secretary should be at the airport within an hour.

‘It’s best you listen carefully – there are no British military personnel deployed in northern Iraq, period.’

‘I saw him with my own eyes. Seven hours and ten minutes ago, I saw a sniper in camouflage gear with a sniper rifle. His name is Peake and he told me he comes from Guildford, Surrey… My people live on the edge there. They fulfil a humanitarian role in circumstances of difficulty and enormous personal risk. I have a responsibility for my people who are beyond the reach of help, most especially when a British marksman – I assume he’s Special Forces – is roaming loose on their territory. If I don’t have your immediate guarantee of action then, on my arrival in London, I’ll be phoning every tabloid newspaper.’

‘That won’t be necessary. I hope you have a good flight.’

They lay beside each other, waiting for the dawn, among the rocks.

Haquim said that he did not know whether the position, the network of bunkers and trenches, would have thermal-imaging equipment.

It would be two more hours before they would see, for the first time, the scattered shapes of the bunkers, the radio antenna and the unit’s pennant. There was a single pinprick of light for them to watch, as if one lamp burned in a low cement-hardened bunker and was visible through a firing-port. There were high stars in shapes – he recognized some of the formations – but there was no moon. Ahead of him was the single lamp’s light with an endless seam of blackness around it. Somewhere, close to the light, was the officer that Haquim had told him he would target. He thought the man would be young, still in the first flush of youth, and he would be sleeping, and in his mind would be the image of a girl or his mother, or his home. He never thought, lying still and stiff, feeling the damp creep through the rubber mat, through the reinforced canvas knee and elbow pads of the overalls with the hessian straps, that the target would toss on a camp bed in the horror of a nightmare of fear.

When he closed his eyes to rest them, when Haquim did not grunt and break the quiet, hallucinations played in his mind of a line of men who had gone before him, the ghosts of his trade.

He made fantasy pictures of them to go with the remembered words he had read.

He lay with the Indian fighter, Tim Murphy, who had sniped the British general Fraser in the Hudson river valley. Beside him was Major Wade of the 2nd Battalion 95th Rifles, the marksman who had held the wall of the La Haye Sainte farm barns at Waterloo. Close to him was Jim the Nailer on the makeshift parapets around the Residency at Lucknow… and there was Hesketh-Prichard, his favourite, the big-game hunter turned sniper, who had said Germans in their trenches should be treated merely as ‘dangerous soft-skinned game’… and there was Billy Sing, the Australian who had shot 150 Turks at Gallipoli.

There was the marine at Saipan in the Pacific, who had destroyed a Japanese machinegun nest at 1,200 yards with his vintage Springfield rifle, and the soldier at Hue in Vietnam who was seen to gain a kill at a measured 1,400 yards. They were all around him, close and near to him. The heritage was passed down to him, hand to hand, rifle to rifle, target to target. Would any of them, in the darkness before dawn, in the cold of a slow wait, have cared whether the chosen target slept easily or shook in the hold of a nightmare?

‘I’m Carol Manning. This is Captain Willet.’

‘What time is it?’

‘If it matters, it’s eight minutes to five. Don’t get any persecuted ideas that I enjoy being out of bed at this time of night. It makes it legally easier if you invite us in.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I’m Security Service, he’s some sort of soldier. Are you inviting us in?’

‘If I don’t…’

‘Then my foot stays in the door while we ring for the police to come with a search warrant. I wouldn’t advise that – things get broken then.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘Because the electoral roll tells us this is the home of Augustus Henderson Peake.’

‘This is Gus’s place, yes.’

‘You’re inviting us in? Thank you, that’s being sensible.’

She stood aside to let them pass. Willet had done dawn raids in the old Belfast days.

The woman’s confusion, failure to demand credentials and proper explanations, did not surprise him.

‘Are you Peake’s wife?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘What are you then? Tenant, lodger, common-law, partner?’

‘Girlfriend, I suppose you’d call it, maybe just friend. My name’s Meg. If it matters, I’m divorced, I have no children, I’m a junior-school teacher.’

‘It’s not important. Where is he? Where’s Peake?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t the faintest idea.’

At last, the way it always was, a little spark had come to the woman’s eyes. Ken Willet, captain, detached from his regiment to duty at the Ministry of Defence, heard Ms Manning swear quietly. The woman’s nightdress hung like a heavy, bulky shroud over her body.

‘Maybe I should make a cup of tea,’ Willet said.

‘No, we will.’

It was an instruction. Ms Manning turned and gave him the eye. He understood. The kitchen for the women, and for him the search through the living room and the bedrooms.

Willet had never worked alongside the Security Service before. His telephone had gone an hour and thirty-five minutes earlier. It was about a sniper, he’d been told by the night desk, and he knew a little about sniping – though not as much as he’d have wished – and he’d be picked up. Throwing on his clothes, he’d heard a horn hoot down in the street.

He’d expected a smelly old blighter in a dirty raincoat, his image of a counter-intelligence officer, and she’d reached over, held open the door for him, then accelerated away before he’d settled, before he’d belted up. She’d grumbled all the way down about the assignment, the time, the condition of the car, her rates of pay, the weather… but she drove well and fast.

He started to search. He heard the whistle of the kettle and the clatter of mugs. Carol Manning was expert at her work, and the talk had already begun. He heard the murmur of the woman’s voice.

‘Everything in Gus’s life is about shooting at targets with that old rifle. I’m not complaining, but I come after shooting, way after… I suppose we need each other. We go to the cinema, we watch television, we eat together. Sometimes I stay over, sometimes I don’t – never on a Friday because that’s the night before shooting, never on a Saturday because that’s cleaning the rifle after shooting. I’m just around, whether he notices, whether he doesn’t. It suits me and it suits him, but the shooting’s what matters.’

The silver spoons were thrown carelessly at the back of a drawer, and he didn’t think they’d been polished since the day they were handed out as prizes.

‘He cut his hair short four years ago, not because I asked him to, but because he hadn’t shot well one day and he thought the wind blowing his hair across his face had distracted him. Three years ago, he gave up smoking overnight, not because I wanted him to but he thought it affected his breathing pattern in the moment of aiming and firing. We jog three evenings a week, but that’s because a target marksman needs to be at top fitness. Look, up there, there’s a diet sheet. He barely eats before he shoots so that his stomach’s comfortable. He lives for his shooting. For pure happiness, he should just put up a tent on Stickledown Range, at Bisley, and live there. He’s in this club, the Historic Breech loading and Small-arms Association, and they fire these old rifles. There’s a Martini-Henry and a Mauser, a Mosin-Nagant M1891, a Garand, and the secretary shoots a Sharp’s breech-loader. I know what they’re called because I take a picnic and go with him most times, not that I get any conversation. They’re funny people – nothing wrong with them, they’re decent – and they’re obsessed with these rifles that are a hundred years old. All they talk about when they’re shooting is wind-deflection and the humidity that affects the fall of the bullet, ammunition quality, and holding the zero. Do you know?

They were quite upset when he didn’t turn up for the last club shoot. Jenkins, that’s the secretary, rang me – rather aggressively, I thought – to find out where Gus was, why he hadn’t been there. Was he ill? Why hadn’t he phoned? There’s been complaints from the group that they’d shot poorly because Gus wasn’t there. They shoot at eight hundred yards, right up to a thousand, and Gus wasn’t there, no explanation, and they couldn’t perform – and that was Gus’s fault. He’s the best one amongst them, you see, far and away the best, and they need him. I wouldn’t call them friends, but they lean on each other. They’re all a little sad, really, to an outsider – not that they’d think so.’

In the back of another drawer, not hidden away, was a packet of photographs that showed posed groups of men who held old rifles and stood or knelt as a celebration of comradeship. They were not sorted, not in order, as if they were unimportant and seldom looked at.

‘He’s very ordinary – that’s not a criticism – no interest in making an impression. I met the people he works with at last year’s Christmas party. I think they were quite surprised to see him turn up with a woman… I didn’t tell them, and none of them mentioned the shooting, didn’t know about it. He hardly shares it with me. We were drifting along, a boat on a canal, and then the letter came – you know about the letter, do you?’

First he discovered the keyring, hanging from a thin nail on the underside of the bed’s wooden leg, then the gun cabinet bolted to the wall at the back of the wardrobe. He recognized the Lee Enfield No. 4, with the telescopic sight, and the box of ammunition of match grade with the Full Metal Jacket of cupro-nickel casing. He locked the cabinet, returned the keyring to its hiding place.

‘I’d met him after work, on Newlands Corner. It’s good for running there – it’s wonderful, because you can go for miles, high up and with the wind on you, and the village lights all below you. You run better in the dark, it’s liberating. He was quite chatty on the way home, and I thought I’d stay. We’re not much good, either of us, at the sex bit, but some nights it’s better than others – why am I telling you this? His post was on the mat. There was a letter from his grandfather, and another letter with it. He just sat in his chair and read the other letter again and again, and never showed it me. I didn’t even bother to cook, there was no point, and I went back to my place.’

In an old folder in an unlocked desk, held together with a bulged paper-clip, were the scoring charts. Under the heading ‘ALL-IN SCORE DIAGRAM FOR LONG-RANGE TARGET’ were the tables for wind-deflection, weather conditions, and the target circles.

There were no neat crosses in outer, inner, magpie or bull. All the crosses, on every scoring chart, were in the V-Bull circle, which was sixteen inches in diameter, and the ranges for the charts were eight hundred yards, nine hundred yards and a thousand yards.

He felt a sense of respect.

‘He packed up, it was like he was closing down his life here. I’ve never made demands of Gus, certainly I’ve never pestered him with questions, but I did ask, “What’s it about?

Where’s it from, the letter?” He didn’t answer. I know he went to see his grandfather the next day, but that’s all I know, and that’s nothing… He paid off all his bills. He dealt with everything outstanding. He spent more and more time away, before he finally headed off. I’d be here, and sometimes he’d show up late and dump his stuff in the hall, sometimes his briefcase and sometimes his rucksack. Old people do that, don’t they, when they’re going to go into hospital, deal with everything? We didn’t have much of a life by other people’s standards but, God, I miss him.’

In the hall, on a line of coat-hangers behind a curtain screen, were old, dry, mud-smeared trousers and a patched all-weather coat that hadn’t been cleaned. On a hook was a wide-brimmed, shapeless hat. He noted that there were no boots on the floor below the hangers. Of course, a man would have taken his boots… Later he found tax documents in the name of Peake, Augustus Henderson, and electricity, telephone and gas bills, cheque book stubs and bank statements. He noted the last withdrawal and whistled to himself in surprise – eight thousand pounds taken out and the deposit account almost cleared.

‘I came round two weeks ago. I thought that if he was here I could cook a meal for him. He was packing. It wasn’t a suitcase but the rucksack, and everything he put in was old, should have been thrown away years ago. I never did get round to cooking anything.

We made love on the bed beside the rucksack, and I wept all through it – it’s none of your business, but it was the best loving we ever did. He seemed to need it. I woke up early, and he’d gone… I don’t know why because he didn’t tell me, and I don’t know where he is.’

The music beside the stereo was bland, popular classics and easy listening. The books on the shelves were all technical shooting volumes. The pictures were anonymous prints of dull, well-worn country views. He thought that target marksmanship with an historic rifle consumed the man’s life – but there was nothing to tell Ken Willet, from what he rummaged through and saw, of the soul of the man. But there had to be something more, or he’d be here, not slogging in the missing boots through northern Iraq.

‘He’s just a nice man, a good man. I can’t tell you anything more.’

They left her.

Carol Manning drove the car away, down the road below the cathedral, from a cramped and unremarkable two-bedroomed maisonette.

‘Well?’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Is he a military wannabe – into all that Rambo crap?’

‘No. He shoots at targets with an historic weapon, and with great skill. His rifle is fifty-plus years old. He’s an enthusiast.’

‘A bloody anorak? Like one of those idiots on a platform writing down train numbers?’

Willet said evenly, ‘He shoots very straight. He wins prizes for hitting targets at a range of up to a thousand yards.’

‘It’s one thing to hit targets. What about killing people?’

‘I found nothing to indicate that he has the slightest interest in the military situation in-’

‘So what the hell’s he doing there?’

‘She said the letter was passed on by his grandfather. Ask him.’

‘Can’t today. Health and Safety says we’re entitled to a full day off after a night call-out. I’ve a lieu day tomorrow. Have to be the day after.’

‘I thought it was urgent.’

‘We do have entitlements. Doesn’t the army?’

‘Do you mind if I have a cigarette?’ Willet was reaching into his jacket pocket for the packet and his lighter.

‘It’s Service policy that no cigarettes, cigars or pipes are to be used in our vehicles.’

Willet said brightly, ‘Aren’t we lucky? Where he is, stomping through northern Iraq, passive smoking would seem low down on the problem list.’

It was a cheap point. He should have, but hadn’t, apologized. He wanted, rather desperately, to know more of a man who had packed up his life and gone without training and without military background to fight in someone else’s war.

‘I’d like, Ms Manning, to be with you on this one and follow it through. I’d like to learn about him.’

Her eyes never left the road. She asked brutally, ‘How long do you give him?’

‘Not long. Sorry, not long at all, but he’d be an idiot not to know that. If he’s gone to fight, front line, as a sniper, alongside irregulars, against a trained modern army, then he won’t survive. No chance at all.’

Chapter Three

‘I have to leave you, Mr Peake,’ the voice whispered in his ear.

Gus had not been thinking of Meg, or of the office at Davies amp; Sons, or of his parents and the old wing commander (retired) who was his grandfather, and he had not been thinking of the Stickledown crew. They were all erased from his mind, as if a new life had replaced them.

He did not care whether Meg had slept that last night in bed at her home or whether she had been in his bed. He did not consider that his parents might have tossed through the last night, and those of the weeks before, in anxiety for his safety, or that they held his grandfather responsible for his going.

‘You have what you need, Mr Peake. You know what you will do?’

His view, through the fine netting over his face, stretched away from the rocky outcrop where he lay with Haquim across a slope of yellowed grass in which were set clumps of bright flowers, mauve, white and blue. There was then a ridge where the wind had eroded the soil and exposed more of the grey stone, then a valley gorge from which he could hear the tumble of a stream, then the further slope of the valley, pocked with more outcrops and more flower clusters. The sun was behind him, and intruding against the gentle blue of the sky was a single military pennant. Gus had a moment of doubt.

‘What if he doesn’t come?’

Gus could see a clean-cut low slit in the forward bunker’s facing wall of pale grey concrete, and further back was a similar shape over which the pennant flew. Between the forward bunker and the pennant was a narrow column of smoke, drifting haphazardly, but the pennant gave Gus an indication of the wind strength at what would be the end of the bullet’s flight, if he had a target to aim for. When his eye was off the sight, he watched the colours of the flowers and the movement of grass tufts, because the sway of the petals and the waft of the grass stems told him what would be the deflection of the bullet when it left the barrel at 2,970 feet per second, at 2,640 revolutions per second, if he had a target.

‘I know the way of officers. Each morning, however junior, if he has responsibility, he will inspect all his positions.’

‘What if I don’t see him? What if he’s going low through the communications trench?’

‘He is an officer of the Iraqi army. He will not permit his soldiers to see him cower.’

‘The radio?’

‘Do you think I have nothing more to do than to place you in position? Of course there is the radio. My problem is the radio, the wire, the mines, and my problem is wondering whether you make a hit. You have one chance. Everything depends on you taking that chance.’

Haquim’s hand caught at the back of his hood and held his hair, vice-like, then loosened it. It was not a gesture of friendship, or of support. Gus thought the man had tried to reinforce what he had said. They depended on him and there would be the one chance with the one shot. If Gus missed there would not be a second. The radio would be used to call up reinforcements; the advantage of surprise would be lost.

A different man, one from Augustus Henderson Peake’s past, might have crumpled under the burden of that responsibility. But the past was obliterated. A man had told him about positive thinking – can, will, must – the critical importance of mental conditioning, and the corrosive effect of stress. He had no time to wallow in the past. First, at dawn, he had estimated the distance, then confirmed his estimate with the range-finding binoculars, and all the time he had studied the flowers and the grass fronds, the smoke and the pennant for the wind. His mind was as tunnelled as his view through the ten-times magnification of the sight. Alone, spread-eagled among the rocks behind his rifle, his concentration only settling on the clear window through the sight’s lens, Gus never saw the goatherd and his flock’s slow progress far to the right.

The goatherd understood weapons. Hooked across the width of his back was a Russian-made SKS46 carbine, mass-manufactured half a century before. Its worn barrel was incapable of accurate shooting. If a wild dog was harrying his goats he could drive it off by firing over it, but to hit it he would have to be within fifty paces, and he could have thrown a stone that far. But the rifle was as much a part of him as the knife at his belt or the heavy footwear that carried him between the high grazing lands; it was a segment of his manhood. His friendship of more than twenty years with a shepherd was the most likely source of a new weapon.

His friend had access to influence and to weapons. Over the last few weeks, the goatherd had been worming towards the direct request to his friend that a rifle might be found for him – not a new one, a working replacement for his carbine.

The previous morning, he had heard the single shot. He had been an hour’s walk with his flock from his friend’s home, with the first warmth of the day’s sun on his face, when he had heard the long, rippling echo. He knew from the sound of its carry that the bullet had travelled over a great distance, further than his friend’s Kalashnikov was capable of firing. He had left the goats in a small sloping valley and gone on his stomach to a clutch of rocks that gave him a vantage-point above his friend’s home.

His eyesight was as keen as his hearing. From the cool of the early morning, through the heat of the day, into the cold of the evening, he had watched the home of his friend, the body of his friend, and the killer. He had seen the rifle that had taken his friend’s life, and the sight mounted on it. He had waited in his secret place until the killer, and the murderers with him, had moved off into the dusk.

In the darkness, keeping the goats with him by using the reed whistle to which they responded, he had gone slowly and quietly towards the military bunkers. He felt the anger aroused by a blood vendetta – and if he were fortunate, and brought good information, he might be given a new rifle.

The pennant flew slackly over the bunkers, and he whacked his goats’ backs and haunches with a short stick each time they found sparse grass to feed on. He hurried them forward so that he could report what he had seen.

The lieutenant was woken.

He cursed viciously at the conscript, no younger than himself, who had woken him and not brought fresh coffee. He threw on his uniform, dragged on his boots, then yelled at the soldier that the boots were not cleaned, and that a fresh shirt had not been laid out for him.

He bent his head, emerged from the dank shadows of his bunker and strode along the trench connecting it to the command post. Only the lieutenant, because of his rank and education, was permitted to use the radio. He made and received all transmissions. The set bleeped, a red light winked for attention.

He slotted on the headphones and threw the switches. He responded to the call from Kirkuk. There was anxiety. The forward observer, codenamed Call-sign 17, had now missed three transmissions: probably a malfunction, or maybe storm damage to the booster antenna. He was ordered to check the cause of the malfunction, to retrieve the radio if he believed the fault lay there, or to visit the booster antenna on the summit point to the west if that was the likely area of the problem. He would respond, of course, to the order, and immediately. He ended the transmission.

The lieutenant cursed again. To reach the location of Call-sign 17 he must go on foot.

There was no track passable to a vehicle between his own position and the Call-sign’s location. It was six kilometres across country, and it would be six kilometres back. To cover twelve kilometres over that ground of rock and bog, where he could stumble and bark the skin on his knees on the rock or sink to his thighs in hidden mud, would take the entire day, in the company of the peasants he commanded. He was twenty-one. He was the eldest son of a family of the Tikriti tribe. He had a future ahead of him as bright as that of his father who commanded an artillery regiment in the Basra region and his uncle who led an armoured division of the Republican Guard facing the Kuwaiti frontier. But the future, bright and glittering and perhaps one day offering him a place in the Hijaz Amn al-Khass unit that protected the President, was deferred until a year of military service in the north was completed. He hated the place. It was cold, wet, harsh, and he was marooned in a small complex of damp bunkers with only idiots for company. He hoped that one day, soon, the President, the leader of the Tikriti tribe, would give the order for them to mount up in the armoured personnel carriers and ride further north, right to the borders, and bring the bastard Kurds back under the authority of Baghdad.

There was an old corporal, double his age, in the position, the only man with whom he could talk, and each time he told the corporal of his hope that, one day, the President would unleash the columns of armoured personnel carriers to drive north, the corporal gazed at him as if he were a fool and knew nothing. When his duty was over, when he was posted back to Kirkuk, he would see that the corporal suffered for his silent insolence.

He came out of the command post. Four men would go with him to the location of Call-sign 17, leaving four and the corporal behind in the bunkers.

There was coffee now, steaming but failing to improve his temper, and the lieutenant said that he would take his breakfast when he had inspected the position, then start the cross-country trek. And the lazy bastards, with the corporal, would sleep all day without him there to goad them on with their work. The early-morning light was into his face, and sprang little diamonds of brightness from the wire that ringed the areas in front of and flanking the position where the mines were laid.

The corporal led him on the morning inspection. The corporal always scurried forward, like a hurrying rat, along the communications trenches. He had been in Kuwait nine years before, at the time of the Mother of all Victories.

The lieutenant never bent his back. It was not right that an officer of the Tikriti tribe should cower, and he knew of no danger confronting at him as he went along the trench.

He rounded a corner reinforced with sandbags and rocks. A soldier had laid his rifle down in the mud and was urinating onto the side of the trench. With his full strength, the lieutenant punched the man in the back of the head, saw him stagger and crawl away.

He went to the forward bunker of rough concrete, around which were defensive coils of wire where the mines were laid most thickly. He went inside. He thought the soldier on sentry in the bunker had shit there. He could smell it. A candle was guttering low, throwing shadows towards the firing port through which the morning sunshine streamed.

It would have burned all night. It was expressly forbidden to have lights inside the bunkers during the darkness hours. He came behind the sentry, peered over his shoulder and out through the gun port. To the extreme right he saw the distant movement of the goatherd and his animals. To the left and ahead there was nothing, just the rock, the green of the grass over the bog areas, and the wind-flattened small bare trees. He steadied himself and kicked the sentry hard. When the sentry fell to the bunker floor, whimpering, he kicked him again, belted the hands that covered the sentry’s groin, then squeezed out the candle flame with his fingers.

He knew they loathed him, the corporal included. His father had told him, and his uncle, that his men should be more afraid of him than of any enemy.

He stepped out of the bunker. He swore again, because he now had the sentry’s shit on his boot. He was not thinking of home, or of the daughter of his father’s cousin, or of his mother, or of the discotheque music that he played on the radio beside his bed, or of a bright and glittering future… but of the shit on his boot.

The corporal was going on down the trench, bent, scampering.

The lieutenant died, not gloriously, as he wiped the sentry’s shit off his boot, spreadeagled against a sandbag.

The bullet came into the broad width of his back, created an instant hydraulic shockwave through his life organs, yawed in his chest cavity and destroyed the shape of his heart, making a hole the size of a well-juiced orange as it burst out past his tunic buttons. Misshapen, tumbling, it flew past the corporal’s head and splattered into the mud wall at the back of the communications trench.

His life lingered a few seconds before he died. His last sensations were those of a burning numbness through his upper body. His last sight was of the corporal turning to stare at him in wide-eyed shock. His last hearing was the hammer of a machine-gun beginning to fire. His last thought was that, without him, the peasants would break and run.

He was the future of the regime, a favoured son, and he died with a sentry’s shit on his boot.

The goatherd had heard the single shot, as he had heard it the day before. For a moment he froze in his tracks, and the silence settled, then the machine-gun started up.

He watched the bright lines of tracers arc across the open ground and fall on the roofs and walls of the bunkers.

He whistled sharply and started to run. The persistence of the goatherd’s whistling and the clatter of the machine-gun, and the blast of individual rifles firing on automatic, drove his animals in flight after him, as if he were their salvation.

He set off, at the best speed he could muster with the goats, for a long journey across pathless ground. It would take him all morning and most of the afternoon before he reached the next army unit based below the high ground, at the Victory City, where he sold his goats’ cheese and their meat.

The guilt hit him, sea waves of remorse broke over Gus.

He had seen the face of the target, the shoulders and the upper chest, before the target had gone down into the forward bunker, and the face had been that of a young man. A smooth-skinned face, with a dark moustache, and unkempt hair, as if he had just risen from his bed. All the time he had waited, while the target was inside the forward bunker, while the sight was locked on the few feet of ground outside the entry to the bunker, he had been unable to discard that face, and he had played pictures with the life of the officer – had seen him standing proud in the doorway of a home, had seen his mother kiss him, his father shake his hand, had seen a girl standing back and shy but with the love-light in her eyes, had seen him walk away from home with the big pack on his back, waving a farewell. He had seen the tears in the eyes of the mother, the father and the girl.

The officer had come out of the bunker and stopped. Gus’s aim was on his back. It was as if the target stopped to blink in the sun after the darkness inside the bunker. He had fired. The rifle was fitted with a muzzle brake that reduced the recoil and the jump of the barrel to a minimum. His view through the sight had been constant. He could follow the flight of the bullet. Some called the vortex of the bullet’s journey the ‘wash’, others called it the ‘contrail’. Whatever it was, he could see it, a swirl and disturbance that fluttered the air. He had seen the bullet’s track all the way across the valley and he had seen it strike. Arms had gone high into the air, and the target had fallen.

Then the chatter of the machine-gun had begun.

He had tried and tried again to clear the face of the officer from his mind… The machine-gun that Haquim had sited played a pattern of fire onto the bunker above which was the radio antenna. There had been sporadic return fire. He understood why Haquim had left him, alone and with his guilt, to go back and position the machine-gun. With the officer gone, only a very brave man would have risked exposing himself to the battering of the machine-gun shells on the bunker. The peshmerga had pushed forward in a straggling line.

He had watched her, then lost her as she descended into the valley, and had seen her running up the far slope towards the ridge, the wire and the pennant. Through the telescopic sight, he could see her urge the men forward with a wild sweep of her arm. He had raked back across the ground, through the line of men with whom the boy ran, then found open ground and had seen Haquim limping behind them. When they were close to the wire and bunching to go through the corridors between the mines, slashing the view of his telescopic sight, he had seen the soldiers in flight from their bunkers. Weapons and helmets were thrown down. They took their wounded with them, but not the corpse of their officer.

She was on the roof of the command bunker snatching down the pennant. It was then that the guilt died, when he, Augustus Henderson Peake, shed the last trace of remorse.

She stood on the bunker’s flat roof, punching the clean, clear air around her in triumph.

He felt a desperate state of exhilaration, and was not shamed by it. Time after time, as the peshmerga gathered around and below her, she raised her fist to the skies.

The lines of the sight were on her in her moment of victory. If a marksman as good as himself had had that aim then she was dead. He collected up his equipment, stood and massaged the muscles in his legs to restore the circulation and stretched, arching his back to ease the stiffness.

Slowly, with an uneven, unsteady stride, Gus walked towards the bunkers.

The life of the corporal hung on a slender thread.

If he were believed his flight would be forgiven. If he were not, he would be shot as a deserter.

Across an endless wilderness of rock plains and marshes, up escarpment cliffs, down into gullies with swollen streams, he had led his men to safety. As the sun fell, he had reached the village and the company-sized unit of mechanized infantry.

He sat in the corridor outside the captain’s room in the biggest house in the village that was classified by the regime as a Victory City. The cries of his two wounded men echoed down the corridor. He sat on the floor with his hands clasped on his head. If his hands moved the guard kicked him. He recited in his mind, over and over, the story he had told the captain.

‘I often said to him that he should always use the cover of the communications trenches. I do not wish to speak ill of a martyred hero but he did not listen. Major Aziz of the Baghdad Military College can confirm that I attended his course two years ago. He taught us about the sniper. It was what he called “crack and thump”. You hear the crack beside you, then you hear the thump from the firing position. If the crack and the thump are together then the sniper is close. The major said that you would know how far away the sniper was by the time between the crack and the thump. It was between one and two seconds – so I think that is about seven hundred metres. We all fired but none of us, even with a good Dragunov, could hit the targets at that range. Only he, and he is the best, was accurate. It was a very expert sniper that killed the lieutenant. We are forbidden to use the radio, but it was impossible anyway to reach it because there was heavy machine-gun fire at the approach trench to that bunker. We had wounded, we were about to be overrun.

There were many scores of saboteurs attacking us. I have many times served my country in northern Iraq, but I never heard of a “primitive” who could shoot so straight at seven hundred metres with a rifle. It was my duty to report it.’

If they did not believe him he would be kicked again, hit around the head with a rifle butt, taken out of the building, stood against the wall and shot. It was the truth: in all the years he had fought in the north he had never confronted a ‘primitive’, a tribesman, who could shoot with accuracy at such a distance. He could hear the low voices behind the door as the captain and his two lieutenants discussed what he had told them. He had not mentioned that a woman led the final charge towards the bunkers because that would not have been believed.

The door swung open.

The captain stood over him, took the final breath from a cigarette, then ground it out against the corporal’s forehead. He screamed. He heard the rasping voice denounce him as a coward, as a disgrace to his unit. The kicks came fast and hard into his body. He had betrayed the sacred trust of the Iraqi army. The rifle butt crashed down on to the hands that protected his scalp. And then he smelled the stale old stench of the animals.

The goatherd had been brought into the corridor by two soldiers. His arms were held tight.

The corporal believed that his ribs were broken and he felt the blood on his face. He listened to what the goatherd told the captain, and it was a second thread on which his life rested.

‘It was a long shot that killed my friend who was a true and loyal servant of the Iraqi army, and the same long shot this morning took the honoured life of the officer. I saw the man who fires the long shots. Yesterday afternoon, before he went to walk in the night towards the place where he shot the officer, he sat outside my friend’s house. He has a big rifle, the devil’s rifle, bigger than I have and you have. I do not think he is a peshmerga. He wore clothes that also I have never seen before. It is only when he moves that you see him. If he does not move then he is like a rock or a pile of earth. I have never seen a man like this devil before.’

The corporal reached forward and took the ankle of the goatherd and held it tight, as if to thank him for the saving of his life.

He crawled to his feet and he was not kicked, not hit. He heard the captain inside his room shouting on the radio.

He whispered to the goatherd, ‘You did not tell them about the woman…’

‘I told them what would be believed.’

It was his birthday, and he had forgotten it.

When he had woken that morning, after three hours’ sleep, the children had been round the bed and had shaken him so that he could open the presents they had brought him. His elder son had given him a pen of sterling silver, and he had unwrapped the white shirt offered by his younger son. His wife’s present was a narrow gold ring that fitted easily onto the little finger of his right hand. He had kissed each of them, and thanked them hoarsely.

Major Karim Aziz had gone to work in his office at the Baghdad Military College, and in the afternoon he had locked his door, pulled down the blinds, put his feet on the desk and slept for two and a quarter precious hours. As he slept, the fingers of his left hand clutched the gold ring. Before drifting off, he had thought that it was as though Leila sought to bring him back to her, to wrestle him from the grasp of devils. It had been a good, deep sleep, free of dreams and nightmares.

He had returned home refreshed for the family meal in celebration of his forty-fifth birthday. The children had changed from their school uniforms to their best clothes, his wife wore a fine blouse of Indian silk, her father was in his favourite suit and her mother in the dress she took out of the cupboard only on special occasions. At another time, on another day, he would have criticized his wife for the extravagance of the presents and the cost of the food she served, and there was a bottle of Lebanese wine that had been imported across the Jordanian border. But the wine poured for him stayed in his glass, because he did not dare to cloud his mind. He picked at the rice and cubes of curried beef and ate little, because he didn’t dare to fill his stomach with food. What hurt most, they all tried so hard to make it a happy day for him… and he could tell them nothing.

He resented what they had spent on him. Only at work, only at the Baghdad Military College, was his life not subject to the sapping frustration caused by the shortages. An American had said that Iraq would be bombed back to the Stone Age of history.

And what else was there to talk about around the table? Any conversation inevitably entailed more discussion of the shortages, whether in the street markets, at school or the children’s hospital. He ate little and drank nothing, and the silences around the table grew longer.

The telephone rang. Wafiq ran to answer it, hurrying to escape the quiet of the celebration.

A year after his marriage he had been posted to the Soviet Union for six months to learn infantry tactics. He had written to his wife twice every week while he was away, and babbled conversation to her of what he had seen for days after his return. Two years later he had been in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley teaching those tactics to militiamen, and he had told her everything when he had come home. On leave from the battle fronts of Khorramshahr and Susangerd, he had written home of the war with Iran – careful letters that would not offend the censors – and he had talked to her on leave, walking on the esplanades beside the Tigris river where he would not be heard, of the horror of the street fighting. He had held back nothing of his times in Kirkuk and Mosul and Arbil in the north. Everything he had seen in Kuwait City, at the start and at the end, when he had fled from the advance of the American tanks on the charnel-house road through the Mutla Pass, he had shared with her, because he loved her. Now, he had nothing to talk of, and he pecked at his food, and her eyes never left the ring she had given him.

The boy came back, said the call was for him.

He pushed aside his plate, scraped back his chair, and went into the hallway. He lifted the telephone and gave his name.

The call was from a duty officer at the al-Rashid camp of the Military Intelligence, the Estikhabarat. He was ordered to attend the al-Rashid camp at nine o’clock the following morning. The call was terminated.

He rocked on his feet. It was a familiar pattern, known about by every officer of his rank and experience but never talked of. The Estikhabarat always summoned a suspect to the al-Rashid barracks, but watched his home through the night to see if he fled, and to block him if he did. He knew of such calls, and of the desks cleared the following day by strangers, then occupied by new men, and of the officers who were never seen again after they had travelled to the al-Rashid complex.

Major Karim Aziz breathed hard, and the sweat ran on his stomach and down the small of his back.

Around the table, beyond his sight and reach, his family – everyone he loved – was waiting for his return and wondering why he was so troubled.

He went into the bedroom, took his heavy coat from the hook on the door, and knelt to pull the sports bag out from under the bed. From the small cupboard beside the bed, always locked and closed from the sight of his wife and his sons, he took a Makharov automatic pistol and a single hand grenade. It was possible, with planning, for a general to cross the frontier if he used his authority, or his relatives, or a dignitary, but for a major at the Baghdad Military College, with his family, it would be a journey of exceptional difficulty. He put the hand grenade under his shirt, tightened his belt so that it could not slip down, and reassured himself that his fingers could feel the loop of the pin.

He went back into the dining room. The table had been cleared. Leila was coming out of the kitchen with the cake her mother had made that day. It was iced, decorated, it would be sugary sweet, the cake he liked best. He kissed Wafiq, and the boy stared down at his table place; then he kissed Hani and the tears ran on the child’s cheeks; then his wife; then her mother and father.

He could tell them nothing.

All of them, the officers who went under orders to the al-Rashid camp, believed in the faint hope of survival, went with the hesitant innocence of lambs herded to the butcher’s knife, deluding themselves that the anxiety was unfounded.

He stood in the kitchen doorway, holding the sports bag, and faced them. Behind him was the hallway, the front door, the concrete pad where the car was parked, the shadows of the poorly lit street. If the anxiety was well founded, the agents of the Estikhabarat would already be in those shadows, watching his house. Sometimes the bodies were brought back, if their families paid a few dinars for the bullets that had been used.

He turned away from them, switched off the kitchen light, then went out through the back door. He slipped past the new building where her parents slept, and scrambled over the wall at the end of the yard.

He would spend one more night beside the water tank on the flat roof. And, if they were waiting for him, if they were there to take him, he would pull the pin from the RG-42 high-explosive fragmentation grenade. Major Karim Aziz knew of no other road he should follow.

He thought it was his duty, in the name of Arab nationalism, socialistic modernism and his country, to go to the roof and pray that all was not known and that the bastard would step into the handkerchief of light on the driveway. He wondered if, without him, they would eat the cake… He walked briskly. Alone, without the responsibility of his family, he could again cloak himself with the assurance, confidence, self-esteem that marked him down as a master of the military science of sniping. It was why he had been recruited.

AUGUSTUS HENDERSON PEAKE.

Profile of subject compiled by K Willet (capt.), seconded MoD to Security Services.

Role of K Willet (capt.): In liaison with Ms Carol Manning (Security Service), to assess AHP’s capability as a marksman, and the effect of his presence in northern Iraq on military/political situation in that region.

AHP is British national, born 25-10-1965. Resident at 14D, Longfellow Drive, Guildford, Surrey.

Background: AHP’s presence in northern Iraq witnessed by Benedict Curtis (Regional Director of

Protect the Children registered charity) on 14 April.

AHP seen wearing combat sniper’s camouflage kit, with unidentified sniper rifle. No known past or present links with Ministry of Defence or other government agencies.

1. Conclusions after search of AHP’s home (see above). Subject is a competition marksman of the highest quality using a vintage weapon (Lee Enfield

No. 4). From his undemonstrative lifestyle, I would consider him to be of placid temperament and not subject to personal conceit; necessary characteristics of a champion target shooter. I found, however, no signs of his having made a study of military sniping – no books, magazines etc. – and no evidence of any interest in that area. Also, there were no indications as to the motivation of AHP in going to northern Iraq.

At first sight, he presents the picture of an eccentric enigma.

SUMMARY: Without strong motivation, military background, and a hunter’s mindset, I would rate his chances of medium-term survival as extremely slim.

(To be continued.)

Willet shut down his computer. Had he sold the man short? Without motivation, the background, and the necessary mindset, Gus Peake was as naked as the day he was born.

What a bloody fool…

‘So serious, so heavy…’ The twinkle was in her eyes, as if she mocked him.

Gus had watched her approach. She had moved quietly and effortlessly over the rocks towards him. He had lit a small fire that was deep down and sheltered by the crag stones.

He was wrapped in a blanket. A half-moon was up. She had come amongst her men: some reached up to touch her hand, some brushed their fingers against the heavy material of her trousers, and he’d heard her gentle words of encouragement. Haquim followed her, then the boy.

‘Maybe tired.’

She sat close to him. She had no blanket but she did not shiver. ‘I do not think so, I think angry.’

‘Maybe angry.’

‘It is the start of a journey – why angry?’

‘In fact, it’s the end of a day… and I think you’re probably the reason for my anger.’

‘Me?’ She pouted as if he amused her. ‘Why?’

‘It was just indulgence. You stood on the bunker, you waved your arms around like a kid on a football pitch. Anyone within half a mile could have shot you.’

Haquim hovered behind her, and the boy. She waved them back as a parent would have dismissed children. ‘Were you frightened for me? It is because I lead that I have the strength to make men follow me.’

‘In the American Civil War, at the Battle of Spotsylvania, the last words spoken by General John Sedgwick were, “What, what, men, dodging? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” He didn’t say any more, he was dead. Someone shot him.’

‘Who else can make the men follow them? Haquim? I do not think so

… Agha Bekir, agha Ibrahim. They won’t lead. I lead. Because I am at the front, not frightened, I will lead all the way to the flame of Baba Gurgur that burns over Kirkuk. The simple people pray to the flame as if it were God, and I will lead them there. Kirkuk is the goal. If we must die, then we must die for Kirkuk. We will sacrifice everything that we have -everything, our lives, our homes, our loved ones – for Kirkuk. It is only I who can take the people there. Do you believe me?’

Her eyes never left him. She was, he thought, neither beautiful nor pretty. There was a strange simplicity about her. He would have been hard put to describe it to a man who had never seen her. Her nose was too prominent, her mouth too wide. She had high, pronounced cheekbones, and a jaw that showed nothing of compromise. To a man who had never met her, he would have talked of her eyes. They were big, open, and at the heart of them were the circles of soft brown. With her eyes, he thought, she could win a man or destroy him. He had seen the way the peshmerga clustered around her to win a single short spasm of approval from her eyes, which never wavered, stared into his. Gus looked down and tried to snatch a tone of bitterness.

‘I have to believe you, I have no choice – but the “simple people” won’t get to see their flame if you are shot, prancing on a bunker.’

‘Is that the limit of your anger?’

‘You’ve been ignoring me…’

‘Oh, a criticism because I have forgotten my social manners. That is a very serious mistake. My grandfather tells me that the Iraqi Arabs in Baghdad used to say that all the British taught them was “to walk on the pavements and iron our trousers”, to behave like them and you, Augustus Peake. I apologize for my rudeness. Between my duties of raising and leading an army, I must speak to my newest recruit. Don’t sulk. If I spend time with you, favour you, then the peshmerga believe I bend my knee to a foreigner.

Because of foreigners, where are we? We are hopeless, lost, destitute. We were abandoned by the foreigners in 1975, in 1991, in 1996 – is that enough for you? You saw in 1991 what was our fate when we trusted the word of foreigners – on the mountain, starved, dying, fighting for food thrown down from the sky, for a few hours you saw it. If you believe you are superior, should have special attention – sheets to sleep on, comfort, food to your liking – go home. Turn round, take your rifle, go back, and read of me when I take my people to Kirkuk. Is there any other cause for anger?’

She lectured him gently, tauntingly, but with a soft sweetness at her mouth. It was as if she manipulated him, and dragged the irritation from him.

Gus said, surly, ‘You treat Haquim badly. He’s a good man.’

‘He is old.’ She shrugged. ‘Has he shown you his wound? The wound took the fire from him. He is a good man at arranging for the supplies of food for the men, and the ammunition they will use, and he knows the best place to site a machine-gun. Without the fire the simple people will not follow him. Always he is cautious, always he wants to hold back. He will never take us to Kirkuk. I will. Is there more, Gus?’

He would have said that he loathed arrogance above everything – a man with arrogance could not shoot. Sometimes at work it was necessary for him to deal with arrogant men and afterwards, in the privacy of his car or the quiet of the small office, he despised them. If written down, her words would have reeked of arrogance, and yet…

Her spoken words, he thought, were the simple truth. They would all, and himself, follow her because she believed with a child’s simplicity that she would win. Her confidence was mesmeric. He remembered when he had first met her, nine years before, and had thought her silence sullen, had not understood the strength her god had given her.

‘If you reach Kirkuk…’

‘ When – and you will be with me.’

‘When you reach Kirkuk what will you do then?’

‘Return to my village. Tell my grandfather what I have done. And I will be a farmer.

We have goats there, and a pig. Kurdistan will be free, my work will be done, and I will collect the fruit from the mulberry bushes and the pomegranate trees. I will be a farmer.

May I tell you something?’

‘Of course.’

The boy came with a plastic bowl of food for her, but she waved him away. Her hand rested on Gus’s shoulder, the gesture of an older man to an inexperienced youth. ‘If you had not fired the first shot and killed the officer, if you had not come, we would still have taken their bunkers. A few of the men behind me would have been killed, and some would have been wounded, but we would still have taken the bunkers – and whether you are with us or not, we will march to Kirkuk where the flame burns over the oilfield. Can we forget about your anger now?’

‘Yes.’ Every criticism he had made had been ignored.

‘And will you follow me to Kirkuk?’

‘Yes.’ Gus laughed and saw her eyes flash.

‘Do not be so solemn. How is your grandfather’s health?’

Chapter Four

‘I suppose I’d better start at the beginning. That would be the orderly way to do it.’

‘Yes, start at the beginning,’ Ms Carol Manning said.

Ken Willet sat at a table behind her. Among the plates, the empty glass and the cup with dregs of coffee in it, he opened a foolscap notebook. At the top of the page he wrote,

‘WING CO BASIL PEAKE’. Immediately underneath the page heading he scrawled ‘LETTER’, and half-way down the page ‘MOTIVATION’. Ms Manning’s temper had sounded grim at midnight when she’d rung to tell him that her lieu day was postponed; there was no improvement now.

‘It all began at Habbaniyah – I don’t suppose, my dear, you’ve ever heard that name.’

‘I haven’t, but I’d be grateful if you’d get on with it.’

Willet thought the old man’s eyes glittered in covert amusement.

They’d come up the drive to the vicarage, found it locked, shuttered, and a solitary cat had run from their approach. After circling the darkened building, late Georgian or early Victorian, they’d seen the modern bungalow – where a dull light burned – set back amongst trees beyond lawns covered with the winter’s leaves. But the daffodils were up, and made a show with beds of crocuses. It was five to eight when she pressed the bell button.

‘Habbaniyah is just north of the Euphrates, about forty-five miles west of Baghdad. Of course, there’s a vegetation belt alongside the river, but where we were was surrounded by desert dunes, flat, horrible, lifeless. It’s 1953, before you were born, my dear, I think.

There was an RAF base there. It was ghastly. There was a single runway of rolled dirt reinforced with perforated metal plate. There were only three permanent buildings: administration, sick quarters and a damn great control tower. Everyone, men and officers, right up to the CO, lived in tents. We were “in the blue” – that’s colloquial, my dear, in the forces for being posted out to the back end of nowhere. I was one of the nine hundred and ninety-nine penguins – you know what they call the RAF? The penguins, only one in a thousand flies… Sorry, just joking…’

‘Best you stick to the point,’ she said.

‘As you wish. I was a wing commander, in charge of movements. The control tower was mine. We were a little island in hostile territory. The King and his government in Baghdad were marionettes for our ambassador to play with, but increasingly there was resentment from the civilian population and the younger army officers about our presence

– so we lived on camp. All the food was flown in. We had a swimming-pool of sorts, a marquee dropped down into a sand scrape, and we had sports pitches – we didn’t play the locals, we’d go as far as Nairobi, Aden or Karachi for cricket, hockey and soccer. To get out, if we had a few days’ leave, we hitched rides to Cyprus or Beirut – few of the officers and none of the men were permitted to travel inside Iraq.’

He was eighty-four years old, widowed for the last six. Willet thought the straightness of his back remarkable. Wearing worn carpet slippers, flannel pyjamas and a heavy dressing gown, he’d let them in, sat them down, then excused himself with old-world politeness. He’d come back still dressed in the slippers, pyjamas and dressing gown, but shaven and with his fine silver hair carefully combed. He’d checked their identity cards, then eased into a high wing-backed chair. He hadn’t challenged them, had seemed in fact to have expected them.

‘You passed on a letter to your grandson, Augustus Peake.’

‘Patience, my dear, always a virtue… We had two squadrons of Vampire fighter-bombers there. It was a troubled little corner of the world, the Soviet border was less than an hour’s flying away, and we had the transports coming through. They used to put down on Malta, then reach us, then go on to East Africa or the Red Sea, or keep going east to Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea. Most of the transports were Hastings, 53 Squadron.

They came in and went out in the early morning; that’s when everyone did their day’s work. After that, in the heat – mad dogs and Englishmen stuff – we played sport. In the evening, officers anyway, we dressed for dinner, drank, ate, drank, played cards or took in a film in the open-air cinema, drank, and went to bed. We had to wear our issue greatcoats over our pyjamas, it was so damned cold. An evening a week, I was out on guard duty in support of the RAF regiment, shooting at shadows out of our trenches – the Arabs would steal anything they could creep in and get their hands on. It was damned dull. That wasn’t good enough for me. All I saw of the local culture was the traders at the main gate, nomads crossing the desert, and the thieves looking for a gap in our defences at night. What a waste… Barbara – that’s my wife – wrote to me from the married quarters in Lyneham and pointed out what was just over the horizon. Well, not exactly -about two hundred miles, actually. Antiquities. Do you know anything about antiquities, my dear?’

‘No, I don’t, but I expect you’re going to tell me.’

A myth, handed from grandfather to child, says that the Ark of Noah grounded as the floods fell back on the summit of Mount Cudi in present-day Iraq, 4,490 years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. The survivors were the first Kurds.

They were, through history, a warrior people.

Another myth, from ancient Jewish lore, tells that four hundred virgins were taken out of Europe by devil spirits who had been exiled from the court of Solomon, the djinn, to the Zagros mountains and their bastard children became the unique and isolated Kurds.

Xenophon wrote of the retreat of 10,000 Greek soldiers towards their homeland after defeat by Cyrus of Persia, and a week-long epic battle through the mountain passes, harried by the ferocious Carduchi tribesmen. The victor over the Crusader king, Richard the Lionheart of England, at Hittin by the Sea of Galilee was Salah al-Din Yusuf, the Kurd known in medieval Europe as Saladin. Kurds fought on both sides in the war of total barbarity, four hundred years ago, between Beg Ustajlu and Selim the Cruel. As irregular soldiers, toughened by the physical hardship of life in the mountains, they were employed occasionally by the governments of Britain, France and Russia. But the reward never came… their own country was never given to them. When their usefulness was past they were as bones thrown from the table.

They were an image of the fallen stones from temples and palaces, scattered, antiquities.

Willet saw her fidget. The page in front of him, under LETTER and MOTIVATION was blank, but he was rather enjoying the story and it didn’t seem to matter that he hadn’t an idea where it was going.

‘There I was, sitting at Habbaniyah, bored out of my mind, and six hours’ drive to the north were the ruined cities of Nineveh and Nimrud. I obtained permission, took a car from the motor pool with a driver. We had a couple of tents, some food, service revolvers and a rifle, and off we went – the first time. That evening, humbled by the sense of place and time, I walked in the ruins of Nineveh. I actually saw – some blighter’s hacked it out and stolen it now – the alabaster carvings in the ruins of King Sennacherib’s palace, in his throne room, and he died 2,680 years ago. The next morning we drove the few miles to Nimrud. There, I stood amongst the fallen stones of the palace where King Ashurnasirpal the Second is said to have entertained 69,500 guests. I mean, your mind just falls apart in such a place. There’s an observatory there where they studied the stars in the ninth century BC. We had to get back, and, sod’s law, the bloody car wouldn’t start.

Had the bonnet up but couldn’t get a spark of life out of her… A local wandered by, quite a different dress and stance to the Arabs down at Habbaniyah, watched us for a bit, then came close. The driver thought he was going to steal something from the car and drew his damn revolver. No, he didn’t shoot him. I’m not mechanical but the local had a poke about – cleaned something, put it all back in place, then climbed into the driving seat, started her up, and she was as sweet as new. He wouldn’t take any money. He was the first Kurd I ever met. His name was Hoyshar.’

Willet thought they were getting there, in the old man’s own time.

‘I went back a couple of times with the driver. It was purgatory for the poor fellow. He had no interest whatsoever in me picking around among the stones, giving a hand to the three German archaeologists at Nimrud – that became my favourite. He used to find some shade and sit down with a comic book, and this man, my age, Hoyshar, was always there and he worked on the engine and polished the bodywork so that it gleamed, never would take any money… The third time I wanted to go the driver was sick and no-one else was available. I had permission to go on my own. Hoyshar was waiting. It’s a damn strange language the Kurds have, extraordinary, but, there are English roots. “Earth” is erd,

“new” is new, a “drop” of water is a dlop. We got to be able to speak to each other; it was a bit like a comedy sketch but we understood what the other said. He drove me back to Habbaniyah, drove excellently, and took a bus home to the mountains. It became a routine. Every two weeks I’d drive from the motor pool to just outside the main gate, he’d be there, and he’d drive all the way to Nimrud, and then he’d bring me south again.

‘By the fourth or fifth time I went up there – and I was then the only married officer who had ever applied for an extension to his posting at Habbaniyah – I’d stopped going to the kitchens for packed meals. Hoyshar brought all the food we needed. Yoghurt, apricot jam because I was important, bread, goat’s cheese, dried meat… He was old enough to remember the RAF bombing his village, knocking the tribes into submission before the Second World War, but didn’t seem to hold it against me. Always he refused money, so I used to take him books. If you went into his house now you’d probably find a stack of them, stamped “RAF HABBANIYAH: LIBRARY”, mostly military history. At night, when it was too dark to work on the site with the Germans, we’d sit outside the tents. I’d learn about his people and he’d learn about mine. The seventh or eighth time, he brought me clothes to change into, those baggy trousers they wear and the loose shirts. I was going a bit native… That was it, scratching around for fragments of pottery, scraps of glass and gold from necklaces and earrings in the day, and talking at night… Do you know, my dear, that King Tiglath-Pileser the Third, from Nimrud, ruled an empire he had himself conquered that stretched from Azerbaijan to Syria to the Persian Gulf? Think of it, the scale of the civilization – and we were wearing skins and living in caves… I used to feel, every time I was there, privileged, and doubly privileged to be with such a man as Hoyshar.’

There was, Willet noted, a slight wetness at the old man’s eyes. He blinked as if to clear it.

‘At the end, before I went home, I was taken to his village. None of his family, and none of the other Kurds there, had ever seen a European. I slept in his bed, and he and his wife slept on the floor. I was shown the tail fins of a bomb that the RAF had dropped on the village twenty-something years before. If I had not been with Hoyshar the men of the village would have slit my throat, probably after cutting off an appendage… He is the grandest man I’ve ever known, my friend Hoyshar. I’m not a blinkered Arabist, and I hope I never stoop to patronizing the “noble savage”.’

The old man paused, screwed his eyes shut, opened them, closed them again, then flickered the lids. His angular jaw jutted. The wetness was gone, the moment of weakness banished. Willet realized that some trauma had been released in the talk of the bare detail of the night in the village. He didn’t think the former wing commander would degrade himself with a lie but he thought him capable of parsimony with the truth. He wondered whether he should interrupt and probe, but he was not the trained interrogator. She was.

He had already begun to doubt his first instinct by the time composure was regained and the voice continued the story.

‘What he wanted was freedom, for himself, his family and for his people. As a mature man, aged thirty-one, he stood in the Circle in the middle of Mahabad, that’s across the Iranian border, and saw Qazi Muhammad hanged for the crime of proclaiming the First Republic of Kurdistan. I have good recall, I remember what I’ve read. A Foreign Office man wrote, in bloody Whitehall, about their freedom: “Their mode of life is primitive.

They are illiterate, untutored, resentful of authority and lacking in any sense of discipline.

The United Kingdom should not offer encouragement to the sterile idea of Kurdish independence.” We used to talk about freedom.

‘I went back to Lyneham, then to Germany, then was retired. I wrote two letters a year to him till 1979, and had two letters back, then I went out there again to see him. It was pretty hard to get the visa, but the British Museum was helpful. It had all changed…

That damned man had taken power. There were soldiers everywhere. I sensed the subjugation of the people. There was a French team digging at Nimrud, and we helped them. It wasn’t the same, there was an atmosphere of hate and fear. We continued to exchange letters. I was growing older and visas were exceptionally difficult to come by during the Iraq-Iran war, nigh on impossible, then there was the Gulf War, and the weasel messages sent by the Americans for the Kurds to rise up against the dictator. They did, the promised help never came, they fled.

‘I thought of Hoyshar and his family, refugees in the mountains. I found the comfort of my twilight life obscene. My son wouldn’t accompany me, said he was too busy with work. My grandson came with me. I heard his mother, my daughter-in-law, tell Gus before we set off, “Watch him, he’s a complete lunatic where these wretched Kurds are concerned. Don’t let him make a fool of himself.” I’d have gone anyway, he didn’t have to be with me. We were the original odd couple, me at seventy and him a full fifty years younger. They have a saying, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” That’s where we found them, in their mountains, in the snow. It was incredible, a little piece of fate, that amongst a hundred thousand people we found them. His son had just buried two of Hoyshar’s grandchildren. All they had tried to do was to take what is natural to us, their freedom.’

Willet looked up from the page. He had filled all the space under the heading of MOTIVATION. There was a feeble sunlight on the window behind the old man, but he could see the bright boldness of the flowers on the lawns.

‘When did the letter come?’ Ms Manning asked briskly.

‘A month ago… That day on the mountains Gus met my friend and my friend’s family, and he met Meda, who was then a teenager. When the letter came last month, it was about freedom for a far-away people. Do you think, my dear, I’ve deserved a coffee break?’

She made the coffee while Willet carried the plate, cup, glass and the cutlery from the table and washed them up. The captain’s eyes were drawn to a curled photograph stuck with adhesive tape to a kitchen unit. On the slope of a hill, a thousand blurred faces behind them, a grizzle-faced man sat on a rock with a girl behind him, her hands on his shoulders. Defiance blazed from her eyes, which were compelling and erotic in their power.

Ms Manning carried the coffee mugs back into the living room.

‘Right, so a letter came, and you showed that letter to your grandson… ’

They crossed high, bare ground. Sometimes, rarely, they had the cover of wind-stripped clumps of trees, but the column mostly hugged the little valleys and ravines created by the rainstorms and snow-melt of centuries. Until they reached a flat ridge, pocked with rock outcrops, they were the lone inhabitants of a wilderness.

Gus plodded at the back, weighed down by the rucksack and the rifle bag. The wind diluted the warmth of the sun, and it was hard for him to maintain the pace of the peshmerga because the bulk of the gillie suit impeded him. He was behind Haquim who, even with the disability of his knee, seemed to move more easily over the jagged stones and the small, hidden bogs. Gus felt the sting of a blister on his right heel. Meda was in the leading group, moving fast, never looking behind her to see how he coped.

He had formed in his mind what he wanted to say.

The men and Meda had settled on the ground, amongst the rocks in the lee of the ridge.

Some chewed at food, some bickered quietly, some laughed softly as if they were told an old and favourite joke, some cupped the water from a spring’s source, some lay prone with their eyes closed. Haquim had reached them and sat on a stone and massaged his knee. Gus was going slower, and the tear in the skin at his right heel was opening. The boy was watching two men as they cleaned the breech of their heavy machine-gun…

Nobody came back to help him as he struggled forward. He was bathed in self-pity. With his rifle and his skill, he was of critical importance to them. He didn’t have to be there…

Gus heaved the rucksack off his back and carefully lowered the carrying case to the ground, onto the tufted yellow grass and the weathered rock. He untied the laces of his right boot, pulled off the sock, and examined the reddened welt of the blister. He rummaged in his rucksack for the small first-aid box, and selected a square of Elastoplast to cover the broken skin. He let the freshness of the air bathe his bare foot.

‘Put your sock and boot back on.’

He hadn’t heard Haquim’s approach, was not aware of him until the man’s shadow fell on him.

‘It needs to breathe.’

‘Put them back on.’

‘When we’re ready to move.’

‘You need to do it now.’

‘Why?’

‘If the Iraqis ambush us, we will not ask them to stop and wait, while one amongst us pulls his sock and his boot back on.’

He felt hurt, as if degraded. ‘Yes. Right.’

‘And, Mr Peake, you do not question what I tell you.’

‘My foot hurts.’

‘Do you see others complaining? If it is such a big matter to you that your foot hurts, perhaps you should not have come.’

His head down, Gus heaved on his sock and his boot. Haquim was turning away. Gus said, ‘I want somebody to be with me, to help me.’

‘To carry your sack? Have all the men not enough to carry already?’

Gus said evenly, ‘I want someone with me when I shoot.’

‘I will choose someone.’

‘No.’ Gus’s voice rose. ‘I do it, it has to be my choice.’

‘You give yourself great importance.’

‘Because it is important.’

‘Later, then, when we stop for the next rest.’

‘Thank you.’ Gus had finished retying his bootlace.

The column moved forward again. He heaved on his rucksack, lifted the rifle in its bag onto his shoulder, and gingerly put his weight on his right foot.

When the line of men passed through a small gully that broke the ridge, a great vista was laid out in front of them. Gus’s eyes travelled over the sloping ground, the lower ridges, the distant curls of smoke above a faraway cluster of buildings, and on towards the single flame burning bright in a haze of lighter grey. Twenty miles away, and it was still a beacon, the flame at Kirkuk. He looked down on the ground that was to be the battlefield he would fight over.

Once again, the target had not come in the night.

On a bright, crisp morning, before the heat of the day settled over it, Major Karim Aziz reached the al-Rashid camp.

He showed his identification to the sentries at the gate, his name was checked off a list and he was shown where to park.

He’d known many who had come here on similar bright, crisp mornings in their best uniforms, who had been picked up by camp transport and who had never been seen again.

He had shut out the picture of the disappeared men and their families from his mind.

The transport pulled up beside his car. He had driven out to al-Rashid in a daze of tiredness and now he sleepwalked to the van.

Since the bombing of 1991 the camp had been rebuilt, the rubble removed, the craters filled in. The van took him past the many complexes of the Estikhabarat. There were the buildings occupied by the headquarters personnel of the second-in-command, a staff major general, those that liaised with Regional Headquarters, those that controlled the Administration Section, the Political Section, the Special Branch and the Security Unit.

He saw the batteries of anti-aircraft guns, and the clusters of ground-to-air missiles.

The van stopped outside a squat building. From the set of the windows he could see the thickness of the reinforced-concrete walls, painted in camouflage colours, and on the roof was a farm of aerials and satellite dishes. The armed guard opened the door for him and smiled. He wondered whether the guard always smiled at an officer summoned early in the morning to this building.

When he had reached home again after the night on the flat roof, he had clung to his wife briefly, then she had shrugged him off. It was unspoken, but she blamed him for the fiasco of his birthday celebration. The children had gone to school, her parents had stayed in their lean-to annexe at the back of the house. His wife, without a backward glance at him, had gone for the bus to the hospital. Then, alone in his home, he had checked through every item in the sports bag under the bed to satisfy himself that nothing incriminating could be found there… He did not know how he would resist torture…

What could have damaged them, him, he had buried in the garden.

At the inner guard desk of the building he was asked to enter his name. There was another smile, and a finger jabbed towards his belt. He unhooked the clasp, passed the webbing belt over the desk, and with it the holster holding the Makharov pistol.

He was led down the corridor, then up a flight of stairs, then on to another corridor.

He had to make the effort to kick his legs in front of him. The panic was growing, the urge to turn and run insistent, but there was nowhere to turn and no-one to run to. He heard the boom of his boots on the smooth surface of the corridor’s floor.

With each step towards the closed door at the far end he remembered the path he had taken towards joining the conspiracy. In February, two generals and a brigadier had come to a firing range to watch his progress in teaching marksmanship to his students, junior officers and senior NCOs. The course, like so much of the tactics learned in the Iraqi military, was based on old British army manuals. As he did, the students had used the Russian-made Dragunov SVD sniper’s rifle. It was not the best rifle available in the international market, but he had a curious and almost emotional attachment to the weapon that had been with him for a year less than two decades. His students had had good shots at 400 metres, but at 500 metres none had hit the inner bulls on the targets, a man-sized cardboard shape, when they should have had an 80 per cent probability of doing so.

Perhaps they were made more nervous by the presence of the generals and the brigadier.

He had then fired his own Dragunov, but at 700 metres. From behind him the generals and the brigadier had watched his shooting through telescopes. Six rounds, six hits, when the probability of a ‘kill’ was listed as only 60 per cent, and after each shot he had heard the grunted surprise from behind the telescopes.

He reached the door at the end of the corridor.

His escort knocked with quiet respect.

He heard the gravel voice call for him to enter.

Three weeks after the shoot Major Karim Aziz had received a telephone call from the more senior of the two generals. He was invited to a meeting – not in the general’s quarters, not in a villa in the Baghdad suburbs, but in a military car that had cruised for an hour with him, the general and two colonels along the city’s roads flanking the Tigris river. He could, he supposed, have said that he had no interest in the proposition put to him in the car. He could also have lied, given them his support, then the next morning gone to the Estikhabarat, in this building, in this camp, and denounced them. They wanted a marksman. He had agreed to be that marksman. The general had said that an armoured brigade in the north would mutiny and drive south, but only after word was received that the bastard, the President, was dead. He had been told of the villa, of the bastard’s new woman. The detail had been left to him – but without their esteemed leader’s death, the armoured brigade would not move. The general had talked of a domino effect inside the ranks of the regular army once the bastard was killed.

The general had been a big and powerfully built man, but he had stammered like a nervous child as he explained the plan. Aziz had agreed, then, there; only afterwards, when he had been dropped from the car, did he consider that he might have been set-up, stung, and he had been sick in the gutter. He had dismissed that thought because he had witnessed the precautions taken to preserve the secrecy of the meeting and seen the nervousness of the officers in the car.

He had tracked for days around the villa and had found the place from which to shoot.

He had met the general again, cruised the same route in the same car, and the general had embraced him.

He went inside. His stomach was slack and his bladder full. He tried to stand proud, to pretend that he was not intimidated, was a patriot surrounded by cowards. He thought of his wife and his children, and of the pain of torture.

A colonel had his back to the door and stared at a wall map, but turned at his approach.

‘Ah, Major Aziz. I hope there was nothing important in your schedule that had to be cancelled.’

He looked up at the photograph of the smiling, all-powerful President. He stuttered his answer. ‘No, my schedule was clear.’

‘You are the marksman, the sniper, that is correct?’

‘It is my discipline, yes.’

‘You understand the skills of sniping?’

He did not know whether he was a toy for their amusement, whether the colonel played with him. ‘Of course.’

‘Two men dead, two rounds fired, on consecutive days, each shot at a range of at least seven hundred metres in Fifth Army sector. What does that tell you about the sniper?’

‘That he is trained, professional, an expert.’ He felt the tension draining from him. He was limp, a rag on a washing-line.

‘How do you confront a professional sniper, Major?’

‘Not by turning rocks over with artillery or tanks or heavy mortars. You send your own sniper to confront him.’

The colonel said sharply, ‘You go tomorrow, Major Aziz, to Kirkuk.’

‘The north? The Kurds are not snipers.’ He wanted to laugh out loud as the lightness broke into the tightness of his mind. He bubbled, ‘They cannot hit targets at a hundred metres.’

‘I am from the Tikrit people, Major. Yesterday my cousin’s son was shot at seven hundred metres in a defence position near Kirkuk. Perhaps a foreigner is responsible.’

‘Whatever the nationality, the best defence against a sniper is always a counter-sniper.’

‘Be the counter-sniper, then. Your orders will be waiting for you when you reach the garrison at Kirkuk.’

Aziz saluted, turned smartly and marched out of the room. Outside, with the door closed on him, he could have collapsed in a huddle on the floor and wept his relief. He steadied himself against the arm of his escort, and walked away.

A few moments later, the warm air brushed his face, washed it of fear.

Gus sat on a rock and scanned the ground ahead of him with his binoculars, looking for movement.

It was the best place he could find, had the nearest similarity to the terrain of the Common in Devon. It was a practice but it was still crucial. The arguments were finally over, had finished when Haquim had struck a man and knocked him flat, when the knife had flashed, and Haquim had kicked the knife from the man’s hand. Before then, the argument had raged savagely. Meda had chosen not to intervene, but had sat apart with an amused smile on her face. He needed an observer to help him with distance and windage and, most important, to guide him in on the stalk to the targets ahead and to work out the exit routes after each snipe. It could not be Haquim – too slow and too involved in the mess of strategy and tactical problems.

The arguments were because each man in the column, old and young, believed he was the best at moving unseen across open ground. The bitterness was inspired by pride, when Haquim had selected the dozen men from the hundred in the column – from agha Ibrahim’s men, or from agha Bekir’s men. The older men who had fought for the most years, or the younger ones with more agility than experience. The larger group, not chosen, sat behind Gus, and scowled or watched the slope of ground ahead with a sullen resignation.

He had four ‘walkers’ out, as he had seen it done on the Common. Each time he saw a man, magnified through the binoculars, crawling, Gus shouted to the nearest ‘walker’ and pointed, and the man was tapped on the head by the ‘walker’, and eliminated. Each time a man was eliminated there was a growl of jealous approval from behind Gus.

Gus counted those he had spotted and eliminated. Some had taken the obvious route for their stalk, along a meandering river trail, some had headed for the single tree in the centre of the open ground, some had tried to use a broken mess of buildings to the right.

The river, the tree and the ruins were all obvious points for a stalk and were therefore poorly chosen… He saw the last man: his head and chest were low, but his buttocks were up. The ‘walker’ went to him, and the last man stood.

He had asked too much of them. He had tried to bring an alien culture of warfare from the Common in southwest England to the foothills of the Zagros mountains. He had asked them to crawl, concealed, across a thousand yards of open ground, and none had reached the finish line he had set. Gus cursed. Was it better to take the best of the failures, or was it better to work alone? He pushed himself up.

‘It’s my fault, my bloody fault,’ Gus said to Haquim.

There was a single shot, the crack of it high above him, then the thump of the following sound. The sounds were almost simultaneous. Behind him there was brief pandemonium. As the moment of silence settled he heard the rasped arming of weapons.

A dozen men had gone forward and stalked back towards him, and he had identified that same dozen. He had the binoculars up to his eyes and tracked over the ground, across the grassland, over rocks, between the narrow height of the tree trunks, into and out of the stones of the ruins, and he still could not see the man who had fired. They were the best binoculars he had ever used, and he saw nothing.

Gus said to Haquim, ‘Tell him to stand.’

Haquim shouted at the emptiness in front of them. Then the silence fell again. At first Gus felt a sense of excitement, but that was whittled to annoyance because nothing moved. He covered the ground again for the outline of a face, the shape of a shoulder.

They said on the Common that the stalk didn’t count unless the sniper had a clear view of his target when he fired… Some clever bastard in hiding, loosing off into the air.

‘Shout again.’

Haquim yelled, and the voice bellowed back off the hillside. From clear ground, ground on which there were no rocks, no trees, no fallen buildings, away from the small river, the boy rose to his feet.

There was a sod of earth with grass growing from it, a turf square, on the boy’s head.

The boy, grinning like an ape, had reached the finish line. Gus reckoned he’d covered that area of grass five, six times with his binoculars, and still hadn’t seen him.

‘I’ll have the boy.’

‘You cannot,’ Haquim said.

‘Why not?’

‘The boy is not a person of consequence.’

‘I’ll have him because he is the best stalker.’

‘He has no connection – no father, no family. It will cause resentment.’

‘I’ll have him, and when it gets harder – as it will, you tell me, and I believe you – then I will shoot better.’

He thought he was already a harder man, as if stones in a torrent battered against his body and forced the softness from it, than he had been three weeks before on the Common. They needed to make further ground before dusk. He walked in the heart of the column and ignored the blister on his right heel. The boy skipped along beside him and had offered to take his rucksack, but Gus had refused.

They went past the ruins of the village. The roofs, of concrete and tin, were collapsed inside the sunken walls, and Gus knew that each building had been dynamited. The grass grew up between the debris abandoned by a fleeing people, pots, pans, clothes faded by wind, rain and sunshine. The old village had been destroyed so that there was nothing for its people to return to. There were two men dead behind him but, passing the ruins of the village, Gus felt for the first time that he was a part of the quarrel. He was a changed man, and in the failing light he imagined that the flame far ahead burned brighter.

The Israeli, in his eyrie where the winds blew, under the sharp light of the stars and forty miles into northern Iraq from the Turkish border, heard the radio transmission from the al-Rashid camp to the Estikhabarat offices at Fifth Army headquarters in Kirkuk.

The computers in the building low slung on the mountain summit had long ago deciphered the Iraqi military codes. The previous evening Isaac Cohen had listened to a signal reporting the activities of a sniper operating in the area north of the Fifth Army’s sector. Now, a counter-sniper, a man with a reputation, was being sent to Kirkuk. The old Mossad man chuckled. He worked with the most modern electronic equipment that the factories at Haifa and in the Negev could produce, and before induction into the Mossad he had served as a captain in a tank unit that boasted the supreme technology in the sensors that sought out the enemy… The messages revealed archaic warfare – a man against a man, a rifle against a rifle, two men scrabbling on their bellies to within range of the other. Not slings and stones, not bows and arrows, but rifles that only marginally increased the distance of combat. But as the evening wore on, Cohen’s amusement was stilled. How could a sniper be so important that a counter-sniper had been sent against him?

Isaac Cohen was a methodical man. As the night settled around him, he began to track back through messages held in his computers. The calls, made at dawn and dusk over the last forty-eight hours, traced a line into, through and beyond the defence lines of the Fifth Army north of Kirkuk. He saw the trail of an incursion, and the decrypting power of his computers broke into the conversations of a satellite telephone that had spoken with agha Bekir in Arbil and agha Ibrahim in Sulaymaniyah, the time and place of a meeting.

He no longer laughed. A small army marched across the God-forsaken wilderness. The adage of the Mossad was ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

And then he wondered what damage could be wrought to the enemy by one man with a rifle.

The dog whined behind the bedroom door.

Major Karim Aziz, with his family, ate his evening meal, and he talked. He spoke of soccer with his children and their games at school; with his wife he joked about holidays they might take one day in the northern mountains, with tents and picnics; with her parents he laughed about their continuous and never-ending hunt for food at the open markets. He talked and joked and laughed because that night he was not returning to the flat roof, and he felt as though a great weight had been shed from his shoulders. He assumed, perhaps correctly, perhaps not, that a general and two colonels would have heard that Major Karim Aziz of the Baghdad Military College was posted to the north.

And he had no route by which to pass them any urgent message. He had survived the visit to the al-Rashid camp, which few did, and he had been treated there as a valued expert.

No suspicion had fallen over him; the shadow of arrest, torture and death did not lie on him.

The dog scratched at the bedroom door.

It was a familiar experience for a veteran soldier. He ate with his family around him, and before dawn the next morning he would be gone. He could have listed each of the times that he had eaten a last evening meal with the family – before going to Moscow, or the Beka’a, or to the front lines in the Iranian cities of Khorramshahr and Susangerd where the fighting had been in cellars and sewers, to the north for Operation al-Anfal against the Kurdish saboteurs, to Kuwait City for the first strike then a return in the last days, to the north again for the push into Arbil and towards Sulaymaniyah – it was a familiar routine for him. Later, before bed, he would visit the home of his own parents and would tell his father, the pensioned civil servant of the Iraqi Railway Company, and his mother that he was going away and that there was no cause for them to worry. He drank more than was normal for him because the weight was off his shoulders.

In the bedroom, with the dog, was his packed and bulging backpack, and the heavy wooden box in which he always carried the Dragunov rifle when he went to war.

As the light had fallen on the city, Aziz had gone to collect the dog. It had been lodged with his cousin for two months more than two years, since his wife’s parents had come to live in his home. It had been blamed for aggravating her father’s asthma. It was a brown and white springer spaniel, now nine years old, fast, fit and trained with all the patience he could summon. To go to war without the dog would have been to travel without his eyes and ears.

Around the table, with the warmth of his family close to him, the north was not spoken of. His detestation of the north, of the Kurds, had little to do with politics and everything to do with blood. Her father’s younger brother had died there in 1974, a dozen kilometres from where he, the young lieutenant in a mechanized infantry brigade, was serving, and he had seen the body and what had been done to it. His cousin’s nephew had been killed there in 1991, a prisoner after the fall of the Military Intelligence headquarters at Arbil, taken out on the street, shot, and his body dragged round the square from the back of a jeep; that body, too, he had seen when the city was retaken. But, at the table, it was not mentioned.

Later, when he had walked the spaniel to his parents’ home, and settled him beside their bed, when his wife was in his arms, the master sniper would tell her that she had no cause for anxiety. That night Major Karim Aziz had not the slightest doubt that he would locate, stalk and kill an enemy. He did not entertain the thought that he might fail, that his place in the bed beside her would remain cold, empty.

He said his name was Omar.

He spoke with a piping American accent, and told his story.

He had no mother, no father, no family, no home. His mother had died on the mountainous slopes of the Turkish border, frozen to death with his sister. His father had died a month earlier, killed in Arbil by Iraqi soldiers. He did not know where his uncles, aunts and cousins were. His family’s homes had been bulldozed in 1991. He said the American servicemen bringing relief supplies to the camps in the mountains had found him and cared for him.

Gus idly imagined soldiers bound together by a common sense of compassion, finding a half-dead child, numbed by cold and hunger, and taking him back to their tents, food and warmth, as they would a stray, pretty cat. They would have fussed over the child, spoiled him, and taught him their language. When they moved back over the border, consciences salved by the good work, they would have dumped him on aid-workers. Gus thought of Omar hanging about the offices of a foreign charity in Arbil or Sulaymaniyah or Zakho, running messages, scrounging, with his childhood irreplaceably snatched from him. When most of the aid agencies had fled in the late summer of 1996, the child would have attached himself with limpet-like strength to a fighting peshmerga unit, helped to carry food and ammunition forward to the sagging front line, and bring the wounded back.

Gus thought of his own childhood, of its calm and its safety. The orphan would have seen horror, and would be feral and savage as a result.

The boy stank. His pillow was a stone. He lay on the ground, without a blanket to cover him, close to Gus’s sleeping-bag, and the rifle with the double magazines taped to each other lay across his stomach. He wore drab American army fatigues, torn and still too large for him, and a pair of yellow trainers that had gone at the toes. He had brought Gus food from the cooking pot and watched him eat until Gus had passed him the bowl.

He had gulped down the last of the food and licked the bowl till it shone in the evening sunshine.

The camp was quiet and Gus spoke softly. ‘The man we have to remember is Herbert Hesketh-Prichard. There had been others before him, but as far as our army is concerned, he was really the father of sniping. He was a big-game hunter before the first war with Germany – he shot lions and elephants, and he turned those skills to shooting Germans.

He went to France, where the war was with the Germans, and took with him big-game rifles and telescopes. At first, none of the generals would listen to him, but he kept emphasizing the importance of a quality sniper on the battlefield. The sniper was more effective in breaking the enemy’s morale than an artillery barrage. Kill the officer, kill his spotters, kill his machine-gunners, and your troops feel good, they live. Almost everything we know today is based on what was taught by Hesketh-Prichard to his snipers eighty-five years ago…’

The boy, Omar, snored in his sleep.

Chapter Five

The helicopter had come in at first light, flying low like a hawk hunting, hugging the contours of the ground. It came smoothly over a ridge to the north, all the time looking for gullies along which to fly, then hovered. For a moment it was a predator, black and without identification, over a prey. The prey was Meda… and she had waved it down.

Four men had immediately jumped clear from the open fuselage hatch. Two carried machine-guns, one had an assault rifle, and one held a grenade launcher; all wore a common uniform of jeans, anoraks, face masks and baseball caps, and they had scattered to secure a perimeter area round the big bird. Gus thought that after the guards the next man out was also American. Under his windcheater, his tie was whipped up from his throat as he bent to run clear of the downdraught of the blades, he had a lavatory brush of cropped grey hair, and carried maps in plastic covering. He’d shaken hands perfunctorily with Meda, then turned back and helped two more men, Kurds, down from the hatch.

The American, the Kurds and Meda had settled down amongst stones, the maps spread out across their legs, and Gus saw a Thermos flask passed between the men. Meda refused to drink from it.

The pilots kept the turbines running. Where he had been told to stay, with the peshmerga, the boy and Haquim, Gus was a full three hundred paces from the meeting-point and the helicopter.

Haquim said bitterly, ‘I am not important enough to be a part of the negotiation.’

Through his binoculars, Gus watched them. He could recognize the body language of the Kurds – one in a suit and one in laundered but old tribal dress. The American was between them, the conduit. Gus sensed deep-held suspicion. Meda faced them and her arms alternated between gestures of frustration and the softer movements of persuasion.

He passed the binoculars to Haquim.

Haquim said, ‘In the suit, dressed as the Westerner he wants to be, is agha Bekir. He controls the west of the enclave. I trust him as I trust a scorpion. Three weeks after the Iraqi attack of 1991, in which his people were murdered, left destitute to starve in the mountains, agha Bekir was shown on Baghdad’s television hugging Saddam as if he were a favoured cousin. He looks only for power and money. He would sleep with a snake to gain them.’

‘But he has men…’

‘And agha Ibrahim has more men. He is more simple but more cunning, which is why he wears the clothes of his people, and he has more greed. He controls the north and the east, and therefore can take the toll money from the lorries that cross the Turkish frontier to go to Baghdad. He should know Saddam, because Saddam tried on many occasions to kill his father. Once Saddam sent Shi’a clerics from Baghdad to talk peace with agha Ibrahim’s father, and Saddam told the clerics they must wear a hidden tape-recorder so that he could know what was said. When the meeting had started, one of the government drivers outside threw a switch, with radio control. The tape-recorder was a bomb. At the moment the bomb exploded a servant was leaning across in front of agha Ibrahim’s father and filling his glass with lemon juice. The servant died, and the cleric with the tape-recorder, and many others. But agha Ibrahim’s father survived to tell his son of the treachery of Saddam. Did he listen? Three years ago, agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim fought full-scale war over the division of the money from the smugglers, and when agha Ibrahim was losing, being driven back, he called to Saddam for help. He was rescued by Saddam’s tanks. It was when I was wounded… He has many men, fighting men, because he has the money to pay them. It is the miracle of Meda that has brought them together.’

‘I think they both want to fuck her,’ the boy said.

Haquim lashed out behind him, but Omar laughed and leaped back as a boxer avoids a tiring opponent’s punch.

‘What is being decided?’ Gus asked quietly.

‘They are deciding what they will risk. Meda has to persuade them, again, of her vision.’

Gus had taken back his binoculars and watched her. There was something of virginal innocence about her. She smiled and scowled. Her head would drop as if sulking, then would be lifted and a child’s happiness would break across her face. Without her, nothing would happen. She wove a spell over them. It was as if, Gus thought, her very innocence

– her enthusiasm, her optimism, her certainty – persuaded them. Omar, the vulgar little wretch, had spoken the truth. She sat facing them with her legs splayed out in the combat trousers, and with the upper buttons of her tunic unfastened so that they could see the skin of her chest. He saw, so clearly, Ibrahim’s leering smile and the way Bekir gazed into her eyes. The American wore an older man’s frown, as though anxiety – for her -raged in him.

After he shook her hand, he stood and shouted to the guards, who backed towards the helicopter and covered the ground ahead with their weapons. Hands were held and shaken, then all were gone into the belly of the helicopter.

She stood with her hands on her hips against the growing power of the rotors. The blast threw back her hair, and thrust her tunic and trousers against the shape of her body, slender and young, without fear. As the helicopter lifted, she didn’t wave to them, as if to affirm her independence.

It came low over them, and Gus saw the face of the American peering down. He held the rifle close to him against the blow of the blades.

And the silence came… He felt a sense of great loss. The helicopter had been a lifeline. It had come, he could have walked to it, climbed inside it, could have argued himself a seat and been carried back to his home, his work and his life. The chance had been laid before him, and he had not thought to take it. She was walking back towards them, the big grin of triumph on her face.

The men ran to her, and Haquim hobbled after them. Gus cuffed the boy and said he should go, too, while he sat alone with his thoughts. He could never have turned his back on her: she had trapped him. Everything that was home, work, life, seemed now of minimal relevance. She stood and they sat in front of her. He saw the old and the young faces that had been hardened by cruelty and suffering, that were cold and brutal, and the light in their eyes. She trapped all of them.

The boy returned to where he sat.

‘What does she say?’

‘She says that later today the agha Bekir and the agha Ibrahim will each send one hundred of their best fighting men to join us. In the morning we attack the mujamma’a in the front of us – that is a new village, what is called a Victory City. She says when we have captured it more men will come and we will fight at the town of Tarjil – we will have more men and we will make a battle at the crossroads of the Baghdad road and the Sulaymaniyah road. After that, when more men have arrived, she will lead us past the flame of Baba Gurgur, and into Kirkuk. We are going to Kirkuk. Do you believe her?’

‘I have to,’ Gus said.

‘They believe her, agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim, because they want to fuck her. They can fuck any woman they want to, but they want her because they know they cannot have her.’

‘You are a disgusting child.’

‘Do you want to fuck her, Mr Gus?’

He caught the lobe of the boy’s ear, where it peeped from under the matt of tangled dark curls, and twisted it hard so that Omar yelped like a hurt dog.

He started to tell the boy of the role of an observer working in close harmony with a sniper. Everything he knew about life told him that when a blow was struck there inevitably followed a stinging counter-strike. Mapped ahead of him was a timetable of war, locations on a map that would all be fought for and each would be harder. He talked softly, earnestly, of the work of an observer, as if the boy, Omar, were an equal to him, as if his very survival would rest on the skill of the boy when the counter-strike fell.

The door to the ageing Antonov howled open on poorly oiled hinges. He allowed his eyes to grow accustomed to the brightness beating up from the tarmac, and waited for the steps to reach the aircraft.

Other men he knew in the army would have refused to take a flight in the veteran transport, but Major Karim Aziz had been often enough in combat for the fear of death to be replaced by a comforting fatalism. Everything was behind him now.

He shouted his thanks to the pilot. He had been the only passenger on the flight, with his dog. He gazed around him. It was three years since he had last been at Kirkuk Military. Then, some of the attack aircraft’s hardened bunkers were still under repair, and wooden scaffolding had surrounded the control tower. But there was nothing to see now of the work of the American bombers; the scaffolding and the workmen were long gone.

A jeep was approaching fast from the tower.

Aziz called the dog to heel and went down the steps struggling with the weight of his backpack and the wooden box. When the jeep pulled up he saw from the gaze of the officer deputed to meet him that his reputation had travelled before him. His cheeks were brush-kissed, an offer made to take the box, which was refused. The box was the basis of his reputation and Aziz allowed no other man to take charge of it.

He followed the officer to the jeep. In any unit he worked with, there had never been any love for the sniper. He would be respected for his skill, but not liked. Soldiers in a front line always felt a vague affinity with the enemy across no man’s land; Iraqi soldiers had felt that for Iranian soldiers – and the sniper brought anonymous death to the man in the opposing trench. When a sniper came to a quiet front line, killed, moved on, the hell of artillery fell on those left behind. And the sniper’s killing was premeditated and took away the random, haphazard chance of shell shrapnel with which soldiers could live.

The officer was wary. ‘You had a good flight, I hope?’

‘Good for me, but the dog was sick.’

The officer laughed thinly. ‘Not a good companion.’

‘Oh, yes, the best.’ He lifted his box into the back of the jeep and the dog bounded in after it. They drove away. He had kept the name of the dog, Scout. It had been four months old when he had found it on his third day in Kuwait City. It had had a collar on it, with its name on a tag and an address. Major Karim Aziz had flown in with the first assault troops, by helicopter, to take one of the Emir’s palaces, but the fighting had been slack. The third day he had wandered the streets of Kuwait City and marvelled at the ostentation. He had found the cowering, terrorized puppy whimpering as the tanks growled past. While fellow officers successfully looted that wealth, he had gone to the address on the tag and found the wrecked, emptied home of an expatriate British oil engineer. He had taken the dog back to the hotel where he was quartered. When, two weeks later, he had returned to Baghdad, he had felt a sense of shame that he took with him the dog, a video camera and a bracelet from the famous gold souk. Others had taken back new Mercedes, and BMWs, and had loaded lorries with ‘souvenirs’. They had never used the video camera at home because he had not stolen the cassettes to go with it, and his wife had sold the bracelet for money to buy clothes for the children, but he had kept the dog. Scout was now nine years old, but still had the legs and eyes, nose and ears that made him indispensable to Aziz when he went to war.

From the airport, he was driven through the city.

Kirkuk was home to a million people. The jeep wove through crowded streets, past bustling pavements. The shops were open. He saw nothing that made him sense panic, and yet out in the distant hills to the north, beyond the clear, bright, high flame, an army marched on that city. The jeep’s horn cleared a path through the laden lorries, donkey-drawn carts and the kids careering on bicycles and scooters. There was no atmosphere of danger.

He was taken into the headquarters compound of the Fifth Army, driven at speed past smart sentries, and lines of T-72 tanks and ranks of BMP personnel carriers.

With his dog at his heel, Aziz carried his box into the command bunker.

He was introduced to a general. He saluted, shook hands. Behind the general was a brigadier who looked up, through him, and returned to the study of the map spread on the table. He knew the brigadier, recognized him, but could not place where he had seen him.

He struggled to find it, before it was swept from his mind.

‘So, Baghdad has sent us a sniper.’ The general spoke scornfully. ‘One man to do with a rifle what an army with tanks and artillery and two divisions of infantry cannot achieve.’

‘Against a sniper, the best defence is a superior counter-sniper.’

The sneer formed. ‘With a dog and the fleas it carries.’

‘With my dog, yes.’

‘What do you need to know?’

‘I need to know the route the incursion has taken, and the exact position of the blocking force you have deployed.’

The silence hung in the room. The brigadier peered up from the map, then ducked his head and played with a pencil.

‘A blocking force has been deployed?’

The general said, without expression, ‘Your job, Major, is at a level of local tactics. Do not try to teach me strategy.’

‘I need to meet the eyewitnesses who saw the enemy’s sniper.’

They both stared at him before telling him when he could interrogate the witnesses. He was escorted out.

In a bare room with a small cupboard and an ironframed bed, he took a square of goatskin from his backpack and laid it in the corner as a mat for his dog, then filled the dog’s bowl with water. From a framed photograph on the wall, the President watched him, smiled down on him.

AUGUSTUS HENDERSON PEAKE.

2. (Conclusions after interview with Wing Co. Basil Peake RAF (Retd.) conducted by self and Ms Carol Manning – transcript attached.) MOTIVATION: A central focus point for AHP in making his journey to northern Iraq is the powerful influence of his grandfather. Ms Manning believes BP used his manipulative arguments to persuade AHP to travel and involve himself. Motivation is important for a sniper in a military theatre, but that importance will diminish quickly once AHP is involved in combat, and will ultimately be of little relevance. BP has old, legally held rifles, and from his youth AHP was, therefore, familiar with handling firearms, but BP was unable or unwilling to offer information concerning the necessary MIND-SET of the hunter that is crucial if the step from target marksman to sniper is to be made.

SUMMARY: Without that MINDSET, AHP will fail and if he fails he will be killed. No evidence of a military background. My earlier assessment stands: the chances of medium-term survival remain slim to nonexistent.

TEXT of letter sent to BP by Hoyshar – see transcript above.

(NB: The letter is the start, and may be the only indication we find as to what AHP hopes to achieve in northern Iraq. In my opinion, the end is a military impossibility.)

Esteemed brother Basil, I write to you at a time when I have not received any of your valued letters for two years. This letter will be given to SARAH of the Protect the Children, and only God will decide if it shall reach you.

It is now, esteemed brother, a moment of crisis in the recent history of our people. The Kurdish people, my people, in the mountains and in the towns and in the villages are filled with despair. We believe no longer in the will of the West to protect us from the Great Murderer.

We think that we are forgotten. When we have been forgotten then the Great Murderer will send his tanks and guns and aircraft to destroy us.

We understand that very little time is left to us. You will remember my dear granddaughter, my Meda. She now has twenty-five years. For one so young she has the fire of a lion in her breast, and she has power over men. I believe, esteemed friend, that the strength in her is God-given.

For a year she has visited many villages in our region and talked to women, and to men, of a new moment when the Kurdish people shall rise up to take their freedom from the Great Murderer. At first she could only talk. Then, three months ago, she was heard in Rost, near to the Sar i-Piran mountain, by a military commander of proven courage, the mustashar Haquim. She entranced him as she had the simple village people. He took her to Arbil and to Sulaymaniyah, and his influence as a fighting man enabled her to meet with agha Ibrahim and agha Bekir.

They are cunning men, men of deceit. They have fought the Great Murderer and they have kissed his cheeks. They bend when the wind is against them, and they go forward when the wind is behind them. They are corrupt dogs but they have power. Meda met them and talked to them about freedom. She looked in their faces, each in turn, Haquim told me, and she asked them did they want to live as the servant of the Great Murderer and in fear, or as proud men who had led their people to freedom? Did they want to be remembered as cowards or heroes?

She is just a young woman, and she demanded their answer. They could not refuse her. She promised them that she would bring them past the flame of Baba Gurgur, and into the square of Kirkuk.

Esteemed friend, she has the power over men and they did not dare to refuse her. It will be a small army at the beginning, but it will grow.

Each time she wins, more men will be given to her. She will have Haquim, whom I love like a son, at her side to guide her. She will be in God’s care. I cannot say whether this letter will reach you. If it is delivered with success to you, please, esteemed friend, look at your newspapers and your television and discover the day that she reaches Kirkuk.

This is not, of course, the calling-in of a debt, or for you to feel there is an old obligation that you carry, but any assistance you can offer would be a gift of the highest generosity. It is a great journey that she is beginning. She is the last chance of the Kurdish people. With pride, I pray for her.

I am, as always, honoured to call myself your friend, Hoyshar. *** Ken Willet had read the letter many times. It reached him, touched him. Each time he’d read it, scanned through the clear copperplate handwriting, he remembered the photograph in the kitchen of the old man sitting and the young woman standing beside him. He had patrolled in Northern Ireland before the ceasefire, he had heard shots fired in anger, but all he knew of combat was what had been taught him on the training grounds of the Welsh mountains. From his posting to the Ministry of Defence, he would move on to an administrative position at a barracks, then probably try his luck in the civilian world. He would never know about combat at first hand.

He felt, and he was not ashamed of it, a very great sadness. The force of the words played in his mind: ‘chances of medium-term survival remain slim to nonexistent’.

He’d let Omar lead him forward.

For Gus that was the act of faith, the first step.

‘You do it well and you stay with me, you do it poorly and you go back to cooking and carrying. There are no second chances, Omar,’ Gus had said, at the start of the stalk. He had tried to sound ruthless and brutal, but it was not in his nature. Omar had grinned back at him, then led.

They had come over a ridge and looked down on what Omar called the mujamma’a, what Haquim had called the Victory City, his lip curled in sarcasm, and what Gus thought of as a concentration camp. Far beyond the village was a town, then a crossroads, then the flame and Kirkuk, but all were hidden by the heat-haze of the afternoon. He had seen the original village, which had been flattened by explosives. Now he saw the replacement, sited in the centre of a desolate plateau of rock and bogland. No fields had been made, no strips cultivated. Outside a wire perimeter fence were groups of sheep and goats, pathetically thin, hunting for sustenance. Behind the fence, closed in by it, regimented rows of concrete block-houses were linked only by washing lines. Gus made a plan of the fence, the gate, the watchtowers and the single large building that dominated from the centre the ranks of block-houses. There was no grass to brighten the vista, and no flowers. The gate had been opened to admit a water tanker and a lorry.

Very carefully he drew the plan of the village and he began to understand: it had been built away from a source of water and away from good grazing land, so that the village people were dependent on their guards to provide them with life support. Without it they starved. The boy had good eyes and revelled in the power of the telescope. Twice he had pointed to small sandbagged bunkers that Gus had missed. Everything he saw, and that Omar found for him, Gus marked on his plan. He studied the command post. He saw an officer, a machine-gun placed behind a parapet on the flat roof, and the queue of shuffling villagers form at the main door to receive their small packages of food. It was a place of dreary certainty, and he thought that one day would be the same as another… but not tomorrow.

While he made the plan, he whispered to Omar about the work of an observer. He was not good at sharing even the little information he knew. All his knowledge of shooting was based on his taking supreme responsibility for his own skills and shortcomings. But tomorrow he could not be alone. He was searching for a vantage-point to the side, where there was sufficient elevation for his eyeline to clear the block-house roofs, from which he could see the entrance door to the command post. Away to his left, several hundred yards from where he and the boy lay, was a barren hillside, without obvious cover. If they were there and the machine-gun found them, they would die. If they did not live, the attack would fail.

‘Omar, don’t move, don’t point, don’t move your head fast. The hill to the left…’

‘Where there is nowhere to hide, Mr Gus?’

‘Yes, where there is nowhere to hide. Can you see a place for us?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Not perhaps. Yes or no?’

‘Of course, Mr Gus.’

‘Really, yes or no. Which?’

‘There are better places.’

‘It’s where we have to be, Omar. Yes or no?’

The boy was learning. He moved the hessian-covered telescope, netting over the lens, so slowly. Then he settled and his eye was locked to it. Every bush on the hillside had been cut down for firewood, every tree felled. The slope was of dull brown, winter-dead earth, as if the snow and the rain had eroded the life from it.

‘If we are on the ridge, above the hill…’

‘Too far for me to shoot.’

There was silence between them. Gus tilted his head to watch every movement around the command post, as if each moment that he saw the villagers and the soldiers, tramping in the mud around the building, was precious. The water tanker and the lorry left. He focused on the machine-gun position. Was the officer more important, or the machinegun? Omar tugged his arm. ‘There is a place.’

‘I can’t see it. Are you sure?’ Gus had his binoculars on it, but saw only the featureless slope of the hillside.

‘Yes, Mr Gus… ’

‘Omar – do you love Meda?’

‘I love her, Mr Gus – not fuck-love, but love.’

‘If you haven’t got a place, if the machine-gun finds us and Meda is leading the attack, afterwards it will kill her… So you have to be sure.’

‘Very sure, Mr Gus.’

‘Can you get me there in the dark, no light, and can you get me out in the day?’

The boy nodded soberly. ‘I think so, Mr Gus.’

‘If you can’t, Omar, Meda is dead.’

He knew tomorrow would be different from any experience in his life. The thought of it chilled him. He wondered how he would sleep that night, if he would sleep.

‘Don’t try to please me,’ Major Karim Aziz had said, to each of them separately. ‘Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Do not be definite about anything you are not certain of. I want only the truth.’

He had heard what the corporal and the goatherd had said, then he had told the guards that both were to be fed a full hot meal but in different rooms so that neither knew what the other had told him. While they were eating, he had gone away to the intelligence unit and demanded they produce for him large-scale maps and aerial photographs. When he had pored over them, he had gathered up those that would help him and had returned to talk with each of them again.

The corporal’s story didn’t alter, but the goatherd had seen the man, his man. ‘My friend was shot from across the valley, and I do not lie to you, Major. God strike me if I lie to you, but I have never known of a man who could shoot at such a distance… But I saw him, Major. He was sitting in the sun’s light against the wall of the house of my friend, and the rifle he held was bigger than any rifle I have ever seen. He was dressed in clothes that made him look like the earth and the bushes. He is not a peshmerga, Major, because I never saw one of them with such a rifle or who dressed in such a way.’

He took the maps and the photographs back to his room. He fed Scout, and when he settled at the table the dog nestled against his feet. The Dragunov was laid on the table with the maps and photographs. It was, he reflected, the moment for which he had prepared himself through a military career of twenty-six long years. He had killed many men, but in battle the ultimate conflict of sniper against counter-sniper had always eluded him. Everything else he now stripped from his mind. It would be an elemental struggle for supremacy, himself against an expert. Alone in his room, with the dog’s snoring to calm him, there was no admission in Aziz’s mind that the man confronting him would best him.

It was not for glory, medals, the reward of money, for killing; it was the lure of a primitive struggle between two men for supremacy in the science of fieldcraft and the skill of marksmanship. He thanked his god for the opportunity.

The conflicts began in earnest before the attack. Meda wanted to lead the attack. Haquim insisted she stay with him, in the rear. Meda wanted a frontal assault. Haquim demanded they charge the right flank of the village. Meda wanted their own machine-gun to fire on the watchtowers. Haquim said the concentration of fire should be against the command post. Meda wanted Gus close to her, shooting in support of her dash towards the fences.

Haquim told her that the marksman would decide where he placed himself.

The commentary came from Omar. It was painful to Gus. His carefully drawn plan of the village was laid on the ground between them, illuminated by a shaded torch. He thought everything Haquim said made sense, but Meda rejected it, as if governed by a wild obstinacy. When his suggestion was rejected, Haquim doggedly, fruitlessly, pursued it. It was just a damn waste of time, and Gus played no part in the running sore of their disputes – her arrogance against Haquim’s experience.

‘I know about war,’ Haquim said, and Omar whispered it.

‘You know about losing at war,’ Meda said, and Omar giggled as he translated. ‘The men follow me, not you…’ There was a shout behind her, her name was called. She pushed herself up. ‘I will lead. I will be the first to the fence, the first to the command post, and they will follow me.’

She disappeared into the darkness.

Gus and Haquim studied the plan. Gus sensed the anger of Haquim at the humiliation thrown on him by her. But he knew that the mustashar would not walk away from her, as he would not. They agreed the position to be taken by Gus and Omar, the angle of the machine-gun’s fire, and the direction of the charge.

‘And she will lead?’ Gus asked heavily.

‘What am I supposed to do? Chain her to a rock? Bind her legs? If she goes down, is hit, then everything for us is finished.’ Haquim shrugged. ‘What can I do?’

‘I will watch for her, as best I can,’ Gus said.

‘As I will, as we all will, as best we can, as much as she will allow us.’

There was a growing murmur of voices behind them. Two pinpricks of light were advancing imperceptibly up the incline of the hill, and both took as a beacon the central guttering fire of their camp. Gus watched. It was because of her that the new men tramped across the black wastes of open ground, and came to them. The lights they carried lit their wild, bearded faces and their weapons glinted. They came as gliding, savage caravans in the night, carrying rifles, mortar tubes and ammunition boxes, the silver shimmer of knife blades at their belts. She walked towards them, and Gus saw the way that those at the front quickened their stride, while those at the rear ran to catch up.

She held out her arms and the columns broke as they scattered to gather in front of her.

They squatted down and she talked to them. They rippled their approval.

‘What does she say?’

Haquim responded grimly, ‘She says that, through their courage, the Kurdish people will find freedom. That they are the heirs of Salah al-Din Yusuf. And that mercy is shown to an enemy only by a man who is weak. She says the Kurds will not find their freedom before they have killed every Iraqi soldier in the country that is their own. She says

…’

Gus walked away, turned his back on her.

He would be, and he knew it, tomorrow, a changed man – for ever changed.

All day the Israeli had listened to the radios as they sucked down the crypted and clear messages from Fifth Army headquarters to the forward echelon positions.

In the shadowlands of intelligence gathering, Isaac Cohen understood the need to recognize a crucial moment of advantage. The moment might be micro-brief. In a struggle lasting years, the moment of advantage might exist only for a few hours. Many times in a veteran’s career with the Israeli Defence Force, then with the Mossad, the window of advantage had flickered open, sometimes to be exploited and sometimes ignored with heavy and enduring consequences. As a lieutenant in an armoured unit he had been pushed across the Canal in the Yom Kippur war when intelligence had recognized the advantage to be gained from hitting the hinge between the Egyptian Third and First armies. As an operating field agent of the Mossad, he had sat in on those endless debates as to the right time to eliminate activist leaders of the terrorist Hamas organization on the West Bank. Was the better advantage gained from killing the bomb-makers as soon as they were identified, or letting them run under surveillance in the hope of more names or locations surfacing? Once, it had been decided that a man should stay free, and the moment of advantage had been lost: a 10-kilo TNT bomb had killed 13 and wounded 170 more in a bloodbath at the Jerusalem food market. He was now in his isolated posting because of the failure of his superiors to recognize that a moment of advantage had passed. Everything was about advantage.

He believed now that such a moment existed. It was merely a question of identifying it.

It was as though a stiletto had made a short but not fatal stab into the ribcage of an enemy. The knife could be turned – two hundred more men were moving forward, the radio intercepts told him – and then the hole would be larger. As the hole grew, as the stiletto was plunged deeper towards the vulnerable heart, so the risk to the enemy increased. But all that they had done was to send a master sniper from Baghdad. Why had a blocking force not been sent north? Why did the Fifth Army not respond to the threat and cauterize the wound?

He did not understand the reason – but he believed a moment of advantage now existed.

He sent a short message to Tel Aviv. In crisp language, he made a suggestion as to what he should do to exploit the moment.

He was fit for his age, but he still dreaded the prospect of a long night march. When the terse response came on the radio, he was already writing a letter to his wife that would be carried out on the next resupply helicopter. Permission was granted.

‘Hi! You okay, Caspar?’

‘Not too bad, Rusty.’

Caspar Reinholtz was a slave to punctuality. It was seven minutes to ten o’clock. He approved of the young man, who was early for his night shift. If it had been Bill or Luther, they’d have walked in with a half-minute to spare. He had just transmitted his report and the tiredness pulsed in waves across him. He doubted that he’d wander over to the mess where Bill and Luther would be socializing with the pilots and ground crew. He was not in the mood for USAF small-talk.

‘Long day?’

‘Long enough.’

‘But was it a good day?’

‘At best satisfactory.’

Caspar ran his hand through his cropped hair. The day, whatever it had been, had started at five, as the dawn sidled over the runways and bunkers of the Incerlik base where the USAF’s F-16 Falcons shared space with Turkish aircraft, and the helicopter had lifted him off with four marines for close protection duty. A small bungalow compound, inside the USAF security perimeter, was the home base for the Agency team responsible for northern Iraq. Drinking beer with flies in the froth was about as satisfactory as running American interests in northern Iraq from over the Turkish border.

They had flown to collect the fat cat from Arbil, then on to pick up the second fat cat from Sulaymaniyah, then had headed up and high into the mountains for the scary flight into bandit country.

‘You going to tell me?’

‘Don’t take it personal – same old problem – but it’s a Need to Know.’

‘That’s not a difficulty, Caspar. You want some coffee?’

‘I’d appreciate that.’

Rusty was big, strapping, a young man out of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He had an openness that was rare for Agency recruits, and seemed to take it to heart when information was not shared. He’d learn. Long ago, Caspar had learned all that anyone could teach him, and what he knew best was northern Iraq. It had been taught the hard way. He’d been there, first tour of duty, in 1974 – young, like Rusty, and keen -when the Agency, with Iranian and Israeli help, had armed the Kurds to go kick Baghdad’s ass, but the diplomats had signed a treaty, the aid had stopped, and the reprisals of the Iraqi army against the Kurdish hill fighters would have made a less focused man weep and slip to his knees. Caspar had gone home to find new fields.

The second tour, he’d been back across the Turkish border in 1988 when Operation al-Anfal had punished the tribesmen, bombed, gassed and butchered them. Caspar had been posted away. When he’d returned in ’91, he had been in time to set up the radio station that had broadcast the calls for the Kurds to rise up in armed open rebellion against Baghdad. They had, but the promised support hadn’t come: the runways at Incerlik had stayed silent, and the retribution had been repeated.

Caspar had been called back to Langley. But the place was like a damn malarial microbe in his bloodstream. He had requested and badgered for a last time back there – a fourth tour – and he’d made it to the Agency team in Arbil a month before the disaster when Saddam’s tanks rolled over the ceasefire line and ruthlessly drove the Kurds north.

He never spoke – not to colleagues, not to family, of the awfulness of their own escape from Arbil, and what they’d left behind. He’d been at Incerlik ever since, and had five more months to go before they’d call him home a final time. The coffee had been cooking all through the evening as he’d written, encoded and transmitted his report.

‘If you don’t mind my asking, will it work?’

‘What’s that?’

‘The plan, will it work?’

‘I’m tired – sorry, I don’t want to give offence here, Rusty. Look, there is a plan.

There’s lengths of twine that need binding together to make a rope that’ll carry the plan.

They’re not together yet.’

They called the plan RECOIL. RECOIL, in the mind of the author of its name, Caspar Reinholtz, implied the release of a pressured spring of tempered steel with the force to drive back a seemingly immovable object. He was proud of that name. The pressured spring was rebellion, the immovable object was the regime in Baghdad. As station chief, he alone of the Agency team in Incerlik knew the importance of each of the lengths of twine that must be woven to make the rope.

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘I’m not promising to answer.’

‘Did you see her?’

‘Am I going to get some coffee? Yeah, OK, I saw her.’

The strands were a woman… an armoured formation… an action in Baghdad… a movement with momentum, pace and bluff. If one frayed, the load of the plan might not be carried. The woman was to kick-start it but each succeeding part of RECOIL was as integrally important, and it worried the shit out of him. He had never before met a young woman, the same age as his second daughter, who had made an impression of such devastating simplicity and confidence. All through the flight back, with the detours to drop off the fat cats, her face, her sweetness and her goddam arrogance had been locked in his mind. He was old, he had seen everything, he was labelled a cynical bastard by those who worked for him, and he’d wished to God, and been as sober as a baby, that he could have followed where she led. If he’d told his guards or the pilots or any of the young ones here what he thought, all of them would have called him a fucking lunatic.

‘What’s she like?’

‘That’s pushy, Rusty… Actually, she’s remarkable. She -’

‘Can she get to Kirkuk?’

It was the strand Rusty knew of. He was in total ignorance of the others.

‘The coffee, please. Hey, she’s a symbol. She gets men off their butts. She’s a part of a big picture, no more and no less. Can she get to Kirkuk? I don’t know. RECOIL goes further than Kirkuk. Quit the questions… What I will tell you, I saw her point man. You been to Fort Benning?’

‘No – you want sugar or sweetener?’

‘They do snipers there,’ Caspar murmured. ‘I saw her sniper. The chopper took a run over him. He was in the real camouflage gear and he’d a hell of a big shooter. She said he was important to her. They’re going south into real shit, fucking fighting, against experienced tank units, artillery formations. That’s before they get to Kirkuk, and she thinks one guy with a rifle is important. Hey, Rusty, don’t ever believe good news comes out of this place. It doesn’t, I know… Do you want to get me some coffee or do you want to get shipped home?’

He sat in his room and he heard Rusty whistling quietly to himself in the kitchen annexe. She was in his mind… and when he lost her he seemed only to see the bleak face of the man under the helicopter’s flight path, wrapped in the camouflage smock, holding the rifle.

‘Major Herbert Hesketh-Prichard had friends among the British aristocracy – that’s the people with money and influence. Once he’d made the decision that the way to take on the German snipers was with snipers of our own, he persuaded those friends to help him

… Are you asleep?’

‘No, Mr Gus. How did the friends help?’

‘Lady Graham of Arran loaned him a five-times magnification telescope to take to France, and a fund set up by Lord Roberts bought more telescopes to be used by the observers alongside the snipers. Lord Lovat sent all his gamekeepers – the men who guided Lovat’s friends into the mountains of Scotland to shoot deer – to the army because they were the best at stalking on the open slopes of the mountains.’

‘As good as me, Mr Gus?’

‘Of course not, Omar, no-one is as good as you, and no-one is as conceited as you. So shut up and listen. The best of Lord Lovat’s men was a corporal, Donald Cameron, who was described as a “very good glassman”. The observers spotted the targets for the snipers and protected them from patrols. When Major Hesketh-Prichard set up his school for snipers at Steenbecque in the Forest of Nieppe, he always trained snipers and observers alongside each other.’

‘Not the school any more, Mr Gus. Tell me about the killing.’

‘Tomorrow.’ Gus lay back and stared at the stars. ‘Tomorrow we’ll talk about the killing.’

Chapter Six

Gus, after a long time watching the night sky, had finally drifted to the sleep he needed when he was shaken awake. He started up at the touch of Haquim’s hand on his shoulder.

He heard the voices and blinked to see better. Omar was crouched protectively beside him and was holding his assault rifle as if Gus were threatened. Haquim kicked at Omar’s ankle, drove him back, and pulled Gus to his feet.

A torch shone into Gus’s face.

‘Is this him? Is this the sniper?’ The voice, deep and harsh with the Israeli-American accent, came from a shadowy, stocky man who was bent under a backpack.

Gus coughed out phlegm in his throat and spat it on the ground. ‘Who needs to know?’

The shadow’s breath clouded the chill air between them. The man came forward from a group, and as the men behind him followed, he waved them away dismissively. He reached Gus, poked his finger into Haquim’s chest and pointed into the reaches of the darkness. Maybe he didn’t see Omar, who was crouched down close to rocks.

The voice dropped. ‘Are you the sniper?’

‘Who are you?’

‘At dawn you attack the Victory City of Darbantaq, yes?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘It is not often I step outside my front door. Less often I spend a night walking through these goddam hills. Put another way, it is something remarkable for me to have hiked this sort of distance when I could be tucked up in my cot. Isaac Cohen, who in the wisdom and generosity of the government of Israel is stationed in this fuck-awful place. I’m tired, I’ve twisted my ankle, I smoke too much, I have carried a load of tricks for you – can we talk?’

Instinctively, Gus reached out his hand and took the Israeli’s. ‘I’m Gus.’

‘I have much to tell you, and I want to be back in my bed before dawn. Are you listening?’

‘We have a mustashar and a leader. Should they not be listening?’

‘Do you know nothing? First lesson here, trust nobody. They’ll say what they think you want to hear. Believe nothing you are told, accept nothing you see. They are terminally divided and incapable of unity, just watch. You’ll have a crowd with you going forward. If you have to go back you won’t be able to run fast enough to keep up.

So, in answer to your question, I’m only talking to you.’

‘Why did you come?’

‘To tell you about Darbantaq. If you’re a sniper then you’ve reconnoitred the village

… ’

‘Yes.’

‘You saw the BMP personnel carriers?’

Gus hesitated. ‘No.’

Cohen chuckled. ‘Then it was worth my coming. You didn’t circle the village. There are three BMPs in earth revetments behind the command post. All will be fitted with a 73mm 2A20 main armament, rate of fire at four rounds a minute. Also they will be mounted with a light machine-gun. Unless you can handle the BMPs you won’t get near the place – and one of them will be fitted with thermal imaging… ’

The Israeli had slung his backpack off his shoulders and gasped at the release from the weight. He rooted in a side pocket, produced a folded wad of papers and gave them to Gus. ‘It’s all here. I’d have thought a combat veteran would have known about BMPs.’

Gus said quietly, ‘It’s my first week in combat.’

‘That’s very funny. Your famous British sense of humour? This is perhaps not so funny – you should read it.’

The hands burrowed into the backpack, the fingers working fast. Gus watched. The olive-green dish was expanded to full size and a stubby antenna pulled out in the centre.

Short cables were stretched to their maximum length and plugs slid into sockets in the box. Cohen threw a switch, a red light flashed and the dial’s needle jumped, then he killed the power.

Cohen said, ‘In the command post is an R-123M AFV radio that’ll go back to a booster, then to battalion at Tarjil, then on a relay to the brigade HQ on the Sulaymaniyah-Baghdad crossroads, and ultimately to Fifth Army HQ in Kirkuk. This box will block an R-123M’s transmissions, but it’ll only work at one hundred and fifty metres. So you have to get to one hundred and fifty metres from their command post at Darbantaq, then you can put them off-air. There’ll be no hero in a bunker giving a running commentary on the main assault, got me?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s what I came to give you.’

‘Thank you. What do you call it?’

‘It’s just a box of tricks. You want a name for it? Try “Josephus”. Josephus will do nicely. He died one thousand, nine hundred years ago, and he was a big man in the last Jewish revolt against the Romans. Josephus will work well for you… That was a joke, that you’re really not a veteran?’

Gus said simply, ‘I have never in my life done anything like this before, nor wanted to.’

Cohen reached out and his fingers caught Gus’s cheek. He held it tight enough to hurt.

‘You picked a bad place to learn. Your opposition knows about you and takes you seriously, which is not healthy news for a beginner… I sit on a mountain and I hear everything. They’ve sent a man from Baghdad for you.’

‘Have they?’

‘They have sent a master sniper to track you. He is Karim Aziz, a major, and they think he’s one of their top guys.’

‘Do they?’

‘He’s coming to track you and to kill you.’

Gus batted the fingers from his cheek. ‘I hope you get back safely to where you came from, and I hope your ankle’s better soon.’

Cohen said grimly, ‘Sniper against sniper. Secure your front, secure your flank, secure your back. I’ll listen for you, I’ll hear each step he takes and you take, until he finds you or you find him… It’s like something from the intestines of history. I’ll be listening, but I hope, and you’d better hope too, that your god watches for you.’

He heaved the backpack up onto his shoulders.

Gus watched the wavering, diminishing light from the Israeli’s torch. When it was gone, he called Haquim forward and repeated everything he had been told about the box, Josephus, and the positioning of the BMP personnel carriers, but he said nothing of a man sent from Baghdad to track and kill him.

The cold was around him. In an hour he would go forward with Omar. He felt a suffocating sense of loneliness.

They sat in the cold dining room, at the table, and Ms Manning kept her outdoor coat on.

On his pad, at the top of the blank page, Willet had written and underlined the word MINDSET.

‘His grandfather told us nothing of this.’

‘Well, he wouldn’t, would he?’

After another early start, after another early pickup by Ms Manning, they’d hammered at the door of the vicarage. Henry Peake had not been dressed, had told them firmly to wait. They’d sat in the car for fifteen minutes before being allowed inside. There were sounds of movement in the kitchen, but they were neither taken there, nor offered tea or coffee.

‘I don’t know – you tell me.’

‘We’re not responsible for our parentage and I am certainly not responsible for my father’s prejudices.’

Henry Peake was a slimmer man than his father, and already more gaunt. He had little of the certainty that the old man in the bungalow behind the big house had shown. But he talked in response to the prodding questions rattled at him by Ms Manning. ‘You’ll have to explain.’

He was lighting his third cigarette. He retched a cough, then launched. ‘Gus’s grandfather, my father, wouldn’t have talked to you about his grandson’s child-hood. He didn’t approve, you understand me? I was brought up in a service household. I made a crystal-clear decision, and Fiona was right with me on this, that Gus would not be reared as I had been. We let the child run. He was a free spirit. He wasn’t hidebound by the diktat of meaningless traditions. It was only later, when my father needed Gus, that he quite shamelessly involved him in this nonsense about northern Iraq. It’s where he is now, isn’t it?’

They were in a sheep scrape Omar had found. The ground would have been weakened by years of rain, and then the sheep in the last summer, or the summer before, had used that weakness and with their bodies had insinuated a narrow cavity on the slope of the hill.

The depth of the scrape was sufficient shelter from a summer squall for four or five sheep pressed close to each other, but was barely big enough for the boy and Gus. To use it and still be hidden by its lip of earth, the two were huddled close against each other.

In the scrape Gus could not take his usual firing position with his legs splayed out behind him. He used the Hawkins position, lying sideways with his upper body twisted so that he could aim out to the extreme left. It was neither comfortable nor satisfactory, but the rule of a marksman was to accept the conditions as he found them. Each time Omar wriggled, the movement reverberated through Gus’s body and disturbed his aim, and each time he kneed hard against the back of the boy’s legs and hoped he felt it.

In front of Gus, magnified through the telescopic sight, was the Victory City of Darbantaq. He could see the upper casings and the mounted guns on the BMPs behind their earthen walls, women starting to form a queue at a building close to the command post, the machine-gun crew on the roof of the command post, men fussing around their penned goats and sheep beside their concrete homes, soldiers shivering in the watchtowers, and children playing with a deflated football behind the wire.

Behind him and to his right, waiting on his first shot, were four hundred peshmerga men, and Meda. They would be crouched, nervous and fidgeting, holding tight to their weapons, waiting for the signal of his first shot.

The boy was more restless, his movements more frequent. Gus could not fault the way he had been led forward, partly at a crouch, and then at the leopard crawl. The last three hundred yards down the slope had taken them a full hour, scraping the ground in the half-light, because the Israeli had said one of the personnel carriers had thermal imaging, and if they were not flat to the ground they would make a signature. The boy had done well but now shifted more often as he raked a greater arc of ground with the telescope.

‘Our approach was good, Omar,’ Gus whispered, ‘but now we must be patient.’

‘Then the chance comes to kill them, Mr Gus.’

‘Where did you learn to stalk?’

‘Going into Iraqi camps, and going past the guards into the compounds of the charities, to take-’

‘To steal, Omar.’ Gus laughed soundlessly, and his eye never left the scope’s lens, which covered the entrance to the command post.

‘It is necessary to live, Mr Gus. And to live I have to take.’

She had ignored the father’s question. ‘Didn’t his grandfather teach him to shoot?’

‘God, no. He was into partridges and pheasants, semi-tame birds being driven towards the guns – he calls it sport, I call it murder.’

‘Did you teach him to shoot?’

‘Never been in the slightest bit interested. It’s all down to Harry Billings, a rogue who lived in the village, dead now, and no tears shed. We’d sent Gus away to school, of course, but he was a loner, didn’t mix well, and a bit of an under-achiever. I’d hoped that boarding school would make him more sociable. It didn’t. When he was home on holiday we hardly saw him. He virtually lived with Billings, just came home late at night to sleep, and was gone again at first light. His grandfather alternately said Billings should be horsewhipped or locked up, never seemed quite sure of the remedy.’

‘What was the nature of Mr Billings’ roguishness?’

‘Poacher.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

A grin creased Willet’s face, which she would not have seen. He knew from her monologues in the car that Ms Manning lived in Islington, that her parents were also close by in north London, that she had been to local schools and to university down a bus route. She was an urban person: she would know damn all of a country poacher’s life. His pen was poised.

‘A low-life ignorant poacher. Game birds, rabbits, the occasional deer. It wasn’t all illegal, there’s a big area of common ground up to the north of the village where they could shoot, but it was decidedly criminal when they were on the Vatchery estate. They were never caught by the gamekeeper there, though not for want of trying. That man used to sit half the night outside the Billings house waiting for the old devil to creep home with the pheasants or a fallow deer carcass. There was a bond between that uncouth man who’d not an iota of education or ambition and my son – I have to say it, a much closer bond than ever existed between Gus and his mother and me. Billings had a son, younger than Gus, a proper little tearaway, quite unsuitable company… Anyway, Billings was finally arrested and given three months inside by the bench. The police stopped him with a van full of pheasants. At the time I thanked God that Gus was away at school. When he was released the whole dreadful family moved away, good riddance, never heard of again. You give freedom to a youngster and hope common sense prevails. Sadly, parents are not always rewarded.’

He had been writing hard, taking a note that was almost verbatim. For Willet, it was as if a small light illuminated the darkness. He looked up. ‘What was the ultimate for your son, Mr Peake, when he was with Billings?’

‘A clean shot. I was once bawling him out, the way fathers do with teenage sons – he’d come home quite filthy from the fields and ditches, and we’d guests in for drinks. His response, as if he were talking to an idiot, was “You have to be prepared to lie up, Dad, so’s you get a clean shot under your own terms. Otherwise all you’ve done is wound a rabbit, break a pigeon’s wing. The worst sound in the world is a rabbit in pain, screaming, when you can’t reach it, hurt because you rushed your shot, Dad. It has to be a good kill.”

I had the impression that the hunting was more important to him than the slaughter, though I doubt that applied to Billings.’

‘Is that all there is?’ Ms Manning was already bored and lost.

“Fraid so. What else? Gus left school with pretty average grades, and I managed to pull some strings, got him into a haulage firm in Guildford. I did business with them and was owed favours. He’s been there ever since. I can only talk about his youth because we hardly see him, these days… What do I tell my wife?’

‘Your problem, Mr Peake, not mine,’ she said, without charity.

‘What’s he doing there? Is he driving a relief lorry?’

‘He’s gone to fight, Mr Peake,’ she intoned.

‘But that’s a war zone…’ The man’s mouth gaped.

Gus saw the target. He came slowly towards the command post. His own estimate of the distance was 750 yards, and the binoculars confirmed it at 741. There was a short line of soldiers at attention. A moment before, as Gus had done a fast scan with the binoculars, the crew on the roof with the machine-gun had closed up behind their weapon, and the soldiers in the watchtower ducked below their sandbag parapets. The T-junction of the reticule in his ’scope sight was on the target. He would fire at the next moment that his breath was steadied.

‘Watch the shot, Omar. Don’t move, not a fraction, just watch the shot.’

Gus breathed deeply, then slowly, so slowly, began to empty his lungs. When they were emptied he would relax, then fire. The smoke curled from the homes of the villagers, there was no new adjustment to make for the slight wind’s strength. Above the chest of the target were the gold insignia of rank on the target’s shoulders.

‘No.’

‘What?’ Gus hissed.

‘No. Don’t.’

Gus breathed again, his finger was inside the trigger guard.

‘Why not?’

‘It is not the officer.’

‘He has the rank.’

‘No, Mr Gus. The soldiers are laughing at him.’

Gus stared through the ’scope. Behind the target figure, level with the insignia on the target’s shoulder, a soldier grinned and Gus saw the flash of his teeth, and another man near to him laughing.

‘It is not the officer, it is a pretend. They know about you, trick you. They would not dare to laugh at their officer.’

The breath seeped from Gus’s body. He eased his finger off the trigger. He felt flattened by the simplicity of the trap set for him. Without the boy, he would have walked into it, fired into it. At that moment he saw his own importance. The life of a soldier, with a family and with a mother, was to be snuffed out so that his own life could be taken.

‘Thank you, Omar.’

‘It was easy to see the trick – yes, Mr Gus?’

He kneed the boy savagely. The sun crawled up behind him, over the ridge where the attack force lay and waited on him.

‘Correct, Mr Peake. Maybe you should chat it out with your father as to why your son is currently in a war zone. Good day.’

She was on her feet. Willet had filled the page below the heading of MINDSET. He put the pad into his briefcase. There were no handshakes at the door. Momentarily Willet saw a woman’s face at the kitchen door, grey, lined and harassed. He wouldn’t have known what to say to her that might have been of any comfort. The door slammed shut behind them.

They walked to the car.

‘What a bloody fool,’ she said.

‘Who?’

‘Peake, of course.’

‘Which Peake?’

‘The son, that idiot.’

‘Why?’

‘For doing what he’s done – for going where he’s gone.’

Willet felt the anger brimming in his mind. ‘The last weekend you had time off, what did you do? Where did you go?’

‘Actually, I was in Snowdonia, with a group rebuilding footpaths for the National Trust. We were all volunteers.’

Through gritted teeth, Willet said pleasantly, ‘It must have seemed, Ms Manning, important. I suppose rebuilding a footpath is about as important as fighting for the freedom of a subjugated people in a war zone.’

She looked at him curiously. ‘Are you all right?’

He sat with his head down, his chin on his chest. ‘I’m fine – but what about him?’

‘The wind’s changed.’

‘He is coming.’

Gus hissed venomously, ‘You didn’t tell me, it’s veered.’

Omar persisted shrilly, ‘The officer is coming.’

‘The wind has moved from south-west-south to west-south-west – you’ve got to warn me about this sort of thing.’

‘Do you want to know about the wind or the officer?’

‘Both.’

The panic consumed him.

The wind had come up from gentle to moderate strength. A flag on the Stickledown Range would have eased clear of the pole and lethargically flapped free. Its direction had shifted from No Value to Half Value. On that range he could have waited, settled, then tapped into the calculator on the mat beside him and computed whether to alter the windage turret on the ’scope by a full click, or by half a click, or whether to aim off from the centre of the target’s V-Bull. Gus saw the officer. There were no insignia on his shoulder but men straightened to attention as he passed. He was within half a dozen feet of the entrance door to the command post and walking. There was no time to settle or make the necessary calculations. He aimed off, his mind racing for an answer to the equation, to compensate for the fresher wind and for the brisk stride of the officer.

‘Watch the shot’s fall,’ Gus whispered.

But the officer, wide-chested, in fatigues, would pause at the jamb of the command post’s door, and that, too, must go into the equation.

Gus fired. The moment that the recoil hammered into his shoulder, he knew that the breath pattern was wrong, and that he’d squeezed too fast on the trigger. The rifle’s compensator attachment at the barrel end kept the ’scope sight steady. He saw the hazed shapes of single waving grass stems and the flattening climb of the smoke columns, and the eddy of the air disturbed by the bullet’s track, and then he lost the flight.

The bullet would run for more than one and a half seconds. Its trajectory curve would take it to an apex of a fraction more than four feet above the aim point before the sliding fall. The flight, to Gus, was endless.

The target, the officer, at the door of the command post had turned and was issuing an instruction, jabbing with a finger for emphasis. Then he stood as if frozen.

Omar piped, ‘Miss. One metre to the right. Hit the wall. Miss.’

Gus slid the bolt back, eased out the wasted bullet. They were all rooted to the ground.

It was what he had been told. Men stood statue still in the seconds after a bullet had been fired and had missed them. But that moment would pass. It would pass before he had the chance to breathe in, breathe out, and use the respiratory pause. He locked the aim. His mind made the adjustment on intuition and instinct. He fired a second shot. A soldier dived to the ground. A second cowered, another fell to his knees, as if the ice of the tableau had melted. The officer’s jabbing finger was retracted and he seemed to be twisting his hips to turn for safety.

Gus saw him spin, one arm whipped high in the air. He saw the shock on his target’s face and watched him pirouette, fall. The officer was on his back and his legs kicked in the air. No-one came to his aid, and across the open ground came the faint whinnying cry of his scream.

He slid back the bolt, ejected the cartridge case. He tried to steady the post-shoot shake in his hands. He loathed himself for his failure to make a good, clean kill and started to analyse the first total failure and the second partial failure, as he had been instructed. And with the analysis came the calm… He had asked too much of the boy, he had not allowed enough for the wind, he had not reckoned on the pace of the officer’s walk, and he would think about it some more in the evening.

Gus said evenly, ‘The old stalkers in Scotland knew it. They’d have a guest fire at a stag and miss, and the stag always stays exactly still for two or three seconds. Then it runs. But, if it is winged, it runs immediately, until the wound kills it. I was lucky with that second shot.’

The machine-gun had opened up behind him and to his right, the tracer rounds arced across the dead ground, scattering little chasing patterns. The view through the ’scope was a blurred, fluid mess as he searched to find the position on the roof of the command post. And behind him he heard the whooping roar as the line of men began their charge.

A soldier yelled his name, waved frantically for him.

Major Karim Aziz was walking the dog alongside the edge of the high wire fence.

He heard his name and ran towards the soldier. The dog at his heel, he was led to the communications bunker.

The brigadier was already there, the general bursting in a minute after him.

He stood at the central map table and listened. The words that came blurted over the loudspeakers, high on the wall, were interspersed with break-up and howl.

‘… The captain is hit… Yes, Corporal Ahmad wore the captain’s coat, but was not shot at… Captain Kifaar is hit, is not dead, but they cannot bring a medical orderly to him. There is a general attack. We are waiting for Lieutenant Muhammad to take the place of Captain Kifaar in the command post.’

The Victory City at Quadir Beg broke across the transmission – their water tanker was late. When could they expect it?

The Victory City at Keshdan reported the failure of the single-stage air filtration system of a BMP. Could a qualified engineer accompany the next resupply column with a replacement?

‘Get those arseholes off the air,’ the general shouted.

‘… There is heavy shooting from the front… There are casualties… Lieutenant Muhammad has now reached the command post… They are led by a woman. She is with their forward force. The machine-gun fires at her, no hit yet, she is protected… The medical orderly has not come to the command post to treat Captain Kifaar. The captain is close to death. Are units advancing to help us? In God’s name, send us help.’

Aziz asked quietly, ‘Please, is it possible to know the circumstances of Captain Kifaar’s wounding? It would be useful for me.’

The question was relayed.

‘… A very long shot, twice. The second shot hit him. We must have help. They are near to us… No-one knows where the shot came from. Is help on its way?’

Over the loudspeaker came the sounds, staccato, of the firing. But Aziz had been given the answer he had expected and seemed not to hear the deep, distorted terror of the men under fire.

Gus had hit a man who ran to the nearest of the personnel carriers. He had missed another who made a snaky crawl to follow him but had put the next shot right through the gunport of the command post. A fuel drum, close to the earth walls for the personnel carriers, had caught fire and the deep red blaze of the incendiary threw a lowering pall of smoke across much of the village, which ebbed towards the fence. Between gusts of wind, gaps appeared in the grey-black wall of the smoke, and he caught fleeting glimpses of the machine-gun crew on the roof.

It was a scene of hell. Against him the boy was shivering with excitement.

She was at the front of the long, straggling line approaching the fence. She had no fear.

Suddenly, as if a man had punched him, came the realization of her vulnerability. He saw her turn and face the line of crouched men behind her, and give an imperious wave that they should follow.

Gus saw the machine-gun traverse towards her, then the smoke drifted and thickened.

The tracers poked through the cloud, firing at random, searching for her. Haquim was behind her, running awkwardly over the rough ground and hugging the metal box to his chest. The hellish cauldron was a small pocket of life and death, in which she stood and demanded that the peshmerga follow.

‘Watch for the fall,’ Gus snapped.

The wind was stronger: it tugged at the grass and wafted the smoke. He waited for the chance. She was a hundred yards from the fence. He had gone to eight clicks on the windage turret, but the wall of smoke was solid and he could not see through it. The tracers swarmed around her.

The smoke dissipated without warning.

He was gazing through the ’scope at the machine-gun crew. Three choices: the man who called the aim and was crouched at the back, puffing at a cigarette clamped between his lips; the one who fed the belt and whose helmet strap was undone and hung loosely against his cheek; or the one who pulled the trigger?

‘She’s hit,’ the boy gasped. ‘She has fallen.’

Gus fired, once, twice, a third shot. The smoke closed around his view of the target. He heaved back the bolt, squeezed the trigger again, and again, heard the empty scrape of the action and knew that his magazine was empty.

‘You have them, Mr Gus.’

He choked. ‘Does it matter?’

There was a stillness around him, as if the pace and clamour of the world had stopped.

It was the silence of remembrance.

‘The witch is down.’

Around Aziz there was a growl of pleasure, and the brigadier slapped his clenched fist into the other palm.

The operations officer lifted the microphone to his mouth and yelled at it, ‘Are the BMPs now engaged? Come on, man, what is happening there?’

The voice came back at them, echoed down on them. ‘They cannot reach them. There is a marksman. There is very great difficulty… Our machine-gun, the main defence, they are all dead, it is the marksman… Is help coming? Wait…’

Aziz felt a detached distaste for such confusion. It had no part in the warfare he practised. The chaotic noise was alien to him. He was at ease with himself, he had learned what he had wanted to know. He had no sympathy for the beleaguered soldiers: they were only a testing ground for his enemy. He yearned to be alone with his Dragunov and his dog, on a hillside, pitting himself against a worthwhile adversary.

‘She’s up… the witch is up. She’s-’

The voice was lost in a sea of static.

For several minutes the technicians tried to regain the link, to break the power of the jamming equipment, but the beating pulse of the garrison was gone.

He had seen the little clutch of men around her, had seen them drag her to her feet. She had stood for a moment, dazed, had then swayed, would have fallen again if they had not held her. She had pushed them away. He had lost her in the wall of smoke, and had reloaded five bullets in the magazine. When he had looked again through the sight, she was close to the perimeter wire, a dark stain on her thigh.

Gus watched. She was driving the men over the wire. They reached up and shredded their hands on the coiled barbs at the top. She was grabbing at those who followed, pitching them forward or helping to lift them. Sometimes her face was screwed tight in pain, and each time she ducked her head so that nobody could see. A man threw his heavy leather coat onto the coils, and others lifted her, pushing her feet so that she straddled the wire. More caught her as she fell on the far side.

His body slackened and he eased his hands from the rifle. The fighting was hand to hand, body to body. Like swarms of ants, the peshmerga fanned out to hunt down the last defenders. He saw a soldier emerge from a building holding high a white strip of torn sheet, before crumpling, his blood spattered across on the whiteness. Two more were running, only to be engulfed by the mob. He saw a soldier dragged from a bunker and the flash of knives. One of the BMPs coughed exhaust fumes and drove at speed towards the gate, crashed through it, then swerved into a ditch.

There was nothing more for Gus to fire at. He started to ease himself clear of the hiding place then turned and methodically started to pack away his rifle.

She was on the roof of the command post now, strutting her triumph.

‘Come on, Mr Gus. If we do not hurry, the killing will be finished.’

It was always the same in every communications bunker behind the lines when contact was lost with a forward position. The stunned quiet as if, buried tomblike in the bunker, each man considered the last seconds of a garrison’s life. Then there was shuffling movement and hushed voices to show that the living lived and the dead were abandoned.

The general clapped his hands for attention and barked out a series of orders: the battalion force at Tarjil should be alerted and should go to maximum readiness; brigade at the crossroads of the Sulaymaniyah and Baghdad routes should be warned; a situation report should be prepared for his approval before it was despatched to the Defence Ministry with copies to the al-Rashid command and the Abbasio Palace. Quiet conversation was followed by banter, then noisy laughter.

At the back of the bunker, away from the map table, Major Aziz noted that no order had been given for the advance into the hills of a column of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, either from Fifth Army headquarters or from brigade at the crossroads.

The lack of that order at first confused him, but then it slipped back in the heap of his own priorities.

His was a sense of private, covert exhilaration.

He slapped his thigh, a gesture for the dog, slipped from the bunker and climbed the steps to the freshness of the morning air. With no thought for the men of a defeated garrison, he went to his quarters to ready his gear. His time was coming.

When there was no more killing to be done Gus had brought Omar down to the village.

Near to the gate they reached Haquim packing away the cables of the box. Gus nodded abruptly to the mustashar, should have congratulated him, and did not, should have been congratulated for his shooting, and was not. He was learning. It was not Stickledown Range: Jenkins wasn’t there to slap him on the back. He walked through the gate, close to where a thick leather coat was hanging, ripped, from the top of the wire. He passed a sentry, whose body lay stupidly over a low wall of sandbags.

In the sheep scrape he had been protected from what he now saw.

He walked past the homes built of concrete blocks, Omar following. Some were on fire, some smouldered, some were pocked with bullet-holes. He saw dazed mothers walking aimlessly, holding their babies. One mother carried a bundle from which only a single tiny foot protruded at a broken angle. Another sat in front of the fractured door of her home and rocked in a chilling grief. In front of her were the corpses of two children.

Away to his right were the fathers and adult sons. Some were already digging the pit; some came to join them with spades hoisted on their shoulders. Near by was a toppled corner watch-tower, half of the body of the fallen sentry covered by it.

There was a trail for Gus to follow through the village: the trail of her voice. It led him along a sporadic line of death, towards the command post. The soldiers’ bodies had been robbed of everything of value: pockets had been ripped open, chains torn from their throats, their wallets discarded with the money gone and the photographs of their loved ones stamped into the dirt. She was on the roof, hectoring the men of the peshmerga, and he did not have the stomach to tell Omar to translate. He didn’t need to. He saw the dried blood on the thigh of her combat trousers. There were many corpses near the command post’s door, as if it had been a final rallying-point when the peshmerga had come over the perimeter fence.

On the ground in front of his boots, by the entrance to the command post, the face of the officer was barely related to the face he had seen through the ’scope. The vomit rose in Gus’s chest. The first of the peshmerga to reach him had not finished the officer’s life with a clinical head shot, but had slit his throat. Gus went into the command post and skirted through the detritus of broken tables and upturned chairs, stepped over the bodies, passed a man whose dead fingers were locked on the dials of the radio, and climbed the ladder to the roof.

He had his back to her. Behind him was the pride of her voice. With slow steps, he trudged to the corner where the machine-gun was sighted, and looked away over the bare ground towards the hillside, searching it for the sheep scrape. He could not find it. The boy had chosen well.

In the machine-gun nest, one man lay with the cigarette still clamped between his teeth. The others were more messy in death. On each was a narrow entry wound at the front and a larger wound at the back.

Haquim had crept up behind him. ‘This is not target shooting, it is war. For you it is an intellectual puzzle of distance and wind, the steadiness of your hand, and the quality of your ammunition. To us it is war. For you it is using your very great skills to combat technical difficulties. To us it is survival… No matter, you shot well.’

Haquim had said everything Gus had thought as he stood on the flat roof with her voice dinning in his ears. He turned away. On the far side of the camp, where the personnel carrier had battered a path for its flight, he saw a clutch of bodies, where men had entertained a last, hopeless belief in escape.

‘We have to harden you, Mr Peake. If you are not hardened then you will be like them, dead. Do not criticize us for behaving as barbarians would. It is what they do to us, what we have learned from them. The month that you saw Meda in the mountains nine years ago, with a hundred thousand others, starving, cold, without shelter, I held a pass with the men of agha Bekir that allowed them time for flight. We retreated rock by rock, stone by stone, to make time, and we could not take our wounded with us. We left them to the mercy of their soldiers. You don’t want me to tell you what we found when we came back. It is war.’

‘Is she hurt?’

Haquim snapped, ‘Of course she is hurt.’

‘Has she had treatment?’

‘Mr Peake, twenty of our men are dead, but twice that number are wounded and cannot walk as she can. There are many people from the village who are hurt – and there are their dead. She is the inspiration. Can she go to the front of the queue and demand, because of her importance, that her wound is treated? If she had not risen when she was hit the attack would have failed. If the men do not believe she can go forward, the advance is finished. She cannot show weakness. It is the price she must pay.’

Gus climbed down the ladder from the roof, went out through the command-post door and past the body of the officer. He walked briskly around the queue of peshmerga and villagers, some standing, some sitting and others just lying in the mud, silent or crying in their pain. He headed away from the grave-pit, and away from the last bodies. Her voice behind him was faint. He squatted down in the dirt, his back to the village, and stared out through the wire at the slope of the hills, and the mountain crests.

From behind him, Omar asked, ‘Do you think, Mr Gus, he is there, searching for you?’ *** The brigadier asked him where he was going. Major Aziz shrugged, pointed vaguely to the hills beyond the flame. Because he had been sent from Baghdad on the orders of the Estikhabarat, he did not have to explain himself. He walked out of the bunker; it perplexed him that reinforcements had not yet been sent, that the great lines of tanks and personnel carriers still rested in idle lines. It irritated him more that he could not recall where, or when, he had met the brigadier, but his mind was too clogged with details of his task for him to pursue it.

Behind him, in his bare quarters, on the floor underneath the smiling photograph of his President, he left the polished box and the folded rug on which the dog had slept. On the neatly made bed he had laid out all the spare clothes that had filled his backpack when he had flown north, and the pouch with his razor and toothpaste. On the chest beside the bed was the leather frame that held the pictures of his wife and his sons. He put his wedding ring and the birthday ring beside the frame.

He walked to the jeep and the driver started the engine. Aziz sat beside him, the Dragunov across his legs and the dog beside his feet. In the backpack, stripped down to necessities, were spare ammunition, his telescope, a half-loaf of bread, a quarter-kilo of cheese, his half-filled water bottle, dried biscuits for the dog, what he called the Dennison suit, maps and a folder of aerial photographs. He ruffled the fur at the dog’s collar, saw the pleasure on its face and felt the beat of its cropped tail against his boots.

The jeep drove away from Kirkuk, and passed through the brigade formation at the crossroads for Sulaymaniyah and Baghdad, climbing towards the town of Tarjil. It was as if he were coming home.

‘You know what? It’s my last bloody war zone – thank God.’

Dean thought it was the fourth time that night Mike had made that promise, Gretchen reckoned it was at least the fifth. A week of evenings together in the ground-floor bar of the Hotel Malkoc, and the story that had brought them to Diyarbakir was still beyond reach. The whisper was that the spring thaw would provide an opportunity for Saddam Hussein to advance again into northern Iraq. But they were in Turkey, and the border was closed.

‘Only war zone I’ve found is the goddam bathroom. “As dusk fell tonight, a vista of carnage and destruction was witnessed by your correspondent. Under a flickering light I surveyed, quote, scenes reminiscent of the worst horrors of the French revolution, end quote, in which no prisoners had been taken. After a good stamping session, I counted the corpses on my bathroom floor of forty-three cockroaches, their lives taken in the prime

…” ’ Dean was a roving reporter for a Baltimore paper and had covered every substantial conflagration in the region over the last seventeen years.

‘That’s bollocks.’ Mike was slumped in a rattan chair, swatting at flies and passably drunk. His Turkish cameraman was in the old city hunting women. Mike was a veteran reporter for the BBC, and was in the fast decline towards retirement.

‘You got a better war zone?’ Dean grinned.

‘Did you get on air tonight, Mike?’ Gretchen was conciliatory. She was forty, going on fifty, and worked for the Der Spiegel group out of Frankfurt. She was neither a threat nor an attraction to them. At the start of every assignment that brought them together she told them how she missed home and the company of her friend, Anneliese. She dressed like them: chukka boots, trousers with too many zip pockets, open-necked shirts showing their chests, safari tops with loops for pens.

‘No. I am not on the air tonight. I might get a showing on breakfast tomorrow, but I’m not holding my breath. What about you, Dean?’

‘Thank you for your kind consideration. I was dropped – “pressure of space”.

Gretchen, how’d they take your feature?’

‘Took it, probably already used it – to clean the lavatory. I am “on hold pending a peg”.’

Mike and his cameraman had tried to film the Turkish army in the streets of Diyarbakir, and been swamped by plain-clothes security men. Dean had filed on the scandal of the decay of the city’s medieval mosques. Gretchen had written six thousand words on child labour in the clothing sweat factories. They had all tried to justify their existence as they waited for the permission that didn’t come to cross the border that remained resolutely closed. Northern Iraq was near and unreachable.

‘If I was to use the word “introverted”, and then the word “self-obsessed”, who would I be talking about?’ Mike finished his drink and slapped the glass down on the table for the waiter’s attention.

‘You would, of course, be talking about our esteemed editors.’

‘It’s my last war zone.’

‘Fifth time.’

‘Wrong, sixth, easy.’

‘Last war zone – fuck you two – if I ever get to it, if – because my loved and admired editor is short on interest.’

‘Seem to have heard that record played somewhere before. “Sorry, Dean, but it’s the stock-market that’s playing big right now.”’

Mike banged his glass down again, louder, harder. ‘“Sorry, mate, but we really need something that’ll hook the viewer, like a celebrity visit – that’s if you’re unable to give us combat footage. Has to be an angle, Mike.” Problem is, I shot my mouth off, told them the tanks were going to roll… and I haven’t heard that Julia Roberts is arriving with an orang-utan, or Goldie Hawn up an elephant.’

‘You guys are joking.’

‘Or, Gretchen, we would cry,’ Dean said.

She persisted. ‘It is serious. Nobody cares back home. The editors tell it as it is. We believe that people at home are interested, and troubled, by the world outside their front door. We are old-fashioned, we are not “new”. When I go home, my neighbours are polite and ask where I have been. I tell them I have travelled to Somalia or Iran or Sudan, where people are suffering, and they are embarrassed…’

‘There is no technology to titillate, no smart-bomb videos, no cyber war. That’s why interest is spread thin. Doesn’t faze me – my last time, thank God…’

‘And on he goes.’

‘Fuck you both. Then I’m off to grow roses and sail a boat – and I will be, I promise faithfully, an anecdote-free zone. Not that anybody would listen.’

‘I don’t understand why people don’t care. In affluent societies, with safe lives, there is a duty of caring.’

Mike thought she was always saddest when she was earnest. ‘Forget it, Gretchen. Just enjoy the beer, the expenses, and the dazzling brilliance of the company around you.’

Dean said, ‘We’re all in the same shit, but attacking it separately. I don’t usually share.’

Mike was twisting and semaphoring to the waiter. ‘When it’s sharing your money you’ve stitched-up pockets.’

‘No way I’d share if I had a half-chance of screwing you deadbeats. I’m sharing because I can’t, as you can’t, get across that border.’ His voice had dropped, more from habit than the proximity of the Turkish plain-clothes police at a nearby table with their glasses of orange juice. ‘I was talking to one of the Turk lorry drivers who goes across, runs food loads for the UN. I offered him five hundred bucks to take me with him.’

‘You tricky bastard.’

‘You’d have left us here?’

‘Damned right I would. Didn’t do me any good. You know what he said, big bastard with no teeth? He asked me how I knew he wouldn’t drop me off on a God-awful lonely road where an Iraqi agent could take good care of me and give me a lift all the way to Baghdad. He said he’d get ten thousand dollars as bounty for an American illegal – be the same for a Britisher. Sorry, it’d be less for a German lady. Kind of nixed the negotiation.’

‘Is this story going anywhere? If it isn’t I’m off to force our bloody order down little Peach-bottom’s throat.’

‘He said there was a rumour of fighting down south on the ceasefire line.’

‘There’s always that rumour.’ Gretchen scratched at her armpit.

‘This afternoon he said a Kurdish army was being led south by a woman.’

Mike laughed loud. ‘Are you winding me up?’

‘A young woman, good-looking, with tits and an ass.’

‘Jesus, I wish I believed you.’

‘Why not a woman?’ Gretchen scowled. ‘Why should a woman not lead an army?

Why cannot men be led by a woman?’

Mike said solemnly, ‘Because it’s Kurdistan, lovely lady, because this is the Stone Age. Because women are in the home to cook, clean and open their legs on a Saturday night. I’d lead the bulletin, might even get a special out of it.’

Gretchen laughed. ‘I’d get the cover and ten pages inside.’

Dean stood. ‘After a lifetime of alcohol abuse, Mike, you are a total fucking failure at ordering drinks. You want something in this life, you have to do it yourself.’

‘Hey, it’s just a wet dream, because the border’s closed. What a way to go out from the last war zone. So, no Pulitzers for you.’ Mike caught the American’s arm and mimicked his accent. ‘“As dusk fell tonight over a vista of carnage and destruction, your correspondent stood beside the newest general to confront the awesome power of Saddam Hussein. She is a woman of soft beauty, who said her hero was the Duke of Wellington

…”’

‘Wrong… Schwartzkopf – no question.’

‘I’d love to think it’s true – two brandies, one straight Scotch, doubles. Go on, hurry up, you try and get some action here. A woman, leading an army, now that would be some story…’

In the quiet of the night, she came to the place by the wire where Gus sat.

‘The best tale in Major Herbert Hesketh-Prichard’s book is about the cat. There was a German trench that was thought to be disused, but this lieutenant from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment – with his telescope – saw the cat sunning itself.’

‘He’s asleep, Gus.’ There was the tinkle of her quiet laughter. ‘I think the cat will have to keep until tomorrow.’

He had known the boy was asleep. He was telling the story for himself, for comfort.

She sat close to him. He put his arm lightly around her shoulder and remembered how he had felt when the boy had told him she was down.

Chapter Seven

‘Without your grandfather, his friendship for my grandfather, I would be a peasant.’

‘Has your wound been treated?’

‘Without his books I would not be able to read. I would be in a village with children, animals, a small field and a man – and I would have nothing.’

‘Stop talking for a moment and answer me. Has anyone looked at your wound?’

The night was around them, and the quiet. The scant moon’s light shimmered on the wire of the fence in front of them. Gus held her shoulder loosely, as if she were a sister or a loved cousin. At home he had neither. He smelt the stale sweat of her body and the dankness of her clothes. No radios played behind them, and he heard no voices. Gus thought the village was stilled by mourning and exhaustion.

‘I know from the books, Gus, of the workings of the engine of a Hastings aircraft of Transport Command and the armaments carried by a Vampire jet bomber. I do not think that many peasant women have such knowledge. I know the history of the Peninsula war, and the campaign of the British in North Africa. I know of the lives of Montgomery and Haig, Kitchener and Wellington, and why William won at Hastings, Henry at Agincourt.

I read the books well that your grandfather gave to my grandfather. How could I be a peasant?’

‘If you’re wounded, it must be looked at and treated.’

‘How could I work in the fields, clean children, cook, watch goats and sheep, when I have read the many books given to Hoyshar? I think it was destiny, Gus.’

‘It has to be looked at.’

‘I felt the weakness when I fell. It was God’s mercy that very few of the men saw I was hit. If they know I am hurt, believe I cannot go forward, they will be gone by the morning. It would be the end of the destiny. Do you not understand, Gus? I cannot go for treatment where the wound is seen.’

He asked quietly, a murmur in her ear, ‘Will you allow me to look at the wound?’

‘But you would not tell? You must not…’

There had been a fierceness in her voice when she had spoken of destiny. When she spoke of the wound there was, Gus recognized it, a timid slightness about her. The wound made her young, frightened. He understood. Destiny would carry forward the cold, hard, cruel men of the peshmerga – the pain of the wound and her fear would cause them to go.

If she could not go forward then he, himself, would turn. He would go back to his grandfather, back to Meg, back to Stickledown Range, back to the offices of Davies and Sons; he sensed the burden she carried.

Gus said, ‘I’m sorry, I know very little about medical treatment. I’ll do what I can.’

‘But you won’t tell?’

‘I promise.’

He slipped his arm from her shoulder and walked across the dead, darkened ground between the wire and the homes of concrete blocks. He stumbled against the carcass of a dead sheep, sloshed in the mud of a sewer, moved past the low houses where muted lights burned. He went into the command post, where Haquim was crouched over the captured maps. He told Haquim what he wanted, and saw anguish crease the face of the fighter, ageing him.

Haquim stood awkwardly, as if the pain had settled again on his old wound, and was gone. If her injury was serious, if she was living on borrowed time, it was all finished.

Gus sat amongst the dark debris of the command post. All finished, for nothing… The minutes slipped by. He would return home and the one thing in his life that had seemed to him to be important would have been dogged by failure. He would carry that failure to his grave. Haquim returned.

Gus carried the saucepan of boiled water, the sealed field dressing, the small wad of cotton wool, the narrow roll of bandage gauze and the torch out into the night.

He set down the torch, knelt beside her, and did what no man had done. His fingers trembled as he reached under her tunic, unbuttoned the waist of her trousers and drew down the zip. She was looking into his face and he saw trust there. He put his arm around her waist, lifted her to drag down her trousers and felt the spasm of pain grip her. He saw the clean skin of her thigh, the caked blood and the livid colour of the bruising. He tore off small pieces of cotton wool, dipped them in the water and began to separate the blood from the bruising.

Three years before, Gus had been the first driver to reach a motor accident – chest injuries from the impact on the steering wheel. He had run a hundred yards to the nearest house and demanded that an ambulance be called. He had gone back to the car, held the woman’s hand until the paramedics arrived and had vowed to replace his ignorance with the basic skills. He had driven away with good intentions on his mind, and had never enrolled in an evening first-aid course.

He cleaned away the blood, edged his hand high on her thigh to hold her still when she squirmed in pain, and found the wound. An inch to the left and the bullet would have missed her; an inch to the right and it would have nicked an artery or shattered her femur.

He worked faster as the water cooled. The wound was a deep furrow in the flesh of her thigh. It was worst for her when the cotton wool touched the rawness, and then he held her tightest, but she never cried out.

He smeared the last strands of trouser cotton out of the wound. The field dressing was old British Army surplus, would have been sold to the Iraqi military at a knock-down price. When he held her, and hurt her, the warmth of her chest was arched against his face and she bled from her bitten lip. He read the faded instructions on the dressing, then stripped it out and fastened it. He lifted the slight weight of her thigh higher and wrapped the bandage round the dressing.

There was a guttural cough behind him.

Gus pulled her trousers up over her thighs and hips, and buttoned them. She sagged away from him and lay on her back.

He lifted the torch and the beam speared into the darkness. The men sat silently in a wide crescent, their backs to him and to her. No man looked at her, had seen her nakedness.

The softness passed from her eyes. The trust was a memory. She dragged herself up and picked up the torch.

Meda walked freely among them and kept the torch on her face so that they could see that she felt no pain.

He was bound to her. Where she walked, he would follow.

AUGUSTUS HENDERSON PEAKE.

3. (Conclusions after interview with Henry Peake (father of AHP) conducted by self and Ms Carol Manning – transcript attached.) MINDSET: In a solitary childhood, AHP received a grounding in countryside lore and hunting. He would have learned to kill and, more important, would have become familiar with the basic techniques of stalking and tracking. In my opinion it is impossible for a sniper to operate successfully unless he has the hunter’s MINDSET. However, my assessment of AHP’s chances of medium-term survival (slim to nonexistent) in the northern Iraq theatre are unchanged. The MINDSET is good, as far as it goes, but a teenager’s ability to shoot rabbits and pigeons does not compensate for lack of MILITARY TRAINING. Also, I have no evidence of AHP possessing the necessary TEMPERAMENT that differentiates a sniper from a target marksman.

Ken Willet read it back to himself in the quiet of his London living room. It would be on the desk of Ms Manning’s line manager in a few hours, would be read and then filed into dusty oblivion.

Four years earlier he’d failed a sniper’s course at the Infantry Training School at Warminster. It had been the only minor setback to his army career, and at the time it had hurt. Not any more. There were five parts to the final examination and he had passed in two, Camouflage and Concealment along with Observation, and failed in three, Marksmanship, Stalking and Judging Distance. To have won a sniper badge he’d needed passes in all disciplines. From his own teenage years he already had the mindset, he’d also been a good shot against rabbits and pigeons, but had realized in the second of the course’s five weeks that his temperament was inadequate. And there was nothing he’d yet found, as the character of Augustus Peake was laid bare, to convince him that this civilian had a temperament to withstand the physical and psychological pressures that would close on him.

Ken Willet had failed the course, along with nine others out of the dozen starters. He’d had a fast beer, and driven away from the Infantry Training School. Forty-eight hours later he had been back with his platoon in Belfast. Easy. If Peake failed, there was no beer and no commiserations, and no drive out. He would be dead in a bloody foreign field.

As he started for bed, Willet thought that the man must be damned arrogant to imagine that, without a sniper’s temperament or training, he could waft into a faraway war and make any sort of difference.

They had left Omar and the mustashar behind, sulking and resentful. No explanations offered, she had walked out of the village at first light. Only Gus was with her. A dozen men had pressed forward, claiming in a babble that they should go with her, and she had flashed her wide smile, then told them they were not needed.

They had walked for two hours, then crawled forward. She had walked well, but the crawling was tough. They had crossed two ridges and the valley separating them. The further valley, now ahead, was steep-sided and rock-sprayed. She should have been in bed, or at least resting, but he didn’t bother to tell her. She’d stumbled once, the wound taking the force of her fall against a stony outcrop, and had let out a shrill cry. When they had pressed forward on their knees, she had twice had her backside in the air to keep her weight off the wound, and each time Gus had belted her buttocks without ceremony.

They were at the rim. Below, there was a track on the valley floor, insufficient for a vehicle, perhaps used by a goatherd or shepherd but not since the last summer. He soaked up the wild quiet of the place, and the small clumps of flowers.

‘Watch for me.’

It was an instruction. He was no longer the man who had tended her wound. ‘What am I looking for?’

‘If there is a threat to me, to take me, then shoot.’

‘Yes.’

‘Your promise, Gus, if they try to take me, shoot me.’

‘I promise.’

‘Shoot me – promise it, on your grandfather’s life.’

‘I will shoot you, Meda. Don’t move, stand still, don’t break my aim. Don’t make it hard for me to get a clean kill.’

Could he shoot her? Circumstances had shifted once more. From killing an enemy to shooting a friend. And each time they changed, he was further involved. She had not told him who might take her, or what was the threat. Could he measure the distance, make the windage adjustment, find her body on the T-junction of the reticule in the ’scope, hold his hands steady and squeeze the trigger?

She slipped away. He crawled off to his left, then began a slow search with his binoculars to find a position where he could lie up. She slithered down the sloped wall of the valley, kicking up dust, carelessly cascading stones in her wake. There was a place that was blanketed by old yellowed grass – well away from a tree stump that was the obvious position of concealment, two dozen paces from a small cluster of rocks that was the second most obvious. He spent several minutes tearing up similar strands of the grass and wove them into the hessian loops of his gillie suit, over his back, his shoulders, onto the hood, and put the last pieces into the hessian bandaging the rifle.

He armed the rifle and depressed the safety. She was on the floor of the valley, sitting on a smoothed rock with a child’s innocence. She was picking tiny flowers and he saw her slide them across her nose. The one thing she feared, he thought, was capture. He had been brought with her because she could not show the men, or the mustashar , the smallest sign of fear… She started up, no longer the child. He watched as she transformed herself once more into the warrior. He could not see who approached her. As he had told her, she did not take a step forward. The sight was on her. She was unbending, magnificent. Gus’s finger rested on the trigger guard.

The gloved hands came first into the tunnelled vision of the ’scope, reaching for her, then Gus saw the arms in drab military olive green, then the insignia of rank on the shoulders, and then the pocked sallow face with the black brush of the moustache, the beret.

Gus’s finger lay on the cold metal of the trigger. He watched as Meda’s cheek was kissed by a senior officer of the Iraqi army. They sat together and a map case was opened between them.

His cook-boy came with two buckets filled with dried earth as Lev Rybinsky unravelled the hosepipe at the side of his bungalow home. The water gushed out, he doused the buckets, hurled the mud at his car and sent the cook-boy for more.

His car was a 500SL Mercedes saloon. With old newspaper Rybinsky smeared the dripping dirt over the panelwork, the lights, the bumpers and the windows. When more mud was brought to him, he threw it against the body of the car. The day before, the cook-boy had spent the whole afternoon cleaning and polishing the Mercedes, but that was before Rybinsky had heard the whispered rumour.

Eight buckets of mud went onto the car before he was satisfied that every trace of polish had been removed. Rybinsky wiped a small part of the windscreen clear, enough for him to see through, shouted for the cook-boy to follow him and went back inside the bungalow. The hall and the living room were filled with packing cases. There were more in the kitchen, each stamped with the names of aid organizations. He skirted around them, went into the rear yard and unlocked the heavy padlock on the steel door of a concrete shed. His two Alsatians leaped at him from their chain tethers.

From the shed, with the cook-boy’s help, he carried out a new, never-fired DShKM

12.7mm heavy machinegun. The cook-boy took most of the weight, and would return to the shed to bring out the ammunition, while Rybinsky had the light wheels as his second load.

Preparing to set out on a journey, Rybinsky would ordinarily have filled his Mercedes with oil, crates of corned-beef, sacks of pasta or flour, packets of computer chips or cases of whisky. He had them all, but because of the rumour he took only the machine-gun, which had an effective range of 1,500 metres and the ability to penetrate 20mm-thick armoured plate, from the arsenal of military weapons stored in the shed.

He supervised the lifting of the gun and its wheels into the back of the Mercedes where they covered the medicines he always travelled with. Lev Rybinsky was a week from his sixtieth birthday; his wife, his children, would be in their home at Volgograd when the date fell. He checked his jacket pockets – he needed to be clear exactly where the documents were. On the left side he kept the passes and letters of authorization supplied to him by agha Bekir, and on the right were the papers given him by agha Ibrahim. He tapped his bulging buttock and felt the reassurance of the roll of banknotes, American dollars. As a trader, a provider, a milch-cow, needed by everybody and loved by nobody, the roll of notes gave him access, influence and the ability to trade. The rumour he’d heard offered the possibility of a major commercial opportunity. He left a short letter for his junior partner, Jurgen, in the living room on the stacked crates that held an X-ray scanner for a hospital – donated by an Italian charity – and as an afterthought picked up a carton of Marlboro cigarettes.

If the rumour were true, it would be a long journey. He drove away in his mud-spattered car towards a distant war.

The old Israeli had told him to trust nobody, to believe nothing he was told and to accept nothing that he saw. Gus watched Meda shake the officer’s hand as if she were his equal.

The maps were folded away and the officer had slipped from the sight.

Gus burned. Her talk was of destiny. Because of her, the peshmerga had charged a machine-gun. He had watched the dead buried and the wounded taken on bumping litters to the north – and she had met an Iraqi officer. She was climbing the slope of the valley wall, slowly and with effort, and he saw the small stain on her thigh where the wound wept. The tears of anger in his eyes misted his view of her. He thought of betrayal, as he slithered away from his firing position and crawled to the far side of the ridge to intercept her.

Meda came over the rim and looked into his face.

There was the haughty whip in her voice, ‘What is your problem, Gus?’

‘Not my problem,’ he blurted, ‘the problem of the men, the problem of Haquim, the problem of the villagers. Maybe only the dead don’t have a problem.’

She flared. ‘Because I meet an Iraqi?’

‘Because you go secretly to meet an Iraqi.’

Her hands caught at the hessian loops at his shoulders. ‘Do I have to tell you, like a child has to be told, everything? You tell me! Why was the village not reinforced? Why have not new tanks and new personnel carriers been sent to Tarjil? If you cannot tell me then say nothing.’ Her mood swung: she was again the innocent. ‘If he had tried to trap me, to take me, would you have shot me?’

‘I try to keep my promises.’

‘You know what they call me?’

‘I imagine they call you friend.’

‘He said that at Fifth Army they call me the witch.’

He set a fast pace back towards the village, and never looked behind him to see how well she followed.

Major Karim Aziz had come back to a place that was like home to him. It was old ground, familiar territory.

The driver had taken him to Tarjil. In the police station he had studied the maps, talked with the commanding officer, slept on the floor with his dog cuddled against him, and he had left the town long before dawn.

At first he had tracked north, towards the Little Zab river, shadowing the Arbil-Kirkuk road, keeping in the lee of a ridge-line.

It was twenty-five years since he had first been posted to the region, and the fifth time that he had returned there. Nothing had changed except that trees he knew were taller, and the Victory Cities he skirted were more permanent and weathered, the hulks of abandoned personnel carriers more rusted.

He had slipped past a small gorge where a unit had been blocked in the al-Anfal operation, eleven years before. They had only been able to go forward after he had identified then shot the saboteurs’ commander.

In the early morning, from higher ground, he had seen the track where three armoured vehicles had been ambushed twenty-one years before. He had been with the relief force that had driven off the bastards as they looted the vehicles, and they had found the bodies of the vehicles’ crews; he could see the overgrown ditch beside the ochre hulks where he had vomited when he had seen the mutilation of the bodies.

By mid-morning he had looked down on a shepherd’s hut of stone and corrugated iron from the same position he had taken nine years back. It had been the furthest point of the saboteurs’ advance when they had swarmed south in the belief that the Americans would fly in support. The hut had been a night shelter for a reconnaissance group; with his Dragunov, he had shot their chief when he came out of the hut and stretched in the sunlight. The shot had been at the top of the Dragunov’s range, one of the best he had ever achieved, and had made a stomach wound. In his mind he could still hear the screaming of the chief man as he lay outside the hut for an hour while none dared expose themselves to pull him inside.

By late morning he had reached a division of the shepherds’ trails and he had gone to the west but, four years before, he had taken the eastern path on a forced march in the failed attempt to intercept the fleeing American spies who abandoned their Arbil villa base. Everything he saw, every step he took, was as he remembered it. The ground had eroded but each footfall was an echo in his memory.

He took a position and settled. The dog had moved well with him. It ran when he scurried forward, slithered on its stomach when he crawled, lay motionless when he stopped, kneeling to scan the ground ahead. In the manuals it was written, by the Soviets, the British and the Americans, that a sniper must always be accompanied by an observer.

In his long years in the army, Karim Aziz had not met a man he would have trusted sufficiently to accompany him; but he would trust the dog with his life.

The position he had chosen was amongst haphazardly shaped stones that offered him a clear view of the ground between the Victory City of Darbantaq and the town of Tarjil.

Behind him were the tight-packed homes, the mosque’s minaret, the faint outline of the communications equipment on the police station’s roof. Further behind him, and barely visible, were the brigade’s tents at the crossroads, the burning flame, and the conurbation of Kirkuk. Ahead of him was Darbantaq, five kilometres distant, with small smoke columns to identify it. Around him were the hills and valleys, and the silence.

Major Karim Aziz was at peace.

The peace came because he was far from Baghdad – from the pace and fumes, the noise and lifebeat of a city. He was anonymous in Baghdad, a pygmy figure. Even waiting endlessly on the flat roof with the Dragunov, he had never been able to gather up the sensation of power that was with him now. In the city he was one man against a million, one man against a regime, one man against an army. Here, it was hunter against hunter, a single marksman against a single marksman. It was his territory into which an intruder had strayed.

He looked towards Darbantaq across the slope of the valleys and over the swollen water-filled gullies. Bright green patches of ground, surrounded by yellowed grass, marked the peat marshlands. The dog growled softly, a whisper in its throat.

He was cautious with the telescope and he had draped a small square of grey cloth over the end of the lens glass. The sun beat down on him. If it caught the glass then his position was betrayed. He could see the roofs of Darbantaq, the smoke, and the personnel carrier skewed off the track leading to the village. Sometimes he could see figures moving between the buildings. At last light, with the sun sinking behind him, he would move closer.

He laid down the telescope, put it beside his rifle, and slowly turned his head. There should be no sudden movements to break the pattern of his camouflage. He slipped his hand back, ruffled the fur on the dog’s neck, and felt the vibration of the growl. The work of an observer was to protect a sniper’s back from attack from the flank or the rear. The dog lay facing away from him, and growled. It was on its stomach, head between its front paws, ears flattened, nose pointing the way for him.

There was a trellis of small valleys. One went north to south, another ran on a parallel line, and another east to west. He scanned each of them, and the further valleys, before he saw the movement that had alerted the dog.

A single man moved along on a herdsman’s track at furtive speed in the second valley from him.

He reached for his telescope.

The man wore an officer’s uniform. On the shoulders, magnified thirty times, was the gold-braid insignia of a ranking brigadier.

Of course, Aziz had checked with the regimental commander at Tarjil that no patrols would be out in the sector. A brigadier would not personally check forward positions, would not walk, and would not be alone. The man half ran and looked behind him as if pursued by demons.

He remembered… The brigadier in the communications centre of Fifth Army headquarters, and no reinforcements deployed, the lines of motionless tanks and personnel carriers… A demonstration of shooting power on a range. Two generals and a brigadier had come to the firing range and witnessed him accrue six hits from six shots at 700 metres when the probability of a kill at that range was listed as only 60 per cent. He saw that brigadier hurrying along the track on the valley floor. He lost him… Three weeks after the demonstration on the range he had received the invitation to a meeting.

He had sat in the general’s car, and the proposition of assassination had been made to him.

He was held in the tentacles of conspiracy. He heard the distant whine of a jeep’s engine, and lay on his stomach, numbed.

‘Did you see an army?’

‘What sort of bloody army?’

Joe Denton had been standing with his bodyguards and the local men he’d trained, and was studying the fall of a well-grassed meadow between the village and the road. It was the best meadow available to the village, but the edge of the grass area was pocked with a small disturbance of earth, where the child had lost his leg. There should have been a wire fence round the meadow but some goddam greedy idiot from the village had taken the warning wire to corral his animals. The stupidity had cost a child’s leg, and maybe even the child’s life. It might have been a 72A, could have been a POMZ 2M, but it was most likely that a fucking V69 anti-personnel mine had exploded.

Denton was well paid by a British charity to clear old Iraqi mines, close to fifty thousand sterling a year, tax-free, but it was a bloody lonely life. Had it not been he would never have mixed in the UN club in Arbil with a crook like Lev Rybinsky. The mud-caked car had pulled up on the road behind him.

‘Joe, my friend, did you see an army led by a woman?’

‘What are you talking about, Lev? The usual old crap?’

‘You call me crap when you want cigarettes, Joe, when you want whisky? Hey, did you see a woman leading an army?’

‘No.’

The car drove away down the road. Denton laughed mirthlessly: a woman leads an army in northern Iraq, and next week pigs fly. He thought of how many mines were buried there, at what depth, what density, and he started to draw a plan of the meadow.

‘Did you see an army?’

‘What if I did?’

‘Was the army led by a woman?’

‘And if it was?’

Sarah was at the co-ordinates given over a radio link because the message had said there were injured children to be met. The mud-caked car had stopped at the roadside behind the small convoy of pick-up trucks she had organized to make the rendezvous.

The big fight had been to get the doctor to leave the clinic at Koi Sanjaq and come with her. She’d built the bloody clinic. That the doctor had a clinic to work in was bloody well down to her and Protect the Children funds – so, she’d told him he could bloody well get off his bum and come with her.

‘I’ve got morphine.’

‘Then hang around, Lev.’

‘And I’ve got penicillin.’

‘Make yourself comfortable. Is it that stuff you promised me weeks ago?’ She laughed, a wild bitter laugh. The last load of medical supplies trucked across the border had been stopped at a road block by peshmerga of agha Ibrahim’s faction, and bloody hijacked.

The lorry had been cleared out. The food had not been touched in the second lorry, and the third lorry with the building tools had made it through. She thought it often enough, that northern Iraq was the loneliest corner of the earth for an expatriate, which was why she knew Lev Rybinsky, and drank with him in the UN bar. If she had met the shit at home in Sydney, she would have looked right through him, walked right past him, and not noticed.

‘What’s her name, Sarah?’

‘Meda.’ Sarah saw Lev Rybinsky salivate, and his stomach quivered.

‘Where is she?’

‘Do I get the penicillin and the morphine?’

He was out of the car and scurrying to the boot. She thought him loathsome. He wore what she assumed was an Italian-made silk shirt, grubby, top button undone, the tie dangling loose, and a suit from Milan that was at least a size too small for him; the jacket wouldn’t have fastened and the trousers’ belly button was loose. The stubble on his face was creased by his jowl lines and the bald summit of his head glistened in the sunlight.

He was repulsive but she needed him, as everybody did. He lifted two cardboard boxes from the boot and carried them to her. She saw that the donor labels had been ripped off.

She didn’t know whether they were from Protect the Children or another bloody charity.

They were probably hers to begin with.

She smiled sweetly, and pointed. ‘Up there. That’s where she is.’

There was a slope and a distant clear-cut line of a ridge. Behind it were another three, softly hazy, barely visible in the high altitude. She’d hoped he’d gape and shrivel, but his pudgy face lit in triumph.

A line of men materialized over the nearest ridge. She put the boxes of morphine and penicillin in her pick-up, and Lev let her swig at the flask of whisky from the glove compartment of the Mercedes. She always needed whisky when the wounded were children. The column of men came down the slope with the casualties of battle.

One day each month a helicopter came to the eyrie in northern Iraq, collected Isaac Cohen, flew him back across the Turkish border to the base at Incerlik, and in the evening returned him to the isolation of his mountain home. On that one day he was debriefed by the Mossad officers stationed in Ankara who flew in to meet him. The contact was valuable and broke the impersonal monotony of radio intercepts – but even better was the chance to lie in a bath of warm water and to eat good cooked food. For a whole month he yearned for the comforts of that single day. The helicopter would not come for another twenty-four hours but already he was packed, ready for its arrival.

Haquim said, ‘He is a snake, but a snake that has no venom. I asked him what was the price of the machine-gun, and he said it was a gift. I asked why he wished to travel so far to make a gift, and he said that the gift was proof of his friendship.’

Breaking the rule Haquim had set, Gus had been lying in the sunshine by the fence and cleaning the blister on his heel when he had seen the return of the men who had carried down the wounded. An overweight, elderly civilian was among them, carried on one of the litters that had been used for the casualties. Behind him more men carried a heavy machine-gun and ammunition on a stretcher. At the broken gate of the village, the man had slid heavily off the litter, wiped the sweat from his forehead and taken charge of the machine-gun. He had wheeled it into the village, grunting from the weight of it, and Haquim had met him.

‘He is Lev Rybinsky, a Russian. He would not know about friendship. Everything for him is a negotiation for influence and financial gain. Where there is a closed border, he has access because he has bought the guards, he owns the customs men of the Syrians and the Turks and, perhaps, of the Iraqis. You want a tanker of fuel, he gets it for you.

You want fruit from America, he supplies it. You want an artefact of antiquity from Nineveh or Samarra, he provides it. Now, he comes to us with a gift of friendship and will not talk about a price.’

‘It would have a hell of a hitting power.’

‘At a range of a thousand metres it can pierce the armour on any part of a personnel carrier. Of course it is useful, but I ask, what is the price? What does he want that we can give him?’

They watched.

The Russian dragged the machine-gun towards the command post, from which Meda emerged. He stopped, wiped an old handkerchief over his head and face, straightened his tie, then bowed elaborately to Meda. She was laughing, and he reached forward, touched her arm, as if to discover that she was real. Haquim turned away.

‘You know, Gus, that we attack Tarjil tomorrow?’

‘Yes.’

‘You understand that to attack Tarjil we must come further down from the mountains?’

‘Yes.’

‘The real friends of the Kurds are not a man who brings a machine-gun – or a man who brings a sniper’s rifle. They are the mountains. And now we are leaving our friends behind us.’

‘What do I do at Tarjil?’

‘There will be a briefing at dusk, then you will be told. Then, perhaps, I will be told.’

‘Yes.’

‘Where were you this morning, when you went with Meda?’

‘Don’t ask me because I can’t tell you.’

He saw the beaming face of the Russian amongst the tight-pressed shoulders of the men and he heard Meda’s voice. He saw the adoration of the men for her and the sunlight played on her mouth, which, in dark secrecy, had kissed the cheek of a senior Iraqi officer. Her hands moved high in emphasis, and they had shaken the hand of the officer.

He sat on the ground and began to unwind the hessian bandage roll from the body of the rifle so that he could, again, enjoy the distraction of cleaning it.

The sergeant said, ‘I am from Basra, Major, and my young brother is with me here, and my cousin. Will the saboteurs attack in the morning? It is good that you are here, Major, with your rifle.’

Karim Aziz turned away from him. He was still in shock from the extent of the conspiracy, and struggling to comprehend what he’d seen. His legs ached from the long day’s walk, but the dog still bounded at his side. The darkness on the streets of Tarjil was broken by pockets of light from curtained or shuttered windows and from fires lit by the soldiers beside their bunkers. He had seen the gleam of confidence in the eyes of the men behind the sergeant as they noted his paint-smeared face and the heavy hanging camouflage smock, the rifle balanced in the crook of his arm.

An old man hurried from the shadows carrying a small can of heating oil, then saw him and blocked him.

‘I am retired now, Major, but I was professor of the economics faculty of the University of Mosul. This is my home. My wife pleaded that we should flee south, I said the army would protect us. It is good to see you, Major, with your rifle.’

The man kissed his cheek and stumbled on into the darkness. In the last light of the day, before Aziz had turned, he had been close to the village of Darbantaq – four hundred metres from it – and had lain on his stomach with the dog beside him, and watched. He had seen her – the witch – once, but she was hemmed in by a crowd and was crossing, fast, the gap between a row of homes and the command post. He had watched as a paunchy European had brought a DShKM heavy machine-gun into the village. He had noted the way the men sat in quiet clusters, as men always did in the hours before they went into battle. He had seen a part of the body of the officer at the entrance to the command post, and had tilted his head to study the ground from which the shot would have come. He had found, at the sufficient elevation to clear the roofs, the scrape on the slope made by the sheep. He had trekked back, his mind in turmoil.

Wandering alone in the streets of the town that would be attacked in the dawn, confused and troubled, tugged between the extremes of loyalty and conspiracy, he had seemed to have become a beacon towards which the hope of frightened people was drawn.

‘You are the master sniper, Major. Through the length of the regiment you and your skill are spoken of. We are not forgotten by Baghdad, Major, if they have sent you and your rifle. Shoot her! Shoot the witch.’

If he fought he would shoot against the conspiracy he had joined. If he did not fight, he would betray the trust of those who depended on him. He went slowly through the town, past the sandbag positions and cars that had been driven across the streets to make barricades, hugging the shadows and harbouring his torment.

The man had no face.

He lay against a rock, but had no face. Or he was in a ditch, or had tunnelled out a hide, or was back in trees, buried in shadow… but there was never a face to bring a character to the man.

The meeting droned on.

He needed to give a face to the man. He did not know whether it was cold or carried warm humour, whether the face had charity or parsimony. He did not know whether the face of the man was bearded, moustached, or clean-shaven, whether it was topped with hair, whether the eyes shone without mercy or with kindness. The man had come north to find him and to kill him, and he could not give him a face.

Meda, with the map spread in front of her, talked, and the men listened.

He could not escape from his search for the face. In the morning the man would be waiting for him. He had come north to take one life. Gus heard not a word that Meda said. Nothing he had been told, had read, that he had experienced, had prepared him for the bleak certainty that a master sniper was at that moment making his preparations for the morning.

‘Gus?’

All through the day he had been able to shut out the thought of the man, but no longer.

He was drawn, a lemming to a cliff, towards Tarjil, where a fate of sorts awaited him.

The chill was on his body.

‘Gus, is that all right?’

Who would tell his grandfather, his father and mother? Who would tell Meg? Who would clear his desk? Who would tell Jenkins? And would they pause on Stickledown Range to remember him?

Meda snapped, ‘Gus, are you listening? Do you agree?’

He pinched his nails into the palm of his hand. He asked quietly that she should run through it once more, so that he was certain he understood.

‘It is a battle against a regiment. There is more to interest me than what you have to do.’

Haquim glanced sourly at him. ‘I will explain it to him afterwards.’

When the meeting finished and the commanders fanned out into the darkness to brief their own small cabals of men, Haquim walked with him. He was told of a town of three thousand souls on flat ground just below the lip of a hill. In the heart of the town was the largest mosque, and beside the mosque was the police station, which was the headquarters of a regiment of mechanized infantry.

‘The regiment has not been reinforced, she says. She does not tell me how she knows.

If she is right then there will be a garrison of four hundred men, if she is right.’

Gus told him of the man without a face. Gus told Haquim, stampeded through the interruption, what the Israeli had said to him, and he saw the fury boil in the mustashar.

‘We go in a line, because she says so. We do not feint to the left, avoid the predictable, then attack from the right. Our route is a straight line, and across the line is Tarjil, where a regiment is placed. They have defended positions. Tomorrow you will lie on your stomach. You are permitted to hang back. What of the men who have to cross open ground? What of them? How many will be killed? How many will live without arms, legs, eyes, testicles? Think of her, think of me, think of the men going against defended positions. Do not, Mr Peake, dare to think of yourself.’

Gus hung his head.

A column of men was coming through the gate of the village, loaded with weapons. He saw their tired, serious faces and wondered how many would survive the next day.

He found Omar beside the wire amongst a small mountain of old newspapers, kneading the sheets of paper together in a metal bathtub by the light of a hurricane lamp.

The boy grinned happily at him.

‘Show me,’ Gus ordered.

Cheerfully, Omar lifted the pulped paper from the bathtub. Gus doubted the boy, in his cut-short life as a kid, had ever played with papier-mache. Childhood had been denied him. The water splashed down the boy’s arms and over his battledress and he held up the shape of a man’s head… The face was without features.

‘The cat, Mr Gus – while it dries, before we paint it – tell me about the observer and the cat.’

‘Major Hesketh-Prichard wanted to write about the importance of the observer. He thought too much emphasis was given to the sniper, and not enough credit to the observer.’

‘I am the observer, so I am important.’

‘Don’t interrupt. I thought you wanted to hear it. This young lieutenant of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was watching a German trench that was thought to be disused and he saw this big cat. It was a tortoiseshell, orange and black and white, a fine well-fed animal, and it was sitting on some sandbags sunning itself. Many others had studied that section of trench, but the lieutenant was the first to see the cat and realize its importance.

Rats plagued the British trenches as well as the German ones. The lieutenant decided that this fine cat could only belong to a senior officer, at least a major, and had been brought to the trench to kill the rats. If the cat belonged to a major then the bunker over which the cat was sunning itself must be a command post. The lieutenant spoke to the artillery and the next morning there was a barrage of howitzers, the bunker was blown up and all the officers in it were killed. That shows the importance of a good observer, Omar… Oh, Major Hesketh-Prichard said the cat survived, it wasn’t killed.’

‘I think tomorrow, Mr Gus, many will be killed.’

He looked at the drying features of the shape, which by the morning would have been given a painted face.

Chapter Eight

By the hurricane lamp’s light, Omar daubed the dried face with paints liberated from the wrecked school building: grey, red and white for the flesh on the face, brown for the moustache and the eyebrows, a pink mix for the lips, grey and blue for the eyes.

When the paint set, Gus sent him to find a scarf in khaki or olive green, a good strong stick and a combat shirt. The boy disappeared into the darkness. Gus should have been sleeping, resting and regaining the strength he would need in the morning. He wondered if Meda slept, or Haquim. Beyond the wire, in front of him, the night held its silence.

While the boy had made a face and while he had told him how to paint it, he thought that a great game was played out, but that he was only a small part of it. The painted face was not that of his enemy, it was his own.

‘So, I find the sniper…’ a voice boomed, then a cascade of laughter. Gus peered back, and saw the Russian.

‘I am told you are English. I bow to an English gentleman.’

‘What do you want?’

‘To pass the night hours in the company of civilization.’

Gus growled, ‘Find it somewhere else.’

‘Are you frightened?’

‘I am not frightened.’

‘Let me tell you, Mr Gentleman, about myself. Then when you have heard me with English politeness, I will ask the question of you again. I am from Volgograd, but then it had the name of our great leader, Stalin. I was two years old when the Germans came to Stalingrad. My father and my uncle fought there, my mother was in the cellars and basements with her baby son. It was a battle without etiquette or regulation, a fight for survival… Perhaps you believe, if this battle goes badly, you can still go back to the green pleasant land of England. There was no retreat for my father, my uncle and my mother from Stalingrad. Across the river were fifteen thousand troops whose military task was to prevent retreat – they shot those who fell back.’

‘I have no interest in the battle for Stalingrad.’

‘Listen to me. The battlefield bred the great snipers of history, and great sport for those who watched. Which would you prefer to see: a boxing fight, a race around a stadium, a football game, or two men with rifles hunting for each other? The sport at Stalingrad was to watch the duels of the snipers, and to bet on them – half a loaf on the Russian, a quarter of a chocolate bar on the German. The best of them were known throughout their armies. As soon as a sniper became famous he was tracked by an enemy who was also a celebrity… And you tell me you are not frightened. You are, Mr English Gentleman, already famous. The word spreads here, as in Stalingrad. Half a million men, in the third month of the battle, watched the fight to the death between the two master snipers.’

‘Your story is not relevant to me.’

‘You are famous. A man will have come because he has heard of your fame. The great duel was between Major Konings and Vasili Zaitsev. Zaitsev was a hunter from the Ural mountains, who had killed three hundred German soldiers in the battle for Stalingrad.

Konings, a major in charge of the sniper section of the School of Infantry Tactics at Wunstorf, was flown into the battle from Berlin to redress the balance of death.

‘Stalingrad was the pivotal battle of the war, Mr English Gentleman. You could say it was the turning-point in the history of the century, but at the very point of its fulcrum was the duel between Zaitsev and Konings.’

‘Come on, how did it finish?’ Beside him the boy had knotted the scarf around the papier-mache head, rammed a stick up its throat and had buttoned a tunic across its neck.

Rybinsky smiled. ‘You make a face of paper – an old tactic. For a full week Zaitsev took a place near where his friends, Morozov and Sheykin, had been shot, and he watched and saw nothing. Zaitsev took Kulikov with him as his observer, but they could not identify Konings’ position. On the seventh day of the fourth week of the month after Konings had come to Stalingrad, Kulikov saw the flash from a speck of glass in the rubble of no man’s land – a telescope or the sight on a rifle – but they could not see Konings. They used the old tactic, as old as the one you use. Kulikov raised his helmet on a stick. Perhaps Konings was tired, perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps he wanted to piss, but he made the mistake and fired at the helmet. If the helmet had only dropped back, Konings would not have exposed himself – but Kulikov screamed, as if he were hit.

Konings’ mistake was that the scream aroused his vanity. He thought he had killed Zaitsev. He raised his head to see his success. It was all Zaitsev needed… Are you frightened that you don’t know whether you are Zaitsev or Konings?’

Gus pushed himself up. There was the murmur of voices behind him and the sounds of weapons being armed, and the squeal of the wheels that carried the heavy machine-gun.

He said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Rybinsky, but I don’t care to give myself that significance.’

‘Is he there? Has Major Konings come from Berlin?’

Gus sighed hard. ‘Yes. Yes, he has travelled. If you stick around, you’ll have the grandstand seat.’

Gus and Omar joined the great silent column moving away into the night, and far ahead of them the bright flame burned.

Major Aziz sat in a doorway at the front of a hardware shop. The door behind him, and every other door in the town, was locked, bolted.

He looked down the street in front of him: like every other street in the town, it was barricaded and empty.

He sat with his rifle loose across his knees, fed biscuits to his dog, and waited.

Ken Willet took the key that was passed to him.

Ms Manning had planted her buttocks against the cleared desk. Her arms were folded across her chest and she gazed back defiantly at the source of the tirade that had been halted in its tracks, briefly, to offer up the key.

‘I don’t know what sort of pressure you people, spooks and whatever, have to endure, but if you think you’re hard done by then try half a day in here.’

Around the cleared desk, telephones were ringing and two women were trying to stem a tide of chaos. Outside the office, in the wide tarmac yard, the giant lorries with their trailers were starting up and manoeuvring towards the main gate. Each time the office door opened for a shouted query from a driver, the owner broke off from his lecture to Ms Manning. Willet had the safe door unlocked and pulled it back.

‘If he was here, right now, Gus would be taking care of the Hamburg consignment, which is up the spout because the bloody Germans have filed the wrong customs declaration – can’t be late because that lorry’s got to get back, off-load, then be in Birmingham for a machinery pick-up for Milan – and in Milan there’s a factory on short time because they haven’t got that machinery, and I’m on a penalty if I don’t meet the schedule. I’ve two drivers off with flu, genuine, not skiving, but I’m shuffling the others round so that our supermarket contract doesn’t suffer. I’ve another lorry off the road with gearbox trouble, perishables to lift out of Barcelona, three lorries in the queue at Dover because the bloody French are on strike… and an empty bloody desk where my transport manager should be sitting.’

Willet took the papers from the safe, stacked them neatly beside his knee and began to read.

‘I may own the bloody place, own the lorries, own the bloody overdraft, but I don’t run this office. Be in hospital with a coronary if I had to. Gus runs it – or ran it until three weeks back. He said he wanted to go to Turkey with one of the drivers. That’s agricultural equipment spares going out, and denim jeans coming back. Said he wanted to understand better the drivers’ problems – but he didn’t come back with the jeans. In Ankara, he off-loaded himself… God knows what he was up to, because he’d stowed gear under the seat that wasn’t shown to Customs. He told the driver he’d make his own way home. I’ve not had sight or sound of him since.’

‘What was the gear?’ Ms Manning asked crisply.

Willet, on the floor with the papers, could have answered.

The owner snapped, ‘It was a rucksack, the driver said, and a long carrying bag. The driver said it was camouflaged. It was smuggled so God alone knows what was in it. If Customs had found it, Christ… Didn’t say where he was going, how long he’d be. The least of my problems right now. My problems are pressure, and no bloody transport manager here to sort them.’

‘Good at his job, is he?’

Willet, shuffling through the papers, speed-reading them, didn’t think she understood her capacity to sneer a question.

‘Are you good at your job? If you’re half as good at your bloody job as he is then my taxes are well spent. Course he’s bloody good. Pressure doesn’t faze him, not like me.

There can be fuck-ups from bloody Edinburgh to Eastbourne, from Cardiff to Cologne, and he soaks them up. I don’t get tantrums or shouting from Gus, I get the fuck-ups sorted. He doesn’t bawl out the girls, doesn’t shout at the drivers. He sits there, where your arse is, and sorts it. He does it on his own. Calm – just what I’m not… So, get out of my hair, and leave me to keep this shambles on the road.’

At the bottom of the papers on the floor was a sixteen-page colour sales brochure.

Willet slipped it into his briefcase and replaced the other papers in the safe, swung the door closed and turned the key on it.

The owner didn’t see them out. He had a telephone at each ear, the secretaries were trying to attract his attention, and a driver and a grease-stained mechanic were hovering at his shoulder. Willet followed Ms Manning from the dreary little office and they left behind them the confusion, and the girlie calendars sent out by the tyre companies.

‘What a dreadful man,’ she said.

‘Pays the taxes, doesn’t he, for our salaries?’

She gave him a savage, disdainful look. He wondered how she’d survive the slash-throat world of private enterprise. They paused as a juggernaut drove past them. The tang of the diesel seeped into his nose.

‘We’re wasting our time,’ she said. ‘We’re wasting it on a damn fool idiot with a death-wish.’

‘You’re wrong.’

‘Really? Then enlighten me.’

They were walking towards her car.

Willet said, ‘We are not wasting our time. We are evaluating Peake’s capabilities as a sniper. That’s what we’ve been briefed to do and that’s what we’re doing. We are learning. We do not yet know what those capabilities are. If he doesn’t have those capabilities, then yes, he is a damn fool, who will be killed. If he does have them, the horizons change.’

The sneer was back. ‘One man? No way.’

They were at her car. Willet stood in front of the door, blocking her.

‘A sniper can change the course of a battle – no other soldier has so much influence.

I’ll tell you what a sniper can do. A brigade-size manoeuvre I was at on Salisbury Plain

… the acronym is TESEX, that’s Tactical Evaluation and Simulation Exercise. All the weapons have the capability to fire a laser beam, and every man has a device on his uniform that’ll register the laser. A rifle shoots the laser and if there’s a hit the device bleeps. With me so far? A brigadier, a high-flier, was in charge of the attack side of the exercise, been planning it for weeks, probably months. The defending force, commanded by a colonel with a proper sense of humour, pushed a sniper forward towards the brigadier’s command post. It was going to be a three-day exercise and the brigadier thought it would notch him up to major-general level. Five minutes into the first of the three days, the sniper “shot” the brigadier. The old bleeper went

… all the planning out of the window, all the promotion hopes dumped. The brigadier shouted, “This can’t happen to me,” but the observer controller told him it could and it had. He yelled and argued, didn’t make any difference. “Do you know who I am?” was his last throw, and the observer controller told him, “Yes, you’re a casualty and you’re going into a body bag, sir.” The attack failed.’

He stepped aside. She unlocked the door.

‘It’s a ridiculous story – just men playing kids’ games.’

‘Actual war, that’s the same game. It’s what he can achieve if he’s good enough, which is why Peake is worth learning about. Cheer up, things are looking rosy: we’re going to have a day at the seaside.’

‘Do you have anything I should know about?’

Both of them were too long in the trade to posture a courtship ritual, like peacock and hen; they wouldn’t waste each other’s time.

‘What are you looking for?’

Isaac Cohen lay in the bath, his flabby stomach protruding from a sea of soapsuds.

Caspar Reinholtz had seen the helicopter land, as it always did on that date of the month, had looked through the windows of his offices as the Mossad man went from the American living quarters to the bathhouse with a towel over his arm. The Israeli’s controller would arrive at Incerlik in the next half-hour and then Cohen would be beyond reach.

‘The woman, the advance, anything that I haven’t got.’

‘They took Darbantaq.’

‘Figured they would.’

‘And didn’t give themselves the burden of prisoners.’

‘Predictable.’

‘Right now they’re hitting Tarjil.’

‘That’s a nut you could break your teeth on.’

If their masters in Langley or Tel Aviv had known of the contacts between Isaac Cohen and Caspar Reinholtz there would have been an immediate order that they be discontinued. Relationships between the Mossad and the Agency were scarred by suspicion. But it was hard enough in the field without letting the bickering of their masters prevent a casual exchange of information.

‘Tarjil wasn’t reinforced.’

‘That’s taken care of.’ Reinholtz sat languidly on the toilet seat beside the bath.

Cohen’s smile of understanding widened. He used the sponge on his chest. ‘The armour hasn’t moved out of Kirkuk.’

‘Tell me something new.’

‘It’ll be a difficult fight in Tarjil, Caspar, with or without fresh armour.’

‘She’s got to get through Tarjil or she’s dead in the water. For the big play to start, she has to get all the way to Kirkuk.’

‘It’s a big play – am I hearing you?’

‘Telling it frankly, Isaac, as big as it gets. It’s her and the armour and the sniper?’

‘He seemed a good guy, the sniper, I met him.’

‘I don’t think so, Isaac. I’m not talking about the guy in the column – I met him, too.

This is very confidential. There’s a sniper in Baghdad…’

‘Do you have a name?’

‘That is very sensitive confidential. I’d like to share on that one, but…’

The Israeli gazed into the American’s eyes. ‘Aziz? Major? Baghdad Military College?

Chief instructor in sniping? Major Karim Aziz? Sorry, Caspar, he’s not in Baghdad. He was transferred to Fifth Army three days ago. Is that important? I wouldn’t want to spoil your day but doesn’t that make a difference to your plan?’

The American rocked on the lavatory seat. His hands went up to his face as if to block out the news. His body shook. He stood and tossed the towel for the Israeli to catch and went towards the bathroom’s door, his cheeks ashen.

‘You could just say, Isaac, you spoiled my day. You’ve screwed it big-time.’

Cohen stared at the taps, heard the door open then close, and wondered whether the first strand of the big plan was unravelling. *** For Gus, it was a simple shot. Any of the Sunday-morning amateurs on Stickledown Range would have made the hit.

In the hour before dawn, he had followed Omar to the house that was set back from the road into the town. It had been empty but the lights were on, there was still food on the table and toys lay on the kitchen floor. The cupboard doors upstairs were open. He thought the father had finally decided on flight after the children had been put to bed, and that the parents had packed frantically what they could carry with the children into a car.

He had gone up the stairs, led by Omar, and had wedged the pulped-paper head into the corner of the main bedroom’s window so that the features would appear to gaze back at the town, and had put the binoculars on the windowsill immediately below the head.

They had pushed aside the cover of the ceiling hatch, and levered themselves up among the rafters. Before first light he had dislodged a roof tile for the firing position, then removed a second tile for the telescope Omar would use.

Gus had stared down on to a battlefield swathed in grey mist. When he’d settled he told Omar to knock out a minimum of another fifteen tiles, and heard them slide crazily down to the guttering.

The house he had chosen was set in a wide plot. The ground was already dug and hoed and the first vegetables were sprouting. Beyond a low wire fence, against which children’s bicycles lay, was the garden of the next house, which had a lower roof. A hundred yards further down the road a lorry was slewed across as a barricade. Then the houses formed close-set streets, and rising above them were the minarets and the dull, plastered facade of the police station, topped by a communications dish. In front of the police station, where the road widened, was another barricade of three overturned cars.

He had taken his aim. The range was four hundred yards. The flare was fired from behind them, arched over the rooftop, then burst above the first barricade.

Gus fired.

The communications dish on the roof of the police station disintegrated and its frame collapsed.

He waited.

It was as though he had thrown down a glove into the mud in the path of his opponent, or slapped the face of his enemy.

Paint flakes and metal fragments had fallen on him when the dish was hit.

There was a waist-high parapet on the roof of the police station, but at two of the corners there were higher sandbag emplacements that covered the road into the town and the two barricades blocking it. Aziz had chosen the centre point of the wall facing the road and, as he lay on his stomach, his view was through a rainwater gully. The furthest house from him, along the road, was held in the Dragunov’s sight.

He had heard crack and, a second later, thump. The firing position was between 350 metres and 450 metres from him. First, down the road, he made football pitches in his mind, and counted four. There were two houses in the sighting distance, the nearest was lower and he did not believe offered the elevation to clear the parapet and still hit the communications dish. He started his study of the further house. He was back from the gully, offered no target. He made a further calculation from the vertical lines in the reticule of the sight that were the equivalent in height of an average-sized man, then the conversion between the height of a man and the height of a window. The size of the windows told him that the house was 400 metres from him. There was no other building of sufficient height from which the shot on the communications dish could have been fired.

He saw the painted head, and the binoculars.

He counted seventeen holes in the roofing where the tiles had been forced away.

His eye never left the ’scope, and his finger stayed with an infinite gentleness on the Dragunov’s trigger, and he spoke softly to the dog.

‘He tells us that he knows we have come to hunt him. Maybe the Americans told him or the Zionists, maybe they picked it off the radio. He wants me to know where he is. Do you find that peculiar, little man? It is an old game. You put up a bogus target and the sniper shoots it, and then you look for him, and you kill him. Very old, and not even a good head. He does not have sufficient respect for us…’

The machine-guns on either side of him had started to fire. The battle was joined. At the edge of the circle of his ’scope sight were the first running and crawling columns of men closing on the furthest barricade. There was an answering thundercrack, repeated, and repeated again, from a heavy machine-gun and great chunks came careering off the parapet wall. Had Aziz shifted his aim fractionally, there would have been fine targets among the columns, but his eyes were locked on the seventeen holes in the house’s roof.

He could see the men behind the barricade scurry between different shooting positions.

Two machine-guns from the roof of the police station fired over the barricades on the road, with lazy running tracers that died among the two columns of peshmerga hugging the ditches either side of the tarmac.

It would have been easy for Gus to knock away the machine-gun crews on the police-station roof or to devastate the defence of the forward barricade. He held his fire. He searched for the sniper among the rooftops and the windows, the high points of the police station and the minarets, the heaps of rubble and rubbish beside the road. He saw men go down, some poleaxed, some writhing, in the charge for the barricade. He saw men he had hiked alongside, and eaten with, washed with, slept close to – men with familiar faces -stand and blast back at the firing from behind the barricade, then throw up their arms like helpless idiots and crumple. He saw her… She had a bandanna of torn cloth around her head to hold her hair away from her eyes, grenades tied to her body, and she carried an assault rifle. She came out of the right-hand ditch and ran low across the road towards the other side against which the firing was most concentrated. She dived for the ditch where the men were pinned down. He saw her grab two, three, by their shirts and heave them forward. She stepped over those who had fallen in the ditch, and those who flailed their arms in agony.

He watched Meda’s crabbing dash towards the barricade, and the firing slackened. He saw the soldiers break. Again and again, her arm waved above her head for the columns to come forward. Gus could have shot several of the running soldiers, aimed at their backs, but he searched instead for the position of the sniper.

The battle was fought around him, but Major Karim Aziz played no part in it.

It was beneath him, beside him, but his focus was on the house. He watched the crude head in the upper window, and he scanned the missing tiles that were spread at differing heights along the length of the roof. From his elevated position, protected by the parapet, there were many targets he could have taken. At that range, he could have picked off enough of the peshmerga to have slowed, if not halted, the advance. He was trapped by the obsession to locate and kill the sniper confronting him. He could have given covering fire to the soldiers who ran back from the furthest barricade. The course of the battle was vaguely apparent to him in the bottom of the arc of vision through his ’scope. The dog shivered against his leg. He was comfortable within himself. If he had given the cover, he would have betrayed his position. He watched the house, waited for the chance, as the concentrated fury grew below him.

‘Aren’t you going to shoot?’ Omar shouted.

‘Search the rooftops, and don’t show yourself,’ Gus murmured.

Through the magnification of the ’scope, he watched the roofs. The sun was rising behind him and he hoped its low line would catch the glass of a rifle-sight or a telescope’s lens or binoculars. Below, across the road, there was thickening smoke from fires started by the tracers, but above that grey carpet the roofs, where a sniper could have taken his position, were clear. The firing was a cacophony of noise, but Gus watched the rooftops.

‘When will you shoot?’

‘If I see him I’ll shoot, but not until then.’

He was aware that a defence line held at the further barricade. At moments when his concentration wavered, he saw the soldiers milling behind the cars and in doorways, but he cut them out because they were distractions. Some days, when he fired on Stickledown Range, not the major meetings for which silver spoons were presented, there was chatter and laughter around him, distraction, but he had learned to ignore them and to concentrate only on his own shooting.

‘You have to shoot!’ Omar yelled.

‘It’s all about patience,’ Gus said quietly. ‘His patience and mine. The one whose patience goes first is the one who loses.’

He watched chimneys and television aerials and satellite dishes, windows that were slightly ajar, the flat roofs and the crenellated parapet of the upper part of the mosque’s tower. He saw her, fleetingly, through the smoke haze at the lower extremity of his

’scope sight, emerge from a side lane to hurl a grenade towards the barricade, but then his eye wafted away and slipped back to cover the roofs and windows that were bathed in bright sunlight.

‘If you don’t shoot, I will!’ Omar screamed. Gus ignored him.

He could have disrupted the defence of the barricade, could have shot the soldiers who lurched towards the far side of it with boxes of fresh ammunition, could have dropped the soldier who rose and fired from the hip as Meda made her last charge, hemmed in by her men, on the overturned cars. To have fired would have been to betray his position. There was no conflict in his mind. He realized that the boy had left him. He never took his eye from the ’scope sight, but he reached out with his trigger hand and felt the emptiness.

Then his hand touched the discarded telescope. He thought he had explained it very clearly, reasonably, to the boy, why he did not fire. Then he settled again to resume his watch. He saw the wave of men break against the barricade, but the sniper still did not show himself.

The resistance at the barricade crumbled. The smoke swirled around him. More often now his body was spattered with the dust and rubble of the fractured concrete wall behind which he sheltered. He saw the movement at the door of the house and his rifle’s aim edged sideways to cover it. The moment of opportunity had come, the smile played on his face. His finger rested on the trigger. Major Karim Aziz swore in frustration. A boy hesitated in the doorway, then ran for the ditch and the road. He was little more than a child and carried an assault rifle. He felt a surge of anger as his aim traversed back to the windows of the house and the roof’s seventeen holes. His eyeline again shifted, away from the sight, over the barrel of the Dragunov, towards the charge at the barricade below him. He realized then the fate of the battle in which he had taken no part. When the barricade fell, the last struggle would start – for the police station. So little time was left to him. He shouted to the machine-gun crew on his right to fire on the house, rake the roof, flush the bastard. He watched the roof and the upper window where the head was displayed and waited for the bullet burst to impact on the tiles, to move the bastard… and he saw nothing. He waited. He was shouting again, angry because his order was not obeyed, he turned his head. The machine-gun crew were dead, the blood from their bodies running in little merging dribbles. He heard the thunderous beat of the rounds from the heavy machine-gun firing on the main gate of the police station. They had died beside him and he had not noticed.

The streets on either side of the police station were filled with scrambling civilians in desperate flight, carrying bundles or sacks or bags, and some dragging children behind them.

He looped his backpack over his shoulders and crawled away towards the far side of the roof where the iron ladder led down to the vehicle yard.

He saw the commanding officer of the regiment charged with the defence of the town.

The yard was thick with the choking smoke of fumes from two personnel carriers and five jeeps. The officer was running heavily towards the forward jeep, which faced the opened gates of the yard, burdened by his packed bags, a rolled carpet flopping under his arm.

Already in the jeeps were the second-in-command, the operations officer, the intelligence officer, the political officer, more bags, more carpets and pictures.

He raised his rifle, as the line spurted forward, and aimed at the coarse clipped hairs on the back of the commanding officer’s neck, the sweaty stain between the shoulders, and fired.

The man slumped onto the bags and the rolled carpet, and the jeep was gone through the back gate of the yard. He ejected the used cartridge case, picked up the dog and climbed quickly down the ladder into the deserted yard.

The firing had died.

Gus eased himself up from his prone position and started to massage the stiffness from his legs.

Meda was on top of the barricade, balancing her weight on the door of the central car, and again, as she had before, she punched the air. He wondered how many times she had been seen over the open sights of the soldiers’ weapons, how many times they had fired at her and, somehow charmed, she had escaped. She was the symbol, she was the witch.

The men swarmed past her and fanned out into the streets on either side of the police station. Gus lingered at the firing position and watched as Haquim reached up and urged her down.

As he lingered, he hated himself. He waited, ready to shoot, because the sniper on the rooftops or in an upper window might still fire on her and give away his position. But she was down, safe and protected by the barricade.

He started to pack away his equipment, and the telescope the boy had left behind.

He had seen her.

He could have stood on a doorstep, snatched at a packing case from a shop, shot over the heads of the fleeing townspeople, over the emptiness of the street behind them, and over the peshmerga beyond the emptiness. He could have hit her as she stood on the barricade of cars.

He could have killed the witch.

And yet he had not considered it. He had known that, if he had fired, every weapon in the hands of the peshmerga would have been turned on him and on the flight of the defenceless in reprisal. He had joined the jostling panic of the escape.

He was engulfed in the tide, was swept forward. He held the dog close to his chest. He had been in a desperate flight before, and he disliked the disorder. In the Mutla Pass out of Kuwait City and at the bridge over the Tigris river, with the American tanks behind them and the planes wheeling above them, he had run for his life. The firing of the one shot, his contribution to the battle, did not cause him to feel guilt. The hurt, deep and personal, was that his waiting had not been rewarded… He was out of the town and among the column of civilians. He put the dog down so that it could run beside him.

He saw the disappointment and anger on the faces of those around him and could not tell them why he lived, why they should not have believed in him, or where he had been with his rifle.

The triumph glowed in her. ‘We didn’t see you, didn’t hear you.’

He said dully, ‘I was looking for their sniper…’

‘What? Is that a joke?’

‘If I had fired, after the shot against the dish, I’d have given my position to their sniper.

I waited for him to make the mistake and -’

‘Whatever you say, but make sure you clean it, Gus. There will be a jam because it was not cleaned. We needed you, so clean it.’

He walked away from Meda and rounded the barricade of cars. The bodies were against each other, the soldiers’ and the peshmerga ’s, locked against each other as if the final struggle for the barricade had been hand to hand. The stink was of opened bowels, spilled fuel and discarded cartridges. Haquim was folding away the box, Josephus, that had blocked the radio after the communications dish had been shot out.

‘Why did you not shoot? Was there a malfunction? We have at least a hundred casualties. I waited for you to shoot – you could have saved so many of our casualties.

You should not blame yourself. Anyone can suffer a malfunction.’

He strode on from Haquim, cursing his low expectations. He went towards the sagging gates at the front of the police station. There was an entry to the left, half blocked by a cart with a dead donkey still in its shafts, and saw the heap of uniformed bodies behind the cart, then the sudden movement as if a rat disturbed rubbish bags. It was Omar. Gus watched as the boy scurried over the bodies and methodically pilfered from them. First a gold chain ripped from a throat, then a ring wrenched from a finger, then a wallet snatched from an inner pocket, the blood wiped off it and the notes taken, a bracelet prised from a wrist.

Gus strode forward.

He stepped over the dead donkey and insinuated himself between the cart and the wall, and he kicked as hard as he could. He felt the shock wave ripple up from his boot to his hip. He kicked Omar off the bodies, and the boy cringed. He struck him with the butt of his rifle. The boy cowered against the wall and the brightness of the loot was in his hands, which were clasped across his face. Again and again, brutally, Gus battered the boy with his rifle butt. He brought blood to the boy’s face, from his forehead and eyes.

Blood was in the boy’s nose, dammed in the wisps of his moustache.

Omar shouted through his hands, ‘At last you have found, Mr Gus, a job for your rifle.

Now you are brave with your rifle.’

He left the boy against the wall and walked on into the town.

Aziz looked back.

Behind him was the great straggling column of the survivors, men, women and children, civilians and soldiers, and further behind were the bags, sacks and bundles discarded under the bright heat of the afternoon’s sun.

He remembered the first time he had gone to war, nineteen years old. His division of mechanized infantry, in support of two armoured divisions, had surged out of Jordan and over the frontier to support the battered Syrian tanks in their fight for survival against the Zionists. They had gone with high hopes, brimming confidence, and the Zionists had hit them at the village of Kfar Shams. Crouched behind the thin walls of his personnel carrier, he had witnessed the carnage of defeat in combat. They had limped home to Baghdad. His father had met him at the barracks. The nineteen-year-old had nursed the stench of defeat, but his father had declaimed that they were national heroes who had saved the flank of the Syrian army and protected Damascus from capture. It was what the radio had told the people but he had known the reality of the catastrophe. Then, the teenage Karim Aziz had carried no responsibility.

He walked on towards the brigade at the crossroads. *** They were a force of liberation, but no crowds cheered them from the pavements.

The peshmerga, in gangs, kicked down the doors of homes, dragged up the shutters from shop windows, took what they could carry, and smashed what they had to leave behind.

No flowers were thrown down at them from upper windows.

He did not see Meda or Haquim. He thought that they would be far back at the barricades, where they would see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing of how the wave of freedom crashed over the town of Tarjil.

No flags were waved, or scarves.

A man was pulled, struggling from his home, thrown down into the mud of the street and a petrol can emptied over his head. There was the flash flame of a lighter as Gus turned and sleepwalked away. He turned his back on the sizzling death of an agent of the secret police.

A man, an informer, kicked his feet in the air. The noose at his neck was tied to an iron bracket above his shop. A shoe careered across the lane as the man kicked, and his women watched in silent, sullen hatred. Gus did not wait to see the death throes.

He walked right through the town. All about him was retribution and revenge. Far ahead was the empty road that stretched to the horizon where a small dustcloud marked the progress of the refugee column. He sat against a wall and the sunlight played on his face. He shut his eyes to forget what he had seen.

Chapter Nine

She was alone, friendless, far from home.

She sat on the bonnet of the pick-up and waited. She was angry, blamed the tooth -right upper molar – was tired and hot. It was rare for Sarah to feel sorry for herself, but she did that day, and the tooth made it worse. The doctor sat in his own pick-up’s shade, parked behind hers, read a paperback, his Walkman earphones clamped over his head, being no bloody company. She wouldn’t have trusted him with her tooth. The two nurses, local women from Arbil, were in the cab of the third pick-up, fanning away flies and listening to a wailing singer on Radio Baghdad. Joe Denton, the sour little beggar, was a mile up the road, but what he did would make any bloody man sour. Her bodyguards and the interpreter were under a tree beside the road and sleeping.

She was a failure because she achieved a small damned part of nothing. Sarah could not have said truthfully that, in her time in northern Iraq, she had changed the lives of any of the communities with which she had worked. When she went, when they had found another high-principled lunatic to take her place, she’d be forgotten in a day. Her own high principles had long ago been battered out of her. Build a school, fill it with kids, appoint a teacher – a month later the school’s half empty because the bloody Stone Age fathers won’t permit education for the girls. Build a clinic, equip it, appoint a nurse -three months later the drugs have been stolen for black-market sale, and the nurse has been bought by a UN agency paying better money.

Her charity, Protect the Children, had a two-million-pound budget sloshing into northern Iraq, and the biggest single part of it was for the payment of the goddam loafing bodyguards who watched her, her colleagues, the warehouse, the offices and villas in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. And no bloody way they’d give up their lives to protect her if she was targeted by the Iraqis, or fell foul of an agha. It was all a bloody mess.

The reinforcements had arrived, spewed from a convoy of lorries, and had set off up the hillside towards the line of disappearing ridges. Sarah had known nothing of guns before she had come to northern Iraq. Guns were what policemen carried, holstered on their hips, at home, and were shouldered by the toytown soldiers outside the palaces in London where she’d au paired for six months. Now she knew about guns. She could have reeled off the names, calibres and qualities of all the weapons carried up the hillside by the reinforcements. She had also seen what such weapons could do. There had been a significant battle – she knew because the word had reached her clinic that she should go to the rendezvous point again to meet casualties. If so many reinforcements were going forward, a bigger battle was copper damn certain.

The previous evening, the meat had been tough, stringy. Her tooth hurt. She might, God willing, only have loosened it; she might, her damn luck, have cracked the filling.

To get a tooth fixed would mean a three-day journey out of northern Iraq into Syria, and then a three-day journey back. She didn’t have a week to lose, not with more casualties forecast.

She saw the column clear the nearest ridge and start to wind down the slope.

She was trained as a paramedic. With her were a doctor and two local nurses. They did not add up to a goddam casualty clearing station. They had three pick-ups. Lorries had been available to bring the reinforcements, but had done an about-turn and disappeared, not waiting for the inevitable casualties. They were for her to clear up. Good old Sarah would cope, always coped.

‘Tell me something new,’ she muttered.

She started to try to count the litters being carried down the hill, then hitched herself off the pick-up’s bonnet and marched, big steps, to the tree where her bodyguards and the interpreter rested in the shade. She snatched a pair of binoculars from her senior bodyguard’s neck without bothering to ask and leaned against the tree to steady her view.

Sarah swore.

She had three pick-up vehicles, all fitted with carrying slots for stretchers. Three pickups could take eighteen casualties. With the binoculars she counted forty litters being carried down the hill, then snapped her fingers for the bodyguards and the interpreter to follow and walked back to her vehicle.

She knew what she needed to do and said where she wanted to be driven.

It was a short ride. Around two bends, along a straight stretch flanked by stone-strewn hillsides, past a clump of trees beside which wild flowers grew, and they came to the place where the two pick-up vehicles were parked off the road near to the small village of stone homes with iron roofing. Normally she’d have had time for the kids who ran to greet her. She tossed her hair back, and strode briskly through them, ignoring their expectant faces.

She saw Joe Denton. In the green meadow beyond the village were five lines of bright white pegs. Sitting in a small knot, short of the meadow, were his own guards and his own interpreter, and the local men to whom he was teaching his trade.

She thought him a miserable little man, but from what she knew of him it was typical that he would not allow any other man into the minefield until he had first been into it himself and made his evaluation.

He wouldn’t have seen her arrival. Facing away from her, he lay on his stomach, his weight on his elbows, his eyes on his fingers. He wore a biscuit-coloured pair of overalls, but there was a heavy armour-plated waistcoat over his chest, shoulders and back. A helmet with a Perspex visor covered his eyes. Sarah had seen mines detonated often enough from safe distances, and she’d seen all too often the mutilations they made. She didn’t think the waistcoat and the helmet would be of too much use to him if his fingers didn’t get it right.

She knew about mines: they were a part of the education she had received in northern Iraq, were not on any curriculum in Sydney or London. Even from this distance she could see that Joe Denton was carefully unscrewing the top cover of a VS50. She knew about the VS50: pressure on the pad in the top cover activated a firing pin into a stab-sensitive detonator, range of 24-30 feet. His hands were holding it and his eyes were nine inches from it. Purchasers of the product could tell the Italian factory whether or not they wanted a metal or a plastic plate inside it – a bastard for a de-miner to find and make safe, easy for a kid to step on. She watched as he unscrewed the top, the painstakingly slow movements of his fingers. He laid the detonator aside, then the disarmed mine. Bloody good – one down, about another ten million to go.

Sarah shouted, ‘Joe – Christ, I am sorry to disturb you. It’s Sarah. Please, I need a favour, like now.’

He didn’t turn to look at her. He was crawling forward and spiking the grass in front of him, probing for his next target.

‘Joe, I need help. Please.’

His voice came softly back to her. ‘What sort of help?’

‘There’s a load of casualties coming back from the other side. I don’t have the vehicle space. Can I borrow your trucks, and drivers, please?’

‘Feel free. Bring them back.’

‘You can spare them – great.’

‘I’m not going anywhere… Wash ’em out before you bring them back.’

In the culture of Joe Denton, and she knew it, she was just a tree hugger. She was a stupid bloody woman, interfering, adding to the dependency culture of Kurdish villagers, achieving bloody nothing, like all the rest of the huggers, the aid-workers. He put down the probe and started to work with a small trowel, the same as her mother used in the garden at home. She never saw his eyes, but she could picture them behind the visor.

Very clear, and very certain, eyes that could have looked right through her at that moment.

God knows how, but they did it. They squashed, forced, pushed fifty-two casualties into five pick-ups… Not all of them would make it to the hospital. There would be more room for the survivors by the time they reached Arbil.

In the late afternoon, when the stillness had settled, Omar found Gus, sitting against the low wall, gazing out over the slope of the hill that fell away from him. He saw the boy first, searching, then felt the glow of relief when the boy reached him. Behind the wall goats were penned, restless but quiet. He hadn’t waved to the boy, or called to him, but allowed himself to be found. Omar’s battered face showed his nervousness.

‘I did not know where you were.’

‘Didn’t you?’

‘I have been through the town to find you.’

‘Have you?’

‘Are you very angry, Mr Gus?’

‘I am not angry, Omar, not any more.’

He could not have explained it to the boy, or to anyone he knew, how the early morning of the battle for Tarjil had changed him. The inner man was altered.

The boy squatted down beside him. ‘I have to take, Mr Gus, or I do not have anything.’

‘I understand.’

‘Because I have no father to give to me, and no mother.’

‘Yes.’

‘Worse than not having anything is to have your anger, Mr Gus.’

The boy shifted up to be against Gus’s shoulder. Back where he came from, because he was changed, none of them would have wanted to know him. The boy’s sharp smell against him was mingled with the stench of his own body. They would not have known his eyes, which were brighter, colder, staring out from his paint-streaked face. His trousers were torn alongside the reinforcement strips at the knees, and the foliage knitted into the hessian strips of the gillie suit was old and as dead as the man they had known.

‘They say your rifle jammed, Mr Gus.’

‘Do they?’

‘That you beat me in anger because your rifle jammed.’

He did not know where he could have started to explain to the boy, who had nothing, that it was wrong to steal from the dead. But if he had started, he would still have been the same man, would not have been changed. He thought that now there was no place for him to criticize the boy. He no longer had that right, or the inclination to exercise it.

‘Is that what they say?’

In the far distance was the flame. He made the promise to himself that he would walk to the flame, and offer no judgements on the boy, and the men who marched with him.

‘I told them, Mr Gus, that your rifle jammed.’

He sat in the last sunlight, which beat low against his eyes, and he slipped his arm over the narrow bony shoulders of the boy. He watched the flame burning close to the dipping sun. By comparison it was dimmer, less substantial. The boy wriggled and reached into his pocket, then took Gus’s hand and prised it open. In a small cascade the chains of gold, the bracelets, the dull rings and a thin wad of banknotes fell into Gus’s palm. He let them drop through his fingers. They lay in the dried dirt between his legs.

He looked down at the tawdry chains and rings. The grey dusk was slipping over the sloped ground that ran to the high, spurting flame, gaining ascendancy once more.

Gus held the boy close, because again the boy had nothing. He thought of the sniper, the man without a face. To himself, he laughed, and wondered whether the sniper, too, with his own people, claimed that his rifle had jammed.

‘I didn’t fire because I did not see the man I came for… You dispute my orders? Then, please, immediately, call the barracks at al-Rashid of the Estikhabarat, and my orders will be confirmed to you. You ask why I did not fire on random targets. My skill is as a sniper, I am not an artillery officer, I don’t play with tanks. You ask why I shot the commanding officer of the regiment. He was fleeing in the face of the enemy and abandoning his troops, he disgusted me. Myself, I was the last officer to leave the town.

Do you have any more questions for me, General?’

The general would never countermand an order given by the Estikhabarat. Not even he would dare to take action against an officer who had shot down a coward.

‘Did you see her?’

‘I saw her.’

‘But you did not have the opportunity to shoot her?’

He saw the general’s sly smile, which invited him to lay his foot on the mantrap. Major Aziz wondered where the brigadier was; he did not understand why, at a time of military movement and confusion, he was not in the communications bunker. He had not seen the brigadier at the crossroads, or on the road between the crossroads and Kirkuk. He thought that he stood among mirrors that distorted all of the images. He did not know who was his friend and who was his enemy.

He retorted, ‘I could have shot her. If I had shot her a minimum of a hundred civilians would have been cut down in the counter-strike. You were not there, General, you did not see those people fleeing. If I had shot I would have condemned them. They are citizens of our republic, yes? They have the protection of our President?’

He stood in front of the laundered general. He could smell the scent of the lotions on the man’s body. His own was streaked with sweat, the smears of camouflage paint dripped into his eyes and down his stubbled cheeks. The dust from his smock and the mud from his boots flaked to the floor around him.

The map was exposed on the table. At the centre of the map was the crossroads. The lines were drawn in bold Chinagraph from Kirkuk to the crossroads. It was what he understood. The lines were clarity. The mirror images were distortion. At that moment, if he had been able to telephone his wife, speak to her, explain to her, beg her for guidance, she would have told him that he was a simple man and that he should perform his duty.

The mirrors twisted his perspective, made ugly his sense of duty. He had never known the mirrors before he had allowed himself to be recruited and gone to lie each night on the flat roof waiting to take his shot. The plan was explained.

‘I lose a town for a few hours. I lose a Victory City for a few days, and here I destroy them.’ The general stabbed his finger for emphasis on the map. Stained with nicotine, it rested on the ground between the crossroads and Tarjil, at the furthest point of the Chinagraph lines. And the question was silkily put. ‘Do your orders permit you to fight there, Major?’

Aziz nodded and stumbled out of the bunker. In the last light of the day he went to find food for his dog and put behind him the images of mirrors that distorted simplicity.

‘Hi, Caspar, had a good day?’

‘How’d the shopping go?’

Luther was black, cheerful and had joined them four months before at Incerlik from time in Venezuela. Across the office space, Bill and Rusty were clearing their desks and shutting down their consoles for the evening. Luther was scheduled for night duty, and should have been sleeping in the day, but he’d caught a late ride into town. Three plastic bags were slapped down on the desk, which was dominated by the framed photograph of the guy’s family. The packages, wrapped in newspaper, poked out from them.

‘Went well. I got some good bronze stuff that’ll look nice on the walls at home, and a couple of drapes, and a bit of jewellery for Annie that a little oily mother-robber swore was out of a Van grave – you know, the Ararat mountain and Noah story. But what the hell? It was a decent price.’

‘Pleased to know that. I’ve had a poor sort of day.’ Bill and Rusty were gone. ‘Pull up a chair.’

Luther gangled towards him. The guy was tall enough for basketball. He sat. ‘Sorry to hear that, Caspar.’

‘I am talking about RECOIL.’

‘You have my full attention.’

‘I hate the Need-to-Know bullshit. There are three strands to RECOIL. I have the three, for my sins. Bill has one, Rusty has one, you have one.’

‘I have one, correct.’

Bill was briefed on the movement of an armoured column, Rusty on the uprising led by a woman, Luther covered the plan’s third element – the same in the Agency’s posts in Amman and Riyadh, a three-way split for the watchers.

‘Not any more. You had Major Karim Aziz and his goddam rifle down in Baghdad -but not any more. I hear, sadly on the best authority, that he’s been deployed to Kirkuk.’

‘Shit.’

‘Aptly said, Luther. It’s like a strand is cut.’

‘Frankly, Caspar, are two strands enough?’

‘Maybe, maybe not. I just don’t know…’

The last time Caspar Reinholtz had known the quivering, gut-turning apprehension as a plan went to the wire had been three years before. Two strands then. The promise of a culvert bomb near to the Abbasio Palace to catch the motorcade, and a mutiny by the 14

July Battalion. The cars hadn’t come, the culvert bomb hadn’t been fired, but the battalion had moved on the Baghdad Radio transmitters and a heliport used by the President – poor bastards. The arrest, torture, mutilation, execution of a cousin had provoked a general to lead the battalion in mutiny. One strand hadn’t been enough to carry the weight. The troops with their tanks had been massacred, the general had killed himself. That night, he’d written his report in frustrated anger, and known that, once again, the President sat in his goddam palace and laughed at a failure of American policy.

He’d sent further reports of the round-up arrests, the hangings in the Abu Gharib gaol, and hated writing them because he knew they all reeked of failure.

‘What I can tell you, if another strand goes, RECOIL is fucked sideways.’

‘You’ve been here for ever, Caspar. How many times have we been to the brink, had a really good scene in place, had the Boss for Life in the sights, had all the players lined and ready to go, and seen it all go down?’

Not a week went by without his superiors pursuing him for details of the chance of insurrection, mutiny, treachery in Iraq that would topple the President, the Boss for Life.

They waited at Langley, champagne on ice, for the day they could dance and sing on the man’s grave. Every photograph of the President, out of Baghdad, showed the shit laughing.

‘More times than I’d like to count, Luther. I have to play positive, it’s what I’m paid to be, but if either of the other two goes belly-up, it’s over. And I’m getting a bad feeling in my gut. That’s why I’ve had a poor sort of day.’

A plan of mutiny must spread.

In the last days, before execution, it must breathe and move beyond a cabal of key conspirators whispering in secrecy. At a crucial moment of maximum risk, the plan must be shared if the recruitment of others is to be won and it is to reach critical mass.

The brigadier was a hard, tempered fighting man.

His staff car drove him past the sentries and into the compound of an armoured division of the Republican Guard. It was said, in the eddy of whispered rumours that passed amongst the chosen families of the regime, that the niece of the general commanding the division of the Republican Guard had been propositioned for sex by a nephew of the President, had declined the overture, and had been insulted. The rumour said the nephew of the President had called the niece of the general a ‘barren useless goat’. When it happened and the drive south began, down the highway from Kirkuk to Baghdad, the brigadier’s armour must pass through Tuz Khurmatu, the garrison camp he now entered.

He was without fear. As a battalion commander he had survived the ferocious battles to hold the Basra road against the Khomeini zealot hordes, coming at his bunkers in human waves. As a brigade commander, he had been widely praised by his peers for keeping his unit intact as a cohesive fighting force confronting the American 1st Armoured Division. No-one had ever doubted his courage or his tactical skill to his face

… but no promotion had come his way. He should have had command of a division; he should have had the riches that were the reward of a divisional commander. The months had turned to years, the festering resentment had grown, and he had welcomed his recruitment to the plan. When it succeeded he would receive – it was promised him – the Defence Ministry. Also promised was a draft of one million American dollars.

He was saluted and ushered with deference up the steps of the general’s villa. If he had been a man who knew fear there would have been a slight crease of anxiety on the brigadier’s face, because a sniper had been transferred abruptly from Baghdad to Kirkuk.

Fear was not a sector of his character.

His boots beat on a marble floor, a door was opened for him.

The plan must be shared.

Joe Denton thought she’d probably done it herself. He walked round the two pick-ups with a surly stride. The seats in the front and the floor in the back of each vehicle had been hosed, scrubbed, wiped clean. Joe had heard the vehicles arrive at the roadside by the village, but he’d worked in the meadow until there was no longer light to continue.

Then he’d crawled back along the peg-marked path that was cleared. It had been a slow day, but the pace was the same as every other. Beside the road was the return for his work. He had extracted and made safe fourteen VS50s and three V69s. Next week he would allow the locally employed de-miners to start, not before; he was not yet satisfied, from his own expert skill, that the mines hadn’t shifted from the straight rows in which they had been planted. It would be at least three weeks before he could take a beer with the villagers and tell them they could use that meadow of best grazing grass. He finished the inspection of the vehicles.

‘Thanks.’

‘Thanks for loaning them.’

‘Do you want something to eat.’

‘Wouldn’t mind – like to hear about my day, what I heard?’

‘If you want to tell me,’ Joe said gruffly.

They were as lonely as each other. Neither had a friend amongst the Kurds they worked with. They were both employers, there to maintain discipline, had the authority to dismiss their workers and take the decisions that mattered. Without friends they existed in a vacuum of trust. They had little in common other than proximity and loneliness. She was the blond, weather-tanned girl from a Sydney suburb; Joe was the straggly built one-time soldier from the west of England. No point of their cultures intersected. She needed company, and with bad grace he needed the same.

They sat under a tree.

Sarah said, ‘We started with fifty-two casualties. There was every sort of wound you could imagine. We had brain damage, livers, spinal cords, stomachs, lungs, main arteries

– we had the lot – and they’d only brought the worst. Christ knows about the people left behind. We started with them all squashed in. There was room when we finished the journey.’

She laughed.

He thought it was the shock that made her laugh.

‘You know, Joe, when we finished we had them all bedded down in the pick-ups, nice and restful, thirty-seven when we reached Arbil. We had dropped off fifteen. The ones I was with told me about the battle. There’s a town called Tarjil over the ridges there and it was defended by a regiment, a whole bloody regiment. I’m not a soldier, Joe, but I would have thought soldiering is about watching your arse. They went frontal, up the main street. They ran against machine-guns – is it me or is that just dumb?’

Joe’s hand slipped to her arm to stop her. He waved in the gloom towards his bodyguards and made a gesture of eating. They should bring some food. He touched her again to tell her that he listened. He knew about fighting. His experience of war was close second-hand, moving behind the combat troops in Kuwait and making safe unexploded ordnance. After the guns had gone silent he had been in the Iraqi slit trenches and in their bunkers, dealt with their ordnance, and seen the slaughter’s end-game.

‘I don’t know how I’d be if I’d had half my guts taken away – maybe not too bloody happy. Not one whined. It’s all for freedom. They say they have to fight for their freedom. Is that crap, Joe? There’s this woman leading them called Meda, and she’s told them about freedom. I don’t suppose you’ve met her but I have, and they’d follow her wherever she goes. This morning, dawn, she took them to hell.’

He sat against the tree-trunk. She was beside him. He had his legs pulled up tight and his arms wrapped round them. His chin was down on his knees as he stared at the dark ground in front of his boots.

‘God, I don’t know what freedom is. No way I know what their idea of freedom means. The nearest I know about freedom is when my bloody contract here is finished and I get out and I’ve money in the bank to spend. Can you imagine, Joe, running up an open road into gunfire because that’s the way to find freedom? There’s a part of it that we’re involved in, you and me, Joe. It’s only a small part, but we’re in there.’

He looked up sharply.

Sarah said, ‘I took a letter from an old man. The old man, Hoyshar, is the woman’s grandfather. The letter was addressed to an Englishman. I gave you the letter, you promised you’d hand it on. Did you?’

The memory of what he’d done, and thought nothing of, welled back in him. He nodded. He remembered what he had forgotten, the name on the envelope. He stared into her eyes and didn’t answer.

She pressed. ‘Moving that letter ensured our bloody involvement… Apparently some sniper came out here because of that letter. A guy from England, didn’t have to. You know what they said, those guys who were wounded, with their guts hanging out, without arms, with holes in their lungs? The poor simple bastards say he is the best shot they ever knew, but they were hurt at Tarjil because his rifle fouled up and he couldn’t shoot over them. He came because of that letter I gave to you and you moved on. No-one else came.

After Tarjil they’re going to hit a brigade camp, and then it’s Kirkuk. And the daft fuckers think they’ll win because of one sniper and the woman.’

‘They’ll be out of the mountains,’ Joe said grimly, ‘be in the open. The tanks’ll put them through the mincer.’

‘Makes you feel small, doesn’t it? Involved but not able to help. Fucking small.’

‘I just do my job. That’s what I’m here for. Nothing more.’

Joe Denton, twenty years in the Royal Engineers, specialist in explosives, stared down at the shadowy pile of the seventeen mines he had made safe that day. In the backpack beside him, with his helmet and armoured waistcoat, were the seventeen detonators. If Joe, the corporal, had not been screwing the daughter of a Military Police officer on his last posting in Germany, if he’d not smacked the officer’s chin when ordered to stay away from his little angel, he’d still be in the army, and would be without involvement.

‘I’m thinking of all that shit going on out there, while all I do is sit back here and pick up the fucking pieces.’

The food was brought to them. They sat under the tree and the night settled around them.

‘I had toothache this morning, Joe. What I saw today made me forget it. Toothache just doesn’t compete. It’s all in the mind.’

‘My last war… What a hell of a way to finish.’

‘Prizes, awards – hey, and rises. I hear cash registers.’

‘You want to get killed, Mike? Try somewhere to get killed that people care about, Dean. It’s the way the world works.’

They were still in Diyarbakir’s premier league watering-hole, the bar of the Hotel Malkoc, huddled around a table by the window.

‘It’d be the ultimate bow out.’

‘I might get a professorship in media studies, out in the Midwest.’

‘Don’t kid yourself. People wouldn’t even bother to look in the atlas to find where you were killed.’

It had been the end of another fruitless day of obstruction and failure, capped by a lousy meal. Mike, Dean and Gretchen had swapped their sob stories, and had moved on to the inevitable – the pull-out, the booking of air tickets – when the Russian had sidled up and greeted them as old friends.

‘How did he know about us? I mean, how?’

‘Because we talk too much, Mike.’

‘That German, I say it myself, he is a complete sod.’

Gretchen pulled a face, her mouth curled in disgust. So, they had been talking flights out from Diyarbakir when the stiletto-thin German, Jurgen, had intruded into their group and made the introduction. The proposition had been put. The German and the Russian were behind them, leaning comfortably at the bar. Fifteen thousand dollars was the price.

‘I’d be putting my reputation on the line, asking the office for a guarantee of five thou.’

‘They’d crucify me if they paid up and he was a conman.’

‘It’s not the point. The point is the danger. Don’t you see that? It’s the danger of going in there, and nobody caring.’

‘Then we’ll just have to make them care,’ Mike said boldly. It had been written of him in a television rag that he’d dodged more bullets than John Wayne. The image was there to be maintained. He twisted and waved to the Russian to join them.

Gretchen had her eyes tight shut. She grimaced. ‘I can’t quite believe it is actually true.’

‘Actually true…’ The Russian beamed behind her, then bent to offer the posture of confidentiality. ‘You talk about the woman. Twenty-four hours ago, in Iraq, I was with her. I met her. You have the word of Lev Rybinsky. Look at my feet, look at my clothes, look at the mud. I walked across mountains to meet her, to be with her, and walked back.

I am very sincere with you. The money is not for me, it is to open the door of the route to her. There is no profit in this to me. I have come to you because of my love for the freedom of an abused people. The world should know about her. For me, there would be no financial gain.’

‘You’d take us?’ Mike asked, breathily.

‘Of course.’

‘We’d see combat?’ the American demanded.

‘She is marching to Kirkuk and she will not stop. The storm is gathering – yes, my guarantee, you would see combat.’

‘We would walk with her?’ Gretchen queried nervously.

‘You would walk beside her – for fifteen thousand American dollars – into a liberated Kirkuk. I regret I cannot drop the price. Did you know there was a foreign sniper with her?’

AUGUSTUS HENDERSON PEAKE.

4. (Conclusions after interview with Ray Davies (owner of Davies and Sons, haulage company) conducted by self and Ms Carol Manning -transcript attached.) TEMPERAMENT: AHP is an intensely private individual, and is therefore probably best known by his employer. He has worked for the company all his adult life, starting as a teaboy/office runner aged 18, and rising to the position of Transport Manager. Much is made at the company of the stressful pace of the job – much is also made of AHP’s ability to cope with that stress. Words used to describe his TEMPERAMENT are

‘phlegmatic’, ‘patient’ and ‘calm’. They are the descriptions of a character most appreciated by instructors in sniper arts. Interestingly, the owner knew next to nothing of AHP’s life away from the workplace. His shooting passion with the Historic Breech-loading and Small-arms Association was not mentioned. He brought his partner with him to social events, the Christmas party etc., but his personal life was lived behind a closed door. However, importantly, it was made clear that AHP lacks a ruthless side to his character. (The example is minor but indicative of character.) He was unsettled when given the task of sacking a driver who was persistently behind schedule on trans-European journeys, and ‘wriggled’ over clear evidence that a second driver was claiming paid sick leave for a bogus ailment. The TEMPERAMENT is excellent for the role AHP has given himself, but I doubt he has the necessary ‘steel’ for combat. Also, without a long knowledge of MILITARY WEAPONS and MILITARY TRAINING, his chances of medium-term survival remain slim to non-existent.

Willet pondered on that last sentence.

He had found, each time he wrote his notes for Ms Manning’s line manager, an increasing urge to talk up the positive character points of this man. The urge was based, and Willet recognized it, on a growing sense of jealousy. He believed that somehow, and in the most unobtrusive way, he was belittled by Augustus Henderson Peake.

He never moved without an order to do so. In his analysis, he was an automaton and a robot. But Peake had made his own decisions, had packed up and travelled on his own impulses. Willet would never be his own man, not now and not once he had left the military. From the jealousy was born knowledge and admiration.

The concept of a transport manager affecting the course of a faraway war was laughable, of course, yet the worm of doubt ate at him. He remembered an old army video, shown to the sniper course at Warminster in monochrome, that had listed the sort of civilians who might have the required qualities. Not a transport manager among them, but… A fisherman can sit all day at a canal bank and not see his float go down: he has the virtue of patience. A steeplejack can climb to great and dangerous heights, knows his safety is in his own hands, that a false move will end his life. A countryman can shoot straight and move silently, is cunning and thinks ahead to anticipate the movement of his prey. A clerk can spend an entire day with columns of figures, has the priceless power of concentration that shuts out distractions.

All ordinary men, and all fashioned into killers by the instructors. That was the answer.

Peake had the necessary virtues, but not the military weapons and tactics. Willet realized that what had started as a tedious, late-at-night instruction to pry into an ordinary man’s life was turning into a search for the Grail.

He printed what he had written and phoned out for a delivery pizza. Waiting for it to arrive, he wondered whether he undersold that ordinary man, whether Peake could survive, whether the forces arrayed against him were too great and whether that enemy was closing in on him.

Late at night, another simple man – who knew only his chosen trade – went back to the war.

He had not taken the chance of a bath, or gone to the officers’ quarters to eat, or telephoned his wife.

In Aziz’s backpack was more food for the dog, and for himself there was the filled water canteen, goat’s cheese and bread.

He was driven in an open jeep towards the crossroads, away from the flame. When next he saw her, whether there were a hundred or a thousand between them, he would shoot her. It was the decision of a man who craved simplicity. He would shoot her, over the heads of a hundred or a thousand, regardless of the consequences of a counter-strike, then go with his dog to hunt the sniper who opposed him. With the clean wind on his face, he thought that he had broken the distortion of the mirrors. He was well read. There were many books in English on military history in the library of the Baghdad Military College. If he wanted to learn their secrets, he had to have the language and over the years he had taken the chance to read textbooks, pamphlets and manuals of the British army. A book had told him of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. It had troubled the simple soldier and, perhaps, had led him along the road of recruitment and mirrors.

Stauffenberg had lost faith in his Fuhrer, did not believe in a hopeless war. Stauffenberg was the bomb carrier and had failed, was shot like a dog in the hooded headlights of lorries. How was he regarded by those who lived and fought in Normandy and in the Russian marshes? The mirrors did not make him a hero but a traitor. To troops remorselessly retreating, Stauffenberg was the man who betrayed his fellow soldiers…

He would shoot her.

He broke the mirrors in his mind, and after he had shot the witch he would hunt down the sniper.

Gus had slept, woken, started, and at that moment not known where he was.

‘Did you dream, Mr Gus?’

‘No. I dreamed nothing.’

He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. His hand dropped to the dirt beside his legs. The small, cold shapes of the chains, bracelets, rings, and the rolled notes were still there. The boy could have pocketed them in the darkness while he slept, and had not. He hadn’t dreamed of home. Home was behind him. Home would not have understood that a boy thieved from bodies because he had nothing. The boy had not pocketed the trinkets and Gus felt a humble love for him, and couldn’t have told them at home about that love. Far away, the flame burned at Kirkuk. Between him and the flame was the infinite spread of the darkness.

‘Will you be angry again?’

‘That’s in the past.’

‘Will the rifle jam again?’

‘No, not this time.’

‘It is what I said. The mustashar came with Meda. They wanted to talk to you about the rifle, but I would not let them wake you. I said that you had cleaned the rifle and it would not jam again. They wanted to hear it from you but I did not let them wake you.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Will you tell me, Mr Gus, a story of Hesketh-Prichard?’

He closed his eyes. He let the quiet seep against him. ‘Right, yes

… It’s a story that Major Hesketh-Prichard tells about a man whose bravery and dedication he much admired – and that man was an enemy. The troops may have hated the enemy. Snipers weren’t taken prisoner by those in the trenches, they were shot in cold blood there and then. But a sniper doesn’t hate his opponent. There is respect for the skill of the other. He will try to kill him, hope to succeed, but there is always respect.’

‘Please, Mr Gus, the story.’

‘You’re an impatient little sod… There was a big-game hunter, Jim Corbett -elephants and lions were what he killed before the war – he told this story to Hesketh-Prichard. Corbett always gave names to the enemy’s snipers and he called this one Wilibald the Hun. Wilibald the Hun was credited with killing more than twenty British soldiers. For days they looked for Wilibald across the turnip field in no man’s land but couldn’t find him. There had to be a trick to make him fire when the snipers on the British side were all looking for him. On a cold winter’s morning, with a frost over the field, they put up a heavy steel plate with an observation slit in it. He fired at the slit, shot right through it, but that wasn’t Wilibald’s mistake. The mistake he made, and it cost Wilibald his life, was to fire early on a cold morning. The gas from the rifle, when there’s cold air and no wind, hangs for a few moments. It makes a marker. All the snipers fired into the gas. They went forward. Wilibald was in the turnip field only seventy yards from the British line, way out in front of his own trenches. He was covered in turnip leaves. He was middle-aged, very ordinary, rather fat, and he was respected for his courage and his skill… but Wilibald the Hun made the one mistake and that’s all it takes.’

Chapter Ten

‘The tanks will not be used,’ Meda said.

A fire still burned in the roof of the police station’s main block and the tang of the smoke caught in Joe Denton’s nostrils. He had hiked blindly across the mountains all through the night; in an hour it would be dawn. Other than when he had smacked his girlfriend’s father’s face, he had never in his adult life done anything as stupid as leave the safety of northern Iraq and travel through the punched hole into government territory.

The thanks he received were, he felt, bloody minimal.

‘They will not use the tanks they have in Kirkuk.’ She turned on her heel and stalked off.

Arrogant cow. Arrogant good-looking cow, though, none the less. Joe watched her, saw the firm roll of her hips as she walked away from him, and before that he’d seen the clean-cut lines of her chest where her blouse was unfastened.

Scattered through the police-station yard were huddles of men who waited without protest for her to find the time to come, hear their problems, talk to them. He had tried to help. He had joined a column of reinforcements, walked through the goddam night, unloaded the mines from the backs of two mules and believed he would be welcomed, thanked. On the hike across the high wilderness, Sarah had talked of the woman, said she was the last best chance, was unique, not said she was an arrogant cow. So, they didn’t want his bloody mines… There had been an older man near to her, a pace behind her.

When the woman had dismissed the chance of tanks being deployed out of Kirkuk, the older man had gazed to the heavens as though argument were pointless – and then had trailed away after her.

Joe settled himself against a truck’s wheel and closed his eyes. Sarah had gone to the town hospital to get busy and executive and organize a convoy to take more wounded back north where they could receive better treatment. She knew where he was. He sat close to the heap of mines, cold, hungry, his pride punched. For her and her march south, he had broken the inviolate rule of the charity that employed him. He had taken sides. He had stepped off the lofty pedestal on which he was supposed to stand. He had only been a corporal in the Royal Engineers, but he’d learned enough about military tactics to believe that he would have been of some use to these bloody peasants.

‘Godforsaken fucking place!’ he spat.

‘I thought you were sleeping.’ There was a gravelly chuckle above him.

Joe stared into the darkness, blinked and saw the shadowed outline of the older man.

It came in a torrent. ‘Don’t mind me – I’ve only put my job on the line. I came here to do something that is almost criminal, to bring you mines. I’ve dug them up and now I’m offering them to you to bury them again. Stupid or criminal, take your pick. I thought I was helping. But it appears I’m surplus to requirements.’

‘You have our gratitude.’

‘It’s a hell of a way to show it. She-’

‘She is what takes us forward.’

‘She is an arrogant cow.’

‘She is what has brought us here. I am Haquim, the mustashar. I am, if I am listened to, the adviser on tactics. You are a military man, Mr Denton?’

Joe said bitterly, ‘Not an officer, not a bloody Rupert. Corporal, ex, Royal Engineers, if it matters…’

The older man squatted beside him. ‘Would you know, Mr Denton, how – where – to lay mines for the maximum effectiveness, with an expert sniper, against tanks?’

‘She said there would be no tanks.’

‘That’s what she said…’

Joe took a deep breath, as if it were a moment when his involvement firmed. ‘Yes, I might be able to help you in that area.’

The older man unfolded a map, shone his torch down on it and pointed to the position of Fifth Army in Kirkuk and the crossroads outside the city. His finger traced a line on the route that linked them. He remembered what he had said to Sarah, a few minutes less than twelve hours before: the tanks would mince them. He was told what weapon the sniper carried, the calibre and capability of the ammunition the rifle fired. His face was close to the ragged map. Joe talked softly, carefully, asked for paper and a pencil, and for the man to give him a couple of minutes to think it through. He had an idea but it would be a betting man’s throw.

By the time Haquim returned, he had drawn the plan. Haquim folded away the map.

Joe asked, ‘Where’s the sniper?’

Haquim shrugged.

‘I need to talk to him,’ Joe said. ‘He’s the one who has to get it right. If he doesn’t get it right, and the tanks come, then everyone’s toast.’

The crossing of the mountains was hard going. There were no lights to guide them and the German hissed a protest each time they kicked a rock or set a stone tumbling down from the path.

Four hours into their march the discipline was fracturing.

‘God, what I’d give for a drink…’ Mike whispered.

‘A bed, a clean bed…’ Dean murmured.

Gretchen soldiered on, her mind apparently elsewhere.

They heard Jurgen’s guttural whisper for quiet. Did they not realize the density of Turkish army patrols?

‘All right for that human fucking parasite, he’s not carrying half a ton of gear.’ Mike’s cameraman, propositioned late in the evening, had flatly refused to take part in a night march over the mountains from Turkey into northern Iraq. Equally resolutely, Dean and Gretchen had declined to help Mike with the camera equipment. If they bounced a patrol they risked being shot out of hand in the darkness, or they faced arrest, thuggery, unpleasant interrogation, and a week’s sojourn in Diyarbakir’s military gaol.

Significantly, the German, Jurgen, carried nothing.

They were at a narrow point in the path, which was good enough for low-life smugglers, but for the journalistic pride of London, Baltimore and Frankfurt it was hell.

There was a cliff wall to the left, a loose-stoned track for them to walk on, and a precipice to the right. Each of them had an idea of the depth of the precipice: the last rock dislodged by Gretchen had slid from under her boot and fallen, fallen for an age before they’d heard its distant impact. The bastard Russian, back at the Hotel Malkoc, with a drink and a clean bed and probably a woman, would meet them in the morning. He’d said it was impossible for them to be hidden in a lorry for the border crossing. They’d walk -maybe get shot, or at least captured – and if they made it through he’d meet them.

‘After we come back, I promise to do that swine proper damage.’

‘ If we come back.’

‘Get positive, Gretchen – Mike, you’ll have me to help you.’

The wind ripped at their clothes, the cold shredded them and all for a story about a woman leading a distant army, talk of freedom, the prospect of air-time and column inches. They held hands and made a chain, and stumbled on after the German. Holding hands was their small gesture to each other of solidarity – if one went over the goddam precipice they’d all go.

‘Why are we doing this?’

‘I am doing this, Gretchen, for my real-estate mortgage.’

‘Anyone who does this, goes into northern Iraq and not for money, is an idiot,’

Gretchen said solemnly.

He saw the man.

The dawn came slowly, layering the light across the ground. Before its arrival, Aziz had crawled for an hour in a network of rain gullies until he had reached a vantage-point where he could conceal himself and watch. It was the furthest forward he could go and he was settled beside the collapsed roof of rusted tin and the broken wooden frame of what had once been a shepherd’s shelter. He could go no further forward because the ground ahead of him was scratched empty and bare by the wind. Not even his dog, resting beside his knee, could have crossed that ground and remained concealed.

The dawn had come from over the high hills to the left of the man. Beyond the wind-whipped, sun-scorched ground that stretched three times the range of the Dragunov was an isolated clump of rocks rubbed smooth by the elements. The man sat on the rocks and made no effort to conceal himself.

Aziz’s eyesight, unaided, was not adequate, but with his telescope he could see him clearly.

As the sun rose, as the heat settled on the ground, his view of the man would become distorted, but the air at dawn was cold enough for him to see the man in sharp focus.

He understood why the man showed himself. It was a challenge.

Through the telescope, Major Karim Aziz watched the man who was his enemy. He saw the dirt and the dust that cloyed the overalls, and the confused tangle of the hessian strips, and he saw but did not recognize the shape of the rifle that was held loosely across the man’s thighs. The face of the man was paint-smeared and daubed with mud, and there was a dark shadow of stubble over his cheeks and chin. Sitting on the rock with his rifle, the man seemed at peace.

Aziz knew from his experience of the battles against the Iranians that there were times when soldiers sought calm, as if at those moments the hate in them for their enemy died.

Later, they would fight… they would stalk… they would kill. In the quiet, killing men looked for the faces of their enemy as if there was a need to prise away the masks, as if to find something of brotherhood. He could not reach the man. The flat, featureless ground between them prevented him from a hidden stalk and a single rifle shot, and the man knew it.

He was disturbed, could not lift away the mask – and, confused, could not make the brotherhood. The challenge mocked him.

Major Karim Aziz knew what he had to do. If he did not do it, the fear would take root.

If the fear was in him, when the peace was gone he would not aim and shoot well. Fear was the true enemy of the sniper. If he did not answer the challenge, he would know his fear had conquered him. The strength of the sun was growing on his back and the dog panted beside him. In a few minutes, a little time, the heat would have settled on the ground and the clarity of his lens would subside to mirage and distortion… He thought of his wife, in the hospital, with the children who had no drugs – and he wondered whether this man, sitting at peace, had a wife. He thought of his children, in the school that had no books – and he wondered whether this man had children.

Aziz put his telescope back into his backpack and stood.

He walked away from the shepherd’s shelter with his backpack looped over his shoulders and his rifle loose in his hands. Far beyond the growing shimmer as the ground warmed was the outline of the rocks, and he did not know whether, at three thousand metres, the man noticed his movement, but it was important to him that he had picked up the challenge.

He turned his back on the man and headed towards the road, Scout skipping beside him.

The next time he saw him, when there was no peace and no calm, he would kill the man.

‘He’s a champion, that’s what you have to realize. He’s a winner.’

Willet had told Ms Manning that they were going to the seaside. It wasn’t strictly true.

The industrial estate east of Southampton allowed them a slight whiff of the sea, but no view of it. The unit that had produced the brochure he’d taken from Peake’s safe in the haulage-company offices was old, uncared-for and drab. It was anonymous: only the steel-plated door and the small heavily barred windows gave evidence of the factory’s product inside. They sat in a small, untidy office and the walls around them were hung with photographs of weapons. The sales director, earnest and bright-eyed, a communicator, had told the outer office to hold his calls.

‘He’s can, will, must. I see enough of them, I recognize them. I call it being “the master of circumstances”. It’s about the ability to withstand pressure, and I’m talking about extreme stress.’

It was the unpeeling of another layer. Willet scribbled his notes, but Ms Manning gazed around her and studied the photographs. He thought he’d brought her to new territory, and her expression showed she thought it disreputable.

‘Look, if Gus Peake had not decided to interest himself in firing a half-century-old sniper rifle, if he’d focused on the modern equipment, he’d be right up in the top flight of the Queen’s Hundred. I’d go as far as to say that he’d be challenging for the Queen’s Prize. Instead he chose the sort of demanding discipline that will not produce celebrities, but he’s still the best at that discipline. He won’t get a chair ride at Bisley, won’t have a cabinet of display cups, but I’ll wager he has a drawerful of spoons, if you know what I mean.’

Afterwards Willet would have to explain to Ms Manning about Bisley, about the annual shoot that was the showpiece for the year, the choosing of the hundred best marksmen for the last day’s competition, and the lifting of the winner onto a chair so that he could be hoisted to receive the Queen’s Prize as the band played ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’. He might tell her that in 1930 a woman had sat in the chair and been serenaded… He cursed himself for allowing distraction to cloud his thoughts. It was why Ken Willet was not a champion and never would be, and why he’d failed the sniper course.

‘I liked his mind management. He’s very quiet. When he was down here he only spoke when he had something to ask. Some customers talk the whole time, think that’ll impress me. He’s not afraid of silence. That’s important – it marks a man down as one who doesn’t have conceit.’

Ms Manning frowned. Willet wondered, after they’d gone, whether the pair of them, the investigators, would be dissected by the sales director to his colleagues – whether he and Ms Manning would be categorized as conceited or confident, or simply from a second division.

‘Confidence and conceit are very different things. Conceit is failure, confidence is success. A conceited man cannot abide failure and turns away from any area where he may lose. But a confident man thinks through the ground conditions then backs his intuition. Champions are confident, not conceited – that’s why Gus Peake is a champion.

I’ve known him for the last three years. You see, we make military and civilian rifles, so I go to Bisley. Target-shooting with modern rifles can be about as dull as watching paint dry – I usually wander over to the HBSA people for a chat and a coffee, it’s how I met him. I’m not a friend, I doubt he has any, he didn’t seem the type – but I’ve watched him shoot and talked through shooting problems. He has my respect. What’s he up to?’

‘You don’t have to know that,’ Ms Manning said coldly.

Willet cut in, offering a little truth for something more, ‘He’s in northern Iraq. It’s a long story, doesn’t affect you, but he’s with a group of Kurdish tribesmen. He’s gone to war.’

‘It might just affect me. What he purchased from me was sale or return. I promised him a good price if he brought the kit back.’

Ms Manning asked, ‘What did he buy?’

‘Just so that there are no misunderstandings, he produced a section 1 firearms certificate, so he is quite entitled to purchase a bolt-action rifle, and it was quite legal for me to sell it to him. Obviously he’s passed all the necessary user tests, he’s a member of a recognized club, he’s satisfied the police that he owns a secure gun box. Do you want to see what I sold him?’

Manning nodded. He swung round his chair and darted for a side door, leaving them at the table. She sipped her coffee; Willet reached for the last of the biscuits that had come on a plate with the coffee mugs.

The rifle was slapped down on the table in front of them. Ms Manning spluttered on her coffee.

It was a killing machine, she could recognize that, as Willet could. It was nothing about sport, but was for killing men. The butt, stock and barrel were painted a dull olive.

It was tilted upwards by a fixed bipod, and the polished glass of the telescopic sight winked malevolently. The sales director didn’t ask her, but picked it up and dumped it in Ms Manning’s hands.

‘That’s it, that’s what Gus bought. The grand title is AWM. 338 Lapua Magnum. I say it myself, it’s the best thing we make and the best sniper rifle that anyone makes, anywhere.’

Very slowly, bulging the biceps under her blouse, Manning lifted it to her shoulder.

She’d tilted her spectacles up on to her forehead. Her eye peered into the sight, her finger was on the trigger. Willet wondered whether she’d ever held a rifle before. Her aim moved round the office, from the leave chart to the computer screen in the corner, from the computer screen to an American presented plaque, from the plaque to the window and wavered as a seagull flew close, from the seagull to Ken Willet’s head and chest. It was the first time he had seen her grin in that way. She had the power, given her by the size, weight, sleekness of the rifle. He looked into the small, dark abyss of the barrel. She squeezed. He felt sick, his stomach twisting. She put the rifle on the table and dropped her spectacles back over the bridge of her nose.

‘Don’t ever do that again,’ Willet hissed. ‘Don’t ever point a weapon…’

She laughed in his face.

‘That’s what Gus has taken. In the right hands it’s a serious weapon. Sale or return, as I said. Am I going to see it back here? I suppose that depends on what he learned down in Devon.’

‘You sat out there?’ There was an accusing note in Haquim’s voice.

‘Yes.’

‘Alone? Without protection?’

‘Yes,’ Gus said.

‘Where you could be seen?’

‘Where I could be seen.’

‘For why? For what?’

‘I can’t explain.’

‘You talk serious rubbish… Meda says there will be no tanks.’

‘Does she?’

‘If Meda says it the men will believe her.’

‘Will they?’

‘You think yourself amusing, Mr Peake…’

He was light-headed, as if drunk with alcohol.

As the sun had climbed Gus had tramped back to the outskirts of the town and to the low wall that penned the goats where he had left Omar. He had had to shout at the boy to drill home the instruction that he was not to be followed. There had been a purpose to his long, lonely walk, to evaluate the ground over which they would fight in the morning. He had sat on a rock and soaked the place into his body and his mind. He had wanted to test his powers of observation and to reckon out the camouflage he would need and to measure the visibility that would be available to him as the heat grew… He had known he was being watched. Gus had not seen him, but at one point there had been the flash of sunlight striking the prism of a lens. It was the knowledge that he had been watched from a great distance that induced the impertinence he threw back at Haquim. The mustashar sobered him, jolted him.

‘Have you thought that you might be taken, Mr Peake? Not killed clean – captured, dirty.’

‘No.’

‘Perhaps that is what you should think. It is all a bluff. We must create an illusion of energy, strength. We have to go forward on a narrow thrust. Each step we go forward takes us further from the protection of the mountains. Tomorrow that protection is behind us. We are in the open. We go forward, and every step we advance we make the salient deeper and we expose the flanks. Do you know about flanks, Mr Peake? The most important thing is that they can be pinched. I put it very simply to you, when you make a salient with flanks you can be cut off, you can be surrounded, and squeezed. You wonder that I am worried? I carry the worry alone. She has no idea of the danger of encirclement.

She has no military experience. Meda believes only in the certainty of her destiny, and she says there will be no tanks. I’m not asking for sympathy, but I have the right to demand that you do not make fun of me. She says there will be no tanks, but it is for me to consider whether she might be wrong. She does not ask it of me but I fear for her, for those who follow her, for myself, for you – if the tanks come and we are not killed cleanly.’

‘I apologize,’ Gus said quietly. ‘I apologize sincerely.’

‘You have to meet a man who has brought mines to hear how a sniper should use the mines – if she is wrong and if the tanks come.’

Gus followed Haquim back through the town towards the police station to listen to another expert.

The brigadier was a strong man, and he shivered as he watched the tanks being armed and fuelled. He had shared, spread the conspiracy, and the promises were piled behind him. He had the promise of the witch and her peshmerga army, and the promise of the Americans, and the promise of men in Baghdad. But – and he knew the sort of promises that wafted around men committed to insurrection – there were always more promises.

Never had sufficient promises been heaped behind the officers planning a coup d’etat.

With insufficient promises there was a short walk to the gallows. He needed the promise of the general at Tuz Khurmatu.

The huge tank shells, 125mm calibre, were being lifted into the hatches. The fuel lorries were alongside the leviathans, loading the diesel. In the morning he would address the officers of the armoured brigade and demand their loyalty to him as their commander, and the promises that they would follow him.

He would be a great man if the promises were kept, and a dead man if they were broken.

The brigadier could not shed the chill from his body as the sun beat down on him, and on his tanks.

Present at the meeting were all the male members of the general’s extended family.

Inside the barracks compound of the Republican Guard armoured division at Tuz Khurmatu, the windows of the villa were curtained and the door to the salon locked on the inside. The mahogany-framed television set was tuned to a satellite channel from Germany and played promotional music videos, with the sound turned high. They were of the Sunni religion, and of the Dulaimi tribe. Their territory stretched from Fallujah on the Euphrates river, across the desert wasteland to Al Qaim near the Syrian border. The Dulaimi tribe held second place in the regime’s favours and trust after the President’s own tribe, the Takriti. They were men hardened by an upbringing in the harsh desert territory of sun-scorched days and bitter night frosts. They were fighters. The sons, cousins and nephews of the general crowded the salon. They wore the insignia on their shoulders of armoured units, artillery, infantry and Special Forces. The general was the head of the family and they listened in silent respect, craned to hear what he said. He was known to his family and his tribe and his tank crews as ‘the Hammerfist’. No man had ever doubted his courage.

He explained his dilemma. The general, the Hammerfist, told them of the visit he had received from a brigadier of Fifth Army in Kirkuk, and the proposition put to him.

Did they join the conspiracy, or did they destroy it?

To know of treason, and not to denounce it, was to commit treason. Should the conspiracy founder, should the brigadier be captured and interrogated, should he be broken under torture, should he speak of a meeting with a general that had not been reported to the relevant authorities, then the general too was a conspirator – and all of them who now attended the meeting in the villa’s salon. There was no middle way.

If they joined the conspiracy and it succeeded, each of them would be rewarded. If it failed, however, they would be hanged after they had been tortured. Faced with the dilemma, the general asked for advice as to which course he should follow. He could arm the tanks of his division, or he could pick up the telephone and make a call to the al-Rashid barracks of the Estikhabarat. Which?

The quiet clung around them.

Each man considered insults thrown at him by the regime, and benefits they had gained from it. They thought of the consequences to their families, pondered the reliability of the Kurds, and of an American promise to create a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone above the tanks roaring towards Baghdad.

Straight-backed, hands clasped behind him, the general – the Hammerfist – waited for them to make known their reaction to a devil’s dilemma.

At brigade, at the crossroads, five miles north-east of Kirkuk, Major Aziz did what all soldiers do in the last hours before a battle. He cleaned his weapon and wrote a letter to his wife.

They were not dirty, but from habit he cleaned the bolt and the breech, the PSO-1 telescopic sight mounted directly above the trigger, the interior of the magazine, and then he wiped hard at each of the ten rounds of 7.62mm ammunition before returning them to the magazine. All around him, in the gathering darkness, soldiers checked their weapons.

When he was satisfied that there was no possibility of a malfunction caused by dirt, he wound the loose rough cloth strips round the butt, stock, ’scope and barrel of the Dragunov.

Aziz found a place close to the command bunker where a small shaft of light spilled out from a narrow firing slit. Also, a part of his routine was to carry in his backpack a few sheets of crumpled writing-paper, with envelopes. He was hunched down so that the spear of light was on his raised thigh, where the paper rested. He wrote only a half-dozen lines. He had written the same letters many times, for fear of not saying goodbye, in Kirkuk, in Basra, and in Kuwait City. The following morning, or a week afterwards, each of those letters had been destroyed, ripped to shreds, because he had lived. He wrote of his love for her, and for the boys – they were jewels on which fell the golden sun – and he thanked her for the happiness she had given him. When he had finished he sealed the sheet of paper in an envelope, put her name on it and placed it in the breast pocket of his shirt, where it would be close to his heartbeat. If he were killed, if he died the next day, or the day after, he held the hope that the letter would be retrieved from his body, perhaps stained in blood, and that it would be taken back to her. Once it was in his pocket, the moments of self-doubt evaporated, the time for reflection was finished.

He slipped into the command bunker. It was buried in the sandy soil, roofed by heavy timbers that were, in turn, covered with bulldozed earth. There was quiet inside, as if the staff officers had already made their preparations. Aziz asked for the plan for the morning, and guidance as to where he and his Dragunov should be positioned. He explained where he believed the enemy’s sniper would be. *** Joe Denton’s voice dripped at him – where he should be, how he should lay the mines, and how and at what point he should arm them.

The column had formed in the darkness outside the police station. Gus said that he understood the plan and thanked Joe for it. Denton reached up, caught at the hessian straps on Gus’s shoulders and kissed his cheek, not wet but a brush of the lips against the stubble and the patina of dirt and paint, then turned away. He saw Denton climb into a truck beside the aid-worker. The headlights led a convoy of lorries away to the north; more wounded from the battle for Tarjil were being moved to safety. If he had been able to see the man’s face, Denton’s, then he thought there might have been tears in the eyes.

It was Gus’s duty to go forward, but not Denton’s, nor was his the responsibility of a grandfather’s friendship: he was the victim of destiny, but Joe Denton was not.

After the convoy’s lights had slipped away into the darkness, he heard Meda’s hectoring voice at the front of the column. When she paused for breath, there was the coughed, spluttered echo of approval. There was a last declaiming shout from her, an exhortation, and the answering bellow of loyalty.

Shuffling at first, but growing in speed, the column surged out of the town. There were no doors open, no upper windows unshuttered, no knots of civilians to watch them go. It was as though they had come as liberators and left as a conquering army of occupation.

He remembered the tide of vengeance that had accompanied them. The tramping feet of the column marched over the place where the tarmacadam had been scorched, and under the doused light on the lamp-post over which the noose had been hooked. He walked with Omar and the four men carrying the grain sacks that held the mines. Whether they were liberators or occupiers was the judgement to be made by the people who did not wish them well. Their judgement hammered him. If they were victors they would be liberators; if they were losers they would be occupiers. It hammered him because the people of Tarjil had branded them, sunk the fire into the flesh, as losers. No man or woman would shout support for a loser and wish them well. Dirty, fetid, the column left the town and its darkened, empty streets.

Gus thought the mood of the town, its judgement, had caught many of the peshmerga.

It was not until they were out of the town that the men began to sing. Again and again, with the deep power of their voices, the refrain of the anthem was howled into the night.

It was the sound of hungry wolves that came in winter from the high ground to stalk beside barricaded homes in search of food. It was the sound of a predator. Omar sang with them, a high shrill note, as if to prove his adulthood.

‘What do they sing?’

He could not see the boy’s face in the darkness.

‘We are the peshmerga, brave heroes of Kurdistan, We will never lay down our arms, We fight until victory or death.’

Gus grimaced. ‘That’s bloody cheerful, Omar.’

‘We are not frightened of death, Mr Gus. You cannot be frightened of death or you would not have come. We have the power, we have Meda

…’

Gus marched on. It was strange to him that the bold words Meda had used in the town to the peshmerga, and the repetition of the anthem, demonstrated a willingness to face death. He had seen her with the aid-worker when he had been receiving the instructions from Joe Denton. He wondered if Meda had shown the flesh wound to her, whether it had been dressed again, whether it was poisoned or clean. His blister hurt but the pace of the march did not allow him to slow and hobble. It seemed a lifetime since he had last slept decently or eaten well. He thought the civilization of an old life was being steadily stripped from him.

When they were well clear of the town, when no torches were used, when they moved in thin moonlight, the singing died. Haquim had been along the line and demanded quiet.

A discipline had settled on the column. Gus wondered, in the quiet broken only by the scrape of weapons’ metal and the tramp of feet, if the men thought of home and families

– or were their minds as empty as the wolves’, the predators’? His own mind, except for the pain of the blister, was void of emotion.

Haquim materialized from the milky darkness. They had reached the point where Gus, Omar, the men carrying the mines and the mustashar would break away from the main march towards the crossroads. Meda was beside him.

Meda said, sarcastic, ‘Do you need a chair to sit on?’

‘I’ll send down for room-service and get a beer.’

‘You will be comfortable away from the real work, fighting.’

‘I’ve a good book to read.’

She was brittle, contemptuous. ‘There will be no tanks.’

‘Then I’ll enjoy my beer and get on with my book. It’ll be a pleasant day out.’

She flounced away, strode off up the column, and in a moment was lost among her men. It was a bad parting. If either of them did not survive the day ahead, the last memory would be of contempt and mockery. The column was going south, but the small group edged to the east and started the big loop that would take them to where Joe Denton advised they should be. Omar led. He had no compass, and had never crossed that featureless, dark-shrouded ground before. He had only been shown on the map but did not pause or look around him. Gus thought it the innate genius of the young dog-wolf.

The boy stopped, crouched, his arm held back, hand open, demanding their total stillness and silence. Gus heard the approaching sounds, the wind over dried leaves. They were huddled together, low on the open ground as the sounds grew closer. At first it merged with the night then, clear in the moonlight, a great caravan passed them. Sheep, men, goats, women, donkeys, children, dogs, all slipped by, never wavering in the path of their journey. Gus was awestruck at the simplicity of what he saw. A nomad tribe on the move, as they had whispered over the ground at night in the time of Cyrus and Salah alDin Yusuf, nothing changed, secure against the predators, the newer dictators and demagogues. Maybe they had heard, as their forebears would have, that a battle was to be fought, and they moved on. Their dark line passed. As the sounds faded into the night, Omar started out again.

An hour later, they were near to the road, the bridge and the glow of the sentries’ cigarettes. The iron-hooped sides of the bridge were lit by the lights of the patrolling armoured personnel carrier.

The sacks with the mines were dumped on the scraped earth beside the road.

Haquim said, ‘If the tanks come, if she is wrong, only your skill can save us.’

‘I can do my best, friend, but I do not know whether my best is enough.’

‘I do not ask for more. Let us pray to God she is correct, that the tanks will not come

…’

‘Then I’ll sit in my chair with a beer and a book.’

Haquim hit him hard on the arm. Gus thought that the old soldier equally disliked contempt and frivolity. Haquim was gone, and with him the men who had carried the sacks. He was alone with the boy. The embankment of the road towered above him. He watched the personnel carrier reach the bridge ahead, then reverse and turn, its searchlight spearing the flat, barren ground. They were deep in the ditch below the embankment when it returned, and the searchlight’s beam was far above them. They tracked away from the bridge to a place where the embankment was lowest, and Gus armed the mines, while Omar scratched the holes for them.

The burden crushed him. They depended on him.

There were many who saw him go.

The logistics officer in the command bunker, puzzling over the reasoning behind the decision to withdraw two of the three infantry battalions to Kirkuk and even more about the complex manoeuvre to achieve it at night and in secrecy, saw him kick himself up from the chair where he had dozed, hitch on his backpack, sling his rifle, call his dog and go out into the night.

The logistics officer called after him, ‘Hit the bastards, Karim, hit them so they scream.’

The sentry ran from behind the sandbag wall and wrenched open the wood-framed wire gates. He was about to scurry back to the security of the sandbags when he realized that the officer stood erect as if no danger could confront him. He saluted clumsily. The officer thanked him, as if he were a friend, and he walked through the gate with the dog.

His bulky over-suit dripped with fresh grey mud, and the same mud was embedded in the dog’s coat. The sentry saw him unhook his rifle from his shoulder, then hold it loosely across his body as he slipped through a pool of light and away into the shadows. He knew the bandit army coming towards them was led by a woman; it was said, in the tent where he slept when not on sentry duty, that bullets could not harm her, that she was the devil’s child. He thanked his god for sending the officer with the big rifle who went to break the magic of the witch.

While Isaac Cohen, Mossad man, slept in his eyrie, the wind-bent antenna sucked down signals, which the computers decrypted.

He slept without a care.

Chapter Eleven

The brigadier, dressing in the darkness before dawn, had selected his best uniform with the medal ribbons of three decades of military service. The orderly had made a fine job of polishing his boots. He had chosen to wear his brigade’s scarlet cravat, which hid the heave in his throat. In the shining holster on his webbing belt was his service pistol, loaded and armed. His heart pounded, dinned in his ears, and he did not at first hear the shout from his orderly, a man he would trust with his life.

While he had slept, men had flown north from Baghdad, had come in secrecy to Kirkuk.

He had rehearsed his speech, again, while showering, shaving, dressing. Ahead of him were the opened double doors to the briefing room. He had tried twice, the evening before, to make secure telephone contact with the general commanding the armoured division to the south, but had failed. That had not distressed him. Since the American bombing and the imposition of sanctions, secure communications were haphazard, replacement parts rarely available. He heard the shout repeated, but his mind was far away in the detail of his speech.

All of the officers of the brigade, equipped with T-72 tanks and BMP armoured personnel carriers, would now be waiting on him in the briefing room. He had served with the older men, the more senior, most of his adult life. The younger men were the sons and nephews of officers, now retired from active duty, whom he had fought alongside in the Iranian, Kurdish and Kuwaiti wars. The brigadier believed the senior and junior officers owed primary loyalty to him, not to the regime. His speech, practised alone in his room, would appeal to that ingrained loyalty. The shout and the running feet were a barely noticed distraction as he approached the double doors.

From the Kirkuk military airfield, the men had been driven to Fifth Army headquarters, had taken an office behind a steel reinforced door, had established a radio link to the al-Rashid barracks and had prepared to talk to him about loyalty.

The brigadier paused at the double doors. He heard the scrape of chairs as the officers were ordered to stand. He smoothed his hair, and his tongue flicked at his lips. In no battle he had fought, and the medal ribbons on his chest showed there had been many, had he felt such gut-wrenching tension. Had the brigadier been a gambler, a dice-thrower, he would have been better able to control that tension – but he believed in loyalty. They stood in ranks in front of the lectern he would use… A fresh tension intruded on his thoughts. He had instructed the technical officers and NCOs to work through the night, to scavenge and cannibalize, to get the maximum number of the brigade’s fighting vehicles to combat readiness. The tanks and personnel carriers made an imposing parade-ground army but spares were at a premium. The speech returned to his mind, melded with the repeated shout and the drum of approaching feet.

The first moments of his speech, the first words they heard, would be the most important. He steadied himself. He would say, decisively: ‘Officers, friends, our brigade is a family. A family stands together – a family will make the supreme sacrifice in blood.

In the history of this family, united by selfless dedication, this is now a time of critical importance. The loyalty of this family is to the proud and honoured state of Iraq, not to the criminal clique that has for too long abused this family’s trust. Today we are given, by God, the chance to rid our beloved people from the rule of the felons, which has brought misery down on us… ’ The shout and the footfall were clearer. The doors would be locked behind him. If there was a weasel complaint from any officer, he would draw his pistol and shoot dead the callow bastard who made it.

‘Brigadier, please, there is a call from Tuz Khurmatu – the general commanding the Republican Guard armoured division. He must speak with you personally – a matter of national security.’

He needed the support of the general commanding the Republican Guard armour at Tuz Khurmatu. He gestured to his second-in-command standing beside the lectern – two minutes.

He did not see his orderly’s face. He was led from the corridor on to the parade ground where the maintenance teams sweated under arc lights over the tanks and the personnel carriers. There was the roar of revving engines and choking clouds of diesel fumes. He did not see the tears of betrayal running on his orderly’s face. He was led into a small brick building with high barred windows and through an opened steel reinforced door. In a bare room, on the the wood table, the telephone was off the cradle. He snatched it up.

He said hoarsely, ‘We are about to move, in an hour we move. Do I have your support?’

He recognized the voice on a crackling line. ‘You are a traitor. I am a servant of the President. You are a traitor and will die like a traitor – like a dog.’

The pistol barrel was against his neck. In the moments before his arms were pinioned, he struggled to get a hand to his holster and failed. When his arms were pinioned, when his service weapon had been taken, when the cotton hood was over his head, the beating started.

In his own leisurely fashion, and after an untroubled night’s sleep, Isaac Cohen began his day. He shaved with an old blade that barely scraped the stubble from his cheeks and chin, sluiced his body in cold water, dressed in faded jeans, a T-shirt, two sweaters and worn sneakers, ate an apple and a carton of yoghurt, flicked the pages of Maariv, which he had read the night before, made football small-talk with the commander of the Turkish troops who guarded him, and went to the building that housed the computers.

At the door, the key to the padlock in his hand, he looked down over the land lightening in the dawn.

There was snow on the highest peaks, and the deeper ravine valleys were still in black shadow, but the first shafts of the sun caught the lower hillsides beyond the mountains.

With binoculars, if he had steadied himself against the door, he might have seen the brightness of the flame that burned at Kirkuk, but he did not have his binoculars. Below him, over the crag faces, an eagle glided, hunted. He blinked and unlocked the padlock.

He seldom lingered at dawn or in the middle of the day or at dusk to strain his eyes and look over the falling ground. The eyes that mattered in the life of Isaac Cohen, that gave him vision, were in the dishes and the loosely slung aerials and the antennae that were riveted down on the roof of his communications den.

Inside, with the murmur of the machines for company, he filled, then switched on his electric kettle.

When he had made himself instant coffee, he would use the eyes that bored deep across the lands he could not see, and scan the decrypted messages the computers had gobbled in the night.

Later, where his own eyes could not see, the computers would give him a clear view of a fighting ground. He had done what he could, was now no more than a spectator, but he thought of them as he started to read the overnight radio traffic and he whispered a short private prayer.

AUGUSTUS HENDERSON PEAKE.

5. (Conclusions after interview with Brian Robins (sales director of AI Ltd, rifle manufacturers) conducted by self and Ms Carol Manning -transcript attached.) ABILITY: As a marksman, AHP is as good as any. He has the ability to shoot under all conditions and can absorb the stress of competition. He is regarded by this source as a WINNER. He has the inner steel that prevents him from accepting second best as an adequate outcome.

KNOWLEDGE OF MILITARY WEAPONS: AHP has wisely purchased the most complete sniper rifle on the market (paid in cash,?3,500).

He has travelled to northern Iraq with an AWM. 338 Lapua Magnum.

The rifle has a maximum range of 1,200 yards to 1,400 yards. The AWM has greater range and hitting power than the standard AW using 7.62 NATO ammunition, and is more manoeuvrable and covert than the heavier AW50 version.

The AWM is classified as a ‘basic’ weapon. It is not sophisticated; fewer technical problems in rugged terrain and battlefield conditions.

The armour-piercing rounds, Green Spot ball, give the AWM a versatility not present with more conventional sniper rifles. It can kill personnel, but will also destroy equipment. It has the penetrative power, using FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) rounds, to be used successfully against a variety of targets – ammunition dumps, grounded aircraft, radar installations, bunkers and armoured vehicles (with the sniper in an offensive or defensive mode).

The AWM creates COMBAT POWER. It can degrade key equipment and gain psychological battlefield advantage.

Before that morning in the sales director’s office, Ken Willet had never seen a sniper’s rifle the size and power of the AWM. 338 Lapua Magnum. When he had tried, and failed, the course at Warminster, he had used the Parker Hale weapon, which was smaller, lighter and did not have the capacity to fire the armour-piercing bullet. What had been aimed at him by Ms Manning was a rifle altogether more deadly than anything he had himself ever handled. He was confused. Was a professional’s weapon in the hands of an amateur or an expert? With the confusion came the problem. His adult life was steeped in the lore of the military. He had been taught to believe that only the men who made a total study of military tactics and were subject to military discipline could achieve results in a military theatre of operations. If the reason for his confusion was valid then he might just have wasted the last dozen years of his life. Could an amateur, a transport manager in a haulage company, gain the same combat successes as a professionally trained sniper? He was too tired to find the answer, to end the confusion.

When he went to bed the dawn was coming up. But he could not sleep. Inside his mind, thundering and reverberating, was the roar of tank tracks.

‘Keep clear of officers and white stones.’

‘What, Mr Gus?’

‘Major Hesketh-Prichard would have known that – it was the advice given by sergeants to fresh troops in South Africa. The British army was fighting there a hundred years ago.’

‘Because officers get shot?’

‘Correct, Omar, and because the sniper uses landmarks, any light-coloured stones, as points for measuring distance.’

‘Why do you tell me?’

‘Everything in the skill is old, everything we do has been done before, everything is learned from the past…’

Gus was deadened by tiredness. It was only something to say to help him to beat it.

Inside the thick material of the gillie suit he was cold because of the tiredness. He felt a sickness, a scratching in his throat, from the cold and the stink of the goats. In front of them was the raised roadway leading to the bridge. Beyond the bridge the road led on to the defended crossroads. On the road’s far side, dead ground to him, the embankment was steeper than the incline facing him, and at the far side of the bridge the river’s banks plunged down to a morass of boulders. When the tanks left the road they must turn towards him, then drive towards the one place in the riverbed where the banks were shallow and the stones smaller – if they were to reach the crossroads.

Gus had not slept. He had marched back from the road, said whispered farewells to the men who had carried the mines and helped Omar to bury them. Tracking back over the open ground to find the firing position, he had then dug out the small trench in which he now lay. The light was coming, spreading over the desert landscape before him. His eyes roved over the markers. Wedged against rocks, hooked on to strands of rusted barbed wire, caught against old fence posts were scraps of newspaper and torn plastic bags. Each time he had placed the newspaper and the bags he had remembered the distances of his stride. There was nothing random in their placing: they were his white stones. The goats had been Omar’s idea. They had bleated in the night; they were the missing peg to be slotted in the plan. The light was coming and Gus heard the first distant popping of small-arms fire. He tried to sound calm but his teeth chattered.

‘Remember what I said. Keep clear of officers and white stones.’

Against the scratching of the goats, he heard the boy’s quiet laughter. ‘Are you very frightened, Mr Gus?’

‘Go away, and take those foul stinking creatures with you.’

The light was growing; the popping of the guns had become a rattle. The boy whistled and thwacked his stick on a goat’s back, then the hoofs and Omar’s light tread drifted away. The first golds of the morning caught the ground, flickered on the newspaper pages and the plastic, and Gus tried to remember each distance he had paced out in the darkness. It had been the boy’s idea to steal the goats and then to go forward with them.

He lay in a shallow trench covered by the sacking in which the mines had been carried, and over the sacking was loose dirt and small stones. Away to Gus’s right, the shooting was persistent and no longer sporadic.

Haquim had said they depended on him – if the tanks came. He had a role. Far to his front, where the incline rose to the roadway, was a scene as old as the warning of officers and white stones: a goatherd boy sat and watched his beasts. Gus wriggled his hand under his gillie suit and found the water bottle at his waist. He reached forward, emptied the precious water onto the ground under the end of the rifle barrel, and made a mud pool -that was old, as old as Major Herbert Hesketh-Prichard.

Somewhere, out there, was the sniper sent to kill him. *** The water dribbled into the ground. Little rivulets ran from the point where he poured and disappeared. Then he tipped the last of the water from the bottle into the palm of his hand and let the dog drink from it.

Major Aziz lay in a scrape in the dirt and readied himself. The letter with his wife’s name on the envelope was against his heart, but she was nowhere in his thoughts -obliterated, along with his children.

The position he had taken was forward of the crossroads and a full 500 metres to the right flank of the route he reckoned they would use when they attacked. The first skirmish had begun. In front of him was the crisscross of the machine-guns’ tracers, and the blast of mortars.

When they made the encirclement, the tanks would be like a crude fishing-net that scooped up the majority of a catch but which let part of the shoal slip away. His target -he had agreed to it – was the witch. She would be at the forefront of the charge on the trenches and bunkers at the crossroads. He estimated she would pause to regroup her strike force at a distance of around 300 metres from the wire perimeter of the brigade positions. She would have her men around her, would be close to the roadway, and she was his target.

They would not charge against the wire unless she was there to goad them, urge them onwards.

He saw the first men in the advance. The sun beat on his back and he felt the rhythmic pant of the dog’s breathing against his thigh. He wished he had more water for the dog, but the wetted ground under his rifle barrel was more important. A hundred metres ahead of him, on a branch, he had placed a torn-off length from the cotton scarf knotted around his head to prevent sweat running to his eyes. It hung limply and there was no need to make adjustments for wind deflection. The bullet was in the breech, the rifle armed, and his finger was beside the trigger guard.

He looked for the witch and waited.

‘I am about to fight a battle.’ The general spoke with frayed anger. ‘What will handicap my fighting ability is distraction. What I tell you, you will find no treachery with me or the men who serve under me.’

‘It was never suggested.’

‘You will find only loyalty and dedication to the President.’

‘Treachery is a plague.’

‘There is no sickness with me or the men serving under me.’

He had been called from his room. He had been told that officers of the Estikhabarat had arrived in the night from Baghdad. He had been informed that his armoured brigade commander was under close arrest. With four subordinate officers, each carrying loaded side arms, he had marched to the briefing room. He had lectured the officers. He had stood at his full height in front of them. ‘We fight for our President. We go to battle in the name of the Ba’ath Party. We protect the integrity of the Republic of Iraq.’ He had spat on the floor then drawn his pistol and fired a single shot into the spittle. While the smell of the cordite hung in the air, he had said, ‘If any of you wish to follow the traitor then I will first spit in your eye then shoot it out. Are there any who wish to proclaim their loyalty?’ There had been an answering shout, at first hesitant, then raucous: ‘We fight for our President, our Party, our beloved Republic.’ He had briefed them, dismissed them.

‘Allow me to explain the tactical plan.’

‘It is right that you should do so.’

‘There are no traitors here,’ the general said defiantly. He would have said that the brigadier, the Boot, the man with big feet, was his friend. He did not know whether his protestations of loyalty were believed. ‘Traitors should be shot.’

‘Of course. The plan?’

Some would have stayed with his friend, and with the fists and the clubs; only the most senior would have come to the command bunker. The most senior would have no trust for him.

He pointed to the map. ‘I have a holding force, a battalion, in brigade base at the crossroads. Their task is to delay the advance of the woman and her people. We seek to persuade them that the position is weakly defended, to give them encouragement to mass and cross open ground. I send an armoured column forward, to encircle and to destroy.

The rabble will be in the open, without cover. They will be destroyed by the tanks.’

‘How many tanks?’

‘Six.’

‘Why six? Why not twenty-six, or forty-eight?’

‘Six tanks because that is the number that are in working order, plus a reserve of nine, plus seven more that have faults but are nearly serviceable, out of forty-eight. There are forty-eight on the parade ground for inspection – but there are six tanks plus the reserve that are fully operational. Check for yourself.’

The calm voice asked, ‘How would you recognize that the contagion of treachery runs deeper than you now believe?’

‘If we do not encircle them, crush them, that would be evidence of treachery… Do I have permission to issue orders, to make the killing zone?’

The man from the Estikhabarat smiled, and nodded.

The life of the general, and he recognized it, hung on the capability of six tanks of the T-72 class, with nine more in reserve, to encircle and destroy a force of peasant tribesmen caught in open ground. He gave the order.

Gus heard the guttural thunder from down the road, towards the ever-burning flame.

It was like Stickledown Range on a perfect day, clear vision, no wind.

The thunder began as a murmur, and grew.

On a perfect day at Stickledown the sun never shone so brightly that the target was distorted in a mirage, the rain never lashed, the gales never blew.

The murmur was a rumble.

The perfect day was a mindset. The champion isolated himself in a bubble cocoon.

When he shot well, at the limit of his powers, Gus never sweated, was never wet or cold.

The rumble was a roar.

For that perfect day, he was not tired, not hungry, not cold, not frightened. He went through the routine, as he would have done on any of the perfect days at Stickledown Range when he fired at the V-Bull to win a silver spoon. His breathing was good, relaxed. His eyes were clear focused, not blinking. His body was loose, the muscles not tensed. The rifle was firmly against his shoulder.

The roar was the thrash of a club on a drum.

In the aim of the rifle, through the telescopic sight, was a goatherd, a mere boy. The boy ran around the goats and seemed not to know what he should do as the animals milled on the raised road in the path of the advancing tanks. Joe Denton had told him that a T-72 tank weighed 38 tons and had a maximum road speed of 39 m.p.h., and the boy with his goats was on the road and in their path. They might slow, they might shoot, they might drive straight through and over the goatherd and his animals. The boy seemed, in panic, to run round and round the goats as if he did not know how to drive them off the road. Gus thought the boy was quality. He took his eye from the ’scope and looked back along the road.

They were bunched close, a sea of dust around them. The clanking of the tracks pierced his ears. They were squat, low profile, painted in a dirty sand yellow, and the main armament barrels protruded out ahead of them. In each of them, he counted six, a man stood in the turret. They were bellowing leviathans, closing on the boy and his goats, as he ran round and round the frightened flock. The soldier in the turret of the lead tank waved, gestured for the boy to jump clear.

He settled again with the rifle. They were not going to slow for the boy and his animals, they would crush them. Gus neither hated his enemy nor felt any remorse at what he planned. His mind was clear, as on any perfect shooting day. The lead tank appeared in the edge of the circle of his ’scope. In the sight’s centre, at the T-junction of the reticule lines, was the boy and his goats.

The boy fled, the goats scattered. The boy dived down the incline and into the ditch.

Gus could see the tops of two of Joe Denton’s mines that had been obscured behind the goats.

The lead tank, its engine thundering, squirmed on the narrow elevated road to avoid the TM-46s that were Joe Denton’s gift, but there was nowhere for the driver to go. Gus saw a thunderflash of light, then smoke and the climbing debris of a tank track, and heard the scream of its brakes. The lead tank lurched across the width of the road, stabilized and stopped.

The second tank rumbled into the lead tank. To Gus, the leviathans seemed to couple.

He had his target.

At the intersection of the ’scope sight’s lines was the head and chest of the machine-gunner, reeling from the impact. The second tank’s tracks were climbing as if to straddle the lead tank’s body, and the gunner clung to the edge of the hatch for support.

Gus did not hear the noise. On Stickledown Range, he never heard the noise of voices and other rifles’ reports. He fired the shot and, as the bullet reached the target, jerked it up, he was sliding the bolt action back, ejecting and aiming again.

In a lithe loose movement, Omar climbed out of the ditch, scrambled up the incline and jumped. He cleared the spinning wheels of the tracks of the second tank and stumbled onto the superstructure of the brute. He reached at his belt; his arm seemed to rise as if in a gesture of triumph, and something small dropped from his hand into the cavity of the hatch through which the machine-gunner had slumped. Gus had no image in his mind of a hand grenade bumping with a death rattle to the iron floor of the darkened hulk then rolling to a stop beside or under the buried seats of the driver and the main armament gunner; did not consider that moment of terror in the cavern as the brief seconds of the grenade’s fuse frittered away.

His aim was on the third tank.

It was predictable. He did not see the little puff of grey smoke that followed the explosion in the second tank’s bowels, nor the first licks of flame from the body of the lead tank; nor did he see the boy leap down and run to the ditch.

The third tank had stopped, then – coughing diesel fumes – swung in a crabbing gait towards the safety of the incline. It was a frantic thrashing creature seeking its escape down the incline. Through the ’scope, Gus saw the sheets of newspaper and the scattered shreds of the plastic bags hanging from the wire and the old fence post. The wind had not risen. He had no need to alter the windage turret.

Gus had never, in his shooting life, attempted anything so difficult.

The beast yawed on the rim of the incline. Below the turret, in the shadow of the flange that fastened the gun to it, was a strip of bright glass. The ’scope showed him every rivet in the metal around the glass and the smears across it. The glass was wider than a man’s forehead and as deep as the forehead of a bald man. He breathed, sucked in the air, let it slip, held it, then fired. He had a good, sharp view because there was no dust thrown up from the mud earth under the tip of his barrel. The tank lurched over the incline… It was a moment of Gus’s childhood. Like a small boy’s birthday party. Short trousers, grey ankle socks, school sweaters, and the birthday game of Blind Man’s Buff… The tank was blind. Perhaps the armour-piercing bullet had hit the side flange of the driver’s vision aperture and frosted it; perhaps the bullet had driven through the glass and was a small molten core of lead flying without control around the the interior of the tank and through the bodies of the driver, the gunner and the commander; perhaps the driver’s face was lacerated by a mist of glass fragments… Little children, blindfolded, groped for each other, tried to find each other, and did not know where they were… It was the greatest shot that Gus Peake had ever attempted. The tank engine cut. Below the incline, the beast was blinded. He did not think of the dark horror that little children felt when they were blindfolded, or in the interior of the beast of the three men who were sightless.

He watched the fourth tank. It was as Joe Denton had said it would be. The tracks screwed across the road then dipped down the incline into a dense duststorm. There were new spurts of dust and thick black smoke as the tracks lumbered across the ground where the mines were laid. The beast was crippled.

They would be screaming now, Joe Denton had said, into their radios. They were halted, bunched and hurt. Some no longer had the power to manoeuvre, some had lost the power to see. With the best shooting of his life, Gus had made a hell for them and there was no-one to cheer him as there would have been on a perfect day on Stickledown Range.

He fired at the join of the open turret hatch of the fourth tank and the impact rocked the metal flap and tilted it down. The machine-gun on the sixth tank was rotating fast towards him. Joe Denton had said that the machine-gun beside the turret could be fired from inside the hulk. It was his perfect day. He hit the machine-gun itself, the box holding the ammunition beside the breech, and watched the spray of the tracers igniting.

Omar rose out of the ditch. The boy carried the last of the anti-tank mines that had not been buried beside the road. Omar ran beside the tracks of the fourth and fifth tanks in the line, under the jutting main armament barrels that swirled round towards the source of their prickling pain and past them. The sixth tank had started to reverse. The boy ran along its length. The two big guns fired, dreadnoughts marooned in shallows, and the shells howled far beyond him. The boy was behind the sixth tank as it slewed back towards him, then Gus saw him falling and rolling back down the incline and his hands were empty. The rear tank detonated the mine. The broken track rose in the air and fell into the black cloud.

Joe Denton had said it could be done.

On the far side of the road the incline was too steep. At the front and the rear the road was blocked by the hulks. On the near side of the road, down the incline, were the mines.

The trap was sprung.

The tanks put up smoke. Little canisters flew in the air, arched, fell back and burst. A wall of smoke protected them. He did not consider the panic of the men immured in the hulks. He wondered if – in that autumn fog he had known so well in Hampshire as a child, blinding and constricting – Omar crawled over the superstructures of the beasts and looked for cavities into which to squeeze grenades.

Gus had fired the greatest shot of his life and there was no applause and he didn’t care.

When he saw her first she was beyond the Dragunov’s range.

She was in the ’scope, but at that distance he would not have had a better than fifty-fifty chance of a hit. He always told the recruits at the Baghdad Military College whom he’d taught to snipe that a prime virtue was patience, and a prime defect was to shoot too early and give away position.

She was smaller than he remembered her. She was with a group of men and her head bobbed between their shoulders. The group was close to the road, dragging the wheeled heavy machine-gun. There was a girlish twist in her hair that fanned out behind her when she ran then fell back on to her narrow shoulders.

The dog shifted suddenly beside his leg. He turned, annoyed, and saw the fly settle on the dog’s nostrils, then dance away. He swatted at it.

She was slight, but still able to reach up towards a big brute of a man, heavy and bearded, and push him forward. She ran. There was heavy firing from the crossroads, but she was charmed. The group followed her, caught up with her and crouched, then she ran again. Major Karim Aziz, a veteran of combat, understood. Without her the men would hunker down in cover and ditches and fire wildly in the air, but not expose themselves.

She shamed them. Who could hide when a girl, a woman even, exposed herself and ran forward? Steadily, as she went forward, Aziz tracked her through the ’scope. When, in his slow track, the sight reached the length of cotton scarf then he would have a shot with a 95 per cent probability of success. He had no doubt that his patience would be rewarded

– the shot, fatal or incapacitating, would be sufficient to halt the advance.

The sniper was not with her and that was a niggling irritation to him. Sometimes he strained to hear crack and thump, but the rage of gunfire was too great for him to identify the sniper. He was comfortable, almost tranquil – except when the bastard fly was at the dog’s face and the animal squirmed. He checked his wristwatch. In ten minutes the T-72 tanks would reach the battleground, turn it into a killing zone. He had time enough.

Within ten minutes the woman would have reached the line that ran from the barrel of the Dragunov, past a length of cotton material hooked to a discarded branch, to the ditch beside the road.

She was closer to the line, with youth, almost a prettiness, about her face. With short, darting sprints, she was edging nearer to the line he had made. There were more men around her now and more often she was hidden behind them. If a mortar fell close to the group, if the shrapnel splayed, he would be cheated… The dog shifted and he flicked his trigger hand over its head.

There was an older man, limping, who caught the forward group. He watched the argument between the woman and the man. Maybe he told her that she should be further back, that she was too precious to be so far forward; maybe she replied that she alone could lead the rabble to the crossroads. He smiled to himself, mirthlessly. He knew the older man would lose whatever argument was played between them. She was approaching the line, but not yet at it, and he waited.

He had waited ten days, fifteen years before, in the front-line rubble of the Iranian city, Susangerd, had watched for the mullah who galvanized the defence of the town. A big man, in a black robe and always wearing a flak jacket, a dark, tangled beard below horn-rimmed spectacles and a paint-scraped helmet, who had evaded him for ten full days. On the eleventh day he had shot the mullah; by the evening of the eleventh day the greater part of the town had fallen. He had not fired a single shot before killing the mullah; but that one shot had achieved more than a thousand artillery rounds. If he could wait ten days, he could wait ten minutes.

She was up, running.

The men scrambled after her. He saw some go down – he prayed he would not be cheated – he saw one slide backwards from the heavy machine-gun but another took his place. She ran with a loose freedom and the men scurried after her. She dived forward. It would be the last resting-point before the final surge towards the wire and the bunkers.

He could hear above the gunfire blast the roar of shouting men. He heard one word, yelled again and again over the force of the bullets’ splatter, ‘Meda… Meda… Meda

…’ They came in a swarm behind her.

Through the ’scope, Aziz saw the length of cotton scarf he had hooked to the fallen branch. For a moment, his eye came away from the sight and his glance rested on the parched, cracked ground under the rifle barrel. He should not have given any water to the dog. All of his water should have been poured on to the ground under the tip of the barrel

… He was aiming… The dog moved again.

He had her upper chest in the crosshairs of the sight. Once more a fly danced over the nostrils of his dog.

He had the unfastened second button of her shirt as his target. The fly crawled over the nostrils of his dog.

He breathed deeply, began to exhale, then caught his breath at its fall point, and started the steady slow squeeze of the trigger. He was rock steady, and squeezing. The dog snorted and jumped and careered against his leg. He fired.

Because he had shared the water there was a dirty dust puff under the barrel tip, and he could not see the travelling flight of the bullet. He did not know whether it would go high or low or wide, but he knew in that moment that he had missed her.

He wrenched back the bolt, and tried to settle to fire again. He did not curse the dog.

The head of a man three feet from her, to the left and above her, split apart. There was violent movement. Men fell over her body, but the older man, a veteran like himself, had binoculars up to his eyes. He knew the older man was a veteran because the man’s arm waved immediately, pointed to the puff of dust, identifying his position.

The bullets of the heavy machine-gun, with tracer, surged towards the shallow trench in which he lay. He did not swear at the dog or hit it, but instead pulled it under his body.

The bullets, 12.7 calibre, beat around him, spattered up the dirt and stones over him. The ground around him seemed to explode. He closed his eyes. He thought of his letter. He was deafened by the onslaught. Aziz had never before fired at a target to kill, and missed.

He pressed himself down into the ground, as if to bury himself, and felt the throbbing beat of the dog’s heart against him, and he wondered if the letter would be retrieved and delivered.

When he looked again, through the ’scope, a torrent of men was running through the line. He could not see the woman, the witch, but he heard the shout of her name.

‘Is that what you’re telling me?’

Caspar Reinholtz had been called from the USAF wing of the base at Incerlik. He had been with the intelligence and photo recce officers, plotting the flight paths for the following day. The signals were coming in from State and Defence, and the maps were out that covered the road between Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu, and then the main highway south to Baghdad. Rusty had found him, come panting to the door of the deep bunker where the big computers were, and the hushed voices, and the pools of bright light. Rusty had said that the Israeli was on a secure link.

Cohen yelled at him down the link, ‘That’s what I’m getting off the traffic, Caspar.’

Reinholtz repeated the brigadier’s name, spelled it letter by letter, twice, and the name of the armoured unit at Fifth Army that he had commanded… He had run as fast as he could back to the Agency’s compound in the young athletic tyro’s wake. A Brit commander had once told him that officers should never be seen to run. He had panted past the reinforced hangars where the attack aircraft were being armed and fuelled to enforce no-fly and no-drive zones. A promise had been given: no Iraqi aircraft would be permitted to fly against the brigadier’s column when it headed down the road to Tuz Khurmatu; no Iraqi armour would be permitted to drive on an interception course against that column. He had staggered breathlessly into his office, and waved the kid away, told him to go find Bill.

Cohen told it simply, ‘It’s what the traffic says. The first signal was in the night – al-Rashid to the local hoods of the Estikhabarat – four senior men flying to Kirkuk, and the brigadier to be under no-show surveillance. The second signal was Estikhabarat in Kirkuk to al-Rashid, the guy was in the bag and the evidence was stacking up. You talked about a “big play”, Caspar…’

‘I did.’

‘I thought your “big play” might be affected.’

‘Your kindness overwhelms me, Isaac.’

‘Do you wish you didn’t know?’

‘I’d like not to believe it.’

Bill was in the room. He gestured for him to sit. He felt it like a pain that was personal.

The voice was soft in his ear. ‘Hey, Caspar, if your “big play” is affected, please, this is serious, please do not include a source when you get down to sending signals.’

‘I hear you. Maybe, some day, I can return the gift of some really fucking bad news to you, Isaac. Don’t misunderstand me, I am grateful, but I feel like I’ve been hit with a baseball bat.’

‘If it’s still relevant, the ground force is hitting the brigade at the crossroads out of Kirkuk and going well. They’ve destroyed tanks. Your friend, the sniper…’

‘Not relevant.’

‘Keep smiling, Caspar.’

‘Have a happy day, Isaac.’

He heard the static. He laid down the secure telephone. Bill sat quietly in front of him, would have heard what he said and would be allowing him time to collect himself. He stared down at his desk. Promises had been made, and with the promises had been the expenditure of millions, goddam millions of dollars – for nothing. The bastard, the Boss for Life, laughed. The Boss for Life might just have heard of Caspar Reinholtz, might have been told of Caspar Reinholtz by the low-life of the Special Security Service or the General Intelligence Directorate or the Military Intelligence Service, might have known enough of him to make the laughter personal.

He lifted his head. ‘Where were you, late summer of ’96?’

‘Kicking my heels, Rome.’

‘I was in Arbil.’

‘I know that, Caspar – Arbil, when it was bad.’

‘When we made promises, spent the money, recruited like we were here for ever, and ran.’

‘You still carrying scars?’

‘Till the day I die. We ran from House 23-7, Ain Kawa Street, in Arbil. We ran so fast, with our pants down, that we left behind the computers and the sat-phones and the files.

Can you imagine that?’

‘It doesn’t help, Caspar, to dredge what can’t be changed.’

‘For four years we’d recruited, been the flash guys in town. We’d been free with the high and mighty talk – we were believed.’

‘It’s the past.’

‘We left people behind to be butchered. We made it easy for the butchers. They could tap into our computers, decode the sat-phones to learn who we talked to, read the files.

Good people, brave people, bought the bullshit we gave them, and their reward was that we left their names for the butchers… We gave it a couple of years, let the weeds grow on the graves, and came again with promises.’

‘Is it that bad?’

‘It’s the time to be digging more graves.’

‘The Boot?’

‘Arrested, poor bastard.’

‘That’s kind of unfortunate.’

‘Yes… Get me Langley, probably better if I have a speech rather than a text link…

There were three strands. Two strands might carry the weight. I only have one strand of thread left.’

He would talk to Langley. Langley would talk to State and Defence. Defence would stand down the attack aircraft, order the bombs and missiles unloaded, the fuel siphoned out. He would talk to Langley, then get the message to the young woman, a true goddam heroine, that it was over and she should get back where she belonged, to her home in the mountains. It was over.

It was not a sophisticated interrogation. No attempt was made to win the man, no bogus offers of clemency were offered.

They beat the brigadier, the Boot, near senseless, and when he drifted into unconsciousness, they threw buckets of fetid water over him. Then they beat him again.

There was no gag in the brigadier’s mouth as he sat pinioned to the heavy chair, but he never answered their questions, or screamed, or begged.

The senior man from the Estikhabarat stood in the doorway of the command bunker as the general gave his final orders.

He instructed that the reserve force of nine T-72 tanks was to move north from Kirkuk, within a screen of personnel carriers, to recover the initial armoured force that had been deployed. A defensive line was then to be made south of the bridge. The brigade position at the crossroads was to be abandoned and the troops there should withdraw as best they were able. Concentrated artillery fire was to be put down on the road north of the crossroads to hamper the enemy’s reinforcement.

It was little, and it was late.

The general believed that his career of distinction had been broken by a sniper who had outwitted him. By his own words he had given a definition of the evidence of treachery

… His orders were broadcast on the radios linking the units.

The senior man from the Estikhabarat beckoned to him. There would be more of them in the corridor outside the bunker, and more on the steps.

Rather casually, so as not to create alarm among the staff officers round him, he dropped his hand to his holster, drew his service pistol, held it for a moment beside his trouser leg, then pulled it up, poked the barrel into his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.

They were at a road block.

‘All my fucking life, from the first fucking war I went to, to the fucking last, I am fucking blocked by ignorant, fucking illiterate peasants,’ Mike said.

‘What’s killing me is that the goddam money is in that fucker’s pocket,’ Dean said.

They sat on the road beside the wheels of the Mercedes. The Russian had left them.

He’d flashed greenbacks, their bloody greenbacks, he’d been allowed through the block after he’d paid off the thugs there. He’d hitched a ride on a jeep mounted with a machinegun, and no doubt lost a few more of their bloody greenbacks. He was long gone up the road.

‘To be so near to a story and not to be able to touch it, that is very, very painful,’

Gretchen said.

‘Is there anything more fucking depressing than being stopped at a fucking road block, with the fucking story in sight?’

‘When your wallet’s empty, no.’

‘But, there again, no story is worth being killed for.’

There was a distant thud of artillery fire and a long way ahead were palls of hanging smoke. The men at the block grinned venomously and repeated that it was too dangerous for honoured visitors to go up the road. They were into the third hour at the road block, and the second hour after the Russian had left them.

‘Do they know who we fucking are?’

‘Perhaps the fat crook only told them who we used to be.’

‘We are nobody, we represent people who do not care.’

Each of them, caught the wrong side of the road block, knew what they were missing.

They could hear it and, with it, fifteen thousand dollars burning up.

‘I bet nobody’s told the bitch that she could be leading tomorrow night’s news.’

Mike and Dean and Gretchen smoked, chewed gum, ate melting chocolate, did nothing, waited.

The sun was not yet at its zenith, but it was already the end of a perfect day.

Gus and Omar watched the line of tanks and armoured cars fan out beside the road.

They were among the great glacial smoothed rocks of the riverbed. He could have fired again but he had long learned on Stickledown Range that a perfect day could not be repeated so soon. With the tanks and armoured cars, toys in the distance, were cranes to drag clear the disabled T-72s… He imagined the spitting anger of the unit’s commander when he found the handkerchief scale of the minefield, and the slightness of the mantrap.

He wondered also when he would next see Joe Denton – if ever – to talk him through it, and thank him. Away to his right, a straggling column of soldiers crossed the bridge.

As he crawled up from the river and started to walk away towards the crossroads, the shivering began in Gus’s body. He lurched and might have fallen, but the boy caught him, supported him.

When the shooting had died, and the anguish of trying to protect her, Haquim took some men and went to search.

There was little for him to find.

He stood beside the discarded marker, the scrap of cloth draped over the branch. If he had looked for it in the battle, from the ditch beside the road, he would not have seen it. If he had seen it he would have thought it had been blown there on the wind. It was a short link with death, her death.

His knee hurt fiercely, but he strode on briskly away from the road and from the hanging cloth.

The single discarded cartridge case caught his eye when he was almost upon it. It was a shorter link with death, Meda’s death. Behind it was a shallow depression in the ground in which a man’s body could just have been concealed. In front of it was a plate-sized piece of cracked earth with a small gouge in the centre of it. It was a new form of warfare for him. Her life, all their lives, hung on a scrap of cloth that he had not seen, and the amount of water poured onto the ground under a barrel tip.

There was nothing more to find. Haquim left the watered ground, the cartridge case and the strip of cloth behind him – and reflected that one sniper had lost a battle, and another sniper had won it.

Willet woke.

The dream had been a nightmare. He was sweating. The last moments of his sleep, while the nightmare was rampant, had pitched and tossed him in the bed… He was the sniper, lying in a shallow ditch covered with sacking and earth. He was deafened by the clanking rumble of the approaching tanks. He was screaming for help from his mother and from Tricia as the crushing tracks came closer. He was trying to crawl from the ditch, under the great shadow of the tank. He was pulped, mashed, by the tracks, and his mother did not answer his screams; neither did Tricia.

He sat on the bed, shook, then staggered to the small bathroom and flushed cold water over his face.

He turned on the radio to find that statistics were running riot: home owners’ mortgage rates were being lowered by a half of 1 per cent; waiting lists for hip-replacement operations were up by 3.25 per cent; truancy in a school serving a sink estate in the northeast had risen by 5 per cent; travel companies reported that bookings by retired

‘greys’ going after spring sunshine in the Mediterranean had increased from the previous year by 9 per cent; the government’s popularity had dipped by 1 per cent… Life was about fucking percentage points. Life was about money in the pocket, non-critical illness, loutish kids, holiday breaks, and the rulers’ ratings. It was not about Mr Augustus Henderson Peake or his rifle in combat against tanks. Money, ailments, kids, holidays, politics were the spider’s web that constricted Ken Willet’s life, and the lives of everyone he knew.

He went back to his computer. He felt a deep resentment for Peake, the transport manager who had broken free of the web. He could not have done what Peake had, gone into combat. His innermost thought, which he would not share: the survival of Peake would belittle him, the professional soldier.

He typed briskly.

MILITARY TRAINING: This interview, however, failed to provide evidence of the necessary expertise in utilizing to the full the AWM’s capability. I can imagine situations where AHP will gain short-term successes. Without the necessary training, I would believe it unlikely that AHP can influence any important combat situation. Excitement, battlefield adrenaline, commitment are insufficient substitutes for extensive training under the guidance of experts.

I continue to rate medium-term survival chances as slim to nonexistent.

Willet shut down the machine.

He pulled his road atlas off the shelf and looked for the best route to south Devon.

Chapter Twelve

‘Do you know that you stink? I hear that you are a tank killer.’ The Russian stood over him.

Gus lay on the sandy ground, his head on his rucksack, propped against a jeep’s wheel.

The boy was sitting cross-legged beside him. The jeep was a few paces inside the wide circle of men. Some squatted, some crouched, some stood, and they held their weapons and watched. In the centre of the circle with Meda, with the maps, were agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim. The great ring around them listened in silence to the bickering between the warlords, and the interventions of Meda as she stabbed her finger at the maps. Each time the Russian spoke there were concerted grunts and hisses from the peshmerga nearest to him, protests at his voice, but he ignored them.

‘I hear that you and the boy stopped an armour column, but you still stink. You should get yourself a bath or a shower and some soap. You smell like a carcass out on the steppe, in summer, a rotten carcass… She is saying she will take them into Kirkuk tomorrow, and they are arguing about whose fighters should lead the attack. They are shit.’

The shells still whined overhead and hit the road to the north. Gus could not, for the life of him, understand why the order was not given to target the crossroads. He thought that three thousand men made the circle, and she was in the middle of it with agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim. One salvo would be enough. Agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim had come in separate convoys, had run the gauntlet down the road, with escorts of jeeps and pickups. He watched the body language. If one agreed, the other disputed it. Sometimes she threw up her arms and sometimes, to their faces, she cursed them.

Rybinsky said, ‘She is saying that she will take them into the headquarters of Fifth Army tomorrow, and they are arguing about whose foot should be first through the gate.

That’s the sort of shits they are.’

The two aghas sat on metal-framed deckchairs. She was between them, on her knees, with the maps held down by stones. Gus watched them, animated in distrust or sulking.

‘You know what she said? She said she’d tie Bekir’s left foot to Ibrahim’s right foot, and they would go into Fifth Army together – then she’d tie Bekir’s right foot to Ibrahim’s left foot, and they’ll go into the governor’s offices. Look at the hatred behind the smiles, because she’s leading them where they cannot lead themselves. And she’s a woman, that is very painful for them – on that they are united, the one thing. And they have a very great fear of Baghdad, but if they get to Kirkuk they will be famous in Kurdish history. They want to believe her, but still they have the fear.’

She had ripped the bandanna from her forehead, and her hair hung loose. She gripped their ankles, above their smart polished footwear. With a decisive movement she tied her bandanna around one’s left leg and the other’s right. She stood. She held out her arms as if to demonstrate to the circle the unity of their commanders. Above the whistle of the shells and the rumble of the detonation, there was a creeping growl of approval.

‘It is always the same with army commanders, the jealousy. I know, I was in the army.

I was in Germany, in Minsk, I was in Afghanistan – always commanders of men have an envy. Then I transferred to Strategic Nuclear Forces. I was at Krasnie Sosenki guarding the SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles – perhaps one was targeted on where you lived, worked. The only thing good about Krasnie Sosenki was that it was not Chechnya.

I left, I walked out six years ago. I had not been paid for eight months, so I went my own way, into import-export.’

Gus saw Haquim on the far side of the circle. There was a great sadness in Haquim’s eyes. He was squatted down and his hand cupped his ear so that he could hear better. If he survived, came through, he would tell his grandfather about Haquim and about a boy who climbed onto the hulks of tanks. There would be much to tell his grandfather, but import and bloody export would not be a part of it.

‘In import-export in Kurdistan, I have no competitors. I have the market. That is why I am here. For me there is a big opportunity. These are a very unsophisticated people: for a percentage they will sign anything. Around the Kirkuk oil fields there is chrome, copper, iron, coal. I will get the licence to exploit the wealth of Kirkuk – an honourable financial agreement, of course. Then I can retire…’

She was back on her knees, very close to them and their tied ankles. He watched the softness of the movement of her hands and the persuasion in her eyes. He could not look away from her, and neither could the tied men. He knew it, he would follow her where she led.

‘Do you know Cannes? Do you know the South of France? I would like a little apartment over the harbour, with a view of the sea, when I retire. I have never been there but I have seen the postcards. I think an apartment over the harbour in Cannes is very expensive. Are you a rich man, tank killer?’

There was a bank account that had been emptied, and a job that he had walked out of.

Three days before, or it might have been five – because those days now slipped by unnoticed, merged with each other, and he no longer knew the day of the week or the date – the mortgage payment would have been triggered, and would not have been paid.

Perhaps Meg used her key, came in, sorted his post on the mat and made a pile of the brown envelopes, but her teaching salary was not enough to meet the gas, electricity, tax and water. In terms of the life he had turned his back on, he was as destitute as the men who crowded shop doorways, when the light fell and the businesses closed in Guildford’s high street, with blankets and carton boxes. He had nothing but his rifle, the kit in the rucksack under his head, and his love.

‘What do they pay you for killing tanks? Five thousand a week, dollars? No, that is not enough – ten thousand a week? Will you have a bonus for reaching Kirkuk? What’s the package, fifty thousand?’

It would not have happened unless she had done it. She took agha Bekir’s hand and agha Ibrahim’s hand. She held their two hands up high, so that each man was jerked off his chair and the handkerchief and the umbrella they held were dropped. Slowly, so that every man in the circle could see it, she brought their hands together, and the fingers clasped. The great circle bayed their names. It was a moment of power. The men kissed

… Gus thought that the next day he would stand in Kirkuk.

‘She is fantastic. She is incredible. I think she is a virgin. I, myself, would trade in all that package, fifty thousand dollars, to take away that virginity. Would you? I tell you, tank killer, if you want to trade in the package then you should first find a bath or a shower, and some soap. I wish it were me – I think I have to be satisfied with the licences to exploit the chrome at Kirkuk, and the copper, iron and coal.’

Gus closed his eyes. If he had not shut his eyes, lost sight of the Russian’s leering face, he would have hit him.

‘I suppose I’ve been expecting you – someone like you and like the lady.’

The sergeant sat on a camping stool. The rain drove in from the west and the sea. The slope of the Common ran away and up in front of him. His binoculars were up to his eyes, never left them, as he scanned the gorse, dead bracken and heather.

‘I was expecting to meet you. That’s why I asked for you by name,’ Willet said.

It had been a dreadful drive down from London. Two coned-off roadworks on the motorway and the start of the Easter holiday had snarled the traffic. He and Ms Manning hadn’t talked much, and mostly he’d relied on the radio for company. When they had finally turned off the road south of Exeter and reached the guarded main gate of the Commando Training College – Royal Marines, they’d been eighty minutes late for their appointment. A pleasant-faced major had met them, given them coffee, accepted Ms Manning’s grudging apology, then shaken his head in puzzlement and said, without equivocation, that he’d never heard of Augustus Henderson Peake – and, anyway, it was quite impossible for a civilian to receive the advanced sniper training conducted by the Lympstone base. Ms Manning had sworn, and Willet had proffered a name.

‘Does this drop me in the shit?’

‘I wouldn’t have thought so, Mr Billings, I wouldn’t have thought there’s any call for that.’

The major had driven them out to the Common. The rain came from low cloud that settled on the ridge a thousand yards or so from where Sergeant Billings sat. There was little to see and Ms Manning stood back, with the major, and had opened a brightly floral umbrella. Willet crouched beside the sergeant and watched the observers, who stood like old fence posts in the dead foliage on the slope and waited for Sergeant Billings to direct them. Willet had seen no movement, and he’d been passed a pair of binoculars, until the sudden murmur of Billings’ voice into a pocket radio sent the left-side observer tracking fast into a clump of flattened ochre bracken. The weird shape of a man in a gillie suit, covered with bracken sprigs and heather, emerged from under the observer’s feet.

‘Wrong mix of camouflage – he rushed it,’ Billings mouthed. ‘Too much bracken when he was in the heather, too much heather in the bracken. Shouldn’t have used bracken until he was out of the heather. He’s failed. Actually, he’s lucky. If he’d been in the field and I’d been the counter-sniper, he’d be dead.’

‘How long was Peake here?’

‘Three days.’

‘Is that long enough?’

‘It was all the time Gus had. Yes, it was long enough.’

‘Doesn’t seem long.’

The failed sniper, who would be dead if he had been in the field, tramped miserably towards them.

‘That jerk’s been here a month, great on the written stuff, useless on the practical. It depends where you’re coming from. Gus was coming from the right direction, Gus had my dad to teach him, like he taught me. Dad understood ground, understood the animals he stalked…’

‘I was told he was a poacher, your father.’

‘What the landowners called him, and the magistrates. Dad could have got up close enough to undo your bootlaces. He told me he was going to northern Iraq. It was about his grandfather, he said. I remember his grandfather, a good old boy, but Gus’s father was crap. He said my dad was a bad influence – but at least my dad might just keep him alive

…’

There was another murmur into the radio and the right-side observer plunged off into a low gorse thicket and identified the target, spotted through the sergeant’s binoculars at 624 yards. Again Willet had seen nothing.

‘What was his mistake?’

‘He’s got hessian net over the lens of his ’scope. He let the net get snagged in the gorse. I saw the lens.’

‘So, he’s dead.’

‘Failed or dead, take your pick. I spotted Gus morning and afternoon the first day, morning and afternoon the second day, morning on the third day, and each time he was closer to me. The third afternoon, I didn’t get him. What I can say to you, Mr Willet, it would take a real class counter-sniper, as good as me, to bust Gus.’

‘Why did you help him? You put your career on the line, your pension with it. You were in flagrant abuse of Queen’s Regulations. Why?’

For the first time, the sergeant’s eyes flicked away from his binoculars. He had a strong, weathered face and piercingly clear eyes. ‘It was owed him, because of his loyalty.’ The eyes were back to the binoculars. ‘I had a debt to him because of his loyalty to Dad. You called my dad what the landowners and the magistrates called him, a poacher. A poacher is a thief in the eyes of those turds. He got sent down, my dad did.

He was locked up in Horfield – that’s the gaol at Bristol – for three months. Mum and I, we hadn’t any money, we only got to see him twice. The first time, my dad was pathetic.

They might just as well have put him down as cage him. He was a free spirit, had to have the wind on his face, had to be out in the pissing rain. I cried all the way home and Mum wasn’t much better. The second time he was brighter, changed, and he said that Gus had been to see him. My dad thought he had plenty of friends before they locked him up, but Mum and me, and Gus, were the only ones who visited him. He’d taken the day off school, told his teachers he was going home for a family funeral, but he hitched rides up to Bristol and saw my dad. All the other friends had turned their backs on him. Not Gus.

That’s loyalty. He wouldn’t run out on you. He never saw my dad again… We moved and Dad was dead within the twelvemonth. Why? To me, loyalty is important. It’s the mark of a true friend, when you’re down the back’s not turned. What’s he doing there?

Will he make it through?’

‘I don’t know.’

Behind them, the major called out that he was taking Ms Manning to the shelter of his car. Willet seemed not to feel the rain dripping off his face. There was another failure, another death, another soldier tramping disconsolately forward after his position was identified. He told the sergeant that he would make damn certain that no blame accrued to him for helping the civilian, Augustus Henderson Peake, understand the trade of killing, and surviving.

‘What else did he learn here?’

‘I took him into the library, showed him what we had on sniping and signed them out in my name. In the evenings, off camp, I got the specialist instructors to meet him. There was Sergeant Williams who’s into dogs, because dogs are big for snipers, that’s tracker dogs. Sergeant Browne is weapons maintenance, Sergeant Fenton is camouflage, Sergeant Stevens is the top man for the tactics of using the AWM Lapua Magnum against armour, communications and helicopters. Sergeant-’

‘Did you say helicopters? You mean gun-ship helicopters?’

‘It’s not a cake-walk he’s gone on, Mr Willet. That’s why I passed him on to an old friend. Whatever they throw at him, he won’t back off. It’s a powerful thing, loyalty.’

He’d sent the signals first, then steadied himself and opened the secure voice link to Langley.

Caspar Reinholtz was alone in his office. The overall picture that he would share with the disembodied voices on the link was not for Luther, Bill and Rusty to hear.

He allowed few interruptions. The inquest would come later, a commission of inquiry, but his job now was merely to put flesh on the bones of another disaster in Iraq. Beside the receiver for the link was a sat-phone he would use as soon as he had finished with the link.

While he spoke, however hard he tried to cut her from his mind, the picture of the young woman was in his thoughts.

The great circle was tighter around agha Bekir, agha Ibrahim and Meda, but held at a respectful distance.

Gus heard the warbling pulse of the sat-phone, heard it because the men in the circle were quiet as they watched the feast of celebration. The chairs had been pushed aside and a rug laid out for the dishes of lamb and rice, and spicy vegetables. He knew what they ate because the scent of the food drifted across the open space of the circle. He sat against the wheel of the jeep and the boy was crouched beside him. The sat-phone cried to be answered. They would eat later, with all the men in the circle, then be briefed, then march in the dusk towards distant Kirkuk and the flame. The persistence of the sat-phone was silenced.

Gus watched idly. He saw agha Bekir put a dripping piece of meat in his mouth, hold the receiver to his face, and chew while he listened. Gus saw the sea-change.

The face clouded. Where there had been a wary smile there was now a concentrated coldness. The lines were back on the features. The boy had seen it and seemed to squirm; the murmur of voices in the circle was stilled and quiet laughter died. Agha Ibrahim was passed the sat-phone receiver and grains of rice slid from his fingers as he took it. He too listened, his face darkening, then threw the receiver away from him. Meda scrabbled on her knees across the rug, tipping aside food bowls and pots, and snatched it up. Gus heard her furious scream, and then she too dropped it. They were all on their feet. Agha Bekir was shouting to one side of the circle, and agha Ibrahim to the other, as if some strange apartheid divided their forces, and Meda was a small, spinning, yelling shape between them, and the rumble of the voices in the circle was confusion.

Every emotion of anguish was on the boy’s features.

‘What do they say?’

The boy piped, ‘They say it is finished. Meda will not believe them… They have the courage of sheep… They say it were better that it had never begun. Meda says tomorrow she will take them to Kirkuk. They say there is no air cover, that there is no mutiny in the Iraqi tanks, as they were promised. They say they are going home.’

Meda gripped their clothes in turn. She was ferocious in her attack, and she pleaded with them, but neither would catch her eye, as if they dared not, as if they feared her reproach.

The boy said, ‘They say that if they go now it is possible the revenge of the government will not be so great. The Americans’ promises are broken, they say they will never see Kirkuk. Meda says there is a place in history for them. They are worse than sheep when wolves come.’

For a moment, she hung on to the men, but they pulled clear of her. Agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim shouted their orders at the sectors of the circle. Meda was pleading with their men.

The boy’s passion was squeezed from him. ‘They say they are taking their men with them. Meda says she will be in Kirkuk in the morning, on her own if no man will follow her.’

On each side, the circle parted to allow the departure of the chieftains. Gus sat against the wheel of the jeep and held the big rifle across his legs. He felt a sense of calm because it was still a part of his perfect day.

Great shuffling columns of men passed her. She gazed on them with contempt. Gus saw the men who had used the wheeled machine-gun abandon it and walk on. He saw those who had run to the wire with her at the Victory City, and those who had gone down the road with her towards the barricade at Tarjil. A few broke the regimen of the columns and dropped down to sit in the dirt at her feet. He saw the big cars spurt away with their escorts of pick-ups and jeeps, and clinging in the back of one of them, amongst the men with guns, was the Russian. So, the bastard turned his back on licences for chrome, copper, iron and coal – and a small bitter smile hovered at Gus’s lips. He saw Haquim go to Meda, argue with her and try to pull her away, but she pushed him from her and his weight went on to his injured leg. He slipped to the dirt, and crawled away in his humiliation. Many went and only a few were left.

‘What are you going to do, Mr Gus?’

‘You should walk, Omar, you have a life to live.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Perhaps go and find something to eat.’

‘I cannot leave you, Mr Gus.’

They hugged each other. They were the transport manager and the urchin thief, and they clung to each other, were tied to each other as tightly as the chieftains’ ankles had been.

‘I am honoured to meet the sniper who does not fire.’

‘Do you wish to hear my report, Colonel?’

The new man, flown in from Baghdad, was rake thin. His uniform was immaculately creased and the medal ribbons on his chest were a kaleidoscope of colours. Major Aziz knew his name and his face from the photographs in the newspapers. The photographs always showed him at parades standing a pace behind the President. He wore the flash on his shoulder of the brigade of Amn al-Khass, the unit of the Special Security Service tasked with the protection of the President. It was predictable that a new commander would seek to belittle the men over whom he had authority, to demonstrate his power. In his filth, tired, hungry, Aziz stood loosely, not at attention, in the command bunker, and the dog lay in the dirt from his boots.

‘How many rounds have you fired, Major Aziz, in defence of our positions?’

‘I have fired once. I missed. Sniping is not an exact art, as you will know, Colonel. Do you wish to hear my report now?’

‘Perhaps your mind was resting on your duties as a kennel-boy. Get that fucking animal out of here, then clean yourself up, then make your report.’

Aziz had come back across the dried riverbed, and rejoined the road south of the bridge near to the raised embankment where the engineers still worked under floodlights to recover the last tank, and where the sappers had cleared the last mine. He had been given a ride back to Fifth Army. Then he had been told of the fate of the brigadier, the Boot -and of the general’s suicide. As he’d walked across the open ground towards the command bunker, he’d glanced at the squat cell block, and he had thought of his family.

Where he stood, the floor of the command bunker was scrubbed clean except for the dirt from his boots, but they had not been able to remove the blood spatters from the ceiling.

‘Were you at Susangerd, Colonel?’ He spoke quietly, as if in casual conversation. ‘I do not remember seeing you at Susangerd, nor at Khorramshahr. We did not meet, I think, in Kuwait City. Were you operational in al-Anfal? I look forward to hearing of the rigours of staff work in divisional headquarters.’

He saw the flush in the colonel’s face. Officers looked away. The recklessness was like a narcotic.

‘Forgive me, Colonel, my memory played a trick with me. I have fired twice. I fired at the woman and I missed. At Tarjil I fired at the commanding officer – and did not miss -because he betrayed the soldiers under his command. He was running away. I am prepared to kill any officer, whatever his rank and whatever his position of influence, if he betrays the trust placed in him by the army and, of course, the people of Iraq. Do you want to hear my report, Colonel, or do you want me to go back to the war?’

He bent and ruffled his fingers through the hair at the nape of the dog’s neck, then he looked up at the blood on the ceiling, and the sight of the small, barred windows of the cell block hooked his mind.

‘Make your report.’

Major Karim Aziz spoke of what he had seen. From a good vantage point, with enough elevation for him to look down a slight gradient into the camp, he had settled with his telescope, and the dog had been beside him. He told of the arrival of agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim, then of their abrupt departure. He said that a large proportion of the force of the peshmerga had followed after them in general retreat, but the woman remained at the crossroads with no more than three hundred men. He predicted an attack in the morning because he could see no other reason for her to stay. He described what he had seen in a flat monotone, and where he would be in the morning. He finished, saluted, called for his dog and shambled out of the command bunker.

The brigadier, the Boot, was a proud man but it was hard to have pride when lying in the corner of a cell in the piles of his own excrement and the pools of his own urine.

Maybe they rested, maybe they had gone to Communications to talk with the al-Rashid barracks, maybe they had left him to agonize on the future facing him before death.

The pain racked his body. There would be many, now, who would have heard of his arrest, knew that he faced torture, and who shook in the fear that he would name them.

Pride was the only dignity left to him. If he broke under torture, screamed out the names, then the last of the dignity would be taken. He heard the stamp of feet in the corridor, and the slide of the bolt. In the cell’s doorway, he saw the faces of the men who would try again to steal his pride.

He watched the mustashar hobble towards him.

There had been more than three thousand men at the crossroads, and now there were fewer than three hundred. One jeep still waited, with the engine turning.

Haquim winced as he bent his knee and lowered himself to sit beside Gus.

His voice was dried gravel under tyres, and sad. ‘You should go now. You should walk with me, Mr Peake, to the jeep, and sit with me and leave. You have done what you could.’

Gus looked into the eyes without light and the mouth without laughter and could hear only the sadness.

‘You can be proud that you came and that you tried to help. You are not to blame that the force against you is too great and the force with you is too small. It is the story of the Kurdish people. No man can call you a coward…’

‘May your god ride with you, Haquim.’

‘Do you think I am a coward, Mr Peake, or do you think it is the anger because she does not listen to me? May I ask you, has she made her apology to you for being wrong about the tanks? Has she?’

‘It is not important.’

‘She believes to apologize is to show weakness. The stubbornness is a death wish. She will neither apologize to you, nor accept that a march on Kirkuk with so few is like a death wish – for her and for everyone who goes with her.’

‘I wish you well.’

‘The spell of her holds you… and you think of me as a coward. I cannot run fast enough to be with her and to shield her. I have no reason to be here, to go into Kirkuk, to die under the light of the flame. I was not always a coward.’

‘I will remember you as a good and true friend.’

‘Listen to me. It is important, if I am to live with myself, that I tell you of the days when I was not a coward. I was a junior officer of artillery. For five years I was with an artillery regiment in support of the ground forces defending the Basra road. We were safe, we had deep bunkers to go into when the Iranians shelled us, but in front of us were our infantry. There was as much barbed wire behind our forward positions, where our infantry were, as there was to the front. They were trapped there, peasant boys, and behind the barbed wire were minefields to prevent them breaking and fleeing from the attacks. Behind the minefields were security troops to round up the deserters and shoot them. They were fodder for the cannons of the Iranians. At the end of the fifth year that I served there, in the heat and with the smell of death, I went alone in an evening into the marshes to see if I could find a forward position for an artillery spotter. I found them.

They were all Kurds. They were from Arbil and Rawandiz, Dihok and Zakho, and there was one from the mountains near to my home at Birkim. I saw their terror of me. They thought I would call for security troops. My own blood, little more than boys, of my own people. I took off my badges of rank and threw them into the water. When the day ended we started out. I took them home, Mr Peake. We walked for a month, always at night.

There were eleven of these Kurdish boys, and I led them home to their mountains. We moved in darkness and hid in the days. We stole food, we avoided the road blocks. If we had been seen or captured, we would have died before firing parties or on the hangman’s rope. I brought them out of the marshes and across deserts, through fields, around cities, in the heat and in the cold. I delivered them, each of them, to their homes, to their mothers, to the mountains. I was not always as you see me now…’

‘May your god go with you and watch you.’

‘Should I tell you when I fought with the rearguard when the Iraqis came in the Operation al-Anfal – the name was taken from a sura in the Koran, the chapter that describes holy war against infidels – that name was used to legalize the murder and rape and looting of Kurds? Should I tell you how I fought to win time for the refugees in 1991, after the Coalition’s great betrayal? They will see what you have done against tanks -they will fly against you with the helicopters… I want to be with my children. I do not want to die for nothing.’

The tears streamed on Haquim’s face. Gus took his grimy handkerchief from his pocket, wiped them away and made smears on the other man’s cheeks.

The handkerchief was wet in his hand as he watched the jeep leave, watched it until it was small then gone into the mist that was thrown up at the cooling end of the day, and he thought of the helicopters.

They saw the cars speed through the road block with their escorts, then came the bigger column of lorries, pick-ups and jeeps, laden low with men.

‘What’s going on here? The fucking yellow bastards are running!’ Mike exploded.

‘Looks like the stakes have gotten too high,’ Dean whined.

‘It was madness, we should never have tried. Expensive madness!’ Gretchen cried.

The dust from the wheels of the column spattered over them. The faces of the men told a story of defeat.

‘I haven’t seen her,’ Gretchen said.

‘Probably long gone, probably gone to wash her goddam hair,’ Dean said.

‘I’ll wring her neck with my own fucking hands, if I ever get sight of her,’ Mike said.

The Russian came and spilled down from the back of an open vehicle. They swarmed around him. He shouted that it was a matter beyond his control, that the war was over, finished.

‘Where is she?’

He did not know. Maybe they cared to go and look for themselves, to walk down the road through the artillery bursts and search for her. Himself, he was leaving. He reached into his back pocket and heaved out the bulging roll of banknotes, unwound the elastic band holding the roll tight, and threw the notes high in the air for the wind to catch. He let them scrabble for them.

The cheeks and jowl of Lev Rybinsky quivered in misery. ‘Your loss is that of a distant cousin, a mere story – my loss is that of a son. I have lost the chance of gaining the licences to exploit the minerals here. If you want to go and look for her then go. I am leaving.’

When they had collected all of the money they climbed into his car and joined the tail of the long column heading north towards the mountains.

The drone was in his ears. He had his back to the road but it was bad for Joe Denton to try to work while he was distracted. Over his shoulder, on the road, was the grind of the vehicles. The minefield was more difficult to work in than he had expected. A part of the meadow had a shallow dip in it, from long years of winter rain. The soil had been pushed by the rain flow to the side, and had buried the tripwires of the V69s. The Italian ones were the most dangerous of all the mines he cleared, and particularly dangerous when the tripwires were buried. The killing range was a radius of 27 yards. When the tripwire was touched – and the tension in the buried wires gave them a hair-trigger condition – the initiator charge hurled the V69’s core vertically upwards to a height of 18 inches above the ground, then a restraining wire detonated the core, throwing out thousands of tiny metal cubes. If he fired a V69 then the helmet with the visor covering his face would be lacerated, and his protective vest would be shredded. More than any of the mines he worked on, Joe detested the V69s: too many times he had seen the child amputee who had wandered out over other meadows to pick flowers, and men and women who had gone to round up cattle herds and now limped on crutches, or to harvest apples from orchards and now wore the hideous lifeless artificial legs. Clearing the long-laid mines was not work for a man suffering distraction.

All the time the approaching drone had been in his ear he had been excavating the lie of a tripwire with a trowel and a slim metal probe. He stopped, caught his breath and watched the column on the road, then crawled back along his cleared channel between the pegs.

The lorries, pick-ups and jeeps lumbered along the narrow track. He saw the faces of many men, quiet and without passion. He stood at the side of the road, scanned those faces and looked for Gus.

At the end of the convoy was a mud-spattered Mercedes, then came Sarah’s two pickups with the bright new paint of Red Crescents on the doors and bonnets. Joe waved her down. He saw casualties on stretchers in the vans, but they were not full – and yet the army retreated.

‘What happened?’

She was tough, old Sarah, the one who liked to say she’d seen everything misery could throw at her, and she gibbered.

‘They took the crossroads. The Iraqis fell back, damn nearly gave it to them. She was wrong, she – the woman, Meda – promised there would be no tanks. It was a trap, the soldiers fell back and left the peshmerga out in the middle of a killing zone, with the tanks to do the killing. Your sniper – and your mines – together they stopped the tanks.

The pick-ups would have been full, and some more, if your sniper hadn’t listened well to what you said. The casualties stayed minimal… They should have been going for Kirkuk tomorrow morning, but the warlords called the whole bloody thing off. They’ve quit and taken their people with them.’

‘Have you seen him?’

Sarah said, ‘Most didn’t, but some stayed – that’s what I was told. The some are the misfits, the useless and the thieves, what the warlords don’t have on their payroll. She hasn’t come out, and he’s with her.’

‘How many are left, to go to Kirkuk?’

‘What I was told, it’s around three hundred.’

‘Then they’re best forgotten,’ Joe said. ‘You won’t see them again. When you forget, it doesn’t hurt.’

The pick-up pulled away. He saw that she bit her lip. The dusk was coming on, and he went back, so carefully, into the minefield to collect the gear he had left there. In the morning he would finish with the buried tripwire. *** He had lain a long time on his bed, until the darkness blacked out the beaming smile of the President on the wall in front of him.

Alone, but for his dog, his sense of duty burdened him.

Major Karim Aziz tried to analyse the priorities of duty. Was his first duty to his wife and children, and their safety? Was it to the soldiers who would stand at barricades in the Kirkuk suburbs and fight the woman and her remnant force, regardless of their own future? Was his supreme duty to the great and historic people of Iraq?

If his duty was to his family, he should slip away, drive in the night to Baghdad and take them as fugitives on the hazardous journey to the Turkish or Iranian frontiers. If he failed they would all be killed. If he succeeded he abandoned his duty to the soldiers at the barricades, and to the people of Iraq. Duty was his life, the prop on which he had leaned for so long. He drifted close to exhausted sleep. The dog snored contentedly on the mat by the far wall. Above his duty to his family and his soldiers and his people was the image of the sniper – faded at first, then clearing – sitting and watching and mocking him.

The thought of the sniper caught him. He tossed. His hand found the shape in his breast pocket of the letter written to his wife. He shook on the bed. His chance to fulfil his duty lay upon the courage of the wretch in a cell. The wretch would know of him, could denounce him to staunch the pain. His duty was to confront the sniper. It was his supreme indulgence to crave the aloof, alone, personal battle with the sniper – if the wretch gave him time.

He pushed himself off the bed. With his Dragunov, his backpack and his dog, he went out into the night – past the dull lights illuminating the cell block – to find the woman who would lead him to the sniper, if he was given the time.

‘Still here?’

‘Yes.’

‘Not running?’ A chuckle whipped her voice.

‘No.’

‘Should I apologize?’

Gus said calmly, ‘Not necessary.’

‘Apologize because my judgement was wrong?’

‘The tanks came, you were wrong.’

‘But you, the hero, stopped them,’ she taunted.

‘I did what I could.’

‘If I don’t apologize, if my judgement was wrong, why do you stay?’

‘I don’t think I could explain.’

He had not moved all day. He had allowed the tiredness to seep from his body into the ground. He could not see her face, but the strut of her body was in bold outline above him and the bulk of her seemed greater because her hands were set on her hips. It was Gus’s own small piece of defiance that he had sat all through the day and into the evening darkness against the jeep’s wheel. If she wanted to come to him she could; if she did not, he would not go in search of her. Small fires were burning and around them were little clusters of men, some in earshot and some beyond. In the middle of the night he would move. Haquim had talked of helicopters… Omar had left him, and sometimes he saw his slight silhouette drift close to the fires then disappear. He thought the boy craved the company of adult fighters, as if that took away his youth. He was sorry that the boy had stayed.

The anger rippled in her. ‘I did everything for them, and they gave me trifles. At the moment I needed them, the swine – Bekir and Ibrahim – turned away from me because the final victory has to be earned and is not set in stone. When I am in Kirkuk…’

‘What will they do when you are in Kirkuk?’

She snorted. ‘Come, of course, what else? Come to take the rewards for what I have done for them.’

‘Yes.’

Gus jacked himself up. He used the butt of his rifle to push himself off the ground, and he hitched his rucksack onto his shoulder. He took her hand. He wondered if she would fight him. He took it loosely, then tightened his grip to jolt her forward. She dug in her heels, but his grip was the same as when he held the rifle ready to shoot, firm and strong.

As Gus took the first strides she held back but with each step he jerked harder, and after the first strides she accepted and walked beside him. They went past the sentries, sitting and smoking cigarettes, out into the black darkness beyond the perimeter of the crossroads camp.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Towards Nineveh,’ Gus said.

‘That is more than a hundred kilometres, and backwards.’

He said patiently, ‘We are going where we can imagine we are at Nineveh.’

‘If we could reach it, and we cannot, all we would find are old rocks and old stones.’

‘It’s where it began – it’s why I am here. It started at Nineveh.’

‘That is rubbish.’

‘We are going towards Nineveh.’

He led and she no longer fought him. They walked away from the wire and left the flickering fires behind them. They were under stars and a thin moon’s crescent. From the time he could sit on his grandfather’s knee and smell the stale whiff of tobacco on his breath, he had known of the palace, and the friendship made there. Deep in the memory of childhood was the story of King Sennacherib who had died 2,680 years ago, when the same stars and the same thin moon made a pallid dullness of the ground, and the same stars and moon had watched over the friendship of men now aged. Grafted in his mind, from the days when he could first read, were the pictures in the books of the throne room in the palace and the bas-reliefs and the shallow outline of the excavated city gates. There was a figure in relief that he remembered above all, a crouching archer. In an album of faded photographs, two men stood outside a tent, posed beside a car, larked in the ruins, knelt and helped the archaeologists: one was tall and wore an open shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat, ludicrous baggy shorts and battered sandals; the other was shorter and seemed heavier in the folds of the long-tailed tribal shirt and the shapeless trousers, with curled unruly hair under a cloth wound as a turban. And the same quiet, the same stars and moon had blessed that friendship, at Nineveh.

‘There were stories and books and pictures, but it was too far away to be real. There were letters sent to my grandfather, by your grandfather, but they had no value, no context in anything I knew. Then I came with him to the border. We found his friend, and we found you. You never cried. All around you was screaming and weeping, despair.

You had just buried your brothers. You hung back, somehow apart from the misery around you. I had never seen before, have never seen again, a young face of such determination. You were not more than a child, you never spoke, but I saw your face.

Whatever else in my life goes on past me, that face is always with me… I may not be good with words, but I am blessed for having known you, given me from old men’s friendship. Do you think we are close now to the old men, near to Nineveh?’

‘I think we are.’

‘I came because that face, without tears, enabled me to dream and to dare.’

He sat on the ground. He pulled her down beside him. A shell whined high over them and exploded in the distance on the road. He felt the light wind, medium strength but coming on to fresh, on his face, and she shuddered. He hesitated, then slipped his arm over her shoulder. Gus knew it was not the cold that made the shudder in her body.

Together, his arm around her shoulder, they could dream, dare. He pulled her harder against him, her shoulder under his, her hair against his cheek, her hips against his, her thigh… She cried out in pain. She was so strong, so proud, so bloody obstinate, and he had forgotten. He took the torch from his pocket. He did not speak. He pushed her back onto the dirt, and his hand went to her belt. He unfastened it and dragged down her trouser zip. He heaved the trousers down and shone the torch onto her thigh. The dressing was gone, and the edge of the wound was reddened and angry. Maggots moved in the centre of it, between the weals that marked its limits. He saw the wriggling life of the maggots. He crouched over her thigh, smelt the dankness of her, and very carefully began to pick each of the maggots from the wound. She did not cry out again. He poured water from his bottle over the wound and washed away the newest of the flies’ eggs. He did not criticize her for not having had the wound dressed, for not having stolen the time of the aid-worker at Tarjil while she’d worked to save the worst of the casualties. He loved her because, under the bombast of her conceit, she would never put herself first, and never complain for fear that her strength was diminished. He made the wound clean. He switched off the torch, lifted her buttocks, drew up her trousers and zipped them, then fastened her belt.

He did not think it was necessary to fumble for words to explain why he had stayed.

He saw the great flame burning and beyond it were the roofs, minarets and the high buildings of Kirkuk. He could dream and he could dare, because of her. He kissed her. It was a slow, awkward kiss, lip to lip, mouth to mouth, the kiss of teenage children in wonderment.

They walked back into the camp, away from Nineveh.

She called briskly for a briefing meeting in fifteen minutes, and the shyness was gone from her.

There was a jeep parked near to one of the fires and Gus saw Haquim beside it.

Haquim said, ‘As you could not leave her, neither could I, though it was the act of a fool to come back.’

‘Why?’

‘To be with her, and to tell you about helicopters…’

‘You didn’t have to come back – I know about helicopters.’

‘And to shield her, to keep her safe from herself.’

Gus settled comfortably against the jeep’s wheel. The boy brought them coffee. Only when he drank it did he lose the taste of her mouth in his, but still he did not forget.

Chapter Thirteen

Away to the west, the flame burned, an isolated beacon beyond the myriad lights in Kirkuk.

They went fast over flat, open ground. If they looked for cover, went forward at a crawl, they would not make their schedule. If he had not believed in her, he would have turned.

The route, Omar leading and Gus a pace behind, would take them in a great arcing circuit around the city’s lights. Going hard, Gus could not avoid kicking loose stones and sometimes stumbling into small ditches. He took on trust, too, the boy’s skills and the sharpness of his hearing. He had known at home, as a child, out with Billings, the night flight of the hunting barn owl and learned its skills, the sharpness of its hearing as it phantom-glided in the new plantations, listening for the movements of tiny voles and shrews. He thought the boy had the skills and hearing of the owl. The schedule allowed no slack. His own stride was heavy, scuffing the ground, but the boy was as silent as the owl when the old poacher had showed it him.

It was two hours since they had left what remained of the main column. There were isolated lights to their left, lamps over a fence, a roving searchlight from a silhouetted watchtower, and a dull glow from the tightly packed homes. Omar’s route would bring them between the fortified village and the more distant spread of Kirkuk’s brightness.

He heard a shrill cry.

Omar never wavered from the route, as if it carried no threat to them.

The crying was pain, that of a rabbit in a snare.

A track crossed the dark ground ahead and linked a Victory City to Kirkuk. The sound of the crying grew, but the boy did not slow.

They came to the track, crossed it, stepped down into the ditch on the far side of it and Gus straddled the source of the crying. The woman was a black shadow shape. The thin moonlight fell on the beads of her necklace and caught the irregular shape of her teeth, the lines on her face, made jewelled rivers of her tears.

The men were dumped in grotesque postures in the pit of the ditch. Omar, ahead of Gus, shuddered – as if ghosts crossed his soul – and the woman’s cries turned to a ranted anguish. The smaller body wore a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, but the motif was stained in black blood. The moonlight caught the lustreless eyes of the heavier man. She shouted at them as they went by, and after them as they hurried away. Her shouts seemed to hang in the night air like a thinning mist. They went on until they no longer heard the sound.

‘What did she say?’

‘I do not think you wish to know, Mr Gus.’

‘Tell me.’

In his mind were the bodies, perhaps her husband and son. The face he had seen was aged with suffering. He told himself that it was right to go on, not give sympathy and help. He heard Omar draw in a great gulp of breath, then the whisper of his voice.

‘She went into the fields the day before yesterday and she found wild flowers. She brought the flowers home. She is a widow and she lives with her son, her son’s wife and her grandson. She put the flowers in a jar that had been used for storing jam. She set the jar and the flowers outside the door of her house. She told the people who lived near to her that, yesterday, they should collect flowers as a celebration because the woman, Meda, was coming to bring them freedom. The soldiers did nothing because they, also, Mr Gus, believed that Meda was coming. Then they heard that the peshmerga had turned, had gone back to the mountains. They are survivors, Mr Gus. They denounced her, her son and her grandson as followers of the witch. She said the whole village walked with them, abusing them, when the soldiers took them out of the village and shot them. She curses Meda. She says that if Meda had stayed in her own village, in the mountains, then she would have her son and her grandson. She wanted us to bury her son and grandson…

Are you better for knowing that?’

His heel hurt worse, his body ached with tiredness, there was the growing pain in his eyes from peering into the darkness and, ceaselessly, his stomach growled for food. He, too, had put his trust in her. They walked on. The sling of his rifle bit into the flesh of his shoulder, freshening the sores of the rucksack’s straps, and he welcomed it.

The boy pleaded, a child’s voice, ‘Tell me, Mr Gus, a story from Major Herbert Hesketh-Prichard.’

He should have remained silent, should have concentrated on his footfall, but there was rare fear in the boy’s voice. He should have been thinking of the schedule, and the helicopters.

Gus said softly, ‘Major Hesketh-Prichard wrote that the best scout he ever knew was an American called Burnham who fought as an officer with the British army in the war against the Matabele tribes of Rhodesia in southern Africa, and that was more than a hundred years ago. He was awarded the medal of the Distinguished Service Order by the Queen. He was a small man but always very physically fit. He had good hearing and strong eyesight, and his sense of smell was remarkable – as sensitive as any animal’s. His finest achievement was to go with his rifle through the entire Matabele army, alone, past their sentries, past their patrols, right into the centre of their camp. In the middle of the camp he found the tent of their leader, M’limo, and Burnham shot him dead. Then he was excellent enough in his fieldcraft to go back through their lines to safety. He was the best …’

‘It is a good story, Mr Gus.’

‘Only the best, Omar, can go through the lines, kill the heart of the enemy, and go back to safety.’

‘But the fault was with the Matabele people who did not protect their leader.’

‘Fail to protect the leader, Omar, and everything is wasted.’

Their stride quickened in the cloak of darkness. The minutes of the schedule given them were slowly being eaten away.

His mind was made up. It was not duty that drove Major Karim Aziz, but vanity.

In the night hours he searched, as he had many weeks before – a lifetime before – for a vantage-point.

Because he had fought before in the streets, cellars and sewers, Aziz knew the pulse of a city at war, but that night the mood of Kirkuk perplexed him. He would have expected the city’s people to have retreated behind barred doors and shuttered windows, that every shop would be padlocked and closed, that the street sellers would have gone to the shanty town beyond the airfield. But the lights burned out over the wide boulevard streets of the New Quarter, and there were still cars and commercial trucks on them, with the tanks and personnel carriers. The cafes, too, were doing trade, and at the pavement tables men sat in thick coats and smoked, drank and talked.

He knew she must come at dawn, and the sniper with her. With a small force, she would have gained a toehold, or at least a fingernail grip, on the centre of the city where the big buildings of the administration were sited. If she were not coming then she would have joined the long, dusty convoy he had seen retreating from the crossroads. Vanity was his spur, as it had been when the troops had cheered him after he had shot the mullah many years before. The same vanity, not duty to his family, his army and his country, had sent him on the hunt for a vantage-point that would have given him the shot of a lifetime on the flat roof with the view of the door of a villa. The vanity obscured the image of the brigadier in the cell block from his thoughts.

He strode away from the governor’s house and the gate into Fifth Army headquarters.

He was certain that she would attack down the width of Martyr Avenue towards the house and the headquarters. He was refreshed by the rest on his bed and he had eaten bread, a little cheese and an apple. The dog was close to him. It was a week since he had shaved. The dust and mud clung to his boots, his trousers and his smock; the backpack, perched high on his shoulders, was grimed in filth; but there was brightness in his eyes, and in the lens of the sight mounted on the stock of the Dragunov. When he passed the cafes, the men stopped their talk, lowered their cups and held their cigarettes away from their mouths as if drawn by the sight of him. He walked towards the outskirts of the city, and visualized the battle and the part he would play in it… She would make the punch down the six lanes of Martyr Avenue, with a small diversionary assault on the parallel 16th July Avenue that was four lanes wide. The helicopters would be up and over them, would scatter them. She would be in a doorway, or in the flood-drain in the centre of Martyr Avenue, but if she were to lead, she must show herself.

There was a doorman at the entrance to the last block of apartments on Martyr Avenue.

He walked past the man, who bowed his head, the dirt from his boots flaking on the lobby carpet, and climbed the stairs. He emerged onto the roof and stood in the shadow of the water tank.

Aziz looked out over the vista beneath him. Behind him, on the far side of the city, was the glow of the lights of the airfield from which the helicopters would fly. To the side, set in a shambles and without pattern, were the pinpricks of the Old Quarter. In front of him was Martyr Avenue, the barricade and two tanks with personnel carriers behind them.

Beyond Martyr Avenue were two neat lines of apartment blocks, then the sharply illuminated length of 16th July Avenue. When he swivelled further he could see the plaza outside the governor’s house, and at the end of it was the floodlit gate to Fifth Army headquarters. His search for a vantage-point was completed… But he was too high, the elevation was too great. For a moment longer, as if he had earned a little of its luxury, he let the night air play, cool and cleansing, on the stubble of his face and the dirt. Then he whistled for the dog and went back to the staircase, down three flights of steps.

The door on the second floor had no nameplate. He rang the bell, kept his finger on the button.

A bolt was drawn back, a key was turned. He saw a momentary joy on her face, then the shock. Without explanation, Aziz pushed her aside, kicking the door shut behind him with his heel.

She wore a loose housecoat and fluffy slippers. There was make-up on her face but insufficient to hide the crow’s feet lines at her eyes and mouth – his wife, in his home, did not use cosmetics because they could not be paid for. She had blond, short-cut hair, but the stems were grey-black below the platinum. He went through the living room, past the chairs and tables and lamps – more expensive than they could have afforded to buy -and into the soft-lit bedroom. There was a big bed, with pink sheets and blankets, and a padded headboard, such as he and his wife had never slept in. He pulled aside the drawn curtains and stepped through the French windows onto the balcony. He could see the edge of the airfield perimeter, the Old Quarter and the barricade at the end of Martyr Avenue. Through the apartment blocks was a clear view of long sectors of 16th July Avenue. It was a corner apartment and there was an additional balcony off the living room from which he would be able to look over the square outside the governor’s house and the gates to Fifth Army. He went back into the bedroom, and gazed at the photograph in the frame on the dressing table.

The face smiled above the uniformed shoulders.

It was the face he had seen, cold and evaluating, when he had fired on the range and in the mountains too. He picked up the photograph of the brigadier. The face, bloodied and scarred, was now in the cell block. His hand shook as he laid the photograph face down on the dressing table.

‘You know him? He is very kind to me. To me, he is a gentle man…’

He told her to close the bedroom door and switch off the light.

‘He did not come last night. I thought, just now, that you were him…’

When the room was darkened, Aziz dragged back the curtains and fastened them at the sides of the window. He went to the bed, ripped off the pink coverlet and threw it onto the balcony.

‘I am from Malmo in Sweden. I have been in London, Paris, Nicosia, Bucharest, Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad, and now I am in Kirkuk. I am very lucky to have found such a kind and gentle man at the end of my road. I suppose that he is busy with the situation -but you know better than me that he is important.’

He settled himself down on the coverlet, used it as padding so that the hard tiles of the balcony would not stiffen his legs, reduce the circulation and harm the accuracy of his shooting.

‘And he has told me that soon he will be more important…’

He told her to leave him and to take her photograph with her. The peace of his mind was fracturing. He watched for the woman and the sniper. Because he had put vanity above duty to his family, his life depended on the man in the cell block.

‘We should go in one group.’

‘No, we must be in small groups,’ Meda said.

Haquim smacked his knuckle into the palm of his hand. ‘We need to be a fist and punch with firepower.’

‘We should be water running through fingers, in groups of twenty, no more.’

‘Strength in numbers is our only option,’ Haquim persisted.

‘We should attack from all angles so they do not know where to find the heart of us.’

The men, 280 of them – fewer than the number needed to take the Victory City, far fewer than the number who had charged the defences at Tarjil – stood in a tight, mesmerized circle around her and Haquim. It was as if she held them in a noose. In the moonlight, he saw the adoration in their eyes. He knew some of them as thieves, and some of them as beggars. Some were so old they could barely run and others were so young they could not have done a day of man’s work in the fields. The best men, the men on whom the mustashar would have depended, had gone back with agha Ibrahim and agha Bekir, as he had… but, unlike him, none of the best men had returned. They would be slaughtered, all of them – her and him – when the helicopters flew. He thought she had sacrificed the life of the Englishman, used an old loyalty, sent him on the long march against the helicopters and killed him.

‘You’re wrong.’

She laughed in his face. ‘I am right, always right. You are wrong, always wrong.’

‘It is madness.’

Haquim heard the hostile rumble in the throats of the men around her. He fought for their lives and they did not recognize it. She danced on him. Everything he had achieved in a lifetime of soldiering she danced on, as if it were worthless. He had told the Englishman of his long march across the country when he had brought the peasant boys back to their homes, and at least the Englishman had listened with respect. He had held the pass with the rearguard so that the refugees could reach the safety of the frontier; without value. He did not dare to look into her eyes for fear that she would entrap him, too… but he would lay down his life to protect her.

‘You should not be frightened, old man. We are not frightened, nor Mr Peake. Trust me. We are two hundred and eighty. We are in groups of twenty men. We are in houses, gardens, alleyways, yards, not in the roads where they have barricades and tanks. They will not have the helicopters to search for us because Mr Peake will not be frightened.

We are going forward. You will sleep, tonight, in the governor’s bed, while I direct Kirkuk’s defence from the governor’s office.’

‘If you get to the governor’s house, how long do you think you can hold it?’

‘Until they come, a few hours, it’s all we need.’

Still, Haquim did not dare to look into the light of her eyes. He rasped, ‘Who comes?’

‘It is because you are frightened, old man, that you are stupid… The pigs will come, of course. Bekir and Ibrahim will come – all of the peshmerga will come. They wait a little way off. They need me to give them courage. When I am in the governor’s house they will have the courage and come. It will happen.’

At last, reluctantly, Haquim looked into her face. The sneers and taunts had gone. He was responsible. He had heard talk of her, gone to her village, listened to her, believed in her, promised her grandfather that he would watch over her, had taken her to meet agha Bekir and agha Ibrahim, and he had watched the little army swell. The smile caught him as surely as the barbed hooks the children used when they caught fish off the dam of the great Dukan reservoir. He took her hand. There were grenades on straps against her chest.

He placed his hand, with hers inside his, on the metal of the RG-5 fragmentation grenade that was closest to her heart.

‘If I am with you and believe you will be captured, then I will shoot you. If I am not with you, and you will be captured, please, please, I beg it of you, pull the pin.’

Against the wire that stretched either side of them, limitless until lost in the darkness, Gus used the binoculars and confirmed what he already knew. The range was too great – they had to go through the wire.

So little time… A jeep passed, idled into his view and he was close enough to it to see the faces of the soldiers. There was a tumbler strand a foot above the ground into which the mesh wire was buried, another at the waist height of a standing man, another at the eyeline of a man at full height and just below the stretched coils of razor wire. They began, frantically, to dig with their hands at the dry soil.

There was a growing smear of grey-gold light behind the faraway mountains.

Three helicopters were on the bright-lit apron, slug beasts; he had been told they would be the Russian-built Mi-24 gun-ships, and if they caught her in the open with anti-tank missiles, rockets and the rapid-fire machine-gun, she was gone, and it was finished. He dug, ripped his nails, scraped the skin from his hands.

The tankers backed away. The crews, in loose-fitting flying-suits, were walking round the beasts, approving the fitting of the ordnance stowed under the wings.

They had reached the bottom of the wire, but the deeper earth was harder, drier. The boy used a knife to stab into the ground and Gus scraped it back behind him. The light was growing, the time was slipping away. The hole widened. The boy hacked down into the earth and Gus shovelled it aside. He should have been resting, should have been calm and with the chance to watch for wind variation over the expanse of ground between the fence and the apron area where the helicopters were readied to fly. The boy, eel-like, wriggled down into the hole and then began to chop at the soil on the far side of the wire until it sprouted up as if a maddened mole made the tunnel. Omar was through.

Gus heard the whine of a helicopter engine starting and saw the first lazy turns of the rotors.

He tore off a hessian strip from his suit and gently looped it over the lowest of the tumbler strands.

As he passed the rifle through the cavity, the boy took it. He crawled into the hole and stuck. Omar dragged at his shoulders. Gus was stuck fast. He saw only the darkness of the hole… If the tumbler strand was disturbed the sirens would blast, the jeep would come, and the helicopters would fly… His head burst out into the light.

The pitch of the engines rose.

They crawled, together, on their bellies towards the helicopters.

AUGUSTUS HENDERSON PEAKE.

6. (Conclusions after interviews with personnel at CTCRM, Lympstone conducted by self and Ms Manning – transcripts attached.) MILITARY TRAINING: The normal duration of a sniping course would be 3 weeks, AHP was given 72 hours (less minimal sleep time) of concentrated Fieldcraft and Tactical training. It is possible he would have absorbed a considerable amount of what he was told, shown and briefed on, but at best the knowledge will remain superficial. Also, he has been educated in procedures that would be adopted by a regular army where he would be provided with all necessary support. AHP is not in such an environment and will be operating alongside irregulars of doubtful quality.

TACTICAL TRAINING: AHP, at CTCRM, received specialist advice from 5 sergeant instructors – but I consider that given by Sgt Stevens, MM, to be the most important. Sgt Stevens served in northern Iraq in 1991 in the Safe Haven operation for Kurdish refugees, and therefore had a first-hand knowledge of the terrain; he stressed to AHP that the further south the irregular force probed, so would increase the technical superiority of Govt of Iraq forces. Emphasis was placed on the use of the AWM Lapua Magnum rifle’s armour-piercing capability against helicopter gun-ships, and the need for bold and imaginative counter-measures against such a threat. (The fact that AHP is a civilian, not hidebound by standard military procedures, leads me to believe that boldness and imagination would be expected from him. KW) In the use of such tactics, the LOYALTY spoken of by Sgt Billings would probably cause AHP to push home an attack in situations where his personal safety is directly threatened.

Willet paused, his fingers lying limply alongside the keyboard. He wanted to push himself up from his chair, go to the window, pull back the curtains and open it. He wanted to shove his head out into the night air and shout over the roofs and the streets, over the crawling cars and the last stragglers going home from the clubs, to throw his voice far beyond and far away. He wanted to be heard by a man who sat huddled in the warmth of a gillie suit, who held the long barrel of the rifle, who waited for the dawn.

He wanted to yell, ‘Turn back, don’t be a stupid bastard… Walk away. It’s for nothing

… Come home, come back to where people love you… Live a life, a fucking boring life, but live it… Be like me, be a bloody coward, be like me and find an excuse to turn…’

He knew that if he screamed into the emptiness of the night, he would not be heard.

Willet began, again, to type.

The binoculars told him the lead helicopter was 670 yards in front of him, the second helicopter was 705 yards from him, and the third helicopter in the line was 740 yards from his aiming position.

The windsock beside the control tower hung lifelessly against the flagpole. Gus had the range and did not need to concern himself on windage deflection.

The helicopters shuddered in line as the engine power grew.

If such a beast was his target, he had been told where it was vulnerable and where the Mi-24 was protected by armour plate. The earnest Doug Stevens had laid the sheet of paper on the table among the spilled beer and the ashtray’s garbage, drawn the outline of the beast, scribbled in the shaded areas where it was armour-plated, and highlighted the parts where, if it were hit, it could be killed. A technician scrambled up the side of the lead helicopter, and the pilot’s hatch door was opened. Might be a fuel gauge playing up, or oil pressure, might be the navigation system. The pilot, high in the forward end of the fuselage, was protected – on the drawing on Doug Stevens’ paper – by armour and a bulletproof glass canopy, but his door was open and lit by the high lights.

Gus fired.

Flat on his stomach, the boy close beside him, Gus watched the vortex of the bullet’s passage through the dawn air.

The technician fell back, dropped away from the ladder. At the same moment, the pilot slumped. The core of an armour-piercing bullet would then have careered on inside the cockpit and struck glancing, spinning blows against the armour that was supposed to keep a bullet outside the womb in which the pilot sat, but not inside.

He heard the boy squeal in excitement, but his eyeline had moved on. He raked back the bolt and his fingers felt for the elevation turret of the ’scope. He twisted it the minuscule correction of one half-click.

The sides and the underpart of the fuselage of the Mi-24 were protected, Doug Stevens had said, but the gearbox in the mounting under the rotors was not. Stevens had said that Special Forces and spooks had trained the Afghan mujahedin to shoot down from the valley’s cliffs on to the gun-ships’ superstructures. They wouldn’t have heard the shot in the second and third helicopters, but they’d have seen the technician fall and the statue posture of the ground-control man with his outstretched signal batons.

Gus had a window of seconds: such an opportunity would not come again.

He fired at the gearbox of the second helicopter, immediately below the outstretched sweep of the rotors. Metal parts dropped away.

Bolt back, cartridge case ejected, and the sweep of the ’scope towards the third of the beasts. It was already lifting. He could see the pilot secure inside the casing. It rose, tilting away from him and he lost the sight of the gearbox below the rotors. He locked his aim on the blurred shape of the vertical tail rotor. He sucked in a breath, exhaled, caught the last of the air – and held it.

Gus fired three times, at 740 yards mean distance, into the spinning shape of the third helicopter’s tail rotor.

He did not hear the boy’s shout. He did not see the jeep, at the distant end of the wire, reversing and turning. He twisted up onto his knee, caught at the boy’s collar, and pitched him back towards the wire. Then Gus was running.

There was no longer a pain in his heel, an ache in his body and exhaustion in his eyes.

Gus ran for his life and the boy stampeded beside him. If he had not hung the hessian strip on the wire he would have lost precious moments, finding the hole under the wire.

He threw himself down into the hole and the boy pushed, levered him through the gap.

Then he was running again, weaving, gasping for air, bent low. Behind him, the pilot of the third helicopter fought an unequal battle with his machine and lost.

The immediate goal was the airfield’s rubbish tip where the crows, startled by the gunfire, wheeled and screamed. The secondary goal, when the piled rubbish tip covered their backs, was a dried river gully. The final goal, far ahead, was to link with Meda and the attack.

Machine-guns had started up, but without a target.

Only when he was in the gully, when the pain, the ache and the tiredness surged back to him, did Gus bleat his question.

‘Can they fly?’

‘You killed them, Mr Gus, they cannot fly.’

They ran on down the gully, as the dawn lightened. It was, Gus thought, the decisive day of his life, the day he had dreamed and dared, but there was nothing of the taste of her in his mouth, just a dry dusty film.

The attack went well, made good ground – at first.

They had advanced in silence through ditches, drains, through gardens and small vegetable fields to the edge of the city’s limits. They had scurried, crawled, run from shadow to shadow, in their small groups, and waited for the signal.

The report of the first shot, then the second, then the third, fourth and fifth, had come muffled to them across the breadth of the city, and before the sound of the fifth shot had died there had been the blast of the heavy machine-gun and the rip of its tracers – the signal.

The assault on Kirkuk was like that of mosquitoes on an ailing man. The weight of a man’s hand might fall on a biting insect, but in that moment of distraction another mosquito bit and drew blood. The barricades, with the tanks and personnel carriers in support, were ignored. Martyr Avenue and 16th July Avenue were empty. The attack was through the yards, homes and alleyways of the Old Quarter. When gaps were plugged, new points of weakness emerged. Pockets of resistance were cut off, left isolated.

To those in the Fifth Army command bunker there was no coherent pattern to the attack: as the radios from the forward positions shouted for help, the officers trained in defensive warfare at the Baghdad Military College did not know where they should stiffen the line. And they had no serviceable helicopters. Inside the safety of the bunker, as the counters were moved remorselessly back over the map towards the red circle marking Fifth Army headquarters, the first doubts – anxieties – had surfaced. The defence line would not have been stabilized, however temporarily, if the colonel had not ordered a killing zone of fire to be put down on the Old Quarter. Mortars, machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades hammered the small homes of those who were expendable.

In the smoke, noise and chaos, Meda sought to restore the impetus of the advance. In an alleyway between a panel-beater’s shed and a cheap clothes shop was an abandoned jeep with a machine-gun mounted and the belt of ammunition lying in the breech. She must show herself, and goad her small groups of separated fighters to press on. She must be everywhere. Without her, and she knew it, the advance would stall. They had come through the yard and into the panel-beater’s shed. The roof was ablaze. The door was destroyed. Four men were close to her, Haquim was somewhere behind. If she was to be everywhere, she needed the jeep.

He peered into the maelstrom of smoke and fire.

Many times he had seen the little darting movements of men, emerging and disappearing, but it was harder now to see them because of the smoke’s pall.

With his old trusted patience, he waited for her to show herself.

He lay on the pink coverlet, his circulation good, his stomach comfortable. He had not fired. He had seen soldiers try to surrender and had watched as they were engulfed, knifed. He had seen, also, a young officer castrated and left to writhe on the ground smearing a spray of blood from his groin onto cobblestones. He had seen three soldiers who manhandled away a wounded colleague shot in the back at close range – but he had not fired.

He had no doubt that the time would come when he would see her.

Major Karim Aziz sensed that a line formed. It stretched across the Old Quarter, its median point at a range of 450 metres, and he adjusted his elevation for that point. The smoke helped him, its billowing spirals told him the wind factor was minimal, but that was outweighed by the greater problem of its interference with his vision of the fighting ground. That median point was an abandoned jeep. Once he had taken it as his point, he tracked along the line on either side of it, slowly, so that the view through the lens would not distort.

It was a blurred movement at the extremity of the lens.

First he saw the figures running from the collapsed doorway and jumping into the jeep.

A man was bent over the steering wheel, reaching down, magnified, desperate to start it. Another man, turbaned, bearded, swathed in ammunition, was behind the mounted machine-gun. Only when the jeep jerked forward, when her body was thrown back against the support of the front passenger seat, did he see her.

The jeep had moved forward, then it was reversing, then it was lost behind a swathe of smoke. He could not follow it, but he had seen her face. He felt a great calmness. He had seen her face and the anger at her mouth. He wondered if she doubted herself, if she knew that it was over, not how it would end, but that it was finished.

The jeep emerged from the smoke, and Aziz’s finger made the intuitive adjustment to the elevation turret, one click, an additional 50 metres of range, watching as it swerved to the right at a tight junction.

He saw the jeep, her face, the driver’s, the shop behind them from which flames licked, as the steering was wrenched hard over. He could not hear the distant scream of the tyres, or the blast in his ears as he fired.

Strangely, slowly, the jeep toppled over after it had crashed against the wall. For a few moments, a seeming eternity, it was supported by the machine-gun and there was a gap from which the gunner and the driver scrabbled to free themselves, but then the mounting on the machine-gun collapsed: the jeep rocked and was still but for the spinning wheels.

His finger was on the trigger, slight pressure. He watched for her and did not see her. The gunner, delirious with shock, ran. The driver twitched and died.

He recognized the older man running forward from the ditch at the crossroads. He could have shot him – afterwards he would be unable to analyse why he had not fired on him as he limped forward and tried to lift the upturned jeep alone. He watched him stagger away, heaving for breath, then cup his hands to his mouth and bellow at the fire and the smoke for help.

No help came.

The man tried again to lift the jeep, and failed. A mortar shell exploded a little distance beyond it. He could not hear the singing of the shrapnel at that distance, but he saw the man blown over and begin to crawl away on his stomach. He knew that she was under the jeep. Through the ’scope, he fancied he saw tears on the man’s face.

Aziz walked from the balcony into the bedroom. The dog was asleep on the pillows.

He called it. He crossed the living room. He did not look at the old whore from Malmo who had reached Kirkuk, the end of the road. She was slumped in a chair with the bottle beside her and the glass in her hand.

‘Will he come? Will he come tonight?’

He went down the stairs, pride coursing through him. He had made the most important shot of his career. *** She was trapped, in darkness. She had heard Haquim’s shouts: he would have gone for help. When the jeep had overturned she had covered her head with her arms, and now she could not move her arms and her legs were wedged. The weight of the grenades pressed against her chest. She could not see and could not move, and the stench of the fuel engulfed her. She knew that Haquim had gone for help because she could no longer hear him, and the shooting was fainter. She thought that the men must now be near to the governor’s house. When the firing moved away people would come from their houses, where they had sheltered, and they would help to lift the jeep and free her.

Time passed, slipped away from her. She did not know how long, could not see the hands of her watch. Gus would be searching for her now. She tried to remember the touch of his lips. Gus had killed the helicopters, as he had promised he would. He would come to find her.

There was no firing. If the men were near to the governor’s house, she could not understand why she could not hear the firing. There were voices, the scrape of boots.

She heard the grunts and the curses. The jeep was lifted. She blinked in the narrow shaft of sunlight and a post was pushed under the jeep’s door, as if to prop it while they took new grips. They should hurry. She would lead the last assault on the governor’s house. She did not know how they could have gone so far without her.

The jeep rolled back. She clung to the seat as it was lurched over, felt the relief of freedom until she saw the ring of soldiers and the guns pointed at her.

She remembered what Haquim had said… She was slumped in the seat. Her fingers, awkward, clumsy in the moment, groped for the ring of the pin on the grenade that was closest to her heart. A rifle butt smacked into her face and she was dragged clear of the jeep.

There was an officer behind the soldiers who cradled a big rifle like Gus’s, and who wore a smock like his gillie suit. A dog sat disinterested beside his boots. He watched as she was searched, as the grenades were stripped from her chest, as her tunic and blouse were ripped open and dirt-grimed hands patted the skin of her breasts, waist and thighs, and lingered though they found nothing. He turned and walked away.

A family had come out from the door of a house. They wore their nightclothes -grandmother, parents and children. The soldiers held her so that the family could spit on her in turn.

It had taken Haquim a full fifteen minutes to make contact with one of the groups, to extract them from a close-quarters fire-fight, to organize them, to bring them forward towards the upturned jeep. From 200 metres, through the drifting smoke, he saw the family spit on her, then saw her hustled away.

As the word of her capture spread, the attack stalled. The line sagged, then broke. An ordered retreat became the rout of a rabble. By the time they reached the city limits, many had thrown away their weapons and run.

In his life as a Kurdish fighter, Haquim was familiar with defeat – but none hurt him harder than this. The immediate goal was to cross the barren open fields, to leave the fires in the Old Quarter behind them and the flame of Baba Gurgur, and reach the high ground.

They had no friends but the mountains. He had heard her say: ‘We will sacrifice everything that we have – our lives, our homes – for Kirkuk.’ His back was turned on her but he could not forget that last sight, Meda small and without defence, hemmed in by the bodies of the soldiers.

He stumbled on, in his personal agony, towards the safety of the hazy blue line of the high ground.

‘What do you hear, Mr Gus?’

‘I hear nothing.’

‘What do you not hear, Mister Gus?’

‘I don’t hear anything.’

‘Mister Gus, you do not hear the shooting.’

In reverse and faster, they were making the same arced march as in the previous night.

Away to his left was the pall above a part of the city. For several minutes Gus had been aware that the shooting was finished, but he had said nothing and pressed on, had harboured it to himself. He wondered how many minutes it had been since the boy had realized that the shooting – far away, distant but clear – had died. He was a sharp little beggar and Gus thought that Omar would have realized before himself that it was over.

He said savagely, ‘Absolutely correct. There’s no shooting.’

‘If they had reached the governor’s house, then there would still be shooting.’

‘Correct again. You are, Omar, a fount of bloody wisdom.’

The boy looked simply into Gus’s eyes. ‘If there is no shooting they have broken the attack. They have retreated.’

‘Tell me something I don’t know.’

‘We did what we were asked to do. As we had killed the tanks, we killed the helicopters…’

‘I doubt that it’s anybody’s fault.’

Three hundred yards ahead of them was a low cairn. He could see it clearly. If there had still been the sound of shooting, the stones would have been the marker for them to swing left, towards the city, and join the push into the Old Quarter. She hadn’t, but Haquim had planned for failure. If the attack failed, Haquim had said in a hushed voice that she should not hear, at the marker they should turn right, go east, towards the sanctuary of the high ground.

They reached the cairn. They did not need new markers as they went east. They followed a wavering line of discarded mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades, backpacks, ammunition boxes, and the wheeled heavy machine-gun that the Russian had brought in exchange for the prospect of licences for mineral extraction.

He did not think Meda would have turned, but he said nothing because the boy, also, would have known that. His lips were sun-scorched and without feeling, and there was only the taste of dried dirt in his mouth.

Her head hit the jamb of the door as she was dragged into the cell block.

She was taken into a corridor, then the hands released her. She swayed, staggered and was pushed forward down its dull-lit length. The men lining the sides of the corridor kicked at her, or punched her, as she walked. Two doors were open at the far end. If she held her hands over her face she was kicked in the belly; if she protected her belly, her face was punched. She reached the first of the open doors. Hands grabbed her hair and her shoulders and twisted her so that she must look inside the cell. It was hard for her to recognize him.

He lay on his side, slumped against the far corner. The high ceiling light, above a close wire mesh, shone down on the blood on his face and the pools of urine on the concrete floor. Before she had met the brigadier she had told Gus Peake that he should shoot her if she walked into a trap, and Haquim had told her that if she faced capture, she should pull the pin of the grenade hanging over her heart. She was pitched through the second open door, heard it clang shut behind her. Where were the peshmerga? Where was Haquim?

Where was Gus Peake?

She sat on the floor of the cell, her knees drawn tight against her chest, under the high light. She heard no answers, only the brutal crack, and the thump again, as the bullet had struck the jeep’s driver.

Soldiers held him on their shoulders, carried him across the square, past the governor’s office, through the gate and into the compound of Fifth Army headquarters.

He was saluted, waved to, cheered.

His dog trotted alongside.

Aziz felt the exhilaration of pride and just before he was set down at the entrance to the command bunker, he punched the fist that held the Dragunov rifle into the air. At that hour, Major Karim Aziz was the hero. He told the men gathered around him that, later, he would go and search for the sniper who had humiliated the armour and destroyed the helicopters. He would hunt him down, they had his word. The colonel came from the bunker, clasped him, kissed his cheeks, told him that the remnants of the bandits were now in flight, and promised that the President would hear of his success. He said that his one bullet had achieved more than a brigade of tanks and a flight of helicopters.

Faces pressed around him, glowing in trust and admiration, but looking up beyond the men he saw the shadowed cell-block windows.

LIBRARY: Sgt Billings withdrew from CTCRM

Library the under-mentioned works:

The British Sniper – Skennerton.

Notes on the Training of Snipers, 1940-41 -

Ministry of Defence.

Scouts and Sniping in Trench Warfare – Crum.

With British Snipers to the Reich – Shore.

Sniping: Small Arms Training, vol. 1, 1946-51 -

Ministry of Defence.

Sniping – Idriess.

Sniping in France – Hesketh-Prichard.

All these works were read by AHP. They are old and deal with historic conflict situations, but the methods of sniping have changed little.

SUMMARY: I believe AHP will perform well when going forward but, through ‘doing well’, he will increasingly attract attention once all elements of surprise are lost. I am not yet satisfied that he has the necessary knowledge of ESCAPE AND EVASION when the going gets harder. He has chosen to embark on a journey of great complexity and extraordinary danger, and the LOYALTY factor may well deny to him the knowledge of when to turn in retreat. I rate his chances of survival in the medium term as slim.

Willet watched as Ms Manning read his report. A rare smile spread across her face. ‘I see you’re cracking up.’

He was tired, and he bit. ‘What exactly do you mean?’

Her eyes flashed. ‘Slim – chances of survival in the medium term – not non-existent.

That’s progress. My God, Augustus Henderson Peake, Esquire, would be happy to know that Ken Willet has changed his bloody mind, if only by a quarter of a crank. These books he read, they seem to come out of the Ark.’

‘Not everything in this world is glitzy and new. Real things, things of value, aren’t achieved at third hand, by damned remote control. We’ve tried to fight at a distance, high-tech, no casualties – good stuff for television but useless for getting things done. If you want to get things done then you have to put your life on the line. You bin the computers, you go body to body. He’d have known that because the sergeants would have told him. It was important for him to read the old books.’

‘Steady, young man, steady.’

‘Myself, if I’d gone where Peake’s gone, I’d have wanted Hesketh-Prichard in my knapsack. It’s about cunning, deviousness, courage, ruthlessness, the skill of killing…

It’s also about old-fashioned virtues. The trouble is that an old-fashioned virtue is loyalty and, at war, loyalty is a killer. “Slim” may not be realistic, I grant you.’

Chapter Fourteen

‘You saw it?’

Gus stood over Haquim. They were under a great overhang of rock where the wounded were sheltered from the sun, and where the survivors crouched silent, beaten in fear.

‘Yes.’

‘And you did nothing?’

Haquim was the only target available to Gus. He had known she would not retreat, and had presumed she was dead. When they had reached the rendezvous, gone into the grey light of the shade, moved through the wounded in search of Haquim, Gus had expected to find a slight, shrouded figure, with the head hidden. It had not been conceivable to him that, while a man of them was left standing, they would fail to retrieve the body.

Haquim, pathetically, shrugged. ‘I did what I could.’

‘Which was nothing.’

‘Don’t insult me.’

‘You did nothing – it’s the truth that insults you.’

‘I gathered a group of men. I went back. I saw her taken away. I could do nothing. I would have given up lives…’

He saw himself far ahead, in the distance of time, in his grandfather’s kitchen making coffee, with the photograph on the window ledge above the sink, and explaining in stuttered words that Meda had been captured, abandoned, that he himself had not protected her. He played the bully.

‘Well done, I congratulate you. Because of the risk involved you abandoned her.’

‘More would have been killed.’

‘You owed it to her to have tried.’

‘I am a mustashar with responsibility for my men’s lives. I cannot give up lives for a gesture.’

‘I hope you can live with it.’

He did not know how he could live with it. He had kissed her and there was no longer the feel of her lips on his, and no longer the taste of her. He had nothing by which to remember her – not a bandanna, a handkerchief, not even a soiled field-dressing that carried her stain. In one week, she had come to mean more to him than anyone he had known in his life, and he owned not a single trifle of her. For the first time, Haquim lifted his head, stared back into Gus’s eyes, and bit back. ‘I am not frightened of the weight of responsibility… There was nothing I could have done.’

‘Live with it and sleep at night with it.’

‘If you knew more of war you would not abuse me. The lesson of war, as I have learned, is that you do not throw away what is most precious, life, like empty cigarette cartons. Life is not to be wasted. Can I tell you something?’

‘Another damn excuse?’

‘The soldiers held her before she was put in the truck, so that a family could confront her. Each of the family took their turn to spit on her. To you she was the symbol to follow, and to me – against all my judgements. For you she was romance, for me she was a vehicle that gave a small chance of success. For them, those she claimed to speak for, she was a vision of evil. That was the last I saw of her, with their spit on her face.’

He heard his own stumbled answers to the confused persistence of his grandfather’s questions. He saw the steady gaze, and honesty, of Haquim. He bent down, squatted, and reached forward to take the wearied, grizzled face in his hands.

‘How was she?’

‘That is an idiotic question.’

‘Tell me how she was.’

‘The arrogance had gone from her. You saw it, when she contradicted me, the arrogance that each time she was right, and I was wrong. You saw her cheapen my experience – how many times? She was not a fighting woman but a pinioned girl. She was no longer tall, she was small and afraid. She was not a leader, she was ordinary.

When they held her, and the family spat on her, she was without value.’

Gus crawled into the darkest corner of the overhang, and lay on the ground. The power of the rifle was in his hand, but that, too, was without value. His face was to the rock, where he could not see the wounded; he saw nothing but the bewilderment of his grandfather, and heard nothing but his grandfather’s questions, and the thought of her fear was a blow to his heart.

In the early evening, a cloud passing over the face of a full moon casting a shadow, Commander Yusuf reached the headquarters of Fifth Army.

He had the right to be tired, but fatigue was not apparent in this slight, wire-framed man. He had been driven, with his escort, from Basra where he had been engaged on pressing business, but the business in Basra took second place to the developments in the north. It was said of him that, above all, he was a family man, and liked nothing better than to be with his grandchildren, to indulge them, sit them on his knee and tell them stories, stroke their hair with neat-boned fingers.

The title ‘Commander’ was self-given. He had no rank in the echelons of the army, nor the need of it. His authority ranged over the lowliest, most humble of soldiers in the slit trenches facing the Kuwaiti border, and over the most senior generals of the High Command. He was a man who hunted for signs of dissent against the regime he served, who searched night and day for evidence of treason. There were few of any status in uniform, from bottom to top, who would not have shivered at his arrival in the camp where they were based.

Commander Yusuf saw himself as a shield behind which the regime and, above all, the President could feel secure. The work of that shield was torture. The same fingers that caressed and smoothed the hair of his grandchildren were equally adept in the arts of inflicting crude pain on those who were assumed to be enemies of the state. He was always busy. His work left little time for him to enjoy the youth of his grandchildren. He was rarely at home. His life was lived at pace because the twin threats of dissent and treason were ever present. Before he had been in Basra he had been in Karbala, before Karbala he had been in Ar Ramadi, before Ar Ramadi he had been in Ba’qubah. Because he would be among the first hoisted up under any conveniently close lamp-post if the regime fell, he devoted his waking hours to the search for dissenters and traitors.

He had the appearance of a junior functionary, the look of a man who organized railway timetables or administered a minor section of a hospital, as he carried his briefcase from his car and walked to that part of the compound that housed the section of the Estikhabarat. It was said of him, in bitterness, that where he came the birds no longer sang.

He sat alone in a far corner of the mess. He had turned the high-backed chair round so that he faced the drawn curtains of the window and the wall.

An orderly had brought Major Karim Aziz a plate of bread and cheese, an apple, a glass of milk, and had asked if he wished to drink whisky. He had declined. He shared the bread and cheese with his dog, and gave it the apple core. He was sipping the milk when Scout growled. Then Aziz heard low voices and the shuffle of feet on the carpet behind him.

He shunned company because the earlier elation was gone and he thought himself a man who had been cheated. The force of the peshmerga was in flight. The former brigade position at the crossroads was reoccupied. At first light, the next morning, units of Fifth Army would move back into Tarjil, and by the afternoon probing patrols would have reached the Victory City of Darbantaq. By the end of the next day the narrow corridor would have been emptied of the saboteurs. The chance to hunt the sniper – one to one, skill to skill, eye to eye, bullet to bullet – was lost to him.

The growl had become a snarl.

He stared at the curtain and the wall and imagined the man tramping back towards the distant mountains, walking in a ragged column bowed by defeat. He would be gone in the morning. There was no work for him in Tarjil or at the Victory City. And then the future hit him. The future was…

The snarl was a yelp of pain.

He started up in his seat and his sudden movement, as he twisted to look behind him, knocked the table and spilled the milk. A small man, older than himself, with flecked, cropped grey hair and a complexion of extraordinary smoothness, was crouched by the back legs of the chair. Aziz had not heard his approach. The narrow, fleshless fingers of one hand held the skin at the nape of the dog’s neck, while the other played gently over the fur on its head. His uniform of drab olive green had no rank insignia on the shoulders and no ribbons on the chest. In his breast pocket was a neat line of ballpoint pens, as though he were a bureaucrat, but he held the dog with expert power so that it did not dare to struggle, and stroked its head as if it were a child. Four men stood behind him, sweat staining their armpits and blood spattered on their tunics and trousers.

The dog quivered.

‘I am Commander Yusuf, and I am honoured to meet the sniper who has delivered to us this misguided peasant woman. I almost feel sympathy for her because she is not more, not less, than a plaything for others. It must be comforting to be able to shoot with such accuracy even when the target is a person of so little worth.’

‘Would you let go of my dog?’

‘I call her “worthless” – do I offend you? I assure you that offence is not intended.

There are some here who believe she was of importance, but I do not share that opinion.

It is the mark of our Arab society that some of our heroic forces feel demeaned by fighting against saboteurs led by a woman. It is an affront to their dignity and manhood that a woman should better them in combat.’

‘You are hurting my dog. Please, let go of it.’

‘They call her a witch. It is understandable. A witch has supernatural powers. Our heroic forces wish to offer her such powers as an excuse for their own failure, and their own treachery. She will be a victim, and it will give me no pleasure to hang her, but that will be necessary to satisfy the simple minds of our soldiers. I need to know from her only the extent of the treachery of officers who betrayed their trust. Then she hangs. The officers, Major Aziz, concern me.’

He listened to the purring voice. He had never met the man before, nor seen him, but had heard the name. It was whispered in the corridors of the Baghdad Military College, at the headquarters of the armies, and in the command posts of divisions and regiments. It was said, in the whispers, that none who faced him in the cells, whatever their courage, could resist the persuasiveness of his interrogation techniques.

‘I have no interest in those who betray their trust. I am a soldier, I do my duty. Would you, please, release my dog?’

‘I watch, Major Aziz, for the trail made by the belly of a snake and I follow the slime of that trail. The trail leads me, always, to the nest of the snakes. When the nest has been found, it is best to pour petrol into its hole and set fire to the petrol. The snake is a creature of treachery. It is discovered where least expected, then it must be followed, then killed… I am honoured to meet a man who knows where his duty lies.’

As he stood, the hand released the nape of the dog’s neck. The dog, coiled like a spring, hurled itself at the man’s ankle and bit hard. Commander Yusuf did not flinch, did not cry out. He seemed to watch the dog for a moment as it worried at his ankle. The strength of his kick was sufficient to break the hold of the dog’s teeth and propel it against the wall below the drawn curtains, where it fell back gasping.

‘Why should your dog regard me as a threat, Major Aziz, when all I offer it is kindness?’

The brigadier was on the floor of his cell, crumpled, finished with perhaps for an hour.

The door was left open so that he could hear everything from the adjacent cell. He could not see through the open door because his eyes were closed by swelling, nor could he feel the rough concrete on which he lay because his fingers were numbed by the pain from the extraction of his nails. He was the Boot, a man credited with brutal strength and fortitude.

He had not yet broken, not yet given names.

The brigadier knew of the reputation of the little puny bastard with the voice that was never raised, and with the thin-boned fingers that had held the pliers. The reputation said his patience was great and failure was never accepted. He had tried not to cry out, even when the pain ran like rivers in him, because to cry out was to weaken her as she waited for them to return to her cell. He heard sometimes her whimpered cries, and once he heard her scream, and he thought that they burned her. What they had done to him, what they now did to her, was as nothing to the agony that awaited them both if they did not break, because the bastard’s reputation was for a refusal to be beaten.

When he had seen her first, she had been vibrant and so patronizing of him – but his ears heard her fear and the eyes of his mind saw the cigarettes ground out on her, the fingers prising into her. And when she had cried, screamed, weakened him, they would come back to his cell. He did not know how long he could last, but he knew that when he broke, others, now trusting in his courage, would follow him into the dark cells to await the coming of Commander Yusuf.

Isaac Cohen heard the radio transmissions as they were decyphered by his computers.

He felt a crippling weight of sadness. She was not one of their own, but the grief was as acute as if she had been.

In Tel Aviv, there were old men of the Mossad, retired and gathering now in the pavement cafes on Ben Yehuda, who had spoken of that pitiful and helpless sadness when the news had leaked of Elie Cohen’s capture in Damascus and of his execution in Simiramis Square. So much power at their disposal and none of it able to pluck out a patriot from a cell and from the gallows’ platform… There were the veterans of the Agency, whom he had met on Washington visits, who had spoken of that same burden of sadness when the news had filtered through of the taking in Beirut, and the subsequent death, of Bill Buckley – and a greater power had been worthless.

He remembered her as she had been when he had seen her in the mountains: certain, confident, at the edge of conceit, dismissive of his help. The torches had played on her eyes, and he had known why men followed her. He wanted to remember the certainty, the confidence, because then he did not imagine her in the cells of Fifth Army. The old men that he’d known had said to him that when Elie Cohen was in the cells in Damascus, they could not sleep, rest, laugh, make love to their women, could not live. He would talk to the sniper when the remnant army straggled back and hear how it had happened, and he might curse him for allowing it to happen… He was not the lapdog of the Americans. If his sadness permitted it, he would call them in the morning, but that night he would think of her, and say a prayer for her.

Gus asked, ‘Will you go to see the old man, Hoyshar, for me?’

‘I will.’ Haquim’s hawk eyes beaded on him.

‘Tell the old man everything that has happened.’

Haquim nodded.

‘And he should write about it, and what he writes he should send to my grandfather.’

‘I will do what you ask – but I tell you, Mr Peake, this death wish will achieve nothing.’ There was a choke in Haquim’s voice.

The column had begun to march away. The wounded were carried on the strongest men’s backs and on litters. Over Haquim’s shoulder, Gus could see the long straggle of the fighters. They were slow going, at the start, but he thought that when they sniffed the fine air of the high ground their pace would quicken, and they would have the goal of home to stretch their strides.

Gus said, ‘I am grateful for your advice, and I want your forgiveness.’

‘For what?’ Haquim asked gruffly.

Simply said, ‘For the insults I heaped on you.’

Their hands clasped, locked, the gnarled, blistered hands of the older man and those of the younger man. Gus could see the laid-out lights of Kirkuk and the silhouettes of the higher buildings, the towering flame that had been the unattainable target. It was about respect, which was precious to him.

Haquim said, ‘There is a remote possibility that I can save her. I have to attempt it, but I have little time.’

Their hands slipped apart. Haquim leaned over Gus and whipped his fist against Omar’s face. That, too, was about respect. Then he was on his way. Gus thought that a lesser man than Haquim would have turned, hesitated, waved a final time, but there was no such gesture. There was no stolen moment for the softness of sentiment. He watched Haquim hobbling away into the fading light to catch the tail of the column.

Gus twisted towards Omar and said, ‘You can still go…’

Stubbornly, his face lowered, the boy shook his head.

‘There is a life for you, stealing and thieving and pilfering, looting from the dead, there is still a chance of a life for you.’

‘Major Herbert Hesketh-Prichard always needed an observer.’

Gus’s voice shrilled in the dark space under the overhang, into the infuriating calm of the boy’s eyes: ‘You can go, damn you, and feel no shame. You can run, reach them, and live.’

He watched the column merge into the gloom. For Gus, it was like the breaking of a linked chain, which, while secure, led to Hoyshar and on from Hoyshar to another old man, and from his grandfather to his parents, his woman, his work and the long weekend days on Stickledown Range. But the column had disappeared into the last traces of grey light and he could no longer hear the shuffling of their boots, or the scrape of the litters.

A chain was broken, but new chains were fastened. There would be chains on her ankles; a chain held him to her, a chain held the boy to him. He snatched at Omar’s tunic top, caught it at the collar, wrenched the boy up then pushed him hard away from him, away towards where the column had gone. The boy sat beyond his reach. Gus picked up a stone and hurled it savagely at him, then another. They scudded past the small body with his patient, staring eyes.

Gus shouted, ‘Go, you little bastard, and live! Thieve from the dead and the wounded.

I don’t need you. I don’t want you. Head away out of here – do as you’re bloody told!

Go.’

His voice, trapped by the overhang, boomed around him. He threw one more stone and hit the boy’s shoulder. He saw Omar wince, but any cry was stifled and the boy did not rub the place where the stone had struck.

‘We are all not happy, Mr Gus, not only you.’ Then the cheek came, and the grin cracked across the boy’s smooth face. ‘Did you fuck her?’

Gus shook his head, slowly and miserably. He could not remember the taste of her or the feel of her. ‘I kissed her, I loved her.’

‘We all loved her, Mr Gus, not only you. Please, tell me a story from Major Hesketh-Prichard.’

Gus jerked his back straight. He recognized that the argument was ended, settled. The link to the past had gone with the column. They would be in Kirkuk by dawn.

‘No man’s land – where there were shell craters and fallen trees – was the best place for observers, where they were most valuable, and any unit with an aggressive commander always tried to dominate there. An intelligence officer with the 4th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment called Mr Gaythorne-Hardy thought it was necessary to know the exact layout of the German defences on Hill Sixty-three at a place called Messines. There was no point going at night across the four hundred yards of no man’s land because at night he wouldn’t be able to see the plan of their trenches and their defences so he went in daylight. It would have taken him hours to cross the open ground, and all the time the German snipers and sentries would have been watching it, but he was good enough in his fieldcraft to get right up to the enemy wire, to learn everything there was to know about their position. He was under their noses, but they did not see him.

Getting there, learning, was of no value unless he was able to return safely to his own lines and report what he had seen. That was much harder, and he would have been tired.

More difficult to crawl away than to go forward. But Mr Gaythorne-Hardy had the skill.

From what he had seen, the enemy’s trenches could be targeted more effectively by the artillery and our snipers had a better chance of killing Germans. Major Hesketh-Prichard thought him one of the best.’

‘Not as good as me.’ The smile swept the boy’s face.

‘Of course not.’

Then came the puzzlement that creased lines at Omar’s mouth and eyes. ‘Why, Mr Gus, are we staying?’

Gus said, a hoarseness in his throat, ‘Because it is owed her.’

‘What can we do?’

‘Something, anything is better than nothing.’

He heard the scream as he walked across the compound to find the telephone, the same scream as a goat’s when it is tied and held and first sees the knife as the guests gather for a wedding feast.

At the steps of the building that dealt with Fifth Army’s victualling, there would be an empty office and a telephone.

The sentry at the main entrance saluted, unlocked the door and admitted him. The screams would have been heard by the sentry and by every soldier, every non-commissioned officer, every officer in the compound. If the screams destroyed the brigadier’s resolve, if the Boot broke, then any man in the compound whose name stumbled from his lips was doomed. His own name would end the pain, would still the cries.

The clerks who filled the order forms for Fifth Army’s meat and rice, vegetables, fruit and cooking oil had all returned to their barracks. He walked along a half-lit corridor and into a darkened room. He did not switch on the light but groped towards a desk. He found the telephone. The arrival of the torturer had precipitated his course of action. He had lain on his bed and fashioned the plan. He could not abandon them. There was a dialling code that circumvented the switchboard operators and provided access to a direct line. She was distant, faint.

‘Leila, you must listen exactly to what I say, and do it.’

He could hear the television playing behind her, the babble of the children’s voices and her mother’s. She said she was listening.

He was wary of the security of the direct line. ‘Leila, are you listening? Don’t interrupt. I am leaving Kirkuk in the morning. I have the chance to take a short holiday.

You remember that four years ago we camped with the children? I wish to do that again.

You will pack what is necessary and meet me at Sulaiman Bak on the Kirkuk road.’

She said that the weather forecast on the television had warned of freezing nights, and she did not think the conditions were suitable for camping with the children.

‘You should pack clothes for four days, and the children’s best boots. From Sulaiman Bak we will take the road for Kingirban and Kifri, then we will find a place to make a camp.’

She said that tomorrow was a busy day at the hospital, that it was impossible for her to find a replacement at such short notice – perhaps later they could camp, when the weather improved.

‘As you love me, Leila, do as I say. Meet me at Sulaiman Bak. We have to take the chance being offered here.’

She said that Wafiq had an examination at school in the morning – had he forgotten?

And Hani was playing football for the school in the afternoon of the day after tomorrow -had he forgotten that, too? Karim Aziz could not know if the line was routinely monitored, whether it was already listened to. He repressed the desire to shout and block out each of her reasoned excuses for not leaving Baghdad.

‘Leila, it is the best chance we have of a holiday with the children. There will always be busy days at the hospital, many examinations and football games. Pack tonight, be on the road early. It is important to me.’

She said that it was her mother’s birthday two days after tomorrow – had he forgotten that, also?

‘Be there, I beg of you. Bring tents, warm clothes, food. On the Kifri road there is a fuel station, about a kilometre from the Kirkuk road. I ask little of you. It is about the love that I have for you and for our children. It is the chance of a short freedom. It is for us. Please, be there…’

She said that it was difficult. Aziz replaced the receiver. He knew she would be at the fuel station. They had been married too long for her not to be there. He walked out of the building and across the compound, ringed by high lights. He was beyond middle age. She was plump and wide at the hips and her youth had gone. They had only each other, and their boys. He heard the cry in the night. He wondered if the torturer would need to sleep, would go to a cot bed to rest, wondered if the torturer’s need to sleep and rest would win him the time to drive south to a fuel station eighty-five kilometres away and meet those he loved, take them towards Kifri then strike out for the jebel ridge, and cross the lines.

He knew of many who had failed to find an unguarded track, and he had heard of a few who had successfully crossed the lines and then been captured by the peshmerga and handed back to the soldiers at an outpost for a cash reward. The wife he loved tolerated the regime in helpless resignation, never complained at the shortages of equipment and drugs in the hospital, merely stoically endured. The children he loved went to the school, believed implicitly what their teachers told them of the evil of Iraq’s enemies, stood each morning facing the smiling image of the President and chanted their support, were proud that their father served him. He would tell them, on the road beyond the fuel station, that their tolerance and pride was a fraud. He would lead them, as fleeing refugees, towards the patrols and the strong points and he did not know whether they would curse him.

He settled on the floor of his room, in a corner where he faced the door. The dog was on his lap and the rifle in his hands.