Folio — From the April 2013 issue

A Delicate Truth

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On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom. His very British features, though pleasant and plainly honorable, indicated a choleric nature brought to the limit of its endurance. A distraught lecturer, you might have thought, observing the bookish forward lean and loping stride and the errant forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that repeatedly had to be disciplined with jerky backhanded shoves of the bony wrist. Certainly it would not have occurred to many people, even in their most fanciful dreams, that he was a middle-ranking British civil servant, hauled from his desk in one of the more prosaic departments of Her Majesty’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office to be dispatched on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity.

His assumed first name, as he insisted on repeating to himself, sometimes half aloud, was Paul, and his second — not exactly hard to remember — was Anderson. If he turned on the television set it said Welcome, Mr. Paul Anderson. Why not enjoy a complimentary pre-dinner aperitif in our Lord Nelson’s Snug! The exclamation mark in place of the more appropriate question mark was a source of constant annoyance to the pedant in him. He was wearing the hotel’s bathrobe of white toweling and he had been wearing it ever since his incarceration, except when vainly trying to sleep or, once only, slinking upstairs at an unsociable hour to eat alone in a rooftop brasserie washed with the fumes of chlorine from a third-floor swimming pool across the road. Like much else in the room, the bathrobe, too short for his long legs, reeked of stale cigarette smoke and lavender air freshener.

As he paced, he determinedly acted out his feelings to himself without the restraints customary in his official life, his features one moment cramped in honest perplexity, the next glowering in the full-length mirror that was screwed to the tartan wallpaper. Here and there he spoke to himself by way of relief or exhortation. Also half aloud? What was the difference when you were banged up in an empty room with nobody to listen to you but a color-tinted photograph of our dear young Queen on a brown horse?

On a plastic-topped table lay the remnants of a club sandwich that he had pronounced dead on arrival, and an abandoned bottle of warm Coca-Cola. Though it came hard to him, he had permitted himself no alcohol since he had taken possession of the room. The bed, which he had learned to detest as no other, was large enough for six, but he had only to stretch out on it for his back to give him hell. A radiant crimson counterpane of imitation silk lay over it, and on the counterpane an innocent-looking cell phone which he had been assured was modified to the highest state of encryption, and, though he was of little faith in such matters, he could only suppose it was. Each time he passed it, his gaze fixed on it with a mixture of reproach, longing, and frustration.

I regret to inform you, Paul, that you will be totally incommunicado, save for operational purposes, throughout your mission, the laborious South African voice of Elliot, his self-designated field commander, is warning him. Should an unfortunate crisis afflict your fine family during your absence they will pass their concerns to your office’s welfare department, whereupon contact with you will be made. Do I make myself clear, Paul?

You do, Elliot, little by little you do.

Reaching the overlarge picture window at the further end of the room, he scowled upward through the grimy net curtains at Gibraltar’s legendary Rock which, sallow, wrinkled, and remote, scowled back at him like an angry dowager. Yet again, out of habit and impatience, he examined his alien wristwatch and compared it with the green numerals on the radio clock beside the bed. The watch was of battered steel with a black dial, a replacement for the gold Cartier presented to him on their twenty-fifth by his beloved wife on the strength of an inheritance from one of her many deceased aunts.

But hang on a minute! Paul hasn’t got a bloody wife! Paul Anderson has no wife, no daughter. Paul Anderson’s a bloody hermit!

“Can’t have you wearing that, Paul darling, can we now?” a motherly woman his own age is saying to him a lifetime ago in the redbrick suburban villa near Heathrow airport where she and her sisterly colleague are dressing him for the part. “Not with those nice initials engraved on it, can we? You’d have to say you’d nicked it off of somebody married, wouldn’t you, Paul?”

Sharing the joke, determined as ever to be a good chap by his own lights, he looks on while she writes Paul on an adhesive label and locks his gold watch away in a cashbox with his wedding ring for what she calls the duration.

How in God’s name did I ever get to end up in this hellhole in the first place?

Did I jump or was I pushed? Or was it a bit of both?

Describe, please, in a few well-chosen circuits of the room, the precise circumstances of your unlikely journey from blessed monotony to solitary confinement on a British colonial rock.

 So how’s your poor dear wife?” asks the not-quite-superannuated ice queen of the Personnel Department, now grandly rechristened Human Resources for no reason known to man, having summoned him without a word of explanation to her lofty bower on a Friday evening when all good citizens are hurrying home. The two are old adversaries. If they have anything at all in common, it is the feeling that there are so few of them left.

“Thank you, Audrey, not poor at all, I am pleased to say,” he replies, with the determined levity he affects for such life-threatening encounters. “Dear but not poor. She remains in full remission. And you? In the pink of health, I trust?”

“So she’s leavable,” Audrey suggests, ignoring this kindly inquiry.

“My hat, no! In what sense?” — determinedly keeping up the jolly banter.

“In this sense: would four super-secret days abroad in a salubrious climate, just possibly running to five, be of any interest to you?”

“They could be of considerable possible interest, thank you, Audrey, as it happens. Our grown-up daughter is living with us at the moment, so the timing could scarcely be better, given that she happens to be a medical doctor,” he can’t resist adding in his pride, but Audrey remains unimpressed by his daughter’s accomplishment.

“I don’t know what it’s about and I don’t have to,” she says, answering a question that he hasn’t put to her. “There’s a dynamic young junior minister called Quinn upstairs whom you may have heard of. He’d like to see you immediately. He’s a new broom, in case word hasn’t reached you in the far wastes of Logistical Contingencies, recently acquired from Defence — hardly a recommendation but there you are.”

What on earth’s she on about? Of course such news has reached him. He reads his newspapers, doesn’t he? He watches Newsnight. Fergus Quinn, MP, Fergie to the world, is a Scottish brawler, a self-styled bête intellectuelle of the New Labour stable. On television he is vocal, belligerent, and alarming. Moreover, he prides himself on being the people’s scourge of Whitehall’s bureaucracy — a commendable virtue viewed from afar, but scarcely reassuring if you happen to be a Whitehall bureaucrat.

“You mean now, this minute, Audrey?”

“That is what I understand him to mean by immediately.

The ministerial anteroom is empty, its staff long departed. The ministerial mahogany door, solid as iron, stands ajar. Knock and wait? Or knock and push? He does a little of both, hears: “Don’t just stand there. Come on in, and close the door behind you.” He enters.

The dynamic young minister’s bulk is squeezed into a midnight-blue dinner jacket. He is poised with a cell phone to his ear before a marble fireplace stuffed with red paper foil for flames. As on television, so in the flesh, he is stocky and thick-necked with close-cropped ginger hair and quick, greedy eyes set in a pugilist’s face.

Behind him rises a twelve-foot portrait of an eighteenth-century Empire-builder in tights. For a mischievous moment brought on by tension, the comparison between the two such different men is irresistible. Though Quinn strenuously purports to be a man of the people, both have the pout of privileged discontent. Both have their body weight on one leg and the other knee cocked. Is the dynamic young minister about to launch a punitive raid on the hated French? Will he, in the name of New Labour, berate the folly of the howling mob? He does neither, but with a gritty “Call you later, Brad” for his cell phone, stomps to the door, locks it, and swings round.

“They tell me you’re a seasoned member of the Service, that right?” he says accusingly, in his carefully nurtured Glaswegian accent, after a head-to-toe inspection that seems to confirm his worst fears. “Cool head, whatever that means. Twenty years of kicking around in foreign parts, according to Human Resources. Soul of discretion, not easily rattled. That’s quite a write-up. Not that I necessarily believe what I’m told around here.”

“They’re very kind,” he replies.

“And you’re grounded. Confined to barracks. Out to grass. Your wife’s health has kept you back, is that correct, please?”

“But only as of the last few years, Minister” — less than grateful for out to grass — “and for the moment I’m quite at liberty to travel, I’m happy to say.”

“And your present job is — ? Remind me, please.”

He is about to do so, emphasizing his many indispensable responsibilities, but the minister impatiently cuts him short:

“All right. Here’s my question. Have you had any direct experience of secret intelligence work? You personally,” he warns, as if there is another you who is less personal.

Direct in what sense would that be, Minister?”

“Cloak-and-dagger stuff, what d’you think?”

“Only as a consumer, alas. An occasional one. Of the product. Not of the means of obtaining it, if that’s your question, Minister.”

“Not even when you were kicking around in those foreign parts that nobody has had the grace to itemize for me?”

“Alas, one’s overseas postings tended to be largely economic, commercial, or consular,” he explains, resorting to the linguistic archaisms he affects whenever he feels threatened. “Obviously, from time to time, one had access to the odd secret report — none of it high-level, I hasten to say. That, I’m afraid, is the long and short of it.”

But the minister appears momentarily encouraged by this lack of conspiratorial experience, for a smile of something like complacency flits across his broad features.

“But you’re a safe pair of hands, right? Untried maybe, but safe, for all that.”

“Well, one likes to think so” — diffidently.

“CT ever come your way?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Counterterrorism, man! Has it come your way or not?” — spoken as to an idiot.

“I fear not, Minister.”

“But you care? Yes?”

“About what exactly, Minister?” — as helpfully as he may.

“The well-being of our nation, for Christ’s sake! The safety of our people, wheresoever they may be. Our core values in times of adversity. All right, our heritage, if you like” — using the word like an anti-Tory swipe. “You’re not some limp-wristed closet liberal harboring secret thoughts about terrorists’ right to blow the fucking world to pieces, for example.”

“No, Minister, I think I may safely say I am not,” he mumbles.

But the minister, far from sharing his embarrassment, compounds it:

“So then. If I were to tell you that the extremely delicate assignment I have in mind for you involves depriving the terrorist enemy of the means to launch a premeditated assault on our homeland, you would not immediately walk away, I take it?”

“To the contrary. I should be — well —”

“You should be what?”

“Gratified. Privileged. Proud, in fact. But somewhat surprised, obviously.”

“Surprised by what, pray?” — like a man insulted.

“Well, not mine to inquire, Minister, but why me? I’m sure the Office has its fair share of people with the type of experience you’re looking for.”

Fergus Quinn, man of the people, swings away to the bay window and, with his chin thrust aggressively forward over his evening tie, and the tie’s fixing awkwardly protruding from the cushions of flesh at the back of his neck, contemplates the golden gravel of Horse Guards Parade in the evening sunlight.

“If I were further to tell you that for the remainder of your natural life you will not by word or deed or any other means reveal the fact that a certain counterterror operation was so much as considered, let alone executed” — casting round indignantly for a way out of the verbal labyrinth he has talked himself into — “does that turn you on or off?”

“Minister, if you consider me the right man, I shall be happy to accept the assignment, whatever it may be. And you have my solemn assurance of permanent and absolute discretion,” he insists, coloring up a bit in his irritation at having his loyalty hauled out and examined before his own eyes.

Shoulders hunched in the best Churchillian mode, Quinn remains framed at the bay window, as if waiting impatiently for the photographers to finish their work.

“There are certain bridges that have to be negotiated,” he announces severely to his own reflection. “There’s a certain green light that has to be given by some fairly crucial people up and down the road there” — butting his bullish head in the direction of Downing Street. “When we get it — if we do and not until — you’ll be informed. Thereafter, and for such time as I deem appropriate, you will be my eyes and ears on the ground. No sweetening the pill, you understand? None of your Foreign Office obfuscation or persiflage. Not on my watch, thank you. You’ll give it me straight, exactly the way you see it. The cool view, through the eyes of the old pro. Are you hearing me?”

“Perfectly, Minister. I hear you and I understand exactly what you are saying” — his own voice, speaking to him from a distant cloud.

“Have you got any Pauls in your family?”

“I’m sorry, Minister?”

“Jesus Christ! It’s a simple enough question, isn’t it? Is any man in your family named Paul? Yes or no. Brother, father, what do I know?”

“None. Not a Paul in sight, I’m afraid.”

“And no Paulines? The female version. Paulette, or whatever?”

“Definitely none.”

“How about Anderson? No Andersons around at all? Maiden name, Anderson?”

“Again, not to my knowledge, Minister.”

“And you’re in reasonable nick. Physically. A stiff walk over rugged terrain isn’t going to cause you to go faint at the knees in the manner that certain others around here might be afflicted?”

“I walk energetically. And I’m a keen gardener” — from the same distant cloud.

“Wait for a call from a man named Elliot. Elliot will be your first indication.”

“And would Elliot be his surname or given name, I wonder?” he hears himself inquire soothingly, as if of a maniac.

“How the fuck should I know? He’s operating in total secrecy under the aegis of an organization best known as Ethical Outcomes. New boys on the block, and up there with the best in the field, I’m assured on expert advice.”

“Forgive me, Minister. What field would that be, exactly?”

“Private defense contractors. Where’ve you been? Name of the game these days. War’s gone corporate, in case you haven’t noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint. Try a couple of years at Defence if you don’t believe me.”

“Oh I do, Minister” — startled by this wholesale dismissal of British arms, but anxious to humor the man nonetheless.

“You’re trying to flog your house. Right? Harrow or somewhere.”

“Harrow is correct” — now past surprise — “North Harrow.”

“Cash problems?”

“Oh no, far from it, I’m thankful to say!” he exclaims, grateful to be returned if only momentarily to earth. “I have a little bit of my own, and my wife has come into a modest inheritance which includes a country property. We plan to sell our present house while the market holds, and live small until we make the move.”

“Elliot will say he wants to buy your house in Harrow. He won’t say he’s from Ethical or anywhere else. He’s seen the ads in the estate agent’s window or wherever, looked it over from the outside, likes it, but there are issues he needs to discuss. He’ll suggest a place and time to meet. You’re to go along with whatever he proposes. That’s the way these people work. Any further questions?”

Has he asked any?

“Meantime, you play totally normal man. Not a word to anyone. Not here in the Office, not at home. Is that clearly understood?”

Not understood. Not from Adam. But a wholehearted, mystified “yes” to all of it, and no very clear memory of how he got home that night, after a restorative Friday-evening visit to his Pall Mall club.

Bowed over his computer while wife and daughter chatter merrily in the next room, Paul Anderson–elect searches for Ethical Outcomes. Do you mean Ethical Outcomes Incorporated of Houston, Texas? For want of other information, yes, he does.

 

With our brand-new international team of uniquely qualified geopolitical thinkers, we at Ethical offer innovative, insightful, cutting-edge analyses of risk assessment to major corporate and national entities. At Ethical we pride ourselves on our integrity, due diligence, and up-to-the-minute cyber skills. Close protection and hostage negotiators available at immediate notice. Marlon will respond to your personal and confidential inquiries.

 

Email address and box number also in Houston, Texas. Toll-free phone number for your personal and confidential inquiries of Marlon. No names of directors, officers, advisers, or uniquely qualified geopolitical thinkers. No Elliot, first name or surname. The parent company of Ethical Outcomes is Spencer Hardy Holdings, a multinational corporation whose interests include oil, wheat, timber, beef, property development, and not-for-profit initiatives. The same parent company also endows evangelical foundations, faith schools, and Bible missions.

For further information about Ethical Outcomes, enter your key code. Possessing no such key code, and assailed by a sense of trespass, he abandons his researches.

A week passes. Each morning over breakfast, all day long in the office, each evening when he comes home from work, he plays Totally Normal Man as instructed, and waits for the great call that may or may not come, or come when it’s least expected: which is what it does early one morning while his wife is sleeping off her medication and he’s pottering in the kitchen in his check shirt and corduroys washing up last night’s supper things and telling himself he really must get a hold of that back lawn. The phone rings, he picks it up, gives a cheery “Good morning,” and it’s Elliot, who, sure enough, has seen the ads in the estate agent’s window and is seriously interested in buying the house.

Except that his name isn’t Elliot but Illiot, thanks to the South African accent.

Is Elliot one of Ethical Outcomes’ brand-new international team of uniquely qualified geopolitical thinkers? It’s possible, though not apparent. In the bare office in a poky side street off Paddington Street Gardens where the two men sit a mere ninety minutes later, Elliot wears a sober Sunday suit and a striped tie with baby parachutes on it. Cabalistic rings adorn the three fattest fingers of his manicured left hand. He has a shiny cranium, is olive-skinned, pockmarked, and disturbingly muscular. His gaze, now quizzing his guest in flirtatious flicks, now slipping sideways at the grimy walls, is colorless. His spoken English is so elaborate you’d think it was being marked for accuracy and pronunciation.

Extracting a nearly new British passport from a drawer, Elliot licks his thumb and flips officiously through its pages.

“Manila, Singapore, Dubai: these are but a few of the fine cities where you have attended statisticians’ conferences. Do you understand that, Paul?”

Paul understands that.

“Should a nosy individual sitting next to you on the plane inquire what takes you to Gibraltar, you tell them it’s yet another statisticians’ conference. After that you tell them to mind their fucking business. Gibraltar does a strong line in Internet gambling, not all of it kosher. The gambling bosses don’t like their little people talking out of turn. I must now ask you, Paul, very frankly, please, do you have any concerns whatever regarding your personal cover?”

“Well, maybe just the one concern actually, Elliot, yes, I do,” he admits, after due consideration.

“Name it, Paul. Feel free.”

“It’s just that being a Brit — and a foreign servant who’s been around the halls a bit — entering a prime British territory as a different Brit — well, it’s a bit” — hunting for a word — “a bit bloody iffy, frankly.”

Elliot’s small, circular eyes return to him, staring but not blinking.

“I mean, couldn’t I just go as myself and take my chances? We both know I’m going to have to lie low. But should it happen that, contrary to our best calculations, I do bump into someone I know, or someone who knows me, more to the point, then at least I can be who I am. Me, I mean. Instead of —”

“Instead of what exactly, Paul?”

“Well, instead of pretending to be some phony statistician called Paul Anderson. I mean, who’s ever going to believe a cock-and-bull story like that, if they know perfectly well who I am? I mean, honestly, Elliot” — feeling the heat coming into his face and not able to stop it — “Her Majesty’s Government has got a bloody great tri-Services headquarters in Gibraltar. Not to mention a substantial Foreign Office presence and a king-sized listening station. And a Special Forces training camp. It only takes one chap we haven’t thought of to jump out of the woodwork and embrace me as a long-lost chum and I’m — well, scuppered. And what do I know about statistics, come to that? Bugger all. Don’t mean to question your expertise, Elliot. And of course I’ll do whatever it takes. Just asking.”

“Is that the complete sum of your anxieties, Paul?” Elliot inquires solicitously.

“Of course. Absolutely. Just making the point.” And wishing he hadn’t, but how the hell d’you throw logic out of the window?

Elliot moistens his lips, frowns, and in carefully fractured English replies as follows:

“It is a fact, Paul, that nobody in Gibraltar will give a five-dollar fuck who you are for as long as you flash your British passport at them and keep your head below the horizon at all times. However: it’s your balls that will be in the direct line of fire, should we strike worst-case scenario, which it is my bounden duty to consider. Let us take the hypothetical case of the operation aborting in a manner not foreseen by its expert planners, of whom I pride myself as being one. Was there an inside man? they may ask. And who is this scholarly wanker Anderson who skulked in his hotel room reading books all day and all night? — they will start to wonder. Where is this Anderson to be found, in a colony no bigger than a fucking golf course? If that situation were to arise, I suspect you’d be grateful indeed not to have been the person you are in reality. Happy now, Paul?”

Happy as a sandboy, Elliot. Couldn’t be happier. Totally out of my element, whole thing like a dream, but with you all the way. But then, noticing that Elliot looks a bit put out, and fearing that the detailed briefing he is about to receive will kick off on a bad note, he goes for a bit of bonding:

“So where does a highly qualified chap like you fit into the scheme of things, if I may ask without being intrusive, Elliot?”

Elliot’s voice acquires the sanctimoniousness of the pulpit:

“I sincerely thank you for that question, Paul. I am a man of arms; it is my life. I have fought wars large and small, mostly on the continent of Africa. During these exploits I was fortunate enough to encounter a man whose sources of intelligence are legendary, not to say uncanny. His worldwide contacts speak to him as to no other in the safe knowledge that he will use their information in the furtherance of democratic principles and liberty. Operation Wildlife, the details of which I shall now unveil to you, is his personal brainchild.”

And it is Elliot’s proud statement that elicits the obvious, if sycophantic, question:

“And may one ask, Elliot, whether this great man has a name?”

“Paul, you are now and forevermore family. I will therefore tell you without restraint that the founder and driving force of Ethical Outcomes is a gentleman whose name, in strictest confidence, is Mr. Jay Crispin.”

Return to Harrow by black cab.

Elliot says, From now on keep all receipts. Pay off cabbie, keep receipt.

Google Jay Crispin.

Jay is nineteen and lives in Paignton, Devon. She is a waitress.

J. Crispin, Veneer Makers, began life in Shoreditch in 1900.

Jay Crispin auditions for models, actors, musicians, and dancers.

But of Jay Crispin, the driving force of Ethical Outcomes and mastermind of Operation Wildlife, not a glimpse.

Stuck once more at the overlarge window of his hotel prison, the man who must call himself Paul emitted a weary string of mindless obscenities, more in the modern way than his own. Fuck — then double fuck. Then more fucks, loosed off in a bored patter of gunfire aimed at the cell phone on the bed and ending with an appeal — Ring, you little bugger, ring — only to discover that somewhere inside or outside his head the same cell phone, no longer mute, was chirruping back at him with its infuriating diddly-ah, diddly-ah, diddly-ah dee-dah-doh.

He remained at the window, frozen in disbelief. It’s next door’s fat Greek with a beard, singing in the shower. It’s those horny lovers upstairs: he’s grunting, she’s howling, I’m hallucinating.

Then all he wanted in the world was to go to sleep and wake up when it was over. But by then he was at the bed, clutching the encrypted cell phone to his ear but, out of some aberrant sense of security, not speaking.

“Paul? Are you there, Paul? It’s me. Kirsty, remember?”

Kirsty the part-time minder he’d never set eyes on. Her voice the only thing he knew about her: pert, imperious, and the rest of her imagined. Sometimes he wondered whether he detected a smothered Australian accent — a pair to Elliot’s South African. And sometimes he wondered what kind of body the voice might have, and at others whether it had a body at all.

Already he could catch its sharpened tone, its air of portent:

“You still okay up there, Paul?”

“Very much so, Kirsty. You, too, I trust?”

“Ready for some night birding, owls a speciality?”

It was part of Paul Anderson’s fatuous cover that his hobby was ornithology.

“Then here’s the update. It’s all systems go. Tonight. The Rosemaria left harbor bound for Gib five hours ago. Aladdin has booked his onboard guests into the Chinese on the Queensway Marina for a big lash-up tonight. He’s going to settle his guests in, then slide off on his own. His tryst with Punter confirmed for 2330. How’s about I pick you up from your hotel at 2100 hours cold? That’s 9 p.m. on the dot. Yes?”

“When do I join up with Jeb?”

“As soon as may be, Paul,” she retorted, with the extra edge in her voice for whenever the name Jeb was mentioned between them. “It’s all arranged. Your friend Jeb will be waiting. You dress for the birds. You do not check out. Agreed?”

It had been agreed all of two days ago.

“You bring your passport and your wallet. You pack up your possessions nicely, but you leave them in your room. You hand your room key in at the desk like you’re going to be back late. Want to stand on the hotel steps so’s you don’t have to hang around the lobby and get stared at by the tour groups?”

“Fine. I’ll do that. Good idea.”

They’d agreed on that, too.

“Look out for a blue Toyota four-by-four, shiny, new. Red sign on the passenger-side windscreen saying conference.

For the third time since he had arrived, she insisted they compare watches, which he considered a needless excursion in these days of quartz, until he realized he’d been doing the same thing with the bedside clock. One hour and fifty-two minutes to go.

She had rung off. He was back in solitary. Is it really me? Yes, it is. It’s me the safe pair of hands, and they’re sweating.

He peered round him with a prisoner’s perplexity, taking stock of the cell that had become his home: the books he had brought with him and hadn’t been able to read a line of. Simon Schama on the French Revolution. Montefiore’s biography of Jerusalem: by now, in better circumstances, he’d have devoured them both. The handbook of Mediterranean birds they’d forced on him. His eye drifted to his arch-enemy: the Chair That Smelt Of Piss. He’d sat half of last night in it after the bed had ejected him. Sit in it one more time? Treat himself to another watch of The Dam Busters? Or might Laurence Olivier’s Henry V do a better job of persuading the God of Battles to steel his soldier’s heart? Or how about another spot of Vatican-censored soft porn to get the old juices flowing?

Yanking open the rickety wardrobe, he fished out Paul Anderson’s green wheelie bag plastered with travel labels and set to work packing into it the junk that made up an itinerant bird-watching statistician’s fictional identity. Then he sat on the bed watching the encrypted phone recharge, because he had an unappeasable fear it would run out on him at the crucial moment.

In the lift a middle-aged couple in green blazers asked him if he came from Liverpool. Alas, he didn’t. Then was he one of the group? Afraid not: what group would that be? But by then his posh voice and eccentric outdoor gear were enough for them and they left him to himself.

Arriving at the ground floor, he stepped into a seething, howling hubbub of humanity. Amid festoons of green ribbon and balloons, a flashing sign proclaimed St. Patrick’s Day. An accordion was screeching out Irish folk music. Burly men and women in green Guinness bonnets were dancing. A drunken woman with her bonnet askew seized his head, kissed him on the lips, and told him he was her lovely boy.

Jostling and apologizing, he fought his way to the hotel steps, where a cluster of guests stood waiting for their cars. He took a deep breath and caught the scents of bay and honey mingled with the oil fumes. Above him, the shrouded stars of a Mediterranean night. He was dressed as he’d been told to dress: stout boots, and don’t forget your anorak, Paul, the Med at night gets nippy. And zipped over his heart in the anorak’s inside pocket, his super-encrypted cell phone. He could feel its weight on his left nipple — which didn’t prevent his fingers from making their own furtive exploration.

A shiny Toyota four-by-four had joined the queue of arriving cars, and yes it was blue and yes there was a red sign saying conference on the passenger side of the windscreen. Two white faces up front, the driver male, bespectacled, and young. The girl compact and efficient, leaping out like a yachtswoman, hauling back the side door.

“You’re Arthur, right?” she yelled in best Australian.

“No, I’m Paul, actually.”

“Oh right, you’re Paul! Sorry about that. Arthur’s next stop. I’m Kirsty. Great to meet you, Paul. Hop right in!”

Agreed safety formula. Typical overproduction, but never mind. He hopped, and was alone on the rear seat. The side door slammed shut and the four-by-four nosed its way between the white gateposts, on to the cobbled road.

“And this here’s Hansi,” Kirsty said over the back of her seat. “Hansi’s part of the team. ‘Ever watchful’ — right, Hansi? That’s his motto. Want to say hullo to the gentleman, Hansi?”

“Welcome aboard, Paul,” said Ever-Watchful Hansi, without turning his head. Could be an American voice, could be German. War’s gone corporate.

They were driving between high stone walls and he was drinking in every sight and sound at once: the blare of jazz from a passing bar, the obese English couples quaffing tax-free booze at their outdoor tables, the tattoo parlor with its embroidered torso in low-slung jeans, the barber’s shop with 1960s hairstyles, the bowed old man in a yarmulke wheeling a baby’s pram, and the curio shop selling statuettes of greyhounds, flamenco dancers, and Jesus and his disciples.

Kirsty had turned to examine him by the passing lights. Her bony face, freckled from the outback. Short dark hair tucked into the bush hat. No makeup, and nothing behind the eyes: or nothing for him. The jaw crammed into the crook of her forearm while she gave him the once-over. The body indecipherable under the bulk of a quilted bush jacket.

“Left everything in your room, Paul? Like we told you?”

“All packed up, as you said.”

“Including the bird book?”

“Including it.”

Into a dark side street, washing slung across it. Decrepit shutters, crumbling plaster, graffiti demanding brits go home! Back into the blaze of city lights.

“And you didn’t check out of your room? By mistake or something.”

“The lobby was chockablock. I couldn’t have checked out if I’d tried.”

“How about the room key?”

In my bloody pocket. Feeling an idiot, he dropped it into her waiting hand and watched her pass it to Hansi.

“We’re doing the tour, right? Elliot says to show you the facts on the ground, so’s you have the visual image.”

“Fine.”

“We’re heading for Upper Rock, so we’re taking in the Queensway Marina on the way. That’s the Rosemaria out there now. She arrived an hour ago. See it?”

“See it.”

“That’s where Aladdin always anchors, and those are his personal steps to the dockside. Nobody’s allowed to use them except him: he has property interests in the colony. He’s still aboard, and his guests are running late, still powdering their noses before they go ashore for their slap-up dinner at the Chinese. Everybody eyeballs the Rosemaria, so you can, too. Just keep it relaxed. There’s no law says you can’t take a relaxed look at a thirty-million-dollar super-yacht.”

Was it the excitement of the chase? Or just the relief of being got out of prison? Or was it the simple prospect of serving his country in a way he’d never dreamed of? Whatever it was, a wave of patriotic fervor swept over him as centuries of British imperial conquest received him. The statues to great admirals and generals, the cannons, redoubts, bastions, the bruised air-raid precaution signs directing our stoical defenders to their nearest shelter, the Gurkha-style warriors standing guard with fixed bayonets outside the Governor’s residence, the bobbies in their baggy British uniforms: he was heir to all of it. Even the dismal rows of fish-and-chip shops built into elegant Spanish façades were like a homecoming.

A flash-glimpse of cannons, then of war memorials, one British, one American. Welcome to Ocean Village, hellish canyon of apartment blocks with balconies of blue glass for ocean waves. Enter a private road with gates and a guard-box, no sign of a guard. Below, a forest of white masts, a ceremonial, carpeted landing bay, a row of boutiques, and the Chinese restaurant where Aladdin has booked his slap-up dinner.

And out to sea in all her splendor, the Rosemaria, lit overall with fairy lights. The windows on her middle deck blacked out. The salon windows translucent. Burly men hovering among the empty tables. Alongside her, at the foot of a gold-plated ship’s ladder, a sleek motorboat with two crew in white uniforms waiting to ferry Aladdin and his guests ashore.

Aladdin is basically a mixed-race Pole who has taken out Lebanese citizenship,” Elliot is explaining, in the little room in Paddington. “Aladdin is the Pole I personally would not touch with a barge, to coin a witticism. Aladdin is the most unprincipled fucking merchant of death on the face of this earth bar none, plus also the chosen intimate of the worst dregs of international society. The principal item on his list will be Manpads, I am given to understand.”

Manpads, Elliot?

“Twenty of them at last count. State of the art, very durable, very deadly.”

Allow time for Elliot’s bald, superior smile and slippy glance.

“A Manpad, technically, is your man-portable air-defense system, Paul, Manpad being what I call an acronym. As a weapon known by the same acronym, your Manpad is so lightweight that a kid can handle one. It also happens to be just the item if you are contemplating bringing down an unarmed airliner. Such is the mentality of these murderous shits.”

“But will Aladdin have them with him, Elliot, the Manpads? Now? On the night? On board the Rosemaria?” he asks, playing the innocent because that’s what Elliot seems to like best.

“According to our leader’s reliable and exclusive intelligence sources, the Manpads in question are part of a somewhat larger inventory of sale comprising top-of-the-range anti-tanks, rocket-propelleds, and best-brand assault rifles from state arsenals around the known bad world. As in the famous Arabian fairy tale, Aladdin has stashed his treasure in the desert, hence the choice of name. He will notify the successful bidder of its whereabouts when — and only when — he has cut the deal, in this case with none other than Punter himself. Ask me what is the purpose of the meeting between Aladdin and Punter, and I will reply that it is in order to set the parameters of the deal, the terms of payment in gold, and the eventual inspection of goods prior to handover.”

The Toyota had left the marina and was negotiating a grass roundabout of palm trees and pansies.

“Boys and girls neat and tidy, everyone in place,” Kirsty was reporting in a monotone over her cell phone.

Boys, girls? Where? What have I missed? He must have asked her:

“Two parties of four watchers sitting in the Chinese, waiting for the Aladdin party to show up. Two walk-by couples. One tame taxi and two motorcyclists for when he sneaks away from the party,” she recited, as to a child who hasn’t been paying attention.

They shared a strained silence. She thinks I’m surplus to requirements. She thinks I’m the Limey know-nothing striped-pants parachuted in to make difficulties.

“So when do I get to meet up with Jeb?” he insisted, not for the first time.

“Your friend Jeb will be ready and waiting for you at the rendezvous as per schedule, like I told you.”

“He’s why I’m here,” he said too loud, feeling his gall rising. “Jeb and his men can’t go in without my say-so. That was the understanding from the start.”

“We’re aware of that, thank you, Paul, and Elliot’s aware of it. The sooner you and your friend Jeb hook up and the two teams are talking, the sooner we can get this thing squared away and go home. Okay?”

He needed Jeb. He needed his own.

The traffic had gone. The trees were shorter here, the sky bigger. He counted off the landmarks. St. Bernard’s Church. The Mosque of Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim, its minaret lit white. The shrine to Our Lady of Europe. Each of them branded on his memory thanks to mindless leafings through the greasy hotel guidebook. Out to sea, an armada of lighted freighters at anchor. The seaborne boys will operate out of Ethical’s mother ship, Elliot is saying.

The sky had vanished. This tunnel is not a tunnel. It’s a disused mine shaft. It’s an air-raid shelter. Crooked girders, sloppy walls of breeze block and rough-cut cliff. Neon strips flying overhead, white road markings keeping pace with them. Festoons of black wiring. A sign saying look out for falling stones! Potholes, rivulets of brown floodwater, an iron doorway leading to God knew where. Has Punter passed this way today? Is he hovering behind a doorway with one of his twenty Manpads? Punter’s not just high value, Paul. In the words of Mr. Jay Crispin, Punter is stratospheric: Elliot again.

Pillars like the gateway to another world coming at them as they emerge from the belly of the Rock and land on a road cut into the cliff. A hefty wind is rattling the coachwork, a half-moon has appeared at the top of the windscreen, and the Toyota is bumping along the nearside verge. Beneath them, lights of coastal settlements. Beyond them, the pitch-black mountains of Spain. And out to sea, the same motionless armada of freight ships.

“Sides only,” Kirsty ordered.

Hansi doused the headlights.

“Cut the engine.”

To the furtive mutter of wheels on crumbling tarmac, they rolled forward. Ahead of them, a red pin-light flashed twice, then a third time, closer at hand.

“Stop now.”

They stopped. Kirsty slammed back the side door, letting in a blast of cold wind, and the steady din of engines from the sea. Across the valley, moonlit cloud was curling up the ravines and rolling like gun smoke along the Rock’s ridge. A car sped out of the tunnel behind them and raked the hillside with its headlights, leaving a deeper darkness.

“Paul, your friend’s here.”

Seeing no friend, he slid across to the open door. In front of him, Kirsty was leaning forward, pulling the back of her seat after her as if she couldn’t wait to let him out. He started to lower his feet to the ground and heard the scream of insomniac gulls and the zip-zip of crickets. Two gloved hands reached out of the darkness to steady him. Behind them hunched little Jeb with his paint-dappled face glistening inside his pushed-back balaclava, and a lamp like a cyclopic eye stuck to his forehead.

“Good to see you again, Paul. Try these for size, then,” he murmured in his gentle Welsh lilt.

“And jolly good to see you, Jeb, I must say,” he answered fervently, accepting the goggles and grasping Jeb’s hand in return. It was the Jeb he remembered: compact, calm, nobody’s man but his own.

“Hotel okay then, Paul?”

“The absolute bloody pits. How’s yours?”

“Come and have a see, man. All mod cons. Tread where I tread. Slow and easy. And if you see a falling stone, be sure and duck, now.”

Was that a joke? He grinned anyway. The Toyota was driving down the hill, job done and goodnight. He put on the goggles and the world turned green. Raindrops, driven on the wind, smashed themselves like insects in front of his eyes. Jeb was wading ahead of him up the hillside, the miner’s torch on his forehead lighting the way. There was no track except where he trod. I’m on the grouse moor with my father, scrambling through gorse ten feet high, except that this hillside had no gorse, just stubborn tufts of sand grass that kept dragging at his ankles. Some men you lead, and some men you follow, his father, a retired general, used to say. Well, with Jeb, you follow.

The ground evened out. The wind eased and rose again, the ground with it. He heard the putter of a helicopter overhead. Mr. Crispin will be providing the full American-style coverage, Elliot had proclaimed, on a note of corporate pride. Fuller than you will ever be required to know, Paul. Highly sophisticated equipment will be standard for all, plus a Predator drone for observation purposes is by no means beyond his operational budget.

The climb steeper now, the earth part fallen rock, part windblown sand. Now his foot struck a bolt, a bit of steel rod, a sheet-anchor. Once — but Jeb’s hand was waiting to point it out to him — a stretch of metal catch-net that he had to clamber over.

“You’re doing fine, Paul. And the lizards don’t bite you, not in Gib. They call them skinks here, don’t ask me why. You’re a family man, right?” — and getting a spontaneous “yes” — “Who’ve you got then, Paul? No disrespect.”

“One wife, one daughter,” he replied breathlessly. “Girl’s a medical doctor” — thinking, oh Christ, forgot I was Paul and single, but what the hell — “How about you, Jeb?”

“One great wife, one boy, five years old next week. Crackerjack, same as yours, I expect.”

A car emerged from the tunnel behind them. He made to drop into a crouch, but Jeb was holding him upright with a grip so tight he gasped.

“Nobody can spot us unless we move, see,” he explained in his same comfortable Welsh undertone. “It’s a hundred meters up and pretty steep now, but not a bother for you, I’m sure. A bit of a traverse, then we’re home. It’s only the three boys and me” — as if there were nothing to be shy of.

And steep it was, with thickets and slipping sand, and another catch-net to negotiate, and Jeb’s gloved hand waiting if he stumbled, but he didn’t. Suddenly they had arrived. Three men in combat gear and headsets, one of them taller than the rest, were lounging on a tarpaulin, drinking from tin mugs and watching computer screens as if they were watching Saturday-afternoon football.

The hide was built into the steel frame of a catch-net. Its walls were of matted foliage and shrub. Even from a few feet away, and without Jeb to guide him, he might have walked clean past it. The computer screens were fixed at the end of pipe casings. You had to squint into the pipes to see them. A few misty stars glowed in the matted roof. A few strands of moonlight glinted on weaponry of a kind he’d never seen. Four packs of gear were lined up along one wall.

“So this is Paul, lads. Our man from the Ministry,” said Jeb beneath the rattle of the wind.

One by one, each man turned, drew off a leather glove, shook his hand too hard, and introduced himself.

“Don. Welcome to the Ritz, Paul.”

“Andy.”

“Shorty. Hullo, Paul. Make the climb all right, then?”

Shorty because he’s a foot taller than the rest of them: why else? Jeb handing him a mug of tea. Sweet with condensed milk. A lateral arrow-slit was fringed by foliage. The computer pipes were fixed below it, allowing a clear view down the hillside to the coastline and out to sea. To his left the same pitch-black hills of Spain, bigger now, and closer. Jeb lining him up to look at the left-hand screen. A rolling sequence of shots from hidden cameras: the marina, the Chinese restaurant, the fairy-lit Rosemaria. Switch to a shaky hand-held shot inside the Chinese restaurant. The camera at floor level. From the end of a long table in the window bay, an imperious fifty-year-old fat man in a nautical blazer and perfect hair gesticulates to his fellow diners. On his right, a sulky brunette half his age. Bare shoulders, showy breasts, diamond collar, and a downturned mouth.

Aladdin’s a twitchy bugger, Paul,” Shorty was confiding. “First he has a run-in with the headwaiter in English because there isn’t any lobster. Now his lady friend’s getting it in Arabic, and him a Pole. I’m surprised he doesn’t give her a thick ear, the way she’s carrying on. It’s like at home, right, Jeb?”

“Come over here a minute, Paul, please.”

With Jeb’s hand on his shoulder to guide him, he made a wide step to the middle screen. Alternating aerial and ground shots. Were they courtesy of the Predator drone that was by no means beyond Mr. Crispin’s operational budget? Or of the helicopter that he could hear idling overhead? A terrace of white houses, faced with weatherboarding, perched on the cliff’s edge. Stone staircases to the beach dividing them. The staircases leading down to a skimpy crescent of sand. A rock beach enclosed by jagged cliff. Orange street lamps. A metaled slip road leading from the terrace to the main coast road. No lights in the windows of the houses. No curtains.

And through the arrow-slit, the same terrace in plain sight.

“It’s a tear-down, see, Paul,” Jeb was explaining in his ear. “A Kuwaiti company’s going to put up a casino complex and a mosque. That’s why the houses are empty. Aladdin, he’s a director of the Kuwaiti company. Well now, according to what he’s been telling his guests, he’s got a confidential meeting with the developer tonight. Very lucrative, it will be. Shaving off the profits for themselves, according to his lady friend. You wouldn’t think a man like Aladdin would be so leaky, like, but he is.”

“Showing off,” Shorty explained. “Typical fucking Pole.”

“Is Punter already inside the house then?” he asked.

“Let’s say, if he is, we haven’t spotted him, Paul, put it that way,” Jeb replied in the same steady, deliberately conversational tone. “Not from the outside, and there’s no coverage inside. There hasn’t been the opportunity, so we’re told. Well, you can’t bug twenty houses all in one go, I don’t suppose, can you, not even with today’s equipment? Maybe he’s lying up in one house and sneaking into another for his meeting. We don’t know, do we, not yet? It’s wait and see and don’t go down there till you know who you’re taking on, ’specially if you’re looking for an al-Qaeda kingpin.”

Memories of Elliot’s clotted description of the same elusive figure come sweeping back to him:

I would basically describe Punter as your jihadist Pimpernel par excellence, Paul, not to say your will-o’-the-wisp. He eschews all means of electronic communication, including cell phones and harmless-seeming emails. It’s word of mouth only for Punter, and one courier at a time, never the same one twice.

“He could come at us from anywhere, Paul,” Shorty was explaining, perhaps to wind him up. “Over the mountains there. Up the Spanish coast by small boat. Or he could walk on the water if he felt like it. Right, Jeb?”

Cursory nod from Jeb. Jeb and Shorty, the tallest and the shortest men in the team: an attraction of opposites.

Or smuggle himself across from Morocco under the noses of the coastguards, right, Jeb? Or put on an Armani suit, and fly in Club on a Swiss passport. Or charter a private Lear, which is what I’d do, frankly. Having first ordered my special menu in advance from the highly attractive hostess in a miniskirt. Money to burn, Punter’s got, according to our amazing top-of-the-range source, right, Jeb?”

From the seaward side, the pitch-dark terrace was forbidding against the night sky, the beach a blackened no-man’s-land of craggy boulders and seething surf.

“How many men in the boat team?” he asked. “Elliot didn’t seem sure.”

“We got him down to eight,” Shorty replied, over Jeb’s shoulder. “Nine when they head back to the mother ship with Punter. They hope,” he added drily.

The conspirators will be unarmed, Paul, Elliot was saying. Such is the degree of trust between a pair of total bastards. No guns, no bodyguards. We tiptoe in, we grab our man, we tiptoe out, we were never there. Jeb’s boys push from the land, Ethical pulls from the sea.

Side by side with Jeb once more, he peered through the arrow-slit at the lighted freighters, then at the middle screen. One freighter lay apart from her companions. A Panamanian flag flapped from her stern. On her deck, shadows flitted among the derricks. An inflatable dinghy dangled over the water, two men aboard. He was still watching them when his encrypted cell phone began cooing its stupid melody. Jeb grabbed it from him, doused the sound, handed it back.

“That you, Paul?”

“Paul speaking.”

“This is Nine. All right? Nine. Tell me you hear me.”

And I shall be Nine, the minister is solemnly intoning, like a Biblical prophet. I shall not be Alpha, which is reserved for our target building. I shall not be Bravo, which is reserved for our location. I shall be Nine, which is the designated code for your commander, and I shall be communicating with you by specially encrypted cell phone ingeniously linked to your operational team by way of an augmented PRR net, which for your further information stands for Personal Role Radio.

“I hear you loud and clear, Nine, thank you.”

“And you’re in position? Yes? Keep your answers short from now on.”

“I am indeed. Your eyes and ears.”

“All right. Tell me precisely what you can see from where you are.”

“We’re looking straight down the slope to the houses. Couldn’t be better.”

“Who’s there?”

“Jeb, his three men, and myself.”

Pause. Muffled male voice off.

The minister again:

“Has anyone any idea why Aladdin hasn’t left the Chinese yet?”

“They started eating late. He’s expected to leave any minute. That’s all we’ve heard.”

“And no Punter in sight? You’re absolutely sure of that? Yes?”

“Not in sight as yet. I’m sure. Yes.”

“The slightest visual indication, however remote — the smallest clue — possibility of a sighting —”

Pause. Is the augmented PRR breaking up, or is Quinn?

“ — I expect you to advise me immediately. Understood? We see everything you see, but not so clearly. You have eyes-on. Yes?” — already sick of the delay — “Plain sight, for fuck’s sake!”

“Yes, indeed. Plain sight. Eyes-on. I have eyes-on.”

Don has struck up his arm up for attention.

In the center of town a people carrier is nosing its way through night traffic. It has a taxi sign on its roof and a single passenger on the rear seat, and one glance is enough to tell him that the passenger is the corpulent, very animated Aladdin, the Pole that Elliot won’t touch with a barge. He’s holding a cell phone to his ear and, as in the Chinese restaurant, he is gesticulating with his free hand.

The pursuing camera veers, goes wild. The screen goes blank. The helicopter takes over, pinpoints the people carrier, puts a halo over it. The pursuing ground camera returns. The winking icon of a telephone, top-left corner of the screen. Jeb hands Paul an earpiece. One Polish man talking to another. They are taking it in turns to laugh. Aladdin’s left hand is performing a puppet show in the rear window of the people carrier. Male Polish merrymaking is replaced by the disapproving voice of a woman translator:

Aladdin is speaking to brother Josef in Warsaw,” says the woman’s voice disdainfully. “It is vulgar conversation. They are discussing girlfriend of Aladdin, this woman he has on boat. Her name is Imelda. Aladdin is tired of Imelda. Imelda has too much mouth. He will abandon her. Josef must visit Beirut. Aladdin will pay for him to come from Warsaw. If Josef will come to Beirut, Aladdin will introduce him to many women who will wish to sleep with him. Now Aladdin is on his way to visit special friend. Special secret friend. He love this friend very much. She will replace Imelda. She is not gloomy, not bitch, has very beautiful breasts. Maybe he will buy apartment for her in Gibraltar. This is good news for taxes. Aladdin will go now. His secret special friend is waiting. She desires him very much. When she opens the door she will be completely naked. Aladdin has ordered this. Goodnight, Josef.”

A moment of collective bewilderment, broken by Don:

“He hasn’t got fucking time to get laid,” he whispered indignantly. “Not even him.”

Echoed by Andy, equally indignant:

“His cab’s turned the wrong way. What the fuck’s it gone and done that for?”

“There is always time to get laid,” Shorty corrected them firmly. “If Boris Becker can knock up a bird in a cupboard or whatever, Aladdin can get himself laid on his way to sell Manpads to his mate Punter. It’s only logical.”

This much at least was true: the people carrier, instead of turning right towards the tunnel, had turned left, back into the center of town.

“He knows we’re on him,” Andy muttered in despair. “Shit.”

“Or changed his stupid mind” — Don.

“Hasn’t got one, darling. He’s a bungalow. It’s all downstairs” — Shorty.

The screen turned gray, then white, then a funereal black.

contact temporarily lost

All eyes on Jeb as he murmured gentle Welsh cadences into his chest microphone:

“What have you done with him, Elliot? We thought Aladdin was too fat to lose.”

Delay and static over Don’s relay. Elliot’s querulous South African voice, low and fast:

“There’re a couple of apartment blocks with covered car parks down there. Our reading is, he drove into one and came out by a different one. We’re searching.”

“So he knows you’re on him then” — Jeb — “That’s not helpful, is it, Elliot?”

“Maybe he’s aware, maybe it’s habit. Kindly get off my bloody back. Right?”

“If we’re compromised, we’re going home, Elliot. We’re not walking into a trap, not if people know we’re coming. We’ve been there, thank you. We’re too old for that one.”

Static, but no answer. Jeb again:

“You didn’t think to put a tracker on the cab by any chance, did you, Elliot? Maybe he switched vehicles. I’ve heard of that being done before, once or twice.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Shorty in his role as Jeb’s outraged comrade and defender, pulling off his mouthpiece:

“I’m definitely going to sort Elliot out when this is over,” he announced to the world. “I’m going to have a nice, reasonable, quiet word with him, and I’m going to shove his stupid South African head up his arse, which is a fact. Aren’t I, Jeb?”

“Maybe you are, Shorty,” Jeb said quietly. “And maybe you’re not, too. So shut up, d’you mind?”

The screen has come back to life. The night traffic is down to single cars, but no halo is hanging over an errant people carrier. The encrypted cell phone is trembling again.

“Can you see something we can’t, Paul?” — accusingly.

“I don’t know what you can see, Nine. Aladdin was talking to his brother, then he changed direction. Everyone here is mystified.”

“We are, too. You better bloody believe it.”

We? You and who else, exactly? Eight? Ten? Who is it that whispers in your ear? Passes you little notes, for all I know, while you talk to me? Causes you to change tack and start again? Mr. Jay Crispin, our corporate warlord and intelligence provider?

“Paul?”

“Yes, Nine.”

“You have eyes-on. Give me a reading, please. Now.

“The issue seems to be whether Aladdin’s woken up to the fact that he’s being followed.” And after a moment’s thought: “Also whether he’s visiting a new girlfriend he has apparently installed here instead of keeping his date with Punter” — increasingly impressed by his own confidence.

Shuffle. Sounds off. The whisperer at work again. Disconnect.

“Paul?”

“Yes, Nine.”

“Hang on. Wait. Got some people here need to talk to me.”

Paul hangs on. People or person?

“Okay! Matter solved” — Minister Quinn in full voice now — “Aladdin’s not — repeat not — about to screw anybody, man or woman. That’s a fact. Is that clear?” — not waiting for an answer. “The phone call to his brother we just heard was a blind to firm up his date with Punter over the open line. The man on the other end was not his brother. He was Punter’s intermediary.” Hiatus for more offstage advice. “Okay, his cut-out. He was Aladdin’s cut-out” — settling to the word.

Line dead again. For more advice? Or is the Personal Role Radio not quite as augmented as it was cracked up to be?

“Paul?”

“Nine?”

Aladdin was merely telling Punter that he’s on his way. Giving him a heads-up. We have that direct from source. Kindly pass to Jeb forthwith.”

There was just time to pass to Jeb forthwith before Don’s arm shot up again.

“Screen two, skipper. House seven. Seaward-side camera. Light in ground-floor window left.”

“Over here, Paul” — Jeb.

Jeb has dropped into a squat at Don’s side. Crouching behind them, he peers between their two heads, unable to make out at first which light he’s supposed to be seeing. Lights were dancing in the ground-floor windows, but they were reflections from the anchored fleet. Removing his goggles and stretching his eyes as wide as they’ll go, he watches the replay of the ground-floor window of house number seven in close-up.

A spectral pin-light, pointed upward like a candle, moves across the room. It is held by a ghostly white forearm. The inland cameras take up the story. Yes, there’s the light again. And the ghostly forearm is tinged orange by the sodium lamps along the slip road.

“He’s inside there then, isn’t he?” — Don, the first to speak. “House seven. Ground floor. Flashing a fucking torch because there’s no electric.” But he sounds oddly unconvinced.

“It’s Ophelia” — Shorty, the scholar. “In her fucking nightshirt. Going to throw herself into the Med.”

Jeb is standing as upright as the roof of the hide allows. He pulls back his balaclava, making a scarf of it. In the spectral green light, his paint-smeared face is suddenly a generation older.

“Yes, Elliot, we saw it, too. All right, agreed, a human presence. Whose presence, that’s another question, I suppose.”

Is the augmented sound system really on the blink? Over a single earpiece he hears Elliot’s voice in belligerent mode:

“Jeb? Jeb, I need you. Are you there?”

“Listening, Elliot.”

The South African accent very strong now, very didactic:

“My orders are, as of one minute ago, precisely, to place my team on red alert for immediate embarkation. I am further instructed to pull my surveillance resources out of the town center and concentrate them on Alpha. Approaches to Alpha will be covered by static vans. Your detachment will descend and deploy accordingly.”

“Who says we will, Elliot?”

“That is the battle plan. Land and sea units converge. Jesus fuck, Jeb, have you forgotten your fucking orders?”

“You know very well what my orders are, Elliot. They’re what they were from the start. Find, fix, and finish. We haven’t found Punter, we’ve seen a light. We can’t fix him till we’ve found him, and we’ve no PID worth a damn.”

PID? Though he detests initials, enlightenment comes: Positive Identification.

“So there’s no finishing and there’s no convergence,” Jeb is insisting to Elliot in the same steady tone. “Not till I agree, there isn’t. We’re not shooting at each other in the dark, thank you. Confirm you copy me, please. Elliot, did you hear what I just said?”

Still no answer, as Quinn returns in a flurry.

“Paul? That light inside house seven. You saw it? You had eyes-on?”

“I did, yes. Eyes-on.”

“Once?”

“I believe I saw it twice, but indistinctly.”

“It’s Punter. Punter’s in there. At this minute. In house seven. That was Punter holding a hand torch, crossing the room. You saw his arm. Well, didn’t you? You saw it, for Christ’s sake. A human arm. We all did.”

“We saw an arm, but the arm is subject to identification, Nine. We’re still waiting for Aladdin to turn up. He’s lost, and there’s no indication that he’s on his way here.” And catching Jeb’s eye: “We’re also waiting for proof that Punter is on the premises.”

“Paul?”

“Still here, Nine.”

“We’re re-planning. Your job is to keep the houses in plain sight. House seven particularly. That’s an order. While we re-plan. Understood?”

“Understood.”

“You see anything out of the ordinary with the naked eye that the cameras may have missed, I need to know instantly.” Fades and returns. “You’re doing an excellent job, Paul. It will not go unnoticed. Tell Jeb. That’s an order.”

They’re becalmed, but he feels no calm. Aladdin’s vanishing act has cast its spell over the hide. Elliot may be repositioning his aerial cameras but they’re still scanning the town, homing at random on stray cars and abandoning them. His ground cameras are still offering now the marina, now the entrance to the tunnel, now stretches of empty coast road.

“Come on, you ugly bastard, show” — Don, to the absent Aladdin.

“Too busy having it away, randy sod” — Andy, to himself.

Aladdin is waterproof, Paul, Elliot is insisting across his desk in Paddington. We do not lay one single finger on Aladdin. Aladdin is fireproof, he is bulletproof. That is the solemn deal that Mr. Crispin has cut with his highly valuable informant, and Mr. Crispin’s word to an informant is sacred.

“Skipper” — Don again, this time with both arms up.

A motorcyclist is weaving his way along the metaled service track, flashing his headlight from side to side. No helmet, just a black-and-white keffiyeh flapping round his neck. With his right hand he is steering the bike, while his left holds what appears to be a bag by its throat. Swinging the bag as he goes along, displaying it, showing it off, look at me. Slender, wasp-waisted. The keffiyeh masking the lower part of his face. As he draws level with the center of the terrace his right hand leaves the handlebars and rises in a revolutionist’s salute.

Reaching the end of the service track, he seems all set to join the coast road, heading south. Then abruptly he turns north, head thrust forward over the handlebars, keffiyeh streaming behind him, and, accelerating, races towards the Spanish border.

But who cares about a hell-bent motorcyclist in a keffiyeh when his black bag sits like a plum pudding in the middle of the metaled track, directly in front of the doorway leading to house number seven?

The camera has closed on it. The camera enlarges it. Enlarges it again.

It’s a common-or-garden black plastic bag, bound at the throat with twine or raffia. It’s a bin bag. It’s a bin bag with a football or a human head or a bomb in it. It’s the kind of suspicious object which, if you saw it lying around untended at a railway station, you either told someone or you didn’t, depending how shy you were.

The cameras were vying with each other to get at it. Aerial shots followed ground-level close-ups and wide-angle shots of the terrace at giddying speed. Out to sea, the helicopter had dropped low over the mother ship in protection. In the hide, Jeb was urging sweet reason:

“It’s a bag, Elliot, is what it is” — his Welsh voice at its gentlest and most persistent. “That’s all we know, see. We don’t know what’s in it, we can’t hear it, we can’t smell it, can we? There’s no green smoke coming out of it, no external wires or aerials that we can see, and I’m sure you can’t either. Maybe it’s just a kid doing a bit of fly-tipping for his mum . . . No, Elliot, I don’t think we’ll do that, thank you. I think we’ll leave it where it is and let it do whatever it was brought here to do, if you don’t mind, and we’ll go on waiting till it does it, same as we’re waiting for Aladdin.

Is this an electronic silence or a human one?

“It’s his weekly washing,” Shorty suggested under his breath.

“No, Elliot, we’re not doing that,” said Jeb, his voice much sharper. “We emphatically are not going down to take a closer look inside that bag. We’re not going to interfere with that bag in any way, Elliot. That could be exactly what they’re waiting for us to do: they want to flush us out in case we’re on the premises. Well, we’re not on the premises, are we? Not for a teaser like that we’re not. Which is another good reason for leaving it put.”

Another fade-out, a longer one.

“We have an arrangement, Elliot,” Jeb continued with superhuman patience. “Maybe you’ve forgotten that. Once the land team has fixed the target, and not before, we’ll come down the hill. And your sea team, you’ll come in from the sea, and together we’ll finish the job. That was the arrangement. You own the sea, we own the land. Well, the bag’s on the land, isn’t it? And we haven’t fixed the target, and I’m not about to see our respective teams going into a dark building from opposite sides, and nobody knowing who’s waiting there for us, or isn’t. Do I have to repeat that, Elliot?”

“Paul?”

“Yes, Nine.”

“What’s your personal take on that bag? Advise me immediately. Do you buy Jeb’s arguments or not?”

“Unless you have a better one, Nine, yes I do” — firm but respectful, taking his tone from Jeb’s.

“Could be a warning to Punter to do a runner. How about that, then? Has anyone thought of that your end?”

“I’m sure they’ve thought about that very deeply, as I have. However, the bag could equally well be a signal to Aladdin to say it’s safe, so come on in. Or it could be a signal to stay away. It seems to me pure speculation at best. Too many possibilities altogether, in my view,” he ended boldly, even adding: “In the circumstances, Jeb’s position strikes me as eminently reasonable, I have to say.”

“Don’t lecture me. All wait till I return.”

“Of course.”

“And no fucking of course!”

The line goes stone dead. No shuffle of breath, no background atmospherics. Just a long silence over the cell phone pressed harder and harder to his ear.

Jesus fuck!” — Don, at full force.

Again they are all five huddled at the arrow-slit as a high-sided car with full headlights shoots out of the tunnel and speeds towards the terraces. It’s Aladdin, in his people carrier, late for his appointment. It’s not. It’s the blue Toyota four-by-four without its conference sign. Veering off the coast road, bumping onto the metaled service track, and heading straight for the black bag.

As it approaches, the side door slides back to reveal the bespectacled Hansi bowed at the wheel and a second figure, undefined but could be Kirsty, stooped in the open doorway, one hand clutching the grab handle for dear life and the other outstretched for the bag. The Toyota’s door bangs shut again. Regaining speed, the four-by-four continues north and out of sight. The plum-pudding bag has gone.

First to speak is Jeb, calmer than ever.

“Was that your people I saw just now, Elliot? Picking up the bag at all? Elliot, I need to speak to you, please. Elliot, I think you’re hearing me. I need an explanation, please. Elliot?”

“Nine?”

“Yes, Paul.”

“It seems that Elliot’s people just picked up the bag” — doing his best to sound as rational as Jeb — “Nine? Are you there?”

Belatedly, Nine comes back, and he’s strident:

“We took the executive decision, for fuck’s sake. Someone had to take it, right? Kindly inform Jeb. Now. The decision is set. Taken.”

He is gone again. But Elliot is back at full strength, talking to an offstage female voice with an Australian accent and triumphantly relating its message to the wider audience:

“The bag contains provisions! Thank you, Kirsty. The bag contains smoked fish — hear that, Jeb? Bread. Arab bread. Thank you, Kirsty. What else do we have in that bag? We have water. Sparkling water. Punter likes sparkling. We have chocolate. Milk chocolate. Hold it there, thank you, Kirsty. Did you happen to catch that, Jeb? The bastard’s been in there all the time, and his mates have been feeding him. We’re going in, Jeb. I have my orders here in front of me, confirmed.”

“Paul?”

But this is not Minister Quinn alias Nine speaking. This is Jeb’s half-blacked face, his eyes whitened like a collier’s, except they’re palest green. And Jeb’s voice, steady as before, appealing to him:

“We shouldn’t be doing this, Paul. We’ll be shooting at ghosts in the dark. Elliot doesn’t know the half of it. I think you agree with me.”

“Nine?”

“What the hell is it now? They’re going in. What’s the problem now, man?”

Jeb staring at him. Shorty staring at him over Jeb’s shoulder:

“Nine?”

“What?”

“You asked me to be your eyes and ears, Nine. I can only agree with Jeb. Nothing I’ve seen or heard warrants going in at this stage.”

Was the silence deliberate or technical? From Jeb, a crisp nod. From Shorty, a twisted smile of derision, whether for Quinn, or Elliot, or just all of it. And from the minister, a delayed blurt:

“The man’s in there, for fuck’s sake!” Gone again. Comes back. “Paul, listen to me closely. We’ve seen the man in full Arab garb. So’ve you. Punter. In there. He’s got an Arab boy bringing him his food and water. What the hell more does Jeb want?”

“He wants proof, Nine. He says there isn’t enough. I have to say, I feel very much the same.”

Another nod from Jeb, more vigorous than the first, again backed by Shorty, then by their remaining comrades. The white eyes of all four men watching him through their balaclavas.

“Nine?”

“Doesn’t anybody listen to orders over there?”

“May I speak?”

“Hurry up then!”

He is speaking for the record. He is weighing every word before he speaks it:

“Nine, it’s my judgment that by any reasonable standard of analysis we’re dealing with a string of unproven assumptions. Jeb and his men here have great experience. Their view is that nothing makes hard sense as it stands. As your eyes and ears on the ground, I have to tell you I share that view.”

Faint voices off, then again the deep, dead silence, until Quinn comes back, shrill and petulant:

Punter’s unarmed, for fuck’s sake. That was his deal with Aladdin. Unarmed and unescorted, one to one. He’s a high-value terrorist with a pot of money on his head and a load of priceless intelligence to be got out of him, and he’s sitting there for the plucking. Paul?”

“Still here, Nine.”

Still here, but looking at the left-hand screen, as they all are. At the stern of the mother ship. At the shadow on her near side. At the inflatable dinghy lying flat on the water. At the eight crouched figures aboard.

“Paul? Give me Jeb. Jeb, are you there? I want you to listen, both of you. Jeb and Paul. Are you both listening?”

They are.

“Listen to me.” They’ve already said they are but never mind. “If the sea team grabs the prize and gets him onto the boat and out of territorial waters into the hands of the interrogators while you lot are sitting on your arses up the hill, how d’you think that’s going to look? Jesus Christ, Jeb, they told me you were picky, but think what’s to lose, man!”

On the screen, the inflatable is no longer visible at the mother ship’s side. Jeb’s battle-painted face inside its scant balaclava is like an ancient war mask.

“Well, not a lot more to say to that, then, is there, Paul, I don’t suppose, not now you’ve said it all?” he says quietly.

But Paul hasn’t said it all, or not to his satisfaction. And yet again, somewhat to his surprise, he has the words ready, no fumble, no hesitation.

“With due respect, Nine, there is not, in my judgment, a sufficient case for the land team to go in. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

Is this the longest silence of his life? Jeb is crouching on the ground with his back to him, busying himself with a kit-bag. Behind Jeb, his men are already standing. One — he’s not sure which — has his head bowed and seems to be praying. Shorty has taken off his gloves and is licking each fingertip in turn. It’s as if the minister’s message has reached them by other, more occult means.

“Paul?”

“Sir.”

“Kindly note I am not the field commander in this situation. Military decisions are the sole province of the senior soldier on the ground, as you are aware. However, I may recommend. You will therefore inform Jeb that, on the basis of the operational intelligence before me, I recommend but do not command that he would be well advised to put Operation Wildlife into immediate effect. The decision to do so is of course his own.”

But Jeb, having caught the drift of this message, and preferring not to wait for the rest, has vanished into the dark with his comrades.

Now with his night-vision glasses, now without, he peered into the density but saw no more sign of Jeb or his men.

On the first screen the inflatable was closing on the shore. Surf was lapping the camera, black rocks were approaching.

The second screen was dead.

He moved to the third. The camera zoomed in on house seven.

The front door was shut, the windows still uncurtained and unlit. He saw no phantom light held by a shrouded hand. Eight masked men in black were clambering out of the inflatable, one pulling another. Now two of the men were kneeling, training their weapons at a point above the camera. Three more men stole into the camera’s lens and disappeared.

A camera switched to the coast road and the terrace, panning across the doors. The door to house seven was open. An armed shadow stood guard beside it. A second armed shadow slipped through it; a third, taller shadow slipped after him: Shorty.

Just in time the camera caught little Jeb with his Welsh miner’s wading walk disappearing down the lighted stone staircase to the beach. Above the clatter of the wind came a clicking sound like dominoes collapsing: two sets of clicks, then nothing. He thought he heard a yell but he was listening too hard to know for sure. It was the wind. It was the nightingale. No, it was the owl.

The lights on the steps went out, and after them the orange sodium street lamps along the metaled track. As if by the same hand, the two remaining computer screens went blank.

At first he refused to accept this simple truth. He pulled on his night-vision glasses, took them off, then put them on again, and roamed the computers’ keyboards, willing the screens back to life. They would not be willed.

A stray engine barked, but it could as well have been a fox as a car or the outboard of an inflatable. On his encrypted cell phone, he pressed “1” for Quinn and got a steady electronic wail. He stepped out of the hide and, standing his full height at last, braced his shoulders to the night air.

A car emerged at speed from the tunnel, cut its headlights, and screeched to a halt on the verge of the coast road. For ten minutes, twelve, nothing. Then out of the darkness Kirsty’s Australian voice calling his name. And after it, Kirsty herself.

“What on earth happened?” he asked.

She steered him back into the hide.

“Mission accomplished. Everyone ecstatic. Medals all round,” she said.

“What about Punter?”

“I said everyone’s ecstatic, didn’t I?”

“So they got him? They’ve taken him out to the mother ship?”

“You get the fuck out of here now and you stop asking questions. I’m taking you down to the car, the car takes you to the airport like we planned. The plane’s waiting. Everything’s in place, everything’s hunky-dory. We go now.

“Is Jeb all right? His men? They’re okay?”

“Pumped up and happy.”

“What about all this stuff?” — he means the metal boxes and computers.

“This stuff will be gone in three seconds cold just as soon as we get you the fuck out of here. Now move it.”

Already they were stumbling and sliding into the valley, with the sea wind whipping into them and the hum from engines out to sea louder even than the wind.

A huge bird — perhaps an eagle — scrambled out of the scrub beneath his feet, screaming its fury.

Once, he fell headlong over a broken catch-net and only the thicket saved him.

Then, just as suddenly, they were standing on the empty coast road, breathless but miraculously unharmed.

The wind had dropped, the rain had ceased. A second car was pulling up beside them. Two men in boots and tracksuits sprang out. With a nod for Kirsty and nothing for himself, they set off at a half-run towards the hillside.

“I’ll need the goggles,” she said.

He gave them to her.

“Have you got any papers on you — maps, anything you kept from up there?”

He hadn’t.

“It was a triumph. Right? No casualties. We did a great job. All of us. You, too. Right?”

Did he say “Right” in return? It no longer mattered. Without another glance at him, she was heading off in the wake of the two men.

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is the author of more than twenty novels. A Delicate Truth, from which this is the first chapter, will be published in May by Penguin.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/shahriar.molla Shahriar Molla

    It takes me back a long way; in fact, precisely speaking, it takes me back to “The Looking Glass War.” I don’t know if the end is going to be equally fascinating. But of course I hope so.

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