CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, USA.
Bradley Heller, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Tyler Moore, Director of National Intelligence, sat on opposite sides of a large mahogany desk. The DCIA’s office was richly appointed, with expensive art on the walls, comfortable furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over a neatly kept lawn that nobody other than the carefully vetted groundsmen ever walked upon. It was bright, clear and cold outside; inside it was invitingly warm. Between them was a steaming pot of coffee that Heller’s PA had just brought in before leaving them to their discussions.
Despite the comfortable surroundings, however, the DCIA and the DNI were troubled.
‘I want to just keep you in the loop about the situation in London,’ Heller told his colleague. Bradley Heller was a tall man in his mid-sixties with thinning grey hair and a deeply lined face. Tyler Moore was younger by several years, but he still seemed older than his actual age.
‘Have they located Ahmed?’
Heller shook his head. ‘And they’ve lost the sister.’
Moore gave him a look as if to say,
‘I know,’ Heller replied. ‘I know. One of their guys caught up with him, but Ahmed got away.’ He handed Moore a thin file across the desk.
Moore opened it. ‘Will Jackson,’ he murmured, before starting to read. It took him four or five minutes to absorb everything in the file. ‘Quite a resum?,’ he noted as he finished.
‘It seems he and Faisal Ahmed had a conversation before Jackson let him get away.’
Moore’s eyes narrowed. ‘A conversation? Where did they meet, a gentlemen’s club?’
‘Hardly that,’ Heller murmured.
‘You think this Will Jackson knows? About Firefight, I mean?’
Heller took a sip of his coffee. ‘Impossible to say,’ he replied, his voice measured. ‘We’ve got no direct evidence to suggest that Ahmed told him anything;but we’d be foolish to assume that Jackson’s in the dark.’
A silence fell between the two of them as they both considered the implications of what Heller had just said.
‘Of course,’ the DCIA continued after a moment, ‘we can make a reasonable assumption that Ahmed’s sister is in the know. And now this Will Jackson. Firefight relies on its secrecy, but we suddenly seem to be springing leaks.’
Moore sniffed. ‘Leaks can be plugged.’
‘Of course,’ Heller replied. ‘But you have to find them first. We’ve no idea where the sister is at the moment.’
‘What about Jackson?’
Heller inclined his head. ‘Jackson’s a bit easier.’ He handed Moore an A4-sized photograph. ‘You know Don Priestley, of course.’
Moore nodded, recognising Priestley’s features in the photo.
‘The man just behind him,’ Heller continued, ‘is Jackson. He claims Ahmed is planning a hit on Priestley.’
Moore looked dubious. ‘Why would Ahmed admit that to Jackson?’
‘My thought exactly. But Priestley seems to think Jackson’s telling the truth.’ He sipped at his drink once more. ‘I know Don very well,’ he said. ‘His instincts are good and right now he’s running scared. He called me personally yesterday, requesting a transfer back to Langley.’
‘Will you be granting it?’
‘No,’ Heller said, firmly.
‘But do you think Ahmed is really—?’
‘I think it’s possible, yes.’
‘Then we should—’
‘Please, Tyler,’ Heller held up a hand. ‘Hear me out. Jackson has offered to bodyguard Priestley in the hope of getting a crack at Ahmed. Hardly regulation, I know, but in the circumstances it’s quite neat. At the very least having Priestley on the ground gives us a chance of drawing Ahmed out into the open. And it keeps Jackson close. I’ve instructed Priestley to go along with Jackson. That way we can eliminate him once he’s served his purpose.’
Moore raised an eyebrow.
‘Look at the options,’ Heller continued. ‘If Jackson kills Ahmed, our problem goes away. If Ahmed kills Jackson, then at least one of our potential leaks has been plugged. And if his target is Priestley, he’s going to want to take out Jackson first, wouldn’t you say?’
‘I guess so,’ Moore replied. ‘But what if he doesn’t? What if he gets Priestley first? He’s an American, Bradley. He’s one of us.’
Heller nodded. ‘I know,’ he said, quietly. ‘I don’t like it any more than you do. But we can’t get sentimental about this. If word of Firefight leaks we’ll be facing an international crisis. I don’t think the world needs the US and the British at each other’s throats just now, do you?’
Moore took a deep breath. ‘Of course not.’
‘And anyway,’ Heller continued. ‘If Jackson gets through this, we know where he is. It won’t take long for us to find out if he knows about Firefight. And if he does, well then — we’ll be in a position to deal with it, won’t we?’
Moore bit his lip. The longer he did this job, the more difficult it became to unwind the strands of right and wrong. In fact, he wasn’t even sure that he knew what those words meant any more. He wondered if, given a few years, he would become quite as unaffected by the moral murk as Heller seemed to be. How many times do you have to make decisions like this, he asked himself, before they stop keeping you up at night?
‘At what stage do we take this to the President?’ Moore asked.
‘We don’t,’ Heller said, firmly. ‘We’ve gone to great lengths to make Operation Firefight officially deniable. Our duty to the President is very clear and that’s to keep him in the dark. The moment he’s informed about what has been going on, we start playing a whole new ball game.’
Tyler Moore stood up from his seat. ‘Thanks for keeping me informed, Bradley,’ he said, softly.
Heller inclined his head and, as Moore turned his back on him, he was sure he could feel the DCIA’s eyes watching him as he made for the door. Before he could leave, Heller spoke again.
‘We’re at war, Tyler,’ the DCIA said softly. ‘It’s a war on terror, but it’s still a war. Wars are ugly and sacrifices have to be made.’
Moore turned and the two men stared at each other.
‘I know,’ the DNI replied, before leaving the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
* * *
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you, Will,’ Don Priestley spoke from the back of the car with an air of forced nonchalance. ‘How did Ahmed get past you? How did he manage to spirit his sister away when security was so tight?’
Will steered the CIA man’s car along the narrow back-streets of Belgravia. Like you don’t fucking know, he thought to himself. Like you haven’t been briefed by Five down to the last fucking detail. He glanced into his rear-view mirror. Priestley was sitting in the middle of the back seat — he had started doing that, Will had noticed, ever since the SAS man had insisted that they drive a car with blacked-out, bullet-proof glass. He wanted to be as far away from a bullet as he could. They were returning from a meeting in the West End and the London rush hour was in full flow. They’d be back at Priestley’s place in a few minutes, however. Not that that meant any let-up for Will.
He’d been guarding Priestley for two days now and it was 24-7. The only time he managed to catnap was when the CIA man was in meetings in places Will deemed to be reasonably secure. Although he had learned to his cost that Ahmed could never be taken for granted, the chances of the Afghan assassin showing up at one of these venues were pretty slim. The US embassy was one such place. Even better was the top-secret United States communication base. It was in a secure basement behind Regent Street and Priestley would be in there for a couple of hours at a time, granting Will a block of solid sleep. The rest of the time he was surviving on ephedrine.
Priestley’s home was a different matter. Having insisted that the CIA man move into a bedroom with no windows and only a single entrance, Will had to stay up all night in the adjoining room, his weapon in his hand and his mind in a state of high alert. The main entrance to the house might be guarded; the windows might be barred; but Will knew from bitter experience that Faisal Ahmed could get past almost any security.
Priestley caught sight of the fact that Will was looking at him in the mirror and his eyes flickered away.
‘He created a diversion,’ Will said in answer to the CIA man’s question. ‘We had motion sensors around the house, so as he approached he dropped a wounded animal on the perimeter.’
‘What sort of animal?’
Will grunted. ‘Clever bastard, actually. Once he was in the house he got up into the loft and waited twenty-four hours. That was the really clever bit. We were on high alert after the motion sensors were triggered, so he waited for us to get back into our comfort zone before he struck. He put a small remote-controlled detonating device in the fuse box, so when the moment came he could kill the lights.’ Will felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. ‘It was ballsy, but I should have predicted it.’
There was a silence in the car.
‘Diversionary tactics,’ Priestley said after a moment.
‘Diversionary tactics,’ he replied. ‘Ahmed’s file said he had a particular skill for them.’ He looked up into the rear-view mirror and the two men locked gazes again. ‘It’s what he’s good at, Will,’ the CIA man said quietly, but with a certain emphasis. ‘Putting people on the wrong track. Stringing them a lie.’
Will remained silent. This wasn’t the first time he’d been at the receiving end of Priestley’s subtle probing. The guy still wasn’t sure how much Will knew and at this moment he was trying to plant the seeds of doubt in his mind.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Will replied, deliberately misinterpreting Priestley’s meaning. ‘I understand him now. I know how he works. He’s not going to be able to pull a trick like that again.’
‘I hope you’re right, Will,’ Priestley murmured. ‘I hope you’re right.’
They arrived at Priestley’s place in West Halkin Street soon after that. It was a large London townhouse with a red brick fa?ade and big white windows. To look at them, you wouldn’t know that they were glazed with tough, shatterproof glass. Will parked the car in the dedicated space by the front door, then picked up the handgun that he routinely kept in the glove compartment. Stepping out of the vehicle, he glanced up and down the street, then up to the rooftops as he always did, before opening the rear passenger door and ushering Priestley quickly up to the front door. An armed police officer in a black flak jacket and helmet greeted them with a cursory nod, then opened the door and allowed them to step inside.
‘Let me go first,’ Will reminded Priestley. It was the way he had told the CIA man they were going to do things. Whenever they entered a house or a room, Will went first. That way he could immediately check it out. At least that was what he had told Priestley.
Priestley might have accepted Will as his bodyguard, but that wasn’t the only precaution he was taking. The guy was scared. Shit-scared — anyone could tell that. Will had heard the CIA man’s panicked phone calls to Langley, trying to get himself reassigned, out of the country and away from the vengeance of Faisal Ahmed. But his superiors weren’t having it and each time they said no, Priestley turned a more ghostly shade of pale. They had upped his security, though. The armed policeman on the door was one thing, but anti-terrorist officers had done a sweep of the house, identifying weak security points and fixing them. Most of the house was covered by CCTV, each camera bearing a little red light that indicated at a glance that you were under surveillance. Priestley couldn’t even take a shit without some guy off-site watching him doing so on a bank of video screens. Priestley didn’t complain — in fact, Will could tell, it made him feel better. For everything the CIA man had said about Faisal Ahmed’s training and skill, he still thought that he was well protected by the standard protocols of the security services.
Will, on the other hand, knew better.
Once they were both inside the house, Priestley closed the door behind him. The hallway was smartly appointed. It stretched almost the full depth of the house and had a black and white marble chequerboard on the floor. At one end, to the left, was a grand flight of stairs with a sweeping balustrade. There were large mirrors on the wall and art that Will would never have recognised.
Priestley removed his coat and instinctively handed it to Will.
‘I’m not your butler,’ Will told him, his eyes checking all the exits to the room out of habit.
Priestley looked as if he was about to say something, but clearly thought better of it. He slung his coat over the back of a chair. ‘So,’ he joked humourlessly. ‘What shall we do tonight?’
‘If you’re finding this boring,’ Will told him,’ say the word and I’ll go out and catch a movie.’
‘No,’ Priestley said, his voice resigned. ‘It’s OK. Same routine as usual?’
Together they climbed the stairs — Priestley first, then Will, firmly gripping the holster of his handgun. The area where they spent their evenings was at the end of a thickly carpeted corridor: one large room, comfortably furnished with a large desk and an elegant chaise longue. The room had a fashionable patterned wallpaper and thick curtains — which Will insisted were kept closed at all times. A crystal chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling. As you walked in, there was a door on the right-hand wall which led to a second room with a bathroom en suite. They walked into the main room and closed the door.
‘I need to, er—’ Priestley made a slightly embarrassed gesture.
Will looked at his watch. 6.30 p.m. Regular as fucking clockwork. He nodded, then brushed past Priestley, through the bedroom and into the bathroom. The CIA man followed him and stood watching at the door, while Will checked the marble-clad bathroom. There were bars outside the window, but he peered out just in case, looking for signs of tampering. Once he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he nodded at Priestley. ‘Go ahead,’ he told him.
Priestley walked into the room, a rather hangdog expression on his face, while Will left. He shut the door and stood guard outside.
It had been a long forty-eight hours. Just being with Priestley, the man murkily implicated in what had happened to his family, was strain enough, let alone the constant watching. The constant waiting. Every second he expected something to happen. Every second he expected to see Faisal Ahmed coming at him.
It would happen. He knew it would. And when it did, Will just had to be ready. He had to make sure that his plan was sound.
From the bathroom, suddenly, there was a noise.
Will felt his skin tingle, then a calm descended upon him. It was always like this when you went into battle. The wait was agonising, but when the moment arrived everything kicked in. The training, the preparation — it happened without thinking. He pressed himself against the wall to one side of the door and raised the handgun.
He listened carefully: the shuffling of feet.
Any minute now, he thought to himself. Give yourself a few moments. Burst in now and he’ll be expecting you; hold back for a moment and you’ll have the element of surprise.
His mind was acutely clear. Crystalline.
He took a deep breath. With one foot he kicked the door open and burst into the bathroom, his gun pointing out in front of him, his finger poised on the trigger, ready to shoot.
Priestley was alone. He was standing at the sink, his trousers still unbuckled and his shirt hanging out. He looked at the handgun with horror.
Will’s eyes darted around the room. Only at the last moment did he see the glass smashed on the floor.
‘I–I dropped it,’ Priestley stuttered, his face white. ‘I–I’m sorry. I just got kind of panicky, and my hand started trembling—’ He looked down at himself, at his state of semi-undress, and an expression of embarrassment crossed his face. ‘Shit,’ he hissed. ‘Why can’t they just call me back to Langley, those bastards? Why can’t they just fucking airlift me out of here?’
Will lowered his gun. He was breathing heavily, he realised, and he was staring at Priestley in disgust. The man looked pitiful, pathetic. How powerful he must have felt, giving the orders that put lives at risk. And now look at him. A contemptible sight. Nothing but a weak man, terrified for his life.
Unable to stand up for himself.
Unable to stand up to the consequences of his actions.
‘Get dressed,’ Will spat, finding him too repugnant even to look at. ‘Get dressed and I’ll call out for food. I’m fucking starving.’
* * *
The lights in Faisal Ahmed’s flat were low and he didn’t speak a word as he made his preparations. He put on nondescript clothes, then went about the time-consuming business of shaving off his beard. When it was done, he turned almost defiantly to his sister. It made him look younger, Latifa thought. She had not seen him cleanshaven for many years and the sight took her back to the time when she had been like a mother to him.
But she could not accept it. ‘Please, Faisal. Please do not leave me. What if you come to harm? What will happen to me then?’
‘I will not come to harm,’ Faisal said, as he dismantled one of his many guns and placed the constituent parts into his bag.
‘You don’t know that, Faisal. You have given them warning that this is what you are going to do. He will be surrounded by security.’
A whisper of a smile played across Faisal’s lips. ‘
‘Your pride will be your undoing, Faisal.’
For a moment he stopped what he was doing. He put down his bag, turned and walked towards his sister. She looked away from him, but he gently stretched out his hand and lifted her chin so that their eyes met again.
‘Latifa,’ he said, softly. ‘Listen to me. The Russians killed our parents in front of us. Do you remember that day, Latifa? Do you remember it as vividly as I do?’
‘How could I forget, Faisal?’
‘Do you remember the way the blood seeped from their bodies and was absorbed by the earth?’
She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.
‘Every time I killed a Russian soldier, I did it for them. I did it for their memory, so they would look down on me and be proud. For all those years you gave me looks of such disapproval; and yet you never tried to stop me, because somewhere deep down you understood what I was doing.’
Latifa jutted out her chin. She refused to agree with him, yet she felt unable to disagree.
‘The man I am going after now,’ Faisal continued, ‘he tried to do to me what the Russians did to our parents. He would not have pulled the trigger, of course. But he was responsible. And if he had been successful, he would have gone on to kill innocent people. People like our parents, Latifa. So look me in the eye now and tell me I am doing the wrong thing.’
He stared hard at her and she faltered under that gaze. There was nothing she could say to him, she saw that now. Nothing that would turn him back from the path he had chosen. ‘I just don’t want to lose my little brother,’ she said, weakly.
Faisal lowered his hand. ‘You lost your little brother many years ago, Latifa. I am not the same person. I am what the Americans made me and if that comes back to haunt them, I am a ghost of their own making.’
She looked at him again. His features were dark. Unrelenting.
‘But there is one thing I swear to you, Latifa. Whatever happens, either now or in the future, I will see to it that you are safe. You have suffered enough on my account and as God is my witness I will see to it that such things do not happen again.’
She felt the tears coming to her eyes again as her reckless, impetuous brother made these promises she knew he could not keep.
‘And you know that I am a man of my word, Latifa. You know that.’
Latifa shook her head. She felt somehow crushed by the power of her despair.
‘Yes, Faisal,’ she replied. ‘You are a man of your word. I know it.’