Original Work Doubledealer

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Dec 11, 2012.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    This probably requires (more) explanation.

    Doubledealer is my attempt at writing a James Bond/Ghost-style thriller, set in a crap-sack near-future world. To borrow a line from John Ringo, the geography, politics, technology and everything else have been warped to fit into this story. I hope you enjoy it.

    All comments, suggestions and thoughts are welcome. I can redshirt people if they send me their names.

    (A secondary problem is that my internet is having problems. Updates may be delayed.)

  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    “Remove the blindfold,” a voice ordered.

    Victor showed no reaction as rough hands scrabbled at the blindfold, pulling it free to reveal a concrete room illuminated by a single light bulb hanging down from the ceiling. It was barren, with nothing more than a table and a pair of chairs, but that wasn't too surprising. The occupant of the bunker knew that he might have to flee at any moment, if the Americans detected his presence. They’d grown a great deal more ruthless since San Francisco had died in nuclear fire.

    The man facing him, seated behind the table, called himself the Commander of the Faithful. He had once had a good claim to actually be the Commander of the Faithful, back when he’d led the revolution against the military government and become the President of Pakistan. Personally incorruptible, driven by an unstoppable determination to create an Islamic paradise, he’d enjoyed two years of power before a nuke had gone missing – and reappeared in San Francisco. Only sheer luck and the devotion of his bodyguards had saved him as Pakistan fell to the Americans and was occupied. Victor knew that a large percentage of the population, mostly the women, had welcomed the Americans. It was something he had always found amusing.

    Hussein didn't look very dangerous, he had to admit. Osama had extruded an air of menace and fanaticism in all of his recorded appearances; Hussein seemed to be a mild-mannered man, someone who looked more like a loving grandfather rather than the world’s most-wanted terrorist. But there was no shortage of idiots willing to die for their faith. Hussein was dangerous because he actually had a working brain. The skill with which he’d taken control of Pakistan – through charm, persuasion and the occasional quiet bloodbath – gave testament to that.

    And yet he’d lost a nuke...

    He met Hussein’s dark eyes and smiled. “I am at your service, Your Excellency,” he said. It had taken six months of careful work to make contact with the exile, for terrorist groups were very careful about who they took to their leaders. The United States had proved alarmingly effective at tracking couriers, even in the most lawless of places. “I believe you know what I offer.”

    The dark eyes stared back at him. They saw a middle-aged man, with pale skin, grey eyes and an impression of toughness that was somehow indefinable. And, for that matter, a ruthlessness that would allow him to do anything, no matter how unpleasant, as long as it served his purposes. Hussein would have no difficulty recognising him as an infidel, of course, but that might serve his purposes. After San Francisco, the United States monitored all Muslims within its borders. It was a great deal easier for an infidel to move undetected.

    “They say that you can help us,” Hussein said. Victor had allowed them to discover his past, making it just hard enough for them to accept it at face value. The FSB was far better at keeping secrets than its American counterparts. “Why do you want to help us?”

    “Money, Your Excellency,” Victor lied smoothly. It was certainly a plausible explanation. Mother Russia, even in the grip of a police state, was thoroughly corrupt. A handful of American dollars could buy anything, from a prostitute for the night to the attention of a political leader. “I want to retire rich.”

    He saw the flicker of contempt on Hussein’s face and knew that he had won. For all of his intelligence, Hussein had made a simple mistake, the mistake of believing his own propaganda. Every jihadist knew that westerners were hopelessly corrupt, that they would sell out their own grandfathers for money, even their own countries. He would accept Victor’s services, probably planning to kill him once the operation was completed, never stopping to wonder if there might be another motive. It was odd, but Hussein had spent two years battling corruption in Pakistan. He hated and despised those who allowed themselves to become corrupt.

    “Very well, Hussein said. “We will hire you to evict the Americans from our country.”

    Victor shook his head. “Right now, the Americans are impossible to dislodge,” he cautioned, even though he knew that it wasn't what his client wanted to hear. “They have hundreds of thousands of troops in the country, control over much of the infrastructure and a growing force of collaborators. Rebuilding a power base in Pakistan will take decades, even assuming the Americans eventually pull out. But they learned that lesson in Iraq. They’ll stay as long as they need to stay.”

    “And they will grind the faith out of existence,” Hussein snapped. “That cannot be allowed!”

    “You need an alternate plan,” Victor said. “If you’ll permit me to explain...?”

    Hussein nodded and listened while Victor outlined his plan.

    “Daring,” he said, when Victor had finished. “And you’re sure that it will work?”

    “Nothing is sure,” Victor admitted. “But you have God on your side. How can you fail?”
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    Kota Kinabalu stinks.

    It had been my first thought when I’d entered the country and I saw no reason to change it. The government of Sabah was quite happy to spend money on the Sultans, and then on religious education, but not on drains, with the result that quite a few places on the city had open sewers running through them. Even on the outskirts, where the buildings slowly gave way to countryside, the stench had to be smelled to be believed.

    I was used to it by now, which was fortunate. A local reacting to the smell would have raised eyebrows.

    Or maybe not. I had tinted my skin until I looked Indonesian, donned a white shirt and shorts and found myself a Durian cart. Durians look like pineapples, but they stink; very few westerners have the nerve to actually eat them, although they don't taste too bad. They’d be happier eating broccoli. But the locals love Durians and there were hundreds of sellers on the streets. A man pushing a Durian cart can go anywhere and few people would even notice.

    The sun beat down from high overhead as I studied my target, a small house half-hidden within the undergrowth. Even here, it was impossible to escape the impression that Sabah had both great wealth and great poverty. The house was solid, very well built, but it gave the impression of being shabby, while a rusting car sat outside. Still, compared to where I’d been sleeping for the last few days, it was paradise incarnate. Ever since China invaded Indonesia to stop the purge of ethnic Chinese by the new government – and, just incidentally, to gain military bases close to Australia and New Zealand – hundreds of thousands of refugees had reached Malaysia. Most of them lived in squalor on a nearby island and came to Kota Kinabalu to try to earn cash. Unsurprisingly, they were exploited by the locals.

    An hour passed slowly before my target’s wife and family emerged from the house. Like many Malaysians, my target had a large family; seven children, three of them girls. Unsurprisingly, the girls – the oldest couldn't have been more than nine – wore headscarves and long dresses, while the boys wore miniature versions of their father’s robes. I’d watched them long enough to know that their mother was taking them to mosque, where they would continue their religious education. They should have known better. Few mosques gave a proper religious education.

    I held out a Durian as the small party passed me, only to be ignored. That wasn't too surprising either. Islam is supposed to practice racial equality – all Muslims are part of the same brotherhood – but cultural influences can be terribly strong. The Malay look down on the Chinese and Indonesians, who despise them in turn. I was an immigrant, probably illegal; I wasn't deserving of their notice. Besides, a woman paying attention to a man might be noticed and she might be beaten by her husband. The locals ignore the filth that so many of their fellows live in, considering it to be none of their business, but if a woman took a single step out of line...

    Poor bitch, I thought.

    It was easy to feel sorry for her and the children – and sorrier still when I considered what I was going to do to her. I had waited for them to leave so they wouldn't be caught up in my operation, but that would only spare their lives. They would have to spend the rest of their lives dealing with the aftermath. Perhaps a drone strike would have been kinder ... but it wouldn't have told us what we needed to know.

    I reached into my cart and found the cell phone, opening it up to reveal the tiny earpiece the wiz kids at Langley had designed for me. I’d been offered implants, but I didn't quite trust my employers – and besides, implants can be detected, if not easily. Carefully, I pushed the earpiece into my ear, then pushed a second device into my mouth. The first time I’d used it, the device had felt weird; now, I was used to it.

    “Testing,” I said.

    There was a pause.

    “Online,” a female voice said, briskly. “Surveillance units accessed; online. Mission status is a go.”

    I scowled. Langley had always had the bad habit of watching over the shoulders of its agents, even when technology hadn't made it easy. Even now, after 9/11 and San Francisco and countless other terrorist attacks, politicians still flapped about risking lives, even the lives of people who had volunteered for service. One of the reasons they’d hired me after my dismissal from the Company was that I was expendable. If I was caught by the local police, my equipment would be unrecognisable and I would be cut loose.

    “Good,” I subvocalised back. “Check the house.”

    Subvocalising isn’t easy; you have to shape the words without speaking them out loud. You can speak them out loud, of course, but then someone might notice what you were doing and wonder why you were talking to yourself. The standard cover is to hold a cell phone to your ear, if you have a cell phone. Very few of the immigrants would have one legally.

    The first time I’d checked out my target, I’d looked for watching guards and policemen. There were plenty of gated communities and private security guards in Sabah, some armed, and the last thing I wanted was to get into a shootout. The second time, after I had verified that there were no private guards and the nearest police station was a mile away, I had launched a set of bugs – literally flies on the wall – into the building. Mission Control at Langley had guided them into position, providing complete 24/7 coverage of affairs within the house. I knew it as well as I knew the back of my hand.

    “One person, seated in his workroom,” my controller said. I’d never met her in person and probably never would. Support officers weren’t supposed to get friendly with the hired help, which very definitely included me. “The remainder of the building is clear.”

    I reached into my cart and produced a small baton. Malaysia had had strict firearms laws before the new government took power – and, since then, it had been concentrating on disarming the citizens as much as possible. Not that it was working very well; they'd also been stroking ethnic tensions, ensuring that all major ethnic groups were stockpiling weapons. It was possible that the police would ignore a local carrying a baton – it wasn't a firearm, after all – but an illegal immigrant would be sure to attract a great deal of unfriendly attention. I knew it was a risk, yet there was no choice.

    The heat seemed to grow stronger as I pushed the cart into the shade, then started to walk around the house. It was isolated, thankfully, despite the slow expansion of the city. I’d worked in cities before and it was always hair-raising, even for an experienced operative; there was no telling just what would alert the locals. We’d been told that something as simple as two bottles of milk instead of one might suggest that one house was harbouring extra people ... and the locals knew what was normal. Shaking my head, I walked into the garden, feeling my heart pounding inside my chest. I was committed.

    “He’s still in his workroom,” my controller said. “All clear.”

    I took that with a pinch of salt. No surveillance system is perfect, particularly a makeshift one operated by remote. The SEALs who had stormed the Presidential Palace in Pakistan, back in 2017, had known the location of each and every defender, until they’d run right into a squad of heavily-armed security guards that had been overlooked. It was hard to imagine anyone managing to hide from the bugs, but care, as my tutors had hammered into my head, never hurt anyone. I checked the door, smiled to myself, and picked the lock as quietly as I could. There was a click as it opened, then nothing.

    Poor tradecraft, I noted. We’d been taught to leave our doors without oil, just so that they would creek when someone tried to break in. A few seconds of warning could make the difference between life or death. Inside, the air was cooler – every household that could afford it used air conditioning – and smelled faintly of incense. I crept along the corridor, careful to stick to one side to avoid making any noise, and halted, just outside the target’s workroom. The sound of typing drifted out to me.

    “He doesn't seem to have heard you,” the controller said. I took that with a pinch of salt too, although it would have required remarkable professionalism to show no reaction at all if one heard an intruder in one’s house. “And he isn’t making any video calls.”

    I peered around the corner and saw my target, seated in front of a plastic desk, typing on an outdated computer. The sight almost made me smile; years ago, the terrorists had started to believe that older computers were unreadable by modern systems, including the ultra-advanced quantum computers used by the NSA. Langley had later claimed that it had been a neat piece of deception, intended to convince the terrorists that their computers were safe, although I rather doubted it. You’d need a very primitive computer to avoid hackers – and then you wouldn't be able to use the internet.

    And my target depended on the internet.

    There was no more time for hesitation. I moved into the room, grabbed him by the neck and pulled him backwards, my fingers pressing down in just the right spots. He started to struggle, but he couldn't break my grip before it was too late and he passed out. I lowered him to the floor and searched him, quickly. There was nothing in his pocket apart from a handful of paper money, the smallest claiming to be over two thousand ringgit. The ringgit had always been weak compared to the dollar or the Euro, but the local government was trying to print its way out of a financial crisis. It shouldn't have been surprising that inflation had started to destroy whatever was left of the economy.

    I stood up and studied him, thoughtfully. He was a middle-aged man, with an impressive beard, one that suggested genuine devotion. The religious policemen had been harassing Muslims in Sabah recently, insisting that they grow beards or face the consequences. Bastards. My target was also surprisingly fat, despite the robes he wore that tried to hide it. He didn't look healthy at all, but then ... he wasn't supposed to be going out and fighting the infidels directly. His value to the cause was far greater than an uneducated kid stupid enough to believe that death while fighting was a guaranteed ticket to paradise.

    “Leave him,” my controller ordered. “Check the computer.”

    I pulled the cell phone open to reveal a USB connector, which I pushed into the computer’s slot. In Langley, my controller went to work, pulling everything out of the computer and downloading it through the satellite network to the Company’s computers. We'd all been trained in recovering intelligence from enemy sites; we knew just how one piece of intelligence could lead us higher up the chain to the masterminds behind terrorist atrocities all over the world. And yet we also knew how politics could make it impossible to deal with the true masterminds ...

    The only way to keep a computer system completely free of hackers is to keep it off the internet. It was a common sense rule, one that far too many people forget. My target hadn't forgotten it, I discovered as I searched the workroom; there was a second computer, completely isolated from the first. Someone had ordered a personalised computer and ensured that it didn't even have wireless, let alone the more modern microburst transmissions that allow computers to access satellite networks without boosters. These days, obtaining such a computer was surprisingly difficult. Every machine came with wireless.

    I grimaced as I started to work. It wouldn't be long, I was sure, before the new government of Malaysia started to ban microburst computers, along with modern cell phones and other systems that tended to be difficult to detect and stop. The flash mobs that had brought down the Sultans and catapulted the new government into power could easily turn against the government – and the internet made it much easier to air grievances. And history showed that extremists, once given a chance to rule, either evolved into something more tolerable or thoroughly discredited their cause. I had a feeling that Malaysia was going to go through the latter.

    “We’ve sucked the first computer dry,” my controller said. “Can you do the second?”

    I grinned. It had to be annoying to have to rely on someone like me to do the dirty work – but then, it had taken Langley far too long to rediscover the value of human intelligence and operatives. They were much happier with electronic intelligence gathering systems, which work fine for noticing things like tank battalions on the move, but much less well at telling you what your enemy is thinking. Besides, the terrorists we fight these days don’t really have tanks, or aircraft carriers, or something else easily noticeable. They know what happens if they show themselves too blatantly.

    “Of course,” I said. I attached the USB connector to the second computer and then stood up, checking my watch. There should have been two hours before the wife and kids returned home, but it wouldn't have been the first time something unexpected snarled up the whole operation. “Tell me the moment the download is complete.”

    My target – Hussein Al-Barak – wasn't an ordinary terrorist. He’d never picked up a gun in his life, or charged blindly at NATO soldiers while spewing bullets in their general direction, or even helped to enforce their version of Islamic Law on helpless civilians. Instead, he was much more dangerous. He sat at the heart of a network of banks, false-front corporations and internet sites that funnelled money from supporters and used it to buy weapons, or seduce unwary kids into joining their ranks.

    I scowled at him, half-wishing that he would wake up so I could knock him out again. He made me sick. The only real difference between a terrorist grooming a new martyr and a paedophile grooming a child for abuse is ... well, actually I couldn't think of one. Both pretend to be friendly while praying on helpless and vulnerable victims, skilfully twisting their minds to the point they could no longer tell right from wrong. Maybe the child molesters were kinder, I considered, as I started to search the house. At least their victims didn't need to be tried for terrorism after they were caught.

    There was little in the house that might prove useful, unsurprisingly. I’d had the feeling that Al-Barak hadn't involved his wife in his activities. It was far more likely that she had been told to mind her own business and not question her husband. But then, it would be a rare wife who didn't ask where the money was coming from. Al-Barak worked as a teacher, but that didn't bring in more than a few hundred ringgit every month. The family should have been sinking into poverty.

    Or maybe the wife had money, I considered, as I searched her drawers. Most of her clothes were modest, but there was a handful of Victoria’s Secret underwear. I had the mental image of her wearing it for Al-Barak, before I pushed it aside. Pretty wife, ugly fat husband. Would she be glad when he was gone, I asked myself, or would she grieve?

    I found it hard to care. Al-Barak had never killed anyone directly, but he’d been responsible for hundreds of deaths. He had to go.

    “Got everything,” my controller said. “Quite a lot of porn here, would you believe?”

    I shrugged. We’d been finding porn catches in terrorist computers and hidey-holes for years. Why should Al-Barak be any different? Of course, it was thoroughly illegal to own or download porn here. I briefly considered making an anonymous call to the religious police to tip them off, before dismissing the thought. Al-Barak wasn't going to survive long enough to face one of their famously rigorous interrogations.

    “Clean up, then terminate,” my controller ordered. “Hurry.”

    I removed the USB connector from the second computer and returned it to my pocket. I’d have to rebuild the cell phone once I got back outside the house. If there was time ... I checked to make sure that I’d left nothing behind, apart from fingerprints from the gloves I’d donned before hiring the Durian cart. The police would be in for a shock if they ran them, I knew; Langley had copied the fingerprints of another known terrorist onto the gloves. And if the terrorists found out, as they probably would, they’d think that Al-Barak had been killed by one of his allies.

    Still, if all went well, Al-Barak would appear to have died a natural death.

    The final device hidden within the cell phone was a tiny injector. I pushed it against his neck and injected him with poison. If Langley was to be believed, it would appear – at least to casual inspection – that Al-Barak had died of a natural heart attack. The poison would be gone by the time a doctor checked his body, if the police bothered to investigate. Most of the good doctors in Malaysia had emigrated before the new government banned all emigration by skilled professionals. The remainder were understandably pissed.

    I watched him die, without remorse. I knew what he’d done, what he would have continued to do if he’d been left alive. And I knew just how badly he’d sinned.

    God would judge him.

    And me.
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  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    The sun seemed even hotter as I walked back outside, after propping Al-Barak up in his chair and making one last check of the building. It was an illusion – the house had been air-conditioned – but I felt sweat trickling down my back as I returned to my cart. Hopefully, no one would draw a connection between the Durian seller and Al-Barak’s death, at least until it was far too late.

    “The remaining bugs are on standby,” my controller said. “If someone comes to pick up the computers, we’ll see them.”

    I nodded. Terrorist networks are fragile things; the ones that last are the ones built on a cell structure, where very few terrorists know anyone outside their own cell. There was a risk of friendly fire, of course, but it paled in comparison to the risk of losing everyone after a terrorist was caught and convinced to talk. These days, there were truth drugs and lie detectors that were almost impossible to fool, as well as more traditional interrogations. It was astonishing how many terrorists could be convinced to talk after discovering that the interrogator is actually a very friendly chap.

    Given Al-Barak’s vast importance to his terrorist network, it was likely that someone knew who he was and would investigate after his death. If so, we might have a chance to identify him and move up to the next link in the chain. Even if we didn't, taking out the prime terrorist enabler had to hamper their operations. International terrorism is an expensive business – whatever the media tells you – and the terrorists were about to suffer a cash flow crisis.

    And they’d have to assume the worst. Al-Barak might have talked before he died, or his computers might have been seized, just like so many others over the years since the war on terror began. What if he’d kept names and numbers of the terrorists he’d recruited? Or details of his contacts? Even the most careful computer operator would find it hard to remove all traces of his work from his computer. Even if we found nothing in the files, the terrorists would panic anyway and go underground. The last thing they wanted was for the Navy SEALs to come crashing in one night.

    I smiled at the thought as I began to push the cart back into the city. Who needed to emplace an IED – one that was more likely to kill the wife than another terrorist – when you could cause more confusion and panic just by leaving a mystery?

    A handful of locals stopped me as I walked, asking to buy a Durian. I stayed in character and took their money, cutting up the fruit for them to eat once they’d paid me. Durians are cheap; each sale barely made me more than ten ringgit. If I’d been a real illegal immigrant, I would have been in trouble; the man who’d hired me would take almost all of the money, leaving me with barely enough to buy food. Exploitation seemed to be the default response to the refugees from a hellhole down south, unsurprisingly. And if I’d been a girl, it would have been a great deal worse.

    What were they going to do? Complain to the police? They’d be deported.

    Kota Kinabalu became more ... western as I walked down to the waterfront, although the smell still hung in the air, now merged with the smell of fish. There were expensive hotels on one side of the street and a cheap market on the other, selling fish, meat and vegetables at surprisingly low prices. These days, there were fewer tourists in the city. The new government, believing tourists to be carriers of western influence, had hiked up prices in an unsubtle attempt to discourage them. I’d have expected the bastards to arrange for one or two incidents, but maybe they were too careful. Bahrain had been forced into a humiliating apology after trying to arrest and jail an American tourist a year ago; it had almost brought down their government. The new government here didn't want to go the same way.

    Besides, whoever said that religion was a bad influence had obviously never heard of television.

    The streets were thronged with locals, but there was something curiously subdued in the air, as if no one dared talk above a whisper. I spotted the religious policemen a second later, carrying whips as they walked down the street. Give the powerless a taste of power – and Malaysia’s poor had been very powerless indeed – and they will turn into monsters. The first time I had visited the country, I had been astonished to see bare legs, short shirts and tight tops on girls. Now, even the Japanese and Chinese girls wore trousers, or shapeless dresses that hid their bodies. And I knew that many of them were also trying to leave.

    I kept my expression blank, even as I longed for the chance to shoot down the policemen like the dogs – or pigs – they were. Islam is a deeply personal religion; the choice to embrace it, to submit to God, is one that must come from within. Everything a Muslim does can only have meaning if they choose it of their own free will. But the moment someone is forced into making the choice, the damage is done. The reluctant converts will be nothing more than hypocrites.

    We’re supposed to respect Abu Bakr, the first of the Caliphs. But he gave us the concept of dissent equalling heresy and for that I will never forgive him.

    The policemen cast a look over me, checked the licence plate on the cart and then walked past me, unaware that they’d just walked past a murderer. I suppose I would have preferred to look at girls too. It was easy to look scared and move faster as I headed away from them, wheeling the cart down towards the massive shopping mall. If they’d tried to arrest me, either for being a murderer or just because they felt like beating someone up, I would have had to fight. And then I might have been torn apart by the crowd.

    Fools, I thought. How can they think that God will forgive them for noticing the mote in their neighbour’s eye, but not the log in their own?

    But it shouldn't have been surprising and I had long since lost my capacity for feeling shocked. No one wants to admit that they have problems themselves, not when they can blame it on someone else. America – the Great Satan, they call us – is often blamed for the misfortunes of the Third World. We may not have been entirely blameless, but nothing we did to them comes even remotely close to what they did to themselves. The Islamic world had a chance to evolve into something that would have allowed the human race to develop and they blew it. Instead, they chose to embrace tradition and ignorance. And to assume that God would do the hard work.

    Back home, even after San Francisco, too many people thought the government could take care of them. There is no real difference. Both are equally deluded.

    A security guard cast a baleful eye over me as I parked the cart outside the shopping mall and walked inside, before clearly deciding that I wasn't worth his time. Besides, I wasn't taking the cart inside to try to sell Durians to the shoppers. A large sign made it clear that they wouldn't be welcome. I walked past several shops that sold the latest fashions from New York – all priced so high that I doubted many people in Kota Kinabalu could have bought them – and into a storage office I’d visited earlier. Immigrants who couldn't afford an apartment in the city could pay a tiny fee to store their possessions in the office. But then, ten ringgit sounded tiny until you realised that it could be half the wages an immigrant might earn.

    Inside, a girl sat at the counter, watched by an older woman who sat in the far corner, muttering to herself. I resisted the temptation to make eye contact and pretend to flirt with her, instead passing her my tag and asking for my bag. She took it and headed over to the lockers. I’d been worried about the bag – if someone had tried to open it without my permission, it would have disintegrated – but it seemed untouched. I took it, gave her a gormless smile, and walked out. Time was pressing now.

    The lower levels of the shopping mall held a single set of male washrooms. They were surprisingly clean and, more importantly, they thronged with men in desperate need of a piss. I walked into one of the stalls, locked the door behind me and started to undress rapidly. Once I was naked, I opened the bag, found one of the liquids I'd brought from Langley and wiped it over my body. The brown tint faded away, revealing slightly tanned skin. I couldn't do anything about my hair colour, but there was no shortage of vain westerners who wanted crow-black hair. Piling up my old clothes in a corner, I donned the suit I’d left in the bag and checked my appearance in a mirror. I looked nothing like the Durian seller who’d killed Al-Barak.

    I pulled the set of papers and money out of the bag, stuck them in my pocket along with the cell phone, and then transferred everything I needed to lose into the bag. Once I’d checked it – I’d failed one test because I’d thrown away something I needed, back in training – I triggered the disintegrator. I don’t even begin to understand how the field works, but the entire bag crumbled into dust. Grinning to myself, I flushed it down the toilet and stepped outside. No one paid me any attention.

    The trail – if someone had been following me – should have been broken there and then. Unlike America, or most of Europe, Kota Kinabalu didn't have vast numbers of cameras allowing the police to keep a passive eye on anyone who attracted their attention. Even so, I took a few moments to wander through the shopping mall and see if anyone was shadowing me. Besides, I told myself, it was also a chance to put my finger on the city’s pulse and gain intelligence. There was no way to know when I might have to come back to Kota Kinabalu.

    Out of habit – a very bad one, my instructors had told me – I walked into a bookshop. It was almost heartbreaking to see that plenty of subjects had vanished, either because they were on the banned list or because they were imported and therefore very expensive. Instead, there were countless books on religion – including a number I knew to have been written by terrorist supporters – and very slanted books on modern affairs. One of them, covering the siege and fall of Islamabad, had been extensively debunked, page by page, by someone who used to serve in the Marines. He’d noted that if all the dead the author had mentioned were counted up the entire country of Pakistan would have been depopulated at least twice over.

    But Pakistan, as some of my scars testified, hadn't been depopulated.

    I shook my head as I read the other titles. Some were effectively adventure stories for young men, covering the lives of jihadists who went to fight in Pakistan, or Iran, or Palestine. I’d read a couple of them; they tended to leave out certain details, starting with how the locals were often bullied into taking in and supporting the terrorists, even if they did go into hideous detail when it came to imaginary war crimes committed by American troops. An author who spent thirty pages describing the rape and murder of an entire family of small girls was probably sick at heart.

    The rest of the books were even worse.

    I walked out of the bookstore and headed downstairs. As soon as I reached the ground floor, I was assailed by shop assistants trying to convince me to look at their wares. There’s a perception in Malaysia that white tourists are always rich, which would have been amusing if they didn't take it so seriously. Maybe there was some truth in it; dollars and pounds would go further than ringgit, if they managed to take the cash to an independent moneychanger. One of the official ones, the ones operated by the government, would tax them a chunk of their earnings. I shook my head at a seller who was trying to convince me to look at gold watches – they would have set me back a chunk of the bounty I was going to get for killing Al-Barak – and walked out.

    Outside, it was easy to hail a taxi – he would never have stopped for a Durian seller – and ordered him to take me to the airport. I settled back and tried to enjoy the ride, although it was clear that the driver was trying to scare me. He'd never been through a combat driving course. Some of the CIA officers at The Farm, charged with teaching us eager young trainees the skills we’d need to survive, had been maniacs. I still remembered losing my lunch after one particularly unpleasant drive.

    There were actually two airports in Kota Kinabalu – officially – but they both shared the same runways. One of them handled the internal flights, including the ones to West Malaysia, while the other handled international flights. I headed for the internal flight airport, as security tended to be lighter there, and walked inside. These days, with the world in an economic slump and Malaysia’s new government refusing to confirm to Western demands for tighter airline security, there were far fewer people flying regularly. I showed the girl at the counter my passport, collected my boarding pass, and headed through security. As I had expected, they barely glanced at me, not even bothering to run my passport through the computer records. They were much more interested in a woman who was travelling alone, without a male companion.

    I never feel very secure in airports, or aircraft. Someone had once referred to airline passengers as pre-packaged hostages – and that had been before someone had had the diabolical idea of using aircraft as cheap cruise missiles. 9/11 hadn't been the first of those plots, just the first one to come off successfully. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d taken the plot by Algerian terrorists to hijack a plan and slam it into the Eiffel Tower seriously. And I knew that most security was dodgy as all hell. A terrorist with enough specialised knowledge would be able to buy items in the departure lounge that he could use to make a bomb.

    The cheap airline I’d booked didn't serve meals, one of many cost-cutting measures as they tried to keep themselves afloat. I went to a small cafe and ordered a meal while waiting, which – unsurprisingly – tasted thoroughly unpleasant. Bad meat, worse vegetables ... but they had a captive market, pretty much. I had a feeling that the locals wished that the new government hadn't shut down McDonalds, or Burger King, or every other international food chain. Even McDonalds was preferable to airport food.

    It was a relief when we were finally allowed to board the flight to Johor and take off. I’d pre-booked – and my controller had hacked into their systems to check that the flight was heavily booked – but it was impossible to be sure that the flight would even take off until it actually left the ground. And then there was the nightmare of actually flying on the aircraft ... most Western airlines try not to give their customers a hard time. The sole surviving airline in Malaysia used outdated aircraft, which it seemed to fly through every patch of turbulence between Kota Kinabalu and Johor. I felt rather unwell by the time the aircraft came into land and almost kissed the ground when we were herded off the plane. The locals seemed rather amused, but then I did look like a tourist.

    I was fairly sure I’d escaped detection by this point, but I took careful precautions anyway. I hired one taxi to take me to another shopping mall, then picked up a second to take me to the causeway leading to Singapore, where I climbed into a bus to cross the causeway. Even today, there were traffic jams on the bridge that stretched for miles, though my briefers had claimed that the numbers of Malaysians visiting Singapore had reduced sharply. I wasn't too surprised. If the new government hadn’t been so determined to reopen several disputes between Malaysia and Singapore, they wouldn't have screwed their own economy – and their people – so badly. And then there were the security checks ...

    Getting into Singapore isn't difficult – if you have a US passport. With China throwing her weight around in the Far East, Singapore wants to maintain good relations with the United States. Anyone else ... it can take hours to get through the endless security checks, starting with baggage searches that often led to physical searches. I’d even heard a rumour that the border guards were under orders to perform a full strip-search on at least one hundred people per day, just to make the point clear. Singapore has no intention of allowing the madness slowly enfolding Malaysia to spread across the border.

    It didn't do their economy much good too, at least at first. And then some bright spark had the idea of hiring refugees fleeing the economic slump in Europe. They were more expensive, true, but they didn't riot and blow up buildings.

    I had to hand it to them. They’d adapted to the age of chaos far better than the States.

    Once I was through immigration, I took a taxi to the hotel and checked in, before staggering upstairs and going to bed. Langley could wait to get its report.

    I needed sleep. And prayer.
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    It was the middle of the following morning when I opened my eyes and blearily checked my watch. It was nearly 11 o’clock; I’d missed dawn prayers. I cursed under my breath as I swung my legs over the side and sat upright, running one hand through my head. Missing prayers had always struck me as inexcusable, particularly when I wasn't actually carrying out an operation. It was generally the first sign of moral laxness that led to corruption and hypocrisy.

    I undressed, stumbled into the shower and washed myself clean. The remains of the hair dye ran down my body and into the plughole, leaving my hair its natural brown colour. I rubbed at my cheek, where stubble had already started to appear, and rolled my eyes. What did having a beard matter when it was what was inside that counted? My stomach grumbled, reminding me that it had been over twelve hours since I’d eaten, so I walked back into the bedroom and donned the robe the hotel had provided. I’d have to call room service and order something to eat, along with a change of clothes. Staying at an expensive hotel in Singapore – the Company was picking up the tab – was expensive, but they did everything for you. All you had to do was ask.

    The menu, lying under a small kettle, was large enough to pass for a small book. I filled the kettle with water and set it to boil, then opened the menu and read through the breakfast section. There was a surprising amount of pork – a rather unsubtle gesture of defiance – as well as scrambled eggs and curried fish. I hesitated for a long moment before calling and ordering fish and chips. I’d picked up a taste for it while I’d been in the UK; besides, fish was always halal and the chips were vegetarian. It was the safest thing on the menu.

    I poured myself a cup of coffee and drank it slowly, enjoying the chance to relax. The Company wouldn't let me stay here for very long, at least not if they were picking up the tab, even though expensive hotels were safer places to operate than cheap hostels. Whatever happened, the staff would be discreet; they were certainly paid enough to keep their mouths shut, even if they bore witness to criminal activity. Or, for that matter, a customer managed to entice a girl – or a guy - into his bed. The knock on the door came fifteen minutes later and I stood up to open it ...

    ... And then jumped backwards in shock.

    “I believe you ordered fish and chips,” Su Li said. “And I’m sure the gentleman’s budget will allow for scrambled eggs for myself.”

    I gaped at her. “How ... how did you get in here?”

    “I explained that I was your lady-friend and I wanted to surprise you,” Li said. “And as I had the credit card details we used to book your room, it wasn't too hard.”

    She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. Up close, I could smell her perfume, a subtle scent that was barely noticeable, at least at a conscious level. She put the tray down on the table and grinned at me, a smile so bright that it would have drawn the attention of everyone in the room. Long dark hair cascaded over a tight yellow dress that tried – and failed – to suck attention away from her face. Li was stunning, a mixture of Japanese and Taiwanese that had produced something remarkable. She looked both young and ageless.

    I noted her tradecraft as she removed the lid, revealing breakfast. The yellow dress could be changed, her hair could be tied up ... and she’d be very different. A business suit would turn her into a severe businesswoman, an office manager who had no time for timewasters. Or, in bra and panties, she would be every man’s wet dream. They wouldn't think because all the blood in their head would have rushed somewhere else.

    Those who knew her called her the ball-buster. They meant it affectionately.

    “Well,” Li said, as she sat down in one of the seats, “aren't you going to welcome me?”

    “Welcome,” I said, tiredly. I sat down myself and took a chip. “What are you doing here?”

    Li gave me a smile that would have melted the stoniest of hearts. “You don't think I might have come here to share your breakfast?”

    “No,” I said. Li was professional, through and through. She’d certainly shown no real interest in me, or anyone else as far as I knew. “What do you want?”

    Li sat back. “You must be hungry,” she said. “Eat your breakfast. I’ll brief you afterwards.”

    That was definitely wrong. Whatever she wanted, it had to be bad.

    I knew her story; I’d heard it back when I still worked openly for the Company. Li had been hired in the wake of San Francisco, one of the millions who had applied to join the CIA after an entire city had died in fire. She’d rapidly proven herself in intelligence operations, eventually being assigned to work with the SEALs in a sting aimed at capturing the leader of the Pakistani Insurgency. The operation had gone to hell; faced with no other option, she’d kneed the insurgent in the balls, dropped his guards with her own pistol and then dragged him out while the SEALs provided cover. Her reputation had been made.

    And then she'd been assigned to ride herd on independent operators such as myself. I wondered who she’d pissed off to get that job.

    “It’s been quite some time since you have been in Europe, Charles,” she said, finally. “Or should I call you Abdullah?”

    I scowled at her. I’d been born Charles, before I’d reverted to Islam and taken the name Abdullah. Abdullah meant Servant of God - and it suited me. I was removing the bastards who were destroying Islam from the inside, one by one. It was easier, these days, to think of myself as Abdullah and forget the past. But the past has a way of haunting us.

    “Either will do,” I said, stiffly. I hadn't entirely forsaken Charles; it had come from my paternal grandfather, after all. “Choose the one you like and stick with it.”

    There was always a temptation not to draw attention to my religion. But it would be another pathway to corruption.

    I watched as Li produced a detector rod – I had no idea where she had concealed it in that dress – and scanned the room, looking for active bugs. It was unlikely that the hotel would have risked bugging their customers, or that anyone would have realised that I worked for the CIA when my papers stated that I worked for an import/export company, but it was basic tradecraft to assume the worst. She put a second device on the window, before drawing the curtains as an additional precaution. Anyone using a laser beam to read vibrations would be wasting their time.

    Li smiled as she sat back down. “Europe,” she said. “How long has it been since you were there?”

    “Since the Company decided I could no longer operate there,” I reminded her, impatiently. They’d also put so much pressure on me that I’d resigned and gone independent. “Five years.”

    “Things have been getting worse in Europe, France in particular,” Li said. “The government is on the verge of collapse. To all intents and purposes, their authority no longer runs in large parts of the country. Right now, they’re barely holding on. Our projections say that they won’t win the next election, assuming they’re even held.”

    I nodded, impatiently. It was hard to get anything out of the French Government these days, but I made a habit of reading a number of blogs about France and the European Union, as well as the global economic slump. France had fought hard to keep the crash from sweeping over it, only to ultimately lose the fight. The French economy was a wreck and hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were leaving the country. Matters weren't helped by the United States. After San Francisco, the newly-elected President had flung the doors open wide to Europeans. The United States was sucking in Frenchmen looking for a better life.

    “The rest of Europe isn't in a better shape,” she added. “Spain and Italy are under martial law and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Greece has descended into chaos ever since she was forced out of the European Union. Even Germany and Poland – and Britain – are having problems. But France may be in real danger.”

    “Right,” I said. What France needed was a purge of politicians, then some very strong medicine. Their welfare state had eventually broken the bank. Any Frenchman who actually wanted to earn a better life could leave the country, throwing a greater and greater rate of taxation onto those who remained. “And you expect me to do something about it?”

    “Of course not,” Li said. “We would never expect something so complex out of you.”

    I threw her a sharp look, knowing that I was being teased. “To add to the chaos, the European Union is secretly considering inviting Algeria, Libya and the rump of Egypt to join,” Li explained. “The negotiations have been very low key; we only realised that they were taking place two months ago, when one of our sources was brought into the secret. Basically, Brussels is offering membership and economic – perhaps even military – assistance in exchange for thousands of young workers.”

    “Are they completely out of their minds?” I demanded. “That’s insane!”

    Insane didn't even begin to describe it. Ever since the final Arab-Israeli War, American Marines had been dug in along the Suez Canal, keeping it open for shipping. The Marines had very unrestricted ROE, allowing them to engage anything that might prove a threat. It hadn't pleased Egypt, where the streets had run red with blood after countless riots, or the United States, but there was no other choice. If Egypt called on military aid from the EU, they might think they could retake the canal.

    But even that paled compared to the real disaster. Algeria and Libya were Islamist dictatorships, while Egypt was – barely – ruled by the military. If they sent thousands of young workers to Europe, those workers would be loyal to the Islamists – and join other Islamists who had lived there for generations. The results were likely to be ... unpleasant. How long would it be, I wondered, before Europe fell into a brutal racial war – or simply went Islamic itself?

    Not long, I thought, and shivered.

    The Islamists were a small percentage of Muslims, and the Muslims were little more than a third of the population of France, but it might not matter. Countries had been dominated by even smaller minorities before; no doubt it would happen again. And those who might fight were the ones leaving the country. The remainder were sheep.

    But I still couldn't see what I could do about it.

    “We have been picking up chatter about something big being planned,” Li said, when I asked. “Some of the signs are really quite alarming, Charles. Our analysts believe that a number of independent groups have been united by a single cause – and you know how unlikely that is. There was even a case of a known terrorist leader pulled out of the Seine, with his head severed from his shoulders. Someone is uniting the various rebellious groups in France – and, we believe, all over Europe.”

    That, unfortunately, made sense. A great mass of unhappy people, without a leader, can do nothing more than riot and give the government some worrying moments. Everyone wonders why the USSR was never overthrown, or why the population of North Korea or Iraq never managed to overthrow their dictator. It takes a properly organised network of plotters to overthrow a government and then keep control afterwards. The failure to have one organised in Libya was a large part of the reason why the country went Islamic shortly after the dictator was killed.

    Europe had countless groups that hated the current status quo and wanted to overthrow it. If someone was actually planning to unite them, even just the Islamic ones, Europe would suddenly face a far more dangerous threat.

    And if they won, if they established the caliphate of their dreams, they would destroy Islam.

    I knew what would happen. The United States might nuke Europe and the Middle East, slaughtering millions of people. Or, worse, the caliphate would rot away from within and Islam’s soul would be utterly destroyed. Muslims weren't produced when they were forced to pay lip service to Islam, to dress and act appropriately, but through inner contemplation and acceptance. How much of that was going to happen in the caliphate?

    “Ok,” I said. “What do you want me to do about it?”

    Li made a face. “We had a lucky break three days ago,” she said. “We would have called you in at once if we hadn't needed access to Al-Barak’s computers. One of the Stealth Hawks picked up a familiar face in a terrorist training camp in Algeria. I believe you know him. His name is Victor.”

    I started forward, shocked. “Victor?”

    The Victor,” Li confirmed. “Or so we believe.”

    “You believe,” I repeated. A few hours in a nanotech tank and someone would emerge with a very different face. The Russians weren't quite as advanced as the CIA, but they’d probably stolen the technology long ago. “Are you sure it’s him?”

    Li hesitated, then nodded. “From what we have picked up from our sources in Moscow, he’s gone rogue,” she said, unhappily. “The FSB wants him dead as much as we do.”

    “Rogue,” I said. “Do you believe it?”

    “We don't know for sure,” Li cautioned me. “The FSB was always much better at compartmentalising things than us. If Victory Victor is still working for them, only the people at the top know it. Anyone else will take a shot at him as soon as they set eyes on his face. But remember – we don’t know for sure.”

    I didn't need the warning.

    Outside the movies, where you can do just about anything, there is no such thing as a world-famous secret agent. The agents that do become famous usually become famous for the wrong reasons, either by being named by the press after a leak or being killed on active service. If they survive the experience, they are useless as agents in future; everyone knows who they are. They tend to resign and write mostly fictitious memoirs claiming that they saved the world from the threat of the month.

    But there are whispers passed from agent to agent – and outside the official communities, those whispers can become roars unheard by the world. Victor – if that was his real name – was an old-school FSB officer, one with a reputation for wet work that had chilled even the Chechens and Afghans to the bone. He hadn't waged open war on the Western intelligence community – that rarely happened outside the movies – but he had destroyed the career of an officer who had been raising concerns about Russia’s slow rise in power during 2012. Victor had seduced the man’s wife, then allowed himself to be caught – by the CIA security team – in bed with her.

    There had been no choice. The husband had not only been cuckolded, but his security clearance had been removed and his career had come to an end.

    “We believe that Victor is currently working for the Pakistanis,” Li added. “There are large Pakistani communities in Algeria and we believe that the remains of their former government fled there, where they were given sanctuary by the Algerians. They may well have the nukes too ... so far, we have refrained from taking official notice of it. But we have to do something.”

    “Pakistan being a bit much to handle,” I said. Even with extra troops and loose ROE, occupying Pakistan was proving to be a nightmare. It didn't help that there were commitments on American manpower right around the world. Hell, Eighth Army was still in Korea, not too far from Singapore. “And if Algeria has the nukes ...”

    Pakistan’s nuke program had given American Presidents sleepless nights ever since it had dawned on Washington that it was open to infiltration. The Pakistanis had refused to discuss the matter with Washington, let alone agree to allow American troops to guard the warheads or accept security devices intended to prevent misuse. Eventually, the inevitable had happened; a warhead had slipped out of Pakistan’s control and San Francisco had been destroyed. No one knew for sure if Pakistan’s government had actually intended to destroy an American city, but it hardly mattered. Pakistan had been invaded and occupied ...

    ... And redeeming the country was likely to take decades.

    “You want me to do it because I don’t work directly for you,” I said. “What do you actually want done?”

    Li didn't hesitate. “Take out Victor, take out the leadership of this new terrorist organisation, scatter the junior members,” she said. It was a tall order. “What sort of help do you want from the company?”

    “Money, papers and aid when I need it,” I said. I’d probably need more, but I would have to think about it first. Taking aid from Langley can be habit-forming, even when it doesn't come with hidden strings attached. “And access to all the intelligence.”

    “There will be objections ...” Li began.

    “Overrule them,” I snapped. “I will not go into a situation without proper preparation.”

    There was a long pause, then Li nodded. “Very well,” she said. “I assume that you’ll be staying here?”

    I smirked. “As long as the Company is paying for it.”

    “You will be contacted,” Li said. “We’ll give you a call when the time comes.”

    I watched her go – she was worth watching – and lay down on the bed, thinking unchaste thoughts. And then I drifted back off to sleep.
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    There is a gentleman’s agreement among allied intelligence services that they will not spy on each other. Naturally, the agreement lasted about as long as a snowflake in hell. Everyone wants to know what their friends, as well as their enemies, are doing. I knew that if I met up with other CIA intelligence officers in a known safehouse, the Singapore secret service would identify me. It might not be fatal – they were our allies, after all – but I didn't want to test that presumption.

    Luckily, it was fairly easy for Li to come up with an excuse for me to visit the embassy. The President might have banned the BAFT and crippled the EPA, but there were still strong restrictions on what could and couldn’t be exported out of the country. And, as my papers said I worked for an import/export company, I could be summoned to the embassy for ... consultations with the embassy’s staff. They’re paranoid about other countries stealing American technical secrets, not without reason. Just because we’re fighting the terrorists now doesn't mean that we won’t be fighting China and Russia in the next few years.

    I spent the morning considering what I’d been told about the mission – and the crisis in Europe. It made little sense, but then neither did most of the decisions made by the EU ever since it had been brought into existence. The bureaucrats seemed more interested in trying to maintain their power rather than actually tending to the needs of their countries, I suppose it shouldn’t have really been a surprise; they needed to cut the red tape, which would have forced them to reduce their own numbers. No one would want to do that, particularly when they’d show the world that they weren't needed.

    The phone call from the embassy came while I was eating lunch. An officious bureaucrat checked my identity, then ordered me to report to the embassy at 1400. If I’d been a real businessman, I would have been very annoyed at his tone and general attitude. I made a mental note to see if I could have him reprimanded – annoying the men who run the country’s economy isn't a good idea – before dismissing the matter. Any outside watchers shouldn't be allowed to get the impression that I went to the embassy willingly.

    I prayed luncheon prayers – catching up on the prayers I’d missed while in Kota Kinabalu – and then took a taxi to the embassy. Like almost all of our embassies since the war on terror began, it had been extensively refitted to provide maximum protection. The building was solid and heavily guarded by armed Marines, who had authorisation to open fire on anyone who came over the wall without permission. Diplomats in the State Department had whined that such ROE merely ensured that there would be a massacre of local citizens, but I found it hard to care. If they really thought that storming the US embassy would get them anything more than a brief thrill, they needed to be removed from the gene pool.

    It wasn't such a concern in Singapore – the authorities kept a tight grip on the country – but security hadn't been allowed to slack. The guard checked my ID, then sent me forward for a brief, but through search. At least they’d grown out of the habit of insisting that visitors handed over everything they carried for storage, no matter how harmless. It merely created a false sense of security – and annoyed people, some of whom needed to be kept sweet. Once inside, I was greeted by a young girl wearing a formal suit who took me down to the lower levels. Li and two other CIA officers were waiting for me there.

    One advantage of using the embassy is that we could have a secure room without raising too many eyebrows. There were parts of the embassy that were sealed off and barred to most of the staff, even though they were Americans. They had no need to know. Foreigners were rarely allowed to enter any of the secure rooms – and when they did, they were escorted at all times. It had only taken seventy years for the State Department to accept that foreign nationals, more often than not, worked for their own country. The Moscow Embassy had hired Russians to work for the diplomats, causing a whole series of security breeches. And the State Department had refused to admit that it was happening for decades!

    “This room is sealed and secure,” Li said, as we sat down around a simple wooden table. The door – it was more like an airlock – had slammed closed; no radio signal could penetrate the walls. “We have the files ready for you to study.”

    I took the tablet without comment and opened the first set of files. I’d always been taught to be careful of intelligence briefings written by analysts who didn't actually live in the country in question, but I didn't see any major flaws in their conclusion. Of course, they could easily have missed something obvious ... I studied the raw data as best as I could and decided that if they’d missed something, it wasn't in the data in the first place. It was worrying – it wouldn't be the first time that the intelligence community had missed something right in front of its collective nose – but there was nothing I could do about it.

    The CIA had spent years tracking the terrorist networks forming around Algeria, networks that reached all the way back to Pakistan, funnelling money and gullible idiots to the insurgency there. I had a feeling that Algeria was actually on the list of countries to invade after we’d dealt with Pakistan and Iran, but right now there was little we could do about it besides drone strikes and SF raids. Even with the draft back home, we simply lacked the manpower to occupy and civilise half the planet.

    And if they did get control of Europe, I thought, we’d have another set of countries to invade.

    I looked up at Li. “I assume you don’t have real-time tracking for Victor?”

    “No,” Li confirmed. I wasn't surprised; if they’d had real-time tracking, they could have dropped a Hellfire missile on him and left me to continue my private jihad. “He’s a little hard to track, even for us.”

    “He knows all the tricks,” I agreed. “Finding him will be a pain in the butt.”

    It was easy to leave a trail in the modern world, through everything from credit card transactions to internet surfing, but someone as well trained and experienced as Victor would know how to avoid easy detection. If he changed names and identities frequently, or simply paid in cash, it would be much harder to track him. Even the best number-crunchers in the Company would go mad trying to deduce which false identities actually belonged to him.

    I’d have to pull Victor out of hiding. It wouldn't be easy.

    “Check with Langley,” I suggested, an idea starting to form in my mind. “How much data did they pull out of Al-Barak’s computers?”

    “Plenty,” Li said. “I understand that we’ve gained new insight into how his terrorist organisation actually functions, as well as identifying a number of members.”

    My lips twitched. In some ways, running a terrorist network is a little like running an intelligence service or a military unit – and very few people can do it without writing something down. It wasn't a problem for the Pentagon – they weren't trying to hide from detection – or even for Langley, but terrorists didn't have any real security. Anything they wrote down might be captured and used in evidence against them. Al-Barak had thought he was safe. He’d been wrong.

    I couldn't track down Victor, at least not easily. But maybe I could make him come to me.

    “I want the officers to create a legend for me,” I said. “Someone who might be ... willing to work with the terrorists. An invisible.”

    There was no shortage of dumb muscle for terrorist groups. Any halfway decent recruiter could go into the refugee camps in Saudi or the slums of Algeria and Libya – or Pakistan, before we invaded – and round up hundreds of young men willing to die for the cause. But those recruits were often incapable of pretending to be harmless until the time came to strike. Hundreds of terrorists had been caught simply though being unable to keep their mouths shut. And, perhaps more importantly, they fitted a standard ethnic group. If you happened to be Arab, you could expect to spend much longer being searched and interrogated when you went through an airport than someone who wasn't Arab. Racial profiling may not be politically correct, but after San Francisco it was hard to give a shit.

    What the terrorists really needed were invisibles, men and women who could pass for natives of the country they were targeting. It wasn't easy; some reverts to Islam lost themselves so completely that they were happy to carry out suicide bombings, but others remembered the basic decency of the West and saw the terrorists for the infidels they are. And then the recruiters often found themselves walking into traps and being arrested.

    I outlined my plan as I worked through the files. Al-Barak had been working with a group of Pakistani exiles in Britain, who might well have links to Victor’s employers. I’d pose as one of Al-Barak’s recruits, a British expatriate from Malaysia, who had been seduced into serving the cause. As someone who could easily pass for British, operating under a clean passport, I should be a very tempting recruit for a terrorist group.

    It wasn't going to be easy, I know. Creating a legend – a whole false identity – is harder than it seems, even when you weren't trying to fool the CIA or another national intelligence service. These days, even an independent computer expert can poke away at an identity until it breaks, or simply looks false. Something as simple as a bank account could give the game away, if the legend-writers didn't do their job properly. And then there was the danger of running into someone who knew Al-Barak ...

    Actually, that wasn't that big a danger. Al Qaida Prime had been built up out of men who’d fought together in Afghanistan; as such, it had been very hard to infiltrate. No one could get into the group’s inner levels without having multiple others vouching for him. These days, with terrorist groups dispersed and having real problems staying in touch with one another, it was easier to introduce a new member or two at the right moment. But it didn't always work ...

    Back at the Farm, I’d been shown the video of what had happened to one CIA officer who’d been sniffed out by the terrorists. They’d recorded everything – and then broadcast it on the internet as a snuff film. It had been sickening, but we hadn't been allowed to look away. We had to know the dangers.

    “Risky,” Li said, when I’d finished. “Are you sure you want to do it this way?”

    I snorted. “I could just stand on a street corner and yell his name,” I said, sarcastically. “I’m sure that would draw some kind of reaction.”

    “Point,” Li agreed. “But what happens if you’re wrong and there are no ties between this bunch in England and Victor?”

    “Then we’ll have to think of something else,” I said, although I was sure that there would be some links. “But it’s a good place to start.”

    Of that, at least, I was sure. If Victor was involved in the planning for whatever the terrorists had in mind, he would definitely have something in mind to deal with Britain. Even if he didn't, he’d want to ensure that British-based terrorists didn't do something that screwed up his own plans. It wouldn't be the first time that some brilliant plan had been disrupted by well-meaning amateurs.

    And besides, the British were still fighting. We could call on help from them if necessary,

    Hours passed. Computer hackers broke into government computers in Malaysia and created a false identity. Adam Sinclair’s life took shape in front of me and I studied it, carefully. It was important that I had the details memorised by the time the terrorists interrogated me. And they would. Even with Al-Barak vouching for me, they wouldn't trust a newcomer until he had proven himself. Adam Sinclair had been born in London and emigrated to Malaysia at seventeen, where he’d spent the last ten years teaching English and learning about Islam. His parents were dead, both killed in a riot the year after he’d left the country. Officially, their deaths had been an accident, but reading between the lines it was easy to tell that they’d been shot by armed police, providing Adam with more than enough motive to seek revenge.

    And he would have been easy prey for a terrorist recruiter.

    The background was fleshed out, piece by piece. Adam had no girlfriend – indeed, he’d had very few friends at all. After his recruitment, he’d spent time at several training camps, but he’d been kept isolated from the other little terrorists. That would actually be believable; an invisible, someone who could pass unnoticed, would be too valuable to risk by allowing the other recruits to see his face. There had been offers of a wife, but Adam had declined, citing a need to avenge his parents and destroy the establishment. A handful of CIA sleeper agents could provide collaborative details if the terrorists started asking questions in Kuala Lumpur.

    “I don’t want a full team following me,” I said, finally. “I’ll keep in touch through my cell phone.”

    “Assuming they don’t just confiscate it,” Li pointed out. “We could give you an implant ...?”

    I shook my head. Implants worked, but it was possible that the terrorists would check – and if it was detected, I would be in deep shit. Besides, I didn't trust Langley. Part of the reason they hire guys like me is so that they can cut them loose if a mission suddenly becomes too politically hot to handle. I’m expendable.

    “I got someone,” one of the computer operators said. He swung the secure laptop around so I could see the files. “Someone who might be able to give you cover!”

    I read the file quickly. Mohammad Patel had been identified by MI5 – the British counter-intelligence service – as a terrorist recruiter. Operating from Manchester, he’d seduced dozens of young men into going abroad to get themselves blown up – or, more commonly, get picked up and transported to Antarctica. MI5 hadn’t moved in on him because – officially – it was better to keep an eye on the threat we knew about than eliminate him, only to have him replaced by someone we didn't know. Rumsfeld might have been a moron, but he was quite right; it was the unknown details that come up behind you and bite, hard.

    “If we could get him to vouch for you, your cover would be solid,” Li mused. She looked over at one of the hackers. “Is there a connection between Patel and Al-Barak?”

    “I think so,” the hacker said. He was a short pimply youth, unable to hide his feelings whenever he looked at Li. “Al-Barak was definitely sending him money.”

    I had to smile. Moving money around the world was difficult, even in the electronic age. Or, at least, it was difficult to move money around without being detected. Now that there were government-sponsored services to help immigrants send money back to their families aboard, it was harder to justify using systems that were more secretive. Besides, the CIA had long since relearned the Watergate rule; follow the money. If they’d learned it sooner, there might have been less embarrassment when Ames was finally caught. He hadn't even bothered to try to hide the fact that he was spending above his means.

    “But will he actually give you a reference?” Li pressed. “I don’t think that he will risk his cause by vouching for someone he’s never met.”

    “That could be a problem,” I agreed. I held the tablet up in front of her. “But I think we might be able to find some leverage.”

    Li looked at the file, then up at me. “His family,” she said. “You plan to threaten his family?”

    Patel had, to all intents and purposes, three wives. The fact that this was against British law wouldn't have bothered him for more than a few seconds. Wife One had been an arranged marriage, according to the files; Wives Two and Three had been married to him in a ceremony in the Mosque, but it wasn't a legal marriage. They were claiming benefits for being single mothers when they weren't anything of the sort. Between them, his three wives had seven kids. I wondered absently how much it bothered the scumbag that only one of them was a boy, before deciding that it didn't matter. Whatever else could be said about Patel, he seemed to love his children.

    “If there is no other choice,” I said. I had no qualms about hurting or killing terrorists – they were utter scum – but threatening children was something different. “We might be able to offer them protective custody.”

    “Someone like that won’t hesitate to sacrifice his children,” one of the analysts said.

    “Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not.”

    I looked back at Li. “Do we have any contacts in MI5 who might be willing to help?”

    “Quite a few,” Li admitted. “But you know the dangers of operating in ‘friendly’ territory.”

    I did. In Pakistan, the CIA could call on the SEALs, or Delta, or Marine Force Recon. There would be no such support in Britain. But I’d resigned myself to going in alone anyway.

    “Sort out the details,” I said. Luckily, with Al-Barak out of the way, it would be possible to create a false impression for Patel’s benefit. I would have been ordered to leave Kuala Lumpur before Al-Barak wound up dead. “And then book me some tickets to London.”
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    “We have hypersonic aircraft that can get from one side of the world to the other in under an hour,” Felix proclaimed, swinging his glass of wine around from side to side “And we have spacecraft that can hop from Washington to Moscow in even less time. So why do we have to sit in this fucking plane for fifteen fucking hours?”

    I kept my expression blank with an effort. Felix worked for a large corporation engaged in manufacturing computers for fun and profit; fun for the users, profit for the corporation. I knew this because he’d insisted on telling me all about it at great length, leaving me seriously wondering if I could get away with strangling him and swearing blind that it was an accident. I disliked commercial flying at the best of times; sitting next to someone like Felix turned a bad experience into a nightmare. And the stench of alcohol didn't help.

    “It’s a waste of fucking time,” Felix insisted. “I could be selling computers back home!”

    I looked at the glass in his hand and tried to calculate how long it would be before it slopped red wine all over the carpet. It had been years since I’d touched alcohol, let alone become drunk, but I still remembered the shame of my body refusing to work quite right. If Felix dropped his glass on the carpet ... I looked at the carpet and decided that it would probably be a great improvement. Shaking my head, I took another sip of water from the bottle I’d purchased at the airport and tried to relax. Maybe Felix would drink himself into a stupor before too long.

    Unlike the last flight I’d taken, the Singapore-London flight was crammed. Singapore was still one of the foremost trading posts in the world, despite the economic crash, and there were thousands of people like Felix trying to make enough money to keep their heads above the water. I’d wanted to fly business class, but Li’s subordinates had pointed out that ‘Adam Sinclair’ wouldn't have been able to afford it. I had a feeling that Langley had nixed the extra expense first and then thought up the justification.

    Eventually, Felix drifted off to sleep and I let out a sigh of relief. Without his babbling – and it struck me that Felix couldn't be doing as well as he claimed if he was stuck in economy class like me – I could close my eyes and try to relax myself. It must have worked, for the next thing I knew was a pretty stewardess poking me, trying to get me to sit up for the landing. Felix burped and went back to sleep, his head lolling over the side of his chair. The stewardess gave up and walked off. I couldn't blame her.

    It was early in the morning as the plane landed at Heathrow, London’s only remaining airport. The slump had killed several of the weaker airlines and forced the remaining ones to consolidate their operations. Gatwick and the other one, whose name I could never remember, had been closed down shortly afterwards. The British Government had made a big deal of placing them on standby for when the economy recovered, but the last report I’d read had stated that Gatwick had been turned into an internment camp for refugees and illegal immigrants. It wasn't a cheerful thought.

    Heathrow looked like an armed camp. I spotted at least a dozen armed policemen as we filed off the plane – thankfully, Felix had remained in his drunken sleep until I’d left the aircraft – and headed towards customs and immigration. As I was carrying a British passport, the officer didn't take much time to clear me to enter the country, once he’d checked my fingerprints. I’d been worried about that – normally, there would be more time to test the false papers before it was too late – but the hackers had done their work well. Adam Sinclair’s fingerprints were on file and, naturally, matched mine.

    Outside customs, it didn't get much better. Quite apart from the policemen, I saw a set of soldiers standing on guard, along with something that looked like a SAM missile emplacement. I supposed it made sense – having the ability to shoot down a hijacked airliner might be important – but it didn't strike me as very logical. Hitting an aircraft with a missile wouldn't actually vaporise the aircraft, at least outside bad movies. On the other hand, at least the aircraft would come down in a place where there were emergency procedures for dealing with crashed aircraft.

    I hadn't bothered to bring along anything more than a rucksack, so I didn't need to wait with the other passengers to recover their suitcases. Outside, I checked taxi prices and shook my head in disbelief; I’d known that the British Pound was in trouble, but was it really in that much trouble? On the other hand, Heathrow had long been used by wealthy international travellers and they might not bat an eyelid at spending £100 to get to a hotel only a mile or so from the airport itself.

    Adam Sinclair, of course, couldn't afford it, so I walked down to the Underground station and boarded a train for central London. There were more armed policemen in the station and two more in the train itself, watching the travellers like hawks. The London Underground had been targeted several times by terrorists, who saw the trains as a cheap substitute for aircraft – and as an opportunity to spread fear. It was a relief when the train reached the station and I was able to disembark.

    The city was oddly quiet. Once, London had been so clogged with cars that it had been difficult to navigate through the streets. Now, there were almost no cars on the streets and only a handful of the famous London buses. The price of oil had been rising slowly, but steadily for years and it had eventually reached the point where most people simply couldn't afford it. It wasn't much better in the States, despite the hasty development of new oilfields and programs to reduce unnecessary use of oil. People were asking what was the point of occupying the oilfields in Saudi Arabia if oil wasn't cheap. But it wasn't as simple as that.

    I blended with the tourists as I walked down towards Trafalgar Square, where Lord Nelson still kept watch over London. There was a protest going on underneath the statue, although I couldn't tell what they were actually protesting about. It felt as if it was going to turn into a riot, so I gave the protest a wide berth as I headed up towards Soho. I would have preferred to have spent some time in the bookshops, but there was no time. Besides, one of the ones I recalled from my last visit to London had been closed down.

    The pub was half-hidden in a side-street, although it wasn't exactly difficult to find. I pushed the door open and stepped inside, breathing in the stench of alcohol and cigarettes. There were only a handful of customers, all of whom eyed me suspiciously as I walked over to the counter and waited for the bartender to notice me. When he did, I requested a lime and soda tonic. He gave me a sharp look before nodding to a young girl standing behind him, who beckoned me to follow her into the rear passageway. I wasn't too surprised to see a set of hidden rooms behind the pub. I’d been in establishments like it before.

    “Wait,” the girl ordered.

    Two minutes later, a man walked into the room carrying. He was taller than I’d been led to expect by his photograph, with short brown hair and a sharp face that looked disturbingly alive. A meeting at Thames House would have attracted attention, I knew, from both the politicians and the media. Here, in an obscure bar, we could talk without risking anything.

    “You can call me Pat,” he grunted, as he closed the door. “This room is secure.”

    I nodded. MI5 would have checked it carefully, as well as finding a way for the bartender to gain an exemption from the smoking ban. Intelligence analysts smoke like chimneys, something that seemed to be a universal constant. Coming to think of it, terrorist planners also smoked heavily, reserving the harder drugs for their underlings. A drugged-up terrorist was frighteningly hard to kill.

    “Deals have been made,” he added, as he sat down. “My boss spoke to your boss and came to an agreement. We will allow you to take Patel in exchange for certain considerations. I have no other details.”

    I nodded, unsurprised. MI5 wouldn't have wanted to abandon an intelligence operation in Britain, let alone hand it over to the CIA. But they’d certainly have a list of things they wanted from the States. A few hours of horse-trading had produced an agreement, although I’d probably never know the full details. I had no need to know.

    “We would like to use him for one last operation,” I said. I’d have to check with Li to make sure that all the details were in place. There was no way to know how reliable Patel’s acting skills were until we tried, which risked blowing the operation wide open if he was a lousy actor. I’d prefer to try to sneak in rather than blackmail him. “What brought him to your attention?”

    “A year or so before San Francisco, a trio of lads from Manchester went to Pakistan,” Pat said. “It caught our attention and we monitored them as they returned – they’d gone as kids, if you know what I mean, and returned as adults. We kept an eye on them and noted that Patel was one of their contacts. Eventually, we worked out what he was doing.”

    I nodded sourly. The media believes that a sleeper agent can remain dormant more or less indefinitely, but the real world doesn't work that way. An agent might build such a comfortable life in the West – maybe even marrying and producing children – and then be reluctant to leave it when the call came. Or, if they’d grown up in a restrictive society, they'd be seduced by the freedoms of the West. At least one terrorist had handed himself in to Langley after falling in love with an American girl.

    “Since then, he’s been sending others overseas,” Pat added. “Most of them went to Pakistan, but a handful went to Algeria. But then I suppose you already know that.”

    He opened the briefcase and produced a tablet PC. I recognised the design and smiled, inwardly. Apple had designed them for Langley, which had sold a number to allied intelligence services. They weren't fully trusted, I’d been told, but they were used. And the data loaded onto the tablet would be the data the British wanted us to have.

    Unsurprisingly, they had collected considerably more data than the CIA. One advantage we did have when operating in a friendly country was that there were plenty of resources to use in tracking terrorists, once we had identified them. I skimmed through it quickly, memorising names, dates and details, before looking up in surprise. Patel was clearly more dangerous than I’d realised. A Youth Services Coordinator – scoutmaster, in simpler terms – had plenty of access to vulnerable young men.

    “Why didn't you take him out?”

    “Politics,” Pat said. The word was a curse. “You want the full details?”

    The honest answer to that was no, but I nodded anyway.

    “There are thousands of children and teenagers who have literally nowhere to go,” Pat explained, grimly. “They’d go to school and then ... there’d be nowhere for them to actually relax and enjoy themselves. Patel’s mosque managed to secure a grant from local government to open up a community centre for kids. It isn't officially a Muslim centre, but given where they live there aren't many non-Muslims going there. I think that the original planners genuinely did have decent motives ...”

    “I understand,” I said.

    It had happened before and no doubt it would happen again. A group of people with genuine good intentions had discovered that extremists had taken over and started to run it to suit themselves. Islam wasn't the only religion that had encountered that problem, but actually doing something about it was harder than it seemed. The extremists were usually organised before everyone else realised that they needed to get organised. And they were often willing to resort to violence too.

    I could just imagine the conversations they would have held. The extremists would have claimed the moral high ground of defending and promoting Islam, forcing the moderates to scrabble to come up with a counter-answer. And it was difficult to take a stance against one’s own religion. There were times when I wondered if I would have seen the beauty of Islam – and the corruption of the Muslims – so clearly if I’d been born to a Muslim family. Respect for religious authority – and for those who could memorise the Qur’an – is deeply ingrained into the children from a very early age.

    It didn't help that the community defined itself against the larger society surrounding it. To take a stand against the extremists could be portrayed as taking a stand against the entire community itself. The police were seen as outsiders – and untrustworthy outsiders at that – while the extremists, however misguided, were still part of the community. Whose side would you take if you were taking a stand against your entire community?

    “Suffice it to say that there are political objections to an overt operation,” Pat said. “Right now, the government doesn't have a strong position. It could get worse if there was another round of riots on the streets.”

    “Understood,” I said. “I can’t take the tablet with me, I'm afraid.”

    “So I was given to understand,” Pat said. We shared a grin. “What are your intentions?”

    “I’m going to go to Manchester and make contact with him,” I explained. I would have preferred several weeks of surveillance so I could get a feel for the man himself, rather than relying on second-hand reports, but there was no time. “I suggest that you keep your surveillance at the current level. The last thing we want to do is spook him before it is too late.”

    “Of course,” Pat said. He leaned forward. “What do you intend to do?”

    “Get into his confidence,” I said, shortly. “I can’t tell you anything else.”

    “True,” Pat agreed. We shared a humourless grin. They wanted to know what we were doing, naturally. No doubt they’d work it out in time. “I’ll tell the team to just maintain their surveillance of Patel.”

    We spent twenty minutes discussing emergency procedures before I took my leave. MI5 had a vanload of heavies – plain-clothed policemen, as far as anyone outside Thames House knew – nearby on permanent alert. If I sent them a text from my cell phone, they’d come storming in and arrest everyone in the building. It wouldn't be a safe operation, I knew; Britain had harsh laws for dealing with terrorists, once they were arrested, and the bastards could be expected to resist. But they'd known the job was dangerous when they took it.

    “Here,” Pat said. He produced a small wallet, which contained nearly a thousand pounds in used notes and a handful of cards. “The money is untraceable, the cards are genuine. Do you want anything else?”

    I glanced at the cards, one by one. A driving licence, matching the details the CIA had forwarded to MI5. I hoped they’d altered the records to match the biographical profile we’d built up for Adam Sinclair. A debit card, presumably linked to an MI5 account; a National Insurance card ...

    “I was told to offer you this,” Pat said, when I had counted the money and finished looking at the supplies. He passed me a final plastic card. “If you want it ...”

    My eyes opened wide. Britain has a phobia about allowing foreigners on her streets with guns, something that wasn't too surprising when the British had lost a policewoman to a Libyan sniper who fired from inside the embassy. The card granted me permission to carry a firearm and ammunition, effectively deputising me to MI5 for the duration of the operation. If I were stopped by armed police, I could show them the card and they’d let me go unmolested.

    “I can't take it,” I said, finally. Everything else was logical, but why would Adam Sinclair have a firearms licence? They were only rarely handed out to British citizens. It would be a red flag to any investigator, no matter how incompetent. “I assume they will search me thoroughly.”

    “I was told to offer,” Pat said. His face twitched into a grin. “Are you packing heat?”

    I rolled my eyes. “I couldn't get it on the plane,” I reminded him. Packing heat indeed! “No, it’s not something I can risk them finding. If they give me a weapon, it will be different, but right now ...”

    “Your choice,” Pat said. He stood up, then held out his hand. I shook it firmly. “MI5 – officially – has no contact with you. Unofficially, we will provide all the support you need. Good luck.”

    I watched him go and slotted the new cards into my wallet. I’d have to check them before using them, of course, just in case the details MI5 had used were different to the rest of my equipment. And I’d have to dump the wallet somewhere. Knowing the intelligence world as I do, it was quite likely that MI5 had hidden a tracer inside the material.

    Shaking my head, I stood up and headed for the door. There would be trains from London to Manchester, where I would find a place to stay before contacting Patel. And then we’d see just how well my cover held up under pressure.
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Six

    The first mosque I’d visited as a Muslim had been a converted warehouse, built by the local community as a labour of love. They’d covered the floor in a simple green carpet, installed washrooms for ritual cleansing and put up bookshelves for Islamic books. It had been simple – a crude building on the outside, a welcoming interior– and yet that simplicity had been its true strength. There had been something about it that was truly holy.

    Patel’s mosque was disappointing. On the outside, it was magnificent, built in the traditional Arabic style. A large plaque on the front gate proclaimed that it had been built with money donated by the King of Saudi Arabia, in his unlimited generosity to his fellow Muslims. I wasn't too surprised to discover that it didn't feel holy at all, rather more like a spiritual vacuum. It had every luxury money could buy and yet it wasn't a true mosque. I found myself wishing that the local community had known better than to take money from the Al-Saud, even though I could understand why they’d fallen into the trap. They’d made the same mistake so many others had made and mistaken form for substance.

    I’ll have to make up these prayers, I thought sourly, as I walked down the stone stairs to the washroom. Do they really count if prayed here?

    I kept my eyes open as I waited in line for washing. The mosque was filled with Muslims, almost all of them adult males. Women and children had their own sections of the building, where the men wouldn't need to see them at all. I would have been surprised if it was even a quarter of the size of the male section. As always, women bore the brunt of extremism – and were denied their chance to question their lot. I took my place in front of the taps and carefully washed myself, even though I suspected that it was pointless. Even if prayers here were worthless, I would have to act like a regular visitor.

    The prayer hall was stunning – and not in a good way. There were elaborate carvings on the walls, a throne for the imam when he preached at Friday prayers and a handful of clocks, one of them showing the time in Mecca. I saw no sign of elegance, let alone good taste; if anyone else noticed, they showed no sign of it. But then, I was sure that the imam loved having such a expensive mosque. If the price for that was kissing up to the Saudis, it was a price that many would gladly pay.

    I gritted my teeth as I sat down and waited for the prayer. In Islam, anyone can lead prayers; what sort of idiot would assign a single person as a permanent imam? Oh, I could see that there might be value in having a well-trained teacher, but leading prayers? All it does is install a knee-jerk respect for religious authority, the same respect that has done the Vatican so much harm. Muslims should have known better. Was it any real surprise that they did not?

    A young man sat down next to me, offered me his hand and chatted about nothing for several minutes. I had been aware of eyes watching me as soon as I entered the community itself, which wasn't surprising either. A tightly-knit community is always aware of intruders, particularly ones who are clearly not from the same continent. I gave him my name, asked a handful of naive questions about the mosque and pretended to listen to the answers, all the while keeping an eye out for Patel. He entered, along with a handful of teenage kids, just before the Imam’s assistant called us to prayer. Traditionally, he should have been at the back – he’d come in too late – but he pushed his way to the front. No one seemed to object, at least out loud. Patel was a power in the community.

    The imam droned to life – and droned was the right word; surely there had to be someone better – and we stood to attention. I noted that there were plenty of people who didn't seem too devout, even though they were trying to hide it – and a couple of younger kids were running about, with no respect for anyone. The imam droned on and on, reciting a long surah just because he knew it and he wanted to show off, before we finally were allowed to prostrate ourselves. I silently hoped I’d have a chance to meet him up a dark alley after I’d finished the mission. This man was actively dangerous to the faith.

    It was a relief when the prayer finally came to an end. About three-quarters of the room decamped at once, including the harassed-looking father with the two kids. The remainder, including Patel and myself, stayed for the following prayers. I watched in some amusement as Patel stood up, as soon as the prayers were finished, and was instantly surrounded by other men. A politician pressing the flesh could not have hoped for a better reception.

    Concealing my amusement, I wandered over to him and waited. Patel would have no difficulty in picking me out of a crowd – and in noticing that I was paying attention to him. It was almost disappointing how he managed to banish most of his friends and wander over to me, pasting a jovial expression on his bearded face. I saw the glint of intelligence behind his eyes – cold, almost serpentine – and shivered inwardly. This man was a predator in the worst possible sense.

    “I’m always interested to hear about reverts,” he assured me, as soon as we had exchanged names. “Perhaps you would care to join us for lunch?”

    I made a show of considering it before I accepted. “A friend of mine told me that I should look you up,” I said, once his friends were out of earshot. One of them had been dispatched to a kebab house to place Patel’s order. “Uncle Omar said you might be welcoming.”

    His eyes narrowed, just for a second. His self-control was impressive.

    “Well, welcoming is as welcoming does,” he said, finally. “And you are welcome to join us for lunch.”

    He led me down the stairs, out of the mosque and across the road, into a small kebab shop that seemed worryingly deserted. It wasn't until I’d seen the owner start to fawn on Patel that I realised he’d had everyone else cleared out before coming in himself, just like a politician from back home. The owner hastily set out great bowls of fried chicken, beef and lamp, along with sauces and bread. I felt my stomach rumble and felt relieved when Patel finished praying over the meal and started to pass out the bread. It tasted heavenly,

    “I’ve been working on a law that will insist that all meat be halal,” Patel explained, as we ate. I wondered just who he was trying to impress; me, or his supporters? “There’s no reason why Christians and Jews can't eat halal meat, while we can't eat theirs. Why not insist that all meat be halal?”

    I could think of several arguments against it, but I held my tongue and listened as he held court. Judging by what he said, he was a very important person indeed, although I suspected that most of it was bullshit intended to impress his followers rather than me. But if half of what he said was true, he'd parlayed a scheme to help poor children into a political powerbase. It would have been impressive if I hadn't considered him worse than a paedophile.

    “But enough about me,” he said, as we came to the end of the meat. “Tell me about yourself.”

    I gave him the crib notes version of Adam Sinclair’s life, playing up the details of spending time in Malaysia – and reverting to Islam there - and talking as little as I could about my dead parents. A person as smart as Patel would have no difficulty spotting that I was being evasive about certain points, but he didn't press me on them. I would have been astonished if he took his followers into his confidence, so I suspected that there would be a second – private – discussion later.

    “I’m sorry to hear about your parents,” he said. He sounded sincere. “Have you learned to speak Arabic? Or Malay?”

    “I can't speak Arabic,” I lied. The Farm had coached me until I spoke it like a Saudi national. “And I can only remember a few words of Malay. But I can recall plenty of surahs.”

    “Good, good,” Patel said. I knew exactly what he meant and shuddered inwardly. Far too many Muslim kids are taught to memorise parts of the Qur’an, but they don’t actually understand what they’re saying. It might as well be nonsense babbling for all they know, yet they still think they know the Qur’an. “And what are you doing with yourself now?”

    “Just drifting,” I said, for the benefit of the listening ears. “I thought I might look for a job.”

    “I might be able to help with that,” Patel said, seriously. “Where are you staying right now?”

    The second part of the interrogation was just as intensive as the first, even though the subject jumped around a lot. I recognised the technique and smiled inwardly; it’s a great deal harder to maintain a coherent story if the subject changes every question, then jumps back again. But I had been trained to handle it and besides, my story held together. I just left Al-Barak-shaped gaps in the narrative for Patel to grill me about later.

    They’d told me that lying to infidels was permitted if done in the name of Islam. I wondered if this was quite what they had in mind.

    Not that it really matters, I reminded myself. Those who start to lie soon become addicted to it. And then you forget what lies you’ve told.

    Eventually, Patel stood up, dismissed his followers and invited me to see the youth centre, apparently because he was considering offering me a job there. I could understand his plan; if I took up the offer, I would become indebted to him, which would make it harder to object to anything he wanted to do later. Maybe I had been sent by Al-Barak, but Patel wanted to get his own hooks in me. I went along with it, knowing that the third part of the interrogation was about to begin.

    The youth centre actually reminded me of my first mosque. Children and teenagers – all boys – were either inside the hall playing games like ping-pong and chess, or outside kicking a pair of balls around the field, watched by a pair of adults who seemed to be blowing their whistles constantly. There were no girls around at all, which was disappointing, but not surprising. The community was very traditional and the traditional place for young girls was inside the house, learning from their mother. I hoped that some of them would find the courage to break free of their lives. It wouldn't be easy at all.

    Maybe we should allow young Muslim girls to immigrate, I thought. See what happens to these damned cultures then!

    Patel had an office in the youth centre, a cheerfully shabby room designed for public consumption. A pile of papers were stacked on the desk, held down by a polished stone; the walls were decorated with pictures from field trips, including one that including canoeing down a river. The kids all looked happy in the pictures; I wondered just how many of them would have been slowly steered to the training camps, where they would become little monsters. If you managed to influence the children early, I knew, they would be yours for life.

    He picked up a device from the desk and clicked it on. I recognised it as a portable jammer, a civilian version of the jammers built into CIA secure rooms. In theory, it would make it impossible for anyone to listen in on our conversation, although I had my doubts. They wouldn't have been sold legally unless the security services had a way to penetrate them at will. Adam Sinclair wouldn't have recognised it, so I didn't either.

    “Uncle Omar sent you,” he said, walking over to the door and locking it. The sound of the lock clicking was chillingly loud. “Why?”

    “There was a call for people who might be useful,” I said, vaguely. That was true, but one thing Al-Barak’s files hadn’t told us was just where to go. “Uncle Omar” – Al-Barak – “told me that you would have further instructions. And that I should trust you.”

    “You can,” Patel said, absently. “Tell me about what you did with him.”

    It wasn’t a request. Thankfully, I’d prepared for the question and outlined a series of training exercises intended to turn a slightly-overweight white youth into a fighter. I hadn't been in the camps, which would explain why no one recognised me, but individual training wasn't that uncommon, particularly for reverts. Someone who can pass for an American – or British, or French – native was simply too valuable to risk on anything minor. There was no shortage of fools willing to blow themselves up for the greater glory of their tutors.

    And besides, while the CIA had no problem obtaining British passports, terrorist groups found it much harder. A legitimate passport was worth its weight in gold.

    “Interesting,” he said, finally. “You do realise that we will have to check you out first?”

    “Uncle Omar warned me,” I said. I didn't blame him. Accepting a new recruit without checking him out carefully had destroyed a number of terrorist cells in the past. “What do you want me to do?”

    “For starters, give me your passport and other documents,” Patel ordered. “And then we will see.”

    I watched the boys playing soccer – football, the cousins called it – as Patel checked my documents. No one seemed to be overtly watching me, but I was sure that I was being followed by any number of unseen eyes. The crime rate in this part of Manchester was suspiciously low – thanks to a community policing service effectively controlled by Patel, according to MI5 – yet they wouldn't have any difficulty disposing of a dead body. I grimaced, bitterly. Just how had things gotten so bad?

    But maybe it was understandable. The British – like everyone else – had needed to make massive painful budget cuts. Policing had been one of the first public services to be cut, reducing the number of officers on the streets. Community Officers – volunteers, in other words – had seemed a plausible replacement, at least at first. Instead, they’d been hastily infiltrated by local power-hungry politicians and turned into weapons. Patel had largely succeeded in keeping drug lords out of this part of Manchester, but he’d also been using his private army to harass girls who were out on their own.

    And to think that it was actually worse in France!

    You wouldn't know this, if you lived in Europe without access to the internet. The media had been downplaying the situation for years. But the internet, less restrained now that it was harder to censor, had been telling people the truth. There was a rising tide of lawlessness threatening to sweep away what remained of European civilisation. No wonder that so many people were taking advantage of the offer to flee to Europe. They knew that the continent was descending into chaos.

    It was nearly an hour before Patel called me back into his office. “I have confirmed your identity,” he said. “You do seem to have quite a bit of money ...”

    “My parents left it as a bequest,” I said. It would be difficult to disprove. “I resolved not to touch it until the time came to avenge their deaths.”

    “Very wise of you,” Patel said. “Can you take orders?”

    I nodded.

    “Good,” Patel said. “Go back to where you’re staying. You will be contacted in a few days; until then, explore the city and try not to be noticed. If you attract any attention from the police, keep your mouth shut. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes,” I said. Patel would need more time to check out my claims. I hoped that the hackers hadn't fucked up. One mistake and the whole operation would blow up in my face. “I understand.”

    Patel studied me, coldly. “Do not visit any mosques,” he added. “Have no contact with the community at all. Pray in your room, visit the centre of town, do whatever you like ... but don’t come near the community. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes,” I said, again. I did too; my value as an invisible would plummet if the security services noticed me going to the mosque and drew the right conclusions. It wouldn't matter, but there was no way I could tell him that. “I’ll go there now.”

    “I can arrange for you to be driven,” Patel offered. It was more than a kind offer, I realised; it was a subtle sign of power. Petrol – gas – was expensive, unless one had the right connections. “And besides, the fewer people here who see you, the better.”

    I would have preferred to walk, to take in as much as I could of Manchester, but it wasn't intended as an offer I could refuse. I had a feeling that they wanted to keep as close an eye on me as they could. Absently, I wondered just how much police equipment had fallen into Patel’s hands. Uniforms? Truncheons? Surely even the moron who’d thought of the whole idea wouldn't have included guns?

    “I would be delighted,” I said. I needed time to think, to process everything I’d learned. But that was a luxury when on operations. “And thank you.”

    Patel smiled, like a snake preparing to strike. “Thank you,” he said. “Newcomers are always welcome.”
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Seven

    Whatever else could be said about him, Patel wasn't going to buy any sealed packages. I went out to dinner in Manchester and when I returned my room had been searched thoroughly. Naturally, I’d taken the precaution of placing my bag and clothes in precise positions, ones that allowed me to see if they’d been tampered with. I checked my belongings myself – a neat trick for getting rid of someone is planting drugs on their person, then making a call to the police – then did what I should have earlier and searched the room myself. There were, as far as I could tell, no surveillance devices.

    That didn't mean anything, of course. Patel might easily have obtained some bugs from a spy store or the police, including devices that were invisible to the naked eye. I could have found them using CIA detectors – perhaps – but that would have blown my cover. Besides, I had no detectors. Instead, I went for a shower, prayed the final prayers of the day and then went to sleep, careful to set the alarm on my cell phone. It was important to be up for dawn prayer, all the more so as I assumed that I was being watched. I had to look like a fanatic keeping his prayers, come rain or shine. The irony did not amuse me.

    I spent the next three days wandering around Manchester, waiting to be contacted. This was easily the most dangerous part of the operation; if Patel and his goons penetrated my cover, they’d either vanish or shoot me down. I thought we’d done it perfectly – it’s much harder for the terrorists to vet their recruits than the CIA, and we’ve let a few bad apples through the checks – but if we’d missed something, my ass was on the line. I visited the library, tried out a couple of places I’d heard about online and waited. It wasn't until the evening of the third day that I came back to my room to discover someone waiting for me.

    “Just the person I wanted to see,” he said, with false bonhomie. “Come with me.”

    Judging by his skin, he was probably the product of a mixed-race relationship. British and Indian, I decided; he looked pale, but not British enough to pass without comment. He was remarkably handsome and I found myself wondering what his sisters looked like, if he had sisters. It was unlikely that I would ever find out.

    I followed him down the stairs and into the back yard, where a car was waiting for us. Inside, there were two more men, both looking more like dumb muscle than anything else. Had they expected me to fight, I wondered, or did they have other reasons to expect trouble? I felt ice trickling down my spine as I realised that my cover might be blown. The car roared into life and headed out onto the near-deserted street. I studied my companions thoughtfully, trying to decide if I should simply attack them now and break out of the trap. If it was a trap.

    Manchester changed as twilight fell over the city. The famous Curry Mile was brightly lit, reminding me more of bazaars I’d seen in India than of anything British. Crowds thronged through the street, taking their chance to visit the curry shops and ethnic warehouses after a hard day at work – if they did work. I couldn't help noticing that there were plenty of youths in the area, all seemingly unemployed, and very few girls. None of the ethnic girls I saw was unescorted.

    The scene changed as we drove away from the Curry Mile, up past a set of identical houses and another mosque that was too elaborate for my tastes. Someone had taken money from the Saudis again, I decided, as I gritted my teeth and decided to wait and see what happened. It might kill me ... but if I walked away too soon, we would lose our chance to use Patel to track down Victor. Outside the tourist area, the streets were dark, almost shadowy. I’d heard that Britain’s infrastructure was falling apart, but this was the first I’d seen that was unmistakably a sign of decay. The money to carry out maintenance simply didn't exist; the workforce trained to carry out maintenance, assuming the money had existed,, had emigrated to America, what little there had been of it. Britain’s bureaucrats had forgotten that constant maintenance was required to keep a nation running until it was far too late.

    The car stopped outside a single house, indistinguishable from the rest. My companion stepped out of the car and opened the door for me, closing it before the dumb muscle could follow us out. I lifted an eyebrow, then decided that they’d probably not been invited to the meeting. That was a good sign, I told myself, as my companion led me though a tiny garden and knocked on the door. It was opened, a moment later, by a young man I’d seen in MI5’s files, one of Patel’s assistants at the youth centre. MI5 had added the note that he’d cheated on his taxes, as well as helping to support terrorists, both directly and indirectly.

    “Welcome, brother,” he said, in Arabic. I managed to look gormless – not a hard task at all, according to my tutors – until he switched to English. “Welcome to England.”

    The interior of the house looked odd, but it took me a moment to realise that they'd knocked through the walls and linked several houses together into one. Given Patel’s living arrangements, it was a fairly decent solution, although MI5 had implied that all three of his wives were living together. The nagging had to be intolerable, part of my mind pointed out, before realising that it wouldn't be a problem for him. If his wives nagged him too much, he could take his belt to them – or worse – and no one would do anything to stop him. The shelters for battered women had recorded what happened under the veil, before they’d been shut down by politicians eager to please community leaders. And then they wondered why the extremists took control so easily. They knew that no one would dare oppose them.

    Patel himself was sitting on a carpeted floor. He stood up as I was escorted into the room and gave me a hug, one of the many things I’d never quite come to accept. The American concept of personal space simply doesn't apply in the Middle East. I understood the symbolic meanings behind most Islamic rituals, but hugging had never quite made sense to me. It was probably something else that had been inserted into the culture.

    “Welcome,” he said, as he motioned for me to sit down. “My wives had prepared a meal for us, just the two of us. I hope that you will enjoy it.”

    “Thank you,” I said. No escorts? No guards? Patel must want to talk to me in private, or at least allow me to assume that no one else would hear me. Or perhaps he wanted to make a pass ... it was probably unlikely. “I’m sure I shall.”

    Patel’s servants brought in two large bowls of rice and lamp, cooked in spices I knew, but had never bothered to identify. His wives were good cooks, I decided, as I took my first bite; the meat was cooked to perfection, while the rice complemented it nicely. There were no vegetables, which was unusual in my experience, but maybe Patel simply didn't like having vegetables to eat. I’d been like that when I’d been a kid, even though the Company had knocked it out of me. Patel had the power to indulge himself if he chose.

    I listened politely as Patel chatted about nothing in particular, jumping from topic to topic like a child with a very short attention span. He told me about the refugee camps in Libya and Algeria for Palestinians, and how he was collecting money to help them survive a few more months, now that the Israelis had driven them away from Palestine for good. His voice became a rant as he damned Israel, somehow forgetting to mention the constant harassment Israel had suffered – and the poison gas attack that had killed two hundred children – before they’d finally had enough and just forced their borders as far outwards as they could. With American troops in Egypt and Saudi, Israel was safer than she’d been for years.

    “We have to help our brothers,” Patel insisted. “Every Friday, we collect thousands of pounds for the needy in Libya.”

    It was difficult not to roll my eyes. If every Muslim in Britain donated a pound each week, there would be millions of pounds to aid the needy. But I knew that the money rarely reached the people it was intended to help. It went to terrorists, intent on striking back against Israel, or corrupt bureaucrats in the host countries. And people like Patel no doubt siphoned off a sizable amount for themselves. Even if they did get all of the money, it wouldn't really help them, merely prolong their suffering. The only thing that would help would be to integrate them into the host nation ... and that was difficult. No matter how Islamic they claim to be, the host government got more mileage out of keeping the refugees in camps than in allowing them to integrate.

    “Uncle Omar appears to have died,” Patel said, suddenly. It was easy to look shocked. “But we were able to confirm that you’d worked with him – and that he sent you to me.”

    I silently blessed the hackers under my breath. “He said that you might have a use for me,” I said. Al-Barak wouldn't have wanted to use someone like me in Malaysia. A white man would be instantly noticeable, almost everywhere. “I am ready to serve.”

    “Tell me about your parents,” Patel said. “And about how you came to Islam.”

    Since we were in private, I allowed hatred and bitterness to seep into my voice as I talked about my parents – and about how they’d been killed by the police. Any outside observer would probably conclude that it had been a tragic accident, but Adam Sinclair wouldn’t believe that for a second. The police had deliberately murdered his parents and he wanted revenge. Someone like Al-Barak would have skilfully nurtured that hatred until it had become a fire. And Patel would know just how to use it.

    I spun him a tale about how I’d taken refuge in Islam, and how I’d found peace for a time, before the desire to avenge my parents had grown too strong to be ignored. I mentioned a handful of names I knew from briefing notes, names of terrorists who had gone to fight and been killed – dead men couldn't contradict me – and gave him plenty of details. It was important that he understood that I was willing and able to fight. I should have been an actor.

    “You are too useful to be risked here,” Patel said, finally. “Are you willing to travel?”

    “I am willing to go wherever God sends me,” I said. “If young men from Britain can go to Afghanistan to fight, I can go there too.”

    Patel smiled. He’d sent countless young men to Afghanistan, Pakistan and everywhere else they could fight the forces of civilisation – and most of those young men had either ended up dead, or in the penal camps. A handful had been interviewed after their capture and reported that it wasn't quite what they’d been led to expect. Instead of the training they’d been promised, there had been a handful of drills, a great deal of instruction in the finer points of jihad and lousy food. And those who went on to fight American troops were so badly prepared for the mission that most of them died without getting off more than a handful of shots.

    “I think we have a better use for you,” he said, “but it isn't in Britain.”

    I blinked in surprise. It wasn't that much of an act. By definition, an invisible is most effective in his own country. Send me back to Kota Kinabalu – at least without the skin tiny – and I would stick out like a sore thumb. I might be able to pass for Irish, if I tried, but I doubted I could pass for anyone else, at least not without raising eyebrows. There was such a thing as being too good.

    Patel ignored my confusion. “You will be driven from here to Liverpool, where you will board a ship heading for a certain destination,” he informed me. I clearly wasn't being offered a choice. “Once you arrive, you will be passed to someone else in the movement, who will have further instructions for you.”

    I frowned, thinking hard. “A ferry?” I asked. It was the right sort of naive question to ask. “Why not take a plane?”

    “Because anyone flying out of the country is likely to attract attention,” Patel said, rather dryly. I managed to refrain from pointing out that I’d flown in from Singapore and my fake passport stated, quite clearly, that I’d been living in Kuala Lumpur for the last few years. But he was right. Wherever I was going, it might attract attention if I went. “Besides, you won’t be the only one on the ship.”

    “Oh,” I said. I pasted a hopeful expression on my face. “More brothers?”

    “More brothers,” Patel confirmed. “I’d prefer that they didn't talk to you, but ... boys will be boys. Just don’t tell them anything about yourself, understand? For the moment, you will be known as Ali. Do you understand me?”

    I nodded. The simplest solution to the problem would be to lock me in a cabin and leave me there till the ship had reached its destination, but that wouldn't do much for my mental health. He’d been recruiting young men long enough to know that treating them badly could cause resentment, or outright mutiny. Faith had its limits, particularly when confronted with the gruelling reality of everyday life in the movement. Anyone who worked with kids knew the parable of the frog in boiling water. Drop a frog into the boiling water and it will jump right out. Slowly heat up the water and the frog won’t notice until it’s too late. Military training worked along the same principles.

    “One moment,” Patel said.

    He stood up and left the room. I remained where I was, sitting on the floor. It would have been a tempting opportunity to rifle his room for secrets, but I wasn't foolish enough to believe that we were completely unobserved. The walls could easily conceal a peephole, or a handful of surveillance devices. And there was no way of knowing how long Patel would be gone.

    I heard a female voice, speaking in Urdu. My grasp of that language wasn't perfect, but she seemed to be protesting about something. Before I could parse it out, I heard Patel tell her to shut up, followed by the sound of a slap. I hoped that it was Patel who’d been slapped, but the absence of an angry red mark on his face told the whole story. There are those who say that the Qur’an sanctions wife-beating, yet it is really nothing more than a test of decency. Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should...

    Or so I told myself.

    “Come with me,” Patel ordered. I followed him obediently into a smaller room, where two younger men were waiting for me. “Strip.”

    I blinked. “Strip?”

    “Take off everything,” Patel said, impatiently. “We don’t take chances here.”

    I reluctantly undressed, feeling cold despite the warm air. My cell phone and watch were removed, along with the keys to the room I’d hired in Manchester. One of the young men ran a scanner over me, followed by a physical inspection that made the TSA look like slackers. I couldn't decide if they genuinely thought they could find something the scanner had missed, or if they were testing me again. Or maybe they were just perverts. How lucky they were, if that was the case; their job was also their hobby.

    “He’s clean,” one of the men said, afterwards. I watched, pretending horror, as he removed the gloves and dropped them into a waste bucket. “Should we take him to the docks, sir?”

    “Dress him first,” Patel ordered. “And then you can take him to the docks.”

    I had to conceal a smile as they passed me a set of clothes – jeans, a shirt, underwear and socks – that matched their own. My own clothes would be destroyed, I suspected, but that wasn't a problem. Losing the cell phone, on the other hand, was worrying. Without it, I had no easy way to get in touch with Langley and summon help. But I’d assumed that they would confiscate it sooner or later. Terrorist groups have known about the dangers of unrestricted cell phone use ever since Bill Clinton let the cat out of the bag.

    “I expect you to make us proud,” Patel said, when I had finished dressing. “Don’t worry about your room. We’ll take care of that.”

    “Make sure you give the landlady a tip,” I said. She’d been a good sort, taking cash – which she didn't have to declare – and not asking any questions. “What about my passport?”

    “We’ll send it along,” Patel assured me. I knew what happening, although most people who had never travelled abroad wouldn't have recognised it until too late. Without a passport, I would be an illegal immigrant if I was caught in another country. I certainly couldn't get home – well, back to Britain – without it. “And the rest of your money too.”

    “Thank you,” I said. I was effectively naked. Anyone would be nervous now. “When do we leave?”

    “Follow me,” one of the younger men said. “We have a lorry to catch.”
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eight

    I’d expected a car to drive me from Manchester to Liverpool. Instead, I got a huge lorry, packed with empty shipping containers that had been carrying exotic foodstuffs from the Far East to the Curry Mile. It wasn't a bad idea, I realised, as I was helped into the back; very few people paid any notice to massive trucks as they moved down the interstates – motorways, the British called them – and hardly anyone inspected them. You could move a great many people around the country without being noticed, assuming that you were careful not to make it too obvious.

    The hidden compartment, just behind the cab, was barely large enough for the three of us – and it stank worse than Kota Kinabalu. I picked up a handful of newspapers and was amused to discover that the one on the top was a copy of The Sun, complete with Page Three girl. Not that I approved of pornography, of course, but watching my companions trying not to splutter was fun. They eventually tore it into shreds as the lorry rumbled into life, with expressions that promised trouble for the lorry driver in the future. The poor bastard would probably be whipped in a mosque for his indiscretion.

    I pushed the thought aside and opened the next paper. Most of the news reports were bland and uninformative, but reading between the lines I saw signs of trouble. Russia had announced a new round of expulsions from their share of the Joint Occupation Zone in Iran, either because they wanted to annoy the United States or because they were sick of having to call down heavy firepower on every little village that took a shot at a Russian soldier. The Russians had actually offered, I knew, to occupy all of Iran and pacify it. There were rumours that some in the Pentagon were actually considering accepting the Russian offer, although I suspected that it would be a mistake. The Russians wanted control of Iran so they could tighten their grip on parts of Central Asia.

    The rest of the news wouldn't have alarmed anyone, which was part of the point. A joint summit in Brussels between various financial ministers promised to bring new harmony and prosperity to the European Union. It would have been more impressive if they hadn't been saying the same thing for the last decade. Anyone with half a brain could see that the European Union was a large part of the problem, not the solution, but that was apparently a politically incorrect viewpoint. Allowing the media to become tame had been a disastrous mistake.

    A long article, written by the King himself, blasted the British citizens who were leaving the country and fleeing to America, Australia and New Zealand. He demanded to know why they weren't staying to help rebuild Britain when there were so many opportunities to work, proving that he had completely lost touch with the national mood. People wanted to feel safe and secure and that they had a future – and that was what Britain no longer provided. The only thing the average British citizen got from the government now was harassment, as the endless army of bureaucrats sought to justify their existence. Why the hell should anyone stay when the government treated them like dirt and kissed up to the enemies of civilisation?

    It was the final article, however, that caught my attention. There was a motion introduced in the European Parliament to offer EU citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. The writer of the article seemed to think that it would be a good idea, compensating the refugees somewhat for being evicted from their homes. Reading between the lines, it seemed that intense pressure was being brought to bear on the various national politicians to support the motion, turning it into law. I found it impossible to follow the logic, until I finally grasped that EU citizenship was the key to obtaining national citizenship – and the right to vote. All of a sudden, there would be a whole new voting community for politicians to court – and they would want massive concessions in exchange for their votes.

    I put the newspapers to one side and tried to think as the lorry rattled down the motorway, heading towards Liverpool. I’d never actually been to the city before and I would have liked to have seen it – the docks alone were world-famous – but it seemed that wasn't an option. My sense of time, even without my watch, told me that it took around ninety minutes before the lorry finally came to a stop. We had to wait until the rear doors were opened before we scrambled out, grateful to escape the stifling interior.

    One of my companions headed over to yell at the driver, leaving me waiting in the centre of a massive unloading bay. A handful of workers were pulling the empty containers out of the lorry and dumping them on a conveyor belt that took them through a hatch and into the outside. All of the workers, I noticed, were very definitely Muslims and probably part of Patel’s operation, at least indirectly. It might have been simpler to have us hide inside the containers, but terrorist recruits had died in transit that way. I guess I was just too valuable to lose.

    Eventually, I was led outside and into the open. It was raining heavily, but I could still smell the sea – and see the massive shape of a freighter docked in the harbour. The genius of Patel’s operation, I decided, was that it was largely legitimate. It brought in food from India and the Middle East, gave gainful employment to hundreds of people – and paid taxes. No doubt they were very careful not to do anything that might attract attention, particularly from the CIA. A handful of ships that had been supporting terrorist groups had suffered ‘accidents’ in the past.

    It was funny, but I felt myself cheering up as I was led up the gangplank and onto the ship. I’d always preferred ships to planes, even if planes were quicker. There was almost no one on deck as I was escorted to a hatch, then told to climb down a ladder into the ship’s interior. I was surprised to notice that the decks were clean and tidy, just like on a warship. The Captain had to be a dab hand at both sailing and diplomacy. Or maybe he just ruled by fear.

    My escort opened up a hatch, revealing a tiny cabin. It had a bunk bed, a couple of lockers and a washroom – and little else, not even a porthole. I hadn't been expecting luxury, however, and made no complaint as I was gently pushed inside. The hatch, I couldn't help noticing, only opened from the outside. My escort told me to stay inside anyway and closed the hatch, leaving me alone. I listened carefully, but heard nothing apart from a faint humming from the ship’s engines. For the moment, I was trapped. And probably under observation.

    I looked inside the lockers and saw a handful of books. One of them was an English translation of the Qur’an, printed on very cheap paper. I scowled at the lack of respect it showed, although I understood the logic. Cheap copies could be given away for free during presentations intended to introduce Islam to the disbelieving masses. I’d always found them darkly amusing; no amount of guff about how Islam gives rights to women – and it is certainly true that Islam gave women better rights than pre-Islamic Arabia – can hide the fact that Muslims today are very bad at recognising women’s rights. And yet somehow they manage to gloss it over. I’d used to wonder if we needed a reform movement, before realising that it would either splinter or be targeted by the extremists.

    But I suppose that shouldn't have surprised me. Most Muslims are completely unwilling to admit that they have a problem – and those that are willing to admit it are unable to decide on what should be done.

    The other three books made me smile. One – An Introduction to the Weapons of the American Imperialists – had been printed by the Russians, back during the Cold War. I’d heard that copies had been found in terrorist bases, but it was the first copy I’d actually seen; in truth, I’d always assumed that it was just a rumour. What possible good could outdated information do insurgents fighting an underground war? And it was inaccurate too. The Centurion tank was a British design. To the best of my knowledge, none had ever been used by the United States.

    I rolled my eyes and moved on to the next book, then scowled. A Life in the Garden of Mohammad talked about what awaited the Muslim who died in defence of Islam, who could expect to be immediately transported to Paradise. I might have been less irked if it hadn't explicitly included suicide bombers, terrorists, murderers and rapists among the elect who were welcomed into Paradise. One part even claimed that Osama was currently enjoying heavenly delights ... I was damn sure that wasn't true. He’d sent young men to commit suicide – a certain path to hell – while hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. If there was any justice in the universe, he was burning in hell.

    The final book was as cheaply printed as the Qur’an, probably from a print-on-demand facility somewhere in Europe. It told the story of the final struggle between the Great Satan, the Middle Satan and the Lesser Satan – America, Russia and Israel – and the forces of Islam. I’d seen it before while waiting for my nest contract from the Company and it never failed to sicken me. The Jews were portrayed in ways that made Nazi propaganda seemed downright friendly. And there was the hidden implication that large numbers of Muslims, the Shia in particular, had been exterminated before the final war began. The price of a united Islam had been mass slaughter and genocide.

    I put the books back in the locker and lay down on the bunk, feeling the ship starting to get underway. As I understood it, there was less interest in ships leaving Britain than ships coming into dock, although Patel’s operation might receive almost no official harassment. No doubt the owners would whine about racism if they were challenged ... just because someone is a member of an ethnic minority, to paraphrase one of my favourite books, doesn't mean that he isn't a criminal. Or, for that matter, a small-minded little bastard.

    The gentle thrumming must have helped me fall asleep, for the next thing I heard was someone banging at the hatch. I sat upright, banged my head against the metal ceiling and barely managed to stop myself swearing out loud. The next moment, the hatch opened, revealing a dark-skinned man dressed as a sailor. He didn't seem to speak English; he merely beckoned for me to follow him, which I did. There was no point in objecting; terrorist groups preferred to have people following orders, even if it did reduce individual initiative.

    I’d been on freighters before and I didn't have much difficulty in orientating myself. There was no shortage of tramp freighters plying the oceans and several of them had been used by various terrorist groups – the Al Qaida Navy, we’d called it. Most of the vessel was used for carrying cargo, but a handful of modifications had given the ship enough room to carry a couple of dozen passengers. I noticed, as I was led into the gallery, that half of the new recruits seemed seasick. They hadn't ever sailed the ocean waves before volunteering to go fight. And they all looked thoroughly unhappy.

    Maybe I would have felt sorry for them, once upon a time. They’d grown up in a society where their values and perceptions had been warped from the start. None of them really understood what they were doing, or what would happen to them in the future. But now I felt nothing, but disdain. These young men could have developed themselves. Instead, they were going to die, or spend the rest of their lives in a penal camp. The camps at the South Pole are escape-proof. Anyone who does manage to get out will have absolutely no way to get off the continent before the cold gets him.

    Dinner was surprisingly good, but the sermon afterwards was boring. The preacher lacked any real conviction, even when describing the unspeakable sufferings – it was funny how easy it was to speak of them – suffered by Muslims under American occupation. I amused myself by keeping my face blank and counting the number of inaccurate statements he made as he gave his sermon. By the time he finally came to a halt, I’d counted over two hundred lies, half-truths and simple misrepresentations. I seriously considered trying to put him overboard before deciding that it would just arouse suspicion. I’d report the tramp freighter to the Company instead, I promised myself, and one day the SEALs would come calling. And then the boat would simply vanish.

    After the sermon, it was almost a relief to start physical exercises. We weren't allowed out on the deck – they knew that spy satellites might be peering down at them, an exaggerated fear I did nothing to dispel – but we were put through our paces and forced to perform hundreds of press-ups and sit-ups. The crew watched us with some amusement, while the trainer helped the more reluctant volunteers along with kicks and blows. I’d been through a far harder training course run by professionals and they’d never had to hit me. But then, the CIA – or a legitimate military – might have had fewer problems in booting out unworthy recruits.

    Hell Week, I decided. I’d already been trained, according to the fake identity, so I didn't worry about showing them what I could do. One of the trainers seemed to take it as a personal insult and demanded that I keep doing press-ups until my arms were aching. I made a mental note to ensure that he met a very unpleasant fate and performed one hundred and fifty before allowing myself to sink to the deck. It was pathetic compared to an infantry soldier, but nearly a hundred more than the next recruit. He gave me a kick in the butt anyway and stormed off to inflict himself on a different volunteer.

    “You’re good,” one of the volunteers said. “Where do you come from?”

    I shook my head. Patel had warned me not to tell anyone anything – and besides, it’s far too easy to lose track of what lies have been told to what people. I doubted that any of the recruits – who were struggling to breathe after the exercises – would notice, but there was no point in taking chances.

    “Islam,” I said, finally. The thought made me smile inwardly. My task was to purify Islam and I intended to do it by killing as many of the terrorists as I could. “And yourself?”

    He talked – too much. I listened as he told me about life on the edge of the community, about having to watch his sisters dressing up in British clothes, about trying to assert himself and being slapped down ... I had to hide my amusement, even though it wasn't really funny at all. One of the great tools the extremists offer their recruits is power, power over their women if not over their own lives No doubt he expected that he would spend a few years with the heroes who were fighting the Great Satan and then go home to establish order in his house. I had a feeling that he was in for a nasty shock.

    But it would depend on what happened, wouldn't it? Pakistan’s Islamic government had swept away all of the laws protecting women as soon as they’d taken power. Why not? It pleased their supports and no one from outside was going to go to war to protect Pakistani women. The fact that women had been the most enthusiastic collaborators the occupation force had found after San Francisco had probably been lost on the fundamentalists – or maybe they believed that it was another sign that women should always be controlled by men. If this idiot returned home, he might return to an Islamic State with the full force of the law backing him.

    “My brothers went off to fight as soon as they could,” another volunteer said. “They told me that it was great, that they'd scored spectacular successes against the Great Satan. I couldn't wait to go!”

    Poor bastard, I thought. It was simple to send fake emails back home, ones claiming that everything was fine and dandy. Or maybe his brothers were happy with the fighters, even though they were hiding in the mud and awaiting their chance to launch a sneak attack on American troops – or, more likely, collaborators. Hitting collaborators was generally safer than hitting troops with better weapons and far better training than the insurgents.

    I listened carefully as, one by one, they shared stories, psyching themselves up after the hellish training session. Most of them had similar backgrounds, although a couple were really quite surprising. One of them had trained as a lawyer before discovering – he claimed – that British Courts were heavily biased against Muslims. The other had apparently tried to make it in the West before discovering that he couldn't take it. I wondered, absently, what had driven him back into the gutter, before deciding that it didn't matter.

    Most of these young men would be dead by the end of the year.

    The trainers called us back to attention, so we obeyed. I studied the trainer who’d kicked me and saw an unwholesome glint in his eye. The military works hard to weed sadists out of its ranks – particularly in training facilities – but the terrorists couldn't be so picky.

    I shuddered inwardly, then concentrated on maintaining my game face. I’d been in worse spots.

    But it was funny how I couldn't actually remember any of them.
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    It took nine days for the freighter to reach Algeria, nine days that tested my resolve not to snap and kill the trainers, along with my fellow volunteers. Only determination had kept me going; determination and the grim awareness that losing control now would mean that I would be unable to follow the lead to Victor. Instead, I stayed quiet, followed orders and did what I could to remain unnoticed. It was astonishing what people would say or do if they thought they were alone, or that the person sitting nearby couldn't understand them. We weren't meant to know we were going to Algeria...

    My fellow recruits took it harder. Most of them had been raised in traditionalist households where they’d been treated as little princes. Their sisters were put to work cooking and cleaning as soon as they were old enough, but the boys had been expected to do little more than learn the Qur’an and go to school. Certainly, some of them had aimed at careers, but they were utterly undisciplined for almost any position. The idea of actually having to work was foreign to them.

    My instructors had told me that they had to break the recruits down before building them up again, a process that not everyone could undergo without either breaking or deciding that the military life wasn't for them. The terrorist trainers worked along the same lines, but I had a feeling that their way of dealing with sloppy recruits was much harsher than even the most fearsome Drill Instructor. They beat and kicked anyone who failed to perform, as well as assigning a series of increasingly unpleasant punishments. One of the recruits was punished – somehow – and never talked about it. I had a feeling I knew what had happened to him, but I didn't want to know. It might have broken my resolve.

    We saw nothing during the voyage, apart from an overloaded ship departing from Spain, crammed with immigrants for the United States. The reports I’d read claimed that Spain was in an even bigger mess than France, on the verge of outright civil war. Only the fact that the military was on the streets, putting down the riots with live ammunition, had kept the country under control. Like Britain and France and everywhere else in Europe, anyone with any sense was heading out of the country. The trainers pointed and laughed at the refugee ship, claiming that it was proof that they were going to win. I had the uneasy feeling that they might be right.

    The ship passed Gibraltar, still owned by Britain despite nationalist sabre-rattling in Spain, and reached the coast of Algeria. I’d known about the refugee camps, but it was still a shock to see them marring the coastline, endless rows of patched-together housing and very basic sanitation, crammed with refugees. The wind changed and I wrinkled my nose as the stench was blown over the waves, right towards us. It was a relief when we finally arrived in a small port and we could disembark.

    “Ali,” one of the trainers snapped. He’d never introduced himself, a wise precaution. “You will wait here for transport.”

    I was surprised; I had expected to go with the rest of the recruits. Maybe that wasn't a good sign ... but then, I was an invisible. The fewer people who saw me, the better. They pointed me to an office and I sat down, silently grateful for the rickety fan that wafted cool air around the room. It would have been sweltering otherwise. One thing I’d learned very quickly on deployment was to keep a bottle of water with me at all times, but I hadn't had an opportunity to pick one up on the ship.

    It was nearly an hour before my escort showed up. I hated him on sight; like me, he was a revert to Islam, but he’d embraced the jihadist ideology completely. Some people did that because they felt they lacked true spiritual meaning in their lives, yet I felt it was even more unforgivable than someone who’d been brought up in the faith joining the terrorists. The reverts had chosen Islam for themselves. They should have known better than to pollute it. Besides, a dose of western values would have done Islam a power of good.

    Naturally, none of that showed on my face.

    “Call me Simon,” the newcomer said. His accent held a tinge of the Middle East, suggesting where he’d spent most of his life. I couldn't tell if he was British or American. “And you're Ali, I understand?”

    “Yes,” I said. “Where are we going now?”

    Simon smiled. He was a tall man, wearing long white robes and a white skullcap. If it hadn’t been for his skin, and the blond hair showing under the cap, he would have passed for a native. I resolved to keep a sharp eye on him; the locals might not be able to pick out an American pretending to be a British citizen, but someone who had been born in Britain might know the difference.

    “Somewhere,” Simon said, as he passed me a bottle of liquid. I glanced down and realised that it was sunscreen. “Smear that on your face and hands first. I don’t want you to get too much of a tan.”

    So they want me to go back to Europe, I thought, as I slopped the liquid over my face. It smelled faintly unpleasant, but I was fairly sure it would work. A recruit who came down with sunburn would be no use to the terrorists. Simon stroked his beard, no doubt comparing his unkempt goatee to my fuzzy chin, while I protected myself.

    “Good,” Simon said. “Have you ever been in a carriage before?”

    I shook my head.

    “You’re in for a treat,” Simon said, as he led me downstairs and out of the door. “You’ll love it.”

    The sensation of the city hit me the moment we left the complex. It was alive, buzzing with people and animals, smelling faintly of spice as well as too many people living together in close proximity. There were almost no cars on the road, just like Britain; instead, there were carriages pulled by men wearing loincloths and little else. I shook my head in disbelief as I caught sight of a set of stalls, selling fruit, vegetables and meat. Men in tribal outfits stood nearby, smoking and chatting to their friends, while their womenfolk handled the sales. Small children, some clearly homeless, were everywhere. One of them came up to me and held out a hand, begging for money. Simon patted her on the head, then gently pushed her away.

    “You can't give money here,” he said, when I gave him an enquiring glance. “They’d all just come up to you. And then their older brothers or parents would take the money off them.”

    I nodded, unable to hide my disgust. It was worse than he suggested by a long chalk. Algeria might be an Islamic State, but certain things remained universal. There were so many poor children on the streets that it was inevitable that some would be dragged into prostitution, even though they were children. The forces that had invaded Iran after the war had expanded had discovered that many of the senior mullahs had made use of brothels – and some of the girls there had been too young. And some of them hadn't even been girls.

    Simon didn’t seem to know, or maybe he just didn't care. Radicals have been making excuses for why their movements didn’t automatically usher in a new era when they got their hands on power, all the way back in history to the dawning of the western world. The socialists had made excuses for the Soviet Union, the fascists had made excuses for Nazi Germany ... why should Muslim reverts be any different? They were too much in love with the ideal of Islam to see the dirt and grime that had acuminated over centuries of mistreatment. Maybe he thought that it was a necessary evil, one that would be removed one day.

    Or maybe he liked the thought of preteen prostitutes.

    I kept my disgust under control as Simon waved to a carriage. The driver pulled up in front of us and snapped off a demand in Arabic, to which Simon replied in the same language. There was a brief moment of bargaining – the driver seemed to have assumed that Simon was rich enough to pay him in Euros rather than dinars – before we were invited to get into the carriage and the driver started to pull us through the streets. I settled back and tried to enjoy the ride, even though it wasn't easy. The carriage kept lurching, as if the driver was going to let go and we’d go tumbling backwards.

    The scenes of poverty grew more profound as we headed further away from the waterfront. I saw damaged buildings everywhere, some patched up by the locals to provide temporary housing for the poor. The only building that didn't seem to have been damaged was the local mosque, where the Imam was starting to make the call to prayer. I couldn't help noticing that the women, almost all of them hidden behind black robes, scattered off the streets as soon as the call began. They had to go home to pray.

    I had expected Simon to stop and insist that we went in to pray, but instead he just motioned for the driver to carry us onwards. He didn't seem inclined to change his mind, so I decided to think instead of pressing the issue. Algeria’s population had once been overwhelmingly Arab-Berber. Now, there were refugees from Palestine, Pakistan and a dozen countries to the south complicating the issue. And the government was a sworn enemy of the West.

    Algeria had been a pain in the ass ever since the United States had come into existence. Eventually, we’d fought the Barbary Wars to convince them not to demand tribute from American shipping – which had worked, up to a point. The French invaded in 1830 and held the country until after the Second World War, where the Algerians started trying – trying harder, I should say – to push them out. It would surprise many Americans to know that the French won a military victory against the insurgents, but lost at the conference table.

    Since then, the government had tried to repress the Islamists, but the fires of the Arab Spring, the final Israeli-Arab War and the Pakistani invasion had allowed them a chance to take control of the government. They’d learned from their defeat in the first Civil War, taking control before anyone could organise to push back. Now, they were united in hostility to Europe – particularly France – even though a large part of the country’s income came from remittances from Algerians living in the EU. But fanatics don’t give a shit about logic and reason.

    “You may recognise this building,” Simon said, as the carriage came to a halt. “What do you make of it?”

    I studied it, thoughtfully. It looked more like a modern office block – a very small one – than anything else. In Algiers, I knew that the western embassies had been taken over by terrorist groups, but this wasn't an embassy. Besides, I wasn't even sure if we were in Algiers. Simon noticed my puzzlement and elbowed me.

    “This used to be a CIA base,” he said. “Until they came for the Americans, of course!”

    “Oh,” I said.

    I remembered now. Four years ago, howling mobs had stormed the building, dragging out everyone inside. The whole affair had been carefully planned, the post-debacle report had concluded, because there were plenty of video cameras on hand to record the torture, rape and murder of twelve CIA officers, along with seventeen locals who’d been falsely accused of aiding the United States. And then someone had made a compilation movie out of the videos and uploaded it to YouTube. The CIA had ended up looking like a busted flush.

    The building was surrounded by armed guards, wearing uniforms without the rank patches I was used to seeing. There was something in the way they moved that told me that they were outsiders, just as much as I was, even though they were clearly soldiers. Simon chatted to one of them as I hung back, trying to take in as much as possible. The soldiers looked as if they’d been on deployment far too long. I knew the feeling.

    Pakistanis, I thought, as we were searched quickly and efficiently. After the fall of Islamabad, many Pakistani soldiers had either gone home or joined the insurgency, but a number remained unaccounted for. It had caused no shortage of sleepless nights in Langley; Pakistani troops had the training that terrorists lacked, along with a handful of weapons that could prove really dangerous. A MANPAD – a Stinger, for example - near a civilian airport could cause a disaster. And Pakistan had bought hundreds of the weapons. Not all of them had been fired at American warplanes when the shit finally hit the fan.

    Inside, there was no air conditioning and a general sense of decay. The paint was peeling off the walls; the bloodstains, where some of the officers had tried to fight, had simply been left on the ground to fade away. We were hurried down into the basement, where a chair and table waited for us. Simon pointed me to the chair, then stood behind me. And then we waited. Again.

    This time, they didn't keep me waiting very long. A man appeared out of a hidden door and stood in front of me, his eyes boring into mine. I stared back as evenly as I could, before eventually lowering my eyes in apparent submission. Defiance might be just as dangerous as appearing nervous. There was nothing remarkable at all about the man; he had short hair, a neatly-trimmed beard and blue eyes. His robes were so loose that they revealed almost nothing about his body.

    I felt a flash of excitement, which I tried to keep hidden. Victor?

    “I have questions for you,” the man said, in perfect English. “If you answer them properly, you will be welcomed. If you fail to answer them properly, you will be purged.”

    I jumped as two men grabbed my shoulders, pushing me down into the chair. Where the hell had they come from? One of them twisted my hands behind my back, the other wrapped a metal bracelet around my shoulder. For a moment, I thought that they didn't know how to use handcuffs before I realised that it was a pulse monitor. The FSB had come up with a variant that served as a very basic lie detector.

    It was easy to look nervous, even panicked. I wondered, absently, how the other recruits were faring. At a guess, they'd been split up from the rest of the party and interrogated too, before being introduced into the training camps. Any old loyalties would be stamped out before they were sent back home. But I knew how to fool a pulse monitor ... unless, of course, the Russians had improved their design. Victor might have been in disgrace, but he still would have contacts within the Russian security services.

    “Now,” the man said. I felt a knife touching my throat and forced myself to focus. Anyone without the right training would have started to panic, so I risked shaking a little. “I understand that you were trained in Kuala Lumpur ... ?”

    The questions seemed to be endless, flowing out of him one after the other. I had never been so grateful for having such a complete legend, because Victor seemed to be intimately familiar with the network in the Far East. Maybe he was; I could easily see him selling himself to the highest bidder. Besides, the CIA had lost track of him after the FSB had put out a kill order on his head. I answered as best as I could, going over the details of my training; thankfully, I was familiar with the whole process from monitoring people connected to Al-Barak. For once, the CIA had managed to cover all the bases.

    Victor didn't seem happy or upset that the interrogation hadn't revealed anything incriminating. Instead, his questions seemed to become more vague – and personal. Why hadn't I married a girl in Malaysia? Making a new family – if the girl was willing or not – was part of the insurgent strategy. Their new family would provide cover for their activities, following age-old traditions. If they hadn't pressed it so far in Iraq, they might have forced us out of the country long before it was reasonably stable.

    But maybe they’d won in the end. The entire Middle East was a mess.

    “Uncle Omar’s friends advised me to remain single,” I said, finally. It was probably good enough; I’d have had to have registered the marriage with the embassy, which would have probably convinced MI5 to take a closer look at ‘Adam Sinclair’ when he returned to the UK. An invisible with a foreign wife was no longer an invisible. “So I stayed alone and read the Qur’an.”

    Just for a second, I saw Victor’s lips twitch. The standard advice given to unmarried Muslims was to read Qur’an and not think about women, or masturbation. It worked about as well as the same advice from other religious figures to their young congregation. Sexual frustration is a powerful force and it often provides incentive to young men to go off on jihad. The cynic in me says that the older men encourage this so there will be less competition for the women.

    “Good,” Victor said. He kept firing questions at me until he was satisfied. “You will sleep here tonight, then you will go to the camp tomorrow. Ask no questions. Just eat and sleep.”

    I watched him go, wondering if I could break his neck before it was too late. But his guards would stop me ...

    At least you found him, I told myself, and allowed Simon to lead me upstairs. The important part of the mission could now begin.
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    There was no sign of Victor the following morning, just a pair of grim-faced Pakistanis and the ever-present Simon. We ate breakfast while Simon rattled on about projects to help refugees by providing their young men with gainful employment, employment I suspected was a cover for recruiting them to blow themselves up. Refugees make excellent recruits for suicide bombers, simply because they have little to lose.

    I’d spent the night wondering what Victor was actually doing. He’d taken a great deal of interest in me, which was worrying. If they’d had any real doubts about my identity, they would have shoved a knife in my back – or worse – but I was just another recruit. Or perhaps not; I was an invisible and I’d been trained already. Maybe Victor intended to recruit me for something specific. I pretended to listen to Simon while contemplating the possibilities, before deciding that there simply wasn't enough information for me to make proper deductions. I’d just have to wait and see what happened.

    Eventually, just as I was starting to get impatient, we finished breakfast. I had never been one for lingering over food, but Simon seemed inclined to take hours eating, or maybe he was just enjoying the chance to talk to a fellow countryman. It was unusual for someone from one culture to be completely at ease when submerged in another, no matter how fanatical and determined he was. Simon might be completely loyal to the cause, yet he couldn't escape being the product of his own society. No doubt he’d blundered once or twice when he’d arrived.

    “We’re to take you to the camp,” Simon explained, after we’d finished eating. The Pakistanis, it seemed, were cooks and cleaners as well as guards. “There will be a great deal of work for you to do.”

    “I look forward to it,” I said. Actually, I’d been trying to work out how to get in touch with Langley. Maybe Washington wasn’t about to sanction an invasion of Algeria, but they’d certainly be willing to dispatch a raiding party to butcher and bolt. It wasn't as if relations with Algeria could get any worse. “Where are we going?”

    “I can't tell you that,” Simon said. He stood up and beckoned for me to follow him. “But you’ll see for yourself soon enough.”

    The sun was already high in the sky when we emerged from the former CIA building, after splashing sunscreen on our faces. I kept my face expressionless as we breathed in the atmosphere of the city, then boarded a carriage pulled by a young man who looked terribly bored. I’d have hated pulling a rickshaw too. At least this one looked more stable than the one we’d ridden yesterday. It rattled to life, the driver pulling us out onto the streets. I settled back and tried to relax. It wasn't easy.

    I could see skyscrapers in the distance, towards what I assumed was the centre of the city, but the driver took us in the opposite direction. The signs of poverty grew more and more prevalent as we headed further away from the CIA building; badly-dressed men, near-naked children and an almost complete absence of women. I could smell shit in the air and silently thanked God for the CIA boosters I’d had injected into my body. In an environment like this, I knew, disease would spread rapidly. Some of the children I saw were clearly ill, or wounded. What had they done to deserve such a fate?

    “The government has too many calls on its resources,” Simon explained, when I asked. “There just isn't the money to take care of them all.”

    I swallowed the response that came to mind. When a secular state failed to provide care for its citizens, it was called negligence; when an Islamic state failed to provide care, it was overlooked or excused. How could he avoid noticing that the Islamic state had done nothing for its poor? But then, coping with a crisis was difficult even for the most caring of governments. I caught sight of what looked like a medical clinic, but it was nothing more than a burned-out shell. Perhaps the poor had resented its presence.

    “The CIA blew it up,” Simon informed me. “They want the poor to die.”

    I rather doubted it. The Company has a long history of stupid ideas, including several demented schemes to make Castro’s beard fall off in the theory that it would weaken his prestige among his followers, but blowing up medical clinics would be rather out of character. It was much more likely, I decided, that someone with more fanatics than common sense had torched the clinic, perhaps because it had offered medical care to girls. The files I’d read in Britain stated that fundamentalist groups had attacked birth control centres and abortion clinics. Their official excuse was horror at what those places did, but I knew the truth. It was all about power.

    It grew worse as we left the city proper and entered a massive refugee camp. Once, I realised, the government had tried to put the refugees behind a fence; now, the camp had grown and grown until it was really a slum, part of the city. I saw makeshift housing, some built from cardboard or materials stolen from the city, and shuddered when I saw some of the refugees staring at me with hopeless eyes. Several of the women even made eyes at us, offering to trade their bodies for money or food. They’d have eaten pork if it had been offered.

    How could I blame them?

    “Some of the girls are the only ones who earn money,” Simon admitted, very quietly. “They work for people in town ...”

    I could guess just what they did for people in town. Islam is inclusive, at least in theory, but Arabs and Berbers can be very racist. Why would they give jobs to young males when there were plenty of unemployed Arabs in Algeria? Besides, Palestinians have a reputation for being dangerously unstable and untrustworthy. But I knew that pimps would be happy to take advantage of the young women. I wondered if their fathers knew what they were doing ...

    It couldn't sit well with them. I’d known Muslim families torn apart because the wife earned more than the husband. It wouldn't have bothered me, but then I wasn't raised in such a culture. And that hadn't included prostitution. I had the feeling that some of those young girls, forced into prostitution because it was the only way to support themselves, would be murdered by their own families in the name of honour. I gritted my teeth and looked away from the refugees. How could I not feel for them? And yet how could I not despise them for treating their daughters so poorly?

    “There are some people trying to help,” Simon pointed out. I followed his gaze and saw a handful of young men gathered around a campfire. “They produce water for the refugees ...”

    I nodded. The men were boiling water to make it safe to drink, then passing bottles to the men who came to the stall. One of the men, I realised suddenly, was actually a woman in disguise, her hair cropped close to her forehead and her clothes loose enough to hide her figure. I could imagine her story; the males of her family were dead, leaving her hopelessly vulnerable unless she pretended to be a man. The thought almost made me smile. I think I would have liked that young girl, if we’d ever been able to meet socially.

    The scenes started to blur into a confused mass of horrifying expressions as we passed through the remainder of the huge camp. A preacher, speaking in rapid-fire Arabic, promising a triumphant return to Palestine. I knew that would never happen. After the use of poison gas against Israel, the Israelis had forgotten their concerns about international opinion and just pushed the Palestinians completely out of Palestine. A young woman, wearing white, being whipped by a masked man, watched by a crowd of men. I wondered what they thought she'd done, before catching sight of the red stains on her back. My rage threatened to overpower me as she fell to the ground. If I’d had a gun, I would have shot them all down without the slightest shred of remorse.

    But the worst of it was that Simon showed no reaction at all.

    The driver pulled us out of the refugee camp, down a long dusty road and finally into a compound that was fenced off and guarded by more armed guards. We hopped out of the carriage – Simon paid him while I studied the guards – and then walked up to the gate. The Pakistanis searched us, then allowed us to enter. Inside, the compound looked like a cross between a military training centre and a summer camp.

    I allowed the impressions to roll over me as Simon led me towards one of the larger buildings. Young men were everywhere, running in line or carrying heavy bags to build up their muscles. The trainers were definitely Pakistani, I realised, rather than Arabs or Russian exiles. That was worrying; Arab trainers were notoriously incompetent, particularly when it came to advanced technology. The ones who joined terrorist groups were even worse. They taught their young charges to place their faith in God, rather than anything useful. We’d joked, back at the Farm, that the safest person in the field when engaging the Arabs was the person they were trying to hit.

    A handful of young men were standing outside the building as we approached, their backs bearing the scars from recent whippings. Enforcing discipline was tricky for terrorist groups, particularly when dealing with people from a society where appearing capable was often more important than actually being capable. I guessed that the Pakistanis had started to beat that tendency out of their trainees, or maybe it was Victor’s influence. The Red Army had taken a very harsh approach to discipline. It wasn't a pleasant thought. If someone taught the young fools how to shoot straight, they’d be far more dangerous in the future.

    They have to be asleep at Fort Meade, I decided, as I took in the camp. Someone should have noticed that the camp existed; it didn't look as if they were even trying to hide it from overhead satellites. Or maybe whoever was looking at the images had decided that it was nothing more sinister than a training base for the Algerian military. I could see Washington signing off on sending a stealth drone to bomb a terrorist camp – Algeria wouldn't even protest, knowing that it would be futile – but hitting a military base would be far harder for them to let pass. The State Department would point out that the USN still needed to move convoys past Gibraltar en route to Egypt and Algeria had plenty of antishipping missiles they’d bought from Moscow. Washington might agree that there were too many other commitments to add a new enemy to the list.

    I shook my head. Algeria was an enemy state and pretending otherwise would change nothing.

    Inside the building, there was another guardpost; AK-47s were pointed at us the moment we stepped into the door. I waited, as patiently as I could, as we were searched again, wondering just how paranoid the guards were. But perhaps it made a certain kind of sense, I decided; I’d known SF teams that had slipped through a base’s outer defences and then run wild because everyone on the inside thought that they’d already been cleared by someone else. Eventually, the guards were satisfied and led us down a long flight of stairs that seemed to go down and down into the earth. Someone had built the base on top of a bomb shelter, I decided. Algeria’s government was compliant in what the terrorists were doing, right up to its eyeballs.

    I wondered, as we kept going down, if Victor had played a role in the Islamic takeover. God knew that fanatics were normally very bad at planning coups. Pakistan’s coup had taken so long to materialise precisely because the worst of the radicals hadn't been able to get properly organised. Victor, on the other hand, was an experienced hand at destabilising a country. Maybe he'd been involved right from the start ...

    ... Which couldn't have pleased Moscow. They preferred to deal with military regimes and dictatorships. Islamic governments were dangerously irrational. No wonder they were pissed at their former agent ... unless it was just a cunning double-bluff. The FSB was the KGB under another name and the KGB had delighted in such tricks.

    I had lost track of just how far we’d gone underground by the time we reached a solid metal door, almost an airlock. The bomb shelter seemed to have been designed to protect against nukes, I decided, although I doubted that it would stand up to some of the latest penetrator weapons deployed by the USAF. One of them, dropped on a bunker in Pakistan, had literally blown it out of the ground. The only downside was that it had been difficult to positively identify the occupants afterwards.

    The airlock swung open, revealing a tastefully-decorated corridor that led down to a conference room. I wasn't too surprised at the luxury; the bomb shelter had probably been designed for the country’s leadership and leaders always wanted to live in fine surroundings. Just what good it would have done them if Algeria had been nuked was questionable; they’d have either been trapped underground or climbed to the surface, just to discover that they were the inheritors of radioactive rubble. And any survivors would not have been too pleased to see them.

    I stepped into the conference room and stopped dead when I saw the man kneeling on a prayer mat, right at the far end of the room. He was number one on the CIA’s list of terrorists wanted dead or alive, a more cunning and dangerous foe that Osama Bin Laden. And he was right in front of me ... if the guards hadn't been there, I would have gone for his throat. This man was the enemy of everything, particularly Islam.

    Ibrahim Muslim Khatris had started life as a simple Mullah; that much, at least, everyone agreed upon. He’d clearly been wasted as a Mullah, because he’d started to bind together hundreds of Islamic groups in Pakistan, creating a mass movement that threatened both civilian and military control of the country. The CIA credited him with successfully seducing a number of junior officers, either reminding them of their duty to Islam or through simply offering them large bribes, allowing him to pull off a smooth coup with surprisingly little bloodshed. And then, as President of Pakistan and Supreme Commander of the Faithful, he had started reorganising the country to suit himself.

    And then San Francisco had been destroyed.

    He didn't look like a mass murderer. Indeed, he looked more like a little old man who should be playing chess in the marketplace, rather than the ruthless leader of an entire country. Even now, living in exile, he looked harmless. I fought hard to keep my face under control, knowing that he would be skilled at reading people. If he suspected my loyalties...

    “We have been driven from our country,” he said, in precise English. His command of English had been one of the reasons Washington had thought it could work with him, despite the rhetoric of driving the United States out of Pakistan. Quite a few other senior Islamists had refused to speak anything, but Arabic, even when holding talks with the infidel. “But we are strong and determined and we will survive.”

    I rather doubted it. Very few people outside the United States truly understood what had happened in the wake of San Francisco. We had been a decent nation, running risks with the lives of our own soldiers just to preserve the lives of innocent civilians caught up in a war zone, until millions of our people had been killed. Now, the ROE were very loose and few in Washington gave a shit about dead civilians in Pakistan. And it was likely to get worse in the future. I’d heard rumbles that Muslims in America might be evicted from the country, or worse. Anyone who had even a hint of contact with extremists was already subject to arrest and permanent imprisonment without trial.

    America wasn't what it had been any longer.

    “You will swear Bay'ah to me and my cause,” Khatris said. “Although you were born among the infidel, you shook off their filth and joined us in our fight. And you have a vital role to play in the future.”

    I nodded, pretending to be overwhelmed by the honour of meeting him. The whole concept of Bay'ah sickened me, if only because it gave loyalty and unquestioning obedience to something other than God. But it would make him happy – and give me a chance to find a way to deal with him. Maybe I could get in touch with the CIA and call in a drone strike. Or maybe ...

    Kneeling in front of him, I said the words of the oath, then joined him in prayer. The guards seemed a little overwhelmed by his presence, but they never dropped their guard far enough for me to grab a weapon. And besides, my main priority was Victor.

    “Your training will be specialised,” Khatris informed me. “Do you speak French?”

    “No, Your Excellency,” I lied. “I have no talent for languages at all.”

    “A bad habit,” Khatris said. “You should have learned Arabic.”

    I bowed my head, inwardly rolling my eyes. My cover said I was a revert who could pass for a native of Britain – who was a native of Britain – with training ... and he was complaining because I couldn't speak Arabic? He should be delighted to see me.

    “But that will come in time,” Khatris added. “Now, you will learn how to serve the cause.”
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  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eleven

    The Pakistanis weren't sloppy.

    I wasn't sure if I should be relieved or annoyed by the fact that most of them, professional soldiers before they had gone into exile, actually knew what they were doing. At least one terrorist camp had been demolished through – we thought – the idiots storing explosives and detonators together, yet the Arabs never seemed to learn. The Pakistanis, on the other hand, were well-trained and very determined to pass on their skills. I’d learned more in the Farm, but if I’d come to the camp without knowledge I would have learned a great deal from them.

    Not everyone learned, I slowly realised. I’d spent four days at the camp when we were all called out to witness five recruits being hung for gross stupidity and disobedience. The Pakistani CO – as I came to think of him – explained in great detail that the recruits had come very close to killing themselves and others, then stated that they could no longer be tolerated. Their dead bodies hung on ropes for several days before they were carted off and buried somewhere. I had no idea if they bothered to follow the rites for burying Muslims after their death.

    The training course they gave me was intensive. Every morning, I was expected to run for two miles, then spend half an hour lifting weights in the gym. In the heat, that was no laughing matter, even though I had spent time in the Far East. I drank loads of water, nibbled energy bars and forced myself to keep going. There’s a point in training when you pass your hump, when the training is no longer so unbearable, and I prayed silently that I would reach it soon.

    Once I’d eaten a small lunch, they taught me more about weapons than the average European had ever wanted to know. The AK-47, still the standard terrorist weapon of choice, was familiar to me from the Farm, but I allowed them to show me how to use it, clean it and generally take very good care of it. My trainer could have served at the Farm, I decided, after he had patiently talked me through cleaning it twice, then forced me to do it again and again until I had it just right. After that, we went shooting and I managed to pretend to pick it up very quickly. Judging from some of the sounds from other shooting ranges, too many of the recruits were more interested in firing off the entire clip as quickly as possible rather than controlling their shots. The Pakistanis seemed very unimpressed; I couldn't help, but notice a number of black eyes as the trainees filed out of the shooting range.

    Once I had the AK-47 down pat, they taught me how to make IEDs from materials that were easily available in the West. Many of the designs were unreliable, I was warned, but it was simpler to use local materials rather than smuggle explosives into the country. I rather suspected that they didn't have problems obtaining explosives in Europe – despite the EU’s claims, you can buy all sorts of weapons and other illicit goods if you know where to go – but just wanted me to know the possibilities. The more reliable weapons, the ones built with proper explosives, were considerably more dangerous.

    “You must never attempt to remove an IED after you emplace it,” my trainer warned me. He’d had an accident or two in his time; his left hand was missing two fingers and his face was unpleasantly scarred. “If you do, you run the risk of accidentally triggering it yourself.”

    Good advice, I decided. Disarming an IED is one of the trickiest tasks in the modern military, which is why the ROE now insist that the IED simply be detonated from a safe distance. And accidentally blowing yourself up wasn't the only danger. One of the standard counter-insurgency tricks was to leave an IED alone, but keep an eye on it to see who came to pick it up and recover the explosives. The SEALs had killed a number of terrorists once they’d revealed themselves by returning to the scene of the crime.

    The training program only seemed to get more intensive as the days slipped by. I was relieved that my cover included prior training – and that the Farm had hammered knowledge into my head – because otherwise I would have been in real trouble. The Pakistanis tested my ability to fight, putting me in a situation where it was either knock my opponent out or risk being knocked out myself. Even when it wasn't so dangerous, they were quite happy to punch or kick their trainees, particularly when the trainee threatened the lives of his fellow recruits. I found it hard to blame them, even after I was punched in the jaw for failing to follow orders quickly enough to suit them. Training young men who have been brought up never to swallow their pride and admit that there’s something they can't do isn't easy.

    I saw very little of my fellow trainees, at least outside the shooting range. I’d seen one of the boys I remembered from the voyage at a distance, but I wasn't allowed to really get to know them. It didn't bother me – the more people I lied to, the harder it would be to keep the story straight – yet it marked me out as someone significant. An invisible had to remain invisible, even to his fellow trainees. I wondered what they thought of me sometimes, and then I decided that it didn't matter. The moment I managed to get my hands on a cell phone, I was going to call the Company and invite the Marines to storm the training camp.

    The thought was a pleasant one, but I knew better than to risk it. Even if they had accepted me, they would be testing my loyalty until I finally graduated from the camp. If I stole a cell phone and used it, they might know what I’d done, giving them a chance to escape before the Marines arrived. Even launching a drone from the airbases in Egypt would have taken too long ... maybe they would have just dropped a KEW from orbit and then flown in Marines or SF to clear up the mess. But they’d want to inspect the site. Who knew how much paperwork would be destroyed if they bombed the camp?

    “Typical Englishman,” one of my trainers said, after starting to teach me how to speak French. “You think that the natives can understand you – and if you don’t, you can just speak louder and they will suddenly know exactly what you are saying.”

    I rolled my eyes. There was such a stereotype, but the English weren't too far wrong. English had spread throughout the world, pushed by the British Empire, then by American culture and the internet. Even in Iran, much of the population spoke English. The Islamists might have made noises about returning Arabic to its proper place as a common language, but Arabic simply lacked the flexibility of English. We might win the war by converting our enemies into being just like us, I told myself, if we hung on long enough. And refrained from mass genocide as a solution to our problems.

    “The French speak English,” I said, instead. It wasn't true and I knew it, but my cover identity wouldn't be so sure. “And I am picking up some phases.”

    “Your accent is ghastly,” my trainer snapped. “Do you think that you can just get away with waving your hands?”

    I kept my expression blank. I’d always had a talent for languages; it was how I’d picked up Arabic and several others so quickly. And French was nowhere near as complicated as Arabic. Even so, I played dumb and pretended to memorise only a handful of phases. My cover demanded it. The trainer made noises about finding me a bedroom dictionary, before deciding to just keep hammering French into my head.

    Every Friday, we attended sermons given by the camp’s mullah. Unlike the one I remembered from Manchester, he could actually be inspiring – and I heard genuine devotion in his voice. I would have been more impressed if he hadn't been reminding them of the suffering their brothers in Islam had faced and how it was their task to avenge it, by any means necessary. His fiery sermon on the torment awaiting anyone who wasn't Muslim – and by Muslim he meant the right kind of Muslim – would have been amusing if he hadn’t taken himself so seriously – and, for that matter, if the audience hadn't murmured agreement after he’d finished.

    There was no such thing as individual religious study. Instead, we were split up into small groups and harangued by half-trained mullahs who seemed to have memorised the material without actually bothering to think about it. I spoke Arabic perfectly and knew most of the Qur’an, but even I had problems following the logic behind his arguments. Most of it just flew right past me. The other trainees appeared to be in the same boat, merely nodding agreement when it seemed required. I had a feeling that they would look up to the preacher in future without ever fully understanding him.

    Brainwashing, I thought. They’d been taken from their homes, forced together with strangers and then made to concentrate on their training. Such shared experiences created a powerful bond, but they also broke ties between the trainees and their former lives. The military did the same thing, yet the terrorists took it much further. But that made sense too; terrorism is so profoundly wrong that potential terrorists had to be warped into the right frame of mind for carrying out mass slaughter.

    Despite myself, I was growing increasingly impatient – and worrying about what Victor was doing. I hadn't seen hide or hair of him since I’d gone into the camp; there was no way to know if he was somewhere in the buildings we’d been told never to enter, or if he’d gone to France or even back to Russia. And just what was he planning? The army the Pakistanis were building was far larger than they needed to maintain control of Algeria – did they plan to invade France?

    I couldn't see why they thought such an insane scheme would succeed. The French military might have suffered from the same budget cuts that had crippled the other European armies, but they would still have few problems taking out what was, at best, an army composed of infantrymen. I’d seen no sign of tanks and only a handful of RPG launchers, designs that had been outdated back in 2015. They could cause tankers some nasty moments, but the modifications worked into Western tanks should have kept the crews safe. And Algeria’s air force was puny, no match for the French at all.

    And even that assumed that the United States would sit on the sidelines and do nothing more than watch.

    The thought was maddening. I had no choice, but to stay in the camp and pretend to learn from the trainers, while Victor could be anywhere. There was no way to alert the Company, let alone tell them where they could find their number one target. I had to wait ...

    It was another week before I was summoned to meet with one of the training officers, just after morning prayers. I’d been used – unlike some of the other recruits, I was amused to notice – to waking up in the morning for prayers, and it didn't really bother me if the trainers insisted that we stayed awake afterwards. It was another part of the program; sleep-deprivation would have weakened their mental defences, making it harder for them to resist the brainwashing. I’d had worse at the Farm.

    “You’ve done well,” the officer said. We'd never been given their names, a security precaution that also made it harder for us to view them as people. “Your prior training was extremely good.”

    “Thank you,” I said, concealing my fears. I hadn't wanted to be too good. There was no prior military service in Adam Sinclair’s life. “I have come to serve.”

    “And serve you shall,” the officer informed me. He dropped a folder on my desk. “Do you recognise this man?”

    I opened the folder. Inside, I found a set of photographs featuring a man in a compromising situation. It took me only a second to recognise one of them as Patel, making love to another man. I stared in disbelief. He’d had three wives and plenty of children. How could he be homosexual? But then, his family had come from the North-West Frontier and homosexuality was common there. Women are for children, the saying ran; men are for love.

    Islam forbade it. The irony seemed to pass unnoticed.

    “I know him,” I said, flatly. What sort of reaction did he want? “What ... what is he doing?”

    “We discovered that he has been compromising himself,” the officer said. “If the Great Satan’s agents were to learn of this, they would be able to blackmail him into spying for them, spying on us.”

    The Great Satan’s agents hadn't learned of it, I knew. Somehow, that didn't seem very funny.

    “We intend to send you back to Britain, where you will make arrangements to travel to France,” the officer said. “As a final test of your skills, you will be required to visit this disgusting pervert in Manchester and execute him. He must face the consequences of his sins.”

    I pasted a disgusted expression on my face as I looked back at the photographs. I’d never really cared about homosexuality, even though I had also never really understood it. But then, I was straight; maybe it made more sense if one happened to be homosexual. I glanced through the photographs, one by one, and noticed something interesting. Patel was always the dominant partner. That, I suspected, fitted in with his cultural ethos. It wasn't so sinful if you were the one on top. The Ancient Romans had believed something along the same lines.

    Hypocrite, I thought, coldly.

    Roughly eight percent of the human race, both male and female, was homosexual, or so I had been told. There was no way that homosexuals were not born to Muslim households, assuming that homosexuality was genetic – which, as far as I knew, had never been proven one way or the other. Those young men and women would grow up in fear, driven by urges they knew their parents would kill – literally – if they knew. Someone like Patel could have done much for those youngsters; instead, he’d chosen to hide his own inclinations and promote a form of extremism that would show no mercy to homosexuals. I felt a surge of absolute hatred. It wasn't until the officer coughed that I realised that I had crushed the photograph in my hand.

    “You will kill him for us,” the officer said. He stood up and headed to the door, beckoning me to follow him. “But first, we have a reward for you.”

    I walked after him, puzzled. A reward? I’d known that some exceptional recruits were given rewards, but it happened very rarely. And no one had told me what the rewards actually were, or if they were worth having. I’d assumed that they were given bonuses.

    He stopped in front of a locked and guarded door. The guard gave me an expression that I could only describe as a leer, before opening the door and motioning for me to walk inside.

    “Bang on the door when you’re finished,” he said, and laughed.

    I realised what was happening the moment I saw the bed. A girl was lying on it, staying up at the ceiling. She was Palestinian, I guessed from her skin tone, and she couldn't have been much older than twelve. And she was completely naked. I could see signs of malnutrition as well as signs that she’d been beaten to make her comply with their demands. Her body was so thin that I could see her ribs sticking out, pressing against her skin.

    She looked at me with blank, hopeless eyes and spread her legs.

    No, I thought.

    I knew what my controller would have said, back in Langley. The girl was old enough to marry, at least according to Islamic Law, so she was old enough to have sex. And I had to maintain my cover. Fucking her would have helped to maintain it ... I cursed myself inwardly for not guessing the nature of the ‘rewards.’ In a society where sex was so heavily restricted, it made one hell of a reward for deserving little terrorists.

    And it would help to desensitise them to female suffering.

    No, I thought again. I sat down on the bed and shook my head at her. She gave me a disbelieving expression that almost broke my heart, then closed her legs and curled up in a ball, as if she expected me to start raining blows on her body. I shuddered, wondering what she must have gone through ... hell, I was sure that I already knew. The human mind is wonderfully adaptable, but there is only so much it can take before it snaps.

    Maybe I was being watched. Maybe it was another test. But I was damned if I was going to force myself into her just to satisfy any watching eyes.

    “I’m not going to hurt you,” I said, in English. She didn't seem to understand, naturally. “Lie still.”

    I silently promised myself that, somehow, I would call in the Marines. They could take the girl out of the camp, feed her up and then give her to a proper family for adoption ... if she survived so long. I knew enough about medicine to know that she was slowly starving to death. Even if I got her to a full body-tank, it was unlikely to be enough to save her life.

    Goddamn you, I thought, thinking of Victor. And damn me too, for doing nothing.
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    See previous request for comments.

    Chapter Twelve

    I’d expected something to happen after I finally left the room. If they'd known that I hadn't touched her, what would they have done? Maybe it had been a final test and I was supposed to resist temptation ... no, I knew better than that. The wounds on the girl’s thighs had proven, at least to my satisfaction, that she’d been raped time and time again. Instead, the following morning, I was taken back down to the port and loaded onboard a freighter heading back to Britain. As I left, I’d been told that I’d be met in Liverpool and given my passport and other documents.

    I smiled savagely as I was shown into my cabin and told to rest. This time, I’d been lucky and overhead two of the sailors talking about exploring the port city when they’d had a chance. The city was Oran, which meant that the training camp couldn't be too far away. I considered the maps I’d memorised and tried to place the camp’s location, before deciding that it didn't matter. Someone in Langley could look at the area surrounding the city from orbit and pick out the camp. And then the Marines could come calling.

    The voyage back to Britain only took four days, compared to the nine it had taken to reach Algeria. I amused myself by reading the newspapers the crew had brought with them and trying to read between the lines. More fighting in Pakistan, I guessed; the papers claimed that over twenty thousand American soldiers had been killed. It was almost certainly a gross exaggeration. I couldn't think of anything apart from a nuke that could wipe out so many American soldiers so quickly. The rest of the newspaper was pretty much the same, but I read it anyway, wondering if I could find some clue as to Victor’s plan. But there was nothing.

    There seemed to be no security at Liverpool Docks when we arrived. I had no difficulty in striding down the gangplank, through the warehouse and out onto the streets, where I met a clean-shaven man wearing western clothes. He had Indian blood, I decided, as I noticed the faint tint to his skin and unusually dark eyes. We exchanged greetings and code phases, but nothing else. He merely passed me a rucksack containing my passport, bank cards, cell phone, clothing and money ... and then walked away. I hoped that MI5 was watching, but it seemed unlikely.

    I headed to the train station and boarded a train to Manchester, purchasing a ticket using the debit card Pat had given me. The use of the card would set off an alert in London, I knew, warning them that I was back in Britain. I wasn't sure if they’d approve of me killing Patel – and I had to carry out that part of the operation if I wanted to locate Victor – so I resolved not to tell them. I could arrange a meeting in Manchester, once I was sure that I was not being watched, preferably after I‘d dealt with Patel.

    One thing operatives are taught right from the start is to spot when they are being tailed. It isn't easy to do in a country like Britain, where MI5 can peer through every CCTV camera in the land, but I wasn't worried about the British. The real danger was someone Victor might have set on my tail, following me to see what I would do. They’d want me to do something that would prove myself, once and for all, before I was welcomed into their ranks. I watched carefully, changing trains as we approached Manchester, just to see who would stick with me. But I saw nothing.

    It didn't prove anything, I knew. Assuming they had enough operatives, only one of them would keep me in eyeshot while the others would fan out, attempting to rotate the point position so that I wouldn't see the same person for too long. But if Victor had so many people under his command, he wouldn't need me to deal with Patel. Eventually, I decided that I wasn't being followed and headed into Piccadilly Gardens. There, I took a room in a cheap hotel and paid in cash. I needed to lie down and think.

    My cell phone appeared to have been left untouched, but I checked it carefully before walking into the washroom, running the shower to provide a covering noise and turning on the phone. It should have been impossible for anyone to realise that there was anything special about it, at least without putting it through a lab, but I’d worried about it after leaving the device with Patel. The cell phone bleeped to life and waited for me to press my thumb against the camera. It scanned my thumbprint, decided that I was who I claimed to be, and opened a handful of secure applications. One of them linked me directly to Li, wherever she was. I wondered, absently, if she’d missed me.

    Her voice was sharp. “Where the hell have you been?”

    I had to smile. Same old Li.

    “Algeria,” I said, and rattled out a brief explanation. Li would record the call and listen to it again and again, along with the analysts. They’d start looking for the camp at once. “And I think they’re definitely planning something big.”

    “Understood,” Li said, finally. The matter would be referred to the White House, once the analysts had located the camp. Given the presence of someone on the most wanted list, they'd probably agree to send in troops at once. It might blow my cover, but it was an acceptable risk. “And what are you doing now?”

    “Still probing my way towards Victor,” I said. “They want me to do something for them first.”

    There was dead silence at the other end of the line. Loyalty tests were always nasty, even when performed by street gangs – and terrorists had a great deal to lose. It wasn't uncommon for recruits to be ordered to kill an American citizen, or plant an IED somewhere where it would harm Americans, just to make sure of the recruit’s loyalties. The idea was as old as the very concept of criminal behaviour; get blood on the newcomer’s hands, then he will have nowhere else to go. I knew that the CIA would never dare to accept one of its agents shooting at an American citizen in the hopes that it would gain entry into the inner circle.

    “They want Patel dead,” I explained. “Is that likely to be a problem?”

    “I’ll have to get back to you,” Li said. “There may be political issues.”

    I scowled. There would be discussions between Langley and Thames House, with the CIA having to offer something to MI5 to convince them to stand aside and allow Patel to be assassinated. I could understand why they’d object; quite apart from the issue of national sovereignty, keeping an eye on Patel meant they'd be able to monitor his activities, while losing him would mean that he'd be replaced by someone else. And if MI5 didn't know who that person was, the consequences could be disastrous ...

    But they didn't know about the shipping line, I thought, slowly. Maybe they can ‘accidentally’ stumble over it in the wake of his death.

    “I suggest you hurry,” I said, instead. “I’m supposed to be in Paris by the end of the week.”

    “We will,” Li said. “Check your mailbox regularly. We’ll ping you when we have an answer.”

    I turned the cell phone back off, then undressed and stepped into the shower. At least it was nice and warm, unlike the showers I’d had to endure on the ship. Once I was clean, I dressed rapidly and headed out for dinner, once I’d placed the rucksack in a position that would allow me to see if it had been moved. There was no shortage of halal places to eat in Manchester and I managed to find an Indian buffet without having to go up to the Curry Mile. It was far too likely that someone there would recognise me.

    Once I’d eaten, I went into an internet cafe and ordered an hour of surfing, trying to catch up with the news. The EU’s censors had come in too late to stop computer-savvy teenagers from evading their filters, even before the microburst network had reduced the need for physical connections. It wasn't hard to get out onto the greater internet and scan for news that might relate to the EU’s decline and fall. Small demonstrations in the south of France, several outbreaks of mob violence in Spain, a massive anti-immigrant riot in Italy ... it might be part of a pattern, I told myself, or it might be completely unconnected to Victor’s plan.

    I flipped through pages, wondering – again – just how they’d stumbled into this mess. The Balkans were melting down, with the Serbs brutally massacring every non-Serb they could catch and refugees fleeing in all directions; these days, no one was interested in sending peacekeeping forces when there were clearly no peace to keep. Turkey had announced its intention of annexing Baghdad and Northern Iraq, after having waged a very successful war – genocide – against the Kurds. The surviving Sunni seemed more inclined to bend the knee to the Turks than be exterminated by the Shia. Germany was caught up in a political crisis that paralysed the country, while Poland was nervously eyeing Russian tanks on the border and requesting military support. It didn't look as though they were going to get any.

    But that wasn't too surprising. These days, much of Europe’s energy came from Russia – and Germany and France would happily sell out the Poles rather than see their own people freeze. The situation was volatile enough even without making the energy crisis worse ... Russia had steadily tightened the screws over the past few years. They would have done better to use nuclear reactors, but even France had cut them before realising that green energy was little more than a pipedream.

    And, of course, hundreds of thousands of people were leaving Europe.

    The CIA had told me to kill Victor, believing that it would still Europe’s decline and fall. But looking at the situation, I suspected that Victor’s sudden death wouldn't change anything. Or perhaps it would. If the unifying force holding all those different groups together vanished, they’d fight each other as much as the Europeans. Maybe, just maybe, Europe could come out ahead. But I wouldn't have put money on it.

    A long article ranted and raved about the recent decision by the European Court of Justice that certain forms of ‘hate speech’ were not covered by freedom of speech. Reading between the lines, I could tell that the terms were drawn so widely that almost anything could be covered, depending on how the courts squinted at it. The writer pointed out that it was already being used against nationalist groups, suppressing anyone who dared question the wisdom of allowing so many immigrants into the country. I had no love for outright racists – racism is a stupid idea on so many levels – but concern about a proven threat is not racist.

    And it seemed that a number of candidates for the European Parliament had already been disqualified on vague grounds of ‘hate speech.’ The candidates who had survived were bland, inoffensive ... and completely incapable of checking the bureaucrats, the true rulers of the European Union. I couldn't understand how nationalist governments had fallen so far, simply through being unwilling to grasp the nettle ... but hell, it had taken San Francisco to convince the US to see the true nature of the new world disorder. And there was a case to be made that we’d gone too far.

    And so it begins, I thought, sourly. Europe dies, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

    The computer pinged, warning me that my session was almost up. I wiped the files – the cafe claimed that all files were automatically purged, but I knew better than to take that for granted – paid and stumbled outside. Night had fallen over Manchester, wrapping the city in gloom. I couldn't help noticing that the streetlights, which had once lit up the whole city, were now scattered and broken, creating pools of shadow. Many shops were already closing, the customers hurrying home for the night. I walked down the open street, passing hundreds of buildings that had once held shops before the economic crisis had killed them, wondering if there was hope for anyone. Manchester was rotting away, just like the rest of Europe’s cities. And the semi-fascist state we were creating in America might be just as destructive.

    I reached the bottom of the street and looked up at the Manchester Wheel. It had been a poor copy of the London Eye, although from what I’d read it had been moved around the country before finally being returned to Manchester. Now, it was rusting away, the paint flaking off and dropping on the ground. I’d been on the London Eye once, the first time I’d visited London, and I’d been impressed. The Manchester Wheel might have been impressive too in its prime. Now, like so much else, it was abandoned, without the maintenance it needed to keep operating.

    Driven by a morbid curiosity, I walked down towards the stadium. It had once been famous throughout Britain; now, it had been closed down too. I wondered where the football fans went, before remembering that actually watching the games in person had been growing steadily less popular for years. The police, driven by orders to crack down on football yobs, had made it an unpleasant experience for many innocent civilians. I didn't know why anyone was surprised. Most coppers, knowing that their superiors won’t support them if they screw up, would prefer to arrest someone harmless than risk their lives for an ungrateful citizenry.

    And then I heard the scream.

    It was young, feminine ... I moved faster as I headed towards the source of the sound, some instinct telling me that I should investigate. The sound of scuffling grew louder as I entered an alleyway, catching sight of four youths struggling with a girl. She was fighting desperately, but one woman against four strong men isn't a fair fight. As I watched, they bent her over a dustbin and tore at her jeans. Her bare bottom winked at me as one of the lads undid his britches and positioned himself for entry.

    My training said to do nothing, to mind my own business. I remembered the girl at the camp and rage flared through me, driving away any doubts I might have had. The first youth had only a second to realise that I was behind him before I grabbed his head and twisted it, hard enough to break his neck. I caught the knife in his hand – a pathetic kitchen knife, part of my mind noted – and threw it at the second youth as he spun around. It took him in the chest and he staggered backwards, falling to the ground and landing in a muddy puddle. He’d need urgent medical attention if he were to have any hope of survival.

    It felt so good to be fighting after watching so many atrocities I couldn't stop. The third youth started to advance on me, one hand clutching at his knife as though it were a magic wand, then he saw the savage snarl on my face. He stopped dead, his eyes silently pleading for mercy. Bullies are not always cowards, but confront one of them with far more violence than he had ever seen in his life and he will likely fall apart. I took the knife out of his hand effortlessly, then slugged him in the throat. He made a gagging noise and sank to the ground, one hand clutching at where I’d hit him. I already knew that it was too late for him.

    The fourth youth pulled himself away from the girl and started to run. A second later, he tripped over his own trousers and fell face-first to the ground. I walked after him casually, grabbing his shoulder and rolling him over so that I could see his face. He was pleading, in English and Urdu, between muttering prayers in Arabic. How dare he call on God after what he'd tried to do? I hadn't intended to spare his life, but I let him see me slice off his balls before I cut his throat. Using the knife, I picked them up and dropped them in his mouth. Let anyone else with the same idea see it and take warning.

    I looked at the girl and saw that she hadn't even moved. Too scared, I realised; she might not have even realised that someone had saved her. For all she knew, her would-be rapists had started to fight over who got to force his way into her first. Judging from her face, she was probably a girl who had tried to leave her family and the community. Rape had often been used as a tool of social control in Central Asia. It made me sick.

    Training said I should walk away, to leave her to recover on her own. But I couldn't do that.

    “Here,” I said, helping her to her feet. She was stunning, even with tears and a bloody scar running down her face. “Don’t worry. You’re safe now.”

    I held her as she started to shake, clinging to me like a drowning man might cling to a life preserver. If Victor’s spies had followed me, my cover was blown. But I could only see so many atrocities before I did something, or surrendered the part of myself that truly believed in God. And when that was gone ...

    I wouldn’t be Muslim any longer. I’d walk and talk and prostrate myself in the direction of Mecca, but I wouldn't believe. And then I’d go mad.

    “Come with me,” I said. Procedure and training could go to hell, just this once. “You’re safe now.”
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Thirteen

    She came with me quite willingly, which didn't surprise me. It wasn't as if she had anywhere else to go.

    “Thank you,” she said, for what was at least the tenth time. “You saved my life.”

    I hadn't expected the police or anyone else to show up, as no one had come to help her when she’d started to scream, but I led her away as quickly as I could, after checking their pockets. There was some money, including a handful of inflated notes, and a set of ID cards. One look at the cards told me that they were part of Patel’s private police force. Luckily, they hadn't been allowed anything more dangerous than knifes. That said, there’s no such thing as a dangerous weapon, only a dangerous person. I would still have been able to take them if they’d had guns.

    We walked back through darkened streets, walking towards the hotel. Taking her with me was a risk, but I was damned if I was going to leave her alone on the streets. I gave her my coat to cover her ripped dress as we walked, allowing her to preserve something of her modesty, then looked away when she started to shake. Rape is something that every woman fears, because it represents the ultimate loss of control. And she’d come very close to being gang-raped and then murdered, merely to encourage the others.

    The elderly lady in the hotel lobby didn't bat an eyelid as I brought her into the hotel and took her up the stairs, into my private room. It made me smile, even though the girl wouldn't have appreciated the joke. Tiny hotels like the ones I used were always anonymous, preferring to be paid in cash rather than anything they’d have to report to the authorities. Naturally, they were often used by criminals as well as spies and secret agents – and people who didn't want to leave a paper trail. It was thoroughly illegal, but it was also the only way to keep their heads above water. The taxmen had been killing small businesses for decades.

    I motioned her towards the shower and passed her a towel and the dressing gown the hotel had supplied. She took nearly forty minutes in the shower, something I understood even though I felt impatient after ten minutes; she’d want to wipe the memory of their touch off her skin. I knew it wouldn't be so easy – she’d be carrying the mental scars for the rest of her life – and said nothing. Let her have a wash.

    When she finally came out, I found myself staring at her. She was beautiful, with lightly-tinted skin, soft brown eyes and long dark hair that ran down over her shoulders. Judging by what I saw of her general build before I looked away, she was around twenty-five, although it was often difficult to tell with some ethnic girls. They either aged quickly or remained young until marriage and children. This one had clearly not been married.

    “My name is Fazia,” she said, softly. There was a strong hint of Manchester in her voice, rather than India or Pakistan. “Who are you?”

    “Call me ...” I hesitated. There was no planned cover story for this eventuality. “Call me Adam.”

    She looked as if she wasn't sure what to make of it. Adam is a common name taken by reverts, largely because it fits in with both British and Islamic tradition. A white man called Abdullah would raise eyebrows, even among those who considered themselves politically correct. But then, stealing names was a fine old American tradition. General Sherman’s middle name had come from a Native American who had earned the respect of Sherman’s father.

    “You saved me,” Fazia said. I nodded and passed her a cup of coffee. “Why ... why did you save me?”

    “Because it was the right thing to do,” I said. “I couldn't just leave you there.”

    I understood the unspoken question; these days, most people in Manchester would be too scared to intervene, even if a girl was being raped before having her throat cut. Patel had great influence ... and even without him, the police might press charges against the brave man who’d come to the rescue, particularly if race or religion was involved.

    Her eyes looked down at the floor. “What do you want?”

    “Nothing,” I said, and meant it. Sure, part of my body craved the hero’s reward, but I told it to shut up. I hadn't saved her merely to take advantage of her myself. “Tell me about your life.”

    “I don’t have one now,” Fazia admitted. “Even if I went back to work ...”

    Her voice trailed off as I nodded. No doubt Patel’s men had intended to use her as an example of what happened to bad girls who walked away from the community. It had happened before and would happen again. I wondered absently what he’d make of the four dead bodies, before deciding that it didn't matter. The bastard was going to die, even if Langley and MI5 refused to sanction a hit.

    I listened as she told me her life. Her father had died young and her mother had moved in with their uncle, taking all three of her kids with them. Like most young girls from such a background, she’d spent the first part of her life learning how to do housework and watching resentfully as her male siblings were treated like kings. But she’d done very well at school, even winning a scholarship, and had eventually graduated as a qualified lawyer. The moment she’d found a job, she’d moved out, leaving her uncle’s house behind. And she’d been cut off from her family forever.

    “My uncle told me that I’d been disowned,” she admitted. I saw tears in her eyes and felt another pang of sympathy. Her story wasn't all that uncommon. “My brother kept talking to me, but he was always a rebellious boy. Everyone else, even my mother, refused to talk to me anymore. But I was free of them until ...”

    She broke off and started to cry. I reached out and placed my hand on her shoulder, feeling great wracking sobs passing through her body. It was tempting to take her in my arms – the dressing gown was opening, revealing the tops of her breasts – but I pushed the temptation aside. Besides, I’d compromised myself too much already.

    She’s a source of intelligence, I told myself, firmly. I can use her.

    I bounced more questions off her and listened carefully to the answers. One thing that never changed in a closely-knit community was that people chatted amongst themselves, most often about local affairs and who was doing what to whom. She managed to fill in a number of details about Patel’s control of the area, including the fact that two of the former community leaders had suffered heart attacks shortly after disagreeing with Patel. I knew that there were plenty of ways to give someone a fake heart attack and some of them were almost undetectable, even if the body was given a full autopsy.

    The remainder of the picture tallied with the one I’d been given by MI5. Patel had a network of enforcers, who threatened people who might disagree with him, as well as veto power over who got to preach in the mosques. And, for that matter, a perfect willingness to whip young men and boys who didn't go to the mosques. The irony chilled me to the bone; Patel, in the name of radical Islam, was building up an entire community of hypocrites. He had to go.

    They hadn't been too clear on just how Patel was meant to die, leaving it to me.

    “Have another drink,” I said, as I poured her some more water. This time, I dropped a little sleeping drug into the liquid. “You can stay here for the night. We’ll talk about your future tomorrow.”

    I saw her eyes turned fearful as she sipped the liquid. It hadn't really sunk in that she was completely alone, without friends or family, and her only hope was a guy who she knew nothing about, apart from the fact he’d saved her. She had to be wondering what kind of motives I had, if I’d saved her from one danger just to molest her myself. I couldn't blame her at all for wondering; in truth, I wasn't sure what I should be doing with her.

    “I’ll sleep on the floor,” I promised, as I helped her into the bed. Compared to the training camp, the carpeted floor was paradise itself. “Get a good night’s sleep.”

    The drug I’d given her was strong, military issue. Very few people could obtain them outside the military without a prescription signed by two doctors, something that ‘Adam Sinclair’ had done years ago. I’d known SEALs and other operatives who’d used them to get some sleep before a mission, but they’d been very strong and well-trained men. Fazia would sleep for at least twelve hours before waking up and demanding breakfast.

    I watched her sleep, checked her breathing automatically, and then stepped into the bathroom myself. The cell phone came to life at my touch, revealing that Li had sent me a message asking me to make contact at the earliest possible moment. I tapped the screen, establishing the connection with her current location. Li hadn't told me where she was – I didn't need to know – but I would have bet money on the embassy in London.

    “You silly bastard,” she said, once I’d finished outlining what had happened since we’d last spoken. “You should know not to involve yourself.”

    Technically speaking, she was right. I had risked exposure, as well as arrest and detention, through coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress. But the dangers of becoming desensitized, I had decided long ago, were more dangerous than the risk to my life. I’d known too many operatives who had become so completely desensitized that they crossed the line and became sociopaths. Yes, the mission comes first ... but watching horrors as they happen, without interfering, takes a deadly toll on the watcher.

    “It is done,” I said, crossly. “And no one seems to have noticed.”

    “These days, you could leave a body lying in front of Buckingham Palace and they’d walk around it to avoid noticing,” Li snapped. I couldn't disagree with her. “What the hell were you thinking?”

    “I was thinking that an innocent girl was about to get badly hurt,” I snapped back. “I did the only thing I could.”

    Li should have understood; if the operation that had nicknamed her the ball-buster had gone badly wrong, she would have been gang raped before being murdered. It had happened to captured servicewomen, intelligence agents and even reporters in the past. And then videos were uploaded to YouTube and a dozen other services, trying to hack away at our resolve to fight.

    But then, fear was always a powerful weapon. If they could convince us that submission was better than fighting, they’d win. Even today, even after San Francisco, there were still people who wrung their hands and asked if there was an alternative to fighting. Quite a few of them had died in mysterious accidents – particularly the TV presenter who’d asked, on air, if the victims hadn’t deserved to die – but there were always others. I’d heard a rumour that the FBI was compiling lists of dissenters, perhaps intending to round them up and ship them to the work camps at the South Pole. America wasn't what it had been before the war.

    “Very well,” Li said, icily. “I will check with MI5 to make sure that someone hasn't drawn a line between you and the dead bastards. Are you sure that you haven’t been tracked back to the hotel?”

    “If they’re that good, we’re fucked,” I pointed out. There had been less time for counter-surveillance measures when I’d been half-carrying Fazia back to the hotel, but I was fairly sure that we'd been unobserved. “Never mind that now, anyway. What about the Patel hit?”

    “MI5 drove a hard bargain,” Li said. “In short, they want you to make it very clear that he was assassinated. They also want you to take out his brother-in-law, who appears to handle most of the logistics of the operation.”

    I doubted that was all of the bargain, but I didn't need to know. MI5 probably hoped that Patel’s community would believe that one of them had killed him, convincing them to turn on the rest of the extremists before they reorganised themselves. Or, if that didn't happen, perhaps warning them that the country still had teeth, that Britain was willing to deal with those gnawing away at its soul. I had a nasty feeling that it was way too late to draw the line, but they’d have to try. It was that or flee the country before the howling mobs stormed London.

    “Understood,” I said. “And the camp?”

    There was a long chilling pause. “Washington has vetoed the operation,” Li said, finally. “I am sorry.”

    “What the fuck?” I demanded. “That’s the bloody home of the Butcher of Islamabad!”

    “So I have said to our superiors,” Li said. “I have tried to convince them to fly in troops from Egypt or Malta, troops that can seize the camp and secure material that might lead us to more terrorist cells. They have refused.”

    I stared down at the phone, feeling my hand clenching around the plastic case. “Why?”

    “I wasn't given an explanation,” Li said. I scowled; Washington has a nasty habit of issuing orders without explaining the reasoning behind them, leading to problems when some poor SOB in the field trips over something his superiors have neglected to tell him. “I think, however, that there is a general feeling that it isn't our problem.”

    “You have got to be kidding me,” I said. I had rarely been so shocked in my life. “How is the bastard who was responsible for San Francisco not our problem? Not to mention a few hundred troops training up an army that could cause real problems if we let them go back to Pakistan ...”

    I stopped as I suddenly saw the awful logic. “They think that Europe is going to take the brunt of it,” I realised. “Washington doesn't want to stop it.”

    “It’s possible,” Li confirmed. Naturally, no one would have said it outright. Anyone who spends time in Washington is highly skilled at getting whatever they want without actually admitting to wanting it. “But for the moment, Charles, there will be no troops.”

    I shook my head in stunned disbelief. “They’re insane,” I whispered. “What happens if Europe goes under?”

    But I knew what Washington was thinking. Europe had been sliding into a morass for years, during which time they – the French in particular – had carped and criticized and done very little to help the US fight the mutual enemy. Much of the problem now facing Europe was the fault of their own short-sighted policies; the solution might well be beyond their ability to impose any longer. I could easily see some policy wonk in the White House suggesting that we did nothing, that we let the tidal wave of anarchy overrun Europe without lifting a finger to stop it. The lesson might not be lost on the rest of the world.

    “A simple strike from orbit,” I said. “Or some troops ...”

    “The decision has been made,” Li said. She sounded as regretful as I felt. “There will be no assault on the terrorist base.”

    It was a mistake, I knew. Anarchy was one thing; an organised coup that snatched the reins of power in Europe was quite another. Perhaps that was what Victor had in mind. A coup that allowed him and his employers to snatch the French nukes – the one part of their infrastructure that they still lavished scarce resources on maintaining – and their European industrial base. It had been allowed to decay over the decades, but if it was used properly it would still be formidable. And the Pakistanis knew better than to fall into the inshallah mentality that had prevented the Middle East from reforming before it had been too late.

    And even if the bureaucrats in Brussels deserved to die – and I’d seen the damage they’d caused first-hand – the rest of the population didn’t. But once the coup took place, it would be too late for them to escape. The doors would slam shut and the new rulers would start the task of breaking them to the yoke. I knew what would happen; they’d eliminate the Jews, then Muslim sects they regarded as little better than unbelievers, then anyone who refused to convert. It would rival the Holocaust for sheer awfulness.

    “Understood,” I said, finally. Washington might have washed its hands of the whole affair, but maybe I could do something myself. “I want you to arrange something for Fazia.”

    “It’s difficult to get a visa if you happen to be Muslim,” Li reminded me. “She’d have to do us something in exchange.”

    “I have an idea,” I said. I’d have to convince the young girl to cooperate, but she didn't have anywhere else to go. A plane ticket to the States and a visa would give her a chance to rebuild her life. “I’ll bring her to London once Patel is dealt with.”

    “Don't fuck up,” Li said. Her voice darkened, as if she was trying to warn me of something. “And Charles, watch yourself. Washington is not inclined to interfere any further in this situation.”

    I frowned. “Does that mean I won’t be allowed to go after Victor? If he dies, the plans they have for a coup might take a body-blow.”

    “No,” Li said. “It just means that you will have no support. You’re on your own.”

    Somehow, I really wasn't surprised.
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  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fourteen

    “You did have a motive for saving me!”

    “Not exactly,” I admitted. “Finding you was a stroke of luck.”

    I didn’t tell her everything, naturally. That would have been too risky. Instead, I told her that I worked for MI5 and that we were going to deal with Patel. I didn't know if she believed me or not, but she had nowhere else to go. Once I’d dealt with him, I promised her, she could have a visa that would allow her to go to the United States. Langley learned the hard way to look after defectors and other people who provided help to the US; she’d be fine, I was sure, as long as she kept her nose clean.

    “I’m not a Bond Girl,” she said, afterwards. I had to smile. “What do you want me to do?”

    I shrugged. “First, we get you some new clothes,” I said, “and then we hire a van. Can you drive?”

    “Mum always said that a girl should need to drive,” Fazia told me. I knew that women hadn't been allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia – and they'd been banned from driving in Pakistan, since the coup had put an Islamic government in power. “She didn’t tell me that I would be ferrying older women around most of the time.”

    She smiled, almost wistfully. “But I can drive, Mr. Spy,” she added. “What can I do for you?”

    Manchester in daylight almost looked like another world. The morning news was as heavily censored as the rest of the European national media, but there was nothing at all about the deaths of four community policemen in Manchester. I took it to mean that someone had ordered it hushed up, for fear of encouraging others from having a go at other so-called police officers. The real police, I suspected, would be dragging their feet on the investigation as much as possible, knowing what sort of scum the community policemen had been. We walked through the shopping centre, looking for clothes for the pair of us, then hired a van at exorbitant rates from a local dealer. Naturally, there was no paperwork involved.

    “These babies are completely clean, sir,” the dealer assured me. “No regulators are all, not even a GPS. Just remember you have to pay for the petrol.”

    I nodded. These days, most vehicles carried an automatic locator, officially in case of accidents, as well as a regulator that monitored how much petrol the driver used. It wouldn't be long, I figured, before they started implanting children with tracking devices, in the name of their own safety. Given enough time, it would rapidly become impossible to organise any sort of protest movement, or hide from the government. Anyone who wanted to leave their community in the future would find it impossible. They’d be found, dragged back and forced to face the consequences. I knew that they wouldn't be pleasant.

    Despite the vast sum of cash I passed over to him, I didn't take it for granted and checked the van out carefully before taking it back to the hotel. The engine was underpowered, unsurprisingly, but I found no trace of a tracking beacon. Unfortunately, that meant less than nothing; these days, a CIA tracker could be tiny enough to remain unseen by the naked eye. I had to assume that the EU could do the same. My cell phone’s sensors suggested that nothing was actually transmitting, but that could mean that the beacon was currently inactive. It might be activated by remote control if – when – the van wasn't returned on time.

    Criminals loved untraceable vehicles – and there was a whole market for people interested in buying vehicles which couldn’t be traced by Big Brother. But as the noose grew tighter, I had a feeling that it wouldn't matter. The police would look at the orbital images, compare them to the vehicles that had beacons, and know which ones were illegal. And there was a hefty fine for owning an untraceable car.

    “I think I understand what you want me to do,” Fazia said, finally. I’d picked up a handful of other supplies, including a pair of light gloves, while she’d been practicing with the van. After all, it had been months since she had last been able to drive. “Are you sure they won’t notice me?”

    I nodded. The van’s windows were tinted, making it impossible for anyone to see in. Even if they had, Fazia looked completely different; I’d changed her hair, skin tone and clothing. She was unrecognisable – I hoped. As long as she remained calm and stayed in the van, she should be completely fine. We drove the van back towards Patel’s house and parked just around the corner. Its presence probably wouldn't go unnoticed, but I intended to pass for a handyman, wearing overalls and carrying a box of tools. Most people wouldn't give me a second glance.

    “Just remember, stay here and do not leave the vehicle,” I ordered. “It may take some time.”

    A handful of children heading to mosque passed me as I closed the van door and then walked around the corner, heading for Patel’s house. I’d once heard that every Asian family starts by hiring handymen who are related to them, or part of the community, and that it never ends well. No one looked surprised to see a handyman who was white.

    Ideally, I would have posed as a woman, something that is quite easy when the local community insists that most women be covered from head to toe. It wouldn't have worked this time, though; the community also insisted that most women be escorted whenever they were outside the house. Instead, I knocked at the door and waited patiently, pretending to miss the kohl-lined eyes that glanced through the curtains and saw me. Patel’s third wife was very young, according to MI5, maybe only barely legal. I gritted my teeth as the door finally opened, revealing a kid who couldn't have been older than nine. Did he understand the full depths of his father’s sins?

    “Hi,” I said gormlessly, pasting a smile on my face. “I’ve been called to deal with a leaky pipe.”

    His English wasn't very good. I wished it surprised me. “I don't know about that,” he said, finally. “My father isn't here ...”

    I took a step forward, ensuring that he couldn’t just close the door. “Then I need to speak to your mother, or another adult,” I said. I’d printed out a fake call notice that looked official. “Your father has promised payment, hasn't he?”

    The kid struggled to read the form, then headed back into the house, clearly hoping that the senior wife could read the form and solve the dilemma for him. I followed, closing the door, and caught him before he could escape, pressing a cloth into his mouth. The drug I’d soaked into the cloth took effect at once and he stumbled to the floor, completely out of it. He’d be asleep for hours.

    I moved through the house as silently as possible, holding the cloth at the ready. Two other kids were playing in a small room when I stepped inside and used the cloth on them, one of them crying out before I hit her with the drug. A woman – barely out of her teens – came through another door and saw me. She opened her mouth to scream, which only made it easier for me to drug her. I heard a peevish male voice from the next room and walked inside, one hand on my gun. Patel’s brother-in-law gaped at me before I knocked him out too.

    MI5 had been right, I realised; Patel’s family had actually taken over three houses and knocked holes in the walls, combining them into one giant house. Looking at where they’d placed the doors, I had the uncomfortable feeling that they'd actually knocked out some of the supports, weakening the house’s structure. Still, it had held up for years and would hold up long enough for me to complete my mission and walk away. As soon as I was sure that I had cleared the house, I dragged the kids and the womenfolk into one room, bound them with duct tape I’d stowed in my bag and left them there. I knew that the terrorists wouldn't hesitate to kill the kids – dead children were part of their plan for every spectacular attack – but I wasn't going to become like them. And the girls were largely innocent victims too.

    The brother-in-law, however, was a different matter. I dragged him into the front room, bound him to a chair and poured water over his head. The drug I’d used could be beaten by giving the victim a shock, but he’d be dazed for hours. I took advantage of his confusion to fire questions at him, carefully noting the answers. Yes, he did have a secret copy of all information that passed through his hands; it was hidden on a tiny hard drive, concealed in his room. I retrieved it, stuck it in my case and made a mental note to check it out later. If they’d gotten sloppy, perhaps the entire network could be broken before it had a chance to regenerate.

    Once he'd finished spilling his guts – I had a feeling that he was also an assistant in Patel’s less savoury sexual activities – I drew my knife and slashed it neatly across his throat. Blood spurted out, pouring down his chest and pooling on the carpeted floor. I lowered the knife and stabbed it into his chest, leaving it there for the investigators to find. It would have been fun to use fingerprint gloves, ones with fingerprints belonging to a known terrorist enabler, but Victor might have wondered where I’d found them. I couldn't take the risk.

    The surveillance reports had indicated that Patel spent twenty minutes at the mosque – after afternoon prayers – before returning home. I was starting to get nervous when I heard the door rattling open, so I slipped into position and waited for Patel to come into reach. He wasn't alone, I realised; there was a young girl with him, her face pale and vapid. I wondered if MI5 had missed a fourth wife before realising that she was actually his youngest sister. MI5 hadn't been able to tell me much about her ...

    I slipped forward and slammed a fist into his jaw before he could do more than realise that someone was there. He was tougher than he looked, but he still folded and hit the floor, giving me a chance to drug the girl. Patel rolled over and started to crawl down the corridor before I planted my foot on his chest and shoved him down, holding him firmly in place. I’d expected a tough fight, but he offered no resistance as I yanked his hands behind his back and secured them with tape, before slapping more on his mouth. I had a feeling that people here were used to feminine screams echoing out of tranquil households, but there was no point in taking chances. As soon as he was helpless, I secured the girl and – on impulse – searched her carefully. Her pockets contained lipstick, a set of sanitary pads ... and a tiny USB stick. I found myself looking at her more closely as I pocketed the stick; what, really, was she doing there?

    There were very few women fighting beside the jihadists. There had been a number of female suicide bombers, and a couple of women who had fought beside the Taliban, but their ideology preferred to keep women on the sidelines. And besides, teaching them how to fight might backfire on the terrorists. A woman who had shot at American soldiers might decide to shoot her abusive husband next. But I found myself wondering if the girl was doing more than simply visiting her brother and his three wives.

    Putting the matter aside for one moment, I dragged Patel into the main room and positioned him so he could see what had happened to his brother-in-law. I saw his eyes open wide, a moment before he started to try to push the gag off with his tongue. The taste had to be unpleasant, for he started to gag a moment later. I checked to make sure that he was in no danger of actually choking to death and then held my knife up in front of his eyes. He didn't seem to recognise me, but he certainly realised that he was in great danger.

    “Here’s how it is going to be,” I said, in perfect Arabic. “I have questions, which you will answer for me. If you tell me the truth, your wives and children will remain unharmed. If not, it will go very hard for them. And if you try to scream, I will cut off your fingers before I start asking you more questions. Do you understand me?”

    He nodded, desperately. The combination of the Arabic and the remains of his brother-in-law had convinced him that I meant every word of it. He would have no hesitation about hurting children, even to the point of raping little kids, to get someone to talk; he would assume that I felt the same way. If I’d come across as too American, he would have known that I was bluffing. There are some lines that we dare not cross. I hoped it would remain that way for the rest of time.

    “Good,” I said. I pulled off the tape, making him yelp as hairs were pulled out with it. “Now ... tell me about your activities with young men.”

    It took some time before I had a comprehensive picture – and it sickened me. Homosexuals are vulnerable almost everywhere, but it was far worse in an ethnic community. Patel was perceptive; he’d spotted a handful of young men with homosexual leanings and preyed on them ruthlessly. I didn't know if homosexuals were born homosexual or if they chose it – and if it was the former, I really didn't understand why it was a sin – but there was no excuse for exploiting them like that. How many would have been pushed to the brink of suicide, or even crossed that line, because they knew that they were hopelessly compromised. My heart bled for them.

    I rattled other questions at him, demanding to know where he kept his records – and pornography. There didn't seem to be any records, at least according to him; I’d been wondering if he’d known that his brother-in-law was keeping copies. And he claimed that he didn't have any porn either, until I held the knife against his sodden robes. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that he held a huge collection. His wives probably didn't know a thing about it.

    “You are damned,” I informed him, as I cut his robes away. My nose wrinkled as I realised that he’d shat himself. The man who talked of jihad, who had sent hundreds of young men to merciless training camps where they might well die before they ever saw a European or American soldier, couldn't even control his bowels! But then, most of the stories of Osama’s bravery had been exaggerated too. “The one mercy I offer is that your children will survive. But they will always know the truth about the man who sired them.”

    I put the gag back on his mouth and sliced off his balls. Did he realise that I’d done the same last night to one of his thugs, or was he in too much pain to care? I held them up in front of him, watching dispassionately as the blood flowed out of his body, then cut his throat. God would see to his punishment in the eternal fire. Standing up, I walked over to the wall and used the remains of his penis to write the word SHAZ, using both Arabic and English letters. It translates – loosely – as deviant or abnormal. I wondered what his followers would make of it, seeing it was often used to insult homosexuals. Would they suspect the truth?

    Not that it matters, I told myself, as I checked to make sure that I hadn't left anything behind. There shouldn't be anything, not even fingerprints or DNA samples. And the witnesses hadn't seen very much ... ? The neighbours would probably recall seeing the van and the handyman, if anyone talked to the police round here. Once they set eyes on some of the other things in the house, I had a feeling that no one would be investigating very enthusiastically. They probably wouldn't want to know.

    Picking up my toolbox, I checked that the wives and children were still soundly sleeping, then walked out the door as casually as I could. I was careful to close and lock the door behind me, knowing that it would delay discovery – at least until I called in a tip to the police. The living would live long enough for that, I hoped. I climbed into the van and nodded to Fazia, who started the engine and started driving us out of Manchester. We’d dump the van near a station and catch a train to York, where we’d change again for London. It was a somewhat roundabout route, but it had the advantage of being difficult to follow.

    “What happened?” She asked, as I clambered over the seat and into the rear of the van. I needed to undress; the police, once they collected statements from the witnesses, would be looking for a person wearing a handyman’s overalls. “What did he say?”

    “Too much,” I grunted. I wasn't going to tell her that I’d killed him. She might have hated him, but she was too decent to accept his death calmly. I’d been like that once too. “But don’t worry about him. He has too many other problems to deal with.”

    I made a mental note to ensure that the dealer received a large cash reward for the loss of his van – I was going to burn it, just to cover our trail further – as we parked outside an abandoned industrial estate. Fazia looked doubtful as we headed for the station, so I left her to her thoughts. Mine were focused on Victor.

    It was time to resume the hunt for him. And his employer.
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  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fifteen

    We arrived in London later in the day, where we were greeted by someone who worked for MI5 and escorted to a safehouse. Fazia didn't seem to know what to make of it, but I’d expected the debriefing; the phone call I’d made to the police had resulted in Patel’s wives and children being found and taken into protective custody. There would probably be a great deal of outraged shouting from the community police, if there was someone who could take Patel’s place in a hurry. I had a feeling that he hadn't been too keen on appointing someone who might want to take his place in the future.

    Li turned up an hour later, along with a nerdish guy from the Embassy. He took Fazia’s fingerprints, ran them through the computers to make sure that she wasn't on any terrorist or criminal watch list, then gave her a visa that would allow her an open-ended stay in the US, as long as she behaved herself. Li warned her – rather ungratefully, I felt – that any form of suspicious activity would result in having the visa revoked and immediate eviction from the country. She would be lucky if she was only repatriated to Britain.

    “We have booked you a flight from London to Paris for tomorrow,” she informed me. I would have preferred to take the Channel Tunnel, but it had been closed down indefinitely, yet another victim of the economic shock. Besides, it would create a paper trial for Adam Sinclair, rather than having him spring up out of nowhere in Paris. Someone as careful as Victor might wonder just what I’d done to arrive in France. “Do you have a place to go?”

    “Just a phone number,” I said. It had been checked out by Langley, but all they’d been able to tell me about it was that it went directly to a computer switchboard in France and then vanished. Without direct access to the servers, it would be impossible to trace it to the final destination. “They said I should call when I arrived in France.”

    Li nodded. “Paranoid bastards,” she commented. She reached into her handbag and produced a folder. “This is the latest from the European Desk at Langley. You may find it interesting.”

    I took the folder and started to read, while Li continued to chat to Fazia. The news wasn't good; there were rumours of new protests in Paris and a dozen other cities, thousands upon thousands of students were admitting that they were unable to pay their student loans and unemployment numbers were starting to rise again, no matter what the government did to fudge the figures. And it was clear that border security was becoming a joke. European borders had not been watched for years, but now France wasn't even trying to monitor who might be crossing from Algeria. Apparently, large parts of the French Navy were threatened with being mothballed.

    “Maybe we should offer to hire them,” I suggested, sourly. The French Navy had everything a navy could want, apart from competent senior officers. They’d been selected for political reliability rather than skill. Their army had similar problems. “Or maybe ...”

    “Washington is definitely keeping its hands off,” Li interrupted. “Whatever happens in France will be allowed to happen.”

    I nodded. There was no point in complaining to her; she hadn't issued the orders. But I hated it when politicians who knew next to nothing about the intelligence world issued badly-conceived orders, or insisted on putting restraints on our activities. If Congress hadn't made it very hard for the CIA to recruit people with proven links to terrorism, might we have managed to prevent 9/11? Perhaps not ... but there was no way to know. At least that order had been quietly forgotten after the Twin Towers had fallen.

    The nerd took Fazia into the next room to fill out forms, leaving us alone.

    “You’ll be taking your cell phone, of course,” Li said. She produced a box from her handbag and passed it over to me. “The watch inside looks cheap and nasty” – I opened the box and decided that she was right – “but we’ve hidden a communicator inside, one using very low-power microbursts. It should be completely undetectable, but it remains dormant unless you activate it.”

    “Unless I activate it,” I repeated. It had been two years since the CIA had given several infiltrators devices that were activated from the outside, without their knowledge. At least one of them had been detected – and tortured to death – after his device had been detected, when he hadn't even known it was broadcasting. The CIA’s operatives had come very close to staging a strike after that little balls-up. I didn't blame them. “I’ll contact you as soon as I know what’s happening.”

    “Understood,” Li said. She was tempted to micromanage, I was sure, but she knew better than to try. Someone in a cosy room in Langley, or even a nearby embassy, couldn't know what was going on. Missions had been blown that way. “But watch yourself.”

    I nodded. “Has there been any other sign of Victor?”

    “Tracking his movements isn't easy,” Li reminded me. I already know. “We flew a couple of Stealth Hawks out of Malta, in hopes of finding your training camp, but we didn't see him personally. But he knows how to hide himself.”

    She produced a set of images and passed them to me, one by one. Complexes look very different from high overhead, but I’d seen enough of the training camp to be sure that I was looking at the same place. There were still hundreds of young men there, training in how to fight and die for the cause. It needed to be shut down as quickly as possible. I’d have to see if I could find a way of doing it without American troops. Maybe I could look up an old friend in France.

    I pushed that thought aside and scowled. Victor would find it easy to hide anywhere, just as I had hidden in plain sight in Kota Kinabalu. Some skin tint, a change of clothes, a shave ... and he’d be a very different man. My scowl deepened as I looked at the list of ships and aircraft that had moved between Algeria and France in the last week. Victor could have been on any of them, if he hadn't been in France prior to my departure from the camp.

    Whatever he was doing, it had to be big. But what?

    “Get some sleep,” Li ordered. She stood up, revealing that she looked stunning even in British clothes. “And we’ll get your lady friend on the way to the States tomorrow.”

    I didn't envy Fazia. Even with the Company backing her, the Immigration bureaucrats would still want to check her out thoroughly before allowing her to stay in the country. There would probably be conditions loaded on her stay too, including making herself available for intelligence or translation work. And her British qualifications might not be any use in the US. Still, at least she would be alive.

    “Thank you,” I said. “We can order dinner here, can't we?”

    “MI5 intends to abandon this place,” Li said. Or so she would have been told; we told people who visited our safe houses the same thing. It wasn't always true. “So yes, you can order dinner here.”

    After they’d left, I checked online, found a reputable eatery and ordered dinner for both of us, after asking Fazia what she wanted to eat. I had no idea what the food situation was like in France, so I splashed out on curry and rice for both of us. I’d fallen in love with Indian food a long time before I’d embraced Islam and it was almost always halal. Fazia hid herself in the upstairs bedroom as I answered the door, still convinced that the community police would be following her. I had a feeling that they would have a great many other things to keep them busy. What would happen when the activities carefully documented by Patel’s brother-in-law became public?

    I spread the food out on the table, resisting the temptation to light a pair of candles. This wasn't a romantic meal, even though part of me wished it was. I’d tested myself and won, killing two men who had been criminals, terrorists and corruptors – as well as unbelievers. It would have been easy to let my hair down and relax, to assume that I was courting a pretty girl, but I couldn't allow myself the luxury. Besides, I knew that it would be years before Fazia recovered from her ordeal. No doubt she'd meet someone nice in the States and marry him, if she was allowed to have children. Some immigrants were told that they could never have kids, or that they would be taken away upon birth.

    The President is going mad, I thought, and shuddered. But the entire world is also going mad. Where does that leave us?

    “Thank you for everything,” Fazia said, as she took a bite of her curry. The cook had earned high praise on the internet and, for once, it was well-deserved. “I won't ever be able to see my family again, will I?”

    I winced inwardly, feeling a twinge of sympathy. Fazia had a family of blood relations; I’d had none, which was at least partly why I’d found it so easy to stand up and fight the corruption seething through Islam. But anyone born to the faith who wanted to chart their own path had to reckon with their families, for whom compliance and conformity was all. And it was a great deal harder if you happened to be born female. Most of the ones unlucky enough to be born outside the West never even questioned their place in society.

    And the ones who did ended up dead. Or worse.

    That’s why we fight, I thought, taking a sip of my water. Not just to protect civilisation, not just to protect an ideal, but to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

    A community based around a single ideology was always merciless to those who refused to confirm. I knew that every story about a girl stoned to death in the name of honour, or a boy strangled for being homosexual, or an imam killed for preaching moderation, scared countless people. Intimidation forced them to bow their heads in submission, a submission offered not to God, but to those who claimed to act in His name. Islam was far from the only community responsible for such atrocities – communists had been just as bad, as had other religious groups – yet it was the one we were facing now. The corruption had to be stopped before it was too late.

    But the West didn't even seem inclined to try, What if the government had made the rules clear and enforced them, without worrying about political correctness? What if girls who wanted to leave their families had been protected – and those who would drag them back thrown out of the country, or tossed into jail? What if their rights had actually been enforced? But instead, the rights of a whole community had been allowed to override the rights of the individual. Fazia’s near-rape would have been just another weapon used to keep the rest in line.

    I could imagine the sermons given to teenage girls, warning them that Fazia had chosen to sin and that she had been punished. Or maybe there would be no sermons, just whispered hints of what happened to girls who left the protection of their families. And when the rapists – and perhaps murderers – went unpunished, they would know that there was no hope of justice, of protection by an outside force. They’d bow their heads in submission.

    Who could blame them?

    “You deserved my help,” I said. I wanted to tell her the truth, to tell her about my private jihad, but she didn't need to know. “You were brave enough to leave your culture behind.”

    Fazia gave me a sharp look. “I can't see them again, can I?”

    “Not unless you want to go back,” I said, softly. “Oh, I suppose you could write, or email, but they might be able to trace you.”

    I saw the fear in her eyes and kicked myself. It was quite possible that she hadn't been targeted deliberately, but she was inclined to see it as deeply personal. How could she not?

    “They would come for me,” she said. “My brother never knew where I lived ...”

    “It probably wasn't him,” I said. I might have been lying, but there was no way to know for sure. “If you were staying in a registered flat, they might have been able to trace you through the records. How were you being paid?”

    “Bank transfer,” Fazia said. “Why ...?”

    I saw the realisation cross her face and nodded. By law, all payments have to be recorded for tax purposes, allowing the IRS – and the police – to track where the money is going. It would have been easy for someone with Patel’s contacts to locate her, then send a gang of thugs out to teach the uppity bitch a lesson. I wondered absently if she’d been meant to survive, before deciding that it was unlikely. She might just have been able to bear witness against them in a court of law. Patel’s control wasn’t that secure.

    But if she was dead, it would have been easier to bury the whole affair.

    “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Do you have anything in your apartment – your flat – that you want to take with you?”

    She shook her head. “I never had very much,” she admitted. “What I earned, I spent on rent and food. I actually ate loads of pasta because it was cheaper than anything else.”

    I made a face. Everyone was complaining about kids not moving out of the nest when they grew old enough to live independently, but how could they when even the highest-graded students didn't earn enough to rent an apartment, let alone buy a place to stay permanently? The cost of living just kept going up and wages were always a step or two behind, pushing more and more people under the poverty line. Even if people like Patel hadn't been turning communities into prison camps, the children would have few places to go. They simply wouldn't be able to live on their own.

    “Yuck,” I said, finally. Actually, I’d done great things by mixing pasta with spicy sauce and fried chicken, but Fazia probably didn’t want to hear about it. “Did you have friends? A life?”

    “I couldn't afford one,” she said. It wasn't really a joke. “I used to go out with a couple of girls from the office, but I hated it; they drank and smoked and danced the night away. They didn't have any ambitions beyond drinking and getting high.”

    “Or maybe they knew that they couldn't ever get much higher,” I said, softly.

    The economic crisis meant that promotion in corporations had become very slow, even for those who had worked there for years. No one was loyal to the companies these days; why should they show any loyalty when they could be downsized at a moment’s notice? The only amusing part was that golden parachutes were in short supply – and that a number of bankers had been lynched by angry mobs.

    “One of them was twenty-three, younger than me,” Fazia said. “She looked like an old granny.”

    I shook my head. “Forget them,” I advised. “In America, there will be some opportunities for you.”

    The Company might want to recruit her. Even if not, there were some organisations that might see value in someone who had kept her head at a crucial moment. And I could put in a word or two for her with some ex-Company men I knew. They’d give her a fair chance at proving herself, if she wanted to find work on the Circuit. Or maybe she’d just want to slip back into civilian life and forget everything else.

    Fazia finished eating her meal and pushed her plate to one side. “What about yourself? How did you get into this life?”

    I was tempted to tell her, but she didn't need to know. “I can't talk about it,” I admitted, finally. She looked annoyed, but then nodded in reluctant understanding. “My life is somewhat rough and imprecise.”

    “I’d bet,” she said. She took one final sip of water and then stood up. “Do you want to come to bed?”

    I gaped at her. “Fazia ...”

    “You saved my life and ... no one will ever want me now,” she said. I wondered just how many bad romantic movies she’d been watching. Maybe she had wanted someone from outside her culture to fall in love with her. “And besides, we may never see each other again.”

    She was suddenly in front of me. I was very aware of her breasts, barely covered by a tight shirt, hovering at eye-level. She smelt divine.

    “No,” I said. It took all the willpower I had to say it. “You’re vulnerable right now and you will regret it later, if you sleep with me now. And you need to recover first.”

    I felt her hands enfold me in a hug, then she turned and walked towards the stairs leading to her bedroom. Her tight jeans called to me, but I resisted – somehow. My body wanted her, wanted to make love to her ... but it would be wrong. Even if I hadn't believed in saving myself until marriage, she’d almost been raped only yesterday. Sleeping with her would have been disastrous for her, even if she did want reassurance. I heard the door closing behind her and closed my eyes for a long moment. My body was screaming at me ...

    Grimly, I went to my own bedroom and had a shower before falling into bed.

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  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments? Please?

    Chapter Sixteen

    Passing through security at Heathrow Airport took longer than the flight to Paris. Something seemed to have triggered an alert and there were even more policemen, security officers and armed soldiers walking through the terminal, looking suspiciously at anyone who seemed even slightly out of place. I waited as patiently as I could in the long queue, passed through a scanner I knew to be effectively useless and then boarded the plane for Paris. The vast majority of my fellow passengers were students, I realised as I took my seat, spending some of their student loans to have a brief holiday. These days, relatively few adults went abroad for holidays.

    The flight passed without incident and we were soon coming in to land at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the largest airport in France. Once, it had played host to a refugee without a country; now, I saw countless refugees trying to get into France, some claiming to be genuine refugees from Algeria or Libya. I wondered just how happy they’d be if Victor’s plan worked and France went under; the government they’d fled would had given chase. Like in Heathrow, there were soldiers everywhere, providing some kind of security. I couldn't help noticing that a number of the soldiers were ethnic Arabs. It boded ill for the future.

    As a British citizen, I had no difficulty in passing through customs and being allowed to enter France, although the officers did insist on checking my passport first. The EU encourages free travel between the member states, which was often used as a dodge by illegal immigrants to get into a specific country; someone who got into Britain could then get into France, often without being checked or halted by anyone. I had a feeling that the French were trying to lock the barn door after the horse had been stolen, but right now it wasn’t my problem. They would have to clear up their mess themselves, if they still could.

    I took a taxi and ordered the driver to take me into Paris. It had been years since I had visited the city and I was struck by the sheer level of decay. Paris’s core seemed as pretty as ever – there were plenty of tourists gaping at the Eiffel Tower – but the residential areas seemed to be on the verge of collapse. The poorer parts of the city were worse than Manchester. In a desperate attempt to provide housing for the tired and huddled masses, the government had flung up hundreds of ugly concrete apartment blocks, each one a soulless monstrosity. The policing situation in Britain was bad, but it was worse in France. I’d read a report that noted that parts of France were now completely outside the control of the central government. And there were parts that were effectively indistinguishable from Algeria.

    The taxi driver refused to go any further, so I climbed out of the taxi and breathed in the air. It stank. The smell of cars blended together with the smell of too many people in too close proximity, as well as spices from the nearby eateries. Paris was still trying to keep as many cars on the streets as possible, mainly through underwriting the price of fuel. I had a feeling that they were wasting their time, as well as their money. The price of gas would eventually rise to the point where they could no longer afford to subsidise it.

    I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and called the number I’d been given. There was a long pause before an unfamiliar voice – a woman – answered, demanding to know where I was. I told her and was ordered to wait. Someone would come and pick me up. Shaking my head, I leaned back against the wall and waited. I could use the time to try to pick up a feel for the streets.

    They didn't feel good. Most of the people on the streets were men, just like in Manchester, and the vast majority of women were heavily escorted by their fathers or brothers. The young men seemed to be unemployed, few of them looked wealthy – although I couldn’t help noticing that they were still able to wear fashionable clothing and carry cell phones. I wondered absently why the religious police, the self-appointed guardians of Islamic values, didn't say something about their clothing, before I realised that it was yet another symbol of corruption. They wanted the young men to fight for them when the time came. Objecting to their clothes, no matter how indecent they were, would have made that harder.

    I found myself glancing into some of the shops, realising just how close they were to the shops and stalls I’d seen in Algeria. One sold clothes, a sign on the door proudly boasting that the materials had been imported from North Africa; others sold food, almost all of it North African rather than French. Why, I asked myself, did immigrants come to a new country, looking for a new life, and then try to reshape their new home in the image of their old one? I only saw a handful of female faces and none of them looked very happy. But then, mental illness is very common among women in societies where they are treated as chattel. The human mind doesn't like it.

    A handful of young men noticed me, tossing unfriendly glances in my direction. I pretended not to notice them, although I had a feeling that they were considering pushing me out of their community. If there were a handful of snipers taking pot-shots at French policemen, just to keep the forces of law and order out of their territory, they wouldn't have any qualms about trying to drive out an innocent tourist. I could fight, but even the most capable fighter could be torn apart by a mob. I’d seen it happen in several other countries. Once a mob gets really angry, breaking it up without killing most of the crowd is difficult.

    A car pulled up beside me. The driver stuck out his head and bellowed for me to get in. I saw the young men looking astonished as I climbed into the car, then backing off hastily. My driver was clearly a power in the community. It reminded me of an undercover operation in Gaza before the Israelis crushed all resistance and forced the natives to flee for their lives. The shadow government had been officially non-existent, but everyone had known who they were – and what happened to those who crossed them. I allowed myself a moment of relief as the car took me further into the community. It only grew more chaotic, more foreign.

    I saw stalls selling live chickens, goats and even a handful of sheep. Butchers displayed their wares in the bright sunlight, offering food to those with money to pay. A large mosque had a kitchen in front of it, selling curry very cheaply – and free to those who couldn't pay. I wondered absently what happened to freeloaders, before realising that the community would know who had a job and could pay their own way. They’d probably be publically whipped or something equally barbaric, although for once I might have agreed with the bastards. Freeloaders had turned a well-meaning attempt to provide for those who couldn't provide for themselves into a financial nightmare. It was a story repeated over the entire world.

    The driver said nothing as we turned into a side-street, crammed with more of the eerie concrete houses. There were no kids on this street, apart from a second group of young men who looked almost as if they were trying to hide in plain sight. I studied them as the car roared past, unable to decide what they were doing. And then the driver pulled the car up to the pavement and stopped.

    I climbed out and looked around, noting that the young men seemed to be heading towards a specific apartment. For a moment, something nagged at my mind ... and then I understood. They were going to a brothel! I wished that I was surprised, but it wasn't; there would be hundreds of young women without any form of protection and it would be easy for a criminal gang to force them into a brothel. Sex slavery had been a problem for centuries; these days, there were so many female refugees that the criminals would have no trouble in rounding up as many as they needed. It was against Islamic Law ...

    ... But what did they care?

    I mulled it over as my driver escorted me into one of the buildings. I'd seen the same pattern before, in Pakistan and Afghanistan; the warlords ran brothels to reward their fighters and make them more dependent upon their masters. It was difficult for a poor unemployed man to convince someone that he could be a good husband to their daughter, so they often became intensely sexually frustrated. A warlord who rewarded his followers with sex would bind them to him permanently. And besides, Islamic communities aren’t the only ones who wink at men visiting brothels, while regarding women who get kissed as sluts and whores.

    The interior was surprisingly unclean. The stench of urine rose to my nostrils as I was escorted up the stairs to the third floor, where we stopped in front of a solid door. It had been wooden at first, I saw, but I recognised the subtle signs that someone had gone to some trouble to make it harder to break into. They’d replaced the door with a metal sheet covered in wood. It wouldn't slow down the police for very long, but even a few seconds could make the difference between escape and capture. Besides, it wasn't as if the police would come here. Maybe the real danger was another terrorist organisation.

    I braced myself as the door opened, revealing a warm room. It was neatly carpeted – we took off our shoes as we entered – and comfortable, if shabby. Light streamed down from bulbs placed in the ceiling; the windows had been boarded up, preventing anyone from seeing inside the apartment. Given the presence of the brothel, it made sense; they were using one illicit enterprise to provide cover for another. I wondered what the religious policemen thought of that.

    They probably get free fucks, I thought sourly. I had yet to meet a religious policeman who actually believed in God, let alone understood the meaning of ‘merciful’ and ‘compassionate.’ God damn those bastards to hell.

    “Welcome,” a voice said, in perfect English.

    I looked up to see a man with a massive beard, one so large that I knew it had to be fake. Even so, it took me several moments to see Victor looking back at me. I’d considered myself a master of disguise, but Victor was better; besides, no witnesses would be able to provide a useful description. It would only take a few seconds to rip off the beard and wig, then vanish.

    “You were quite successful in your operation,” Victor added, as he motioned for me to sit on the sofa. Unlike the North African or Middle Eastern terrorists, he seemed capable of getting right to the point. The thought that we might have something in common, even as simple as a disdain for time-wasting and endless talking around a given subject, was irritating. “The incompetent boob is dead.”

    “Yes,” I said.

    By now, MI5 and the CIA would be going through the data I’d recovered – as well as overseeing the local police as they swept through Patel’s house. I had a feeling that there might be more arrests in the future. But if Victor chose to be angry that the police had become involved ...? I shook my head, inwardly. I’d just have to cope with it when it happened.

    “And a good thing too,” Victor added. He smirked at me, as if he expected me to share in a joke. “That one lived a dangerous life.”

    I wondered how long it would be before the news of Patel’s double life hit the media. The newspapers and television broadcasters might not pick up on it, but the internet certainly would, particularly if Patel’s male lovers sought protective custody too. Who knew what would happen if the truth came out in a manner they couldn’t ignore? But the cynical part of my mind pointed out that they’d overlooked countless moral lapses before and could probably overlook this one too.

    “And here you are,” Victor continued. He looked me right in the eye. “How far are you prepared to go in the name of Islam?”

    “As far as I have to,” I said. It was perfectly true, after all. “What do you want me to do?”

    “I have a set of specific tasks that have to be carried out by someone who can pass for a native,” Victor said. “I was given to understand that you can't speak French ... ?”

    “No,” I admitted. It would have been difficult to justify it, even under the cover Langley had painstakingly built up for me. The British educational system had been cutting out foreign languages for decades, although I suspected that was going to change. They’d probably be pushed into providing Arabic lessons if the country went under. “I just let the funky music do the talking.”

    Victor smiled, then continued. “That could be a problem,” he admitted. “However, you will be paired with another operative, someone who does speak French. Just keep your mouth shut when you’re anywhere within earshot of a Frenchman.”

    “Right,” I said. There’s no great difference between British and French, at least not physically. Victor was probably correct to assume that I would be taken for French as long as no one heard me talking. “But what if they do talk to me?”

    “Play dumb,” Victor advised. His eyes glinted. “Or maybe ...”

    He smiled, coldly. “Can you do an American accent?”

    I blinked. The Farm had taught me how to hide my accent, but not how to pose as a British native pretending to be American. I hesitated, then put on my best movie star voice, complete with southern twang. I saw Victor smile before he shook his head. I guess I wasn't American enough for him.

    “Pity, really,” Victor said. He changed the subject before I could say anything. “I believe that you swore loyalty to the Supreme Commander?”

    “Yes,” I said. I carefully didn't mention the fact that I considered the oath downright blasphemous, as well as illicit. “He took my oath.”

    “I am his representative, the commander of the effort to spread the black banners,” Victor informed me. “You will obey all orders I give you, no matter how odd they seem – or whatever you think of them. And you will not talk about them to anyone, at least not without my permission. You are in a position to help us win the war, but I will not allow you to compromise us.”

    I nodded. I’d wondered just how much the Butcher of San Francisco knew about Victor’s operations. The file on Victor had suggested that he very much preferred to work alone, without direct supervision from anyone else – and besides, his employers might object to some of his methods. My loyalty might be to the Supreme Commander of the Faithful, but Victor wanted me to follow his orders – and his orders alone. I doubted that it boded well for the future.

    “Good,” Victor said. “In future, you will only take orders from me. If anyone – and I mean anyone – attempts to give you orders without my permission, you will just ignore them. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes,” I said, pretending to be nervous. I didn't have to be a trained operative to know that there would be dire consequences for trying to object. Besides, Victor was appointed by the Supreme Commander. But did he really know what Victor was doing? “I understand you.”

    “Excellent,” Victor said. He leaned forward and slapped me on the shoulder, a calculated gesture of bonhomie. “Tell me ... how did you carry out the first operation?”

    I hesitated. Victor was still testing me – he’d probably be testing me right up until the moment I revealed my true colours. And someone had probably passed on a full report from Manchester to Algeria, which meant that I didn't dare lie about what I’d done. I looked down at the carpet for a long moment, then started to tell him a slightly-edited version of the truth.

    “You didn't kill his family,” Victor said, when I had finished. His eyes bored into mine, searching out the truth. An FSB-trained agent wouldn't have any qualms about killing someone who got in the way. “Why not?”

    “They were kids,” I said, honestly. Would I have hesitated to kill them if they’d been teenagers, or grown adults? I rather hoped that I would have judged them individually, although I shuddered to think of what might have happened to a child who grew up in such an environment. “And his wives were women.”

    “You may have to overcome your scruples,” Victor said. He seemed rather more amused than I had expected. “The objective is so worthy that a few dark deeds can be accepted.”

    The ends justify the means, I thought, and scowled. It was my understanding that the means often made the ends. A new Islamic state, born in violence, would be eventually destroyed by violence. But then, the act of trying to build an Islamic state was doomed right from the start. You couldn't impose Islam on unwilling hearts.

    “There is a mosque along the borderline,” Victor said. He produced a photograph and waved it under my nose. “I want you to destroy it.”

    I stared at him, then at the picture. “A mosque?”

    “A mosque,” he confirmed. He didn't even try to look regretful. “Don’t worry. It’s all part of the plan.”
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seventeen

    The Peace and Harmony Mosque was worse than the one in Manchester – a quite considerable achievement. It was massive, with five huge halls for prayer and a set of washrooms that could accommodate over two hundred worshippers each. The walls were decorated with golden Arabic writing, each one taken directly from the Qur’an; the preacher had an entire box to himself, where he could speak to the entire building. It cost nothing to get inside, to borrow a very old line, and it was worth it too.

    I would have been more impressed if I hadn't been so puzzled. Why would Victor, who was working for Islamic terrorists, want to destroy a mosque? The thought nagged at me as I walked inside, just like any other worshipper, and washed for prayer. I could understand an attack on a government target, or even a simple attempt to spread terror, but why strike a mosque? I doubted that Victor cared one whit about the mosque being a void – and his employers wouldn't even realise it.

    Understanding clicked as I entered the main hall. Victor intended to create a cause for the community to rally around – and what better than a mosque-burning? Most of the money used to build the mosque had come from the oil-rich Arab states – they saw building mosques as a good way to burnish their Islamic credentials – but a small percentage had been raised in France from the children of Arab immigrants. They were very proud of the mosque, even though it was largely worthless as a place of worship. If it were to be destroyed, it would serve as a rallying cry for angry mobs. And a riot would further destabilise the government of France.

    My companion was a humourless sort, a young Frenchman who seethed with loathing at the government. I hadn't asked why, but he’d told me anyway, in great detail. Apparently, the government had screwed his father, driving the poor man to an early grave. I had no idea how much truth there was in the story, but I’d heard that a number of IRS agents had been killed in the States over the last ten years, mainly by people who had been driven to bankruptcy by the damned bureaucrats. It wasn't hard to believe that the same thing happened in France. I studied the young man and scowled, inwardly. He was a fanatic who wouldn't think twice about burning a mosque and tearing up copies of the Qur’an, as long as it served the cause.

    Left to myself, I would have studied the plans of the mosque – they were displayed online for all to see – and inspected the building before deciding how to break in and start a fire. My companion, on the other hand, had determined to go at once, without even bothering to consider how best to carry out the operation. As a junior partner, it seemed that I wasn’t allowed any input. Besides, he seemed to believe that I had little to contribute, apart from a pair of arms.

    We prayed in the main hall, then watched as most of the worshippers headed for the doors. Given the mosque’s location, there were plenty of government drones working nearby who came at lunchtime to pray, before going back to the office. I had a feeling that at least part of Victor’s plan was to convince those workers that they had been specifically targeted by anti-Islamic forces. It would help to convince them to support the terrorists when they rose up and took over the government. Or maybe he wanted to wipe them out. Their loyalties could never be fully taken for granted.

    Silly bastard, I told myself, as I followed my companion downstairs. Whoever heard of a bureaucrat who wasn't in it for the money?

    The complex underneath the mosque was surprisingly large, bigger than any other I’d seen outside the Middle East. It was a sprawling network of offices, classrooms and storage lockers, including one that contained cleaning supplies. My companion picked up a bottle of fluid, tossed it to me in one easy motion, then picked up a second one for himself. I glanced down at the brand and shuddered. It was largely harmless on its own, as long as you didn't try to drink it, but if it was mixed with another chemical it became extremely flammable. I had the nasty feeling that someone had been setting this up for a very long time.

    No one seemed to notice as we carried the containers down the corridor and into a small library. It was closed, surprisingly – or perhaps it wasn't such a surprise. The preachers preferred to teach kids and older reverts by rote, rather than actually making them learn how to read Arabic for themselves. There is, for example, absolutely nothing in the Qur’an that forbids women from driving, but you wouldn't know it if you learned by rote. I knew just how many other customs were enforced by preachers who used their knowledge disparity against the people who listened to them. And I knew just how many preachers were so ignorant that they didn't even know what they were doing.

    “Here,” my companion grunted. “Make sure you splash all the books.”

    I blanched. There were copies of the Qur’an there, as well as plenty of commentary by illustrious writers, printed and bound on cheap paper. I knew that much of it was worthless, but the thought of destroying Qur’ans was horrifying. But my companion was already splashing cleaning fluid around ... I watched in horror as he soaked a set of Arabic books, then wet the carpet. And then I heard the sound from the door leading into the next room.

    Grimly, I peered through the door ... and saw children, sitting in neat little rows being lectured by one of the Imams. The boys all wore black robes and skullcaps, like miniature adults, while the girls wore black dresses and headscarves ... they were children! I understood the rest of Victor’s plan now; the deaths of so many children couldn't fail to inflame rage and cause riots, particularly if it were blamed on a pair of Frenchmen. The cameras would have seen us entering the mosque; the police would have no difficulty identifying the people responsible. And even if they didn't, Victor would make sure they knew.

    I hesitated, torn between the mission and simple human decency. If I prevented the fire, I’d blow my cover – probably. But if I did nothing, nearly a hundred children were about to die. And their deaths would be on my soul for the rest of eternity. How could I do nothing?

    “Hurry,” my companion breathed, as I closed the door. “We don’t have much time.”

    The smell of fluid was already starting to reach my nostrils. “There are children in there,” I hissed. My companion produced a small bottle of something from his pocket and began to uncork it. “We can't kill them.”

    “They will die as martyrs and go to Heaven,” my companion said. There was no doubt at all in his voice. He’d immersed himself so completely in his alternate lifestyle that he truly believed himself. The thought that he would become a mass-murderer didn't matter so much compared to the fact he was sending those children to Heaven. But I couldn't accept it. That way led to madness. “I was told that you would do whatever you had to do, without question.”

    “Yeah,” I said. “I guess you’re right.”

    He turned his back – and I hit him, right on the back of his neck. His body folded to the ground, the bottle dropping from his fingers and falling to the floor. I caught it, sniffed it gingerly and then put it in my pocket. A quick check revealed that he was stunned, rather than dead. I’d have to practice, I told myself, then stamped hard on his neck. He grunted in pain and then died.

    And my cover had died with him.

    It was a relief, in many ways. Killing Patel had been vermin extermination; what I’d wanted to do and what they’d wanted me to do had coincided. But Victor wanted the mosque to go up in flames and that wasn't going to happen. I considered a hundred wild schemes to convince him that we’d been caught – and that my companion had been killed before he could escape – then decided that such plans were unlikely to work. Victor had forgotten more about operations intended to misdirect people than I had ever known.

    I dragged the body into a corner and walked out of the library, locking the door behind me. It was unlikely that it would remain empty for long and I had to be out of the mosque by then. And I had to get back to Victor’s apartment and deal with him before he vanished again. Using a brothel for cover was a slippery move, but I doubted that he would stay there if he had the slightest hint that something had gone wrong. This time, the entire police force would take it seriously. He’d tried to burn a mosque to the ground.

    Li would go ballistic, I knew, but there had been no choice. Besides, if I brought her Victor’s head, she’d forgive me.

    I walked out of the mosque and headed over to the car, parked where we’d left it. My companion had grunted that it was safer to pack outside a mosque, if only because there were young men patrolling the area on volunteer security duty. I had heard that car theft had been skyrocketing in Paris recently, along with car-burnings and other signs of a population volcano on the verge of exploding. Victor’s scheme seemed determined to make the explosion happen, whatever the cost. And yet ... were they actually sure of victory?

    The car started without problems. I drove away from the mosque, heading back towards the brothel. There seemed to be fewer cars on the road than there had been when we’d left the community and gone to the mosque, although it could have just been random chance. I kept watching for trouble as I drove further into the community, hoping that the car was recognisable as belonging to the shadow government. No one blocked my path as I reached the brothel and climbed out of the car. Victor had given us pistols to defend ourselves if necessary. He hadn't given us very much ammunition, but there should be enough.

    I opened the door and stepped into the darkened corridor. Briefly, I keyed my cell phone, sending a message that informed Li that I intended to terminate Victor – and then slipped up the stairs, gun in hand. The solid metal door would have been difficult to kick down without a battering ram or a shaped explosive charge, so I knocked, praying that someone would answer the door. It opened a moment later, revealing a young man who was clearly an enforcer. I shot him through the head and shoved the door wide open. Another young man, sitting on the sofa, started to dive for cover. I bellowed at him to stay still, then shot him when he kept moving. There was no time for taking prisoners.

    The pistol sounded deafeningly loud in the confined space. I knew that Victor would have heard it, if he was in the apartment, so I searched it quickly, ready to kill whoever I found. But a concealed door lay open in the back room, leading through the brothel and out onto the streets. I swore out loud as I realised I’d fucked it up completely. Victor was gone. I could give chase, risking running right into an ambush, or I could search the apartment. It was impossible to do both.

    I gambled and went after him, tearing though the brothel. A pair of naked women clung to each other as I ran past, then I saw a man getting undressed in the next room. He swore after me in a language I didn't recognise, which I ignored. Victor would have gone downstairs, I decided, and slipped down the staircase, still clutching my pistol. A guard lay on the ground, groaning; Victor had probably knocked him down rather than taking the time to explain that he wasn't trying to escape without paying. I left him there and ran outside, ducking as I left the building. Two shots cracked past my head and I hit the deck, crawling forward as fast as I could. Victor had set an ambush, all right; he’d taken up position behind a car, intending to shoot me when I ran out of the building. But did he even know who I was?

    Your cover is blown, fuckwit, I reminded myself, sharply. I couldn’t risk making contact openly again. I’d have to come up with a new cover ... no, Victor would be more careful in future. We’d need something more crafty for the next time. But then, Langley wasn't going to be very pleased with me.

    I nipped forward, just in time to see a car driving away from the kerb. Victor had managed to escape, I realised, or had he? I slammed the pistol butt against a car window, opened the door, and ducked inside. It only took a moment to bypass the key-card system and start the engine; I put my foot down and the car jumped forward, following Victor. It was clear that he’d been trained in a similar school to myself; his combat driving skills were excellent. He wove through the streets, passing other cars without ever slowing down, pushing my own skills to the limit to keep up with him. I barely noticed as I knocked down a stall selling oranges, keeping my eye on Victor’s car. The bastard couldn't go on forever, could he?

    My cell phone buzzed. “I’m in pursuit,” I snapped, hitting it with one hand. “Can you get me satellite coverage?”

    “Working,” Li said. At least she had enough sense not to ask stupid questions in the middle of a firefight. I’d known controllers who were dumb enough to do just that. “Tracing the green car now.”

    There was a pause. “Be advised that there have been multiple text messages sent from the surrounding area,” she added. “At least a seventy percent increase compared to the last four hours.”

    I swore. NSA might not be able to read every text message sent in France – at least not quickly enough to do any good – but I had a feeling that I didn't need to actually read them to know what they said. Someone was organising a flash mob, almost certainly aimed at the policeman who had dared intrude into the community. I wondered if Victor had organised it while driving; it was just the sort of thing he’d do. On the other hand, a disorganised mob almost certainly wouldn't know which car to attack. They might go after Victor with equal fervour.

    “Understood,” I said. Victor spun around a corner and accelerated down a long, almost empty street. I gunned the car after him, then swore out loud as I saw people emerging from the apartment blocks. At least Victor didn't seem inclined to slow down. “Can you ... shit.”

    There was a second mass of people ahead of me as Victor led me around the corner. I hit the brakes, then spun the car around as they came after me, driving away at high speed. Several more youths, carrying bricks, baseball bats and other makeshift weapons, emerged in front of me. On their own, they would probably have jumped out of the way, but a mob is only a smart as the stupidest person in it. I drove right at them and watched, cursing Victor under my breath, as they were knocked aside. One of them clung to the bonnet for a long moment before falling off and hitting the road. The nasty part of my mind hoped that I’d run over his fingers.

    “We have other mobs forming,” Li snapped. “We recommend that you get out of there.”

    “Thank you very much,” I snarled. “I would never have thought of that.”

    I glanced down at my cell phone, which was displaying the live feed from the satellite, and then navigated as best as I could through the growing mob. Some of the smarter bastards were already updating their fellows, effectively tracking me in real time. But it wasn't anything like as fast as a military unit, thankfully. I managed to stay ahead of them and drive out of the community. I half-expected the howling mobs to come after me, but they seemed content to have driven me out.

    “Victor,” I said, bitterly. “Did you track him?”

    “He parked his car outside a community centre and went inside,” Li reported. “And then masses of people ran outside five minutes later.”

    “Giving Victor time to change his clothes, then use them to cover him,” I said. Orbital surveillance was so good that it was easy to forget its limitations. Victor would be impossible to pick out from the rest of the crowd ... and once he was off-screen, he would never be found unless we got very lucky. “Keep an eye on the area and ...”

    I broke off as I ran straight into a police roadblock. There were three cars blocking the road, along with a handful of armed police taking aim at my cars. I hit the brakes and screeched to a halt, realising that there was no escape. Even the dimmest police officer would have no difficulty in riddling my car with bullets before I could turn around and flee.

    “I’ll contact you,” I said, and switched the cell phone back to standard mode.

    A voice bellowed in French. It took me several seconds to realise that they wanted me to climb out of the car with my hands in the air. Grimly, I obeyed, tamely submitting when a pair of cops slapped on the cuffs and dragged me over to a van.

    All things considered, I decided, as they shackled me, that could have gone better.
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  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eighteen

    All things considered, the French police were remarkably civilised. They pulled me into the station, searched me thoroughly, then left me cuffed in a holding cell while they ran my fingerprints through their computers. I knew they’d identify the ‘Adam Sinclair’ identity even without the passport, but what then? How much did they know? How badly were they compromised by Victor?

    I wasn't the expert that he was at overthrowing governments, but if I’d been planning a coup, the first thing I’d do was make sure that I had sources in the police and counter-intelligence services. They’d be the danger, the ones who would detect the preparations for the coup; if they could be subverted, the coup could proceed without interference. And Victor might well have realised that the mosque didn't go up in flames and drawn the right conclusions, even if he hadn't seen me chasing him. He might get on to his contacts in the DST and urge them to make sure that I didn't survive captivity.

    The Farm had taught me a great deal about escaping, but even the most capable of SF soldiers would have found it impossible to break a set of handcuffs. I tested them automatically, looking for ways to break free, then decided that it wouldn't be easy. Maybe if I got my hands under my legs ... I might be able to use a weapon then, but I’d still have my legs shackled. Trying to break out would be too dangerous. I was still considering possibilities when the door opened and two burly officers stepped inside, who grabbed me by the arms and marched me out into the corridor.

    It struck me, as I was pushed forward, that the police station could have been in the States, or Britain, and I would still have recognised it. The thought didn’t cheer me up; it was quite possible that I was about to be murdered, or sentenced to life in an uncomfortable French prison. And I knew that Langley wouldn't do anything to help me. I wasn't one of their true agents, just someone they hired to do their dirty work. The French were unlikely to just let me go, unless.

    The man sitting behind the table didn't seem to be a regular cop. He wore no uniform, but carried a pistol on his belt. I thought that having a weapon in the same room as a prison was against regulations, but maybe they were different in France. Besides, I was cuffed and shackled and what the hell was I going to do? I looked up at him and recognised an expression I’d seen on FBI agents.

    I took a gamble. “DST?”

    His eyes narrowed, sharply. “Who are you?”

    I looked at the two officers behind me. He snapped out a set of orders in French and they shoved me into a chair, attaching cuffs to ensure that I couldn't leave without their permission. A moment later, they walked out of the room, leaving us alone. The man picked up a tape recorder from under the table and clicked it off. I wasn't foolish enough to believe that there would be no recording. The outdated recorder was nothing more than a prop to reassure the gullible. Chances were that the entire room was being recorded in glorious holographic detail.

    “Right,” he said, in accented English. “Who are you?”

    “I have a name for you,” I said. It was a bigger gamble, but I’d gone too far to back out. “Jean-Luc Éclair.”

    “I see,” he said, after a long moment. “You do realise that I will check with him, don’t you?”

    “Of course,” I said.

    “And if he says that he knows nothing about you,” he added, “you will have other charges added to the sheet?”

    “Yes,” I said. “But contact him. He will vouch for me.”

    The DST officer looked deeply unhappy, but he called the goons back in and ordered them to move me to a more comfortable cell. They weren't trusting enough to take off the cuffs, I couldn't help noticing; my hands were starting to ache. But I couldn't blame him. If Éclair decided to disavow me, the officer would end up looking like a fool. Logically, that should have been fatal to his career, although it didn't work that way at Langley. The incompetent were often promoted into senior management.

    It was nearly an hour before he returned. “You are being transferred to another building,” he said, shortly. I hoped that was good news. But then, they hadn't even started to take my details. “Get up and get into the van.”

    I obeyed and followed the goons outside. They helped me into the van, cuffed me to the seat and then closed the door. The van hummed into life a moment later and lurched as it drove out of the police station. I leaned back and tried to relax as it moved through Paris, trying to time the journey as best as I could. It was normally futile, but it kept my mind of just how badly I’d screwed up.

    It was thirty minutes when the van came to a halt. The driver turned off the engine; I heard a thud as he closed his door, then rattling at the rear as they tried to open the cage. I winced as bright light poured in, revealing stone walls and a handful of other vehicles parked in what had to be an underground garage. The goons half-carried me into an elevator, which went up at least five flights of stairs before stopping. They pushed me down a corridor and into a small office. When I looked up, I saw an old friend.

    “Charles,” Jean-Luc Éclair said. “I barely recognised you.”

    “Picard,” I said. It was an old joke. “Glad to see you too.”

    “This room is secure,” Éclair said, once the cuffs had been removed and coffee brought in, along with a small section of bread and cheese. “You can talk freely here.”

    “Thank you,” I said, rubbing my wrists. “I ...”

    “But the Director wants answers,” Éclair added, interrupting me. “What happened, Charles?”

    I took a breath and started to explain about Victor. Éclair was as friendly to the United States as any Frenchman, although he would always put French interests first. But then, I couldn't see how allowing Victor’s plan to go ahead benefited France in the slightest. They’d be baring the throat to have it cut. Maybe I could convince him to take action.

    “Not good,” Éclair said, when I had finished. “The political situation right now is ... confused.”

    “You go through governments like a whore goes through condoms,” I said, shortly. The French had been playing musical chairs with their government long enough to have the population thoroughly confused as to who was actually in charge. “What would have happened if that mosque had been destroyed?”

    “Riots,” Éclair said. He scowled. “Maybe worse than riots. Do you know that there are quite a number of politicians of Arab descent who are forming a new political party? And that there are other Arabs in the current coalition?”

    I scowled. France’s great failure – the great failure of Europe – was the failure to integrate the immigrants when they arrived from outside Europe. Instead, they'd allowed local communities, cut off from the mainstream, to form, communities that had then been dominated by religious strongmen. The strongmen effectively controlled the votes of everyone under their power; they told them how to vote and they obeyed. I wasn't too surprised to discover that they’d managed to elect a number of politicians who were loyal to the Arab communities, rather than France.

    If the mosque had gone up in flames, followed rapidly by large parts of Paris, those politicians might have taken control of the government. The only way to stop them would have been a civil war – and they might have managed to secure enough of the military to make that impossible. Or maybe they didn't need the military, I thought, remembering all the young men who had been trained in Algeria. They might think that they could fight and beat the French Army. At the very least, the fighting would tear the country apart.

    “Around thirty percent of the rank and file in the Army is Arab,” Éclair explained, when I asked. “Quite a number of senior officers also, appointed over the objections of the last DST director. Which is why he had to take early retirement and someone rather less capable took his place.”

    “Yes,” I agreed. Like the CIA, the Director of the DST is appointed by the government. It shouldn't have been surprising that the choice tended to fall on a political appointee rather than someone who rose up through the ranks. “I take it that person is afraid to do anything ... controversial.”

    “Yes,” Éclair said. “We are, as you Americans would say, bent over and helpless.”

    He looked up suddenly, his eyes glowing with rage. “We don’t know who to trust any longer,” he snapped. “Everyone is calculating their options, trying to decide what to do if the dirty bastards do take over. I have a handful of people I trust, but too many are compromised or inclined to despair. Even the DST is riddled with spies. You were damn lucky to get one of the few honest officers looking at your case.”

    “So I see,” I said, mildly. I could see his problem. A word in the wrong ear and he'd be removed from office, or assassinated, before he could save his country. If he could save his country. I had a feeling that many senior bureaucrats and elected leaders were quietly sending their own families out of France before the shit hit the fan. “Is there anything you can do about it?”

    Éclair shook his head. “There was a raid, three years ago, on a house in Paris,” he explained. “The raiding team stumbled into the female quarters and there was a riot that claimed the lives of seven officers. After that, it was ruled that any operation had to be cleared by the Director and our political superiors. How many raids do you think were authorised?”

    “None,” I said.

    He nodded. “Right now, I cannot organise a search for this man Victor, let alone hunt down terrorist cells,” he said. “My hands are tied. They could be moving an entire army into the country and I can do nothing. You know they practically control customs in the South? By now, the entire government down there is riddled with their agents.”

    “It's starting to look as though they already rule your country,” I pointed out.

    He glared at me, then nodded.

    I stood up and started to pace the room. “Victor ordered me to destroy a mosque, an act that should have triggered off riots,” I said, trying to put it all together. “Logically, that was the motive for the act; he wouldn't shed a single tear for a mosque if it created the conditions for a coup. Added to the men trained in Algeria and he might be able to take large parts of the country before you realise that you have a major problem on your hands.”

    “Except that two-thirds of the military would remain loyal,” Éclair said, grimly. “There would be civil war.”

    “But what if the government falls into their hands,” I countered. “The next President is one of them – or perhaps one of their silent allies. What happens if he orders the military to stand down?”

    I saw a shadow crossing his face and shivered. Obedience to lawful civilian authority is hammered into the heads of every new recruit who joins a Western military. It’s most intensive in Germany, where the military covered itself in innocent blood while serving Adolf Hitler, but every European army does the same. Beside, France had come close to a military coup once or twice after the Second World War and the DST kept an eye on senior officers who might have dangerous ambitions.

    But what if the government itself was in enemy hands?

    It might not matter. They had people scattered throughout the military establishment, both genuine military officers and political ‘observers’ appointed by the government. Come the coup, those officers would act, breaking the military command network and ensuring that forces under their command stood down. A military needed an intact command network to function properly, without it, no one would actually know what to do. I had visions of small units fighting hopeless battles, without any coordination at all.

    In Pakistan, the US had taken down the command network right at the start of the invasion and the Pakistanis had never recovered. Pakistani troops were better armed and trained than either Iraqi or Iranian troops, but they couldn't really coordinate their operations against the much faster and better-equipped American soldiers. I knew that some had put up a determined fight, winning the respect of their American enemies, but the outcome had already been foreordained. Could the same thing happen to France?

    “Victor would be gambling,” I muttered. “He’d know that there are too many things that could go wrong.”

    I looked over at him. “Does Germany have the same problem?”

    “We think so,” Éclair admitted. “I don't know if your friend’s networks extend that far into Northern Europe, but they certainly have connections ...”

    “Oh,” I said. “I think I know what he’s planning.”

    I'd been told that Victor no longer worked for the Russians. But what if it wasn’t true?

    Who benefited from a civil war that would tear apart most of Europe?

    “Russia,” I said, flatly. I had no proof, but I was convinced that it was true. “The Russians are behind it all.”

    Éclair blinked in surprise. “But the Russians have a vast problem in Central Asia,” he said. “Why the hell would they back Radical Islam here?”

    “Because they want them to lose,” I said, slowly. “And they want you to lose too.”

    There had been a news article about Russian tanks on the Polish border. What if the Russians intended to trigger a civil war in Europe that would weaken, perhaps even destroy the European militaries? I could see it; once Victor’s plan was launched, fighting would break out throughout Europe ... and the Russians would roll over the border once everyone was exhausted. Hell, if the terrorist insurgents won, they’d be welcomed by the rest of the population. A few days or weeks of living in a shithole like Algeria would convince them to welcome their new Russian overlords.

    And as for the insurgents? Those who didn't end up being killed in the fighting would be wiped out by the Russians. They and the Chinese were easily the most ruthless when it came to fighting the war on Radical Islam. I’d seen entire villages being demolished, their populations moved to death camps – after the women had been raped and any man of fighting age was crippled. Those who bitched and moaned about our activities in Pakistan had never seen what was left of Chechnya.

    I felt the sheer enormity of the plot pushing down on me. And the best of it was that Russia could never be blamed. If the plot failed, or it worked too well and the new government took power without serious fighting, the Russians could simply back off and pretend they had nothing to do with it. Hell, apart from Victor, they had nothing to do with it. Victor was already branded as a rogue, with orders issued to shoot the bastard on sight. No one could prove anything.

    “I think that's what they have in mind,” I said. “An insurgency, followed by an invasion.”

    Langley had to be informed, but ... what if they already knew? I could see certain people in Washington being happier if Europe was invaded by the Russians. Europe had been serving, willingly or otherwise, as a terrorist base. There was a good chance that they'd start sending more advanced weapons to Egypt if the EU actually did invite Algeria, Libya and the rump of Egypt to join. Some policy wonk might calculate that the Russians would deal with the Europeans – and even if Russia remained hostile towards us, it would take them years to assimilate Europe. Langley and the White House might just decide to watch and see what happened.

    I found myself caught on the horns of a dilemma. The CIA had hired me to eliminate Victor, which suggested that Langley didn't want Victor’s plan to go ahead. But it was quite possible that Li’s superiors hadn't known that their superiors had decided to do nothing, even though they had decided not to deal with the terrorist training camp. It would hardly be the first time that one of Langley’s hands hadn't known what the other one was doing. I’d been a young trainee when a Russian spy had been arrested by the FBI, accidentally ruining a scheme where the officer had been pretending to send secrets to Russia. His superiors had been telling him what to say.

    If I contacted Li, what would she tell me to do?

    “It stands to reason that we need to knock this plan off the rails,” Éclair said, when I’d outlined my thoughts. “Did you identify the training camp where the Butcher is hiding?”

    “I think so,” I said. I was fairly sure that Langley had located it properly, they’d just decided to leave it alone. “You plan to attack the camp?”

    “Something like that,” Éclair said.

    I blinked. “With what?”

    “Let's just say,” Éclair said, after a long moment, “that there are some secrets that are rarely shared outside long-serving officers.”

    He stood up and grinned at me. “I’ll brief you on the way,” he added. “You have a plane to catch.”

    Outside, I realised that we were in a massive officer block. I could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance – and, beyond it, a looming pillar of smoke rising up above the city.

    I shuddered.
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