Authors: Gerald Seymour
The woman continued to pace, reached the wall, spun round and retraced her step. She didn’t answer.
His alarm went and Zach woke. He hadn’t drawn the bedroom curtains and the orange glow from a streetlight fell on him. He yawned.
He was alone in his bed.
As the son of the boss, he was a misfit on the site. Zachariah Joshua Becket was twenty-seven. His father was a builder, employing a dozen men, while his mother did the books and kept the VAT records in a wooden shed at the bottom of the garden. Zach no longer lived there. His home was a back room in a house owned by a widow. He had no photographs of his parents, George and Bethany, or his sister, Lizzie, who was in her last year at sixth-form college. There were no posters from the walls of his room at home, or any of the pictures, and few of his clothes.
He crawled out of bed, then pushed himself upright. He didn’t turn on the radio – not from consideration of those still sleeping in the house but because it was too early. He shouldn’t have had to get up before the first bird chirped.
It had not been intended that Zach would work for his father. He should have finished at the school in London, and found some niche for his languages, but he had dropped out. He had packed in the course a few days before the end of finals, had chucked what he had brought south into a bag and walked out into an early summer morning to take the first train back to the Midlands. Zach Becket had been the first of his family to win a place at a university and had quit when he was about to get the honours degree he had worked hard for. What was he going to do now?
The following Monday he had been dumped at a site where his father had a contract to build a four-house terrace and passed to the foreman, who had been told that the boss’s son was to be given no privileges.
A letter had arrived a week after the exams had finished: he had been awarded first class honours on the strength of ‘exemplary’ course and module work. He’d shredded it. The guys at work would have understood better than his mother and father, and they hadn’t a certificate between them. On ending an affair: ‘Best not to mess around – ditch her, tell her she’s history and you’ve found someone else. She’ll get the message and disappear. Life moves on’. It had been a love affair and it had died. His love of the historic Persian culture and its poetic language had seeped away. His tutor had badgered him with calls, then texts –
outstanding student, great linguistic talent, don’t waste it
– then abandoned him.
He groped his way in the dark to the bathroom, had a shower, then dried himself. He didn’t need to shave because he was a labourer.
He wore tattered jeans, stained with plaster, paint and bitumen, and a thick tartan shirt with a fleece; his boots were steel-capped and caked with mud. He also had a beanie, a waterproof top and a fluorescent jacket. His helmet was on the floor with the bag that held his sandwiches and flask. He pulled the duvet over the sheet and his night shorts. There had been a girl there three weeks ago – he’d liked her, perhaps too much, and had left her to sleep on after he’d gone. He hadn’t called her again.
He was the boss’s son and therefore had to be on site with the first of the shift. Among the brickies, the sparks and the others there was confusion as to why a guy with the brains to go to university was now working on the site. He knew he was treading water – but not for ever. There would come a day when he’d shrug and move on to something that tested him . . . just not today. The trouble was, each day that passed made it harder for him to ‘get a grip’ and ‘stir himself’ . . .
Outside, the bag on his shoulder, his helmet on his head, he stepped into his boots, lit a rollie and waited. When the van came, he was finishing the smoke. The stubble was thick on his cheeks and chin, and his face was tanned. He looked to be a can-do man, which he was, but also one without ambition.
He stepped into the back and grunted his thanks at the back of the driver’s neck.
They were in flight, cruising high. He had never been in an aircraft that huge. When Mehrak flew with the brigadier to locations distant from Tehran he travelled in a twin-engine, propeller-driven plane, or in one of the few C-130 American-built transporters that used – because of the sanctions invoked against his country – parts cannibalised from other aircraft. Flying out of Tehran, civilian or military, men prayed silently and clasped images of their loved ones: disasters were frequent. But this aircraft’s engines ran smoothly.
He had been driven to the air-force camp in the back of a van, squatting on the floor, the woman beside him. Sweat had soaked their clothing. He had heard the plane land and the roar of engines slammed into reverse thrust to slow and stop it. The van had moved again. She had told him to hurry when he climbed the steps, and at the door he should follow the men who would take him to his seat.
They had been at the top. One man wore a side-arm in a webbing holster, and another had a short-length baton hanging from his belt. They had taken his arms and led him inside the main cabin – a great cavern – where a third had held up a serge blanket. He was hustled forward and the woman was on his heels. A curtain was tugged back, and he saw that they had prepared a cocoon for them. They were now two hours into the flight. He was strapped into a harness.
He thought the woman was pretending to doze. She had said nothing of substance to him since they had been in the room to which he had first been taken. The plane seats were small, narrow, and her bare arm touched his elbow. She had made no concessions to modesty. Why should she? Had she not pulled him out of a whorehouse? He thought she despised him. She was a courier and would deliver him: he didn’t know where, or when, or why they had gone to so much trouble for him, a driver. She had told him, with a cold smile, what would be happening on the ground and on the water in Dubai.
During the night, a radio station had announced that a man had been seen to go into the sea to the north of Dubai Creek, beyond the fish market. Friends who had been with him had said he was drunk when he had run away from them across the beach and waded out.
Also that night, a small item appeared on the front page of the on-line late edition of the
: friends, unnamed, had reported that an Iranian, in the Emirates on business, had gone into the water. A search had been launched.
Eventually, enough sources had reported a man in the sea for a United Arab Emirates coastguard cutter to join the search for him. The Dubai police were said to be looking for a washed-up body on the empty sands.
The woman had smiled when she told him of a pack of lies, and he had understood that time had been bought, a few hours, maybe days, less than a week. She had looked pleased with herself, and then her features had resumed their chill.
The curtain had been pulled aside and a pair of plastic trays passed through the gap. Both contained a bottle of juice, a cellophane-wrapped sandwich, and an apple. He’d thought himself clever, and abruptly switched his for hers. He had feared he would be drugged or, poisoned. Her face had remained expressionless.
At first, when the aircraft had lifted off, there had been a ripple of talk – in English but with differing dialects. The others on the flight must have been curious about the detour and the two new passengers. But their interest had died as the flight had gone on. He wanted to pee. How should he tell her?
He pointed to his groin, and nudged her elbow. She said nothing, unfastened his harness and waved him through. The two men took him forward, one in front, the other behind; a door was opened and a toilet revealed. He went in and tried to close the door after him but was blocked. Mehrak unzipped and peed. His penis was as shrivelled as it had been when he was in the whore’s room. He convulsed with shame, shook, and the urine went on the metal floor. He pulled paper from the box, wiped up the mess, dropped its into the pan and pressed the button. The hands had hold of him again.
It was half a dozen paces from the toilet to the curtain that hid the two seats. The woman stood there, arms folded. A wave of laughter hit him. He saw now the rows of seats, the heads and shoulders. The hands pushed him forward and he was through the flap.
She told him to put himself back into his pants, then do up the zip.
‘Fuck you, woman,’ he hissed.
She stared at him, through him.
The man with the gun and the other with the baton were at the curtain but she waved them away. Those who had laughed at him, young men and women wearing the camouflage of desert troops, had enjoyed the spectacle he’d made. He had seen the same uniforms in Iraq, in the south, when he had been on the ground with his brigadier. They had worn civilian dress – often a long
– and had been unarmed, with bogus identification. They had checked out routes for the supply of munitions and weapons. They had seen the British military at checkpoints, riding in their armoured vehicles and sometimes patrolling irrigated fields or on the streets of al-Amarah. Then they had not laughed at him. In the eyes of some he had seen naked fear as they studied the sides of the road, where rubbish was dumped, and searched for the bombs that could kill them.
He was slumped in the seat. The woman did not bother with her own harness, or to remind him that his was not fastened.
Who could he curse? Mehrak, the brigadier’s driver, could have targeted his wife – whom he yearned for and who did not allow him to touch her. He could have sworn again at the woman beside him, her hip against his, her arm against his elbow. He could have channelled the hate against the two young men at the bank who had been assigned to ‘look after’ him when he had delivered, to a senior manager, the sealed envelope from his officer and received another, which held updated details of four accounts. He hadn’t argued with them when they talked of ‘time to kill’ and ‘time that should not be wasted’ and of ‘the best girls’. He could see the paste on the whore’s face, the drooping breasts. There were many he could blame . . .
But the blame lay with him. The engine pitch changed; the seat below him seemed to judder. Tears of self-pity rolled down his cheeks.
He didn’t know why they had chosen him.
In family lore, Uncle Hector was on a pedestal, thanks to his prowess in the Secret Intelligence Service during the glory days of the Cold War.
Petroc Kenning called and woke him. He made few decisions on intelligence-gathering without his uncle’s advice. The phone rang for an age, then was picked up. There was a pause while Hector lit the first cigarette of the day, then a cough. Petroc said why he had phoned.
Another cough, then the reply. ‘Where’s the little beggar from?’
‘Tehran, the Qods division. It was my plan. I pushed it through, and I’m comfortable with it.’
There was a splutter, then a chortle. ‘Good man. Proud of you, chip off the old block. Where are you taking him?’
‘Tadeuz reckons Vienna.’
Another pause. Then another cough and a clatter. Petroc assumed his uncle had grappled for cigarettes and lighter and succeeded only in dropping them.
‘He was with me there. On my last posting to Vienna, I had Tadeuz Fenton before he went up in the world. He was a sponge, absorbed what he was told. Yes, Vienna’s excellent. A moment of history. I think I’ve said it before to you but history is always at the core. Forget it at your peril and—’
said it before, Uncle. History and its value. Many times.’
‘Vienna’s better than anywhere else. Austria was a “failed state” twice: after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, and again after the Allies carved it up in 1945. That sort of record weighs heavily on the national psyche. They adopted neutrality and wanted to be everybody’s friend. They love the Americans and quite love us. They have excellent relations with Moscow and sell heavily to Iran. Everyone’s welcome. Same goes for intelligence-gathering and espionage. The city used to be awash with agents. You couldn’t walk round the Ring without meeting old friends and old enemies, all supposedly covert . . . Look, if you go to Switzerland, you’ll have tedious bureaucracy crawling all over you, and the Swedes will be wetting their pants and delaying co-operation. The Austrians don’t do this ethics rubbish – they leave that sort of thing to the theologians. And, of course, you’ll have Sidney, first class.’
The laughter came again, then a burst of coughing. Petroc assumed his uncle had retrieved the packet and lit up again.
‘I understand we have Sidney’s name, but others are making the contacts. More important, Uncle, we’re thin on the ground with people of experience in the defection business. Who do I talk to?’
‘Was Rollo Hawkins before your time?’
‘Saw him in the corridors a few times. Only know of him.’
‘I’ll get his number. Hold.’
Petroc’s uncle lived in a little terraced house, with two bedrooms, close to the river in Worcester – easy for professional cricket and for walking his dogs. He wondered if the old boy had put on his slippers before he’d gone off in search of his contacts book, and how much of the cigarette he would have smoked before he found it. Petroc would not have been in SIS had it not been for the excitement his uncle had generated, and probably his uncle’s string-pulling. He waited, and was rewarded for his patience. The number was dictated and he repeated it.
‘A good defector is heavy currency, Petroc. Might make your name, but you’ll know that. But if you don’t know what you’re doing it might explode in your face. You’ll find no one better than Rollo Hawkins.’