Authors: Gerald Seymour
They were at the gate. The barrier was down and a sentry stood behind it, with an automatic weapon, a Steyr 5.56mm assault rifle, slung across his chest. A light rain was falling. All of those outside the Chrysler Grand Voyager heard the roar of the aircraft on approach.
Petroc peered up at the charcoal grey cloud over him, Auntie and Nobby behind him. Father William had stayed inside the vehicle with Sidney, who had driven them and negotiated with the guardhouse to park on the verge. Sidney had said they were at Fliegerhorst Brumowski, close to the town of Tulln, eighteen miles north of central Vienna. It had been a
base, then the Russians had used it until they’d pulled out, and the USAF had based a transport squadron there. It was now Austrian military property. Protocol dictated that they did not come through, and that no Austrian personnel had contact with them.
The aircraft broke the cloud, and banked sharply for touch-down. Its lights flashed against the fragile early-evening light. Petroc’s mind was blank. One thing to set it up for a creature to creep into the jam jar, another to see it happen. Lights blazed at the porthole windows. He might have caught a glimpse of a face. He felt a frisson of fear.
‘Interesting days ahead, guys. I think we can be certain of that.’
She was first out and had the front passenger seat. The driver had leaned across her to unfasten the lock. She carried the sick bag retrieved from the aircraft cabin. A military policeman slid open the side door of the transport, then offered a hand to Mehrak – the corporal – but he ignored it. The second policeman followed him. Both had left their pistols on board with the crew. She walked towards the barrier, set a good pace, and saw Petroc Kenning waiting there. The overhead lights showed the strain on his face. The barrier went up and she stepped to the side. She folded down the top of the sick bag, then tossed it away, as if it held nothing of importance. It was caught by a man with red hair, who lunged forward from the right of her boss. There was a line, white-painted, under the barrier, which she would not cross.
Mehrak, the corporal, kept walking. There was a moment when he was alone and another when PK had gripped his hand, not with enthusiasm. Two others had hovered away from the light and now closed on him. He didn’t look back. Katie made a farewell gesture with her fingers, and was rewarded with a curt nod. A typical PK gesture, but she understood the excitement her boss would be feeling – and it might mean promotion. She watched the people-carrier drive away, its headlights bright on the road, then walked to the transport and swung herself in beside the driver. Her job was done.
She murmured, ‘They also serve who only stand and stare . . .’
‘Beg pardon, ma’am?’
‘Someone has to walk behind the Lord Mayor’s carriage with a bucket and shovel, do the humble stuff.’
‘If you’re finished on this one, ma’am, you might just be well out of it. No offence.’
‘None taken.’ They were driven through the almost deserted base and back towards the apron. A fuelling tanker stood beside the aircraft. She said, ‘ “Well out of it”. I wouldn’t argue with that.’
Without shining a torch into his face, Petroc Kenning couldn’t see the man’s face. His head had been down at the barrier and the Chrysler’s lights were subdued so only the outline of the man’s features was visible. He tried to remember everything he had been told by an old man stuck up a hill in northern Spain, likely with vultures high above him. He had to remember everything and make it his Bible. He yawned.
He had crumpled the sick bag and slid it into his jacket pocket, but had stolen a glance at its contents: bank envelopes, with a crest, and a laminated ID card from the Qods crowd.
He turned once just as an oncoming lorry’s lights spilled into their car and illuminated the man’s face. A chance to read him? The eyes stared ahead, dull. Everyone at the Cross had said it would be a straightforward business, that a good outcome was inevitable. No one had spoken to Rollo Hawkins.
There was a no-smoking sign in front of him, but he took a packet from his pocket, with a throwaway lighter, and passed them to the babysitters. They each took one, and so did the man. Petroc was thanked, first in Farsi then English, and there were the flashes of flame as the cigarettes were lit. He understood why he’d been thanked. Katie, clever girl, had not offered their man one – not in Dubai, on the aircraft, or at Akrotiri. She had made Petroc the guardian angel who dispensed the fags. When he twisted back to retrieve the packet and the lighter, a bus’s lights showed him that the face and eyes were dull again and that the gratitude was past.
They headed in silence for the safe house and tension ratcheted in the vehicle.
The van pulled up.
His hand had been on the door lever as soon as the driver had turned into his street. He had barely stopped, but Zach had the door open.
‘Hey, mate – you sure?’
‘Sure, thanks,’ Zach answered.
The driver wheedled, ‘But it’s Shane’s birthday.’
‘Sorry – my apologies to him for the no-show. I’ll see him tomorrow.’
‘We’ll all be there except you.’ The driver tried a last throw. ‘There’ll be a kitty, won’t hardly cost you.’
‘I doubt I’ll be missed.’
The driver reversed out into the street, cleared the parked cars and accelerated. He didn’t wave. Shane was a bricklayer, one of the best Zach’s father employed. Zach hadn’t forgotten a present, and a gift-wrapped carton of Marlboro Lite had gone into Shane’s bag at lunchtime, but he’d evaded the question when he was asked if he was coming to the Adelaide that evening.
He went up the path, slipped off his boots, shook the mud off them, opened the door and went in. He was tired, cold and dirty. It had been a pig of a day because of the rain. It was difficult for the chippies because they did carpentry in the open, and bad for the brickies when a squall hit the barrowloads of mortar with which Zach kept them supplied, and the sparks bitched when they were wiring close to unglazed windows. In ninety minutes they were all due at the Adelaide, and he wouldn’t be there. He went upstairs.
He wasn’t one of them. Doing barrows, driving the dumper and shifting pallets of bricks or concrete blocks beside them five days a week and sometimes on a Saturday didn’t make him one of them. He was the ‘boss’s kid’, and sometimes, thinking he was out of earshot, they referred to him scathingly as ‘The Scholar’ and sometimes ‘The Toff’. He tended to sit apart at mealbreaks, so he didn’t hear about their girls and kids, and what they’d managed with their betting slips. It was as he thought it should be.
He unlocked the door, and the room facing him was barren of any trace of Zach Becket, as he had intended. He put his boots on a newspaper, unread, by the door and heeled it shut.
It wasn’t their fault that he was the old square peg. There had been a job in the winter, on a site, that had taken the van past the mainline station. Men and women, in their suits with their laptop bags, had been hurrying for the fast trains into London and Birmingham. They were into ‘professional’ careers, where he should have been – and might still be one day. Or he would take over the business and employ the men he now worked with. It could’t last, the drift. Was he miserable? Not particularly. Stifled by self-pity? Not that anyone would notice. Was it somebody’s fault? May be his own – there were few other candidates to share the blame. He had fallen out of love with his studies, and the option available, his tutor had texted, was translating at the Cheltenham intelligence base, GCHQ, or hacking through newspapers and listening to broadcasts from Iran for the BBC’s World Service.
Now he wasn’t challenged. A teacher had once said that Zachariah Becket needed challenges, a conveyor-belt of them, that he reacted well to the stress of competition. There were no challenges in front of him and none that he knew of hovering over the horizon.
Later, after he’d showered, Zach might go and get a takeaway, then read in the quiet of his room. By the time the party at the Adelaide was in full swing, he’d be alone, with the poetry of that country’s history. It had been in the last two months, since the evenings had closed in, that he had gone back to the small pile of books he had brought back from London. The poetry had captured him long ago, but his life was hollow now, so even that could’t fill it.
He lay on the bed. The ash from the cigarette was about to fall on his throat beside the rest.
Without shifting his shoulders, Mehrak could reach for the packet on the bedside table, the lighter and the ashtray. They had left him his watch so he knew he had woken just before five – he had adjusted his watch to the new time, on the woman’s instructions, when they were on the aircraft, beginning the turbulent descent. It was now past eight. Mehrak had neither been drunk, nor had taken heroin. He had been exhausted from the stress of the kidnap, as he thought of it, and in bed by ten, asleep soon after. In the three hours on the bed, with the cigarettes, he remembered everything that had been said, and all that had happened around him.
He knew they had travelled along the bank of a great river into a small town, with tidy streets, then along a narrow road, little more than a track, to a house set away from others. They had parked beside an old tractor and he had been shepherded fast through a back door, which had been opened by an overweight woman whose clothes bulged. She’d said, ‘Welcome, sir,’ and stepped aside.
In a lobby, the one who had met him at the air-force base had said, ‘Right. Apologies for the lack of talk in the vehicle, Mehrak, but we don’t want misunderstandings and confusion. I repeat, my name is PK, and my colleagues here are Auntie, Father William and Nobby. Our driver is Sidney. We’re going to make you comfortable and, above all, we’re going to do the right thing by you, given that your circumstances are unfortunate. I’m told you speak some English, which is excellent, but for business we’ll use whichever language you prefer, maybe Farsi and maybe not. For household matters it’s English.’
He had been taken down a corridor, then up a flight of stairs. A door in front of him had a key in the lock. The woman opened it, switched on a ceiling light and bobbed her head as if it were her privilege to show him his room. The driver, Sidney, had said he should sit down and rest. Later PK would want to eat and talk.
He could hear movement in the room next to his and on the stairs. Twice, footsteps had stopped outside his door. It had been locked from the outside when he’d gone to bed, but there was a small shower cubicle with a toilet in an alcove with a curtain. The ash broke – he felt it fall on his skin. He stubbed out the cigarette, half smoked, alongside the other butts, and swung his feet off the bed. He urinated, then washed himself. There was a new toothbrush in a mug, with a tube of toothpaste. He had been told there were clothes for him in the wardrobe. He found jeans and a shirt, a pullover, underpants, a vest and socks. They all fitted well. There were trainers on the wardrobe floor, his size.
The bed had been comfortable; the curtains were of good material. A painting of a ruined castle hung on a wall, with photographs of a smiling family around the tractor at the back of the house. He had been brought to a home.
Mehrak was thirty-four. He had been born in the year of the Imam’s return to Iran from Paris, when the revolution had chased away the corrupt family of the Shah. He had had little education, and his sole ambition as a child had been to follow his father into the al-Qods division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. His father had been principal escort and personal guard to a colonel.
Mehrak was a good driver, a better than average shot with a handgun, and was said to have a ‘dogged enthusiasm for learning and betterment’. He had practised and trained and, at only twenty-one, had been assigned to Reza Joyberi. Other aides had come and gone, but Mehrak had lasted: he drove the Mercedes, walked a pace behind his man, had a PPK Walther in a leather waist holster – and he had married.
He knotted the trainers’ laces, stretched his back and stood at the window to look through the gap in the curtains. He saw her as clearly as if she was framed in the window. The then Colonel Joyberi and Mehrak’s father had found the girl. She was from a good family, and was said to be pious, dutiful and obedient.
The night before, as he was given a meal of soup, bread, cheese, tomatoes and fruit, he had not known whether he had been lied to or told the truth.
PK had said, ‘You will find with me, Mehrak, complete honesty. You can believe what I tell you. Get this into your head. We’ve done you a massive favour. I don’t know which of your friends took you to that whorehouse, and I don’t want to know why you agreed to go there. It’s the sort of place where the girls make sure the client is filmed and recorded. The result goes on the Internet and to employers or families. In-focus pictures taken on state-of-the-art surveillance cameras would have picked up every wart on your skin. You’re a married man, Mehrak, and a member of an élite force, the al-Qods division. You were on an important assignment for your country, travelling abroad and paid for by the state. You spent the state’s money in a whorehouse. You’re about to bring disgrace on your family and shame on your military unit. A man who pays for sex throws away the trust of his wife and commander. The Internet pictures would have destroyed you. Your illegal use of state funds is enough to have you dangling at the end of a rope. Luckily, we heard of your situation and would like to think a deal can be done. You talk, we’ll help. Have you seen many hangings, Mehrak? I doubt they’re quick and painless.’