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Authors: Graham Hurley

The Devil's Breath

BOOK: The Devil's Breath
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Devils Breath

Graham Hurley

© Grapham Hurley 2012

To Mum and Dad

who never lost faith

and Woody

who kept scoring the


Whenever possible, troops should regard poison gas as simply another battlefield hazard. Given thorough training, and constant vigilance, there is no reason why casualties from gas attack cannot be kept to an absolute minimum. Vernacular use of phrases like ‘Old Chokey’ and ‘The Devil’s Breath’ should be actively discouraged.

War Office directive

November 1917        


The terrible thing about terrorism is that ultimately it destroys those who practise it. Slowly but surely, as they try to extinguish life in others, the light within them dies.

Terry Waite     

February 1992


6 May 1990


‘An Israeli agent comes to the house. Here, in Ramallah. His name is Shlomo. He’s young. He looks European. He’s a handsome man. Always he wants to know about the
, the terrorists. Always, he asks about them. He wants me to tell him what I know. In return, he says, my son will be released from the prison. One day, I tell him some things. Not much. I don’t know very much. But I give him some names. He goes away. I never see him again. And, yes, my son is released. Two weeks later, my son is killed. By the
. They come for him in the evening, and they tie him up, and they drag him through the streets behind a car until he is dead. I go to the
. I demand to know the truth. Why have they killed my son? They say that the Israelis have told them that my son has betrayed the
. That my son has given them information. I say, which Israelis? Shlomo, they say. The blond one …’

The old man, Abu Yussuf, looked up, exhausted by his story, by the memories interred beneath the short, bitter sentences, by the image of his dead son, encrusted with blood, sprawled amongst the refuse in an alley behind the city’s market. The dogs had been at him overnight. Part of his leg, below the knee, was missing.

The stranger across the table said nothing for a moment. He’d arrived in Ramallah the previous evening. He said he came from the Gulf, but he spoke the harsh, accented Arabic of Damascus. He’d stayed barely half an hour, just long enough to sip sweet tea, and share the old man’s grief, and make the offer.

‘Well?’ he said at last. ‘Will you take it? Will you do the job?’

The old man looked at him. The job. The offer. The chance to make it right again. He’d thought of nothing else since the
stranger had risen from his table, thanked him for the tea and held him briefly by the shoulders, before walking out into the night. His wife said he’d be mad to take it, to get involved. Life was hard. You grew to expect such things. And anyway, they had two other sons.

Now the old man studied his hands for a moment. They were still dirty from the garage, and they shook slightly as he accepted another cigarette. He inhaled deeply, letting the smoke spread inside him, calm again. He’d loved his son, his smile, his quickness. When the Israelis let the place open, when they gave the kids a chance, he’d tried to study at Bir Zeit University. One day he might have made something of himself, got away from this place. Now, though, he was dead. Another grave in the dusty field behind the hill. Another curling photograph on the bare concrete wall.

The old man looked up. Outside, in the narrow street, kids were selling lemons they’d stolen from the market. He listened for a moment. They were laughing.

The stranger stirred and looked at his watch. The old man got up and turned away. After a while he began to nod, his hand reaching down for the table, holding on to it for reassurance.

‘OK,’ he said at last, ‘I’ll do it.’


Three months later, on 14 August 1990, in the hall of a large Victorian house in west London, a secretary stooped to the doormat and collected the day’s post. Amongst the litter of envelopes was a brown Jiffy bag with a handwritten address and an 87p stamp.

She took the post upstairs to her office and ran the mail through the desk-top X-ray analyser. The Jiffy bag contained a video-cassette. Bending to the black and white screen, she could see the oblong shadow of the plastic case, the tightly wound spool of tape. She opened the bag and took out the cassette. Finding no accompanying note, she frowned and checked the address again. No doubt about it. Godfrey Friedland, 67 Sidmouth Place, SW10.

Friedland saw the cassette mid-morning, between meetings.
The pictures had been shot hand-held, the camera always moving, a twitchy finger on the zoom lens. They showed the boot of a car, a tangle of pipework, some kind of tank. A hand kept opening and closing the boot lid. Then the camera dipped below the bumper, and the screen went black for a moment as the auto-exppsure fought to compensate, and then there was a grainy, out-of-focus shot of exhaust-pipes. The shot lingered for ten seconds or more, the hand still shaking, making the point. Exhaust-pipes, someone was saying. Not one exhaust-pipe, but two.

The screen went briefly black again, then the camera was inside the car, focusing down on the dashboard. A hand suddenly appeared, an oldish hand with brown, thick, gnarled fingers, pointing at a switch on the dashboard. The switch was white, and clearly out of keeping with the rest of the dash. The finger withdrew and then reappeared again, tapping the switch. Look, said the finger. Look at the switch.

Another brief moment of black, then a final image, Manhattan, late afternoon, the famous skyline shot from a moving car across the East River, the sun way over to the south, bits and pieces of Queens sliding past in the foreground. The shot went on for a minute or more, a car radio on the soundtrack, then – abruptly – the camera cut and the screen went black for the last time.

The secretary bent to the video-player and began to rewind the cassette. The man behind the desk grunted and reached for the nearer of two telephones. He punched in a number from memory and listened for a moment or two before the call was answered.

‘It’s arrived,’ he said briefly, ‘though God knows what it means.’


A day later, a man in his early forties walked into the Manhattan Plaza, a discreet, expensive hotel four blocks south of New York’s Central Park. He carried a brief-case and a small overnight bag. One of the women behind the long curve of the reception desk glanced up and greeted him by name. The man returned her smile and checked that she’d confirmed the booking.
Lightly tanned, neatly dressed, he had a faint but perceptible West Coast accent. The woman took an impression of his charge-card and assigned him the usual room on the ninth floor.

Later that night the man asked for room service. He ordered an omelette with a light salad, which he ate alone. He made three telephone calls, one of them overseas. An hour before midnight he placed a fourth call, ringing a Manhattan escort agency and asking for a particular girl by name.

The girl arrived, by cab, thirty minutes later. She took the elevator to the ninth floor. Normally, as one or two of the staff well knew, she stayed for an hour or so. On this occasion she didn’t reappear at all.

Next morning, at nine-thirty, one of the housekeeping crews arrived on the ninth floor and began to clean the rooms. The door to Room 937 was shut but not bolted. When knocks and polite enquiries produced no response, the maid opened the door with her pass-key. The curtains in the room were still drawn. The room was quite empty. There was a very bad smell.

The maid called again, then walked in, pulling back the curtains. The big double bed had been slept in. The sheets were crumpled and there were two sets of clothes neatly folded across the back of the three-seat sofa. The maid paused for a moment, puzzled, then crossed the room towards the shower. The shower door was shut, but the smell was much stronger here. It was a distinctive, heavy odour, impossible to ignore. It smelled the way certain tenements smelled on a very hot day in high summer, of bad plumbing and loose bowels and no spare dollars for air freshener.

The maid paused again, unnerved, then pushed the door. The door opened. Inside, on the floor, were two bodies. Both were naked, folded over each other in a random, almost childlike way. There was no blood. No bruising. No sign of obvious violence. Just the bodies, their legs and arms entangled, a man and a woman, as if asleep. The woman’s hand lay inches from the side of the bath. Beside it, discarded, an aerosol.

The maid looked closer, at last recognizing the smell for what it was. The man must have messed himself. She could see it, smeared and caked down the inside of one of his thighs. It was
everywhere, between his legs, on the floor, on the woman, everywhere. There was vomit, too, pooled behind the door. The place stank.

The maid swallowed hard, and turned and began to retreat, but as she did so she felt a strange sensation in her head. She reached out for support, surprised, and fell over an arm of the sofa. Sprawled on the carpet, she tried to crawl towards the door, her eyes beginning to hurt, the room slipping out of focus. She opened her mouth to scream, but nothing happened except a strangled gasping noise as her lungs fought for air.

Dimly, miles away, she saw feet in the corridor outside. She tried to lift her head from the carpet, to beg for help, to sound an alarm, to get some relief from this sudden, terrifying pain in her chest, but as the feet paused, and turned, and stepped into the room, the last of the daylight flickered and died, and she began to drift away.

The smell, she thought. That terrible, terrible smell.


That same day, in London, a man in his early thirties appeared on the steps of the Israeli Embassy in Palace Gardens. He wore a lightweight tan raincoat and carried a slim leather brief-case. He looked at his watch, glanced up and down the busy street, and then set off in the direction of South Kensington.

Ten minutes later, on a quiet corner of Queen’s Gate Gardens, he consulted his watch again, pausing at the kerbside. Then he began to cross the road, quickening his step. As he did so, a black Mercedes saloon stopped about 50 yards away. A man got out of the passenger seat. The car drove away.

The man from the Embassy crossed the road, heading south. The passenger from the Mercedes intercepted him. They met outside a row of antique shops. They began to talk. Voices were raised. The man from the Embassy, impatient, shook his head and turned to go. As he did so, the other man drew a small hand-gun. He fired twice. The man from the Embassy fell to the ground. The other man knelt over him and fired twice more, at point-blank range, into his head. Then he pocketed the gun, picked up the brief-case, and walked quickly away in the direction of Gloucester Road tube station.

The man from the Embassy lay still. Blood was seeping from one ear.

Minutes later, a news photographer on a nearby assignment arrived. Someone had phoned his news editor, and he in turn had come through on the photographer’s mobile. Now he parked his car across the road and slipped a Nikon from the glove-box. He circled the body quickly, ignoring the tiny group of silent onlookers, rationing himself to the obvious camera angles. The pictures showed a man in a tan raincoat lying in the street. He might have been drunk or he might have been asleep. Except that most of the back of his head had simply ceased to exist.

His work complete, the photographer ran back to his car and bent to his mobile phone. He was still deep in conversation when the first of the squad cars appeared at the top of the street. Ten miles away, at his paper’s new offices in Docklands, the news editor heard the wail of sirens down the phone.

‘Don’t hang about,’ he said. ‘Get the stuff back here now.’

The photographer acknowledged the order with a grunt and slipped his car into gear. Driving away, he took one last look at the body on the pavement. Something had been bothering him about the face in the viewfinder, something strange, something out of keeping. Now he realized what it was. The expression on the dead man’s face was a smile.

Book one

16 August 1990


Two hours after dawn, finally asleep, McVeigh lay in the big double bed, dreaming of Nanda Devi.

Half a lifetime in the mountains told him that the south-west route would be the best, a line of dots he’d plotted time and again on the photos he scissored from his mountaineering magazines. He smiled at the thought, surfing up and down through semi-consciousness, picturing the long six-day approach march, the dozens of rickety little bridges, the chuckling ribbons of icy water tumbling down from the high peaks, the long line of sherpas, their backs bent, the muscles of their legs knotted under their enormous loads.

At 11,000 feet, they’d establish base-camp. The air would be thinner here, slowing progress. To begin with, first time out, years back, the feeling of altitude had been unnerving, a strange and troubling experience, nature’s way of telling you to go home. You got dizzy. You felt sick. Strength became a memory. Then you began to adjust, and something magical happened to the blood, and one morning you woke up and you discovered that you weren’t quite so tired, and when you pulled back the tent flap and inspected the shape of the next 6000 feet – the frieze of mountains, the soaring peaks, the snow smoking off the higher ridges – then you were glad again, and hungry for it.

McVeigh stirred in the cluttered little bedroom, remembering it all, comforted. Nanda Devi was a dream, 25,000 feet, the highest mountain in India, the seat of the goddess, a destination, the end of a journey he’d probably never complete. Too bad. Even dreaming about it was enough to remind him how real life could be, how fragile it was, how unimportant you really were. Mountains, all mountains, were like that. They took everything you had and gave you back yourself. That’s why you did it.
That’s why you climbed. Mountains were special. And Nanda Devi, the shadow inside his head, was the most special of all.

A door opened down the hall. There were footsteps, a light, a face at the door, a lunge across the duvet, the sweet, warm, familiar smell. McVeigh grinned, his eyes still shut. Kids were as good as mountains. Better, sometimes.


The boy giggled, rubbing his nose against McVeigh’s, cupping his face in his hands, feeling the overnight stubble on his father’s chin. For eleven, Billy was still small, still a child. His mother, McVeigh’s ex-wife, put it down to forgetfulness. ‘He forgets to eat,’ she kept saying. ‘Just never gets hungry.’

Now at seven in the morning, Billy was already dressed for the recreation ground, a couple of acres of stony turf at the posher end of Hornsey. Mid-morning, his football team were due to meet for the first of the pre-season training sessions, an hour or so of exercise, ball skills and hectic five-a-side. Billy had been playing for them for two seasons now, and McVeigh – never a team player – had encouraged the boy as much as he could. Most weekends, assignments permitting, Billy stayed over at the flat, and McVeigh would take him to the games, home or away, roaring what little advice he had from the touch-line. The experience had brought its own share of surprises. One of them had been a warm parental glow, a real sense of pride, when Billy started scoring goals. Another, more recently, had been Yakov.

McVeigh peered at his son in the curtained half-light, trying to push the name away, trying to forget.

‘Looking forward to it?’


‘Lotsa goals?’

‘Millions.’ He grinned. ‘Squillions.’

‘Better than last year?’


‘How do you know?’

‘Yakov says.’

The boy reached forward and bit the end of McVeigh’s nose. McVeigh winced with pain, holding the boy tight, wondering
whether this might not be the time, now, with a whole day to get over it, but the boy wriggled free, a blur of West Ham colours, lunging for the door, footsteps down the hall, then the sound of manic laughter from the first of the morning’s TV cartoons.

McVeigh lay back, gazing at the door, thinking yet again of Yakov. He’d first met the man before Christmas. He’d noticed him three or four times on the touch-line, watching the kids play football, a tall guy, younger than McVeigh, loose-limbed, well dressed, white Burberry, expensive slacks, his face half-hidden by folds of cashmere scarf. At first, naturally curious, McVeigh had put him down as the parent of one of the wealthier kids, Highgate or Hampstead, but when he’d mentioned it to Billy, the boy had shaken his head. Dunno, he’d said, doesn’t belong to us.

A week later, a wet Saturday in December, the two men had found themselves side by side on the muddy touch-line. They’d talked about the game, about individual kids, who was good, who wasn’t. To McVeigh’s amusement, the man had singled out Billy as a real prospect, good ball skills, physical courage, a huge appetite for goals. McVeigh had thought that a bit strong, and said so, but the stranger had shaken his head, reproachful, almost stern, repeating what he’d said. He spoke good English with a trace of an accent. He had a strong, open face and a mass of curly black hair. He said he’d once played football himself, semi-professionally, at home in Tel Aviv. He said he’d been that rare animal, an unselfish centre-forward. He said he could have been really good, only he shared too many goals with other players, lacking the killer instinct. And with this last phrase, he’d held out his hand, introducing himself, offering a name to go with the sudden, almost childlike grin.

‘Yakov,’ he’d said, ‘Yakov Arendt.’

The relationship had prospered. With a nudge from McVeigh, Yakov had made his number with the team’s manager. He said he lived near by. He loved football. He’d been watching the team for a while. He had a little spare time. Could he possibly help?

Next week, he turned up in an old, much-used Nike tracksuit.
The kids, cautious at first, watched him strip off. Ten minutes or so on the pitch and the job was his. He played football the way he talked, with a deceptive languor, moving sweetly over the muddy pitch, perfect ball control, perfect balance, riding tackle after tackle, finding space for himself where none existed, setting up the showier kids with passes of rare elegance. They loved him for it: the goals he enabled them to score, the way he taught them to play, out-thinking the opposition, making the ball do the work, baiting traps, inflicting defeat after defeat.

Billy, especially, worshipped the man. At the boy’s insistent invitation, he began to come back to the flat, sharing toast and Marmite and pots of tea in front of the ancient gas fire. McVeigh liked him too, his warmth, his obvious enthusiasm, the gentle fun he made of himself, the sense of apartness he carried with him, nothing fretful, nothing heavy, just a good-humoured awareness of being slightly at odds with the rest of the world.

After a while, he’d begun to talk a little about himself. He had a wife, Cela, back in Tel Aviv. He carried photographs of her, a small, cheerful, attractive woman in her early thirties, with huge, shadowed eyes and jet-black hair. They had a tiny apartment in Jaffa, near the old quarter. They’d been married for six years, and he missed her more and more, and one day soon, God willing, he might go back. Quite what he was doing in London, Yakov never made clear. McVeigh had his own ideas – the accent, the nationality, the
of the bloke – but he himself moved in a world where the questions always outnumbered the answers, and he respected the man’s reticence.

Lately, high summer, the league season over, the three of them had spent a little time together, spontaneous excursions, mostly at Yakov’s suggestion. A couple of fine weekends had taken them out of London in Yakov’s car. He owned a red MGB convertible, a recent acquisition he treated with enormous pride, and he drove it fast, outside lane on the M4 overpass, Billy wedged in sideways on the tiny back seat, his huge grin partly masked by the Ray-Bans he always stole from Yakov’s jacket pocket. The last time they’d been west, a hot Sunday in late July, they’d ended up at a small village in the Thames
Valley. Yakov had seemed to know the place. He’d taken them to a pub by the river. He’d ordered burger and chips for Billy, and they’d sat outside in the sunshine, watching the swans paddling by. His plate empty, Billy had drifted across to a play area where a couple of older kids were kicking listlessly at a plastic football, and the two men had sat at the table, McVeigh talking about Billy’s new school. Listening, Yakov had nodded, watching the boy make a goal with two careful piles of T-shirts. After a while, he’d looked at McVeigh.

‘You miss being married?’


‘You regret being married?’


‘You ever see your wife?’

‘Not properly. Not to talk to. Just …’

McVeigh had shrugged, looking at Billy again, installed between the goal-posts. It was the first time the two men had ventured on to this kind of territory. After dozens of conversations about kids and football and the smallprint of living in London, it had seemed abruptly intimate. Yakov had smiled, saying nothing, and McVeigh had reached for his glass, swallowing the last of the beer.

‘Find the right woman,’ he’d said, ‘and you’re a lucky man.’

‘I know.’

McVeigh had looked at him, puzzled by a new note in his voice, something unmistakably wistful, something close to regret.

‘I thought—’ he’d frowned ‘—you and Cela?’


‘I thought—’ he’d shrugged, embarrassed ‘—it was all great.’

‘It is. That’s the problem.’

‘What do you mean?’

great. Very great.’

‘Is … that a problem?’



McVeigh had looked at him, waiting for an answer, some kind of explanation, but Yakov had simply shaken his head,
that same quiet smile, an expression of impenetrable sadness, and then he’d stood up, calling to Billy, taking the spin off the boy’s pass with a deft flick of his foot, redirecting it to one of the older youths.

A week later, McVeigh was still brooding on the conversation, certain that Yakov had wanted to tell him something, half-convinced that he should phone up, suggest a quiet pint, just the two of them, no Billy, but in the end he’d done nothing about it, telling himself that he’d got it wrong, that the man had simply been lost for words, one too many shandies, that the moment had come and gone and meant very little.

Until three days ago, when every newspaper in the country carried pictures of a body sprawled in a Kensington street. One leg was in the gutter, and the head was at an odd angle, but the half-smile on the man’s face gave the lie to the Israeli Embassy’s careful evasions. Yakov Arendt. The wizard in the Nike track-suit. The Sunday drinker with something on his mind.

McVeigh shuddered and turned over, shutting his eyes again. He had yet to break the news to Billy. And still, even now, he hadn’t got a clue how to do it.


The incident at the Manhattan Plaza Hotel was still in the hands of the New York Police Department when the American Embassy in Amman, Jordan, received a small brown envelope from a youth on a motor-cycle. The youth left no name and offered no further point of contact. The envelope was addressed, in typescript, to the President of the United States.

It was opened by one of the Embassy’s senior attachés. He read the two typed paragraphs twice and then reached for the phone. Halfway through dialling he put the phone down and ran upstairs to the Ambassador’s office. The Ambassador, he knew, had a crisis meeting scheduled for noon. The meeting was to include top members of the Jordanian administration and a cousin of the King. Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, two weeks back, there’d been lots of crisis meetings. It was 11.45.

The Ambassador read the note, shook his head, read it again. An active service unit had entered the United States. They were
presently established somewhere on the East Coast. Soon they would be moving to New York. They were under Headquarters Command. They had been training for their mission for many months. Their mission would answer American aggression in the Gulf. It would remind US citizens that war, if it came, would be total. Total war included the indiscriminate, unannounced use of chemical weapons. A further communiqué would follow. The note was signed ‘The Martyrs of 7th June’.

Encrypted at the highest security classification, the contents of the note were on a desk in Washington, DC before the first of the Ambassador’s guests drove in through the Embassy gates. The gates, recently installed against possible kamikaze attacks, were blast-proof and electronically controlled. The attaché who’d first read the note watched them swing shut behind the big limousine. Ironic, he thought, remembering the terrible threat behind the letter’s last paragraph. One hundred and ninety thousand dollars’ worth of hi-tech engineering. And it wouldn’t make a cent’s worth of difference.


In Washington, the note from Amman was preserved – eyes only – until the arrival of the named addressee. Normally Sullivan was at his desk in the West Wing of the White House by 7 a.m. On this particular Tuesday, after a crippling day in London and an overnight flight back, he was two hours late.

Sullivan hung his coat on the back of the door and sank into the big leather chair behind the desk. An early shower had caught him as he stepped out of the car. His hair was still wet. He gazed down at the note without reading it. Impending war, as he was beginning to understand, played havoc with the ageing process. Already, after a fortnight of crisis management, of back-to-back meetings and helicopter dashes to Andrews Air Force Base, he felt several hundred years old. His wife, as concerned and patriotic as the next administration spouse, was beginning to make impatient noises about nuclear strikes, an eye for an eye, the importance of getting the whole damn thing buttoned up before her precious husband succumbed to the incessant deadlines and self-destructed. Who knows? he thought. Had Saddam Hussein kept his hands off Kuwait, they
might even now be back-packing along the more remote Yosemite trails, three weeks of wilderness they’d been promising each other for nearly two years, a chance – at last – to shed a little of the bulk that seemed to come with the job. Some hope.

He reached for the note and read it. Lifting the phone, he checked with the decrypt office in the basement of the Executive Office Building across the street. He made another call to a New York number, briefer still. Then he picked up the note and walked along the blue-carpeted corridor to the Oval Office. The President had been at his desk since dawn, one eye on the CNN transmissions piped through to the middle of the three televisions installed beneath the big framed painting of Gettysburg. Rumour was, the President never slept. Didn’t need to. Mistrusted the stuff.

BOOK: The Devil's Breath
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