Jon P Wells
Copyright © 2015 Jon P. Wells
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Jon P Wells
National Library Of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry
Creator: Wells, Jon P. 1962 – author
Title: Devil’s Breath / Jon P. Wells
Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, Chernobyl, Ukraine
1986 – Fiction
Terrorism – Fiction
Nuclear warfare – Fiction
Suspense – Fiction
Dewey Number: A823.4
Ebook formatting by
This is a work of fiction. Characters, corporations, institutions and organisations mentioned in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or if real used fictitiously without any intent to describe actual conduct.
WITH THANKS TO:
Alan Gogoll, Mike Smith, Tim Wells and PD Martin for your support, encouragement and faith in me turning this story from an idea into a book.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Military Development Facility A-7
Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
26 April 1986
Sergei winced as icy needles of rain assaulted his face for the second time that night. He watched it rolling towards him in freezing sheets, driven by the wind along the along the lightly forested terrain.
He stamped his army issue boots and thrust his hands further into his woollen overcoat in an attempt to keep the biting cold at bay. The strap of his Kalashnikov assault rifle cut into his neck and back. A quick glance at his watch, 12:55am. Only three more hours of duty at outer Guard Post 12 on the approach to the facility, then a quick truck ride back to the relative luxury of the barracks, hot food, cold vodka and maybe win some of his money back at cards.
‘So this is the excitement of life as a conscript in the armed forces of the mighty Russian Republic,’ Sergei called to Andreas, the other young soldier on duty at the guard post. Nineteen years old, and halfway through his compulsory military service when he should have been training as an accountant, Sergei was mind-numbingly bored.
‘A couple of months in basic training to break your bonds with friends, family and your spirit, then specialist training in any number of useless skills before shipping off to a series of remote and tedious postings,’ he continued. ‘Still I suppose it’s better than for some I grew up with, sent to the hell-hole of Chechnya trying to keep the locals subservient without getting butchered by the separatists, or sent as target practice for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.’
‘Mother Russian should have kept well out of there.’ Andreas pulled his coat closer for warmth. ‘The Afghans have been fighting amongst themselves or foreign invaders for a thousand years, why not just leave the stupid bastards to it?’
Sergei shook his head hard and tried to focus on the job. There had been a lot of traffic to the facility lately, many long black cars full of Comrade Politicians and high-ranking officers, and trucks full of serious looking soldiers escorting them, and the occasional helicopter straight to the secret helipad. Something big was going on, not the time to be caught slacking. Stifling a yawn he stamped his feet again.
The hum of robotics dominated the sterile atmosphere in the research lab deep in the earth on Level 17 of the underground research facility. The two scientists worked with an increasing sense of urgency, the culmination of years of research about to have its first live demonstration in front of the military elite and political hard men of the Politburo. Everything had been prepared, checked and double checked. Nothing must go wrong. The test had been scheduled for earlier that evening, but problems with the equipment had meant they were only ready to proceed now, well after midnight. A successful demonstration would mean unlimited resources, and a place as a Hero of the People for the scientists. Failure could be the end of both their careers, and any chance of getting ahead in the strict Soviet regime.
A bead of sweat formed on the brow of Dr Ivan Slovenika, the micro-climate air-conditioning unable to control his anxiety. Now was the time. He smiled to himself.
The Americans had slowly pulled away in weapons development in recent years with seemingly unlimited research funds. But the devotion and hard work of the Russian military scientists was about to pay off and put Russia indisputably back as the only true world superpower.
In the Secure Communications Room on Level 8 of the research facility a young Communications Officer focused intently on his terminal as it received and decoded an urgent message. The weapons test about to take place was only a small-scale demonstration to prove that the technology worked, so the facility was on medium security alert. But now at 12:58am, two minutes before the test, an order was coming through from Moscow.
The Comms Officer called his supervisor over. ‘Sir, a Security Over-ride Order has just come through from Moscow. We are instructed to raise security status to Code Red, Maximum.’
‘Yes sir, the source of the order was unusual, but has been authenticated.’
‘Very well, initiate emergency lock-down protocols and engage the blast doors.’
The Secure Communications Room immediately erupted in a frenzy of activity as tasks were completed on the activity check-lists to bring the facility to a state of maximum security.
Sergei was jolted from his thoughts by the intercom blaring from inside the guard post. He completed the identity check and was instructed to initiate Emergency Protocols to secure his post.
In the equipment room his comrade Andreas worked through the procedure sheets and they both checked their weapons, donned full battle dress, checked operational readiness of the bio-chem warfare suits and closed the boom gates across the access road.
In the underground laboratory Dr Slovenika stood back and watched as his superior Dr Embrafet completed the preparations, ready for the test in two minutes. Ten years his senior Dr Embrafet was undoubtedly a genius, how else could he have solved the impossible obstacles to make the process work? But his recent erratic behaviour had troubled Dr Slovenika, who still didn’t really understand how the safeguards for experiment worked. Dr Embrafet had been very agitated earlier but had now settled into an almost morbid calm.
With everything in place, the observation room above them packed and buzzing with anticipation, remote sensing equipment recording every moment, Dr Embrafet looked across the laboratory to the containment vessel housing the experiment, up at the crowded room of onlookers, back to his colleague. He then walked across to the control terminal, typed in his security code and initiated the firing sequence. The final sixty seconds were displayed in giant letters across the display monitor.
As the countdown reached twenty the primary reaction was under way and a rumble grew from within the containment vessel, light danced up to the heavy glassed top then splayed out across the room, stabbing different surfaces with daggers of colour. The rumble became a roar growing louder with each second. The floor started to vibrate and the intensity of light increased, forcing observers to shade their eyes. At ten seconds to zero the roar became a scream and the whole laboratory started to shake.
Fear leapt into Dr Slovenika’s chest. This wasn’t supposed to happen, the safeguards were designed to avoid this reaction. They had been over it so many times and Dr Embrafet had proved to him that it could be controlled. Through the dazzling light he could see Dr Embrafet, smiling broadly, talking to himself, and jumping about with excitement. Dr Slovenika lurched across the room and grabbed the older man.
‘We must stop it, this isn’t meant to happen. You promised it wouldn’t.’
Dr Embrafet’s hand lashed out at Dr Slovenika’s chest, slamming him back. ‘This was always meant to be, the earth shall be cleansed of the unbelievers, and those who follow the true path shall be spared the wrath of the Almighty. Praise be to God.’
In the observation deck, discomfort with the sound and light was turning to panic as the military and political power brokers watched the confrontation between the scientists below. An overweight General pushed a female member of the Politburo over as he rushed to the door.
5, 4, 3, 2…
The horror of what was about to happen rose as a scream in the throat of Dr Slovenika.
A flash of blinding light consumed the room, total silence, then every living thing in Military Development Facility A7 was instantly obliterated.
At precisely 1:00am Sergei felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a low scream echo through surrounding trees. A shiver went down his spine. After waiting anxiously for a few minutes Andreas tried to contact the command post at the facility, but communications had failed.
The minutes crept by, then Sergei spoke. ‘We can’t just wait for orders, they may need help at the facility, I’m going up to see what’s going on.’
‘You mustn’t go, you’ll be accused of deserting your post,’ Andreas pleaded.
Sergei shouldered his weapon. ‘Well I can’t just wait here.’
With fear gnawing at his stomach, at 1:20am he set out up the road to the secret underground research facility.
Sergei’s boots crunched noisily on the rough gravel road edge, cutting through the eerie silence. The scream of a turbo-jet helicopter hurtling overhead made him jump. He staggered sideways and fell into the ditch alongside the road. From around the corner behind him a long line of black military trucks appeared and roared up the road towards the facility. He lay in the ditch watching as grim-faced black-clad soldiers peered blankly out of the trucks as they passed by, not seeing him.
He stayed in the cover of the trees alongside the road until he was two hundred metres from the facility. He crawled out to the edge of the road. The newcomers had taken control, rounding up the regular soldiers guarding the facility, disarming them and herding them onto trucks. In the gloom of the structures behind the soldiers he could see the massive bulk of the outer blast doors of the facility. Five metres high and designed to withstand the rage of a thermonuclear attack, the doors were bent and buckled, seemingly smashed out from the inside, the once smooth grey camouflaged surface now scorched and discoloured. Plumes of thick grey smoke billowed into the sky above the facility.
This isn’t right, Sergei’s instincts screamed at him. He heard shouting. A disarmed soldier was refusing to board the truck, pushed his way past his captor and ran for the trees. A blast from an automatic weapon rang out and he slumped to the ground.
Jesus! The bastards killed him in cold blood!
Glancing quickly around him Sergei turned and crawled back to the ditch at the roadside and into the cover of the trees. Minutes later he was back within sight of his guard post. Andreas was gone and the black-clad soldiers were standing guard. Keeping undercover he moved further into the forest. He made his way up a slope overlooking the barracks and township that housed the workers from the facility and their families. With every step his throat tightened, fearful of what he’d seen and what he’d find.
His mind reeled as he took in the scene below. The town was surrounded by the special black-clad military units. Helicopters patrolled overhead, and the entire population were being cleared from the buildings and loaded onto the trucks.
It slowly dawned on him, this wasn’t an emergency response or rescue mission, it was a clean-up operation. He heard older soldiers talk about ‘the bad old days’ of how problems were solved in the Stalin years by removing any trace of them, but that was ancient history. This was a new age of communism, this was 1986. And it wasn’t Siberia or Mongolia, this was Chernobyl!
The sound of a truck on the nearby access track shook him from his terror. He tried to picture the geography of the area, nearby towns, roads, the river, then he placed his weapon, his webbing, everything he didn’t need in the undergrowth. Expecting the sound of a voice challenging him or the smash of a bullet in his back at any moment he started to run.
Seven hundred kilometres away in his apartment in Moscow, Colonel Alexei Strimocov’s face reddened as he struggled with the metal latches on the large black suitcase on the bed.
‘Hurry, we have no time, we must go now!’ He frantically packed essential items for himself, his wife and daughter. He turned and took another handful of documents and clothing from his wife, her eyes wide with fear, lips pursed as she fought back a rising flood of panic.
‘But I don’t understand why we must run,’ she said. ‘We have always done our best for the State.’
‘I’m the departmental head of the Experimental Weapons Research Program and overseer of Doctors Slovenika and Embrafet.’ He sighed. ‘I will be held responsible for what happened at the weapons test tonight.’
It was only the previous evening as he read a tatty notebook left in a pile of papers in the research laboratory in Moscow that he had discovered the true intention of Dr Embrafet and his experiment.
‘If the test had been conducted on time I would have been too late, but fate was on my side. At least I managed to upgrade the security status of the weapons research facility in time or God knows what might have happened.’
He pulled the suitcase from the bed to the floor and cast his eyes around the room again, checking that he’d taken everything for the journey ahead, and not left anything that may reveal where they were going.
He froze. ‘What was that noise?’
He went to the curtains in the darkened living room. Ever so carefully he pulled one aside and looked down the three stories to the dimly lit street below. A black car, lights off but engine running sat one hundred metres away, a ghostly curl of smoke from the exhaust just visible in the chill night air. Just one car, but he knew there would be more.
Strimocov paused, he could see his daughter across the small living room. So young and innocent, curled up slumbering on the couch, an old much-loved teddy bear clutched to her chest. His heart sank.
He turned to his wife and gently took her hands, trying to keep her strong.
‘According to the initial military intelligence reports coming through from Chernobyl, Military Development Facility A7 and everyone in it has been destroyed, including the official observers from the military and government.’ He paused. ‘The Cold War era Soviet Union doesn’t tolerate failure and if this becomes known to the public and our enemies Russia will be internationally humiliated. The unofficial course of action will be to remove all the evidence of what has happened, including everyone involved.’
He squeezed her hands. ‘At least because of my position we’ve had some warning.’
The dull clunk of a car door closing echoed up from the street below.
‘We must go now. They’re here,’ he whispered, listening for the dreaded knock on the door signalling the arrival of the KGB.
Strimocov picked up the suitcase, crossing the living room to lift his daughter into this arms. Then he and his wife crept into the hall, down the fire escape, and headed out into the night.
The wind howled in from the Norwegian Sea, across the snow, and whipped around the array of antennae and sensors sprouting from the low buildings of the Katterjakk atmospheric weather station in Sweden. In the warmth of his office Sven Yungelson reached for his cup, anticipating the last mouthful of lukewarm coffee at the end of a slow day. Classical music floated across the room from a radio perched precariously on top of a filing cabinet.
As he lifted the cup to his lips his eyes were drawn to the data flowing across the multiple screens in front of him. He froze as he noticed the first anomalous radiation readings on the sensitive equipment. Mild interest quickly turned into concern. A few minutes later when he called his wife to say he’d be working late he didn’t explain that it was because a massive radioactive cloud appeared to drifting from the east into northern Europe.
Calls to the top levels of the Meteorology Department became urgent calls between governments. As the story broke into the media worldwide the Russian government had no choice but to confirm that an accident, an explosion, had occurred on 26 April 1986 at approximately 1am local time, at the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine SSR, resulting in a small number of deaths…and the possible radioactive contamination of parts of Europe for generations to come.
‘How was your flight?’ the driver asked over his shoulder, as the battered taxi swerved out of the overcrowded parking bay and into the traffic leaving the airport.
‘Long and tiring,’ muttered Ian MacRae, settling himself into the grimy rear seat.
‘You are American?’
‘Ah, gooday Skippy, tie me kangaroo down sport.’ The driver roared with laughter at his own humour.
This is going to be a long trip MacRae thought to himself as he leaned against the window and closed his eyes, feigning sleep.
The driver took the cue from his passenger and focused his attention on avoiding the other erratic drivers twisting through the streets for the twenty minute trip across Baghdad.
The car nudged the kerb as it arrived at its destination, jolting MacRae from his doze. The visit to Iraq was to be brief and he’d left his bags at the airport. He paid the driver and stepped onto the dusty footpath. The heat rolled over him like a wave. An old man pulled a makeshift cart full of rubbish along the roadside next to him. Voices arguing in Arabic drifted across the street from a small cafe.
He glanced around…no-one seemed to be paying him any particular attention. People wandered into shops, drank thick black coffee outside cafes, and avoided the swirling traffic. Experienced eyes took in his destination. A run-down three level apartment building, one entry from the street, windows with shutters, peeling paint, nothing special. Probably rear exits to courtyards and maybe the maze of alleys.
He was hot, tired and he cursed the phone call from his old friend only a few days ago. A favour had been called in and here he was meeting a low level CIA contact from years ago in a Baghdad back street.
‘It’s probably nothing, he never knew much before. But I kinda owe him so just meet the guy, listen to what he has to say…and bring me home any gifts,’ Brad Schneider had said.
OK lets get it over with, then on to London, a hot bath and a warm beer, thought MacRae, as he entered the dinghy foyer and climbed the stairs.
The second-floor hallway was deserted, the silence only broken by the muffled sound of the nearby street. MacRae went halfway down the hallway, found the right door, paused listening intently, then softly knocked.
Dust sparkled in the sunlight cutting across the hallway as MacRae waited. He knocked again, waiting. It was the right day, right location, right time. Where was he?
A soft thump came from behind the door. The hair on MacRae’s neck started to rise. He knocked a third time and leaned in to listen through the old peeling paint of the door when he heard the sound of a security chain being undone and the door opened a few centimetres.
Hassan had aged a lot since they’d last met briefly a few years ago. His eyes were now sunken, haunted, and despite a flicker of recognition he spoke rapidly in Arabic. ‘Yes, hello, what do you want?’
The alarm bells in MacRae’s head were clanging now so he replied in English, using an alias. ‘Hello, my name is Simon Jones and I was given this address for an old journalist friend of mine. Do you speak English?’
Hassan spat a tirade at MacRae again in Arabic. MacRae apologised for disturbing him and turned to go when the door swung open, Hassan was yanked back and someone grabbed MacRae by the shirt, pulled him into the room and slammed him up against a wall. The man pushed his arm against MacRae’s throat and held a knife inches from his face.
The door was closed behind him as MacRae tried to take in the scene. Hassan was on the other side of the grimy, sparsely furnished room, being held by two men with hand guns. Another two men stood a few feet in front of him, surrounded by the chaos of a room pulled apart during a search. The man holding MacRae pressed hard on his throat and leaned in close, his breath hot and sweet in MacRae’s face as he stared intently into his eyes.
Hassan started pleading with his captors, his eyes flickering desperately from one to the other. He gestured at MacRae, denying a connection.
A man spat questions rapidly in Arabic at Hassan, MacRae only picking up random words and phrases from across the room.
‘…who have you told…is he the one…revenge of the Almighty to the infidels…the Devils Breath…lying to us?’
Hassan shook his head vigorously. Then the dull glint of metal as a gun came up and was pressed hard into Hassan’s temple.
With the strength that only comes with terror Hassan jerked his right arm free and grabbed the gun at his head, a desperate hand locking around the deadly steel, the muzzle swinging towards the centre of the room. Two shots, then a third from the gun echoed around the room as the men struggled ferociously for control of the weapon, faces contorted with anger and fear.
One of the men in front of MacRae fell forward, blood spraying from a wound in his face.
MacRae reacted instinctively, twisting his head sideways to relieve the pressure on his throat, simultaneously jamming his hand up to grab his assailants knife hand. He pushed the knife away from his face and swung his other arm with lightning speed, smashing his elbow again and again into his attacker’s temple. MacRae wrestled the knife from the collapsing man’s hand and straightened up to launch himself at one of the other men.
As one of Hassan’s captors struggled to regain control of his gun the other pulled away shouting in Arabic at Hassan. The man drew his own gun, stepped sideways and fired again and again at Hassan. Bullets slammed into his body, tearing Hassan’s life out.
MacRae’s eyes widened as he saw the two gunmen now turn to him, raising their weapons, seconds from ending his life, too far away for him to reach, but too close for them to miss. His only chance was escape, so keeping another of the men between him and Hassan’s killers he bolted for the door, knowing in his gut that he would be too slow, and death was moments away.
His shoulder hit the door and he desperately grabbed for the handle when he heard the concussion of gunshots, then a scream of shock and anger. Turning, he saw the man closest to him had instead fired at Hassan’s killers, bullet wounds spreading a crimson stain on each of their chests.
MacRae froze, trying to make sense of the chain of events, then the gunman leapt towards him, grabbed his arm. ‘Not that way, there will be more soon. Come now if you want to live…NOW, MOVE IT!’
Boots thumped their way up the corridor outside the room, muffled shouts echoed along the hallway and something heavy crashed against the door. Then splinters of wood sprayed the room as someone opened fire.
MacRae snapped back into the moment. He realised he still had the knife clenched in his hand, ready to fight for his life. He looked in the eyes of the gunman, then making a split second decision to trust him dropped the knife to the floor.
‘Okay lets go.’
They ran across the room past the bodies of Hassan and his killers. MacRae stopped for a moment, kneeling next to Hassan, looking for any sign of life. Hassan’s eyes stared blankly past him.
How had it come to this?
The gunman turned back to him. ‘Keep moving. Now!’
MacRae sprang to his feet and they ran through a filthy kitchen, out a rear door and onto a set of rusty stairs that led down to a courtyard.
The steel steps rattled as he took two steps at a time. They kept running, then shade, light and shade across the courtyard through a crumbling stone arch and into a narrow alley. Heart pounding MacRae kept pace with his companion, darting around corners and into more alleys.
The man came to an abrupt stop.
‘Wait here while I get our car,’ the gunman said.
MacRae leaned against the wall, watching as the man went to a car at the end of the alley. MacRae couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was an animated discussion. Suddenly the gunman struck the driver through the window, opened the door and dragged the driver out by the throat then pushed him to the ground. The man signalled for MacRae to come. MacRae hesitated but his choices weren’t exactly appealing. He got into the car with the man and they roared out onto the traffic.
The gunman sped through the narrow winding streets, slowing at intersections and making constant turns along crowded lane ways. MacRae tried to keep track of the general direction they were travelling, using the direction of the sun, looking for landmarks that might identify areas, but it was impossible when the driver was using techniques to avoid pursuers. MacRae was thrown sideways in his seat as they rounded a corner.
He turned to the driver. ‘I know this isn’t the best time to ask but who the hell are you and what have I walked into here?’
The driver glanced sideways, into the rear vision mirror, then back to the front, slowing as a woman in a full Burqa stepped out to cross the road in front of them.
Then he replied, ‘You may have noticed that I’m a bit busy at the moment. Besides, I’ve got questions of my own. Like what were you were doing at that house? And how come you can look after yourself in such a dangerous situation?’
MacRae shrugged and turned away from the driver.
The car slowed. ‘We’re not being followed so we can stop and talk now.’
Halfway along a narrow alley they turned through an archway. The man got out and closed ancient timber gates with paint peeling and rusty hinges.
MacRae turned when he heard the action of an automatic handgun being cocked. The gunman held the weapon pointing down alongside his leg, not threatening, but removing any doubt about who was in charge.
‘This is a secure location. Please come into the house and I can assess how much trouble we’re in.’
The interior of the house was dark and cool, a welcome relief from outside. Closed timber shutters on the outside of the windows muffled the bustle of daily life on the street outside.
As the adrenaline left his system MacRae relaxed a little, then fell back into his cover. ‘I was only there to catch up with an old friend, a journalist. I must have got the address wrong.’ He let fear creep back into his voice. ‘Who the hell were those men and why were they attacking that man? Not to mention me?’
MacRae squared his shoulders. ‘I’m an Australian citizen and request that you take me to either the airport or a western embassy.’
The Arab gunman stepped forward, fixing MacRae with a long stare. ‘My name is Fared Alkames, I work for the EHS, the Egyptian security and counter-terrorism agency. I’ve been working undercover and today a major operation has been compromised because of your surprise appearance. I’ve taken a huge risk saving your life, and the least I expect in return is the truth.’
‘So why did you save my life?’ MacRae asked.
There was a long silence.
Alkames looked down at the floor and shook his head, ‘It felt like the right thing to do.’
He turned, walked across the room to a door then looked back at MacRae. ‘Now I’ll try and salvage what I can from this mess, so wait here and we’ll talk again in a moment.’
Alkames went into the adjacent room.
MacRae surveyed the room and weighed up his options.
The building shell was obviously very old, but the interior of the room had a few more modern features. The floor was tiled and in excellent condition, suggesting either limited use or recent work, and the room although modestly sized felt spacious with only minimal furniture positioned around the perimeter. A small desk flanked by two rattan chairs along one wall, a low couch next to a small sideboard along another. A bar fridge hummed in the corner. Almost-concealed surveillance cameras were positioned in the corners of the room near the ceiling, along with motion detectors. The windows and doors appeared to have electronic locks and intruder alarms. The walls in the door frames seemed thicker than necessary. Probably soundproofed or shielded for counter-surveillance.
MacRae tried the handle of the door they’d come in but it refused to yield, as did the door leading to Alkames. All the signs of a safe-house for an intelligence agency, which supported Alkames story.
A switch on the wall stirred a ceiling fan silently into life. MacRae opened the fridge and inspected the contents. He smiled, and could have been almost anywhere as he helped himself to an icy cold cola and some kind of unfamiliar health food bar. He settled himself onto the couch where he could watch all entries to the room, and forced himself to relax, resigning himself to the fact that for the moment at least his fate was in the hands of the man who had just saved his life.
He was halfway through the cola when there was a muffled electronic click as the door opened and Alkames walked back into the room.
‘Enjoying the humble hospitality of this house I see Mr Jones?’ Alkames smiled. ‘It appears the local security forces have secured the scene of our recent incident and are trying to unravel the mess. There’s no information about us being circulated yet so we still have a window of opportunity to avoid being dragged into the investigation.’
Alkames crossed the room and opened the door leading to the parked car. ‘I’m not in a position to detain you further but I’m sure it would benefit us both if you were to tell me the truth of your involvement this afternoon.’
MacRae stared at Alkames then turned and walked out to the car. ‘I have no idea what the hell was going on at that apartment and have no intention of getting caught up in it any further. So unless you can tell me more I’m getting out of Iraq as soon as I can.’
Alkames looked at MacRae then shook his head as he got in the car. MacRae waited a moment then joined him and soon they were back on the streets again.
MacRae had been unaware of how close they were to a main road, and within minutes Alkames was heading to the airport. The twenty minute trip was silent.
Alkames pulled up at the passenger drop-off zone and MacRae got out. As he stood on the dusty pavement jostled by the hectic crowds rushing to catch flights or hail taxis, MacRae leaned across and spoke to Alkames through the car window. ‘The last few hours seem surreal, but one thing I know is that you saved my life, and I will not forget that. Thank you and Ma’assalama.’
Alkames held his gaze but couldn’t hide a flicker of surprise in his eyes. ‘And you go in peace also Mr Jones.’ Alkames revved the engine and put the car in gear. ‘Ask the right people and they will know how to find me if you need to contact me.’
‘I might be harder to find.’ MacRae smiled. ‘But you could start at forty-two degrees south.’ He turned and joined the masses swirling into the check-in terminal.
MacRae let out a sigh of relief as the familiar pull of gravity sank his stomach into the airline seat when the plane finally left the ground. Retrieving his luggage and documents at Baghdad airport, checking in and boarding his flight had been uneventful, although nerve racking. The airport security, local police and occasional army patrol seemed disinterested in most of the airport activity during the long wait for his flight, certainly not looking for a murderous foreigner, and only getting involved as a man started arguing with the X-ray machine operators when they insisted on emptying his bags onto the floor to look for contraband.
Only now, at ten thousand metres altitude, as he felt the cool bite of an iced tea wash around his mouth did he allow himself the time to analyse the events of the day, and consider what he’d have to say to Brad Schneider when he was settled in London.
‘Ahmed Saren, venture capitalist, trader, philanthropist, city playboy, with deep religious convictions. I’m not sure where to start,’ said the well-dressed young journalist.
Saren smiled. He liked all of those descriptions. He felt the interview for Venture Finance magazine was going to go well. With success came scrutiny and as with most things in his life Saren preferred to be in control of his image. As his wealth had increased so had his profile among the bankers and other players in New York’s financial district. Saren would have preferred to keep a low profile but any rising star in the financial world was bound to attract attention, and the rise of his star had been nothing less than meteoric.
‘The truth is always a good place to start Ms Calendar. May I call you Susan?’ Saren smiled. He placed one hand on the other on his lap, leaning forward slightly in the comfortable brown leather chair, subtly increasing the sense of intimacy between them.
Saren’s office, like most things in his life had been created with great thought. The address on the twenty third floor of the Capital building, some of the most expensive real estate in the city, said successful and reliable. The views over the city allowed visitors to see how far Saren had come from the desperate masses on the streets below. The massive stainless steel and glass desk dominating the room spoke of strength and resilience. But the interview was being conducted from the comfortable lounge chairs around the low coffee table on the northern side of the room.
‘More coffee?’ Saren lifted the ornate traditional eastern coffee pot and poured the thick dark liquid into the reporter’s cup. ‘I’ve always tried to live my life according to the morals and principles with which I was raised. My background in Saudi Arabia was modest, but I have always had dreams and ambitions. And with hard work, study, tenacity and perhaps a little luck I’ve been able to put myself in a position where I can invest in others, companies, people and of course charitable organisations. So my skills and the wonders of the modern world of international finance have enabled me to achieve far more by working with others than I would have ever thought possible. And there is still plenty more I want to achieve.’
Saren sat back and allowed his eyes to wander around the room, finally resting on Susan, taking in her tailored suit, low cut blouse and tight skirt. Her long, tanned legs were carefully crossed, and she was wearing expensive designer heels.
‘And my reputation as a playboy is somewhat exaggerated I think.’ Saren smiled. ‘Like most people my age I work hard and then occasionally play hard to let off a little steam.’
He silently admired her understated make-up, highlighting classic western beauty, high cheekbones, full lips and thick blond hair. ‘So what else would you like to know about me Susan?’
Susan was used to men looking at her and seeing nothing more than a pretty young girl – something she sometimes used to her advantage. Flatter their ego with a bit of special attention and men would occasionally reveal more than they otherwise might.
She smiled widely. ‘Well I guess your life as a young successful businessman is pretty well documented. I’m wondering if maybe we could delve into your past a little more, maybe focus the piece as an inspiration for young up-and-comers, immigrants from the Middle East…how to follow your dreams in America?’
Saren smiled modestly. ‘Oh I don’t know about being an inspiration for others, but America is certainly a place where you can achieve amazing things.’
Susan continued. ‘You are on record as coming to the US as a young businessman, barely twenty years old.’ She glanced at a notebook. ‘You then got qualified and licensed to deal in the financial markets and quickly established yourself as a financial whiz, achieving consistently high returns for a small but exclusive clientele of Middle Eastern investors in your private investment company.’
Saren nodded slowly.
‘Is there anything you can pass on to our readers about how they can use your experience to get started in the finance industry?’
‘I’m afraid there is no secret Susan,’ Saren said. ‘I have developed techniques over the years that enable me to achieve very strong returns for my investors with very little risk. Unlike many of the western financial institutions my philosophy is based around mutual trust and benefit, rather than greed. With my investments there are no losers, only winners, whereas the underlying principles of many of my competitors are to ensure they are the winners, often by making their business partners the losers.’
He shook his head. ‘Just look at the Global Financial Crisis. Banks creating dubious investment products, selling them around the world to naive investors and making sure they aren’t holding any liabilities when everyone realises the products are worthless. Integrity, Susan is the key.’
Susan glanced at her notes. ‘That seems like a very sound philosophy. So going back to your time in Saudi Arabia, how did you establish yourself in business before you came to the US?’
Susan couldn’t be certain but she thought a flicker of anger crossed his face before he answered.
‘There really isn’t much to say Susan, other than that my eyes were open wide enough to see the opportunities that came my way as a young man. I was able to work hard and accumulate enough to start making my own investments at a young age. It gave me a keen understanding of how the world works. And now I’m able to use that knowledge to benefit others.’
He sat upright in his chair and cupped his hands. ‘I’m afraid we’re almost out of time, is there anything else you’d like to know before we conclude?’
‘Well, I’m sure you have been asked this many times, but…’ She smiled broadly at him again. ‘Despite many offers over the years you’ve always refused to open your company to outside investors or list on the stock market. This effectively means that your accounts are not open to any kind of scrutiny other than the financial statements required by the government regulators. Should that be a concern to investors?’
Again she thought she saw a flicker of anger before he answered.
‘Well you’re correct that as a private investment company my business operations are not open to the same level of scrutiny as other organisations. But…’ he rose from his chair, ‘that is precisely what enables me to achieve my unique investment strategies. Perhaps you would like to accompany me to inspect some of the projects I’m involved with around the city this afternoon?’ He touched her shoulder as he directed her to the reception.
Once she was gone and the office door closed he relaxed.
A modest background in Saudi Arabia. No-one knew what he’d gone through to get here, how hard it had been. He went over to the window, gazing down on the wage slaves below, scurrying around with their first-world problems…five minutes late for work, perhaps their phone had run out of credit.
He thought back to his childhood, poverty in a country awash with oil and western money. His parents struggling to raise a child in labouring jobs or selling trinkets in the market. Never enough money to dream about life ever getting better.
At least he got a basic education as he watched the rich elite waste the country’s oil legacy to keep the American gas guzzlers running. His parents said it was the will of Allah, and that the Saudi royal family knew what was best for the country. They knew what was best for themselves, he snorted to himself.
Then the ultimate irony. His parents had been driving home from the market when he was sixteen years old when their car was hit by a speeding Lamborghini driven by a second cousin of a sheik.
His eyes moistened at the memory. They’d both been killed. The driver of the other car had escaped without penalty, protected as a member of the wealthy elite. But as compensation Saren had been given a position as a live-in house boy with a wealthy family. He smiled. And that had finally given him the opportunity to use his real talents to get ahead.
He’d learnt English from the family and their foreign visitors. And along with stealing various sums of cash carelessly left around the house, he’d developed a lucrative sideline in sourcing secret pleasures for the family members – alcohol, drugs, occasionally boys and girls from the streets – for their parties.
He’d also discovered a talent for technology and had used their own computers to create a detailed record on the internet of everything he’d done for the family. When confronted with the electronic evidence of the sins of the family against Allah – and Saudi law – the father had been relieved to pay Saren a large sum of money and assist him with his migration to the US.
That was the modest past no-one would ever write about. Just as no-one, particularly inquisitive journalists, would ever know how he really ran his investment company.
He sat at his desk, sinking into the plush leather of the office chair. The twin screens of his computer flashed into life as he logged on to the system. His eyes scanned the left side monitor and he clicked on an icon, displaying a summary of his clients accounts. A list of deposits and withdrawals, account management fees and commissions. Meaningless gibberish to satisfy an inquisitive few.
Before long he’d be in a position to right all the wrongs of his past, and restore the true balance between God and the world. Neither the capitalist western infidels nor the corrupt rich Muslims in the Holy Lands would find any comfort in their money when they were all judged by Allah.
He sighed as a deep sense of melancholy washed over him. He hated that feeling.
I know what always cheers me up.
Again his fingers flew over the keyboard as he typed in a complex sequence of letters and numbers, an address for a website in a hidden part of the internet known as the Deep Web. Few people knew of the existence of this vast and murky world, even fewer could navigate its secrets. He was satisfied that no-one would ever find the videos he was about to watch for the hundredth time.
A security screen flashed up, he typed in a password, and had access to thousands of images and videos of terrorists acts from around the world.
Saren scrolled though a page of file thumbnails, categorised by date and location. He glanced over to make sure the door to his office was shut then selected a familiar video clip. Instantly, traditional Arabic religious music poured out from the computer speakers. He leaned back in his chair to watch as images of a busy Arab market filled the right side monitor. A group of American soldiers, a patrol, snaked its way across the screen, alert but distracted by the colours, scents and sounds of the market around them.
Saren looked at the bottom of the screen. A woven basket covered in an old cloth was tucked under a chair at a cafe. He always thought it looked so obvious. But I suppose you had to be there. He chuckled to himself.
Then the screen flashed white for a moment as the camera was overloaded with light, clearing to a scene of chaos and death as the hidden bomb detonated metres away from the soldiers, tearing them to pieces.
Yes, he whispered to himself as he punched the air in victory.
The tube train from Heathrow Airport to the centre of London became more crowded as it neared the heart of the capital, the weary air travellers joined by commuters listening to music, playing with phones, or just staring into space. MacRae wondered how relaxed you could be travelling to work knowing that a few years ago terrorists had carried out multiple suicide bombings on London public transport. He’d seen more than his fair share of violence over the years, and the conference he was attending in London gave him the chance to help others avoid the darker side of human struggle.
The English air still carried a morning chill as he arrived at his hotel and checked in, but his bright and pleasantly furnished room was warm and welcoming. He changed out of his travel clothes and spent fifteen minutes doing a martial arts stretching routine to blow out the cobwebs of the international flight, then practised slow controlled breathing, bringing his mind back into focus.
He took a hot shower, then shaved, pausing to look in the mirror when he noticed more lines in the corner of his eyes. At a young-looking forty two, and dead on one hundred and eighty centimetres tall, he was in pretty good shape, reasonably fit, and still had most of his hair. Not handsome, but he always seemed to be able to find female company. His blue-grey eyes had lost some of their sparkle over the years though, jaded from too much time surrounded by the threat of death and disaster. But the warmth of his smile showed he could still find joy and faith in people and everyday life.
Then, as always, his eyes were drawn to the scar on the left side of his torso, not far from his heart. In another life so long ago, when he was an idealistic young police officer, he was called to a domestic disturbance. The man was out of control on drugs, screaming and delusional. MacRae thought he was the threat. But it was the wife, also stoned, who grabbed the kitchen knife and plunged it into MacRae’s side. He’d nearly died that night. But the incident had set him on the path of law enforcement around the world, and to where he was today.
MacRae sighed. That night had cost him a lot. If things had unfolded differently maybe he would be living in a nice house, with a wife and family now. But maybe that just wasn’t what life had in store for him.
He mentally shook off the melancholy. He had a good life, and despite seeing much of the world he still chose Tasmania as his home. It had been a wonderful place to grow up and still felt like an undiscovered paradise at times.
He rummaged through his travel bag, pulling out his conference documentation and the stationary for his business. The Securetel conference was being held in London over two days, and each year brought the best risk assessment and security planning organisations together with the Non-Government Organisations and businesses that operated in danger zones around the world. It was an invaluable meet-and-greet, keeping everyone up to date with the latest ways to keep people safe in the most hazardous locations across the globe. MacRae had attended a few of these over the years, Jakarta, Florida, even one closer to home in sunny Sydney.
Most of the business for his consultancy HRS, Human Resource Security, came from word of mouth. He had a reputation for providing fast, accurate assessments and then advising on who could provide the best on-the-ground assets to protect workers. But it was still important to have a presence at these events, and it gave him the chance to catch up with a few old mates.
He turned on his tablet, connected to the hotel’s wireless internet network and quickly searched the news services for stories on shoot-outs in apartments in Baghdad. Nothing. Next a search for “deaths / shootings / murder / Baghdad / apartment” on Google. Lots of possibles, but when he filtered for the past twenty four hours, once again nothing. So either it didn’t even rate in the scheme of violence in modern Iraq, or it had been covered up.
He turned on his phone. It took a moment to start then find a signal. He dialled a number.
‘Hello, Brad Schneider speaking,’ came the voice, muffled with sleep.
‘Hi Brad, Ian MacRae calling from London. Sorry, did I wake you?’ MacRae knew it was the middle of the night in California. He also knew that Schneider always answered this phone, no matter the time or place. When you worked for the CIA you answered your phone.
‘Ian, buddy, how are you?’ Schneider suddenly sounded alert and guarded. ‘I’m getting static here that something messy went down in Baghdad involving one of our old sources, and that a westerner was involved. Was that you?’
‘Yes it was. And I’d like to know why a little pick-up job I did for you as a favour ended up with a room full of bodies, almost including mine?’
There was silence on the line for a moment, a worrying sign that Schneider was carefully framing his response. ‘Well I’m only picking up static here, not really in the loop, so tell me what happened at your end and I’ll see what sense we can make of it.’
That sounded fair enough.
‘The quick version is I turned up to keep our appointment and found the party had been crashed by some very mean local folk. They were trying to get information from our friend and were being very aggressive. I only picked up bits and pieces of what they were saying, they seemed to be going on about the Almighty having his revenge and bringing Satan’s breath down on the Unbelievers or something.’ MacRae paused. ‘They seemed to think I was involved, and by the terrified look on Hassan’s face it was pretty apparent where it was heading. Does this mean anything to you?’
Silence, then Schneider responded. ‘No it doesn’t I’m afraid. Were they armed? How did you get out?’
He seemed to be holding back.
MacRae chose his words carefully. ‘Yes, there were five of them, all Arab, armed with handguns and knives. Hassan got desperate and went for a gun and it all kicked off. The next thing you know there’s bodies all around, people trying to shoot the front door in, and I’m out through the back door and out of the country.’
‘Christ what a mess. I’m so sorry Ian. I had no idea there was a risk to this, and I’m really sorry that Hassan didn’t make it.’
‘Me too,’ MacRae said. ‘So how did this all come together?’
‘Hassan was only ever a low-level contact when I was in Iraq in 2008. I think he liked feeling he was helping the West rebuild his country, plus the monthly cash and cigarettes and occasional free meal didn’t go astray. His information was generally vague or out of date, but we had a good relationship. He trusted me. So when he contacted the agency a week or so ago with some supposedly vital information he refused to meet with anyone except me. But I’ve been out of Iraq for a long time, and when the local office passed on his request back to the States they figured his intel wasn’t worth sending me back there for it, so tough luck for Hassan.’
‘So why wasn’t that the end of it?’ MacRae asked.
‘He was a persistent little bugger.’ Schneider gave a little chuckle. ‘Get this, he emailed me at the agency. I told him I couldn’t meet him, but he wouldn’t let it go, then he said the only other person he trusted was you.’
MacRae thought back to 2008. He’d been on a job advising a small Dutch engineering company on security for their construction supervisors in Iraq. He’d run into Brad Schneider on and off over the years, sometimes professionally when Schneider had been “a US liaison officer” in foreign trouble-spots, or on the odd occasion in an airport bar or run down third-world hotel. Something like a friendship had developed and it soon became pretty clear what Schneider’s real role was. So on one occasion he’d tagged along on a lunchtime meeting with Hassan. They’d spent the afternoon in a local cafe that served delicious food and great coffee. He and Hassan had got on well, both had a similar vision of what Iraq could become.
‘I must have made a good impression,’ MacRae said.
‘Guess so. Anyway I figured you’d be passing by the Middle East on your way to Securetel in London, and I suggested you meet him. He said he had very important information, and he didn’t trust the other CIA spies, but he’d tell you what he’d discovered.’
MacRae turned Schneider’s words over in his mind. ‘So do you have any idea what he wanted to pass on, that was so important it cost him his life, and that he wouldn’t pass on to the agency through the usual channels?’
Once again Schneider seemed to pause a moment too long before he replied. ‘No buddy I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you at this point, but I’ll keep my ear to the ground and let you know if I get anything. Okay?’
MacRae had no choice but to let it go. ‘Yeah, sure. But remember my life was on the line for this one. You owe me now.’ He didn’t give Schneider a chance to respond. ‘Enjoy the rest of your night,’ he said then hung up.
MacRae leaned back onto the pillows of the bed, closed his eyes and let out a slow sigh. Sure Schneider was a CIA spook, or at least had been, but there’d always been a level of trust between them in the past. Now Schneider was holding something back, and under the circumstances that made MacRae very uncomfortable.
He had time to kill before the conference started the next day so sightseeing was on the agenda. London often was described as too crowded, noisy, and unfriendly amongst other things but MacRae always enjoyed his time there. It was a city rich with traditions and culture, always so much to do and an in-your-face attitude that said This is London, like it or not. His hotel was in a leafy street only a short walk from a thriving shopping strip. He’d stayed in the same hotel on a previous visit and knew there was a traditional old pub not far away. A pub lunch before heading into the city centre seemed the perfect way to start his visit.
The Brewers Arms was warm and welcoming, with a buzz of conversation and the electronic sounds of the gaming machines in the background. The barman pulled MacRae a pint of Pickfords Old Ale in one smooth action of the lever and took his order for a rabbit pie and chips. MacRae settled himself into a comfortable leather booth along the wall. He soaked up the sights and sounds of the pub and took a long draw of the dark ale.
He retrieved his phone and slid his finger over the screen and opened the web browser, then Facebook. First he checked the page of his consultancy, the usual chatter from friends and business associates…nothing that couldn’t wait.
Then he went to the page of Simon Jones. This was an alias page. Sometimes communication was necessary without giving away too much about himself, so this page had virtually no real information about MacRae, but served as a discreet point of contact.
The only picture on the page showed an ancient rainforest, and the location was described as forty-two degrees south. Most of the traffic on here was old as it was rarely used, but two comments had been added in the past twenty four hours. Both comments made him snap upright in his seat.
The first was from his new friend Fared Alkames from the EHS. It was a request to be his Facebook ‘friend’ and included the message: ‘Simon, hoping to catch up with you again soon. The friends of mine that you recently met are no-doubt also keen to meet you again. They are very resourceful. Please contact me.’
The other comment was from closer to home: ‘Hi Simon, hope all is going well on your trip. Some friends of yours from the States dropped by yesterday and seemed disappointed to miss you. Sarah.’
MacRae hadn’t noticed his lunch appearing on the table in front of him, and absently worked his way through the pie. It looked like this wasn’t going to go away, and at least three different groups of people were keen to speak to him. The Securetel conference would have to wait.
The insistent buzz of the phone jerked Ahmed Saren from a deep sleep. He turned over in the satin sheets, careful to avoid waking the woman breathing softly next to him. He closed the door as he left the bedroom, then walked across the slate floor to the cordless phone mounted on the wall near the floor-to-ceiling windows of the penthouse apartment. For a moment his attention was drawn to the spectacular view over Manhattan, the lights of the city at night shining like the rivers of gold this city was built on.
The voice on the phone spoke in Arabic, sounding a little tinny, reflecting the distance from the source. The caller rapidly provided sketchy details of the disaster that had unfolded in Baghdad. As he listened Saren’s facial muscles tightened, his eyes narrowed. His mind raced as he calculated the possible scenarios, options and risks, just as he did at lightning speed all day in his office. There it was all numbers, currencies, profits and losses. This was life and death, victory or disaster, the ultimate prize.
The voice on the phone paused.
Saren spoke quickly, issuing a series of instructions. ‘There are to be no loose ends, do you understand? We are too far along the path to fail now. Use whatever resources you need to track down those involved and eliminate them okay?’
With the phone call over Saren could feel the anger, the familiar rage rising inside him as always when things didn’t go his way. He gripped the phone hard, tempted to smash it against the nearest solid surface, then exhaled deeply, relaxed and put the phone back in its cradle.
He went back to the bedroom, turning on the light. The woman stirred, then awoke, looking at him quizzically, a mane of blond hair half covering her naked breasts.
He spoke to her coldly and deliberately. ‘Get your clothes and get out of here, we’re done.’
She started to protest. ‘What’s happened honey? Is there anything I can do to help?’
He moved closer, towering above her in the bed, tensing his hands, contemplating whether to smash her perfect face, then kept himself in check as he reminded himself that he didn’t need the attention such actions would generate. He’d found that out the hard way in the past. It took a lot of money and many favours to make serious assault charges disappear in America, so instead he shouted, ‘Get the hell out of here now you stupid whore!’
She’d left dishevelled and swearing at him that no one treated her like that, this wasn’t the end of it. She was a top attorney at a huge investment fund, earning millions of dollars a year keeping the crooked geniuses running the business one step ahead of the regulatory authorities. Brilliant and beautiful, she was desired by many men in the high powered business circles of New York.
But to Saren she was just another western whore, with no beliefs, morals or hope of redemption. Just one of the many sexual conquests he used to pass the time as he waited in this corrupt and hated country to finish what had been started long ago.
MacRae was feeling the effects of jet lag as the taxi from the airport headed through the Hobart city centre, and then ten minutes south to his home nestled into the bush on the foothills of nearby Mount Wellington. He loved the sense of familiarity that washed over him when he returned from travelling. He was looking forward to winding down in the calm of the rural community. But first he had to see Sarah.
The taxi’s tires crunched softly on the gravel driveway as it approached Sarah’s timber-clad house. The surrounding trees splashed dappled shadows on the windscreen as MacRae peered out, looking for Sarah.
She came around the side of the house leading a horse as he got out of the car and paid the driver. Her face broke into a broad smile when she saw him. ‘Hi Ian, we’ve just been jumping. Let yourself in and I’ll be with you in a moment.’
‘Sure Sarah.’ MacRae beamed back at her.
The horse steamed with sweat as Sarah took it over to the barn to settle it into a stall. MacRae went inside, dumped his bags, and prepared two coffees. He sat down in her kitchen and cast his eyes around the room as he waited, sipping his coffee.
Photos of a younger Sarah covered most of the walls, many of them in war and disaster zones around the world. Some with the sad or pleading eyes of victims of a tragedy, others with famous people. The life of a freelance journalist captured in time. And in a frame on top of a kitchen bench a collage of photos of Sarah the student, backpacking through Europe and North Africa. Young and carefree. A lot had happened since then.
‘Hello stranger,’ Sarah said as she entered the kitchen, hanging her coat over a chair and smiling at him.
Although slender Sarah looked fit and strong, the result of many hours riding and caring for horses. Her dark brown hair was cut short, stylish but practical. Her slightly angular face gave her a subtle beauty that caused men’s eyes to linger on her, and her dark brown eyes sparkled when she smiled at him. The years of travel and the stresses of her career had brought a maturity to her face, subtle lines around her eyes, and occasionally her eyes betrayed some of the trauma she’d experienced over the years. But today she was glowing with vitality.
MacRae stood up, wrapped his arms around her and gave an affectionate squeeze. ‘I didn’t plan to be back quite so soon, and you had something to do with that.’
‘Well someone has to watch your back.’ She laughed. ‘Who’ve you been upsetting now?’
They’d been friends a long time, and she knew him too well. He thought back to the first time they’d met. He’d been on a four week holiday, travelling wherever the mood took him around Europe. He’d seen her across the deck of a ferry from Algeciras in southern Spain to Ceuta in North Africa. Not the safest place for a young female travelling alone. She was starting to get some uninvited attention from a group of young men, until she opened her backpack, took out an apple and started to peel it with a huge folding bladed knife. They left her alone.
It turned out she was on a break from her journalism studies at university, and they ended up spending a week seeing the sights together. The excitement of sharing adventures – and too much wine over dinner one night – had led them to a clumsy and embarrassing kiss. They’d laughed as they agreed they were far better at being friends than lovers and that’s probably how it should stay.
They had remained pen-friends for years, through different careers and relationships, and occasionally crossed paths in exotic locations for their work. Sometimes MacRae wondered if they had unfinished business.
Then three years or so ago Sarah had been covering a war of attrition between the government and guerrilla forces in southern Sudan when her luck ran out. She’d been in a village when it was attacked by the guerrillas, and as the locals were being slaughtered she’d been savagely beaten and dragged into a hut. She had never spoken of exactly what happened in the hut in the moments before the government forces arrived and she was rescued.
MacRae was on Sarah’s ‘In Case of Emergency’ phone list and he’d asked a big favour of Brad Schneider, who’d organised an emergency evacuation for Sarah using CIA resources. She was shattered by what had happened, and had accepted MacRae’s invitation to recuperate at his house in Tasmania. She’d taken to the change of pace, and the tranquillity of the rural life, and when the house next door became available for rent she moved in.
She’d rebuilt her life as a freelance journalist, although no longer covering war zones. It turned out she was an excellent research resource for his business, and had become a wonderful friend.
MacRae ran her through the events of the last couple of days and explained that he’d thought that whatever had gone on had been left behind in Iraq, until he saw her message on Facebook.
Sarah leaned back in her chair, tapping a finger gently on her coffee cup.
MacRae couldn’t help noticing the grazes and scratches on her knuckles. ‘You’re still training?’
Sarah nodded and smiled. ‘It’s not as bad as it looks, and it’s so much fun.’
MacRae shook his head slowly. After Africa, Sarah had decided to learn to look after herself. So for the next year she’d signed up for anything to do with self defence. But there was one system that had become a passion – Krav Maga. She now trained in the aggressive unarmed combat system of the Israeli army at every opportunity and loved working out bare-knuckled on the canvas kick bag in her shed.
Sarah broke the silence. ‘Iraq sounds horrendous, and you were very lucky to get out of it in one piece.’
‘Poor Hassan wasn’t so lucky,’ MacRae said. ‘I still have no idea what was so important to him he risked and then lost his life for it.’
‘And you think Brad knows more than he’s telling you?’
‘Yes, I think he’s holding something back. And now that someone has tracked me down here…’ He sighed. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘Well a huge black SUV turned up yesterday and three suits got out and started nosing around your house,’ Sarah said. ‘So I did the neighbourly thing, and went over and asked them what the hell they were doing.’
‘That’s my Sarah.’ MacRae smiled as he imagined the unsuspecting visitors being confronted by Sarah.
‘Turns out they were American, said they were conducting an investigation with the Australian Feds, and started asked questions about you.’ Sarah leaned her elbows on the table. ‘I left them to it, but thought I’d better let you know. I mean if you’re going to disappear or something I want the money you owe me from poker before you go.’ She laughed.
MacRae reached forward and touched her arm. ‘Sarah this is serious. I don’t know what’s going on yet, but don’t take any risks on my behalf. Okay?’
Sarah raised an eyebrow. ‘Okay Ian.’
Sarah had been right about the big SUV judging by the tyre tracks in the driveway outside his house. MacRae disarmed the security system and went inside. He went quickly from room to room, nothing seemed to have been touched. He left his bags in the entry foyer but took his tablet into the living area. Sunlight streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling glass as he went to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer.
MacRae settled himself into a leather couch looking over the bush garden, flicked off his shoes and put his feet up on the coffee table. He dragged on the beer, put the bottle on the table, then got to work on the tablet. Connecting to his wireless internet he signed on to the data log for his home security system…sure enough, his house had been accessed while he was away. His mystery visitors, probably CIA, had searched his house without leaving an obvious trace, and maybe even bugged it.
He went through the house again more slowly this time, and found a number of his ‘tell-tales’ had been altered. In his home office the computer mouse was no longer touching the computer keyboard. Papers on a bureau weren’t laid out at forty-five degrees. Subtle changes, but enough to indicate that someone had searched the house and tried to cover their tracks. MacRae started his desktop computer and ran an anti-virus scan. Within seconds it had found a key-logger. Someone had installed software that recorded every stroke of the keypad and could then send the information to anyone over the internet. MacRae ran the scan again, this time deleting the malicious programs as it went.
He sighed. This was getting more and more complicated. Whatever he’d become involved in it was big, and somehow involved the security forces of at least two nations, neither of which wanted to fill him in. He felt sure Brad Schneider knew more than he was saying so there was no point going there, but maybe the guy from the Egyptian EHS would come to the party.
MacRae went back to the kitchen, scavenged some ingredients from the pantry and fridge and quickly prepared spaghetti carbonara on the stainless steel stove. He grabbed another beer and settled back on the couch, flicking through the TV channels on the remote as he ate. The international news was all natural disasters and civil wars so he watched the local news covering the finish of a bike race up Mount Wellington. A mini blizzard had set in and the competitors were struggling to pedal up the hill through sleet and snow. Rather them than me he thought, and flicked over to another channel just in time to see a contestant with too much make-up burst into tears as her souffle collapsed in front of the judges on a reality TV cooking show.
‘Tomorrow I’ll get in contact with Alkames,’ he said out loud just before he drifted off to sleep.
The heat of the day was finally easing as Fared Alkames wound his way through the crowds of the evening market on the way to his apartment in Cairo. The last few days had been frustrating as the effects of the failed operation in Iraq had become apparent. The deaths in Hassan’s apartment of the members of the terrorist cell, and their driver in the lane way, and his own disappearance would have spooked the group’s leadership. He could imagine their uncertainty as to whether Alkames was involved in the deaths, or whether he too had been a victim and was perhaps being held and interrogated by any one of a number of security forces.
His debriefings at the EHS intelligence agency headquarters had gone around in circles without reaching any kind of conclusion. What was clear however was the consensus that he was wrong to risk and ultimately compromise the ongoing operation for the sake of the life of an unexpected arrival.
It hadn’t taken long to uncover from the locals that the westerner at the apartment arrived by taxi. Bribes to a few taxi companies confirmed a western passenger had been taken from the airport to that area. It shouldn’t take much longer, or too many more bribes, to get the identity of the mystery man. And if the Egyptian security forces could find him, so probably could the terrorists, and they had shown they would do anything to protect this operation.
He had to at least try to warn the mysterious Mr Jones of the danger. Facebook had hundreds of people registered as Simon Jones around the world, but there was only one whose location was listed as latitude forty-two degrees south. He’d said he was Australian and that latitude seemed to be Hobart, Tasmania, a city on an island south of mainland Australia. Alkames had left a message on his Facebook page. Now all he could do was wait.
The sweet scent of spices wafted over him as he passed a stall selling cous cous and lamb in flat bread. He purchased a meal and ate, making his way out of the market.
His mind wandered again. The way forward wasn’t clear. The EHS had been monitoring the activities of this particular terror group for a while, but apart from distributing the usual propaganda calling for an uprising against the infidels and a New World Order under Islam they’d actually done very little. Certainly not enough to arrest them or pursue them further.
Until recently that is, when they’d started frantically communicating with branches around the world. Intercepts of encrypted messages had revealed they almost had some kind of advanced weapon that would achieve their goals, but despite the EHS infiltrating the group they still had no details of either the weapon or the target. And now they’d have to try to infiltrate the organisation again.
Alkames turned the corner into the lane way that lead to his apartment and walked straight into another man. He must have caught his elbow, as a sharp pain struck his chest and his breath was gone. He dropped his food and looked up. The man stared at him for a moment then abruptly turned and disappeared towards the market.
Alkames leaned against the wall, looked down at the food stain on his shirt. But it wasn’t a food stain, it was a small spreading pattern of blood. The long thin-bladed knife in his chest had penetrated his heart and he knew he was dead before he even slumped to the ground.
A good nights sleep brought MacRae renewed optimism that this could be sorted out. Over breakfast and a strong cup of coffee he replied to Alkames on Facebook and left his phone number, asking him to call him immediately.
He checked his email and voicemail, more work related messages, but nothing from Brad Schneider so he didn’t feel much more could be done at the moment. He wasn’t sure what approach to take regarding the American visitors to his house, and despite sleeping well his head still felt slow and fuzzy, jet-lagged. Nothing a few hours of splitting firewood won’t sort out.
Five acres of light bush around the house provided plenty of fallen wood, ideal for chopping into firewood for the winter, and as the sun rose higher overhead in an unbroken blue sky a bit of manual labour was just what he needed. He relished the opportunity to pull on the leather gloves and feel the satisfying crack as the heavy steel blockbuster shattered the stubborn pieces of hardwood trunk. Time to relax and think as he worked his muscles.
He walked quickly across the gravel driveway to the shed holding his tools and outdoor equipment, the screech of the steel door sliding open masked the rushed footsteps behind him. He saw a brief flash of movement in his peripheral vision before the timber axe handle slammed into the back of his head and he collapsed onto the concrete floor.
Blackness. Pain. The taste of blood. He was totally disoriented, but knew he was upright, arms held above his head, wrists together, shoulders screaming to be relieved of his weight. His head was wrapped in something…loose but blocking all light…a bag of some kind? Must breathe lightly to avoid sucking the covering into his mouth. Carefully he tested his weight on his feet and slowly stood straight.
An explosion of pain as something hard smashed into his left thigh. He yelled, almost collapsed, transferred his weight to his other leg, waiting for another blow. The pain sent adrenaline coursing through his body. His mind snapped into focus, senses sharpened. His weight made the structure supporting his arms move slightly, a creak of metal. He could hear familiar sounds…his bush block. It seemed he was still at his house, probably in the shed. He listened intently, heard subtle movements around him, two maybe three people at most?
His head was jerked upwards, fingers grinding into his cheekbones.
‘Why were you in Iraq? What were you doing in Hassan’s apartment? What do you know of the Devils Breath?’ The questions were quietly insistent, as though the interrogator had all the time in the world.
‘Who are you, what do you want from me?’ MacRae tried to ignore the pain in so many parts of his body.
Another explosion of pain as a fist drove hard into his solar plexus, his knees buckled, lungs desperately tried to get air. His mind reeled.
‘You will answer the questions. Who sent you to Iraq? What do you know of Devils Breath?’ This time the man was shouting in his face.
MacRae knew he couldn’t stall for long in this situation.
‘I don’t understand what you want. Who are you? Why are you doing this?’ He also knew that if he told his interrogators what they wanted to know he would no longer have any value to them and they’d most likely kill him because of what he’d witnessed in Hassan’s apartment. Questions flashed through his mind.
How had they managed to find him so quickly? What was so important that they’d pursue him to the other side of the world?
The hood was suddenly pulled up to his nose. A gag was shoved roughly into his mouth and taped into place. MacRae fought his gag reflex, resisting the urge to vomit, knowing he could choke. The hood was pulled back down and the voice came back in close to his face.
‘You will tell us what we want to know. It’s up to you how unpleasant we have to make it for you. Many lessons were learned about how to extract information from infidels during the insurgency in Iraq.’
Someone grabbed his feet and pulled them up against a hard surface. MacRae tried to kick out but it was useless. Then the high pitched scream of an electric motor…an electric drill.
His mind reeled, flashing back to photos he had seen of corpses in Iraq around 2003, mutilated, tortured to the point of death by electric drills all over their bodies. He struggled again, trying desperately to kick his feet free, but strong hands held him still as the sound of the drill came closer. He tried to prepare himself for the agony that would tear through his body any moment…
… then the world erupted into chaos. A huge crash echoed around the room as the shed door exploded inwards, a revving engine, shouts of pain and confusion, then the booming blast of a shotgun, deafening in the confined space. MacRae felt debris flying though the air hitting his body as shotgun pellets destroyed everything around him, heard the angry shouts of his assailants as they tried to assess the threat that engulfed them. Then the shouts grew more distant as his tormentors kicked out a locked door at the rear of the shed and fled outside, running for the cover of the bush.
The vehicle engine stopped abruptly, as did the cacophony of shotgun blasts. MacRae stood still, trying to build a mental picture of what was happening. The air in the shed was thick with fumes from the exhaust of the vehicle and from the blasts of the shotgun. He could feel a breeze coming through the shattered shed doors brushing the hairs on his up-stretched arms. The coarse material of the hood over his head itched his scalp, and the gag in his mouth threatened to choke him. He put all his weight onto the restraints holding his hands above his head but they refused to yield, so he tried to slow his erratic breathing, to focus more clearly on the sounds around him.
Footsteps, boots, approached him, then walked past him to the rear of the shed. A few steps outside, then they turned and came back to him.
‘Jesus Ian. What the hell are you involved in?’ Sarah’s calm but concerned voice cut through his confusion like a knife.
The click of steel as she took out the razor-sharp blade of her pocket knife, then the tearing of cloth as she cut the hood away from his head. He blinked in the bright light then looked up. Her eyes were blazing with the rush from the violence as she ripped the tape and gag from his mouth, then reached up and cut the ropes that were binding his hands.
MacRae’s legs gave way and he collapsed to the cold concrete floor slab. He started shaking as the threat receded and his body reacted to his injuries. He forced himself to slow his breathing, cleared his head and got to his feet.
Sarah came close, turned him around and inspected the back of his head. ‘Christ, it looks like they just about split your skull open…amongst other things.’
He touched her shoulder, turning to look at her. She had tears welling up in her eyes.
‘Sarah, I’m so sorry you’ve got caught up in this. Thank heavens you came in when you did.’ He forced a smile. ‘My day wasn’t going so well.’
Pain from the blows to his thigh and solar plexus shot through him when he started to walk, so Sarah helped him back across to his house. She propped the shotgun against the kitchen bench in case the men came back and busied herself in the kitchen making drinks, then sat down in the lounge to wait while MacRae took a shower.
The hot jets of water pounded into his head and back, turning the water at his feet red with the blood washing from his hair. The cut on his head throbbed, and a massive blue and purple bruise now covered most of his thigh.
Cold fury swept through him like a flood and he slammed his fist hard into the wall of the shower. This had gone too far, it was time to fight back. And one thing he did know was how to fight when necessary.
He had one towel against his head and another around his waist as he walked back into the living area.
Sarah gasped when she saw his injuries. ‘What on earth did they hit you with?’
‘I don’t know.’ He grimaced. ‘But it hurt.’
MacRae went to the first aid kit in the kitchen, then through to the lounge and dropped himself onto the couch. He sipped the coffee Sarah had made him, savouring the kick of the caffeine, and knocked down a couple of codeine to try and calm the jack-hammer headache pounding in his head.
Sarah went round behind him lifted the towel away and inspected the gash on his head. She drew in a sharp intake of breath. ‘It looks nasty but I think it will heal okay. As long as you don’t get hit there again too soon.’ She sat down opposite him, wrapped her hands around her coffee mug, then looked up at him.
They both spoke together.
‘What is going on here?’
‘Where did you come from Sarah?’
Sarah laughed. ‘Sorry, you go first.’
‘The last thing I remember is walking across to the shed to get the gear for some serious firewood chopping.’ MacRae paused, trying gathering his thoughts. ‘The next thing I know I’m strung up like a carcass in a slaughter house, and apparently about to be turned into Swiss cheese by some very nasty people who want to know all about my visit to the Middle East. They were going on about something called the Devil’s Breath. Then my Guardian Angel bursts through the door of my shed in a small truck, shotgun blazing.’
MacRae shifted in his seat, lifting the weight from his injured thigh. ‘I really don’t know how to thank you for this Sarah.’ He met her eyes. ‘I was in a lot of trouble there.’ He paused. ‘And you do realise I’m going to send you a bill for the damage to the shed?’
Sarah laughed. ‘And how do you think I’m going to explain the damage to my car to my insurance company?’
‘That’s going to be a bit tricky isn’t it?’ MacRae said. ‘So where did you come from?’
Sarah sipped her coffee, a curl of steam snaking over her face, then spoke. ‘I was heading out for a quick horse ride along the trail at the back of your block. Rosie was just getting into her stride when we came across a car, an SUV. It had been driven into the bushes, like it was meant to be hidden. Too coincidental for my liking, so I took a picture on my phone and got the license plate number. I was coming up to your house to tell you when I heard the yelling from the shed.’
She put the cup down with a clatter on the saucer. Her hands shook. ‘I tied up Rosie and went round the back of the shed to the rear window. God Ian, it scared the hell out of me to see what they were doing to you.’
Sarah sighed, taking a moment to gather her thoughts, looking down at her hands. Ian followed her gaze, she was gripping her hands together to stop them shaking. Eventually she spoke again. ‘I almost lost it for a minute…had a bit of a flashback to when I was attacked in Africa all those years ago. The cold terror of knowing something terrible was happening came flooding back.’
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. ‘I had to take a few deep breaths to calm down…thank you yoga…then I realised there was no-one else around, it was down to me to stop those guys. So I went back to my place and got dad’s old shotgun. Thank heavens it was still gathering dust in the cupboard and I hadn’t got around to selling it.’
‘Yes, lucky for me,’ MacRae said.
‘Well that was only half of it, it took me ages to find the shotgun shells. For a while I thought I was going to have to try and bluff my way through with an empty gun.’ Sarah smiled. ‘I’d seen at least three of them through the window and figured I had to panic them before they realised it was just one woman with an old shotgun coming to rescue you…so I decided to drive the Landcruiser through the door.’
‘Everyone says Landcruisers are bullet proof don’t they?’ MacRae said. ‘So you thought you’d better test it out?’
‘Well it worked didn’t it? They didn’t know what had hit them, they panicked. It only just made it through the door though. You’re shed is way too tough.’
Her smile went. ‘When I got into the shed I hit a bench, and tools went everywhere, helping the chaos. Then I started blasting away with the shotgun, just in the air…didn’t want to risk shooting you. But it was enough because they took off through the back door like frightened rabbits. I hope that’s the last you’ll see of them.’
MacRae’s eyes narrowed. ‘These people have come after me on the other side of the world. I can’t see them giving up just yet, and that makes me very nervous when it starts to involve my friends.’
‘So where do you go from here?’ Sarah asked, frowning.
MacRae stood up, stretching slowly to see what hurt most, but couldn’t decide. ‘Well, it’s obvious this isn’t going to go away. Those guys were deadly serious. And I owe it to Hassan to find out why he was killed. Part of me feels guilty that I couldn’t do something to help him in his apartment. He tried to keep me out of it by pretending he didn’t know me, but I couldn’t do anything to save him.’
‘You can’t blame yourself for what happened to him,’ Sarah spoke softly. ‘He’s the one who almost got you killed.’
‘He wasn’t a bad guy. He’d just found himself in a country that always made it a struggle to survive for so many people.’
‘I guess,’ Sarah said. ‘It makes you realise that so much of our life is just down to where we were born, rich country, poor country, wealthy parents, a war zone. So much of it just comes down to dumb luck.’
‘True,’ MacRae said. ‘You’ve got to just try to make the most of what you’ve got. That’s what Hassan was trying to do. But maybe there’s more to it than him just trying to get out of Iraq. The guys that killed him, and the guys that attacked me here want to keep something secret and don’t care what it takes.’
Sarah picked up the coffee cups and stood. ‘So it’s probably time for you to take the initiative then. How are you going to do that?’
‘First stop the Federal Police and their American friends. I need to find out why they’re so interested in me. And maybe get their help tracking down these guys.’
The melodic ringtone of MacRae’s phone interrupted them. It took him a moment to locate it under a magazine on the coffee table. He glanced at the screen before answering it. Unknown number flashed.
‘Human Resource Security, can I help you?’
There was silence at the other end of the line, then a female voice. ‘May I speak to Simon Jones regarding Fared Alkames.’
MacRae’s mind snapped into focus. She spoke very precise English, but with a strong accent.. Middle Eastern?
‘I’m Simon,’ he said cautiously.
‘Mr Jones my name is Eshe Massri. I’m calling from the Egyptian Homeland Security offices in Cairo. I believe you were recently involved in a rather delicate business matter with Fared Alkames. Is that correct?’
‘Yes, that’s right. There are some issues that haven’t been resolved, in fact they’re continuing to be a problem here in Australia. Mr Alkames suggested he may be able to help. Can I speak to him please?’ MacRae shifted his wait from one leg to the other, but they both ached with the bruising from the vicious assault.
Another pause at the other end of the line.
‘Mr Jones I’m still unsure of your connection with Mr Alkames but I regret to inform you that he was involved in an incident yesterday in a market near his home. The details aren’t clear but it appears he was the victim of an assault, a stabbing. He died instantly.’
MacRae froze, tightened his grip on the phone. Sarah looked up at him with concern.
'Mr Jones -'
MacRae broke in. ‘I’m so sorry to hear of his death Ms Massri. I’d better clear one thing up. My name is actually Ian MacRae. I used the name Simon Jones when I met Mr Alkames due to the circumstances. Until then I’d had no association with him, I just got caught up in what was going on there. The only thing he did tell me was that he worked for the Egyptian security services, the EHS. And please call me Ian.’
‘I see,’ Eshe said. ‘And you can call me Eshe.’
She took in what he had said for a moment. ‘I’ve taken over the management of the projects he was assigned to and came across your request for him to contact you, presumably relating to those events?’
‘May I ask how you became involved with him?’ There was a hard edge to Eshe’s voice.
‘I was passing through the Middle East on the way to a business conference in London. I stopped over in Iraq to catch up with an old acquaintance. When I went to meet him I got dragged into the middle of a violent confrontation. I have no idea what it was about. For some reason Mr Alkames saved my life, and whatever I became involved with has followed me back here to Australia.’
‘How so?’ Eshe asked.
‘My house and business in Australia have come under government surveillance. And I was just visited by some very unpleasant guys who seemed to think I had information about the events in Iraq.’
‘And do you Mr MacRae?’
‘I picked up the words ‘Devils Breath’ during the confrontation, and that seems significant. They were happy to use violence to find out how much I knew. Luck for me they were interrupted.’
‘What happened to them?’ Eshe said.
‘They left in a hurry, but I don’t think I’ve seen the last of them.’
‘So what are you going to do about them?’
MacRae thought for a moment. ‘If the local government agencies are already interested in me and this situation, I might as well enlist their help in trying to figure out what’s going on and tracking down the guys that attacked me here.’
‘That makes sense Mr MacRae.’
‘Please Eshe, call me Ian,’ MacRae said. ‘It would help of course if you could tell me what’s going on your end. What Fared Alkames and Hassan were involved in.’
Silence at the other end of the phone.
‘I’m sorry Ian, I’ve only just got involved and I’m not fully aware of the events, so I can’t provide you with any more information at the moment.’
‘So you won’t tell me anything, is that it?’ MacRae’s eyes narrowed, he turned to Sarah and shrugged his shoulders. She shook her head in disgust.
‘I’m afraid I’m unable to provide you with any more information on an active investigation at this point.’
‘So what was the purpose of this call then?’
‘Simply to advise you of the death of Mr Alkames. I’m sorry.’
‘So am I,’ MacRae said curtly. ‘Goodbye.’
He hung up then tossed the phone onto the couch.
MacRae shook his head. ‘Great. The only person who really knew what was going on and could maybe help me has just been murdered in Egypt.’
‘And I gather his replacement wasn’t very forthcoming?’ Sarah said.
‘Nope. Just wanted to know how I was tied into all this, but not prepared to give me anything. So I have the governments of a number of different countries interested in me, an old acquaintance has been killed, along with the Egyptian spook who saved my life. Plus some kind of hit squad is after me, and no-one will tell me what’s going on.’
He paced the room. ‘I guess it’s time to go and talk to my visitors from the government, starting with the Federal Police.’
But first Sarah. She couldn’t keep taking risks like the one she did today…even if it saved his life. He sat next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
‘Until I know more about what’s going on it’s not safe here for you. Why don’t you stay in a hotel in the city for few days until I get it sorted out? My treat, a nice room overlooking the harbour?’
She touched his arm. ‘Thanks Ian, but I’m a big girl. With a shotgun. No one messes with me, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let them chase me out of my own home.’ She smiled. ‘I got rid of them once. I can do it again. Now you go and talk to some people and sort this out.’
Dappled light coming through the Eucalyptus trees flickered across the windscreen as the car wound along the twisting country road. MacRae tapped his way through the digital radio stations searching for music, but gave up when he was assaulted by ads beseeching him to buy a new car or hair replacement therapy.
He focused instead on the road, deciding to enjoy the ride on the short drive from his house in the bush to the highway into the city. He stomped on the clutch and slammed the gear lever back a gear then pushed the throttle to the floor. The engine roared as the turbo charger rammed oxygen into the eight hungry cylinders and the car leapt forward, pushing him back in his seat with a broad grin across his face. The compact SUV looked like a family car but this one had a few extras only found in the ‘sports’ model. When pushed hard it performed like a rally car. It was one of MacRae’s few indulgences and while looking the part of the conservative car for a business consultant it was always good for an adrenaline rush.
The Tasmanian countryside was a driver’s paradise. Well-maintained sealed asphalt roads wound themselves around the endless landscape of rolling hills. Wonderful views of coastal beaches or ancient rainforests revealed themselves as travellers traversed the island state. For motorcyclists it provided an unrivalled combination of natural beauty and challenge as they toured the state, pushing their machines around the rolling curves and rises and falls in the road. The abundant natural wildlife wandering casually across the roads at night provided an additional challenge for drivers with many a wallaby or possum ending up as road kill.
And for one week each year some of the fastest touring cars with the best racing drivers in the country competed against classic cars from bygone eras for the prestigious Targa Tasmania trophies, in a race that navigated the state over five days, sometimes leaving shattered cars and drivers in some of the most remote and beautiful countryside in the world.
MacRae found a few more aches and pains from his recent injuries as he threw the car around the corners, relishing the challenge of picking the best entry into each corner, selecting a gear then powering out into the next. All too soon he reached the end of the rural road and slowed to a stop at the intersection with the highway into the city.
A stream of cars followed by a huge truck was approaching the intersection. MacRae judged their speed and distance from his car. He could get out in front of them but he decided to let them pass. He had a few seconds to wait so focused his attention back on finding some music on the radio. Which was why he didn’t notice the car accelerating hard as it came around the corner behind him, tyres screeching on the asphalt, engine screaming to get the maximum speed up…before ramming into the back of his car in an explosion of glass, metal and plastic, catapulting him into the middle of the highway and directly in the path of the speeding cars and truck.
The driver of the leading car barrelling down the highway towards MacRae was belting out the AC/DC classic ‘Highway to Hell’ at the top of his voice along with the stereo when he first noticed the car waiting to join the highway at the intersection a hundred metres ahead of him. He was halfway through the chorus when he saw another car speed around the corner to the rear, accelerating hard, then to his astonishment, smash into the back of the stationary car, propelling it onto the highway and directly in front of him.
Half a second for his eyes to send the images to his brain and take in the unfolding events. Another half a second to react. By then it was way too late.
He stabbed hard at the brake pedal, locking the wheels, his car sliding towards MacRae and leaving a trail of rubber on the road behind him.
MacRae’s head was thrust back into headrest as his car leapt forward, then airbags surrounding him exploded out, enveloping him briefly in a soft white bubble. His foot came off the clutch and the engine coughed and spluttered briefly, jerking the car forward again before it stalled.
The shattered vehicle sat at a forty-five degree angle to the traffic hurtling towards him. The rear axle was destroyed and the bumper hung onto the road surrounded by smashed glass, plastic and hydraulic fluids. A vague smell of petrol drifted through the air.
MacRae blinked rapidly a few times to clear the fog from his head, then the world came back into focus and he saw the tonnes of metallic death about to plow into the side of his vehicle. He glanced in the rear view mirror and could see another shattered car behind him. He could just make out the shapes of men slumped over seats and the dashboard.
Twisting the ignition key he pumped the throttle, the starter motor screamed but the engine refused to fire. He tried again but without success. He threw a quick glance back to the road…there was no time.
Desperately he wrenched the door handle but the impact had twisted the car frame and it wouldn’t open. He tried the other side, same result. He looked up the highway to see the car moments from smashing into the side of him…followed by a massive truck. Leaning back he kicked at the window in the door. The toughened glass refused to yield. Then he remembered the Gerber multi-tool he kept in the centre console. He grabbed it with both hands and struck at the glass with all his strength…once…twice. Nothing. With a yell of frustration he swung a final time, a sharp crack as the hardened steel met the glass then he was showered with fragments of the shattered window. One last glance at the car and truck about to impact then he hurtled himself through the opening and onto the road, scrambling away from his car.
The first car swerved at the last moment and skidded sideways off the road, miraculously avoiding the wrecked cars before stopping with a thump in a ditch. The driver sat with shaking hands and vaguely heard the last few notes of screaming guitar on the stereo, before watching the truck that had been following him bear down with horrifying inevitability into the tangled wreckage on the highway.
’5 mins away luv, c u soon’ the text message said.
The screech of tyres and an almighty crash in front of his fifteen tonne semi-trailer made the truck driver look up from his phone before he hit the send button for his text. He’d made the mistake at the end of a long shift of starting to think more about what he would do when he was home, rather then the road ahead. He saw in slow motion the car in front of him skid towards two wrecked cars in the middle of the highway. Then at the last moment it jerked off into a drain at the side of the road.
He slammed on the brakes and wrenched the steering wheel hard towards the side of the road. The massive rig started to slow in a cloud of smoke from the tyres and brakes, before the front of the truck veered to one side. The trailer couldn’t cope with the sudden change in direction, and in what seemed like slow motion to the driver, the trailer leaned up onto the wheels on one side…before toppling over and skidding along the highway in a shower of sparks. He saw a man throw himself from the side window of one car before scrambling away on the asphalt, then the feeble movements of other people in the second car as they looked up…just before the trailer slammed into their crippled vehicle.
MacRae turned just in time to see the huge steel trailer smash into the two cars like a giant hammer, crushing the wrecks into a twisted mess of machinery and bodies. Debris flew through the air in all directions, including straight at him.
He leapt to his feet and started to run, legs pounding…then blackness.
The man awoke from a deep sleep. He’d been dreaming of another world, another life, a place of peace. In his dream he’d no longer been frightened or angry. The pain of his past, the deaths of those he loved, the hate he felt for the infidels was all gone. He was free, he was loved. He’d finally been rewarded for his deeds in his hated past life. He’d been a martyr, now he was in paradise.
But an insistent beeping, so far away, but getting closer and closer, louder, then voices and finally light, painfully close to his eyes had wrenched him away from this wonderful place. With a gentle start he opened his eyes, and to his dismay as the feelings of joy receded into the depths of his memory, he realised he was still alive, in a bed, a hospital.
A woman leaned over him, her crisp white nurses uniform rustling as she moved, inspecting wounds, bandages on his body. He smelled her perfume, subtle, the alluring softness of roses. He could see the curves of her body, her breasts gently brushing against his arm as she moved. It was a very long time since he’d been so close, so intimate with a woman. His wife had been killed in a bomb blast so many years ago as part of the civil war, taking away his joy, his reason for living, and his unborn son.
His body started to respond to her sensuality. Long forgotten feelings of desire stirring inside him. Then with a rush the hate and rage overpowered again him as he realised he was being tempted by a scantily-clad western woman, betraying his dead family, his God and his faith.
He lay still and slowly closed his eyes again, pretending to be asleep as she finished attending his injuries then moved to the foot of the bed. He heard the scratching of her pen as she wrote on his medical chart, then the soft squeak of her rubber soled shoes on the polished linoleum floor as she left the hospital room.
He lay there silently, exploring his body, carefully moving every part one at a time, and apart from stabbing pain when he moved his torso he seemed to be relatively uninjured. Images started flashing into his head, and for the first time he tried to piece together where he was, how he’d got there. With a jolt, the picture of a huge trailer hurtling towards him filled his mind, and within an instant it all came flashing back…the man they’d been torturing in the shed in the country, his escape. Then following his car and the impulse decision to kill him by propelling his car into the oncoming highway traffic. Surely they’d succeeded? No one could have survived the impact of the speeding truck. Then he groaned quietly, overwhelmed by shame and sense of failure. If he’d survived the crash perhaps others had too?
But the target must be dead. They couldn’t risk anyone interfering with the Holy Mission now. They were so close after so long. He shuddered when he recalled how they’d been betrayed by that western sympathiser spy Alkames, and Hassan.
Hassan! It was almost too much to believe. He’d been one of them for so long, he was their brother, why had he turned against them?
Then the image of the truck trailer again. The four of them trapped in the ruined vehicle. The blood, the moans of his companions as they sat in the car in the highway. Then the trailer had hit them. He shivered as he recalled the terror of seeing his own death approaching, mingled with the elation of knowing he’d been faithful to Allah, and as a martyr for the cause he’d spend eternity in Paradise.
There was no sound in his room, no movement. Just muffled noises from the corridor nearby. Glancing cautiously around he took in the small private room, plain white walls, trolleys, trays and all kinds of sophisticated electronic equipment. A curtain was pulled around something on the other side of the room near a window. The faint smell of disinfectant made him wrinkle his nose. A television was mounted high on the wall on the other side of the room. A television in a hospital room… where he was from you were grateful for a fresh bandage or painkillers while bullet or shrapnel wounds were treated.
The door was closed – he couldn’t be seen from the corridor – so he swung his legs over the side of the bed to the floor, wincing as he twisted his body. The room swum for a moment as he was overcome by dizziness and his head throbbed, but then it came back into sharp focus and he stood to get a better look at his surroundings. Sun streamed in through the window, casting hard harsh shadows on the floor, and making him squint as he approached the floral curtain hung from a circular stainless steel railing. He could hear the gentle rhythmic sound of breathing as he carefully pulled the curtain away. The metal curtain rings scraped along the rail. He staggered back a step and gasped when he saw who was lying there.
Sarah’s face flushed with anger as she eye-balled the bored-looking police officer guarding the hospital room. ‘Please just move out of the way and let me in. I really need to see Ian.’
She’d been heading into the city an hour after MacRae when she had come across the crash scene on the highway. The intersection was still crowded with emergency services vehicles and tow trucks as the tangled wrecks were slowly carted away. Police cars with red lights flashing guarded the approaches to the chaotic scene. Angry snarls of traffic backed up hundreds of metres along the highway in both directions as they were forced to crawl on the gravel road shoulder through the intersection.
As Sarah was being directed around the wreckage by a serious looking police officer in a fluorescent orange safety vest she’d been stunned to recognise the mangled front of MacRae’s car being winched up onto the back of a flat-bed truck.
She’d tried calling his phone…no answer. And although the police officer directing traffic had refused to provide any information it had only taken her a few calls to her contacts in emergency services to find out that a number of occupants of two cars had been killed. But there were two survivors and they were in a stable condition at the Royal Hobart Hospital. No other information was available, so Sarah had gone to see for herself if MacRae had survived the carnage.
That was when she’d discovered that the reason there was no further information available on the crash survivors was because they were both under police guard.
‘I’m sorry ma’am but no one is to enter or leave this room other than hospital staff. If you need any more information regarding the condition of the patients I suggest you talk to the nurses.’
‘Can you at least tell me if it’s Ian MacRae in there and why he is under police guard?’ Sarah said.
The police officer looked at her impassively, unmoving.
‘Well I’m not going anywhere until I’ve seen for myself.’ She crossed her arms and leant defiantly against the wall.
Inside the room the man had overcome his shock at seeing his team’s target. He couldn’t believe that MacRae had miraculously survived the vehicle wreck. The man must have the luck of the devil. He stepped closer and cast curious eyes over the figure lying in front of him. Apart from some bruises and scratches on his face he seemed to be relatively uninjured, lying peacefully in the bed, chest rising and falling slowly and evenly.
The man crept quietly over to the door, listening for activity. He heard the muffled voice of a woman through the thick timber door panels, then the deeper voice of a man…‘really need to see Ian’…‘under police guard’…
He thought quickly. If they were under police guard perhaps they’d been identified? Then a smile broke out across his face. Fate had put them in the same hospital room, he still had one last chance to succeed in his task. He silently thanked Allah for giving him another opportunity. He looked around the room for a weapon. This needed to be done quickly, decisively, no more mistakes.
But there was nothing, only bedding, water containers. Then his eyes were drawn to the clipboard at the end of his bed, and the pen the nurse had left slipped into the spring along the top. He took the slender tube of plastic in his right hand and moved slowly over to the side of the patient sleeping peacefully in the bed. He paused for a moment, contemplating what he was about to do to his sleeping, defenceless victim. He could sense the man’s life coming and going with each soft breath. Everything he’d ever thought or felt was about to be extinguished forever. He would no longer put any mark on the world or its people. He would be lost to all those he loved and those who loved him. Ending the life of another human was a huge and solemn responsibility, never to be taken lightly.
Then he recalled the injustices forever visited upon his Muslim brothers across the Holy Lands by the infidels. He was a loyal warrior in Islam’s Army, the only group of true believers that had the courage to finally cleanse the world. This was necessary and this man’s life would be justly taken for the greater good.
He smiled. His faith had been tested again, and he had not weakened.
His eyes narrowed as he quickly pushed his left hand down over MacRae’s nose and mouth to stifle any cries for help, then raised his right hand just above MacRae’s right eye ready to thrust the metal tip of the pen down through the soft orb into his brain.
MacRae’s eyes snapped open, burning into his attacker’s, and his arms shot up, grabbing both the terrorist’s wrists in a vice-like grip.
Sarah boiled inside with frustration at the police officer’s intransigence. The images of the crash scene flashed back. How could anyone have survived the terrible destruction wrought upon the vehicle and their occupants? What has Ian done to deserve this, one near-fatal incident after another? And now he was under police guard. Was he a prisoner for some reason or perhaps it was for his own protection?
She turned to the officer who had his feet planted resolutely in front of the door. ‘Please at least tell me if it is Ian MacRae in there, if he is alright? He’s a close friend of mine and he’s had enough bad luck in the last few days to last a lifetime. His car was involved in the smash on the highway. I just need to know if he’s okay.’
The police officer fixed her with a long stare then his face softened a little.
‘I really can’t tell you much ma’am, only that one of the men in the room was the single occupant of one of the cars and he is in a stable condition with no major injuries. The other man was the only survivor of the four men in the other vehicle initially involved in the accident. He has more substantial injuries but is also in a stable condition. I can’t tell you more than that, because that’s all I know.’
‘So why are the survivors of a traffic accident being guarded by a police officer?’ Sarah frowned.
‘I’m sorry ma’am. I couldn’t answer that question even if I knew. It’s just a miracle that one car can rear-end another, both of them ending up in the middle of a busy highway in the path of cars and a truck, and anyone survives.’ He shook his head.
Sarah leaned back against the wall. She knew this was all the information she’d be getting for the moment. At least she could conclude that if it was Ian in the crash and now the hospital room, he seemed to be okay. They could sort out the issues with the police later.
She suddenly felt claustrophobic in the stuffy air-conditioned hospital corridor. There was nothing more she could do here. Probably best to just go home and wait for more news. She’d give the hospital staff her number so they could contact her.
Christ, Ian was having a bad run. Hit from behind at an intersection and pushed into the oncoming traffic? And what about the idiots in the car that had hit him from behind, all of them killed except one. Ironic that they were now sharing a hospital room.
She thanked the police officer for his help and turned to try and find her way to the lifts through the maze of corridors in the aging hospital. Not so easy. She was forced back against the wall by an orderly pushing a gurney down the corridor past her with a hugely obese women on top, draped with a dazzling array of portable life sustaining equipment.
Funny how she’d instantly recognised Ian’s wrecked vehicle being loaded onto the flat bed tow truck. He’d loved that car, pointed out all the special little features that made it more than just a car to him. Yet something was bothering her. In the back of her mind she saw the other car in the accident. Suddenly it too seemed vaguely familiar. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.
The corridor was empty again so she smiled at the police officer as she turned to walk away. ‘Have a good day, and make sure you look after them.’
Around the corner at the end of two corridors she finally found the lift. She stabbed the call button impatiently, watching the numbers above the doors illuminate one by one as it approached. The doors crawled open and she stood aside as worried-looking visitors pushed out past her. Then she joined the throng from her floor squeezing in. It was just as the doors were finally sliding closed that it came to her…the horrifying realisation that the second car involved in the accident was the same car she’d seen hidden off the track at MacRae’s house when the terrorists had attacked him earlier.
‘Oh my God,’ escaped her lips and the blood drained from her face. MacRae and one of the terrorists must be sharing same room.
She jammed an arm into the last of the gap as the doors closed, forcing them to slide back open as she threw herself out of the lift and pelted back down the corridors to MacRae’s room.
The terrorist was surprised by the resistance to his attack. He snarled as he struggled to keep his hand over MacRae’s mouth, shifting his weight to force the pen the last few centimetres into MacRae’s eye.
MacRae’s muscles screamed in protest as he resisted, but he didn’t have the strength to overcome his fanatical attacker. His lungs ached as his quickly ran out of oxygen, struggling to draw in life-giving breath through the hand sealing his nose and mouth shut. His concentration was fading and he started to feel light-headed. The sharp tip of the pen loomed terrifyingly close to his right eye, his mind ludicrously taking in the detail of the tiny ball point and lump of dried ink at the end.
He twisted his head and jerked both arms sideways, away from his attacker. The suffocating hand was wrenched from his mouth and the pen swung to one side, missing his eye by millimetres and spearing into the pillow next to his face.
The terrorist was pulled over on top of him, losing his balance and his advantage. MacRae took a desperate breath, the sweet air filling his lungs and giving energy back to his fight. He roared with anger and yanked the wrist holding the pen sideways again, the hand flying into a jug of water at the side of the bed, throwing it off the table and smashing into a thousands pieces on the ward floor.
The police officer turned with a start as the crash of the breaking jug echoed into the corridor, just as Sarah got back to the room. She barely slowed as she approached the door, lowering her shoulder and using her momentum to slam into the officer’s chest, knocking him into the wall with an angry grunt. She hurtled herself into the room, pausing for just a moment to take in the scene of MacRae’s desperate fight for survival.
The terrorist still had the advantage of his weight overpowering his victim and he swung his head down at MacRae in a vicious head-butt, delivering a glancing blow to MacRae’s cheek. Taking advantage of the shock of the blow he got both hands onto the pen, pulling it back over MacRae’s face. With a cry of desperation he threw his full weight and strength onto the pen sending it plunging back towards MacRae’s eye…just as Sarah launched herself across the room with a scream. She smashed into the terrorist’s injured torso, knocking him off MacRae.
Sarah and the terrorist lay on the floor, both stunned for a few seconds, before the terrorist jumped up and lashed out at Sarah with a swift kick to her chin. Her head snapped back up and she slumped on the floor. MacRae jerked himself off the bed and swung a vicious hook punch at the terrorist, connecting with his jaw with a sickening crack.
The terrorist buckled briefly at the knees, then readied himself for another attack at MacRae when the police officer charged into the room, pistol drawn shouting, ‘Everybody freeze.’
MacRae froze, staring fixedly at the terrorist. It was his move now.
For a couple of seconds there was no sound in the room other than the rapid breathing of the combatants. The terrorist looked desperately from MacRae to the police officer, then back to MacRae and the rage fell from his face as he realised he had failed. He looked quickly around the room, exploring options. He had none.
He stood up straight and dropped his arms to his side, gazing out the window at the view of the beautiful city on the harbour. Then he dropped the pen to the floor and smiled as he picked up the heavy metal visitor’s chair next to the wall. MacRae readied himself to fend off another attack
The police office yelled again. ‘Put the chair down now!’
Instead the terrorist swung the chair hard against the tinted window, sending glistening shards of glass showering onto the bustling street below.
He looked at MacRae one last time and cried, ‘God is great.’ Then he calmly put the chair back against the wall and threw himself out the window, silently plummeting to his death on the concrete footpath below.
At least I’m finally meeting the Feds and the Americans, that’s got to be a positive. MacRae arched his back and stretched, trying to get more comfortable on the steel chair in the interview room. He sighed and checked the time again on his G-shock.
Christ, he’d only been there for an hour, it seemed like a lifetime. All just part of the process, make the subject wait to show them who’s in control. Maybe they’ll start to sweat about their predicament as the reality sinks in that they are no longer the master of their own destiny, that they are now part of The System and what happens to them next will be decided by others.
Heaven knows he’d played the same game with a hundred suspects in various interrogation rooms around the world in his past life. So for him it had little effect other than unnecessary tedium.
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In 1986 the world's worst ever nuclear disaster unfolded at Chernobyl in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine and 31 people died. The death toll should have been four billion. Now three decades later, hell on earth is about to be unleashed again. From the dusty streets of Baghdad to the high rise metropolis of New York and the deserted wasteland of Pripyat, Ian MacRae, a security consultant based in the idyllic island paradise of Tasmania, is drawn into a desperate race against time to uncover the truth about Chernobyl...and stop the annihilation of the human race.