- Published: 8 January 2019
- ISBN: 9781405921749
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 464
- RRP: $19.99
'For those who enjoy vintage Le Carre' Ian Rankin
It began as a Swallows and Amazons sort of day.
The lake was calm and the wind warm. It was too early in the year for that many tourists and most of those walking the hills or along the lakeshore were second-home owners. The locals were busy running pubs and village shops or working on the hill farms that characterized this part of the Lake District. The old man heading for the lake, with his grandchildren straggling like ducks behind him, was staying in a grey stone house overlooking the shore.
It was to be a wet summer. So wet it would spawn headlines that screamed flood, and showed photographs of holidaymakers huddling on beaches under umbrellas. No one knew that yet. So far the weather was mild, the papers taken up with inflation and, for the man walking down to the dinghy, it was a year like any other.
He was in the autumn of his life.
Famous, successful, quietly rich and widely respected.
He’d had a good war, gone into politics for lack of anything more interesting, and had taken his place in the Lords when his father died. He now sat in opposition to Callaghan’s government, but was known to be moderate. An old-school Tory in the proper sense of that word. Much loved was the phrase mostly used about him.
‘Me,’ said a small boy following.
‘No,’ another said, more loudly. ‘My turn.’
He turned back, remembering to frown, and the five children came to an abrupt halt. They had orders to behave. Mummy had been firm about that. If Grandpa let them sail with him, they were to behave. It was only the third day of the Easter holidays and they didn’t want to upset him, did they?
The man up on the hill with the binoculars watched them stop and wondered at the neatness of their world.
They could have wandered out of a children’s book or one of those Sunday afternoon BBC serials. He’d had four days to set this up and had been in place before the family arrived. When the old man pointed at himself and then at the smaller boat, before pointing at the rest of them and indicating the larger one, the man in the hills crossed himself.
The youngest of Lord Brannon’s grandchildren looked about five, his oldest no more than fourteen. He could remember being that age but not that innocent.
Down on the lake’s edge the children were laughing and shrieking at the coldness of the water as they struggled to push the larger of the boats into the lake. And the old man grinned, and tried not to show how hard he found the work, as he came alongside to help.
Knee-deep, and apparently not feeling the cold, he pushed them off and shouted orders that had the girl scrabbling for the rudder, while one of the boys raised a sail that caught the wind and – with the help of a brutal yank on the tiller – swung them towards the middle of the lake. The boat leant, the girl kept her line true and a spreading wake showed that the dinghy was picking up speed. The old man smiled to see them go.
Then he pushed his own, much smaller, dinghy into deeper water.
He stopped for a second to watch his grandchildren disappearing into the distance. On the terrace above, a woman came out of the house, saw the dinghy heading towards the middle of the lake and called to her husband, who came through the French windows, looked at the vanishing boat, shrugged and laughed.
Up on the hill, the man turned his field glasses back to his lordship, whose dinghy was now making for a tiny island with a single –
‘What are you doing?’ said a voice behind him.
The girl was young, ten, maybe eleven, and had her bottom lip stuck out as if he’d surprised her in the middle of a sulk; rather than her surprising him. He glanced towards the dinghies. They were still within reach.
She looked contemptuous.
‘Don’t you like birds?’
She looked ready to say she hated them. Then honesty got the better of her. ‘Some of them. My great-aunt has a parakeet. It’s old and manky and it swears. She hates it.’
‘Why keep it then?’
‘It was Great-Uncle Robert’s. That means she can’t get rid of it.’ The girl looked at the man with the binoculars and shrugged as if to say she didn’t expect that to make sense to him either. ‘Can I borrow those?’
‘I’m using them.’
Sucking her teeth, she said, ‘They left me behind for being naughty. That’s why I’m not out there.’
‘They’re your family?’
She nodded slowly, took a step backwards, then another, and he wondered if his voice had been strange. He could still reach her if she made a run for it. Break her neck before she had time to ruin everything.
‘I never had a family,’ he said.
She stopped backing away, torn between trying to look sympathetic and obvious envy at his being family-free. It was a lie, of course. But it did the trick. The moment had gone and everything was reset.
‘I’d better go,’ she said.
Distance was critical to what came next. The man in the hills had spent the last three days establishing the family’s routine. He already knew that Lord Brannon sailed alone if possible, used the smaller dinghy from choice and shared it reluctantly. In London, he might have a bodyguard who checked under his car each morning, but his bodyguard wasn’t here, and even if he had been, he might not have thought to check under the dinghy’s simple seat.
The sky was blue, the sun was bright, and the breeze was warm.
All things the papers would mention when they came to write tomorrow’s headlines. Opening his rucksack, the man in the hills found the little black box he’d been promised would work. He turned a switch that he’d been told to turn, lifted a protective cover and pushed a button.
Out on the water a fireball blossomed.
The explosion was so loud that crows rose from trees right along the lake’s edge. Fragments of the dinghy cartwheeled into the air and for a split second there was a red mist, instantly swallowed in a fireball, pieces of dinghy falling in flat splashes. The old man was gone; ripped apart so savagely his coffin needed bricks to make up the weight.
On a far hillside, a man who’d been watching the scene unfold flipped open his notebook and put a line through Great Eagle. That was the last of the rare birds. There were half a dozen crossed out before, and a dozen lesser species to be sighted over the page. Someone else could collect those.
1986, US Naval Base, Guantánamo, Cuba
The boy looked at the sign with its skull and crossbones and large red letters announcing ‘Danger! Mines’, then at the rusting razor wire. He was eight, almost. Old enough to do this.
One roll of the wire had come away.
If he turned sideways he could squeeze between it and its post without doing more than scratch his wrist. Sucking at the blood, he turned his attention to the minefield in front of him. It looked bigger now he was standing on its edge.
Stepping forward, he froze as dirt sunk beneath his feet, unfreezing when he realized he’d crushed an ants’ nest. He chose his next step more carefully, welcoming the feel of solid earth. Mines were round and made from metal. They contained explosives. Their top plates gave when you trod on them. That was what tripped the detonator. Detonators made them blow up.
He knew these things.
Solid earth was good. Solid earth was safe.
In the distance a thick wall of prickly pears marked the border between where he stood and a different world.
The sun was hot and his mouth dry.
Very carefully, the boy looked at the dust around his feet, noticing rough grass and dead patches of thistle. The sun was so hot that the earth had split and a riverbed was now dry pebbles, with an iridescent lizard basking on a rock in the middle. It flicked its tail and vanished when he went to take a look.
The boy bit his lip.
He knew he shouldn’t be here.
Yesterday he’d seen big signs that said anybody crossing the minefield would be shot. Taking another step, the boy looked for a step after that, lifted his foot and changed his mind at the last second.
His shoe caught something and he shut his eyes.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . .
He could stop counting now. Scraping the dirt with his shoe, he found the rusting rim of what looked like a Coke can. Painted green. He’d expected the mines to be round like a plate. Maybe some were, and others looked like this.
‘Come on,’ he told himself.
At this speed he’d be here tomorrow.
The wall of cactus in the distance looked no closer; and, even if he ran, the field would take ages to cross. He stared at the dirt in front of him, then at the scrub in front of that. He noticed dead patches, spider cracks in the earth, sickly clumps of grass.
When he started again it was at a trot.
‘Charlie . . .’
The boy froze at the sound of his name. When he turned it was reluctantly. A US Army jeep had screeched to a halt by the sign and soldiers were tumbling out, clutching rifles. One of them screamed at him not to move. Another screamed at his father, who began pushing between razor wire and post, ignoring the blood that began to flow from his hip.
‘Charlie,’ he shouted.
The small boy looked from the prickly pears in the distance to his father, who was trying to work out where to put his feet. Charlie’s father stared at the ground, swallowed and began walking.
‘Stop,’ Charlie shouted.
His father froze, his foot a few inches above what he had to realize was a mine.
‘To the left,’ Charlie shouted. ‘My left.’
His father hesitated.
Daddy put his foot down and his relief was visible. Behind him the soldiers had stopped shouting and a second jeep had parked behind the first. Mummy sat in the front. He hoped she wouldn’t be cross with him in public. She probably would. She often was.
‘Stay there,’ Charlie told his father.
‘Slowly,’ his father shouted.
Charlie kept walking at the same pace. He could have reached the prickly pears too. He knew that now.
Once you worked out where to put your feet, it was easy. Maybe not at all times of the year, but now when the sun was high and the afternoon so hot he could feel sweat running down his back. Although that might be the thought of being in trouble. He wasn’t always good at knowing when he was in trouble.
Captain Omar Rahal tracked the small boat racing across the placid waters of the narrow strait.
Heat shimmered in waves across the Valley of the Kings as the merciless sun baked the desert sands into clay.
The industrial sliding doors heaved open to a burst of bitter alpine air, a dizzying flurry of snow, and a barrage of hoarse cries
It is, Roy thinks, perfect. Kismet, serendipity, destiny, happenstance; call it what you will.