‘Salaam, Ali-jaan. It’s me.’ The voice, thick, gravelly and unmistakable, came over the encrypted line as tinny and distant. ‘So. It’s all in place?’
‘It’s all in place.’
Ali didn’t answer straight away. He removed his earpiece, tipped his head back, closed his eyes and wiped the palm of his hand over the stubble that covered half of his face. Still in his thirties, but already the coarse hairs that crept up his cheek were grey. He sighed. How many times had they been over this, he and the man at the other end of the line, whose name could never be mentioned? He replaced the earpiece and spoke into the mike. ‘No,’ he replied patiently, ‘there are no changes. Everything is exactly as we discussed.’
‘Good. Because you know—’
‘Yes, yes, I know. So much is riding on this.’
‘So much? So much? Are you playing with me, Ali-jaan? Have you forgotten all the meetings in Qom? The pledges of loyalty? The instructions? This is everything! Everything we have ever worked for. Remember, we are just the facilitators here, nothing more.’
Ali waited for him to finish. He closed his eyes once more and pinched the ridge of flesh between his eyebrows. So many weeks of planning, so many contingencies to think of, so many what-ifs. By God, he was tired. But the other man was not done yet.
‘So, Ali-jaan, I am counting on you. We are all counting on you. No mistakes. Nothing left to chance.’ It was part question, part order. ‘Are you certain you can do this?’
‘Yes,’ said Ali, abruptly, just a hint of irritation creeping in now. ‘I am certain.’ A pause. ‘And if they don’t accept the ultimatum …’
‘And they won’t, we already know this.’ The gravelly voice was stern now, authoritarian, unflinching. ‘We carry it out, without hesitation. This is a lesson they must learn. Our government is weak and it cannot hope to survive this. A new era is coming, Ali-jaan, and it will be our time. I will see you on the island.’
There was a click and the line went dead.
The pitch. The proposal. The moment of truth. That split second when the man or woman in front of you realizes with a start exactly what you’re suggesting. That they should risk everything, maybe even their lives, their families, to betray their own organization, their own country, to steal a secret and hand it over to British intelligence. Get it right and you might reel in a big fish, a top-access agent, who keeps on giving, propelling you into the upper echelons of MI6, perhaps retiring gracefully to the shires with a knighthood, a valedictory lunch with the PM and some quiet recognition from your peers. Get it wrong and you’re toast.
When Luke Carlton arrived for the rendezvous that morning in the back room of the café he had just four words reverberating in his head: ‘Don’t screw it up.’ This was their third meeting and his contact was nervous as hell – that much was obvious. The man was sitting at a table in the corner, visibly sweating, perched half off his chair, twitching like a bird, glancing repeatedly behind him at the door, as if expecting trouble to come flying through it at any second. A television set, mounted on the wall, was tuned to a football match with the sound turned down. Luke held out his hand and gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. The hand he gripped was damp and slippery.
‘I shouldn’t be here,’ said the contact.
The man’s shirt collar was frayed, his suit jacket old and stained. He definitely needed the money, or he probably wouldn’t have turned up. ‘Well, thanks for coming anyway,’ said Luke, breezily. ‘Can I get you something to drink?’
The man shook his head. ‘I haven’t much time,’ he said.
‘No, of course,’ said Luke. ‘So, er, have you had a chance to think about what we discussed, the last time we met?’
‘I’m not clear on what you’re proposing,’ he replied, shuffling his chair closer to Luke’s. ‘Please. Tell me what exactly you want from me.’
Here we go. Deep breath. Take the plunge. This was the watershed moment when Luke would shift from one dimension to another, from legit to illicit. He reached into the inside left pocket of his jacket, drew out an unmarked envelope and put it on the table, keeping it covered with his hand. ‘I’d like to offer you a job,’ he said. No reaction. Okay, keep it going. ‘A job that pays good money.’ The man’s eyes flicked down towards the envelope. Luke kept it covered. ‘In here,’ he continued, tapping the envelope with his fingertips, ‘is something to get you started. Think of it as a welcome present from my employers.’
The man looked perplexed, his brow furrowed. ‘But I still don’t understand,’ he protested. ‘What is it you want me to do?’
Enough. Surely we’ve been through this already. It was time to stop beating about the bush. Luke needed to lay his cards on the table. ‘I need you to …’ he hesitated. He had to phrase this just right. There could be no misunderstanding. The contact was watching him intently now, waiting to hear how he would finish the sentence. His eyes, keen as a hawk’s, met Luke’s. ‘I need you to get me the passcode for the state security data files.’ There. He had blurted it out in one breath, as if expelling some toxic object from his system.
What happened next took place in a dizzying blur. Before Luke had a chance to react he saw the contact reach beneath the table. Suddenly a high-pitched alarm was sounding and the door crashed in. Two bulky figures dressed in uniforms he didn’t recognize came barrelling through the open doorway and lifted Luke out of his chair, then pinned him hard against the wall. It was too late to resist: one already had a hand clenched around his balls while the other held a baton to his throat.
The ‘contact’ rose slowly from his chair, took out a handkerchief and wiped a layer of shiny theatrical grease off his face, then folded it away, tucking it neatly back into his pocket. He sauntered over to where Luke stood, restrained by both arms, and smiled affably. ‘Better luck next time, Carlton. I’m afraid that was a failed pitch. You showed your hand much too soon.’ He patted Luke on the shoulder and nodded to the two ‘guards’ to let him go. ‘There’s tea and biscuits in the debriefing room when you’re ready. They’ll play back the tapes to everyone in there.’
Luke’s shoulders slumped. He was not used to failure.
‘Listen,’ the ‘contact’ added, ‘practically everyone fails this part of the course the first time round. You’ll get another shot tomorrow.’ He left with a wink, calling over his shoulder: ‘Nobody said agent running was easy.’