Close Call

Stella Rimington

CLOSE CALL

To my brother, Brian Whitehouse

1932–2013

Chapter 1

The sun was slanting through the high-vaulted roof of the souk, throwing down shafts of light in which dust motes and thin drifts of cigarette smoke swirled lazily. Miles Brookhaven began to relax as he walked down the long central avenue, breathing in smells of powdery piles of spices, reaching over to touch the shiny purple skins of aubergines, and exchanging a shouted greeting with the stallholder.

He stopped at a food stall on the corner of one of the side aisles where the same old man who’d been there since God knows when had a juicing machine. As he usually did when he took this route, Miles stopped for a glass of fresh orange juice. Against the wall behind the counter a shawarma of meat the size of a tree trunk rotated on a long sharp pole. Miles propped one hip on a stool in the corner, from where he could look down the main aisle, the way he’d come, but his eye was drawn to the spit. There was something different. Usually, as he drank, he would watch a short balding man called Afiz, his apron stained by the spattering juices, wielding a long knife of incredible sharpness, peeling shavings of meat off the shawarma like strips of wallpaper.

He and Afiz had established a friendly unspoken ritual – Afiz would turn and gesture to Miles with his knife, as if to ask You want some? Miles would shake his head and hold up his glass to show that was what he’d come for. Afiz would laugh and turn back to the shawarma.

But it wasn’t Afiz who tended the spit today. Instead a young man held the long knife. He was tall with a prominent Adam’s apple and long black hair tied back into a knot, and he stared at Miles with dark indifferent eyes, then turned away to serve a customer. He had none of Afiz’s practised delicacy; instead he just hacked at the meat, which fell in chunks instead of paper-thin slices. That seemed odd, Miles thought as he sipped his juice. Holding the glass in one hand he reached into his pocket for some coins to pay, and it was then he sensed movement, looked up and saw the young man coming towards him, holding the knife in one hand, his eyes glazed and hostile.

Not pausing to think, Miles tilted his glass of juice and hurled its contents straight into the eyes of his attacker. The long-haired youth was caught by surprise, blinking furiously, trying to get the juice out of his eyes. Miles took a step back, and as the young man lunged forward, swiping hard with the knife, he threw the empty glass at his face.

It hit the youth square in the eye. He yelled in pain and dropped the knife, which fell onto the tiled floor of the stall and bounced from its point, erratically, before landing at last, like an offering, at Miles’s feet. As Miles bent down and grabbed it, the young man ran out of the far side of the stall.

Miles stared at the fleeing figure and when he turned back he saw that the juice man had fled as well. The com­motion was drawing a crowd. Miles understood from the jabber of Arabic that they were wondering what this Westerner was doing, holding that knife. He put it down on the counter and without looking around strode quickly down the aisle towards the exit from the souk. The last thing he or his colleagues needed was the attention of the police.

By the time he’d reached the modern end of the souk, no one in the crowd of shoppers seemed to be taking special notice of him. He slowed to a stroll, forced himself to breathe normally and began to review what had happened. Was the young man just another extremist who hated Westerners? He didn’t think so. The fact that he’d been working at the stall where Miles regularly stopped – and that the juice man had fled as well – made it seem more likely that he’d been targeted.

Perhaps the group he’d been working with had been penetrated – but by whom? That was what made it hard to deal with the rebels. Too many conflicting interests; too many irons in the fire. Your enemy’s enemy wasn’t necessarily your friend. Whatever the explanation, he couldn’t go on using the same cover. It was time to move on.

Outside in the bright sun, Miles realised that his hand felt sticky, raised it and found it covered in blood. More blood was running down the sleeve of his jacket, and moving his shoulder made him wince in pain. That swipe with the knife must have connected.

He’d begun to feel faint; best get back to the office fast. He heard a gasp and looked up to see a young woman staring in horror at his jacket. Behind her a little man with a bushy black moustache was pointing at him. The blood was flowing fast down his arm now, dripping from the cuffs of his shirt and jacket onto the paving stones. His vision was blurring, and he’d started to sway as he walked. Seeing him stagger, the little man put his arm round him, waving with his other arm at a taxi. ‘Hospital, hospital,’ he shouted at the driver, and as he bundled him into the back of the car, Miles passed out.

Chapter 2

Liz Carlyle was sitting at her desk in Thames House, the London headquarters of Britain’s MI5, frowning at the pile of papers neatly stacked in the centre of her desk. She’d just got back from a three-week holiday walking in the Pyrenees and was wishing she’d stayed there. A spectacled head poked round the door, followed by the rest of Peggy Kinsolving, Liz’s long-standing research assistant and now her deputy in the Counter-Terrorist section that Liz ran.

‘Welcome back,’ said Peggy. ‘Did you have a good time? You must be fit as a flea. It’s never stopped raining here since you went away.’ She waved a hand at the pile of paper. ‘Don’t worry about that lot. I’ve read it all and it’s just background stuff. The top one is the only important one – I’ve summarised where we’ve got to in all the current investigations. You’ve got a meeting with the Home Secretary on Friday to bring her up to date. If you like I’ll come with you.’

Peggy stopped to draw breath and Liz smiled fondly at her younger colleague. ‘It is actually great to be back, though I didn’t feel that when I woke up this morning. We had a wonderful time. Walked miles, ate too much, drank some great wine. Martin is fine, though he’s still wondering whether to leave the DGSE and go into private ­security work. He fancies getting out of Paris and living in the South – his family home was near Toulouse. But it’s a big step to leave government service and go private and there’s a lot of competition in the private security field – just like here. Anyway, how are you? And how’s Tim?’

Tim was Peggy’s boyfriend, a lecturer in English at King’s College, London University, a very bright lad if a bit of a sensitive soul. Peggy said, ‘I’m fine, and so is Tim, thanks. He’s still doing the vegetarian cooking course – advanced level now. I hadn’t realised it could be so tasty. I’m quite converted.’ They both smiled and Peggy went on, ‘There’s one thing you won’t be too pleased about. We’ve been given an extra responsibility. I was only told about it on Friday. It’s a “watching brief” – whatever that is – for under-the-counter arms supplies to the Arab Spring rebels.’

Liz knew all too well what a watching brief was. It meant extra responsibility with no additional resources. Then if anything bad happened you were to blame. She sighed. ‘Is there any intelligence that arms are going from dealers in this country to the rebels?’

‘Not that I’ve heard. It’s not so much the rebels per se that anyone’s worried about; it’s the jihadis who’ve infiltrated them. The Foreign Secretary went to a meeting in Geneva last week and this was on the agenda. There’s a lot of concern about al-Qaeda-type groups leaking into the Arab Spring countries. There were some gruesome pictures on TV while you were away of what they were doing to their captives.’

‘I saw them on French TV. But I would have thought they could get arms quite easily from the countries who support them.’

‘I know that seems more likely. But the conference decided that each country should put measures in place to ensure that no undercover supplies from the EU countries get to these jihadis. It seems to be more of a matter for Eastern Europe than us, but DG told me on Friday that it’s been decided that we were to have the “watching brief”.’

‘Great. But what about Six? I wonder what they have on this.’

‘Quite a lot, I imagine. But guess who’s running their part of the show – your favourite officer, Bruno Mackay. Bruno rang me on Friday to welcome us on board. Said he’d like to come over to see you when you were back.’

Liz put her head in her hands and groaned. ‘Did I just say I was glad to be back?’

Peggy grinned. ‘Bruno told me something quite interesting. Do you remember Miles Brookhaven, who used to be in the CIA station here? Andy Bokus’s deputy?’ When Liz nodded she went on, ‘Apparently he was nearly killed a few months ago. He was under cover in an aid charity the Agency had set up in Syria, running a source in a rebel group, and he was attacked in the souk. They aren’t sure if his cover had been blown, or if it was just an opportunist attack, but from what Bruno said, it sounded planned to me. Miles needed a series of blood transfus ...

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