“But it’s a war zone,” I told him.
“Not technically. Not anymore.”
“Oh, good.” I folded up the map and passed it back. “So if I’m killed there, what? I’m not technically dead or something? That how it works?”
“No, Chris. If you’re killed there—God forbid, but if you are—then you were never technically there at all. You follow me?” Dayling smiled, the gracious host. “Do try the bamia, by the way. It’s delicious here.”
“I’ve lost my appetite.”
A dozen lidded bowls lay on the tabletop between us. A ceiling fan whisked tepid air over our heads. In the adjoining room, the only other customers— both westerners—had just been served the pleasures of the sheesha, and a sweet drift of tobacco smoke began to mingle with the smell of sweat, and spice, and char-grilled lamb.
“Please, Chris. Just hear me out, will you? For old times’ sake?”
He raised his brows. His forehead wrinkled like a puppy’s.
“I need your help,” he said.
And in a life spent saying many, many stupid things, I said one of the stupidest.
I said, “OK.”
His name was Dayling, Andrew Dayling, and I’d last set eyes on him about ten years back, at a Registry get-together in Berlin or Berne or somewhere. It only stuck inside my mind because at one point he had taken me aside and told me he was leaving Field Ops. “I mean, you can’t do this forever, can you?” He’d asked me for advice. I’m not sure what I said and don’t imagine it was any help, but he’d seemed pleased, and for my own part, I’d felt flattered to be asked. (I found out later he’d approached a half a dozen others at the same event, each in the same hushed, confidential tones. But never mind.)
He’d closed the conversation with a running joke, a little gag we used to do that always made him laugh.
He’d asked me: “Any tricky jobs lately?”
“Yeah,” I’d said, waited a beat, and he’d joined me in the punch line: “All of them.”
He’d grinned and clapped his hands together. “Later,” he’d said, and, as I’d assumed, walked straight out of my life.
He hadn’t changed a lot. His face had filled out—too much bamia, perhaps—and his hair was touched with gray; there was a look of strain about the eyes, maybe, though no worse than I’d expect from living in a place like this. I’d recognized him instantly. In a profession that accepted, even fostered, certain shows of eccentricity, Dayling had been resolutely straight-edge. A shirt-and-tie man through and through. Today he wore a linen suit, stained under the arms, his tie held with a small pearl pin. He looked every bit the Englishman abroad, remnant of an empire long ago dissolved and vanished into memory. We had been friends once, or, more accurately, friendly. We’d worked jobs together, kicked back and relaxed when we were done. He was charming, attentive, usually good company. Yet when he’d left the field, I hadn’t kept in touch, and didn’t know anyone who had.
Nonetheless, it should have been an amiable reunion. It should have been a lot of things. Most of all, it should have been a different job.
“I was told this was a quick assignment. In and out. Not a bloody two hundred mile trek through warring desert tribesmen. Come on—”
“Hardly tribesmen. They’re pretty sophisticated these days.” He raised the lid on the bowl nearest him. “This isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, you know.”
“Shame. I know how that one ends.”
“The militias here are well-armed, and they’re ruthless. I won’t lie to you. But it’s a hundred to one that you’ll run into them. I’ll tell you: you’re in a lot more danger here and now than you could ever be, out there.” He spooned a reddish tomato-smelling stew into a bowl and handed it to me.
Well, I thought, if I was going to die, I’d rather do it on a full stomach. Perhaps the bamia was worth it after all.
He said, “You are currently in one of the most over-crowded cities on the planet. Killing’s easy here. It’s a daily occurrence. And they don’t discriminate. You’d think that Shia would kill Sunnis, and Sunnis would kill Shia, but it’s not like that. I’d feel safer getting out of here myself. Who wouldn’t?”
“I’d feel safer back at home, watching it on telly with my feet up. Personally.”
This he ignored.
“One truck,” he said. “Middle of nowhere. Unscheduled. Visible, it’s true, but tough to hit. If anybody’s bothered. Which they won’t be.”
“We have a bodyguard lined up, former Royal Marine. Scots chap, top man, handles our security. Very reliable. He’ll be assigned to you directly.”
“My very own Scotsman. Is it my birthday?”
He laughed now, as if I’d actually said something funny. It ended quickly.
“The interpreter’s a local man. Again, we’ve worked with him before. He’s sound. You couldn’t be in safer hands.” He put his own hands on the tabletop and spread his fingers. “Really, Chris. Would I steer you wrong? Try the stew. Go on. Just try it.”
So I tried the stew.
“Good?” he said.
I looked at his hands, the knobby wrists protruding from his sleeves, so tanned they looked like they’d been dipped in paint. And I remembered, years ago, a girl saying, “But have you seen his arms?”
I hadn’t at the time, and it was quite a while before I did.
“The thing is, Chris, see—thing is this. It’s all a bit hush-hush, and I’m sort of . . . restricted in what I can tell you. But the fact is, you were recommended for this job. More than that. Requested, as it happens.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ve made enemies.”
“How’s the bamia? Good, I hope? I’d suggest the kibbeh or kofta to follow. You can eat well here if you know the right places.”
“And you don’t get killed.”
“Quite.” He put the spoon up to his mouth again. A line of red clung to his upper lip, looking unpleasantly like blood. “We’ve got a big, big presence here. The Registry, I mean. You won’t read about it in the press, but it’s true. Still,” he said, “this one site, we’ve held off on. Till now.”
He let me eat a little more. Then he asked me, “Interested?”
“Why should I be?”
“Well—it’s a job, for one. And you’re professional.”
“Not good enough.”
“You’re Field Ops.”
“That’s on my card.”
“What’s more—” He leaned back, one hand stroking his wrist. I wondered if he could still feel the scars, even after all this time. “What’s more,” he said, “you’re proud of what you do. No, Chris, you are, I’ve seen you. You take a real pride in it. I know this because it’s—well, it’s one reason I’m not in Field Ops anymore.”
He gave a small, self-deprecating smile.
I held off asking for as long as I could. Then I said, “Go on.”
“Simple. I saw it mattered to you, that’s all. But to me, it wasn’t like that. It was a job. To you—it was important. Getting it right. Doing it well.” He shrugged. “I had some bad experiences, and . . .”
“Well. We’ve all had that.”
“You got out for a time yourself, I heard.”
“Few years, yes.”
“But you got back in! That’s what I mean! With you—it’s in the blood, Chris. It’s what you do. And—well. This job’s special, like I say. You’re going to want this job.”
“This is—this is probably the oldest entity so far identified. It goes back, I don’t know, thousands of years, at least. Hm?”
“OK. Risk of death aside, I’ll say that I’m intrigued.”
“I’m giving you the chance to be alone with it. Take a day, a night, however long you want. Talk to it. Commune with it, if that’s what you do. Because you know that once you get it back, you’re never going to see the thing again, don’t you? It’ll disappear into some workshop or research facility, or get left in one of those big bloody storerooms for about ten years till someone works out what to do with it.” He made a gesture with his hands, placing an unseen bundle on the table. “What I’m offering you—what I’m offering is a chance. To know what it knows. I can’t promise, but I can give you the chance. And I think you’ll take it, won’t you? Yes?”
I didn’t answer him.
“You’ll take it, because—well. Because somewhere in the world, there’s a god walking around with your face, and that bothers you. I’ll tell you, frankly,” he pursed his brow, “it would bother me.”
He raised his water glass, watching me over the rim of it.
“Half right,” I said. I raised my own glass, made to clink with his, but then pulled back. “It hasn’t got my face,” I said. “Not anymore.”
“Update your intelligence.” I put the glass down carefully in front of him. “One of us got older. I don’t suppose it looks much like me now at all.”
At 3 A.M. Baghdad is almost quiet. The restaurants and cafés are in use, but nobody goes in or out. The doors stay shut. Diners who dropped in for an evening meal stay on till 5 a.m., when curfew lifts and everyone goes home. It’s like the world’s biggest lock-in. Equipped with papers and an escort, you can stand there in the dark and listen to the music drifting from a window twenty yards away. It’s dream-like, spooky . . . laughter on an empty street. Nighttime in the land of ghosts.
And then the trucks start up. Big engines grumble, big tires grinding in the dirt. Another US convoy setting out. They move at night, each night—but this time would be different. This time, we were going with them. Out of town, and then a few miles more. After which, the plan was, they’d head one way, and we—well. We’d be on our own.
It was just as Dayling had described it. One truck, retrieval gear stowed in the back. A local guide named Nouri, chain-smoking his PX Marlboros, occasionally remembering to blow the smoke out of the window. Carl was the driver. Heavy forearms mottled with tattoos, accent probably Glaswegian; the most I’d had from Carl so far had been a quick, obligatory, “All right?” when we’d shaken hands. After that, it was all business. He seemed sharp, confident, experienced. Somehow that didn’t altogether calm my nerves.
We drove with windows down. I could smell petrol fumes. A dog barked somewhere. Then, astonishingly, children’s cries. It was the middle of the night, but on a half-cleared bomb site in the ruins of the city, kids were playing soccer. They paused to watch us pass, ready to run if need be. Instead we waved to them, and someone in the Humvee up in front yelled, “Go Colts!” and the kids called back, “Beck-haaaam!” and the game went on.
Nouri clapped his hands.
“You see? Only the children now are brave.”
“How’s that then, Nour?” asked Carl.
“Because the rest of us,” said Nouri, “we lock ourselves away. We say, yes sir, no sir. But the children, they don’t care for stupid rules. They do as they please!”
“They’ll care if they get shot,” said Carl.
“No one likes getting shot, I can be damn sure. Especially by interfering foreign squaddies like yourself, eh? No offense,” he added, amiably.
“Ah, none taken, pal. None taken.”
Nouri was watching me.
“You are worried, friend.”
“He’s worried,” said Carl.
I stared into the night, my head filling with visions, daydreams, near hallucinations: some crazed gunman charging at us from the dark, some nutter with a grudge and a Kalashnikov, or else some mad old woman strapped with gelignite—
“No,” I said. “It’s going to be an easy job, I think. Once we’re there I’ll do a survey, and then we’ll know—”
“The job. Aye. Right.”
“OK.” I looked from one of them to the other. “I’m worried. That suit you? Shit scared, if you want to know. How’s that?”
“Only a fool,” said Nouri, “isn’t worried.”
“I don’t do this. Places like this. Jesus—”
“Aye. And you can tell your boss, your Mr. Dayling, we don’t bloody do it, either. Not without some preparation and the full security, no way. Still,” Carl said, “here we are. So I guess we do do it, after all. And so do you.” He sucked air between his teeth. Then he said, “Want lessons?”
“Aye. Iraq 101. War for dummies. You want ’em?”
The whole time he’d been talking, he’d been looking at the road, the darkness either side, the country slipping near enough invisibly along beside us. He hadn’t once looked at me.
Maybe that was my first lesson.
The Car Wreck
There was a strange effect, almost an optical illusion, which I noticed once we’d left the other vehicles and moved out into open country. The lights from the truck lit up a little of the roadside, giving the impression, not of flat land, but of two low walls running on either side of us. We seemed to be passing through some quiet residential suburb—the weird illusion I was still in England. For some reason, this soothed me, and in spite of my anxiety, I found myself starting to doze, drifting off into this dreamy little fiction.
Darkness peeled back slowly over palm trees, telegraph poles, little houses squat as pill boxes.
Then sunrise. The heat came almost instantly, like switching on an electric fire. Nouri blew cigarette smoke through a half-inch crack in the window. We passed a small boy leaning on a staff with goats all round him, like something from the Bible.
Mirages of lakes, water on the tarmac up ahead, folding into nothingness as we approached . . .
I nodded off awhile, dreaming of home. Then Carl shook me awake.
He jerked his head to indicate.
There was something in the road. Dark shapes, what seemed to be the roofs of vehicles, then a movement, detaching itself. A man walking around as if wading in water, ripples shifting all about him . . . but no water. Obviously. The light moving instead.
“On the floor.”
“Floor. Now.” Carl wasn’t offering debate. “Our mission is to protect you. Down.”
I sank into the footwell, but kept myself propped partway on the seat, peeping out.
“Might be nothing. Might be legit. Safest to assume not.”
I heard a click, realized Carl had his pistol ready.
“Oh fuck,” I said.
Two old Toyota flatbeds had been pulled across the road. There were four or five men in the uniform of the Iraqi army; a bunch more sitting or standing at the roadside. Carl pulled up a way before them, waiting for them to come over. They beckoned him, but he wouldn’t move. “Down,” he said to me. I was on my hands and knees now. Nouri’s tennis shoes were right next to my face. He wore no socks, and I could make out every detail of his ankles, every curl of hair, the red blotch of an insect bite on one leg, the scabby graze above his ankle.
I heard him wind the window down, call out in Arabic.
Someone threw a sheet across me.
And I waited. I heard talking. Nothing I could understand. I tried to analyze the harsh, guttural syllables, desperate to work out what was happening. Desperate and scared. It seemed to take a long time. Then I caught the salaam of good-bye. I heard an engine start; one of the flatbeds moving out the way. “Stay down,” said Carl. We crept forwards. We were well away before he let me up.
“What’s that about?” I said.
Nouri reached a hand down, helped me back into my seat.
“Nothing, my friend. Just a check. They say there is a car smash up ahead. A mile, maybe two. Is all.”
I looked at the pair of them. “You knew we were going to be OK, right?”
Nouri showed his palms. “If we are good, we are good. If not . . .”
Carl said nothing.
“You knew it was legit? The roadblock?”
“Aye, well.” Carl lit up a new cigarette. “Truth is, the other kind can look legit as well, sometimes. You never know until it happens. Aye?”
“True, my friend. Very true. You never know until it happens.”
We came across the car wreck not long afterwards. There was only one vehicle still there, a farmer’s truck. It hadn’t been moved because it was lying on its roof in the middle of the road. There was fruit or something cooking on the tarmac. Several wicker baskets had been lined up at the roadside. No one about. It was a sad sight. Carl said, “Down,” again, but while I hunkered low, I still kept looking.
“Is anyone hurt? I don’t see anyone. We ought to help—”
Another quarter mile on, we passed a house, a little one-story shack. Sheltering beside a broken wall, an oldish man, wrapped in robes, looked out at us. He had a dazed expression.
A companion lay upon the ground beside him. They were obviously the crash’s victims. Nouri pulled the window down and called a blessing as we passed.
“Could have stopped,” I said.
“Could not,” said Carl.
“Aye. Very bad for ’em, no doubt. And likely they’re as innocent as newborn lambs, the pair of ’em. Likely they are. Or else they’re not. And either way, still doesnae stop somebody else coming along, hiding the other side o’ yon brick wall. Dinnae talk or we kill you. Or putting a bomb in that wrecked-up truck, just for the moment we glide by. Eh now?”
“OK,” I said. Then, a little later, “I’m not used to war.”
“No. You told us that.”
Everywhere Is Somewhere
The dust got in. The dust got into everything.
Fine, fine sand. The finest sand you could imagine.
I’d stop to pee and bring it back, tucked in my boots or folded in my shirt and then, once it was in the truck, it seemed to spread. I’d crunch it in my teeth, dig it out my ears. It gathered in my hair and in my nostrils. It wasn’t as if we were driving into dunes or anything like that; the countryside was rocky, barren, but at times there were patches of scrub, even trees. But the dust and the sand were the biggest thing. Months later, I’d still be finding it among my clothes, or trampled into odd parts of my flat.
The journey was hypnotic. I drifted off, even while I jolted this way and that.
Carl said, “Look sharp.”
I sat up, scared.
“What? What now?”
We were passing by a few low, square-built houses, electric cables strung on poles between them. Dry, dun-colored hills rose in the background. People looked up from the roadside as we passed. There was no question of blending in, no question of Dayling’s “stealth” plan.
“See?” said Nouri. “Up ahead?”
“I thought this place was in the desert somewhere. Like, miles from anywhere.”
“This is the oldest country in the world,” he said. “Here, everywhere is somewhere.”
“Aye,” said Carl. “And we’re nearly there.”
Thirty-Four Potential Sites
“You must watch for scorpions, my friend.” Nouri had a long stick and was happily flipping over stones with it, inspecting the dimpled bits of earth they left. “Also snakes. There are snakes to be very afraid of: the saw-scale viper, the horned viper” (he pronounced it “hornèd” like some old English poem), “also the cobra. And the giant centipede. And . . . ah.” He gazed around. “Wolves. Hyenas. In rare cases, lions, tigers. We have both, you see. Then too there are bears, which must be very much avoided . . .”
“Are you winding me up?”
“Not at all, my friend. These are great dangers. You must be aware.”
“And isn’t it better not to stir them up, if they’re there?”
He flicked the stick, raising a plume of dirt. “Let us know our enemies, know their positions. A snake bite or a scorpion sting—”
“You’re wearing tennis shoes.”
“Ah yes. I will admit. Not the best choice.” He leaned upon his stick. “The city of Assur is more than four thousand years old, a great historic monument. It has outlasted the Sumerians, the Assyrians, and the Persians. With luck it will outlast us, as well. The Americans placed troops here to defend it from destruction in the war. It would be a bad place to die, I think . . .”
“No doubt.” Dust blew, scouring my face in a hot blast. The low, eroded mounds seemed not so much ruinous as still under construction, as if the builders had just gone for a siesta. I didn’t blame them, either. My back was soaked in sweat; the heat and dust brought tears to my eyes, and I could hardly see.
I took a handkerchief and mopped my face. I pulled the reader from my pocket, switched it on, set the levels. Almost immediately the lights began to dance.
“So, my friend. Where to?”
“Away from the scorpions.”
I left Carl at the truck with the bulk of the gear. Nouri followed me, but after a short time, sat down on a block of masonry and watched as I roamed about the site. It must have all looked pretty aimless, I suppose, and yet it wasn’t. I had the site map in my hand. Each time I took a reading, I’d jot it down, near as I could place to the location. But that seemed to be throwing up more questions than solutions. A census in the seventh century BC had listed three palaces and no less than thirty-four temples in Assur, not all of which have been uncovered yet. Thirty-four potential sites of worship. Thirty-four charged spots. But it had been a thousand years or so since anybody’d actually bothered with them, and things had grown a little sloppy in the meantime. There was power here for sure, but I couldn’t get a clear location. It just seemed to have leeched away into the rocks, diffused across the site and probably beyond. I didn’t have the cable length to stretch that far. Assur might be a small city by modern standards, but it’s still a good couple of miles across. And that was more than I could handle.
I watched a heron strutting through the shallows of the river, the curve of its neck as graceful as the Arabic calligraphy I’d seen since my arrival, its movements delicate, almost hesitant. Then suddenly its head shot forward. It scrabbled in the water, shaking like a dog. The neck swung up, its beak raised to the sky, and it gulped, greedily, too fast for me to catch a glimpse of what it had.
I checked the reader once again.
Flick, flick, flick.
Stood. Took a few steps, one mound to the next.
I raised the water bottle to my lips. Perhaps the god was everywhere, melted down into the Earth. Or maybe there was more than one—two, three—thirty-four? Gods in swarms, like birds, like fish . . . ?
I looked back. “Nouri!” I called. I saw his head come up; he’d been playing on his phone. Now he jumped to his feet, gave me a mock salute. “Let’s get the gear,” I said, “and get started!”
I don’t know how many jobs I’ve done. I daresay there’s a record somewhere. Some were easy: in and out, more time setting up than actually doing them. Still, there are always dangers. “Your biggest threat,” I’d tell trainees, “is you, thinking you know it all.” But sometimes it’s not that. Sometimes it’s just dangerous, and no amount of care and forethought is ever going to make it safe. As a trade, Field Ops has its share of casualties, and everybody thinks, “It won’t be me.” Until the day it is.
I’d had my own slice of the damage, sure enough. Esztergom, in Hungary. I could pretend it hadn’t been my fault, except it had: I should have done the final check myself, and not left it to my trainee partner. A good op checks once, and then again. Another message for trainees. And I bore my share of guilt for what had happened since, and what might still be happening, somewhere in the world. Hopefully a long, long way from here.
I scanned the ground for scorpions and other nasties, then sat down on a rock. Carl and Nouri brought the truck as close as possible and started unloading equipment. A bunch of kids had gathered. Nouri bribed the bigger ones to keep the rest away. I hoped that they were good at it. I didn’t want kids within a mile of the place, especially with the strategy I’d got in mind. That’s if I went with it. Right now, I couldn’t quite make up my mind.
What I wasn’t happy with, though— and less and less so, as the day wore on—was Dayling’s “stealth” plan. It wasn’t terrorists that worried me. There were just too many people round about. Carl felt the same, I knew, but he was careful not to say too much. He came towards me now, a canvas carrier of cables loaded on each shoulder.
I pointed north. Up where the readings had been highest, by the palace, and the temples, and the big mound of the ziggurat.
Nothing for it now except to carry on.
I joined the other two, lugging the gear up to my chosen spot. I wish I could have called someone, got some advice. One of the older guys. Fredericks, say, or Karen Meier in Frankfurt, both great ops in their day, just to ask them, “Is this smart? Would you do this?” The trouble was that I’d been doing the job so long now, I pretty much was one of the older guys. I was the one the new kids came to for advice, unaware how ignorant I still was, how much I, like them, was flying by the seat of my pants.
How much the guys who’d taught me had been doing just the same.
So I knew already what advice I’d get out of the older guys. If it works, they’d say, then yes, you should have done it. If it doesn’t, no, you shouldn’t.
Then maybe I should trust myself. “Acceptable risk.” Maybe I did know what was best, after all.
“Yanks were guarding it during the war,” said Carl. “Thought they were trying to protect the history, an’ aw.”
“Our history,” said Nouri, “has been mortgaged many, many times. I am surprised, to tell the truth, that we have any left.”
“Ha.” Carl handed him a cigarette. “You’re kind of selling off the family silver here, aren’t you?”
“Silver. Oil. We give it you, perhaps you fuck off, leave us alone, hey? No offence there.”
“Aw, none taken.”
“And you, Mr. Englishman.” Nouri turned on me gleefully. “Already, you have half Iraq, locked away in your Museum. I have been in London, I have seen this! Half our heritage! I tell you, one day—” He leaned towards me, squinting through his glasses, pointing with his cigarette, “one day, I am coming to London again. And I will take it back!”
It was the first time they’d involved me in their banter, and I took it for a good sign. Maybe they’d trust me. More than I could trust myself just now, at any rate.
So we finished off our break. I told them what I wanted: where to put the generator, where I’d start to lay the cables.
“I’ve worked with Registry before,” said Carl. “This isn’t how they did it last time.”
“This like, some special method, then?”
“Not really. But I can’t get a proper fix on the thing, the way it is. I’m going to try . . . kind of a trick. I’d like to get it done before the sun goes down. Then we’ll camp, finish off by sunrise, yeah?”
They looked at me. I said, “You might want to keep back once I get started. You know. Just in case.”
Nouri took his glasses off, polishing them on his shirt. “What is your plan, my friend? What will happen here?”
“I’m not going to go for the catch. Not right away. I’m just going to . . . nudge it a bit, see?”
This didn’t fill them with delight.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just try and . . . kick it into shape. You know. See if it’ll start behaving.”
Nouri put his glasses back on, frowning through the lenses, looking like an anxious gnome.
“My friend. It sounds like you plan to wake it up.”
“Just a bit,” I said. “Only a little bit . . .”
Chopped Out of the World
They’re not alive, or at least, not like we are. They’re not born and they don’t die in any sense we’d recognize, though their power will drain away with use, like anything else. The gods go on, but in their timelessness the world flows round them, shaping them, molding them, like rocks in the river. It may be they erode, but slowly, crumb by crumb. It may be that they sleep, for centuries, or for millennia. Who knows? The gods have eons in them. Pieces of everything they’ve ever done, everywhere they’ve ever been. Everyone who’s ever come in contact with them. There are people in there. Animals. There is, in some way that I still don’t understand, an ecosystem, and we’re a part of it, each and every one of us.
I’ve seen incarnates—I’ve seen the energy and will that makes a god convert to matter, take on solid form. I’ve seen gods grown to the size of houses at the GH9 facility in the States. I’ve seen things have never yet been caught on camera; things that remain legends among field ops, denied by others higher up.
Sometimes, when you face the gods, it’s like they take your thoughts and turn them back on you. It’s like they know you. Our lives and theirs are interlinked, bound up with one another. There are people who will tell you that the gods are nothing without us—literally nothing; that they’re a residue laid down by centuries of worship, of wailing, moaning and wringing of hands. Emotional fallout, nothing more. And there’s truth in that: these are the things that make them strong, that make them grow. But they were here long, long before. They were here before us all.
Rousing one, as I was planning to do now, is like taking a stick and poking at a sleepy old bear. Maybe it’ll just roll over and doze off again. Or maybe it’ll yawn, reach out, and take your head off.
One other possibility, however, was the one Dayling had held out to me. Maybe, and in what way I could not, so far, imagine—maybe it would want to talk.
I left Carl and Nouri to get the generator set. In the meantime, I took the cables and began to spread them out across the site. They reflected the sky in an odd way, not so much mirroring the deep, hot blue as absorbing it, silver and copper colors melding with a sharp azure. It was like dribbling ropes of sky across the ruins, and even as the day began to wane, the sky itself to darken, the cables kept a glimmer of their light, a core of power, as if eager to begin their work.
Yet there were problems. The gradients were slight. I’d little clue as to positioning. I checked the reader time and time again, but still, I’d almost nothing here to go on. Without some hint, some kind of guide, instinct and experience refused to kick in. I didn’t know what kind of pattern to put down, where to place the net. I couldn’t feel it. So I improvised.
I spread a run of circles through the north part of the city. I didn’t link them to the flask. The flask could catch and hold a god, but first I had to have some sense of where to place it, and that, so far, I didn’t have. Everything took time. Soon the light was dimming. Nouri got the generator started. We’d set it at a distance, off towards the arch of the Tabira gate. Its hum would seem to follow me among the ruins, always in my ears, a constant white noise.
I waved Carl and Nouri to move back. I scanned the landscape. I was still worried one of those kids might have come back. A bird was crying somewhere, a short, repeated sound, like a hiccup. I went to the control box and synced up power for the nearer loops. Then I blasted them. Just for a fraction of a second, nothing more.
A breeze brought the scent of the river. The Tigris, where the modern world began. The first stars were now visible off in the east. They twinkled in the lazy air. Deep shadows had begun to fill the trenches in the city, gathering behind the low, ruined walls, crouching there like naughty children. I synced the loops again, this time splicing in the far ones, too. I let the power build, took a look around, and blasted it again.
There was a moment’s silence. No—a real silence, like the silence of a vacuum, and it lasted maybe two, three seconds. It was the strangest thing. It was like a moment had been chopped out of the world, held in suspension. Then the sounds were back: the buzzing of machinery, the rush of water, rustle of the breeze. A bird took flight, somewhere over to my left.
I stood there. Soon the dark would be complete. I pulled a small torch from my pocket, made my way back to the generator, and I shut it off. I called for Carl and Nouri to get supper, told them I’d stay out a little longer. Then I pulled a jacket on against the evening chill, climbed one of the mounds, and sat down on the top to wait.
Night in Assur
I felt sure that something was about to happen. My fingers tingled with it. My eyes and ears strained to catch a trace of it, the faintest whisper or the least glimmer of light.
When nothing happened, I grew frustrated, restless, then, at last, bored. But I stayed there. And gradually, the sounds and smells of the night came up around me, and I started to perceive things I had missed before, taking in the moment, the world around me . . . and I settled into what, for mystics and psychologists, might be called a contemplative state.
Field Ops has risks—that’s well known. There is a certain kind of person who can do it, and you realize this once you’ve been in the job a while. You start to meet the other ops. All very different people, but in some ways similar. Insular. Self-contained. Broody. Like we’re all listening to something no one else can hear. But the truth is, we can’t hear it either: we only catch the ripples that it leaves, like inferring that a boat has passed from the smack of waves against the shore.
We like to work alone, if possible. Or with someone else who shares our mind-set. But in Esztergom, I hadn’t worked alone. I’d been partnered with a man—a boy, really—named Adam Shailer. I’d taken a no-nonsense approach, which he’d objected to and, in retaliation, he’d made some small adjustments to the capture mechanism, which had very nearly got me killed. The story didn’t end there: the entity itself, already near incarnate, hadn’t been entirely contained. Part of it escaped. (“Like froth down the side of a beer glass,” I would say, trivializing something that had cost a fair number of lives.) More to the point, part of it escaped wearing a pretty good simulacrum of my face.
I am still Field Ops. Shailer, meanwhile, is quite the little mover and shaker these days, a Very Important Man, oh yes. I went to his apartment once in New York City. We had a pleasant little chat, but I broke a few things, so I doubt I’ll be invited back.
The fragment of a god, designated Seven B in reference to its monstrous parent, designated Seven, is still at large. It may be in the US, perhaps in California. It has affinities with me beyond its looks; it seems to know things, often things it couldn’t possibly have learned by normal means. And I, in turn, have gained a little insight of my own, into its nature and its ways. But not enough . . .
Plus: it scares the life out of me.
There have been moments—and this may be merely paranoia, after all—moments I’ve had the sense he knows exactly where I am and what I’m doing. I’ve added locks to my front door, well aware that, should he choose to visit, they won’t keep him out. I find myself glancing over my shoulder in the midst of some quite ordinary task—shaving, washing up, putting out the trash. And many times I have woken, suddenly, expecting to find him standing there over my bed, waiting to enfold me, devour me, absorb me into his own flesh.
See how the pronoun goes from “it” to “him.”
And I thought, He probably knows where I am right now. Knows I’m sitting here. And then I thought, That’s nonsense.
So I watched the sun go down. It wasn’t cold. I didn’t think about the snakes and scorpions. I sat there as the ruins quietly dissolved in inky black, and I thought, Come on then. Talk to me, God of Assur. Say hi. Send me a dream, a vision. Tell me what it’s like, to be ten thousand years old, or however old you are. Tell me how it feels. Tell me what you are. Tell me how we lived with you for centuries, millennia. Tell me why we shouldn’t chop you up for firewood, which is pretty much what we’ve got planned. The Registry could light up half of London with a cache your size.
A bird was crying, somewhere far away, and once some kind of a kerfuffle by the river made me sit up straight, straining my eyes against the dark, though it died away again soon enough. I’d planned to join the others at the camp, but instead I made myself comfortable, my back against some ancient block the size of a truck engine, and I dozed off.
I had some odd dreams. In one I was back in London, and I had to go somewhere—it may have been the Registry offices—but the building was constructed in a peculiar way; there was no door, and the only way in was to pull myself up through a narrow gap in the floorboards of the room above. I didn’t think I had the strength, and I didn’t think that I could fit.
That, perhaps, was mere surrealism. But towards morning I dreamed I had a son, given up for adoption long ago. He returned to me now, a radiant figure like the Blake picture Glad Day, reminding me how much I’d failed him, but reserving his real venom for some unknown stepparent it seemed I’d placed him with. This dream troubled me, for, though I’ve never had a son, it was obvious to me, even in sleep, that in some way he stood in for the creature who wore my face, and whom I had known as Seven B.
I opened my eyes. It was close to dawn, for I could make out the rim of the horizon under a deep blue sky. But I dozed again, and didn’t wake till I felt someone nudge me with a foot. I mumbled. The nudge came again, a lot harder now, and I swore, then looked up.
I didn’t know the man standing over me. He wasn’t Carl or Nouri. He wore desert camouflage and heavy army boots that were very near my face. I could see the way the soles curled at the toes. There was another object, too, thrust very close to me, and it scared me even before I was able to identify it. I stared at it, trying to focus. A ring of metal, black in the middle . . . the black was a hole, I realized. The thing was a tube, a cylinder.
It was a gun.
I’d been worrying about the gods. I’d forgotten the more immediate dangers.
In a language I did not know he urged me to my feet. I didn’t argue. There are risks I’ll take and risks I won’t. The gods might let you live, but guns will kill you.
Slowly, trying to look as harmless as I could, I put my hands into the air.
An Offer from the Colonel
There were a dozen guys. Most were locals in djellabas or combat gear; but the four officers were Europeans, probably Russian from the sound of them. My language skills weren’t up to pinning it down. Three were very young men, in soldiers’ uniforms that looked as crisp and clean as if they’d just come out of the bag. These weren’t soldiers. Even the rake of their berets was wrong, like costumes in a really bad school play.
The fourth man was a different matter.
The fourth man, I knew.
He had been called “the Colonel” when I met him last. I had been made to stand up sharply every time he walked into the room or else receive a clip around the ear—not really painful, but humiliating to anyone not still in short trousers. He’d asked a lot of questions about the organization I was working for, especially my log-ins and my passwords, which frankly would have done him little good. I’d probably have told him if he’d offered me a decent deal, or even threatened me enough. Still, fate had intervened, and offered me a chance to get away, which, since I’d been wanted for murder at the time, I’d thought it wise to take.
I had judged him about sixty then. He looked no older now, with his neat, white moustache and military bearing, and he struck me, as before, as immensely fit. He’d been in civvies when I’d last seen him. Now, in desert fatigues, three stars on his cap, he seemed commanding, energetic—one of those men whose heart pumps more testosterone than blood.
I was kneeling on the ground with my hands on my head and a gun against my neck when he came over to say hi. He stood atop a little pile of rubble, looking down on me, his thumbs hooked in his pockets.
“Mr. Copeland,” he said. He put his head on one side, then on the other, inspecting me from all angles. “Well, well. They told me who the op would be for this one, but I really couldn’t quite believe it was the same man. What are the chances, hm? After all this time?”
“I often get mistaken for somebody else.”
“Not now, though. With luck we’ll be done here by noon. What d’you say?”
His English was devoid of accent, though the emphases were sometimes odd.
I said, “Looks like I’m finished here for now.”
“Oh no. Quite the opposite. You have a job to do, and you’re going to do it. I think that’s how it works, yes? In the meantime, I can offer you some tea, and breakfast—the buns may be a little stale by now, but never mind. Let’s get going, shall we?”
I raised my eyes, to indicate the man standing behind me. The Colonel nodded, said something in Arabic. I shook myself, looked round warily, then got to my feet. I was still half expecting a smack around the ear. Or worse.
I said, “How’s Budapest?”
A large, sand-colored armored car had been drawn up behind our truck. It had a gun mounted on top. A couple of the local types were standing there with Nouri, and one of them had started a small cooking fire. No trace of Carl. I only hoped that was a good sign.
The Colonel said, “To tell the truth, I’ve not seen Budapest in quite some while. I’ve been busy elsewhere.”
“Nice for you, that. Keeping busy.”
One of the officers was picking his way through the ruins, stopping every few yards, checking something in his hand. A reader, I guessed, doing just what I’d done yesterday.
I said, “You’re not with the Hungarians now? At a guess, I’d say . . . Russian mafia? Something like that.”
The Colonel chuckled. “Mafia,” he said. “They’re all respectable these days, you know. Captains of industry, I’m told. But no. I’m not with them.”
“I’m a man of the world, Mr. Copeland. One can no longer be bound by mere nationalities. Don’t you agree?”
The man with the reader seemed astonishingly young. Seventeen, perhaps, or not much more. Like the Colonel, he wore fatigues, a pistol at his hip. But he wasn’t a soldier. Just a glance could tell you that.
I asked the Colonel, “You have a name? Or just a rank?”
“I have a name. Several, in fact. Though I would recommend you shelve your curiosity, and contemplate your own situation. Let me explain, in case things aren’t yet clear.”
We were coming up to the vehicles now. I gave Nouri a nod. He nodded back, sucking on his lower lip. His beard wagged unhappily.
“We want you, Mr. Copeland—Chris—to go ahead, finish the job. The source here is a very ancient one, and as such, it’s of great interest to us. We’ve even given it a name—Marduk, after the Babylonian deity. Marduk will be caught, locked safely in your flask, and you will go home none the worse. Everything will happen just as planned.”
“Except, of course, Marduk will return with us. So, by the way, will the rest of your equipment.”
I pretended to think about this. “And if I don’t do what you want?”
“You will immediately become irrelevant to our goals. You and your friend.”
“That’s what it’s called now, is it? ‘Irrelevant’?”
“I’m guessing you’re here on a covert op. I’d say there might be—what, half a dozen people who know where you are? Perhaps fewer still. And it’s a war zone. Bad things happen.”
“It’s not technically a war zone.”
The Colonel made a doubtful little moue.
“And when you say irrelevant . . . is that actually irrelevant, or technically irrelevant?”
He gave me a look to suggest I was trying his patience.
“Really,” I said. “I’d like to know.”
When he didn’t answer that either, I said, “You’ve got the gear. You could do it yourself.”
“Mr. Copeland. I have studied the retrieval process extensively. There are some very interesting films. Alas, I have never had chance . . . so I’m looking forward to this. I’m looking forward to it very, very much.”
I mouthed at Nouri: “Carl?” and he flicked his eyes up, at the landscape round about. From the look on his face, and the fact he didn’t shake his head or just say, “Dead,” I reckoned we were to the good on that. More, the Colonel had mentioned only one “friend.” So maybe Carl just wasn’t on his radar. If so, then that was very, very good.
There was a quality Dayling had been so keen to ascribe to me: professionalism. I wasn’t sure I merited it. Carl, I hoped, was a different character. He’d find a way to get us help. He’d do something. He’d be armed. Though getting caught up in a firefight was just about the last thing that I wanted. I wondered if I could forestall it somehow with a few tricks of my own. Which might be every bit as risky, in the long run . . .
I had history with the Colonel, and I resented his intrusion into what might well become a tricky job. So, I thought, I’d let him find out how tricky. And see how he liked that.
He walked beside me through the ruins while I took my own readings, marking them on the same map I’d used yesterday, though in red pen now, not black. It looked good. There were heavy readings around the temples in the north, especially the Ishtar temple, and lesser readings through the palace and around the ziggurat. In the southern parts there was now very little. I had it. The thing was there. It was coherent, fully formed. I’d feared it might have been fragmented, dissipated through the Earth. I wondered how aware it was, if it could feel our passage here, over the rooftops of its den. But it was half awake now, responsive to stimuli. Soon I’d have a sense of it, a notion how to use it, how to make it work for me. Soon . . .
The Colonel stuck to me like a shadow. He studied what I did but he said nothing, asked nothing. He must have known I’d probably just lie to him.
Presently, though, he cleared his throat, said, “You could have a place with us, you know.”
“Not if I’m irrelevant.”
“I’m serious. You know your job. You’re good at it. You could take whichever projects interest you. The rest of the time, you’d have an easy life. We need an expert trainer. You’d fit the bill.” His voice rose slightly in a question that I didn’t answer. “Think about it,” he invited.
“Nah. It’s probably treason or something.” I scanned with the reader, turning in a circle. “They’d never serve me down the Dog and Partridge after that.”
“You’re deliberately misstating the case.”
“Oh, really?” I glanced up at the hot blue sky, the miles of emptiness. “Sorry ’bout that.”
“I’m making you an offer. A legitimate proposal, from one company to the employee of another. The worst it could be called is poaching. It happens all the time.”
“I’m sure the Registry will take you on,” I said, “if you fill in all the proper forms.”
“Very loyal. Commendable, perhaps, but . . . not to your own advantage.”
I knelt, resting the map on my knee. I’d been working it out, all this time; some part of my brain reading the indices, plotting the gradients . . . I sketched a rough of how I’d need to lay the cables. A big job, but not too big.
The Colonel was still talking. “Our resources are the best in the world. You know this. Through Eastern Europe, north into Siberia, south and east into Asia . . . these are rich reserves, most of them untouched. Easily accessible. There is coal there. There is oil. There is timber. And there are gods.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“These are spiritual nations. Worshipful nations. What we need now is . . . a means of harvesting the crop.”
“Like I say. Give my boss a call. He’ll sort you out.”
“Loyalty, again. Or do you just dislike me? The competition?”
“Well. Got it in one.”
I didn’t look at him; I was looking out across the site, trying to visualize it, where the cables ought to lie. How they’d fit in with the contours of the land, the ruins of the town. And what lay underneath
He lit a cigarette, offered me one. I waved it off.
He said, “Let me be honest. Our technology is far behind yours. Worse, our personnel are inexperienced and uninformed. You’d have the chance to build a team from scratch. An elite team.”
“Right. Like . . . ?” I nodded to the nearest of the boy soldiers.
The Colonel brushed this off. “They’re useful. They have . . . enthusiasm. On a job like this, that can take them far.” He smiled, confided, “Not ideal, no. But the clay from which much may yet be molded.
“The interests I represent—we’re businessmen. Nothing sinister, nothing dangerous. In other circumstances”—he spread his hands—“we might be sitting round a boardroom table, discussing these same issues. Your masters are wary of us for a simple reason: we are the competition. We don’t want to buy our power from the Registry, in whatever form it presents itself—or from the West in general. Communism left us crippled in so many ways. Stalin said he would modernize the nation, but he left it mired in the past.”
“So you’re Russian?”
“The company has Russian elements. Also Slovakian, Czech, Polish. And the newer nations, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, places where, short of war”—he cast his gaze to the horizon—“the Registry will never be allowed to work. The business opportunities there are immense.”
“No doubt.” I slipped the reader back into my pocket.
“I’ve got a job to do,” I said. “I need to start now. Or we’ll still be here tonight.”
“You don’t strike me as a mercenary man,” said the Colonel, “but let me add, your salary would be magnificent. More, I’d guess, than you can easily imagine.”
“Mail me a check,” I said, “and then we’ll talk.”
I went back over the cables. Mostly I lined them up against the new readings I’d taken. At certain points, though, something—call it instinct, call it sixth sense, or whatever—made me change the pattern slightly, run a cable just a few yards over, or else put a little curve on it. I couldn’t have said why. These are the things you can’t explain to laymen, and they’re probably the main reason the world’s not full of field ops. Because not everyone can do it. Not everybody can be taught.
So I was paying serious attention, and trying hard not to think about the gun held to my head, figuratively and, at times, literally, too. Except I did think about it. Difficult not to, really.
I ran the perimeter cable as wide as I could and still hope for security. There were readings outside that, but they were low and I hoped they wouldn’t matter. A little overspill, for somebody to mop up later.
Overspill. Like at Esztergom.
Last night’s dream came back to me. Coincidence, perhaps. I don’t believe in premonitions, but here, in the presence of the gods, strange things can happen. Time twists up, distorting like an image in a funhouse mirror. You can’t trust anything.
I was laying the second cable—and this was the hard one, the one I really had to feel for—when a shot rang out.
I looked up. At home, people would have stared round vaguely, just as I was doing now. Not here. The guys by the vehicles—Nouri among them—had all dropped flat. There was shouting. No one seemed to have been hurt. I dropped into a crouch myself, feeling suddenly exposed. Presently I saw a couple of the Colonel’s men, the locals, heading off around the edges of the ruins. Another couple were running in the opposite direction.
The Colonel himself walked over to me. Strolled, in full view, deliberately taunting. He stood there, hands on hips, while I twined the fine silver wires in between the blocks of ancient masonry, through dust and over stone. I said, “War zone. Right.”
“Hm?” He affected a nonchalance I thought was mostly bluff. “Oh. That. Well, it may be something, it may be nothing. Farmers here all carry guns, you know. They need them for the snakes.”
“The cobra, the saw-scaled viper, the horned viper . . .”
“You’re well-informed. Still, it may be that we’re not the only ones keen to acquire the specimen. If I were you, I’d deal with us, rather than any other likely comers. We play fair. Al-Qaeda may not be so generous.”
“Well,” I said. “That’s good to know.”
It took a couple of hours, but I set the pattern up. I’d arranged the cables in a kind of dumbbell shape around the masonry. The flask was in the middle. I kept the control box back, close by the Tabira gate. I told the Colonel, “I need Nouri here.”
“He’s not Registry.”
“No, but he’s my assistant and he knows what he’s doing. Which I’d guess is more than you lot do.”
“Dmitri will help.” He nodded to a young man with a scarf wrapped round his head. Dmitri nodded, stepped forward, very solemnly.
I said to him, “You speak English?”
He smiled, uncertainly. “A little . . .”
I didn’t even have to make a fuss about it in the end, which told me something.
I got Nouri.
Familiar with the Process
Nouri said, “You have a plan.”
“You look like the man with the plan.” He put his head on one side, peering at me. “You look angry.”
We crouched over the equipment, conferring while I picked through various tools, as if they were the objects of discussion. The Colonel had been called away a moment. I don’t think anybody else had much English, which suited me fine.
I said, “I can stir things up a bit. Maybe it’ll help. If I don’t get us all killed.”
“No. Please don’t do that.”
Together, we pretended to check connections.
Nouri said, “These people are Sunni. It’s not their fight. I don’t think they will be a problem. Carl is also here somewhere, I am sure.”
I checked my reader again. The levels were all jumping around.
“It’s roused,” I said. “Just doesn’t know it yet.”
“My friend. I have a family who needs me. Be careful, please?”
“Careful as I can.”
Nouri muttered something. If it was a prayer, it wasn’t to Assur, I knew that much.
You take them by surprise. That’s the idea. A god is infinitely your superior, as you might expect, and so you try to catch it napping. If you can’t do that, then you try something else. Whatever you do, you try to make it quick. It’s a rule of thumb that, the longer from initiation to completion, the less successful the catch. The more risk you run. You’re not reeling in fish here. And it’s never the same twice.
So: a high charge on the perimeter, keeping everything contained. Subsequent charges hustle the thing towards the center, keeping it off balance, till it falls into the flask just like a lobster in a pot. It’s a quick job when it all goes right. It takes much longer to set it up than to actually do. There’s even an “auto” switch on the console, though I can’t imagine anybody stupid enough to use it. No: the gods need to be teased, cajoled, flattered, prodded, then snapped up fast. The Greeks were right about them. There’s enormous energy there, but also, even in the most somnolent, a crude form of will, a cunning that can take you by surprise. Like I always say: when it starts to be routine, that’s when you die.
I spent a while just fiddling around. Stalling. At times I’d stand beside the console, press a few buttons, watch the lights flash, stop, and power down again. I did a lot of tongue clicking, muttering to myself, shaking my head. I’d check connections. Once I walked a half a mile into the site, claiming I’d a loose link. What I was really checking, though, were the figures on the reader. They were changing, consolidating. This was big. I’d taken a stick, given the bear a poke. It wasn’t out of hibernation yet, but it was certainly sleeping fitfully.
The Colonel said, “Now, please, Mr. Copeland.”
“You’re the expert, are you?”
“No. But I am familiar with the process.”
I rounded on him, surprising even myself. It was the ire of a man who feels his work is under-appreciated, I suppose. Or that’s what it was meant to look like. I squared up to him.
“No. You’re not familiar. Not one bit. Because if this goes wrong, I can assure you, being blown to shit will be the very least of our concerns. There’s a lot that isn’t in the manuals, and you damn well know it. Otherwise you wouldn’t need me.” I took a breath. Then I stood back, gestured to the console. “You’re familiar with it? Well, go on then. You go on.”
I let him stew. I went back to tinkering. He had a look like some Russian statue, but he was getting edgy. I could see it, and so could his men. Which was just what I’d wanted.
All right, I thought. Let’s poke the bear again. Let’s see if we can make it dance.
It was like juggling, really. Watching the readings, knowing when to push and when to hold back, when to move and when to stop. Only I never did know, really. Not with any certainty. Just guesswork, hunches—a calculated risk.
I had a headache. The generator kept up its annoying hum behind me. It felt like somebody was trying to saw my head in half.
“Stay down,” I said to Nouri. “If things get bad, you run. Got that?”
I sent a charge through the perimeter, just to keep it all contained. Localized. I took a breath and moved on to the next set of controls. There was a second’s pause, a second in which nothing happened. Then the air seemed to clamp down. It was like a fist, closing on my head. I sent a quick charge through the inside cables, one to the right, one to the left. Short bursts. I thought about the god, out there, invisible: molded to the fabric of this ancient town, not under it or in it but a part of it. It had been asleep now for millennia, sated on the prayers of men long dead. And here I was, finally kicking it awake.
The Colonel said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s fucking wrong.”
I changed the levels, keyed in a batch of minor lines, shot a quarter-second burst through each of them. I ran a handkerchief across my forehead, taking off the sweat. I looked up. A wisp of white cloud smeared the flat blue sky, like a white flame, and it seemed the sky had darkened round it. I turned back to the console. Purple afterimages went floating past my eyes. I changed the levels, watched the gauge.
The shadows moved and sharpened. Someone shouted. I looked up.
The cloud was falling. It flared, almost too bright to look at, dropping, not from a thousand feet but from a hundred, maybe two hundred at most. The distances had been deceptive. It spilled like liquid, slowly at first, then more and more, pouring down, a great column of light. I’d wanted a display, a spectacle, but now I had it.
I was scared. My hands went to the dials. I’d get this over with, I’d flip the thing into the flask and close it up, fast as I could. I reached out . . . then stopped myself. I stood there while this great white cloud came tumbling down, seeming to burst upon the stones and ramparts of the ancient city. I felt the movement through my shoes. The light hit on the rocks, rebounding, rising like a wall. It raced towards me. I screwed my eyes against it, felt the sharp, electric judder as it traveled through my body, tingling, slipping through the atoms of my being—and then it was gone.
“You have it,” said the Colonel.
“No. No I don’t.”
“If that had been the god,” I said, “we’d none of us be standing here. That was nothing—ionized air, that’s all. That’s what happens when you get an energy field this big interacting with the solid world. That”—I was patronizing—“is what’s called physics.”
I turned away from him, but not before I’d noticed Nouri had been right: the local troops had fallen back, and were clustering around the armored car.
“Now,” I said out loud. “Why not leave it to the pros, all right?”
I have done bad things in my time. I have a moral mind-set that I often see as compromised and almost embarrassingly relativistic. But every now and then I find myself in a situation that’s so clear-cut, so black-and-white, that damn it, I will fight. Even then, it’s not so much a case of right and wrong. More often, it’s when someone’s terminally pissed me off, and I am going to make life hell for them in consequence. Perhaps that’s one reason I’m still a field op. I never could play politics.
The god was roused. It was rolling over, ready to sit up. I pumped a few light charges through it, just to keep its interest, the equivalent of whispering its name into its ear. The air began to shake.
“Who else is here?” the Colonel said. He was trying to sound calm, but not succeeding.
There were tiny, rhythmic sounds, all round us, just on the edge of hearing, and if I tried to listen they’d invariably take on the forms of speech. It was how the brain would deal with them; the very act of listening turned them into words. I had a sense that once, a long time back, I’d known their meaning, recognized their voices, and then—yes! There! And there again! And a moment, it had seemed I’d understood, remembered—
“Just us, dear Colonel.”
“But who’s here with us?”
The sun was low. The day was waning, but the light was wrong. A double shadow jutted from the ziggurat, looking like a time-lapse photo; I was seeing it at different points in history, two different moments, or more than two, as if all times were one, all times were present time. An engine growled. I glanced around. The armored car was starting up. The Colonel saw it, too, and yelled out, half curse, half order. His three young officers just stood like dummies. They really were completely useless. He ran across and physically shook the nearest one, who turned and pelted for the car like a commuter who’d just missed his bus. It was ridiculous, quite honestly.
The ground before me started rippling. It looked as if a thousand snakes were all heading towards me, except I couldn’t see the snakes, only the tracks that they were making in the dirt. Maybe it was just the light shifting, bending in the face of such enormous power. Maybe it was real. I had one of those moments—so near panic I was just a second’s thought from dropping everything and getting out of there. I blanked it out—all fear, all sense of how much could go wrong. The Colonel yelled again, and the landscape threw it back at us, a mocking echo, over and over, each time more distorted and inhuman.
The next voice that I heard was Carl’s.
It was hard, every word spoken with clarity and absolute precision.
“I wouldnae do that, mister, not if I was you.”
I turned, just for a second. Carl looked dusty and disheveled. He had a gun up to the Colonel’s crew-cut head. Nouri stepped in, took the Colonel’s pistol from his holster. He patted him down.
“No offense, sir.”
“Aye. Nae offense, pal,” Carl said, and with the muzzle of the pistol, forced him to his knees.
“We’re OK here,” he told me. “Finish the job. And you,” he jabbed the Colonel’s skull, “you tell your wee lads there to down tools and back off. You tell ’em, right?”
“Please,” said the Colonel. But there was no real pleading in it. It was as if he’d just been reprimanded for some minor misdemeanor. “We’re businessmen. We have no quarrel with you.”
“No. But I have one fuck of a quarrel with you, bampot.”
I shifted the controls. It was tricky now. One bad move, I’d lose it. The sun was almost down. I tried to clear my mind. I tried to focus.
Perimeter: full charge. Sub-per: two shots, and then in, in—
There were a couple of tricky moments. Twice when my instinct said to change the plan, when the rhythm seemed all wrong. But I listened. I trusted. And I got it right. I slammed the last few charges home.
The air was very still. Nothing moved. The mounds and the ziggurat were dark shapes now against a dimming sky.
I left the control box and, very gingerly, with the sense that I was treading on quicksand, I went over to the flask, and sealed it.
“You,” said Carl to the Colonel. “You have some explaining to do now, wee boy.”
“There is nothing to explain. We’re businessmen, the same as you. In other circumstances . . .” The Colonel spread his hands. “ . . . we might be sitting at a boardroom table, drinking tea.”
“You carry your fuckin’ AK to the boardroom, aye?”
“I carry it wherever I think necessary. All that’s unusual about this is what the country itself demands.”
The only time I’d ever seen the Colonel flustered was when I had the god there, dancing on my bit of fishing line. His first retrieval. Well, at least he’d got a show. If he was lucky any later ones were going to be a major disappointment.
But now he was telling nothing. Carl made some noises about “slotting” him or “wasting” him, but the Colonel merely looked at us and asked, “Would you become a murderer?”
“Aye. You and your three sprogs. Don’t think that worries me, wee boy. Don’t you even think it.”
But it did seem to worry him. It also seemed to worry him that we were getting sightseers along. He said to me, “We should be on the road. Everyone from here to Basrah’s gonnae ken what’s up.”
The three boys were a better prospect for enquiries, but for one thing: none of them spoke English.
“Ah, fuck it,” said Carl.
“Wise words, my friend.” Nouri emptied out another pack of cigs. “Fuck it, indeed.”
We left them there. There was nothing we could do, and of course, they knew it. At best we might arrest them, take them for trial; but we didn’t want them in the truck, and the mission, as Carl pointed out, was to get the flask back safely.
“I thought the mission was to get me back safely,” I said.
“Ah no. The flask is full, your job is done. You’re expendable.”
He saw the look that crossed my face and punched me on the arm. “Nae offense there, pal.”
“Irrelevant,” I said. “Technically.”
“Aye. Too fuckin’ right.”
We took their guns, their papers. Their cigarettes. Perhaps their friends would be back for them. Perhaps not. Either way, this wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere here.
People sat in the dirt, only a dozen or so yards away, just watching us. A water seller ambled among them; up on the road, a couple of food vendors had set up. They had lanterns hanging, they called out in Arabic.
Who’ll care about a single truck, Dayling had said. He hadn’t reckoned on a major firework display and what must have resembled one more skirmish from the recent war.
We climbed into the truck. One of the Colonel’s boys ran after us, babbling, desperate not to be left behind. But the Colonel himself merely stood, his arms folded, and watched.
As we went by, he gave a little, ironic salute.
“Fuck sake,” said Carl. “Does he not know when he’s beat?”
Their documents were Arabic and something else, probably something Eastern European. Nothing English at all. Nouri flicked through them, told us, “They name a company called Modern Light and Power. Offices in Stockholm. Does that strike you as likely?”
“Aye, well,” said Carl. “You can put your office where you want, these days.”
“Oh, indeed. Play both sides off against each other. Either way, you win.”
“What?” I said.
Nouri pushed his glasses up his nose, looked at me. “Does your Registry not have an Eastern branch? For Russia, China, India—wherever?”
“We’ve made some inroads, yeah, but—”
“But underfunded. Like he said. Now they want their slice of the pie. The Registry, my friend, is like an octopus: its tentacles are in so many places it no longer knows where it is or what it does. Perhaps no one knows. Hm?”
“That’s—that’s the weirdest conspiracy theory I’ve ever come across.”
“Oh aye,” said Carl. “It’s modern business, that. All multinationals nowadays.”
“I think,” said Nouri, “we have just met your poor relations. Don’t you?”
“Bollocks,” I said.
I shook my head. I said, “That’s ridiculous. Even if it was true, it couldn’t possibly—”
“Ah.” Nouri wagged his head.
“They’re pirates,” I said, “That’s all. Out for what they can get.”
“Oh yes. And every emperor, every dictator, every CEO—all of them were pirates once. In-fucking-deed.”
“And there you have it,” said Carl. “Pearls of Eastern wisdom. Eh, Nour? Still. I’ll tell you what they bloody weren’t. Barring your boss man there, your big chief feller. They weren’t fucking soldiers, I say.”
“And praise God for that,” said Nouri.
“Wee boys. You dress ’em up in khaki, order ’em around, they think they’re—God knows . . .”
“Royal Marines?” I said.
“Now that, pal, they will never be. Ye ken?”
It had been Carl, on watch, who’d heard the Colonel’s vehicle approach. He’d woken Nouri. Then he’d gone to take a look, unaware the newcomers were homing right in on our truck. Nouri, meanwhile, seeing the armored car, had assumed it was to beef up our defenses on the journey home, when we’d have company assets to protect. He’d soon found out how wrong he was. And Carl had kept his head down, waiting for his chance.
“I thought I’d try and scare ’em with a couple o’ warning shots,” he said. “They were quicker off the mark than I expected over that. But you,” he turned to me, “now that was fucking nice, that was. A wee bit distraction there. My head still fucking aches from it, but . . .”
Carl and Nouri took turns driving. There were checkpoints, the usual tension. Between those and the rough roads, I didn’t get a lot of sleep. And all I thought was that I wanted to be home.
It struck me I’d grown less at ease with the world these last few years. There was still the pleasure of a job well done, the thrill of taking on something I knew only a handful of people in the world could really manage; yesterday, indeed, I’d done something that might have been unique. I’d seen field ops play for effects before—Martin Klein was a notorious showman, one of the few who actually enjoyed an audience—but even they never pushed it so far; never had to. But I’d pushed it, pushed it, then pulled it back again, a perfect retrieval.
Maybe I’d been lucky. It could have easily—too easily—gone wrong.
It isn’t what happened that bothers you. It’s what could have happened. What could happen next.
I had a few days’ leave due. Maybe it was time to take them.
“See? It went well, didn’t it?”
“But you got it?”
He was just a bit too quick on that for my taste. Not, “What happened?” “Are you OK?” or, “Anybody hurt?” Not even, “Take a seat.” I dropped the backpack on his office floor, in the middle of a red-and-yellow oriental rug. His gaze went with it. His hands made little in-out moves, like silent applause.
“Yeah,” I said. “I got it.”
He called for tea, then made a show of breaking out his best scotch from the secret drawer and pouring me a glass. He had one too, “to keep me company,” he said. I outlined what had happened. For the man who’d assured me we’d be under the radar, I have to say his little pantomime of shock wasn’t especially convincing. He asked me how I was. He put his head on one side, then the other. He said, “My God,” “No,” and “Jesus Christ.” Then he said, “Come on. Let’s grab some lunch.”
I bent to pick up the pack.
“We’ll put that where it’s safe,” he said.
“London’s pretty safe,” I said.
“Well, we’ve no flights right this second, Chris. But there’s a secure room here. It’s not the first of these we’ve had to deal with, I can tell you. The Registry branch out here might not be very active, but it’s not . . . inactive.”
I was reluctant to let the thing out of my sight, in light of all the trouble it had cost me, but I did see Dayling’s point. The secure room, as it turned out, was a cupboard armored like a bank vault. Steel door, steel walls, combination lock. Very nice.
I was tired, I was irritable. But I was also hungry. And you do get a taste for bamia, if it’s done right.
We went to the same restaurant as before. The same waiter chewed what may have been the same toothpick—there were shortages, after all, there was a war on—and Dayling ordered for us with a genteel magnanimity, as if he knew my own tastes better than I did myself.
“Most of these places,” he told me, “they’ve got about a hundred items on the menu, but in the kitchen, only one.” He paused, like a conjuror before the climax of the trick. “Fried chicken.”
“I like fried chicken.”
“You’d do well here, then.”
“You’ve done pretty well.”
He shrugged, mock-modestly.
“Though I’ll admit,” I said, “I’m sort of baffled by it all. I mean, you left Field Ops for a place like this? Is that wise?”
“Or safe?” he countered. “I know, I know.” He started fussing with the dishes on the table, lifting each lid, checking what was where. I noticed that he wore long sleeves again, buttoned at the cuffs.
I said, “Doesn’t it get to you? The bombs, the shootings? You said it yourself: easy to kill someone here. Right?”
“Oh—” He flapped a hand. “I’m not exactly front line. We’re well protected, and the money’s good. I get regular vacations. Here—try some of this. You’ll like this.”
He ladled some sort of sausage onto my plate. It floated in a pool of grease and veg. Little of it was immediately identifiable.
He looked at me, pulled a serious face. “Chris. I feel so bad about what happened. I feel like it’s my fault. If I’d have known the risk—”
“Yeah. Well. I’m on the first flight back to Brize, and I’m not coming back.” I let this rest awhile. Then I said, “You still haven’t answered me. Leaving Field Ops, coming here.”
“Well, that’s a hard one, Chris.”
“You mean it wasn’t just my shining example put you off your game, then?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“It’s like this. Here, there’s a risk. We all hope it won’t happen, we know it probably won’t happen. In Field Ops—in Field Ops, I bloody knew that I was going to come a cropper. Just a matter of time, you know? Just a matter of time.”
There was something just a little off about him, something raw and jittery. I cut a piece of sausage. I could smell the herbs in it, rich, exotic. Then I said, “Funny, though. I got the feeling you’d have liked this last one. Thought you’d want a crack at it yourself, yeah?”
“I’m not Field Ops.”
“Still. You could have come along, just for the ride?”
“I told you. I’m not built for it.”
He started on his own plate. He put his head down and I watched him eating.
Then he said, “I’ve visited Assur.”
“Long time back. I was still in Ops. We were taking readings, . . . Country was a bit rough, even then. No retrievals. Not allowed. But I got the chance to . . . sit there.”
“Commune with it,” I quoted.
“I could . . . feel it, Chris. I could feel its moods. Feel it talk to me. I’d never known that. I was—this will make you laugh, but I was quite religious in my teens. Life was . . . very difficult for me. I’d go to church when no one else was there, and pray and pray and pray. I’d bunk off school and go to church. I practically wore the knees out in my trousers. And I never got a sense of God. I wanted so much just to feel that there was someone there, you know? That there was something more than just the—the shit that I was going through. I wanted Him to say, ‘It’s all right, Andrew.’ Only He never did. But in Assur . . .”
“It spoke to you?”
“No. He didn’t speak. But he was there. I don’t think that I even prayed—well, not exactly, but for the first time I was aware that, if I did . . . someone would hear. It was—I still get flashbacks, sometimes. Very rarely, but I do. It was extraordinary.”
“You were Field Ops for a long time. You must have experienced—”
“Not like this.”
His body language had changed. No longer suave, laid-back, now he angled forwards, his gestures nervous and incisive.
“You know that being close to them, it does things to your head. Your thoughts—”
He slapped his fork down, a little too loudly.
“I know all about that. All about it. Don’t try to make excuses or explain it away. This was different.”
“It’s the oldest known,” I said, hoping to deflect him.
“More than that. It’s the primary. This is where it all began. I swear.”
“Well, it’s a theory . . .”
“The gods aren’t local. They’re not from our space-time. That’s why everything gets . . . twisted up around them. It’s my belief that the Assur entity was first, and then it . . . let’s say it budded, like a plant. And all the others grew from that. But it was always first.”
“That’s interesting,” I said.
“Oh, it’s more than interesting. It could change our whole perspective on them. I don’t know . . .” He sighed. “I would have gone. I really would. Except they wanted you.”
Something in his tone just pricked my interest then.
“ ‘They,’ ” I said.
He waved a hand dismissively, and reached out for the water jug.
“This came from Seddon, right?” I said. “In London? That’s where I get my orders. That’s where I got this one.”
He drank, said nothing.
“ ‘They,’ ” I said again.
“Well.” He pursed his lips, wiped his mouth on a napkin. “I don’t suppose it matters now. It was the US office, Special Projects. They wanted you, mentioned you by name. I wasn’t meant to tell you.” He looked sheepish. “But it can’t do any harm now, can it? And we’re old friends.”
“Special . . . Projects?”
“That’s right. Why?”
So I said a name.
I said, “Shailer.”
Dayling said, “I didn’t like the secrecy, I must admit. When it’s a question of security, that’s fine. But not between ourselves, eh?”
“Did you deal with him directly? Shailer?”
“Only once. He said he knew you, but they wanted me to deal with it. I realized then that’s the only reason they’d called me. Because I knew you. They thought it would help.” He looked down at his plate. “I wasn’t important at all, you see? Except for that.”
The rest of the meal was long and awkward. I kept trying to question him and wound up pretty much convinced he was as ignorant as he claimed. What bothered me the most, though, was that I’d got the job the usual way, through Seddon’s office, without even a hint of subterfuge or outside involvement of any kind. I asked repeatedly, “Was Seddon in on this?” But all he’d say was, “Seddon wasn’t mentioned.” We finished with two tiny cups of thick black coffee, which pretty much disposed of any hopes I’d had for decent sleep. I tossed and turned in my hotel bed, and in the morning, checked my flight time, swallowed a quick breakfast, then went to Dayling’s office to collect the flask. He wasn’t at work. He wasn’t answering his phone, or, so I was told, his door.
It took a while to find someone who knew the combination for the safe room, but presently a plump young man appeared, fussing with a bunch of keys. He wore jeans and carpet slippers. He dialed the combination lock, then tried a variety of keys upon the other two until he got it open. He was very apologetic about the delays, though nobody was listening by then in any case.
The flask, of course, was gone.
And so was Dayling.
Flight and Pursuit
I’ve seen the Registry try to cover up its messes and mistakes at several junctures in my life. There’s usually a lot of running about and some frantic phone calling and e-mails and invariably some major official whose authorization is required and who fails to respond in time. Everybody squawks and frets like turkeys before Christmas, not sure what to do.
This time, at least, we found out what had happened very early on. There was hardly any mystery at all—except for why.
It seems Dayling had risen early, as was his habit, and attended to some morning chores, all as normal. He’d even booked a lunch appointment at his usual restaurant. Then, he’d visited the safe room, removed the flask, taken a Registry car to the airport, and booked himself a Turkish Airlines flight to Paris, France, leaving within thirty minutes. The flask went with him—he had a Registry pass, top level, and used it to dodge his way round customs, but apart from that, there had been no attempt to hide his tracks. He didn’t even seem to have been in any hurry about it.
Seddon, my boss, is a tall, gangly man with eyebrows of a startling whiteness, and sees himself as very pro-active, very hands-on. Unfortunately, in a case like this, the hands in question aren’t likely to be his own. I spoke to him from Dayling’s office, as it happened. The phone line was as sharp and clear as if he sat across the desk from me. Astonishing technology. So far away, yet I could hear each indrawn breath, each tut and dear and vexed oh heavens as I carefully explained the situation. After that, he was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, his crisp consonants and plummy vowels allowed no willful misinterpretation of the job ahead. Would that they had.
“I want you to go after him,” he said. “You’re his friend, aren’t you? You can talk to him. Persuade him to see sense. I want to play it carefully on this one.”
“This whole job—” I started, but he spoke across me.
“I don’t know Dayling. Any vices, bad habits? Debts? Unsavory associations? Any kind of context we can put him in?”
“I hadn’t seen the guy in ten years. I didn’t expect to see him at all, quite frankly.”
Seddon clicked his tongue. “This is all very annoying,” he said, as if I were some hawker who’d just got him out of the bath. “I’ll talk to our Paris office. Ask them to keep the local authorities out of it, if they can. . . . I do so hate working with people I don’t know. You can’t depend on them. That’s why I need you there, Chris. Packed, already? Yes? I want you on the next plane.”
“There’s more to this,” I said. I knew he’d given his command, and in his view he was done. But I pressed on. “There was an attempt to seize it in the field. Russian mafia or something, I dunno. Eastern Europe, anyway. Then Dayling runs off with it. Does that make any sense to you?”
“I’m sure it doesn’t, Chris. Are you suggesting I might . . . know something about this?”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” I said. “You think he’s trying to sell the thing?”
“Oh, I’d think so. Wouldn’t you?”
“They couldn’t get it off me in the field, so now they’re going to buy it. Him, too, I imagine. He was Field Ops once. They wanted me, you know. Very . . . lucrative deal.”
“Really. You must tell me all about it. Meanwhile—all haste, eh? Let’s hope we have a quick end to this. God knows . . .”
I don’t like airports. I’m sick of them, really. Most airports rank about an inch higher than bus stations for comfort, convenience, and general human warmth. You’re not there to enjoy yourself. You’re there to go somewhere else.
They say that there are spirits in these great travel termini, still untapped, fed by the hopes and anxieties of millions of travelers. If so, the spirit at Charles de Gaulle is a particularly tetchy one.
The place was packed with people. I took a detour round a family of six seemingly camped out in the middle of the hallway, their suitcases piled up like a barricade. As I hit immigration, Seddon rang, and I had to cut him off to deal with the official sniffing at my passport. It was a flight from Baghdad, of course, an ordinary, commercial flight; and while my queue was long, the queue for anyone of darker skin and non-EU origin was longer still and a lot slower moving. By the time I’d gone through the formalities and called Seddon back, he was engaged. A woman’s voice asked me to please hold and a scratchy version of one of the Brandenburgs began. I rang off, went outside, caught a whiff of the night air, and hailed a taxi. From the back seat, I called London again.
Seddon said, “You’d have been quicker on the train to Gare du Nord. Cheaper, too.”
I grunted at this.
“Anyway,” he said. “We now have an address.”
“It’s a false trail.”
“Not at all.” He was sounding a bit brighter than before; he evidently liked this update.
I said, “It’s too easy.”
“French chap followed him. We circulated pictures and description, naturally. Claims there’s no doubt. He’s in a hotel in Pigalle. They’re watching it now. You know Justine Dignet, don’t you? She’s handling their end of it. If you’re lucky you’ll be there before the fireworks, eh?”
“Traffic’s bad,” I said. It wasn’t, but I didn’t want him hurrying me.
“You should have taken the train, Chris. Much quicker.” He mumbled something which may have been a swearword. Then he said, “I can’t stress the importance of this. If there’s anything you know about this Dayling chap—anything he said, or hinted at, or said as a joke, even, or—”
“Yeah. I get the idea.”
I’d spent the last ten hours going over what I knew about Andrew Dayling, and realizing it wasn’t very much. I’d thought I’d known him, but all I’d really had was an opinion of him, which was not the same thing. We’d worked together, kicked back afterwards. I’d thought him pleasant, but a little shallow, something of a play-actor. When he was drunk he’d talk about a girlfriend he’d once lost, the great love of his life, but it always seemed to me that he was mourning an asset, like a house he used to live in or a car he used to drive. The self-pity, though, was real: a streak of misery and maudlin sentiment that would attach itself like a barnacle to any passing topic. Invariably, if I got inquisitive and started asking questions, a barrier came up.
And then there were his arms. “Have you seen his arms?”
I’d stolen a few glances while we’d been in hot countries where long sleeves just weren’t practical. The scars were old, I think, most of them. They weren’t easy to see; but once I’d tuned in, I saw them clearly enough. Most were straight lines, very thin, extending several inches; others curved, or zig-zagged, so the effect was of some faded tribal tattoo.
I’d meant to ask him about them. I’d meant, I suppose, to ask if I could somehow get him help, counseling, whatever. That would have been a nice thing to do. Perhaps I’m unobservant. I don’t understand about cutting. I know that people do it, and do other things, and that it brings some kind of relief, perhaps due to the pain, or the endorphins released, or maybe it just takes their minds off what’s been bothering them. I don’t know. But in the end, I had the same reaction most people have to such things. Repulsion, or that weird fascination where you don’t like it but you still can’t look away, and then . . . detachment. And I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-this.
In my case, I was also thinking: do I want him with me on a job? Can I trust him? And I never said a word to him. I skated along on his cheery, confident self, which I now saw more and more must be a mask. The only time I challenged him at all, it was in an abstract sort of way, trying to broach a subject I could not, at that point, even put a name to.
I’d told him he’d no need to look so pleased each time I walked into the room. I was getting tired of his matiness, his endless cheeriness. I told him straight: I said it was an act.
He brushed it off. “We all put on an act, though, don’t we?”
I was younger then; I said I didn’t think we did. I got annoyed with him, yet he couldn’t see—couldn’t conceive—of a world in which people didn’t hide a part of themselves. And it may be he was right. I’m older now, less idealistic. The world’s a darker and more complex place, these days.
“What’s in here,” he said, tapping his skull, “I mean, what’s really in here—you wouldn’t let it out, would you?”
“Don’t see why not.” I nursed my beer, watching a TV screen across the bar.
He said, “Have everyone see what a petty, mean, fucked-up mess you really are?”
“You mean me?” I said. “Or just anyone?”
There was a hardness to his eyes I’d never seen before, but gradually it slackened and his face relaxed, and he was the old, amiable character he’d always been.
“Not you, Chris. Obviously not. Just—well, anybody, really. One, you know? Not you. Just one.”
A Body on the Floor
It was a small hotel, a narrow structure jammed between two taller, broader buildings. It looked like “Mac” in the old Charles Atlas ads, squeezed by a couple of hunky bullies. Personally, I’d have told it to gamble a stamp.
I spotted the Registry man hiding in the shadows, gave him a little salute, and went in.
A large, sleepy dog lay in the entranceway. I stepped across it and it glanced up, twitched an ear, and settled back to sleep. Welcome, then. My French is strictly schoolboy, but Justine had already commandeered the tiny lobby and seemed to be giving the desk clerk a particularly painful third degree. Her rapid-fire French was much too fast for me, and possibly for him, as well. He was hunched down like a cyclist in a rainstorm, head turned away, one hand half raised like a shield. Justine Dignet had something of a way with words.
In appearance, she could have been a minor academic. She was small and thin, and tonight she had her hair tied back, emphasizing her long, slender face and pointed chin. She wore rimless glasses, a faded maroon jacket and designer jeans. There was a silk scarf at her throat, the one concession to ornament, but she meant business, nonetheless.
She nodded to me, as if we’d last spoken a minute or two back. In fact, I hadn’t seen her for a year.
“He’s here,” she said.
To the clerk, she snapped, “Le clef, monsieur, s’plaît.” When he didn’t jump to it she said something hard and fast, and flashed an ID that had him muttering unhappily and reaching for the passkey. She took it with a contemptuous little glare. She looked like she was about to lecture him on post-structuralist theory, or at least on how to conjugate his verbs.
To me, she said, “Stairs or elevator?”
“Lift. I’m tired.”
The lift was an old-fashioned thing with a cage you had to pull across and a handle you held down to make it move. It wasn’t fast.
I asked her, “What’d you say to him?”
Justine just smiled, reached into her pocket, and showed me the ID. “Public health. Not current, not my name. It doesn’t matter. Even if their place is clean, they know public health will tie them up for months in red tape. This is better than a cop’s badge.”
She told me, “We have two more ops downstairs. One at the front, one at the back. Your man is here, he can’t leave. But your Mr. Seddon insisted we wait for you.” There was a slight rise in tone at this, a certain criticism. She said, “I hope that we will not be long at this. I have a supper date I wish to keep.”
“Well. That gives us a time frame, anyway.”
At the fourth floor, we stopped. I slid the cage back softly as I could. It still scraped. Dayling’s room was in the rear. We lingered at the door a moment, listening. There was a sound from inside—perhaps a voice. I tried the door. Locked. Justine used the key.
It was not a big room. There were two single beds, a bureau and an upright chair. A window gave onto a view between the nearby buildings, framing a small mosaic of Paris rooftops. The onion dome of Sacré Coeur blazed white in the distance. A little closer, down between the beds, someone was lying on the floor.
He wasn’t dead, although he looked as if he ought to be. His clothes and a part of the floor-rug were already dark with blood. There was blood on his face. His hair stuck up in bloody tufts, making it hard to see how bad his injuries might be. He wasn’t very old. His hands were tied with packing tape; ankles, too. He wore a cheap black leather jacket, pulled halfway down his arms, and his T-shirt and the skin beneath had been slashed by something very sharp. I had no idea who he was. I pulled one of the beds out so that I could get to him. It looked as if the bleeding was about stopped. He was conscious but I didn’t think he’d stay that way.
Justine took out her reader, turning slowly round the room. “There is a drain,” she said. “The energy is all gone.” She clicked her tongue. “This place is stripped.”
We checked under the beds, in the wardrobe, the bathroom. Then checked again. I lifted the lid of the cistern. I checked the screws in the ventilation grill, so old and rusted they couldn’t have been moved in years.
There was no flask. There was no Dayling.
Just this unknown boy, here on the floor.
I rolled him gently on his side. He groaned. There was so much blood that it was hard to tell where he was cut. He had been trussed up quickly, carelessly, by the looks of it. Trussed and butchered.
I said, “Speak English?”
“Peu . . . little.” He sounded weak but co-operative.
“Dayling. The man you came to see.”
That got a blink that might have stood in for a nod.
“Where is he?”
He muttered, shrugged. His eyes stared upwards, and the pupils were too wide.
Justine took out her phone. I asked who she was calling.
“No. Not yet.” To the boy on the floor, I said, “You’re bleeding. You’re in a bad way. Understand? You could die, you could bleed out. Hurts, too, I bet. Or it will. One call, you get an ambulance. Paramedics. Morphine. Alternately, we walk and we were never here. Got that?”
“OK. The Englishman. Dayling. Tell me about him. Where is he? Is he hurt? Is he all right?”
His fingers moved. I looked at the poor guy’s beaten face. I couldn’t picture Dayling doing that. I told him so.
“No. Try again.”
He began to cough. Justine said, “Let me. His English is not good. And,” she caught my eye, “he is bleeding to death.”
She took a pair of nail scissors from her bag and cut his hands free. Then they talked. I could follow most of it, largely because the young man pantomimed, stabbing, ripping motions with his arm. He coughed some more. At the end of it, Justine called for the ambulance.
“He says it was Dayling. The Englishman. He himself, he is working for another man. The other man—he says he does not know his name—offered him money to come here to collect a package.” Justine stood up, brushed down her jeans. “My view—I think he is nobody. An errand boy. I also think he is telling the truth.”
I looked at the kid. His eyes weren’t moving. He was going into shock. Shit. He was in a worse state than I’d thought. I pulled the cover from the bed and laid it over him. I put a pillow under his head.
It wasn’t his fault. He’d just got in the way, that’s all, run up against something that he couldn’t understand.
God knows, I didn’t understand it either.
“All right. If your guys haven’t seen him leave, he’s still here. And we have the passkey.”
So we searched for Dayling. We searched for the flask.
We didn’t find either.
We were sworn at by a woman in a pink toweling robe, ignored by a thin man with a newspaper, and offered dinner by an African family on the top floor. There were empty rooms, where we searched in wardrobes, shower stalls, and under beds. We looked in broom cupboards and opened suitcases we had no right to open, and checked bathrooms and cupboards. We were quick, we were efficient, we were thorough.
We found nothing.
There were sirens in the street.
I said, “Let’s step away.”
Outside, and half a block away, I made my call to Seddon. He sighed, he tutted. I could picture him, pursing his lips, steepling his fingers, his white brows dipping in a long, unhappy V.
“I’d hoped to keep this all under the radar. Really, Chris. Did you have to call an ambulance? It makes me tired, you know. All these . . . complications. This injured man. He has a name?”
“Probably. But I doubt he’s the buyer. He’s a courier. Or a thief, maybe.”
The sirens were loud now, only a street away. No chance to find out more.
“You’re telling me—what? Dayling attacked him? Fought him off?”
“Can’t see it either way, myself. The guy’s a mess.”
“Then you’re proposing a third party . . . ?”
“I’m not even proposing a first. Dayling’s not here. This isn’t what he does, it’s not his thing. His passport’s with the desk clerk, and Justine swears they followed somebody who looks like him, and the guy on the floor seems to think that’s what went on, but . . .”
Somebody who looks like him. That brought back memories. What if he wasn’t who he looked like? What if he wasn’t Dayling after all?
“Well, Chris.” Seddon rallied himself. “If he’s not in the hotel, he must be somewhere else, mustn’t he? And I’d rather it were you who clears this up. Our mess, after all. It will make it easier to deal with questions later. Don’t you think?”
“Oh. I’m sure.”
The main question for now being, where to start?
“There’s a complication, too,” he said.
“I’m being sarcastic.”
“Well, you can save that. But I believe that the Americans are sending someone out to see you. They were trying to catch you in Baghdad, but of course, that all fell through. Just be aware of them, will you? Remember they’re on our side. And do try to do your best. Mm-hm?”
“The entity. It is unusual, isn’t it? Strong? I heard you came here from Iraq, you and Dayling. Is this some kind of weapon?”
Justine, a cigarette in hand, confronted me.
I said, “It’s a flask. My retrieval. That’s all I know.”
She exhaled angrily, not trusting me. I said again, “That’s all I know.”
I looked on, past her, up the street. Shops closed, windows shuttered. Sacré Coeur, again, between the buildings. Dayling said he’d been a churchgoer, back in his teens. When things got rough . . .
“And the risk, m’sieur? To us, and to—” She waved her cigarette, to indicate the city round about.
An ambulance pulled up at the hotel, siren shrieking, lights ablaze. More sirens wailed in the distance: the cops wouldn’t be far behind.
Assume that Dayling got away. Assume that he was really Dayling. Assume that someone else cut up the guy in the hotel room. Or else . . . assume that Dayling wasn’t quite the wimp I’d taken him for. I didn’t know him anymore. Perhaps I never had. If he were desperate enough, maybe he’d fight, or . . . no. Those weren’t wounds from fighting. That’s what bothered me. Those were something else.
So maybe Dayling was hurt, too. If it was Dayling. If, if, if . . .
I paced back and forth, checking the reader. I was getting something, sure enough, but not the kind of thing I should have been. It was like a ping-back from an energy source, but the source itself just wasn’t there. As if you’d thrown a stone into a pond a long time back, and now the stone was gone, perhaps even the pond itself was gone, but the ripples kept on washing over me, and the lights upon the reader still kept jiggling, weaker every time. A half-life. The echo of a life . . .
“This man of yours.” Justine had her own reader in hand. “He is unstable? He has a history?”
Privately, I was pretty sure he had. Only I shook my head.
The reader flickered. One column of light, rising, dropping. Gone again.
“He is Field Ops,” said Justine.
She chewed her lower lip, nodded to herself. She pushed her glasses up her nose.
“Field Ops—you recruit unstable people. The English I think are the worst. You have too much . . . reserve.”
“I’m Field Ops.”
“I know. Forgive me if you can, but I must tell you what I see. With Dayling—there will be signs. There will be clues. Things he’s said, things he’s done. Habits. You know him—”
“No. I don’t know him. I hadn’t seen the guy in ten years.”
At the same time, the bleached bulb of Sacré Coeur once more caught my eye. And if it had caught mine, then it had surely, beyond a doubt, caught Dayling’s.
“Church,” I said. I glanced around for a taxi. I told Justine, “Phone me. Now. So I’ve got your number. And let me know if anything happens. Phone me—every fifteen minutes. To check in.”
It took me half that time to find a cab. I had a feeling—it was scarcely more—that if Dayling had a flask, he’d want it in a place he thought appropriate. Suitably reverent. Sacred. And more than that: safe. Or so I reasoned it.
In the job, I’d learned to trust my instincts, go with what I felt, even when it didn’t make much sense. But this wasn’t like that; now I was dealing with a human being, with a person, and they’d never been my strong suit. Ask my ex-wife. As the cab turned, winding through the old streets, I had an awful doubt down in the pit of my stomach that I’d missed something somewhere, made a fatal move.