A Covert War: prologue and first chapter.
I think that was the moment I realized that I was in love with Shakira. I had known her barely three weeks. It probably happened within days of our first meeting at the mission. Shakira was such a lively, extroverted character; so full of humour and yet with warm simplicity. I felt a connection with her that is difficult to describe, but one I believe was reciprocated. I knew without doubt that Shakira had warmed to me as soon as we met. There was something in her manner; the way she spoke and reacted to me. I can remember how her face would light up as soon as she saw me and how the atmosphere in a room seemed to change when she walked in; such was the effect she had. I felt the change in me and could see it in others. I loved the way she would throw her head back and laugh out loud at my terrible jokes, showing her beautiful, white teeth. And then she would stop laughing and look directly at me, her lovely eyes softening. And as her laughter died away, so her mouth would change into that wonderful, disarming smile of hers.
I had been working at the mission for a number of weeks, each day writing up my report for The Chapter on the work that the centre was undertaking. Shakira was the senior administrator there. Because of my project I often found myself in Shakira’s company. In the evenings we would walk up to the high point above the mission and talk over the highs and lows of the day. We would sit on a fallen tree trunk that had been there for many years. It was divested now of its foliage. It had no branches; they had been lopped off so that it could be used to sit and look over the lovely countryside. The view from there down into the valley was charmingly beautiful, particularly as the sun was setting. As we sat together on that log, it was obvious to me that we were getting closer and I felt, instinctively that Shakira welcomed it.
I can remember when I realized I had fallen in love with her. I had told her one of my ludicrous jokes. I can see her now, tossing her head back, her mouth wide open in that delicious laugh. She had thrown her hands up in the air and slapped them down on the tops of her legs. Her red dress, patterned with large, white flowers seemed to dance like fire in front of me. I was mesmerized and happy that I knew I loved her and that she loved me.
And that was the moment the bullet slammed into me. The impact pitched me forward and sent me sprawling at Shakira’s feet. The sound of the gun came moments later. As I hit the ground I blacked out, but it could only have been for a few seconds because when I looked up I saw Shakira’s lovely face turning into an image of shock and pain. The white flowers on her dress began to change colour as her blood seeped into the dress, and she rolled off the log, falling face down on to the hard, stony ground.
I opened my mouth to call out, but no sound came. I felt a terrible pain in my shoulder where the bullet had hit me, but the pain in my heart when I realized Shakira was almost certainly dead and I was probably about to die was unimaginable. It would be true to say that I wanted to die then; life without Shakira would be so empty.
I remember hearing a great deal of shouting and the sound of gunfire coming from below the slope, down at the mission. I could hear screaming and the sound of men’s voices. Then the gunfire stopped and I heard the thud of footsteps as the attackers ran up the slope towards us. I lowered my head on to the ground and pretended I was dead. I prayed nothing else would happen.
But something else did happen; something even worse. I felt myself shrivel inside with an inordinate fear because I couldn’t close my eyes; I had to keep them open. Several men appeared. They were all wearing camouflage uniforms and calf length boots. Two of the men stopped beside Shakira and said something to each other in a language that I couldn’t understand. One of the men put his boot on Shakira’s body and pushed her. Then he leaned forward and pointed a gun at her head. He said something and shot her. I can see Shakira’s body jumping now. I see it every night in my dreams; in my nightmares.
The killer walked over to me and pointed the gun at my head. I noticed the little finger of his left hand was missing. Why do we remember such trivial things in our darkest moments? Aren’t we supposed to have no recall of events immediately preceding such trauma? Why wasn’t I allowed to have no memory of what happened? I will never forget it. Never. He laughed and said something in English, and then he shot me.
Susan Ellis shuddered and closed the remnants of her brother’s notebook very slowly and then lifted her hand and wiped away a tear from the corner of her eye with the tip of her finger. She thought David was dead. She had heard nothing for over a year, and now this; a few, stained pages from where? She looked down at the grubby book and opened it again. Tears welled up and ran down her cheeks, dropping on to the pages where they mingled with the pencilled words of a brother she longed to see again, but never thought she would. David Ellis was Susan’s twin. He had worked as a freelance journalist and often found himself in some of the most dangerous hot spots in the world. His last assignment was with a group known as The Chapter of Mercy. The Chapter was a mysterious organization that ran orphanages in and around Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. They rarely encouraged journalists or other media groups to highlight the work they did for deprived children, so David had found himself in something of a privileged position.
Her eyes misted over and she closed the book again. She looked across the table at the man sitting opposite. He had been watching her very intently, almost benevolently. Now he shifted and picked up his cup. He continued to watch her as he drank. His name was Cavendish — Sir Giles Cavendish. He told Susan that he was something to do with the Foreign Office.
When he called her that morning on the phone, he told her that he had something of her brother’s. Susan’s legs had weakened when he mentioned David. She had assumed her brother was dead. She couldn’t speak for a while. He suggested they meet somewhere for a coffee. It was Saturday so Susan did not have to go into work at the bank. She tried to answer the voice on the phone, but all she could manage was a faltering, stumble of words.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘there’s a Starbucks in the Strand. Could you meet me there?’ Susan said she could. ‘Right, how about eleven o’clock?’
Susan nodded, ‘Alright,’ she told him. ‘I’ll be there at eleven o’clock.’
She put the phone down and realized she hadn’t asked him how she would know him. She immediately tried a call-back on her phone, but his number had been withheld. She shrugged and guessed it wouldn’t be too difficult to identify her mysterious caller. Then she began wondering what it was he had of David’s, and if this meant that her brother could still be alive.
When Susan arrived at Starbucks, Cavendish was waiting. She had no need to wonder how she might recognise him because he came straight over to her and introduced himself. He took Susan across to a table up against the far wall away from the windows. He then brought over the coffee that she had asked for and sat down at the table. That was when he pulled a small, tatty book from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. It only contained a few pages.
‘This belonged to your brother,’ was all he said.
Now Susan had read it and was looking at the man who sat opposite her.
‘Where did you get this?’ was her obvious question.
Cavendish put his cup down and leaned forward. He lowered his voice and spoke quite softly to her.
‘It came to us in a diplomatic bag,’ he told her, and leaned back in his chair.
‘Where did the bag come from,’ Susan asked.
He arched his eyebrows and gave an almost imperceptible shrug. ‘Well, that’s the devil of it; I don’t know.’ He could see words beginning to form on Susan’s lips. He put up a manicured hand and splayed his fingers to stop her from asking the next question. ‘Apparently,’ he began, ‘the bag was opened by a junior at the office a few days before it crossed my desk. I’m afraid he didn’t attach much importance to it because it carried no official comment, no stamp and no signature.’ He shrugged. ‘Some of our new graduates can be like that; no brains, you see.’
Susan had taken a tissue from her handbag and was wiping her eyes carefully. She lowered the tissue. ‘So why did it come to you?’
Cavendish pushed out his bottom lip as though he was giving it some considerable thought. ‘I really don’t know. It was probably being handed on from one desk to another until someone claimed it. But I remembered the story. It was about a year ago, wasn’t it?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘There was a murderous attack at a mission in Afghanistan. It was close to the Pakistan border. Your brother was caught up in it. Most unfortunate,’ he concurred, shaking his head. ‘Most unfortunate.’
Susan wondered if Cavendish realized just how deeply distressing it was for her to be reminded of her brother’s untimely death. But then she wondered if the civil servants who worked for the government perhaps encountered too many tragedies to be able to empathize with the victims. Perhaps Cavendish was no exception. ‘But this means my brother must have survived the massacre,’ she insisted, holding the book up. ‘There’s no way it could have been written after if he hadn’t survived.’
‘Obviously,’ Cavendish agreed. ‘And I have looked into it, I can promise you. There were survivors of course, and they were taken to a nearby hospital and treated for their wounds. But there were no records kept of who were taken to hospital.’ He shrugged again and opened his hands out in an empty gesture. ‘And that is all I know. I’m sorry.’
Susan picked up her Styrofoam cup, sipped at the coffee and then put the cup down. She then opened her handbag and put the book into it.
‘If you find out anything else about my brother, would you let me know?’ she asked.
Cavendish nodded. ‘Of course.’ ‘How can I contact you?’
He smiled and pushed himself back into his chair. ‘Just ask for me at the Foreign Office. The desk will patch you through.’
Susan stood up. Cavendish responded immediately and stood up as well. Susan reached over the table and shook his hand.
‘Thank you Sir Giles. You won’t forget your promise, will you?’
He shook Susan’s hand, taking care to do it gently. ‘Of course not; as soon as I hear anything, I will let you know.’
Susan walked out of Starbucks into the Strand. It was a fine day so she decided to walk to Waterloo Station where she would catch a train to Clapham in south London where she lived.
Cavendish came out of Starbucks a few minutes after Susan. He hailed a cab and climbed in as he told the driver where he wanted to go.
‘85 Embankment, please driver.’
The driver pulled out into traffic. Another James Bond, he said to himself. Cavendish had just given him the address of the building that housed Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6.
Three days after her meeting with Cavendish, Susan stepped out of the underground at Old Street in the City of London. Since that meeting, she had trawled through the yellow pages and surfed the net looking for an agency that might be able to help her find her brother. Susan had even tried persuading various editors of the national press that there might be a story to follow up, but in each case her quest was doomed to failure because of cost. There were agencies who were prepared to help her, but at a price that was well beyond Susan’s limited means. As for the newspapers they wanted more than just a couple of pages from her dead brother’s diary. And none of them were prepared to finance a quest that was almost certain to end in failure and would elicit little support from the newspaper barons. She tried the television companies but there was no celebrity value in Susan and David Ellis. Not now.
And so it seemed that her search was doomed to fail. Until, that was, she came across a small advert in the classified section of the London Evening Standard.
Guard Right Security. Professional help at a price you can afford.
The advert gave a phone number and an address, but little more. Susan phoned and made an appointment. Guard Right Security was at an address in Oliver’s Yard, just off the City Road, south of Old Street Underground Station, and it was in that direction Susan turned to as she came up out of the underground.
There was no street number for her to look for, but an instruction that she would find a small doorway just a few yards inside Oliver’s Yard with the small logo ‘GRS’ on the wall.
It took Susan a while to locate the logo, but she did find it and wondered if she had come to the right place. The doorway was set back into the large, old building that graced the main frontage along the City Road. The door looked a trifle shabby, but at least it yielded. It creaked noisily as she turned the handle and pushed.
The door opened on to a short passageway which was unlit, but Susan could see a staircase leading up to a small landing. The floor was not carpeted. She walked in and closed the door behind her and very carefully climbed the stairs. If Susan had wanted to keep her presence quiet, she was out of luck. The bare steps creaked and groaned with each footfall.
Eventually she reached the landing and saw a door with an opaque window inset and the letters GRS etched on the glass. There was no doorbell to be seen anywhere. For some reason Susan found herself feeling quite nervous, and her hand shook as she rattled her knuckles on the glass.
She heard a sound coming from behind the door, rather like a chair falling over, followed by a shadowy silhouette of someone coming towards the door. Susan stepped back involuntarily as the door was thrown open. She put her hand to her mouth and made a sound as the young man smiled at her.
‘Susan Ellis?’ he said warmly. ‘Please, do come in.’ He made a sweeping gesture with his arm, inviting Susan to walk in.
She hesitated. ‘Marcus Blake?’
He held the smile and brought his arm down. ‘At your service, but please call me Marcus.’
Susan was immediately struck by his disarming manner, or at least what appeared to be a disarming manner. For all she knew it could have been affected. Nevertheless, she had made the appointment so she stepped willingly into his office.
Marcus closed the door and hurried over to a chair that was lying on its back. Obviously this was the chair that Susan had heard topple just after she had knocked. He straightened it and indicated that she should sit there. Susan did as she was asked and began studying her surroundings. The office was quite plain, with little to indicate how busy Marcus Blake was. Behind his desk, hung crookedly on the wall was what appeared to be a certificate. It was framed and probably related to some qualification Marcus Blake had achieved. There was nothing decorating the walls except for a poster depicting a musician by the name of Isao Tomita. Susan had never heard of him.
There was also a calendar with each day crossed off up to that day. In one corner of the office was a small sink. Next to this was a kettle, a carton of milk and a coffee jar. There was a small cabinet above the sink. Susan had noticed as she walked into the office that there was a clothes peg screwed to the wall with what looked like a beanie hat hanging from it. A threadbare carpet covered part of the floor. There was precious little else in there to give Susan the feeling that she was in the realm of a true professional, and she was already making out her excuse to leave and put it all down to experience. ‘Would you like a coffee?’ Marcus asked her before he settled himself in the chair behind his desk. Susan glanced at the sorry looking corner where the kettle resided and declined.
‘Right,’ he said and rubbed his hands together as he sat down. He picked up a pen and held it poised above a notepad. ‘So, what is it you would like to talk about?’
Before answering, Susan wondered if she shouldn’t just make an apology for wasting his time and leave straight away. She had the feeling that this was developing into farce and wished she had never seen the advert for Guard Right Security in the first place.
The only positive she could see so far was that Marcus Blake was quite handsome. He had blond hair that was parted in the middle, but not too severely. It fell loosely around his ears and had a natural curl to it; the kind of hair some women would die for, Susan thought to herself. His skin looked smooth and slightly tanned. He was broad and muscular without the look of someone who worked on his physique. He was a lot taller than her, and she judged his height to be about six feet. Altogether he looked the kind of man Susan would happily meet for a dinner date. Once she had got to know him a little better.
‘Well,’ she began hesitantly, ‘I’m not sure how to begin.’
‘Why not try the beginning?’ he joked, trying to put Susan at ease.
She took a deep breath, drawing the air in slowly through her nostrils in an effort to steady herself.
‘I have a brother; a twin brother,’ she told him, ‘and I want to know if he’s alive or not.’
Marcus tapped the notepad with his pen and began doodling. ‘Go on,’ he said.
‘Well, David, that’s my brother,’ she added unnecessarily, ‘worked for an organization known as The Chapter. He was a journalist.’ She stopped. ‘Sorry, he is a journalist by profession and was working on an assignment for them.’ She hated herself for thinking of David in the past tense, but it was something she had slowly become resigned to. ‘About a year ago David was working at an orphanage in Afghanistan, at Jalalabad. He’s a journalist and was studying the work they do there. Orphan children,’ she explained, then mentally kicked herself for fumbling her words. ‘There was a massacre. Some insurgents attacked the staff and took the children. David was…’ She stopped and held back a sob. ‘I’m sorry.’ Marcus shook his head and made a slight, negative gesture with his hand. Susan continued. ‘David was shot. I was told by The Chapter that the survivors had been taken to a hospital. Some of them weren’t expected to live. I don’t know what happened to David; he just, well, disappeared.’
Marcus stopped doodling. ‘So what is it you want GRS to do?’
Susan, who had been looking down at her hands folded in her lap now looked up at him. ‘GRS?’
‘Guard Right Security,’ he reminded her. ‘What is it you want us to do?’
‘Oh, yes of course. Well, I want to know where David is. I want to find him.’
Susan shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Wherever he is, I want to find him.’
‘Are you sure your brother is still alive?’ he asked.
Susan nodded vigorously. ‘He must be, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.’
Marcus leaned forward, his elbows on the desk. ‘Miss Ellis, or is it Ms?’
‘OK, Susan. First of all you must understand that a lot of people who go ‘missing’,’ he emphasized the euphemism, ‘do so because they wish to sever all contact with their current lives and have no wish to be found.’
‘Not David,’ she insisted.
‘Of course not,’ he rejoined, leaned back in his chair and carried on doodling. ‘But how do you know, or why do you think your brother is alive?’
Susan opened her handbag and took out David’s report of what happened at the mission. She passed it across the desk.
‘This,’ she said and handed him the grubby notebook. ‘It came into my possession three days ago.’
Marcus took it from her and frowned as he opened the dirty pages. There was only the one entry there and he read it carefully, his expression darkening as the report changed from a declaration of a man’s love for a woman to an eye witness account of a violent execution. He closed the book slowly and slid it across the desk towards Susan.
‘Have you been to the authorities?’ he asked.
Susan retrieved the book and put it back in her handbag. ‘What authorities?’ she muttered. ‘It was a year ago.’ She looked up. ‘I don’t want retribution; I just want to know where my brother is.’
Marcus looked up towards the ceiling and began swivelling in his chair. He had the aura of a man who had switched his thoughts to something entirely different from the moment in hand.
‘You need a detective agency,’ he said eventually, ‘or the Missing Persons Bureau.’ He lowered his gaze and looked directly at Susan. ‘Why didn’t you ask David’s employers?’
‘The Chapter? I assume they would have searched for David.’
‘Don’t you know?’
Susan shook her head. ‘I didn’t find out about this until a few days ago.’
This drew a guarded response from Marcus. ‘How? What happened?’
Susan told him how Cavendish had phoned and arranged to meet her. She told him that Cavendish had been unable to offer any explanation as to how David’s notes ended up in the diplomatic bag.
‘So you see, I am left with a trail that is probably stone cold now.’ She opened her bag and took a tissue out. She dabbed at her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but the more I think of how long it has been, the more I realize how little chance there is of finding my brother.’ She put her hands in her lap. ‘But I have to know.’
‘Have you thought about contacting this chap Cavendish again and asking for his help? After all, he brought you the news of your brother.’
She shook her head. ‘He made it quite clear that he knew nothing. What he was doing was simply a favour.’
‘How did he know about you?’ Marcus pointed towards Susan’s handbag. ‘There’s no mention of you or David’s connection with you in his notes.’
Susan shrugged. ‘I don’t know. To be honest I haven’t given it any thought. He seemed to know me as soon as I walked into Starbucks. Why, is it important?’
Marcus didn’t answer immediately. ‘Perhaps he learned about you through The Chapter,’ he said after a while. ‘Would you have been registered as David’s next of kin, do you think?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, I keep saying no, or I don’t know; but David was away so often on so many different assignments, I rarely saw him. I just don’t know if he would ever have put me down as his next of kin. I expect he must have done, though, wouldn’t you?’
‘I don’t have any siblings, so I wouldn’t know.’
After a few moments of thought and relative silence, Susan asked if they could move on to more pragmatic things. She found the discussion of her brother and whether he was alive or not was becoming distressing.
‘Look,’ she began. ‘I have spoken to other agencies in the City but I’m afraid they are all far too expensive for me. What I want to know is what it would cost me for you to accompany me to Afghanistan while I look for the truth about my brother.’
‘You want a bodyguard,’ he said, ‘a minder, is that it?’
‘Yes, that’s it exactly. I would feel vulnerable if I went on my own.’
Marcus was quiet for some time. It was fairly clear to him that the young woman sitting opposite him was now down to the last noggins; the last scraping of the barrel. She had no money to speak of otherwise she would have taken on one of the bigger agencies. His own expertise extended little further than escorting celebrities, minor ones at that, and doing some courier work for other companies. What Susan Ellis was asking extended beyond his usual limits and would almost certainly end in tears, metaphorically speaking.
‘My fees,’ he said suddenly, ‘are two hundred and fifty pounds a day, plus expenses.’
Susan nodded her head slowly and sadly. ‘I was afraid of that,’ she told him, and stood up. ‘I can’t afford that kind of money, so I’m obviously wasting your time as well as my own.’ She held out her hand. ‘Thank you for listening, Mr. Blake, but I can’t do business with you.’
Marcus stood up. ‘So what will you do?’ he asked as he shook her hand.
‘Oh, I shall take a couple of weeks off work and fly out to Afghanistan. Try on my own for a while. I owe that to David,’ she said.
‘Why not give Cavendish a call?’ he suggested. ‘Perhaps he can come up with something.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t have his number. I tried dialing him back, but the number had been withheld.’
Marcus gave that some thought, then came round the desk and opened the office door for her. ‘I wish you luck,’ he said as she stepped out on to the landing. ‘I wish there was something I could do.’ He shrugged. He meant it too; she was too lovely a woman to have to relinquish so soon.
Susan gave him a brief smile. ‘Thank you again,’ she told him, and went down the stairs.
Marcus closed the door and went quickly to his desk. He tore off the top sheet of the pad on which he had been doodling and then he pulled a pair of sunglasses from his desk drawer and walked out of the office, lifting his beanie hat of its peg as he went out.
When he got down to street level, he checked to see which way Susan had gone, then turned round and locked his outer door. He slipped the Beanie hat over his blond hair and put on the sunglasses. Then he followed Susan up the City Road towards Old Street Tube station.