House of WarScott Mariani
A DEADLY TERROR PLOT. A RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK. WILL EVIL PREVAIL?
Following a chance encounter with a terrified young woman in the streets of Paris, former SAS soldier Ben Hope finds himself hurled into a violent new mission involving murder, international terrorism and stolen historic artifacts. A mission made even more perilous by the reappearance of an old enemy from Ben’s military past. A man he knew and fought years ago. A man he thought was dead.
Teaming up with the enigmatic ex-Delta Force warrior Tyler Roth, Ben travels from the seedy underworld of Paris to the islands of the Caribbean in his quest to piece together the puzzle.
As the death toll quickly mounts, he unmasks a vicious terror plot that could bring about the slaughter of millions of innocent people. Mass destruction seems just a hair’s breadth away … and only Ben Hope can prevent the unthinkable.
‘Compelling from the first page until the last, Mariani and his fabulous protagonist Ben Hope entertain in a gripping tale that will have you turning the pages well into the night’ MARK DAWSON
HOUSE OF WAR Scott Mariani Copyright Published by AVON A division of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Publishers 2019 Copyright © Scott Mariani 2019 Cover design by Henry Steadman © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2019 Cover photographs: Human-headed winged bulls guarding a door in Dur-Sharrukin © Poulpy; Figure © Henry Steadman Scott Mariani asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008235987 Ebook Edition © October 2019 ISBN: 9780008235994 Version: 2019-09-17 Discover the series you can’t put down … ‘If you like your conspiracies twisty, your action bone-jarring, and your heroes impossibly dashing, then look no farther – the Ben Hope series is exactly what you need’ Mark Dawson ‘Deadly conspiracies, bone-crunching action and a tormented hero with a heart … Scott Mariani packs a real punch’ Andy McDermott ‘James Bond meets Jason Bourne meets The Da Vinci Code’ J. L. Carrell ‘Non-stop action – this book delivers’ Steve Berry ‘Full of authentic detail and heart-stopping action – a real thrill ride’ Ed Macy ‘Scott Mariani is an awesome writer’ Chris Kuzneski ‘Packed with dark intrigue, danger around every corner, bullets flying, sexual tension, and an endless assault of nasty villains … everything a thriller should be and more’ Joe Moore ‘If you’ve got a pulse, you’ll love Scott Mariani; if you haven’t, then maybe you crossed Ben Hope’ Simon Toyne ‘The action comes thick and fast and is choreographed with Mariani’s trademark skill and authenticity. The modern master of mayhem’ Shots Magazine ‘Fans of Dan Brown will love this’ Closer ‘Edge-of-the-seat excitement … I am hooked on this series’ 5* Reader Review ‘Gripping adventure, superbly written’ 5* Reader Review ‘Cinematic style, fast pace and, above all, fabulous characters’ 5* Reader Review Contents Cover Title Page Copyright Discover the series you can’t put down … Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 Chapter 54 Chapter 55 Chapter 56 Chapter 57 Chapter 58 Chapter 59 Chapter 60 Chapter 61 Chapter 62 Chapter 63 Chapter 64 Chapter 65 Chapter 66 Keep Reading … About the Author By the Same Author About the Publisher PROLOGUE Syria, 2015 The two men were the last ones still inside the ancient temple as the invasion force closed in. They had been racing against time in their desperate last-minute bid to rescue as many of the treasures as they could, but they’d been too slow, too late, and their efforts were futile. Nobody was there to help them. Everyone else had fled hours earlier, when the first death knell of artillery fire sounded in the distance and the terrifying rumours became reality. Now the battle was lost and the government forces trying to hold onto the ancient city in the face of withering attack had fallen into full retreat. These preserved architectural splendours had graced the desert oasis for two thousand years, dating back to when the thriving city had been one of the major centres on the trade route linking the Roman Empire with Persia, India and China. Here the worlds of classical and Eastern culture had melded and blossomed for centuries. Right up until the present day, their noble heritage had remained as a source of beauty and wonder for the thousands of travellers who flocked there each year to marvel. And now, on this terrible day that would be remembered for a long time, the ancient city was about to fall into the hands of the destroyers. The two men knew the end was near. Even though their hours of labour had succeeded in moving the majority of the priceless artifacts to a nearby hiding place where they hoped they could survive, there was still so much to do, so many treasures to try to save. It seemed a hopeless task. ‘We must hurry, Julien,’ said Salim Youssef to his younger associate. ‘They’ll be here any minute.’ He was trying to lift a magnificent Greco-Roman bust from its plinth to place it on a trolley and wheel it outside to the already overloaded truck. But the artifact was far too heavy for his seventy-four-year-old arms to handle. He gasped and wheezed, but he wouldn’t give up. For the last forty years the Syrian had been devotedly in charge of the preservation and cataloguing of the priceless antiquities in this place, which for him was as sacred and holy as a site of religious worship. His companion was a Frenchman named Julien Segal, twenty-five years his junior, who had been closely involved in Salim’s work for over a decade. He was based equally in Paris and the Middle East, and spoke Arabic fluently. A man known for his elegant dress style and cosmopolitan chic, he wasn’t looking his stylish best at this moment, as he struggled and sweated to drag a six-foot Akkadian alabaster statue across the flagstone floor towards the archway near to which the truck was parked. Even inside the relative coolness of the temple, the August desert heat felt as though it could bake a man inside his skin. ‘It’s no use, Salim. We’ll never make it. Everyone else has run for it, and we should do the same while we still can.’ ‘You go, Julien,’ Salim wheezed, clutching his chest. ‘I’m staying. I won’t abandon these treasures, no matter what. This place is all I know and care about.’ ‘But they’ll kill you, Salim.’ ‘Let those lunatic butchers do their worst,’ the old man said. ‘I’m not afraid of them. I have lived my life and don’t have many years left. But yours is still ahead of you. Go! Save yourself!’ He pulled the truck keys from his pocket and tossed them to Julien Segal. The Frenchman was about to reply, ‘I won’t leave without you.’ But the words died in his mouth as he turned to see the sight that froze his blood. They were here. Nine men had come into the temple’s main entrance and now stood in a semicircle, watching them with detached curiosity. All were bearded and clad in dusty battledress, armed with automatic weapons. Their leader stood in the middle, with four of his soldiers each side of him. He wore black, in accordance with his rank as an ISIL commander. A holstered pistol and a long, sheathed knife hung from his belt. That was when Julien Segal saw that three of the men were also clutching heavy iron sledgehammers in addition to their weaponry. He opened his mouth to speak, but his throat had gone dry. Salim spoke for him. The old man stepped away from the bust he’d been trying to manhandle, and advanced towards the invaders, fists clenched in anger. ‘You are not welcome here! Leave now!’ The commander in black stepped forward to meet him. He gazed around the temple’s interior, looking at the statues and other artifacts that Salim and his colleague hadn’t yet been able to remove to safety, and the vacant plinths of those that they had. His voice echoed in the stone chamber as he spoke: ‘I am Nazim al-Kassar. You must be Salim Youssef, the curator. Tell me, old man. This place is looking quite empty. Where have you hidden the rest of these idolatrous pieces of trash you call art?’ ‘So you have come here to destroy them,’ Salim said defiantly. ‘This house of blasphemy, along with everything inside it and all that you have vainly tried to rescue,’ said Nazim al-Kassar. ‘It shall be razed to the ground, inshallah.’ ‘You will not! You must not!’ The commander smiled. ‘These are the idols of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah. They have no place in the new Caliphate that will now rule this country for the rest of time. Allah commands that they be shattered and broken into dust.’ ‘Savages! Vandals! What gives you the right to erase history? You think you’re doing Allah’s bidding? Where does the Qur’an make such a command? Nowhere! I am also a Muslim, and I say that you bring shame and disgrace upon our religion!’ The old man was seething with fury. Cringing behind him, Julien Segal was too terrified to utter a word. The commander’s voice remained calm as he pointed a black-gloved finger at Salim and replied, ‘Old man, I will ask only once. You will lead me to where you have hidden the idols of this false divinity, so that the soldiers of the Caliphate may consign them to the past, where they belong.’ ‘Then I belong there with them,’ Salim said. ‘I will die before I allow you to wreak your unholy destruction in this place.’ ‘So be it,’ the commander said. ‘What you ask for, you will receive.’ He nodded to his men. Four of them stepped forwards, seized Salim and Julien Segal each by the arms, and forced them down to their knees on the flagstone floor. The Frenchman knelt with his head bowed and shoulders sagging. Next to him, the older man refused to break eye contact with his tormentors and remained straight-backed, chin high. The commander reached down to the hilt of the long, curved knife that hung from his belt, and drew out the blade with a sigh of steel against leather. Salim wouldn’t take his eyes off him for an instant, even though he knew what was coming. Julien Segal let out a whimper. ‘For God’s sake, Salim. We have to tell them. Please.’ ‘I’m sorry, Julien. I will not go to my grave knowing that I betrayed my life’s work to these maniacs.’ The commander stepped around behind Salim. Salim closed his eyes. What happened next had Julien Segal burying his face in the dirt and crying in unbearable anguish. But the old man never made a sound. He faced his death with the same steely resolve that he’d shown throughout his life. Moments later, Julien Segal felt the thump of something hitting the floor beside him. Followed by a second, heavier thud as Salim’s decapitated body slumped forward to fall on the floor next to where the commander had tossed his severed head. Segal couldn’t bring himself to look directly at it, and instead watched in horror as the blood pool spread over the floor, trickling into the cracks between the flagstones and reflecting the light from the arched window. ‘Now it’s your turn,’ said the man called Nazim al-Kassar. Chapter 1 The present day It was a cold, bright and sunny October morning in Paris, and Ben Hope was making a brief stop-off in the city on his return from a long journey. The trip to India hadn’t been a scheduled event, but then few things in his life were, or ever had been, despite his best efforts to lead the kind of peaceful and stable existence he might have wished for. It seemed that fate always had other plans for him. All he really wanted to do now was put the experience behind him, move on from it and get home. Home being a sleepy corner of rural Normandy some three hundred kilometres west of Paris, a place called Le Val, and he couldn’t wait to get there. First he had some business to attend to in the city, which he intended to get sorted as quickly as possible, partly since it was a rather dull chore that he’d put off for too long. The first thing he’d done when his plane had landed at Orly Airport the previous evening was to call Jeff Dekker, his business partner at Le Val, to say he was back in the country and would be home by early next afternoon. Jeff was pretty well used to Ben’s frequent impromptu disappearances; all he said was ‘See you later.’ Ben’s second action was to call a Parisian estate agent he knew to talk about finally selling the backstreet apartment he’d owned for years and never used any more. Back when he’d worked freelance and lived a nomadic existence, the place had come in handy as an occasional base camp in the city. It had never been more than a bolthole for him, and he’d made little effort to furnish or decorate it beyond the absolute basics of necessity. The pragmatic nature of military life was an ingrained habit that refused to die in him, though he’d been out of that world for quite some years. Whatever the case, the apartment had long since become surplus to his requirements. Though every time he’d been on the verge of putting the place up for sale, as had happened on several occasions, another of those bolts from the blue would arrive to yank him off on some new crazy mission or other. Which, as he was all too aware, was just a reflection of the broader reality that whatever kinds of plans he had in mind, some new crisis would invariably loom up to divert him right off track. Such was life. Maybe, after another forty years, he’d get used to it. But that wasn’t going to happen this time, he told himself. This time he was going to bite the bullet, put the place on the market, go home to Le Val and get back down to running his business. The eternally patient Jeff, his longtime friend and co-director of the tactical training centre they’d founded and built together, might appreciate Ben’s actually being around sometimes. Instructing the world’s top law enforcement, security and close protection services in the finer points of their craft was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. It was just after eight a.m. At ten-thirty he was due to meet with the property agent, a nervous-mannered chap called Gerbier who, Ben already knew, would spend an hour hemming and hawing about the difficulties of selling the place. First, because despite its theoretically desirable central location it was all but totally secreted away among a cluster of crumbly old buildings and its only access was via an underground car park. Second, because even at its best it had never looked like much on the inside, either, and needed decoration work to appeal to any but the most Spartan of buyers. And third, because right now wasn’t a good time for the Parisian property market in general. Ben had to admit the guy might have a point about that. For months the city had been locked in increasingly turbulent civil unrest, boiling with constant anti-government protests that had sparked off over a long list of political and social grievances and seemed to grow more serious and violent each passing day. There had been mass arrests, the cops had started deploying armoured personnel carriers and water cannon in the streets, and there were no signs of things cooling down any time soon. Now the troubles had spread across the city into Ben’s normally quiet neighbourhood. He had lain awake for some time last night, listening to the screeching sirens and loud explosions of the latest pitched battle between rioters and the police. It had sounded like both sides meant business. ‘Who can tell where this will end?’ Gerbier had fretted over the phone. ‘The city’s falling into anarchy. Nobody’s buying any more.’ How justified was Gerbier’s pessimism, only time would tell. Ben had been up with the dawn that morning, as always. He’d laboured through his usual gruelling pre-breakfast workout of press-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, taken a one-minute tepid shower, pulled on fresh black jeans and a denim shirt, scanned a few latest news headlines online, meditatively smoked a couple of Gauloise cigarettes while gazing out at the non-existent view for what might be one of the last times if he got lucky finding a buyer soon, then turned his thoughts to eating breakfast. Dinner last night had been a sandwich wolfed down on the hoof at the airport, and he was starving. That was when Ben had realised that there wasn’t a scrap of food in the apartment. Worse, much worse, the bare kitchenette cupboards contained not a single coffee bean. And so here he was, heading briskly along the street, his scuffed brown leather jacket zipped against the chill and the third Gauloise of the day dangling from his lip, in the direction of a local coffee bar where he could get some breakfast and a much-needed fix of the black stuff. It was a five-minute stroll, but when he got there he discovered to his chagrin that the coffee bar had had its windows smashed in last night’s disturbances and was shut. The owners weren’t the only local traders to have suffered damage from the latest round of protests. All up and down the street, storekeepers were resignedly sweeping up broken glass, nailing plywood sheets over their shattered windows, hauling out buckets of hot soapy water to try and scrub away graffiti that had appeared overnight. Ben stopped for a brief conversation with Habib, who ran the little Moroccan grocery store and tobacconist’s where he’d often bought his cigarettes. Habib expressed sympathy with the protesters but worried that his insurance premiums would sky-rocket if these riots kept up. Ben offered his commiserations, wished Habib good luck and walked on in search of breakfast. He still had plenty of time to kill before meeting Gerbier. The signs of last night’s troubles were all around. Though it hadn’t rained overnight the roads and pavements were slicked wet, small rivers created by police water cannon trickling in the gutters and pooling around washed-up garbage that choked the drain grids. A recovery crew with a flatbed lorry were removing the burnt-out shells of three cars that had been torched by the protesters. Barriers and cones had reduced the traffic to a crawl as cars and vans and motorcycles threaded their way along streets still littered with riot debris and spent tear gas canisters. As Ben walked along, he spied one rolling in the gutter and picked it up to examine it, just out of curiosity. It was the strong stuff, the real McCoy. Then again, France’s riot police never had mucked about when it came to dispersing violent demonstrations. The warning on the empty canister said, in French: DANGER – DO NOT FIRE DIRECTLY AT PERSON(S) AS SEVERE INJURY OR DEATH MAY RESULT. Ben had seen from the online news headlines that a couple of civilians had already been accidentally killed that way as the protests mounted. There was a good chance of more fatalities to come. One serious casualty among the police, and the government would probably send in the army. Ben continued on his way, thinking about Gerbier’s words and wondering where, indeed, it was all going to end. As he’d grown older and wiser he had come to understand that history was the key to predicting what lay in the future. As the saying went, those who failed to learn from the hard lessons of the past were doomed to repeat them. Paris had seen more than its fair share of revolutionary unrest in its time, and none of it seemed to have done much good. The big one of 1789 had kicked off much the same way as was happening now – and look how that ended, eating itself in an orgy of blood and severed heads and giving rise to the Napoleonic empire and rather a lot of even bloodier wars, followed eventually by a new monarchy to take the place of the old. Then had come the July Revolution of 1830, the one portrayed in the famous Delacroix painting that used to be on the old 100-franc banknote, depicting the topless Liberty wielding tricolour flag and musket as she led the people to victory, this time against the royal regime of Charles X. Same dubious result. Then just eighteen years later they’d been at it again, with the populist uprising of 1848 that had spilled enough blood in the streets of Paris to tear down the establishment once more and trigger the foundation of the Second Republic, which lasted exactly three years before the Second Empire turned the country back into a de facto monarchy. And on, and on, through the ages and right up to the present. Round and round we go, Ben thought. An endless cycle of inflamed passion leading to disappointment, and resentment, and blame, simmering away and slowly building up to the next outburst. And for what? So much suffering and destruction could only deepen the rift between nation and state, while calls for reform would largely go unheeded and life would ultimately carry on just like before. Sure, go ahead and protest about overinflated taxes and rising costs of living and the insidious encroachment of the European superstate and police brutality and human rights infringements and loss of personal freedoms and privacy and anything else you feel strongly about. All fine. Angry mobs ripping their own beautiful city apart, looting and pillaging, harming small businesses, traumatising innocent citizens, not so fine. Unless you really believed that a violent street revolution was the only possible way to change things for the better. Well, good luck with that. Those were all the things on Ben’s mind as he walked quickly around the corner of Rue Georges Brassens and collided with a young woman who, quite literally, ran into him without looking where she was going. He didn’t know it yet, but fate had just launched another of those bolts from the blue at him. Chapter 2 The woman crashed straight into Ben with enough force to knock the wind out of herself and send her tumbling to the pavement. It took Ben a moment to recover from his own surprise. Though it hadn’t been his fault, he said in French, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ and went to help her to her feet. He’d become skilled at languages back during his time with Special Forces, learning Arabic, Dari, Farsi and some African dialects, along with various European languages. He had now been living in France long enough to virtually pass for a native speaker. As she picked herself off the pavement he saw she was more stunned than hurt. She was maybe twenty-five years old and slender, wearing a long camel coat over a white cashmere roll-neck top and navy trousers. Her hair was sandy-blond and her face, if it hadn’t been flushed with shock, was attractively heart-shaped with vivid eyes the same blue as Ben’s own. She didn’t look as though she weighed very much, but it had been quite a collision. The little leather satchel she’d been carrying on a shoulder strap had fallen to the pavement and burst open, scattering its contents. ‘Are you okay?’ Ben asked her. She seemed too flustered to reply, and kept looking anxiously behind her as though she expected to see someone there. A couple of passersby had paused to gawk, but quickly lost interest and walked on. Ben said, ‘Miss? Are you all right?’ The woman looked at him as though noticing him for the first time. Her blue eyes widened with alarm. She backed away a couple of steps, plainly frightened of him. He held his arms to the sides and showed her his open palms. ‘I mean no harm,’ he said jokingly. ‘You’re the one who ran into me. Maybe you should look where you’re going. Here, let me help you with your things.’ He crouched down to pick up her fallen satchel. Her purse had fallen out, along with a hairbrush, some hair ties, a book of Métro tickets and a little black plastic case that said GIVENCHY in gold lettering. The contents of women’s handbags had always been a bit of a mystery to Ben. He was also aware of the delicacy of the situation as he quickly scooped up her personal items from the pavement. She paid no attention while he retrieved her things, apparently too distracted by whatever, or whoever, she seemed to think was lurking in the background. When Ben stood up and offered the satchel back to her, she reached out tentatively and snatched it from his hands like a nervous animal accepting a titbit from a strange and untrusted human. So much for being a knight in shining armour. ‘You’re bleeding,’ he said, noticing that she’d scuffed the side of her left hand in the fall. ‘Doesn’t look too bad, but you should put some antiseptic on it.’ Still the same terse silence. She turned her anxious gaze behind her again, scanning the street as though she thought she was being followed. Pedestrians walked by, paying no attention. The traffic stream kept rumbling past in the background. A municipal cleaning crew was slowly working its way along the street towards them, gathering up last night’s wreckage. A couple of pigeons strutted and pecked about among the debris in the gutter, seemingly unbothered by whatever was frightening the woman. Then she quickly looped the strap of her satchel over her shoulder and hurried on without a word or another glance at him. Ben watched her disappear off down Rue Georges Brassens, walking so fast she was almost running, still glancing behind her every few steps as if someone was chasing her. He shook his head. Some people. What the hell was up with her? The way she’d acted with him, anyone would think he’d been about to attack her. And who did she think was coming after her? Maybe she was an escaped lunatic. Or a bank robber fleeing from the scene of the crime. Perhaps some kind of political activist or protest organiser the cops were trying to round up and throw in jail along with the other thousand-odd they’d already locked up. Ben looked around him and saw no squads of gendarmes or psychiatric ward nurses tearing down the street in pursuit. Nor anyone else of interest, apart from the usual passersby who were all just going about their business, the majority of them deeply absorbed in their phones as most people seemed to be nowadays, doing the thumb-twiddling texting thing as they ambled along and somehow managed to avoid stumbling into trees and signposts. It seemed to him that those without digital devices to distract them from their present reality were walking somewhat more briskly than normal, a little stiff in their body language as if trying hard not to take in too much of their surroundings and dwell at any length on the signs of the battlefield that their city environment had become. One way or another, though, the Parisians had far too much on their minds to be worrying about some panic-stricken woman running down the street blindly crashing into people. Ben shrugged his shoulders and was about to move on when he saw that the young woman had dropped something else on the ground. She’d been so distracted that she had failed to notice that her phone had bounced off the kerbside and into the gutter, where it was lying among the washed-up debris and broken bottles the cleaning crew hadn’t yet reached. He picked it up. A slim, new-model smartphone in a smart black leather wallet case. The leather was wet, but the phone inside was dry. There was no question that it hadn’t been lying in the gutter for long, and that it belonged to the woman. He could feel the residual trace of warmth from where it had been nestling in her bag close to her body. In an age when people’s phones seemed to have become the hub of their entire lives, she must have been in a hell of a preoccupied state of mind not to have noticed its absence. Ben stood there for a moment, thinking what he should do. Further along the street he could see the striped red and white awning of a café-bistro that had obviously escaped damage and was open for business. His mouth watered at the thought of coffee and croissants and he was torn between the temptation of breakfast and the notion of going after the woman to return her phone. She was well out of sight by now, and could have turned off onto any number of side streets. He decided on breakfast and slipped the phone into his pocket. The place was bustling and noisy, but there was a table free in a corner. Out of habit, Ben sat with his back to the wall so he could observe the entrance. A hurried waiter took his order for a large café noir and the compulsory fresh-baked croissant. While he waited for his order to arrive, Ben sat quietly and absorbed the chatter from other customers. Predictably the subject of the day, here as everywhere in the city, was the riots. A pair of middle-aged men at the next table were getting quite animated over whether or not the president should declare martial law, order the rebuilding of the Bastille prison, stuff the whole lot of troublemakers behind bars and throw away the key. When his breakfast arrived Ben gave up eavesdropping on their conversation, took a sip or two of the delicious coffee and tore off a corner of croissant to dunk into his cup. A Gauloise would have rounded things out nicely, but such pleasures as smoking inside a café were no longer to be had in the modern civilised world. He went back to thinking about the strange woman who had bumped into him. What was she so frightened of? Where had she been running from, or to? He had to admit it, he was intrigued. And sooner or later, he was going to have to do something about the phone in his pocket. Curiosity getting the better of him, he took it out to examine more closely. If the screen happened to be locked, there might not be much he could do except just hand it in to the nearest gendarmerie as lost property. But when he flipped open the leather wallet he soon discovered that the phone wasn’t locked. Which left him a number of potential ways to find out who the woman was and where she lived, allowing him to return the item to her personally. Ben was good at finding people. It was something he used to do for a living, after he’d quit the SAS to go his own way as what he’d euphemistically termed a ‘crisis response consultant’. A career that involved tracking down people who didn’t always want to be found, especially when they were holding innocent child hostages captive for ransom. Kidnappers didn’t make themselves easy to locate, as a rule. But Ben had located them anyway, and the consequences hadn’t been very pleasant for them. By contrast, thanks to today’s technology, ordinary unsuspecting citizens were easy to track down. Too easy, in his opinion. Feeling just a little self-conscious about intruding on her privacy, he scrolled around the phone’s menus. There were a few emails and assorted files, but his first port of call was the woman’s address book. She was conservative about what information she stored in her contacts list. There was someone called Michel, no surname, and another contact called ‘Maman/Papa’, obviously her parents, but no addresses for either, and no home address or home landline number for herself. But the mobile’s own number was there. Ben took out his own phone to check it with. Damn these bloody things, but he was just as bound to them as the next guy. He’d got into the habit of carrying two of them: one a fancy smartphone registered to his business, the other a cheap, anonymous burner bought for cash, no names, no questions. Its anonymity pleased him and it came in handy in certain circumstances. But for this call he used his smartphone. He punched in the woman’s mobile number. Her phone rang in his other hand. You could tell a lot about a person from their choice of ringtone. Hers was a retro-style dring-dring, like the old dial phone that stood in the hallway of the farmhouse at Le Val. Ben liked that about her. He ended the call and the ringing stopped. So far, so good. Next he used his smartphone to access the whitepages.fr people finder website, which scanned millions of data files to give a reverse lookup. When a prompt appeared he entered the woman’s mobile number and activated the search. Not all phone users were trackable this way, only a few hundred million worldwide. Which was a pretty large net, but still something of a gamble. If it didn’t pay off, he still had other options to try. But that wouldn’t be necessary, because he scored a hit first time. In a few seconds he’d gained access to a whole range of information about the mystery woman: name, address, landline number, employer, and the contact details of two extant relatives in the Parisian suburb of Fontenay-sous-Bois a few kilometres to the east. If he’d been interested in offering her a job, he could run a background check to verify her credentials and see if she had any criminal record. If he was thinking of lending her money, he could view her credit rating. As things stood, he only needed the basics, which he now had. Piece of cake. Her name was Mme Romy Juneau. All adult women in France were now officially titled Madame regardless of marital status, since the traditional Mademoiselle had been banned for its alleged sexist overtones. But her parents’ shared surname matched hers, suggesting she was unmarried. Some traditions still prevailed. Ben guessed that the phone contact called Michel was probably a boyfriend. She worked at a place called Institut Culturel Segal, ICS for short. The Segal Cultural Institute, whatever that was, in an upmarket part of town on Avenue des Champs-Élysées. More important to Ben at this moment was her home address, which was an apartment number in a street just a few minutes’ walk from where he was sitting right now, and in the direction she’d been heading when they’d bumped into one another. It seemed safe to assume that she hadn’t been going to work that morning. Maybe she had the day off. Whatever the case, it was a reasonable assumption that she’d been making her way home. From where, he couldn’t say, and it didn’t really matter. If she was heading for her apartment, there was a strong likelihood that she’d have got there by now, considering the hurry she’d been in. Ben scribbled her details in the little notebook he carried, then exited the whitepages website and punched in Romy Juneau’s landline number. As he listened to the dialling tone, he thought about what he’d say to her. No reply. Perhaps she hadn’t got home yet, or was in the bathroom, or any number of possibilities. Ben aborted the call and looked at his watch. The morning was wearing on. He needed to be thinking about finishing breakfast and heading over to see Gerbier at his offices across town. Romy Juneau would have to wait until afterwards. He was slurping down the last of the delicious coffee when his phone buzzed. He answered quickly, thinking that Romy must have just missed his call and was calling him back. His anticipation soon fell flat when he heard the unpleasantly raspy, reedy voice of Gaston Gerbier in his ear. The estate agent was calling, very apologetically, to cancel their morning appointment because his hundred-year-old mother had started complaining of chest pains and been rushed off to hospital. It was probably nothing serious, Gerbier explained. The vicious old moo had been dying of the same heart attack for the last thirty-odd years and false alarms were a routine thing. Still, he felt obliged to be there, as the dutiful son, etc., etc. Ben said it was no problem; they could reschedule the appointment for next time he was in town. He wished the old moo a speedy recovery and hung up. There went his morning’s duties. Ben couldn’t actually say he was sorry to be missing out on the joys of Gerbier’s company. And never mind about the apartment. It wasn’t going anywhere. With a suddenly empty slate and nothing better to do, he decided now was as good a time as any to play the Good Samaritan and deliver the lost phone back to its owner in person. Given the nervous way she’d acted around him before, so as not to freak her out still further by showing up at her door he’d just post it through her letterbox with a note explaining how he’d found it. And that would be that. His good deed done, he could wend his way back to his apartment, jump in the car and be home at Le Val sometime in the afternoon. Ben munched the last of his croissant, paid his bill and then left the café and set off on foot in the direction of her address. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the day was his to do with as he pleased, and he felt carefree and untroubled. He had no idea what he was walking into. But he soon would. He was, in fact, about to meet Mademoiselle Romy Juneau for the second time. And from that moment, a whole new world of trouble would be getting ready to open up. Chapter 3 Romy Juneau lived in a handsome 1920s period apartment building near the end of a busy little street called Rue Joséphine Beaugiron, fifteen minutes’ walk away, flanked by a travel agency and a corner bar-restaurant called Chez Bogart. Like Ben’s own neighbourhood, the street hadn’t survived last night’s riot completely unscathed. The quaint old antiquarian bookshop opposite Romy’s building had taken a hit, and like Habib the grocer its owner was surveying the damage with a sour look of disgruntlement as two carpenters fitted a sheet of plywood over the broken window. Why anyone would attack a specialist book store filled with nothing but a bunch of dusty old tomes by dead writers, Ben couldn’t say. Maybe the rioters were intent on procuring some edifying literature to alleviate the boredom of throwing firebombs at the police. Romy’s building had an art deco archway, once grand, now slightly grungy, on which someone had recently sprayed an obscene slogan about the president. It had tall carved double doors, firmly locked, with a smaller inset door, also firmly locked. On the wall by the door was a buzzer panel with twelve buttons, one for each apartment, each with a corresponding name plate with the initial and surname of the resident. R. Juneau was in apartment 11. He pressed the button for apartment 6, labelled J. Vanel, waited for some guy’s voice to crackle ‘Qui est-ce?’ out of the speaker grille, and said he had a delivery for Vanel that needed signing for. A moment later the buzzer buzzed and the inset door clicked open, and Ben pushed through into a brick foyer that led to a small interior courtyard. A short, stumpy concierge lady with curlers in her hair was sweeping the floor and barely glanced at Ben as he walked in. The hallway walls were streaked with dirt and a row of wheelie bins smelled of mouldy garbage. Not the best-kept apartment building in Paris, but not the worst either, not these days. To his left was the door to the concierge’s ground-floor apartment, to his right a spiral stairway with a worn antique banister rail. Set into the centre of the stairway was an original period cage lift apparently still in service, all ornate black wrought iron. A Gothic death trap, to Ben’s eye. On the opposite wall were fixed twelve separate grey steel mailboxes, one for each resident, marked with their names. He took Romy’s phone from his pocket, along with his notebook and pen. He wrote a brief note to the effect that he was returning her property, signed it, folded it inside the phone’s leather wallet and was about to pop it into her mailbox when he noticed that two of the other boxes had had their locks forced open with something like a screwdriver, the grey paint scratched through to the bare metal. Hardly the most confidence-inspiring level of security. The building was obviously a little too soft a target for thieves, unlike Ben’s place which had a hardened steel security door you’d need a cutting torch to break through. He didn’t want to have gone to the trouble of returning Romy’s phone to her, only for it to be nicked by some light-fingered opportunist punk before she could get to it. He decided to hand it to her in person, face to face. She’d surely realise she had nothing to be frightened of, if he smiled a lot and acted his usual charming self. If she asked how he’d found her address, he’d admit the truth and advise her to erase her own number from her contacts list because it made her far too easy to track online. There were too many suspicious characters around these days to be taking risks. Choosing the stairs over the Gothic death trap, he started to climb. The stairs were worn and creaky with age, spiralling up around the central lift shaft. The first-floor landing had apartments numbers 1 to 3, the second floor numbers 4 to 6. By his reckoning that made number 11 the middle door on the fourth floor, right at the top of the building. As he headed towards the third floor, Ben heard the rattle and judder of the lift descending, sounding like it was going to shake itself apart and bring the whole building down, and he was glad he’d taken the stairs. Through the wrought-iron bars he saw the lift’s passenger, a lone man making his way down from an upper floor. Ben gave him only the briefest of glances, but his eye was trained to notice details. The guy was standing with his back to Ben and his face turned away. He was broad-shouldered and well built, about Ben’s height at a shade under six feet. He wore black leather gloves and a long dark coat, quality wool, expensive, with the collar turned up. His hair was short and black, silvering in streaks. Ben caught a whiff of aftershave. The man didn’t turn around as the death trap rattled on its way downwards. Ben watched the lift disappear below him between floors, then kept on climbing the stairs. A strange, vague feeling had suddenly come over him, as though something at the back of his mind was needling him. He had no idea what it was, and quickly forgot about it. Moments later he reached the top floor. As he’d guessed, apartment 11 was the middle door of the uppermost three apartments. He paused on the landing for a moment, thinking of the most innocuous way to introduce himself. Honesty and openness were the best policy. She would soon realise he was the friendliest and least menacing guy on the planet. At any rate, he could be that guy when he wanted. He removed the handwritten note from her phone case, since he’d no longer need it. Then raised his hand to ring the doorbell with a knuckle. Force of habit. In his past line of work, leaving fingerprints often wasn’t a good idea. Then he stopped. Because he’d suddenly noticed that her door wasn’t locked. Not just unlocked, but hanging open an inch. He used his fist to nudge it gently open a few inches more, and peeked through the gap. The apartment had a narrow entrance passage papered in tasteful pastel blue, with glossily varnished floorboards. There were four interior doors leading off the hallway, one at the far end and one to the left, both closed, and two more to the right, both of which were open though Ben couldn’t see into the rooms from where he stood. He called out in French, ‘Hello? Anybody there? Mademoiselle Juneau?’ He hoped it wasn’t being too sexist to assume her marital status. There was no reply. Ben tentatively stepped inside the hall passage. He felt uneasy about doing it, since a lone male stranger didn’t ideally want to be seen to be lurking in the apartment of a young single woman. The first odd thing he noticed was the smell of something burning, which seemed to be coming from the nearer open door on the right. The second was the little stand in the passage that had been knocked over on its side across the middle of the hallway floor. A pretty ceramic dish lay smashed on the floorboards, various keys scattered nearby. The camel coat Romy Juneau had been wearing earlier looked like it had been yanked down from a hook by the entrance and was lying rumpled on the floor. Ben moved a little further up the passage, stepped past the coat and the fallen stand, and peered around the edge of the first open door on the right. The door led to a small kitchen, clean and neat, with worktops and cupboards the same pastel blue as the hallway and a table for one next to a window overlooking the street side of the building. The burning smell was coming from a coffee percolator that had been left on the gas stove. It had bubbled itself dry and was giving off smoke. Ben went in and took the coffee off the heat, using a kitchen cloth because it was hot. Then he quickly flipped off the gas burner with a knuckle. Force of habit, again. Whoever had been in the middle of making coffee had taken a carton of non-fat milk from the fridge and a delicate china cup and saucer from the cupboard and laid them out ready on the worktop next to a little pot of Demerara sugar and a tiny silver spoon. All very dainty and feminine. Ben presumed that someone was the apartment’s occupant. So where was she, and what was all the mess in the hallway? By now the alarm bell was jangling in the back of his mind. Something wasn’t quite right. He stepped back out into the hallway and called again, a little more loudly, ‘Hello? Mademoiselle Juneau?’ Still no reply. He nudged open the closed door to the left, which was a bedroom. Romy Juneau evidently had a thing for that shade of blue. It was everywhere, the bed covers, the curtains, the walls. But she wasn’t in the room. He stepped up to the further open door on the right, which he now saw led to a salon. It was inside the salon that Ben now saw Mademoiselle Romy Juneau for the second time. It would be the last time. Chapter 4 As far as Romy Juneau was concerned, she would only ever have met Ben on the single occasion they’d bumped into one another in Rue Georges Brassens. She was oblivious of their second encounter, and always would be, because she was lying sprawled on the Persian rug inside her living room with a broken neck. That much Ben could tell at a glance from the unnatural angle of her head to her body. He stood frozen in the doorway for an instant. He had seen many dead people before now. But never quite in such circumstances. His shoulders dropped and something tightened inside his throat at the pathetic sight of her lying there. The leather satchel she’d been carrying earlier had been emptied and left lying along with its contents on the rug a few feet away. He went over to her and knelt next to the body. She was very still, with that special quality of inertia that only death can confer on a person. If there had been any blood, it would have been easy to see against the white cashmere top she was wearing. It looked as though a single strike to the neck had killed her. Ben looked around him for any kind of impact weapon, but there was nothing. A very strong man could have done it using his bare hands, but it would have taken a blow of tremendous force. Her eyes were open and staring sightlessly straight at him, the vividness of their colour faded like the wings of a dead butterfly. Ben reached out and laid two fingers on the side of her throat. He had expected no pulse and found none. Her soft skin was still warm, also expected, because this had happened to her only minutes ago. While she’d been waiting for her coffee to brew. Her death touched Ben deep, though he didn’t know why. It was as if he’d known her, somehow. As if part of his mind was trying to reconnect with an old scrambled memory lost somewhere in the murk of the dim and distant past. It was a strange feeling. He lingered next to her body for a couple more seconds, then stood up and walked grimly to the living-room window. It was the archetypal Parisian floor-to-ceiling iron window with the ornate knobs and designer rust, flanked by gauzy white drapes. It overlooked the same side of the building as the kitchen. He looked out at the street below. The carpenters had finished fixing the plywood to the bookshop window. Cars, vans, bikes were passing by on the road, pedestrians strolling along the pavements, normal city life going on as usual. And up here on the floor behind where Ben was standing, a young woman with a snapped neck. He was about to turn away from the window when he saw a man emerge from the building and step towards the edge of the kerb. About Ben’s own height, though it was hard to tell from the downward angle. He was wearing a long dark coat. Quality wool, expensive. Black leather gloves that matched his shiny black shoes. He was well built with broad shoulders. Black hair, streaked with silver. The man from the lift. He stood at the kerbside with his back to the building and looked down the street as though he was waiting for a taxi to come by. Ben couldn’t see his face, but now he was seeing him again there was something oddly familiar about the guy – and not just from their fleeting brush a couple of minutes ago. Ben felt a weird tingle up his back, like a knife blade drawn along piano strings. Just then, the man turned and craned his neck to look straight up at the window of Romy Juneau’s apartment. He was in his early forties, with the olive skin that hinted at Mediterranean ethnicity. He could have been taken for anything from Italian to North African to a Middle Easterner. His features were strong and square, not unhandsome, and his eyes were dark and clear and intelligent. They found Ben’s and stared right at him through the window. And the tingle up Ben’s back turned icy cold. That was when it hit him. It couldn’t have hit him harder if the man down in the street below had pointed a gun and shot him. Because in that dizzy moment Ben realised what it was that his mind had been trying to reconnect just now. It wasn’t Romy Juneau who had triggered a distant memory from the past. And the strange feeling he was getting had started before he’d set foot in this apartment. It was the man in the lift who had set it off. The man now standing staring up at the window. Ben now realised that he knew this man. And as the memories were suddenly unlocked and rushed into his mind, he was able to pinpoint exactly when and where he knew him from, and why they had met before, and what had happened on the last occasion they’d crossed paths. None of the memories were good ones. For just the briefest instant, Ben closed his eyes. He was suddenly transported back in time. He flashed on another face. A very different face, one with deep dark eyes that looked into his. And he thought, Samara. As the instant ended Ben opened his eyes and was brought back to the present. The man in the black coat was still looking up at the apartment window, frowning as though similar thoughts were going through his mind, too. Then a silver Mercedes Benz saloon pulled sharply up at the kerbside next to him with a screech of tyres. Its tinted driver’s window slid down and another olive-skinned, swarthy-looking guy inside started gesticulating and beckoning. Ben couldn’t make out the words, but it was obvious the driver was urging the man in the black coat to get in the car. The man hesitated for a second, as though he was thinking about turning back and returning inside the building. Ben wished he would. But then the man changed his mind and hurried around to the car’s passenger side, yanked open the door and flung himself into the seat, and the door slammed and the driver hit the gas and the Mercedes took off with another squeal of tyres, accelerating hard away down the street. By then, Ben was already racing from the apartment. He jumped over the body of Romy Juneau, sprinted through the hallway and hammered down the stairs and slid down the spiral banister rail to descend the last two floors more quickly. Reaching the entrance foyer he burst out of the inset door into the street. But the silver Mercedes was already long gone, and the man in the black coat with it. All that remained in his wake was the memory of his name, who he was and the things he had done. And the fact that he was supposed to have been dead years ago. Chapter 5 Ben didn’t return upstairs to Romy Juneau’s apartment. There was nothing more he could do. He had left no trace of his visit; it was as though he’d never been there at all. He was burning up inside with anger and confusion and frustration. But he kept his pace slow and measured as he walked up to the end of Rue Joséphine Beaugiron and went inside the bar-restaurant called Chez Bogart. The interior was all decked out with framed posters and stills from old movies. Whoever owned the joint was obviously a big Bogie fan. And doing good business, too. Most of the punters were the late breakfast crowd, noisily enjoying their brioche French toast and buttered baguettes sprinkled with grated chocolate and bowls of café au lait while defenceless women got battered to death just down the street. It was still a little early in the day for hard drinking, even for him, but Ben was willing to make an exception. He ordered himself a double shot of Glenlivet at the bar, no ice, no water, and carried it over to a corner table beneath a giant blow-up still from Casablanca, the classic image of Bogart in white tux, loitering by the piano as Dooley Wilson sang ‘As Time Goes By’. He took a long drink of his scotch and thought about peculiar coincidences and the return of figures from the past whom you’d never thought you’d see again. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world. Ben knocked the whisky down fast and soon felt the alcohol go to work to settle his nerves. Then he set down his empty glass and headed for the men’s room. It was empty, which was what he needed because he wanted no witnesses. And quiet, which was also good, because when anonymously reporting a murder it was generally preferable to leave no clues as to where you were calling from. He took out his phone, the prepaid burner this time. This was exactly the kind of purpose it served. He dialled 17, police emergency, got through quickly, and just as quickly gave the call handler the necessary details. Victim’s name and address, but not his own. He had no desire to spend the next two days being grilled by police detectives about what he was doing in her apartment around the time of her death. Ben could easily have told them the name of the man he’d seen leaving the scene of the crime, but he held that information back too. There would have been no point. Whatever identity the guy had used to enter France would certainly be fake. Ben strongly doubted that his real name would even come up on the INTERPOL crime database, except in certain classified files to which regular cops would have no access. Any one of a variety of aliases Ben could have given them might have triggered a response. The kind that would have the whole street and surrounding area closed down by paramilitary forces armed to the teeth, searching door to door and stopping cars with K9 units on standby. But that would have been just as pointless. They wouldn’t stand a chance of catching the guy. He was far too good for them. And if they somehow did succeed, it would probably be the last thing they ever did. Ben cut off the police emergency call handler’s questions and left the restaurant through a tradesmen’s back exit that led into an alleyway. He lit a Gauloise and slowly walked back around the corner, crossed the street and made his way along Rue Joséphine Beaugiron as far as the antiquarian bookshop opposite Romy’s building, from where he could monitor events at a discreet distance. He finished his cigarette outside the shop and then wandered inside and spent a while browsing the shelves of dusty old books. Fourteen minutes later he heard the police sirens screeching to the scene. By then he’d picked out a handsome old deluxe volume of the collected poetry of Charles Baudelaire. A present for his friend and colleague Tuesday Fletcher at Le Val, possibly the only ex-British Army sniper in the world with a taste for nineteenth-century French poetry. Ben ambled up to the front desk with the book in hand. The sirens were growing loud outside, filling the street. He said to the shop proprietor, ‘What’s happening now?’ ‘God only knows,’ the guy grumbled. ‘This whole city is going to shit, if you ask me.’ The two of them stood in the shop doorway watching as a pair of marked cars and a gendarmerie van screeched to a halt across the street, a team of uniforms scrambled out looking highly purposeful and disappeared inside Romy Juneau’s building. Just regular police, responding to a regular incident. If only they’d known who they were really dealing with. ‘Dear me, I hope nobody got hurt,’ Ben said. The bookshop owner just grunted, threw up his hands in resignation at the terrible state of the world and returned to his desk. If only he knew, too. The cops would soon call in the coroner and start asking questions up and down the street in search of potential witnesses to the incident. It was time for Ben to be moving on. He paid for his purchase, tucked the book under his arm and left the store at a relaxed pace, nice and easy, drawing no attention from anyone. The best way to disappear in a crowded city was to go underground. He headed for the nearest Métro station, joined the fast-moving crowd heading for the tunnels, and caught a packed train that took him on a winding, circuitous route back towards the safehouse. His original plan had been to lock up the apartment, jump in his BMW Alpina and set off for Le Val. He’d have been enthusiastically greeted by Storm, his favourite of the pack of German shepherds that roamed and guarded the compound. To stretch his legs after the drive, he might have pulled on his running shoes and gone for a cross-country five-miler around the woodlands and fields, with the dog trotting happily along behind him. Later, dinnertime would have seen him sitting at the table in the big country kitchen with Jeff and Tuesday, the three of them digging into some delicious casserole provided by Marie-Claire, the local woman employed at Le Val to feed the troops and ruin everyone’s waistlines with her indecently tasty French rustic cooking. Then after dinner he’d have relaxed in the company of his friends by the fire, Storm curled up at his feet; maybe a game of chess with Jeff, a glass or three of ten-year-old Laphroaig, a haze of cigarette smoke drifting pleasantly overhead as he told them about his India trip. But that cosy future would have to be put on hold for a while. He now had other business to finish before he could go home. Business he’d thought had already been done and dusted back in August 2016. Apparently not, it seemed. Which begged a lot of questions to which Ben now needed the answers. The name of the man Ben had crossed on the stairs and seen leaving the apartment building was Nazim al-Kassar. He was, in the plainest terms, a terrorist. Or had been, many years earlier when he and Ben, then a newly promoted officer with 22 Special Air Service, had first crossed paths in Iraq. Ben found it hard to believe that Nazim could have changed tracks since that time. Men so single-mindedly committed to an ideology of warfare, terror and destruction didn’t just lose interest and switch career paths. And Nazim had been one of the most committed of all. Meaning one of the worst, most viciously ruthless, and most lethally dangerous individuals out of all the long list of such men Ben had ever come across. Ben was the only man who had ever been able to catch him. Nazim’s capture had come at a heavy cost in terms of lives lost, on both sides. For all that, he hadn’t remained a prisoner for long. Ben recalled clearly the events of the day when Nazim al-Kassar had got away from him, never for the two men to meet again. Until this day, sixteen long years later. Chapter 6 The story began with one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Muslim born in 1966. From an early age al-Zarqawi had been a committed jihadist, dedicated like his millions of fellows to the cause of spreading Islamic fundamentalism worldwide with the ultimate goal of creating a global Caliphate that would banish and eradicate all false religions, in particular Christianity and Judaism. At the age of twenty-three, al-Zarqawi had travelled to Afghanistan in the hopes of joining up with the jihadist Mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet troops who had, in their view, invaded their country. In fact, the Russians were there by invitation, having come to the aid of the pro-Soviet Afghan government in 1979 to help against the rise of rebel militants generously funded and armed by the CIA. America’s financial and military support of the Islamist rebels would ultimately prove disastrous to the West, but back then Communism was the bogeyman and the Carter administration, followed by that of Reagan, were each too blind to see the future nightmare they were sleepwalking into. The Islamists, with their own agenda, were only too happy to grab the guns and money and get stuck in, favouring hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against the Russians. The word ‘Mujahideen’ in Arabic meant simply ‘those who fight’, in the sense of jihad or holy war. And fight they did, hard and relentlessly. The cruel war of attrition had lasted more than nine bloody years, ending with the withdrawal of the battered, miserably defeated Soviet troops in early 1989. It had been Russia’s own Vietnam, and it crippled their economy so badly that it became a factor in the fall of the USSR. Arriving on the scene that same year, the young al-Zarqawi was dismayed to find the war all wound up and his chances of dying gloriously in the name of jihad dashed, at least for the moment. Undeterred, he soon began looking for new avenues into which to channel his religious zeal. Among the various contacts he established was a certain Osama Bin Laden, the son of Mohammed Bin Laden, a Jeddah property development billionaire with close ties to the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden Junior had inherited some $30 million following his father’s death and left the business world behind to pursue his own interests, with a little under-the-table help from the CIA, who at that time still naively regarded him and his fellow jihadists as useful assets in the fight against Communism. While the war against the Soviets drew to a close and victory appeared imminent, Bin Laden had already started forming plans for the future. He had a vision to expand his operations on a grand scale, and to this end co-founded a new outfit called al-Qaeda, meaning ‘the Foundation’, a subtle reference to the worldwide Islamic Caliphate he wanted to create. But this was still the early days, and Bin Laden was looking out for keen young talent to help him grow his operation. As plans developed, he later donated $200,000 to al-Zarqawi, with which to build a large jihadist training camp in Herat, Afghanistan. Many of al-Zarqawi’s fellow Jordanians came to join him there, and he happily set about building an army of fierce fighters ready and willing to die for Allah. From the start, al-Zarqawi had been known for his extreme views – so extreme, in fact, that even Bin Laden considered him somewhat radical. He took a rock-hard line against other Muslims whom he considered too soft on nonbelievers and thereby heretical – such as all Shi’ites, who he felt ought to be wiped out en masse. He despised the Jews even more strongly, as he had been taught to do from childhood; but his most rabid loathing was reserved for the Western oppressors of the Muslim world, the UN and America. In 1999 al-Zarqawi’s little army became officially known as Jama’at al-Tawid wal-Jihad, or JTJ for short. Its name meant, in Arabic, ‘The Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad’, which sounded deceptively academic compared to the brutal reality. Al-Zarqawi had founded his merry band of cutthroats with the main intention of leading it back to his homeland and toppling the Kingdom of Jordan, which he considered an example of heretical un-Islamic leadership. He was then still based in Afghanistan, which for the last three years had been largely controlled by its own Islamic Emirate, a.k.a. the Taliban. It was a safe haven for jihadist terror groups like the JTJ, which continued to thrive and attract new membership. However, that all changed when al-Zarqawi’s former associate Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the September 11, 2001, attack on US soil that sparked the ‘War on Terror’ and a whole new era began. As thousands of American and British troops flooded into Afghanistan and started ferociously attacking Taliban enclaves and training camps, al-Zarqawi decided things were getting a little hot for him there and moved his operation instead to Iraq. There he met and befriended a loyal new disciple, one Nazim al-Kassar. Nazim was thought to have been born in Ramadi, Iraq, in either December 1977 or January 1978 depending on whichever intelligence source would later prove correct. Little was known about his family background, or what kind of formative experiences and upbringing had prompted him to embrace radical ideology with such enthusiasm in his late teens and early twenties. In common with his like-minded peers he believed devoutly that one day, thanks to the heroic efforts of warriors in this holy struggle against the infidels, the kuffar, Islam would rule over every corner of the world. By the time he became a keen young disciple of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Nazim al-Kassar was already utterly devoted to the cause and ready to do whatever it took to show his allegiance both to his mentor and his faith. When al-Zarqawi travelled to Syria to oversee the training of Islamist fighters there, Nazim accompanied him and took a leading role in the expansion of their army, proving a strong leader of men as well as a highly proficient warrior himself, as skilled with the AK-47 rifle as he was with pistol and knife. He underwent training in strategy, counterintelligence and explosives, and learned to speak English perfectly. He was also deployed to different countries to assist in missions and assassinations at his master’s behest, one of which was the murder of an American diplomat in Jordan. Before his twenty-fifth birthday, Nazim already had infidel blood on his hands, and he was ready for more. It wouldn’t be long in coming. In 2003, two years after invading Afghanistan in reprisal for the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the Americans along with their coalition of Western allies launched the second major wave of their so-called War on Terror. This time, the target was Iraq. The objective: to complete the job left unfinished in the First Gulf War and bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein, believed to be plotting further terror attacks on the West. It was at this point in history that Nazim’s path was set to cross for the first time with that of his deadly enemy, Ben Hope. Chapter 7 In Ben’s opinion, back then and still to this day, the US-led invasion of Iraq had been one of the most hideous strategic blunders in military history. The Americans and their allies had apparently learned nothing from the humiliating lessons of Vietnam, or the tribal revolts against the British occupation of Iraq in the 1920s that led to high casualties on both sides. One does not go blithely marching into these countries, gung-ho and flags-a-waving, without inviting a bloody disaster. The Iraq war would ultimately drag on for nearly as long as the Soviets had doggedly clung onto Afghanistan, and prove every bit as badly counterproductive in the long run. Ben had predicted that outcome back in 2003, and he’d been around to watch it unfold all around him when his SAS unit was deployed into the heart of the conflict that spring. But whatever his personal misgivings about the wisdom of the whole endeavour, it was his job to do what he had to do. On the night of March 17, Ben was among the men of SAS D Squadron who strapped themselves into the folding seats of several Chinook CH-47 troop transporters ready for takeoff from Al Jafr airbase in southern Jordan. Their destination: the township of Qu’aim over the border in Iraq, which according to intelligence reports was a strategic site from which Saddam’s army were planning to launch missiles laden with chemical weapons into Israel. This was Operation Row, a highly classified Special Forces mission taking place an entire twenty-four hours before the British government had actually voted whether or not to join the invasion. The SAS force consisted of sixty men, who had just spent the last three months on secret bases in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, training and preparing for the big push everyone knew was inevitable. Even though Parliament hadn’t officially sanctioned their mission, most of the men had already written their ‘death letters’, to be read by family and loved ones in the event that they did not return alive. Ben was one of the few with no family or loved ones to write to, but he hadn’t been immune to the mixed feelings of fear, anxiety and excitement as the Chinooks took off into the night. The deafening roar of the turbo-prop engines filled their ears and the powerful upward surge pressed them into their seats. They exchanged glances and nervous grins in the darkness. The journey into war had begun. D Squadron’s LZ was 120 kilometres over the Iraqi border. The passage into enemy airspace had been smoothed in advance by American Little Bird helicopters, but the very real possibility of surface-to-air missile attack had never left the minds of everyone aboard. After an uneventful flight the Chinooks touched down in the barren wastes of the Iraqi Western Desert. Shivering with cold, the SAS troops disembarked and unloaded their weapons along with their transport, the open-top ‘Pink Panther’ Land Rovers bristling with machine guns and rocket launchers that would carry them overland to Al Qu’aim. The Chinooks departed the LZ and thundered away into the night as the soldiers, dug into defensive positions, waited tensely for any sign of enemy attack. None came. They spent March 18 hunkered down behind their weapons, waiting for another sixty troopers of B Squadron to join them at the LZ before the combined SAS force boarded their Pinkies and set off across the rough, rocky desert terrain. By the time the SAS were approaching Al Qu’aim, the British Parliament had finally voted in favour of joining the invasion. Operation Row was now a legitimate mission. That night, the troopers reached the outskirts of the township and began probing the perimeter of an industrial plant that intelligence reports had tagged as a likely site for chemical weapons storage. What they found instead was an ambush. They had walked straight into a hornet’s nest of resistance as waiting soldiers of the Iraqi Republican Guards lit up the night with ferocious gunfire. Ben and a small team of his men found themselves pinned down between buildings as enemy rounds peppered walls and vehicles. The crew of one of the SAS Pinkies ran for cover as the Land Rover was riddled with bullets. Ben ordered it to be destroyed with a rocket, lest their radio fall into enemy hands. The heat from the blast seared them, but provided enough cover for them to break away from their precarious position and press forward. They fought until the barrels on their machine guns glowed red hot, and the ground was covered with spent shells. The battle raged into the night and into the following day as the Republican Guards kept up their spirited defence. The SAS had come prepared for stiff resistance, though this exceeded their expectations. Ben was crouched just yards from an SAS sniper when a bullet struck the barrel of his .50-calibre rifle and shattered it into pieces. Despite being badly hurt by the shrapnel, the sniper grabbed another rifle and fought gamely on. Inch by inch, street by street, the troopers clawed their way towards the industrial plant as gunfire hammered their positions. It finally became clear that only a targeted air strike would break the defending forces’ grip on their stronghold. It was duly radioed in. Ben watched from behind cover as the stunning power of 2,500 pounds of high explosive payload from a Coalition Forces bomber tore the plant apart in a ground-shaking blast and effectively ended the battle. It was an impressive fireworks display, but nothing in comparison to the awesome bombardment of Baghdad that Ben was to personally witness just weeks later, when his unit was deployed to the west of the city. The fall of Baghdad, coming less than a month since Ben had arrived in Iraq, marked the end of the first phase of the war. It should all have been over then, but the real conflict was just about to begin – just as Ben had feared it would. With Saddam Hussein’s army in tatters it now became all about counterinsurgency as a diverse multitude of Islamic militant groups joined in to harass the invading troops to the best of their considerable ability, using all the guerrilla warfare and terror tactics the Mujahideen had honed to perfection fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then some. The SAS’s orders were simple: to continue seeking and neutralising threats to the Coalition Forces. Of which there were so many, it was virtually impossible to keep track of them all. One such group, and one of the most formidable, was Jama’at al-Tawid wal-Jihad, or simply JTJ, who fast became a prime target for Special Forces. As the SAS soon discovered, JTJ were the perfect model for all terrorist organisations. The use of suicide bombings, often involving car bombs, the planting of roadside improvised explosive devices to catch unsuspecting army patrols, and the launching of guerrilla rocket and sniper attacks were some of their favourite tactics. But they delighted most in the taking of hostages, whom they would line up on their knees in the sand and coolly decapitate with long knives. Getting captured alive by these guys was not an option. Exactly as Ben had anticipated, this war had already begun to deteriorate into a hellish bloodbath. But it was also exactly the kind of combat environment in which his regiment thrived, operating covertly, usually at night in SAS tradition, and often out of uniform. Bearded, swathed in local civilian garb and deeply tanned by the desert sun, they could pass more easily for ragged sand-hoboes than crack troops. Which was precisely the desired illusion. As the months went by, they operated in Ramadi and Fallujah, and remote parts of Al Anbar Province where, in one raid, Ben and his unit were directed to a farm thought to be a stronghold for radical insurgents. After another spirited firefight, fifteen dead bodies dragged from the wreck of the farmhouse were identified as known members of JTJ. However one of their most notorious fighters, a bloodthirsty terrorist by the name of Nazim al-Kassar, still eluded capture. The young warrior was already responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of killings, he had recruited multiple suicide bombing volunteers and (or so it was thought) even personally strapped them into their explosive vests. Ben didn’t know it yet, but he was destined to meet Nazim very soon. The day would be September 20, 2003. Chapter 8 The broad parameters of the SAS’s mission in Iraq gave them latitude to work together with United States Special Forces. Back then, however, international SF ops were yet to become fully integrated and it would be some time before the British and American elite units would be officially joined at the hip, sharing the same intelligence and serving the same common purpose. In those early days of the war there were still some tensions between them. As Ben was about to learn first-hand when, that September, his unit was deployed in a joint mission with elements of the US JSOC Joint Special Operations Command, comprising members of Delta Force, 75th US Army Rangers and DEVGRU, otherwise known as SEAL Team 6. Operation Citation, as the mission was designated, called for the joint Special Forces unit to be divided into twelve-man teams and inserted deep into specific, pre-selected enemy positions in the north and west. By now the whole country had exploded into insane violence as the disparate factions and tribes started fighting not only the Coalition invaders but each other as well. The war had sparked off a lot of old grudges. Against this backdrop of absolute chaos the dedicated jihadist groups were flourishing and becoming ever more effective at disrupting military efforts to stabilise the country. Of these, the group that had become known as JTJ was one of the most active, and its key players were now top targets. The main purpose of Operation Citation was to take as many of them as possible off the table. Dead, or preferably alive, because dead men couldn’t be persuaded to rat on their friends. Ben was in command of Task Force Red, the codename of his twelve-man team consisting of four SAS men including himself, and the rest operatives from Delta. Task Force Red’s objective was to proceed to a remote village in the desert some twenty miles west of Tikrit, which US intelligence had reason to believe was being used as a meeting place for key JTJ personnel including Nazim al-Kassar and several of his top aides. Their orders were simple enough: scout the location, take up position, identify the threat and move in for execution. It had been an unlucky mission right from the start. The most senior of the Americans was a Delta Master Sergeant called Tyler Roth, who made it obvious that he felt he should have been made Team Leader rather than this Brit guy, Hope. Roth took every opportunity to challenge Ben’s command, and Ben often felt that the Americans had their own agenda in the mission. All of which compounded the sense of mistrust and division that already existed between the SAS and US troopers. Ben could only rally his team together as best he could, in the hope that they’d focus when it was most needed. He also had to hope that the American intel was right, which it frequently wasn’t. Before dawn on September 20 the heavily armed task force took up their positions around the remote village, little more than a cluster of ramshackle stone dwellings at the centre of a rocky basin. The place appeared completely desolate and abandoned, and at first it seemed to them as if they’d been sent on a wild goose chase. But then, in the blood-red hue of sunrise they spotted a line of four vehicles approaching from the west, and another three incoming in single file from the south-east, each convoy sending up a plume of dust. As they watched and waited, the vehicles converged on the buildings and all parked up together in a great dust cloud. Through binoculars Ben counted twenty-seven men getting out of their vehicles and entering the largest of the buildings. They were clad in the familiar rag-tag garb of insurgents, most with heavy ammunition bandoliers draped around their bodies, some with chequered headscarves, all of them armed with the usual mixture of mostly Soviet weaponry. Among them, about Ben’s height, well built and handsome, wearing a combat jacket and cotton knit cap, was the notorious young jihadist who was rapidly rising up the ranks and of whom there was only one known photograph, Nazim al-Kassar. The man himself, in the flesh. As Ben had worried, the American intelligence report was somewhat off the mark. Twenty-seven men was a much larger force than they’d anticipated. It would make capturing the leaders much more difficult, since they were sure to put up a fight. One of Ben’s SAS troopers, a Yorkshireman called Jon Taylor, was equipped with a launcher loaded with stun grenades. If Taylor could punt two or three of them in quick succession through the building’s window, there was a decent chance of incapacitating enough of its occupants to be able to storm the place and bring off a clean mass arrest. If not, the task force might have a hot morning’s work ahead of them. The soldiers waited for all the men to enter the building, then for thirty minutes longer, for whatever strategic discussions they were engaged in to get well underway in a sense of security. Then the signal was given to move in and commence the assault. And that was when it all went horribly bad. Taylor was twenty metres from the building and on the verge of launching his first grenade at the window when Ben saw an incoming RPG round streaking towards them from the edge of the rocky basin. Before he had time to yell a warning, the rocket-propelled warhead blew a crater right under Taylor’s feet, killing him instantly. Within instants, the air was thick with heavy machine-gun fire coming at them from all sides, and Ben knew the American intel had been even worse than previously thought. Task Force Red had been misled. A third contingent of militants had been en route to the meeting when they’d spotted the soldiers and opened fire from hidden positions all around the rim of the plateau. Under aggressive attack, Ben’s unit found whatever cover they could and fired back. But then several of the insurgents inside the house came swarming out, shooting as they came. The task force were pinned between two enemy factions, with no longer any option but to fight their way out. The battle was brief, intense and frenetic. In the midst of it Ben saw another of his SAS guys go down, hit in the thigh. Two of the Delta troopers were less lucky, one blown to pieces by another RPG round and the other fatally wounded in the throat by a rifle bullet fired from the house. Then out of the corner of his eye Ben spotted Nazim al-Kassar and four of his men breaking from the entrance and running for the dusty black SUV in which they’d arrived. He fired on them, punching holes in the side of the vehicle. The SUV took off, wheels spinning in the dirt. Ben kept firing until his rifle was empty, shattering the windows and perforating the bodywork like Swiss cheese. The SUV went into a wild skid and crashed into a low wall. Its driver burst through the windscreen in a spray of broken glass and blood, his face mangled to a pulp, his body sprawling lifelessly across the bonnet. Ben drew his pistol and sprinted for the wrecked car, ignoring the bullets flying past him, intent only on stopping al-Kassar before he got away. He wrenched open the car door. Al-Kassar was in the back seat with blood on his face, clawing a pistol from his belt. Ben lunged inside the car, smacked the gun out of his hand and knocked him unconscious with three vicious strikes from his pistol butt. The elusive Nazim al-Kassar was now a prisoner. Less than three minutes later, the fight was ended. The unseen attackers retreated from the edge of the plateau and into the surrounding hills, never to be seen again. The smoke cleared from the butcher’s yard of the village to reveal eleven dead insurgents on the ground, three more dead inside the building, and two critically injured. The rest had thrown down their guns and surrendered, evidently not quite so willing as all that to lay down their lives for Allah. The task force had lost three men, Taylor and two of the Delta guys, as well as sustaining two further non-fatal casualties. Ben radioed in a CASEVAC chopper and the injured were airlifted from the scene along with the wounded prisoners. A grim death toll, to be sure. Ben was deeply upset about Taylor, and furious with the misleading US intel that had dropped them in the soup like that. But the task force had succeeded in its mission to snatch al-Kassar and several of his top aides. JTJ had just suffered a major defeat. Or so Ben thought, as he returned to base that day with a truckload of prisoners in tow. War and politics made for a terrible combination, yet the pair were inseparable bedfellows. As a commanding officer Ben was in possession of a secret British Ministry of Defence memo ordering the SAS under no circumstances to allow Iraqi prisoners to be handed over to the US Joint Special Operations Command, for fear that they might be whisked away by the CIA to some covert facility where they would be subjected to torture. The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal was still fresh, and the suits in Whitehall wanted no part of any dirty dealings – at any rate, that was the official pretence. So, on their return, Ben was careful to hand the prisoners over to a regular US Army unit. This caused a major dispute with the Delta guys, because Delta were in effect the military arm of the CIA, under the shady umbrella of its Special Activities Division. Hence, the D-boys had their own dark agenda and secret orders. And now Ben was the party pooper. Tyler Roth was so incensed by his decision that the two of them very nearly came to blows following an angry argument that night. Two days later, the politics of the situation came back to haunt Ben with a vengeance. Unaware of just who they had in custody because of the shroud of secrecy surrounding Special Ops missions, the regular army grunts holding al-Kassar and the other top-level JTJ prisoners slipped up on security discipline. Ben was having breakfast with a group of other SAS guys when he heard the news that Nazim al-Kassar and six of his associates had managed to escape while being transferred between military camps. Al-Kassar would never be captured again, and many more people would die while he ran free. People like Samara. Ben had smarted over the incident for a long time afterwards, wishing that he hadn’t followed his orders and instead let the Yanks do whatever the hell they wanted to Nazim and his henchmen. The incident had been one of the rotten experiences that drove a wedge between him and the military bureaucracy above him. Ultimately, it would be one of the reasons why he quit the regiment under something of a cloud, thoroughly disillusioned with the whole business and ready to move on. But the memories were hard to let go of. Even after he’d left the military, he’d kept track of the exploits of JTJ. In 2006, the same year that Nazim’s mentor Abu al-Zarqawi had been killed in a US air strike, JTJ got itself a new leader and a new name. Along with much-expanded aspirations and confidence in its achievements it now became known as ISI, the Islamic State of Iraq. Eight years after that, the name changed again. Henceforth the organisation would be called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL, for short. A name that became very well known indeed to folks in the West. And the rest was history: the bombings, the killings, the mass abductions, the media storms surrounding the filmed beheadings of hostages streamed across the internet. All those years, Ben had always secretly wished that he might one day have the opportunity of running into his old friend Nazim al-Kassar again. Over time, he’d become resigned to the unlikelihood of that ever happening. Then the deal had been sealed in August 2016, when Ben had heard through the grapevine that Nazim al-Kassar was among a group of ISIL commanders blown to bits in a US air strike in Iraq. To have seen him dead would have been preferable. But to hear him dead was good enough. Ben had been relieved that the world was now free of one more lunatic murdering scumbag. And now here he was again. Walking about and looking very much alive after all. Ben couldn’t believe it. Nazim al-Kassar, back from the dead and for some bizarre reason resurfacing in Paris, of all places. What could be the connection between him and a young woman like Romy Juneau? That was a mystery Ben intended to solve. And if fate had chosen to cross his path with Nazim’s once again, it would be for the last time. Because only one of them was walking away from this alive. Chapter 9 One thing was for damn well sure: the 2016 intelligence sources proclaiming Nazim al-Kassar’s demise were wrong. Badly wrong. It felt like history repeating itself once again. Ben needed to know how that could have happened, and why the hell a supposed dead man was walking around a European city leaving bodies in his wake. Ben was deep in thought as he rode the subway train the long way back towards the safehouse. He could think of very few people with the right kinds of connections to help shed light on the questions in his mind. In fact, when he boiled the list right down, it came to just one man. Tyler Roth, the Delta Master Sergeant from Task Force Red. Through the same grapevine that had fed him the inside track on ISIL activities, Ben happened to know that Roth had gone on to greater glories after Operation Citation. Promoted to captain, he’d served another twelve years with Delta. His long career had hit a peak in October 2013 when, as part of the Juniper Shield operations in North Africa, his undercover team had successfully captured Abu Anas al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda member on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, in Tripoli. Then a couple of years later, in May 2015, Roth’s unit had carried out a raid on Deir Ezzar in eastern Syria, targeting the financial operations chief of ISIL. The target had been killed in the ensuing firefight, but Roth’s guys had captured his wife along with a cache of ISIL operational records and plans that had proved a goldmine for the intelligence spooks. Or so Ben had heard, at any rate. Like the SAS, Delta worked so much in the shadows that nobody really knew anything about their activities, or couldn’t talk about them if they did. One thing Ben was fairly certain of was that the Deir Ezzar job had been Roth’s last hurrah with US Special Ops. Shortly afterwards, having survived a decade and a half at the top of his profession without having taken so much as a scratch, he’d quit. Not to spend the rest of his life golfing in Florida, nor to retire to Italy to grow tomatoes like Ben’s old SAS comrade and mentor Boonzie McCulloch. Instead, Roth had opted for the path that many men of their level of training and expertise took, and slipped into the murky world of PMC. Which was short for Private Military Contractors. In one word, Roth became a mercenary. Still employed, for the most part, by the same US government he’d served in his previous career, but working for much bigger pay cheques. The real money was in fighting wars so dirty and secret that nations like America and Britain wouldn’t even involve their blackest, most covert SF operators for fear of getting caught in the middle of an international flap. He had heard nothing of Roth in years. As far as he knew, though, the American was still in the PMC game – if he hadn’t met a bullet in some squalid little conflict nobody was supposed to know about. Ben picked up some Lavazza coffee beans on the way home, and when he reached the safehouse he threw a handful in the grinder, brewed himself a cup of dark roast, lit a cigarette and got on the phone. His first call was to Jeff Dekker at Le Val, to say something had come up and he’d be delayed getting back. Jeff didn’t ask what, and Ben didn’t need to explain. Jeff was like that. But Ben knew that if he’d asked, his friend would have been ready to drop everything and join him without hesitation. Jeff was like that, too. Ben’s second phone call was to a guy he knew in London, with whom he hadn’t spoken in a long, long while. The guy’s name was Ken Keegan, and he was the director of a small but strangely lucrative firm called Simpson Associates Ltd, based in Canary Wharf. Needless to say, no real individual by the name of Simpson was, or had ever been, involved in the business. The company acted like a talent agency, fielding top-dollar PMC assignments and farming them out to the operatives best suited for the job, in return for a hefty commission. Keegan was a wealthy man, and worked eighteen hours a day. For years after Ben left the SAS the guy had constantly been pestering him with offers of lucrative contract work in Sudan or Sierra Leone or whichever high-risk hotspot happened to be attracting soldiers of fortune like sharks to blood that week. Ben had turned them all down, and eventually the phone had stopped ringing. Keegan answered his direct line in less than two seconds, all eager and raring to go. Ben said, ‘I like to see a man who’s happy in his work.’ ‘Fuck me. If it ain’t the one and only Ben Hope.’ Keegan spoke in the piping, breathless voice of the seriously fat. Which he was. Probably the largest man Ben had ever seen, on the one occasion when they’d eaten out together at a pub in London and he’d watched in morbid fascination as the guy consumed a steak and kidney pie the size of a wagon wheel. That was at least ten years ago. Keegan was probably twice as big now. ‘Still not dropped dead of a coronary, then,’ Ben said. ‘Take more than that to stop me, mate. So what brings you sniffing around my door? Let me guess, had enough of the soft life and feel like doing some real work for a change?’ ‘I need something from you,’ Ben said. ‘I don’t like the sound of that.’ ‘Relax. Just a number, that’s all I’m after.’ Keegan sounded suspicious. ‘Okay, but whose?’ ‘You still in touch with Roth?’ Keegan was quiet for a few moments. Ben could hear him thinking. He was waiting for more, but Ben felt no need to offer specifics. Especially not the mention of the name Nazim al-Kassar. Keegan would just think he was nuts. Keegan said, ‘You’re not the only one who’d like to talk to that fucker.’ ‘Why? What did he do?’ ‘Fucking went and retired on me, that’s what he did. Just when I had all kinds of plum jobs lined up for the ungrateful sod.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Ben said. ‘I might have had something for him myself.’ ‘Anything in it for me?’ ‘I guess we’ll never know now, will we?’ Keegan gave a high-pitched wheeze that sounded tubercular. ‘Bastard. Anyway, I thought you were well out of all that, years ago. What’s the sudden interest?’ ‘So do you have a number for him, or not?’ ‘Come on, mate. Quid pro quo. This ain’t bleeding directory enquiries, is it?’ ‘How about as a special favour to an old friend?’ ‘How about in return for you taking on a job for me? I’ve got more work coming in than I got guys to delegate it out to. Matter of fact I have one here on my desk that’d suit you down to the ground. Ethiopia. In and out, eight days tops, big money.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ Ben lied. ‘Yeah, well, don’t think too long. Client’s breaking my balls something terrible. I need this yesterday.’ Keegan broke into another whistling, hacking cough, like a cat with a hairball in its throat. He went silent for a long moment, and Ben thought maybe he’d slumped dead at his desk. Then Keegan said hoarsely, ‘Okay, I’ll see what I can come up with. Roth’s a right awkward bugger to contact, even at the best of times. Gone all reclusive and paranoid in his old age. Easier to have a conversation with the fuckin’ Duke of Edinburgh.’ ‘I appreciate your help, Ken. Really. I don’t care what they say about you.’ ‘Who? What?’ ‘You don’t want to know.’ ‘Fuck you very much too. And don’t keep me waiting on that Ethiopia job, will you? Yes or no. I’m down to the sodding wire on this one, mate.’ What an enchanting character, that Keegan. Ben ended the call, put away his phone and took out the one that had belonged to Romy Juneau. He gazed at it for a moment, getting his thoughts straight. Somewhere, there had to be some clue as to how and why she’d got herself hooked into the world of the likes of Nazim al-Kassar. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he’d turned up at her place to murder her, much as he enjoyed killing women. And from her nervous behaviour that morning it had been clear she was afraid of something, or someone. It was just as clear that Nazim hadn’t been working alone, but had at least one accomplice, the getaway driver in the silver Merc. Had they been following her in the street earlier that morning? Had she been on her way somewhere, maybe to work, when she’d noticed them tailing her, become frightened and doubled back towards home where she felt safer? If so, it hadn’t done her much good. But it also meant that she must have known the identity of the man, or men, following her. Which suggested she was definitely involved with them somehow. Ben found it hard to believe that someone like Romy Juneau could be knowingly mixed up with terrorists. But then, what did he really know about her? He had barely even met her. For all he knew, she was a top operative for ISIL. Or maybe a CIA field agent they needed to eliminate. Which seemed just as unlikely to Ben, but you never could tell. Whatever she might have been involved in, he doubted whether her phone would reveal much. But with so little to go on, he had to start somewhere. Turning the device on he felt none of the self-conscious pangs he’d felt earlier. Now that she was dead, things were different. It would no longer seem like prying into someone’s personal affairs. In any case she was no longer in a position to resent the intrusion. He stubbed out his cigarette, drank some more coffee and got to work. Chapter 10 The first time Ben had gone through Romy Juneau’s phone he’d gone no further than her address book, which had told him all he’d needed to know at that point. Now it was time to delve a little deeper. He began with the call menus, starting with sent calls. There were plenty of them for him to sift through. Some were identifiable as names from her contacts list, like her parents, whom she seemed to call often, her workplace and the person called Michel Ben had noted earlier, whoever he was. She’d called Michel frequently over a period of a few months, though the phone correspondence seemed to have stopped a month or so ago, with the exception of one brief call two days ago and another even briefer one just that morning. The last call had happened just minutes before Ben’s encounter with her in the street. Ben wondered if the call had had something to do with the fact that she seemed so distraught. Out of curiosity he used his burner phone to call Michel’s number, but got no reply and didn’t leave a message. Then he listed the other numbers she’d called that weren’t stored in her address book, and called each in turn. There was a television repair man, a home insurance company and other assorted useless stuff that he crossed off his list one by one until there was nothing left. Moving on to received calls he went through the same process. The mysterious Michel had also phoned her often, though not in the last month or so. Her parents phoned her from time to time, less often than she called them. The rest of it was just as inconsequential. This kind of detective work was seldom very exciting. Next, texts and emails. Which were all work-related and concerned various dull administrative matters that Ben couldn’t make head or tail of. The outgoing mails bore an automatically added text at the foot of the message, which said ‘R. Juneau, Research Development Officer, ICS’, with the Institute’s address in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. A fairly swanky location, even though it was probably knee-deep in riot wreckage these days. Ben keyed the Segal Cultural Institute into his search engine. It was a private organisation founded in the early nineties and run by a top French archaeologist called Julien Segal. Ben had never heard of him, though there was no reason why he should have. The Institute’s website described its mission as the preservation and protection of ancient art treasures, specialising in the ancient Middle East. They were one of the leaders in the development of new technologies to digitally reconstruct art treasures damaged by war, natural disaster or the ravages of time, and restore them using 3-D printing. Middle East. War. Ben thought, Hmm. Then he thought, Middle East. War. Nazim al-Kassar. ISIL. Hmm again. Tantalising. Not exactly what a detective would consider hard evidence of an actual connection. But enough to make Ben curious to know more. The website featured a little ‘About Our Founder’ bio of Julien Segal. A small photo showed a man in his early fifties, with a full head of silver hair and a craggily handsome face with striking, penetrative eyes like a hawk’s. He had spent decades travelling the world and been personally responsible for the rescue of countless ancient artifacts that otherwise would have been lost. He supplied museums, private and corporate collections, gave lecture tours and worked closely with international cultural heritage groups such as UNESCO and ECCO, the European Confederation of Conservation Organisations. Ben dialled the Institute’s number on his burner phone and was put through to a female receptionist. He could tell right away from her tone of voice that the police must already have been in touch. She sounded as if she’d been crying, and might be about to burst into tears again at any moment. Ben asked to speak to Monsieur Segal. The woman replied, ‘I’m afraid he’s currently out of the country. He travels a great deal. Can I be of any—?’ She’d been about to say ‘assistance’, but before she got that far her emotions