London looked solid, fortressed in a thick, impregnable peace. A dream that had congealed. How long was I going to be here? I directed him to a Caffè Nero across the road from a Balthorne Safe Deposit Centre and he pulled up.
"How do you take your coffee?" I asked.
"I'm fine, thank you."
"Go on. Flat white?"
I crossed the road to Balthorne. A row of classical columns obscured the front window. Reception was wood-paneled. They minimized human interaction. Four cameras and a smartly suited elderly guard watched you approach the entry gate and place your palm on a glass panel that read your veins. If your veins lined up, you got to enter a six-digit PIN code and walk in.
It became more functional inside: another desk, a brightly lit corridor, and finally stairs down to the vault. By this stage, the key seemed quaint.
In my box there were a few photographs, some handwritten poems, souvenirs of past operations, and a manila envelope containing a SIM card. I unlocked my briefcase and removed a couple of grand in various currencies, depositing it along with a fragment of pottery that might have come from the Temple of Artemis in what was now northeastern Libya. I kept the diamond. Then I took the SIM and placed it in my new phone.
I crossed the road to the coffee shop. As far as I was concerned, since the operation had been pulled six months early, I had half an hour for a coffee. And I needed strength for what was to come, whether or not it included re-entering my own life. I took the driver his flat white, with a pain au chocolat, which I felt should buy me ten minutes. Then I returned to the café and sat down.
Peace throbs. You're alert to threats that aren't there anymore, and the senses overload. Three young women came in, talking in Cantonese. A man in a corner of the café muttered Turkish into a Bluetooth headset. The coffee shop window was bare, no defensive blocks between it and the road. But there would be no attacks. I tried to re-enter the complacency. A copy of the Times
had been folded on a rack beside the tills so that you saw a strip of flames in a front-page photo, but they were somewhere far away.
My hands looked tanned in the English light. My lips were cracked. I stared at the screen of my new phone. When you charge up a phone, you entertain the fantasy that a life will return. I'd always brace myself for the personal business I'd have to deal with but forget to brace myself for its dwindling pressure. When you expend your energy maintaining another person's identity, your own becomes neglected. In the last seven weeks I'd missed two birthday parties, one wedding, several job offers. There was an invitation to lunch from an investor friend who owed me for some timely information, but no message from the woman I wanted to hear from. At least, that's what I thought at first.
Emails likewise: irrelevant things or those I was too late for. I checked the junk folder in case that was where my life had been diverted, saw something strange.
It was an email from a Tutanota address with a string of letters and numbers for a name. Tutanota was an encrypted webmail service based in Germany. This was a procedure I used for agents. Subject line: Lottery Win
The message had been sent twenty-two hours ago. I scanned the email for malware, then opened it. The content of the email was two lines:
CLAIM YOUR PRIZE.
"Happy birthday" meant danger: I was in danger, or the agent in question was in danger, and I needed to initiate exfiltration procedures; i.e., time to get out of town. "Claim your prize" meant that a file had been uploaded to a message board hidden deep within the dark side of the internet.
When you've refined systems that work in the field, it's good to stick with them. But you make sure each agent has a unique signature, procedural details that identify them so you know who's contacting you in the absence of formal identification. I'd used this system with an agent in Turkey code-named Mescaline—Khasan Idrisov, a young man I had been fond of, with his pale eyes and thin beard; the frayed handkerchiefs with which he'd mop his brow. His decapitation was still up on YouTube last time I checked.
So the message was a surprise.
I looked around Caffè Nero, sipped my coffee, read the message again.
There was no way anyone should have had the code, let alone my personal email address as well. Now I looked through my missed calls more closely. Around the time of the email there were three attempts from a foreign landline. At 8:12 p.m. last night, 8:14 p.m., then 8:21 p.m. The prefix was 87 172. A check online confirmed it was a landline in Astana, Kazakhstan.
I'd been in the country twice, briefly—both times near the start of my career, more than fifteen years ago. There was little MI6, activity there; the service ran a minimal station out of the embassy. It provided some shallow cover for intelligence operatives and electronic surveillance, and had enjoyed a moment of inflated importance after 9/11—Kazakhstan was a supply route to Afghanistan—but in the resource-strapped world of MI6, nowhere retained staff without good reason. The world is big, and
intelligence operations are expensive and politically complicated. Nothing came up online for the number: no individual or business. I set up GPS scrambling so my location was concealed, dialed the number back. It rang but no one answered.
My driver stood watching me beside his Audi, cigarette cupped in his palm. I needed a clean device with which to access the darknet. That wasn't going to be easy today. As I got up, I wrestled with a thought I didn't have the capacity to process at the moment. One other person alive knew the contact system, the person I wanted to hear from more than any other—but not like this.
This excerpt ends on page 11 of the hardcover edition.
Monday, November 2nd, we begin the book The Last Flight by Julie Clark.