To my wife and children, and to spies and magicians.


Chapter 1

not part of the deal, but the victim put up with it because so much was at stake.

And even though drowning sucked, the victim had survived it before, when he was five years old and couldn’t stay afloat in the deep end of his parents’ ornate swimming pool in their palatial Rajasthan residence. Then his distraught mother had yanked him out of the pool and summoned a kind Sikh doctor, who’d held him upside down to get the water out of his lungs.

Now, age twenty-two, the diminutive Indian was being pinned down by four CIA men who were the antithesis of the Sikh doctor. They were in a bare cell in a top-secret U.S. military base in Afghanistan, and the CIA men were using a towel and a bucket to put water in his lungs and make his body convulse in agony. They called it waterboarding.

It sounded like a kind of sport the Indian’s rich friends played on the shores of Goa.

But there was nothing sporting about this. It was torture of the very worst kind—just one splash of water onto the towel convinced you you were going to die. Most people broke at this point, and that’s why the Agency used the technique. But today the CIA officers were cursing, shouting, and red faced with impatience because the victim was being drowned for the fourth time and showed no signs of breaking.

Their anger was exacerbated by the fact that the Indian hadn’t uttered a word to his captors in the two days since they’d grabbed him in a remote farm in Kapisa province, put a hood over his head and shackles on his sinewy arms and legs, thrown him into the back of a jeep, and driven fast over ground that had been rough enough to toss the man’s body up and down. Since that agonizing journey, the victim had been kept in isolation on the base, stripped naked, blasted with a power hose, slapped around the face, struck in the gut with socks filled with wet sand, and forced into agonizing stress positions.

Throughout his brief but excruciating period of incarceration, the only people he’d seen were the four men. He didn’t know their names; all they’d told him about themselves was that they answered to no one aside from the head of the CIA, the president of the United States, and God. The Indian thought that the introduction had been somewhat presumptuous, because when he was ten his Muslim father had given him a copy of the Bible and told him to read it cover to cover so that he could understand that Christianity wasn’t a bad religion. As far as he could recall, there was no reference in the Bible to CIA officers being authorized agents of God.

And right now he wasn’t sure his father was right, because the four men didn’t seem like good people. On the contrary, they looked like the bad guys he’d seen in the old Hollywood movies his wealthy father had projected onto a huge screen so that the poor kids in their local village could get ninety minutes of escapism. Wearing matching white shirts, sleeves rolled up, suit trousers, and smart wingtips, the CIA men could have been gangsters, corrupt detectives, or contract killers.

When the men had raced into his home while he’d been kneeling toward Mecca and asking Allah for forgiveness, they’d smashed his face against his prayer mat. He’d had no doubt that it wouldn’t be the last act of violence inflicted on him by the officers. But he’d known that he had to stay strong if he was to survive, so he’d tried to pretend the bad things that had been happening to him had not been real, and instead he was in a 1950s movie that would end very soon.

To help him perpetuate the mind trick, he’d secretly ascribed each CIA officer a name.

Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum.

Their eyes held hate, and they swaggered with the physicality of men whose bodies were naturally chiseled and tough and didn’t need to spend one minute in a gym. They were bruisers who could tear someone twice their size into pieces.

And yet the Indian was half their size but physically and mentally far superior to the CIA officers. They were huffing and puffing, and all the while they didn’t know that they were in a movie of the victim’s choosing and that he was waiting for the moment when he could say something of vital importance. A moment when they thought he was a broken and truthful man.

That would happen after the fifth drowning, the victim had decided at the commencement of the waterboarding.

At that point, the four heavies would believe anything that came out of his waterlogged mouth.

Palance grabbed the Indian’s hair, pulled his head to within inches of his V-shaped jaw, and used the same menacing tone. “We hate you.”

Mitchum toweled the sweat off his arms and face and shoved the stinking rag back over the victim’s face.

Fonda leaned in close, his piercing blue eyes identical to those of the psychopathic gunman in
Once Upon a Time in the West.
“We know you understand English because of all the English books we found at your home. So listen to me carefully. We’ll keep waterboarding you until you die.”

Marvin nodded at his colleagues, took a swig from a liter bottle of mineral water whose label proclaimed W
, spat the mouthful onto the Indian’s face, and poured the remaining contents onto the rag. Marvin’s spit and the water went the wrong way down the victim’s gullet and made him think he was back in his family’s swimming pool; head throbbing, limbs thrashing, lungs in agony.

Mitchum let out a loud belch and laughed before asking, “Who are you?”

When the rag was removed and the Indian stopped gagging, he decided that Mitchum’s question was the only reasonable one he’d heard since being imprisoned.

Because he wasn’t a victim at all. He was a man whose base of operations in Kapisa had guns, bomb-making equipment, and numerous cell phones containing the numbers of known terrorists. After someone had tipped off the Agency, he’d been caught red-handed with the equipment by men who knew what he was but didn’t know his name.

Mitchum waved the dripping rag in front of the Indian’s face. He no longer looked angry and held an expression that momentarily perplexed the Indian. Mitchum sighed, glanced at his colleagues, and returned his attention to the captive. “This is your choice, not ours. Best we get this over with.”

Of course—Mitchum’s expression was one that some men have when they realize that every other option had been fruitlessly pursued and all that was left was death.

The Indian could not and would not let that happen. He shook his head, hoping he looked petrified even though in truth he felt calm and very much in control.

It was the same feeling he’d always had as a teenager when amazing his fellow students and teachers by performing acts of escapology on the stage at his boarding school. Padlocked metal boxes, water tanks, chains and ropes lashed around him—he’d escaped them all and had never once felt fear or doubt that he would succeed. Now was no different, although he had to look and sound like a wretched and terrified victim in order to be convincing. “Please . . . please, I beg you to stop.”

“Begging’s of no use to you.” Fonda pointed at him. “All it does is prove to us that you’re weak scum.”

The Indian wished he could tell the American that his observation was wholly inaccurate, because after the swimming pool accident he’d spent the rest of his life honing his physical and mental skills so that he would never be weak again. “I . . . I will tell you anything you need to know. But please, please, no more water.”

Palance yanked the Indian’s arm to sit him upright. “That’s more like it. Talking’s good. We need your name, who you work for, and details of your targets.”

The Indian lowered his head.

“Head up!”

He did as he was told, looking at the other men before returning his attention to Palance. This was the moment he’d been waiting for, the time for the words that he’d been reciting in his head ever since he’d been imprisoned. “I’m an Indian intelligence officer, code name Trapper. My role in Afghanistan has been to operate deep cover to infiltrate terrorist cells.”

All of the men frowned.

“Indian intelligence?” Mitchum looked unsettled. “Research and Analysis Wing?”

The R&AW was India’s primary external intelligence agency.

Trapper nodded. “My cover’s been intact for three years since I’ve been in the country. Now I’m not so sure. Who sold me out to you?”

Fonda answered, “We got ourselves a source. Says you’re a bomber, among other things.”

“A source?”

“Yeah, but you ain’t getting his name.” Mitchum looked at the rag he was holding. “If what you’re saying is true, it sounds like your cover’s still intact. People still think you’re a terrorist. But I’m thinking you could be spinning us a crock of bullshit. We’re going to need to check you out with R&AW.”

Trapper had anticipated this and responded carefully. “Only R&AW senior management is cleared to know my code name and what I’m doing here. They’re going to be very pissed you grabbed me. You could call them. But if I were you, I’d send someone in person to smooth waters.”

Marvin leaned closer to Trapper’s face. “That could take hours to arrange, maybe days.”

“I’m prepared to wait; I urge you to do the same.”

The room was silent. The four men were clearly thinking through options.

Fonda broke the silence. “Alright.” He pointed at the bottle of water. “No more of this stuff while we get your story checked out.” He said to his colleagues, “Put him back in his cell.”

When the Indian was on his feet, he said in an imploring tone, “Would whoever you send to R&AW headquarters please be kind enough to relay to my bosses that I didn’t break cover until the fifth waterboarding?”

Fonda nodded. “I’ve not seen anyone hold out this long. I respect that. We’ll make sure your management knows you kept your mouth shut longer than we thought possible.”

“Thank you.”

By the time his captors had received confirmation from R&AW that Trapper’s claim was a complete lie, Trapper would have escaped his cell and vanished.

“There’s one more thing.” Trapper looked directly at Fonda, deciding that he was the highest-ranking officer in the room. “I know from one of my terrorist affiliates that a senior CIA officer is being targeted for assassination. It’s revenge for the officer’s assassination of a high-ranking Taliban leader. I was about to relay that to R&AW so that they could pass on the intelligence to you guys, but then,” he shrugged, “you guys stormed my house and brought me here.”

Fonda, Palance, Mitchum, and Marvin stared at him.

Fonda asked, “Does the CIA officer have a name?”

Trapper rubbed water off his face, hair, and chest while wondering if the Agency torturers would grab him for doing so without their permission. Instead, they were motionless and expectant. Just as he’d imagined they would be when, weeks ago, he’d constructed his plan to get to this moment, had made an anonymous call to the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, and had given the secret location of an Indian Muslim terrorist who was hiding in Afghanistan and who happened to be him. Nearly everything the Agency operatives in the room thought was real was in fact an almighty sleight of hand. But two things were not false: the very real threat to the CIA officer and his name.

Trapper was motionless in the center of the room, water still dripping off his thin but strong body. He imagined his captors’ surprise when they realized he’d escaped from his cell using a penknife he’d stolen from Mitchum’s pocket while the agent had been pouring water down his throat. “His name is Will Cochrane.”


Chapter 2

of feeling gut-wrenchingly scared was on a sweaty Virginia day when a rotund nag of a lady, who we called Eat Less, locked her puffy eyes on the other kids in my class before pointing at me. “Will Cochrane,” she said with the solemnity of an executioner, “I have absolutely no doubt that you will fail in adulthood just as much as you’re failing in school.” The other children sniggered as they looked at me; my face flushed red with embarrassment. But worse was the feeling in my gut: a cascade of demented pulsations that had made me think I should run to the school nurse and tell her to stop making me a failure. Two years before, age five, I’d made the decision to be man of the house because my American dad had been captured and subsequently killed while working for the CIA in the Middle East, and my English mom and sister needed me. Being a failure was therefore not an option.

But I couldn’t run, because Eat Less waddled across the room with speed that didn’t look fast but was—a bit like a running hippopotamus. She grabbed my thin arm and put her pimply nose against mine, an act that coupled my fear with revulsion, and repeated, “Failure, failure, failure.” Later, I gained solace when my mom explained that this was deemed inappropriate and Eat Less had been sacked. But in the classroom at the time I was a quivering wreck because I was a flop and apparently always would be.

I felt another kind of fear, but no less intense, as I walked through a subterranean tunnel in Washington, D.C., pistol in hand, sewage up to my calves; rats, shit, and piss everywhere. A man, somewhere ahead, would happily gut me with his knife before using it to gouge out my eyes and slice off my head.

People who knew my background could be forgiven for thinking that abject fear was anathema to a person like me. I was, on paper at least, not only an example of why Mrs. Eat Less’s prophecies were wholly inaccurate but also living testament to the fact that teenagers who play viola in their school orchestra are not necessarily going to grow up to be pushovers, contrary to what the high school jocks believed when they kicked in my head and called me a faggot.

When I was seventeen, I knifed to death four criminals who’d killed my mother and were about to do the same to my sister. The next day, I fled to France and spent five battered and bruising years in the French Foreign Legion. After completing my tour with the Legion, I studied at Cambridge University and gained a first class honors degree before catching the attention of MI6, who recruited and trained me. For the last nine years, MI6 deployed me as a top-secret joint MI6-CIA operative combating the very worst of the world’s secret ills. One might deduce that all of that experience should have numbed my nerve endings, much like the nerves that die beneath a scab that is picked over and over again.

But I needed my nerves to stay sharp, because without them I couldn’t achieve anything, much less any sense of happiness. The trade-off, however, was that attuned nerves begot other emotions, such as loneliness, sorrow, and fear.

So be it,
I thought as I walked though near darkness that was only alleviated by occasional wall lights. This was what I’d been trained for. This was what I do, time and time again. Kill bad guys, steal secrets, stop genocide, protect the West, go places other men refuse to go.

But men, or at least their excrement, had gotten here before me; plus, somewhere ahead, was a Russian guy called Abram, who—among many achievements in his life—had covertly fought in the Bosnian conflict as a Russian special forces operative, earned millions extracting blood diamonds from Africa and selling them to line the pocket of the Russian premier, sung “Nessun dorma!” pitch perfect at a Carnegie Hall Russian-American charity gala, volunteered his services to me because he believed Russian foreign policy was as likely to bring world peace as the Eurovision Song Contest, and turned out to be a lying, duplicitous bastard who’d tried to murder me nine minutes ago on a day that signified I’d been on earth for exactly thirty-five years.

The attempt had happened in a nice Italian restaurant four blocks from here; one where red wine was served in carafes and the atmosphere was full of the sound of opera, laughter, and the aroma of garlic.

Abram and I had been sitting opposite each other, eating a starter of barley mushroom risotto while discussing the recent reshuffle within the Kremlin. The meal had been going well, but then Abram—maybe mimicking young Michael Corleone in
The Godfather
—had pulled out a gun and tried to shoot me in the head. It had been wrong on many levels, not least because I’d been really hungry and looking forward to a main course of meatballs enriched with lemon peel.

I’d swiped the gun away from his hand; he’d slapped me in the face, then the throat. All perfect moves, though under the circumstances it must have looked to other diners like we’d been a gay couple who’d finally had enough of each other. Abram had turned and bolted out of the restaurant while withdrawing a knife; I’d upended the table, pulled out my gun, and pursued. This was, the witnesses must have thought, a tiff that had turned really nasty.

Chasing Abram was problematic, because he was clever and swift. I’d screamed at people to get down while I’d run through the rain-sodden metropolitan night and tried to get a line of sight on him. His use of D.C.’s sewage systems was obviously a preplanned escape route should things go wrong, and it was only because I’d been running fast that I’d managed to catch a glimpse of him disappearing under a manhole cover, like a rabid polecat entering a rabbit warren.

I’d always known that Abram’s nasty. In my line of work I’d mixed with people like that a lot, and in fairness to Abram he’s not the worst person I’d partnered with to attempt to screw the East in favor of satiating the West. Until this evening, I’d ranked Abram as a seven out of ten bad guy. But Abram’s stock had just gone up, and as I waded through crap I tried to decide whether he was an eight, nine, or ten out of ten.

Maybe these were superfluous thoughts, because a man who will slit your throat is a man who will slit your throat, and his ranking won’t make the experience better or worse. But I thought about it anyway, as it helped me ignore the heat within the labyrinth of tunnels and the noise in my ears from the drumbeat of my heart.

Part of me hoped Abram would keep running and use his knowledge of one of the oldest sewage systems in the States to his advantage. I knew nothing about the maze I was in, and every step I took furthered the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find my way out of here. Trouble was, getting out of the sewer was the least of my problems, because Abram wanted me dead and I couldn’t think of a more perfect venue in which he could enact his crime.

I reached a junction in the tunnel where I needed to make a decision to turn left or right. Standing still, I listened, trying to ignore the thump of my heartbeat, the rank odor, and the scurrying and splashing of vermin. A louder noise came from my left; whoosh, whoosh, whoosh; maybe a man kicking his leg through ankle-deep water. That made sense, because Abram didn’t want me to make the wrong turn. He needed me to hear and follow him until I reached a place of his choosing so he could surprise me.

I made no attempt to be quiet as I moved down a tunnel that was narrower than the previous one and clearly wasn’t flushed as frequently, because the smell was making me gag. My handgun at eye level, I waded onward, imagining my MI6 controller declaring to the chief of British Intelligence, “Will Cochrane died in shit.”

I didn’t want to die in shit. I didn’t want to die at all. I had things to do, such as mastering the Chaconne Baroque lute recital, completing my thesis on loose-leaf Chinese teas, going to the river Itchen for the first time and casting a fly line, and trying to find a woman who’d have me. These and other things were important, and it pissed me off that multiple times each year I found myself in situations where I’d put all of my aspirations in jeopardy.

The wall lights—bare bulbs that were throwing off a dull, yellow glow—were fewer now, some flickering. Large chunks of the tunnel were in complete darkness. Most likely, Abram had concealed himself in the shadows, waiting to attack. Although he was twelve years older than me and had left the military over a decade ago, he was fit and strong, and in his spare time he kept up the crazy Russian special forces tests to try to be immune to pain. As I moved into one of the chunks of darkness, I decided that if he managed to disarm me, I wasn’t sure which of us would better the other.

The slash of Abram’s knife across my forearm, which made me drop my pistol, meant I was about to find out.

Instinctively, I twisted my body a split second before I saw the tiniest glint of steel thrust into the space where I’d been standing. I grabbed his knife-wielding arm and twisted it hard. He punched his knee into my ribs. But I kept the lock on despite the agony in my body, yanked back his wrist, saw the knife drop out of his hand, twisted his arm further so that he was completely off balance, and dragged him with me so that he had no choice but to fall to the ground. I maintained my grip on his limb as I placed my foot on his throat and forced his head underwater.

I had to use all of my strength to hold him there; his legs were thrashing and his free arm was punching my foot and trying to wrench it free from his throat. It felt like ten minutes but was actually nearer two when Abram stopped moving. I kept his head under for another minute in case he was trying to trick me into releasing my hold on him. But after that, I reached down and pulled his head out.

No doubt about it; he was dead.

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