What if Saddam Hussein WAS hiding weapons of mass destruction after 9/11…but of a kind no-one could ever have guessed at…...

Synopsis

In 1997, an Iraqi farmer ploughs up a mysterious object made
from a substance previously unknown to science. Five years
later, US spy satellites detect a huge, unidentified
installation in course of construction over the spot where it
was found. It looks like Saddam is up to something; but what?
International concern mounts until finally an SAS unit under
Major Mike Hartman is sent into Iraq to find out just what is
going on at Quarat, and stop it. But nothing in their
training could have prepared Hartman and his men for what is
lurking within the complex; for nothing else could give
Saddam the power to be master of the world, and if
incalculable disaster is to be avoided they must face a
deadly alliance between a ruthless, power-crazed military
dictatorship and a supernatural force which could devastate
the entire planet.






THE ISHTAR STRATAGEM




Guy Blythman





(c) Guy Blythman 2002, 2010









NOTE: This is the final edited version









ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This book required a hell of a lot of research on all sorts of subjects, and there are a great many people I have to thank for their assistance. Valuable advice was given by Darren Liddle, John Sharp, Dr Dominique Collon of the British Museum, Jonty Stern and his contacts, Shaz Ney, Anna Lankford of NASA, Frieda Landau, Navid Siddiqui and Andrew Colquhoun of the Imperial War Museum. The time and trouble everyone took is much appreciated.

Where controversial issues have any bearing on the plot or on characterisation I have tried to be balanced; and it is crucial for me to stress that any views that are expressed are the characters' own and not those of my contacts.

From "The Epic Of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian", translated and with an introduction by Andrew George, The Penguin Press 1999:

Tablet VI
5 - VI 160

On the beauty of Gilgamesh Lady Ishtar looked with longing:
"Come, Gilgamesh, be you my bridegroom!
Grant me your fruits, O grant me!
Be you my husband and I your wife!

"Let me harness you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold,
its wheels shall be gold and its horns shall be amber.
Driving lions in a team and mules of great size,
enter our house amid the sweet scent of cedar!

"As you enter our house
doorway and footstool shall kiss your feet!
Kings, courtiers and nobles shall kneel before you,
produce of mountain and lowland they shall bring you as tribute!

"Your goats shall bear triplets, your ewes shall bear twins,
your donkey when laden shall outpace any mule!
Your horse shall gallop at the chariot in glory,
no ox shall match yours at the yoke!"

Gilgamesh opened his mouth to speak,
saying to the Lady Ishtar:
"And if indeed I take you in marriage,
whence would come my food and my sustenance?
Would you feed me bread that is fit for a god,
and pour me ale that is fit for a king?"

"Who is there would take you in marriage?
You, a frost that congeals no ice,
a door that stays not breeze nor draught...
...a shoe that bites the foot of its owner!
What bridegroom of yours did endure for ever?
What brave warrior of yours went up to the heavens?

"Come, let me tell you the tale of your lovers..
Dumuzi, the lover of your youth,
year upon year to lamenting you doomed him.
"You loved the speckled allallu-bird,
but struck him down and broke his wing:
You loved the lion, perfect in strength,
but for him you dug seven pits and seven.

"You loved the horse, so famed in battle,
but you made his destiny a seven-league gallop,
you made his destiny to drink muddy water,
and doomed Silili his mother to perpetual weeping.

"You loved the shepherd, the grazier, the herdsman,
who gave you piles of loaves baked in embers,
and slaughtered kids for you day after day.
"You struck him and turned him into a wolf,
now his very own shepherd boys chase him away,
and his dogs take bites at his haunches.

"You loved Ishullanu, your father's gardener,
who used to bring you dates in a basket,
You eyed him up and went to meet him...
"O my Ishullanu, let us taste your vigour:
Put out your hand and stroke my quim."

But Ishullanu said to you:
"Me! What do you want of me?
Did my mother not bake? Have I not eaten,
that now I should eat the bread of slander and insults?

"When you heard what he had said,
you struck him down and turned him into a dwarf...
Must you love me also and deal with me likewise?"

PART ONE

PROLOGUE

QUARAT, IRAQ
JANUARY 22nd 1997
It was a very different culture; however, in Iraq as in the West what you thought was going to be another ordinary, uneventful day could turn out to be anything but.
Immediately after rising at dawn Tabriz and his family washed, dressed, said their prayers, and then sat down to breakfast together. It was a simple, comforting routine which had served them and their ancestors for over a thousand years, and as long as Allah were willing would do so for a thousand more.
The tiny mud-walled house where the forty-three year-old farmer lived with his wife Shereen and their two sons had no TV, no electricity and no sanitation, but they were happy with it. It was fortunate that the absence of television, a media which in any case was strictly controlled by the government, meant they had no knowledge of what life was like in the West, or the contrast between its affluence and their state of near poverty might have caused considerable resentment. They did of course have one vital prop denied to many Westerners; the strength they derived from their religion. The harshness of life made Tabriz and his like a hardy breed in any case, and their faith gave them an additional boost by enabling them to believe in an afterlife in which they would be compensated for the grinding toil that so characterised this one.
As soon as the meal was finished Tabriz and his sons started work. While the two boys were driving the cattle from their shed, a simple square block built from mud bricks, into the field to graze Tabriz climbed onto the seat of his ageing and rusty Fordson tractor - the only thing on the premises which could be regarded as a concession to modernity - and started the engine. It coughed, spluttered, almost died, then started up again with a steady, rumbling growl. He hitched the plough to the back of the tractor, drove the vehicle out of its shed and into the field.
He had not been at work for long when the tractor lurched backwards suddenly, a violent tremor running through its bodywork. It shot back and forth, shaking and rattling furiously until he feared the ancient vehicle would fall to pieces. Most probably it or the plough had hit an obstacle, some hard object buried in the soil. A rock or large stone, he assumed. He cut the engine and clambered down to take a look.
He studied the ground around each of the tractor's wheels but could see nothing. He went to the plough, squatting down beside it - and something sticking out from under one of the blades, protruding several inches from the brown earth, caught his eye. A rounded surface about a foot across off which the morning sunshine gleamed brilliantly.
Fascinated, Tabriz shuffled over to examine it. He grasped it with one hand and pulled, but it remained firmly stuck in the ground, budging barely a fraction. Two hands made no difference.
Obviously the thing was part of a much bigger object which had become deeply buried. He noted that the blade of the plough was badly twisted where it had struck it; it must be pretty hard.
It was white and faintly luminous, unless that was the sun shining on it. Peering at it closely, he saw it was shot through with little dark lines that formed intricate, vein-like patterns. It looked to him like some kind of gemstone; he and his fellow farmers did plough them up occasionally. But this one was much larger than any he had come across so far.
Touching it gently, he found it smooth, cold and slightly wet. Wet? He didn't see how that could be, since the soil all around it was perfectly dry.
Tabriz was puzzled but also delighted. This was something very special. And it was he who had found it. His excitement growing, he continued scraping away soil and mud from the object. In a quarter of an hour or so, he had laid bare a portion about five feet square. He saw that it curved gently downwards, suggesting that a considerable bulk still lay buried. He might have to dig for days in order to uncover it all.
Tabriz stood looking at the object for some minutes, trying to work out what to do with it. It wasn't a problem; he could simply plough round it if necessary. It might, however, be an asset.
What was it? And where had it come from? Perhaps...perhaps a gift from God? But to be a gift, it had to be of some use. He couldn't eat it.
He ran off to tell his family. They got a few of their friends together, one or two of whom tried to cut into the object with their tools. Tabriz told them severely not to damage it, but he needn't have worried; they were unable to make the slightest impression on it, no matter how hard they tried.
It was something strange and wonderful and it was his. He supposed it must be valuable, that it could make him a wealthy man. But if he was to make best use of it, he had to know what it was. It might be something important, something the rulers of his country ought to know about. If it was a sign from heaven...they must find someone who would know.
Before the day was out, the news had gone all round the village.

MARCH 14th, 1997
NEAR QUARAT, Iraq
The goatherd stood casting a watchful eye over his flock, one gnarled hand resting on the head of his wooden staff. It was a scene which had not changed much in centuries.
Yes; these people lived a simple, if sometimes harsh, pastoral life where, hard work though it often was, the pace of things was slow, giving you more time to reflect on things. The goatherd felt at peace with himself. The only sound which reached his ears at that moment on this hot summer's day was the tinkling of the bells tied round the animals' necks.
Then his lean body stiffened as he caught the sound of a motor vehicle, drifting to him through the still desert air. He surveyed the flat arid landscape around him until he saw the smoke trail bowling along the horizon.
He followed it, vaguely interested to see if it would change direction. In a while it did and his heartbeat quickened a little. The vehicle was coming towards him, along the rough earthen track which led to the village.
The goats followed him as he walked to the edge of the road, only just passable as one, where he stopped and waited for the vehicle to reach him. Gradually the moving black shape resolved itself into an Army jeep with two olive-clad, bereted figures sitting in it. He was about to hail it when he saw it was slowing.
The jeep bumped and shuddered along the uneven trackway. It drew up alongside him and the soldier in the passenger seat leaned out.
"The Kurds. Have you seen them?"
"No, I'm sorry. I haven't seen any Kurds. I don't think they came this way." Immediately he lost the soldier's attention. "But there is something I must tell you," he said urgently. The soldier looked at him with renewed interest.
Excitedly he told his story. The soldier frowned and glanced uncertainly at his companion, an older man with greying hair and moustache. Then back at the goatherd, noting the intelligent eyes which blazed in the old man’s wrinkled brown face. They didn’t get the impression he was a fool.
They might as well take a look; if it came to something, they wouldn't then have had a completely wasted journey.
"Where is this village?"
"In a few minutes you will come to a crossroads. Take the track to the left and it will not be long before you see it."
The soldiers grunted their thanks, and the driver started up the engine and trod on the accelerator. The old man watched it lurch away for a moment, then went back to his flock.
When the soldiers turned up at his house Tabriz immediately abandoned his meal and went to meet them. As the servants of Saddam Hussein they deserved by extension something of the adulation he gave his beloved leader. He ushered them into the little living room where Shereen sat weaving. The two boys were out helping in the field.
This one room took up almost the whole of the building; there was no upper floor. They lived here, ate here, slept here. The furniture consisted of a crude wooden table and several chairs. On one bare wall was a photograph of Saddam, which beamed down paternally at the family whenever they ate.
His visitors didn't spend that much time in friendly greeting, but got down to business straight away. They told him why they were there. "I hear it burnt your wife's hand. May we see?"
Tabriz nodded to his wife, and dutifully she held out her hand, the palm upward. It was a mass of glistening pink flesh bordered by ragged strips of blackened, flaking skin.
"Is it healing?" asked the older soldier, the officer.
"Yes, slowly." She shuddered at the memory. "It was very painful at first."
The officer turned back to Tabriz. "You also said she was ill."
"For a while she felt faint. And she was sick a few times. But she's better now."
The officer nodded curtly. "Now I think we had better see the…the object."
"Of course." Leaving Shereen to her weaving, Tabriz led them round the corner of the house to the little plot of ground from which he made his living. They saw the object immediately, standing out sharply against the rusty brown earth.
They came up to it, and for a few moments stared in fascination.
"It looks luminous to me," the officer said. "Is it?"
Tabriz told him the object had continued to shine after dark, giving off a silvery light which was visible for quite a distance. Mindful of Shereen's experience, the officer touched it very gently with the tip of his finger. To his astonishment it was still cold, and yet according to Tabriz it had been exposed to the baking heat of the sun for some considerable time. He pressed down hard with the palm of his hand and felt a slight tingling sensation, as if the object carried an electric charge.
He nodded to his subordinate, who produced a knife and a small polythene bag. The soldier scraped the blade of the knife roughly against the object.
It left no mark. But a few particles of white, so small as to be barely visible, had come away and stuck to the blade. The soldier dropped the tool into the bag.
"Was there any damage to the blade of the plough?"
"Yes, it bent it quite badly. It is hard, whatever it is. More than the very slightest touch, and...I've never seen anything like it before."
"We've done all we need to for the time being," the officer told Tabriz. "When we have examined the samples perhaps we will be able to say what it is. Thankyou for your time; I am sure you will be well rewarded for it."

BAGHDAD, IRAQ
5TH MAY 1997
In a spacious, thickly-carpeted office General Khalid Fawzieh stood before a desk on which lay the report that had just come from the chemists who had been examining the particles of material taken from the object Tabriz had ploughed up.
"I don't want anyone to know about this," said the man behind the desk.
"I don't think we need worry about the villagers, Mr President. They are simple farmers, they have no interest in or understanding of science. Or politics, for that matter."
His leader fixed him with a hard stare. "No-one must know about this," he repeated. "Do you understand?"
For the briefest of moments it looked as if Fawzieh was about to protest. Then he nodded. "Yes, Mr President."
"Then see to it," ordered Saddam Hussein.

QUARAT, IRAQ
6TH MAY 1997
Early in the morning, just after work had started in the fields, the first of the lorries arrived. Nine in all turned up during the next few minutes, each of them packed full of soldiers. The villagers assumed they were looking for Kurds again, although there were a lot more of them this time.
They had the villagers' full support. Everyone knew that Kurds were bad; they knew because Saddam had said so.
Two jeeps with half-a-dozen soldiers in them were stationed beside each of the roads leading out of the village, while more soldiers patrolled the terrain between them. It was obvious they meant to monitor everyone going into or out of the little settlement.
Once this had been done the remaining soldiers proceeded to visit every house in the village and interview the occupants. They wanted to know if there was anyone normally resident in Quarat who was currently absent. Yes there were a few, people who had gone on expeditions to neighbouring villages to market their produce or visit relatives. The soldiers nodded and left. They returned to their jeeps and stayed there, evidently intending to wait until the absentees returned.
The headman of the village had insisted that no Kurds were being sheltered in Quarat. "You may be right, but you will understand that we need to make sure," smiled the colonel in charge.
The mood of the villagers was primarily one of curiosity, mixed with indignation. Gradually, though, a vague feeling of unease started to creep in. But it remained unspoken; they wouldn't have known how to express it, verbally or any other way.
The soldiers bided their time. By the fourth day, everyone was accounted for. On that morning a proclamation was issued by the colonel ordering all the villagers, men women and children, to stop whatever they were doing and assemble on a patch of waste ground just outside the village. The people were puzzled, and beneath their puzzlement the undercurrent of unease was now stronger. But they obeyed all the same.
They made their way to the designated assembly point, the armed soldiers all the time flanking the crowd, their guns at the ready in case of trouble.
It took an hour or so for a few of the soldiers to search the village and establish to their satisfaction that there was no-one left unaccounted for. They rejoined their comrades at the waste ground, where the villagers were shifting nervously, unsettled by the vagueness of the soldiers' answers to their questions. Some were angry, but trying hard not to show it. A few of the children had picked up the waves of fear emanating from their parents and started to cry.
The villagers were now encircled by a ring of thirty or forty armed soldiers.
The men who had carried out the search went up to the colonel in charge and saluted. He returned the salute and ordered them to join the soldiers standing in a circle around the population of Quarat. Once they had done so, his gaze swept round his troops. Then he barked out an order.
Forty rifles were raised, aimed and fired.
The air was filled with the screams of the dying. Bodies jerked and twisted like spastic marionettes, fountains of blood spurting
from them as they danced about crazily.
Tabriz died about a couple of minutes into the carnage. When he realised what was happening his reaction was not so much one of fear as confusion followed by a cold feeling of horror and disbelief.
By the time the instinct for self-preservation kicked in it was too late for any of them, even supposing they could have broken through the cordon of troops. Those not already dead shouted to their families to run, as they prepared to do the same. But the gathering had become a jumbled mass of bodies falling against and sliding down one another. Trying to force a way through it, they only succeeded in entangling themselves hopelessly. A few were crushed to death but most died from the hail of bullets that ripped into them. Tabriz had time to shout out his wife's name once before something exploded wetly inside him and he felt a clammy warmth spread through his body. The strength drained from him and he crumpled weakly to the ground. One final emotion surged through him, becoming uppermost in his mind; anger. Maybe some of the others had time to feel it too.
Convulsively his fingers clawed at the bloodstained earth beside him, digging deep into it. For the briefest of moments a certain light blazed in his eyes. It was the sign of a child suddenly grasping the full truth of something of which it has had for a long time had only the vaguest suspicion. And then it was gone.
The soldiers continued to blaze away until their ammunition was exhausted; the simplest way of making sure they had done their job. They pumped bullets into the bodies even after they had collapsed limply to the ground. Those which had been twitching twitched no longer.
The thirty-foot high cut-out figure of Saddam which marked the entrance to the village looked down smilingly on the carnage.
After a few minutes the commander called a halt. He issued more orders and, reloading their rifles, four or five of the soldiers walked among the bodies examining them carefully and shooting through the head any who seemed to be still alive. Their leader wanted no chances to be taken.
Once he was satisfied the job had been done the colonel set his men to work digging up the adjoining field, excavating a pit about thirty feet in diameter and ten deep. Into this the bodies were tipped like empty sacks, then the pit was filled in.
All but a few of the soldiers then departed. A couple of hours later the heavy equipment was moved in, and the job of clearance began, under the supervision of the remaining soldiers. The bulldozers tore down the mud-walled houses with ease and their caterpillar tracks ground the debris into powder. Not a block was left standing; of the village of Quarat, there remained only dust. It was as if the settlement and its inhabitants had never existed. Only the strange crystalline object remained, sticking a few feet above the ground.
Saddam Hussein did not expect anyone outside his own entourage would find out what he had done. If they did, he could always blame it on the Kurds. If not the Kurds, the West. And if not the West, there was always the Jews.
And eventually, if the object at Quarat was what he thought it was, he wouldn't have to blame anybody for what he did. Or worry about what they might do to him.
Ever.

ONE
LONDON, ENGLAND
5 JANUARY 2002
Caroline Angela Mary Kent, B.Sc, sat at her desk in her office at the British headquarters of International Petroleum PLC and gazed round it reflecting on her life so far, for the most part with satisfaction.
For five years now she had worked for the company in one capacity or another. She'd joined it shortly after leaving university, having spent a brief period trying to become an actress, which had come to nothing not because she lacked talent but rather because she had decided success in business would be more of an achievement. Acting would have brought fame, but no more or less than it had other women. And so had begun a distinguished career at IPL in which she had risen with astonishing rapidity up its hierarchy, to reach her current position of head of the amalgamated Personnel - she had so far resisted any pressure to call it "Human Resources" - and Public Relations departments a couple of years ago at the age of twenty-five. It was a considerable responsibility which some had feared she would not be able to discharge competently, but she had proved them all wrong. Not everyone liked her, which was something she had to get used to, but they had to admit, openly or otherwise, that unlike a lot of other young highflyers she was actually good at her job; very good, in fact.
In addition to running PPR she was also one of a number of IPL executives around the world who functioned as International Operations Managers - basically, troubleshooters - which meant she got to visit plenty of exotic and interesting places. And, from time to time, found herself in genuinely dangerous and frightening situations. Many of the company's plants were in unstable Third World countries, prone to coups d'etat and terrorist activity. But you had to take the rough with the smooth.
Altogether, then, things had turned out well. She did have some regrets, but there was no question of changing the course on which her life seemed to have become set.
Brushing a lock of golden hair from one eye she perused her diary for that day; most of it would be spent liaising with other departments on the preparation of promotional brochures and the tactics to be adopted for recruitment drives. But there was also the new temp starting work in Admin; she'd look in on the girl at some time if her workload permitted. It was one of Caroline's cardinal principles that she should be available to all members of staff, however lowly, who technically worked for her. Normally their immediate manager would handle any problems that came up, there was always the possibility she might find herself functioning as a last court of appeal. She had made clear when taking up the PPR post that she wanted things that way, at the expense of upsetting some who saw their departments as their own private little empires in which their word was law and no outside agency could interfere.
She had also stressed that no casual employee was to be taken on, or have their employment terminated, without first consulting her. She had come to realise that in the modern world casuals constituted a vulnerable and forgotten underclass, whose existence and needs were usually overlooked while women, the disabled, and ethnic minorities could be guaranteed to receive close attention. They tended to be engaged on a whim and then sacked for silly or unjust reasons, and the thought that games might be played with people's lives in this way, in a concern of which she was the head, disturbed her. And from the company's point of view, as well as the altruistic one, casuals ought to matter as much as the oldest of old hands; after all, you never knew where they might be in ten or twenty years' time, if properly encouraged. Making herself known personally to them was a way of emphasising that point.
Of course Amanda Jane Dixon - that was the new temp's name - might not want to stay with the company in the long run. That was entirely up to her.
There came a knock on the door and Chris Barrett, her deputy in PR matters, entered. "Morning Caz," he said cheerfully. She greeted this salutation with a long-suffering expression; she had repeatedly asked him not to call her "Caz."
With the exception of old Bob Henderson, who could get away with anything, Chris was the only member of staff whom she allowed, albeit grudgingly, to address her with such familiarity.
"Morning, Mr Barrett," she answered. "What can I do for you?"
Chris stood before her with a rather foolish grin on his face. He ran a hand through his wavy dark hair.
"Don't keep me in suspense," she urged.
"Er...I was going to say, I'm afraid I haven't quite finished that report you asked me to do on the Venezuela job," he admitted.
Caroline tutted. "I did ask you to have it ready for me this morning."
"I was very busy last night," he protested.
"You mean you spent most of it down the pub. I know you!"
"You didn't actually say it was urgent. Anyway, it was my brother's birthday.”
"No wonder you're so tired whenever you come in in the morning," she went on. "You really should organise your life a bit better."
"Jawohl," said Chris.
"Just get it done as soon as you can, will you?"
He gave her a thumbs-up and withdrew, shrugging as he closed the door after him. As always, an encounter with Caroline left him with a bewildering mixture of feelings.
Caroline decided to go and pay her respects to Amanda Dixon. She strolled briskly over to Administration, a roomy open-plan office located on the same floor as PPR, whose windows allowed a panoramic view of the London skyline from Hounslow all the way to Canary Wharf.
As she entered the room, and they caught sight of her, several of the male employees held their gaze a fraction or two longer than one normally did. She grinned inwardly at the thought that even though she’d been here for six years now, her appearance could still turn heads.
She stood craning her neck to look out over the vista of heads in search of any that were unfamiliar. Her eye rested on a girl in her late teens who stood at a filing cabinet rummaging through its contents.
Caroline studied her with interest. She had fair skin and long, dark brown hair framing a rather sweet face. Not particularly tall but slim, with a good figure. She's pretty, Caroline thought. Could be a model or an actress, assuming she doesn't want to stay on here.
She went over to the girl. "Hello!" she smiled. "I guess you must be Amanda, yes?"
Amanda Dixon looked up. She seemed startled at being spoken to in this way. She grinned, a little nervously; but the hazel eyes, Caroline noted, did not change their expression. Nor did she make any comment in reply to the approach.
"Amanda?" Caroline repeated.
"Mandy," said the girl, a little curtly. Caroline frowned.
"I'm Caroline Kent, Head of Personnel." Caroline held out her hand; the girl studied it as if it were something strange and fascinating then suddenly jerked into life and shook it.
"I just thought I’d introduce myself. My office is on this floor at the other end of the building if you have any problems while you're here, although you'd normally go to Mr Watson-Dove if you did. All right?"
Mandy beamed vacuously.
"Well, I hope you're going to be with us for a long time." Again that almost embarrassed smile. Caroline waited a second or two in case the girl decided to elaborate upon it, and when she didn't smiled back and turned away.
Hmmm, she thought. Mandy was casual in more ways than one. Somehow, she didn't think the girl would be staying on here for very long.
She couldn’t possibly have imagined, at that stage, how significant the arrival of Amanda Dixon at IPL would turn out to be - both for she, Caroline, and indirectly millions of other people too.

On the top floor of the Langley, Virginia, headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency, about halfway along the central corridor on the left hand side, was located the organisation's Department of Middle Eastern Affairs. It was here that regular meetings were held between intelligence chiefs and defence analysts to discuss threats to American interests originating from that part of the world, which essentially meant two things: Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and the decentralised terrorist network which looked to Osama Bin Laden as its spiritual head.
At nine-thirty that morning, January 10th 2002, the room was occupied by four people two of whom - Aaron Sternhold, head of the Agency's Office of Scientific and Weapons Research, and Howard Loomis from its Office of Middle Eastern Analysis - sat in chairs before the screen which took up most of one wall. The other two were seated separately from them on either side of the room. On the left was Patrick Lerpiniere, the Agency's Deputy Director of Intelligence; on the right, Dr Theodore Malikian.
Malikian was not, strictly speaking, a CIA employee; he was in fact a lecturer at Cornell University. But he was an authority on the politics of the Middle East and also, handily, a weapons expert. He had gained valuable experience in that field inspecting certain dubious installations in Iraq for the United Nations. At the present time this made him extremely important to the Agency, and he visited its premises so frequently that he had come to be regarded as an honorary member of the organisation.
Finishing his customary words of welcome, Lerpiniere nodded to Malikian. As he got up to speak all eyes turned to him, lighting up with interest. He was not a big man, but his presence was nonetheless curiously impressive. Behind enormous metal-framed spectacles, which rested on the bridge of a somewhat beaky nose, his pale grey eyes gleamed with intelligence and twinkled with good humour whenever he cracked a joke. He was fifty-six years old with a heavily lined face and a shock of dark hair greying at the temples.
"OK, everyone," he began. "As you'll all of course know, ever since it invaded Kuwait in 1990 leading to the Gulf war, and particularly after 11th September, we have been carrying out regular satellite surveillance of Iraq. It's important for us to know if Saddam is engaged in any large-scale projects which might have a military application."
And especially, anything involving the development or use of Weapons Of Mass Destruction.
The Agency suspected Iraq had been speeding up its development of such weapons, a process which had begun before the Gulf War, ever since its defeat in that conflict had shown it could not take on the West and win using conventional weaponry. It was thought to have been stockpiling biological agents such as aflatoxin, anthrax and botulism, and indeed had once claimed to have enough of them to wipe out the Earth's entire population. The analysts hoped that was merely another characteristic attempt to taunt and frighten the West. As far as was known, the delivery systems for these bioweapons were still relatively crude and inefficient, but that was something Saddam was no doubt seeking to remedy.
Iraq had used chemical weapons against its own citizens and in the war with Iran which had taken up most of the 1980s. "We shouldn't have ignored the warning," Patrick Lerpiniere was continually complaining. It had produced thousands of tons of mustard and nerve gas, and although much of the stockpile had been destroyed by the UN Special Commission For Iraq (UNSCOM) during its various visits to the country, it was believed to have been replenished since.
Where atomic weapons were concerned Iraq certainly had the theoretical capability of building a nuclear bomb, and perhaps the raw materials, or some of them. At present, the general consensus of opinion among Western experts was that she had almost reached the point of full nuclear capability but still lacked one or two of the vital ingredients, partly due to the efforts of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority. It was difficult to know the truth of the matter, thanks to her campaign of evasion and subterfuge. Despite frequently promising to destroy her weapons of mass destruction, she had as frequently threatened to use them against the West. At one stage she claimed to have destroyed her pilot atomic waste reprocessing plant to hide the programme from the IAEA. This was a typical tactic of the Saddam regime; most of the time it insisted its actions were virtuous and reasonable, but when it suited it to do so it admitted to having been deceitful as a way of misleading and confusing its opponents. It increased the anger and distrust those in the room felt towards Saddam Hussein.
Because of the demise of UNSCOM, due to bureaucratic factors, inadequate intelligence and the failure of Allied bombing, despite much-vaunted technical advances, to completely destroy installations which could be used for weapons construction and development the West simply could not be certain that Saddam Hussein didn't possess, and was on the point of perfecting, WMDs; which could be used against it, or Israel, or Iraq's own ethnic minorities. They were in a state of constantly having to guess as to how serious the situation was. Particularly worrying was the possibility that Saddam might soon have radiological weapons which could irradiate vast areas in order to prevent Western armies from occupying them. If America was ever to invade Iraq as part of its war against terrorism it needed to be sure what kind of threat it was going to meet. Saddam could be keeping any weapons he did have in reserve, in case of such an eventuality.
Lerpiniere switched on the overhead projector. "Just recently, one of our satellites found this, about fifty miles south-west of Baghdad."
An image appeared on the screen. The quality, as with all satellite photos, wasn't one hundred percent. The picture was grainy and hazy. But it was obvious a large building, a very large building, was under construction. Although it was surrounded by a complex network of scaffolding the principal details could be made out clearly. The main part was a rectilinear cube about three storeys high, and at present roofless. There were numerous window openings on each of the three floors and some of them were massive, thirty or forty feet long, as if designed to let in as much light as possible. At three corners of the main building was a smaller cube in the same state of completion but with far fewer windows. Joined to the fourth by a short connecting section was a massive, solid windowless block of a structure with a large opening, big enough to accommodate a petrol tanker, in one of its sloping sides. Several other incomplete buildings were located at intervals nearby. A number of indistinct shapes were dotted about in the background; at a guess the larger ones were heavy vehicles, trucks and earthmovers and cranes and piledrivers, and the smaller ones people. "It doesn't look very dangerous to me," said Loomis. "It could be anything. I saw a water treatment plant in England once that looked like that."
"I'm a little concerned about this." Malikian indicated the square block at the north-eastern corner of the complex. "It doesn't have any windows and it's pretty solidly built. It could be a fuel bunker, or a place where something flammable is kept. That wouldn't necessarily mean anything sinister. The other ancillary buildings could be for administration or storage purposes.
"As you indicated, Howard, the place looks like any reasonably large modern building. My gut feeling is it's a research establishment of some kind, in which case we'll need to know what's being developed there. Of course if soldiers start to appear and it's clear tight security is being maintained, we'll know it's something militarily important.
"The thing is this. Up until a few months ago there was a village on that spot. Now it's totally disappeared. The satellite detected troop movements in the vicinity - not on a particularly big scale, but big enough for it to notice them. These things can't see everything that goes on on the ground, not in minute detail, but it's obvious something happened to the villagers. Either they were evacuated or they were all killed in some fashion. Then the Iraqis razed the place to the ground, and now they're building this."
He paused, his gaze travelling over his companions. "Any ideas?"
"You're suggesting Saddam's troops massacred those villagers?" asked Sternhold. "Would he really do that to his own people? I mean, we all know what he's been doing to the Kurds, but he doesn't consider them to be his people. These are ordinary Iraqis we're talking about, I presume?"
"Yes, these are ordinary Iraqis. And if it suited his purposes, and no-one was likely to find out what had happened, Saddam would be quite happy to kill them all. This is a regime with a very cynical view of politics, and not much regard for the sanctity of human life, in whatever form. Saddam has been damaging his own citizens quite enough as it is, by provoking us into bombing him." There was cold anger in Malikian's voice. "He didn't want the word to get around that he'd ruthlessly turned them out of their homes. All he needed to do was blame their deaths on someone else and with complete control of the media that was easy to do."
Lerpiniere sat down, and threw himself back in his chair. "The question is, why did he bother with the whole business? He had to get rid of the villagers and pull down their homes in order to build this place. He wanted it built there, and nowhere else. Now why's that?"
"I can think of only one possibility. There's something in the area that's important to him. Perhaps he's discovered some kind of rare mineral in the ground and this installation is for processing it into something he can use."
"In connection with his nuclear weapons programme?"
"Quite likely. At any rate it's something he would rather was kept secret. That's why the villagers had to die. Although we don't know for sure that's what's happened to them."
Lerpiniere's brow had corrugated. "I must say I don't like this. But I don't feel we can do anything until we have more information. We've already increased our intelligence effort in relation to Iraq as much as is feasible. Apart from that, we can only wait until the place is a bit more complete, and see what the photographs have to tell us."
"What are the chances that it's for some civilian purpose? That it's entirely harmless?"
"Pretty slim. Saddam isn't noted for his interest in anything that doesn't have a military application. He tends to spend every penny he's got on building up his war machine."
"I know I've said this before," Sternhold began. "But I don't think Saddam would use WMDs if he had them. It'd be raising the stakes too high. He'd be running the risk of massive retaliation."
"We still can't take chances. If Saddam had any common sense he wouldn't have started the war with Iran or invaded Kuwait."
"I don't see why we should be bothering with Iraq. It would only give him and various other crazies their excuse for launching a holy war. We've no proof he was involved in September 11th. Even he knew the risks that'd be involved."
“He gloated over it.”
“He wouldn’t go any further than that. That's why he's been keeping Bin Laden at arm's length, supporting him from a distance."
"We’ve no evidence he’s supporting Bin Laden at all."
"Well," sighed Lerpiniere, "I suggest we all meet here again in a couple of weeks' time. Sooner, if anything more comes up. That OK with everyone?" The others nodded.
He stood up, prompting his colleagues to do the same. Before leaving the room he paused at the door for a moment, his lips pursed. Glancing back at him, Malikian saw his expression and guessed at his thoughts. “We should have gone right in and occupied Baghdad in '91," Lerpiniere was continually declaring. "Then we wouldn't have problems like this."
Malikian was inclined to agree with him. It would all have been over and done with, whatever problems might have been caused, and the Iraqi people would have benefited as much as anyone else. Despite the financial damage to Iraq the economic sanctions and periodic air strikes Saddam remained firmly in power in Baghdad, for all they knew plotting some new attack upon his neighbours, some new act of defiance against the international community. In the long run, the Iraqis were probably suffering unnecessarily.
And it mattered to him a great deal that they should not do so. Because in the last resort, he was a UN more than a CIA man.

Beavering over a pile of papers, Caroline heard someone knock on the door of the office. "Come in."
Mandy Dixon entered, her arms full with half-a-dozen thick lever arch files. Caroline smiled. "Aren't you taking on a bit too much there?"
Mandy gave her usual bland grin. "Just come to put these back."
"Thanks. Do you know where they go?"
"Um, no."
Caroline indicated the cabinet standing in the corner near the door. "Over there, on the PR shelf." The gaps in the row of files indicated where the returned ones should go.
"Er, do you think you could close the door?" Caroline asked a moment later. Voices and other sounds were drifting into the room, preventing her from concentrating.
"Sorry," said Mandy. Her tone was a little bolshy and Caroline glared at her back as she made to comply with the request.
Her head dipped back towards her work.
A few moments later she was disturbed from her labours by an almighty crash. Looking up in alarm, she saw that several of the files had fallen from the shelf and landed on the floor, bursting open and spilling their contents over a wide area.
"What are you doing?" she yelled, bounding from her chair in horror.
"Sorry," said Mandy.
It looked as if she had attempted to cram all the returned files into one of the gaps, instead of putting each back in its proper place. The result had been inevitable.
Caroline winced. "Be careful!" Oh for God's sake, she muttered beneath her breath.
"Sorry," said Mandy. It seemed to be the word she used more than any other. She squatted down and began sifting through the chaos of papers in an attempt to order them.
"It's all right, don't bother," Caroline said hurriedly. "I'll see to it." She went to retrieve the papers. "Thanks for bringing them back."
"OK," said Mandy, and exited the room.
"Er, Mandy..."
Just outside, Mandy turned. "Yeah?"
"The door," smiled Caroline, indicating same. Mandy shut it with a force that made Caroline jump and rattled some of the smaller objects on her desk. Whether it was out of thoughtlessness, or rudeness, was difficult to judge.
With a sigh, she got on with the irksome task of putting everything back in the right order within the right file.
After a similar episode a few days later, Caroline called on George Watson-Dove, head of Admin and Mandy's line manager, to ask if it could be arranged that she did not in future have any dealings with her.
"Which one do you mean?" he asked. There had been about half-a-dozen casuals taken on at the beginning of the year.
Caroline was disgusted to find that he hadn't even bothered to learn her name, although in truth she wasn't particularly surprised. "She's about five foot two with brown hair, quite attractive."
"Oh, that one. Yes, as a matter of fact I was on the point of going to see you. After all, you did say I should if anything like this came up." There was a hint of resentment in his voice, which Caroline decided to ignore.
She had been meaning to ask him about the general quality of Mandy's work. "What's she done?"
"Basically, she's hopeless," he said. "Fucking hopeless."
Not for the first time she winced inwardly at his tendency to uninhibitedly use bad language in everyday conversation. He might be ex-Army, but still…"Yes, I know," she sighed. "What’s the problem exactly? Could you be a bit more specific?"
"She hasn't an ounce of sense in her thick skull. You have to tell her at least three times how to do something before she gets it, and even then she pretty soon forgets. Yesterday she managed to wipe half the data from the computer; if there hadn't been a back-up copy it'd have been disastrous. I don't think we can trust her on the switchboard or Reception, given the mess she’s made of everything else. Half the time she doesn't hear what you say to her, I'm certain of it. And she's always filing things wrong. At this rate we're going to have to get rid of her."
"All right," Caroline nodded. "I'll have a word with her. Have you spoken to her yourself?"
"I thought that was your job," he added with an edge to his voice she didn't entirely care for.
George Watson-Dove had always objected to the principle of clearing any sackings of junior staff with the Head of Personnel. Before she came along he had been accustomed to doing much as he liked, and it was a cause of considerable resentment with him that things had not continued that way.
"Have you spoken to her?" Caroline repeated.
"You bet I have. Unfortunately it hasn't made a scrap of difference."
She wondered how tactful he’d been. "Well, maybe I'll have better luck. Send her my way, will you, if she's free?"
"I'll see if I can find her."
Caroline returned to her office. With a sigh she sat down and began psyching herself up for the coming interview. She'd had all the right training, of course, but none of it made this sort of thing any easier.
She was adding to her workload by insisting on person-ally admonishing wayward junior staff in this way. And she didn't need that. But neither did she feel she could let Mandy be sacked without some attempt first being made to redeem the situation, which meant dealing with it herself.
"Mandy," said Caroline, smiling in a friendly fashion as the girl appeared in the doorway. She pushed a chair forward. "Sit down." Mandy looked bemused more than anything else.
Caroline closed the door. "I really don't like to do this sort of thing, I can tell you," she said. Mandy seemed to stiffen slightly, but otherwise showed no reaction.
She entwined her fingers and rested her chin on them. "Mr Watson-Dove tells me he's a little concerned about the quality of your work just now."
Mandy looked blank.
She recited the catalogue of misdemeanours Watson-Dove had described. "Now, would you say all that is true?"
Still the girl said nothing. A few moments passed.
"Talk to me, Mandy."
"What do you want me to say?" answered Mandy sullenly, for the first time showing a flicker of animation.
"I don't want to hear what I want you to say. I want to know what you think."
She frowned. The blank look on Mandy’s face, in her eyes; there was something a little disturbing about it. As if, mentally speaking, she was on a different planet, a different reality, from everyone else. Not fully aware of her surroundings.
Leaving her chair, she perched herself on the front of the desk facing Mandy, arms folded. "You see, if someone is being accused of not pulling their weight, I want to hear their side of the story. That's how these things should be done. But how can I if you don't say anything? If you don't start being a bit more interactive I'm going to have to assume that what Mr Watson-Dove says is true.
"I have to confess," she added, "that what I've seen of you so far doesn't inspire confidence."
Bossy cow, Mandy was thinking.
Caroline sighed. "At this rate you're not going to keep your job, Mandy."
Again that noncommittal, uncomprehending look. It was beginning to irritate Caroline intensely. "Mandy, do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yeah," the girl replied in a low voice.
“Oh you do, good. Now why did you take this job on, Mandy?"
"Needed the money, didn' I?"
"We all do, Mandy. But I'd like to think it was more than that. I like to think that when people join the company, even if it's only as a casual, they'll stay on and become permanent. I like to think they'll still be with us in five or ten years' time, because they like working here. Unfortunately I don't see that happening in your case, not at present."
She straightened up. "I'll make a deal with you, Mandy. From now on, I want you to work hard and be polite to people and use your common sense a bit more. You'll find it pays off, believe me. There's more chance of staying in the job, which means you'll always be guaranteed the money you need to do everything you want in life. Meet us at least halfway, and we won't jump on you. We'll give you a chance. OK?"
Mandy seemed to think about this, and her manner changed. "Yeah, OK," she said pleasantly.
"I guess you've got the message. Just try and think a bit from now on, yes?"
"Yeah," Mandy smiled.
"And if you have any problems, come and see me or Mr Watson-Dove." Mandy nodded enthusiastically.
"All right," said Caroline brightly. "That's all. Thankyou, Mandy."
Mandy left the room, and this time she actually bothered to shut the door behind her.
Caroline hoped what she had said would do the trick. She wasn't inclined to be optimistic.
Afterwards however, to her pleasant surprise Mandy's work did seem to improve. She wasn't the brightest spark in the office, but she worked hard enough and made fewer mistakes. She also seemed generally more communicative.
It didn't last.
This time the problem was absenteeism. Mandy wouldn’t come in until lunchtime, or didn’t show at all, and on each occasion there seemed to be a perfectly good excuse for it.
Caroline called her into her office again. "You're slipping back into bad habits, aren't you Mandy?"
"What do you mean?" the girl asked, a picture of innocence. Again that blank bemused stare.
Caroline put an edge of steel into her voice. "Just remember what I said to you before." She vowed to herself that the next warning would be the final one. "I don't intend to go on repeating myself. We've tried to be reasonable with you and haven’t got anywhere. Quite frankly, it’s becoming a nuisance."
Mandy gazed vacantly back at her. "Sorry," she said.
*
Later that day, in the staff common room during afternoon tea break, Mandy was having an anxious confab with a friend on her mobile phone. She was meant to be staying with the friend that night, but for some reason which wasn't fully explained didn't want to take the bag she always carried with her, and which seemed to contain all her belongings, to the friend's house. The possibility of leaving it with her family was not mentioned.
Caroline, who was at the sink washing up some cups, overheard the conversation. "We could fix you up with a locker," she suggested. The staff lockers were relatively rarely used, because people generally preferred to keep their valuables with them while they worked. "It'll take a few days to get a key made." Not that Mandy would be here long enough to justify it, she thought, but she had to make the effort to be pleasant. "In the meantime you can put the bag in my office if you like."
Mandy hesitated for a moment, looking unhappy at the idea, and then smiled. "Thanks."
At five o'clock she dumped the bag in Caroline's office and left. Caroline stared at the door for some time after it had closed behind her, thinking. She had more or less made up her mind Mandy would have to go; there had been another "incident" that afternoon, when the girl had dumped some current paperwork in the wastepaper basket by mistake.
It was a shame, though.
There must be some reason for her unbelievably irresponsible behaviour. What on God's green earth made someone think they could carry on like that and get away with it? If she could find out what it was, maybe the problem would be solved.
She found herself thinking about the bag. Mandy's behaviour over the matter had been odd, to say the least.
It was after hours now, and her workload wasn't particularly heavy just then. She opened the plastic box that sat beside her computer and took out a floppy disc, inserting it into the slot in the CPU. For a while she played one of the computer games with which she often amused herself when at a loose end during lunch break. This one was a descendant of Space Invaders. She hadn't quite got it sussed yet; it always puzzled and frustrated her that whenever she got the cursor positioned over the target and pressed the key to zap it, the target simply moved on, the flashing effect which symbolised a hit occurring in empty space. Before long she gave up.
Eventually she came to a decision. She got up and moving slowly and almost reluctantly, crossed to where the holdall lay. A part of her was nagging insistently at the rest, telling her it wasn't any of her business and she shouldn't be going through someone's private property. But…
She squatted on her haunches beside the bag and unzipped it. Feeling most uncomfortable about the whole thing she riffled through the contents. A cheap paperback romance, some spare clothes, a toilet bag, the mobile phone.
And a little polythene bag sealed with cellotape and filled with a white powdery substance.

TWO
The very first thing next morning, Caroline asked Mandy to come and see her. This time the girl wasn't wearing her usual bored what-is-it-this-time expression; instead she looked genuinely nervous and frightened.
Caroline wasted no time. "I found something in that bag of yours last night." Mandy went as white as the cocaine. "I shouldn't have been looking but I had a theory and I wanted to test it.
"I'm not so naive that I didn't know what it was. What have you got to say for yourself?"
The thought suddenly occurred to her that someone might have been using Mandy as an unwitting courier for the drug. "Did you know it was there, Mandy?" she asked. "Did you?"
Mandy scowled as the penetrating gaze of Caroline's blue eyes swept over her.
"Well?"
"No," said Mandy.
"You're not telling me the truth, are you?" Caroline was a seasoned interviewer and so knew whether people were being honest or not.
"All right, so I'm lying. What you gonna do, tell the cops?"
"I should do, shouldn't I? You tell me, Mandy, what would you do in my position?"
"I'd sneak on you, I suppose. World's like that, innit?"
It occurred to Caroline that Mandy had a highly cynical view of life. "It's not sneaking. But I haven't said I'm going to do it, have I?" She noted the look of relief that crossed Mandy's face.
"I went to a lot of trouble last night getting rid of the stuff without anyone noticing. If someone had seen me I might have been in serious trouble. You should be grateful, you know.
"One thing I can't do is keep you on here, not after what I've found. I've an example to set to the firm and to society as a whole. I'm not having my staff involved in this kind of thing.
“I was on the point of sacking you as it was; well now this clinches it. What you do in your spare time is no concern of mine. But I can't have this revolting stuff in the office."
"You reckoned I was gonna sneak round to the bog and have a snort?" The girl sniffed derisively. "I wouldn't be that daft."
"I'm not saying you would. But how was I to know?"
With a sigh Caroline sat down. "I'm sorry, Mandy, but you're going to have to go and that's final - not that you'd care. I don't have to tell anyone why. If you just write me a letter saying you want to leave I'll stick it in your personnel file and let Mr Watson-Dove know."
"All false, innit?" Mandy sneered.
"Sometimes it's OK to tell...fibs, if it's for a good reason. As long as you go now, no harm will be done as far as the firm's concerned." At least, she hoped that was the case. "Would you rather everyone knew you were thrown out because you'd been sniffing coke? I'm trying to save you a lot of trouble."
What do you want, a fucking medal? Mandy thought.
Caroline found a spare sheet of foolscap and pushed it across the desktop. "Just put your name and the date on it, and that'll be that. It'll be effective from tomorrow morning, by which I mean you can just not come in then. As for the reason, anything will do. People won't make a fuss about it if I don't. As a Casual you're vulnerable, Mandy, did you know that?"
"World's shit," observed Mandy.
"There's no point in making it worse by taking drugs. Now then, Mandy, the question is this." She threw herself back in the chair. "Do I tell the police or not? I don't know whether it'd be a crime if I didn't, but it would certainly look bad. However, I don't think I want to do it somehow.
"Of course, you could threaten to say that I knew what you were doing and kept it a secret."
"Wouldn't do that," said Mandy with genuine feeling. Was she merely reacting to what she considered to be an insult, or did she have some standards after all?
"OK, so you wouldn't. I didn't mean to be nasty. Now look; what I'm going to say to you is this. I'm prepared to keep quiet about the matter...provided you let me help you."
Mandy's face assumed a long-suffering expression. "What do you mean?"
"If I can find the address of a drug rehabilitation centre, I want you to get in touch with them and explain your problem. We can keep everything quite confidential."
"Been to one of those places," Mandy muttered. "Didn't do no good."
"Why didn't it?"
"There ain't nothing wrong with it," said Mandy spiritedly, ignoring Caroline's question.
“What, taking drugs? How long have you been doing it for?"
"Oh, a few years."
"Does it ever make you feel funny? Ill?"
"Oh yeah, once in a while. Worth it, though. Makes you feel fantastic sometimes. Really great."
"At the moment it may seem like that. But sooner or later it'll start to mess you up. You'll spoil your looks, and that would be a pity."
"And not just your looks," she added darkly. "You'll be in prison when you're not in hospital. You'll be permanently unemployable. And one day you might just collapse and die."
"That's the way it goes," Mandy opined.
"I want you to go back to the rehabilitation centre and have another try. Really give it a go this time. Let me have your number and address, so I can get in touch with you at some point."
Mandy scribbled indifferently on the scrap of paper Caroline had given her to write her resignation letter on.
"So do you promise to do that?" The girl nodded curtly.
“You find this a little tiresome, don't you Mandy?"
Mandy said nothing.
"Just remember what I'll do if I find you haven't kept your side of the bargain. By not telling someone now I'm putting myself in a very risky situation, so you ought to be grateful really."
"It's your choice," Mandy shrugged.
Caroline ignored this. "I'm not doing it just for your sake. If you stop taking the stuff it's one less customer for the pushers, for all those nasty people who are trying to make money out of human misery. And if you can cure yourself of your addiction others may decide to follow your example."
Proper little social worker, ain't you, Mandy was thinking. She'd had enough of social workers. Caroline would have replied that she was supposed to be a business executive.
"I think that's all I want to say," Caroline finished. "I'll make sure you'll get paid for the work you did while you were here."
Mandy stood up, clearly intending to leave. "Just a minute, what about that note you were going to write for me?"
Mandy suddenly remembered. She held her hand out for another piece of foolscap. "Have you been in trouble with the police before, Mandy?" asked Caroline as she wrote out the letter.
"Oh yeah, loads of times," said Mandy dismissively.
"You should have told us. It's not right to deceive people, you know."
Again Mandy shrugged.
"Well, goodbye, Mandy," Caroline said.
"Bye," said Mandy indifferently, and went out. She didn't bother with the door.
*
It was lunchtime, and Caroline had decided to pay a brief visit to her parents. She and her mother, Margaret, were discussing her experiences with Mandy over tea.
"I suppose it isn't really any of my business," Caroline sighed.
"But I was her employer, and so I guess I felt responsible for her."
It was hard to say how much of Mandy's mind-boggling stupidity was natural and how much due to the drugs. Caroline had sometimes had the impression she was a good deal brighter than she seemed.
"I really don't see why you should bother about it so much, dear," said her mother. "If she's silly enough to get involved in these things she's going to have to face the consequences."
"I just feel I have to do it," Caroline said, privately wondering whether Margaret's attitude might not actually be the right one. Perhaps she felt she was now too deeply involved in the matter, and had to see it through to its conclusion. Besides, Mandy wouldn’t have got a lot of sympathy out of George Watson-Dove.
Heavy footsteps announced the arrival of her father. He came in
from the garden wearing shorts and a tennis pullover, racket still clutched in one hand. "Hello lass!" he beamed, marching up to Caroline and enfolding her in an affectionate bear-hug. "How's tricks?"
"Fine thanks, Dad," she grinned, pecking him on the cheek.
"Who's that you were talking about just now, if I may be a little nosy? It sounded very interesting."
Caroline related the saga of Mandy. He frowned. "If I was you I'd go straight to the cops and tell them everything."
"I can't, not now I've promised her I wouldn't."
"Bit daft of you to have done that," he muttered.
"Oh don't talk to her like that," Margaret chided. "I'm sure she knew what she was doing."
"So do you think you've achieved anything, then?" Edward Kent asked. Caroline had to concede she wasn't optimistic.
"There you are, you see. You're putting yourself in a lot of bother for nothing."
"Would you like to think you had a daughter who didn't care about people?" she challenged.
Like a typical man, Edward changed the subject. "You off on any of your assignments in the near future?"
"I'm going to Saudi Arabia next month, just for a couple of weeks. There's nothing wrong there, they just want me to look at the accounts and chat to a few of the staff to see everything's OK; it's a routine thing. The person who usually does it is ill at the moment."
"And you're not worried about flying?"
"I can't be. If nobody flew business would just grind to a halt, wouldn't it? And that's just what Mr bin Laden and his friends want." It was a trite observation but perfectly correct.
"I know that," said Edward. It was odd, he thought, that he should be forgetting such considerations, being a businessman himself. "Everyone does. I guess I just care about you, that's all."
"You're welcome, Dad."
Caroline was silent for a while, gazing at the photograph of her brother on the sideboard. Margaret misinterpreted her expression and smiled at her sympathetically.
"Well, I'm off to get changed," announced Edward. "See you in a tick." He stomped out of the room.
Coming out of her reverie, Caroline remembered what she had been meaning to ask her mother. "How are you now, Mum? Seriously."
"I'm as well as can be expected, thankyou dear. Honestly, I really do think you worry about me too much. Like the way you worry about that girl."
"And are you and Dad getting on?"
Margaret laughed. "Of course we are, dear. Thanks to you." She became serious, looking her daughter straight in the face. "To be honest, things like this drugs business aren't likely to do my palpitations any good. I know I keep saying it but I really wish you hadn't got involved."
Caroline shrugged. "It's too late now."
She knew she had been on safe ground confiding in her parents about Mandy. She confided in her mother, at least, where most matters were concerned.
Most matters. There were things that Caroline did, in addition to her work for the company, that she had never mentioned to them. Not activities about which there was anything illegal; but it had always been impressed upon her that it would be better if no-one, not even her immediate family, got to know about them.

"Saddam's what??!!!!!"
"It's true," said Loomis. "See for yourself." He ushered Malikian into his office, gesturing to him to sit, and switched on the TV. The tape was already in the VCR.
The slightly blurred picture showed Saddam Hussein, immaculate in his best Pierre Cardin suit and tie, seated at his desk in his study at one of his various Presidential Palaces with a microphone in front of him. "We in Iraq have decided to show that we are as dedicated to the cause of peace as any other people,” the dubbed voice-over began. “In the interests of easing international tension and making the world a safer place to live in, we are giving up our entire stock of chemical and biological weapons along with all our nuclear material. They will be made available for international inspection as of now. We expect that in return Iraq will be swiftly readmitted to the community of nations and that all economic and political sanctions against us will cease. I await the response of Mr Bush and his allies." The fact that the weapons existed at all, something Saddam was obviously admitting to by saying he was going to give them up, when they should not would be overlooked in the widespread euphoria at this unexpected and welcome move. As he had no doubt calculated.
Loomis reached for the remote control. "That's the essence of it," he said, switching the video off. He glanced at Malikian. "What do you think?"
"The tone of your voice," Malikian said, "suggests to me that you are a little sceptical yourself."
Loomis chuckled, then became serious. "Whenever someone like Saddam makes an announcement like that, it scares me more than anything else. It's got to be a ploy, going by past experience."
"All the same it's a pretty big sacrifice, if he really is going to do it."
"What makes you think he is?"
"I think," said Malikian slowly, "that he is going to give up some of his weapons but not all. In fact he'll probably only show us a fraction of what he's got. The rest will stay hidden away somewhere until he decides the time is right to use it. It's a blind, that's what it is. A trick to make us think he's no longer a threat to us."
"I'm inclined to agree with you. But we have to respond to this, Theo. We've got to meet him at least half-way or else it's us who're gonna be made to look the warmongers."
"It'll have to be put to the meeting. But I'd say we should take up his offer to inspect the weapons while carrying on with the satellite and aerial surveillance. We have to keep a close eye on everything he's doing and if there's anything that looks suspicious, chase it up."
Loomis nodded. It was the right strategy and he had little doubt the meeting would go for it.
"It could be the real business is going on at that complex, and it's not an agricultural research centre like the Iraqis say it is. That's what Saddam's trying to divert attention from."
"It's a possibility. They'll cut up rough, of course, if we start making allegations about that place."
"If he's really serious about going for peace, he shouldn't have any reason to object," Malikian said tersely. "Now let's go to that meeting."
The meeting, as Malikian had forecast, endorsed the policy of inspecting Saddam's WMD stockpiles while continuing to watch carefully for any sign he was up to something. Any action with regard to the complex at Quarat would have to wait until more was known about it.
As Malikian drove home to his family that evening, unease continued to gnaw at his mind. Whatever it all meant, he was sure in his heart it would lead to yet another bloody conflict. Of the sort the world had seen far too much of in recent decades.
He had known from an early age what Man's twisted and violent nature could lead to. His grandmother had never been able to talk to him about the massacres of Armenians by the Turks in 1915 without weeping. When he was a child her tears and the way she went so pale and quiet, for a minute or two not seeming to hear what was said to her, made him feel embarrassed and uneasy. He later realised she was editing her account of the horrific scenes she had witnessed so as not to give him nightmares. It had been those outrages which led to Malikian's family emigrating to America, seeking refuge in a country they had been told was a land of liberty and opportunity, where they could be safe from persecution for evermore.
Nowadays it wasn't Armenians, by and large, who suffered but there were plenty of others who did. Why did the people of Iraq have to be in the firing line all the time? They'd been hurt so much by sanctions and the effects of Allied bombing. His mind was filled with the images of a US air raid on Baghdad a few years ago. Children with arms and legs blown off, screaming in pain. Mothers weeping over their dead bodies, inconsolable with grief. Homes and livelihoods destroyed. And always the terrible fear that it was going to happen again.
It angered him that some parts of the world had to endure these things while others didn't. The Middle East and the Third World had put up with so much for the sake of the West, when if you looked at it we had it easy. We didn't get massacred, or starve, in large numbers and our military strength protected us from oppression by other powers.
But Malikian's reason, his better nature, told him that Western lives mattered too. They were not destroyed on such a huge scale as others', but there was always the danger that they might be. Within reason it was better to be poor, or even seriously injured, than dead. To be a Westerner, a member of a society more prosperous and secure than any other in the world, was little consolation if you or your loved ones got killed in some terrorist atrocity.
His eyes strayed eastward, across the river, to where the World Trade Centre had stood until a few months before.
The Twin Towers. They had been such a familiar landmark that he always expected to see them, and when he didn't there was that plunging, sickening awareness of loss, of all that had been destroyed - perhaps forever - on that terrible day of which it was almost too painful to think.
He reminded himself that America was the country his family had devoted their lives to. By and large it had fulfilled their expectations of it. But Malikian's other loyalty, to the United Nations, was just as strong, for the very same reasons that his grandparents had become Americans. Especially when his own country, that he loved so much, had done some terrible things of late, for reasons he understood but which didn't make him feel any better.
That he often doubted, with the world slipping inexorably into violence and war, whether there was now any point in the UN made little difference to his inner turmoil. He had devoted his whole life to world peace and to abandon that cause now would render all that had happened before ultimately purposeless.
He decided he had no choice but to go on making the effort. At least then he'd keep his self-respect, his moral dignity. That consolation was to him a tiny, wavering candle in a vast ocean of darkness.

As Caroline left IPL that night, crossing the forecourt of the premises to her car, she heard voices raised in agitation. They were coming from just around the corner of the main building, and one of them, a woman's, sounded familiar. She caught an obscenity and wondered if she shouldn't challenge them.
She moved a little closer, cocking her head to listen to what was being said. The female voice was definitely Mandy's.
"I didn't take it, I swear. The boss woman found out and got rid of it."
"Is she going to mouth off to the cops?"
"She promised me she wouldn't."
"And how do you know you can trust her?" The speaker gave a harsh, bitter sigh. "What about the money you earned last night?"
"I didn't earn any money last night - "
"What? How come?"
"I had to go. The Old Bill came along. Reckon they must have been doing one of their swoops."
"So why didn't you come back after they'd gone?"
"They were there for ages."
"You're lying. You spent all the cash on the snow, didn't you? The cut we give you isn't enough for you, is it?"
This was getting more and more intriguing by the minute. Realising the click of her heels would give her away, Caroline slipped off her shoes and crept forward in her stockings. From a window of the main building a fellow executive observed her with no particular surprise. He shrugged and turned away. It was the general opinion throughout the rank and file of IPL that Caroline was mad.
She peered round the corner. It was Mandy, all right, arguing with a young man in leather jacket and chords. He kept thrusting his face into hers and gesticulating furiously.
"I'll do it on me own," Mandy was saying.
"No you won't," snarled the youth. "I'm telling you, you won't last long. I'll see to that."
"You touch me and I'll go straight to the cops."
"Oh yeah? Don't make me laugh. You'd have to tell them all about what you've been up to, wouldn't you?" The voice lowered to a menacing whisper. "If you do, you're gonna wish you'd never been born."
It sounded as if things were going to get nasty. Caroline tensed herself to intervene. Feeling rather silly standing there in her stockings, she put her shoes back on.
The youth's face twisted with hatred. "You stupid little slag, you've fucking well messed it up. I'm warning you - I'm warning you - if that bird goes to the police and lands us all in the shit, I'm gonna fucking do you in, you fucking - "
This was the last straw. Abandoning all attempt at concealment, Caroline strode out into the open. "Excuse me, do you mind? This is company property. Would you please conduct your arguments somewhere else, especially if you're going to use language like that."
The man swung round and stared at her in a kind of astonishment. Then he made a rude gesture and stalked off, disappearing through the gates.
"Mandy, who was that?" Caroline demanded.
Mandy hurried away without a word.
Caroline went back into the building and up the stairs to her office. Mandy's address would be in the personnel files. She found it and scribbled it down.
Later that evening at about seven o'clock, she parked her car almost directly opposite Mandy's house on the other side of the road to it. It was one of a number of run-down 1930s semi-detacheds.
She took out some papers and started to read them, occasionally glancing at her watch or at the house, and all the time listening carefully.
She heard a car coming along the little street towards her. It pulled up to the kerb and stopped. Caroline glanced out of the window and saw a young woman get out of it. She was wearing cutaway jeans with frayed edges, sandals and a T-shirt. Well, it was a fairly warm evening.
The girl rang the bell and a few moments later Mandy opened the door. Caroline noted that she was similarly dressed to her friend. After brief mutual greetings, they got into the car and drove off down the street towards the main road. Caroline started her own vehicle and set off after them.
She managed to stay close behind the car as it headed east through the West London suburbs. As she realised where they were going her suspicions were more or less confirmed.
They turned off the main road down a long, slightly curving thoroughfare called Coronation Road. It was flanked by identical rows of Victorian terraced houses, grim and dingy-looking. It was now almost dark, and the old-fashioned swan's neck street lamps were casting their pale yellow glow onto the pavement.
The other car drew in to the kerb and Caroline saw Mandy and her friend get out. "See you later then," she heard Mandy say.
"Yeah, see you," replied the other girl. They went off in opposite directions.
There were no other vehicles in sight. Caroline cut her speed, wondering as she drove slowly along whether a woman would be thought likely to be a kerb crawler. She stopped, turned round and headed off in the direction she had seen Mandy go, ignoring her friend who had registered the car's presence and turned towards it with an inviting smile.
Looking out the window, she saw Mandy position herself under a streetlamp and lean against it with her arms folded, one leg slightly in front of the other and bent at the knee.
Caroline had seen enough. She put her foot down on the accelerator and sped off, leaving Mandy staring after her in puzzlement.

THREE
AT RUBY G's
The following day after work she went to the local library and looked up the addresses of various women's refuges plus the local branch of the YWCA. As soon as she got home she rang Mandy's number. A woman's voice answered her; “Yeah?" it challenged.
"Hello, is Mandy there please?" asked Caroline pleasantly.
"She don't live here no more," the woman replied in a whiny Hounslow accent.
"Oh," said Caroline, wondering what had happened. "Um - where can I find her, do you know?"
"Haven't a clue."
Moment's silence.
"Ah," said Caroline politely. "Are you sure?"
Another silence followed, as if it was a bit of an effort for the woman to answer and she had to stop to summon up the energy. "Well...maybe at this place she hangs out sometimes. Nightclub. It's called the Ruby G's or something." The voice hardened, becoming interrogative and hostile. "Who is this?"
"If you see her, just say Caroline called. Er, where exactly is this nightclub?"
"Down Wickham way somewhere, I think. What - "
"Thankyou very much indeed, you've been most helpful. 'Bye."
Caroline consulted the Yellow Pages and found the address of the nightclub. She located it on an atlas of the area and encircled it in biro. After feeding herself and the cat she left the house and drove to Wickham.
The building had once been a cinema, by the look of it. Above the door, running most of the length of the frontage, was a glitzy neon sign bearing the name of the establishment accompanied by a female cartoon character in a seductive pose. Caroline wrinkled her nose. Three burly bouncers in suits and ties stood just inside the entrance. There was no hostility, no attempt to challenge her; their twinkling eyes and broad grins told her she would have no problem being accepted here. Men were so predictable.
She paid the entrance fee and went in, passing through an internal door into the bar. It and the dance floor, a raised platform big enough to accommodate nearly a hundred people, were packed, and the babble of voices along with the music blaring from the speakers was almost deafening. She wondered how anyone could make themselves heard above all that racket. Smoke was coming from somewhere, filling the air a few feet above the heads of the clubbers, and strobe lights flashed on and off. The dance floor was packed with gyrating bodies and you could smell the sweat that glistened on bare shoulders and midriffs. Giant size posters of film stars past and present adorned the walls.
She moved among the tables in the bar looking for some sign of Mandy. There wasn't any.
A man stepped in front of her. "Looking for someone, darling?"
"Yes, but it's not you. Sorry." She stepped neatly round him.
She heard him mutter something to the effect that she must be a lesbian.
"'Ello, darlin,' fancy giving me a gobble?" shouted another clubber drunkenly, to be reprimanded by a friend. She moved on, her expression deadpan.
The things I'm doing for you, Mandy, she thought. You'd better make it worthwhile.
She craned her neck in a bid to spot Mandy among the dancers. It was a difficult task among the mass of bodies, each in constant rapid motion. After a few minutes she gave up.
She ordered a drink, then found a seat near the perimeter of the bar area, where she could continue to keep an eye on the dancers. She tried to gauge the feel of the place. Socially it was a mixture, London and Home Counties accents blending together in the babble of conversation around her. Sure, it was a little vulgar, a little garish, but it wasn't much worse than some other places she'd been in. The atmosphere on the whole was not unfriendly.
She sipped at her Malibu and waited for Mandy to turn up. Ten o'clock passed, and still there was no sign of the girl. No prizes for guessing how she must be occupied.
Caroline sighed. There wasn't much to do except drink while she waited for Mandy to make an appearance, and she was afraid of having too much of the wrong thing and ending up unable to drive home. She'd give it another ten minutes.
The music suddenly stopped, and a young man in a black suit and bow tie mounted the steps to the dance floor, took a microphone from its stand and addressed the gathering. "Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention pleeeese!
"Hope you've enjoyed yourselves so far tonight. And now the moment you've all been waiting for - our regular karaoke competition. As usual we're offering a prize for the best singer and dancer, so if you feel like trying your luck just step this way! Do we have any volunteers?"
A murmur ran through the clientele. Everyone immediately decided they would not under any circumstances commit themselves, then attempted vigorously to persuade their companions to have a go. One or two started to get up from their seats, then sat back as their courage failed them.
"Come on, don't be shy," urged the compere.
Caroline considered the invitation thoughtfully. Well, if Mandy wasn't going to show she might as well enjoy herself...otherwise it would all have been a bit of a waste of time.
She glanced around. At the moment no-one else seemed willing to take the plunge.
You only live once, she thought. On an impulse she stood up and walked towards the dais. As soon as they saw her there was a predictable chorus of wolf whistles, cat-calls and ribald comments. She just smiled and walked on to join the compere, running the gauntlet.
"Well, hello there," he said, making a not entirely successful effort to disguise his interest. "And what's your name, then?"
"Caroline," said Caroline.
"So you fancy your chances then, Caroline?"
"I can never resist a challenge," she said proudly.
She chose a song, positioned herself at the microphone, and took a deep breath.
It had always been said of Caroline by those who knew her that she had a good singing voice. When the song was about something sad or thoughtful it was a soulful, haunting sound; if something exuberant it changed totally, becoming imbued with energy and zest for life. It wasn't quite up to the standard of professional performers, but it came pretty close.
Apart from the occasional slip, each word was precisely enunciated. And she sung with feeling and passion, because she could imagine how the people in the song would feel in their situation, using her ability as an actress to conceive of and express different moods. Everyone looked at the girl with the long blonde hair, wondering who she was, as she danced to the rousier numbers, her eyes sparkling with pleasure and her golden locks tossing about her shoulders. She moved with perfect fluidity from one style to another, every movement reflecting total self-confidence along with perfect co-ordination. A man seated at the front row of tables gazed up at her in astonishment, totally captivated. "Jesus Christ," he breathed.
She went through a variety of songs before finishing, appropriately, with something by Blondie. She stepped down from the dais to a chorus of cheers and whistles, grinning broadly. "Encore," someone shouted.
The noise subsided and the announcer spoke again. "Bloody good," he said with genuine admiration. "Bloody good! Stay with us, Caroline, I reckon you might just stand a chance of winning something."
She went and sat down, and was immediately surrounded by a host of admirers keen to offer congratulations.
After a while they drifted away. The karaoke competition continued, and the clientele's attention was taken up by the performers as they attempted with varying degrees of success to equal Caroline's performance. She sat and laughed at them.
A man who had been hovering near her table for some time, and who now saw his chance, came to sit opposite her. He was a smartly-dressed thirtysomething with yellow hair and vaguely handsome features.
"Excuse me," he said, "is it all right if we have a word?"
"I don't see why not," said Caroline.
"I saw you perform back there. You were very good."
"Thankyou."
"I've a proposition to make to you."
"Oh yes?"
"Have you ever thought of taking it up professionally? I work for an agency which is on the lookout for people like you. We hire people for cabaret acts, dance troupes, not just in England but all over the world. I think you're what we need. The pay's good and we're a friendly crowd; what do you say?"
For a moment she was rather taken aback. But she knew there was only one response she could give, in the end.
"I'm very sorry," she said. "I don't like to disappoint you. But I already have a very good job with good pay and I don't want to leave it. As a matter of fact I did consider doing something like this once, but I decided it wasn't for me."
He refused to be discouraged. "You'll have a great time. You'll get to see lots of interesting places; and you never know, it could be a stepping stone to something bigger. You could be famous."
"No," she said firmly, smiling to show that she nonetheless appreciated his offer. "It's very nice of you. But it's not really how I see my future."
"You're missing out on a good thing," he told her.
"I'm afraid my mind's made up."
The man was obviously disappointed, but it showed only for a brief moment, then he was the smooth professional again. "Do you mind if I give you our card?" he said, reaching into his pocket. "Just in case you change you mind."
Caroline felt it would be polite to accept; and she was, to tell the truth, rather flattered by the offer. "All right, if you want to."
"Well thanks for your time, anyway. Take care. Hope to hear from you." With a friendly smile he moved away to disappear into the crowd.
Caroline studied the square of card he had handed her. "Starlite Entertainments." There was a London telephone number beneath the name.
"Ladies and gentlemen, can we have some quiet please," she heard the compere shout. "It's time to announce the winner of the karaoke competition." He held a brief conversation with a group of people who were evidently acting as judges, then turned back to face his audience.
"And the winner is - Caroline!" There was another thunderous burst of cheering.
She left with a bottle of wine and a £50 luncheon voucher, feeling thoroughly pleased with herself.

Olof Soderstrom was gazing out through the kitchen window at the pine forest which began just beyond the garden of his house, and meditating upon his domestic affairs.
Things weren't too bad, on the whole. The divorce had been fairly amicable, and he got to see the kid about half the time. The one thing which still rankled with him was that in the end Karin had put her career before her family; at least, that was how he saw it. It was the one area where he felt he could justly say the blame was entirely hers.
He heard a child's footsteps on the stairs, and looked round. "Had enough of your computer game?" he smiled.
"Yes," said Bjorn, his seven-year-old son. The kid was sensible; he didn't spend his time enslaved to the machine like so many other boys his age. Olof had impressed on him that he shouldn't, knowing what the harmful consequences would be. Karin couldn't say he didn't look after the child.
"Are you going to play in the garden now?" he asked.
"Yes."
"That's good. The more fresh air you can get the better. So off you go."
Bjorn paused on his way to the door and turned to look at Olof, an earnest expression on his little face. "Pappa?"
"Yes, Bjorn?"
"Why did mamma go away?" He still didn't quite understand it, even though several of his friends at school said it had happened to them.
Olof smiled, putting an arm around Bjorn's shoulders and drawing the boy to him. "It's something you'll only be able to understand when you're older. She has things to do that she can't when she's with us. Now don't worry about it. You miss mamma, yeah?"
"Yes," said Bjorn sadly, looking down at the floor.
Olof ruffled the boy's blond hair affectionately. "Well, cheer up. You're going to be seeing her tomorrow, aren't you? And then you'll be staying with her for a week. And you never know, one day she may be able to come back. Like I said, you'll understand it when you're older."
"All right," said Bjorn doubtfully. With a smile Olof released him and went to let him out, opening the door that led onto the patio.
He'll get over it, Olof thought. He's tough. It's probably screwed us up more than it has him.
And even we are coping, after a fashion. The saddening increase in relationship breakdowns overshadowed the fact that many couples, if they did split up, remained on good terms afterwards, and some even reunited after a while. In his and Karin's case, though, there was little chance of reconciliation. She was so devoted to her career that it was unlikely to come until she retired, and anything could happen in the meantime.
Gazing through the window at Bjorn scampering about the garden, he decided he fancied a bit of fresh air himself. He found a book, fetched a folding chair from the shed, went outside and sat down on the patio to read.
After a while Bjorn got bored with kicking a ball about and went back inside; feeling, Olof guessed, that he had earned an hour or so on the computer.
Olof continued to sit on the patio absorbed in his book. The fresh air, sound of birdsong and scent of pinewood made him feel happy and relaxed, banishing his regrets and anxieties.
The door from the kitchen had been left slightly ajar. He heard the hinges creak and looked up enquiringly. "Yes, Bjorn?"
He stood up sharply, the book slipping from his fingers. "Who are you?"

Caroline danced rather than walked into Personnel the next morning. "When the Samba rhythm takes me high... "
Sheila, her secretary, gave her a quizzical look. Caroline told her what had happened the previous night, including the offer of a lucrative career in the entertainment industry. "I didn't think it was for me, on the whole." Nevertheless she was, to be honest, flattered and chuffed by the offer, and it did bring wistful thoughts of what she might have been if she'd gone down that particular avenue. On a whim she decided to look up Starlite Entertainments in the telephone directory.
They weren't listed, so at lunchtime she tried a handbook in the local library. They weren't listed there either. Caroline frowned, and a disquieting thought or two entered her head. The man had, she supposed, been a little pushy in insisting on giving her his card, and at the same time suggesting she might change her mind when she had already indicated that was unlikely.
She flicked through the book and found the details of the national organisation responsible for entertainment companies. She rang them directly on returning to the office. "Can you tell me if you have an agency called Starlite Entertainments registered with you?"
"One minute, I'll just check for you." The woman consulted a computer and after a moment got back to her.
"No. There doesn't appear to be a company with that name on our files. Have you been approached by them?"
Caroline described her conversation with Starlite's rep at Ruby G's a couple of nights before. "Looks as if they're out to rook people." She felt a surge of indignation. OK, thanks. I doubt I'll be having much to do with that bunch." She put down the phone.
A certain smile spread slowly across her face. She rang the number on Starlite's card. It was the man who'd given it to her at the club who answered. "I've been thinking about your offer and I've decided to change my mind," she told him. "Can we meet?"
"How about back at the club, eight-thirty tonight?"
"That's fine. See you there."
And so that evening she turned up at the Ruby G's, bought a drink and wandered around the bar. A few people who recognised her from the night before waved.
She caught sight of the man from Starlite, and their eyes met. His head jerked upward in acknowledgement and she went and sat down beside him.
"Hi, how are you?" he enquired pleasantly.
"Fine, thanks."
"So you're going to join us - that's great. I think you've made the right decision. I mean, you don't want to spend your life sitting behind a bloody desk do you?"
"No. So when do I start?"
"You'll have to do a couple of tests first; I'm sure you'll do OK, after what I saw on Tuesday. Then you'll have to register with us - means filling out one or two forms, that's all. The manager will want to have a chat with you, explain what your obligations are. And then we - "
"Oh, I don't think there'll be any need for all that," Caroline said, the tone of her voice suddenly changing. He stiffened, staring at her in a disconcerted fashion.
She raised her voice, causing a number of people sitting near them to look round, startled. Good, she'd got their attention.
"You may be interested to know that I checked on your agency. According to Equity and all the other professional organisations, you don't exist. Pretty weird, huh?"
She continued in the same loud voice, putting as much anger into it as she could muster.
Dozens of heads were turned in their direction, as the clubbers listened to the conversation with growing interest.
"I don't know quite what's going on here, but it's obviously some kind of rip-off."
The man's eyes narrowed and he sat up straight. "I...I don't know what you're talking about," he gasped.
He seemed to collect himself, and gave a little laugh. "Well, not everyone's listed," he said in a calmer voice. "Why should we be? I mean, we're a good outfit whether we're in the book or not."
"How do I know that unless I can check? All the respectable ones register. In my experience, firms who won't join professional organisations don't do so because they know people won't approve of the way they do their business."
Caroline looked round at the people clustered about them. "You don't want anything to do with this rat. He's obviously a crook and a con-man and God knows what else." She addressed the bouncer who had come up to see what the commotion was, and who was now joined by a smartly-dressed, formidable-looking woman in her forties who she guessed was the manageress. "If I were you I'd make sure he doesn't show his face in here again."
Again the man stared at her, still seeming more astonished than anything else. Then his expression changed.
"Fuck you, darling," he snarled. "Fuck you, OK?" Savagely he stuck two fingers up at her, sprang from his chair and stormed off towards the exits, obviously keen to be out of the building as quickly as possible.
The manageress turned to Caroline. "What was all that about?"
Caroline explained. The woman looked taken aback for a second or two, then uncertain. Finally she grinned admiringly. "Well, you certainly sorted him out."
"Sorting things out is my business," Caroline announced proudly.
The manageress and bouncer moved away and she sipped at her lemonade for a bit, feeling pleased with herself. Then her face lit up as she caught sight of a familiar figure. Mandy had apparently just come in and was looking for a place to sit. Caroline called out to her, beckoning her over. Mandy saw her and her lips twitched briefly.
"Mandy, hi!” said Caroline as the girl joined her. “I've been looking all over the place for you. Your Mum said you'd moved on."
"Yeah, I'm staying with friends now."
"You remember those addresses I said I'd get for you? Well, here they are." She had taken them along with her on the offchance that Mandy might be at the club.
She extracted the flimsy from her handbag and offered it to Mandy. "Thanks," said the girl, taking it.
"The ones I've ticked also do training schemes to help people get back into work, or improve their basic skills so they can apply for a wider range of jobs." From what she gathered those things weren't much cop, but some people did benefit from them, and she had to make the effort for Mandy’s sake. Besides, you wouldn't know for sure until you'd seen for yourself.
"Oh, right." Mandy didn't seem particularly interested, but then that was what Caroline had expected.
"How are you right now?"
"Oh, OK."
Caroline lowered her voice so that no-one was likely to hear them. "Well you might not be one day, if you carry on the way you are."
"You said that before," Mandy sniffed.
"I'm not talking about the drugs. You're a prostitute, aren't you?"
Mandy seemed about to deny it for a moment, then gave in. "How did you know?"
"From the one or two snippets I caught of your conversation with that character in the car park. Who was he, by the way?"
"My boyfriend."
"He threatened you once or twice."
"He's all right really."
"Come on, Mandy, no-one who treats you like that can be "all right." Anyway he's not your boyfriend, he's your drug dealer. As well as your pimp."
"Yes, what I heard made me just a little bit suspicious," she went on. "So I followed you home that night."
Something appeared to click in Mandy's brain. "I thought it was you in that car."
"Do you realise it's a high-risk occupation?"
"Pays me rent," was all Mandy could say. "It's all right for you. You got a cushy job, ain't you?"
"Not everyone who's poor turns to prostitution."
"I enjoy it."
"I doubt that."
"I do," said Mandy.
"There are serial killers who go after prostitutes. They pretend to be clients and as soon as you're in a vulnerable position they slash your throat or beat your head in."
"If it happens it happens."
"And it's the same if a condom splits on you, I suppose. Just one of those things."
"It probably won't."
"You can't be certain." She leaned back, regarding Mandy sadly. "You don't seem to have much regard for your own life, do you? 'm not sure I shouldn't tell the rehabilitation people about your night-time activities. I think you should. Still; maybe if they can sort out all your other problems, you won't want to do it.
"Have you ever spoken to your family about things? Your parents..."
Mandy's lip curled in contempt. "They don't fuckin' care."
"Were you abused as a child, Mandy? Neglected?" As soon as Caroline asked the question she knew she shouldn’t have done. Much as she wanted to help it wasn’t her business to pry into such matters. But it was too late now and she might as well see what result it produced.
There was a suggestion of anger. "None of your business." But Caroline knew from the look on the girl's face that her supposition was correct.
"Well," she sighed. "I just hope you'll take my advice, that's all. Look after yourself.” She rose, giving Mandy an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and left.
Mandy’s eyes followed Caroline vaguely until she had disappeared through the exit. Then she burst into a fit of giggling, head bent forward and body shaking with mirth.
An hour later, she left the club and went to a car parked directly opposite the entrance. The man sitting at the wheel saw her, smiled, and leaned over to open the passenger door.
He was in his thirties, smartly dressed, with yellow hair and vaguely handsome features.

FOUR
QADISIYYAT SADDAM
Dr Karin Soderstrom picked up the photograph on the mantelpiece and smiled at it for a few moments. She looked round the pine-furnished living room of her house, soon to ring with a child's laughter. Not long now until Bjorn would be with her; for another week, anyway.
The boy had been a late arrival, and the only one there was likely to be. If he ever asked about it, she would tell him that she had delayed having him because before then he would have been an interference with her happiness, preventing her living the way she wanted; also that she had delayed not just for her own sake, but because her resentment would have prevented her giving him the love and care and affection she knew he deserved, and that would have been bad. And she would be telling him the plain truth.
She had been worried there would be complications with the birth, that he might have Downs' Syndrome or something like that. But to her delight he had grown into a happy, healthy, normal little boy. The principal, though only, regret was that his life had been blighted by the divorce.
Was it my fault, she once again found herself wondering. Did I put my career before my family, perhaps without realising it? At the very least it was a contributory factor. Olof’s adultery had not by itself been enough to tip her over the edge.
She knew there was little chance of the break being mended. She was too deeply immersed in her current project, a project which might take many more years to complete satisfactorily, for that.
She studied herself in a mirror. Plump, greying, not ageing at all well. However much she tried to convince herself otherwise, she knew it was partly due to overwork. I’m damaging myself as well as my family, she thought gloomily.
There were more important things to worry about than her appearance, as she discovered a moment later when the phone rang.
"Dr Soderstrom, we have your child."
At first she was fazed. "What do you mean? Who are you and what are you talking about?"
"You don't need to know who we are. What matters is that we have Bjorn and you won't be seeing him again until you have performed a small service for us. Do you understand what we are saying?"
She swayed, a wave of nausea washing over her, and almost dropped the receiver.
"Where's Olof? What have you done to him?" To her own ears her faint, quavery voice sounded like someone else's entirely.
"He's OK," said the caller impatiently. "Now listen carefully, I don't want to have to repeat myself."
The following day Karin Soderstrom turned up for work as usual at the National Institute Of Electronic Science. But throughout the day she was unusually withdrawn, burying herself so deep in her work that she barely spoke to her colleagues unless she simply had to. Attempts to find out what was wrong were curtly rebuffed.
She stayed on for a few minutes after everyone else had gone home, then made her way from the building, smiling briefly at the security guard as she passed him.
At seven minutes past eight o'clock a neighbour saw her leave her house in a lime green Lada driven by a man, with another man sitting beside her in the back. As it was growing dark by then the neighbour did not get a good look at the two males but she presumed they were friends or business associates of Karin's.
Next morning, when Soderstrom failed to arrive at the Institute and calls to her home went unanswered, her anxious colleagues decided to contact the local police. They were particularly concerned because at the same time something very important, very important indeed, had gone missing from her laboratory.

The installation was a bit more complete now. The scaffolding was gone from the buildings, revealing them to be little different in appearance from many an industrial concern in the developed world. A few heavy vehicles still stood around.
Patrick Lerpiniere turned from the screen. "There's still no sign of any military activity about the place," he told the meeting. "And it still doesn't look to me like anything necessarily dangerous."
"Except for one thing," said Theodore Malikian. "Look at these lines on the roof." He crossed to the screen and pointed them out with a ruler. They were only faintly visible but they were there, forming a square the size of a tennis court. "I can't see what they might be unless it's designed to open out like some kind of hatch." He stepped back and turned to face the others with a solemn expression.
"So it could be a missile launch silo," Aaron Sternhold said grimly. "I should tell you we've been getting rumours that Saddam has got hold of some old ICBMs from the former Soviet Union."
"That's quite feasible to my mind. But what he hasn't got yet is the nuclear material to put in it, thank God."
"It strikes me that the whole thing has been completed in an incredibly short time." Saddam Hussein, reflected Howie Loomis, could call on all the resources of a totalitarian state, shooting or threatening to shoot anyone who didn't meet their deadlines. "I said it before, but whatever this is it must really matter to him. The whole thing gives me an uneasy feeling."
"It still isn't quite complete enough," Malikian said. "We need to wait just a little bit longer. Then we'll check it out. As I've said before, if there really is nothing wrong then the Iraqis shouldn't have any cause to complain."

Saddam Hussein stepped down from the chauffeur-driven limousine together with his two bodyguards, and cast his eyes approvingly over the sprawling mass of concrete before him. Workmen were swarming insect-like over the scaffolding which enshrouded it.
General Fawzieh came forward and saluted. "I trust you had a pleasant journey, Mr President?"
Saddam nodded. "Yes, thankyou." He glanced again at the complex. "It's coming along well, isn't it?" Fawzieh nodded obediently.
As they approached the partially-completed building the wind blew the smell of freshly-excavated earth, oil and dust churned up by the wheels and tracks of the heavy vehicles towards them. Every so often Saddam would pause to look round with a delighted expression, bringing the party to a halt. Fawzieh imagined his eyes gleaming with fierce relish behind his dark glasses.
Again Saddam was in full military uniform, even though it had long ceased to become him. Of late he had been wearing it all the time, as he had done before the Secretary-General of the United Nations suggested civilian dress would improve his public image by making him seem less aggressive, except when appearing on international television or meeting foreign diplomats.
This was his sixth visit to the complex so far. Each time Fawzieh agreed with every comment Saddam made, and brought up the same things as topics of conversation. There was little scope for variety because Saddam spent so much time visiting the place that on each occasion there wasn't anything new to report, nothing having had time to change. His leader's manner was always confident and cheerful, although underneath it Fawzieh could sense an undercurrent of anxiety, which if anything grew stronger the closer the complex got to completion.
"How is your family?" Saddam asked. "I have not seen them for a while."
"They are all very well, thankyou Mr President. Karim starts school next week."
"I am sorry to hear he has not been well. Send him my love." Saddam was Karim's godfather, and a framed photo of their leader cuddling the boy and beaming down at him with fatherly affection took pride of place on their wall at home.
"And your own family, Mr President? How are they?"
"Well, thankyou," Saddam replied. The smile on his face showed that nowadays he looked on his family with much greater affection.
In the past the main problem had been his elder son and onetime heir Uday, who was little more than a thug - in fact, a rapist and a murderer - and not to be trusted with the kind of power Saddam sought to acquire. After Uday had killed one of his father's bodyguards in a fit of pique Saddam had had him jailed for several months, and afterwards sidelined in favour of his younger brother Qusay. Qusay not only looked like Saddam but also possessed his ruthlessness and capacity for violence; in him these tendencies were, however, more carefully controlled. He was able, hardworking and tended to do what his father told him. Altogether he would make an ideal successor.
By now they were within the complex. Although externally it was almost complete, inside the fitting out had yet to begin. The corridors were bare concrete, and most of the rooms still empty.
"What do you suppose the Americans are thinking, Mr President?" Fawzieh asked. "They must be aware of the complex by now."
"If we seem to be acting in a more peaceful manner, it is less likely that its construction will be viewed in a sinister light," Saddam told him.
"All the same, they are a suspicious people."
"Too much depends on this project for us to abandon it now." Briefly Fawzieh felt a chill of fear as Saddam gave him a suspicious look, seeming to sense disloyal misgivings; but then Saddam was always doing that. "The Americans will get their lackeys at the United Nations to inspect the complex. They will find nothing, of course."
They heard several pairs of feet approach and two soldiers came into view around a corner, supporting a third between them. His eyes were glazed and unseeing and he moved with clumsy, stumbling steps. He looked like someone in a state of deep trauma.
Saddam came to a halt. "What's happened to him?" he demanded.
One of the soldiers opened his mouth to reply, but he was unable to get the words out, dumbstruck by his awe of Saddam. General Fawzieh nodded to him impatiently. "A little of the material leaked out, Mr President," the man answered.
"It happens from time to time, the scientists tell me," Fawzieh said.
"Is he all right?"
"He doesn't seem to be hurt, Mr President," the soldier told them. "But it is like he is asleep."
"They are working on an antidote," Fawzieh said. "It is strange; sometimes it causes physical injury and sometimes it merely produces unconsciousness."
"Then we must succeed in controlling it," Saddam told him, "so that it does what we want it to."
They moved on.
Saddam spent almost half an hour gazing at what was in the complex, with the childlike fascination that overcame him whenever he was near it. Afterwards Fawzieh escorted him to the office that had been constructed for his use whenever he visited the place. It was fully furnished with a thick baize carpet, a massive polished mahogany desk with a telephone, and an Iraqi flag draped across one wall. He asked Fawzieh to leave him there for a time, alone.
The office was decorated with priceless artefacts, some looted from Kuwaiti museums during the occupation, others discovered during government-sponsored archaeological digs. Mounted on one wall were a number of cuneiform tablets. Saddam didn't understand the Chinese-like characters; the tablets were there more for show than for any other reason.
The dominant feature of the collection was a statue of a man with a hooked nose and a short jutting beard of tightly-curled hair. No-one had yet been able to tell him who it was, but it suggested strength, power and majesty. Some king of a city-state in ancient Sumeria, probably. It could even be the fabled Gilgamesh, although Saddam had been told to his disappointment that such a character most likely never existed.
He stood looking at the statue for a long time, thinking.
Although Saddam, unlike most others of his generation who had been concerned with political matters, had no military training his love of the army and passionate devotion to its ways was beyond question. It had been one of the blackest moments of his life when his application to join it had been rejected. He had felt angry and betrayed. Fortunately, you did not need to be a soldier to achieve political ends through the use of force.
Like many Arab students in the 1950s he had become radicalised by the Suez episode, which showed that an Arab nation could successfully stand up to the West if it had the right kind of leadership, and brought about moves towards Arab unity as the prerequisite for challenging American and British domination. He joined the Ba'ath Party and shortly afterwards recommended himself to its leadership by assassinating a prominent supporter of the then Iraqi President, Qassem. As a result he was selected to join the team who attempted unsuccessfully to kill Qassem in 1959. Though much about his role in that episode was embellished, much else was quite true. He had indeed commandeered a car at gunpoint to provide the team with a quick escape once the attempt had failed, and later pulled a gun on those of his colleagues who would have taken a member of the team wounded in a shoot-out with the police to hospital. Such solicitousness for their comrade's welfare would have delayed their getaway and placed them in danger of capture. In Saddam's book there was no place for excessive sentimentality.
Though Saddam had been adept in avoiding his own death, injury or arrest - his escape from the hit team's hideout as the police closed in on it was portrayed as an example of shrewdness not cowardice - he was not lacking in physical courage. For him the commitment to violence as a means of achieving one's political ends overrode any personal fears he might have.
By shrewdness, determination and sheer brutality Saddam had worked his way gradually up the Ba'ath hierarchy. In the fullness of time Qassem was finally assassinated and the party took power. After succeeding to the Presidency of the country in 1979, in a transfer of power which was surprisingly bloodless considering the violence and gore which marked his career before and after it, Saddam finally had control of the army. It could serve as the means by which he achieved all that he wanted for himself and for Iraq. Almost immediately he began making plans for war with Iran, which broke out the following year.
It was to have been a repeat of the battle of Qadisiyyah in AD 636, in which the Arabs inflicted their greatest ever defeat on the Persians. His moment of triumph, the Qadisiyyat Saddam. But instead it had ended in an ignominious stalemate. The taking of Kuwait was meant to have been a compensation for its disappointing outcome. The reaction of the West to the annexation had shocked and surprised him. He had had no choice but to go through with it or face a humiliating climbdown. The result had been disastrous; in just six weeks, his air force had had to seek refuge in Iran and the largest army in the Middle East, and the fourth largest in the world, decimated. The relatively inefficient and old-fashioned Soviet-issue tanks had been destroyed in large numbers along with most of his artillery. Forces better equipped for fighting the First World War than a modern conflict stood little chance against the latest and most advanced Western military hardware; and in particular against guided missiles and smart bombs, imperfect though he knew the latter to be. He had learnt plenty of valuable lessons from the debacle, but it was impossible to put them into practice because the effect of the UN sanctions prevented a thorough programme of modernisation and improvement.
These constant failures angered and depressed him, though fortunately there were always undesirable elements for him to take out his feelings on. But each setback only made him more determined to stay in power, continually scheming for some way to punish those who stood against him. His defeats were merely a symptom of the harshness of life, and meant that you just had to keep on trying until at last you succeeded.
He cast his mind right back to the beginning, to his childhood in the shack of mud bricks where, on 28 April 1937 by the Christian calendar, he had been born into an impoverished society tightly bound by custom. His father died before his birth - at least that was what he had been told - and his mother shortly afterwards remarried. Not only did his stepfather delight in beating him, but
because Saddam was rumoured to be illegitimate and because it went against the usual practice for him to be raised in his stepfather's house he was regarded by other boys as an oddity, a perversion. When he went to and from school each day, he had to carry a steel bar to protect himself from them.
Otherwise he had no personal possessions, nothing he could truly call his own. Then one day, some of his cousins gave him a present. It was a small object made of metal; black and shiny, about a foot long, and cold and smooth to the touch.
It was a gun.

FIVE
You needed a sense of humour as well as fortitude to get by in Saudi. But get by you could.
Caroline spent most of her time, when not at the refinery, in the compound where the foreign employees lived. Within the compound you could do more or less what you liked; it was when you ventured beyond it that you had to be careful. It wasn't quite so bad for men, who could wear casual Western clothing with impunity, but women must scrupulously avoid showing too much flesh. The recommended dress was a long black cloak, or abbaya, and floor-length skirt. In some places you had to make sure everything except the face was covered up, or even wear the veil. Outside those places it wasn't strictly necessary to cover the head although she tended to do so because the first sight of her flowing golden mane would be an invitation to the local menfolk to cluster round her making suggestive remarks. Sometimes, with her eyes hidden by the dark glasses she found useful in warding off the blinding May sunshine, she was almost unrecognisable.
In the end she had settled on a white robe with a hood which she could pull up if desired. She got used to it and in fact, she thought, looked quite fetching in it. In addition, the long loose garment was a practical thing to wear in a hot climate. She wore it even at the refinery where, being a trusted and respected member of the management, she was allowed a certain freedom.
Altogether, the restrictions on dress weren't the most annoying.
She was not allowed to drive, and in restaurants had to sit apart from the men in a special women-only section. Some smaller shops and fast-food restaurants were closed to her entirely. She couldn't travel widely without a male chaperone and she couldn't leave the country or book into a hotel without a letter from a sponsor. There were restrictions on what she could eat and drink - alcohol and pork were definitely out - and you had to remember to take and offer things with the right not the left hand. Cinemas and theatres were banned, and there were plenty of films that couldn't be shown within the compound as the material was not allowed to be brought into the country.
The one good thing about it was that although she often found herself being stared at, followed and made the subject of lewd comments she knew people would be deterred from going any further than that by the strict rules enforcing segregation of the sexes. They'd be in serious trouble if they went too far, and serve them jolly well right. In her own culture, she was used to receiving undue attention from the opposite sex. Here, the intensity of that attention, which stemmed from her being a foreigner and thus, to the male population, something exotic and fascinating, was unnerving but she'd soon learned that if you kept your cool, looked aloof and toffee-nosed, and gave those you'd marked out as potential gropers a hard hostile stare you could deflect the worst of it. You shouldn't of course do anything to encourage them. It ought to be said that at the other end of the scale there were men who seemed nervous, even frightened, at the thought of being in the same room as her, which she found rather sweet.
Though she knew there was no point in complaining, she found the sexual segregation irritating and discriminatory. In relations between Westerners and strict Muslims it was the more liberal culture which was at a disadvantage, since when its members went to live and work in somewhere like Saudi Arabia they had to make all kind of changes to their lifestyle and habits whereas people from Saudi or any other strict Islamic country going to England, though they could not regulate the behaviour of those around them, simply went on living much as they normally would. Living in a free country meant you were allowed to be restrictive, if you were applying the restrictions only to yourself. At heart she knew it was a natural and unavoidable kind of discrimination and there was no sense in protesting about it.
She reflected that it was because the common humanity of the two races was recognised that sexual or other immorality on the part of a Westerner meant the same thing as immorality on the part of a
Saudi, and thus caused offence. They were also afraid that their own people would take up liberal habits. They would certainly demand freedom to do so, or get highly indignant, if they saw Westerners enjoying the privilege of exemption from the restrictions they were obliged to impose on themselves.
In time, she got used to it. There was little other option.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about it all was the hypocrisy. They had been told it was OK to wear bikinis when in the compound swimming pool. It was a not infrequent occurrence for peeping toms to try and sneak a look at them; once someone had come along in a
helicopter and hovered above the pool for several minutes, feasting their eyes on the display of naked female flesh below. It had happened several more times before a strong complaint to the local police had put a stop to the practice.
One plus about living here was that you were generally safe from muggers and pickpockets. She had a sneaking admiration for a society where stealing could be punished by the cutting off of a hand.
In Saudi Arabia men never take their wives out in public. This rule did not apply to foreign, non-Muslim women. That night Caroline was out dining with Hamid Zakaria, the plant's manager, at a top Riyadh restaurant. It was a purely platonic arrangement. Hamid, a cheerful balding little man in his late forties, wore a Western-style suit and tie.
It was something of a working lunch. Most of what they were discussing concerned routine administrative or financial matters. Caroline wanted to talk about security arrangements at the plant in the light of growing attacks by Islamic militants on Western interests in the country, but that had been done to death at a meeting the previous day. Her thoughts kept returning to the subject, and Hamid sensed her fears.
"I still think they would not kill you," he said reassuringly.
"Why? Because I'm an attractive Western woman? Does that make me better than anyone else?"
"No. But many Muslims are sentimental about Western women. Or the Taliban might have killed that reporter they arrested just before the West invaded Afghanistan. You'll observe that they didn't."
"They were trying to curry favour," she said scornfully. "Not that it did them much good in the end."
"If people are mad enough about something they'll forget any other consideration," she continued darkly. "What happened to those tourists in Egypt or the passengers on the hijacked planes on 11th September disproves your theory. There were people like me among them. Anyway, when I get on a plane or go into a building with lots of other people, and you can't see my face, I become an anonymous little statistic who you can quite happily kill if it suits your purposes."
She scanned the room as if in search of something more cheerful to talk about. "Look, there's Jackie and the Prince." A few tables away one of Caroline's colleagues, an attractive auburn-haired girl from South London, was being chatted up by Prince Wahid al-Attah, a handsome Saudi with an impressive jutting beak of a nose. It had became evident to Caroline that a seduction campaign was being mounted by the local dignitaries towards the company's Western female employees, and it was proving by no means unsuccessful. Liaisons were common, the couple often living openly together. Those who had been won over were moved to luxurious apartments in a swanky suburb of the city where visitors were permitted (and where the Muslim women were restricted to the single quarters, into which no men were allowed). The Saudis were not deterred from making overtures to them, nor the objects of their affection from responding positively, while they were already married or in a relationship. It was obvious what went on between them, and the authorities were not particularly bothered by it as long as the partners did not go so far as to marry, which would have been illegal. The converse was not true; a Muslim women who associated in any way with an infidel could face severe social sanctions, and possibly death.
There were plenty of young Western women who had fantasies about marrying Saudi notables and becoming princesses. Prince Wahid had shamelessly exploited such conceits. The Prince had cleverly wangled things so he got to meet Jackie, won her over with his charm, and soon installed her in his palatial villa. A chauffeured limousine conveyed her to and from work each day. After meeting him she had become preoccupied and uncommunicative, and gradually withdrew from the social life of the compound.
"I think I'd better have a word with her," Caroline sighed.
"Somehow I don't think it will do much good," Hamid muttered.
"I'm game for a laugh." She scrutinised the couple closely. "Why do you think there is all this interest in Western women over here?"
"Opposites attract," Hamid suggested. "But there is more to it than that.
"We consider ourselves impotent if we cannot indulge in…sexual intercourse more than two or three times a day. The late King Ibn Saud always said it was the thing most worth living for. And King Abdul-Aziz, the founder of our country, married his first wife when he was fifteen and is said altogether to have had three hundred women during his lifetime, in addition to slaves and concubines; the exact figure is difficult to determine. We need more than we can get from the four wives we are allowed by law."
"And you?" she asked.
"I have the fortune to be happily married." He laughed. "Of course it is not always possible to have sex three times a day, but I do my best."
"It's not that you are more promiscuous than we are," he asserted, anticipating the indignant complaint Caroline had been about to make. "We admit that people are much the same everywhere. We don't deny a person's natural urges, we simply have a different means of letting them out. For example, we allow a man to have more than one wife; or to commit adultery with concubines, prostitutes or unmarried women, though that is not the case in every Muslim country. What Muslims find strange, even offensive, about the West is not the promiscuity but the fact that you are so hypocritical about it. Bigamy is illegal but adultery is widely and unofficially sanctioned. Your sexual mores are puzzling and confused."
"They're not, not really. I mean, I don't think physical infidelity is the worst damage you can inflict on a marriage."
"So would you...sleep around, if you were married?"
"No," she said emphatically.
"Well then!" Hamid smiled, feeling his point was proven.
Caroline was forced to concede defeat.
"So," he went on. "That is one reason. We also believe that if a Saudi woman and man are left alone together, they are sure to have sex. That is why they must be segregated." This seemed irrational to Caroline. The idea, as soon became clear, seemed to be to prevent women from being promiscuous but not men.
"But," Hamid added ruefully, "often it simply contributes to the problem. The sex drive becomes even stronger and the only way for a man to satisfy it is to have intercourse with foreign women - air hostesses, nurses, business executives like yourself, technicians. If necessary they will go to England or America to find them." They must be non-Muslims because to have sex with a Muslim woman other than your wife would be socially dangerous - and for the woman, could lead to death.
"It still seems to me that Western women are being used mainly to fulfil the naughty little desires people can't indulge back home. It'd make me feel dirty and degraded." She wouldn't go with someone she knew to be married in any case, but now the idea of sex with a Saudi man seemed particularly offputting.
"I can understand why you should feel like that. But what harm is there in it?"
"I'm not sure," Caroline mused.
The next day, at a time when she and Jackie were alone in the office, Caroline seized her chance. She drew a deep breath and went up to her. "Jackie, it may not be any of my business but I felt I had to talk to you. About you and Prince Wahid; do you really think it's a good idea? I mean, he's already got two wives."
"Then I'll become a Muslim," said Jackie.
"Just so you can marry him?" Somehow she found this use of religion purely for social convenience offended her.
"It's no problem. I can stand all the weird things they have to do if it means we can be together."
That wasn't what Caroline had meant, but she didn't want to sound like a vicar.
"You know he's just doing it for the sex, don't you? He's been trying to get his greedy claws on just about every woman on the compound. He had a go at seducing me the other day." People had been making Caroline offers on an almost daily basis, feting her with presents of all kinds which she politely refused. They would try to fix it so that they got to meet her by offering bribes to her associates and colleagues. "Yes, I do," said Jackie. "And I don't care."
She grinned wickedly. "They're bloody good in bed. He's not the first one I've had. You ought to try them."
"So it's just the sex?"
"And the money, the jewels and all that. I'm only taking what I can get. You have to in this world, as I see it."
"What would your family think?"
"It's not up to them, is it?"
"It's much better with him than it is in the compound," Jackie went on. "I'm onto a good thing here and I'd be daft not to see it."
"No, there's nothing wrong with it." Jackie stared hard at Caroline. "You're not racist are you, by any chance?"
"No I'm not, thanks. I'm just concerned that you're embarking on something which hasn't got a hope of lasting and could end in tears. If he really loves you, fine. But I don't think he does, somehow."
"Well thanks for your concern," said Jackie, "But I know what's good for me." She turned on her heels and stalked off.
Caroline gazed after her, pursing her lips.
Maybe it was just harmless fun after all; the Prince would probably jettison Jackie in a few weeks, once the novelty had worn off. Shrugging, she went back to her work.

The meeting of the Security Council had not taken long to decide that an inspection of the complex at Quarat was warranted. In view of his previous UNSCOM experience Theodore Malikian was considered the obvious person to lead the inspection team, and he had immediately obeyed the summons to New York, although rueful at having to interrupt his teaching for an indefinite period. Now, in a committee room within the United Nations building he was giving the team its briefing.
It was a happy reunion; he'd worked with them all before, though not recently. Some were full-time UN officials, others on loan from their various governments. A reasonably even balance had to be maintained between the two; he hoped they'd got it about right. There had to be career international civil servants to give the impression that the UN was an independent body and not just a tool of its constituent states. But often there were few people within the organisation with the expertise required to do whatever job had come up, because it suffered from financial cutbacks and couldn't always afford to pay its staff. Malikian was also concerned that the lapse of time since anyone had had to put their skills into practice might have caused those skills to ossify, although to think so seemed uncharitable towards people he knew.
He studied the faces before him. Zeke Masalawu was a black South African who looked a bit like Nelson Mandela and like Mandela was of royal blood. Malikian thought he worked for the United Nations because it was a noble calling, and thus befitted one of his ancestry. He was a quiet, thoughtful man whose unassuming manner betrayed, Malikian knew, a certain inner strength. He was an expert in nuclear weapons. John Cardall (missile technology) was a greying, middle-aged Australian who tended to speak his mind, often in highly colourful language. Brigitta Carlsson of Denmark, a plump, motherly blonde in her fifties, and a close friend and colleague of Malikian's, was a photographer and also an Arabic speaker. She would take the photos, study the documentation and also act as Malikian's personal assistant and press agent. Yukio Ohama (chemical weapons) had been appointed to advise the Japanese government on his area of expertise following the gas attack by a terrorist group in a Tokyo subway in 1995. He was a friendly, considerate man, if sometimes inscrutable like many of his race. Felipe Soares of Portugal knew all there to know about bacteriological warfare. Malikian himself was to handle all diplomatic aspects of the mission as well as be its "conceptual thinker".
"It's a long time since we've been in Iraq, so let me fill you all in on what we're going to have to do," Malikian began.
It certainly was a long time. UNSCOM had been created as part of the implementation of the UN resolution of April 1991 calling on Iraq to give up its weapons of mass destruction. The idea was that it would work closely with the International Atomic Energy Authority, which had general responsibility for regulating the spread of nuclear technology, but co-operation between the two bodies had not always been smooth. That had been only one of the problems which had hampered UNSCOM's effectiveness. Over the years fatigue at the constant Iraqi backsliding and evasiveness wore down UN resistance, and eventually clever manoeuvring by the Iraqis which split the Security Council, usurping of its functions by the Council, and disagreements between its officials and their own governments had put an end to the Commission. As unavoidably happens in matters like these things UNSCOM had developed its own distinct culture and many UN officials and member states, wrongly, believed it had its own agenda and should not be trusted.
But now the renewed concentration on Iraq after September 11th, and Saddam's apparent decision to meet his enemies at least half way, had led to its revival. While Malikian and his team were checking out the mysterious plant near Quarat other UN teams, hastily assembled from among the available experts, would be inspecting various arms dumps around the country to assure themselves that the weapons Saddam had marked for destruction did not lack vital components from which a new arsenal could be built elsewhere, and then supervising their disposal.
This time there would be no repeat of the mistakes made in the past. While politically no overt distinction would be made between UNSCOM and the UN Security Council, in practice the latter would be the sole arbiter of what needed to be done in order to solve the problem of Saddam's WMDs.
"We know what to look for when we get there," Malikian said. High security, meaning troops and double security fences, along with the absence of building documentation would show that an installation was a high-priority government project, probably involving weapons of some kind. Plant for the manufacture of nuclear and chemical weapons was large and relatively easy to identify; that for missile and bioweapons production less so. But the way the buildings on the site were dispersed and the presence of air-conditioned storage bunkers might nonetheless suggest a bacterial weapons plant. In all cases they would need to look at the volume of traffic that came in and out of the site.
They knew what to ask for from the Iraqis. Unrestricted freedom of movement into, out of and within the country. The right to make visits without notice, and to enter any installation to examine, remove and if necessary destroy any material which looked as if it might be used in WMD manufacture; interview all relevant personnel; and install permanent equipment for the purpose of monitoring a site. During the inspection Iraq would be responsible for accommodating the inspection team and providing them with any facilities they might require.
Brigitta would scan production records and other documents and make an inventory of all items earmarked for confiscation. Papers would have to be subjected to forensic analysis to establish that they were not forgeries. Equipment had to be tagged and permanent video cameras installed.
They knew what they might be coming up against, from the evidence of previous UNSCOM missions. The Iraqis, Malikian warned, might reconfigure the site, remove incriminating material whether in the shape of documents, personnel or equipment, from it - they would have to look for dirt lines and indentations in the floors and walls suggesting heavy items had been shifted about - or confiscate what the UN did manage to lay its hands on. Access to the sites might be refused point blank. Would there, Malikian wondered, be a repeat of the incident where the inspectors had climbed to the top of a water tower to survey the site, observing a convoy of trucks - which contained magnets used in the enriching of weapons-grade uranium - leaving the place and chasing after them to take photographs with Iraqi soldiers firing over their heads? Or the one where they had confiscated material from a chemical plant only to be trapped in a parking lot for eight days, during which they communicated with the outside world by satellite phone, by soldiers demanding return of the documents.
If necessary, should the Iraqis stonewall over allowing them entry to a site, they were prepared to pick locks or break down doors.
But it didn't look like they would be encountering any of those problems. The letter from the Secretary-General to the Iraqi foreign minister setting out what was required had received a reply almost immediately. In it the Iraqis had cordially granted permission to look over the site, earnestly stressing that everything the inspection team might need was at their disposal. Every condition they had laid down had been granted. Even the presence of Americans in the inspection team - inevitable because many of the experts in the relevant fields happened to be of that nationality - did not cause any friction.
"I wish I knew what we're going to find when we get there," Malikian said as he closed the meeting.
"The Iraqis wouldn't have been so happy to let us go there at all unless the place was harmless," said Brigitta.
"Something about this business just doesn't ring true," Malikian growled. "It's all too simple, too easy."
"You can never be sure with those bastards," Cardall remarked.
"Well," Malikian sighed, "something tells me this assignment is going to turn out to be very interesting, whatever happens."

Caroline had been invited to a function at the house of a prominent local businessman and dignitary. A servant met her at the entrance and showed her into the sumptuously furnished drawing room, which smelt heavily of perfume, rosewater and sandalwood. In one corner a portable stereo was playing soft music. Flowers had been arranged on delicately carved little tables. The lights were dim.
She was greeted by an attractive Western woman, in her forties but still glamorous. Tall, honey-blonde, with high cheekbones and green-grey eyes, she wore a long, flowing white robe and was bedecked with jewels. Identifying herself as Helena Southern, she introduced Caroline to the sheikh and to the other guests, who were mostly business associates of his. They hailed from a variety of countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
It was quite obvious what Helena was. She handled all the sheikh's domestic affairs, managing his servants and acting as chaperone to his guests. But although it wasn't expressly admitted, their relationship clearly went further than that. Several times, when Caroline was trying to pretend she hadn't guessed the truth, Helena winked at her and gave her a confidential, rather wicked smile.
Chatting to the woman, Caroline learned that she came from North London and had met the sheikh at a diplomatic function; she had at that time been working at the Embassy, giving up her job shortly afterwards to live with him. She seemed to be from a conventional, respectable middle-class background.
The sheikh did have one wife but she and their five children lived away.
Helena had no regrets, seeming to enjoy the role of hostess and courtesan. "I like this life," she told Caroline. "I've no plans to go home. I might even marry him."
But would she be happy to stay, Caroline thought, if anti-Western feeling in the Gulf continued to grow? Would she be safe?
After nattering to Helena and the guests for a while longer, sipping wine and champagne, Caroline wandered over to see what was going on in an adjacent room whose entrance was partly concealed by a tapestry. Music was faintly audible from within.
The sight that met her eyes almost knocked her backwards. Watched by a dozen or so Arab men, a number of European girls were dancing rather indifferently around a table. One of them began a tuneless rendition of a current pop song, stumbling over the words and often saying rather than singing them. All told it was a pathetic performance. None of the girls, Caroline noted, was wearing very much.
Suddenly she found the tapestry abruptly pulled shut, blocking the girls from her view. Evidently no-one was meant to see what was going on here. She pursed her lips.
She went back into the living room, where Helena introduced her to a few more of the guests. She got talking to a group of the sheikh's friends about life in Saudi and Britain and how the two cultures compared. She was asked what she did for a living, whether she had a boyfriend, whether she intended to get married and when.
One of the men, who looked as if he had had a little too much to drink, addressed her in Arabic. "What did he say?" Caroline asked. Another grinned sheepishly. "He is saying he would like to make love to you."
Caroline laughed good-naturedly, shaking her head. "I'm afraid you can't expect me to say yes just like that," she smiled. "We're not actually like that where I come from, most of us anyway."
"Besides," she laughed, "I'm very expensive - "
She broke off abruptly. The Saudi who had propositioned her was regarding her with a venomous expression, rage and hatred blazing in his eyes. The atmosphere in the room turned to frozen glass.
Slowly, he stood up and walked towards her, his fists clenched and his arms held rigidly by his sides. His mouth twisted and he said something in Arabic; a single word, delivered in a harsh rasping fashion. His friends chose not to translate it.
At a loss what to say, Caroline just stood there, staring at him. His arm lashed out and his fist caught her on the side of the head, causing her to stagger. She was briefly dazed.
The other two men rounded on him furiously, shouting at him to control himself and telling him in no uncertain terms what a fool he was. He calmed down immediately, alarmed at what he had done and the reaction it had produced.
The sheikh went over to her. "I am sorry," he spluttered, clearly very embarrassed.
Caroline didn't feel she wanted to take it further. "That's OK," she said simply.
"He will not be showing his face in here again," he vowed. And indeed the man wasn't seen again after the incident, at some point sneaking away in disgrace.
"Perhaps we'd better have a look at your face?"
She studied herself in a mirror. "No, it's alright. It's just a bruise, it'll go away soon." The sheikh nodded, and went to see to another group of guests, murmuring his apologies to them.
Helena took her aside. "Are you sure you're OK?"
Caroline was more shaken than she would admit to. "What was I expected to do?" she protested. "I mean, if he really thought I was going to..."
"He got angry because you were a Westerner laughing at an Arab," Helena said. "In his book, women aren't supposed to refuse a request for sexual intercourse."
"They're not all like that here though, are they?" It was the first time anything like this had happened during Caroline's time in the country.
"Of course not. There's just a few bad hats, same as anywhere else. I'm afraid you can't always tell who they are."
She went on chatting happily to Helena and the guests as if the incident had never happened, doing her best to put it out of her mind.
She noticed the sheikh go over to the tapestry and draw it back. Almost immediately the music stopped and she heard the sounds of hurried movement.
Just before the function ended, Caroline chanced to witness the sheikh having an angry confrontation with Helena. The British woman looked utterly shocked, partly by the force of the sheikh's wrath and partly, Caroline was sure, because she had had no idea what was going on in the curtained-off room.
It was a weird business, she thought. All she could do was clock it up to experience.

After a stopover in London the UN team had boarded a plane to the Habbaniyah International Airport near Baghdad; they were now well out over the Atlantic. Malikian had already sent his usual circular round welcoming everybody to the mission, following it up later with one of his regular briefings, in which he made sure everyone knew what their responsibilities were and had what they needed to fulfil them. Now they were all enjoying coffee and a chat. Their mood was subdued, but fairly optimistic. Most of them shared Malikian's conviction that things would not run as smoothly as expected, although they were prepared for anything.
"All this just seems so uncharacteristic of Saddam," Malikian was saying. "It's out of line with everything he's done in the past. And a leopard doesn't change its spots."
"Well, I certainly don't trust him," snorted Brigitta. "The man is loathsome. He could get sanctions lifted if he co-operated with us a bit more. But he lets his own people die just to make the West look cruel. He cuts off his nose to spite his face." Saddam had withheld distribution of UN-supplied food because it implied he could not look after his own people, and so he could punish those who he suspected opposed him without the bother of ordering their execution.
"He doesn't want to be seen as weak, that's why," Malikian said. "But I don't think the Iraqi people would bother much. For one thing, they can't imagine anyone else being in power and are nervous about any change. He hasn't got a heck of a lot to worry about; and he must know that. It's just a duel between him and the West and he doesn't care if ordinary Iraqis suffer as a result of it."
"Hopefully, all that's coming to an end now," said Felipe Soares.
"But all those years of violence, and war...why?" Brigitta shook her head in weary disgust. "Why is the man such a brute?"
Malikian laughed. "Do you know, "Saddam" means "the one who confronts." But to answer your question, I think it's a matter of environment. He had an awful childhood, you know - with these things it always boils down to having had an awful childhood, in the end. He was beaten very badly by his stepfather, bullied by the other kids at school. He had no possessions of his own until he was ten, and when he did get one it was a gun. Is it any surprise the way he turned out?"
"You're expressing sympathy for him?"
"I'm just saying people like Saddam, or Bin Laden, are human, despite what they do, and it's as human beings - seriously flawed ones - that we have to understand them. They have their story to tell, their reasons for being what they are."
"It doesn't excuse it, Theo."
"Of course I know it doesn't excuse it. But it does explain it."
He leaned back in his seat reflectively, clasping his hands over the pit of his stomach. "You know, Saddam Hussein is a unique phenomenon. There's nothing else quite like him in the world today. No more Hitler, Stalin, Franco or Mao. I admit there's a danger you can make him into something he isn't, but I don't think the comparison with Hitler, say, is at all facile as some have suggested. He persecutes minorities and he has the power to threaten international stability by what he does, or the threat of it. I rest my case. He's able to frighten the world and by that ability change it in unpleasant ways."
"And the West gave him that power," pointed out Zeke. "You built him up, if you don't mind my saying so Theo."
Malikian snorted. "My conscience is clear as far as that's concerned. We gave him all those weapons because at the time it was Iran which seemed to be the principal threat, not him. Iran which was making all the anti-Western statements, Iran which had a virulent hatred for the whole Western way of life. He was a counter to it. It's like saying we shouldn't have supported Stalin against the Nazis. We should have let them overrun the whole world and kill everyone who wasn't a pure Aryan. And what we gave him, Saddam took eagerly. You could say that if I give you a gun it doesn't mean you have the right to use it to kill me. Or anyone else for that matter.
"Not so long ago I lived for a while in England, while I was on an associate fellowship at Oxford, and there was a series being shown on TV about the great dictators, of whom Saddam is maybe the last. After Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon et al they finished off with him. It basically said our perception of Saddam as an international bogeyman was motivated by racism. We saw Arabs as unstable and dangerous people who threatened our way of life. They had to put everything through a politically correct filter. I'm not noted for being a foaming-at-the-mouth reactionary, but I was disappointed. They were talking bullshit because the West has never had a monopoly of evil and power-hungry people - we all know that and might even be prepared to admit to it, but in practice we don't act as if we think it's the case.
"It's happening partly for geopolitical reasons and partly because it's inevitable in the end given the global village and the exchange of ideas, information and commodities. But if the Middle East, in the modern world, can produce people like Saddam who have the capacity to cause conflict on a regional scale and threaten international security, whereas previously it was the West and Russia who did that, it's example of history moving on. I'd been looking forward to the programme and when I saw it I was annoyed because they'd missed the chance to raise that point.
“They also failed to discuss the psychology of the man. He's a more complex character than people suppose. Although he works through fear rather than personal magnetism, I'm told he's not without a certain sense of humour."
"I was going to ask, Theo," said Brigitta. "About his religion. How much does that matter to him? Presumably he's a Muslim of some kind."
"Yes, nominally he's a Sunni Muslim. But in fact he only plays the religious card, acts like a devout believer, when it suits him. He has no faith except power; his own ego and self-aggrandisement. Although in his own way, I think he genuinely does hate the Jews and anything that threatens Arab interests."
"Unless he really does intend to wipe us all out with some superweapon, which would lead to his own destruction, or gives himself a new legitimacy by embracing the cause of peace, I would say Saddam is finished," said Zeke. "As an international bogeyman, anyway. He can do no more than maintain his grip on his own country. If he tries to extend his power any further the West will destroy him."
"I guess you're right. Of course he has to rattle a few sabres every now and then to make sure the world doesn't forget he's there, and to retain his prestige among his own people. Middle Eastern leaders like him and Gaddafi need to strike a certain balance between not bringing down the wrath of the West upon them, with appalling consequences, and being seen to stand up to what is seen as Western bullying. That's why Gaddafi makes a conciliatory statement one day and the next says something provocative, like let's kick all the whites out of Zimbabwe, or tries to get his hands on something he can use to make a nuclear bomb with."
"Whatever the case, he's always there," said Cardall wearily. "Saddam, that is. Always. Like a bad dream the world can't manage to shake off."
"Do you think there's any possibility of him being overthrown, Theo?" Brigitta asked eagerly.
Malikian shook his head slowly and with certainty. "It would be easy but for one thing. Everyone's too worried they might be the guy who gets shot in the process. Saddam's taken steps to insure himself against the possibility, of course. Everybody in an official position only knows their immediate superior, who takes care to keep them in the dark - as he himself is kept in the dark - about important decisions until the very last moment. Among other things it means nobody dares criticise the government because most of the time you don't know the person you're speaking to, how important he is. The guy who cleans out the toilets may have more power than the boss, especially if he's a member of the Ba'ath party. It means your colleague or even your boss can be openly criticised for insufficient loyalty to the state because he shows up late for work. That destroys the authority of managers and reduces their effectiveness, and also eats away at personal integrity. It's one reason why Iraq is governed so inefficiently. Saddam doesn't mind because for him the main thing is preserving his position.
"It's ruling not just by dividing people, but by keeping them ignorant. Saddam's a thug, but he's a fairly astute one, in some ways. Or he wouldn't still be with us.
"He's content in the end to rule through fear while seeing the additional benefits to be gained from the occasional stunt; handing out money and colour TVs in poor areas, opening up a hotline for people to ring him with their complaints about poor administration, and stepping in now and again to free someone's son or husband from a sentence of life imprisonment. He also exploits morality for propaganda purposes. He's said to have publicly shot an army officer in the war with Iran who gave an order to retreat rather than shoot down lots of teenage Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It was a lie to cover the fact that the Iraqis had simply been defeated, and it had the additional advantage of suggesting his officers were morally honourable men even if that nobility was misplaced. God, it makes me puke."
"And you reckon we're stuck with him for the time being. But what about the Army, say? Surely - "
"He's got the military completely under his control. No-one can be an officer if they're not a member of the Ba'ath Party, and they have to refer it to the party leadership when making important decisions. A soldier can disobey the orders of a superior who isn't a member. Any soldier or member of the police force who engages in unlicensed political activity gets the death penalty.
"No, Saddam can get away with just about anything. He can claim he's descended from the Prophet, which he knows is utter crap, because he also knows no-one will dare to question it. It shows the contempt he has for his people."
"Do you suppose that..." began Brigitta. "I mean, that thing about him not being seen for ages, and bodyguards standing in for him all the time..."
"Oh, that rumour!" Malikian smiled. "Well, I must admit I've had my suspicions. The photos and film clips you see of Saddam often look like they were shot way back. But that's because he doesn't want to dispel the myth of his invulnerability by being seen to age in the normal manner. I'm sure he started the rumour, like he's started plenty of others, just to keep people guessing. The West he'll taunt for its own sake, and at home the hoax serves to test people's loyalty by their reactions. In 1983 he pretended there'd been a coup attempt for the same reason. No, I think Saddam's very much alive.
"It's one man we're dealing with. One man who'll pull out a gun and shoot you if you make even the slightest criticism of his regime. Several members of his family have gone that way already. And who you don't want to shoot yourself because you're not sure what other people's reaction will be, who the Saddam loyalists are.
"One man who cannot be reasoned with except by force. Our only hope is that he'll die in the not too distant future. Before he sets the world on fire again. Always assuming, of course, that that's what he's aiming to do."

The review of conditions at the refinery had now been completed, and Caroline's stay in the Kingdom was at an end. Still wearing her chabrah, she was dropped off at the airport by Hamid.
While she was waiting to board her flight, her eyes roved around the busy foyer of the terminal building, studying her fellow travellers with interest. Her attention was caught, and held, by a group of women who stood close together in a corner as if they preferred not to be seen. All wore the regulation black abayya.
From their faces, the only part of them that wasn't covered up, it could be seen that they were young, none of them over thirty, mostly fair-skinned and all European. They chatted happily to one another.
Standing at the edge of the group, though clearly a part of it, was a tall powerfully-built man with a swarthy complexion. He was continually pacing up in down, his hands in his pockets, his expression watchful and alert, always keeping within a foot or so of the girls. Another man stood a little further away, smoking a cigarette and eyeing everything in sight.
Caroline found herself becoming intrigued by the group. She realised she was staring at them and was about to move away, in case it seemed impolite, when one of the girls happened to catch her eye.
Caroline gaped at her, her eyes widening in sheer astonishment. "Mandy?!!!?"
The hair was hidden by the chabrah, but there was no mistaking the face.
Mandy looked equally astonished. She managed a smile.
"What are you doing here?" Caroline gasped.
Mandy didn't get the chance to answer. Caroline sensed a sudden swift movement close by her, and a loud voice barked in her ear, causing her to jump. She whirled round. The tall man was advancing towards her, his expression and bearing hostile.
"Go away!" he snapped in English. His voice was harsh and threatening. "Go away! It's nothing to do with you, OK? Go away!"
Caroline stared at him. "What's nothing to do with me?"
"I said go away!"
She wavered for a moment, but stood her ground. "Hey, don't you talk to me like that."
"Just go away. She doesn't want to be bothered, OK?"
"I can talk to her if I like," said Caroline.
He clenched his fist and thrust it right up to her face, shouting something in Arabic.
"You lay a finger on me and you'll regret it," she warned. She hoped she wouldn't have to carry out her threat, and cause a scene. Here women were supposed to be meek, subservient creatures. If they caused a disturbance in a public place they were not likely to receive sympathetic treatment from the police.
The girls looked on, showing no reaction except for a slight trace of apprehension. Then one of them went up to her, took her aside and whispered in her ear. "Better do as he says, love. We don't want any trouble."
Her accent, Caroline noted, was pure Yorkshire.
Caroline hesitated for a moment. Then, stiffly, she turned and strode away, giving the minder one last dirty look over her shoulder to save her face. The man's gaze followed her suspiciously.
She was not only angry, white-faced and quivering with repressed fury, but also disturbed at the encounter. She decided to make use of the relative freedom she enjoyed over her own affairs, being a senior executive, and stay on in Saudi a little longer. There were one or two things she wanted to find out.

SIX
Dr Hans Eckige plodded wearily down Prinzwillemstrasse in Cologne, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, his plump face wearing its usual morose expression. Occasionally someone would greet him with a smile and a friendly "hello". It was grimly ironic, he thought, that he was received best by those he knew least.
He was coming back from his usual Sunday evening walk in the park a couple of miles from his flat. There, as always on such excursions, he had reflected on the course his life was taking without arriving at any solution to his problems
Feeling suddenly weary, he paused to sit on a bench and rest for a while, losing himself in his thoughts.
One reason for the cancellation of the project which had been his life's work was the relative economic decline the country was experiencing. Partly, it was a consequence of having to absorb the clumsy and backward East German infrastructure. When money was not as abundant as had once been the case, there was no justification in spending it on a project whose worth was unproven. And which too many people were simply not interested in, or dismissed as an absurd flight of fancy.
There was one other scientist, in England, who thought on similar lines and the two of them had met and corresponded; but that other had, like him, met only with failure.
Eckige's bitterness at his rejection had soured his relations with his colleagues. There had been a few sharp words, unjust accusations on both sides, and now he hardly ever spoke to them, or vice versa, if it could be helped.
To his disenchantment most of his time was now spent lecturing rather than on actual research. He knew at heart that he had been unreasonable in breaking off all contact with his former colleagues, but in his depression he lacked the will to overcome the festering resentment he continued to feel.
The photon project had been his life's work, his only interest; some would have said it was an obsession. Now that it was scrapped there wasn't much left for him to do. No other field interested him much. It might help if he could have had the comfort and support of a wife; but Eckige remained lonely, because he had spent too much of his life buried in his work and now found he didn't know how to go about finding a partner, how to relate to the opposite sex.
The beautiful strains of a choir drifted to him from the church across the road. He wondered if he should abandon science altogether and seek solace in religion. It sometimes seemed the only option open to him. Maybe he'd pay the church a visit next Sunday.
It was dark by the time he lifted himself off the bench and turned towards the apartment block where he lived. Halfway up the stairs he bumped into the woman from the flat next to his, and they exchanged cursory nods. That was about the extent of his contact with the other residents of the block.
At the top of the stairs he went through an internal door into the corridor that divided the uppermost floor and turned to the left.
He stopped in surprise. Two men were standing by the door of his apartment, evidently waiting for him, their hands in the pockets of their light summer overcoats. They looked up as he approached, and smiled. Both were in their thirties and fair-haired.
Eckige hadn't imagined that anyone would be interested in him these days. "Can I help you?" he asked curiously.
"Dr Eckige, could we have a word with you in confidence?" The man spoke with a strong Middle Eastern accent.
"What about?" Eckige demanded.
"We are representatives of the Jordanian government," the man said by way of reply.
Jordan? That was a friendly country, so he supposed it would be all right. "Very well, come in," he said, and they stepped back to let him unlock the door.
He ushered them inside. Like the homes of many scientists the flat was hopelessly untidy, strewn alike with books, papers and domestic items. He invited them to seat themselves on the sofa while he planted himself in an armchair opposite them.
His eyes had lit up somewhat. Whatever this was, it sounded important and therefore possibly of benefit to him. He regarded the two men expectantly.
The older of them, the one who had made the initial approach, opened the conversation. "Dr Eckige, our government is currently involved in scientific research of a kind with which you may be able to help us."
Eckige started, his eyes gleaming even brighter. He liked the sound of this. "What kind of research?"
"Two years ago you published a paper on the use of light as a means of propulsion. Your colleagues, however, were not quite so enthusiastic and your application for a research grant was refused. You have had no luck elsewhere. It is clear you found the situation extremely disappointing."
"You're well-informed," Eckige commented.
"We had to carry out some research of our own in order to find someone such as yourself. Anyhow, it turns out there is something to which your work may have an application."
"What is it?" Eckige asked, his excitement mounting.
"We would like you to examine this." The Jordanian took a small metal casket, the size and shape of a spectacle case, from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of Eckige. He opened it to reveal a shard of a gleaming white substance that looked like crystal.
"If you were to examine this material in a laboratory, you would find that it has some very interesting properties. It is harder than any other known substance. It took many months before we were able to detach even this one sliver of it." He nodded towards a paper knife on the desk. "Try to cut it and you will see for yourself."
Eckige complied, placing one hand on the object while the other held the knife. After several minutes' grunting exertion he was unable to make the slightest impression. "It's tougher than diamond."
"Now turn the fire on up to full."
Eckige did as requested. "Hold the fragment close to it."
He placed it half an inch from the glowing bars, just far enough away to avoid singing his fingers.
"Keep it there for a minute or two."
After that time had elapsed Eckige withdrew it. To his amazement the object wasn't even slightly warm. In fact it was still cold, almost painfully so, to the touch.
Switching the fire off, he turned slowly to his two guests. "That's impossible."
"Evidently it is not."
"I've never seen anything like it before," he said wonderingly. "Where does it come from? How did you find it?"
"It comes from something which was ploughed up by one of our farmers a few months ago. Let me elaborate."
Eckige listened to the man with a feeling of total incredulity. Afterwards he slumped in his chair and gaped at him like a fish, astonished and disorientated. "Are...are you telling the truth?"
"What you have just seen proves it. And take a look at these." The Iraqi opened a briefcase and extracted a sheaf of blown-up black-and-white photographs. Eckige studied them carefully, fascinated but still a little wary. "They could be faked."
"We would be happy to let you see the object for yourself. As a physicist I am sure you would find it a most interesting experience."
"It's crazy," he gasped.
Too crazy, he realised giddily, to be just a hoax. No-one would come to you with a story like that and expect you to believe it unless it was actually true.
After a moment he said quietly, "and what exactly do you want me to do with this thing?"
"To find out how its powers can be fully harnessed."
"For what purpose? You're being a little evasive." His eyes narrowed. "I thought your country was supposed to be friendly towards the West. What's going on?"
The other man smiled. "I think it is time we told you the truth, Dr Eckige. Had we done so in the beginning I suspect you would not have agreed to see us. We are not Jordanians, we are Iraqis."
The German stiffened, then his mouth dropped open again. You don't look like Iraqis, he thought feverishly.
The Iraqi guessed his thoughts and smiled. As a consequence of migration or slavery there were fair-skinned, fair-haired people in the Middle East, although not that many of them. Occasionally the genetic lottery produced some whose features and complexion were so Nordic that they would never be taken for Arabs. It had been a sensible tactic for the Iraqi secret service to use such specimens for Saddam's European recruitment drive; there would be no sightings of suspicious-looking Middle Eastern types to establish a link with their part of the world.
Eckige found his astonishment turning to indignation. Iraq. "And...and you think I will help you?"
"Your life's work so far has been inconclusive, in that no-one will provide the funds and facilities to see it through to its conclusion. And you are not getting any younger. We offer you the chance to complete it, and to be appreciated for your achievement. When the news of our discovery, and of the role you have played in developing it, is released to the world you will be famous. Don't you want that?"
Eckige bowed his head. There was no doubt he did. But...
He looked up. "And why haven't you told people about this already?"
"There is so much suspicion of our country these days...it would be decided that we were planning to use our discovery for aggressive purposes. Action would be taken against us, and we have already suffered enough from bombs and sanctions."
Eckige stared hard at him, obviously not convinced. "I don't like it," he said unhappily. "Iraq."
"Power is our concern, Dr Eckige. We need it so that we can reshape the world in a new and better form. We are regarded as a pariah state but in truth we are no different from anyone else, with our own needs, priorities and aspirations. We want to be allowed to make our impact on the world, our own contribution to human progress. Let me tell you more of our plans."
As they did so, Eckige reeled. If it hadn't been for the evidence of the fragment and of the photographs he'd have decided some kind of practical joke was being played on him.
"We can offer you a handsome salary. Our President will be extremely grateful to you for your assistance, and may wish to reward you in other ways too."
This didn't assuage his qualms. "It…it's..." He searched in vain for the right word. Monstrous?
"You yourself are not enamoured with the current state of the world, are you? It has not been kind to you."
"I still can't believe it," Eckige murmured.
"We do not have long, Dr Eckige. We require a decision here and now."
Eckige's hands flew to his forehead. This couldn't be happening to him; it was cruel, so cruel. His brief reconciliation with God was roughly shaken; the Almighty must have a sick sense of humour. Why did the offer have to come from someone like Saddam? He couldn't take it up and he found that agonising, because he so badly needed the benefits it would provide.
Perhaps this was meant to be a test.
"You appear to be in two minds about it, Dr Eckige," observed the younger Iraqi drily.
Suddenly Eckige made up his mind. "No," he sighed, his head sinking deeper into his hands. "No, I'm sorry. Not if it's Iraq. It's quite out of the question."
"There is no chance of you changing your mind?"
"None whatsoever. I think you are wasting your time here."
"After all you have seen, everything we have shown you, you are still determined to refuse us?"
He was getting agitated, the more so because the temptation to go back on his resolution was stronger than he would have preferred. "Yes. Now please go." He stood up.
The two Iraqis got up and made for the door. "Naturally we are disappointed, Dr Eckige, but if that is your wish there is little we can do. Please contact us if you do decide to reconsider your position. Our interests in Germany are being handled through the Jordanian Embassy."
Eckige opened the door for them, and they left without a word. Feeling shaken, he went and sat down, losing himself in a haze of conflicting thoughts and emotions. The thought of the opportunity he had just missed continued to torment him.
After a while he pulled himself together. Someone must be told about the approach as soon as possible. He supposed the local police station was the right starting point. He picked up the phone and dialled the number. A moment later he put down the receiver, frowning, and reached for his mobile.
Keying in the number merely produced a dull buzzing noise. Something somewhere was interfering with the signal.
He replaced it on his desk, his skin covered with a cold film of sweat, and glanced fearfully towards the door.
Why had they cut him off?

Neghid Fouasi looked on with a sour expression as the engineer peered inside the barrel of the Blowpipe, scrutinising it carefully to make sure it was clean and nothing was out of true or corroded. A dozen more of the anti-tank missiles, already inspected, were laid out on the bench in the centre of the room.
His hands in his pockets, Fouasi watched the man with gleaming eyes, occasionally sighing heavily and glancing down at his feet. "There is no need for us to keep you, if you have other business to attend to," the engineer said coolly. At this sarcasm Fouasi's lips twisted in a venomous scowl.
Happily ignoring his impatience, the engineer got on with the job. Eventually satisfying himself the Blowpipe worked, he placed it with the others and turned to Fouasi, nodding curtly. "They're all OK."
"Of course they are," said Fouasi. "You should know me well enough by now to appreciate that I would not deceive you as to the quality of what I sell. We both want the same things, remember."
"We don't wish to take chances," the engineer told him firmly. "Now, let us see how they perform." He spoke into a mobile phone. "We're ready for the test."
"If you are certain they are working properly, then there is no need to test them," Fouasi said.
Ignoring him again, the engineer picked up one of the Blowpipes and carried it out of the room tucked underneath his arm. Fouasi followed sullenly.
They emerged from the blockhouse into the afternoon sunshine, and went over to where a group of people had been standing waiting for them. There were several officials in suits and ties, a colonel in combat fatigues.
"You've finished checking them?" the colonel demanded.
"Yes," the engineer nodded. "They're all in perfect working order. Our friend here has served us well once again." Fouasi struggled to work out whether the compliment had been sincere, but soon gave up.
"I think you should have the honour of testing it," the engineer told the colonel. He handed the Blowpipe to the soldier, who turned to face the assortment of military vehicles clustered together a couple of hundred yards from where the party stood. The jeeps and lorries were filthy, battered and rusty. He walked towards them a short distance, then halted.
Fouasi had been eyeing the other members of the party suspiciously. His gaze shifted to travel round the panorama of low, rock-studded hills surrounding them, as if he feared some enemy would at any moment come charging over them and gun everyone down.
Returning his attention to the colonel, he saw him shoulder the Blowpipe and orientate himself so that it was pointed at one of the lorries. He pulled the trigger. With an ear-splitting screech and a flash of fire, the missile streaked from its tube trailing a plume of flame behind it, to impact with the side of the lorry. As its fuel tank was ruptured the vehicle's body burst open like the petals of a flower on a speeded-up film, an orange-yellow fireball engulfing it.
The colonel lowered the Blowpipe and smiled in satisfaction at the blazing, twisted skeleton. The group of people behind him were nodding their heads and beaming at one another. "Good British workmanship," someone commented.
"Excellent," declared another of the officials. "Excellent. If we had had these before things would have gone so much better for us." He nodded to Fouasi. "Well, it's a deal."
Fouasi sensed the change in the others' mood towards him and smiled, brightening. He reckoned he'd stay on here a while after all. And watching the lorry's destruction had cheered him up, as such things did.
"This calls for a celebration," the official declared. Fouasi's spirits rose as they headed back to the blockhouse, where several crates of food and drink had been set aside for them. On the way he chatted quite amicably with the others.
Altogether he felt happy and relaxed, thoroughly pleased with himself. He would not have been so at ease if he had been aware of the two men crouched behind a rock several hundred yards away, one of whom had been surveying the party with considerable interest through a telephoto lens.

"Who would they have been?" Caroline asked Hamid.
He hesitated, then gave a wry smile. "They are companions."
"Come again?"
"Companions for the wealthy and the powerful. Most of them are prostitutes, more or less. And drug addicts. The people who control them know that. They think that because they are already involved in such things it will not matter. Others, they are told they are to entertain and they think it means dancing and singing, nothing more.
"They are lured to countries like this by promises of wealth and comfort. They say, come and dance for the Sultan and you will earn more money than you are likely to in your home countries. And you will enjoy yourselves, too. They are made to think it is like the dashing sheikh in his palace, yes?" He sighed. "They are very stupid."
"You mean they..." Caroline was growing more and more horrified by the second. She stared at Hamid open-mouthed, hardly believing that what he was telling her could be the truth. She couldn't find the words to express herself. "Do they have any choice in the matter?"
Hamid shook his head with certainty. "No, not any more. They become trapped in it and they cannot get away. Some may want to stay, but if they didn't it would make no difference."
"Why don't they try to run off?" Caroline asked.
Hamid laughed. "I imagine if they did they would be in serious trouble. If they were caught their lives would not be worth living. And their owners control their supply of drugs."
Caroline's head was reeling. She sat down slowly.
Things began to fall chillingly into place. European girls in Saudi with a minder who wouldn't let them talk to anyone, or anyone talk to them, on pain of violence. A culture where the position of women was generally inferior to that enjoyed by their sisters in the West, and where many men had little regard for them except as sex slaves. A theatrical agency that didn't exist - not as a theatrical agency, anyway - and offered lucrative contracts overseas to young attractive women. A song and dance troupe who were so bad that they couldn't possibly be in business as what
they claimed to be...
She hadn't been taken in. But Mandy Dixon wasn't as bright. And she was already heavily into drugs and prostitution, with no family who cared about what happened to her, and no prospects in her own country. Easy prey.
She was not the first, and no doubt would not be the last, victim of what was generally called, somewhat inaccurately because it was
girls of all races who got caught up in it, as the white slave trade.

In a rough district of central London a young girl in hot pants, white shoes and a skimpy top which left her midriff bare stood on a street corner smoking a cigarette, on the lookout for business. Hearing the sound of footsteps heading in her direction, she looked round to see a tough-looking character in a leather jacket cross the road towards her.
After a brief discussion they settled on a price and she led him off. A couple of minutes later they were mounting the steep staircase of a run-down Victorian house to the bedroom, where he proceeded to mount her.
In a leafy suburb across the river a smartly-suited man came up to the door of a similar, though better kept establishment and rang the bell. The woman who opened the door smiled and gestured towards the group of girls who stood a little way behind her, inviting him to make his choice. He could have more than one of them if he wanted.
The girls went about pleasuring him with an enforced cheerfulness which served to reassure the man, while preventing him from guessing something of what they were each going through. They hardly ever left the house, because if they did, whatever the reason, they would be beaten up or their supply of the drugs they took stopped. The consequences of going to the police did not bear thinking about.
Thousands of miles away in Kuwait, a gleaming black limousine drew up outside a villa belonging to a close associate of the royal family and a dozen young women alighted, each wearing the all-enveloping black chabrah. There were two Americans, two Britons, four Swedes, three Germans, a Russian and a Czech. Once inside the girls removed their chabrahs and then every other item of clothing they wore. They danced for a while, but the performance was essentially a ritual, as well as an opportunity for the villa's owner and his friends to feast their eyes on the naked white bodies. After a few minutes it was over and the girls lay down on their backs or crouched on all fours while the men proceeded to undress, their eyes gleaming in anticipation.
Further away still, in her apartment in the red-light district of Bangkok, a young woman donned her short skirt, high-heeled red shoes and brief top, slung a handbag over her shoulder and went out to join the scores of other girls clustered on the pavements outside the brothels and massage parlours, advertising their wares for the benefit of both foreign and native tourists.
Three very different countries, culturally distinct as well as widely separated geographically. But the girls all had one thing in common, the sordid and brutalising trade in which they were engaged. And the money they earned all went to the same ultimate destination. After being laundered through a succession of outwardly legitimate and respectable businesses in various countries, it found its way into an account registered with a prominent Dubai bank. The account was in the name of Neghid Fouasi.

SEVEN
The well-preserved Victorian house was but one of many more or less identical houses in this fashionable area of St John's Wood. In the 1970s, like so many other residences in salubrious parts of the capital, it had been snapped up by a wealthy Arab family; Neghid Fouasi's family, to be precise. He had inherited it from his father on the old man's death a few years ago.
Inside, number 44 retained much of its original furnishings; the varnished oak panelling, the finely carved stair rods, the brass light fittings, the Chippendale furniture with its antimacassar coverings. Through massive French windows the sumptuously laid out living room with its ankle-deep Oriental carpet looked onto a small and rather neglected garden.
The centre of the room was occupied by a massive mahogany table around which half a dozen chairs were arranged. Most of one wall was taken up by a video cabinet tall enough to almost reach the ceiling. It held nearly a hundred videos and DVDs, about half of which were blood-and-thunder movies such as First Blood, Terminator, Dirty Harry. Of the other half, a lot had the Playboy bunny emblem on the spine; in amongst this fairly innocuous soft porn were titles like Deep Throat, and many other items which strictly speaking should not have been brought into the country.
Against the opposite wall stood a bookcase full of bound volumes of all the leading men's magazines, going back as long as they had been in publication. Nearby was a wide-screen TV with VCR underneath.
The air in the room was thick with smoke from the cigarettes of the six men who sat around the table. At its head was Fouasi: a young man in his early thirties, stockily built with a broad, squarish head, dark hair of medium length and reasonably handsome features. Except for the absence of a tie he was smartly dressed.
He was listening carefully, nodding from time to time and scribbling down notes as one of his colleagues gave a brisk summary of the organisation's current financial status.
"Annual turnover's nearly nine thousand million. We're doing all right, boys."
"Any areas we can consider moving into, or ought to stay clear of?" Fouasi asked.
"No, I don't think so."
"All right, thanks Tom." Fouasi inclined his head in approval. Then he turned to a younger man seated on his left; a man with yellow hair. "Hey Tony, I'm not very pleased with you."
"What about?" said the fair-haired man moodily.
"You know what about. The girl in the nightclub. You fucked up there, all right. What the fuck did you think you were doing?"
"Trying to hook her for us, what do you think? She was beautiful. Fucking gorgeous." He looked appealingly at one of his colleagues. "You saw her too." He knew Caroline Kent would have been a valuable acquisition. For one thing she was a natural blonde, unlike so many. And she could actually sing and dance, which was more than could be said for most of the bitches they'd got. He told the Boss so, but the Boss was unimpressed. "That's not what matters, and you know it. Shit, how long have you been in this business for?"
"You know how long, so why ask me?"
"Hey, you don't talk to me like that, Tony, OK?" The Arab's voice seemed both harsh and soft at the same time, with an unmistakeable hint of menace.
"OK," grunted the blond man, bravely struggling to hide his resentment.
"You picked the wrong kind of girl. She was smart enough to guess what we were up to. You should have known straight away she wasn't the right material. You do that too often, you'll screw up the whole London operation."
"That nightclub isn't the only joint in the city, is it?"
"No, but if the word gets around...you make a stupid mistake like that again, and you know what I'll do." If the yellow-haired man became a liability to the organisation there was only one thing which could happen to him. If they simply threw him out instead, he might from his resentment sell them out to the police.
Generally speaking, all things being equal, those who failed the Network didn't live long. Except for when the national and regional bosses needed to meet for administrative purposes, like now, it kept its organisation tightly compartmentalised. And like certain species in the natural world, it would ruthlessly shed a part of itself, and grow a new one, when such was necessary for the health of the main body.
"You should have seen her. We were missing out on something there."
"Chill out. There'll be other girls."
"So could this be bad for us?" someone asked anxiously.
"Not if we stay out of that area for the time being. And not if you keep out of sight for a while - OK?" Fouasi looked hard at the yellow-haired man. "Eventually any hassle it's caused will die down and we can move back in.
"I reckon this should be a warning to everybody. Just remember, guys, we're not as protected here as we are in Saudi. Got that?"
Five heads nodded in agreement.
Fouasi pushed back his chair and stood up. "OK boys, that's it for now. Feel free to watch whatever you like on the TV. The girls should turn up about nine."

It was some time before Caroline could speak. Eventually she collected herself and turned to Hamid, still visibly upset. "Who's running the whole thing?" she demanded.
"I do not know exactly. But there is a network, an organisation. It is thought to involve many countries. It earns for those who run it many millions of pounds. Billions, perhaps. There are people here involved in it."
"Why doesn't the government do something? I mean, it's not...it's not right, is it?"
"Personally I am inclined to agree with you, Miss Caroline. It is not right, no. But many people in the government are involved in it. Powerful people who no-one wishes to offend. So there is nothing that can be done."
"Shit," she gasped. "I still don't believe it."
"And yet they are there. We see them and every time we look at each other, smile and sigh. We know what they are but there is nothing that can be done."
"Oh, Mandy," she breathed.
The girl might be a lazy, selfish, rude, brainless little trollop but she didn't deserve this. Nobody did.
She straightened up determinedly. "I'm going to do something about it," she announced.
Hamid looked at her in surprise. "What?"
"Tomorrow I'm going to pay a visit to the embassy."
"It is not just a British problem. The girls are from many countries."
"It'll be a start. I'm going to kick up a fuss until something gets done."
"The British government knows it happens. All the foreign governments do. But they never make a complaint, because we are a friend and an ally. So there you are." He shrugged, spreading his hands with the palms upward in what Caroline had come to recognise as a typically Arab gesture of helplessness.
"If the girls themselves complained to their embassies..."
"If that achieved anything they would have done it already. Or maybe they are too frightened. Perhaps they just can't get away, with the minders watching them all the time. And as I said, there
are the drugs."
Caroline sank into her chair, her chin resting in one hand while the fingers of the other beat rhythmically on the desktop. Having started the business back in England, she now felt she had to finish it.
Mandy must have been recruited at the nightclub, she thought with horror. The man with the yellow hair.
"We may as well try," she said.
"We?" asked Hamid worriedly.
"Me, then." She sprang to her feet. "Tomorrow I'm off to the embassy. I may as well let them know what I think, even if it doesn't achieve much. See you later."

The window of room 131 on the top floor of the Maxima Hotel was open against the hot, sultry Beirut night, letting in a gentle breeze. Tanya Letsyn stood by it in deep contemplation, an unhappy frown creasing her forehead.
She heard the door open and turned reluctantly to face them as they entered.
"It's time, Tanya," said Ali. "Let's go."
She steeled herself. "I don't want to do it any more. I want to go home."
Ali stiffened, but his manner was controlled, showing he was used to this kind of thing happening occasionally.
"This isn't fair, Tanya. We're offering you a new life, a chance to make some money. To be happy." He had of course rehearsed this spiel many times before.
"I’m not happy. It's only fun if you have a choice. With you people there is no choice."
"I think you are being very stupid, Tanya."
Walid spoke now. "If you do not get your next dose of the drug you will become ill, perhaps die."
"I will take that chance."
"With us you are earning far more than you ever would in Russia."
"Money is not everything. There are other ways to earn a living; better ways. Perhaps I could go to England and train as a nurse, they want more nurses there."
"You can't let us down now, Tanya." Now the menace in his voice was unmistakeable. "Not after we have gone to so much trouble to help you; to arrange your ticket here, find you new clothes, good food, somewhere nice to stay."
"No. The price you ask for it is too great. And what will happen to me when I am too old for you; when you don't want me any more? There will be nothing. You won't care about me then."
"You signed the contract."
"Because I did not realise what it was all about. I realise it now. Let me go."
"You are forgetting, we have your passport. You cannot leave Lebanon without it."
"I will find that out for myself. I am going to the Embassy. If you let me go now I promise I will say nothing to the police."
The two of them glanced at each other, instantly reaching unspoken agreement. She would not come of her own accord. They were going to have to use force.
The two of them stood close together, blocking her way to the door. If she made a bolt for it one or both of them would be sure to grab her, and then there would be no chance.
Walid took out the needle and started moving towards her. "If you scream, Tanya, you will be punished when we get home," he warned. "Please don't make us do that."
He came closer, closer. She began to sob.
In the end it wasn't really a conscious decision. It was made half on impulse and half out of sheer despair. She turned, ran to the window, and scrambled over the ledge into empty air. Ali's fingers brushed her shoulder, but before they could close around it she was gone.
Fortunately for them she struck her head against the edge of a balcony as she fell, abruptly cutting off her scream. They heard the dull sickening thud as she hit the paved courtyard sixty feet below. Ali glanced down and saw the broken body with its limbs sticking out stiffly like those of a matchstick figure. There was a lot of blood and her neck must be broken, judging by the angle at which her head was lolling. The fan of yellow hair around it reminded him of yolk flowing from a shattered egg.
"She's dead," he said matter-of-factly. "Come on, let's go."
They didn't have much to worry about. They could always say she jumped to her death while under the influence of the drugs, without revealing how she had got hold of them. If, after that, there was still trouble, the Boss would take care of it.

When Leila Fawzieh answered the door of the apartment in central Baghdad, and saw her husband standing there, her eyes lit up with sheer joy and she threw herself into his arms, almost in tears.
"I wasn't expecting to see you," she sobbed.
"I rang you."
"That's not what I meant," Leila said.
Fawzieh contemplated her affectionately. She was becoming dumpy, pear-shaped, but her face with its large eyes and fine cheekbones was still attractive.
She took his arm and they went into the living room. "So, to what do I owe this unexpected surprise?"
"We're not needed at Quarat for the moment," he told her. He didn't say why and she wouldn't have expected him to anyway.
They both sank onto the sofa. "It's been so long since we were last together," she sighed, resting her head on his shoulder.
At that moment their two children, Rihab aged eight and Karim aged five, came running in with cries of delight. Each wrapped themselves around one of Fawzieh's legs. Karim was crying with sheer joy. Leila watched him hoist each up in turn and hug them to him.
They interrogated him about what he had been doing while away, listening in awe, as they always did, as he described Saddam to them, and everything he had seen the President say or do. Then they reluctantly allowed themselves to be dismissed, it being time for his meal.
After the Fawziehs had eaten and put the children to bed they sat talking for a while. "How long are you here for, this time?" Leila asked, dreading the answer.
"That depends," he replied. She knew he wouldn't elaborate, and sighed.
"Do you think we will be able to have a holiday this year?"
"Not until the project is finished. And no-one can say when that will be."
"And you still aren't allowed to tell me what it is?"
"I'm afraid not."
She moved to sit beside him. "Tell me one thing, Khalid; do you think it's going to make any difference?"
"I think so. It'll give us some leverage in our dealings with the West. Then we may be able to put an end to all these sanctions."
"Good," she said. "Then all the time we are spending apart may be justified." There was an edge to her voice. The apartment was everything they could have wished for, lacking nothing in modern conveniences. But without him there it always felt empty and incomplete.
"It's my job," he declared, a little crossly.
"Of course."
She got up and went into the kitchen to wash up. Fawzieh's eyes travelled round the richly furnished lounge with its television, video recorder, comfortable sofa and armchairs. They were doing all right here. That, he knew, was why he never found the contrast between the lifestyle of an Iraqi and that of the average Westerner to be a cause of resentment. Because in Iraq he and his family weren't typical.
It was little consolation to him. When the Americans and their allies come in in force, what is going to save us, he thought. There's Project Gilgamesh, of course. But what if it doesn't work out? And even if it does, the consequences were bound to be disastrous. The whole scheme was crazy, utterly crazy. But so too had been the war against Iran and the invasion of Kuwait.
If Gilgamesh turned out to be a failure, would Saddam go back to the manufacture of conventional, if that was the right word, weapons of mass destruction? If so, Fawzieh could guess what they would be used for once they were perfected. It was Saddam's way to commit belligerent acts - or threaten to - in the belief that by doing so he could get what he wanted easily, or at least exert leverage to gain important concessions, without any danger to himself. It hadn’t always worked, as the Gulf War and its outcome showed.
Could he succeed in building up a massive nuclear and chemical arsenal? If he did, what would he use it for? These days, Saddam had his finger firmly stuck in the Palestinian pie, to use a Western analogy. Fawzieh's fear, one he knew wasn't confined to himself, was that Saddam would try to scare Israel into withdrawing from Palestine or at least allowing the creation of a separate Palestinian state. If Israel was not prepared to be bullied in that fashion, or became frightened that he intended a nuclear strike against her in any case, she would blast away with her own atomic weapons, killing millions of Arabs. And after that, God alone knew what would happen. Even if things never got that far, the rest would surely find out he was amassing WMDs and stop him; their patience exhausted, they’d definitely invade this time.
They were being taken down a very dangerous path. And he couldn't see things changing, especially if Saddam was succeeded by one of his family, as seemed likely.
He wondered if it was safe to voice his thoughts to Leila. Maybe.
How can anyone say this is a country worth living in, when you can't trust your own wife?
For a long time he stared from the window at the single tree in the centre of the courtyard around which the apartments were built. One question preoccupied his mind, that into which all his thoughts and emotions had crystallised.
Could he do it?
There was a precedent. On the evening of 7th August 1995 General Hussein Kamal Hassan sent his henchmen to collect the large sums of money he had had the various state concerns under his command withdraw from his bank and place in their office safes. Once the cash was physically in his hands Hassan and his relatives flew to Jordan.
There was no question of him going alone. He couldn't leave his family here to face a bleak and uncertain future, and there was always the possibility of reprisals against them.
Would Leila come? Iraq was her home, and his, even though it had always been a hell despite the comfort of his existence compared to that of so many other of its citizens. The children of course would have little choice. They wouldn't understand what was going on.
He wondered why he was prepared to consider doing such a thing. Presumably because not everyone, even in Iraq, was the same. But here it was perhaps a little harder for it to show.

The C-160 transport aircraft carrying the UN team touched down at the Habbaniyah airbase with a bump that sent a shiver running through the entire fuselage, shaking its occupants in their rickety seats. For a few moments it lurched violently from side to side, then steadied to slow gradually to a final jarring halt. The ramp was lowered and Malikian's delegation unstrapped themselves to step out one by one into the blinding sunshine, shielding their eyes while they got used to the brilliant glare.
A group of Iraqi officials who had been gathered at the edge of the runway came over to meet them. "Welcome to Iraq!" one of them shouted above the noise of the still booming engines of the plane. You're welcome to it, thought Malikian uncharitably, looking round at the dilapidated airport buildings. A hot, dry wind seared his face.
He shook the Iraqi's hand warmly. The man was genuinely friendly. And why shouldn't he be; those who served Saddam Hussein, directly or indirectly, were only doing their job, with execution or some other Draconian punishment awaiting them if they didn't. They had no innate, congenital preference for being nasty.
The man introduced himself as being from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. He shook the others' hands, then steered the party towards the cars which waited a few yards away. He climbed with Malikian and Brigitta into a huge black limousine which Malikian strongly suspected was war booty from Kuwait. The car was air-conditioned; they wondered whether the ordinary Iraqi people enjoyed such luxuries. The other members of the team got into a grubby white Citroen with their driver and a Foreign Ministry minder.
The party was taken to the Immigration Office, a grubby-looking building on the edge of the airport complex, where they were served sweet lemon tea while they waited for their passports to be stamped. After all the formalities had been completed, more dignitaries arrived to greet them. While some wore civilian suits others had on battle fatigues in imitation of their President, although Malikian suspected they weren’t actually army officers, and somehow even seemed to look like him (nearly every Iraqi male they were to come across had a moustache). Saddam’s caste of mind was military even if his qualifications weren't and it had pervaded the Iraqi establishment to some extent, in keeping with the tendency of Iraqi men to feel uncomfortable at being too different in any way from their leader.
From Habbaniyah they drove to Baghdad. As they passed through the suburbs their impression was of roads full of potholes, piles of rusty tincans and other rubbish, and abandoned cars with broken windscreens and crumpled fenders on which stray dogs performed their natural functions. The buildings were of mud and stone, square with plain flat roofs.
Nearing the centre of the city, they began to spot landmarks familiar from photos and TV clips; the huge parabolic arch, those two crossed swords each gripped by an enormous hand. Everywhere there were giant posters of Saddam, adorning the walls of apartment blocks and administrative buildings. Most showed him in military gear, sometimes with a Saracen warrior or a figure meant to represent the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar beside him, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the background. The message was clear. Saddam's image was also painted on the walls of quite a few ordinary houses, along with various slogans in Arabic.
Their first stop was the substantial villa of Tariq Aziz, Saddam's Prime Minister, which with its access ramp leading up to first-floor level looked like a multi-storey car park. Aziz greeted them with a drink in his hand, wearing a linen safari suit with a handkerchief peeping out of its breast pocket. More of the sweet Arabic tea was served, in long tall glasses.
Though personally Malikian didn't care for Aziz – he didn’t see how a Christian could feel happy serving someone like Saddam - he nonetheless like the others appreciated the hospitality. Which was why he felt guilty about one or two things. Officially this was a UN matter. But although the UN had sent spy planes over Iraq, to make it look as if it was they who had spotted the mysterious complex, it had been American satellites, he reminded himself, which had first detected its existence. The satellites were continuing to monitor the area around the installation for any suspicious activity. And the US Fifth Fleet, comprising eighteen combat ships seven of which were armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, and including two aircraft carriers with 155 surveillance planes, fighters and bombers between them was moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, eastward through the Mediterranean to take up battle stations.

EIGHT
Caroline faced the silver-haired Consul across his desk at the embassy.
"We have been making some enquiries," he was telling her. "It seems a lot of these young women are there of their own accord."
"That can't be true, if these characters have to employ someone to stop them running away, can it?" pointed out Caroline.
"If you have any evidence that they’re being held against their will, we will of course look into it. But on the basis of hearsay alone.."
"They're a not uncommon sight here, or so I'm told."
"I'm afraid the incident you describe doesn't quite count as sufficient proof."
"I think that because they're prostitutes and drug addicts you don't feel that much sympathy for them. You feel you're justified in ignoring the problem.”
"I assure you that isn't true," said the Consul.
"Well you wouldn't say it, would you?" She eyed him in disgust. As far as you're concerned those girls have made their bed and have to lie in it.." She broke off, aware that it was an unfortunate, if appropriate, metaphor.
"Or maybe," she said, looking him uncomfortably directly in the eye, "you aren't taking any action because you don't want to offend our hosts."
"Obviously this is a very sensitive matter - "
"See what I mean."
Caroline reflected on the incident when she was struck by the Arab she had laughed at, and other things that had reached her ears. The West and the Gulf states needed each other; the West wanted the Gulf's money and its help against countries like Iraq, and vice versa. In relations between them there was a kind of balance to be struck; when things like this came up the outcome depended on how far one side or the other wanted to press the matter.
The diplomat was struggling to control his exasperation. She changed her tone, becoming more conciliatory. "Look - will you at least make a note of what I've told you, and do what you can?"
"Of course. I'm sorry I can't be of any further assistance."
They shook hands. "I'll see myself out," she said without rancour.
No luck there, she thought as she came down the steps of the building, but then she hadn't really expected any.
She called on all the other Western embassies and got the same response.
What to do now? Because she had to do something. It was intolerable. She was offended by the fact that white women were being treated in this way. It was an insult against her own race. But it was also a general repugnance at the idea of treating women like property - sexual property.
Wearily she returned to her car, and after making the usual checks for explosive devices started the engine and set off for the company's headquarters, her mind focused on the matter to as great an extent as careful driving allowed.

As he came down the steps of the large Edwardian house Professor Malcolm Speyler glanced instinctively about him for a moment. The house was set back a little from the road within a fair-sized garden screened on both all sides by high walls, and the windows were always curtained. No-one could tell from the outside what it was. But there were ways a determined busybody could have found out.
He felt no shame; rather, his anxiety to avoid being exposed was because he couldn't afford any damage to his reputation. He still hoped that one day the project to which he had devoted his life might be successful. If his reputation suffered then the project, which people already tended to regard as cranky and impractical, would suffer too.
He might not have to bother with these regular visits to the house if his wife hadn't left him because of the amount of time he was spending on the project. But it had been a worthwhile sacrifice, in Speyler's opinion.
Thirty minutes later Speyler turned into the tree-lined road, with its rows of more or less identical 1960s semi-detacheds on either side, where he lived. He spared the car parked a few yards from the entrance to his driveway, two men sitting in the front, barely a glance.
As he came up to the front door, having garaged the car, and fumbled in his pocket for the key he heard a voice call out to him. "Professor Speyler!"
He turned to see them come towards him. "If we might have a word with you?" the older man asked.
“By all means," Speyler replied. He was vaguely intrigued by the man's Middle Eastern accent, but attached no significance to it. There was no reason nowadays why a resident of the United Kingdom should object to being approached by a foreigner, or see anything sinister in it.
"We are representatives of the kingdom of Jordan," said the man, lowering his voice.
"Oh yes?"
"Professor, our government is currently involved in scientific research of a kind with which you may be able to help us. May we go inside?"
Immediately Speyler stiffened and his eyes lit up. "Yes..yes, of course." He unlocked the door and ushered them in. A few moments later the two men were seating themselves on the sofa, Speyler opposite them in an armchair. "What kind of research are we talking about?" he asked excitedly.
"Two years ago you published a paper on the use of light as a means of propulsion. Your colleagues, however, were not quite so enthusiastic and your application for a research grant was refused. You have had no luck elsewhere. It is clear you found the situation extremely disappointing."
"You're well-informed," Speyler commented, his eyebrows lifting.
"We had to carry out some research of our own in order to find someone such as yourself. Anyhow, I believe we have found some-thing to which your work may have an application."
"What is it?"
"We would like you to examine this." The Arab took out the metal casket, placed it on the table in front of Speyler and opened it.
"If you were to examine this material in a laboratory, you would find that it has some very interesting properties. It is harder than any other substance on Earth. It took many months before we were able to detach even this one sliver of it. Try to cut it and you will see what I mean."
Like Eckige before him Speyler did so. His reaction, likewise, was one of astonishment, though anyone’s would have been. "Like diamond…but harder than it," he breathed.
"Now turn the fire on up to full."
Speyler complied. "Hold the fragment close to it and keep it there for a minute or two."
When the time was up he withdrew it, swinging round slowly. "That's impossible."
"Evidently it is not."
“But how…”
“We don’t know how, not exactly. But it comes from something which was ploughed up by one of our farmers several years ago. Let me tell you what we think it is."
“And…and this isn’t just some kind of hoax?” Speyler spluttered a little later.
"What you have just seen proves we are telling the truth. And then there are these." The Arab showed him the photographs. After a while Speyler put them down. "They could be faked."
"We would be happy to let you see the object for yourself. As a physicist I am sure you would find it a most interesting experience."
"It's crazy," he gasped.
But true; it had to be. Although the photos could indeed be fakes, there was the evidence of the “diamond” and its strange properties. "It...it's incredible. And - and what exactly do you want me to do with it?"
"To find out how its powers can be fully made use of."
"For what purpose? I presume it's something peaceful. But then why didn't you make the approach through the usual diplomatic - "
The other Iraqi smiled. "I think it is time we told you the truth, Dr Speyler. We are not Jordanians, we are Iraqis."
Speyler gave a start of surprise. He stared at his two visitors dazedly, trying to absorb the revelation. He realised the younger Iraqi was speaking.
"Your life's work so far has been inconclusive, because nobody has been willing to provide the money to put your theories into practice. And you are not getting any younger, if you will pardon me drawing your attention to the fact. In this country your achievements are being ignored, and in the long run you will be completely forgotten. You may be rediscovered at some future date, recognised as the genius you are, but the likelihood is that by then you will be long dead and unable to enjoy your new-found fame. We offer you the chance to be appreciated, to see your life's work through to its proper conclusion. When the news of our discovery is announced to the world, you will be famous. Don't you want that?"
Speyler found himself answering automatically. "Of course."
The Iraqi studied him thoughtfully for a moment or two, then went on speaking. "Power is our concern, Professor Speyler. We need it so that we can reshape the world in a new and better form. The world regards us as a pariah state but in truth we are no different from anyone else, with our own needs, aspirations and priorities. We desire to be able to make an impression on the world, make our own contribution to human progress. Let me tell you more."
Speyler seemed a little uncertain. Then, slowly, his lips formed a smile. "We will of course offer you a reasonable - a more than reasonable – salary,” the Iraqi continued. “Our president will be extremely grateful to you for your assistance, and may wish to reward you in other ways too."
It was taking a big leap, Speyler thought. But if it came off...
"We do not have long, Professor Speyler," the Iraqi said gently, sensing the residual doubt that remained in him. "We require a decision here and now."
Speyler sat there thinking, aware of the clock ticking on the sideboard, while the Iraqis began to shift impatiently.
And came to his decision. "Yes," he said savagely. "Yes, I'll do it. I'll do it."
He smiled warmly at them. "Would you like a drink?"

"Did you have any luck?"
"What do you think?" Caroline slumped into her chair with a sigh. "Hamid, I've got to do something."
"It wouldn't be wise to get on the wrong side of these people," he warned her.
She wasn't impressed. "They can do what they like."
"Besides," Hamid persevered, "how are you going to get them away from their minders?"
"What we need," she said thoughtfully, "is some kind of distraction."
A thought suddenly occurred to her. "Is it only here that it goes on? You said it was many countries."
"It may be based here, I don't know. But they travel all around this part of the world; to the other Gulf states, to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa..."
Caroline decided it wouldn't be a good idea to try anything in Saudi itself. It just wasn't the right place for what she had in mind. Probably she’d only end up getting arrested.
One particular word penetrated through to her consciousness. "Lebanon," she murmured thoughtfully. "Did you say Lebanon?"
*
The school Caroline had attended had been fairly international in character, with pupils from many parts of the world and ethnic groups. As a result she had been able to establish an extensive network of friends and acquaintances in various countries. It was early in the afternoon and an attractive Lebanese girl called Rifaat Chakiris was sitting in a parked car in the Rue des Phoeniciens in Beirut, watching the crowds of people on the pavements as they attempted gently to ease their way past each other.
The weather was warm and sunny, as always in May on the coastal strip. You could not yet feel the burning sun through the fabric of the car; that would come in July and August when the pollution and the dust rising up from the streets would aggravate the stifling heat.
Fifty yards away was one of the establishments known as "Supernightclubs" which had been springing up lately around the capital. Unlike ordinary nightclubs, which were what they professed to be, these were cabarets where the performers were almost entirely female. The great majority of these "dancers" or "escorts" as they were also known came from Eastern Europe and in particular the former Soviet Union.
A few doors away there was a "bar". The word did not mean quite what it would in the West, although alcohol was certainly on sale there. Through the part-glass frontage the red lights could clearly be seen, and you might also glimpse moving about bikini-clad figures who, if you were male and happened to have caught their eye, would stop and smile at you, inviting you to enter with a wiggling of their fingers.
On the pavement outside the Supernightclub about two dozen young Western women were gathering. Two men, one huge and apelike in appearance (Rifaat decided to think of him as the Hulk, after the Marvel comics character), the other smaller though solidly built, planted themselves a short distance on either side of the group, like sheepdogs penning them in. They watched their charges carefully, from time to time glancing down the street in both directions, on the lookout for trouble.
Rifaat got out her mobile phone and dialled a number in Riyadh. "Yes, they're here. That makes it every day for the last four days. It seems like each set of girls is there for a week or so and then the line-up's changed."
"And you're happy to go ahead with this?" Caroline asked.
"Yes. I have some friends who will help."
"Right," said Caroline. "I'm coming over to join you."
They would have to move fast; soon it might be time for the girls to move on, to Egypt or one of the Gulf states.
"OK. When should I expect you?"
"Let's see, today's Thursday; if I can get my current workload finished tomorrow, I'll be with you about lunchtime on Saturday."
"That'll be great. Look, Caroline, I can't stay here any longer or they'll notice me and start wondering. I'm going home now. Call me from the airport."
"Fine. Be seeing you."
Rifaat started the car, pulled out and drove away, just as the Hulk's head began to turn suspiciously in her direction.

Loud music and raucous laughter filled the air. Neghid Fouasi and his companions were lolling about on sofas or on the floor in various stages of undress. Each man had a girl with him and was cuddling her, fondling her breasts and fiddling with her clothing. The room was littered with empty bottles, discarded wrappers and other debris. Half-eaten food was being trodden into the carpet and spilt drink soaked into it. From time to time a naked or semi-naked girl would run in giggling and screaming from one of the other rooms, pursued by another of Fouasi's friends, clearly in a state of arousal.
Other girls stood against the wall with their arms folded, patiently waiting their turn. From time to time, bored with his current companion or realising she was blind drunk and completely out of it, a man would beckon one of them over. Every few minutes a new girl entered and join the queue.
Fouasi himself was locked in a sixty-nine with a former Page Three model. So far he hadn't had much to drink at this stage. He wanted to preserve his sexual energy, but a combination of the booze and the pills could be fatal to the heart.
A waiter hovered in the background, politely ignoring the occasional proposition from one of the girls. Someone shouted out for more food and drink and he disappeared, to run back in a few minutes later carrying a tray laden with assorted refreshments. He swerved to avoid a nasty accident as one of the men staggered towards him drunkenly, not realising he was there. The things I have to do to earn a living, he sighed inwardly.
He noted that most of the girls seemed to be blonde.
In the street outside the club a car was parked on the other side of the road, directly opposite the entrance. The man in the driver's seat had wound down the window and was smoking a cigarette. From time to time he glanced at his watch.
There was no knowing at what time Fouasi would leave the club; it depended on how drunk or sexually preoccupied he was. The only sure way of catching him was by waiting patiently. Fortunately at this early hour of the morning there weren't many people about in the street. The occasional hooker would stop by the car and bend down to tap on the window, to draw away immediately when he shook his head to indicate he wasn't looking for business. That was about all.
Nonetheless there were risks in doing it this way. But his people had studied their target's movements carefully over a long period and concluded it was the best and possibly the only chance there was of getting at him.
A prince of a Gulf royal family got up and began chasing one of the girls around the room. Another couple disappeared into the small side room which had been set aside for those wishing to pursue their hobby in private.
Fouasi withdrew his tongue from the mouth of the girl beside him. Having felt his ardour begin to flag, he reached for the little plastic capsule in his trouser pocket.

The area where the club was situated had a kind of seedy glamour and Glynis Ruthermere, also known as Jeanette Packard, liked it. She found the lowlifes of different social backgrounds who frequented it more interesting than most of the people she might meet elsewhere, and they gave her wonderful material for her novels. Some of them were nasty, some nice, some merely Bohemian. Like many writers Glynis Ruthermere slept during the day and worked at night. From time to time, seeking to relieve the stuffiness of her little flat, she would open the window and breathe in the cool, fresh air. So far tonight she had seen the car parked opposite the club, an indistinct figure sitting at the wheel, each time she had done so.
Eventually, Glynis began to get suspicious. Nearly four hours he'd been there, by her reckoning. He must be waiting for someone; but he wouldn't be waiting for that long, surely?
She started to feel uneasy. Something criminal must be in the making. She would check again in twenty minutes' time; and if the man was still there, she decided, she would contact the police.

The man in the car stiffened, feeling a surge of excitement, as the door of the club opened and several figures emerged onto the pavement. Then he sat back with a little sigh of disappointment; Fouasi was not among them.
One more hour, the man resolved. He reckoned that was the most he could give it before someone noticed.

Fouasi's gaze travelled along the line of girls by the wall. He called one of them over, whispering into her ear. "In the ass, yeah? That OK? You do that sort of thing?"
The girl hesitated then drew back, her face wrinkling in disgust. Fouasi scowled at her. Then her expression changed as she reconsidered the proposition. "Sixty pounds," she snapped.
"Fifty."
"Sixty," she repeated, her voice like cut glass.
"OK, sixty," muttered Fouasi sullenly. He fumbled in his pocket for the wallet, and handed her a sheaf of notes. The two of them disappeared into another side room where they noted with no particular interest the man being fellated in the corner. They clambered onto the bed and got down to work.

Once more Glynis Ruthermere parted her curtains and peered out. No, he hadn't moved. She picked up the phone and dialled the local police station.
There the desk sergeant logged the call, taking down her name and address. "We'll send a car over," he told her, not sounding particularly interested.
With a sigh he turned to a colleague. "We'd better check, just in case there's anything in it. Anyone available?"
The man studied a chart on the wall. "Not at the moment. Hoskins and Pascoe are still investigating that robbery in Harper Square. Once that's cleared up they may as well take a look." The call from Luke Street couldn't be a priority. They had little time to waste on what only might be suspicious.
The desk sergeant leaned back in his chair with a sigh, staring gloomily at the wastepaper basket and wishing he could chuck the McPherson Report in with all the other rubbish.

Fouasi and the girl disengaged from one another, parting without a word of thanks on the former’s part.
Fouasi emerged from the side room, making a half-hearted attempt to adjust his clothing. By now couples were openly copulating on the floor and on the sofa. He saw the girl he had just been with go over to one of his friends, posing seductively before him. Nearby another was pulling the trousers off a German business tycoon. She tossed them aside, then smeared his middle parts with cream from a tube. Taking him in her hand she proceeded to masturbate him.
Fouasi pondered his next move. He decided he wanted to come over smooth, taut young flesh, and looked round to see who was free. At that moment a new girl came into the room: a black one. That'd make a nice change. He liked a piece of black ass from time to time.
He went over to meet her, and the negotiations began.

The man in the car was getting nervous. Several times he'd seen the curtains of one of the flats on the other side of the road pulled back and someone peer out, looking down at the vehicle. He decided that if it happened again he'd make a move.
Could he risk going away and then coming back later? What if Fouasi left the club in the meantime?
Again he reminded himself that they might not get another chance.

"Oh yes...fantastic...you're fantastic...oh YES!!!!!"
Fouasi was pleased by the compliment, even though he knew it was totally insincere. Excited by it, he hammered away frenziedly for another couple of minutes until the juice burst from him, then rolled off the girl to lie flat on the floor, eyes closed blissfully.
She was about the tenth he had had so far; he'd lost count of the exact number. He was beginning to get a little tired, and wondered if he should pack it in now. But a residue of lust remained in him that had to be satiated.
One more, he decided. Again he reached for the capsule of pills.

It had been nearly an hour since Glynis had made the call, and there was still no sign of the police. She wasn't particularly surprised. It wasn't the first time she had rung them and been kept hanging on like this.
Finally deciding she couldn't be bothered, she turned from the window with a sigh and went back to her word processor.

The jeweller had been woken in the middle of the night by suspicious noises downstairs. He had reached for the phone he kept beside his bed for use in such contingencies and dialled 999. The intruders took fright and bolted on hearing the car arrive; the police were just in time to glimpse two figures running from the building and across the road to disappear into the mouth of an alleyway. They gave chase, but lost them. Returning to the shop, one of them interviewed the jeweller while his colleague looked over the scene of the crime taking notes. Having recorded all the details of the incident they left, promising the shopkeeper they would continue to look into the matter and giving him some advice on how he might render his premises more secure in future.
"Right," said one officer to the other as they climbed back into their car, "we may as well check out that report from Luke Street."

The eyes of the man in the car remained fixed on the big double doors with the illuminated sign above them. A passer-by gave the vehicle and its occupant a suspicious glance.
That's it, the man decided. He was about to start the engine when Fouasi and a couple of the girls staggered out onto the pavement, their clothing still in some disarray. The three of them had their arms linked. They swayed and lurched dangerously, whooping and shrieking.
He pressed the button and the window wound down enough to allow him to extrude the barrel of the rifle. In an instant he had Fouasi in his sights, the red spot hovering over the centre of his target's forehead.
He squeezed the trigger.
In the same instant that the gun fired Fouasi swung round drunkenly, taking the two girls with him. The bullet missed the girl on his right by a millimetre, singeing her hair but otherwise doing no damage. Fouasi staggered and fell, bringing all three of them crashing down in a heap. The girls lay on the pavement laughing, not realising what had happened, while Fouasi sat up and shook his head, struggling to rise. The man in the car waited.
Then he heard the police sirens. He started the engine and pulled out from the kerb, to shoot off down the road as fast as safety allowed.
A minute later the police car came along. The occupants saw the two girls sprawled on the pavement, and Fouasi clambering shakily to his feet, and went to see if they could help.
"Are you all right, Sir?" Fouasi blinked at them vaguely. He put a hand to his head, and it came away red and glistening where the bullet had torn a bloody path through his hair.
They took him to hospital, where a doctor confirmed the injury as having been caused by a bullet. Fortunately it had merely grazed his scalp, briefly stunning him. The bullet was later recovered by Forensics, but it was of a fairly common type fired from a fairly common make of gun and there was no firm evidence to suggest who the hitman or those employing him had been. Glynis Ruthermere had only seen a car which might have been a Lada with a vaguely glimpsed figure inside it, and no sense could be got out of Fouasi's delectable companions. The police would issue appeals for information, asking anyone who might have been up and about at the time to contact them if they had seen anything suspicious, but without any result.
The hitman, of course, was by then well out of the country.

Since Caroline had first visited Lebanon not long after the end of the civil war, to stay with Rifaat, it had become one of her favourite places; a delightfully absurd and hotch-potch kind of country, where massive billboards advertising Coca Cola and cigarettes stood cheek-by-jowl with giant size cut-outs of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. She loved Beirut, loved the bustling city magnificently sited on its promontory thrusting out into the Mediterranean, especially when the mountains behind the town were covered with summer flowers and the traffic haze had cleared so that you could see them. There was only one real irritant: she had several times, since she had arrived in the country earlier in the
day, been accosted by taxi-drivers and other men who thought she was an Eastern European "artiste" and were obviously deeply disappointed when it turned out she wasn't. But compared to some places in the Middle East serious harrassment was rare, perhaps because of the levelling effect of that fascinating cosmopolitan-ism.
There was plenty on supply in the way of entertainment. Apart from the possibilities represented by the countless bars and discos, most of which were open twenty-four hours a day, the beach season had just begun. But she had come here for business, not pleasure.
Rifaat and Caroline were sitting in a hired car just across the street from the Supernightclub, Rifaat from time to time phoning her friends to see how things were progressing.
Searching for something to do while she waited, Caroline's eye lighted on the guide book she had bought at the airport, and she began flicking through it. Entirely at random she stopped at a page and started to read.

"At Yammouneh are the remains of a temple devoted to Astarte, goddess of love and sexual pleasure. It was here, in a lake that has now been drained, that she is said to have changed into a fish in order to escape the unwanted attentions of one of her lovers, whose number is said to have included Adonis...
The cult of Astarte began in early Phoenician times and continued for over three thousand years, into the period of the Roman occupation. During that time the goddess took various shapes, becoming confused with the Egyptian Isis who was thought to have come to Jbeil, near Byblos, to mourn the death of her lover Osiris, and with the Greek Aphrodite.
Astarte was one of the pagan deities whose worship the prophets of ancient Israel sought to ban in accordance with the law of Moses."

The section was accompanied by a picture of the goddess. She had long hair, ample breasts and an hourglass figure, and was nude except for something that looked remarkably like a modern bikini bottom.
Caroline put down the guidebook and resumed her vigil, casting her eyes over the street and the people on the pavement.
She nudged Rifaat and pointed.
In among the crowds of lightly-dressed tourists, several women in traditional Islamic garb stood out jarringly. They were dressed from head to foot in black, every inch of their flesh hidden except for a pillar-box slit through which the eyes peered.
As they neared the group gathered outside the club they broke away from the rest of the crowd and walked swiftly towards the Hulk, who stood keeping an ever-watchful eye on his charges - who now wore shorts and T-shirts instead of all-concealing black robes. At the same time three more of them appeared and converged on the other minder.
Realising they were making straight for him, in swift purposeful strides, the Hulk stiffened, his eyes glittering. His expression was aggressively quizzical, designed to offput. It didn't deter the Muslim women, who quickly surrounded him to form a barrier between him and the girls. He saw that their eyes were flashing with rage.
They began to scream piercingly at the top of their voices, and gesticulate violently. Evidently they knew what was going on and disapproved of it as anti-Islamic decadence.
The Hulk shouted back, making his posture and expression as threatening as possible. "What are you talking about? This is a free country, we have a right to stand here if we want. Go away and stop interfering."
Meanwhile the other minder was being similarly harangued. Alarmed and frightened, the girls drew together instinctively, glancing at one another.
Further down the street, Rifaat's father's massive American saloon drew up alongside the pavement with a screech of brakes. The door was flung open and Caroline jumped out, running over to the girls. "Come on, quickly!" she hissed. "Get in the car!"
Rather to her consternation the girls, Mandy included, either did nothing or just shifted indecisively, glancing every few seconds at each other or at the minders. Some looked anxious and unhappy.
"Come on!" Caroline repeated. "You want to get away, don't you? You must know what they're doing to you."
It was the best chance she would get to save them, maybe the only one, and she wasn't going to let it slip away.
It occurred to her that not all of them would understand English. But they must have guessed what she was trying to do.
She glanced up the street. A huge crowd of onlookers had gathered on the pavement, spilling over onto the road and causing something of a traffic hold-up. Drivers were honking their horns angrily or trying to ease past the throng. The watchers kept well back from the argument, while observing it with keen interest. Caroline dreaded that at any moment a policeman would appear on the scene.
She decided to concentrate on Mandy. Dashing forward, she grabbed the girl by the wrist and tried to drag her towards the car.
Immediately Mandy began to protest, shouting and swearing and trying to prise Caroline's fingers from her wrist. "I'm onto a good thing and you're trying to spoil it!" she screamed, sounding like a spoilt six-year old.
A couple of heads turned in their direction, expressions concerned and disapproving. Oh sod, thought Caroline. The last thing she wanted was for them to think this was an abduction and decide to have a go.
Meanwhile Rifaat stayed at the wheel of the car. She didn't want anyone to know she was involved in this. Criminal vendettas could be long and bloody in Lebanon, and if the people running the white slave business had connections here it was possible she or her family might meet a nasty end.
There was a very good chance Mandy might manage to break free before she could be bundled into the car. Caroline changed direction, dragging her into the mouth of a little alleyway between two buildings. A few yards down it she thrust Mandy against holding her there, and locked eyes with her. "Mandy, you little fool! Are you crazy? We're trying to help you! Do you think I don't know what's going on here?"
"It's all right," Mandy insisted. "I like it. They're nice people - "
"Nice people? What planet are you on, Mandy? After the way that gorilla spoke to me yesterday? Nice people don't behave like that."
"Let me go!" Mandy screamed. "He'll get angry!"
"You're coming with me whether you like it or not," Caroline told her, using the tone she adopted with her young cousin whenever he misbehaved. She shifted her grip, seizing Mandy's arm again.
"I don't want to go back," Mandy yelled. She dug in her heels. Caroline let go of her arm and took her by the shoulders, trying literally to shake some sense into her.
Rifaat had started sounding the hooter. She was waiting with increasing anxiety, continually glancing down the road in both directions and giving another blast on the horn every few seconds. The other girls were still milling about aimlessly on the pavement. Then one of them seemed suddenly to make up her mind and broke away from the others, running down the street towards the car. As she passed it Rifaat flung open the door and leaned half out, beckoning to her urgently. The girl, a willowy ash-blonde with a pale complexion, stared at her for a moment and then scrambled into the passenger seat.
Rifaat's eyes were still fixed on the scene ahead. She sounded the horn again.
The ash-blonde was glancing uncertainly out of the window at the crowd on the pavement.
She made a move to open the door.
"You can't go back now," said Rifaat. "Because you tried to escape they’ll punish you severely. It'll be better if you go with us." The girl obviously understood what she was saying, for she saw the sense in it and relaxed a little, her mind made up.
Then Rifaat saw a police car come into view at the end of the street. Deciding she couldn't wait any longer, she started the car, pulled out and turned round. Treading hard on the accelerator, she shot off into the distance.
One of the Islamic women had noticed the police car and nudged the shoulder of one of her colleagues, who nudged all the others. Abandoning the argument with the minders, they each hurried away to vanish into the crowds.
The Hulk turned back to his charges, re-establishing his control over them. He realised two girls were missing, and his face twisted with rage. "Where are they?" he roared.
In the alleyway Caroline was still trying desperately to reason with Mandy. "It's not right, Mandy, you must know that! You're degrading yourself by letting them do this to you. For God's sake let me help you!"
Mandy twisted violently, and with a desperate wrench broke free and ran back down the passage. Caroline shot after her and managed to grab her again.
Then the Hulk appeared in the mouth of the alleyway, towering over them. "Oh, er - hello," said Caroline nervously.
He lunged forward, his huge hands reaching out to grasp her. Abandoning any thought of rescuing Mandy, she let go of her and ran off down the alley, away from the street end. Forgetting her for the moment, the Hulk turned his attention to Mandy. She cringed in terror as he bore down on her. "I wasn't trying to run away, I swear! She wanted me to go but I wouldn't."
He stared at her, trying to decide if she was telling the truth. "Who is she?" he demanded.
"She knows me. She used to be my boss, back in England." The Hulk deliberated for a moment or two, then he jerked his thumb abruptly in the direction of the street, and Mandy followed him back towards it.
Caroline had found herself in a veritable maze of alleyways. More by luck than anything else she managed to find her way back to the street. Emerging onto the pavement, she ran for where she knew the car to be.
Only to stagger to a halt, paling despite the blazing Middle Eastern sun, when she realised it wasn't there.
"Oh, corks," she wailed.
By now the Hulk had returned with Mandy to where the girls were, and resumed his watch for trouble. He happened to glance down the street and saw Caroline as she stood in momentary helplessness.
He hesitated, torn between the need to find out more about a possible danger to the organisation and his duty to protect his charges, then barked an order to his fellow minder. Leaving his colleague to guard the girls, he ran down the street towards Caroline.
She looked round at the sound of his approach and started in horror. Immediately she ran.
She would have liked to lose herself in the crowd, but by now it had dispersed somewhat. The police had moved on too.
She didn't dare look behind but she had the nasty suspicion the Hulk was gaining on her.
To her anger, none of the people standing about the street seemed at all disposed to go to her aid. Perhaps they knew what it was all about, didn't want to get involved for fear of their own safety. They just stood and stared at what was happening, blocking her way. She changed direction and dashed across the road. In her frantic haste she was entirely oblivious of the car coming down it towards her. The driver saw her and with a shout of alarm stamped hard on the brakes, bringing the vehicle to a screeching halt.
Its bonnet hit Caroline with enough force to knock her sideways, causing her to lose her footing. She fell sprawling, striking her head. Briefly she lay dazed. Then, sheer panic bringing her back to her senses, she scrambled to her feet and went on running.
Her flight was taking her away from the centre of the city, deeper and deeper into the heart of the poorer quarter, into a labyrinth of dingy little backstreets and alleys.
She realised she was starting to tire.
The mouth of another alleyway, a narrow passage between two blocks of houses, loomed up on her right, and she darted into it. Not far behind her, the Hulk paused to bark a series of orders into a mobile phone.
Caroline's one hope was to lose her pursuer in the maze of alleyways. Then he would abandon the chase and she could make her way gradually back to Rifaat. Sheer panic kept her going, despite the pain in her legs and in her heaving lungs.
She passed an old woman sitting on a doorstep gazing at the world about her with rheumy eyes; a beggar child with an arm and an eye missing.
The passage seemed to end in a solid stone wall. Then she saw that it turned to the left.
Then it branched off to the right. Still she could hear the pounding footsteps close behind. She took another turning and saw a man appear ahead of her. Briefly she felt a thrill of hope, then realised he was just another of the heavies; the Hulk must have called him to help catch her while the other minder remained in charge of the girls. She let out a sobbing wail of despair.
She staggered to a halt, spun round and ran back the way she had come. To see the Hulk thundering down the passage towards her.
There was the mouth of another passageway in the wall roughly halfway between them. If she moved fast enough...she ran towards it, towards the Hulk. She reached it, dashed into it, and a few moments later he followed.
She got no more than a few yards before he grabbed her by the forearm and jerked her to a halt.
Twisting his arm, he slammed her against the wall with a force that drove the remaining breath from her lungs. The other heavy to a halt beside them, and the two thugs waited while she recovered her wind, the Hulk all the time keeping a firm grip on her arm. Caroline knew she was too exhausted to struggle. She waited for her energy to come back. "You filthy bastards," she gasped. "I know what your game is. I'm going to stop you if I can, do you hear me?"
"You are not going to do anything," said the Hulk sinisterly. She saw him reach into his pocket and take out something slim, silvery and gleaming. A needle.
"Hold her," he ordered. The other heavy's hand shifted, to lock tightly around Caroline's wrist.
Somehow, sheer fright and desperation gave her the strength to break free. Immediately the thug caught her again, grabbing her round the waist and lifting her clean off her feet. Her legs kicked and thrashed frantically in mid-air.
She slumped back against him, the burst of energy expended. The thugs held her tight between them while the Hulk force up her sleeve. She felt the cold, sharp point of the needle prick her flesh and started in pain.
Everything around her began to swim and blur, ceasing to be quite real. A great darkness was descending upon her brain, swallowing up all sensation. Savagely she struggled against the effects of the drug, and for a moment seemed to be resisting it, but she could feel the darkness tugging remorselessly at her mind and knew that any second she was going to lose the battle.
She became aware of Mandy and a couple of the girls standing a short distance away, looking on vacantly, not entirely comprehending what they saw. She felt herself go limp, her vision clouding, and rallied herself in a last frantic burst of energy.
"Don't just stand there!" she screamed at them, on a rising note of hysteria. "Help me! For God's sake, help me!!!!!!!"

NINE
The diplomat turned towards Rifaat with a smile. "You did the right thing in bringing her here, Miss Chakiris. But she's not British, she's Swedish."
"It doesn't matter," said Rifaat. "We've saved her from those people. That's what counts."
"We'll give their embassy a call. They'll arrange for her to be sent home and given the right kind of treatment for her addiction. They may also want to talk to you about the incident."
"That's OK. But in the meantime I must go and look for my friend. I'm a bit worried about her."
In another room Inge Bjornsson, in her halting English, was tearfully relating her story while a female diplomat held her hand. It wasn't her Embassy, but she just felt the desperate need to talk to someone about her experiences. At first it had been fun. But after a while she began to feel wearied and degraded. And when she had asked to be allowed to go home, they refused, telling her she should have known what she was letting herself in for, even though they had said nothing at the outset about it being permanent. She had pretended to accept this, but as a precaution they had increased her dose of the drug, which had the effect of making it more addictive.
The diplomats listened in horror as she described all that had been done to her, relief at the release of tension overcoming any inhibitions she might otherwise have had about it. What she had to tell them was almost unbelievable.
"But how did you get involved in it? Were you kidnapped?"
"No," said Inge. "Not exactly."
"How? They'll need to know if they're to stop this kind of thing happening in the future."
She hesitated, then bowed her head. "All right," she sighed. “I'm a prostitute. But not again," she said emphatically. "Never again. I have had enough of it." She burst into tears again.
"Who were these people?" asked the British woman, when Inge had recovered something of her composure.
"I can't really remember much about it, because I was drugged most of the time. Sometimes I just didn't know where I was, because of the drug and because they moved us around so much." She could describe the Hulk and one or two others who stuck out, but that was all. "I think they were wealthy people, powerful people. No-one will want them brought to trial because of the scandal it would cause." That was why she had no need to worry about the threats that would be made to her if she agreed to testify.
"I need somewhere to lie down," she told the diplomats. She felt completely shattered in mind and body.
They led her to a rarely used office where she curled up in a protective ball on the floor, thinking that as soon as she got home she'd go straight to her parents and tell them everything was forgiven. And steeling herself for the long battle she knew lay ahead against the poison that had been pumped into her body.

Rifaat drove around the network of little streets for some time, getting increasingly worried, but saw no sign of Caroline and found no clue as to what had happened to her. In an extremely distressed and agitated state, she drove home and told her father everything. He wasn't happy, to put it mildly, but agreed there was no option but to inform the police. He supposed their name could be kept out of it, if he spoke to the right people.

Caroline moaned and shifted as her consciousness began to return. She was slumped in an armchair in a sparsely furnished, dingy little room, with two men standing before her blocking her route to the door. One of them was the Hulk.
Satisfying himself she was now fully conscious, he spoke. "Who are you?"
A combination of fear and anger made Caroline aggressive. "That's none of your business. Why, who are you?"
The Hulk marched over to her and seized her by the wrist, jerking her to her feet. His grip was crushingly tight and she screamed in pain.
"Answer," he snapped.
"My name's Caroline Kent," she gasped.
He relaxed his hold a little. "How much do you know?"
"About what?" she replied, deliberately stalling.
Still grasping her by the wrist, he took a match from a box on the table and struck it. He held it close to the soft flesh on the underside of her forearm.
Caroline knew that in a second or two the flame would start to hurt her. "All right, all right!" she screamed, gabbling in her haste. He withdrew the match.
She fell back into the chair. "I know what you're up to with all those girls. Anyone with any brains can work it out. And there are plenty of rumours going around, you know."
"Who are you working for?"
"I'm not working for anyone." In this case, the statement was entirely true.
"Why did you interfere?"
"One of those girls was a - well, not really a friend, but she used to work for me. I knew she'd got mixed up with you and I was trying to get her out of it.
"Now why don't you let me go? I've failed, haven't I? From what I hear it isn't easy to touch you people, you've got too many friends in high places. I'm no danger to you. So let's just stop this messing about, shall we?"
She had to keep calm, and hope that some opportunity of escape would present itself. Meanwhile, if it looked like they intended to harm her in any way she’d give them a run for their money.
The Hulk looked down at her indecisively. He glanced at his colleague, who simply shrugged. He had no idea what to do with Caroline either.
Without a word to his prisoner, he took the hypodermic from his pocket and pricked her on the wrist. She twitched and went limp, her eyes once again misting over as the drug took effect.

The UN team got out of their cars and for a moment stood gazing about. Though it wasn't quite desert the ground was rocky and barren-looking with a few stunted trees and a reddish tint to the soil. It had a bleak, austere beauty about it and to the diplomats it looked not unlike the surface of Mars.
So this is it, Malikian thought, turning his attention to the complex. Now that it was finished it did indeed look little different from many large non-residential buildings in the West; the same arrangement of flat-roofed cubes fashioned out of glass, metal and concrete.
A party of senior staff was waiting to greet them at the entrance to the buildings. It was led by Dr Sagida Tambouzi, the director of the establishment, a stout, greying woman in her forties whom he understood had been educated at Oxford and Yale. She greeted them cordially enough.
The idea was to take them on a brief tour of the complex, so that everyone could get an overall view of what went on there, after which a more intensive inspection could be carried out. They put on their white coats and Tambouzi led them down a corridor to the laboratories, leaving her colleagues to resume their work.
"So what exactly are you aiming to do here?" Malikian asked on the way.
"Our aim is that in agriculture Iraq should be entirely self-sufficient." To counter the effects of UN sanctions, no doubt. "We are trying to develop a range of food crops that can not only flourish in desert or near-desert conditions, but at the same time give a high enough yield to provide all the sustenance we need."
"Through bioengineering?"
Tambouzi smiled. "I can assure you, Dr Malikian, that the techniques used in this kind of work are very different from those employed in biological warfare."
"Of course. But, ah, why did the centre have to be built here in particular? I understand you had to resettle the local population."
"The soil here has qualities which make it an ideal subject for our research. I can let you have a sample to take back for analysis."
No doubt the sample would confirm what Tambouzi was saying. But then, if these people were expert agronomists they could very easily have arranged that.
The laboratories were large, airy and well-lit, the temperature even. In the first flora of all kinds was being cultivated; on the workbenches sat trays full of soil, rows of plants in plastic tubs, racks of test tubes, water-filled beakers, microscopes, and tools for measuring and calibrating. In the background stood incubators, humidifiers, autoclaves for sterilising instruments, and a host of other equipment that the project required. White-coated scientists and technicians were working at the benches or going about the room on various tasks.
In the other rooms the products of the first were being tested to see how they coped in different environments. Plants grew from containers filled with water in a special hydroponic chamber. The climate in these laboratories was moist, humid, a little stifling, with droplets of water clinging to the walls. It was not unlike a swimming baths.
One room was brilliantly lit by solar panels in the ceiling. In another, a vast echoing chamber as high as the roof of the complex, Tambouzi crossed to a panel on the wall studded with buttons and pressed one; they heard the whine of electric motors, and glanced up to see a raised section of ceiling slide to one side, leaving a square of blue sky. They could now see that the hatch in the roof which had so bothered Malikian and his CIA buddies was an enormous skylight.
"For some of our species direct exposure to sunlight is best," she explained. "Though not all the time."
They wandered around the room for a few minutes, then moved on.
They saw plants being nurtured on drips like hospital patients, subjected to loud music and flashing lights to see if it stimulated their growth. Then a room where seeds were stored in conditions designed to make them hardier. The subdued lighting there gave the place the look and feel of an aquarium.
They were shown a storage bay stacked with canisters of chemicals, many of which bore danger signs. "Obviously we use nitrates in manufacturing fertilisers," Tambouzi explained. "Some of those substances can be highly flammable. We take the utmost precautions to ensure there are no accidents."
After a moment Malikian nodded, satisfied.
There was nothing they could see that looked immediately suspicious. Just the things you would expect to find in a scientific research establishment. "It all seems in order so far," Malikian told Tambouzi.
It must be bona fide, he thought; they wouldn't go to all these lengths just to provide a front for a WMD project. Or perhaps they would. Or the place served a dual purpose. And there was always the possibility the scientists were unwilling dupes of the government. But if there was something funny going on here they'd have to know about it, surely?
Never before had he so much wished that walls could speak; assuming that Saddam Hussein had not some means of hiding things from them.

The air inside the warehouse was thick with the smell of oil, grease and sawdust. From behind a pair of folding metal doors which partitioned a section of the building's vast interior off from the rest could be heard the sound of heavy machinery in operation. Visible through a side door, a lorry stood just outside, its engine running. The lettering on the side in Arabic and English read "FOUASI INDUSTRIES."
"Why are we doing it this way?" asked one of the man standing over a crate looking down at Caroline Kent, who lay bound and gagged inside it. For a brief moment she struggled feebly, then she was still. The drug would ensure there was no chance of her making a noise and attracting attention. Her filmy eyes blinked up at them, barely seeing.
"There are special considerations involved." The Hulk explained the circumstances surrounding Caroline's capture. "We can't have her going around in public, even if she's stuffed full of drugs with one of us watching over her all the time. There are some parts of the world where we can get away with it. But here...just trust the Boss. He knows it'll be OK, or we wouldn't be doing it. Now give me a hand, will you?"
The lid of the crate stood leaning against it. They lifted it into place, and Caroline's world was plunged into darkness. Between them they battened down the lid, then picked up the crate, which was cleverly constructed with air holes to allow its occupant to breathe, and carefully carried it out to the waiting lorry, loading it into the back. The rear doors were slammed shut and locked.
Smiling, the Hulk dialled his mobile phone. "Joe here. Expect a long tall avocado." He used the slang term current within the organisation for a tall blonde. "A classy little number. Something tells me we're going to have a lot of fun with her."

TEN
Steve Jankowitz often thought nightshifts were a very good example of a mixed blessing. They could be boring as hell at times, and in the cold emptiness of the otherwise deserted factory you often found yourself wishing you were tucked up in bed with a warm and loving wife. On the plus side you got a bit of peace and quiet. Without the constant pressures of work in an office you had time to think, make plans for holidays and the like, and summon up happy thoughts of people alive and dead. It was like in that old Commodores song; you were never alone on the nightshift. And, of course, there was the money.
Having walked round the premises for the fifth time this shift, and satisfied himself nothing was amiss, Steve seated himself at his desk in the foyer, opened a paperback and began to read.
Outside the factory the night was still and silent, about the only sound to reach Steve's ears coming from the occasional vehicle on the main road a mile or so away.
The silence was suddenly disturbed by the sound of a car drawing up near the entrance to the building. He got up to see who it was, wondering uneasily what they could possibly want at this hour.
A face came into view through the glass sliding door. Steve relaxed as he recognised Dr Yateman. At first he didn't register the look on the scientist's face nor see the two black-clad men in balaclava helmets who stood behind him brandishing shotguns. By the time he did Yateman had inserted his card in the slot in the wall and the door had hissed open.
In a flash the two gunmen were inside the building, shoving the terrified Yateman before them. Two more balaclava'd figures joined them. Steve jumped to his feet in alarm, but before he could reach the panic button one of the men had swung round to cover him with his weapon.
"On the floor!" the thug screamed. Immediately Steve lay down flat. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other gunmen bundle Yateman towards the stairs.
The thug went over to him and knelt down. He supposed the man was going to tie him up. Then he felt cold metal press against his sweating forehead.
The gun being fitted with a silencer, Dr Yateman didn't hear Steve Jankowitz being shot, and thus guess what his own fate would be. If he had he would have given trouble. They had planned it all perfectly. "The exact details of the operation we will leave up to you,” the people who had hired them to do the job had said. “We know you are professionals, that you will carry it out quickly and efficiently. All I will say is that there must be nothing to lead the police to you, nothing that could possibly provide them with any clues." The gang leader had been free to interpret that as he would. "Because if they are led to you they may also be led to us and we cannot afford to have that happen."
Upstairs, Yateman led them to his laboratory and over to the racks where the equipment was stored.
"That's it?" asked the leader. "There's nothing else?"
"No, that's all."
"So long, then," the leader said, and raised his shotgun.
A little later, minus Yateman, they left the building and returned to the car to fetch the cans of petrol.

In a neat, sparsely furnished little room thousands of miles away two men and a woman stood looking down at Caroline Kent's unconscious body, which lay sprawled on a bed with its head on one side, eyes closed.
Neghid Fouasi contemplated Caroline with some regret. On the market a girl like this would fetch him hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds. But with the news of her disappearance winging its way around the world no dealer would touch her. Nor could she take part in the regular excursions he organised around the region; if she were recognised the consequences could be disastrous. They could disguise her but there was always the chance someone would see through it. Nor did he want to hide that blonde beauty beneath a brunette wig and makeup. You had to give the customers what they wanted, and in this part of the world fair-skinned women were very much in demand.
And besides, he wanted a share of her himself.
He turned to the man beside him; his second-in-command, known usually as Hakim. "How long ago did she have the second injection?"
"A couple of hours. She should be coming round any minute."
"Good. I'll leave you and Blondie to look after her. See she gets her induction." He left the room.
Caroline felt herself drift slowly back to consciousness. She sat up and rubbed her head, which felt as if it was being split in two by a red hot knife.
She was conscious of two hazy figures standing before her. She tried to speak, but the words came out as a slurred mumble. So she just sat and stared down at the floor, her head in her hand.
Gradually the pain receded and her vision cleared. She saw a heavily-built Arab man and a large, plump woman in her fifties. The woman was obviously a European. Her skin was brownish-pink and remarkably smooth and unblemished for her age. It contrasted sharply and hideously with her hair, which was a shade of blonde too bright and shiny to be natural. The effect was that of an oversized china doll, and it was reinforced by her face with its harsh exaggerated prettiness. There was a strange vague look in the woman's eyes, which seemed to be perpetually blinking.
The blonde spoke in a London accent. "Feeling better, dear?" she smiled.
"Yes, thanks," said Caroline automatically. For a moment she was reassured by the homely words, and thought she was at the embassy or somewhere like that, safe and sound.
She glanced round the room. Apart from the bed the only items of furniture were a chair and a little table with a vase of flowers on it. Everything - the carpet, the bedclothes, the brightly-patterned wallpaper - was spotlessly clean, and so strong and cloying was the smell of antiseptic that she almost retched. The attractiveness of the room matched that of the blonde woman; too harsh, too artificial.
"It doesn't usually hurt like that," the woman said.
"What doesn't?"
"The drug. That was just a special something we gave you to keep you out of mischief on the way here."
Caroline stared at her.
She struggled to rise, but although she could feel her strength returning she was still too weak to move much. “W-what...what are you talking about?"
"Haven't you guessed, dear?"
Caroline waited for her energies to fully return. She lifted herself to her feet, stiffly.
The woman moved closer to her, and ran a hand through her soft golden hair. "Nice hair, aintcher? Thought it was me who was Blondie around here."
"Now," said the man, "do you realise where you are?"
"No," said Caroline.
"Well, you soon will. It's going to be your home for the time being. That's if we decide you're what we want." His voice changed, taking on a harsh commanding tone. "Strip."
"What - " suddenly the realisation came to her. She swayed on her feet, gave a gasp of pure horror and clapped both hands to her head. "No! No!" she shouted. "You can't do this! You can't! It's not right, do you understand? I won't let you! I won't!"
"Shout as much as you like," the man said. "It won't do you any good." He smiled wolfishly. "You are our property now, understand? We can do whatever we like with you."
"Never!"
"I’m afraid so. Now take your clothes off; I won't ask you again." "You're bloody joking!" Caroline was still more angry than anything else. She marched towards the door, but the man stepped in front of her and pushed her back. She reeled from the force of the shove. She dodged round him and made for the door again, but before she could get there he had grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her round. His arm came up and the palm of his hand slashed across her face. It was like a blow from a cudgel and a bee sting, a particularly sharp and painful one, at the same time. She gasped and staggered back, covering her face.
The peroxide took her by the arm. "Listen, dear," she said, "it's not him you've got to worry about, it's me."
Very slowly she tightened her grip. A stab of pain shot through Caroline; despite her age the woman was surprisingly, and frighteningly, strong. It seemed the bones would crack. "Let go!" she shrieked. "You're hurting me!"
She kicked out savagely, beating at Blondie with her free arm. In a sudden rapid movement the woman twisted her round, pulling the arm behind her back with a savage wrench. She pulled Caroline against her, wrapping her arms around the girl and squeezing her in a crushing bear hug that drove the breath from her lungs. She struggled, terrified she would suffocate, but Blondie’s grip was unbreakable. One arm was pinned to her side while the other was trapped painfully between her body and Blondie's.
Just when she thought she would pass out Blondie released her. She staggered away to collapse half across the bed, gasping. Looking down, she saw five white indentations in the flesh of her wrist where Blondie's fingers had pressed deep into it.
"You're a nice girl, I really don't want to hurt you. So don't give us any more trouble, please lovey." Blondie smiled coaxingly. "Come on, let's see what you look like in the altogether."
The man spoke again. "If you want a chance of ever getting out here alive you'll do as we say."
You'll never let me leave here alive, Caroline thought.
She turned away from them and slowly, without a word, proceeded to undress, deliberately taking her time over it. "Faster!" the man barked.
She undid the buttons on her blouse and slipped it off, unzipped her skirt and let it fall to the floor. Her knickers and bra followed. "Turn round," Hakim ordered. She obeyed, eyes smouldering with fury.
“A natural blonde," said the peroxide, a hint of jealousy in her voice. "Well done."
She examined Caroline carefully, running her eyes, and her hands, over the girl’s body rather as if she was a prize specimen of cattle at market. Caroline flinched and scowled repeatedly as Blondie poked and prodded her all over, tweaked her breasts and felt her buttocks.
"Now now, dear, that's not very nice. We want you to enjoy your time with us." Blondie stepped back with a sigh. "Oh dear, I don't think you're going to be happy here somehow."
Caroline's face was red with embarrassment and rage. If looks could kill both of them would have dropped down dead in a fraction of a second. Hakim suddenly felt uneasy at what they were taking on.
Blondie finished her inspection. "That's good; nice firm tits and bum. Yes, she'll do. You're in good shape dear, do you exercise?"
"I do aerobics," said Caroline hollowly.
"I bet you do it naked," giggled Blondie. “I mean, some people do.”
“Why would I do it naked?”
“Well, I don’t know. Do you, darling? Do you exercise in the nuddy?”
Caroline struggled to suppress her embarrassment.
"When someone asks you a question, it's very rude not to answer." The threat in Blondie's voice was clear. "Manners don't cost anything, you know dear."
Caroline sighed. "Sometimes."
"There you are, didn't hurt did it?" said Blondie. "Aerobics, eh? So that's why."
She smiled lewdly. "Naked. You're a right little goer, aren't you?"
"I don't do it when people can see, obviously. I'm not sure what you mean anyway."
Blondie ignored her. "You can put your clothes back on now if you like, dear," she said.
"I certainly will." Caroline proceeded to dress.
"Now," said the man when she had finished, "listen carefully. These are the rules. While you are staying with us you will not be allowed to leave the building whatever the reason, except when you are taken out for exercise. There are meals three times a day. When you are not required to service the guards or one of the customers, you will remain here in your room."
"Bit boring," said Caroline. She was brazening it out like this in order to give herself time to think. Nor did she want them to think her spirit was crushed.
The man’s next words pretty near had that effect. "You will be under the drug much of the time, so it will not bother you. You will be constantly guarded. Each floor, the grounds, and the perimeter of the palace, are regularly patrolled. If you cause any trouble, or attempt to escape, you will be very severely punished. You will wish you had never been born. Whatever the customers ask you to do, you will do. Now, do you understand your position?"
Caroline swallowed. "Yes," she answered, fighting to keep her voice steady. "I think you've made everything quite clear."
"Later we'll go and meet some of the girls," Blondie announced. "You'll like them, they're a friendly bunch. But first let me show you to your room."
"People will come looking for me, you know," she said.
"They will not find you," said Hakim.
Caroline sighed. "So...you're saying there's no way, no way whatever, that I can get out of this place."
"Clever, isn't she?" sniggered Blondie.
"I take it that means "yes". Well, in that case I'm not going to give you any trouble. Do all sorts of ghastly things to me, if you must. Someone'll sort you out one day." Her tone of voice was bitter and anguished, but with a certain grim resignation.
She shrugged. "I suppose I've no choice but to make the most of it."
The two of them stared at her, fazed for a moment. Then Hakim smiled slowly.
"It's obvious what you're trying to do. You're trying to make us think we can take our eyes off you, so that we'll make a mistake and you can escape. Very clever, but not good enough."
Caroline shrugged.
"Something I should have told you at the start is that there is nowhere to escape to. Look out of the window."
Caroline drew back the curtain and peered out. She saw a broad expanse of tarmac stretching away to a section of high brick wall with three strands of wire, supported at intervals by metal stanchions, running along its top. A guard with a rifle slung over his shoulder was walking along beside it. Beyond it, there was nothing but yellow sand all the way to the horizon.
"We're right out in the desert," she gasped.
"Indeed. You will not last long in this heat, especially since you are not used to it. And it is some forty miles to the nearest town or village."
"There is no escape," he repeated. "No hope. Understand that."
"This way, dear," said Blondie, moving to the door and opening it.
"N-n-no," gasped Caroline. "I don't believe this. It can't be happening. It can't be real."
"Think you're dreaming? Maybe a good pinch will help you wake up." Blondie reached for her arm.
Caroline snatched it away. "N-no thanks."
The blood was rushing along her veins so fast it made her dizzy. She had never, in her life, performed any sexual act to which she had not consented. You never thought such things could happen to you. What would it be like? Would she really be able to stand it?
She felt cold and sick all over. She swayed, almost fainting, then in a sudden violent convulsion vomited the contents of her stomach down her front and onto the floor.
Blondie tutted. "Dear, dear. Now I'll have to get all that cleaned up, won't I?
She took Caroline by the arm. "Come along, then."
The three of them led her down the corridor. She saw that there were a dozen or so doors on both sides, each with a number on it and, usually, a card bearing the name of the girl who occupied it in English and Arabic. They came to one that had no card. Caroline wondered what had happened to the girl who had occupied it last.
"In here. This will be your home from now on." Hakim unlocked the door, opened it, and gestured curtly for her to enter.
The room showed signs of having been recently cleaned, made ready for her. It was a smaller version of the one she had woken up in, and identical in layout except that there was no window. Here the smell of cleaning fluid was so strong it made her gag. She guessed a lot of it was needed to get rid of the smells and stains produced by frequent sex. There was a bed, a chair where the customer could hang his clothes, but nothing else. The lack of furnishings meant there was nothing with which she could kill herself in despair or use in an escape attempt. On the bed lay a simple, knee-length white robe. It was clear she was meant to put it on.
Again she was ordered to undress. She picked up the robe and underneath it found a brief bikini suit. There was a tag attached to it which the bore the number 21, the same as her room.
While she dressed in her harem costume, Blondie gathered up her old clothes. "What are you going to do with those?" she asked.
"Burn them, of course," said Hakim. "After all, you will not be needing them again."
Caroline tried to take back her blouse. "That was a present from my mother," she said. "Please, let me keep it."
Blondie glanced at Hakim, who after a moment nodded curtly. She tossed the blouse onto the bed.
The two of them left without a word, Hakim slamming the door shut and relocking it. Caroline heard their footsteps recede down the corridor.
Immediately she glanced round the room in every direction, her brain working feverishly. There was nothing to hand which she could use to pick the lock. And no windows to climb out of.
Caroline went over the problem for a very long time, but there was nothing she could see that might help to solve it. For perhaps the first time in her life, she was utterly defeated.
So she just sat down on the bed, buried her face in her hands and cried.

From his hotel room in Paris, where he had decided to stop over briefly on his way back to Saudi, Neghid Fouasi was conducting an agitated telephone conversation with the Hulk. "What did you think you were doing?" he shouted.
"I thought we should find out who she was and what she was up to."
Fouasi calmed down a little. "Tell me again what happened."
The Hulk told him of the encounter at Riyadh airport. "She knew one of the girls, started talking to her. Caused a bit of trouble when I told her to go. Then when we were waiting to go into the club in Beirut she tried to get her away from us." He described the incident in full.
"Had she gone to her Embassy, or to the police?"
"Not that I know of. If she did, obviously the meeting came to nothing.
"There wasn't time to question her on the spot. We had to get away because the whole thing was causing too much hassle. I didn't want people asking questions.
"I don't think she can hurt us. She said it herself, we're too protected for that."
"She could still make trouble," Fouasi said. "We really ought to kill her."
"I'll see to it right away, boss."
"No, hold it." Fouasi wasn't entirely sure he wanted to take that course of action. For one thing, even if Caroline's body were never found it wouldn't be much less risky than keeping her prisoner, since the fact of her disappearance would itself have got the police on the case.
He thought over the problem carefully. To his annoyance the Hulk spoke, interrupting his deliberations. "People will come looking for her."
"Because you took it upon yourself to kidnap her." But Foausi's anger was already beginning to abate somewhat.
"What if she had continued to make trouble?" the Hulk argued. "This way she's taken care of. I thought we could stop her poking her nose in and make her useful to us at the same time. She wouldn't be the first one we'd hard-picked."
"Hmmm...yeah, you're right." Fouasi was now warming to the idea. "It'd serve her right for sticking her nose into our business, trying to mess things up."
"And it would be a waste of a good body to trash her," said the Hulk. "But what about the authorities?"
"They won't find her," said Fouasi. "She is going to disappear and never be seen again. If we keep her here at the palace there's no chance anyone will know."
"And the girl who escaped? That is going to make things difficult for us.”
"We'll handle it somehow. We may have to close down the Beirut end, at least while they're all out there looking for her, but I'll see if I can avoid that. Even if our friends in the area can't do anything, we should be able to move back in when all the fuss has died down."

After a period of time which Caroline found impossible to gauge, she heard footsteps coming along the corridor towards her room. She listened in dread at the thought of what they might presage. Their sound filled the air, filled her head, until there was nothing else in her world but it.
They came up to the door and stopped.
The key turned in the lock, and the door swung open. She did not recognise Neghid Fouasi, but he was to become all too familiar to her over the next few months.
He made a rapid, curt gesture of his arm, which could have meant anything. "What?" she asked.
"I'm telling you to fucking undress." She realised she had been left to assume that if a man came to her room it was to have sex with her, unless the contrary were specifically indicated.
She knew there wasn't any point in resisting. Fouasi watched her impatiently while she disrobed, the bulge at his crotch swelling still further as more and more of her was revealed.
One thought in particular was going through her mind. "Are…are you just going to…”
Fouasi guessed what she meant. "We tested you when you came in. You're clean." He gave her a shove. "I haven't got anything, you fucking bitch."
Bracing herself, she lay down on the bed and spread her legs, fighting to control her violent trembling.
He ripped off his own clothes, clambered onto the bed and lay down on top of her.
God, he was an animal! Thrusting in and out in a violent, frenzied manner, as if it was the last day of his life. Gasping and panting, making no attempt to stifle the bestial sounds tearing themselves from him. And all the time his hands were running over her and the smell of his breath filled her nostrils as he pressed his mouth tightly over hers like a suction cup.
Overcome with revulsion, she screamed and writhed and twisted, pounding and clawing at him as she struggled to throw him off. But he was far too strong for her to dislodge. Such was his mad lust that he ignored the assault, apparently feeling no pain as her nails dug deep into his flesh.
A couple of minutes later he climaxed copiously into her. She gave a long, shuddering scream of distress as she felt his semen flood her belly.
For a moment he lay still on top of her, spent. Then he rolled off and levered himself off the bed. She curled into a tight ball and rolled to one side, sobbing.
He took a small plastic capsule from the pocket of his trousers where they hung over the back of the chair. He peeled off the lid and tilted the capsule until a small white pill fell out into the palm of his hand. He popped it into his mouth, and sat down for a minute or so, waiting for it to take effect.
Then he pointed down at the floor. "Kneel," he ordered. He wanted to take her like a dog; an animal.
She threw her head back and spat at him.
His hand lashed out and dealt her a stinging blow across the buttocks. The harsh voice rasped out again. "Do it!" He grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled, forcing her head down. She fell to her knees and he positioned himself behind her.
This isn't even prostitution, she thought. It was rape, for God's sake. Rape.
Afterwards Fouasi left her alone for a while. Not bothering to dress, she stretched out on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, her mind numb and empty. The second assault had been even more violent than the first, probably because of the pills, and the burning pain between her legs filled her consciousness to the exclusion of all other thoughts, but her emotional and physical exhaustion prevented her giving any expression to it. This, she thought, must be what hell is like.
The following morning a bang on the door and a shout from the guard outside signalled that it was breakfast time. Mechanically she washed, cleaned her teeth and put on her robe. The guard had unlocked the door and she opened it to find him standing there waiting for her. He led her downstairs to a communal dining area.
The room was large, well-lit and spacious. Its roof was supported at intervals by marble pillars. There was one big table running along the centre of the room, and the other girls were already taking their places there. Blondie stood in the background keeping a close eye on everything, her hands clasped before her, looking like some proprietorial matron. The guards hovered by the walls with their arms folded across their chests, their eyes never leaving the girls.
She studied her fellow captives closely. To her astonishment there were nearly a hundred of them. A few were black, but most were white, and northern European at that. All wore the same flowing ankle-length robe as she. Likewise, the vast majority of them were fair-skinned and fair-haired. As they started to chat she heard an assortment of different accents; French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, American, Irish, Australian, Dutch, Scandinavian, and several different varieties of English. Just about every language in the Western world was represented. Most of the women, however, were Eastern Europeans: Russians, plus a few Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks.
The girls could be divided into two groups. One, the largest, were distinguished by their dull, vacant expressions, with eyes devoid of all life and lustre, and their slow, mechanical movements, the stiff robot-like manner in which they dissected their food and lifted it to their mouths. The drugs, Caroline supposed. They barely spoke to one another. From the way they talked and moved about the rest of the girls seemed normal. She noted that the two groups sat at opposite ends of the table, quite separate from each other.
The "normal" category included all the girls she'd seen at the airport and in Beirut, plus a few more - were they new additions, she wondered?
Mandy was immediately recognisable now, without her chabrah. Caroline glanced at her, and their eyes met. Then Mandy hurriedly averted her gaze.
Caroline found a place among the "normals" and sat down. On the plate in front of her were a few slices of bread with jam and some dates. She proceeded to eat.
The seats on either side of her were empty. In any case she didn't feel like making conversation with her fellow captives, because she was still traumatised from the shock of what had happened the previous night. Most of them probably didn't speak English anyway. She felt someone sit down beside her, and glanced round. She saw a striking-looking red-haired girl with blue-green eyes.
The redhead spoke in English. "You're the new girl, aren't you? You OK?"
Caroline nodded vaguely.
"You can't fool me. You're really screwed up, aren't you? We're all like that when we're first brought in." The woman’s voice was flat and listless, yet there was a certain equanimity in it, suggesting she had accepted that what couldn’t be cured must be endured, however awful.
"I'm not OK," said Caroline. "I'm not OK at all. How could I be?"
The redhead placed a friendly hand on her arm. "I'm Angela Bates. Angie."
"Caroline Kent."
A second girl joined them. "Caroline this is Gerda, Gerda Dittmar."
Caroline acknowledged the newcomer, a German judging from her name, with a weak smile and a brief nod.
"How did they get you?" Angie asked.
Caroline told her. "That's what you get for trying to help people. And you?"
Angie told her story. "I was a relief worker in an East African country; I was captured by rebels and sold to a local warlord." Her face twisted with pain at the memory. "We woke up one morning to find our camp surrounded by soldiers. They wouldn't tell us who they were; they just ordered us to do what we were told or we might regret it. They rounded us all up, then separated the women they thought were good-looking from the others. The guy in charge walked up and down inspecting us carefully. He stopped in front of me and looked me up and down a bit; then suddenly he grabbed me by my hair and yanked me out of line.
“I and an Italian girl were made to stand together, closely guarded. They shot the other aid workers before our very eyes. Then they forced us at gunpoint into a truck and a couple of the soldiers climbed in with us. The truck started off. For a long time I was too upset to think about anything except the way my friends had been gunned down in front of me. I just hugged Andrea and tried to comfort her. I asked the guards where we were being taken but they didn't reply, other than to grin at us in a way I didn't care for.
"The truck drove to the warlord’s base where we were made to strip and put on bikinis, while our clothes were taken away and burned. I realised what we'd got into and my heart sank lower than it ever had in my life.
“It was an auction, a slave auction. We were tied to posts while the men came and drooled over us. There were lots of other girls there; some were white but not all. The punters were mostly Arabs, because it’s easier to keep a girl hidden away here than it is in the West. But there were some white men – there’s lots come here to get their kicks, I can tell you - and some Chinese or Japanese.
“The bidding started. He was there; the guy who runs this place. Quite beefy, mean-looking, always smoking."
"I think I've met him," Caroline said hollowly.
"I don't know who he is but he's everywhere. He's had his way with me a few times. You can tell he's the one in charge, they're all pretty scared of him. Anyway, he bought me. He runs the whole show, ultimately, least that was the impression I got, the way all the punters behaved towards him. And he likes to have his own cut.
"Andrea was still unsold when I was taken away. I never saw her again."
Caroline closed her eyes in horror.
She looked enquiringly at the German girl. "I was on holiday in Morocco," Gerda began. "I met this guy, a local; he seemed friendly enough. He invited me to his house to meet some of his friends. He gave me a drink, and the last thing I remember was sipping it and feeling funny." She shrugged. "And now..."
"I can't believe it," Caroline gasped. "I still can't believe it. In the modern age..." Yet if you thought about it it might be possible, should certain factors chance to coincide.
"Most of the girls here are prostitutes though, like your friend. That's how he gets his filthy little hands on them."
"But he thought he could risk keeping you here? If anyone found out…"
"I think he's got more confident, starting to take girls who aren't prossies. Or perhaps it’s because many of them have already been through several different owners. The trail's gone cold, you see. By now all the fuss has died down, and everyone's forgotten about us, except for our families and there's not much they can do on their own. Or maybe he just needs the money, I don't know."
She looked Caroline straight in the eye. "Face it, love, it's really happening and you've got no choice but to be strong and try to bear it. There's no hope for us, you see. He's got the whole thing well sewn up." She cast her eyes over the drugged girls at the other end of the table. And as for those poor little sods…they tried to escape, you see, so he upped the dose.”
"How do you stand it?"
"By telling myself I can't be sure I won't escape one day. Because I can't, can I?"
Caroline studied Angie and Gerda with interest. Now that they weren't under the influence of the drug - clearly their last dose had worn off and it was not yet time for their next - they were able to think and talk coherently. It seemed odd that the three of them were having a normal, rational conversation in circumstances like sitting surrounded by vicious heavies in a mock Oriental palace where they had to make provide their bodies for use every day.
"Why don't they keep us under the drug all the time?" she asked. "If we tried to escape…"
"I've told you, there's no point. Anyway it's too dangerous; eventually the stuff kills you, if you get too much of it. Probably kill you anyway, though it might take longer. And…well, they enjoy the business more if there’s some…reaction.
"We're kept drugged half the time because they know we're not reliable. After all, we were taken against our will. We'd get out of it if we could.
"Some of the girls like it, they think it's all a lot of fun - stupid bimboes. They're "trusties", they can be relied upon not to try and make a break for it, although the minders still keep an eye on them; they're not taking any chances. And they aren't much bothered about us being kept here."
"We've got to get out," said Caroline fiercely.
"The guards would stop us before we got more than a few yards. And we're right out in the desert here, as you'll have noticed. Nothing else for hundreds of miles. Before a day was out you'd either starve or roast to death. I don't even know where we are exactly, apart from slap bang in the middle of the sticks."
Now that Caroline had recovered, more or less, from the shock of her initial violation she was starting to think clearly. They must be somewhere in the Gulf region, she thought. And although it was important no-one saw what was going on here, they couldn't be that far from civilisation; their abductors just wanted them to think they were. It was risky driving across large tracts of open desert, at risk from the bandits she knew sometimes robbed and killed travellers. Plus the thought of being stranded in that wilderness without transport, should your plane or helicopter crash, was daunting.
She shared her conclusions with Gerda and Angie. Neither of them seemed moved. "The place is too well-guarded, and he is protected by powerful people in the government," Gerda said. "So we are as helpless as if we were thousands of miles from the city."
"Just accept it, dear, you're stuck here for the rest of your life," said Angie. "However long that's going to be. They won't let you go because you know too much. Best not to even think about it."
They ate the rest of the meal in silence, but Caroline gave both girls a brief smile afterwards to show she appreciated their kindness.
Two of the guards came over to them and stood behind Angie and Gerda. Angie explained that it was time for their regular injection of the drug. The girls were led off, and Caroline was left alone. Blondie went up to the table next to hers, where Mandy was sitting, and clapped her hands. "Now, girls, it's time for our little outing." She might have been a benign schoolmistress from out of Malory Towers or something like that.
As one the girls got up and followed Blondie from the room. As they filed past Caroline made a move towards Mandy, calling out her name. But one of the guards gave a firm shake of his head, and a warning scowl, and she stepped back. A little later, she heard the sound of a plane taking off. There must be a private airfield here. She wondered vaguely where they were off to. If only she could go with them; she guessed there'd be a better chance of escaping than there was here. But the slavers must know that.
The image of the slave auction Angie had described filled her mind. What would happen, she thought, if a girl was on a junket somewhere, say in one of the North African countries, and one of the customers took a fancy to her and bought her? In that event, it was quite likely she would never be seen again, any hope of rescuing her evaporating into nothingness.
But she was destined to stay here, while back home her family must have received the news of her disappearance and be going through agony. The thought brought her to the verge of tears.
Then it was time for her to take the drug, and for the next few hours merciful oblivion overwhelmed her.

In a former quarry on the outskirts of Leatherhead Edward Kent stood in hard hat, donkey jacket and boots watching a shopping centre slowly take place before him, his men swarming over it like ants.
Hearing the tramp of boots, Edward looked round to see MacGuyver, who handled all clerical duties at the site. "Call for you. It's the police."
"Oh. What do they want?"
"They didn't say. They just want to talk to you."
Pursing his lips, Edward strode through the mud towards a nearby Portakabin, feeling vaguely uneasy. He wondered what this could possibly be about. When he'd first set up in the construction business, nearly thirty years ago, he had on one or two occasions been guilty of what might be termed sharp practice, mainly because everyone else seemed to be at that time. He had later regretted these misdemeanours, and they had not been repeated since. He doubted if they were the reason for the authorities taking an interest in him now. It was more likely to be…
"I'll take it in my office," he told MacGuyver as they entered the Portakabin. He disappeared into the section of the cabin that had been reserved for his own personal use, closing the door firmly.
He snatched up the receiver. "Kent," he grunted.
"Mr Kent? DI Nilssen of Dorking police here. I'm afraid I have some rather disturbing news for you."
"Ah," murmured Edward. "It's not something to do with my daughter, is it?"
"I'm afraid it is, Sir. We've just been informed by the Foreign Office that she seems to have disappeared."
"Oh no," he groaned. "Not again."
"If you'd like to fetch your wife and come over we'll explain everything."
"I'm on my way," he grunted, and slammed the phone down.
With a brief explanation to MacGuyver, he hurried from the cabin and over to his car, his mind racing, trying to tell himself not to panic.
If the truth be told, disappearing was something of a habit with Caroline. Always she'd materialised safe and well in the end. But there was always the nagging thought at the back of their minds that the next time would be the time she wouldn't.
Thirty minutes later he pulled into the driveway of the house. As he got out of the car he saw his wife peering anxiously from the window, wondering what his unexpected return home might mean.
She opened the door to him. "Edward?"
"You'd better sit down, love," he said.
"Why? What's happened?" she asked, immediately tensing.
The front door closed behind them. "That bloody daughter of ours has gone and vanished again."
Margaret stared at him. "No," she gasped, her eyes wide and full of horror.
"'Fraid so."
"Oh no! What did they say?”
“Just that she’d…disappeared. I don’t think they felt happy talking about it over the phone.”
She started to tremble, and Edward clasped her hand tightly. "Just calm down, Maggie. You never know, she may be perfectly all right. In the meantime, let's go over to the cop shop and get all the details."
"Not again," wailed Margaret. "How...how can she be so inconsiderate?"
"It may not be her fault. Let's just hear what the police have to say."
"Something always seems to happen when she goes off somewhere. What could it be this time?"
"I don't know," Edward said grimly, "but I have my theories."
"Well?"
"It's not something I like to say."
"I think I'd rather you came out with it straight."
He hesitated. "Have you ever heard of the white slave trade?"
"Oh don't be horrible!"
"It's happened," grunted Edward. "There are plenty of dodgy characters in that part of the world who'd love to get their hands on a nice white girl." He scowled. "You're going to start worrying now, aren't you?"
"Well of course I am!"
He headed for the door. "Come on, let's go. The sooner we get the gen on this the better for your peace of mind."
A couple of minutes later they were on their way. As they drove towards the outskirts of the town Edward could feel the tension in his wife like something solid. She sat up rigidly in her seat, staring fixedly at the road ahead, counting every tree that flashed by.
*
Wary of their reaction to what he was about to say, Inspector Jack Houghton tried to size up the middle-aged couple before him, though he knew the family from their close involvement in the affairs of the locality; Edward’s company was a keen sponsor of community improvement projects and other worthwhile causes. Kent must be now well into his fifties, but his hair was still surprisingly blond, having aged better than his craggy, careworn face. There was self-possession and firmness of purpose in that face, in those bright blue eyes; it suggested a man who couldn't easily be outsmarted and who you would be unwise to get on the wrong side of. So too did the stocky, muscular body. No doubt he didn't leap around like he used to, but all the same Houghton wouldn't have picked a fight with him.
In Margaret Kent's raven-black hair the streaks of grey stood out much more prominently. She was still a very handsome woman, and although she was starting to look her age he had the impression it was due more to the debilitating effects of stress than the passage of time. Looking at that high-cheekboned face, you knew where you had seen it before. If you gave her her husband's hair and eyes, you'd get a good idea of what Caroline would look like in twenty or thirty years' time. Assuming she lived that long.
"I'm afraid it looks like she's been abducted," said Houghton. Hamid and Rifaat had already told the company their stories.
"Who by?" Edward asked. "Terrorists?" That would be bad enough. "Whatever it is, I think we'd like to know the truth." His soft voice held a trace of a Yorkshire accent, a relic of the time when his company had been based in that part of the country, and with it went a touch of steel as hard and unyielding as any product of a Sheffield knife factory.
Houghton glanced at Margaret. He saw Edward nod at him out of the corner of his eye. "It would seem we're looking at what's called the white slave trade. Putting two and two together, it's obvious what happened. We've spoken to her Lebanese friend. She tried to rescue the Dixon girl and ended up getting snatched herself."
"She was trying to help someone," said Margaret, feeling a surge of pride. "That's our daughter." She collected her thoughts. "But surely there'd be too many risks for them in kidnapping a foreign woman?"
"Obviously someone thought they could get away with it," Edward muttered.
"I don't like to cause you any distress," Houghton said, "but I'm afraid the Swedish girl's story confirms it."
"So where would Caroline be now?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. I imagine she's been secreted away somewhere where she's not likely to be found."
"Obviously," said Edward.
"It's awful," wailed Margaret. “How could anyone do that to someone?"
"Who could be running the operation?" Edward asked.
"That is something we can only speculate on at present."
"The Swedish girl must know, surely."
"She couldn't tell the police much. They kept her drugged most of the time, you see."
Edward was silent, dark and terrible thoughts gnawing at him. As Margaret had pointed out keeping a white woman, a representative of a foreign oil company, prisoner would be fraught with danger for the slavers. As long as she remained alive she would be a potential hazard to them, to be killed as soon as they grew tired of her. They hadn't killed her, so far as was known. But then they wouldn't do it in the open street, would they?
God, no, he pleaded inwardly. Not the other one. Please.
He didn't dare voice his thoughts to Margaret.
He realised Houghton was speaking. "We're in touch with the authorities in Beirut, of course. I'll let you know if there are any developments."
"Yes of course," said Edward woodenly.
"You can be sure the Saudi police are actively investigating the matter. And an appeal for information is being broadcast on the media there. At the present time, there's not much more we can do."
"I'm sure." Suddenly Edward stiffened with rage. "They'd better not let me get my bloody hands on them," he snarled.
"I'll put you in touch with the embassy, shall I?" said Houghton calmly.
"You may as well."
"That's really all I have to say at the moment," he finished. "There's a helpline for people in your situation. Shall I give you the number?"
"No, we'll be alright. Thanks for everything, Jack, and take care. Come on, Maggie." They rose, Edward steering his wife towards the door.
It closed behind them. "It can't be true," Margaret sobbed. "It can't be. Please God, let her be safe. Please."
"All right, Maggie. Let's go home and have a nice cup of tea, yeah?"
Margaret nodded silently. She slumped against him as if suddenly drained of all strength, and he wrapped an arm tightly around her. Gently he patted her on the thigh.
A policewoman escorted them from the building. He kept a firm hold on Margaret as they walked slowly out to the car, relishing the softness of her hair against his cheek. The one positive thing about a situation like this was the way it brought them both together.

It was late evening at the palace in the desert, and in his office, a part of the premises few other than himself ever got to see, Neghid Fouasi sat in silence with his upper lip resting on the knuckles of a partly clenched fist. To an onlooker his expression would have come across as curiously solemn and reflective. He gave a harsh, drawn-out sigh.
His eyes went to the mural painted on the wall of the room, which he'd had specially commissioned, and his mood brightened. The look of weary, dejected resignation on the woman's face satisfied him because it signified submission; her gaoler's total victory over her, crushing her spirit. Irresistible domination.
What attracted and fascinated him about the white race was the diversity of skin, hair and eye colouring, something which wasn't so marked among other ethnic groups. There were brunettes, red-heads, the various shades of blonde. Beyond that, he couldn't really explain why it was white girls he preferred to possess and dominate, and to practice his catholic tastes on. He felt no animosity for whites as a race, not on political or social grounds. Perhaps some irrational but deep-rooted impulse associated whiteness and blondeness with purity and innocence, and
something in him liked to corrupt and despoil that innocence by brutal and repeated sexual violation. Fair skin and hair was often seen in the West itself as signifying vulnerability, and it brought out the sadist in him.
He supposed he wouldn't be able to keep it up continually. You got tired of it after a while, even with the pills, and what about when you grew older? But he had always understood and accepted that. He just wanted to make sure the women were there whenever he wanted them.
He didn't confine his interest to girls from the former Eastern bloc, as so many of his colleagues in the business were happy to do. The girls of each white nation had their own particular attributes and appeal. In these matters Fouasi was truly a gourmet.
He didn't like having to restrict himself more or less to prostitutes. For a start, it was degrading. And you'd get more of a thrill from taking an ordinary, respectable woman who wasn't particularly promiscuous, might even be happily married, and force her to do things she would consider dirty and distressing. But of course that kind of woman was in short supply, because kidnapping and imprisoning her was so much harder to get away with.
There were plenty of actresses, models and porn stars he'd like to get his hands on. He kept their photographs in an album and their films in a special video library at the palace.
He happened to glance at his watch, and abandoned his reflections, realising his guests would be arriving soon. He lifted himself from his chair and went in search of his courtesan.
She wasn't where she should be, and he frowned in irritation. He tried her room. "Come on, Blondie. Where are you, you stupid slag?"
In many ways, Blondie had outlived her usefulness. But she kept the bitches in order, as well as from time to time assisting in his other affairs; getting rid of her just wasn’t worth the hassle of finding a replacement.
He heard splashing from the bathroom and knocked on the door, opening it a fraction. "Get a move on, for fuck's sake. We want the girls organised. My friends will be here soon."
"All right, all right, give me a fucking chance!" said Blondie loudly. "I've only just got in the bath. Honestly!" He heard the swish of displaced water as she levered herself out, grumbling.
Blondie had been reminiscencing dreamily when Fouasi had interrupted her. Thinking that despite the annoyance of being ordered about by him all the time, she was doing better here than she could possibly have done back home, enjoying the status of a respected lieutenant, on whom favours continued to be bestowed as long as she did her job well and kept the girls in line. It was an appropriate point from which to cast her mind back over the past. To think of a husband who abused her, as her father had done before him, and a mother who neglected her, though she had given her her start in life by introducing her to prostitution to help earn money for the family so they didn’t have to exist solely on social security. In fact Blondie, as she had begun calling herself at that time – it had been real then, and the name sounded just right as a professional appellation - hadn’t seen why she should bother signing on at all when there was more money to be got from selling her body, but the source of her earnings could not be officially declared so she had to go through the whole endless, tedious business of signing on, attending interviews and participating in largely useless retraining schemes. She had little enthusiasm for the jobs they did manage to find her, and none of them lasted more than a few months before she was fired for inefficiency, insubordination, absenteeism or gross misconduct.
Soon she was on the run from the law for benefit fraud, soliciting, theft and various other offences. It was all par for the course in her view, but then something happened which gave her cause for serious worry. She had gone in for a spot of baby-minding, failing of course to disclose her previous convictions to the agency which employed her. The kid had been making a hell of a racket, and messing its nappies till the smell was enough to make anyone lose their rag, and the little shit had needed teaching a lesson. Unfortunately she’d hit it too hard and it had died, which meant she’d had to disappear again.
Going back on the game in a different part of London, she had become caught up in a racket which she soon found out exported girls to wealthy clients in the Gulf states. She didn’t really care as long as it enabled her to evade the British police and at the same time make enough money to enjoy a decent standard of living. On the second count she had good reason to feel dissatisfied; most of the cash went to the organisers of the sex ring, leaving a slender allowance which proved adequate for little more than basic needs. But she couldn’t get out of it, so all she could do was make the most of things. She realised she could gain the favour of the souteneurs and the people above them by sneaking on those girls who she knew were planning to escape or were pocketing more than their allotted share of the proceeds. She became what in prison – which this was, in a sense – was known as a “trusty”. Fouasi inherited her when he took over the outfit from its previous boss – probably having murdered him for all she knew - and when it was apparent she came in useful decided to keep her on. Which suited her too because she couldn’t see herself taking on any other role in life, not now. She’d found her little niche and there she was going to stay.
Wrapping a pink robe around her ample body, she went to see to her duties, while Fouasi stationed himself at the entrance to the palace with a couple of his heavies, ready to greet the clients. One by one, the helicopters descended from the sky to the landing strip, disgorging their occupants. Most of them were Arabs but there were a few Westerners present - Russians and other Eastern Europeans, a couple of Americans - and quite a lot from Japan or Hong Kong. Fouasi greeted them warmly and ushered them inside.
A few minutes before Caroline Kent had been taken from her room to join a dozen other girls in the harem - as Fouasi called the room where most of the "entertaining" was done. One by one they filed in; all of them had removed their white robes and stood there in bikinis only. They paraded before the men who stared fixedly at them, almost visibly slavering, gleaming eyes soaking up the spectacle of their naked, nubile bodies.
There was simply nothing they could do but go along with the whole business, either because of the pacifying effect of the drug or because there just wasn't any point in resistance.
Caroline glanced round the room, at the moulded cornices and fluted columns which she suspected were there purely for show and not because they had any practical purpose. The colours in which the room was painted were bright but garish and clashed hideously. The walls were covered with murals. One in particular caught her eye; it showed a young, blonde, white woman in a kneeling posture, naked except for a skimpy bikini which left little of her undoubted assets to the imagination. Her wrists were tied securely together behind her back with several loops of stout cord. A male hand was clamped firmly on her shoulder, pressing her down and keeping her in the kneeling position. Her head was bowed, the eyes partly closed, and the expression on her face was one of total helplessness; complete and utter submission to the will of her captor. The artist seemed to have gone to great lengths to convey that impression.
She stared at it for a long time, astonished and disturbed in equal measure. It was quite obvious what it was saying. Had she been Fouasi she would have at least considered the possibility that those of his customers who were themselves of the white race might object to it. She found it angered and upset her that none of them had.
Of course there was nothing wrong, in itself, with the attraction
of one race to another. The only reservation was if there was a religious difference as well as a racial one and the Christians were right about their faith being the only route to salvation. She wasn't sure where she stood on that one, these days.
Her gaze continued to travel the room. Yet more murals; women, mostly white, in various degrees of nudity, bondage or both, and practising every variety of sexual act and position. And phallic symbols, some of them in the process of ejaculating. A woman was entwined seductively around one.
The next mural was similar except that the woman was tied to the massive erect penis, her hands behind it. Caroline found the symbolism deeply disturbing. Then a bikinied girl lashed tightly to a pillar, thick ropes encircling her body just below her breasts and criss-crossing her stomach.
She knew that whatever delights were revelled in here, the female partners were not engaged in it from choice. It was the compulsion, the desire to sexually exploit the women regardless of their own wishes, that turned what might otherwise have been merely erotic into something downright evil.
Turning to face the assembled clientele, Blondie opened a cupboard built into the wall to reveal an assortment of whips, coils of rope and lengths of chain. "The gear's all here, if you want to use it." She sounded like someone showing a friend round their house, or a solicitous hotel porter acquainting a guest with all the establishment's facilities.
She clapped her hands. "Now, girls, let's show them some fun."
They divested themselves of their bikinis and lay down naked, their legs spread invitingly. A few of the men asked their girl to put the bikini, or half of it, back on. They preferred things that way.
Blondie stationed a couple of the guards by the door, in case of any trouble. They wouldn't mind just standing there, because they could always watch the goings-on and get a kick out of them. As she knew they did.
Satisfied that all was well, she left the guests to practise their desires on the bound and naked bodies of her charges.
In another room an auction was going on. The bidders were given time to cast their eyes over the array of nude girls, each with a number on a plastic disc hanging from a chain round her waist. Then each girl came forward, performing a turn so that her rear view was clearly displayed to them. Here too the clients were a mixed bunch, Western business suits alternating with traditional Arab costume. The girls just stood there smiling amiably, either oblivious to what was happening or accepting it passively.
That night Caroline was lying on her bed thinking of what she had seen, and been made to do, a few hours before when Fouasi came along again. He made the gesture which she had come to recognise as an instruction to undress. She had to be naked while she did what he wanted her to do.
"Kneel," he commanded. She knelt before him and he positioned himself so that her face was level with his loins.
Afterwards she scrambled over to the washbasin, desperate to cleanse her mouth and throat of the taste. She was only barely aware of him leaving.
She climbed back onto the bed and rolled over onto her side, to remain in that position staring intently at the wall, her mind a dazed blank.
An unidentifiable period of time later she heard a key turn in the lock. She didn't bother looking to see who it was. Footsteps crossed the floor and then the bed creaked as a heavy weight descended onto its edge. A hand touched her shoulder.
"You all right now, dear?" Blondie.
Caroline made a non-committal noise.
"I hope he didn't hurt you too much."
No comment, Caroline thought.
"Never mind, you'll be all right with me."
A cold shiver of horror ran through her as she realised what Blondie intended. Then she felt a finger run along the cleft of her buttocks. Angrily she twisted away.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not a dyke; but I don't mind doing it with girls." Blondie's lips twisted into a sickening smile. "Come on, it'll be nice."
Caroline had known right from when she first became sexually aware that she wasn't a lesbian, and whatever you thought of such things in themselves you didn't like them being done to you when it wasn't your scene. It had been bad enough being taken so violently by Fouasi and his friends; what the hell would this be like?
As with Fouasi she knew there was no point in resisting. She waited, white-faced and trembling, listening to the sounds of Blondie undressing. God knew what the woman's body was like; she daren't look.
She felt the bed groan protestingly beneath her as Blondie climbed onto it. Then a massive body was sprawled crushingly across her, and she felt its naked flesh press tightly against her own.
"You know there's no point in struggling, don't you?" said Blondie. Her sheer weight prevented Caroline from moving; apart from her arms, that was. She'd give as good as she could. She beat Blondie furiously about the head and tried to scratch her face.
She felt the woman grab her arms and force them together, then pull them out above her head. Cold metal touched her wrists and she remembered there was a rail built out from the wall above the bed, whose purpose had not actually registered with her until now. They were crossed over one another and then tied to the rail with some kind of tape.
Having thus secured her, Blondie got down to business. Her pendulous breasts slapped the girl's face as she rode her savagely.
She buried her head in Caroline's breasts, and was busy there for some minutes. Then her tongue began to work its way gradually downward.
And so it went on, in one form or another. She was not, in fact, taken quite as often as she had feared, after her initial novelty had worn off; after all, there were plenty of other girls to satisfy her captors' requirements, and over-use of a particular girl might damage her. Besides which she realised that as much as actual sexual intercourse with his women, the kick for Fouasi lay simply in their being completely within his power; in having them standing around like china dolls laid out in a row, pretty ornaments for him to gaze upon, or moving about on various tasks in the zombie-like fashion of sleepwalkers, in their brief revealing costumes. Some days she was left alone, while on others it could happen as much as a dozen times. Sometimes it was Fouasi, who she was sure took a particular delight in degrading her, sometimes one of his guests, sometimes a guard - it was one of the perks which kept his henchmen loyal - and sometimes Blondie or even one of the other girls. They might drug her while they did it (meaning she didn’t afterwards remember what had happened, which was a blessing) or they might not. While some clients were turned on by a look of dejection, knowing it symbolised their total power over the girl, others found it more exciting if she looked as if she was enjoying herself, her eyes shining and her lips set in what looked like a happy, friendly smile.
Whenever a guest expressed a wish to have sex with one of the girls he was shown photographs of them, or allowed to view them through the hatches in the doors of their rooms, so that he could make his choice. Once he had paid his fee the door would be unlocked and he would be shown in. He would then be serviced in whatever way he desired, with the guard standing just outside in case of trouble.
The guards patrolled every square yard of the place, making sure she and the other girls stayed wherever they were supposed to be. The exercise periods consisted of just walking around a courtyard, getting a few minutes' fresh air, before being ordered back inside.
From outside the palace looked every bit as grand as she had imagined, although she was never in the mood to appreciate it. It was built of white stucco with onion-shaped cupolas, gleaming golden spires and columned porticoes. Caroline wondered how much it had cost to ship the materials out here and build the whole vast sprawling structure, equipping it with all the accoutrements of a traditional Oriental palace. Its owner obviously had wealth on a par with that of any royal prince of the region. He was also, she decided, mad. In one way or another. She seriously doubted whether the world of the harem had been quite as he seemed to imagine it.
The whole complex was surrounded by a high steel and wire fence and beyond that, though they could not see it, were nothing but miles of barren, featureless desert with a few trees here and there.
They were allowed use of a swimming pool, but only under tight supervision. The pool was situated within a courtyard where palm trees stood around, exotic birds sang and fountains played with a soft tinkling noise; she only wished she was in a position to appreciate this pleasant and relaxing environment.
Fortunately, regular medical examinations were carried out by a doctor – disreputable, but competent enough to do what Fouasi required of him - and if there was any serious damage she was rested for a while. By means of pills and frequent injections, against which her body occasionally reacted very badly, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases seemed to have been eliminated. All the girls were checked regularly, as were the guests when they arrived, to make sure they hadn’t picked up anything nasty. And some of the time at least, the punters used condoms.
It was surprising that the worst of the medical dangers seemed to have been avoided. She had no idea exactly how they worked, only that Fouasi's wealth seemed to give him access to techniques beyond the power of most people to afford. She still felt it was taking too great a risk.
That she could be left unmolested for long periods did not take away the anger and the distress and the humiliation of it all. She had learned to shut her eyes and think of England (as she had on one or two occasions before this happened, although it wasn’t quite the same thing). But there was always the thought of what might have been done to her while she was drugged. She could tell when they had been particularly violent from the ache in her private parts.
Generally she became listless and lethargic, the mind-numbing boredom sapping her morale and plunging her into a black morass of depression from which it was impossible to lift herself. What hurt you most was the knowledge that you had lost your freedom, that you were just a toy, a plaything, in the hands of these men. They owned you body and soul and could do whatever they liked to either. One course open to her was to try and like it, to enjoy all the perversions; but for one thing the acts she was made to perform were sometimes painful, and her sexual tastes had never extended to masochism. Only a certain type of person, of which she wasn't one, could endure and like pain on a regular basis. It was worst when her clients demanded she shout and scream in ecstasy – a pleasure which she did not and could not feel - and praise them fulsomely, demanding more. The degrading nature of this lay in the fact that it felt so ridiculous and sham.
There were some things of which it was distressing to even think. She had the normal sexual appetite of a woman her age, and was fairly broad in her tastes. But there had to be a limit.
And sometimes they took photographs. To them her degradation was an object of entertainment, to be viewed with no thought for her own feelings and afterwards transformed into a memento in an album.
Some nights she would cry herself to sleep or until the guard banged on the door and told her to shut up or else. For the other girls it must be just as horrendous, with a few exceptions. Those who had been willing from the start to go along with it, uncaring about the sufferings of the rest, were treated well; all the same something made her wonder if it really was better for them.
It was worst, perhaps, for those who had been tricked or forced into prostitution, who had maybe been kidnapped while on holiday, because they were being kept from returning to their native lands, their homes; had families who they cared about, and who cared about them.
One day one of the girls just disappeared. It was thought she had been sold to another slave trader, although it was not an unknown occurrence for a girl to die during sex. Whatever the explanation, Angie Bates was certain that she saw, gazing from the window of her room, a couple of Fouasi's men leave the compound with one of them carrying something tied up in a black canvas bag and slung over his shoulder. The other man was equipped with a spade. She saw them halt a few hundred yards from the gates; the man with the bag dumped it roughly on the ground while his companion started to dig a hole in the desert sand. When he had finished, the other prodded the bag with his foot until it slid into the hole. The excavated earth was shovelled back in, burying it, and when they had made sure their task was done the two men turned on their heels and walked away.

ELEVEN
They had thought it was going to be another ordinary day; in America you caught a domestic airline flight the way you hopped onto a bus.
But before the morning was very old, it had shattered apart in fear and terror. When it had sunk in that they were being hijacked, it had been bad enough. They had felt alarm, and then a kind of nervous resignation, accompanied by tension and unease. Were they to be held hostage, which would mean days, maybe weeks, of stress and fear and uncertainty? And what would the ultimate outcome be?
But most of them, herself included, had kept their cool. It might be things would turn out OK; after all, they knew that incidents like this often had. Maybe the hijackers just wanted to be flown somewhere, and the authorities would grant them their wish. There might be a standoff followed by their surrender. Or a shoot-out in which some people would get killed; but even that possibility was something they could cope with. Such a thing had happened before and the passengers were prepared for it to some extent. None of them could possibly have imagined the horror that followed.
The man lying in his bed in his London flat stirred, a frown creasing his sleeping face.
Gradually, a different kind of unease began to filter down into their consciousness. Why had they been ordered to go to the back of the plane?
She wondered what was happening up front, on the flight deck.
It didn't look good. There was something different about this one, she could sense it.
Images of the hijackers' faces, set in solid stone, loomed up before her. The cold light in their eyes burnt itself into her brain.
His eyes were still shut, but his lips were now working soundlessly. He began to grunt and moan. His restless movements grew more and more agitated, the sheets shifting and billowing about his writhing body.
In the other passengers, too, puzzlement was turning to disquiet.
What WAS this?
Where were they going? They could only guess, their minds filling with frenzied, nervous thoughts. The hijackers were telling them nothing. And nobody dared approach them to ask.
They'd already killed the stewardess. The memory of that poor girl's, that young girl's death filled them with horror and helpless rage. On top of it was the sickening thought that they might be next.
And now through the window, buildings and a river. Tall buildings. A city.
There was something wrong. Surely they were too low, too close to the buildings, for safety. Was it possible that…
No! No! They...they couldn't! Surely no-one could be so...
It had never been like this before. Even though terrorists had killed people on airliners, had shot and knived them and thrown explosives at them, they had never...
I just don't BELIEVE this.
And then the proof, the horrible proof.
"Call your loved ones and tell them you are about to die."
No!!!!
No!!!!
No!!!! No!!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!! We don't want to die, for God's sake, we want to live! Do you hear me? We want to LIVE!
But you're going to die.
Oh God what shall I do...
Oh God oh help me
Now he was whimpering like a child as he tossed violently from side to side, churning the bedclothes into a shapeless heap. He had to stop it. He had to stop this horror, this monstrous obscene act. But it was unfolding inexorably before his very eyes and there was absolutely nothing he could do, nothing at all...
The people on the ground looking up in alarm as they heard the roar of the aircraft's engines, unusually loud, and saw it streaking through the sky above the roofs of the skyscrapers. Hey, he's low.
Shit, he's TOO low! What's he doing for Christ's sake?
Oh shit he's heading for the...
Shit he's going to crash
Oh God it's a plane it's going to hit the...
Their anguish and despair as they realised the people on the plane and in the building were going to die, in their hundreds and thousands, and they could do nothing but stand and watch. Oh NO! Oh God no, please! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease
This can't be true it can't be it can't it can't it can't
Oh Jesus Christ no no no no no no no nooooooooooooooo
And on the plane, the passengers sobbing hysterically into their mobile phones. Oh darling I love you I love you they've said they're going to kill us they...oh I love you and the children too oh I don't want to die please God no let us live let us live let us live I want to live please please please you can't do this let me live I want to LIVE
Oh God we're going to die we're going to die we're going to
The mass of concrete and glass looming up through the window, coming closer, closer...
I can no longer see it through my tears.
Oh Goooooooooooooooooooooooooodddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd
Shit it's almost touching it it's going to hit it's going to hit it's going to...
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
The man's body jerked violently into a sitting position, pulling the bedclothes out from underneath the mattress. His shrill, despairing scream cut through the silence of the night, tailing off as the last of his breath was used up.
He shook and trembled like a jelly, causing the bed to roll backwards and forwards, the castors squeaking and the floorboards creaking with its movement. A medley of inarticulate noises issued from his throat, constantly struggling to form themselves into words but never quite succeeding. But they didn't need to, because every one of them spoke of his torment.
After five, maybe ten, minutes his emotional energies were used up. He covered his face with his hands and for a length of time he could not gauge sat there completely motionless, like some statue of a Buddha overcome with despair at the wickedness of the world.
Eventually he lowered his hands and fingered the jumble of sheets around him. They were sodden with a cold, sticky sweat.
Nothing about his surroundings felt quite real. A world in which such an atrocity had been committed could only be someone's sick and twisted fantasy. Sometimes it seemed the only way to cope with the trauma was to deny everything around him. And that, of course, was impossible. So he could gain no comfort.
The Major had first met Gillian Mary Lands when a delegation from Washington visited Stirling Lines to discuss co-operation and transmission of knowledge and skills between British and American Special Forces. Not quite thirty, she was a high-grade clerical officer with the US Department of Defense. When not actually engaged in combat the Major was quite closely involved in the Regiment's administrative affairs, hence his visits to the Ministry in London, and he found himself working with her regularly; their first contact came when his superiors picked on him to give a talk to her and a few others on how he saw the Regiment developing in the future, and what the advantages were in the way it operated. Afterwards everyone had retired to the canteen for coffee.
The natural friendliness of American girls enabled the reserve which might otherwise have existed between them to be broken down. After several weeks of contact, during which they socialised often, he realised he seriously liked her. The professionalism with which she approached her job was combined with a keen sense of humour. He was delighted by her bubbly effervescence and zest for life; watching her dance at a Departmental party, he marvelled at how much energy seemed packed into that little body.
And she seemed to like him, probably because he conformed to the traditional American conception of an Englishman. She also sensed that something in him needed more than the Army to keep him going, whatever the impression he might give, and was intrigued by and attracted to him as a result. The two of them had in common a certain craziness which he, being a serving soldier, had to keep more firmly under wraps. It was something that imposed a certain straitjacket on him.
He wasn't sure whether her friendliness was merely habitual or a sign that she reciprocated his feelings for her. But he wanted to know. Just before the delegation was due to return home he had finally plucked up the courage to ask her out for a meal. After a little initial hesitance, for she wasn't thinking of commitment at that stage and, not being stupid, knew what the invitation was meant to lead to, she accepted, deciding to put all her effort into the business and see what came of it.
That evening her strawberry-blonde hair was piled up on her head in a way that made her look well foxy, and her lipstick accentuated the natural beauty of her face. He was touched that she had made such an effort to look nice for him.
"Why did you join the DOD?" he asked a little way into the conversation.
"Because if you can prevent a terrorist from coming into your country and blowing people up, even if it's only by pushing pens around, well obviously that’s good." She sighed, and for a moment wore a bitter expression. "It's just a shame Washington doesn't always listen to what we say, or a lot of the hassle could be avoided.” Changing the subject, she asked him why he had joined the Army.
"It was partly because my father did," he grinned, almost apologetically.
"You don't need to apologise for that," she said. "Continuity. There's something very comforting about it. Not enough of the thing these days."
"I sometimes wonder if I'm just doing it out of loyalty to him…if I couldn't be something different, and enjoy it." He found he could be more open with her than with many English girls.
"But it's more than that?"
"It is. In the Army you're taught discipline, comradeship, honour. You learn not to let others down. Those are things this country badly needs. The trouble is, people think they're old-fashioned and have outlived their usefulness. As a result crime's on the increase and everybody sells each other down the river for money, power, fame, whatever. There's too little respect. Too many yobs thinking they can lash out whenever they fancy at anything they don’t happen to like.
"I can't do it so much now that I'm with the Regiment. But when I can, I visit schools and give talks on leadership and teamwork. It proves we have relevance, that we don't just kill people and strut around in uniforms looking mean.
"No, everything's going downhill over here," he sighed. "We're a small country with not enough room for everyone; we're treading on each others' toes and getting nasty as a result. Wanting things there's never an adequate supply of. It's different with the States. America's much bigger and the fact that you have the federal system means there's no one governmental authority looking after everything and getting overburdened with its responsibilities. You also believe in yourself more than we do. You're a tough lot and you'll be around long after everything here has collapsed in chaos."
"You're so sweet!" she declared, touching him gently on the arm. He liked the intimacy of the gesture but how much should he read into it?
A burst of shouting and jeering from the street outside made him look up. Through the glass front of the restaurant he could see, on the other side of the road, two tough-looking youths advancing on a third who appeared pale and frightened. The Major recognised him instantly. He had spoken to him a couple of times - telling him as little as possible about his job, of course. His name was Simon Hoskins. A clever lad and a hard worker, who looked set to win a place at University. Nice, as well. Unfortunately he was socially awkward and introverted, and hadn't had much luck with the opposite sex. He was hardly ever seen with a girl, and as a result the local yobbos had decided he must be gay, which of course meant he also had to be a paedophile, like that man who had been jailed for abducting and interfering with a little girl in Brighton, or Bournemouth, or Portsmouth, or Cambridge, or wherever it was, they weren’t sure. He didn't fit into their view of the universe any other way and they refused to revise their opinion of him in order to avoid a painful questioning of their traditional belief system.
Though at that time of night the street was pretty deserted, they didn't seem deterred by the fact that people could see what was going on. Simon tried to walk away but one of them went to stand in front of him. "Excuse me, I asked you a question," the Major heard the yob say. "Is your name Pete? Pete the paedophile?"
"What's going on out there?" Gillian asked. "Why are they so mad at him? Jeez, he looks so scared."
As the Major explained, he saw her face freeze with anger. Where Gillian came from you simply accepted people for what they were, in the absence of clear evidence they were up to anything illegal or immoral.
"See what I mean," he said. "Excuse me a moment." He stood up and marched out of the restaurant.
The two yobs were so intent on tormenting Hoskins that they didn't register the Major's approach. His towering figure appeared beside them with nerve-jangling suddenness. "What's all this about, then?" he asked sweetly, folding his arms.
"None of your fucking business, mate," one of them snapped, going for the bold approach.
"Oh yeah?" The Major's big hands shot out and grabbed them both by their collars. Next second they found themselves rising an inch or so off the ground.
Gillian had gone to the window and was peering out curiously, cocking her head to try and catch some of the conversation. "The problem with Simon here," she heard him say, "is that he's not very good at picking up girls. Some people just aren't. I think he'd like to be, though. It doesn't mean he's gay, and even if he was it wouldn't justify you picking on him like this. So next time you need to dump your shit, use the toilet like everyone else. In fact, why don't you consider entering into a permanent relationship with it? You'd have a lot in common.
"Whenever you see this chap you go out of your way to be nice to him, OK? Because you never know, I might be watching mightn't I?" He let them go and they dropped to the ground, their feet landing on the pavement with a force that hurt. Simon smiled at the Major embarrassedly, made a clumsy attempt at a thankyou, and went on his way. The two youths hurried off in the opposite direction, scowling in helpless fury.
Dusting himself down as if physical contact with the yobs had contaminated him, the Major rejoined Gillian, smiling in satisfaction. His companion gaped at him in astonished admiration. If she hadn't been sure about him before, she was now.
From then on they were perfectly at ease together, always finding funny and interesting things to talk about. After she went home they'd kept in touch, meeting up whenever one had the time to visit the other's country. Each contact reminded them why they liked each other and could enrich each others' lives. Inside, the Major was like a little child with joy when he heard she was to be permanently attached to the Ministry in London. The change caused her no regrets. She had as many connections in Britain as she had back home, and seemed to inhabit a cosy mid-Atlantic world where you could be equally at home on either side of the ocean.
Towards the end of one of her visits to London he had left her at his flat while he went to a prestigious jeweller's and splashed out on an expensive engagement ring. When he returned to her with it she exploded with delight, enfolding him in an embrace which lasted several minutes. A proper celebration had had to wait because he’d had to go on a mission, but would take place immediately he got back. A couple of days later Gillian had caught a plane to New York, intending to go from there to Los Angeles where her parents lived to personally tell them the wonderful news.
She was crazy enough to marry him despite the probability, higher than in most other occupations, that he might end up dead before he was much older, and at the same time sensible enough to learn to live with it. She would have made a good Army wife. And a wonderful mother; he thought how good she'd been with the children at the party they'd held for the offspring of the working party's members.
But that was not to be. A whole future had been erased in the course of a few seconds by a small band of uniquely evil men. For Gillian had been one of the eighty-two passengers on board the first plane to be piloted into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre during the terrorist attacks on America on Tuesday September 11th 2001. Eighty-two people who had been expected to behave while they were flown to their deaths, men women and children alike, in the process slaughtering hundreds of other innocents.
God, what it must have been like for them. Had she just accepted her death, sitting there calmly awaiting the end? Knowing Gillian, he doubted it. He could easily picture her having a go.
How had the hijackers overpowered the crew and passengers who had given trouble? Had she been tied up, a neatly packaged consignment on its journey to annihilation...or had they slit her throat, like one might slit the throat of a sheep, an animal?
It wouldn't have given him much comfort if she had called him. Anyone who had read or heard about the atrocity knew of the pathetic, heartbreaking messages the passengers had sent to their families in the last few minutes before the impact. But she hadn't called him, and he had no idea what that might mean. She had had her mobile phone on her at the time, as far as he knew.
Wait a moment, that wasn't strictly true. Christ, he thought with a chill, was he now starting to deliberately deceive himself as to what had happened?
In fact, his answering machine had recorded three messages at roughly the time of the bombing. One of them might have been from
Gillian, or it might not. Part of him wanted to find out and part didn't. He had stared at the phone for minutes - hours? - trying to come to a decision. It had dissolved before his eyes into a hazy, shapeless blur. Eventually, the tears streaming down his cheeks, he had reached forward and pressed the "delete" button, erasing all the messages from the machine's memory.
Sometimes he felt a terrible, sickening craving to read the newspaper reports, to know exactly what had happened on the plane from the moment of the hijacking to its awful climax. He knew those reports could give him some, if not all, of the answers.
But he wasn't sure he wanted them. Whatever the truth of the matter he was sure to find it too upsetting. And yet not knowing meant that his head was filled with all manner of disturbing thoughts.
It was a horrible, impossible situation to be in. He had caught snippets from the newspapers and TV, of course, but they had been quite enough.
As for those photographs of the huge red fireball erupting from the top of the tower, he avoided anything which might result in seeing them, and looked hurriedly away whenever they appeared, because the knowledge that inside the inferno Gillian and scores of others were being melted to nothing made him physically sick.
Ever since that unspeakable day he had tried desperately to find a way of conceptualising and expressing the thoughts it had left him with, and now he felt he had succeeded. To him the ultimate insult, the ultimate desecration that had been inflicted on Gillian was that the means of her destruction had also, by deliberate intent, been that by which so many other innocent people, people with families, met their untimely ends. She had been served up as an integral part of an obscene gourmet of death. The loss itself, and the way in which it had occurred, were like two advancing stone walls, cold and hard and rigid, crushing him between them.
He imagined the hijacker at the controls of the plane, eyes shining, face wreathed in ecstasy as the moment of his death rapidly approached, oblivious of or uncaring about the screaming and sobbing from the passenger cabin behind him.
Call your loved ones and tell them you are going to die. It seemed to him it could only have been said mockingly. He knew the hatred and contempt these people had for Westerners and their civilisation.
Then there was the failure to obtain full justice for the atrocity. It had been the work of just a small group of people, unrepresentative of Muslims in general. Everyone was urging restraint on the West in its efforts to hunt down its enemies, and the Major supported that policy for he had no intention of allowing any more innocents to suffer. He knew that many people in the Middle East liked and admired Western women, in a harmless sort of way, and would have been appalled and saddened by the killing of someone like Gillian. And yet it seemed so wrong, so inappropriate, so grotesquely out of proportion, that for a crime in which thousands had died only a few would be punished.
The men directly responsible for the atrocity were dead, and therefore beyond reach of the law. Perhaps they were now burning in Hell, as some had declared, but that was something he couldn't be sure of and the not knowing if justice had been done was a nagging pain in his guts. As for those who had planned and funded the operation, they were still at large and so far all efforts to catch them had failed. It could be years before there was any luck; they might never be caught at all. They would remain at liberty, laughing at the West, while the loved ones of the slaughtered would spend their days grieving, attempting to cope with a pain that could never be entirely mastered.
Once again he groaned aloud with the pain and the horror and the anguish of it all. He could clarify his thoughts but he still couldn't come to terms with it, couldn't understand it, couldn't explain the evil and the hatred and the...
He unclenched his fist and stared down fixedly at the sweat on the palm and fingers.
Someone had rammed a red hot poker down his throat and into his chest and lungs and despite all his efforts he couldn't pull it out. It was burning and choking him at the same time. As for his head, it was as if a steaming cauldron of boiling water were being tossed violently by a ferocious, relentless storm.
The fingers of one hand were twitching and his eyelids flickering rapidly. He felt the burning madness seek to engulf him and send him once again into convulsions. At the moment it seemed he could resist it. But he knew he was standing on a terrifyingly narrow bridge above a vast yawning abyss from which a mighty, howling wind would any second pluck him.
Christ, he thought. I'm not going to cope. I'm not going to make it.
But he was a soldier. An SAS soldier.
He lifted himself off the bed, crossed to the lightswitch and flicked it. Opening the bureau that stood in the corner, he rummaged among its contents until he found the medal that had been awarded to him, secretly of course, for his conduct in Sierra Leone. On it was the emblem of the Special Air Service; the winged dagger with the scroll underneath bearing its familiar motto, "Who Dares Wins". He cradled it in his hands and stared down at it with tears pouring from his eyes again.
At length he put it away and sat down on the bed, his head slumping onto his chest.
He wanted to go to bed and stay there for the rest of his life, to take no part in the world because a world without Gillian in it wasn't worth living in.
He clasped both hands to his head, reeling as the Horror overcame him once more.
He was going to freak out. Any second now. And do...what?
There was only one course of action that he could see. Only one way to stop it.
He went into the kitchen and turned the cooker on. He waited, steeling himself, while the hotplate gradually heated up, the red glow appearing and then increasing in brightness until the whole of the metal ring was incandescent.
He bit his lip, swallowing. For a moment his courage wavered and he stepped back. Then, shutting his eyes tightly and screwing up his face, he reached out and grasped the red hot metal.
For the barest fraction of a second his fingers stayed locked around the hotplate. Then he snatched his hand away with a shrill, wavering scream of agony.
He staggered back, bent almost double. His good hand instinctively flew to the burnt one, to be withdrawn sharply as it touched the raw tender flesh. He slumped against the sideboard, teeth gritted savagely, the tears forcing their way past his tightly closed eyelids. His breath came in short sharp gasps.
Several minutes later he straightened up, turned off the cooker and returned to the bedroom, to fling himself down on the bed again.
The sudden onrush of a pain that was purely physical had driven the trauma from his mind. Soon sleep claimed him.
The Horror was not to return for some time after that, and when it did he knew what to do. But asleep or awake, his head still filled with images that were either sad or horrifying.
He saw Gillian, of course. But there was another face that drifted through his dreams, expanding to enormous size and driving away all the others. The face of a bearded man with brown skin and eyes that burned with fanaticism and hatred.
It was the face of Osama Bin Laden.
The face of Satan.


TWELVE
Edward had taken a couple of weeks off work in order to concentrate on finding his daughter. The first thing he did was to arrange a visit to the Foreign Office.
“What are the authorities out there doing about it?" he demanded of the official who had been delegated to meet him.
"I'm sure they take matters like this very seriously," the man replied.
Edward wasn't appeased. If they did, the official would have had more to say than that, he reasoned.
"Do you think she's been killed? Is she being kept somewhere?"
"It's impossible to say at this stage. I don't want to be pessimistic, but it could be either." The official paused. "There's nothing to stop you flying out there if you want to. But be careful what you say or do, or you might just get in the way.”
"It didn't really add anything to what the chap from IPL said," Edward reported to Margaret afterwards. "Although I got the impression the governments in the region aren't doing enough about this whole problem."
"The thought of what she might be going through..." Margaret was on the point of tears again. He took her in his arms, hugging her and gently kissing the still rich dark hair.
He could feel her body quivering as panic started to seize her. "If she's hurt, or frightened...what if they never find her? What if..."
“Shall I get your tablets?"
"You could do," she sighed. He fetched the little white tube from the sideboard in the kitchen.
Margaret popped several of the pills into her mouth and sank into an armchair, waiting for her nerves to relax. For about half an hour they watched TV in silence.
Then she spoke. "I wish she wouldn't get herself into these situations. She just doesn't think half the time, that's the trouble."
"She's like you in that respect." Immediately Edward regretted the remark.
Her eyes flashed in anger. "Did you have to say that?"
He held up his hands placatingly. "All right, all right. We're not going to help her by bickering."
"I feel so helpless," Margaret groaned.
"It won't make matters any less worse if you screw yourself up over it."
"It's easy to say that."
"What do you want me to bloody say?" He realised they were losing it again. As too often happened when Caroline wasn't around to keep the peace.
"And we've just got to sit here and wait for news," Margaret went on. "I don't think I can stand it."
"I doubt if we've got any choice but to let them get on with the search."
"They won't find her; I know it. It's a completely different culture out there. Oh God, give me strength."
They had reached an impasse. Sighing, Margaret sank deeper into her chair and closed her eyes, using the wearying effect of her stress to send herself to sleep.
Edward went to the mantelpiece and took down a little book of family photographs. He sat and flicked miserably through it. Most were of Caroline when she was a child. He gazed sadly at a picture of a healthy-looking little girl smiling at the camera from the seat of her toy bike.
He collapsed back into his chair to stare through the window at the trees in the garden, once or twice glancing at his sleeping wife. After a time, darkness fell.
Margaret woke and began doing the breathing exercises recommended to her by her doctor as a means of coping with tension. Edward remained where he was gazing into the gathering dusk.
Margaret stretched herself out on the sofa and went to sleep again. The only sound in the room was the monotonous ticking of the clock.
Another minute passed by. Then Edward stood up suddenly, grimly resolute. "I'm not going to sit here getting screwed up about it," he said fiercely. "This time I'm going out there."
It was what Margaret had wanted to hear. "If you are then I'm coming too." She did not want to stay at home waiting for news and worrying; it might kill her. If she was actively involved in doing something to find Caroline, though, that would be a tonic.
"I'm going to book the flight first thing tomorrow morning," Edward announced. "But right now, I think I need some sleep."
Tomorrow would have to be very busy. They had already lost one child. They weren't going to lose the other too, if there was the slightest thing either of them could do to help it.

As the Major left his mews flat and made for where his car was parked one of his neighbours, a retired bank manager named Fred Clifford, approached him and they started to chat.
A couple of sentences into the conversation Clifford shifted, embarrassed. "Oh, er..." He plucked up the courage. "I hope you don't mind me asking, but were you all right last night?"
The Major's immediate reaction was to feign bewilderment. "All right? How d'you mean?" He realised with dismay that Clifford would have noticed his brief look of alarm.
"Well, I heard the most awful row from your place. You must have been having a pretty bad nightmare."
"Yes, I was actually," the Major smiled. "Sorry if I disturbed you."
"Oh, that's all right."
"You don't want to know what it was about," the Major told him.
"I'm sure I don't," Clifford laughed. "Life's depressing enough as it is, these days." With this trite observation, and a nod of farewell, he walked away.
The Major climbed into the car and sat thinking. His mind was taken up by unsettling thought that Clifford must be aware of all the other incidents of screaming and shouting in the night, since he hadn't been away for any length of time during the past few months. In which case his bringing up the subject now clearly had a significance.

"I told her it was too dangerous," said Hamid sadly. He shrugged again. "But she would not listen."
"That doesn't surprise me," sighed Edward. "And that's all you can tell me?" Hamid had just finished explaining about the white slave trade and Caroline's declaration of war on it.
The Saudi seemed to consider. "There is a gentleman called Neghid Fouasi, an Egyptian. It's rumoured he has a place out in the desert where he keeps a harem, in which there are many Western women, who he shares out among his friends."
"I see," said Edward darkly. "And has anyone ever investigated this?"
"Without any proof it is difficult. He is a man who guards his privacy jealously. It is not even known precisely where his palace is."
Edward clapped the Arab on the shoulder. "All right, Hamid old son. Thanks for the help. We'll let you know if anything comes up."
Rifaat in Lebanon said much the same thing as Hamid. "I told her it was foolish, that there might be dangers. But the trouble with Caroline is she always thinks that she is right and will not be told otherwise."
"Well, I'd better get on with looking for her," said Edward gruffly, passing by a chance to gain an interesting insight into what his daughter had been like at school.
"You'll let me know if you have any news of her?" asked Rifaat anxiously. The police had indeed agreed to keep her family's name out of things, but this was only partial consolation for what had befallen Caroline.
"Of course, honey." He gave her a peck on the cheek and said goodbye.
He thought carefully all the way back to the hotel. If what Hamid had told him about the white slave ring was true, Caroline could be anywhere in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, except for Iraq, which these days was almost completely sealed off from the West, Iran (still more or less shackled by a repressive Islamic fundamentalism), and perhaps Libya (he wasn't sure what Colonel Gaddafi's attitude was towards such activities). He had no idea whether such things went on Israel, although he had been told the place was getting generally sleazier, like most countries.
The police investigation, which so far had turned up not the slightest trace of Caroline, was at the moment confined entirely to Lebanon and there was no indication they were thinking of widening the search at all. On the news they seemed to be downplaying the idea of a sex slave racket embracing the greater part of the Middle East. There was no mention of it at all on the TV, and in the papers very little apart from a couple of paragraphs. Obviously, no-one wanted to offend anyone else. He noted with interest that something controversial was deemed particularly dangerous if it was referred to through the medium of television rather than the printed page.
He came across several posters of Caroline, with appeals for help in Arabic and English. He showed a few people photographs of her, asking if they had seen or heard anything, but he knew in his heart it was pretty pointless.
He didn't think it was wise to concentrate his efforts on Saudi; it was too closed a society. Margaret wouldn't be able to lend much assistance, it being difficult for a woman to get around and do things. Besides, he had the impression of powerful forces blocking too close an investigation. Hamid had hinted that people in the government and royal family were involved in the business and had an interest in keeping it quiet. Maybe Lebanon was a different matter. Keeping someone prisoner, hiding them away completely from the world at large, did somehow seem an easy matter in Beirut; the Lebanese had plenty of experience of that sort of thing, he thought, thinking of the kidnappings and other murky goings-on during the country's 15-year civil war.
"We need to find out more about this white slavery thing before we do any more," he told Margaret in their room later on. "I'm going to do some swotting up. I suggest we head home, as something tells me we won't achieve an awful lot here."

Theodore Malikian was sitting in the car waiting for his team to conclude their inspections. He stared out through the windscreen, his fingers tapping out a constant, monotonous rhythm on the dashboard. He could feel the baking sun through the car's windows, which were almost painfully hot to the touch.
He heard a dozen pairs of feet approach the vehicle and looked up, smiling.
He opened the car door and they all got in. "Do you think you've finished?" Malikian asked them. Everyone nodded.
He felt himself go rigid with tension, heart thumping. "And did you find anything?"
It was Brigitta Carlssen who answered. "There's nothing," she said, sounding totally mystified. "Nothing at all. Everything suggests it's what the Iraqis say it is."
"You're sure?"
"We're as sure as anyone can be," grunted John Cardall. "There's no bloody missiles in there anyway."
"Yukio?"
"I have examined the whole installation thoroughly and with the Iraqis' complete co-operation." The Japanese was carrying a plastic bag containing a pair of gloves, a plastic coverall, goggles and other protective clothing. "There is no trace of chemicals other than those you would expect to find in an agricultural research centre. They would be used in the manufacture and testing of fertilisers."
"OK. Zeke?"
The South African was still wearing his protective suit and helmet. "There's no radiation in there at all. And no equipment which could be used in the making of a nuclear weapon."
"Felipe?"
"It's clean," declared Soares.
"Every square inch of space is accounted for?" Malikian asked, addressing the whole team this time.
"I made sure of that," Cardall said. "I looked everywhere. No concealed rooms or anything like that. Nowhere to hide an effing mouse in."
"It's not a chemical weapons factory or a germ warfare laboratory, and there's no nuclear material in there at all," said Brigitta. Malikian sighed. It wasn't what he had been hoping to hear.
While his team had been doing their stuff inside the building helicopters with sensors for detecting gamma radiation had been overflying the site to test for radioactive elements. Objects were being checked for the magnetisation which resulted from contact with equipment employed in isotope separation. Chemical sniffers had been used to sample the air downwind. Other samples of water, air, soil and accumulated dust or grease on machinery or in air intakes had been analysed for evidence of banned nuclear, chemical, or biological activity. Radar, gravitometry, magnetic variance, electromagnetic induction and ground sonar had all been used to search for anything that might be buried underneath the building. All these tests and more had proved negative.
"How's it going with the other teams?" Felipe asked. Malikian had been in constant touch with them via his satellite phone.
"Well, what's there has been destroyed. Burnt, blown up, confiscated or made harmless. There wasn't a lot of it. A few canisters of chemicals, a very small quantity of uranium.” At heart it was what he’d expected; was it really likely Saddam could have amassed significant amounts of the equipment he needed for a WMD programme without someone noticing, however cleverly he covered his tracks? “Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't more of the stuff lying around somewhere. We can't be sure, not without searching every square inch of the country, but I think we'll have to be satisfied with what we've found for the time being." It seemed that as far as could be ascertained, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Unless, of course, there was something funny going on at Quarat.
Malikian glanced again at the vast sprawling installation and breathed hard. They couldn't stay here forever. He knew a decision would have to be made soon.
The others were looking at him expectantly. "OK," he said softly. "I've no reason to doubt you all did your jobs properly." He knew them too well for that. "We'll just have to go back to the UN with what we've found or haven't, and rethink things. Maybe this complex is just another blind. We can't accuse without proof, so we may as well forget about the place for the time being. Let’s go.”

"You've been gone a long time," commented Margaret as she opened the door to let her husband in. "Did you have any luck?"
"Nothing at the library," Edward said. "But I got them to do a computer search for any books on white slavery and they printed out the results." He showed her. "There's not a lot there, as you can see; plenty of general books about slavery, or the black slaves in America, but nothing specifically about white slavery apart from one book published in the sixties."
"The sixties? So it's a bit out of date then."
"Well, the world being the sort of place it is, I doubt things have got any better since then," he said darkly. "Anyway, I went straight up to London, called in at the British Library and got myself a Reader's Ticket. I asked to see the books on the printout. I only had time to browse through them, but they make grim reading.
"Apart from the one I mentioned, which is by a chap called McCandless, there was something on slavery in the modern world, published about ten years ago. It talks about "women from Northern Europe going to feed the brothels of the Middle East and South-East Asia," but doesn't really go into any detail. It also says how an English girl on holiday in Marbella was held prisoner on a yacht by two Arabs and repeatedly raped. She was so badly affected by it that she became a full-time prostitute. That was in the mid-nineties.
"I came across a sort of general bibliography of slavery, but again there's nothing about white slavery except an article in some Spanish journal or other. There must be stuff in there that's useful, but it'd take too much time and money to order all the things listed in it and go through them.
"I've ordered copies of the books through inter-library loan - the British Library isn't a lending library, so you can't take things out - but they could take up to three months to arrive. In the meantime I'll see if I can trace this McCandless; a natter with him might be more useful."

As he drove to work the Major's face was even more set and grim than was usually the case - which was saying something. He knew that if things continued as they were, with the attacks becoming more and more frequent, people would notice something. More than that, they would start to complain. Effectively, Clifford already had. And where he led, the Major knew others would follow. The news would reach his superiors, and...
Whatever he tried to do to control the Horror there was always the danger it would come upon him at the wrong time; when he was at work, or in some public place like a shop, supermarket, park or street.
He remembered the hotplate. Christ, if anyone saw him doing something like that in public, they'd think...
But he couldn't stay shut up in the flat all his spare time. The stress and depression he'd suffer would only make things worse. There would be no way of releasing all the tensions that accumulated in everyday life.
It had helped when he had gone to a counsellor - a civilian counsellor, because he knew what would happen if the Army found out - and explained roughly what his problem was. But only for a time. He had known, from the moment of the first attack almost a week after the atrocity, that only one thing could assuage his anger and grief and channel them in the right directions.
When his unit had been told they were going into Afghanistan it had been wonderful. Absolutely bloody fantastic. There had been no need to feel so screwed up about things, to wake up in the early hours of the morning sweating and screaming and shouting, because they were on their way to sort out the cause of the trouble; to find Osama bin Laden and either capture him or, if he gave them the excuse, kill the bastard.
There was just one problem. Bin Laden had not been there.

THIRTEEN
By a stroke of luck, the firm with which Keith McCandless' publishers had been amalgamated still kept records of its dealings with its authors, and they went back some considerable way. When Edward explained who he was and asked to be put in touch with McCandless they were keen to help. The secretary who took his call told him he'd have to put the request in writing, but that if he did it would be given immediate attention. A couple of days later McCandless phoned him inviting him to suggest a time and a place to meet. As Edward had suspected McCandless had long since retired from full-time employment and was available more or less all the time. That same evening he drove into London to call on the veteran journalist in his Victorian terraced flat near the Bayswater Road.
Now in his sixties, a distinguished white-haired figure who walked a little stiffly, he greeted Edward with formal but sincere politeness. He showed the businessman into his study, whose big French windows looked onto a small, tidy little garden. One wall of the room was taken up by a massive bookcase, its shelves overflowing with publications mostly on subjects related to that McCandless had specialised in. Gesturing to Edward to sit down, he went into the kitchen and returned shortly afterwards with cups of tea for them both.
He revealed that he had been following Caroline's case with interest. Edward told him all he had learned. "I'm not surprised it's still going on," McCandless said as he took his seat. "Although I'm puzzled they should have taken your daughter - if white slavery is at the bottom of it. They normally concentrate on girls who've already become caught up in prostitution."
"She certainly wasn't a prostitute," grunted Edward. He corrected himself inwardly; she isn't a prostitute.
"I'm not surprised you didn't find much on the subject. There isn't. Plenty of stuff about the black slaves in the Americas, and all that, but none on slavery as it affects white people."
"Why do you think that is?" Edward asked.
"I think it has a lot to do with political correctness. We don't like to draw attention to it in case it appears to reinforce the racist stereotype we used to have, and which some people probably still do have, of lecherous Arabs who do unspeakable things to decent white girls. We might occasionally admit it goes on but we don't make reference to it any more than necessary.
"At the same time you have to agree it does seems less serious, particularly in terms of scale. Mind you, it could be that as many whites have been enslaved by non-whites as the other way round, taken as a historical total; the exact figures aren't available and probably never will be.
"Historians tend to downplay the issue as much as politicians do. A book came out recently on the Ottomans - that's the dynasty, the Muslim dynasty, who ruled the Turkish Empire from the Middle Ages until it collapsed after the First World War. It argued that the Western picture of the harem was a distorted one, and pointed out that far from it being a hotbed of lust, a place of rampant promiscuity, the Sultan forbade anyone but himself to have access to the women; as if it was any better because only one person was doing it. In trying, quite rightly, to draw attention to what the Ottomans didn't do, the author glossed over what they did do. The fact is that women were captured and sold into slavery and the better-looking ones sent to the harem. No matter how much we try to find excuses for it, no matter how much we whitewash it by saying it was part of their culture, that's what happened. Even if the Sultan, or whoever was the head of the household in which they served, never actually had his way with them sexually they were still slaves. In most cases they never regained their freedom. They disappeared into what was, in comparison with the Europe of that time, a closed society. Their families never saw them again.
"Unfortunately, because we – meaning white people - have been relatively safe from slavery in modern times and because of all the rotten things we've undoubtedly done to others over the centuries there's a collective lack of sympathy for us on this score, even on our own part. We're the perpetrators and not the victims. At any rate, it arouses less moral indignation. People think slavery is something that only happens to you if you're black." He sighed ruefully. "I guess we're the victims of our own past."
"And yet we have been slaves," Edward said.
"Of course. Right from when different cultures first started coming into contact with each other, there's been a strong attraction to white women in Middle Eastern countries. That's why they were particularly sought after as slaves. Whenever they could get their hands on them, as a result of military conquest or piracy, they did. In all these stereotypes, these myths, there's usually some small grain, at least, of truth; they couldn't come about otherwise.
"I've talked about the Ottomans. There's also the Barbary States, the Muslim principalities of North Africa. Although politically they were part of the Ottoman Empire, they enjoyed a great deal of independence. Over hundreds of years, from the Middle Ages through to the early nineteenth century, many thousands of white Christians were captured by pirates who attacked Western shipping in the Mediterranean, and coastal towns throughout Europe, and sold to the rulers of the states as slaves. It was quite a profitable enterprise. The best-looking women usually ended up in the harem. Some of the slaves were able to buy their freedom and return home, but I expect the majority died in captivity; unfortunately the exact statistics aren't available. I imagine that if the Sultan had a beautiful white slave in his possession he wouldn't be easily persuaded to let her go.
"A much forgotten and overlooked piece of history. It might repay further study.
"I don't know if you've read the Koran lately? There are passages in it which specifically authorise the taking of slaves, where it is desired. Muslim women themselves didn't exactly have a great deal of freedom, so those of the infidel were fair game. That said, I don't believe the majority of Muslims in those days were evil perverts, just as they aren’t now. I imagine they were decent, honourable people who did it because the Koran seemed to be legitimising it.
"Of course, there are some disturbing passages in the Bible too." He leaned back in his chair, gazing at the ceiling. "You could exaggerate the ghastliness of it, in some respects. It was possible to resist your owner's affections, at least for a time, depending on what kind of man he was. They didn't necessarily force themselves on a woman the moment she arrived in the harem, though I guess it could still happen. The Koran actually forbids that sort of thing. I'd say modern slave traders are worse."
"They're the ones I'm mainly concerned about," said Edward.
"Ah yes, of course. You've read my book, I take it?"
"I've dipped into it. I'd have thought it was the first stop on the way."
"I got a lot of stick for it when it was first published. Some people didn't believe me, but I stand by what I said then, or most of it. I've nothing to apologise for."
Edward recalled that McCandless' book had been absent from the bibliography on slavery he had consulted. The introduction to the bibliography had said something about it not including what was merely propaganda. Had its compilers viewed McCandless' book in that light? It was hard to be sure. They had listed another book he had written, on slavery in contemporary Africa, the fact of whose writing surely showed he wasn't just trying to be nasty about Arabs.
"I wasn't being racist; I was simply seeking to draw attention to an unpalatable truth. There are one or two things I regret, such as the bit where I say the true Arab despises all non-Muslims. But that's what we were like in those days. I wouldn't say it now, of course. Whatever you might think of political correctness, we've come a long way since then."
Edward was anxious to get to the point. "But the abduction of white girls for sex slavery still goes on?"
"Apparently, although it seems to be the Far East which has cornered the market these days. Since I wrote my book I've heard all kinds of rumours. It wouldn't surprise me if they were true; human nature doesn't improve with time.
"In the days of the Ottomans and the Barbary pirates it was state-sponsored. You can see it as part of an ongoing war between Islam and the West. Today things are different. Both Islam and Christianity have changed over the centuries, become more humane; although Christianity, in particular, still gets criticised for things that happened hundreds of years ago. And the West is too powerful, militarily and politically, to be provoked without good reason, unless you're a fanatic of the Bin Laden variety, and their game is killing rather than slavery. Diplomatically, there are grave dangers involved in kidnapping and enslaving a white woman. If she is abducted, it's most likely to be by some hardened criminal type who is determined to operate outside the law in any case, or is just too damn stupid to be aware of the risks.
"If she were an ordinary, law-abiding citizen, going to a Middle Eastern or North African country as a tourist or on business; well, it’s likely though not impossible. There have been one or two isolated cases. The interest is certainly there. I heard not so long ago of a celebrity who’d been on holiday in Tunisia with her family, as a child, and this chap approached them and asked how much they’d sell her for. I mean, come on; a white family, and this guy comes up to them and…
“It's even less feasible she could be kidnapped in her own country, although even that can't be ruled out. It was once attempted to smuggle a certain exiled Nigerian opposition politician from Britain to his home country to face trial. He was found drugged in a crate at Heathrow Airport. If it was possible to attempt it with him it could be attempted with others - although personally I wouldn't want to take the risk.
"One thing to remember is that most of the Western girls who get caught up in it will be prostitutes and drug addicts. The sort of girls who've run away from home, been disowned by their families. No-one is likely to make enquiries about them. Diplomatic repercussions are unlikely. The sensible white slaver confines himself to that kind of girl.
“But there are always rumours. It could be forcible abduction is more common than we tend to think. Did you know it's estimated that a hundred white European girls disappear in India every year? Some of them have thrown it all up, gone off in search of a religious experience, to make a totally new start. With others there may be a more sinister reason. There was a Scots girl who disappeared while on holiday there; they think she was abducted, forced into marriage with a wealthy Indian, and killed, perhaps accidentally, when she tried to run away."
"A hundred girls?" Edward was incredulous. "So how come I never get to hear about it?"
"Perhaps because of something I mentioned earlier: political correctness. We don't like to draw attention to the fact that black or brown people really do nasty things to whites from time to time. In particular we're inhibited from saying anything critical about Muslims and their culture, especially after a certain business involving aero planes and skyscrapers. In the current climate it's considered too inflammatory. Consciously or otherwise, white slave traders may be exploiting that situation.
"To be fair, there are other explanations that come to mind. The only cases we hear about are the ones whose families are prepared to make a fuss about it or who the news has got room for. The news schedules can't possibly accommodate everything.
"But it does happen. You can't deny it, it's a simple fact no matter how uncomfortable it might be to the politically correct. It obviously doesn't go away just because the Western media have stopped reporting it.
"I sometimes shudder to think what might be happening in the world that we don't know about. Perhaps it's better we don't know.
"Some of the stories one hears are exaggerated or made up. You'll always get the stupid little hussy who'll make up a story that's completely, or partly, false and sell it to the press hoping to make oodles of dash out of it. It doesn't help those who really have been victims. Often it's hard to separate fact from fiction; you just don't know what to believe."
"Assuming the problem is a real one," Edward began, "what's being done about it all?"
"You may be interested to know there's an International Convention For The Suppression Of White Slavery dating back to 1904. As with other international conventions, not everyone is willing to pay it more than lip service. With the Gulf region the problem is that the West doesn't like to offend the various governments, even if the women concerned are not prostitutes, because for economic and political reasons it's reliant on their goodwill.
"There's a lot of corruption there. Big shots in the government, even members of the royal family may be involved in the trade. It can't be allowed to happen too openly, but happen it does. And where genuine bona fide prostitutes are concerned no-one feels disposed to do much on their behalf. That goes for the public as well as the politicians. The reason why Western “hostesses” in Japan who get themselves into trouble and come to a sticky end aren’t much mourned apart from their family and friends is that people think of them as prostitutes, although if all they do is kiss and cuddle the punters and whisper sweet nothings in their ear because they get a kick out of being pampered by a Western woman, it seems quite harmless to me. Even if they are doing it for money."
Edward got round to the question he most wanted to ask. "So where do you think my daughter is now?"
"Well, when I wrote my book there were four principal centers for the white slave trade: Iran, Lebanon, Syria and the Gulf States.
The Tehran end was put paid to by the Ayatollahs when they came to power, or at least I assume it was; one of the few good things they did. It probably moved elsewhere. The girls would have been deported, maybe after having been imprisoned for a short time. Syria I don't know about. In Lebanon it was finished off by the civil war, but I'd always suspected it would move back in there now that the trouble was over." He thought carefully. "Right now the Lebanese are trying to reconstruct after the war. All the sleaze is valuable because it's bringing money into the country, and I suppose...I suppose it's possible that if someone was earning enough cash for Lebanon through organizing it, they and their activities could be protected by people in the government there."
"From what I've been told," said Edward, "someone's definitely trying to bring it back."
"At a guess, that's where Caroline is. Or in the Gulf somewhere. But it's so long since I carried out my researches back in '67 that I really can't be sure. I don't know how different things are now."
"How do these people operate, going by what it was like in your day?"
"They recruit prostitutes from among the kind of girls who are vulnerable, whose disappearance won't cause a stir. The product of broken homes, largely forgotten by the rest of society. Sometimes their victims are already on the game, sometimes they're not.
“Another favourite tactic of theirs is to hang around bars and nightclubs posing as agents for theatrical companies. They'll persuade some brainless bimbo she's actually quite talented and arrange for her to go on a tour of the Middle East with a fake rep company. The softener - that's the chap in the field, whose job is to do the "recruiting" - is told to look especially for girls with blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin, because that type is particularly in demand in the Middle East."
Edward stiffened. Caroline.
"That's one reason why a lot of the "escorts" who travel round Kuwait entertaining wealthy businessmen and politicians are from the former Soviet bloc. There seem to be a lot of natural blondes there, probably more than there are in western Europe.
“Anyway, the girls’ be shipped out to Lebanon or Saudi, and once they were there they'd be made into drug addicts to ensure their compliance. If any of them misbehaved they'd be beaten, deprived of their drugs, and sent to one of the rougher brothels in somewhere like Beirut. When they grew too old - and in the slavers' view "too old" meant anything over thirty - they'd be thrown out onto the street, perhaps sold to a beggar who'd hire them out as a means of supplementing their income. Before long they'd be dead from a combination of illness, malnutrition and abuse. Prematurely aged. Their passports would have been confiscated so it'd be difficult for them to get back to England. It wouldn't surprise me if one or two of them were still out there.
"Nowadays it isn't really necessary to force women into it, you just pay them a lot of money and they take it. You win them over with presents, of money or jewels or whatever. You don't really need prostitutes in the fuller sense. Importing foreign girls as hostesses is traditional in some parts of the world; you fly hookers, models and beauty queens out to Kuwait or wherever and back again, giving them blood tests at the airport, and pay them up to £3 million per year to entertain the Prince and his pals. They can stay as long as they like.
"It's gone too far at times. There was that case when a member of the royal family of Brunei was sued by a former Miss USA who claimed she'd signed up to do promotional work for him, but when she arrived in the country she was drugged and had her passport confiscated. She woke up with her clothes disordered, having clearly been sexually assaulted. She was then forced to "entertain" the Prince's friends at various parties. The case was dismissed but it seems to have done a lot of damage. The newspapers were filled with similar tales from women who'd been lured out there, including a Miss UK runner-up who said she'd been flown to Brunei supposedly for attending palace functions but when she got there found she was expected to engage in prostitution, along with a number of other Western girls, for the prince and his friends. She won £500,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
“More recently the son of a certain Middle Eastern leader paid an escort agency to send some prostitutes to entertain him and his friends at a party he was giving; this was in a Western country. When the girls refused to go along with it, he pulled a gun on them." McCandless might have added that the reason they refused was that they had heard about the weird proclivities of the VIP and his associates; their tastes went beyond "straight" sex, and Western women appealed to them because they believed they could make them do the things their own females would indignantly object to. But he was thinking of Caroline Kent, and didn't want to upset her father.
"I wasn't sure whether it still went on the way it did in my time. So I don’t know, from all you’ve told me, whether what’s happened to Caroline and her friend is a continuation of what was going on in the sixties or something new.”
Edward decided he had quite enough to be getting on with. McCandless seemed to sense the interview was at an end. "I hope you find your daughter," he smiled.
Edward said his thanks and left, feeling extremely angry and not much reassured.

FOURTEEN
In the staff common room at International Petroleum, the mood was less subdued than Chris Barrett reckoned it should be. He sat and sipped his tea with the others, trying to suppress the depressing thoughts going through his mind.
Caroline might be a pain a lot of the time, but when she wasn't here you found yourself missing her badly. She was just so alive, Chris thought, feeling a slight dampness at the corner of his eye. Such a range of different moods, such a powerful, omnipresent personality.
It wasn't the first time the possibility of some harm coming to her had produced such a reaction in him. If she's dead, please God tell me she didn't suffer. Better still, bring her back safe and sound.
"I don't suppose there's been any news of Caroline?" he asked his colleagues, even though he would have heard about it if there had.
"Not that I know of," said Mark Goodison from Accounts. He gave Chris a sympathetic look. Goodison was one of the nicer people with whom he came into contact in the course of his work.
"Hennig doesn't seem particularly worried," Chris remarked bitterly. Marcus Hennig was Managing Director of IPL UK and their overall boss.
"He wouldn't be. After all, he doesn't like her does he?" Caroline was always imposing her own schemes on Hennig, while doing her best to obstruct any projects of his she knew would not be conducive to the welfare of her staff (she liked to think of them as "her" staff).
"I think we should do something," Chris said suddenly.
Goodison looked at him in surprise. "Like what? What can we do?"
"I'd like to be out there looking for her." He knew he wasn't the only one who did, despite all the jokes to the contrary that ran round the place.
To be honest, it wasn't just a case of altruism. "I mean, what's going to happen if she doesn't come back?" And it's looking increasingly less likely that she will, he thought despairingly.
"Things will be in a right bloody mess."
An executive named Nigel Daneman looked at him in some surprise. "Tom will take over, surely?" He sounded not just surprised but offended.
"If she doesn't come back," Chris said, brutally ignoring Durham, "we're going to get Tom Leonard. Now I don't know about you but personally I think he's a time-serving, toadying, conniving, deceitful, self-righteous, arrogant, patronising little reptile."
"He does his job well," said Daneman indignantly.
"So does Caroline. And given a choice between someone who did their job well, and someone who did their job well and at the same time wasn't a complete and utter arsehole, I know who I'd prefer.
“I think Hennig's hoping she doesn't come back. Then he can appoint Leonard and have someone who does whatever he wants them to, if only because they're hoping to get his job at some point in the future.
"Leonard will get rid of the people he doesn't like, with Hennig's full approval, and he'll palm off all sorts of rotten jobs onto us. It's going to be absolute shit here. I'll probably end up handing in my notice."
"What about Iain?" someone asked. "Won't he take it on?"
At present things were running smoothly enough under Iain Jardine, Caroline's deputy. Chris liked the soft-spoken Scot; he'd always been happy to stand up for a colleague even if it meant making himself unpopular with the management, and to accept the position of number two even though he was older and far more experienced than Caroline.
"Iain doesn't want it," said Chris. "He's said so many times. At his age it'd be too much hassle. And anyway, Hennig doesn't like him either. Without Caroline's ability to survive he won't stand a chance."
"If there's the slightest chance we can get her back..." he began, then tailed off with a sigh.
"I don't see what any of us can do," Goodison repeated. Chris knew he wasn't just being defeatist. The situation was hopeless, or so it seemed. And yet he knew he couldn't just sit here moping about it.
With a sigh he left the room, dumping his cup in the sink as he passed it. Well if they weren't prepared to do something, he was. Even if he had to sacrifice all his annual leave. He had stuck up for Caroline many times before, as she had for him, and he wasn't going to let her down now.
"Ah, young Barrett," said Marcus Hennig as Chris knocked and entered his office. "What can I do for you?" He remained seated behind his extensive desk.
"It's about Caroline," said Chris.
"Ah, yes," Hennig sighed, putting down the papers he'd been working on and regarding the desktop with a solemn expression. "Yes...it's an awful business, isn't it?"
Chris nodded. I was wondering if, er, if you could spare me for a while...so I could go out there and help look for her."
"It's up to Jim Foxley, surely? He's your line manager." It would normally be Jardine, but unfortunately he was off sick that day. "What did he say?"
"He didn't let me go," said Chris embarrassedly.
Hennig frowned. "And you're proposing I overrule him?"
Well you're the one in charge here, not him, Chris thought with suppressed anger. "Well, er...if you feel able to do that."
Hennig considered for a moment. "How long for?" he asked doubtfully.
"Well...no more than a few weeks, I suppose. I'm happy to use up
all the leave left to me for this year." Before Hennig could answer he went on, "The thing is, it's just that Caroline and I...well, we've been through a lot together. I like to think she's a friend. I don't like to think about what might have happened to her, what she could be going through. I'd really appreciate it if you could let me go out there."
Hennig was embarrassed at this expression of affection by one employee for another. "I'm sorry," he said at length. "We can't have our staff disappearing all the time. Bad enough that it's happened to Caroline."
"I doubt if it's going to happen to me," Chris said.
"I didn't mean that. I mean it'll affect the running of the office if too many people are away. There are already more off than I'd prefer with a major recruitment drive in progress and the annual audit due.
"Not that that's the only consideration," he added hurriedly. "But I'm afraid we'll just have to sit tight and wait for news."
"If there is any," said Chris.
Hennig gave a wistful smile. "Yes...if."
"Everyone's really worried," Chris told him. He shifted indecisively, eyeing the carpet, then ran a hand through his forelock, while Hennig regarded him impatiently. He took a deep breath and tried again. "Look, Mr Hennig, I really would be grateful if..."
Hennig pointed a finger at him. "Don't want to hear any more of it," he said briskly. "All right? I've made my decision. I'm sorry about what's happened, I know you and her are close. But you consider my position. It's a nasty world we're living in when people get killed or kidnapped but it'd create as much of a mess if companies like ours couldn't function properly."
"All right," said Chris. "Well...thanks anyway." The words sounded inane to him. He turned to leave, feeling bitter and disappointed but knowing in his heart that what Hennig had said was quite right.
After he had gone Marcus Hennig sat for a while gazing at the rain-streaked window, troubled by thoughts he wanted to entertain, to revel in, but knew he shouldn't.

Caroline Kent was living all the time in the horrible fear that stress and despair would eventually sap her ability to think clearly. But so far, so far, that had not happened. She could still think, and plan, whenever she was not under the influence of the drug.
Somehow she had to get out. But how, for God's sake? She knew he couldn't expect Major Mike Hartman and his SAS unit to come crashing in through the windows to rescue her. If she was to free herself from this durance vile it would either be by her own cleverness, or by exploiting something someone else had done or not done.
She had set her mind to work on a solution until the effort of thinking was almost physically painful, and yet none chose to present itself. The security was just too tight.
But inevitably people would from time to time make mistakes in whatever they were doing, or be plain careless. It was just a case of waiting for that to happen. Eventually, it did.
One day, they forgot to lock the door of her room. At the same time, the guard whose job was to patrol the landing wasn't doing so because he had assumed the door had been locked and there was no chance of the girls getting out, thereby excusing his lounging about in the rest room for a while watching television.
She didn't think she stood much chance of getting out of the place, but if she could find a phone, and contact the outside world...
She came down the stairs, and turned right into a short corridor ending in a T-junction. She took the left-hand turning, and found herself in a part of the palace she'd never been in before. It was a sort of atrium, with pot plants dotted around and a door in one wall.
There might be a phone in whatever room lay behind the door. She crouched down and eased off her slippers, then padded slowly and cautiously towards it. As she came closer she heard a voice speaking in Arabic, then another.
Shit.
While she waited for the room's occupants to finish their business and leave it, she might as well listen. There was a set of draperies nearby behind which she could hide if it seemed they were about to come out. She crept up to the door.
The voices were both male, and she thought one of them was the guy who spent the most time rogering her, the one who seemed to be in charge here. Arabic wasn’t her first language and the words were muffled by the thickness of the door, but she could pick out enough of what was being said. Certainly, when she later went over what she thought she’d heard it made sense.
"The missile itself is ready. We just can't get the stuff to go into it. We need another 150 million pounds."
"It should not be too difficult. I would need to make one or two profitable sales, but there will be opportunities coming up shortly."
"Well, as always we're very grateful for your help in this project. The money, and the other things you obtained for us. Yes, my leader will be well pleased with you."
"There'll be plenty of rewards for all of us, if it succeeds."
"Aren't you worried that someone will find out what's happening here, though? The Swedish girl's already told the whole world her story."
"I keep on telling people, no-one will do anything. The political risks are too big."
"I still don't think you are very happy about it."
"No-one would be happy about it. Look, if there is any danger it's all the more reason to hurry up with the project. It must be completed soon."
"I will make sure my leader understands the position you are in. He too is anxious to move things on."
"If the project succeeds," Caroline heard the boss man say, "everything will be different. We won't have to worry about exposure."
"And no-one knows what you're doing? No-one suspects?"
"So far, no. Spy planes have gone over but they're not likely to notice anything."
Caroline heard the men get up to leave the room. She concealed herself behind the draperies.
"While you are here perhaps you would like to make use of the facilities," Fouasi was saying.
"Why not?" the visitor replied.
She heard the door open and peered out cautiously from behind the curtain. She saw Fouasi emerge with another Arab, a shortish heavily built man with a thick moustache.
Fouasi shut the door, then produced a key from an inside pocket of his suit and locked it. Her heart sank.
As the two men disappeared Caroline slipped out from her hiding place and scurried away. She had no particular idea where to make for, she just hoped that in her wanderings she might come across something that could help her escape.
She passed another curtained alcove. In a sudden movement which took her completely by surprise the curtain was thrust aside and Blondie dashed out. Before she could react a plump hand seized her by the wrist.
The woman's eyes gleamed and a grin of malicious triumph split her face. "Got you."

I have to think about this, the Major thought. I have to apply my mind to the problem and strain it until I find a solution.
He had tried to use aggression, controlled aggression, to sublimate the anger and hatred that threatened to burn him up. He'd stepped up the jogging and the other forms of physical exercise, trying hard to make himself feel that in doing well at them he was somehow achieving the aim he desired. Whenever he went into the gym at Hereford and smashed his clenched fist into the punchbag it was bin Laden's face he was hitting. But building up bin Laden as the object of his hatred was dangerous because the means to punish the man was lacking. He would only nurture feelings which could not be safely appeased.
"You were going like you were shagging Venus," said a friend and fellow officer after one session. "What's the matter with you?"
"I guess it's pissing me off that we didn't manage to catch you-know-who," the Major said. He knew he was on safe ground here; his sentiments were shared by everyone else in the Regiment.
His friend slapped him on the biceps. "You're not alone there. Take it easy, Mike, there'll be plenty of other people to sort out."
"Well if we can't find him," Hartman said, "no-one can."
"I'll tell you where he is now - in Pakistan. He knows we can't get him out without upsetting the situation there and bringing about his precious holy war. It's what I'd have done."
"I know we can find him," said the Major sadly, and for a moment he almost let his feelings overwhelm him. "I know we could."
He went off to take a shower.
The lads had noted the upsurge in aggression and determination in him, and no doubt wondered whether there might be a reason for it. He'd had to calm down a bit. They could have no idea of the incredible, hideous strain he was being subjected to every minute of the working day, trying to keep his agony secret. To act normally, going about his tasks with his usual brisk efficiency, and greeting problems in a cheerfully unflappable fashion. He was afraid that at any time the mask might slip and reveal something horrific and pitiful.
What the long-term solution to the problem might be he hadn't the faintest idea, but there was something which went a little way towards being a short-term one. He went and saw the staff colonel who handled all personnel matters within the regiment.
"I'd like to take a couple of weeks' leave if that's OK. Of course I'll have to cut it short if it turns out we're needed."
The colonel looked at him in some surprise. "You'll use up all your remaining entitlement for this year. You sure that's wise?"
"A lot of things have come up that I really need to give some time to."
Aware that vagueness would only increase people's suspicions, he had already thought up some carefully fabricated excuses. They seemed to satisfy his superior officer.
"What dates are we talking about?"
"From the 21st to the 5th."
The colonel consulted his diary to see who else, if anyone, was on leave during that time. "Yes, that seems to be OK. Fortunately, we seem to have reached a sort of hiatus in this grand campaign against terrorism. Things appear to be getting back to normal."
"I just hope it lasts, Sir."
"So do I."
The 21st. A little over a week's time. Somehow, he had to hold out until then.

Edward shouted so loud that Margaret actually jumped out of her chair in alarm. "I've got it. I think I know how to get her out."
After his meeting with Keith McCandless Edward had gone home and sat thinking carefully, considering everything he knew about the white slave trade. And remembering something Caroline had told them before she went to Saudi Arabia; something about a meeting in a nightclub, and a false variety outfit.
McCandless had said, "they recruit new girls for the organisation by posing as reps for bogus variety companies. They hang around bars and nightclubs, eyeing up the talent, and when they've spotted what looks like suitable material they make their move."
Edward put two and two together.
He got out the Yellow Pages and skimmed through it until he found the section on nightclubs. He noted down the names and locations of all the entries on a flimsy and tucked it in his pocket.
It was most unlikely the "souteneur" would be found at the Ruby G's after Caroline had exposed him there. But the other nightclubs in the area....maybe. If not, the prospect of having to look further afield didn’t daunt him. He'd check out every bloody nightclub in the world if he had to.
He became aware Margaret was talking to him. "Edward, if you've thought of a way to find Caroline then I'm sure I'd be interested to hear about it."
"It could be a little dangerous," he replied ominously.
"Oh," said Margaret worriedly.
"Of course it is," Edward snorted. "We're swimming in murky waters here, love. But I don't think there's any other way. And I think we're both determined to get her out of there whatever the cost."

In the centre of what was known as the Punishment Room, built into the floor, was a wooden structure consisting of a low rectangular dais, large enough for a prone human body to rest on. It had a groove on each side running the whole of its length so that the four wooden posts which at the moment were located at its corners could be slid into new positions if required, with wedges for locking them in place.
Caroline Kent was sprawled face down on the dais, naked, tied to the posts by her wrists and ankles. Her face, turned slightly towards the watching girls, was drawn tight with fear. One of Fouasi's heavies stood over her, clutching the handle of a vicious-looking whip.
Blondie was standing nearby with her hands clasped before her in usual fashion. Once the guards had finished herding the girls into the room she gave them time to look at Caroline, to realise what was about to happen to her.
"This girl," she told them, "has been naughty. She's been ungrateful; repaid all the love and comfort we shower on you here
by trying to run away. And we all know what happens to people who do that, don't we?
"Well, now it's going to happen to her. It's not very nice to have to do it but I'm afraid there isn't any choice. We don't want this kind of thing happening too often, do we? I'm sure we're all very upset about it; still, she hasn't been here that long, maybe she'll learn not to be so silly in future."
She nodded to the guard.
He raised his arm high above his head and drew it back, summoning up all his energy for the downward stroke. The position she was in meant Caroline couldn't see what was going on, couldn't tell when the blow was going to fall, couldn't prepare herself for it.
The whip cracked viciously across her bare back and her nervous system exploded with the stinging pain. She was quite powerless to stop herself screaming. A stripe of blood appeared where the blow had landed.
The second hit before she had time to recover from the first. Again she screamed.
Savagely she clamped her mouth shut, using every atom of her willpower in repressing the urge to cry out. But the constant blows, landing in rapid succession, giving her little time to steel herself for each one, proved too much. She gave up and let forth a stream of obscenities, words she'd never thought she could be capable of using. It was the only relief she had.
Mostly the girls just looked on in mute horror. One of them turned and walked quickly away, unable to bear the sight any longer. Immediately Blondie marched over to her, took her by the shoulders, swung her round and frog-marched her back, forcing her to look as the whip fell and fell again, criss-crossing Caroline's back with the red stripes and leaving the skin around them raw and livid. It cracked thirty times in all. When he had finished the heavy bent over Caroline and untied the ropes fastening her to the posts. She lay very still between them, weak and barely conscious.
As he scooped her up in his arms and carried her out, you could just about hear her crying softly.
"That's it, you can all go back to your rooms now." Slowly and silently the girls filed out.
Like several others Mandy Dixon was pale-faced and trembling. She'd always known what happened to the girls who gave trouble; since she herself was happy to stay with the Syndicate the thought hadn't caused her that much concern. The girls who got flogged had been warned about the consequences of misbehaving and had only themselves to blame.
But Caroline had tried to help her. Mandy had never really appreciated that; if she did suffer at the hands of drug dealers and pimps, well that was just the way it went and she had always felt derision for the do-gooder types who worked themselves into such a lather over it. But somehow the fact that Caroline had been beaten because of it - the beating wouldn't have happened if she hadn't tried to rescue her from her minders and been kidnapped by them instead - touched something deep within Mandy. In a way the girl couldn't find words to explain, it didn't seem right. It was...disturbing.
But what could Mandy do about it, now? Nothing at all, not with-out suffering the same punishment as Caroline. It was just too risky. She was in it too deep.
For the first time the life she was living didn't seem so nice. For the first time, and to her discomfort, Mandy Dixon realised she was completely and utterly trapped.

Edward felt uncomfortably and embarrassingly out of place at the nightclub. The music was too loud, there was too much smoke, and you had to shout to make yourself heard. He was at least twenty years older than most of the other people present and had the uneasy feeling that he was regarded as a middle-aged pervert out to eye up the talent.
"All right, mate," a young man shouted to him. "All right?"
"All right," he replied genially, raising his glass.
It was the fifth place he had checked out so far, with no luck. He wandered around studying his fellow clubbers keenly, looking out for anything in their body language that suggested they were there for a specific purpose.
A smartly-dressed, fair-haired young man caught his eye. Like him the man was discreetly eyeing everyone, but seemed to be paying particular attention to the ladies. When the music began and people started to dance his eyes became riveted on the girls, watching every move they made. Studying them. There was something about his scrutiny which suggested more than just a red-blooded young male on the pull. It was too intense, too sustained, too analytical. As was the way he had listened to the conversation of those sitting at the tables.
Edward kept his attention focused on the man, looking swiftly away whenever he caught his eye. Eventually he saw the youth select a pair of girls sitting chatting at a table in the corner, and move in on them. Edward chose an empty seat not far from the trio and planted himself on it.
He was just close enough to be able to catch snippets of the conversation. "How do you fancy...there's plenty of cash to be made...well if your folks don't mind then we won't."
His pulse quickened.
"Don't worry, that'll all be taken care of...Yeah, well you think about it love, OK? See you tomorrow, then." The fair-haired man moved away, leaving the girls chewing on whatever proposition he had just put to them.
Edward took a deep breath, steeling himself. He sidled up to the young man, who stood sipping at his drink and trying to look casual. "Excuse me," he said cheerfully. "May we have a word?"
The youth started, then swiftly composed himself. "What about?"
Edward leaned towards him with a crafty, conspiratorial smile. "I know what your game is," he whispered.
The youth shrugged, looking nonplussed. "I dunno what you're talking about, mate."
"I know where those girls are going. I know because I've done all that sort of thing myself."
"I said, I dunno what you're talking about."
Then his manner changed and he scrutinised Edward keenly, trying to size him up.
He doesn't look like a copper, the youth was thinking. "Who are you?" he asked.
"My name's Fitch," said Edward. "John Fitch." He extended his hand and the younger man took it, a little doubtfully.
"We're not doing too well at the moment, for various reasons. Need to make ends meet. So I thought perhaps an exchange of stock might be in both our interests. Is it a deal?”
The blond man thought for a moment. "I want you to put me in touch with whoever's running your outfit." He still sounded cautious, defensive. "I want to make sure it's all kosher, you see?"
"Fine," said Edward genially. "Don't worry, I understand. I guess I'd do the same." Fiddling about in his pocket, he produced a business card and handed it to the young man. "Ring the office and they'll sort it out." He grinned craftily. "Not a real entertainment company, of course.
"After you've cleared everything with the boss I suggest you come and have a look at our outfit, see it all for yourself. We've got a place near Heathrow you could check out. I'll show you around."
The man took the bit of paper, then with a muttered "OK" and a brief nod went off.
Edward saw the door close behind him. He waited a while then got up and left.
The following morning the yellow-haired man made a call to the number on the card Edward had given him. "Yeah?" answered a rough voice.
"Heard you want to do business. You're in the same line of work as us, I gather."
"Who is this?"
"A bloke called Fitch gave me your number. John Fitch."
"He's one of my lads."
"And is he a bloke in his fifties? Fair hair?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"I was just calling to check you were OK. Can't be too careful, y'know. Could have been a set-up."
"Do me a favour, mate! The fucking cops have got too much on their hands right now to be bothered about a few stupid little tarts who deserve what they get. Of course we're OK."
The young man felt himself relax. The man he was speaking to sounded exactly like the kind of company he had been keeping since he was old enough to understand what crime was and how it could be made to pay. Tone, manner, and choice of words were exactly what you’d expect from such a person.
The man went on to confirm everything Fitch had told the souteneur about his organisation. "We operate mainly in the Far East these days. That's where most of the action is going on."
"All right, then. OK, I'll be seeing your bloke soon to discuss a few things."
"Great. Speak to you soon, maybe."
In his rented London flat Rod Fuller put down the phone and congratulated himself on a first-class performance.
It felt good to be back in business. He'd had virtually no work during the last five years. Everyone thought acting was a lucrative job with all kinds of perks, when in truth it was a tough business which didn't always pay. There were hundreds of actors chasing thousands of parts; in other words, there just wasn't enough work for everybody. It was the reason why even some fairly well-known faces disappeared from the acting scene for years before eventually landing a good role which revived their career. There were those who never resurfaced at all, having found some more stable and profitable occupation.
He had been moping around in his run-down and untidy bedsit when Edward Kent had contacted him through his agency, explaining that he was the man whose daughter had disappeared in Lebanon and had decided Fuller could be of some assistance in getting her back. He had of course been pleased to help. He had been offered a handsome sum for it, more than he'd ever earned from the BBC. But there was more to it than that.
Rod Fuller had been a Cyberman in Doctor Who, which had meant strutting about in a tight-fitting, uncomfortable costume that completely hid his face, telling people that they were his prisoner and resistance was useless, and uttering similarly profound and stirring dialogue before being shot. He had had bit parts in Casualty and the Bill. He wondered if anyone would remember him in twenty or thirty years' time.
He'd just had his finest hour, helping to rescue a young girl from a fate worse than death - from death too, maybe. It was something he would always take pleasure in, whatever else happened. The sad thing was that no-one, for the time being at any rate, could possibly be allowed to know about it.

At some point in her ordeal, she couldn't say when because she had lost all sense of time, Caroline Kent came to the conclusion that even death from starvation and thirst in the burning Arabian desert would be better than the continual abuse of her body and mind to which she was being subjected - and which wasn't much different from the treatment that had been meted out to her in the Punishment Room. And so every morning from then on she tried to slip past her guard and escape. It was a senseless gesture - she might evade one of them, but the next would invariably stop her from getting any further - but she kept on doing it; if nothing else, the thought she was being a nuisance kept her spirits up.
Eventually the sheer tedium and irritation of it wore the guards down and they complained to Fouasi through Blondie. "It's the fifth time she's tried to escape," the Englishwoman informed him. “She's becoming a pain in the arse. The hiding we gave her hasn't made a scrap of difference."
Fouasi scowled. He'd known there'd be trouble with the girl. If they beat her up too often she would lose her attractiveness, to him and to his guests. He wanted only the best, and she knew it. They couldn't increase her dose of the drug without turning her into a shambling wreck. There had to be some semblance, however artificially contrived, to a healthy and fit girl in a normal state of mind. He supposed that if she wasn't like that to start with there would be no pleasure in degrading her.
He had had his fun with her, he decided. He still liked the idea of debasing her, because she’d had the fucking nerve to try and expose his outfit, but he didn't want to do it here.
"We could send her to the Rue St Antoine," Blondie suggested. "If she doesn't like it here, then she can see what it's like in a really rough joint."
"You're too fucking right. And we'll still be able to make some money out of her." Fouasi reached for his satellite phone. "I'll tell Max to expect her, and we'll ship her out from here as soon as she's been given the new dose."
A worrying thought occurred to Blondie. "Hang on, the cops are probably still swarming about like flies over there. Wouldn't they - "
"Don't worry, I can make sure no-one touches us. She won't be wandering around much when she's full of the drugs. And after she's been there for a while no-one's going to fucking recognise her, never mind get her out of it. She won't even know what's going on herself."

The Victorian house was large, set back a little from the main road within a garden big enough to be more of a park. Externally it was ugly and forbidding; inside, garish and tasteless. Edward had chosen it well; it was exactly what he knew brothels to be like.
In the spacious drawing room, he sat chatting to the two representatives of Fouasi's organisation. One of them was French and the other Russian, a further sign of the international nature of the business. From the swimming pool outside came splashes and the sound of both male and female laughter.
"We have a few places like this here in England, but most of the business goes on overseas," Edward was saying. "Like you we recruit girls from all sorts of places; nightclubs, casinos, modelling agencies. Sometimes we pull them right off the street, if they're good-looking enough. They're usually the stupid sort who haven't a clue what they're letting themselves in for. There are a few trusties; some girls have been with us for years now."
He handed them a bunch of papers stapled together. "That shows the state of our finances at the moment. As you can see things are pretty healthy, but not quite as good as we'd like. In some places in the Far East the local police are clamping down on anything that’s considered immoral. It's the Islamic revival, you see. We had to close a few of our joints down before anyone poked their noses in too far."
"But elsewhere you are in no actual danger from the authorities?" asked the Frenchman.
"No, they don't suspect a thing. A lot of the big shots are customers of ours, anyway. They're in it too deep to let it be exposed. It's the same most places, these days. And if any of our bitches did talk you can be sure they wouldn't stay alive for long. Couple of them at the bottom of the canal already."
His companions nodded appreciatively. "Well, we've liked everything we've seen," said the Russian.
"Is it possible to meet the guy who's in overall charge of your outfit? I'd prefer to be sure that any deals we make will be authorised by him."
"That is fine, Mr Fitch. I'll fix you to have a word with the boss."
"Here or in Saudi? I'd have to go out there anyway, to take a look at the girls."
"It seems reasonable. I'll give him a call later on today, see what he thinks. I expect he'll be amenable."
Edward sat back in the sumptuous leather-lined armchair. "Well, gentlemen, if our business is concluded for the time being, perhaps you'd like a little relaxation." He nodded towards the two young women, one blonde and one brunette, who had appeared in the doorway. Both wore strapless, backless dresses designed to give an enticing hint of the delights that lay beneath them. They were model quality, just the wrong side of thirty but losing nothing in beauty or poise because of it.
They came forward, swaying seductively as they crossed the floor to take up position on either side of the table, each with a hand resting on it.
The souteneurs got up and followed the girls from the room. Edward watched them go with a slightly wistful expression. After they had gone he remained sitting in the armchair for some minutes, before finally rising with a sigh and looking round for something else to do while he kept the deception going.

The thought of his holiday had calmed the Major's turbulent brain, and he had managed for the moment to keep hold of his sanity.
He felt the pull of the places where he had spent time, and been happy, as a boy and as a young soldier. So he took the car and drove twenty miles out of London, bound for the district around Aldershot.
The Major liked that part of the country, because of his personal associations with it and the fact that it was steeped in military history. For a whole day he wandered about the area. He started in Farnborough, strolling down the seemingly endless Queens Avenue into Aldershot. On the way he stopped to look at the rump of the old Connaught Hospital and saunter for a bit around the Military Museum, a nicely laid out affair deserving of a much larger building.
He visited all the spots he had known as a young officer, the pubs and cafes he and his friends had frequented and the parks he had strolled in, finding out what was still there and what wasn't. He stood and stared across the road at the house that had once been a brothel and which he'd patronised a few times, as had many young men on their rites of passage, and wandered through his old barrack buildings, now empty and condemned. The ghostly laughter of old comrades seemed to echo through the abandoned corridors.
It was a shame so many of those places had been demolished. The Army was moving out of the town now, taking with it much of its prosperity and also its soul.
All the time, he tried to keep the matter which had lately been tearing him apart out of his mind. But it was no good.
While he was trudging along the Basingstoke Canal towards Frimley, a woman came past him. She was petite, with strawberry-blonde hair and pleasant, rather elfin features.
He started, and turned sharply towards her. Their eyes met. Then he smiled apologetically and walked on.
God, for a moment he had thought...
But reason told him it couldn't have been.
He wondered how many more Gillians he would see in the years ahead.
She's gone, he told himself. Gone forever. Put her behind you.
You'll go mad if you don't.
I can't.
People were so precious, he thought. For their physical characteristics, their skills, their individuality, their goodness. In Gillian's case all that was gone, incinerated in a fraction of a second; reduced to a cloud of ash and vapour drifting in the skies above New York.
Bastards.
As far as everyone knew, due to his efforts to keep the matter secret, Gillian had been no more than a fleeting fancy. They could not have the slightest idea how much he had loved her.
There'd been other woman who he had thought he might become seriously involved with: Caroline Kent. Wherever she was now. He'd heard the news of her disappearance, and it had hardly made him feel better.
Caroline was like him in some ways, and yet unlike. That was what attracted him to her. But even supposing she got out of whatever mess she was in, she wasn't Gillian. He couldn't love another woman as much as he had loved Gill; he knew that.
He found a bench and sat down to watch the world go by. A woman came into his line of vision, again not dissimilar to Gillian in looks but this time with a man of roughly her own age, a husband or boyfriend. Two little children, a boy and a girl, were scampering around their feet. The boy tripped and fell, got up. The mother bent down to wipe the dirt from his shoes and trousers, a loving smile on her face. She hoisted him up into her arms, beaming down at him indulgently, and walked on to join her husband and daughter.
Oh Jesus Christ, no.
Suddenly losing control he slammed his fist against the arm of the bench, shouting out in fury. Nearby a couple of children abruptly stopped their playing and drew away, looking uneasily at him over their shoulders. A strolling couple came to a sudden halt and the man stared hard at the Major.
"Don't make a habit of that, mate," he warned, his voice low and threatening. After a moment he walked on. The Major cursed inwardly, both angry and embarrassed.
If his superiors in the Army should find out about his personal demon and how it was affecting him, he knew what they would think. That he was unfit for active service. You don't have officers who are suffering a nervous breakdown, who perhaps may even be mentally unsound. At best, he would be too emotionally involved; his eagerness to catch their enemy would cause him to make mistakes, jeopardizing not just the success of the operation but also the lives of his soldiers. They'd be convinced he would crack and mess everything up.
But Major Michael Hartman, formerly of the Royal Oxfordshire Regiment and now of the Special Air Services, knew that he wouldn't.
If they threw him out or retired him to some administrative job he wouldn't be able to stand it. The Army was his life.
On second thoughts, he wasn't sure it mattered to him that much anymore. You served in the Army because you thought the world was a good place, despite its faults, with things in it that needed to be protected from those who would destroy them. He didn't feel a world without Gillian in it was worth fighting and perhaps dying for. It couldn't possibly be.
His mind went back to when, as a child, he first became interested in things military. How once he'd wanted to see the Air Show and cried because he couldn't.
He so much wanted to see the planes. One day his parents took him to the Show as a special treat. He had come home so happy, such wonder and delight in his face at the planes, so big and grand and fast, and the soldiers in their smart uniforms marching up and down.
The childish memory was suddenly too much. Again he felt the hot sting of the tears on his cheeks.
Eventually, the Major picked himself up off the bench and plodded wearily away.

"How's it going?" Margaret asked Edward as he returned home from the house near the airport, having bid the satisfied souteneurs goodbye.
"Absolutely fine, love. Absolutely bloody fine. We've got them taken in all right. The next step is going to see the big boss of the outfit at his den in Saudi. He's got some place right out in the desert, apparently. It looks like he's the chap old Hamid told us about."
"So you think he's got Caroline?"
"Maybe."
He stuck his hands on his pockets and swung round in an I'm-coming-to-get-you roll, performing a swaggering movement as he headed down the hallway to the living room. The dark glasses he was wearing completed the image.
"Don't overdo it," Margaret warned, sounding alarmed.
"Hmmm...you do realise that if this is going to work, I might have to actually do the business?"
"You mean..." Margaret told herself she shouldn't be that naive. "I see what you mean."
"If he suspects I'm in there for any other reason than the sleaze, he'll get suspicious and throw me out. Or worse. Besides, it's for our daughter's sake."
"I know that," said Margaret testily.
"It's a long time since I've done anything like that," he informed her.
"Good," Margaret said.
A worrying thought occurred to her. "What happens if they won't sell her?"
"Then we'll have to have a major rethink. But I can tell you, after all the money and effort I've put into this thing I'm not going to let her slip through my fingers."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Not at this stage, love, no. Just don't worry, that's all. Please."

Towards the end of the day, filled alike with happy memories and sad, the Major started walking back towards Farnborough. On the way he passed some of the modern barrack buildings. Their names and the plaques on their walls commemmorated the battles in which the regiments they housed had fought: Bleinheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Malplaquet. All battles in the War of the Spanish Succession, fought to stop Louis XIV's France from dominating Europe.
That had been such a different world. Between that struggle, and the one the West was now fighting against radical Islam, there was no contrast. Louis XIV had been vainglorious and arrogant but he was infinitely preferable to Osama Bin Laden. At least Louis seemed more a human being, his faults notwithstanding, rather than a man crazed by hatred and evil to a chilling degree. Bin Laden and his followers were motivated not by such things as dynastic glory but by a genocidal urge to destroy the West and its people, to annihilate its culture, or convert it to their own twisted version of the Muslim creed. In comparison the squabbles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seemed pointless and farcical.
Such conflicts had sometimes been long and bloody, including those involving Louis. Nonetheless, the Major thought wistfully, it had been possible in the old days to fight relatively brief, glorious (though that was still debatable) wars in which a decisive defeat was inflicted on the enemy. Conventional means were sufficient to do the job. Now the West was entangled in a very different kind of conflict, with a decentralised, elusive opponent who was not only difficult to catch but whose savagery and evil knew no bounds, respecting none of the codes of conduct which should govern warfare. The old methods, the old symbols, the old causes no longer stood you in good stead.
Somehow the new enemy must be defeated as the old ones had been. And for the Major, the enemy was bin Laden. But where was it?
Time and again Hartman's thoughts returned to that perplexing question. bin Laden wasn't in Afghanistan and so far there had been no trace of him in Pakistan either. Iraq? That could be ruled out straight away. There was no way Saddam Hussein would be so stupid.
Perhaps bin Laden had committed suicide as the West’s forces closed in on him and was lying dead somewhere in the wilds of Kashmir or the Khyber, while his followers fooled the world into thinking he was still alive, sending it on a wild goose chase.
If I could only meet him, face to face, the Major thought. Just once. Just once.

It was late in the evening and in the guest room at one of Saddam Hussein's numerous Presidential Palaces, situated near the centre of Baghdad, three men sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor laughing uproariously and gulping down mouthfuls of Saddam's favourite whisky, Johnnie Walker Black Label, straight from the bottle. From time to time they would slap each other heartily on the shoulder.
Two of the men were Saddam and Malcolm Speyler. The floor around them was littered with sheets of paper covered with complex diagrams over which the dictator and the scientist had been poring for hours, talking excitedly.
The third man was shortish and middle-aged with receding grey hair and an impressive beer belly. He was Sabri al-Banna, alias Abu Nidal.
He was reflecting with sad nostalgia on the times when he had been notorious, a figure of fear and hatred. Hazy images drifted through his drink-dulled brain of the operations he and his organisation had planned and carried out. The attack on the El Al ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports, the La Belle disco bombing in Berlin which everyone had conveniently blamed on Colonel Gaddafi. The images horrified him but the fact of the attacks occurring, which was something different, did not. From that fact he drew a comfort as warm in his heart as the whisky flowing through him. They had not succeeded in destroying Israel and her enemies, in breaking their grip on Palestine, but they had given the Israelis a hard time and reminded them that their kind were still there.
His thoughts turned to one operation which had ended rather less successfully, the hijacking of an American airliner which was then flown to Athens where the crew and passengers were threatened with death. After protracted negotiations demands for the release of comrades imprisoned for their part in the glorious struggle against Zionism had been rejected and troops had stormed the plane and shot the hijackers dead. However the enterprise had not been quite a failure, because just before he died one of his men had knifed a stewardess in the throat and she had bled to death before she could be got to hospital. He'd made sure their time hadn't been entirely wasted.
Nidal had been unable to think of people like the stewardess as human beings, because that would only have got in the way of his doing what he had to do. Her death had to be regarded as an achievement, something which would make a point. They had to show they meant business and they couldn't do that if people didn't die. The death in its own small way had focused attention on the Arab-Israeli problem; if this bunch are going to so much trouble to kill people, to knife shoot or bomb as many as they can whenever the opportunity presents itself, there must be a reason for it. There must be something pretty powerful motivating them to do such things.
And that was why he couldn't regret the killing now. In his middle age, he liked to think that all the things he'd done in his youth had been worth it. That his time hadn't been entirely wasted.
Nidal looked round vaguely as the door was opened and an official showed someone into the room, nodding respectfully to Saddam. The visitor was Neghid Fouasi.
Saddam raised a hand in greeting. "Ah, Neghid my friend, how are you?" The official backed slowly out.
Fouasi beamed broadly, pleased as always by Saddam showing friendliness towards him. "Fine, just fine. It's all going well. Wish I could come and see you more often, but you know how it is. After some asshole tried to kill me I decided it was best to stay at home most of the time." On this occasion he had taken the risk of travelling because he had begun to worry that if too much time elapsed without personal contact between him and Saddam the dictator would forget about him.
"I understand, Neghid, don't worry," Saddam said.
Fouasi looked down at the diagrams strewn all over the floor. "How's it going?"
"We are making good progress, Neghid, good progress. And nobody knows what we are doing, nobody at all. In the morning we'll go and see how the project is progressing." He uncrossed his legs with some difficulty, and climbed unsteadily to his feet. "Will you excuse me, Neghid, I am very tired. I must get some sleep. I will see you in the morning."
Fouasi nodded. Saddam staggered towards the door, pausing to smile vacuously at Speyler and Abu Nidal. They too decided to pack it in, managing with an effort to stand up and follow their host from the room.
Joined by two of Saddam's bodyguards the four of them made their way down the corridor towards the stairs, with Saddam and Speyler talking and laughing drunkenly.
Fouasi didn't happen to notice, and his companions probably couldn't have done. But as they passed one of the doors on the right, it creaked open a fraction or two. And for just a moment before it closed again, the burning eyes of Osama bin Laden stared out at them.

FIFTEEN
Bin Laden was not pleased.
He ought, he supposed, to be grateful for Saddam Hussein's offer of sanctuary; but he was not, despite having the solace of his Koran and the company of a number of his most devoted followers.
Saddam himself was clearly regretting it. That was obvious from the coolness he displayed towards bin Laden and his followers when in their presence. He had little contact with them other than what was unavoidable.
That was of bin Laden's own choosing as much as Saddam's. He didn't like the sort of company Saddam tended to keep, shunning the rest of the rogue's gallery, as the West would regard it, that had been assembled in Baghdad. Abu Nidal was a man sunk in degradation and drunkenness, and his motivation had always been political rather than religious, although of course bin Laden shared his virulent hatred of Israel. Neghid Fouasi was if possible worse. Saddam himself might claim to be a devout Muslim, but only when it suited him. As for the Western infidel Speyler, who Saddam had recruited to help him with his current project, the merest thought of him aroused revulsion and anger in bin Laden. He had been outraged when one of the prostitutes Saddam engaged to pleasure the man had been sent to his room by mistake. She had actually eyed him temptingly for a moment before realising he was not the sort to be impressed by her charms and exiting with a look of undisguised contempt.
Apart from the indignity of being surrounded by dissolutes and unbelievers, decamping to Baghdad had also meant a considerable setback to his war against the West. Contact with his followers around the world had to be indirect, for Saddam had made him turn off his satellite phone so that his calls could not be traced to Iraq. Now he had more or less told him to stop it altogether; Hussein was clearly getting nervous. For bin Laden it was a maddeningly frustrating situation. Though he knew he remained a powerful psychological and spiritual force motivating his followers, he wanted to be involved directly with them in the jihad.
In some ways he felt he had reached the end of the line. The New York attacks had been his greatest coup, the crowning achievement of his life. There was no chance he could see of repeating that kind of thing, not in the immediate future. The West would be on its guard. Eventually, of course, that guard would slip as people became complacent again. Bin Laden had the patience to wait until then. But it was not sufficient to deal your enemy a single big blow occasionally, with nothing much happening in the meantime. That was why something even bigger had to be planned. And if you were talking something bigger than the New York bombings, you were talking Weapons Of Mass Destruction. Acquiring them was the next step for al-Qaeda. Only bin Laden was starting to wonder whether it would make any difference if they did.
There was one other thing that was troubling him, and it was altogether the most serious of his worries. When Saddam had told him what he had found in the ground, he had initially been incredulous. But then he had been shown the thing, and after that he could not deny its existence or ignore its possible implications. He had tried to live his life much as he had before - after all, his fears might turn out to be unjustified - but he couldn't banish from the back of his mind a constant, nagging unease. As a consequence, he was nowadays even more solemn and reflective than on other occasions in his life when he had been tested. Unfortunately it was not possible just yet for him to find out what he needed so urgently to know, despite his frequent badgering of Saddam, because it would mean Saddam having to do something which at the moment he was reluctant to contemplate. He knew he must curb his impatience and go on as in the past until he had the opportunity to learn the truth.
It was a time to reflect on his life so far; on the journey that had taken him from Saudi Arabia to the West and from there to Sudan, the wilds of Afghanistan, and finally Baghdad. He had no regrets. He was pleased that he had managed through strength of character and will to overcome his earlier promiscuous leanings, to do the right thing and embrace Islam. That was how he saw it, anyway. In truth, it had not been difficult. As was often the way with these things, a single incident had shown him clearly what he must do, although other things had been built on that foundation since then.
Tall, gangling, rather awkward and self-conscious, the young Osama had always been in the shadow of his more confident and outgoing elder brother, who always got the best of what life had to offer - and especially women. For a time Osama had himself frequented the fleshpots of Beirut, London, and Paris. However, a part of him always felt embarrassed and degraded by what he was doing. And then one day, a young American woman had made a remark that filled him with shame and anger. She had dared to laugh at what she considered to be his poor sexual performance.
Immediately every drop of bin Laden's blood had turned to solid ice. It had been a shocking but cathartic revelation. So this was what the West was really like. Fiercely, he vowed to turn his back on all its works. Why should he subject himself to such degradation when all he got out of it was to be ridiculed? If he wasn't any good at it, then all right, he wouldn't do it any more. He would change his whole lifestyle and beliefs, with a vengeance.
Vengeance would be the operative word.
Once he had sought and enjoyed the company, the very intimate company, of attractive blondes. Now the thought of such women filled him with contempt. A lot of them weren't real anyway, so he didn't see why he should get so excited about them. It was another aspect, he felt, of the deceit and falsity with which Western society was riddled. No; where the opposite sex were concerned let him have the houris, the dark-eyed virgins whose company the faithful would enjoy in Paradise, any time. The rest could go to hell.
All the same, in the last resort his dislike of Westerners wasn't really physical. The sight of blonde hair hanging free excited his anger and hatred, causing massive steel doors to slam shut around him, not because blondeness was abhorrent in itself but because it usually meant "Westerner", and as such was associated in his mind with immorality, promiscuity and decadence. They had no faith even in Christianity, so how was he to look on their rejection of Islam other than with anger and contempt? As for the political aspect, well the Western nations were democracies so surely their people could restrain their leaders from actions which were offensive or harmful to Islam. That they did not was clear proof of their guilt. His war was against a culture, a way of thinking, more than anything else.
He considered the time when his followers had massacred a party of Western tourists in Egypt, including a number of children. It was precisely because physical characteristics were irrelevant that he could sanction the death of a pretty blonde child. Some Arabs might be deterred by a sentimental attraction for such beauty, but such trivial considerations could not be allowed to obstruct the all-important crusade against the enemies of God.
In his moments of self-scrutiny, when he considered what it was that motivated him, he supposed that if his followers killed Western children they would not grow up into Western adults who, on past evidence, would defile the world with their immoral culture and seek to bring about the destruction of Islam. Perhaps it was sad things had to be that way, but he had long hardened himself against any inclination to feel regret. The Westerners had to be viewed as a plague because their society was corrupt, decadent and irreligious, a blight upon God's world. If they ended up in hell when he killed them, having lived dysfunctional lives blighted by divorce and other social evils, that was entirely their fault.
If Saddam's current project worked out, he would be rid of them forever. But if the thing in the ground was what it seemed to be, there would be no purpose in anything he might do. Ever.
He had to be sure.

SIXTEEN
Edward gazed down from the window of the plane's passenger cabin at the expanse of desert beneath him, in some awe at its majestic vastness. What kind of man must Fouasi be, to want to live out here like this, he wondered.
The previous evening he had received a telephone call instructing him to meet a representative of Fouasi's at Riyadh airport, from where he would be taken to the billionaire's private airfield on the outskirts of the city. The caller informed him that Mr Fouasi had offered to pay his travel fares, but he decided to graciously decline, guessing it would make a good impression.
He had thought it best to leave Margaret behind; apart from her indignantly expressed wish not to play the part of a "gangster's moll," the obvious resemblance between her and her daughter might set alarm bells ringing.
There were no other passengers on the plane apart from Fouasi's agent.
No more than half an hour after taking off, he caught sight of the vast gleaming palace, standing out whitely against the golden sands of the desert, and caught his breath.
The executive jet touched down on the landing strip, half a mile from the palace itself. Fouasi was there to meet him, along with a couple of his henchmen and a dark girl who might be his wife or on the other hand might be there purely for show.
The Egyptian greeted him cordially enough. He was one of the lads now, Edward supposed.
"Hey, Mr Fitch. You OK?"
"Fine thanks. A pleasant journey. Call me John."
"OK, John, let's go." They climbed into a little buggy powered by an electric motor and drove along a concrete road which terminated at a pair of ornate gates opening into the courtyard in which the palace stood. The buggy drove through the gates and up to the building, whose doors stood wide open. They alighted and went in, the minders all the time keeping within a few inches of himself and Fouasi. Did that mean Fouasi didn't really trust him, despite all the cordiality, or was it the natural instinct of someone in his line of business, who couldn't avoid mixing with people who were or might be dangerous?
On entering the palace Edward was taken aback by the opulence of his surroundings; the red damask furniture and hangings, the ornate columns, the elaborate calligraphy on the walls. No expense had been spared to make it just like an old-style Arabian palace.
He wasn't in the least uneasy at the company. The further he got into this the more comfortable he felt, because he knew it was working. Despite his fears for his daughter, he was enjoying the part.
The big worry, of course, would be when Caroline recognised him. He’d just have to take that as it came.
“Shall all we dine first, or do you want to get down to business?" Fouasi asked.
"Let's get the business out of the way so we can concentrate on the pleasure, eh?" Edward suggested. The Egyptian gave him a dirty grin.
On the way to Fouasi's study Edward glimpsed a number of girls, white girls, moving about. They seemed quite happy but there was something about the set of their faces that was too calm, too composed, and a certain faraway look in the eyes that made him shudder inwardly.
"Are you a Saudi yourself?" Edward asked Fouasi.
"Egyptian. Got connections in lots of other countries, though. You could say I don't really have a nationality. And you?"
"English. My father was German. Came over in the Second World War."
"Nice little place you've got out here," Edward observed. "No trouble with the neighbours, I imagine."
"There's some of those Bedouin assholes like to poke their noses in sometimes. If they give me any trouble I get the government on to them. Apart from that it's OK."
"I guess you don't spend all your time here?"
"I'm all over the fucking world. Got things to sort out in all sorts of places."
Fouasi thought it best not to tell him that someone appeared to be trying to kill him, forcing him to remain at the palace most of the time. It might be bad for business.
"Like this?" Edward gestured vaguely around them.
"Mostly. But I also sell guns and stuff to those people who need them. Don't take this personally, John, but you won't tell anyone about that if you know what's good for you."
"I understand."
By now they had reached the study. Fouasi gestured to him to sit down and poured them both a glass of Tia Maria. He took his place at the desk, directly opposite Edward.
"Right," said Edward briskly, signifying he wanted to begin the negotiating. "Before I state my price, I'd need to know how many girls you've got in all. Not just here, but everywhere. I want to make a realistic offer, one that won't leave you without any assets if you did decide to accept it."
Fouasi's dark eyes narrowed. "If you think I'd accept an unrealistic one you need your brain seen to, John my friend. Listen, our outfit is too big to bankrupt easily. I couldn't give you an exact figure for all the girls who pass through our hands. There's just too fucking many of them. We've got branches almost everywhere."
"Sorry, sorry, no disrespect intended. Just give me a rough estimate."
"It runs into millions."
Jesus, Edward thought. Fouasi noted his astonishment. "Yeah, that's how big we are."
"If I took several thousand of yours; just a few to start with, then the rest later on."
"That's OK by me."
"Is it all right if I pay for them in cash? I mean, it shouldn't be difficult to find more girls. And you'd have plenty of money to roll in while your stooges are looking for them. You could always use it to buy new stock. These days there's generally a good supply of it."
It was the moment Edward had been dreading. He suspected Fouasi would want to see his new purchases personally, to confirm the deal, here at the palace before a change-over could be made. Even had the girls existed, which they didn't, he wouldn't have wanted to condemn them to a life of sex slavery as the price of Caroline's freedom. But if he couldn't, the deal might be scuppered.
"Why do you want to pay in cash?" Fouasi asked suspiciously.
"Because we don't have as many girls as you do. A couple of our outfits got busted recently, as I told your representatives. No-one was able to finger us, but our network has been thrown into some confusion. It'll all get back together again somewhere else, in good time, and the money's safe. We've been careful to launder it several times over. And the shit who grassed to the police has been taken care of. But in the meantime, I'd rather not part with too much cash. Once the operation's up and running again I'll be able to make good any losses."
Fouasi considered this for a bit, then nodded. "All right, I guess it makes sense." Among other things, the money might come in useful to his friend in Baghdad. "Where were you thinking of taking the girls from? Here?"
"Well as I am here, I thought I might take a few at least."
Fouasi looked doubtful. "You're talking about the best of my stock. The girls here are for the exclusive use of my best clients."
On the other hand it was good to shuffle them around, to change the line-up once in a while. He'd make sure his personal favourites stayed where they were.
"It depends whether what you're offering is as good as what I've got," he said eventually. "I'm sorry, but if you're going to take from here then it'd need to be payment in kind."
"Your agents have seen the quality of the girls I employ. I'd be quite happy to send you a few of them, and if they don't want to go then that's just too bad."
Fouasi nodded his agreement. "OK then. The price is a thousand pounds for each girl. How many were you thinking of buying? There's a couple of hundred here."
"As it's your best stock we're talking about, and I don't think you're very happy about losing too much of it, only about a dozen." Edward had to be careful about bankrupting himself, or his venture would come to an early end.
"Do you want to take a look at them?"
"Sure." Edward scraped his chair back and stood up.
"It's OK, don't get up." Fouasi spoke into an intercom. "Blondie, get all the girls together downstairs, will you? Mr Fitch wants to check them out." He glanced at Edward. "There's a few away on a trip right now, but I could show you photos of them."
Edward had guessed Caroline wouldn’t be among them, because of special circumstances. "That's alright, I expect there'll be enough here to meet my requirements."
A few minutes later all the girls were standing before him in the harem, stark naked, smiling in that disturbing fashion as they showed off their wares. He pretended to inspect them carefully, and appreciatively.
None was Caroline. He was disappointed, of course, but not crushed; there were other places he might look for her. He managed not to let his feelings show.
He picked ten girls more or less at random. He pointed to them and the minders made them stand together some distance apart from the others. They were told to put their clothes back on and remain where they were until Edward's business with Fouasi was concluded and he was ready to leave with them. Once fake passports had been arranged for them, to replace the ones Fouasi's men had confiscated and destroyed, he would be able to fly them to the West.
Edward felt a thrill of satisfaction at having saved them. He could try to cure their drug addiction, find them respectable jobs in Britain. He might not succeed. But he had made a start.
They wouldn't talk about their experiences, of course. But he didn't want them to anyway, not just yet. It would jeapordise Caroline's safety, if she was still alive somewhere in the clutches of Fouasi's organisation.
He said he had decided after all to look at the photos of the girls currently on the junket, just in case. Again no luck.
He realised Fouasi was speaking. "Happy with your purchases, John?"
"Sure am. You've got other places, though, haven't you? In Lebanon, for one. I'd like to take a look at them."
Fouasi frowned. "Those aren't the up-market joints."
"But if I took a lot of girls in exchange for a reasonably handsome payment..."
Fouasi nodded vigorously. "Fine, John, fine. But right now I guess you'd like to have a little fun, yeah?" He indicated the remaining girls, who stood dutifully waiting for further instructions.
Edward smiled. "You bet I would."
He hoped he wouldn't acquire a taste for it. Since meeting his wife he hadn't felt any pressing need for extra-marital adventures, but a taste that had been lost could be reacquired after a certain amount of time had passed.
The key consideration was that he had to look the part. He had no idea how many pimps helped themselves to a share of the women under their control. Perhaps a lot of them didn't; not all drug dealers actually took drugs. It was the money, as much as the girls themselves, which attracted men to the business. Then again he could be wrong. He couldn't take any chances; he must think and be seen to act exactly how these pimps would, or they might suspect him.
"Well, you just choose," Fouasi said.
Edward's eyes rested on an attractive blonde with fine cheekbones, but she looked too much like Caroline and it didn't seem right. He selected a couple of the brunettes instead.
The experience was different from sex with Margaret, but unsatisfying: cold, mechanical, and emotionless. He was glad of that, because it meant he wouldn't be tempted to try it again.
He didn't ask for extras.
*
"So she wasn't there?"
Edward was back at the hotel in Riyadh. "No, I'm afraid not. I'm hoping she'll be at one of the other knocking shops he's got scattered around the world. Of course, it's always possible there's another outfit like his in business. Although mind you, everything I've been told suggests he's managed to collar the entire market."
They had to be optimistic, because being pessimistic didn't bear thinking about.
"I'll search every single brothel in the bloody world if I have to," Edward vowed with passion.
"What have you done about the other girls?"
"They're at the embassy and I'm trying to get them fixed up with British passports. They don't really understand what's happened, but there's a doctor with them trying to help. I've told them I'm willing to pay to make damn sure they find a job where they don't have to open their legs to the scum of the earth every day."
"Do you think it'll work?"
"I think some of them will respond, at least. All with any luck. In the first place, they got involved because they needed money, not out of love."
He took off his jacket and sat down. "Not a bad day's work, all in all."
"I suppose I needn't ask whether you - "
"I did," he announced solemnly. "But I think I can say with total conviction that our marriage is safe."
"So what happens next?"
"In a couple of days the girls I bought will arrive back home. Once they're out of it, safe from any trouble we might cause, we're going to check out Fouasi's joints in Lebanon. There's only one or two, the sex industry there is still finding its feet again after the war. He's rung ahead and they know we're coming. The thing is, from what he told me we wouldn't be looking at the best of his stock. That means he'd be more willing to part with it. But Caroline would count as one of the best. Let's face it, our girl is a stunner. I would have expected to find her at the palace, but I didn't. It's been bothering me a bit."
"It's worth a try," Margaret sighed.
"Yes, love. It's worth a try." He paused and looked at her. "I may need your help if I'm to pull it off."
"Why?" Margaret asked, nervously.
"Because when she sees me, she may give the game away, mightn't she?" It was the one big flaw in his plan.
"So what do you want me to do?"
He outlined to her what he had in mind, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
*
Their impressions of Beirut were much the same as Caroline's had been. Sprawling, chaotic, a bizarre mixture of East and West.
They flew in early in the morning, having already chosen a hotel and booked their room. They had told Fouasi they would be checking out the first of his establishments early in the afternoon of the next day, having some other business to transact first. They needed some time to draw up their contingency plans. Once the arrangements were complete, they decided to do a bit of sight-seeing.
In terms of layout Beirut was a complete and utter mess, as it was in other respects. In amongst the high-rise flats and modern apartment blocks they found orange groves and beautifully-preserved Ottoman houses draped with climbing plants, with a row of decrepit hovels only a street or so away. They walked down the Rue des Phoeniciens, where Edward had been told most of the brothels used to be. Here the scene was one of decaying grandeur, the still imposing facades of former restaurants showing bricked-up doorways and boarded-up windows. Some of the buildings were clearly under renovation, enshrouded in scaffolding with workmen busy repairing the cracked stucco and repointing pock-marked brickwork.
They had a meal in an English-style pub, of which there seemed to be quite a few in Beirut, then took a trip up the coast to Jounieh, currently the entertainment capital of the country although Beirut was beginning to regain its former prominence. Down a narrow alleyway they found a bar between two buildings where they had a drink and listened to the live band. It occurred to Edward that the decor was much like that of a traditional harem, with red damask sofas and armchairs, fluted columns and golden Arabic calligraphy on the walls. He found the resemblance disturbing.
By the time they left the bar it was getting dark and the city was a forest of flashing lights and neon signs. Margaret seemed uncomfortable but Edward wanted to explore a bit further. They agreed she would take the taxi back to the hotel and he would rejoin her later. He kissed her goodbye, finished his drink and began wandering around.
There seemed to be scores of stripshows, hostess clubs, cabarets and "Supernightclubs", as there had been in Beirut. As he passed one such establishment a number of Western girls emerged from it and congregated on the pavement chatting volubly. A car pulled up nearby, one of those huge multi-wheeled models which are really luxury coaches, and they headed towards it. He noticed that the windows were darkened.
Hands in his pockets, he sauntered about the streets breathing in the scent of bougainvillea that drifted to him on the cool night air. He felt safe - street crime was at a pretty low level in Lebanon - but not in any way relaxed. He was thinking, of course, about Caroline.
Was his daughter here somewhere amid this bewildering, disorientating neon jungle? Surely not, it would be too noticeable. Most likely her place of captivity was in the poorer parts of the city that were still recovering from the war. If so, how long would it take to find her?
They'd already spent a great deal on this. Hiring the house near Heathrow and engaging the services of the high-class call-girls who were needed to give the whole thing credibility, paying Fuller and the other actors for their part in things, the acting lessons he had himself taken to ensure his performance was convincing; it had all cost money and they were running out of it.
If he didn't find Caroline soon, he might have to give up the whole thing. He certainly wouldn't be able to buy many more girls. And if he searched all the remaining brothels without making any purchases Fouasi would get suspicious.
On a whim, he made for a slightly dodgy-looking place where he found himself looking up at a well-endowed blonde girl gyrating about a pole while performing a slow, seductive striptease to the accompaniment of Oriental style music jazzed up with synthesisers. He normally found Oriental music pleasant in an eerie, haunting kind of way. This was disturbing, sinister; he would almost have said evil.
He decided he had seen enough. Putting down his unfinished drink he headed straight for the exit, failing to register the faint look of contempt on the face of the girl in halter top and hotpants who stood leaning against the wall nearby, her arms folded.
He wanted to be back in bed at the hotel as soon as possible. There was much to do tomorrow.
*
The effects of the war on the city were still all too visible as they drove east towards the first of the brothels on their list. It set both of them thinking.
No-one quite knew how the civil war in Lebanon had started, nor did they understand why it had just as suddenly ended, unless it was because of simple fatigue combined with Syrian intervention. Something told Edward the new era of peace and prosperity wouldn't last. The rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism could well upset things. Quite possibly the Israelis would mess it all up by some brutal military intervention of the sort they tended to go in for.
They passed through an area which resembled a vast building site, every house surrounded by scaffolding. Every couple of minutes the car had to swerve to avoid a bulldozer parked across the road, or a nasty-looking puddle of some unidentifiable substance. There were pockets that the reconstruction programme had not yet touched and where the houses were gaping shells or had disappeared entirely, leaving a sea of rubble where whole streets had been. Their surroundings were a reminder that most Lebanese had a poor standard of living. The streets were littered with rubbish and the flat-roofed colonial style buildings had all seen better days. Some had been partly demolished, and the remainder were peppered with shell-holes and riddled with bad cracks. The brickwork, the peeling stucco facing through which it could be glimpsed, the pavements and the roads were all dirty, and the gardens overgrown.
Stunted children with pinched faces played among the rubbish. An elderly dog, mangy and emaciated, defecated into the gutter. You expected something sordid to happen at any time; certainly if a prostitute had come into view around the corner at that moment she would not have looked out of place.
"Oh Ted, I don't like it here," shuddered Margaret.
Edward ignored her, but he didn't begrudge her her fears. It had been into a maze of little streets just like these that John McCarthy and Terry Waite, to name just two, had vanished. All that business was over now, hopefully for good, but all the same he couldn't shake off a strange haunting sense of unease.
Gradually, their surroundings became a little more salubrious. In a short while they had reached their destination. The plain, square, block of a building was set back from the road inside a walled courtyard. It looked marginally more respectable than those around it, but its white paint was a little shabby and the curtained windows needed cleaning. A lower-class brothel, for those Lebanese who weren't able to afford the delights of Jounieh or the still prosperous parts of the capital. No doubt as prosperity returned its inhabitants would be moving into more palatial accommodation.
The hired car pulled up to the kerb a few feet from the entrance. With a smile to his wife, Edward got out and crossed the courtyard to the big wooden door.
He caught sight of someone peering out at him through one of the ground floor windows, and as he reached the door it was opened and a man stood there, looking him up and down. "Mr Fitch?"
"That's me," he said genially. They shook hands.
"Would you like something to drink?"
"No, that's OK. I'd like to get down to business, if I may."
The man nodded curtly. His name as it happened was Max but he didn't introduce himself to Edward. He seemed to be of mixed European and Arab ancestry. He ushered Edward in, and the Englishman found himself in a narrow hallway with several doors on either side. The brothel wasn't much cleaner internally than it was externally. The wallpaper was faded and peeling; the carpet threadbare, covered in fluff and loose in places.
He followed Max down the passage to a carpeted staircase. "How many girls you got here, then?"
"About forty. Mostly rejects from our better establishments."
"Why were they rejected?"
"Some of them are just worn out. There's still people who'd pay for them, of course. Others have been stupid and tried to escape."
Which is what Caroline would have done, Edward thought.
"This place is their punishment," Max told him.
"How is it a punishment?" Edward asked, trying to sound as if he were just curious rather than some kind of social worker.
"You'll have guessed, John my friend, that this place isn't like some top joint in London or Paris. Surely it's the same in your outfit; if they misbehave you have to punish them."
"What will happen to them eventually?" Edward couldn't stop himself asking the question.
"When they're too old or too ill to do the job, then we throw them out on the fucking streets. Or dump them in the river." He seemed a little suspicious, and Edward realised he should be careful. He told himself he had no proof Caroline was actually here.
At the stairs they turned right, and he saw there were a number of doors in one wall of the passage, each with a number and the name of the girl within, probably made up, in English and Arabic. You could see where old names had been removed and new ones put in their place.
Max unlocked the door of the first room. "I'll wait outside," he said. Edward opened the door and went in, to be confronted by a row of four or five wooden partitions with curtains stretched between them. He peered inside the first cubicle and saw a simple bed consisting of just a mattress with a single sheet over it. Otherwise the cramped little compartment was bare, except for a drum-shaped receptacle in one corner which he guessed served as a toilet, and a washbasin.
The girl lying underneath the sheet jumped up as soon as she heard the curtain drawn back and stood beside the bed in knickers and bra, looking at him expectantly. Since she wasn't Caroline Edward stepped back and pulled the curtain into place. He heard the girl climb back onto the bed and turn over onto her side.
He checked all the other cubicles, and then the other rooms, making sure he took some time over it in order to allay any suspicions Max might have. No Caroline.
"No?" Max enquired as he emerged, noting the disappointed look on his face.
"I'm afraid not. Are there any more upstairs?"
"This way," Max replied, ushering him on. They came to the flight of stairs they had passed earlier, and ascended it to the top floor, the treads creaking mournfully under their feet.
The floor was divided into two halves by a corridor running its whole length, with a dozen rooms on either side. Edward proceeded to check the rooms as before, finding the same arrangement of curtained compartments each with its solitary occupant. All the girls had the same vacant, zombie-like look about them.
He'd searched about half of them when Max commented, "you haven't had much luck so far."
"I'll make my choice when I've seen them all," Edward grunted, trying to hide his mounting concern at not having found his daughter.
"All right."
He noticed there was a square of red paint on the door of the next room. "What does that mean?" he asked.
Max had been about to move him past it. "Special circumstances. They're not to be moved from here, I'm afraid."
"Why's that?"
"It would cause a little trouble, you know, if anyone found out we'd got them," said Max with a sly grin.
"I'm sure you could rely on me to preserve confidentiality. We're in this together now, aren't we? Don't you trust me?" Edward did his best to sound indignant.
Max was looking uncertain. Edward decided that if he wasn't allowed to see the girls he would assume one of them was Caroline. Then the pimp, still looking doubtful, unlocked the door and opened it. Edward went in and stepped over to the first cubicle. He slid back the curtain and stared at the girl who lay on her side on the bed, naked, her arms folded and her head turned away from him. Her blonde hair was matted and looked dull and lifeless.
She didn't stir as he entered the cubicle and stood over her. Stooping down, he took her by the shoulder and gently turned her onto her back.
He almost didn't recognise the pale, gaunt face which stared up at him with wide, shining eyes that seemed only vaguely aware of his presence.
Caroline's body was thin and fleshless like a drug addict's and her skin was an unhealthy yellow colour, with blotches here and there that could only have been made by some sort of disease. She could have been ten years or more older.
All the way down her back ran a series of faint red lines that sometimes crossed over one another. They were scars; faded a little but unmistakeably scars. And on one cheek he saw an ugly purple bruise.
She blinked up at him, and muttered something incoherent and barely audible. A rivulet of saliva suddenly welled from the corner of her mouth and trickled down to her chin.
Edward Kent stood looking down at his daughter in speechless horror. He felt moisture start to form in one eye. Then suddenly the anger flared up in him, uncontrollably. "BASTARDS!"
Standing just outside the door, Max heard the cry and gave a startled jump. After a moment his face darkened, its muscles drawing tight. In an instant his hand was on the knob pulling the door open.
As soon as the word left his lips Edward knew he'd blown it. He didn't waste any time.
There was a chair in the room for clients to hang their clothes on. Grabbing it, he smashed it against the wall with all his strength. One of the legs snapped off, splintering where it had joined the seat into sharp jutting points. In the same instant Max came flying in. "What's up? What's going on?" he demanded.
Edward snatched up the broken-off chair leg and thrust the splintered end with savage force into Max's stomach. Max screamed in agony and crumpled, his hands flying instinctively to the wooden spar jutting from his belly. Shrieking hysterically, he tried to pull it out but the strength was already going from him. Blood ran copiously from between his fingers. He keeled over and slumped against the wall.
Edward pulled out his mobile and called his wife. "All right, Maggie!" he shouted. Already from downstairs he could hear shouts and sounds of people running about in alarm.
Two other pimps, called Kass and Emil, were making towards the stairs when they heard one of the ground floor windows shatter, followed by a "whoosh" as something caught fire. They stopped and stared at one another. "What the fuck's going on?" shouted Kass.
"I'll go and see. You look upstairs!" Emil ran into the little downstairs office and immediately skidded to a halt, jumping back with a cry of alarm. A section of carpet just in front of him was on fire, the flames licking upward hungrily.
Something came flying through another of the windows and burst on the desk amid a pile of papers. He scrambled away as the flames lashed out at him.
Outside, Margaret Kent was hurling petrol bombs with savage determination and surprising skill at all the ground-floor windows. She stopped to pick up another milk bottle, filled with a rolled-up newspaper, struck a match and lit it.
Emil flung open the door and rushed out. He saw the car, and in the same instant Margaret saw him. Unsure of his intentions, she decided not to take chances and raised the Molotov to throw it at him. With a scream of fear he turned and ran back inside the building. Margaret flung the petrol bomb through the broken window, and a second later heard the sound of shattering glass followed by a satisfying "whoomph" as something ignited.
In the upstairs room Edward pulled out the chair leg from Max's stomach. It came free with a ghastly sucking sound, its end covered in the pimp's blood. Max's cries had turned to low, choking moans and his eyes were glazing over.
Edward someone run up the stairs at full speed. Kicking aside the dying Max, he ran to stand by the door, the chair leg in one hand. The door burst open and immediately Edward struck with his improvised weapon, cracking Kass viciously over the head. The pimp staggered and fell to his knees, dropping the handgun with which he'd been armed. Edward crowned him a second time and the pimp toppled over, landing heavily on his side. He stirred feebly but didn't get up. Edward snatched up the pistol and pocketed it.
Christ, they had guns. He hadn't banked on that. It looked like he might have to shoot his way out.
It occurred to him he couldn't carry Caroline and point a gun at the same time. Somehow he'd have to make sure the other goons were taken care of before coming back for her. If they had guns too, he'd be outnumbered.
Unless there was a way down to the ground from the top floor, and if there wasn't he would merely waste time looking for it.
He'd have to take a chance.
"Come on, let's get you covered up," he said, more to himself than to Caroline as he doubted she could hear him. Quickly he wrapped the bedsheet around her and scooped her up in his arms. Stepping over Kass, he hurried from the room with his burden. She felt horribly light, barely more than skin and bone. From downstairs he could hear the hungry roar of the flames.
Margaret had by now run out of milk bottles. But by now, the fire was spreading with alarming speed. She'd already seen Emil come hurtling round the corner of the building, through the gates and down the street.
Edward was carefully descending the stairs with Caroline cradled in his arms. He reached the bottom to find a wall of flame blocking the way to the main door.
There had to be another way out, he guessed. Moving as fast as his burden permitted, he went in search of it.
A few moments later Kass came lurching down the stairs, still a little dazed. He stumbled and almost collapsed. He felt the heat of the fire, registered the flames licking from underneath the door of the office and the smoke billowing towards him. It brought him back to his senses.
He took in the situation, and knew what he should do. The fire already raging would provide adequate cover.
He ran down the corridor to a little storeroom where, after a minute or so's frantic scrabbling, he found a can of oil and a box of matches. Running back to the foot of the stairs, he emptied some of the oil over the first few steps, then struck a match, stood well back and flung it. The spreading patch of black liquid erupted into flame. Then he ran hell-for-leather for the side door which was the one remaining exit.
He knew that in their stupor the drugged girls would be unable to escape.
Waiting anxiously beside the car, Margaret saw flames and smoke coming from several of the windows. Edward came running into view, a white-clad figure cradled in his arms. Margaret's heart missed a beat.
She hurried forward to meet them. "Is that - "
"Yes, it's her," he answered gruffly. Margaret gave a cry of sheer joy and almost fainted.
"But just look at her. What have they done to her?"
"Come on, we'd better get her to hospital. Have they gone?"
"I think so."
At that moment Kass appeared. Ignoring them, he made for a battered Renault parked against the wall of the building. They supposed he didn't want to hang around; the fire would shortly begin to attract attention. In fact Margaret had already called the emergency services, realising apart from anything else that it'd look better with the authorities.
The Renault's engine coughed and spluttered into life. The car's ancient frame gave a shrill squeak of protest, and it swung round and shot off through the gates to roar away down the dusty street.
"There's one back there who won't be giving any trouble," Edward told her. Margaret stared at him, troubled by his words and the tone in which they were said.
"Tell you all about it later. Right now we've got to put that fire out."
"I've rung the fire brigade. But what are we going to say happened?"
"We'll just have to tell them the truth." They got Caroline into the car, laying her carefully on the back seat. Edward seated himself behind the wheel, Margaret already strapping herself in beside him. He started the engine.
As the car drove away Edward glanced back at the brothel. Every window was now a burning red eye and the smoke was rising higher and higher. People had gathered in small groups to stare at the blazing building and at the car as it raced off into the distance. Just before turning back to concentrate on the road ahead, he saw several run off to fetch help.
*
"Here we are," said the orderly, showing Edward and Margaret into the little private ward where Caroline lay in bed with her eyes closed, for the moment quite unconscious. She looked very pale and very ill.
As Edward stood looking down at her, at the yellow hair spread out against the pillow, an image came to him of the same girl some twenty-five years before, asleep with her blonde head standing out vividly against the surrounding whiteness and her arms clasped protectively around her teddy bear.
He turned to the capable-looking middle-aged woman standing beside the bed. "So, how is she?"
"Well, I would be very surprised if she is not addicted considering the amount of the drug that was pumped into her. I feared she might have AIDS, or something almost as bad, but she doesn't. Obviously those holding her were fairly careful to avoid any possibility of infection. All the same, she's very lucky. There's nothing there that can't be cured - depending on her strength of will."
Edward squeezed Margaret's hand. "She'll make it," he said softly. "I'll know she will."
The doctor smiled. "I'm Sarah Chamoun." She looked again at Caroline. "We've got as much of it out of her as we can." Along with another kind of substance, one that might be described as of male origin, although Dr Chamoun didn't like to mention it. "I don't think much progress will be made until she wakes up. She cannot fight it while she is unconscious."
"And physically?" Edward asked. "She looks...she looks awful." Chamoun sighed. "Basically, she's been beaten, raped, tied up – frequently - and pumped full of drugs. In fact, they did everything to her that's physically possible. I don’t think you want the exact details."
"No thanks," said Edward disgustedly. The horrifying images were rushing into his mind, sickening him. Suddenly he exploded with rage, turning on Chamoun as if she were the guilty party. "I swear that when I find out who has done this to my daughter I will kill them. Do you understand? First I will break every bone in their body and then I will..."
His voice tailed off and he looked a little ashamed. "Sorry. Not much sense in taking it out on you."
Chamoun had recovered her composure almost immediately. She was used to patients' relatives flaring up at her for one reason or another. She smiled to show she understood.
Margaret had seated herself by the bed and was clasping Caroline's hand, weeping softly.
"What can we do about all those scars? I want her back the way she was. Right back. Can you do that?"
"Yes; with the correct treatment, over a long enough period of time, it can be done. But if you want the best results, and quickly, you will have to pay for it."
"We've got the money," said Edward.
"I'd be surprised if it didn't leave some kind of lasting damage, though. Mental or physical."
"She's a tough cookie," he replied, his voice breaking slightly. "She'll make it."
He bent down and kissed Caroline tenderly on the forehead, as he had done all those years ago to the little girl in her bed with her teddy bear.
The action seemed to wake Caroline up. She moaned and shifted position, her blinking eyes struggling to focus. Incoherent noises came from her throat, struggling to transform themselves into words. The three of them moved to stand around her.
Slowly she sat up. "Mum? Dad?" She sounded surprised more than anything else. "What are you doing here?"
"You're in hospital, love," her father answered. "And we've come to visit you."
"In hospital?" she frowned. "Why?"
The look of puzzlement on her face grew deeper. "Have I...have I been asleep?" Her voice was slurred but intelligible. "I dreamt...I dreamt..."
"No dream, I'm afraid lass," said her father grimly.
Caroline stared at him blankly. Then her expression changed as the memories suddenly began to break through.
In a series of dizzy fits understanding came. She gave a shrill cry in which joy was mixed with a kind of disbelief. It tailed away in a whimper, and then she was crying tears of sheer happiness and relief. Her face crumpled, the lips drawing back from the teeth until her expression had totally changed and it was like looking at a stranger. Margaret leaned over and embraced her, rocking her gently backwards and forwards. Caroline seemed not to know she was there. She just went on sobbing, trying unsuccessfully to get her words out properly. Edward stood in the background, waiting his turn.
Gently Margaret released her. When she finally managed to speak her voice was little more than a faint whisper. "Do you know...do you know what they did to me?"
"Yes, the doctor told us. It wasn’t very nice, was it?"
"How could they...how could they do something like that?" she said angrily, almost shouting. "I knew...I knew it happened, but..."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"N-n-no," she stammered. "I don't think I ever will."
"How do you actually feel, darling?" Margaret asked.
"Weak," Caroline replied. "So weak..."
"Do you want us to leave you for a while?"
"No." She looked Margaret straight in the eye. "Please don't go. Please."
"All right, dear."
"How did I...I mean, what happened?" Her voice was clearer now. "How did I get out of..."
"I rescued you," Edward said, smiling proudly. "That's how."
"Oh, Dad," said Caroline.
"With a little bit of help from your mother, of course," he added with a grin, noticing Margaret's indignant expression.
Again the moisture filled Caroline's eyes, blinding her so that she couldn't see her parents. "Thankyou...oh, thankyou..."
"That's OK, sweetheart," Edward smiled. "Here, let's give you a cuddle." He took her in his arms.
At once her face changed, freezing with fear. With a gasp she broke violently free from him and shrunk away, as if in some kind of reflex action.
Screaming hysterically, she pounded on her father's shoulders and clawed at his face. "Get off! Get off! Get off!" Hurriedly he withdrew, looking puzzled and not a little hurt. Quite unaware that he had gone, Caroline continued to scream and claw at the air, thrashing about with such fury that the bed rolled backwards and forwards, its springs creaking.
Gently Dr Chamoun drew him aside. "After everything she has experienced during the last few months she cannot bear to be touched – in any sense – by a man. It is associated for her with rape. It would be better if you avoided physical contact for the time being."
Edward's heart sank. "How long will this last?"
"People do get over it." He nodded, but felt the anger rise within him once again.
Eventually Dr Chamoun managed to calm Caroline, taking her gently but firmly by the hands and talking soothingly to her. As she stepped back Edward moved cautiously towards her, his hand held out, ignoring the doctor's warning look. Caroline eyed him uncertainly. "Come on; I'm your father, I'm not going to hurt you."
He stood by the bed, keeping his hand extended. "Please," he begged.
"I-I-I-I-I c-can't," she answered miserably.
Edward saw he should give in. "All right, sweetheart, I understand," he said gently. "Is it all right if Mum does it?"
Caroline hesitated, thinking of Blondie, then nodded silently. Margaret Kent took her daughter in her arms again, crooning softly. "Oh, my darling. My baby."
Edward saw the corners of his daughter's mouth twist as her emotions overcame her once more. "Mum," she sobbed. "Mum. Mummy."
Edward looked on. He was deeply moved but at the same time felt fury that an adult woman so proud and independent should be reduced to a little child, as if her mind had been completely shattered.
Margaret let go of her and sat back. "There you are," she smiled. "I expect you feel better now you've had a good cry, don't you?"
Caroline smiled weakly. "Yes."
She was silent for a moment, apparently thinking. Then she started to laugh. She laughed long and loud and quite uncontrollably, her body shaking so much the bed started rolling about again.
"Are you all right, dear?" asked Margaret nervously.
Caroline's laughter alternated with frenzied, staccato bursts of speech. The words were jumbled, mostly incoherent, and what they could make out was so bizarre as to be disturbing. The look on her face was equally strange and there was an unnerving gleam in her eyes. Alarmed, Edward turned to Dr Chamoun. "Is she..."
The doctor considered, studying Caroline carefully. Then she came to a decision. "No," she said firmly, as Margaret made towards her again. "It is best to leave her alone. I think it is a delayed reaction to the joy of finding herself free. I suspect it was probably inevitable. It may even be necessary if she is to recover fully."
"How long will it last?"
"I believe it will pass soon. We can only wait and see."
Caroline's laughter died away, and as they watched her eyes closed and her head fell back onto the pillow. She lay perfectly still, except for the gentle rise and fall of her chest. The sound of her breathing was almost inaudible.
"We should leave her now," whispered Dr Chamoun. She went with them to the door. Margaret paused on the threshold to look back at Caroline, obviously reluctant to leave.
"Come on," said Edward, hastening her on gently with a hand on her arm. "She's in good hands."
"I think the very fact of finding herself here, knowing she was out of that dreadful place, was a major boost," Dr Chamoun told them. "She's made a good start."
"Well, thanks for everything, doctor." Edward shook Chamoun's hand. "You know where to contact us, at the hotel. Come on, Maggie, let's be going. We'll call in again in a couple of days."
When they returned to the hotel, they found two representatives of the local police waiting for them in the lobby.
The emergency services had arrived too late to save the brothel's inmates. By the time they got there the roof of the building had already collapsed into the blazing furnace below. All the fire services could do was extinguish the conflagration and then carry out the charred, unrecognisable bodies, which would be identifiable only from dental records.
It was obvious what they had here. Unfortunately the fire had destroyed any evidence of who was running the place.
As the full story of what had taken place emerged, it became clear that what Edward and Margaret had told the police was true. The couple were eventually released without charge. Their argument that if they had tried to resolve the matter through the normal channels those holding Caroline would have known they were coming, panicked and disposed of her tipped the balance in their favour.
Once they were back in their hotel room their thoughts turned to the holocaust in the Rue St Antoine, for which their escaping arrest was little consolation. "We did that," murmured Margaret. "Oh God...those poor girls..." Her lips trembled and her eyes were glistening.
"That wasn't us, Maggie," said Edward quietly. "Anyway, we had no choice. I'd do it again if I had to." It didn't make him feel any better. His only hope was that in their drugged state, and with the smoke probably knocking them out before the flames got to them, the girls had not suffered.
"Cheer up," he said brightly. "We've got our daughter back. Now have something to drink, and relax. Try not to think about it."
That evening, leaving Margaret at the hotel, he went for a drive round the city. Drawn by an irresistible compulsion, he drove into the Rue St Antoine, stopping the car outside the gutted ruin of the brothel. He got out and for a very long time stood looking at it sadly. In there had died dozens of poor unfortunate girls, the products of broken homes and the victims of a corrupt and degenerate world which preyed on the vulnerable and enslaved their minds and bodies to satisfy its greed for sex and money. Their short, sad lives had ended in choking black smoke and searing flame and now there was nothing left of them but charred corpses and heaps of ash.
How many, in all, had perished? How many had been true prostitutes, and how many from ordinary, decent, respectable homes who had been lured into a world of vice and violence, guilty of no sin except stupidity? Whatever their story, it had ended in a burning brothel. Squalor, degradation, misery, and then finally death in the fire, which he had been unable to prevent. Each demise was another tragedy that the world didn't need.
He felt reluctant to leave the place. He took a few steps up and down, buried deep in thought. He'd saved ten girls; he'd hoped it might be more but he'd come to the end of the line now. Ten girls. It was something; it was an achievement.
There wasn't much to be gained from hanging about here.
As he turned away he caught sight of a figure looking across the road at him from the doorway where it was huddled. It was a woman, with long lank hair hanging free, wrapped in a bundle of grubby rags. Her eyes and his met. Her expression was vaguely beckoning. For some reason Edward found himself walking slowly towards her, while she waited patiently for him to get there. As he approached he studied her more closely.
He stopped in front of her, peering keenly. Her skin was yellow and unhealthy-looking, the face seamed and wrinkled like an old woman's. The eyes, dull and lifeless, barely seemed to see him, although she was clearly aware of his presence.
Then Edward noticed the marking on her wrist and bent to examine it. A tattooed inscription. It read "YOU 4 ME ABBEYFIELD HIGH RULE OK."
He bent down, took hold of her and lifted her up. She struggled feebly for a moment, and he thought he heard a faint murmur of protest as he carried her to the car. She was light, pitifully light, like an empty paper bag.
He heard running feet accompanied by a furious shouting and screaming in Arabic, and a moment later felt hands plucking at his coat and beating him about the arms, body and shoulders. In front of him he saw an old woman's face, contorted in savage fury, eyes blazing. She tried to pull the girl from his arms, but his grip was too strong for her to break. She ran off yelling for help.
He opened the car door and placed the girl gently on the passenger seat, strapping her in. He got in and started the engine just as a crowd of shabbily-dressed people erupted into the street, appearing as if from nowhere and with astonishing speed. He reversed the car, turned it round and drove off at top speed, forcing them to scatter, yelling furiously after him as he disappeared from view.

When Caroline awoke, the room was in darkness. She felt well and happy, filled with a sublime sense of peace and security. The hysteria was out of her system, for the moment. Now she was safe and sound there was no reason for it.
She felt she had risen from the bottom of a deep black pit of misery and burst from it into wellbeing and sanity. She felt physically and emotionally exhausted but not in any way that was undesirable. The overriding sense was of a pleasant emptiness; everything was a clean slate from which she could start again.
From the street outside a little light seeped into the room through the gaps in the blind over one window. Faint sounds of people and vehicles moving about reached her ears. It seemed weird, but someone somewhere was playing a Beatles song; at least it sounded like the Beatles. Yes it was: Strawberry Fields.
She found herself humming the tune and smiling. Not for the first time she marvelled at the astonishing ability those four young men from Liverpool had had to find your heart-strings and pull on them. They'd a way of capturing the craziness, and the beauty, of ordinary life which failure to understand the often surreal lyrics made no difference to.
The song stayed in her mind until she drifted back to sleep, her mind filled with homely thoughts about life in a working-class district of a town in the north of England.
While her abused body recovered from all that had been inflicted on it, she stayed most of her time in the ward, though there were regular walks around the hospital garden where the fresh air and the scent of the beautiful flowers assisted her recuperation. The visits from her parents also helped, of course, and she was touched to receive scores of get-well cards from friends, relatives and other wellwishers.
Her physical injuries disappeared remarkably quickly, and at the same time she regained the weight she had lost.
When she had been brought out of the brothel, her hair had seemed to have faded, become lank and lifeless. Blondeness often did not survive a serious setback to health of the sort Caroline had suffered, but after a while it was back to its original colour and the doctors at the hospital swore she had not, to their knowledge, been using highlighter or peroxide.
This girl had something...but what it was they couldn't quite put their finger on. It was almost scary.
The mental damage was much harder to remedy. Sometimes she would wake in tears; then the nurse would sit and hold her hand and talk soothingly to her until she recovered her composure. She went through a period of delayed shock in which she sat and stared numbly at the wall, unable to think, say or do anything, until sheer hunger brought her out of it. Every now and then she would break down and cry just from the thought that she was safe.
All those hangovers would go away, in time, although she guessed she would never be able to think of her ordeal without a certain shudder. The real problem, of course, was her addiction to the drugs. It was serious because their effect had been to seem a merciful amelioration of her suffering, and her body still thought of them as something beneficial and desirable. She decided that where it wasn't doing its bit, she would have to enlist the aid of the mind.
So she found a scrap of paper and drew a picture of a heap of cocaine and beside it one of a woman, meant to represent herself, bound and gagged and chained and doing something revolting and obscene. She wanted to associate the two images as closely as possible in her mind. After all it was because of drugs that she had got into the whole horrific situation, even if she hadn't taken them herself, and become trapped in it. The one thing had led inexorably to the other. She stared at the two drawings intently until they blended together, the composite image burning itself deep into her brain. Even though the drawing upset her, she had to do it. The doctors and nurses were disturbed when they saw it, despite their training, but they appreciated that everyone had their own way of coping with such trauma as she’d been through.
Gradually, she found she needed the drug less and less. She still had relapses, of course. But it was evident that she was winning, and in a shorter time than it took to cure most addicts. Her recovery was due in equal measure to the treatment she was receiving, the therapeutic techniques employed, to her own brand of aversion therapy, and to a will to live so powerful that it penetrated deep into the subconscious mind, to levels not even the most powerful drug could reach.
One consequence of her treatment by the slavers was a revulsion at the thought of any sex other than within marriage; it seemed somehow dirty, degrading and repellent, even where there was consent. There would be none of that sort of thing for her, not for the foreseeable future. It wasn't an entirely logical reaction, but in the end there were worse things than celibacy, provided your mind and body were capable of it.
As time went by she realised there was something about the situation which particularly upset her. Her anger and distress at what had been done to her was made worse because she had had to be rescued; she hadn't got out of her horrendous predicament through her own efforts. What could be done about that she didn't know.
Meanwhile the actual details, the precise details, of what had happened to her while in Fouasi's hands had been completely forgotten, dissolving in her mind to a strange hazy blur. But gradually little snippets of memory started to filter back. It was a consequence of the drug and its effect on her brain that she didn't realise the significance of one of them until she'd remembered it for the third or fourth time, and then thought about it a little more.

Neghid Fouasi heard a knock at the door of his study. "Boss, it's me," called the Hulk. Impatiently Fouasi went to let him in.
"Morning, Boss," the Hulk said. "You read the papers?"
Fouasi nodded impatiently. He glanced again at the newspaper on the desk, with its front page article announcing the dramatic rescue of the missing Caroline Kent from the brothel in Beirut. It was accompanied by two photographs; one of the girl taken before her ordeal, and another showing her parents arriving at the International Hospital to visit her. Margaret Kent, and Edward Kent also known as John Fitch.
"What does it mean for us?" the Hulk asked worriedly.
"Not a lot. There's only their word and the girl's. They really need more witnesses, more evidence. When the father says how he fooled us by setting up his own fake outfit, and all that, it's gonna sound too fantastic. No-one'll believe it. And if it does come to the worst our friends in high places will still protect us."
Fouasi dropped into a chair, breathing out harshly. He sat for a moment in bitter silence. "This Kent," he said quietly. "He's got to realise he can't fuck with me."
"You want me to see to it, Boss?" asked the Hulk.
"You bet your ass I do," said Fouasi, turning to him with glittering eyes. His fist clenched in a violent convulsion which made the desk shake. "You bet your sweet ass."

When Caroline's parents next came to visit her she gave them the work telephone number of a close friend. "Can you get her to give me a call? After...after everything that's happened, I think I'd appreciate a chat."
"Of course, dear. We'll do it as soon as we get back to the hotel."
As it happened Caroline's friend was away on a business trip, but her answerphone recorded the message; and Rachel Savident, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, received it the following morning on arriving at her office on the top floor of Global Datasystems Incorporated, alias Her Majesty's external security service, MI6.

SEVENTEEN
One nice thing about the north-west Surrey region is its semi-rural character; all those fir trees and heaths and patches of forest. The Major was walking in the woods which as a boy he had spent many happy hours exploring with his father. The little pocket of nature was traditionally known as the Fuel Allotments, the idea being that the poor people of the area could go there to gather firewood for use in the winter; a bit of a joke, since nothing like that had happened for over a hundred years. It had not benefited when a golf course had been plonked in the middle of it a few years back, despite the fact that the nearest existing such place wasn’t too difficult to get to in the age of the motor car, but most of it was still there. Occasionally, you might even encounter a deer. Though the well-trodden paths, and the fences cordoning off those areas reserved to the military for their manouevres obviously bore the hand of Man, parts of the place were very like that vast wilderness which stretched across much of North America. You could wander for hours in it, contemplating your troubles and hopefully forgetting them.
The Major breathed in the scent of pinewood, and smiled.
By the time the period of his leave had ended the Horror had seemed to go away. But now it was starting to come back, though not so much at times like this. The moodiness, the depression constantly plagued his waking hours and he wondered when it would start to affect his sleep again, too.
Again he tried to come to terms with his bereavement, this time focusing on the motives behind the outrage. It was a partly a political calculation; the nastier the atrocity, the greater the chance of provoking the holy war bin Laden desired.
He hadn't got his wish. So far.
Then there was insanity - no-one could do such a thing and be normal, the Major was sure. And racism; he reckoned the terrorists couldn't have been able to do what they did without a certain contempt for Western lives.
Just because one stupid, foolish girl had dared to laugh at the size of his wedding tackle bin Laden had conceived a virulent hatred for a whole race, a whole culture, a whole way of life.
They knew he had gloated over the carnage in New York, watching it on video with some of his followers, giving a running commentary and from time to time speculating as to what would happen next. Don't be too premature, it may not be enough to make the tower fall. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. Ah, here comes the second plane now. And when the plane hit he and his friends had cheered.
Didn't the people inside it mean anything to him?
It was sick. Fucking sick. Sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick SICK
You're losing it again, Hartman.
It was the stage-managing that made it so grotesque and chilling, when considered along with the involvement of so many innocent people; two planes into the two towers of the World Trade Centre, while two others hit the Pentagon and Washington. A package designed to inflict the maximum possible damage, physically and psychologically, on the American establishment and infrastructure. The intended symbolism of the terrorists' actions. The careful planning, as if mass murder was an art form which should be executed to perfection. God, how could he ever forget the obscenity of it; how could anyone?
In parts, his surroundings were not unlike the Welsh mountains where he had trained for the Regiment. It diverted his mental train away from bin Laden and onto a different track.
He was already a seasoned soldier when he decided to join the SAS. The idea had always been at the back of his mind and he was finally motivated to do it by the consideration that if he didn't he would soon be too old to spend much time in the Regiment before retiring from active service. He suspected he would come over as too old-fashioned and eccentric for some people - a consequence of his upbringing - but thought he stood a chance. Certainly he was young, fit and strong enough.
He'd heard stories about the selection process and what it was like. A truly Darwinian affair in which the final pass rate was 5-17%. Once, a man had broken his ankle while taking part in an assault course but in an incredible feat of bravery and resilience finished the course nonetheless. It was an astonishing performance which few could have equalled, but because he had broken his ankle they had had no option but to fail him. It'd nearly finished him off.
The Major prepared himself beforehand by pushing himself mercilessly, doing step-ups and push-ups while loaded down with a heavy rucksack. He wanted the experience, when it came, to be not too different from something he'd already got used to.
But no amount of preparation and training could have prepared him for the gruelling reality. It was hell, sheer hell. Running after an instructor on a bike, trying to keep up with him for five whole miles; trudging across the rain-spattered, windswept Brecon Beacons, unable to walk in a straight line because of the thick clumps of grass that dotted the uneven, boggy ground; crawling through stagnant water, with a risk of catching something nasty, through animal droppings and the wet, slippery, foul-smelling remains of dead sheep. If you swerved to avoid those obstacles, thus losing time, you were dismissed as a useless wimp. Marching thrice up and down the 3,000-foot high Pen-y-Fan. And all the time, the weight of the rucksack on your back was gradually in-creased.
The marches could start at four and not finish until well after ten, and were often arranged at short notice. They were divided into periods at the end of which you’d all rendezvous with the organizers at a prearranged point, where you were told the next part of the route, something you would have no prior knowledge of, the deliberate aim being to add to your sense of uncertainty. There would be sudden, infuriating changes of plan; you could get to what you thought was the rendezvous point, where you could rest for a few much-needed minutes if you wanted, only to be told it had been moved and was now some ten miles away. This might cause you to freak out with sheer anger and frustration, and you had to avoid that if you wanted to stay in the race. Self-control was all-important.
From time to time those wanting to be officers, like Hartman, were asked to plan a commando raid or reconnaissance patrol which then had to be justified under interrogation by senior NCOs. Usually the plan was roundly rubbished; that could destroy your confidence if you weren't careful. The Major had prepared for this by doing mental exercises in which he trained himself to think logically - and laterally, for sometimes that too was necessary.
In the third and final week of Selection you went on a solo endurance test. In hostage rescue, for example, you had to function as part of a team. Now you were being treated as an individual, because you were learning how you might survive on your own if you had to. One man against the elements. You learnt self-discipline, endurance, initiative, plus the art of quick thinking – which had still to be rational - when under stress. The 46-mile march had to be completed in under 20 hours, which meant you had to jog most of the way with the 55-pound rucksack on your back. In winter, in harsh conditions, it was not unknown for men to die.
It was as gruelling as the team exercises had been, and worse because you were denied the comforting, morale-boosting effect of other people's company and help. You felt a combination of stress, loneliness, and terror at the thought of losing your bearings and becoming lost. Hartman remembered the last few miles of the course, when the temptation to give up was all the stronger because the end was clearly in sight. The wind making it almost impossible to stand upright. Instructors appearing from time to time and asking you to do complex pieces of mental arithmetic when tired, aching and blinded by sweat. His tight boots biting into the flesh of his ankles, turning them red and raw. The last few miles - and the worst.
Just when you didn't think you could keep going an instructor - who could gauge the exact moment at which to do it - came towards you out of the rain and mist and urged you to give it up. "That's it, son. You've done your best, but I don't think you can go on any longer, can you?"
Human company, at last. For a moment all the Major could think of was the warmth and friendliness of the man's manner.
The instructor nodded towards the truck parked a short distance away. "Come on, son. No-one'll blame you. Come inside and sit in the warm. You're not superhuman, you're just the best. I'm afraid that's not enough sometimes. Come on."
And in an instant the Major had known what he must do.
They'd give him a second try - no more than that - but he knew he couldn't go through it all again, knowing he might still fail. He only had one chance.
His lips drawn back as far as they would go from gritted teeth, his whole body a mass of aches, pains, sores and bruises, sweat pouring into his eyes and trickling into his mouth, he threw back his head and roared "FUCK OFF!"
And as he passed the instructor he saw the grin on the man's face and the glint in his eye, and knew that he'd done it.
Finally, after all the training in specialist areas like jungle warfare, parachuting, leadership skills, sabotage, withstanding interrogation, intelligence gathering, to name just a few, he was given his badge. It had been such a proud moment for him.
At the end of it all you could still be returned to your unit if you didn't keep up to standard.
It was a hard life, one where you couldn't expect any medals, except posthumously. He asked himself why he did it. A consideration of the 1980 Iranian Embassy affair - required reading for all SAS recruits - reminded him why. In hostage scenarios people were imprisoned in stressful and frightening situations which might result in their deaths. If the terrorists got seriously nasty the building where they were being held might be blown up or set fire to, or they might be shot by their captors. They'd be burnt to death, blown to smithereens or slaughtered in a hail of bullets. His job was to stop that happening. In the business in question a couple of the hostages had perished - the Regiment had been specifically told not to go in unless the terrorists started killing them. That to the Major seemed daft, as their brief was surely to protect innocent lives. But it could have been a lot worse.
In the Gulf War, the Regiment had played a major role in cutting Saddam's lines of communication with his Scud missile convoys, with which he was at that stage attacking Israel. If the attacks continued not only would hundreds more Israelis have been killed, but if Israel had entered the war the total human death toll might have run into millions. The actions of the SAS had prevented that. It was a noble calling, for God's sake. The sad fact that you had to take some lives to save others made no difference. It was something he had kept in mind during his training and since.
It incensed him when the SAS were portrayed as brutal killers. He also found it laughable. They were an elite group in which discipline prevented you from engaging in mindless slaughter. Men might crack up and do nasty things after leaving the Regiment, because they found civilian life hard to adjust to, but not when they were in it. It couldn't be entirely responsible for what happened to people once they'd left it – that was the job of others within the Army, who sometimes didn’t do it as well as they should - because it simply wasn't their brief to be social workers.
The same kind of discipline kept SAS soldiers in excellent physical condition. What it couldn't do, unfortunately, was prepare them for personal bereavement.
He was again on leave but there were only four days of it left, and still he was no nearer finding a solution. At this rate he wasn't going to make it.

"Come in," said Caroline. She had been sitting in the chair in her hospital room, reading a book, when the knock on the door came.
"Your visitors," smiled the nurse, showing in three people. The first was Rachel Savident. She had dark hair with a slight reddish tint and sharp but not unpleasing features. Joyfully, she and Caroline pecked each other on the cheek. "I heard it all on the news, of course," said Rachel, still horrified by the affair. "Are you sure you're OK now?"
"Well...more or less," Caroline sighed. She looked enquiringly at the other two, whom she had not expected. They were a young man and woman with dark hair, olive skin and almond eyes.
Rachel introduced them. "This is Nitza Avnir and Baruch Rothstein of Mossad."
"Oh," said Caroline. She went ahead with the handshakes, but couldn't bring herself to put any firmness or warmth into them.
The Israelis registered the sudden drop in temperature. "Is there something wrong?" the woman asked politely.
"No, not at all," Caroline muttered. She gestured to the three of them to sit. "Right then," said Rachel. "Shoot."
And so Caroline told her story. She guessed it was important to the Israelis because Saddam's hatred of them was well-known, as the Scud missiles which had fallen on Jerusalem in the Gulf War testified. These days he was the main external threat to their country and dealing with any action by him which threatened their survival was a priority. She later learned that MI6 had passed the information that she might have knowledge vital to Israeli interests on to Mossad through a prominent member of Britain's Jewish community.
"He said one final payment was needed and then everything would be sorted. And he said something about a missile, about it being ready but not the stuff to go inside it.
"I was listening through a door, so I didn't hear everything with perfect clarity. There was a lot of other stuff I didn't under-stand, probably technical. My knowledge of Arabic is quite good so I would have got it otherwise. The other guy said he needed another 150 million pounds. And he also said that after the project was completed everything would be different. I didn't like the sound of that.
"And that's all I know. I've no idea what it means but I thought someone ought to be told."
"I think that was very sensible," said Rachel.
"What does it mean, do you suppose?" Caroline asked.
Baruch Rothstein spoke. "You are certain the man who was to supply the money was the one who seemed to be running this...this harem, the owner of the palace?"
"I recognised his voice."
"And the other. Can you say what nationality he was? What did he look like?"
"Well, he was an Arab, speaking Arabic, but apart from that I can't tell you very much about him." She described his physical appearance as best she could. "I'm afraid I'm not very good at telling one Arab nationality from another."
"Could you describe his accent?"
"Not quite the same as you hear in Saudi, but different from the boss man's. That's really all I can say."
Rothstein nodded then sat back for a moment, thoughtfully. "From the description you gave to the police, I think the owner of the palace was Neghid Fouasi. All the information we have suggests he is the organiser of an international white slave ring based on the Middle East, with headquarters in Lebanon and several of the Gulf States."
"And how long have you known that for?" asked Caroline, her eyes narrowing a little.
"For some time. We did not take action because it was not a priority for us." He gave a slight laugh. "I am sure you will understand. However distasteful the business undoubtedly was, it didn't seem in itself to present a threat to security. Not ours, and not to anyone else's either.
"What's more important, and more worrying, is that Fouasi's also a notorious arms dealer. We've been keeping a close eye on his activities. In the past he has sold weapons to the main Palestinian terrorist groups, and to Libya, although a few years ago he seemed to cut off all contacts with them, probably because he feared we would take action against him."
"Assassinate him, you mean."
Baruch decided not to tell her about the unsuccessful attempt on Fouasi's life in London. "These days," he went on, ignoring her interjection, "he looks elsewhere for his business - to South American rebel groups, to Africa, to China.
"Until recently he was solely an arms dealer; now he seems to have diversified. He was always very fond of the opposite sex, to the extent of consorting with prostitutes whenever the opportunity presented itself. So he decided to involve himself in a big way with the white slave trade."
Nitza said, "We've been monitoring the Iraqi government's financial transactions. Recently a large amount of money has gone into the country. What it is for we don't know. We don't know where it's come from either but we suspect the source was Fouasi. From an analysis of his outgoings, it seems that a lot of the money he's making isn't spent on himself."
"What links does he have with Iraq?" Caroline asked.
Nitza handed her a series of photographs. Each one showed Fouasi at some kind of social gathering, talking with other Arabs in what seemed a very friendly manner.
"The men he's with are all trusted associates of Saddam Hussein. Before September 11th each of them at some time visited the West in an attempt to restore friendly relations between it and Iraq." Nitza pointed out one of them. "That's Colonel Hassan-Ali Khouramaniyeh. He visited London and Washington recently in what was supposed to be an exercise in bridge-building. We think he took the opportunity to make a few contacts, or re-establish old ones."
Caroline peered at the photograph. "I think that's the man I saw with Fouasi. I'm afraid I can't be sure."
"Saddam is a national enemy of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, a potential threat to their security, and has been ever since his invasion of Kuwait. If we were to find conclusive evidence that Fouasi's connections with Baghdad were of a sinister nature, we could bring his whole empire crashing down."
Including the sex ring, thought Caroline with gleaming eyes.
"Unfortunately, because the people concerned were to all intents and purposes engaging in honest diplomacy, we don't have that evidence.
"But the amount of money entering Iraq is phenomenal. We suspect that as well as fitting in with his proclivities, the white slave business is a useful way of making sure Fouasi's nest is kept feathered while the money from his arms deals goes to Baghdad. Sex is something people are prepared to pay vast sums for."
Nitza handed Caroline a further set of photographs. "Take a look at these. They were taken by an American spy satellite about six months ago. They show some kind of very large complex being built not far from Baghdad, where there used to be a village until it was suddenly evacuated and then cleared away. We and the Americans think its purpose might be military." She pointed out the lines on the roof which suggested a launch silo. "There are rumours Saddam is in possession of a nuclear missile. At any rate, he's doing something inside that complex which requires a vast amount of money; a financial sacrifice most people, or their creditors, would be unable to make."
"So what are we going to do about it?" Caroline asked.
"If we were to expose Fouasi, the rulers of the Gulf states would have to do something, despite the political embarrassment to them if his...other activities were to become common knowledge. Possibly they might have him killed. But in whatever fashion, the problem would be taken care of. Saddam's main source of funds would be cut off."
"If we've got to nab him for something, it may as well be for the sex slave thing," said Caroline fiercely. Her eyes were like cold, blue-tinged steel.
"There is the possibility of...other forms of action," Baruch went on. "But hopefully they can be avoided. Somehow we have to get into Fouasi's palace and find some kind of evidence among his records that shows what he is doing."
"Do you think it exists?"
"He must have made some note of his dealings with Iraq, for his own convenience."
"What makes you so sure it's at the palace?"
Rachel interjected. "Last week, MI5 had two of their people raid Fouasi's house in London. They found nothing. It's been the same with his other residences around the world. Ever since that Swedish girl escaped - thanks to you - from his clutches he's been particularly worried about exposure. Anything that might incriminate him will have been spirited away to the palace in Saudi, where he's more or less impregnable."
"We need to work our way into Fouasi's confidence so we can get in there," Baruch said. "In fact we've been working on such a plan, and after what Miss Kent has just told us it seems we will have to bring it forward."
"I want to be part of this," said Caroline passionately.
"In what way?" Rachel asked. "How are you feeling at the moment? Are you - "
"I'm well enough, more or less." Caroline turned to the two Israelis, looking them both straight in the eye. "When you go there I want to be with you."
Rachel's mouth fell open. "What was that?"
"I want to go back there," Caroline said quietly.
"You can't," said Rachel in astonishment.
"I'm a trained agent," Caroline reminded her.
"Apart from anything else, Fouasi knows your face."
"He won't be expecting to see me there, will he? Not with the memories it must have for me. Not after everything that was done to me in that place."
"Maybe not," conceded Rachel. "But all the same, if he does see you..."
"He won't," said Caroline. "Because," she announced dramatically, "I shall be in disguise."
The two Mossad agents were looking at her, at each other and at Rachel with raised eyebrows. Clearly they thought she was round the bend.
"She disguised herself as an Arab woman when she went round the Middle East looking for the Air America bombers," Rachel told them. "She had everyone fooled for ages."
"And I'm the only one of us who's been there before. I know the layout of the place - I expect that was another reason you came to see me. But the drugs have screwed up my brain more than a bit and I think I'd need to actually be there for it all to come back to me."
In the end Rachel saw that what Caroline was saying made sense. But she still had reservations. "Talking of the drugs, you're still an addict - aren't you? I really don't think - "
"I can resist it most of the time. I shouldn't need another jab for a while yet. I don't think it'll be a problem, Rachel." She looked at Baruch and Nitza. "It's no less daft, by my reckoning, than one of your lot disguising himself as a woman in order to get
near this bloke you wanted to assassinate."
"I think she knows what she's doing," Rachel told the Israelis. They still looked uncertain.
"If it goes wrong," said Baruch at length, darkly, "it won’t be us who’ll take the blame. I trust you understand that."
"Perfectly," said Caroline.
"And I should tell you there is no chance of us doing anything for the girl, the one you were trying to rescue. Not at this stage. Or any of the other women in that place. I'm sorry, but I don't see how it could be done without risking the success of the operation. It will be a difficult enough business as it is."
Caroline understood. "That's all right. With any luck they'll be OK anyway, if we can pull this off."
The next hour or so was spent planning the operation, with the Israelis explaining to Caroline exactly what they had been intending to do. There was a Syrian businessman named Ahmed Makhtiar who like Fouasi was a seasoned dealer in all manner of lethal weapons. Mossad knew from having tapped his phones that he was in the process of arranging a deal between Fouasi and some Colombian rebels with himself as middleman. Makhtiar had already arranged a meeting between himself and Fouasi at the latter's palace in Saudi, which was to take place in a few days' time. Fortunately, the two had never before met face-to-face. And it would be a simple matter to have Makhtiar disappear, never to be seen again. There is often not a lot of difference, physically, between Arabs and Jews and it would be quite feasible to substitute a Mossad agent for the real Makhtiar - Baruch himself could play the part, with Nitza as one of his associates.
Despite Makhtiar's obviously, like Fouasi, being among the scum of the earth Caroline almost backed out from the scheme when told they’d have to kill him. It took a lot of persuading to make her change her mind and if it had not been for the need to face her own personal demons she would not have done so.
Afterwards Baruch and Nitza took their leave, cordially enough. They would be in touch again in a few days' time, after everyone had made the necessary...arrangements.
"I know you aren't very happy about bumping off Makhtiar," Rachel began after they had gone, "but you weren't too friendly to them at the start. Why was that?"
"It's not them I hate," said Caroline sincerely. "It's the state they serve and what it does. That's what I'm so sore about. The way they don't give a damn about anyone else. The way they're quite prepared to kill and maim and bereave innocent people, including citizens of countries they insist support them, or risk it happening, as long as their interests are safe. The way they demand the support of the West and couldn't care less about how that affects us. In the last resort they're not too bothered, although they'll always make sympathetic noises, if we lose lots of our people in terrorist bombings partly because the Arabs don't like the way America sticks up for them all the time. The way they try to justify whatever they do because of their situation. And worst of all, the way they call us anti-Semitic whenever we complain about it."
"I'm inclined to agree with you," said Rachel. "But it would be best to keep your thoughts to yourself."
"If you say so," said Caroline sulkily.
Rachel smiled.
"I'd better explain to them you're all right really. I mean, if you're going to be working with them..."
"You do that."
"It's a pity we can't have you back," Rachel said, changing the subject. Caroline's job as a globetrotting troubleshooter for her company made her ideal for the role of international spy, not least because it was a useful cover. "I mean, I don't know if you'd want to, but it's impossible now of course, after everything that's happened."
Caroline gazed reflectively into space. "I joined the Service because I wanted to find the people who killed my brother. I left once I did, because I didn't want to bother with all the security lark, the not being able to talk about your work. I couldn't have stood it in the long run."
They chatted for another few minutes. Caroline wished Rachel could have stayed longer, for she was always glad of the company. But Rachel had important work to do back in London, and she was left alone with her thoughts.
She wished she hadn't let her feelings about Israel show. It wasn't only because she might have caused Avnir and Rothstein offence. It was irrational, but something in her always felt apologetic about being critical of Jews because of something that had happened, or might have happened, long ago in her family's past.
Baruch and Nitza, meanwhile, were winging their way back to Jerusalem. What Caroline had told them had to be relayed as swiftly as possible to their superiors at Mossad.
It wouldn't stop there. Any news concerning possible threats to the survival of the state of Israel was sure within a short space of time to reach the nation it ultimately relied on to protect it from such threats - America.
*
Howard Loomis was flicking through Mossad's report and frowning.
"This Caroline Kent person," he began, studying the page before him dubiously. "Is she reliable?"
"Apparently," replied Patrick Lerpiniere. "The Savident girl vouches for her, and she's one of the best agents they've got. Caroline Kent is..." he struggled to find the right words. "Personally I think the woman's crazy; can't seem to stay out of trouble. But they seem to trust her. She's been useful to them - and through them, us - quite a few times in the past. She smashed that South American drug ring, remember, and probably saved many of our young people's lives. You ought to read the file sometime."
He turned on the overhead projector. An image of Fouasi appeared on the screen. "Neghid Fouasi; born Egypt, 15th June 1968. Father a millionaire businessman who pumped a lot of money into various concerns in Europe and the Middle East, as well as over here, and was able to establish plenty of connections which have proved vital to the son. He paid for Neghid to go to a top public school in England, where the boy got a taste for the Western way of living. During the holidays he stayed in England much of the time, sampling the seedier side of London life. He inherited all the family businesses a couple of years ago when his father died from over-indulgence in drink and women - a tendency Neghid seems to have inherited.
"He's a major league asshole, from all accounts. He's got a private army of thugs who beat up anyone who upsets him or crosses him in any way, if he thinks he can get away with it. There are various deaths and mysterious disappearances which are almost certainly due to him, only he's made sure there's no proof. My guess is that if there were any witnesses they were too shit-scared to give evidence.
"He nearly got expelled from school after beating up a younger kid over some minor incident. He's a violent, arrogant, ill-tempered son of a bitch. In his time he's been into pimping, white slave-trading, drug-dealing and extortion. That's in addition to his shady arms deals.
"He smokes cannabis and occasionally heroin, and he's fond of fast cars and smart suits. Obsessed with guns and weapons in general, which is one reason why he's an arms dealer. Watches a lot of war films. As for sex, from time to time there are a few women who fulfil the role of mistresses but he gets most of his kicks from prostitutes.
"He tends to delegate most of the day-to-day running of the business to his sidekicks while he lives the life of a playboy."
"Why is he helping Saddam?" Theodore Malikian asked bemusedly. "It's not calculated to make him very popular if anyone finds out."
"Yeah, it seems a bad investment for a smart businessman to make. Which makes me think there's some very special reason behind it."
"Could we freeze his assets in this country?"
"Not without more proof. It all depends on whether our friends from the Promised Land can come up with any. At the moment all we can say is that the guy the girl saw with Fouasi might be one of Saddam's henchmen, and that Fouasi has been at various parties, and an arms sale in Kazakhstan, where there also happened to be Iraqis. We're not entirely sure about the arms sale because the quality of the photo Mossad took isn't good enough. We need firmer evidence to get the Arab world on our side should we take action against Saddam."
"Mossad were sure enough about it to try to kill Fouasi," Loomis pointed out.
"Because they're trigger-happy," Lerpiniere sighed. He switched off the OHP and lowered himself back into his chair.
"The complex at Quarat," said Loomis. "There's got to be a connection."
"But Theo's team checked it," objected Aaron Sternhold. "And they're not the kind of people to miss anything."
"No, they sure aren't," said Malikian proudly.
"And yet I don't see what else it can be."
Lerpiniere reached for his phone. "We need to find out if there's anything been going on in the world which could give us a clue to what Saddam's planning." Lack of co-operation between the different intelligence agencies, or different branches of the same agency, had been one of the reasons for September 11th. The lesson had now been learned. All it would take was a quick call to the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Desk and Lerpiniere would have the information he wanted.

"How are you feeling now, dear?" Margaret Kent asked her daughter.
"Oh, fine. Actually, there isn't much need for me to still be here, now. As long as I don't drive myself, and report for treatment every now and then, I'm no danger to me or anyone else."
"Well, you could come home with us. I expect you could continue the treatment quite easily in Britain. Have you spoken to anyone here about it?"
"Not yet, but I will do. I suppose it's best to clear it with them first. If I did stay here for a little longer it wouldn't do any harm."
"Well, we'll leave you to decide, dear." Edward nodded his assent.
She came towards them. "Mum? Dad?"
"Yes, dear?" said Margaret.
She took one each of their hands in hers. "Thanks," she said simply.
Having taken their tearful farewell of Caroline, Edward and Margaret left the building and walked to where they had parked their car. As they drove out through the hospital gates, neither of them thought anything of the man seated at the wheel of a stationary vehicle exactly opposite the building on the other side of the road. A man who, as they headed down the road in the direction of the hotel, started his vehicle and drove off after them, at the same time speaking urgently into his mobile phone.

"Re the Iraq thing, I said we needed to know what else had been going on before acting on Mossad's information. Well, take a look at this." Loomis switched on the projector.
They saw an image of a pleasantly smiling, bespectacled woman in her fifties, with long red hair that looked natural but was streaked with grey. Her face was filling out with age, becoming plumper. "That's Dr Karin Soderstrom of the University of Uppsala, Sweden. She's a Professor of Linguistics and lately she's been working on a computer which can record someone's voice and translate what they say into any language, playing back the recording with the words rearranged so you can understand it. You then speak into a receiver and it does the same with your voice. That way two people can have a conversation without having to go to the bother of learning each other's language. She hoped it would revolutionise international relations and make the world a much better place. The computer's small enough to carry in the hand but it's about the most complex in existence. The microcircuits are incredibly sophisticated and their reasoning faculties are far in advance of anything else on the planet."
Malikian whistled. "It sounds fantastic. But why should it concern us?"
"Because a few months ago Soderstrom disappeared, at the same time that her seven-year-old son and her ex-husband were kidnapped from the ex's house. The microcircuits disappeared with her. She was last seen being driven away from her home by two men, and since then there's been no trace of her anywhere. Europol have been on the case.
"Two days after the kidnapping the ex was found dead in a field thirty miles from the house, shot through the head. The son had already been released; the local cops got an anonymous letter telling them where to find him. I guess they didn't kill the father at the start because they didn't want to upset the boy. They took him along so he couldn't warn his ex-wife, and then got rid of him at the first opportunity because they reckoned an adult would be able to tell the police more than a kid would."
"Do they think Soderstrom's still alive?" Loomis asked.
"They don't know. Whoever took her obviously wanted her to do something for them, and the kid was snatched to make sure she'd co-operate. The fact he was freed unharmed suggests she was no longer needed. And by that time she would have known too much. On the other hand, if someone wanted to develop the computer themselves they'd need Soderstrom to help, because it isn't quite finished yet and she's the one who best understands how it's meant to work. And the job'd take a lot more than a few days, I reckon."
"If it's Saddam who's behind it, why would he want her, or the computer, anyway? Why has he suddenly become interested in languages? If he needs to talk to people who don't speak Arabic, or to understand the instructions on a missile somebody's sold him, he can get hold of an interpreter easily enough."
Malikian was looking thoughtful. "The only explanation I can think of doesn't really make sense. We know Saddam has an interest in archaeology. Through it he wants to identify himself with the glorious leaders of Iraq's past, like Nebuchadnezzar. The people who ruled it when it was the centre of a flourishing civilization, and a major power in the region – a world power, one might say. He sees himself as establishing a link with that past, by restoring Iraq to its former greatness - it's all crazy, of course. My feeling is he's discovered some kind of ancient ruin with inscriptions inside it he wants someone to translate for him."
"But Soderstrom is a professor of language in general, not of any particular language," Lerpiniere told them.
"And I don't think he'd go so far as to kidnap someone over it," Malikian said.
"Well before we waste our time in fruitless speculation," said Lerpiniere, "I should tell you Soderstrom isn't just a linguist, she's also a computer expert. She'd have to be to design and build the thing. And language isn't its only application. It's a thinking machine, more so than any other computer in existence. The boys at Defense can't rule out the possibility that it could be used in a guided missile, say, or a smart bomb, to make it even more accurate."
"That must be it," Loomis said. "It's the only possibility." The others nodded their agreement.
He returned to the projector. The next slide showed two ribbed metal discs, each with a circle of some crystalline material at its centre. "Back in April there was a break-in at an electronics factory near Bristol, England. It was a pretty nasty business. The guys who did it had done their homework well, knew who the main personnel were. They broke into the home of one of the scientists who worked there, a Dr Yateman, and tied up his wife and kids. One of the gang was left with them while Yateman was forced to go with the others to the factory and let them in on his security pass. When they'd got what they wanted they shot him along with a security guard and torched the place to cover their tracks. Their pal did the same to Yateman's family."
"Shit," gasped Loomis.
"That is not nice," said Malikian, closing his eyes and shaking his head slowly.
"It's what our world is like these days. The British police have been doing their best to find the gang but it's going to be a long job, assuming they ever get lucky. The main concern from our POV is who may have hired them - and what was stolen. Of course, it took a long time to go through all the wreckage, but the British forensics guys are pretty good. They soon confirmed that the components you see here were missing."
"And what are they?"
"They're focusing devices for a stun gun that's being developed for the British police. The ones which are in use at the moment are pretty inefficient. They fall into two types. In one, you have to shove the muzzle of the gun right up against the target's head for it to have any effect. The other fires a dart on the end of a wire. It's designed to be effective against one person, or a relatively small group of people standing together; the dart hits the target and the shock travels from one person to another. It's not practical to use it for anything bigger.
“The new gun should be able to actually transmit the electric charge through the air to the target. It'll mean you can do away with conventional ammunition. The idea is that if you have to catch a criminal or stop them committing a murder, it's better to do it by knocking people out than by killing them, especially if you've got the wrong guy. As you'll know we're working on something similar ourselves.
“Right now neither our stun gun or the Brits' is even at the experimental stage. Some of the components are still being made. But a clever person could finish the job."
Malikian frowned. "Saddam can't need them to keep law and order within Iraq. He's already got the whole country in a grip of fear."
"That's as far as we know," Sternhold pointed out. He wasn't to be reassured. "He must want the gun for military purposes."
"What military purposes?" Lerpiniere asked, rhetorically. "It could knock out a person all right, but I can't see it being much use against a tank or a plane. We're not going to find ourselves up against a whole Goddamn army equipped with these things."
"Could the technology be adapted to make something like an, uh...death ray?" Loomis sounded embarrassed. "A really big stun gun which could knock out an entire city?"
"It'd need a lot of adapting. The British gun can't do what you suggest, and isn't meant to. You're talking about something which hasn't yet moved out of the realms of science fiction. Still it's feasible, to my mind anyway."
The picture on the screen changed again. More photographs, front facial profiles of five people. "In the last few months all these scientists have disappeared or, in one case, died. I've already mentioned Karin Soderstrom. Now these..." He went through them one by one.
A plump-featured Arab man with thick-rimmed glasses and hair combed sleekly back to disguise the fact that it was receding. "Dr Hassan Ahmed. Jordanian. Physicist."
An attractive dark-skinned woman with flashing eyes and a steely expression. "Professor Monique Desgranges; French nationality, but of part Palestinian descent. Biologist."
A middle-aged European with metal-framed spectacles and grey hair. "Professor Malcolm Speyler of the University of Birmingham, England. British, and a physicist. Lately been working on a revolutionary method of propulsion for the European space programme."
Finally a sad-looking middle-aged man with gingery hair and a little blond moustache. "Dr Hans Eckige, University of Bonn, Germany. Physicist, working in the same field as Speyler. On December 25th his body was fished out of a river near Cologne. He'd been shot through the head.
"He was seen entering the block of flats where he lived by one of the other residents late in the evening of the 24th. About an hour later, although it was dark by then, someone saw him walking along the main road towards the city centre - walking because someone had let the tyres on his car down. He was in a hurry and he seemed agitated about something."
At one point in Eckige's journey the road would have crossed a sizeable area of open common, with plenty of thick vegetation on either side, which at that time of night would not have been densely populated.
"What appears significant is that whereas an extensive search eventually turned up Eckige's body, there's still no trace of the other three. We can't rule out the possibility that the Iraqis, or somebody, have suborned them. They may have been kidnapped. It's certainly odd that they should all have disappeared of their own accord and within a short time of each other, unless they each had a powerful ideological reason for doing so."
"Is there anything in their backgrounds to suggest pro-Iraqi sympathies?"
"Well, it may rather be a case of disenchantment with the West. Seems Speyler was a bit upset because his research budget had just taken a massive cut. British science tends to suffer a lot from lack of funding. Desgranges' mother was a Palestinian, and her colleagues confirm she's a strong supporter of their cause. Doesn't have much love to spare for Israel, which means she has something big in common with Saddam. Her line of work suggests she may have been recruited to help him develop some kind of biological weapon.
"Ahmed...well, some seventy per cent of Jordan's people are Palestinians, and although generally the country is friendly to the West there's a significant minority who aren't. He and Speyler could provide the delivery system for whatever Desgranges has been working on.
"If those people have gone over to Saddam, they must have felt they had good reasons for doing so. They were prepared to abandon their whole lives, their families, their jobs, their countries. Whatever the Iraqis are up to there’s a good enough chance of it working for them to feel they can take the risks involved. Which scares me.
"My guess would be Eckige turned down the Iraqi offer and so he became a security risk. He must have been on his way to the local police station when he was waylaid and murdered. He wouldn't have been able to call them from his flat because someone had cut all the phone lines.
"So…what do we have? The disappearance of personnel and equipment which might be of use to someone like Saddam. There are other people who it might be, of course. They couldn't get much out of Soderstrom's son, but the men who were seen driving her away - and who may also have been the two seen entering Eckige's apartment block shortly before he vanished - looked European. That doesn't mean they couldn't have been Iraqis because not all Iraqis conform to the traditional Western conception of an Arab.
"Saddam's always had a large network of agents operating in the West. They were behind the takeover of the Iranian Embassy in London back in 1980, and more recently the murders of prominent Iraqi exiles. When sanctions started to bite it became difficult for them to return home by normal means, so some were told to stay where they were and carry on their usual activities, like spying and assassination.
"It'd certainly be feasible for the scientists and their equipment to be moved to Iraq. The country's borders are fairly permeable. It's not easy to police an imaginary line running through hundreds of miles of desert. And we all know what border controls are like in the former Soviet Union." Conditions in the ex-Soviet Republics and in Russia itself were a constant problem when it came to preventing the export of dangerous materials to Iraq. Borders were too long and customs officials poorly paid, which was not an incentive for them to do their jobs well and led to their accepting bribes to allow illicit materials through. If you wanted to send an unauthorised package from, say, Sweden to Iraq via former USSR all you had to do was locate a disenchanted Latvian, Georgian or Azerbaijani border official and promise them a handsome payment, the money for which came from some criminal activity or other. Worryingly it was in the southern tier of states, those closest to Iraq, that the problem was most serious.
"The question is, are we looking at a threat to national security or not?" asked Lerpiniere. He sat back and looked expectantly at the others. There was a moment or two's silence, then Malikian spoke.
"There are too many uncertainties in all this, folks. Too many “mights”. But I can tell you, I don't like it. I don't like it one little bit." At first Malikian's worry had been of a vague, indefinable kind; now it was growing and solidifying into something much more palpable, and the more unsettling because he still didn't quite know what it was.
"It seems we're nowhere near reaching any firm conclusions," said Loomis unhappily. "I just don't know what to make of the darned business. Whether to be worried or puzzled."
"I think Saddam has discovered some rare mineral, with unusual properties, at that place and he's trying to build some kind of superweapon out of it." This from Sternhold.
"Maybe. But we need to be sure."
"I'd be happier if we could reach a decision," Malikian grunted. "I can tell I'm going to be suffering sleepless nights over this. My worry is that we could end up doing nothing until one day Saddam throws his secret weapon at us and it wipes out everything we hold dear. Don't forget, the indications are that missile is nearly ready. Guys, we just can't take the risk."
There was silence around the table for a full five minutes. Then Lerpiniere took a deep breath and straightened up. "The way I see it, everything we know adds up to a justification for taking action. But we have to go through certain motions before we start bombing again." He swung round to Malikian. "Theo, you go to your colleagues with what we've found. You'll need to take another look at that complex. If there is anything there it'll look better if it's the UN and not us who find it. In the meantime, maybe the Israeli operation will give us the information we want. We should set the ball rolling now in case it doesn't."
"What do you think the Iraqi reaction will be if we ask to look at the complex again?" Loomis asked.
"The Iraqis won't refuse us because if they do it'll only increase suspicion. And Saddam's clearly getting jittery. He might like the idea of a holy war against the West but only if it doesn't involve him being wiped out in the process. So he'll still want to appear co-operative."
"What happens if we still can't find any proof? We don't want to bomb anywhere without solid evidence. For one thing we'll look ridiculous. Not to mention the political damage it'll do."
"We'll think up some kind of excuse, even if it's pretty feeble. We'll have to. Fortunately, the ultimate decision won't be mine but the President's." They had kept the Oval Office informed of all developments. The National Security Adviser had more or less said what Lerpiniere had, that they would just have to wait until more was known. "I just need to know what I'm going to be recommending to him."
"If we do get proof, what do we do then? Do we go for a full-scale invasion?"
"I think we should adopt a flexible strategy, for this and any other problem that might arise with Iraq in the future. A gradated response. We don't invade just yet, but we carry out covert operations to knock out any of Saddam's installations which cause us concern. We might get the British involved, because they're the best at that sort of thing - if they can't pull it off, no-one can. If necessary we can take the credit. I don't see covert ops as having the same dangerous effect as a full-scale invasion and occupation of the country, although that's something we shouldn't rule out. They may still annoy the Arabs but not as much. If there are any serious reprisals we'll just have to rely on our improved security measures to protect ourselves. There'll also have to be a diplomatic offensive to explain our position."
Malikian rose from his chair. "Well, I'd better leave you gentlemen to debate the pros and cons of it. Like you said, I'm going to get on to my colleagues."

Caroline sat on the bed writing out a note on a piece of foolscap. When she had finished she read it through carefully to assure herself it said what she wanted it to.
Dear Mum and Dad
Sit down and take a deep breath.
I'm writing this note because I will shortly be doing something which could put me once again in great danger; danger of my life, or of something just as bad.
Ever since you rescued me from that hell, I've felt a need to face my fears. And I've come to the conclusion that the only way of doing it is to go back there. Rest assured I'm not going alone (for various reasons I can't say exactly who I'll be with); and with any luck I should come out of it alright.
The other reason I'm doing it is Mandy, the girl I was trying to help. She's still in there, and I can't leave her while evil people are abusing her body for their own sick pleasure. If there's the slightest chance we can get her out of there safely I have to take it.
Right now a little voice inside my head is telling me I shouldn't be doing it. I feel so cruel, so irresponsible, to subject you to this. It's not that long, is it, since Douglas was taken from us, and I somehow don't think the pain will ever go away, not entirely. The thought of losing your only other child must be too horrible to bear.
I owe you some explanation and I hope what I've said in this letter counts as one. I hope you'll believe me when I say I've thought long and hard about this. Truth to tell, though, I still can't quite explain why I'm doing what must seem to you to be completely mad. Or perhaps there's another word for it. Perhaps it's Destiny; it’s somehow ordained that way. I have to do it whatever the risks and whatever the trouble it causes - whatever the stress and grief I know it will cause you.
I know it's crazy, it's daft, it's one hundred per cent foolish and inadvisable, but that's me and I don't think anything could ever change it.
If it doesn't work out, if I don't come back safely, please forgive me and try to understand. Remember me always with pleasure and not with sadness.
Yours ever
Caroline, a loving daughter.

Her lip trembled slightly as she sealed the envelope and placed it on the bedside table, and she felt a dampness in one eye. Then she took a deep breath, strode briskly from the room along the corridor and down the stairs to reception, and discharged herself from the Beirut International Hospital, walking down the steps to where a car was waiting for her with Nitza and Baruch sitting inside.

EIGHTEEN
"How could they have known?" demanded Saddam, clearly not very happy.
In front of them each of his ministers had a copy of the letter from UNSCOM requesting permission for a second inspection of the research station at Quarat.
"There must have been a security leak," he snapped, his eyes burning. "We must find out who is responsible and punish them." He looked at his Head of Intelligence. The man nodded respectfully. "I will see to it, Mr President."
"And if possible you must find out how much the West suspects."
"In the meantime, do we let the inspection team in?" asked General Fawzieh.
"It will only increase suspicion if we do not," advised Tariq Aziz.
General Musawi, Saddam's Minister of Defence, tried to sound reassuring. "It will take time for the arrangements for the visit to be finalised. Perhaps by then the project will be complete."
As always, General Fawzieh found himself undecided whether to tell the truth and upset Saddam or to cover it up and perhaps get himself into worse trouble if it led to disaster. "I'm afraid it could be as much as a month before we have enough power, according to Speyler."
"You must have him hurry things up," Saddam ordered. "Tell him Project Gilgamesh must be finished within a week at the latest."
"I doubt if we have anything to worry about, anyway," he declared, no-one bothering to point out that he was effectively contradicting himself. "As before, the inspectors will find nothing."
The ministers struggled to put into their expressions more confidence than they actually felt. There must be a reason why the UN were asking to inspect the complex again. And if they had some idea what might be in there, they would know how to look for it.
"What do we do, Mr President, if the inspection team does find anything?" asked Fawzieh politely.
"They will not," replied Saddam, reluctant to back down until he saw some gain that might be made out of it. "Rest assured they will not. I am positive of it."
He dismissed them all with a curt nod. "That is all, gentlemen."
They rose and inched slowly out of the room, sideways, none of them daring to turn their backs on Saddam because of the offence it would cause. The dictator waited impatiently until the last of them had left, then relieved his tension in a long, shuddering sigh. Not for the first time recently, he was feeling his age.
As long as he wasn't showing it. Then there would be problems.
What made it a little easier for him to cope was that he had always known he must face his destiny at some point. But now that point was fast approaching, he found the stress mounting dangerously. It was why he was visiting the mosque ever more frequently, praying for Allah to give him the strength to carry on until victory was assured. He needed the boost it gave him, whatever his opinion of the theology.

Nitza Avnir was perched on the bed in the room she had booked at the Maxima Hotel, watching television. She heard Caroline come out of the bathroom and turned.
She did a double take, almost falling over backwards. Caroline wore a long, transparent gown over a skirt and bikini top. She had dyed her hair a deep, rich black, apart from a few blonde streaks which she had thought safe to leave, and her skin was now a very attractive nut-brown colour. But it wasn't just her generally striking appearance that fazed Nitza. The facial expression, the general manner, had completely changed. She moved with the grace and poise that Nitza had always associated with Arab women, and weren't normally found elsewhere. You wouldn't have thought it was her.
"Well, what do you think?" asked Caroline in a very creditable Arab accent.
"I...I don't believe it," Nitza stammered.
Caroline smiled. "Exactly. I tell you, we'll have no problem fooling Mr Fouasi." She did a twirl. "Do you think it'd be OK to go around here dressed like this?"
"Beirut is a crazy place," said Nitza. "No, I'm sure no-one would mind at all."
Caroline took a deep breath. "All right, then," she said. let's go and collect your colleague, and then we'll head for the airport."

"Do you think this'll be a lesson to her?" Margaret asked.
"I hope so," Edward growled. "There's only so many times you can play Good Samaritan without getting hurt yourself."
They were on their way to the airport from the hotel. They’d just turned onto the main road that led to it when to Edward's astonishment and anger a car suddenly pulled out in front of them, screeching to a halt in the middle of the road. Edward slammed his foot down on the brake and they screeched to a halt, the car lurching violently and shaking them up a bit.
"Bloody fool!" he yelled. "What the hell does he think he's playing at?"
He waited for the car to move, but it remained obstinately where it was. "Is there anything behind us, Margaret?" he asked his wife, intending to reverse and then turn and go back the way they had come.
He heard her gasp with fear.
Glancing through the rear window, he saw the car parked across the road a few yards behind, blocking them. And the two men getting out of it and coming towards them, taking their guns from their pockets. He looked in front and saw two more men, similarly armed, getting out of the first car.
He knew at once that if they tried to make a break for it they would be shot before they got very far.
Slowly the four armed men converged on their vehicle. Margaret sat totally rigid with fear. With an effort she managed to speak, her voice coming out as a strangled gasp. "Who are they? What do they want? Edward, what do they want?"
Edward squeezed her hand. "I don't know, love," he said, as one of the men motioned to them to get out. "But I think we're going to have to do as they say."
In truth he had a very good idea what the men wanted. But for the sake of Margaret's peace of mind he kept it to himself.
They were bundled into one of the cars and driven off at top speed. Their captors aimed to lose themselves and their prisoners as soon as possible in the labyrinth of streets making up much of the capital. Twenty minutes later the car screeched to a stop outside a dirty little house in a rubbish-strewn road not that far from the now ruined brothel. They glimpsed a face peering from one of the downstairs windows, and as they were dragged from the car and frog-marched up the cracked and weed-ridden garden path the front door opened to reveal what seemed to be a gaping hole filled with solid blackness.
They were taken to a dimly lit, smelly, filthy little room at the back of the building where a couple of chairs were kicked forward. They were forced to sit in them, and a moment later the man who had opened the door appeared with several coils of rope. Having secured them, their captors then went off without a word. As they left the room the Hulk entered, shouldering his way past his colleagues, and stood looking down at them. They recognised him from Caroline's description.
"Any chance of something to eat?" asked Edward drily. "Don't think much of these chairs either, do you think you could find us something more comfortable?"
"Don't worry," replied the Hulk. "You won't be kept waiting for very long."
"What does that mean?" Edward demanded.
The Hulk ignored him. He went over to Margaret and stood looking down at her thoughtfully. "You know, your wife is quite a handsome woman. I can see where your daughter gets her looks from." Margaret was too terrified to appreciate the compliment. "Yes, she is very handsome. I always think older women are underrated myself."
Margaret's eyes darted fearfully towards him.
"You bloody dare!" shouted Edward. He began to struggle furiously, helplessly.
However much they might disagree, sometimes violently, over this or that he would always defend her when anything threatened her life or health. It was one thing that kept them together; the warmth and love she felt for him whenever this concern was demonstrated. Caroline had told him to focus on it when trying to prevent their relationship from breaking down.
"And as for her spirit, I can see it comes from you. But never mind all that. I'm afraid you are not here so that we can all exchange compliments."
His tone hardened to ice. "The Network does not like to be deceived. It is not ethical and it is not good business practice. You are obviously a businessman yourself, Mr Kent; I am sure you will agree with what I am saying. There must be some kind of punishment for such transgressions."
He took a knife from his pocket and held it to Margaret's throat.
"You bastard!" roared Edward. "Leave her alone! It was my idea, you understand? And what was I trying to do but get my daughter back? You kidnapped her, drugged her, abused her...you're monsters, you've got to be!"
The Hulk pressed the blade of the knife against Margaret's flesh. She flinched from the touch of the cold steel. She glanced down, saw the knife and gave a cry of terror.
The Hulk spoke calmly, precisely, as if he were describing how he would carry out a medical operation. "First of all I am going to slit your wife's throat, before your very eyes. Then, once it is had time to sink in that she is dead, I am going to slit your throat."
Edward twisted furiously in a vain attempt to break free. The chair overbalanced and he fell crashing to the floor, the impact stunning him slightly. The Hulk nodded to the two men who had come in and were standing on either side of the door. They came over and lifted the chair and its occupant back into an upright position. At the Hulk's command they stood behind him Edward, each with a hand on his shoulder pressing him firmly down in the chair.
"I'll give you all the money you want," Kent shouted, almost gabbling. "I'll do anything for you, anything at all, do you understand? Just leave her alone. Please!"
Margaret was shaking and whimpering, her eyes big and bulging with fear. The grin on the Hulk's face was fiendish, diabolical, blood-curdling.
Margaret screamed in utter terror as she felt the blade prick her. "Maggie!" shouted Edward in anguish, tears springing to his eyes. "Maggie! Maggie love, oh no oh no oh no oh no oh nooooooo..."
Margaret was in an almost zombie-like state, totally rigid with fear. She didn't feel it when the pressure increased a fraction further.
A tiny blob of blood appeared on her throat, just to the side of her windpipe. Then the Hulk stepped away from her, clicking the blade of the knife back into its sheath. His grin was almost inhumanly broad and his eyes gleamed with evil relish.
Edward slumped down in his chair, eyes closed, breathing out long and hard as the tension left him. Margaret, still in her paralysed state, might have been dead for all she herself knew.
Slowly Edward straightened up. "You're playing games with us, aren't you?" he snarled.
"To be frank, Mr Kent, yes. You are not to die just yet. My boss, he has said he would like the pleasure of killing you both personally. It is his intention to take some time over it. Meanwhile he has some important business to attend to, but as soon as it is concluded he will be on his way here. He should be with us sometime...sometime tomorrow, I would say."
Edward guessed the Hulk would be in very serious trouble if he denied Fouasi his fun. Not that there was any consolation to be gained from the slight delay.
"So don't go away," the Gorilla smiled. "As I've said, he won't be too long. In the meantime I am afraid you will have to go hungry. And if you want to use the toilet, that will be just too bad. You will understand that we do not wish to waste time on those who are about to die." He nodded to the other two heavies, and the three men left the room.
The door slammed shut behind them, and a key clicked in the lock. Their footsteps receded down the corridor.
Margaret was still sitting bolt upright in her chair, staring fixedly at the wall. Edward saw her eyelids flutter, expression returning slowly to her face. She blinked around, both surprised and relieved to find herself still alive.
"Maggie, are you all right?" he asked.
"Y-yes," she gasped. "I-I-I think so. What...what's he going to do to us, then?"
Edward explained. Her shoulders slumped in despair and she gave a long, wavering moan.
With a heave he started to shuffle across the floor towards her, inch by inch. Once he had reached her he worked the chair round until they were positioned back to back.
Their fingers touched, intertwined. They slumped back in their chairs, the backs of their heads touching, their hands clasped tightly together, saying nothing. And stayed like that, their grip on each other never relaxing for a second.

Caroline sat beside Nitza in the rear of the helicopter's passenger cabin. She now wore a yashmak, which obscured the lower part of her face. A pair of contact lenses made her eyes look brown.
Baruch was at the controls speaking to one of Fouasi's men over the radio. "We should be with you in five minutes, if that's OK."
"Yeah, that's fine," the voice crackled back. "The runway's ready for you."
The helicopter flew on towards its destination. Looking down through the window at the ground far below, Caroline saw a cluster of black shapes. An encampment of some kind, with several dozen tents, and the tiny figures of people moving about. "Look at that," she said. "Wonder who they are?"
"Bedouin, probably," Nitza answered.
"Oh yeah," said Caroline, remembering all she'd read about these nomadic tribes of the desert.
A few minutes later Fouasi's palace came into view, and they felt the helicopter bank. It sank down onto the landing strip and Baruch lowered the exit ramp.
They emerged to find Fouasi and a number of his heavies waiting for them. Greetings and niceties were exchanged. "A very impressive place you have here," said Baruch. "A little lonely perhaps, but then you have the Bedouin for company."
"Ah, those shitheads," spat Fouasi, his lips twisting in contempt. "I told them to move their asses well away from here." He had only disdain for those who deliberately rejected the settled, modern mode of existence, who shat in holes in the ground instead of using proper toilets. There was mo more worth in them than in the dog whose brains his father had dashed out against the wall of their Cairo home, before his very eyes, twenty-five years before.
He looked enquiringly at Caroline. "Hamilla has come to provide us with some entertainment," Baruch explained. "I know that Western girls are not as good at dancing as your own women, so I brought her along."
Fouasi nodded his approval. "Well, let's go inside. We'll have something to eat first, shall we? And maybe some - entertainment."
"That would be fine," Baruch said. They followed Fouasi and his men into the building.
They were shown to the harem, where a few of the girls stood around in seductive poses, leaning against columns or perched on tables, to make clear they were available if "Makhtiar" wanted them. Caroline saw Mandy at one point but didn’t think the girl recognised her.
A sumptuous meal had already been prepared for Fouasi's guests. Caroline said little during the meal, but Fouasi made nothing of that; he was the sort who didn't mind if women never spoke unless and until they were spoken to. Most of the talking was done by Baruch who conversed at some length with their host on international politics and finance. Nitza made the occasional interjection, but otherwise maintained an obedient silence. She would arouse suspicion if she seemed anything more than her companion's bimbo. The food consisted of traditional Arab delicacies, with a few Western supplements such as a glass of Diet Coke. Baruch and Fouasi went on chatting for a while after they had finished eating, giving the food time to go down. Then Fouasi glanced at Caroline, and Baruch nodded his assent.
Smiling, she got up and walked over to a dais. She stepped up on to it and at a nod from Fouasi one of his hovering attendants switched on the speaker system which had been set up there. All heads turned to face her.
Caroline must have studied the technique carefully, thought Nitza, as the girl danced to the wailing, haunting strains of the reed music issuing from the speakers. All the same, there was something in her performance that was due to more than just practice. The agility and balance, the sinuous twisting and flexing of her belly; for a white woman she was astonishingly good at it. Her expression, vaguely enticing, suggested she was enjoying herself.
Contrary to common preconceptions, in the Arab world men did not normally have women dance before them. Fouasi considered himself an exception to the rule.
Where belly-dancing was concerned his kind preferred women of their own race, because they were far more erotic at it. As far as Fouasi knew, of course, the woman dancing before him was an Arab. He sat there in a state of rapture, looking up at her with shining eyes, completely captivated. His gaze was drawn to her naked stomach as its muscles rippled and undulated.
Perhaps his own women were an area he had too often neglected. Their trouble, in his view, was that too many of them were Muslims and the strict codes of their religion repressed their sexuality. Nitza and Baruch pretended to be absorbed in the dancing, while in reality they were pondering their next move carefully. Somehow they must gain entry to the locked room, obviously a private study, where Fouasi had conferred with Colonel Hassan-Ali Khouramaniyeh. They had to choose a moment when Fouasi was detained by something or other. They were meant to be staying the night here, to return home the following morning, so there was plenty of time for opportunities to come up.
The music stopped, the dance came to an end, and the onlookers applauded. Caroline stepped down from the podium and went to rejoin Baruch and Nitza. Fouasi leaned over to Baruch and whispered something in his ear. For a moment he looked unhappy, then he smiled, nodded and turned to Caroline. "Mr Fouasi would like to speak to you alone, in his room."
Like Baruch she looked briefly apprehensive, but the expression didn't last long enough for Fouasi to notice it. She nodded and went to join the Egyptian, who was already standing by the door waiting for her.
The two of them left the room. Baruch and Nitza dared not look at each other, in case Fouasi's men realised something was wrong. They had suspected something like this would happen and were prepared for it. Now had come the moment of truth.
Keeping their cool, they went on chatting to each other and to Fouasi's heavies. Baruch ordered another drink; Fouasi had told them to consider themselves entirely at home while they were here.
Fouasi led Caroline to a broad flight of stairs and up them to a landing. He opened a door and ushered her into a vast bedroom with an ankle-high carpet, wide-screen TV and several cabinets of video cassettes. The enormous bed could have swallowed up a whole army of concubines.
Fouasi stood looking at her for a moment, taking in her beauty; the dark, smouldering eyes, the waves of jet black hair that swept down to her shoulders. He felt his loins stir as the blood rushed to them.
She started to remove her robe.
Busy undressing himself, Fouasi didn't see her take something from a concealed pocket deep in the folds of her skirt and clasp her fingers tightly around it, hiding it from view.
Slipping out of her costume, she swung round towards him with a challenging, insolent smile, stark naked, the whole of her body a deep, rich brown. She came up to him and wrapped her arms tight around his muscular body, burying her lips in his.
One hand reached up, and something cold and sharp pricked Fouasi's throat. He started in surprise, then his eyes glazed over and he toppled backwards onto the bed. He convulsed once, then lay still. Hurriedly Caroline put her clothes, such as they were, back on. He'd be unconscious for a good couple of hours; long enough, hopefully, for her to do what she must.
Fouasi's clothes lay in a bundle on the floor. She fished in a trouser pocket and her fingers touched the cold metal of a keyring. There was a whole cluster of keys on it. One of them must be for the room where he had had his secret meeting with the man from Baghdad.
She snatched up the key ring and hurried from the room, not locking the door behind her; it would take a while to find the right key, and if someone came along and saw her while she was trying them all they'd surely get suspicious. There probably wasn't any need, anyway. She guessed Mr Fouasi didn't like to be disturbed while getting his...entertainment, and if they knew what was good for them they wouldn't be knocking on the door of the bedroom for the time being.
She descended the stairs and wandered around until she found herself in a corridor that looked familiar. Fouasi's study wasn't far from here. Ahead the passage turned to the right. Hearing footsteps just around the corner, she stiffened. If the owner of the feet heard her change direction, suggesting furtiveness, it might well blow the lid off everything. So she brazened it out, walking straight on. Exercising all possible self-control, she showed no reaction as Blondie came into view, other than smiling briefly as their eyes met.
Blondie went on walking for a minute or so after they had passed each other, then stopped and turned round. There was suspicion in her face as she stared after Caroline, mingled with simple curiosity. She hesitated, then hurried after the girl.
Caroline came up to the door of the study and began trying each of the keys. She was on the fifth or sixth when she heard the heavy footsteps approach. Her stomach turned over. Heart pounding, she slipped her other hand beneath her robe.
She waited until the footsteps stopped close by her. "What are you doing?" a gravelly voice rasped.
Caroline spun round and lunged at Blondie, jabbing with the hypodermic. The point of the needle sank deep into the thick folds of flesh on the woman's neck, drawing a globule of blood. Blondie gasped, and opened her mouth to shout for help, but before the breath could leave her lungs the drug had taken effect. Her eyes filmed over and she swayed like an oak tree in a gale. She crashed heavily to the floor, eyes closed.
Finally finding the right key, Caroline opened the door and then grasped Blondie by her right wrist. After some minutes of heaving and panting she succeeded in dragging the woman into the room, leaving her just within the threshold. Straightening up with an aching back she shut the door and locked it from the inside.
She surveyed her environment. An office with an ankle-high carpet and a spacious desk with a computer sitting on it. Predictably, posters of naked or semi-naked Western beauties, so big as to reach almost from the ceiling to the floor, adorned the walls. In among them were two blown-up photographs of carvings on some ancient stone tablet. One depicted a scantily clad, voluptuous female figure with long hair. She frowned, trying to remember where she'd seen it before. The other showed a robed figure, also female, with a headdress suggesting some kind of priestess.
She couldn't afford to let anything distract her, and dismissed them from her mind. She stood thinking for a moment, and sighed. She knew now, with a sick thrust of dismay, that they would be discovered at some stage, and that there was a time limit on their remaining here. Eventually Blondie was bound to be missed, and people would come looking for her. She'd have to work fairly fast. She hesitated for a bit longer, swearing bitterly in an unladylike manner, then pulled herself together. There was nothing to do except get on with it.
There must be records in here of the white slave operation, but looking for them wasn't her priority. If there was evidence linking Fouasi with Saddam, where would she find it? It depended on how far Fouasi trusted his subordinates. At a guess, he kept it safely locked away in his desk drawers, assuming it existed at all. One of the keys unlocked the drawers, and she pulled out the first and inspected the contents. A lot of files, which seemed to be to do with the slaving operation. There was one for every girl containing, among other things, records of each time she had been injected with the drug and how many grammes she had been given.
She realised Fouasi must have deliberately forsaken the benefits of computer technology, for fear of being hacked into by Mossad. She removed everything from the drawer, piled it on the desk and started to go through it. There were a lot of flimsies with handwritten notes on them; fortunately, Fouasi wrote mostly in English, so her not yet understanding written Arabic wasn't a problem.
Why was so much stuff bunged into the drawers, when it would be more easily accessible in hanging files? Maybe it was all duplicates. But in that case Fouasi would simply invest in another filing cabinet.
She thought she knew the answer. It was there to hide something. If Fouasi didn't want anyone to find incriminating material he would conceal it among a lot of other gubbins. Locking the drawers seemed sufficient but it wasn't. When you didn't want people to find something, you put up certain defences. Even if they were looking for it methodically and doggedly, and were likely to find it in the end, the less exposed it was the less vulnerable you felt. She supposed the principle was to let them take time to locate it because you, or some other factor, might interrupt them before they did.
Right at the bottom of the drawer was too obvious a place to look because you might be thought likely to put the stuff there - it'd take longer to get to. If it was at the top it would be among the first items to be found.
Or would Fouasi have anticipated a searcher would think that way, and gone in for a double bluff? A triple bluff, a quadruple bluff? There was no way of knowing. Also, the material would probably be inside one of the sex ring files, rather than separate and thus more easily identified. And if it was there it would hopefully fool anyone hunting for it because one's first thought would be that the folder contained exactly what it purported to, and nothing else. Altogether the only approach was to go through each file comprehensively, turning over every page to see what lay beneath. The files seemed to be duplicated several times over; more often, in fact, than was surely necessary. Her supposition that they were there to hide something had to be correct.
Even if she didn't find anything to do with Saddam, at least she knew the details of the sex ring were all here. Enough to blow the operation wide open, if anyone felt inclined to take the necessary action.
She went on searching patiently. Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty.
Outside Baruch, who had left his companions on the pretext of needing to answer a call of nature and found his way to the office from Caroline's knowledge of the place, tried the door. He found it locked, frowned and went away. Absorbed in her search, Caroline hadn't hear the knob rattle.
Nothing in the pile from the first drawer. She replaced it in the drawer to give herself more room, then started on the second. Thirty minutes. Thirty-five. Forty. Fifty.
But still nothing to link Fouasi with Saddam.
Fifty-five. An hour.
She wasn't halfway through the second pile.
An hour and ten minutes. She was starting to get nervous.
An hour and twenty minutes. Still nothing.
She knew that every second she stayed where she was jeopardized not only her own safety, but also that of the two Israeli agents.
An hour and a half.
She was very conscious of Blondie lying on the floor a few feet by, as yet still oblivious.
An hour and forty minutes. Forty-five. Fifty.
Caroline's nerve broke.
From her concealed pocket she took out a miniature mobile phone, dialling Nitza's number. She heard the woman answer, and whispered urgently into the device.
In the dining room Nitza turned to Hakim, Fouasi's principal right-hand man at the palace, with an apologetic smile. "Would you excuse me for a moment? I need to use the toilet."
Once there, she answered the call. "Caroline, is that you?"
"Yes. I'm afraid you're not going to like this." Urgently Caroline explained what had happened. "It was just my bad luck I happened to bump into her. Look, I haven't found anything yet and I don't know how long it'll be before I do. I don't want to risk hanging around here any longer." She couldn't help feeling angry and embarrassed at the turn of events.
Nitza seemed to understand. "All right, I'll tell Baruch. You get over here as quickly as you can."
Caroline stepped carefully over Blondie and left the room locking the door behind her. She hurried to rejoin her two companions.
In the dining room Nitza came up to Baruch and Hakim. "I just had a call from home. It's serious, I'm afraid. The French police are investigating our deal with Libya."
Baruch stood up. "I am sorry, but we must leave now," he told Hakim. "If we can just collect our friend - "
“I’d better call the Boss,” said Hakim and rang Fouasi’s mobile using his. Nitza and Baruch glanced briefly at one another, trying to conceal the tension in their faces.
Hakim listened carefully, but nobody was answering. He frowned. It seemed there was a hint of suspicion in his expression, but the Israelis couldn't be sure.
He pocketed the radio. "I'd better go up there. Stay here a moment."
"It’s alright, we don’t want to trouble him,” said Baruch. “We’ll be in touch.”
"Oh no," said Hakim, his tone and manner suddenly changing. "You're staying right here, my friend."
He was already reaching into his pocket, but before he could pull the gun Rothstein's own weapon was in his hand. The Israeli fired straight at his heart, killing him instantly. The nearest of the other heavies stared in horror, taken completely by surprise, as Hakim fell heavily against the table and slid to the floor. Then it was his turn to die; the Israelis could take no chances. He might have had a gun on him and he could be permitted no time in which to draw it. Nitza and Baruch fired simultaneously and his body joined Hakim's on the floor. The girls ran off screaming.
The two Mossad agents ran to the door. For a minute or so before Fouasi's men gathered their wits confusion would reign, and they had to seize their advantage.
"We can't leave her," shouted Nitza as they ran, reluctant like any woman to leave Caroline in the hands of someone like Fouasi.
"There's no choice," snapped Baruch. "She knew the risks. Come on."
They could already hear the sounds of people dashing about in alarm and confusion. The running footsteps changed direction, making for the harem.
They burst out through the main doors and onto the forecourt, then ran round the side of the palace towards the landing strip.
In the bedroom a couple of Fouasi's men stood looking down at the unconscious body of their boss. "He's been injected with something," one said.
Then they heard the helicopter start to take off.
On her way back to Baruch and Nitza, Caroline caught the sound of its rotors mixed with men shouting and running about. She came to a sudden halt, her entire body going cold. Her mind raced feverishly, and in one sick rush the realisation penetrated her consciousness.
You've blown it, she told herself despairingly. You took a stupid risk and it didn't pay off. Now you're really in the shit.
No. No way. She knew what her fate would be when Fouasi's men caught her - and that was sure to be within the space of a few minutes. She couldn't let all that happen again.
But what was she to do?
Downstairs, a dozen of Fouasi's men came running in from the landing strip. "They got away. Shit!"
"Find the dancing girl. She must still be here somewhere."
They spread out, searching every room. A few minutes into the search two of them staggered to a halt, staring at the figure in belly dancer's costume who sat slumped against the wall of a downstairs corridor, her eyes wide and glazed. A syringe lay on the floor beside her.
Several more heavies appeared, and they all crowded round her. "Who is she?" One ripped the yashmak from Caroline's face and stared down at it. Her mouth was hanging open stupidly.
There was something familiar about this girl. They studied her closely. One of them, frowning, bent and rubbed at the flesh of her cheek. His finger came away with a brown stain on it, and looking down he saw the exposed patch of pale skin.
It was a moment or two more before they recognised Caroline. "It's her," someone gasped incredulously. "It's fucking her. I don't believe it. She came back here and...." He shook his head. "She must be a fucking screwball."
"Maybe they were trying to get the other girl back."
Another heavy picked up the needle and examined it. "She's still hooked on the drugs," he said. "She had to stop and take a jab. Her bad luck."
He examined her closely. "We can leave her like that for now," he decided. "She's not going to give us any shit while she's in that state. Right now we need to find out what she got up to after she knocked out the boss."
"That was clever. They knew we wouldn't want to disturb him while he was sleeping off a good fuck."
"Where's Blondie?" someone asked.
"I don't know. Let's go and find her." They hurried off.
A minute after they'd gone, the life returned to Caroline Kent's eyes and she sat up sharply, her expression returning to normal. Slowly and silently, she rose to her feet and padded away.
She could hear a little voice inside her head. I always said you should have been an actress.
On her way to the entrance, all the time putting on the blank expression of an addict, she saw no sign of any of Fouasi's men; they must be occupied searching the premises for Blondie and for signs that anything had been disturbed. She managed to reach the doors without being challenged.
Her thought had been to try and reach a phone, as before. But it wouldn't be long before her disappearance was discovered. In view of her probable fate, she might as well take her chances outside, in the desert.
She stepped out into the sunlight and for a brief moment hovered on the threshhold indecisively. What should her next move be? She glanced towards the gates, wondering how to get past the guard standing there. She sensed he had noticed her, but he didn't react.
After a moment she moved off to the right.
The guard watched her with an amused expression. He had noticed her vacuous, aimless look and concluded she wasn't likely to do any harm while she was in that state. Let her go wherever she liked.
Caroline hadn't gone far when she saw the Land Cruiser parked against the wall of an outhouse. It was a four-wheeled, open-topped vehicle a little larger than a jeep, compact and rugged with massive tyres. Designed for desert travel.
She chose a route that brought her close to it. Close enough to see that the keys were still in the ignition. This was an enterprise in which everyone could trust each other, because the fear of violence or death prevented people from misbehaving.
Suddenly she darted to the left, in a burst of speed which brought her right up to the Land Cruiser. She flung the door open and scrambled in.
She studied the controls. It wasn't too difficult to suss them out; after all, a throttle was a throttle was a throttle. She turned the key and the engine rumbled into life. She let it turn over for a few seconds.
The guard had turned away from her. Now he glanced round and saw her seated in the vehicle. He frowned.
She put her head down so that it would be less of a target, and trod on the accelerator as hard as she could. The Land Cruiser shot forward with a lurch that almost shook her out of her seat, hurtling at top speed straight for the guard. The man had no time to aim his rifle before he had to jump out of the way, surprise and alarm mingling in his face.
She swung the vehicle to the right, driving straight at the gates. The vehicle's nose smashed into them and they burst from their hinges. Then she was racing at top speed through the desert, churning up huge amounts of dust and sand which formed a thick choking cloud around the vehicle. Keeping one hand on the wheel, she replaced the yashmak over her nose and mouth in a bid to keep them out. The air parted around the fast-moving vehicle with a shrill whistle.
She wondered how many of these things Fouasi had. If there was more than one his henchmen would very soon be after her. She dismissed the thought from her mind and concentrated on her driving.
She knew where to head for now, because an idea had occurred to her.
The Bedouin.
There was no guarantee they would help her. But it was worth the risk.
Having seen it from the plane she knew their camp was in more or less a straight line from the palace. So she just drove on as fast as she could, never deviating from her course.
She shouted out in mad exhilaration, feeling the wind on her face, not caring for a moment about the stinging sand in her eyes. The thing could go fast! This would be fun while it lasted, even if Fouasi and his men eventually caught her.
Fouasi obviously liked speed as much as he did guns and women. She guessed he kept the vehicles so that he and his guests could make little excursions into the desert, racing themselves around the sand dunes.
She realised before long that she wasn't very good at it. The vehicle kept on lurching and shuddering and bumping over dunes and rocks with an impact that rattled her bones. She had to swerve to avoid the larger dunes and once a particularly huge one loomed up before her, appearing so suddenly out of the cloud of sand which had obscured it that she had no time to avoid it. She steeled herself, clinging to the wheel for dear life as the vehicle raced up one side of the dune and then down the other.
By now she was being shaken about so much that every bone in her body ached and her chest hurt where she had been flung violently against the wheel. She felt she couldn't take much more. There had to be an art to driving these things, she decided. And she hadn't mastered it yet. She realised she was in danger of piling up the buggy and ought to slow down but sheer terror of capture spurred her on. This time, Fouasi wouldn't let her leave his place alive. Fearfully she glanced behind her, the wind snatching away the despairing sob she gave on seeing the shape of a second Land Cruiser racing after her from the palace.
But it was some way behind; she'd had a head start. And Fouasi's men seemed little better at negotiating the dunes and boulders than she was. They too were constantly weaving from side to side, slowing themselves down in the process. The moving black blob that was their vehicle never seemed to get any closer.
She turned back just in time to see another big dune rearing up in front of her, and swerve away from it.
Encouraged by her pursuers' lack of progress, she slowed down a little. It was a bad mistake because a little later, glancing back again, she realised they were actually gaining on her, slowly but surely. She trod on it hard, and the distance between the two Land Cruisers increased once more. They weren't as willing to risk life and limb as she, desperate to avoid recapture, was; which gave her a crucial advantage.
The men in the other Land Cruiser could see the trail of sand and dust created by the buggy's passage as it drifted through the air. They each had a firm grip on their rifles; the girl had to be stopped, by shooting her if necessary. They had guessed where she was heading, and if she got there there would be problems. At the moment she was just out of range.
A line of dunes appeared in front of Caroline. She would feel safer with them between her and the slavers. They would lose sight of her for a bit, and would have to swerve to go around them, slowing down in order to do so. The trouble was, so would she.
Where the hell are you? she hissed aloud, scanning the bleak and endless vista of sand before her for any sign of the Bedouin. Then she glimpsed a cluster of black dots on the horizon and knew she had found them. Again she pressed down hard on the accelerator.
She was going so fast that she reached the first dune, a particularly steep one, before she was really aware of it. And at the same moment she happened to look back again to check on her pursuers' progress.
Returning her attention to what was in front of her, she saw the dune loom up just in time to realise that it was too late to swerve; and that if the Land Cruiser didn't make it OK, hitting the dune and overturning with her inside it, she would be trapped or her neck broken.
She lost her nerve, abandoning the wheel and flinging herself sideways out of the vehicle as it shot up the side of the dune.
The soft sand cushioned her fall, although the impact still left her bruised, winded, and briefly stunned. In the nick of time she recovered her wits and scrambled aside as the driverless Land Cruiser hit the tightly compacted mound of sand, rebounded and flipped over onto its back, raising a cloud of dust as it crashed down. For a few seconds its wheels spun in empty air, then the engine spluttered and died.
She staggered to her feet, whimpering with terror at the thought of what might happen now. She looked around but saw no sign of the Fouasi Land Cruiser, although she could hear the growl of its engines. It sounded as if they were still some distance away. All in all, she'd managed to buy herself about..ten minutes? She had to make use of that time as best she could. But it didn't seem as if she could reach the Bedouin camp before the enemy caught her.
Even supposing the nomads wouldn't turn her over to Fouasi's men. Hadn't they been into slavery themselves, once?
She started sprinting towards the camp, now less than a mile or so away. It wasn't easy running through the sand; it slowed her progress and to her further despair she realised the trail of footprints would give her away in minutes.
But if she could get close enough to the camp, then maybe...
She hesitated for a moment, her gaze sweeping across the vast expanse of desert confronting her. Ner ner, ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner, she thought feverishly, feeling a little hysterical.
And couldn't she do with Lawrence riding along to whisk her onto the seat of his camel and off to safety, right now. He couldn't be relied on, of course. But what she did see, a hundred yards ahead and to the left, was a cluster of stunted little trees beside a narrow trench in the ground filled with water. Not quite as in popular imagination, but it was an oasis, all right. Wow!
Not that it does much me much good, she thought. Anyway, it could be a mirage.
She ran on. Finding her long robe restricted her movement, she realised she'd have to take it off. And that gave her an idea.
Hurriedly she stripped off her clothes and buried them in the sand. Then she ran naked for the little water hole.
She stepped cautiously into the water, and immediately sank to waist depth. Good, she'd be able to swim in it. Taking a deep breath, she dived forward with her arms stretched out wide, and felt the water smack against her naked chest and stomach. She stayed submerged for as long as she could then pushed herself up, erupting from the water into the sunlight with a cry of pleasure. The liquid streamed away down her body, and with it the greasepaint and dye she'd used to disguise her fairness.
A couple of minutes later she was back to her old self. She scrambled from the water and looked around to get her bearings.
Her complexion was light honey-coloured, matching her hair - not that different from the sand surrounding her. Perfect camouflage. But it was vital she reached the camp in the shortest possible time; before long the desert sun would make a mess of her skin. She could already feel it starting to burn.
The man in the front passenger seat of the enemy Land Cruiser was squinting through a pair of Binoculars. They could follow the tracks left by the stolen Cruiser but had lost sight of the vehicle itself. Now he found it again, lying on its back at the foot of a dune. There was no sign of the girl, but as they drew nearer he saw the line of footprints leading away from the crashed vehicle. He told the driver and the man swung the wheel to the left.
They followed the trail to the oasis, where they stopped to think for a moment. Someone running for their life does not stop for a swim without a good reason.
They realised what it was.
She'd be harder to spot now. But the footprints would lead them to her eventually. Unfortunately some time had been lost in following them to the water hole.
The look-out searched through his Binoculars for a glimpse of her, but there was nothing. He thought he saw a movement on one of the dunes about a mile away, but it could just have been the sand rippling in the wind.

Caroline was leaping from dune to dune, gasping and panting in the merciless heat. She ran up one and then just let herself roll down the other side, gaining just a little more time. She picked herself up and staggered on.
Fortunately, the sweat pouring down her body in buckets kept her cool to some extent, and along with the speed at which she was going prevented the sun from burning her too quickly. Probably, too, residual traces of the make-up on her skin were acting as a screen against it. But the exertion and the heat together were fast exhausting her, and the sun and the sweat blinded her so she could hardly see where she was heading. Her fear was that she’d end up going away from the Bedouin.
It required intense, savage concentration to keep going at all, let alone in a straight line. She filled her head with the thought of what would happen if she were recaptured. Constantly stumbling and slipping in the sand, her face screwed into a mask of fierce determination, Caroline ran on. She could do nothing else.
A lock of sweat-soaked hair, plastered to her forehead, came free and caught in her eye. Without stopping she brushed it fiercely away.
She was getting sand in some quite intimate places, she was sure, but that had ceased to bother her.
She staggered, tripped and fell. For a moment she lay sprawled in the sand, sobbing, then with a last desperate effort heaved herself to her feet and ran on blindly.
One of the Bedouin was feeding his goats when he heard the sound of her approach. He looked round and gaped in astonishment at the apparition coming towards him from out of the desert, wondering if it was some kind of mirage. Then he called to several of his fellows. On seeing Caroline they like him stared in sheer amazement. Cries and yells rang out and more Bedouin came out of their tents to see what the matter was. Soon a sizeable crowd had gathered.
They saw Caroline reel and then collapse with a final shuddering cry. She didn't get up.
Weakly she struggled to raise her head, coughing and spluttering from the sand filling her mouth and nostrils. She could hear people running towards her, the sound of them talking rapidly. Through a blurry haze she saw the vague, shadowy forms approach.
Fouasi's men, or the Bedouin?
They wore casual Western-style clothes, but all had head cloths and some long robes over their jeans and shirts. The Bedouin then.
She clambered painfully to her feet, sand streaming down her sides. After blinking rapidly for a few seconds she managed to get her eyes to focus.
Caroline didn't see why she should be embarrassed about being naked when she had an excuse for it, though she crossed her arms in front of her breasts. She strode towards the tribesmen. "Excuse me," she said politely, smiling at them, "but I may need your help."
They didn't seem offended by her nudity. Some looked appreciative, others amused. One of them made a remark questioning her sanity. These white people weren't suited to the desert sun; it had obviously had a damaging effect on this girl's brain. But then it was a well-known fact they were completely mad.
"And what exactly do you want us to do?" one of them asked.
"Well, for a start I'd like something to wear if you've got it," she replied.
"We must get her inside quickly," someone said. "With skin like that she will soon burn." They grabbed her and hustled her towards one of the black tents. A little boy playing outside another saw her, stared for a moment, then burst into tears and ran back inside.
A few hundred yards away the Fouasi Land Cruiser had stopped and the look-out was observing the camp through his binoculars. He told his colleagues what he had seen. They looked at each other indecisively for a moment, then one of them got out his radio and called the palace.
Before being thrust into the tent Caroline just had time to look around and take in a few details of the camp. Not far away a number of camels were tethered, and a herd of goats were penned within a wood and wire enclosure. She saw a couple of rifles leaning against a tree, a stack of oil drums. Four or five Bedouin children were playing on a heap of bald tyres. One of the women was boiling something over a fire.
An ancient pick-up truck had just driven up and in the back, she was amused to see, a camel lay sprawled, looking totally relaxed and regarding the world with the laid-back, superior expression of its species. There were a few other vehicles, including a Land Cruiser identical to the ones driven by Fouasi's men.
The tent was constructed over a tubular steel frame, and divided into several compartments. She was bundled into what she surmised must be the guest section. The floor was covered with a rug and cushions, on one of which an old woman in a black dress sat watching a cartoon show on an ancient television set. The woman regarded her in amazement for a moment, then got to her feet and shouted at her to make herself comfortable, pushing forward one of the cushions.
A Bedouin man hurried in carrying a long black cloak-like garment which he proceeded to wrap around her. Then another appeared with a plastic container full of water which he shoved at her, beseeching her to drink. Needing no prompting, she put it to her lips, tilted her head back and drank, gulping down the cool refreshing liquid.
One of the men who had come to meet her when she'd arrived at the camp entered and sat down before her. He was clearly in some authority, perhaps the headman. "Now," he said, "perhaps you would like to tell us who you are and what you are doing here." His manner wasn't unfriendly but in it she detected an undertone of steel, of suspicion. As she was meant to.
"You've got to help me," she gasped. "I came from the palace." She nodded in that direction. "There are women being held prisoner there, hundreds of them. Fouasi uses them for sex."
"Fouasi!" The Bedouin spat into the remains of the fire. He made a remark questioning the nature of Fouasi's relationship with his mother.
"I escaped," Caroline went on. "He and his men came after me but I managed to give them the slip."
The headman smiled proudly. "Only we Bedouin can drive in sand," he told her.
"They may come after me," she said urgently.
"Do not worry," said the headman. "We will protect you."
He meant it, too. The Bedouin were honourable people; they kept their word. Though it helped that she was an enemy of Fouasi's.
"And that's not all." She hesitated, then supposed she'd better tell them the truth. She sensed they were people who appreciated honesty. "I'm working for British intelligence and I've found out Fouasi is doing deals with Iraq...you know, Saddam Hussein? I don't know what he's up to exactly but I'm sure it's not good.
"He's worried in case I have information that he doesn't want to reach the government. If I say I haven't, he won't believe me.
"If he finds me he'll kill me, eventually. And if he thinks you've been sheltering me he'll probably kill you too, all of you. From what he says it doesn't seem he likes you."
She had to get them on her side. She felt guilty about what she wanted them to do, but knowing Fouasi what she said about him being prepared to kill them was probably true. Which left them with little choice.
"You don't like him either, do you?" she said. So much the better if they didn't.
"He encroaches on our territory," said the headman angrily. "Then he tells us to get out of his. When we don't he poisons our water-hole. Now we have to go into the city to fetch water."
She hoped earnestly that the water-hole in question hadn't been the one she'd swum in. She decided to worry about whether or not she'd caught something later.
Although they obviously had no use for it now, if it was the same one, she also decided against revealing she'd been for a dip in it.
"They've probably got guns," she said. "He could kill you all and bury you in the sand, and that'd be that. They'll be here sooner or later. There's only one thing to do and that's to strike first. We've got to take the palace and lock up him and his men." The headman stared at her, astonished by her audacity in making such a suggestion. Caroline felt him sizing her up, boring right into her and out the other side.
His face softened a little. He like all his people was prepared to suspect anything of Fouasi. That the man had a harem full of kidnapped sex slaves the Bedouin was quite prepared to believe. And it was quite obvious that the girl had just fled from a dangerous and stressful situation. In the desert you had to be able to appraise people, to know whether they spoke the truth or not. Whether they were enemy or friend. Something about her filled him with respect as well as compassion, and inclined him to believe her. In escaping from her predicament she had shown courage, and the Bedouin had always admired that quality. He was sure she would not propose they risk their lives unless she knew it really was justified. It might be a case of the double bluff, of course.
A man came running into the tent. "There is a Land Cruiser outside."
"That'll be Fouasi's lot," Caroline said, stiffening. The headman sensed the suppressed fear in her.
"At the moment they are just staying where they are, doing nothing," said the other Bedouin.
"Keep a close watch on them," the headman instructed. "And tell me if anything happens."
He switched his gaze back to Caroline. Every nerve in her body feeling like tensed steel, she waited for him to make his final decision.

NINETEEN
Neghid Fouasi got weakly to his feet, rubbing his pounding head. He blinked furiously, and gradually his vision cleared. Faisal, his Number Two at the palace after Hakim, was standing next to him. "You OK, Boss?"
"What the fuck's going on?" Fouasi snarled. "That bitch knocked me out with something."
"Er, you aren't going to like this Boss."
"What?"
Faisal explained the situation to his master. "She pretended to be under the drug so we'd leave her alone. She knocked out Blondie as well." They had only just released the madam from Fouasi's office, alerted to her presence there by furious banging and shouting. "She was up to something in your office, I don't know what."
Fouasi stared at him in horror, then exploded in a burst of hysterical screaming, his words barely coherent. "We've got to fucking get her back! If she's found out where the money's going...shit!"
"The guys have gone after her."
"She's finished, I tell you! Finished! Tell them when they find her they've got to kill her. Just shoot her dead like a fucking dog." He was firmly convinced that if he let Caroline Kent live, sooner or later she would either escape or be rescued. He'd had enough of it. Then with an effort he forced himself to calm down. "No, wait - we gotta find out what she's up to, who those assholes were she was with."
Just then his mobile bleeped. "Yeah?"
"Boss, the girl. She's with the Bedouin. We were just too late to stop her. What do we do?"
"You fucking assholes!" shouted Fouasi, his face freezing with rage. "You've fucking well screwed it up now! Listen, you've got to get her back and I don't care how. I don't trust those shitheads."
"But we don't want any trouble with them. They've got guns."
"Listen, she may already have told them about us and Saddam. If they tell the government we'll be fucked anyway. We've nothing to lose. We've got to kill them, do you hear? Every single one of them."
"But Boss..."
"You do what I say or you'll be the one who gets it. It's your choice." Savagely he thrust the mobile back in his pocket.
"We may be too late already," said Faisal. "They've got mobiles themselves, it wouldn't take them long to call up the government."
"We've got to do something." He slammed his fist against the wall, bruising his knuckles but ignoring the pain. "It was her fucking mistake coming back. We're not gonna let anyone rescue her this time." After having been his prisoner and then escaping, the return to captivity would for Caroline Kent be indescribably agonising. The thought sent his pulse racing with excitement.

Fouasi's men dismounted from the Land Cruiser, which was parked a few yards from the first of the Bedouin tents, and walked towards the nomads, who had gathered together in a tight protective cluster, their faces stolidly impassive.
The slavers stopped a few feet away. "The girl," said their leader curtly. "Where is she?"
"What girl?" replied the headman.
"She must be here." He pointed to the rather obvious footprints leading up to the camp. "We want her, now."
"Why?"
The slaver ignored the question. "The girl," he repeated.
Their attention fixed on the Bedouin, none of Fouasi's men noticed the figure creeping stealthily through the sand towards the Land Cruiser.
The Bedouin and the slavers continued to stare at one another. Finally the headman broke the silence. "Why do you want the girl?" he asked again.
"She's stolen something from our boss. She must be handed over to the police."
"We will do that."
The heavy clearly didn't trust him. The two continued trying to stare each other out. The slaver's eyes narrowed and his finger tightened on the trigger of his Uzi.
The slavers heard the Land Cruiser's engine roar into life behind them, and spun round in surprise and alarm to see Caroline at the wheel. She gave them a cheery wave, then swung the vehicle round and drove it straight towards them. Instinctively they scattered. Caroline yanked the wheel to the left, swerving sharply away from the slavers as the Bedouin jumped them and tried to grab their guns. More Bedouin suddenly appeared from inside or behind the tents, armed with Kalashnikov rifles.
Already all but one of the slavers had been borne to the ground, kicking and struggling. The last managed to break free from the Bedouin he was grappling with and jumped back. His Uzi came up and a second later the tribesman jerked and staggered back, blood jetting from the hole in his chest. He crumpled. Another Bedouin immediately took aim and shot his killer.
The other heavies were being physically pinned down while some of the Bedouin beat them savagely about the head with their rifle butts. Caroline cut the Land Cruiser's engine, jumped down from the vehicle and ran over to them. She was now wearing a black ankle-length robe tied at the waist with rope, and a pair of rough shoes made of cloth. "That's enough," she cried. "Please!"
None of the Bedouin seemed at all disposed to abandon their sport.
The headman signalled to them to stop. He looked significantly at the dead tribesman, then glared at Caroline, his eyes flashing warningly. "This had better be worth it," he said.
She regarded the body in distress. He was dead and it was her fault. Then she turned to face the other Bedouin, filled with a grim resolution.
"We need them to help us get in. Then you can pay Fouasi back for the death of your friend." She squatted beside one of the pinioned thugs. "Fouasi's got guns in his palace, obviously. You're going to show us where they are, and if you take us to the wrong place we'll kill you."
She straightened up. "Right," she said, speaking in the business-like fashion with which she approached her work at the office. "We've got transport, and we've got weapons. We should be able to get in there OK. We've got to get to where the guns are kept as soon as possible. Then when they're in our hands, we take Fouasi and his men prisoner and release the girls."
The headman swung round and looked hard at her. "You," he said, "are coming with us."
"Oh, that's all right," she answered. "I wouldn't miss it for all the world." The light of battle gleamed in her eyes. After all, she didn’t seem to have any choice. And she had scores to settle with Mr Fouasi.
The headman clapped her on the shoulder.
With any luck she might be able to avoid the worst of the fighting. "I know my way around in there. Once we're inside I'll have to get to Fouasi's study and find the evidence before he destroys it."
The headman nodded his agreement. "Can you shoot a gun?" he asked. "You may need one."
"I've never used one of those before," she told him, eyeing a tribesman's Kalashnikov.
But she was a quick learner and it only took a minute or two to instruct her in the use of the rifle. She took a few practice shots, firing into the ground close to Fouasi's men, who now lay bound and foot with several Bedouin standing guard nearby, and making them whimper with terror.
When all the preparations were complete Caroline and half a dozen of the Bedouin piled into Fouasi's Land Cruiser. One of the billionaire's goons was made to drive with another sitting in the front passenger seat. If Fouasi radioed them at any time they were to tell him all was OK and that they were returning to the palace with their prisoner. Those in the rear seats kept their rifles aimed at the back of their heads; if they gave the slightest trouble they were to be shot immediately.
The other heavies were to remain at the camp until the authorities came. They might be persuaded to divulge some useful information about Fouasi's organisation.
Together with the Bedouin's own vehicle, also filled with armed tribesmen, the Land Cruiser raced off towards its destination. On its way the party stopped by the Cruiser Caroline had piled up, and with an effort a number of the Bedouin managed to heave it over onto four wheels. Then the first Land Cruiser continued on its way to the palace, the other two staying where they were for the moment.
A little while later the second Cruiser started off after the first, leaving the third to be found later by more Bedouin who were just setting out from the camp on foot.
In the lead Cruiser Caroline was sitting beside the headman, who had by now introduced himself to her as Nazif. "Why do you have guns?" she asked him.
"There are wolves and hyenas and foxes in the desert." He smiled grimly. "Some of them are human."
They were at the gates of the palace before the guard saw the Bedouin sitting in the back of the Cruiser and reacted. He was reaching for his radio when Nazif fired from his seat, bringing him down. The Cruiser carried on through the gates and ground to a halt at the palace entrance. Smashing the two men in the front over the heads with their rifle butts, the Bedouin scrambled from the vehicle, leaving their unconscious bodies slumped over the dashboard. The party ran round the side of the building, to take cover there while they waited for the second Land Cruiser to arrive. It was already well on its way to the palace. Caroline would have been impressed by the skill with which the Bedouin at the wheel handled the vehicle, managing to drive at full speed while avoiding any accidents.
Caroline, Nazif and their party crept cautiously along the wall of the palace, looking for an entrance. A couple of Fouasi's men came running into view around a corner and the Bedouin shot them down immediately, Caroline sheltering behind the tribesmen as they opened fire. One of the Bedouin in the second Land Cruiser radioed to say it had arrived. The second party shot open the front doors and ran into the building, while the first entered it through a side door. Caroline split off from her companions and ran down the corridor that led to Fouasi's office, Kalashnikov in hand.
The Bedouin ran along the corridors shooting anyone they found. They had no choice: if anyone surrendered they would have to be guarded, and they needed all the men they could spare to take the palace. Besides, if this worked out as it should there would be no question of anyone punishing them for it.
Some of the heavies panicked and ran, screaming in terror; others blazed madly away at the Bedouin with their Uzis. Sadly, one or two of Fouasi's women were killed in the crossfire but the rest had time to hide themselves away, terrified.
Caroline was so determined to secure the evidence they would need to expose Fouasi that she forgot all question of her personal safety. Fortunately she reached the office safely, and blasted the lock from the door with her rifle. She laid the weapon on the desk while she resumed the search she had had to break off a couple of hours before.
She started where she had left off, about halfway through the second of the three drawers.
And a couple of minutes later, gave a triumphant whoop as she found what she had been looking for.
There it was: a photograph, obviously a cherished possession, of Fouasi shaking hands warmly with none other than Saddam Hussein. And there was more. Several scraps of file paper with a series of drawings doodled on them in biro or pencil. The first picture showed a long slender shape rising into the air on a plume of smoke and flame. A missile. In the second the missile was exploding above a map of the Northern Hemisphere and lines were radiating out from the explosion to indicate the release of some unidentified substance. Then lots of matchstick figures, representing human bodies, lying in heaps on the ground, and tanks and soldiers advancing through the streets of cities.
She stared in horror for a whole minute before gathering her wits, along with all the incriminating material. She tucked the wad of papers under her arm along with as much of the dossier on the white slave operation as she could.
From all around she could hear gunshots, shouts of alarm and the screams of injured men.
The third Land Cruiser had turned up by now, and its crew were entering the building through a back door. Still more Bedouin came riding up on camels, their Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.
Nazif's group had managed to reach the armoury and put a guard on it. But, Fouasi being the sort of person he was, there were plenty more guns lying around the palace and some, at any rate, of his men were prepared to use them. Neither side were trained soldiers, which meant that both sustained heavy casualties.
There was a right massacre going on outside, Caroline thought. It might be safer to stay here, but that would do her no good if the Bedouin lost. She'd have to find a safe way out of the palace, then return to the Bedouin camp and take it from there.
She couldn't carry both the mass of papers and the Kalashnikov at the same time, and was forced to leave the rifle. She turned to go - and froze in sheer terror at the sight of Blondie standing in the doorway.
The Englishwoman stared at her, astonished, for a moment or two. Then her eyes flashed with hatred and she took a few steps forward, moving with the slow precise tread of an animal about to strike at its prey.
"You," she breathed, in a voice saturated with cold rage. "You." She came a fraction closer. "How nice to see you again, dearie."
Caroline backed away.
Fortunately Blondie hadn't noticed the Kalashnikov on the desk, since Caroline's body was blocking it from her view. But nor could Caroline make use of the weapon because she had moved too far away from it and Blondie would grab her before she could reach it.
"You're responsible for all this, aren't you?" said the appalling voice.
Caroline retreated a little further.
"What have you got there?" Blondie snapped, bearing down on her menacingly. She stretched out a hand, clicking two fingers. "Give that to me, you little - "
"It's all over now," Caroline told her. "Look, why don't you just give in and let us try to help you? I mean, it's obvious you - "
Blondie threw back her head and laughed hideously, her massive body shaking like a jelly. "Help me? That's a good one, dearie! You're the one who's going to fucking need help, you silly little cow!"
And then she took something from inside her robe. Caroline heard a click and the gleaming blade of a knife sprang out.
With another chilling shriek of laughter Blondie rushed at her, slashing savagely with the knife. Moving just fast enough to save her life, Caroline dodged round Blondie, the movement taking her close to the door, and ran from the office and down the passage. The madam hurtled after her.
Fortunately Caroline was younger and considerably fitter than her pursuer, compensating for the strength Blondie gained from the drugs in her system. The distance between them widened to a few yards. And stayed at that. How long could she keep things that way?
Deliberately she dropped the wad of papers, which up to now she had been keeping a tight hold of, and ran on. After a moment, sick and sweating with fear, she paused and glanced back over her shoulder.
Blondie was crouched over the papers, engaged in ripping them to shreds. She had put down the knife in order to use both hands. In a flash Caroline doubled back and snatched it up. Intent on destroying the evidence, Blondie hadn't sensed her approach until it was too late. She glanced up to see the younger woman stepping back with the knife brandished warningly before her.
"Get away from those papers," Caroline hissed.
The madam was so enraged that the threat failed completely to deter her. She shot out a hand and grabbed Caroline's wrist, twisting it sharply. Pain stabbed through the girl and her grip on the knife loosened, enough for Blondie to prise her fingers from it. She grabbed it and lunged at Caroline again, slashing furiously. Caroline threw herself to the ground at Blondie's feet and the woman tripped over her, unable to arrest her mad dash forward.
Her crushing weight drove the breath from Caroline's body. With a desperate heave the girl shot out from underneath her and jumped up, darting round her as she got shakily to her feet. Thinking Blondie might grab her as she ran past her she headed in the opposite direction, towards the stairs.
Recovering her wits, Blondie flew after her screaming obscenities. From somewhere ahead of them Caroline could hear the sound of shooting. Not wanting to be caught up in the battle she took the stairs, scurrying up the carpeted steps onto the landing.
Certain she had felt the knife whistling past her ear, she pushed herself to run still faster. Then she heard a cry followed by a thud as Blondie stumbled on the thick carpet and went over. Nearby there was a plant in an ornamental pot standing on a table. Caroline snatched it up and clouted Blondie hard on the head with it as she struggled to rise. The impact seemed to stun her, then she sprang up and rushed at Caroline once more. Again the girl dodged her, but now she was starting to tire, and the madam seemed to have inexhaustible reserves of energy.
Blondie tripped on one of the rugs that adorned the floor and went over. Yet again she got up, slashing with the knife. Yet again Caroline darted to one side.
The ghastly dance went on and on. Their movements as they performed it kicked the rug round until one end was now facing towards the wall - towards where Caroline happened to be standing at that moment. Blondie's next lunge took her straight onto it, though this time she managed to avoid tripping.
Caroline could exert considerable strength when she needed to. She dropped to her haunches, grasped the hem of the rug, and gave it a sharp tug as she stood up.
Blondie's feet went from under her and she toppled backwards, falling against the wooden stair-rail. As she slid down it her head and neck slipped between the rods. When she tried to get up, she found they were stuck there.
Helplessly possessed by rage, she thrashed from side to side, causing the wooden pailings to shake in their mortices, creaking and groaning in protest. Her drug-enhanced strength was terrifying. Suddenly the pailings splintered and broke and a jagged fragment of wood, remaining in its mortice, embedded itself deep in Blondie's throat as she continued to struggle. A thick gout of blood spurted out, and her thrashing suddenly ceased. She made a feeble attempt to pull out the lethal shard but already too much of her strength had ebbed away. Her fingers slipped from it and her head fell back, the eyes rapidly glazing over. Caroline heard a choking sound as the blood coursed out and turned away, sickened.
With a sigh she realised there was nothing that could be done. Blondie would be dead long before they could get proper medical aid. She looked up as Nazif came towards her, giving the dying woman an enquiring glance. "You don't need to worry about her," she said wearily. The Bedouin shrugged.
He was carrying the wad of documents she had had to abandon to engage Blondie. "Is this it? The evidence you were talking about?"
"Yes. We must make sure it's safe, get it to the police. We must. Do you understand? It's really important."
Nazif smiled indulgently, amused by the spectacle of a Westerner getting agitated. "Don't worry, Miss Caroline. If you leave it with me nothing will happen to it, I promise."
"Good," she replied. "So how's it going?"
“I think we're winning," Nazif announced with a triumphant gesture.
"I'm going off to look for my friend," she told him, hurrying along the landing and down the corridor. Nazif stared after her and shrugged.
She knew which room Mandy was in from Fouasi's files. The door was locked so she opened it with Fouasi's master key. When his men had found her apparently drugged, they hadn't realised she'd taken it.
She entered to find Mandy huddled on the bed, terrified. Gingerly the girl raised her head, to start in astonishment on recognising her. "Mandy, it's OK," she smiled. "I'm going to take you somewhere where you'll be safe."
This time, it seemed Mandy didn't need any prompting. She jumped from off the bed and made for the door. They hurried along the corridor together, making for the stairs. As before Caroline was reluctant to remain in the palace unless they could be absolutely sure the Bedouin would win the gunfight.
She skidded to a halt, her heart sinking. Neghid Fouasi had appeared at the end of the corridor, Faisal beside him, and both of them were carrying handguns.
Faisal smiled. "I think we've just found our hostages." He levelled his weapon at a point between the two girls.
Recognising Caroline, Fouasi stared at her in amazement, then exploded with rage. "You're more trouble than you're worth!" he screamed.
"Good!" she shouted back.
His gun arm moved to cover her, while Faisal's swung towards Mandy.
"Touch her and you'll regret it," Caroline said.
"You're coming with us," Fouasi snapped. "There are one or two things I still don't know about you."
"What about her?" Faisal asked, indicating Mandy.
"If you kill her, you bastard, I won't tell you anything," Caroline vowed.
"You'll tell me whatever I want," snapped the Egyptian. He regarded Mandy indecisively for a moment and then shrugged. "Ah, take her too."
They herded the girls along the landing, down the stairs, along a corridor, out through a side door and then along the side of the building towards the landing strip, where a helicopter stood waiting.
Several Bedouin suddenly appeared around a corner and ran to bar their way, rifles levelled. Immediately Fouasi grabbed Caroline around the waist and thrust the barrel of his gun against her head. "Throw those guns down, you assholes, or they're both dead - OK? I want all of you out of this place, right now."
"He needs me alive," shouted Caroline. "Don't you worry about me!"
For a moment or two nothing happened.
"Just back off," Fouasi snarled, keeping his pistol pressed to Caroline's skull. The Bedouin slowly retreated, their guns still raised. They disappeared from view around the side of the palace. Cautiously, Fouasi and his sidekick backed away towards the helicopter with their hostages.
"Is it fuelled up?" Fouasi asked the pilot.
"Should be."
"Will it get us to Iraq?"
Iraq, Caroline thought. Oh Lor'.
"Yeah, no problem. We're not too far from the border here. Better let them know we're coming though, or we might be shot down."
Fouasi kept the two girls covered while Faisal got the door open and swung it down to form the ramp. He motioned to them to climb on board.
A few minutes later the Bedouin stood watching, sadly, as the helicopter rose slowly into the air, hovered thirty feet above the ground, then banked to head away from the palace towards the horizon.
Salman, Nazif's right hand man, came up to them. "It's over," he grinned. "They're all dead or safely locked away."
"I've called the police," said Nazif. "They should be here in a couple of hours."
"Will we be in trouble for all this?"
"Not once we show them this." He brandished the wad of documents Caroline had handed to him. "If anything, it will be to our credit."
They began carrying away their dead, to bury them in the desert which had given them birth and sustained them all their lives.
*
The sounds of gunfire had long died away, and now the rooms and corridors of Fouasi's palace echoed to the triumphant laughter of the Bedouin as they rampaged through the place, stealing whatever took their fancy and helping themselves to the billionaire's abundant store of food and drink. They had released the girls, most of whom chose to remain in their rooms which were after all the only world, the only home, they knew. Angie Bates and Gerda Dittmar were sitting in the recreation room watching one of Fouasi's videos. It was impossible to communicate with their rescuers, since neither of them spoke Arabic, so they were uncertain quite what was going on.
A Bedouin stretched out a hand to fondle Gerda's hair but Nazif saw him and gave him a sharp look, shaking his head warningly. The hand withdrew. The Kent girl had gone to so much trouble to rescue these women from the most intimate and distressing kind of slavery; to interfere with them as their captors had done would be a breach of honour.
Another tribesman, who happened to speak English, came along and started chatting with Angie, to whom he had clearly taken a fancy. "It is a good life, being a Bedouin," he said a little way into the conversation. "You are sure you would not like to join us?"
"Right now I just want to go home," said Angie politely.
"I understand. But believe me, you can never be freer than when you are in the desert."
Salman came up to Nazif worriedly. "When the police get here, they may be angry because we have stolen things. Should we put them back?"
"I think they will let us keep them," Nazif replied. "We have earned it."
After a while the shouting and triumphant laughter died down, and a strange silence fell over the palace. From somewhere in the distance, they heard the faint sound of helicopter rotors.

The Hulk and his charges were standing on the pavement outside the Supernightclub in the Rue des Phoeniciens, waiting to go in.
It did not cause the Hulk any real anxiety when the first police car turned up. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth, fifth, sixth.
Even when they marched up to him and announced they had a warrant for his arrest, while the girls were shepherded into the cars and driven away, he was sure it wouldn't lead to anything.
Would it?

In his house in a run-down suburb of West London the yellow-haired man, sometimes known as Tony although it was not his real name and never had been, turned off the TV and rose to his feet. There was much to do.
And once he'd done it, there wasn't really a lot to worry about. The police would have his number, and they would be able to trace it to his house, but they didn't know what he looked like. Fouasi hadn't kept any photographs of him; he kept no more information about his agents than was absolutely necessary, to minimise damage should his activities ever be exposed.
As the souteneur, he was the part of the operation most remote from the centre, the guy in the field, far distanced from those running the business in Saudi and Lebanon. That worked to his advantage.
Every day people disappeared, for one reason or another. All he had to do was change his appearance, grow a beard or moustache and maybe dye his hair. It would be as if he had never existed. He'd lie low for a while with his new identity, until the cops had forgotten about him. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, there'd be another outfit like Neghid Fouasi's starting up. He'd give it a little while and then, when they'd got everything up and running, he'd come calling.

"Ah, Neghid my friend," said Saddam Hussein, rising from his armchair to greet Fouasi as he was shown into the study. "It is good to see you again." The two men hugged each other.
"And I think this time you will be staying with us for quite a while," Saddam smiled. There was no warmth in his manner.
Fouasi responded with a nervous grin. Then he asked Saddam what he meant.
Saddam sat down, gesturing to him curtly to do the same. "When we received your message telling us what had happened, we were extremely worried."
"It's OK," the Egyptian insisted. "When I get back to Saudi I'll just tell the government to go and sort out those Bedouin. You can bet they'll take my side. As for them finding anything that'll look bad for us, those dickheads can't even read or write, let alone use a fucking computer." He didn't sound too sure of himself.
Saddam made no reply to this, but instead just stared hard at him. Fouasi's lips worked nervously. It was the first time there had been such an edge to their relationship, and he was upset as well as uneasy.
The dictator's eyes continued to bore into his. He gave a watery smile.
"There was something very worrying on the news just a few minutes ago," Saddam told him. "Let me show you."
A video cassette was lying on the coffee table in the centre of the room. Fouasi waited anxiously, on the edge of his seat both physically and metaphorically, while Saddam slotted the cassette into the VCR beneath the massive television screen, found the remote control and pressed the play button.
Hussein glanced briefly at him as he resumed his seat. "You are sitting comfortably, I trust."
The screen flickered into life, showing a newsreader at his desk. The man began to speak, and as soon as the first few words had left his lips Fouasi gave a convulsive shudder.
The newsreader informed his viewers that warrants had been issued in all the Gulf states, as well as Syria and Lebanon, for the arrest of Saudi-based businessman Neghid Fouasi after links had been exposed between the 34-year old Egyptian playboy and the regime of Saddam Hussein. It did not say how they had been discovered, nor was anything said about the white slave operation, but the basic message was that if Fouasi chose to set foot in any of the above-mentioned countries he would be arrested immediately. The item was accompanied by film of Fouasi at a party and a still photo of Saddam.
Saddam switched off the video and turned slowly to face his associate. Fouasi was sitting bolt upright, taut as a steel cable, beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead.
The Egyptian swallowed, then manfully struggled to regain his composure. "I should be safe here," was all he could think of to say.
Saddam exploded. "And you think that is all that matters? I live in constant.." He checked himself just in time. "Fear" was not an emotion he wanted to attribute to himself. "I have to constantly take into account the possibility that the Americans and British may invade me." He regarded Fouasi disdainfully. "I think you were hoping to return to the Kingdom when things had gone quiet. As you have just seen they have not gone quiet. Nor will they."
"I brought you the girl," said Fouasi defensively.
"Ah yes, the girl. She's rather cleverer than you, isn't she? What kind of a fool are you to be outwitted by a woman?"
"Once we've interrogated her we'll have a better understanding of the situation; who she's working for, and how much they've discovered. They may not know what the money's been spent on, and if they don't then they won't have a case against you."
"And if they do? Besides, that is not the only problem. As you know there are certain difficulties with the project. To deal with them without taking what might be too great a risk, I need money. Unfortunately they now know where it has been coming from, which means your assets all over the world will be confiscated. Your white slave operation will be effectively smashed. There is a risk that many important figures in the governments of the region will be implicated, but they will have to take it; they have no choice. Of course, I could seek funds elsewhere."
The sudden disturbing realisation that he had outlived his usefulness to Saddam made Fouasi go cold again. "Money might not make a difference. We don't know yet if we can do what we want to, never mind what it would cost if we could." He sounded agitated.
To Saddam, all this meant was that Fouasi was even less use to him. His menacing expression returned. "Please don't lose your temper with me, Neghid. Remember I am the only one who can give you what you want."
He seemed to consider for a moment. "I am of course grateful for the help you have given in the past. So you may stay here for the time being." "For the time being" sounded to Fouasi disturbingly open-ended. "But I warn you, if the West finds out what we are doing then you may not be as safe here as you think." He stood to indicate the meeting was at an end. "I will have your usual apartment made ready for you. Until then you can have the guest suite here. You know where that is." In the past, Fouasi reflected, an official would have been assigned to show him there. Saddam dismissed him with a brief nod.
Fouasi was halfway to the door when he brightened, and turned back to Saddam. "Oh, I meant to say. I told my boys to get the girl's mother and father over here, so we could threaten to do something nasty to them if she didn't co-operate. They'll be arriving shortly."
"That was not necessary," Saddam snorted. "She just needs to think we have them, that's all. She doesn't need to know where."
"If we can't produce them she won't believe us. I thought if they were being tortured right in front of her, she'd be sure to open her pretty little mouth."
Saddam considered this. Then his heavy features split in a broad, approving grin. He went to the intercom built into his desk. "Rashid, would you show Mr Fouasi to the guest room, please?"

Lying on the floor, Edward and Margaret felt the vibration as the helicopter touched down and then settled. The chattering of the rotor blades died away, then the door into the cabin opened and the pilot stepped out. He kept his gun on them while another heavy bent down and untied them.
"Can we get up, then?" asked Edward politely.
"Don't try and get funny with us," warned the heavy.
"I take it that means "yes"." Edward helped Margaret to her feet and they massaged their aching limbs. Their wrists and ankles were sore where the cords had bitten deep into them.
The heavies motioned them out and they stepped into the hot, dusty air and blinding sunshine. Shielding their eyes against the glare, they looked around and saw they were at a small airfield. The buildings were in a run-down state and plants were growing from cracks in the concrete runway. Fouasi's men led them to a van waiting by one of the buildings, with two soldiers in the front and two standing by the vehicle covering the prisoners with their rifles as they approached. It was painted a drab, utilitarian green.
One of the heavies smiled mockingly at them. "Cheer up. You're about to get a nice surprise."
The soldier in the passenger seat of the van got out and walked round to the back of the vehicle. He unlocked the doors and opened them. As they came to the van the heavy made an expansive gesture. They peered inside and saw Caroline, huddled against the wall with her arms wrapped around her calves. She had glanced up as the doors were opened, and her face lit up in astonished delight. They gaped at her, paralysed by amazement and disbelief.
"What...what are you doing here?" gasped Edward.
"Ah, yes," said Caroline ruefully. "That's rather a long story."
"Well, I wouldn't mind hearing it at some time," Edward snapped. They'd left her in the comfort and safety of the hospital in Beirut. Now, like them, she was once again in a worrying and potentially dangerous situation.
"I expect I'll have plenty of time to tell it," Caroline said wistfully.
"Get in," ordered one of the heavies. Margaret and Edward climbed into the van beside their daughter. "Good to see you again, anyway," said Edward, softening. The three of them hugged each other.
For the first time they became aware of the other girl sitting in the corner. Edward glanced at her inquiringly. "This is Mandy, the girl I was trying to help."
"So you're the cause of all the trouble," Edward said, not unkindly. Mandy smiled feebly.
The two soldiers who had been guarding the van got in the back with them and the vehicle started off.
"Where are you taking us?" Caroline asked the Iraqis.
"To Baghdad," one replied. That was all he would tell them.
The body of the lorry was windowless and they could see nothing of the surrounding countryside. The journey was uncomfortable, the lorry continually bumping and lurching and throwing them against each other. It told them all they might want to know about the state of Iraqi roads.
All the time their guards avoided their eyes.
An hour or so after they had set off from the airfield, the van slowed and ground to a merciful halt. They heard the driver get out, walk round to the back doors and open them. The soldiers ordered their prisoners out.
They stretched themselves thankfully, breathing in the fresh - at least it was reasonably fresh - air. They saw they were standing in a gravelled courtyard at the end of a tree-lined drive. The huge, flat-roofed, featureless building in front of them was clearly an army barracks.
They stood looking up at the building's bleak grey walls. "What do you suppose is going to happen now?" Margaret asked nervously.
"I guess their commanding officer wants to have a word with us," Edward replied.
The soldier who had been driving the vehicle joined his comrades and one of them, an NCO, gestured with his rifle in the direction of the building. Caroline brought up the rear as they set off towards it. She was feeling silly, almost delirious. It annoyed her to be back in captivity so soon after escaping from it the last time. At the same time, she guessed that what awaited them wouldn't be anywhere near as horrific as the abuse she'd been subjected to by Fouasi. She ought to be grateful for that, but instead she found herself confused as to what she should think, her mind a heady cocktail of emotions.
She knew her captors were anxious not to harm them, and was determined to take advantage of that. Her body language was insolent, almost seductive, her hips swinging from side to side, her breasts thrust out and bouncing up and down. "Please hurry," she heard the sergeant say. "My superior does not like to be kept waiting."
"Tough," she muttered, only just below her breath. She quickened her pace very slightly; so slightly it was barely noticeable.
"Do be careful, dear," urged her mother. If Caroline heard her, she gave no sign. Edward would have whispered harshly in her ear not to be so stupid, but he was afraid the soldiers would mistake it for conspiring.
One of the Iraqis tried to hasten her on with a hand on her hip. She stopped dead, turning to face him with flashing eyes. "You take your hands off, or I'll say you tried to molest me."
The man let go of her and stepped back hurriedly as if she was white hot. She gave him a look of triumph.
The sergeant pushed open the big double doors and they passed through them into a short hallway. They were led through a further set of doors and down a long corridor with tiled walls and a linoleum floor. At intervals strip lights were suspended from the ceiling.
"Don't think much of the decor," Caroline sniffed, purely for the sake of being rude. The soldiers ignored her.
"Yes, you could brighten the place up a little. I mean, if we're going to be staying here for a while...not that I want to."
They went down several more corridors. Caroline gave a pointed sigh of boredom. "How long is this going to take?"
They came to a door. The sergeant knocked on it and a voice rang out telling him to come in.
"So your superior doesn't like to be kept waiting,” Caroline was saying. “Well, you can just remind him that we didn't ask to be here, did we?"
She was still talking as they were shown into the small, luxuriously-furnished room, where a man in military-type uniform sat at a desk flanked by two armed soldiers.
"Nope," she said, tossing her head back contemptuously so that her long blonde hair spilled over her shoulders. "I'll have you know, Mister, that this girl isn't impressed by just any - "
She stopped so suddenly that Mandy and her father collided rather sharply with her back, knocking her forwards and almost causing her to stumble and fall. Her whole body went rigid and her eyes almost popped from their sockets as she like the others stared in astonishment, tinged with awe, at the sight before them.
"...one," she finished faintly.
She took a couple of steps backwards, whether from amazement or fear she couldn't say, as Saddam Hussein rose from his chair and turned with a smile to greet them.

TWENTY
Baghdad Hilton
For a brief moment before he broke into his smile Saddam had stared hard at the little group of prisoners, with lips tight and eyebrows drawn together. His intent had clearly been to establish that although he did not wish to harm them if it could be avoided, he had absolute control over what happened to them, and the consequences if they gave any trouble could be very unpleasant. The expression had lasted long enough to register with them - little more than subconsciously, but register nonetheless. It was only later that it really found its way into their consciousness. The effect on Caroline was to leave her angry and resentful. She'd been made to feel nervous and cowed, in such a way that it had not been time to devise a face-saving response. That, she was sure, had been Saddam's deliberate intention. The sensation left by the tactic was extremely disagreeable, and added to the loathing they felt for the man.
Why exactly did she feel so intimidated? It wasn't because she knew he was cruel. She had been in the clutches of evil and violent men before. Nor was it his fame; in her time, relatively short though that was, she'd met Presidents, Prime Ministers and monarchs alike. She decided later that it had been some combination of the two. It wasn't so much who Saddam was as what he had done and might do again. He had upset world peace by the wars he had waged against Iran and the West, and could cause even greater mischief if he acquired the weapons of mass destruction he was said to be actively seeking. The media had turned him into a bogeyman, but that was what he was - even though, deep down, he must be human nonetheless.
He was studying them all thoughtfully, sizing them up. Caroline studied him back. Unlike some well-known people, he was just as he looked on TV and in his photographs. The rich black hair - was it natural or dyed, she wondered - and moustache. The heavy, brutal face beneath the trademark beret. Though he was handsome, which made it all the more regrettable he was such an evil sod, his features somehow seemed coarse and undistinguished nevertheless; she had an idea that if he hadn't been who he was, and you chanced to pass him in the street, you wouldn't have looked twice at him.
He spoke. "Good afternoon."
"Um…er...huh-huh-huh-hello," she replied.
“Hello,” said Edward flatly. Margaret, like Mandy, was too terrified to speak. An awkward silence followed.
What do I say to him? thought Caroline. "What's it like being a mass-murderer" sounded silly, in addition to which she couldn’t be sure of the possible reaction. Would he be angry – or maybe being called a mass-murderer was to him an object of pride.
At least he didn't seem to want to have his wicked way with her, which was a massive consolation. There was no impression of such an intent, although she sensed he appreciated her looks and figure. She supposed Saddam Hussein wouldn't have got where he was today without a degree of self-control.
"Are you all well?" Saddam asked. "Do you have everything you want?"
"Well, er, we...we've only just arrived here," pointed out Caroline. She was floundering helplessly. Saddam just smiled.
"I hope you will enjoy your stay with us," he said, resuming his seat. "Now, I have some questions to ask you." It was obvious his attention was focused entirely on Caroline.
He glanced significantly at Edward and Margaret. "It is most important that you answer them truthfully. I would like to make your stay here a pleasant one, but I can only do that if you co-operate."
Caroline's self-possession returned. "All right. What do you want to know?"
Saddam gave a little laugh. "Come now, Caroline, you are a very intelligent young lady. You must know the answer to that question. It is because you have information which could be of use to me."
Caroline continued to look bewildered.
"You must realise, Caroline, that when you chose to join MI6 you placed yourself in a very dangerous position. Everyone involved in intelligence work does so."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," Caroline smiled.
"You have given my associate Mr Fouasi a good deal of trouble. It must have been for a reason."
"I had a score or two to settle with him. You know how he gets half of his money, don't you? From kidnapping women - that's what it amounts to, kidnapping - and selling their bodies. He did it to me and he did it to Mandy here."
Her eyes narrowed. "Your reputation's bad enough in the eyes of any decent person." She knew Hussein wouldn't react with anger to this. She had already sensed that he regarded her with amusement, mingled with admiration. Strong women had sex appeal; and blondes were cute, demanding to be tolerated if not feted on, regardless of whether they might have qualities which made them dangerous.
Your mistake, Mr Saddam.
"So perhaps it wouldn't make a lot of difference," she went on. "But do you really want people to know you've been associating with the greatest pimp in history - and the nastiest?"
Saddam was looking horrified. "If that is what he has been doing, then I am very sorry to hear it." His expression changed. "But perhaps it is all made up by Western intelligence. Or by Mossad - it amounts to the same thing. They are not nice people, Caroline."
Involuntarily, Caroline's lips twisted in contempt. It was inconceivable to her that Saddam could not have known how Fouasi was able to spend so many millions on him while remaining solvent. "Neghid Fouasi has been a great friend and patron of my country," said Saddam, still with that look of wonder and disbelief. "I...I cannot believe it." He pulled a face, by way of dismissing the matter. "But that is not what concerns us right now. You deny you were working for any intelligence service. But who were those people with whom you attempted to infiltrate my associate's headquarters?"
Caroline was still saying nothing. Saddam's face wore the sad look of a teacher forced to admonish a wayward child for the latter's own benefit. He repeated his earlier warning; that it was a warning was obvious. "I want you and your parents to be happy while you are staying here with us. We want to make sure you are comfortable and well, that all your needs are provided for. But that will not be possible unless you co-operate with us."
Caroline sighed. "All right, the two I was with were Mossad agents. I used to be with MI6 but I left after a while because I didn't like the restraints the job placed on me, the way I had to keep everything secret." She thought it best not to give the real reason for her resignation from the service.
"So you resigned, did you? Then how is it you are working for them now? Because they must have approved your little alliance with the Israelis. It would seem you still involve yourself with them whenever it suits you."
"They keep on saying no-one ever leaves the service, and I guess it's true."
"Were you simply trying to expose this white slavery network you claim existed, or was there another reason behind your actions?" Almost imperceptibly Saddam's voice hardened. "What does the West think it knows? About Fouasi, and about my country's - about its current plans?"
"They know about the place you've been building near here, about the stun guns and all the other stuff you've been trying to get your hands on. The scientists who went missing." Nitza and Baruch had told her everything the Americans knew. "And they know that Fouasi's money was funding it all. It was obvious something dangerous was going on and I thought I could help wreck Fouasi's sex ring and stop the flow of cash to you at the same time. I might as well have got involved because I had a personal interest in seeing him brought to justice. In any event, it would have been killing two birds with one stone.
"All I did was prove Fouasi was doing it for you. I still don't know what you've been spending the money on and I'd give my right arm to, but I guess you'd never let me leave here with that information."
Saddam sat back, and an enigmatic smile appeared on his face. "If I were to tell you," he said, "you would never believe me. I could show you, but my officials are far too busy at present to organise guided tours."
"Oh, I'd believe you all right," said Caroline earnestly. If she could get him to reveal all it would be a plus, even if she couldn't do anything with the knowledge. "You obviously haven't been doing it for nothing."
"You would not believe me," Saddam repeated, and they had the impression he was quite sincere.
Caroline decided that her own future, and that of her companions, was the most important issue right now. "I don't know any more than what I've told you, and what'll already have been splashed all over the world news. So what are you going to do with us?"
"You may still be useful to me," Saddam told her. He didn’t elaborate. “Now,” he continued, clearing his throat, “in the present tense situation - to which I am afraid you have contributed by your Modesty Blaise activities - it would be unwise to let you leave; as you yourself have realised, I think."
"Don't you think we know what's good for us?" said Caroline indignantly. "As I said, I've nothing more to tell you. Concerning general information about MI6, I only ever knew the basic details of how it operated, things you must know yourself, and what was necessary for whatever operation I was on – although I didn’t get to do much, as I resigned before I completed my training.”
Saddam deliberated for a moment, then stood up. "I am afraid there is no time to discuss this matter further, not at the moment. I am very busy. We shall talk again later." He signalled to the soldiers, who ushered Caroline and her companions towards the door. "In the meantime, please consider yourselves our honoured guests."
"Are you going to break my cover?" Caroline asked. An agent whose identity was publicly known could not operate, and would not be a threat to Saddam in the future.
"We will have to see," Hussein replied. He seemed to want to keep her happy, or at least in a state of uncertainty. That way she was more likely to be a compliant prisoner.
"Well well well," murmured Edward as the door closed after them. "The man himself." He was still a little overawed at the encounter.
"So what was all that about, then?" he asked his daughter as they were led off down the corridor. Not being Arabic speakers, her companions hadn't understood a word of what had gone on between her and Saddam.
"Oh nothing," she said.

"The Israelis are quite pleased at the way things turned out, on the whole. The head of Mossad says he's considering offering her a job with them."
Rachel Savident smiled to herself, aware that Caroline would politely but firmly refuse.
"We've also put a stop to this white slave business," went on the Director of MI6, Sir Derek Winlett. "There've been over a thousand arrests worldwide. I'm afraid a few of the girls were killed by their minders in case they talked, but most have been taken into care or sent straight home."
Rachel Savident was looking glum. "I doubt if Fouasi was the only one involved in that kind of thing."
"I'm sure he wasn't. But the revelations will focus world attention on the problem, wherever it goes on. It's dealt the trade a very serious blow."
Winlett turned to the third person in the room: Derek Pattinson, head of the Service's Middle East branch. "Where do we think Fouasi is now, Derek?"
"A global search is being mounted for him, but no luck so far. My guess is he's gone to Iraq. It doesn't really matter as long as he can't make any more money for Saddam."
"What about Caroline Kent and the other girl?"
"He might have dropped them off along the way, if you get my meaning." Rachel winced. "But it's more likely he's taken them to Iraq with him, so his friends in Baghdad can find out how much she knows. We just can't be sure; it's the same with her parents, though I'm very much afraid Fouasi's done away with them out of revenge."
"Is there anything we can do for her?" Rachel asked, though she knew very well what the answer would be.
"Unfortunately, no," Winlett sighed. "To press the matter openly would mean blowing her cover. We can't let anyone know they've got her. As far as the world at large is concerned, she's just disappeared and that's that."
"She can't tell the Iraqis any more than they know already," Rachel said. "What do you think they'll do to her?"
"They could let her go but announce the truth about her at the same time, just to make things difficult for us. On the other hand, if nobody knows she's with them they can do what they like to her with impunity."
Rachel nodded sadly. "Caroline's a survivor. I just hope she hasn't bitten off more than she can chew this time."

"I can't believe it," said Chris Barrett despairingly, running a hand over his quiff. "I just can't believe it. Not again."
Those in the staff common room had all heard the news about Caroline's second disappearance. Some felt that if she was in any danger it was entirely her own fault; they weren't going to lose too much sleep over it.
"I heard something about it on the news," Mark Goodison said. "Didn't catch the full details, though. Has she been kidnapped again?"
"It doesn't look like it. She discharged herself from the hospital and went off in a car with two strangers, a man and a woman. What's equally odd is that I can't get hold of Edward or Margaret either."
Goodison's eyes widened.
Chris sighed. He hadn't the faintest idea what Caroline was up to, but he was angered at the thought that she had vanished again so soon after being rescued from her last terrible ordeal. Whatever she had got caught up in now, it was sure to be just as dangerous. And what had happened to her parents? Was there a connection between their disappearance and hers?
He stood up, decisively. "I'm definitely going out there this time."
Goodison regarded him thoughtfully. "I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I reckon you're a bit soft on her."
"She's a friend," he answered curtly.
"Will they let you go this time?"
"I should think so. Everyone's back from leave so we won't be understaffed. Hennig's got no choice now. As I see it he can't refuse me."

As the soldiers led them deeper into the heart of the building, along corridors which now had walls of unpainted breezeblocks, they realised it was chilly and damp. It was also gloomy, lit only at intervals by a Tilly lamp resting on a chair. There were rows of metal doors on either side, each with a number on it above a sliding hatch.
The party halted at one of the doors, and a soldier produced a bunch of keys and opened it. It was indicated Edward and Margaret should go inside. Briefly Caroline grasped them both by the hand; then they went in and the soldier slammed and locked the door.
Caroline and Mandy were ushered politely into the next cell. It was narrow and cramped with two beds, one a wooden bunk attached to the wall and the other simply a heap of blankets on the floor.
The door clanged shut, and they were alone.
"You can have the bunk if you like," Caroline told Mandy. With a muttered thankyou the younger girl sat down on it.
Caroline planted herself beside her. "So, Mandy," she said wryly, "what do you think of the way things have turned out?"
Mandy gave a short laugh. "At the other place we had everything we wanted. Here, it's gonna be fucking boring."
"But I don't think you'd want to go back to the palace, would you?"
"No."
"Had enough of being screwed every which way but loose, then?"
Mandy said nothing.
"Wasn't anything to do with watching me being thrashed within an inch of my life, was it?"
"Yeah," said Mandy, almost wonderingly. "Yeah, it was."
Caroline felt a stirring of warmth towards her. "So there's some goodness in you after all. Thanks."
She shifted round a little so she could look Mandy in the face. "If you can care about me then you ought to be able to care about yourself."
"I do," Mandy answered. "That's why I take whatever I can earn. If we get out of this, I guess I'll go on being a tom and there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it."
"You didn't like the way they beat me, and made me into a whore, because you knew I didn't have a choice."
"I've made mine."
"Listen, Mandy. The kind of pimps you get back home aren't any better than Fouasi and his lot. They beat up their girls if they don't give them enough of the money or try to get away from them. And if they could get hold of women who aren't prostitutes and force them to have sex with their friends they would. Fouasi just found it easier because I was in a foreign country and he was protected by important people."
"I'll do it on my own. It's not so bad that way."
"These days, I think you'll find most hookers are doing it for a pimp. And it's a bit naive to think they have a lot of choice in the matter. The pimps probably go around snapping up every girl they know is on the game and bullying her into working for them."
Mandy gave Caroline a sudden suspicious look. "You're not a dyke, are you?" Her voice held an element of loathing; there had always been some things she had sworn she wouldn't do.
"No. Why do you ask me that?" Then Caroline understood. "You think that because I take an interest in your welfare it means I must fancy you. The trouble is, you've had so few people care about you that you don't recognise real compassion when you get it."
"All right, maybe some people are OK, like you. But there aren't enough of them. It's a hard life and you just have to do what you can to get by, even if it means letting some geezer stick it up your arse."
Caroline persisted. "Because your own father thought it was all right to muck about with you it's OK for you not to have any care for yourself. You only think that because you were born to the wrong kind of parents. And that was something you didn't have any choice in. If you'd been lucky enough to have a loving Mum and Dad like me, you wouldn't have ended up with such an outlook on life. You feel the way you do about things not because it's right but because of an accident, an accident of birth. So there's very little point in it, especially when it's doing you so much damage."
Mandy seemed to give a little start, as if suddenly understanding something that hadn’t previously occurred to her. When she next spoke, after some time had passed, there seemed to be a change in her manner. "Hasn't done us much good, has it, you getting us out of there," she laughed, “there” meaning Fouasi’s palace.
"I'm not sure about that. I couldn't have stood any more of that treatment."
"I meant, when are they going to let us go? What are they keeping us here for?"
"A reason," answered Caroline. "But at the moment I haven't a clue what it is." She patted Mandy on the shoulder. "We'll get by."
In fact, she did have a theory as to why they were there. But because it was rather disturbing, she preferred not to entertain it.

Chris Barrett's professional background was in sales, and he knew how to charm people and win them over, which business was made easier for him by a genuine friendliness and desire to please. It was a skill he now used to good effect in his search for Caroline.
Once it became apparent that he was what he claimed to be, a friend of Caroline's who was genuinely concerned for her safety, the Lebanese police proved co-operative, willing to share with him what information they had. Fortunately, one or two passers-by had noticed Caroline leave the hospital in a car with two other people, a man and a woman, both youngish, dark-haired and of Middle Eastern appearance, whether Arabs or Jews they couldn't say. Later the same day the pair were spotted at the airport catching a plane to Riyadh, along with a dark woman who in certain particulars answered Caroline's description but was otherwise totally unlike her. Who had she been?
Was it possible that...
Knowing Caroline, he couldn't entirely rule it out.
He flew to Riyadh himself, where he turned his charm on the Saudi authorities, with the same result. He learned that the strange trio had been picked up at the airport and taken to a private airfield belonging to Neghid Fouasi. Like everyone else, he knew of the subsequent events at Fouasi's palace. The three of them had caught a plane there some hours before the billionaire had been exposed as an associate of Saddam Hussein.
As Caroline had not been found at Fouasi's palace, Fouasi must for some reason have taken her to Iraq with him - for Iraq was the most likely place for him to be.
Which really buggered things up. What the hell did he do now?

"Are you doing anything interesting at the moment, dear?" asked Alison Hartman.
The Major smiled patiently. "You know I can't really tell you about it, mother."
"Well, what have you been doing in your spare time, then?"
"Not a lot," he said truthfully.
"You ought to do something. Then you'd be able to talk to me about it, wouldn't you?"
"Guess so," he grunted.
"Are you all right, Michael?"
"Oh yes, fine," he answered, trying to sound as cheerful as possible. She eyed him suspiciously.
"Do you want some more tea?" she asked, pouring another cup for herself.
"No thanks, Mum. I'm going for a walk in a minute." He'd decided he wanted to be out of the house as quickly as possible.
"Oh, that'll be nice."
She went to sit close to him. "Perhaps it's time you started thinking about getting married. I really think it would do you a lot of good."
"It's difficult to be married when you're in the Regiment. I'd hardly ever see her, and I wouldn't be able to talk to her about the job would I?"
"But a lot of your friends are married."
The Major stared through the window of the cottage, framed with tendrils of honeysuckle, at the hedge that bordered the garden and the rolling Worcestershire hills on the horizon. "It's something to think about," he conceded.
"You were quite fond of that Gillian girl, weren't you? I must say, she seemed very nice."
"Yes," said the Major quietly, struggling to repress his emotions. "She was."
"You're not all right, are you? Is it anything to do with..."
"I just find it hard to take at times, that whole business," he said.
"I think everyone does," she replied, patting him on the hand. "Never mind, you may get a chance to catch that Bin Laden one day." Her face creased up. "Horrible man...he scares me. His eyes…”
She stood up. "I'll have a meal ready for you when you get back, shall I? How long will you be?"
"Oh, a good hour or so. Yes...a bite to eat would be nice. See you later, then."
"They say it's about to rain," she suddenly remembered.
"An SAS soldier is not the sort to bother about that, mother." He went on his way.
For considerably more than an hour, he plodded about the lanes and muddy farm tracks around the village, not caring about the rain drumming on him and soaking into his hair and clothes.
It had not been like this when, just before Gillian had gone back to the States for what turned out to be the last time, he had brought her back to the farm to meet his mother. After lunch the two of them had gone off exploring the area. Although it was early September the weather had been more like June or July, as was often the case these days. The sun and the fresh air, the breathtaking scenery and the gentle but invigorating breeze, carrying to them the scent of summer flowers, had got to them and they'd run along whooping and shouting out silly things, with Gillian every now and then performing a crazy pirouette, overcome with wild exhilaration at the raw primitive beauty of nature. She had loved the English countryside.
They had come to the old woodpile where he had often played as a boy, when the farm belonged to his mother's aunt, and paused there to rest. They sat on a log talking while he threaded bits of straw and daisy chains through her hair, garlanding her like a May Queen.
After a while they had taken off their clothes, lain down together and made love. It seemed the most natural, normal thing possible.
Half an hour later, as they lay basking in the afterglow, Gillian felt the Major tense beside her, and heard him clear his throat. "Gill, there's something I haven't really brought up before now. We can talk about the job OK, because we're both in the same line of business. But...well, you know what it's like in the Regiment. You'd hardly see me a lot of the time. Would it really be fair?"
She twisted round to look at him. "Mike. It's not a problem, honey, OK? You're worth waiting for. Sure, it's a sacrifice...but I'd rather have you just a little bit of the time than none of it, you're that good. If it wasn't like that I guess the thought of marrying you wouldn't have entered my head."
"You're sure you don't mind?"
"Of course I'm sure. Let's not hear any more about it." She turned over, resting her head on his chest, and closed her golden-brown eyes.
The Major looked down at her. Her hair and her smooth flawless skin were the same colour as the corn in the adjoining field. He felt the most incredible, beautiful upsurge of warmth and tenderness.
All around them were the sights, sounds and smells of the country. Nearby a bumblebee alighted on one of a cluster of tall, colourful flowers. A bird cawed somewhere in the treetops. Even the rumbling of a car engine a mile or so away seemed natural, grown out of the earth, a deep steady purr like a cat or the droning of the bee. He found himself recalling a song from his childhood; Sleepy Shores by the Johnny Pearson Orchestra. He associated it with this part of the world because it seemed so redolent of the countryside. He decided they would have two songs; one contemplative, one rousing and cheerful. This would be the contemplative one.
She stirred, looking up at him invitingly. He shifted, lowering his head to kiss her, the tips of their tongues touching and sending a delicious tingling thrill through both of them. Then they made love again. Afterwards, exhausted and made drowsy by the heat, they found themselves gradually falling asleep.
Happy boyhood memories drifted through the Major's mind, while he gazed down at the lovely girl who, along with the children she would bear him, was his future. He let himself sink slowly into oblivion, thinking of waves lapping gently, soothingly, on the shore of a calm peaceful lake.

Chris stood by his hired pick-up looking across the Iraqi border at the vast expanse of arid featureless desert stretching away to the horizon. He stayed where he was for a long time. This right now was the closest he could get to Caroline and somehow it made things a bit easier.
He felt so utterly useless. She was somewhere beyond that horizon, whether alive or dead he had no way of knowing. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, he could do to help her.
On a gloomy whim he flicked through his Lonely Planet to see if it might be of some assistance. He found the relevant section and started to read.

"It's not a good idea to go too close to the Iraqi border. Iraqi troops have been known to stray over it and arrest those unlucky enough to meet them. Should this happen you will be taken to Baghdad where you may be put on trial."

With a start of horror he replaced the book in his travel bag and turned back to the pick-up. He froze. "Er, hi there," he said, smiling rather inanely at the khaki-clad soldier who stood directly in front of him levelling an AK-47 rifle squarely at his chest.

On arriving back at his London flat the Major rang Gillian's parents, thinking it would be good to talk to them again. Her father answered the phone.
When he heard Bob Lands was a Texan, Hartman had expected him to be some kind of fearsome bigot. Lands turned out to be awesomely large but soft-spoken and gentle-natured; one of the kindest men, in fact, that Hartman had ever met.
"Tom?" he opened. "It's Mike. I just wondered how you were."
"Well, I'd be lying to you, Mike, if I said we were coping. The plain fact is, we're both taking it badly. I don't think we'll ever get over it." They had two other children, but to let that make things easier would have seemed to them insensitive. So they went on suffering.
"Don't look at it like that, Bob. It's what those bastards want." How easy it was to give advice to other people, rather than take it yourself.
"We try to look at it that way, Mike. We try."
"So how is Doris?"
"She's with the doctor all the time. Between you and me, I've a feeling she isn't going to pull through. Gillian...Gillian was the first, you see. That makes it just a little bit harder. Our other two understand and they're doing their best for her."
"Well, send her my love won't you."
"Sure will. How are you doing?"
"Like you, I still can't come to terms with it. But I'm fine, more or less."
"Listen, pal, keep in touch," said Bob after they'd talked a while longer. "We'd appreciate that."
Afterwards the Major put down the phone with a sigh and threw himself onto the bed. The knowledge that Gillian's mother was breaking under the strain made him more determined to overcome his own problem. But he knew his resolution wouldn't last.
Since returning from leave he had thrown himself completely into the life of the Regiment, doing all the things soldiers did while they weren't on active service: the training, the manouevres, the public works projects. The fierce aggression with which he attacked these duties fortunately masked his private hell; some would have said it was no different from the way he usually did his job.
Let them go on thinking that.
He opened the little book of photos that stood on the bedside table. He didn't like to see pictures of Gillian but he couldn't stand the thought of having no memento of her. The first one he came to showed her with a kooky expression on her face, draped in bunting at the Americans' leaving party, the hand with the drink in it raised in salutation.
He tried to smile, to remember her with fondness and not sadness, but instead the pain stabbed through him once more.
Time was no healer, because the more he had time to think about his loss the more it hurt him. He was all right whenever he was busy, but as soon as he got back home, or to his quarters at Stirling Lines, in the evening the problems started. He no longer cried but that didn't mean the anguish wasn't there.
The plain fact was, he had loved Gillian so much it was quite beyond his ability to cope with the loss. Even an SAS soldier had his limits.
On a whim, perhaps thinking that it wouldn't make much difference to his trouble, he'd cut his current spell of leave short by one day. That day was all the free time he could expect for a while. He may as well use it in one last attempt to sort things out. Next Sunday, he decided.
He kept on thinking he should be confiding in his mother. But it would only screw her up if she knew how close it was to killing him.
Yes, killing him.
There's one day left to me, he thought. One day. And one last chance.

Caroline threw back her head and laughed long and hard, shaking so much she almost fell off her chair.
"Oh thanks," said Chris bitterly. "You think it was funny, do you?"
"Well, it wasn't very clever of you," she told him.
"It was the closest I could get. I was trying to see if I could help you, if you're interested."
"Do forgive me, I needed something to cheer me up." After a while, he knew what she meant.
Meantime his arrival had undoubtedly cheered things up. It meant a welcome change, giving them something to talk about and someone to suggest ideas for keeping themselves occupied. It was an immense boost for Caroline to have an old friend with her, someone she knew liked and cared about her. Mostly their existence at the moment was boring, boring as hell. A TV was laid on for their entertainment; in this as in everything else the Iraqis obviously thought they were doing them a favour. The programmes consisted mainly of imported American cartoons, obviously dating from before sanctions came into effect, music – usually an incomprehensible wailing dirge - and current affairs. For the news items their hosts had gone to the trouble of providing English subtitles. Most of what was said about "Zionist-backed Western imperialism", and the general view of the West it reflected, was so wildly inaccurate that they fell about laughing hysterically, to the obvious displeasure of some of the guards. If it was intended as propaganda, it had had entirely the opposite effect from what was intended. Yes, it was good for a laugh; nevertheless they spent most of their time playing word games and doing quizzes, or just sat and talked.
One item never absent from the news was Saddam. He appeared in all manner of guises and roles; in traditional Arab or Kurdish dress, crouching in trenches in camouflage fatigues talking to the ordinary soldiers, reviewing tanks and troops on the parade ground, meeting foreign dignitaries, driving to and from the presidential palace with cheering crowds lining his route, operating machinery at factories or farms, reading the Koran, meeting religious leaders, opening new buildings, lecturing on architecture and the environment, berating incompetent or disloyal officials, fondling babies, dropping in on "unsuspecting" citizens for breakfast, relaxing with his family, and reviewing the latest captured military hardware. Schoolchildren chanted his praises parrot-fashion.
They noted that whenever Saddam was addressing a meeting the ministers and generals standing in the background always looked down at the floor in a bid to look humble and inconspicuous in his presence. Whenever he made a point which seemed particularly apposite each tried to applaud him harder than all the others, and be seen to do so. God their hands must be sore, Caroline thought.
The presenters showered Saddam with congratulatory messages and grovelling speeches. The hostages were bombarded ad nauseam with the story of the Qassem assassination attempt and how Saddam cleverly evaded the authorities while the rest of his colleagues were arrested and walked all the way across Iraq, trudging through desert most of the time, while seriously wounded to take refuge in Syria, where he had a bullet gouged out of him to save his life.
First thing every morning they were abruptly woken by the sound of the Iraqis praying, which they couldn't of course object to, followed by a radio blasting out propaganda from somewhere close by.
The food they were given was atrocious, restricted mainly to bread that had gone stale or tasted like plastic, and thick viscous tea made with milk they were sure had passed its sell-by date. Of course the Iraqis blamed this, as they blamed just about everything, on sanctions. They were soon sick and tired of hearing this constant moan. The Iraqis never lost the opportunity of pointing out the damage which British and American policy was doing to their country. If one of the prisoners responded by criticising Saddam the guards simply ignored them, apart from the occasional patronising smile.
Most of them still wore the clothes they’d been captured in, although someone had found Caroline an old blouse plus a pair of Levis and trainers.
Some of the guards were surly and rude, others genuinely friendly and pleasant. One in particular befriended them; his name was Majid. They talked a lot about each other's countries, each others' families, and he showed them photographs of his wife and children. His son was a beautiful little boy with dark hair and soulful brown eyes.
They learnt a lot about life in Iraq, and Caroline took the opportunity to correct many of the alarming misapprehensions people in the Middle East seemed to have about the West. But a certain tension remained between them; nice guy though he was, Majid through fear of his own safety if nothing else would have to report to his superiors anything which seemed like preparations for an escape attempt. They also sensed his superiors weren't happy about the guards getting too friendly with them.
And nobody would tell them what was going to happen to them in the end. Still Saddam refused to say exactly why he was holding them or when they could expect to be released. They were allowed no contact whatsoever with the outside world, which resulted in a feeling of disorientation. Once Caroline had written a letter which she asked her guards to send to her relatives in Australia, but she never received a reply and wondered whether it had in fact been sent.
They feared that eventually they might run out of things to do or talk about, and just sit looking at each other or at the wall. They were allowed out twice a day for exercise, which consisted of walking four or five times, under strict supervision, around a courtyard with a patch of grass and a single stunted tree in the centre. They had the use of a shower, to which they were escorted by a guard who waited outside while you performed your ablutions, and a toilet consisting of a cramped little cubicle with a hole in the centre of the floor. It was shared with all the other inhabitants of the barracks, and sometimes the smell was so overpowering you almost puked.
Chris seemed to be coping OK. Edward grumbled but put up with it all. Margaret was clearly depressed but went through each day with tremendous resilience, only occasionally losing her temper.
At least no-one was sexually molesting anybody. One or two guards had made advances to Caroline when the others weren't present, but it had stopped after she had complained. Saddam wanted compliant hostages who would be easy to manage. If Chris or her father had been there the consequences might have been nasty.
She and Mandy were still addicted to the drug, although these days Caroline found she didn't need it quite so often. Initially there was no supply of it at the barracks. Caroline wasn't sure yet if she could take the risk of going without it; she explained the problem to her guards, who at first were decidedly unhappy, fearing, she guessed, that they might use the needles as weapons. Eventually an arrangement was arrived at whereby the injections would be given by an Iraqi doctor with two guards standing over them. She insisted that the needles be cleaned thoroughly beforehand; fortunately the doctor was a kindly man and professional in his attitude, and was eager to comply with the request.
She could not have known it, but if the soldiers hadn't been there he would have confided in her that he would much rather be practising in England. Certainly, it was not something he could have told any other Iraqi.

This time, thought Malikian, the atmosphere was decidedly different. Although the letter from the Foreign Ministry granting permission for his team's second visit to the complex had been politely worded, a distinct tension was evident in the air from the moment of their arrival in Iraq, however much the Iraqis tried to hide their unease. Altogether, though, their hosts still seemed confident they wouldn't find anything.
"But you have checked the research centre already," protested the official Malikian spoke to on the phone. He sounded bemused more than anything else but you could still detect a note of apprehension. "Why do you wish to do so again?"
Malikian had already fabricated a reason. "Modifications have recently been made to some of our equipment to make it more efficient. We need to have another look to make sure there's nothing we could have missed last time."
At that the official backed down, evidently deciding it wasn't safe to protest any further. As before, they were shown what they wanted to see, and the Iraqis provided them with all the necessary facilities.
The team was the same; Malikian, Brigitta, Zeke, Felipe, John and Yukio. They took the same equipment with them as before. This had to be a thorough, professional job, even if it meant going over exactly the same ground in the same minute, painstaking detail. If they looked like they were just going through the motions, in Malikian's own words, the Iraqis would suspect this was a preliminary to something they might not like, such as an American invasion.
Carefully and patiently they checked the place over. This time Malikian went in too, going with them from room to room, his eyes sweeping over everything with a burning intensity. He seemed to be inspecting every square inch; every square centimetre.
Mentally he was taking measurements, calculating distances and angles. The others looked at him curiously from time to time, noting the grim concentration on his face. It took over two days to search the complex. They were at it from dawn to dusk, working the Iraqis off their feet and inflaming tensions further. Neither they nor their hosts got much sleep.
The satellite and radar surveys had been repeated with the same negative result as before.
Once, they saw Malikian pause and stare down at the floor of one of the laboratories for a few moments; whether he was merely brooding or had noticed something that perplexed him they had no idea.
Eventually, early on the third day, the laborious task was completed. They assembled together with the Foreign Ministry officials in the foyer of the main administration block. The leading official asked Malikian if he was satisfied with the results of the inspection.
There was an uneasy silence. Visibly Malikian steeled himself. "There's one thing," he said. "I've noticed that the floor of the seed propagation chamber is higher than those of the other rooms." It had only been a small difference, but all the same he'd spotted it.
Did the official look alarmed, for the briefest of moments? If he did he soon recovered his composure, looking nonplussed. "Er...so?" He smiled apologetically.
"Well, why is that?"
"The complex is built on a spur of rock which projects a little way above the ground. We had to make the floor higher to make room for it."
"Why didn't you just blast the rock? Or, why not build the complex just a short distance away? You must have surveyed the ground before you started, surely?"
There was something under the ground here, something that couldn't be moved from where it was and which the complex had had to be constructed around. It must protrude slightly above the surface at some point, and in addition there would have to be a reasonable amount of clearance between the protrusion and the floor of the room above.
And then it all fell into place. Quite clever really; build the complex on top of it so that people don't know it's there. Satellites can't see through walls yet. And then, no doubt, dig down from inside to get at it.
No-one will be able to see what you're doing.
The Iraqi's eyebrows had shot up. He was acting the fool, trying to pretend he didn't understand what Malikian was talking about.
"I refuse to leave until we have been shown everything there is to see," Malikian snapped.
"I do not know what you mean. You have seen everything already."
"You're lying."
"I assure you I'm not, Dr Malikian."
"If you do not comply with my request, I will conclude that there is something here that you do not wish revealed because it is damaging to the wellbeing of the international community."
He locked eyes with the Iraqi. The man abandoned his act and resorted to intimidation, putting on a fierce expression and shouting furiously at Malikian, accusing him of being suspicious and unreasonable.
The American didn’t flinch nor change his expression. The other members of the team were watching the confrontation in silence. The tension emanating from them was palpable, charging every molecule of air in the room.
Briefly he seemed to waver. They had the impression some terrible conflict was going on in his mind. Then he rallied. "If you do not want to show us what you are hiding, there's nothing we can do about it. But I must warn you what the consequences will be for your country." His tone was friendlier now, but the edge of steel remained.
The Iraqi stared back at him coldly.
"You must let us see everything, and I mean everything. Without delay. If I may speak as an American, not as a representative of the United Nations...our President has made it quite clear what his position is." Malikian's tone hardened again. "If the slightest suspicion remains in our minds that this complex is a threat to international security, we will lose no time in launching an air strike against it. What you are trying to protect will be destroyed anyway, so it makes no sense for you to continue deceiving us. We will not rest until we have reduced this building and everything in it to rubble.
“Maybe you'll just move whatever's in here somewhere else. If there is any suggestion you have done so we will bomb the new location. If we cannot establish where that is, we will commence a major campaign of air strikes. We will aim to confine the bombings to military and industrial targets but there is no guarantee that innocent civilians will not be harmed. Nor can I rule out deliberate attacks on civilian areas if it seems the only way to achieve our objective."
The Iraqi's eyes were burning with anger and hatred.
There was controlled desperation in Malikian's voice. He was putting every effort into his speech, as if all that had ever mattered or would matter depended on it.
"I should tell you that as an American I have no interest in seeing the Iraqi people suffer. My main concern has to be with the security of the world at large, but I am aware that your own people have been killed as well and I'm not happy about that whatever you might think."
The images had burnt into his brain again. Blazing buildings and screaming children. Children with their arms and legs blown off.
"Even if I were prepared to trust you, and I'm not sure I am, there are too many others who wouldn't. You must understand the truth of what I say. As long as there is any doubt about your government's intentions the possibility of military action against this country can't be ruled out. We will do what we must, regardless of the consequences to Iraq.
“I am imploring you, from the very bottom of my heart, not to make that necessary. I've seen far too much human suffering in my time." His voice quivered with genuine emotion. "And I am afraid that this current crisis will result in many more deaths. The choice is yours."
There followed a long, uncomfortable moment of silence. The official seemed to be thinking, and thinking very carefully, about what he should do. Then he hurried from the room, leaving the other Iraqis with the UN party. He was obviously going to refer the matter to higher authority; how high exactly?
Everyone waited, shifting uneasily, the two groups glancing at each other embarrassedly out of the corners of their eyes. Malikian sighed deeply and turned away to stare at the wall.
The silence was suddenly broken by many pairs of running feet. The UN team looked at each other in some alarm. They started to edge towards the exit, but before they'd got very far they found themselves surrounded by about a dozen Iraqi soldiers, all armed and all pointing their weapons straight at the inspection team.
There was only one place they could have come from, to appear so quickly like that. Malikian glanced down at the floor.
"Do not worry," said an NCO, smiling humourlessly. "You will not be harmed. But I am afraid that you may be staying in Iraq for rather a long time."

The Major was back in his woods again. He'd been there for hours; doggedly, and hopelessly, trying to find the solution. None had come and now the wood was growing colder and darker. He knew it was ridiculous to be out here so late but he also knew he could not leave the place until he had the answer.
He plodded on through the gathering darkness. It seemed to be pressing closer, trying to swallow him up. The silence too was all-enveloping, except for the occasional rustling of some small animal in the undergrowth.
He just wanted to keep walking, through the darkness, for ever and ever. Wanted it to absorb him totally, to wrap him tightly in a comforting cocoon and shut out the harsh blinding light of a world which didn't have Gillian in it.
Around him he saw not a Surrey wood but the bleak, bare landscape of the Welsh mountains on a rainy winter day.
Keep on going, Hartman. Yep, that's it boy. Keep on walking. Into the darkness.
He would walk on and on until his energy had gone and he dropped down flat, never to get up again. He knew that with all his training he could easily find his way out of the wood, but he didn't want to. He must blend with the darkness and stay a part of it forever.
But of course that wouldn't happen. Eventually, the night would end and the daylight would reveal to the walkers and the birdwatchers his cold and naked body, dead from exposure.
The land from which no traveller had ever returned. And that failure to return had always seemed to him chilling confirmation that death was indeed the end. But he couldn't be frightened of it, could he, a brave soldier like him? Or was it carrying on which was the courageous thing to do?
In his feverish imagination he thought he saw her running ahead of him, a ghostly shape flitting among the trees, occasionally stopping to turn and smile at him. Beckoning him on. Come and join me, Mike. We'll be together, for ever and ever and ever. You won't have to miss me.
Was it her? No, it couldn't be. He had other loved ones, and they depended on him. Gillian had known that, and she wouldn't have wanted him to leave them just so she could be with him. She wasn't selfish like that.
Oh Gillian, Gillian. Why did they have to take you? Why you, of all people?
He could feel the cold biting into his skin, his bones, even through his thick padded anorak.
It's all very well to say I should keep on going, that you wouldn't want me to grieve. It's not that I shouldn't. I just can't.
It seemed to him that his father walked beside him, telling him not to give up. It's easy for you to say that, Dad, he thought bitterly. You don't have to live. You don't have to keep going.
Then Gillian again. In truth he wasn't sure if it was her voice he heard, or his own thoughts telling him what she would have wanted. But the voice said, you couldn't prevent the tragedy that took me from you, Mike, but I'm sure you can prevent lots of others in the future - if you hang on.
You were right, Mike, when you said yours was a noble calling, because you only killed in order to save life. That’s why the world can’t afford to lose you. When you rescue hostages from some embassy or other, or stop a town from being bombed, you save lives. You save them so that people won't have to go through the pain of bereavement. And when you see them with their loved ones, think of me for that is where I will be. I mean, in a way it's true isn't it? When you look at them you will see a part of me. A part that will be forever with you.
You don't know that I'm not up there in the sky somewhere, in a world that might be a lot better than this one. More sensible to give it the benefit of the doubt than be sad – yeah? He knew now it couldn't be her or she would have told him. But he went on listening. And if I am, then it's just a question of waiting, isn't it? Remember what I said that day in the country, at the woodpile? You're worth waiting for, Mike. WE'RE worth waiting for. I told you I wouldn't mind you being away on duty so much of the time, as long as you came back in the end. I think you felt the same way about me. Well this is the same thing, it just takes a bit longer that's all.
Again he protested miserably, almost saying the words aloud. I can't, darling. It's not that I don't want to, I can't.
Was he quite so sure of that now?
He turned to the right to avoid a tree which loomed up before him out of the darkness. And suddenly he saw in the distance, through a break in the vegetation, the lights of that conurbation which is formed by the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough, several miles away. The effect of the lights was to cause a kind of shimmering, like stardust, in the night sky above them. He remembered coming upon the same scene with his father, years before, when walking in these woods and thinking how magical it was, like some fantastic fairy tale city; how much it delighted him.
He stood looking at it for a long time, a smile on his face. Eventually he turned and walked away, a spring in his step and a purposefulness in his movements which there hadn't been for a very long time.
There was no doubt about it now. He knew the way out.
*
The Major had parked his car on a little patch of waste ground between the wood and the road. In the darkness he had to fumble to find the lock and insert the key. As the door opened the night-light automatically came on, filling the interior of the car with its friendly glow.
When he reached home an hour and a bit later it was almost midnight. He garaged the car and went upstairs intending to go straight to bed.
He decided he ought to check his answerphone. As it happened, the phone rang just as he made to pick up the receiver.
"Major?" It was General Straker, overall commander-in-chief of the Regiment; to give him his actual title, the Director of Advanced Forces. "I've been trying to reach you for ages." It was both a statement of fact and a moan.
"Sorry, Sir. I've been...well, I've been sorting a few things out."
"Have you? Well, never mind that. Look, I want you over here at Hereford right away." The Major knew "right away" meant what it said, even at this ungodly hour. "Tell you why when you get there."
The Major hesitated. "Look, Sir...it'd take a long time to explain, but I've only just got back in. I'm absolutely knackered, and to be honest if I were to try and drive there now I'd probably cause an accident."
"Then I'll send someone to pick you up. We can't lose any time over this. See you in the early hours." The phone went dead.
The Major packed everything he needed into a holdall, then busied himself with various tasks around the flat. By doing so he managed to stay awake until the SAS driver arrived to collect him. Just a few minutes later they were heading west through the London streets towards the junction with the M4, with the Major slumped in the front passenger seat entirely oblivious to the world.
He awoke to find the hills and rolling fields of Herefordshire flashing past them, dark masses studded with twinkling yellow lights beneath a starry purple-black sky. He felt happy and relaxed.
In a few minutes they had reached their destination. The car drove up to the gates and the sentry checked their passes. The driver parked the vehicle, and with a word of thanks to him the Major got out and made his way over to the administration block. He entered the Ops Room to find Straker and several other senior officers sitting round the conference table. He nodded to them respectfully.
Straker waved him to an empty chair. "Good to see you, Major. Why didn't you take your mobile with you?"
If he said he'd wanted to be alone, they'd wonder why. "Sorry, Sir. Must have forgotten it." He affected a sheepish grin.
The General nodded, satisfied. He knew everyone made silly mistakes now and then, Hartman probably less than most other people. The occasional slip could be tolerated.
"So what's this all about, Sir?" the Major asked.
The General leaned forward, his hands clasped together on the table. "You'll probably know from the news that the UN have sent a weapons inspection team to check over this place the Iraqis have built, the one that's been worrying everyone so much these last few months." The Major nodded. "Well, Saddam's only gone and taken them all prisoner. He's holding them at the complex."
"And they want us to go and get them out?" The Major had stiffened. There was a light in his eyes and in that instant a spark of frisson passed between the men seated at the table. We're going to do this and we're going to do it together.
The General nodded slowly. "Yes, Mike. They want us to get them out. There's no alternative, for several reasons. Saddam has made a series of quite unacceptable demands including an end to all international inspections of his facilities, and the immediate ending of sanctions and the no-fly zone. That's the price he's named for the inspection team's release, and he knows there's no way we'll ever pay it. Why this has suddenly happened I've no idea; everything was going well up until now, the inspectors were getting to see all they wanted and the Iraqis weren't raising any objections. And as you know, Saddam has given up all his chemical and bacteriological stockpile. Any ideas as to what this means?"
"There's only one explanation to my mind," said Hartman. "Saddam has been trying to hoodwink us these past few months, which doesn't come as any surprise. Giving up the WMDs was just a ploy to cover up his real intentions. He's playing for high stakes. There's something in that complex which matters a lot to him, and I think the inspection team got a bit too close to finding out what it was."
"Exactly. He's now using them as hostages, in the hope it'll make us think twice before taking any military action, and give him some time to prepare a strategy for dealing with it.
"What's most worrying of all is that he wouldn't be doing this unless whatever's inside that complex was nearly finished. It's some kind of secret weapon he can use against us with the same effect as a nuclear bomb. Otherwise, his behaviour would be reckless and stupid even by his normal standards. God knows what the weapon is exactly, but once it's complete he can do what he likes to us with impunity."
The General leaned forward, to emphasise the importance of what he was about to say. He spoke softly and solemnly. "Which is why it's vital we take out that complex as soon as possible. If necessary we must be prepared to risk the hostages' lives. We're to get them out in one piece if we can, but they are not our priority. That must be to find out what Saddam is doing in there and stop it. At whatever cost. Is that understood, Major? At whatever cost."
"Understood, Sir. But why is the job being given to us? I would have thought the Yanks..."
"Well, it's partly because they don't want to be seen to sideline us in the war against terrorism - they regard al-Qaeda and Saddam as being much the same thing, of course. We lost a fair number of our own people on September 11th and we are their number one ally, who they want to keep happy. But it's also because they know we're the best in the bloody business and they don't want any screw-ups; they just can't afford it, the stakes are too damn high. There must be no repeat of what happened when they tried to rescue their diplomats from Iran.
"They're giving it to us. And I think the best man to lead the operation is you. You were bloody good in Bosnia and Sierra Leone and nothing's happened since then to change my estimate of you."
"How are we going to go about it?" the Major asked.
"Well, basically we're going to do what we mercifully didn't have to in '91, because then Saddam released all the hostages as part of a diplomatic offensive to make him look reasonable. This time the principal difference is that the hostages are all concentrated in one place instead of scattered around the country, which will make the job a lot easier. It'll be a combined parachute and helicopter insertion with the Paras launching a ground assault while units of the Regiment, yours included, are lowered by helicopter onto the roof and gain entry, taking out the guards and securing the hostages. Then, unless all resistance has been overcome, it'll be a fighting retreat to a point near the Syrian border where you can be extracted by air. Do you agree?"
"That was what they suggested in '91, Sir. They knew what they were talking about then and I'd say it'd be a lot easier to pull off now."
"It's much too far into Iraq for my liking. We've never been so deep into the country before. But the risk has to be taken."
"Supposing we're able to secure the complex, what do we do then? Is there any chance we'll be going on to Baghdad?"
"That's for the politicians to decide. It's not on the agenda at present, but in the current uncertain state of things I wouldn't rule it out."
They discussed the operation in more detail, the meeting taking altogether a couple of hours. Once or twice Hartman yawned. "I think you'd better get some more sleep, Major," the General said afterwards. “God knows what you were doing last night - I'd be interested to know some day - but it seems to have worn you out. However, I don't think there are any lasting ill-effects." The Major smiled enigmatically. The General caught the smile and somehow knew there was no need to press the matter any further.
"Which is very fortunate, because we're going to be very busy the next couple of days. You'll need to be at the peak of fitness. So be off with you, and see you back here soon." The Major saluted and left.
He felt invigorated - reborn. It was good; better than anything he could possibly have expected. His fist clenched involuntarily, and for a moment his eyes gleamed with more than just the normal light of battle.
For some reason, some strange hunch, he was sure bin Laden was in Iraq. Bin Laden, the man who had masterminded the whole New York atrocity, killing Gillian just as surely as if he had personally taken a knife to her.
And even if he was wrong, there was someone else there whose time was long overdue. Someone who had certainly gloated over the outrages of 11th September; someone who had been a threat to world peace, a plague on humanity, bringing disaster to his own people and spreading the fear of his intentions throughout the West, for far too long.
Saddam.

TWENTY-ONE
"What do you think the Americans will do now, Mr President?" asked Tariq Aziz.
"If there are hostages there they will think twice before bombing the installation," said Saddam. "That will give us some time."
He turned to General Musawi. "Have the girl and her friends moved to the complex. When the time comes, it will be best to have all our guests in one place."
Musawi nodded. "Yes, Mr President."
"We will also need to transfer a certain amount of troops and equipment there."
"We must be careful to leave some stationed near the borders," argued Tariq Aziz respectfully, "in case the West takes the opportunity to invade. We cannot put it past them."
"I think it is unlikely they will," said Musawi. "They will want to get Arab opinion on their side first, and they have not yet done so."
"I don't want to take any chances," said Saddam. It was a banal phrase, but then a large part of the conversation at these meetings consisted of banal phrases.
"How close is the project to completion?" he asked General Fawzieh.
"Speyler says he is nearly finished. That is all."
"Does he say exactly when he will be finished?"
"I'm afraid not, Mr President. I don't think he knows just now."
"See if you can get a more definite answer from him."
With that the meeting broke up and the ministers backed out of the room. Once they were safely outside each looked at the others unhappily. They'd all sensed the tension emanating from Saddam; he just hadn't chosen to admit to it himself. As always they had succeeded in hiding the full extent of their fear and alarm. But it had been harder than ever before.

Mandy Dixon stirred in her sleep, moaning softly. She could hear the tramp of her father's heavy boots mounting the stairs to her bedroom, the sound growing steadily louder. Tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp tramp TRAMP
The door swung open. He turned on the light, and she glanced up fearfully, to see his big face smiling down at her.
"Hello, Mandy," he smiled. "Time for our game again, yeah?"
Mandy stared up at him, her eyes big and round, her hands tightly grasping the hem of the bedsheet. She was all but paralysed with fear.
"You remember how it goes, don't you? You take off your - "
"No!" Mandy shouted. "No! Go away! I don't want it!"
He sat down on the bed and leaned over her. She shrunk away. "Aw come on Mandy, it'll be all right. It was all right last time, wasn't it?"
"No," said Mandy.
Anger crept into his voice. "Come on, Mandy, don't be stupid." He softened his tone. "I'm your father, so there can't be anything wrong with it, can there?"
"It doesn't feel right," Mandy wailed. "I don't like it, OK?"
"Shhhhh, you'll wake Mum. Now, are you going to be a good little girl and play the game with me, or not?"
"NO!" Mandy yelled, sitting bolt upright and screaming at the top of her voice. "Go away!!!!!!!"
His face twisted with rage. "Well then I'll fucking well have to do it for you." Savagely he pulled away the bedclothes and bore down on her. The flimsy nightdress ripped as he peeled it off.
"Get off me!" she yelled, in a voice saturated with terror and anguish. "Get off, you pervert!"
With a desperate effort she broke free and sat up, striking out with her fists. She felt him let go and seized her chance, leaping from the bed and running for the door.
Then she realised she wasn't in her room at home, but in the cell with Caroline, who had been trying to shake her awake. The older girl was rubbing her sore nose where Mandy had bopped it.
"Oh, sorry," Mandy grinned.
"Don't worry about it." Caroline could guess what had been going on in her sleeping mind. "Are you OK now?"
"I guess so," said Mandy wearily, sinking back onto the bunk.
"Mandy, we've got to go." There was no time to offer further comfort. "They're moving us. I've no idea where to."
"Don't suppose we've got any choice," Mandy grunted.
The cell door was half open and through the gap a guard could be glimpsed walking up and down impatiently. As they left the cell he stepped back, his rifle raised to cover them. He gestured to the left with the rifle barrel and they set off in that direction, the soldier keeping at a safe distance behind them.
They were taken out to where an army lorry stood waiting for them. Chris, Edward and Margaret were already standing beside it, flanked by more armed guards. Caroline smiled weakly as she and Mandy came up to them.
One of the guards was Majid. She turned to him with a wistful smile. "It looks like we won't be seeing you again."
"You never know," he replied, shrugging. "Maybe we will, maybe we won't. It is all up to God."
"Well, goodbye Majid."
"Goodbye, Miss Caroline," said Majid sadly. She would have liked to have shaken his hand or even kissed him, but the other guards might have thought she was trying something.
The rear doors of the van were opened, and the guards gestured to them to climb in. Caroline paused briefly to look back at Majid. "Insh'allah."
"Insh'allah," he smiled.

In the Ops Room at Hereford General Straker was addressing a mixed gathering of officers from the SAS and Parachute Regiment, walking up and down as he spoke with his hands clasped behind his back.
"As we had expected, Saddam has moved tanks and armoured vehicles to the complex and positioned them around it in a rough circle." He switched on the projector and a diagram of the complex appeared on the screen, with arrows indicating the disposition of the Iraqi forces. "In fact, he seems to have committed over half his armed forces to its defence, which goes to show just how important it is to him.
"And that's not all. Take a look at this."
He returned to the OHP and fed in a couple more slides. They all showed a lorry - a different one each time - making its way along a concrete road with desert on either side. The vehicles were low-loaders carrying enormous steel crates, the size of small houses, which were fastened down securely with massive chains and clamps. "I suspect that is an intercontinental ballistic missile, being delivered to the complex in sections - and in such a way that we can't see what it is." The next two slides showed lorries entering the complex through an opening which had been made by demolishing half of one wall, and later leaving it in the same way without the crates. "If we could, we would of course take into immediate action. However if it is an ICBM it's not likely to be ready for firing just yet, since they'll have to assemble it first. So we have a little time. Now, this is the plan we've agreed upon." The diagram showed the position of Iraqi forces as before, but with additional graphics indicating how the assault on the complex would be carried out. "The Parachute Regiment will attack from the ground and draw off the troops surrounding the complex, while the SAS will arrive by helicopter entering the building via the roof. Hopefully all opposition within the complex will swiftly be overcome. Having released the hostages the SAS units will then search the place for any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. If the forces outside prove unable to contain the enemy, though I'm sure that won't be the case..." He smiled at the Paras present.
"They will make their escape with the hostages after planting explosive charges timed to destroy the complex and whatever's in it. Now, are there any questions?"
"Do we know roughly where the hostages are within the building?" asked Major Hartman.
"Unfortunately no. The Americans have had spy satellites over the complex but with no luck. It's going to be touch and go whether we can do it without harming any of them. But then that's always the case with these matters. To some extent."
Straker still wished they could go the whole hog, make it a proper invasion, and so prevent things like this coming up ever again. With the Iraqis concentrating so many of their troops at the complex, leaving their borders vulnerable, the opportunity was there. But for political reasons it was still being ruled out.
One day, he told himself. Meantime, the thing was to pull this job off. If they didn't, anything else might well be academic.

As with their journey to Baghdad, Caroline and her companions could see nothing of their surroundings from the lorry that took them to the complex. When they got down from it and saw where they were, Caroline felt a sick shudder pass through her. She knew very well what this place was from the photographs Nitza Avnir had shown her. There could only be one explanation for their presence here. If they hadn't been hostages before, they certainly were now. She couldn't disclose information that was supposed to be classified, but she knew why the complex was so important to Saddam and therefore why they were to be kept there, although the exact nature of what it hid remained unknown.
Conditions in the place weren't much of an improvement on those at the barracks; in fact they were even worse, because the facilities had been very hurriedly improvised. There was no separate accommodation; instead they were all installed in a hastily constructed "guest room", little more than a large store cupboard with a table, a few chairs, and rough moth-eaten mattresses with blankets flung over them to sleep on. A single bucket in the middle of the floor served as a communal toilet.
From a few half-glimpsed figures they got the impression there were other hostages about the place, but they never met them; the Iraqis preferred to keep the two groups apart.
There were far more soldiers around, and security was much tighter. They were not allowed out to exercise, although there was a shower, to which they were taken under guard as before.
They passed the time much as they had at the barracks, eating awful food and trying to think of things to do, although now there was no TV; the Iraqis had less time to spend on providing creature comforts for them. There was a general atmosphere of acute tension, which they had not felt while at the barracks. The guards were less friendly, even those they had got to know and like, and there were numerous instances of friction which at times nearly flared into violence.
They were fed irregularly, and when the nosh finally came it was doled out from a bucket, in the form of tasteless soup and stew made up of rice and various other, unidentifiable ingredients. The stew was so gritty and viscous that a spoon almost stood upright in it.
It was impossible to sleep because the peace and quiet was constantly disturbed by banging, the whine of drills and the sound of people and heavy objects in transit. Major alterations were being made to the complex, presumably so that more people or equipment could be accommodated there. They had no idea what was going on outside it, although they could hear sounds of heavy vehicles lumbering about.
It was obvious things were on the move. And what was happening did not bode well for them. Each had the terrible feeling that a noose was gradually tightening around their necks, crushing any hope that they might come out of this alive.

Since the UNSCOM delegation was taken hostage Patrick Lerpiniere had been drinking a great amount of very black coffee. His anxieties concerned the general security of the world and not the strain he was being subjected to as an individual. The crisis had broken; his role in the affair was now over, much to his relief. The meeting now taking place in his office at Langley was little more than a social occasion.
Lerpiniere's eyes moved to the empty chair usually occupied by Theodore Malikian, and his face tightened.
"Do you really think it was a good idea having the Brits do the job?" Howard Loomis was asking anxiously. "If Saddam really has got some fabulous secret weapon hidden underneath that complex, there's a danger they might try and grab it for themselves."
"They wouldn't know what to do with it," Sternhold muttered contemptuously.
"Don't underestimate them," Loomis warned. "They can be quite smart when they need to be."
"That may have been true once. But lately their politicians seem to have lost it. They'll do anything we say, because our good friend, their Prime Minister, wants to be seen as one hundred per cent behind us in the great war against al-Qaeda."
"You two can stop arguing," broke in Lerpiniere, taking another sip of coffee. "There's no need for anyone to worry. This is a joint operation, remember, with us standing by in case the mission has to become a full-scale invasion. We'll be right behind them, to move in as soon as they've taken the complex. They won't have time to spirit the thing away. If they do cause any trouble, well, whatever happens as a result it’ll be just too bad for them." Lerpiniere had not been present at the meeting that had just taken place at the White House between the President, the chiefs of the armed forces and the director of the CIA, but he was in little doubt as to what had been decided.
Sternhold was looking unhappy. "Surely it'd be too risky to get nasty with them. After nine-eleven the West's got to stick together. That's always been my view and I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way."
"It's not my decision," said Lerpiniere bluntly. "Anyway it depends what the weapon is. If it's something really big, bigger than a nuclear bomb, then it won't matter what anyone else does, whoever they are. As long as we've got it then there's nothing in the whole god-damn world will be able to stand against us."

PART TWO
THE ISHTAR STRATAGEM

TWENTY-TWO
In the complex at Quarat, Malcolm Speyler entered the chamber whose roof opened to the sky and stood surveying the scene in front of him.
All the plants had been removed from the chamber; all the incubators and humidifiers too, to be replaced by equipment which served a very different purpose. The room echoed to the sound of hammering: at the sides workmen were busy installing consoles and running cables from them to a generator. They worked silently and mechanically, interested only in getting the job done properly, because they would be shot if they didn't, and as quickly as possible, because over the past few days they had had little sleep and little time for meals and relaxation, and the strain was starting to get to them.
The centre of the room was taken up by a tall cylindrical shape about fifty feet high. At its top it tapered gently to a point. It stood on a low, flat launch pad with clamps and cables securing it to a tall pylon with a ladder running up one side. Gantries provided access to the missile for maintenance.
Speyler's eyes gleamed as they ranged up over the height of the missile. The Ukrainian who had sold it to Saddam had taken out all the nuclear material first, balking at the consequences of allowing him to possess fully functional atomic weapons. No matter. When it was finally launched, it would contain something that would serve his purposes far more effectively.
So close, thought Speyler. We're so close. It was unthinkable that anything should happen to stop them now.
The trouble was, there were one or two problems that just wouldn't go away.

RAF AKROTIRI, CYPRUS
The Major and his squad staggered to a halt, their tracksuits sodden with sweat. Each man slumped forward with his hands on his knees. It was several minutes before they could speak, rather than gasp and pant. It was their sixth time round the base.
"All right, lads," Hartman said. "You can relax a bit now. See you again in a couple of hours for another circuit."
They broke up, heading for the bar. The Major paused for a little while, his hands on his hips. The burning sensation that filled his body with the release of tension was exquisite, like the aftermath of sex. He stood there enjoying the sensation and gazing around him at the buildings of the base, the people and vehicles moving about. Through the rippling heat haze he glimpsed a group of local girls standing just beyond the perimeter fence, watching the goings-on curiously and occasionally calling out to and blowing kisses at the British soldiers. It was possible they were prostitutes, although most likely their interest was wholly innocent. In any event there hadn't been time for that sort of thing, and wouldn't be until they had returned from this mission. It took away too much of your energy.
A number of Chinook helicopters from the SAS' own Army Air Corps flight sat on the runway. They were fitted with air-to-air fuelling probes for long-range insertions. Further away stood the massive bulk of a Lockheed Hercules transport aircraft, awesome in its sheer size and power. The sight of its familiar profile, the bullet nose, the wings with the four turboprop engines, and upswept tail aroused a surge of affection in the Major.
The trusted workhorse of air forces around the world, its incredible versatility enabled it to operate in almost any part of the globe; to carry out a vast range of tasks both civilian and military, dropping troops and equipment, patrolling coastlines for drug smugglers, extinguishing forest fires and dropping relief supplies to the starving of Africa. Its basic form had not changed since the type was first rolled out in 1954. There had been more than thirty versions of it. This was the C130-J, the latest model, finally ready after several years of delays and cock-ups. It was bigger than its predecessors, with a larger cargo bay and more advanced electronics.
It had the long range capability that would enable them to safely penetrate as far into Iraq as they needed, and hopefully get back home in one piece.
He heard someone come towards him and turned to see Martin MacDonald, the Major who would be in overall command of the Paras during the assault. The two were old friends.
"I see ye've got them well beefed up," MacDonald said, his accent that of the remote Scottish Highlands.
"Unlike your bunch of fairies," replied the Major. There was no rancour in MacDonald's manner as he aimed a mock punch at him in reply.
The Paras and the SAS had a lot in common. Both were highly disciplined, perhaps ruthless, elite forces. Both were attacked as mindless thugs, because both had had to do nasty things in Gibraltar or Northern Ireland. The criticism was as unfair in the case of the Paras as it was with the SAS. Whatever the truth about Bloody Sunday, the Major knew that some of the troops involved had suffered serious trauma afterwards, writing out long statements in which they poured out their remorse and their horror at what they had seen; something Irish Republicans never gave them any credit for.
If the SAS were the best body of men in the Army, the Paras ran them a very close second. There was keen rivalry between them, but it was a friendly rivalry, allowing them to work together smoothly when co-operation was required. It might be an exaggeration to claim of the Paras, as Montgomery had done, that every one of them was an Emperor - no man was - but the respect Hartman felt for them was nonetheless enormous.
"Let's go and have a beer," the Major decided. The two officers headed for the building which contained the bar and canteen. They found about twenty or thirty SAS and Para soldiers there, laughing and telling jokes and anecdotes, most of them extremely crude, as they boozed. Among those propping up the bar, not that it needed propping up, were four SAS troopers who since they had joined the Regiment had formed a close friendship with one another, and with the Major, whose squad they usually ended up in.
Sergeant Steve Ferris was a stockily built little man with a goatee beard. The product of a broken home, and frequently in trouble with the police in his youth, he had decided the Army was the only career in which he was likely to prosper, and through it taught himself the mental and physical discipline he so badly needed. It was the beneficial effect of that discipline which motivated him as much as any desire to be perceived as hard.
Jordy Dennis was huge and shaven-headed with a fading scar down one cheek, the memento of a bar-room brawl back in the days before he, like Steve, had had sense knocked into him by the Army. His massive bulk and rather sinister appearance masked a personality by no means dislikeable.
Then there was Darren Haddon, big and fair-haired, rather stolid and not given to talking much, but popular nonetheless. And Bob Moretti, small dark and moustached, known as the Yid because his thrusting hooked nose made him look Jewish although he wasn't. His compact frame gave the impression of tremendous, suppressed energy.
"When we go to Baghdad," Jordy Dennis was saying, "first of all I'm going to fuck Saddam, then I'm going to fuck Mrs Saddam, and all Saddam's daughters. And then - "
"Why would ye want to fuck him, anyway?" asked MacDonald.
Steve Ferris shrank away from Jordy. "You get away from me, you raving arse bandit."
"Might as well do as the fucking Romans do, mightn't I?" Jordy said, in answer to MacDonald's question. "I mean, they're all like that over there, aren't they?"
The Major's eyes narrowed, just enough for them to notice it, and the tone of his voice altered slightly. "No they aren't," he said.
It was often difficult with the men under his command to tell whether they were really being nasty or merely indulging in good-natured, rather thoughtless banter. What he could be sure of was that Jordy had got the message. There was no need to say anything more.
"Go on," said the Major indulgently, melting away the frost. "So you'd fuck Saddam and you'd fuck the whole of his family. What'll you do then?"
"Boss, I'd fuck every fucking woman in the whole of Iraq. They're all dying for a bit of good old British cock. They may go around covered up in veils and things" - Jordy was perhaps getting his wires crossed a bit here - "but underneath it all they're as randy as rabbits."
"Hmm," said the Major, not sure if this estimate of Iraqi women was accurate.
"We're not going to go to Baghdad anyway," Moretti told him. "You're out of luck, mate."
"There must be some tasty pieces of crumpet at this place we're going to attack. They've got women in their army - a few anyway."
"Well you'll be able to find out in a few days."
The Major moved away. He ordered drinks for himself and MacDonald, then the two of them found a table and sat down, taking themselves out of earshot.
"I don't think he liked what you said just then," whispered Haddon, venturing an opinion on something for once. "Bit prim-and-proper, isn't he?" Haddon was a fairly recent recruit to the Regiment, with less experience of Hartman than most of his companions.
"Sometimes he has to be, I guess," said Jordy. "And otherwise he's not so bad a bloke, for a Rupert. What d'you reckon, Steve?"
Ferris hadn't heard him. "Uh?" he grunted as Jordy nudged him.
"I said he's not a bad bloke for a Rupert. The Boss, that is."
"Oh...oh no, no. No, he's OK."
Ferris went back to staring at the wall. The others turned away from him, giving each other sad looks. They knew the reason why he suddenly fell silent during a conversation, withdrawing deep into himself, and there was nothing any of them could do about it.
Steve's thoughts had turned to the forthcoming mission, and how it would turn out. Of course he was always aware of the possibility that he might be killed; no normal person could fail to be. But he possessed that strange, inexplicable ability of all soldiers to banish the thought from one's mind and avoid worrying about it, living life with perfect normality until it came to the crunch. The strenuous keep-fit exercises they had to do all the time were essential if they were to be in the top-notch physical condition required for a mission. But they had an additional purpose. Along with all the public works, the frequent monotonous tasks which often seemed pointless, they took your mind off the thought of dying. Good military psychology.
Some people wrote "blood letters" to their relatives, in case it came to the worst, but you weren't supposed to do that. In Steve's case though there was a special reason why he might want to.
He had thought Sharon was the right kind of wife for him, and it had been a shock to his when the problems started. Perhaps it wasn't that he had been wrong about her; but rather that the actual reality of being married to a soldier had proved a more difficult business than the resolution to put up with it.
The time he spent away from her, and his inability to talk about his work, began to frustrate her. Then had come Sierra Leone.
After some of the things he'd seen in Sierra, including the butchering of one of his best friends, Steve had been shocked, withdrawn, almost traumatised. He'd spent long periods sitting around gazing into space. It wasn't Sharon's idea of marriage. How often is this going to happen, she had demanded.
Steve felt he still needed the discipline, the comradeship. He knew there would be problems if he returned to civilian life before he was really ready, when he still had some years' combat life left to him. Sharon just didn't seem to see that, and finally she had taken herself off to her Mum's to remain there for an indefinite period.
It wasn't the sort of thing you wanted to happen just before a mission like this. He wondered if perhaps he should have asked to be excused from it. Ideally, things would work in the opposite manner to what he feared. The mission should take his mind off his marital problems and reduce the stress and misery they were causing him.
That was the theory; he hoped the practice would bear it out.

Saddam Hussein's brow was deeply furrowed, the eyebrows almost meeting in the centre, and the muscles of his face had tightened, pulling it into a grim and rather frightening expression. He had not spoken for some considerable time. He sat with his elbows on the table and his chin resting on one clenched fist. The others in the room heard the perplexed sigh that hissed from lips pressed tightly together.
Tariq Aziz thought he had never seen his master look so worried; not even during the wars with Iran and the West, when it had seemed at times as if the regime's very survival might be threatened. He stole a brief, furtive glance at Saddam.
He was sure Hussein caught his eye, but the usual aggressively querying response did not follow. The ministers hung in the background with their hands clasped before them, staring down at the ground, none of them daring to speak. They had been in that state for the last twenty minutes.
At length Saddam made a move. He reached for the phone and dialled the number of the complex.
In a moment he was speaking to Speyler. "How near are you to completion?"
"I think I'm nearly there," the scientist answered. "It might take a while longer, I'm afraid."
"How long?"
"A few days. Certainly no more than a week. I've just about cracked it."
"You can't promise me tomorrow, or the day after?" Even that could be too late, Saddam thought, with a despair he dared not show the ministers.
"It's feasible, but I wouldn't guarantee it. If you want to be sure of having your weapon before the West launch their attack, I'm afraid you're going to have to - "
"I will decide," Saddam interrupted curtly. He slammed the phone down.
Perhaps it would help if he threatened to shoot Speyler. But even Saddam knew that if something was impossible to achieve within a given time, then it was impossible to achieve within a given time. Executing his chief physicist would hardly help matters.
He had been harrying the Englishman mercilessly ever since the United Nations team had been taken hostage. And no doubt the man was doing his best; anything less would be extremely unwise.
He had said tomorrow was a possibility. Only a possibility.
A few days.
Three weeks had elapsed since the first angry Western response to the imprisonment of the UN team. The Americans and the British would not have been idle during that time. They would have been making their preparations - military preparations. They would try to rescue the hostages, with full UN support; and if they got the chance they would find out what he was doing at the complex and stop it. It was already heavily defended. But the Western attack was bound to be on a big scale; nor were they were going to oblige him by telling him when it was to come.
"We may have no choice but to do it," he murmured, almost to himself.
Tariq Aziz dared to speak. "It may upset everything we have done, Mr President."
Saddam did not answer, because he knew very well that Aziz was right.
"This meeting is over," he announced. "I will come to my own decision and in my own time." He gave a curt nod and the ministers started to shuffle out.
Saddam remained at his desk, staring blankly at the wall, helplessly trapped in his agony of indecision. The minutes ticked by.

"I don't think I can stand much more of this," sighed Margaret Kent. The others looked at her anxiously.
"It's not just the food. If only we knew how this is all going to end. What's going to happen to us."
"They won't let us see the bloody papers," Edward grunted. "And even if we had a TV I wouldn't set too much store by what was on it."
"We're here as insurance for when the Yanks finally go into Iraq with all guns blazing," Chris said dejectedly.
"Well, are we just going to sit here and wait to get killed?" Edward looked round at the others.
"We ain't got no fucking choice," Mandy Dixon said.
Caroline drew herself up with a sigh. She was glad her father's question had forced the issue. "The way I see it is this. We've no idea what's happening outside, and in any case our leaders aren't likely to tell everyone exactly when they're going to launch their invasion, if one's on the cards." And every day that elapsed brought them nearer to whatever their fate might be. "If the Iraqis don't intend to kill us in the end, whatever happens, then we've got nothing to worry about." Perhaps Saddam just wanted the Allies to think he'd kill them, so that they thought twice before storming the complex. "But if they do, there won't be anything we can do to save ourselves. They'll have got it all prepared, and they'll be in position ready to shoot us as soon as the SAS or whoever come crashing in." She wasn't prepared to just sit quietly like a well-behaved hostage until her captors killed her. Nor she was sure were any of the others, if they could help it.
"What I'm getting at," she said quietly, "is that we may not have anything to lose."
She could tell Mandy agreed with her. If I die I die, was the girl's philosophy. Chris and her parents were doubtful. Margaret was particularly undecided; she didn't want to stay where they were but she was very much afraid of the consequences of any escape bid. One of Caroline's main reasons for suggesting a break-out was her concern at the state of her mother's health.
Chris was the first to speak. "Caz, you said just now they might not want to kill us. If they don't, wouldn't we just be making things worse by trying to escape?"
"We could get caught in the crossfire if the Allies attacked. As I said, we've got nothing to lose. And if they don't want to kill us then they won't, even if we start causing trouble." She hoped her logic was correct. "If we do cause trouble, it might persuade them to think about releasing us."
"So," she said, running her gaze over them all, "what do we think?"

The attack was scheduled to take place on the morning of August 27th. Most of the preparations were now complete. Pathfinder Platoon had already marked out the drop-zone and done all the reconnaissance needed before the actual assault, or in the current jargon Tactical Airland Operation, could begin.
Inevitably tension mounted as the deadline approached. The men spoke to one another less, and sometimes were snappy and irritable. The Major was always nervous before an operation involving the rescue of hostages, particularly from a heavily guarded installation like the complex at Quarat. Something could all too easily go wrong. That was despite all the training they had received at the "Killing House" at Stirling Lines, a building where every possible hostage scenario could be simulated, its configuration being changeable to resemble the interior of any structure or vehicle. Here they had honed their reaction times so that they could burst into a room full of hostages and terrorists and immediately differentiate between the two, taking out anyone with a gun before they did any damage. As in all other aspects of warfare they learned to think in the same way, and therefore function effectively as a team.
The Major's current role within the Regiment was as commander of one of its "Sabre" Squadrons, who as well as being proficient in a wide range of other skills had been trained in every aspect of counter-terrorist operations by the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing at Hereford. The Squadron was divided into four Special Projects Teams, each consisting of a captain, or occasionally higher rank, and 15 troops. For hostage rescue operations these were normally subdivided into 4-man assault teams, but since they would be encountering a much greater enemy force than had been the case in, say, the Iranian Embassy siege the deployment of troops would have to be different. Almost the entire Squadron was being committed, with a few men in reserve. It was a risk but, as they were all very well aware, an essential one.
The three Chinooks would each contain a team of 10, 15 and 20 troopers respectively, making forty-five in all. The teams would enter the complex together then split off, each team taking one of the floors of the three-storey complex.
They had gone to bed early the night before the assault, knowing that they would be starting at five o'clock in the morning. A good night's sleep was always vital if they were to be in perfect fighting condition.
When the blaring note of the siren cut through the peace and quiet of the early hours, jerking them all awake, each man felt a powerful rush of adrenalin, an electric thrill charging his entire body. The thought of doing what they hadn't in 1991, and doing it right, excited them and submerged all their fears.
The Major appeared briefly in the door of the sleeping quarters, already kitted out in his black assault suit. "Right lads, we're off. Let's go twat Mr Saddam."
"Baghdad, here we come!" yelled Steve Ferris.
"Maybe!" the Major shouted back.
It took less than ten minutes for them to dress and collect their equipment from the stores. They started to file towards the waiting Chinooks. Glancing to his left the Major saw the four Hercules transporters and the Paras, laden down with their packs, marching into the belly of the plane through the door in its side where the tail joined the main fuselage. He smiled, mentally wishing them well.
None of Hartman's squad spoke as they climbed up the ramp into the Chinook and seated themselves on the benches provided at the sides. They were simply too excited.
This, thought the Major fiercely, as he felt the Chinook shudder before lifting itself off the runway, is where we show the world we're not just a bunch of toy soldiers.

The two guards standing outside the door of the "guest room" were alarmed to hear a frenzied screaming and shouting coming from within. Someone it seemed was either ill or had gone mad.
Then someone started banging on the door. They heard Caroline Kent's voice shouting to them. "She needs the drug, quickly! She'll die if she doesn't get it! Help, please help!"
One guard glanced uncertainly at his colleague, then pushed open the door and stepped in. He just had time to see Mandy Dixon thrashing about on the floor in what looked like a fit of some kind. Then Chris Barrett hurled himself at the man’s legs, cannoning into him with a force that knocked him clean over. In the same instant, Edward Kent kicked the door shut. The fallen Iraqi had managed to retain his grip on his rifle but it had slackened. Edward snatched it from him and as the door was kicked open again by the other guard he aimed it and fired several times. The man in the doorway staggered back, three neat round holes drilled in the centre of his chest, then fell. Chris snatched up his rifle and smashed it down on the other guard's head as he struggled to rise. The man fell back unconscious. They stripped him to his underwear, then tore his clothing into strips and bound and gagged him with it.
Margaret was staring at her husband in horror. "You...you killed him," she gasped.
"I had to," Edward said simply. There was no time to be gentle about it. "Same as in Beirut." He had a sudden vision of the flames licking around the pimp's dying body.
It was easier the second time, he thought dully.
They'd already got their plan worked out. Chris and Edward in the lead, they set off in search of the room where the other hostages were being held. Each time they came to the end of a corridor, they halted while Chris and Edward peered cautiously round the corner. But it seemed most of the soldiers were stationed outside the building, to repel a possible attack by ground forces. They encountered no more guards until, peeking round the corner again, they saw a door with two of them standing outside it. This must be the place.
The only possible approach was the bold one. But it would have to be cunning at the same time. At Caroline's suggestion they crept quietly away until they reached a point beyond range of the Iraqis' hearing. Then they walked back towards the guards, normally, the sound of their marching feet perfectly audible to the two Iraqis. The guards expected their comrades had come to relieve them. They had not been informed about it but that did not surprise them since in Iraq nobody was told anything until just before it happened. They were taken completely unawares when two of the hostages came around the corner armed with Kalashnikovs, and took a second longer to respond than they might have done. By the time they had aimed their rifles Chris and Edward had already shot them. The two men dropped instantly. Edward felt a pang of pleasure at the thought that his reflexes were still sharp.
That's not what I should be thinking, he told himself. What I should be thinking is that I have just shot somebody dead.
One of the Iraqis was still alive, moaning softly and making a feeble attempt to sit up. Automatically Edward finished him off with a bullet in the head.
Again he thought that Chris seemed quite prepared to put a bullet in someone if it seemed necessary, though equally he didn’t relish doing so in the slightest. It must have happened during that business in South America.
Returning to the task in hand, Edward blasted the lock from the door and flung it open. They entered the room to see the UN team rising from their seats, their faces for the moment showing astonishment rather than relief.
Edward regarded the multi-racial gathering with interest. "Well well, what an assortment."
Initially the UNSCOM team had been alarmed on hearing the shots from outside, but then the thought had occurred to them that they might be being rescued. Now they saw that the rescuers, though they weren't Iraqis, weren't soldiers either.
A middle-aged man with greying hair and glasses came forward to greet them, hand outstretched. "Dr Theodore Malikian, United Nations Commission for Iraq. Whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?"
The introductions, and explanations, followed. "Well, I'm sure we're all glad to see you," Malikian smiled. “But isn't this a little dangerous?"
"Well you can stay here if you like," Edward said amiably. "I just thought you might like to be rescued, that's all." He explained why they had decided to take the plunge and stage a breakout.
The diplomats glanced at one another uncertainly. "Well, I'd say you've stirred up enough trouble as it is," Brigitta Carlsson told Edward. "It wouldn't make a hell of a lot of difference if we went along with it."
"I'm going along with it," growled John Cardall.
Edward indicated the dead Iraqi soldiers with their rifles lying beside them. "Who wants to carry those?"
"I do," said Cardall, eagerly snatching up a Kalashnikov. Without hesitation Felipe Soares took the other.
"Good men. Come on then, let's get out of here. We're doing all right so far."
"The real problem will be how to get past that lot outside," Cardall said. "I don't see how we can do it. May be better if we can find somewhere to barricade ourselves in. Somewhere with food. Then we may even be able to hold out until the Americans or the British come."
"Good thinking," said Malikian. "Let's go look for it."
As the party moved off they found themselves thinking of the remark Brigitta had made a few moments ago. It was quite true that they'd passed the point of no return. After all, they'd just killed three of Saddam's men. If they could find a suitable bolthole to establish themselves in they might not have to kill any more.
Caroline hoped to God they wouldn't meet Majid. If he had been transferred here...
"I don't think there's anything on this floor," said Chris. "Let's try the one below."
And then they heard a dozen pairs of feet running in their direction, and stopped to glance at one another.
"Let's split up," said Edward.
It was too late. A dozen Iraqi soldiers appeared at the end of the corridor, all of them armed. The sergeant shouted at the four hostages who had guns to put them down.
For a few tense moments nothing happened. Then Chris and Edward's nerve broke and they lowered their rifles.
But John Cardall and Felipe Soares didn't follow suit. Desperate not to let any chance of freedom slip away, they started blasting away with their Kalashnikovs. A couple of Iraqis fell wounded. Then the Iraqis started firing back and Felipe was hurled backwards as a fusillade of bullets smashed into his body. Cardall spun round with one hand gripping his shoulder, grimacing in agony. His rifle joined Soares' on the floor, then he collapsed on top of it. The corridor was filled with people running around in panic and confusion, the women screaming. Edward and Chris threw first their rifles and then themselves to the floor. Fortunately, the Iraqis weren't terribly good shots. Seeing that Edward and Chris had given in, they abandoned shooting to kill and fired their rifles into the air, aiming to terrorise the escapees into surrender.
But for just a few seconds, pandemonium reigned. Caroline had only those seconds in which to seize her chance. She ran off down the corridor, her body blocked from the Iraqis' view by the dozen or so people stumbling about. Coming to a T-junction, she took the left-hand turning.
Behind her things had begun to sort themselves out. Recovering their presence of mind, the other hostages went down flat. The Iraqis stopped firing, and each hostage was hauled roughly to their feet while other soldiers retrieved the discarded Kalashnikovs.
The NCO dealt Edward a sharp blow across the face with the butt of his rifle. "You'll pay for this," he snarled. "All of you." They must have found the dead bodies of their comrades.
Margaret stormed up to him, eyes flashing. "Leave my husband alone." Another thump from the rifle butt sent her staggering back with a cry. Edward would have thrown himself at the Iraqi but Chris and Zeke held him back.
The sergeant barked an order and Felipe Soares' body was dragged roughly away.
"What about him?" asked Edward, nodding towards John Cardall, who was sitting against the wall groaning, one hand still clasped to his wounded shoulder. Without waiting for a reply, he knelt down beside the Australian and gently moved his hand away. Inspecting the injury, he saw it wasn't as serious as it had first appeared. It didn't go deep enough to puncture a vein or artery.
"We'll see to him as and when we can," said the NCO savagely. "Now move."
The soldiers bundled them off towards the room where the UNSCOM personnel had been held. This time they were taking no chances; they wanted all the hostages in the same place, the better for keeping an eye on them.
A couple of corridors away Caroline paused and listened, her heart pounding. The Iraqis were moving away from her. They hadn't yet realised she was missing. They weren't terribly bright, and perhaps they had got her and the fair woman she had seen among the UN prisoners confused, in such a way that they thought they had the two of them accounted for when in fact they only had the one. Whatever the reason for their mistake, it wouldn't be long before they realised it.
She'd give 'em a run for their money.
Briefly she felt a pang of conscience: shouldn't she see that her parents were all right? But they'd probably cash in their chips anyway, along with all the other hostages, if and when the Allies attacked. If there was the slightest chance she could do something to get them out safely, she had to take it.
She started to explore. Coming to a T-junction, she glanced to her left and her heart leaped as she saw the figure of a guard standing at the end of the passage. Then she realised his back was to her, and sighed in relief. Slipping off her shoes, she moved quietly off in the opposite direction to him.
Another T-junction. She took the right-hand turning this time.
In one wall was a lift. She stopped for a moment and thought. It occurred to her that there was virtually no chance of getting out of the building; the exits would be too well guarded. The only option was to go deeper into it; which by her reckoning meant going down. And that way, she sensed, lay any chance of finding out the secret of this mysterious place. She might as well get her money’s worth before they recaptured her, and if somehow she did manage to escape…
Inside the lift, she pressed the button for the lowest level. A minute later it juddered to a stop and the door opened to reveal a breezeblock wall. Yet another corridor. She listened carefully, and when she couldn't hear anything stepped out of the lift.
This part of the complex seemed utterly deserted. There was no sound of human movement or any other activity. A door stood open in the wall on her right.
On the other side of it she found a large room with rows of plants in pots or on stands and a control panel standing flush with the wall. The plants were wilting, dying; and some had been uprooted and strewn on the floor along with the soil in which they had been nurtured. The deception was no longer necessary.
A bank of equipment had been slid aside to reveal an opening in the floor about six feet long and six wide. Within it she could glimpse the treads of a metal staircase. She guessed the console that had concealed the opening was a dummy, with levers you could pull to make it look as if it did something, and which probably also operated an electric motor to make lights and things work.
A white coat, left behind by one of the departed botanists, lay draped over a workbench at the side of the room. She contemplated it for a moment or two, then put it on.
Hearing movement from below, she ducked down behind the fake control console. Heavy boots rang on the metal ladder. Peeking out, she saw an Iraqi soldier clamber into view. He went out of the room and down the corridor. As soon as he had gone, she left her hiding place, put her shoes back on and began to descend the ladder. She kept all furtiveness out of her movements; better to bluff it out than attract attention by looking edgy.
The staircase led down through a narrow shaft whose walls were smooth and featureless, with no openings on either side. Reaching the bottom, she found herself in another corridor, much the same as all the others she had inspected lately. In the wall on her left was a pair of metal double doors, one of which stood slightly ajar. From behind the doors she could hear the rumble of machinery. Clearly something important was going on in there.
Boldly, she pushed the door right open and stepped through it. And started sharply, catching her breath.
The room was vast, like the inside of an aircraft hangar, with the same concrete walls as everywhere else in the place. There was plenty in it to arouse interest; but what she noticed first of all, what she couldn't possibly have avoided noticing, was the huge object that took up about half the available space. It must have been over two hundred feet long, and half as wide. In shape it was like an elongated egg, its rounded forward section gradually tapering to a cruelly pointed nose which was angled downward slightly. Its texture was smooth and shiny, and it seemed illuminated from within by a soft white light. Intricate vein-like patterns, like the blood vessels of a living organism, criss-crossed its surface. On either side of the thing about halfway along were striated protrusions like the nacelles of an aircraft engine. There were two more similar protrusions further back, and above each of them was a shark-like fin angled flat against the body of the object. There seemed to be a dark opening in the side facing her, towards the front of the thing just above ground level.
She was unable to do anything else but stand and stare at it, captivated by the beauty of its construction, its shapely, perfect contours. What kind of wonder weapon was this Saddam had built? Because she had little doubt it must be for some military purpose. From the rear of the object ran two massively thick cables which disappeared into a rectangular opening high up in the wall, some fifty feet above the head.
Her ears detected a low, soft humming noise. Was it coming from - yes, it was. As she moved closer to the fantastic craft, it seemed more like the rushing of water; the same sound you got when you put a seashell to your ear.
Managing to tear itself from the superweapon, her gaze travelled around the room. By her reckoning it must be as big as a football stadium if not bigger. The roof was nearly a hundred feet up. Rows of strip lights had been installed, hanging from the ceiling in pallets. But there were still dark, shadowed corners, and in places huge patches of damp stained the walls. Listening carefully, she could just hear the faint drip-drip of water.
About fifty feet up a railed platform ran all the way around the room, allowing a comprehensive view of everything. An observation window was set into the wall on a line with the "thing"; through it she glimpsed a small office where a man in military uniform was on the phone. A spider's web of cables and wires was draped over an intricate arrangement of girders suspended from the ceiling; some of them carried worker lights, which cast a soft neon glow upon rows of workbenches cluttered with tools and components. White-coated figures were busy there, making notes, inputting data onto computers, mending tools and other equipment.
She saw huge masses of complex, state-of-the-art machinery, mind-blowingly intricate and bristling with wires, antennae and cables; what they did she could only guess at. Design boards to which diagrams were clipped. Crates, boxes, and spare parts of all kinds stacked against the walls.
Something on one of the benches caught her eye and she moved to inspect it, studying it with interest. Lying side by side were a pair of guns unlike any she had ever seen before. They had recognisable butts, handgrips and triggers but their barrels were square in section, and longer than on any conventional make.
The room was alive with the hum of generators, and illuminated every few seconds by the beat of strobe lights. The noise of people bustling about, chatting as they worked or shouting messages to one another across the huge chamber, echoed through the vast empty space above them.
A large rivulet of water suddenly trickled down one wall.
Caroline heard footsteps approach her briskly, and felt a plunging sensation of despair. Then she recovered her cool. Again she stared up at the massive bulk of the fantastic craft, pretending she was so awed by it that she couldn't spare a thought for anything else. Which after all was pretty much the truth.
The footsteps halted. A voice spoke to her in Arabic, with a strong English accent.
"Hello. I'm sorry, I don't believe we've been introduced." The tone of the speaker's voice made clear their suspicion of her.
Caroline turned to see a man and a woman in the eternal, universal white lab coat of the scientist. The man was maybe fifty, with metal-framed spectacles, greying brown hair, a comfortable paunch and a plump, florid face; the woman young, slim and dark, with severe features Caroline instantly took a dislike to. There was a challenge in both their faces.
"Oh, hello," Caroline said in Arabic. Clearly it was the lingua franca of Saddam's cosmopolitan scientific community; a sensible choice, since they needed to communicate properly with their hosts. Smiling, she held out her hand to the man, whom she could sense was the one in charge. "I'm Dr Jennifer Vane." She’d always been pleased with the name; it sounded like the heroine from one of the comics she'd read as a child.
The man shook the proffered hand; not quite indifferently but not with the warmth of acceptance, either.
"You're English, aren't you?" she inquired in her native tongue.
The plump scientist responded likewise. "That's right."
Neither he nor his companion made any attempt to introduce themselves. "I must say we didn't expect any more new arrivals," the man told her. "I wish they'd let us know you were coming, it makes things much more convenient." Still that steely tone to his voice.
"Well they didn't," said Caroline. "Sorry about that, but it's not my fault you know."
"Quite so," the man agreed. He opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, then seemed to make up his mind. "I'm Professor Malcolm Speyler, chief of project staff. This is my deputy, Dr Monique Desgranges. And what exactly is your job going to be around here?"
"I'll be working on the propulsion system," she answered. "May as well start now. Could I take a look inside it?"
"Why don't you have something to eat and drink first? We'll show you to the canteen." They positioned themselves within a few inches of her, close enough to grab her if she tried to make a run for it.
She gave no indication that she knew they were suspicious of her. The longer she could keep the charade going the better.
Just then they heard a crackle of static from above their heads, and a voice spoke in Arabic over the PA system.
"Attention! Attention all personnel. One of our guests has left the accommodation block and is at large in the complex. You are to search for and apprehend her, then notify the officer in charge of security immediately. I repeat - "
At once the heads of Speyler and Monique jerked towards Caroline. Again she refused to let her alarm show. "Oh dear," she exclaimed. "Well, I guess we'd better all keep our eyes open."
"We certainly will," said Speyler pointedly. They began moving towards the door.
His manner changed, became chatty. "By the way, what do you think of Professor Chernikeeff's views on the superconductivity of titanium?"
It was then that Caroline's control slipped. She hesitated over her answer. "Um..."
The two scientists halted abruptly. "Exactly," said Speyler. "You don't know, do you? Because you're not a scientist, you're the escaped hostage."
Caroline sighed, accepting the collapse of her deception. "Well I can tell you one thing, I'm not a "guest"."
Speyler regarded her with interest. "I presume your name isn't really Jennifer Vane?"
"No, it's Caroline Kent. I'm an innocent British citizen and I demand - "
"I'm afraid the Iraqis aren't the sort of people you can make demands of. You'll stay here until they've finished with you."
"I see. Well before you hand me over to them, is there any chance you can tell me what all this is about - what we're being held prisoner for?" She nodded towards the vast gleaming shape in the centre of the chamber. "What's that, for example?"
She saw Speyler and his colleague glance at one another.
Speyler smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, I don't think that would be a very good idea."
"Oh no? You think about it. I doubt if any of us are going to be allowed out of here alive, at least not until Saddam's finished whatever it is he's doing with that thingumajig. Or are you expecting that we'll escape? If you are, you can't have much faith in your own abilities can you?"
A wry smile spread over Speyler's face. "I like your sense of logic, my dear," he said. "Very well, I admit you have a right to know. Unfortunately, I don't have time to tell you. Our hosts will want you back under lock and key as soon as possible. In fact, I think it's about time we let them know we've got you."
Clearly expecting her to make trouble, Monique Desgranges moved to take hold of her arm. Caroline drew away from her with a savage look, suddenly angry. "It's all right, I'll come quietly. Haven't got much bloody choice, have I?" She stormed off towards the exit.
For a couple of moments, Speyler and Desgranges were taken completely by surprise. They were still standing staring after her when she came up beside a workbench on which stood a canister sporting a skull-and-crossbones emblem and warning messages in several languages.
She snatched it from the bench, whirled round and flung it through the air. It landed on the floor at the scientists' feet and the lid flew off. A smoking greyish liquid splashed onto them, and both screamed and staggered back.
Caroline ran - not for the exits, but back towards the thing in the centre of the chamber, past Speyler and Desgranges who were still lurching about and screaming with their hands covering their faces.
Already people were rushing towards her from all sides. But she was closer to the craft than they were. In a few seconds she had disappeared through the opening in its flank.
The first scientist to reach the craft came up to the opening, and skidded to a halt as one of his colleagues called out to him. "It's all right, I've called the soldiers." The girl was more likely to come quietly if a gun was being pointed at her.
Everyone turned their attention to Desgranges and Speyler. "They'll need to be seen to," someone said. "They should be all right but those burns will take time to heal." The pair were bundled away.
A couple of minutes later the Iraqi soldiers arrived in the chamber.

Caroline stood looking around the interior of the craft with as much interest as she had the outside.
Patterns of light flowed across the walls, pulsing gently. There was an antiseptic smell with a sharp ammonia-like tang which made it a little cloying. Everything was spotlessly, impossibly clean, and bathed in a clear, strong white-yellow light the source of which couldn't be identified. The humming noise was louder now, a constant roaring and rushing. Just beneath it her ears could detect another kind of sound, something like the twitter of birdsong. The network of markings on the walls looked like blood vessels and nerves, only striated in an Art Deco fashion.
The short tunnel through which she had entered the craft had opened into a broad corridor. To her left, within the nose section, there seemed to be a door, leading she guessed to a pilot's cabin or its equivalent, but she had no time to investigate. The room wouldn't by itself provide much space in which to hide. Her impulse was to go further and further inside the craft, and as quickly as possible. Let's see how far this corridor goes on, and what's at the end of it, she thought. We'll take it from there.
So she turned to the right. A few yards along the passage seemed to end in a flat, plain metal wall. Then she saw the outline of a door in it. Instead of a handle there was a button which you were obviously meant to press. As her fingers touched it the door slid sideways into the wall instead of opening in the normal way. She ran down the corridor beyond, intending to stop only when she got too tired to keep going. At a guess the thing was big enough for her to lose herself in, at least for a time. She couldn't yet hear the sound of running feet, and concluded she had a head start.

Stepping through the door, the Iraqis paused and looked around in awe. It was the first time they had been inside the craft.
The NCO collected his wits. "Come on," he shouted, and ran on down the corridor, his men following close behind. He came to the door in the bulkhead, which had slid back into its normal position, and pressed the button. Again the door retracted into the wall and they hurried through in pursuit of the escapee.

Caroline staggered to a halt and leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. She was quite exhausted.
Straightening up, she scanned her surroundings. Several other corridors branched off from this one. In addition there were a number of doors on each side. She tried them all, and each time found herself confronted by an assortment of weirdly-shaped structures whose purpose she couldn't fathom no matter how hard she tried.
What now? She felt safer staying where she was, but if she did the Iraqis would probably find her sooner. If she kept moving about rather than remain in one place the chase could be prolonged. She had the impression she was somewhere near the rear of the craft. Deciding to try one of the left-hand corridors, she emerged on what must be the other side of the vessel. There were no doors in the left-hand wall, only, it appeared, the solid structure of the hull. Like the corridor she had first come down, this one seemed to run almost the whole length of the vessel, though interrupted at intervals by the ubiquitous push-button doors. She began walking slowly back towards the front of the vessel.
She passed a section of wall made from a transparent, glass-like substance. And realised with a start that there was someone on the other side of it. Looking at her.
In any case too tired to run, she stood and stared at the figure; at first with interest then, as she took in its details fully, with increasing astonishment and disbelief. A giddy, nauseous, indescribably weird sensation swept through her and she reeled back until she almost collided with the opposite wall, one hand flying to her mouth.
On her travels for the company, she had already seen some pretty strange things. Incredible things. But this was far bigger than any of them.
She now knew the true nature of Saddam's secret; knew just what it was that she stood inside.
It might for all she knew have weapons, but it wasn't itself a weapon, as such.
It was a spaceship.
An alien spaceship.

TWENTY-THREE
Iraqi anti-aircraft weaponry had never been of a particularly high standard, and their radar systems had been thrown into confusion by the activities of US Navy Prowlers and USAF Ravens from airbases and aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean region, equipped with ECM (electronic counter-measure) pods. So it was that the combined British forces were confident of reaching the complex at Quarat unmolested.
They did.
Each of the four C130-J Hercules carried 64 paratroops. Twenty minutes into the flight the order was given for each man to check his reserve chute, for use if the main chute should unexpectedly malfunction. He then checked the main chute of the man in front. At the command "action station" the men filed down the aircraft in two rows towards the pair of doors at its rear, one on each side of the fuselage.
They were choosing HALO - High Altitude, Low Opening. This gave them the advantage of being able to fly high enough to be invisible to the naked eye and safe from hand-held Surface-to-Air missiles. They were approximately 6.8 miles above sea level.
The red light over each of the doors changed to green; they were over the drop zone, a couple of miles from the complex. With a whoosh of compressed air the doors sprang open and a howling wind tore through the belly of the aircraft.
They made their jump in two lines or "sticks", one from each door. At the shout of "Go go go!" from the Sergeant they threw themselves into the raging slipstream, and in seconds it had plucked them away. Soon they were a cluster of black dots raining down from the aircraft as it sped on its way. As the wind lessened they descended faster. At about 2500 feet the parachutes opened automatically.
The Iraqis had deployed their troops and equipment in six concentrations forming a ring around the complex. Likewise the Paras were inserted at six different locations encircling the Iraqis in a ring which gradually contracted. Each concentration of Iraqi troops was to be engaged by a squadron of thirty Paras some of whom were armed with anti-tank weapons. All had grenades and rifles, as had the Iraqis.
After the men had landed their vehicles and equipment were dropped to them by parachute through the single door at the rear of each Hercules' cargo bay, which when the aircraft was on the ground could be lowered to form a ramp via which they were loaded or unloaded. Other vehicles entered Iraq across the Jordanian border to rendezvous with the troops at the drop zone.
Then the Paras began to make their way towards the complex. As soon as the opposing forces were close enough to sight one another the Iraqis opened fire, panicking, and the battle began.
In size the Iraqi force was slightly bigger. And the Iraqis fought bravely - no doubt they had been told this was the last stand, that they were in a desperate situation and must make it good, defending the complex until what was inside it could be used against the West.
Grenades or hand-held Javelin missiles could score a direct hit on an Iraqi tank; several times Martin MacDonald was almost deafened by the whoosh and roar of a Javelin as it streaked through the air close by him, to blow off the tank's turret or blast a gaping hole in its side from which flames licked and smoke poured, its odour mingling with that of burning flesh. And Iraqi troops could of course be shot or grenaded. But so could the British; and they were also vulnerable to shells from enemy tanks, to anti-tank missiles, and to multiple launch rocket systems firing surface-to-surface missiles. What probably tipped the balance in the end was the superior technical quality of the British hardware.
Soon the battlefield was dotted with heaps of blackened, twisted metal, some of them still blazing fiercely. The charred body of an Iraqi soldier lay half in and half out of one tank. Severed heads and limbs, and limbless and headless torsoes, were scattered about. MacDonald's boot sank with a squelch into a shapeless mass of blood and flesh that had once been a man.
At great cost, they had more or less destroyed all the Iraqis' equipment and vehicles, apart from a few tanks abandoned by their crews. It still remained to engage their remaining troops.
The battle was vicious and bloody; but gradually, inevitably, the British began to push the Iraqis back towards the complex.

"Emergency, this is an emergency. Will all personnel please remain where they are until further orders. Do not leave the chamber; I repeat, do not leave the chamber. Continue with the project."
Briefly, everyone stopped work to stare at one another. "What do you think is going on up there?" Desgranges, her injuries now treated as Speyler’s had been, asked her colleague. She was clearly worried.
"I haven't a clue. But I expect they're not saying because they don't want us to panic." His lips pursed. "Oh well, I suppose we'd better get on with it like they said."
The soldiers looking for Caroline couldn't hear the announcement inside the spaceship, but the NCO paused in his as his radio crackled. It was General Fawzieh. "The complex is under attack! You're needed up here immediately. Forget about the girl, we'll deal with her later."

The attack had been meticulously planned so that the SAS arrived on the scene at exactly the same time as the Paras. Within a minute or two of hostilities opening the Chinooks were hovering directly above the complex.
In the lead helicopter the Major looked out of the window and saw the flat roof thirty feet beneath him. "There it is, lads," he shouted. "There it is."
Like everyone else, he was now wearing a black flame-proof Nomex assault suit, underneath which was a Dowty armourshield vest with ceramic plates laid over it. The equipment pack at his belt contained spare ammunition, a medical kit and radio, a couple of MX5 stun grenades, a sledgehammer, bolt cutter, glass cutter, axe, wrecking bar and grappling hook. His hands were protected by fireproof gloves. Beside him on the floor lay a Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun and a 9mm Browning pistol, for use if it turned out to be more convenient or if the MP5 jammed.
"Helmets on!" he shouted. He slipped on the ballistic helmet with its built-in respirator and microphone, immediately transforming his appearance into something sinister and disturbing. The gear not only had a practical value but, it was thought, put the wind up the enemy and gave its wearer the psychological edge. With his goggles and mouthparts, he now looked like a man with the head of a giant insect.
"Ladders down!" he yelled. The three ladders were flung out, brushing the gravel-coated concrete surface of the roof. Quickly they were secured to the internal framing of the Chinook's fuselage.
"GO-GO-GO!!!" the Major shouted.
In succession each man twisted round, grabbed the topmost rung of one of the ladders, and scrambled down it. In a couple of minutes the troopers were swarming over the roof like a cluster of black flies. Above them the hovering Chinooks tilted, swung round and flew away.
Since there were no balconies or similar structures built out from the walls, from which entry could be gained to each floor, there would be no abseiling down the sides of the building. They made for the huge skylight in the centre of the roof. Quickly establishing that it could not be opened from outside, the Major knelt down, lifted his sledgehammer high in the air and smashed it down on the toughened glass, shattering it. Swiftly knocking out the remaining fragments, he scrambled through the opening and dropped down into the laboratory beneath. One by one the others slid through to join him.
As arranged, the SAS force now split again into three groups. One, with Jordy Dennis in command, was to remain on the top floor while the other two, led by the Major and Bob Moretti, went in search for the stairs to the lower levels. The Major's was to take the middle floor, Moretti's the ground.
The door of the laboratory was locked, so the lead trooper blasted it open and they poured out into the corridor. Almost immediately the sight of a dozen or so Iraqi soldiers, running towards them, met their eyes. The Iraqis seemed to hesitate briefly, and a couple fell dead as the British seized their advantage and opened fire. Then they rallied, and began shooting back. In amongst the lead troopers, Steve Ferris felt one of his comrades slump against and slide down him, lifeless. Another jerked and fell sideways. Whether the two were dead or merely knocked over by the impact of the bullets he didn't know and hadn't time to check.
The Iraqis were hoping to pick them off as they left the laboratory, forcing them to retreat back inside it for safety, before all of them were in the corridor and able to overwhelm them.
The British went on firing and Ferris saw another Iraqi soldier drop. Without the benefit of the bulky assault suit the British wore, the man must be dead or at least severely injured. Then someone threw a stun grenade at the cluster of Iraqis. The brilliant flash as it went off blinded and disorientated them and the deafening bang robbed them momentarily of their hearing. They scattered, staggering in confusion. The SAS continued to blast away, more and more of them streaming from the laboratory and opening fire as they did so. In little more than seconds every one of the Iraqis was dead.
They reached the stairs and the Major's and Moretti's squads pounded down them to the middle floor, while Jordy Dennis' proceeded to check all the rooms on the top. While Moretti's team ran on down to the ground floor the Major's peeled off to the left, and came up to an internal door. They jumped to one side as he flung it open. Seeing the central corridor was empty, he led his men on. Each of them was a taut cluster of nerve endings, constantly on the alert, ready to react to the slightest hostile action. The assault suits might save them from immediate harm but the impact of one or more bullets could still knock a man over and leave him momentarily helpless.
All the time the Major was conscious of the blood pounding in his temples, the slimy taste of the rubber respirator in his mouth.
He booted open the first door they came to. It took him a split second to determine that there were no Iraqis in the room. He kicked open the next and was immediately faced with several armed, green-clad figures. He opened fire immediately, riddling two of them with bullets. He had no time to register the look of fear on the young men's faces as they slumped and folded like empty sacks. The third Iraqi just had time to fire. The impact of the bullet knocked Hartman backwards and he lost his balance, landing on his back. Before the Iraqi had time to reaim the Major had fired from his prone position, sending several shots through the man's heart. He sprang up, running to the next door and flinging it open. Darren Haddon flung in a stun grenade and then Hartman opened fire, sweeping the room with bullets. Staggering helplessly around the room in total confusion, the four Iraqis didn't stand a chance.
They cleared the other rooms in the same fashion. As they ran to the final door it burst open and an Iraqi came out with one arm wrapped tightly around the neck of a woman, who was screaming and sobbing with fear. He had a gun held to her skull. "Don't shoot!" the Iraqi screamed, in as much a state of panic as his captive. "Don't shoot or I will kill her!"
Sorry, love, thought the Major, but we don't have a choice. Ignoring the Iraqi's warning, Darren Haddon lobbed a stun grenade at the pair of them. It went off and the Iraqi gave a yell and dropped his gun, releasing the woman who lurched about with her hands over her eyes, shrieking. It was obvious he hadn't seriously intended to kill her.
The Major raised his Heckler and Koch and blasted him down.
He flung himself on the woman, knocking her to the floor. "All right, love, all right." Still disorientated from the effects of the grenade, she didn't protest as he produced a roll of tape from his equipment pouch and tied her hands and feet. However much some might feel indignant about it it was standard procedure in hostage rescues, since they could never discount the possibility that the hostages might have been turned by their captors.
Something about the woman looked familiar. Jesus fucking Christ, the Major thought as realisation dawned. It's Caroline's Mum.
Meanwhile one of his squad was throwing a stun grenade into the room. As it went off they burst in. Again it took them the barest fraction of a second to determine there were no X-rays in the room, apart from the two soldiers rolling about on the floor covering their eyes and screaming. X-rays was the code name given to enemy forces in situations like these, to distinguish them from innocent civilians. They threw themselves on hostages and guards alike, brought them down, tied them up. As the Major ran down the corridor to join them, leaving one trooper to look after Margaret Kent, he saw Jordy Dennis hurrying to meet him. "Piece of piss, Sir!" Dennis shouted triumphantly.
"Not till we've taken the whole building, it isn't," the Major snapped back.
Leaving him to get on with it, he hurried into the room where the hostages had been held. "Sorry about this," he shouted, grinning at the surprise and indignation on the faces looking up at him.
Edward was there, he noted. And young Chris Barrett, Caroline's friend. But no Caroline.
He knelt down beside Edward. "Is Caroline here?"
"I don't know. We tried to escape, the Iraqis caught us...she ran off somewhere. Find her..."
"As soon as we can."
"My wife...Margaret..."
"She's OK, don't worry."
Leaving three troopers to guard the hostages, the Major and several others rejoined the rest of the squad on the ground floor. It was the same routine all the time. They ran through the building blasting locks with shotguns, kicking in doors, throwing in stun grenades and then shooting any Iraqis who happened to be within. They didn't leave until they were absolutely sure the enemy were dead, as opposed to merely being seriously injured. That was the only safe way to do things. They didn't in fact meet a lot of opposition. Most of the remaining Iraqis were outside fighting the Paras, and the majority of the rooms were empty. A lot of the Iraqis they did find panicked and ran, terrified by the black-clad, masked figures moving with seeming effortlessness through the building, mowing down their comrades. If only the Major had time to feel sorry for them.
Some of the Iraqis tried to start a fire to delay the attackers' progress, strewing rubbish across the width of the corridor and setting it alight with a match, but the SAS simply ran through it, the flames licking ineffectually at their assault suits, while their respirators protected them from the smoke.
Dennis was right; it was a piece of piss. It was the Paras who were doing the hard job, Hartman thought guiltily. They might have to be content with grabbing the hostages and clearing out before the Iraqis won the battle outside and retook the complex. The thought of an unfinished business, a partial success, angered him. Several hundred feet below, Malcolm Speyler looked up from his workbench as the soldiers came running out of the spacecraft. "What's going on?" he shouted.
"Stay there!" yelled the NCO. There was no time to explain. The soldiers scrambled up the ladder into the main complex, shifting the dummy console back into place over the entry hatch. The attackers must not find out what lay beneath their feet.
A door burst open and three or four of their comrades came flying through it. "What's happening?" the NCO demanded.
"The British have taken the complex...they're everywhere! We've got to hide! They won't find us in the chamber!"
The soldiers moved the dummy console aside again and all of them scurried down the ladder, once more moving the console back into place above their heads.
Speyler turned towards them as they reappeared. "What's going on?" he demanded again, by now both alarmed and irritated.
"The British are overrunning the complex. We have to stay down here."
Monique Desgranges felt panic grip her. "We can't be here forever. What happens when our food runs out?"
Hassan Ahmed came up beside her. "The British will know hostages were being held here for a reason. If there doesn't appear to be anything suspicious above ground they'll come looking below it. We can't hope to stay hidden for very long."
They were both looking at Speyler expectantly. He could sense the fear in both of them.
Thoughtfully he glanced towards a bench on which sat a stubby canister with thick, transparent walls of reinforced glass and a metal lid. The grey-white substance inside appeared only semi-solid, but it heaved and pulsed like a living thing. Within it brilliant white sparks of energy crackled and flashed and zigzagged about.
The scientist smiled. "There's one chance," he told his colleagues.

General Fawzieh was on the phone to Baghdad. "We need reinforcements!" he shouted. "They are on the point of taking the complex! No, there's no time to evacuate. Just get here as fast as you can."
He slammed down the phone with a sigh. They'd get here far too late to be of any use.
He was getting no reply from any of his men inside the complex. From all around he could hear the sound of running feet, the occasional rifle shot. The British were simply brushing his forces aside, cutting down any who resisted where they stood.
His eyes went to the automatic lying on his desk.
Did he really want to sacrifice his life for a regime like Saddam's? What would be the point? The battle was hopelessly lost, as he was sure the regime itself would be before too long. A regime which had already brought untold misery and suffering to its people and was obeyed only through fear. Surely it wasn't a good enough reason for bereaving Leila and the children, leaving them without a husband and father.
He hesitated, in an agony of indecision.
Was he to act like a patriotic Iraqi, or surrender now and by so doing render everything he had already done in the service of his country pointless?
In a minute or so the attackers would reach the office.
He stood there unhappily, his gaze darting between the door and the pistol on the desk. Once or twice he made a move to pick up the weapon, only to falter.
Hundreds had fled from Iraq before, unimpressed by their leader's charms once they had a chance of leaving the country. That only went to show, he knew. And yet....
The door burst open and something was thrown into the room. A cylindrical metal object. With horror he recognised it as a grenade.
The object exploded with a brilliant flash and a piercing howl. Deafened, blinded and dazed, Fawzieh keeled over onto the floor and lay there, aware of little more than that he was still alive. Steve Ferris ran into the room and immediately skidded to a halt; it seemed to be empty. Then he became aware of the Iraqi officer lying flat on his back behind the desk, groaning, his eyelids flickering erratically. And the pistol lying on the desk, untouched.
He hesitated, then bent over the Iraqi and quickly searched him. Nothing.
"All right, mate," he breathed. He pocketed the pistol then tied Fawzieh's hands and feet with a roll of tape from his belt pouch.
He called Hartman on his GPS receiver. "I've got the garrison commander in here, Boss, all wrapped up like a fucking chicken."
"Stay right with him, Steve. We'll be with you in a minute. It's just about over."
While he waited for the others to turn up Steve took a look round the room. The floor was covered by a thick Persian carpet and behind the polished mahogany desk was a padded leather executive-style chair. There were venetian blinds over the windows. A haze of smoke hung in the air just underneath the ceiling; its source was the ashtray on the desk, full of stubbed-out cigarettes. On the wall was the obligatory picture of Saddam, in full military uniform. Beside it hung various administrative notices.
Steve heard the sounds of gunfire gradually cease. He opened the door a fraction and inched his head out. He saw the Major coming towards him, mask off. That could only mean one thing.
He stepped into the corridor. "Have we done it, Sir?"
"Yes, we have." The Major's eyes were shining exultantly. "They're all taken care of."
"And out there?"
"And out there, too. We've won."
But no sign of Saddam or bin Laden, the Major thought. Still, maybe that would come later.
Ferris took off his own mask. "Did we lose anyone?" he asked tentatively.
"A couple." Briefly the Major closed his eyes. "We expected that though, didn't we?"
He glanced up as MacDonald came along the corridor. The two shook hands and clapped each other on the shoulder. The Paras officer was smiling but in a sad, weary fashion. The Major knew his lot would have born the brunt of the casualties; MacDonald must have come from seeing good friends and colleagues shot down or blown to pieces around him.
The Major remembered Caroline. "Did you see any sign of a girl anywhere, either of you? A Western girl?" He'd already asked the rest of the SAS force, but their answers had all been in the negative.
"No, 'fraid not Sir," Ferris replied. "What does she look like?" The Major described Caroline.
"No trace of her anywhere, unless she went outside. I just hope she didn't get caught up in the fighting."
MacDonald, who shrugged and shook his head. "Havenae seen her. I'll get my lads to look, shall I?"
"If you wouldn't mind," said the Major. Meanwhile, it was time to inform his superiors of their victory.
British forces in Iraq were now under the overall command of Gulf veteran General Sir Donald Le Chevallier. Although the two men had met only once, and briefly, le Chevallier was well acquainted with Mike Hartman's reputation and had decided to give him as much rein as he asked for.
It had been stipulated by the Prime Minister that le Chevallier should work very closely with the Americans; with him at all times was General Sam Cathcart, his US opposite number. The Joint Command had set up its headquarters at an American airbase in Qatar, Saudi Arabia being a little less pro-West these days.
As a jubilant le Chevallier relayed the news to his companions the Major could hear the shouts of joy from Cathcart.
They agreed he would call the General again in an hour or so's time. Their job wasn't quite finished. They had cleared the building of all enemy troops, and according to the UN Report there was nothing underground. But Theodore Malikian's team had obviously found something here that had worried them, and he needed to know what it was - and what had happened to Caroline - so they could be out of here before more Iraqis came along to take the complex back. He went upstairs to question the former hostages.

The alien's basic shape was human, but it must be over twelve feet tall, towering high above Caroline in the relatively confined space of the corridor. And it was massively built, with thick, bulging thighs and biceps and a broad barrel chest. It seemed to be naked, although it might be wearing some skin-tight garment, like a body stocking. However, there was no bulge at its crotch to suggest genitals. It did, though, have buttocks, and they were ample and well-rounded. Perfectly rounded, in fact. She felt a strange, and disturbing, twinge of arousal. He - despite the lack of wedding tackle it was obviously a he - was quite a hunk.
The alien's skin was whitish, and completely smooth and hairless, with a silvery sheen to it. It had fingers and toes, the former longer and thinner than a human's, but they were without nails. Its head was massive and bald with a small, indented face, deep cavernous eye sockets and prominent cheekbones.
It was bent forward in a half-crouch, staring at her with unnerving intensity. Its face was similar enough to the human for her to detect, or think she detected, expression in it. The look it was giving her was one of keen interest. It studied her carefully and with obvious fascination.
It leaned forward to get a closer look at her. Immediately there was a brilliant blue flash in the air between the two of them and the alien let out a deafening bellow of pain. Caroline too jumped back, with a shriek of fright. Though not close enough to be harmed by it, thankfully, she had nonetheless felt the massive electric shock. She realised it had singed a lock of her hair.
She glanced at the alien, and saw sparks crackling around its body. It reeled and staggered, bent almost double, then collapsed into a sitting position, evidently stunned.
Positioned just in front of an open door in the transparent wall, which Caroline hadn't noticed at first, and sunk into the floor was a metal plate from which wires led to an arrangement of stanchions bolted to the wall so as to form a frame around the door. She guessed the triggering of a light beam electrified the metal bars so that anyone in too close proximity to them received a nasty jolt. Overcome by curiosity, the alien had quite forgotten about the device.
Obviously the Iraqis wanted it to stay where it was for the time being. Suits me fine, Caroline thought. Without identifying it as hostile, she found there was something about the creature that made her uneasy.
The alien was shaking its head, trying to orientate itself. There were burn marks on its face and chest but on the whole it didn't seem too badly hurt. She herself would probably have got burnt to a crisp if she'd been an inch or two closer, but the alien was obviously far more resilient than her own species, as the Iraqis had no doubt guessed. Slowly but surely the creature was recovering.
Peering into the room, Caroline saw banks of equipment lining the walls and a row of long, low platforms each with a convoluted mass of pipes and tubes at one end. It looked like some kind of rest chamber, she decided. But what was the purpose of all the pipe-work?
Suspended animation, she thought. It must be.
She moved on. A little later she came to another door, which didn't appear to have any lethal gadgets set up in front of it. She pressed the button to open it, but to her surprise nothing happened.
Interesting. The aliens had left all the doors on the ship unlocked, unless the Iraqis had managed to open them. But this one remained sealed shut; why?
No sooner had her mind begun to grapple with the question than it was thrown violently into confusion as a cacophony of strange and terrifying sounds filled the air around her. They seemed to pierce right through her skull and into her brain, tearing it apart. At the same time a succession of nightmarish, indescribably horrific images flashed before her eyes; her skin felt sore and painful as if sandpaper was being rubbed over it; and her mouth and nostrils were filled with all kinds of disgusting, and oddly unfamiliar, tastes and smells. All her five senses were being turned against her, driving her mad. Screaming, gasping and retching, her hands clasped tightly over her ears, she stumbled away from the door - and then back towards it in her disorientation. She tried to keep hold of her wits, to walk in a straight line, but she just couldn't think properly; in fact the effort of thinking at all, of simply being aware, was excruciatingly painful. "Stop it!" she screamed. "Please, stop! Leave me alone! I can't stand it! Stop it, please!"
Her mind responded to the attack in the only way it could. Her consciousness suddenly switched off and she crumpled to the floor, sinking into merciful oblivion.

When the four Paras on their way to look for Caroline Kent heard the footsteps come towards them, they assumed it was more of their number, or the SAS. They were surprised and alarmed to find them-selves facing a dozen Iraqi soldiers, all of them very much alive and conscious.
"What the fuck - " the young Paras officer had no time to finish the sentence before the Iraqis opened fire. Unlike the SAS the Paras were not wearing the bulky assault suits and instead of just knocking them over, the shots killed them.
They had no time to notice that one of the soldiers was unarmed, carrying instead a transparent canister in which some strange-looking grey-white substance seethed and pulsated.
The Iraqis hurried on until they came to a grille set high up in the wall, covering a ventilation shaft. Two of them grabbed hold of the wire mesh, inserting their fingers through the holes, and pulled, ripping it from the wall. A third prised the top off the canister and placed it inside the opening. He watched the strange grey-white substance expand and billow out of the canister, like an enormous glistening foam bubble.
Removing his camouflage jacket, he rammed the grille back into place and then covered it with the jacket, holding it there.

The hostages were starting to recover from the shock and stress of their ordeal. They were both elated and surprised to find themselves alive and in one piece. Physically they had sustained no damage; Margaret Kent had been temporarily blinded and deafened by the stun grenade, but the MX5 always had that effect, and her sight and hearing were now back to normal. With the complex more or less fully secured they could now be untied, although it was best to keep them under guard for the moment.
"About bloody time, too," complained Edward as he felt his bonds come away. He glared up at the Major. "I've spent enough time tied up lately. For God's sake, man, I know you."
"Well keep your bloody mouth shut about it," said the Major cheerfully.
Edward suddenly remembered his daughter. "Caroline! Where's Caroline?"
Margaret stiffened, and her face clouded. "Oh yes, Caroline. What's happened to her, do you know?"
"Still no sign of her, I'm afraid. We're looking outside." The Major placed his hands on her shoulders. "We'll do our best to find her," he promised, glancing at Edward reassuringly.
"Right then, Dr Malikian," he said, going over to the UN official. "What exactly are the Iraqis up to here?"
"I think there may be something underneath this complex, some secret room. The young lady could be there. We don't know what it is but - "
"Are you all right?" the Major asked, as Malikian broke off suddenly. The American was blinking rapidly and his face seemed to be rippling and billowing like the surface of a sea, as if something had thrown the nerves beneath the skin into disarray.
Then Steve Ferris' fingers sprang open and his rifle clattered on the floor. His mouth opened wide and next second he jacknifed into the air, to land flat on his back with everyone staring at him in alarm. Everyone except Dr Malikian who was crumpling slowly in two, his eyes misting over.
Suddenly the Major didn't feel too good himself. There was a sweet, cloying smell in his nostrils, so thick it almost suffocated him. Nothing around him felt quite real; all was dissolving into a blurred, swimming haze, in which he could just make the forms of his companions, staggering and collapsing as they too were affected by...by whatever this was. And he was hot, so hot...
Every move, every thought even, was incredibly painful. Something was forcing his consciousness to withdraw, sucking it deep down into a bottomless black pit. He struggled fiercely to organise his thoughts, so he could fight it, but the only one which occurred to him was that the Iraqis were fighting back with their chemical weapons and he was going to...
Was going to...
Was going...
Was...
Was going to die...
He was unconscious when the first of the Iraqi soldiers entered the room and opened the window, allowing the substance to escape into the air around the building. Already it was becoming dispersed, diluted, but it would still be concentrated enough to take care of the Paras who were searching the battlefield for Caroline, before it became harmless. In a matter of minutes, the complex would be back in Iraqi hands.

TWENTY-FOUR
General le Chevallier was shouting into the radio, feeling the alarm grow within him. "Major Hartman! Can you hear me? This is the General. Please report status of your mission."
But there was only the crackling of static. He stared at the radio for a minute and then slammed it down with a harsh, bitter sigh.
He and Cathcart looked at each other. "I guess he's run into some kind of trouble," said the American solemnly.
Slowly Le Chevallier sat down. "But what?" he said quietly. "I just don't understand it. They'd more or less overcome all resistance and secured the complex. What the bloody hell could have gone wrong?"
For a while both men were silent.
"Do you think there'll be a statement from the Iraqis?" Cathcart asked.
"Somehow I don't think so. This isn't an ordinary war situation." The General breathed. It was not a common occurrence for the SAS to fail. The only consolation was that it must be due to something entirely unforeseen, whose nature could only be guessed at. Something which couldn't have been foreseen, because otherwise they would have dealt with it.
"It doesn't really matter, whatever it is," growled Cathcart. "It's got to be a full-scale invasion now. We'll finish off Saddam like we should have done years ago."
Le Chevallier nodded slowly. "I don't think there's any choice. I'd prefer to give Hartman a chance, though. Maybe, just maybe, he can get out of whatever situation he's in. It'll take a couple of days to get everything together in any case. And don't forget, Sam - we don't know what kind of superweapon Saddam's got hidden away in there. We could just be sending our troops to their deaths."
He galvanised himself into action. "If Hartman does get in touch I want you to let me know straight away," he told the hovering figure of his adjutant, Colonel Haydon.
He reached for his mobile. There were all kinds of calls to be made. Cathcart, meanwhile, was already on the line to Washington.

An Iraqi officer was kneeling over the unconscious body of Caroline Kent where it lay on the floor of the chamber, Hassan Ahmed and another Iraqi scientist standing nearby.
"She seems to be unconscious," he said. "There's no sign of any injury. I think she must have tried to open the sealed door and got knocked out like Samireh."
So far, they had been unable to work out how to bypass the security systems which caused anyone who tried to find out what lay behind the door massive neurological disruption.
The Iraqi straightened up with a grunt. "She probably saw the alien." He frowned. "I don't know what difference it makes." He nodded towards the door of a storeroom. "Put her in there until the President has been consulted. Move everything out, in case there's anything she can use to escape. I don't want her causing any more trouble."
He turned back to the two scientists. "And you say the alien is awake again?"
"Yes," one answered. "I watched it for some minutes, but it did not go back to sleep. It just stood and stared at me."
The officer nodded. In other circumstances he might have been uneasy at the news. But in any case, the British attack had changed everything. Whatever happened, they knew now that their country had very little to lose.

The Army High Command had informed Saddam Hussein of the attack immediately it had begun. The news had sent a chill of fear through him. The nearness of disaster had clearly shaken him, the successful recapture of the complex failing to calm his nerves.
"They are sure to try again," he said, almost to himself. "Of course, we have the hostages."
Tariq Aziz said, "Mr President, I think if the installation is causing the Western powers enough concern they will launch another attack regardless of the hostages. Probably they will bomb it."
"We will tell them we will kill the hostages immediately if there is any action by them against us."
"I do not think they will listen."
Saddam knew very well Aziz was right. He himself was wrong and they were only being sensible in trying - obliquely, of course, for he would have killed them if they had been too open about it - to point it out to him. He stood up and paced the room worriedly, his brow tightly knotted, his hands behind him. "And there has been no success at transferring the power?" he asked Fawzieh.
"No, Mr President. They should be able to but they can't." Fawzieh was patiently repeating what he had already told Saddam a hundred times.
Saddam felt suddenly weary and old. He knew he was gambling a lot. Too much, perhaps.
But if he didn't, he was lost anyway. "Then there is only one thing we can do," he said quietly. "We must release the alien. It must know how the craft works. We will have no choice but to trust it."
He rang Speyler at the complex to tell him his decision. "We'll definitely have to take the risk."
"Does this mean you won't need me any more?" asked the scientist, suddenly a little uneasy.
"Of course not," said Saddam reassuringly. "In any case, we don't know whether it'll prove more co-operative than the other one." He thought carefully for a moment. "Go to the launch silo and continue with the work on the missile until I tell you otherwise. Don't lose any time."

Enlil's first sensation after regaining consciousness had been of several pairs of hands, humanoid hands, seizing hold of him and tearing him from the life support equipment. He was still only dimly aware and could do nothing to resist. He felt the hands carry him off, then he was being lain on a cold, smooth metallic surface. Restraints of some kind were being clamped around his wrists and ankles. By the time his strength had returned he was immovably pinioned.
The haze before his eyes cleared and he saw a face looking down at him. It was a harsh, brutal-looking face with a growth of dark hair under its nose and on top of its head, and it belonged to a middle-aged, brown-skinned human who wore dark green clothing and some kind of round flat headgear.
Fully conscious now, Enlil twisted his head from side to side, inspecting his surroundings. He was secured by heavy metal clamps to a bench in the centre of a fair-sized, white-walled room filled with what was obviously scientific equipment. In the room along with Hair Under Nose were four other humans. Two were females; one had skin and hair of a similar colouring to Hair Under Nose but the hair was longer, hanging down past her shoulders. She wore a long white coat. The other was older and pale-skinned, with grey streaks in her red hair; she wore what must be a visual aid of some sort, two glass lenses in a metal and plastic frame with sidepieces that fitted over the ears. The remaining two humans wore clothing and flat caps similar to Hair Under Nose's, but unlike him carried long black metal sticks which looked to Enlil like weapons. They stood a little apart from the others in the room, serving the function of guards.
Enlil could move his body to a limited extent, but the clamps prevented him leaving the bench. They must be made of some exceptionally strong material; had they been of ordinary metal, even he could have broken free of them.
"Who are you?" he asked. "What are you doing? Please let me go." He had no idea whether they would understand him, but he felt it was worth a try. In the event they didn't respond.
Like Hair Under Nose, Redhead and Long Hair were staring down at him in fascination. Redhead walked round him a couple of times, studying him closely. Then she turned to Hair Under Nose and spoke. Enlil heard the words with perfect clarity, but he had no idea what they meant. However he found it possible to guess something of what was going on from the humans' facial expressions. "If this...person is extra-terrestrial," Redhead said, "then I will need to incorporate other formula in the programme; numbers and such like. Universal constants. We will need to find out how he, she or it thinks."
"We're wasting time," snapped Hair Under Nose, gesturing impatiently at Enlil. "Look at it, it isn't that different from us. It's not some thing with tentacles and three heads. All you have to do is find out what language it speaks and have your machine copy it."
"Language is not just a matter of words." Redhead paused reflectively. "It's true that numbers may be of limited importance as a means of communication, particularly if speaker and listener are of the same, or similar, species. Even so, we may run into problems if its concepts are not like ours. Its idea of a circle, for example, might be different. It may give things different numerical values to what we would. You are assuming that because it looks fairly human it must think the same way. That may not be the case." Her expression suggested she wasn't convinced Hair Under Nose understood what she was saying. His own made clear she was right.
"Even if we could translate what it said into an Earth language," Redhead continued, "it wouldn't necessarily make any sense to us. It might say hot when it meant cold. Do you understand?"
Hair Under Nose seemed annoyed by all she had said. He breathed out long and hard.
"You must allow me some time with it," Redhead said. "I will need to gain its trust so that it will co-operate with me. Once I understand more or less how it thinks, I can programme the infor-mation into the finished machine and you will be able to use it whenever you wish."
"By the way," she added with a clear hint of reproach, "I think you're more likely to get results if you're nice to it." She glanced pointedly down at the clamps.
Hair Under Nose eyed her suspiciously. "If you are thinking of doing something stupid, you know what will happen. You will never see your son again."
"You leave me no choice," Redhead said curtly.
"The alien will stay secured, and either Professor Desgranges or a guard will be with you all the time. How long will it take for you to finish?"
"How long does it usually take to learn a new language? Quite long, I would imagine, depending on how intelligent this individual is and how quickly it learns."
"Well, I will make sure there are no distractions," Hair Under Nose told her. "So will you." The menace contained in the words was obvious.
He turned on his heels and strode from the room.
Sighing, Redhead crossed to a bench where lay a black box with several buttons on it. Following her with his eyes, Enlil saw her press one of them and a row of letters light up above it. They formed the word "RECORD".
She smiled at Enlil in a friendly way, and moved a chair so that she could sit close to him. "I don't imagine you can understand what I'm saying," she said, "but my name is Dr Soderstrom - Karin." She pointed to herself as she said the last word.
Understanding, Enlil gave his native name. "Zyder."
"We are both prisoners here, I'm afraid. I am sorry for the way they are treating you but there is nothing I can do to help, believe me. We have no choice but to co-operate with them. And it will be useful for us to learn something about each other."
She spoke what Enlil sensed was a different language from that of the brown-skins, but he couldn't understand her any more than he could them. However he could sense her kindness, tell that whatever was going on here she at least did not intend to harm him. He smiled.
"Hand," she said, holding up one of hers.
Enlil smiled. "Nezaka."
She showed him drawings of various geometric shapes, explained simple mathematical formulae, and with the help of both pictures and sign language attempted to describe what life on Earth was like. Enlil realised what she was trying to do, and was happy to co-operate. She wanted to find out whether his thought patterns were similar to a human's; it seemed they were, and this speeded up the process of learning considerably.
These sessions went on for hours, days. He found them interesting and enjoyable, for one thing helping to take his mind off his captivity and possible fate. From time to time they stopped so that Long Hair or another of the white-coated humans could hand-feed him various items of food and drink. They tasted strange, but his digestive system could cope with them. He had to excrete and urinate where he lay, although they cleaned him up afterwards. He could tell from Soderstrom's expression that she was upset and angry at this.
Around him Long Hair positioned masses of complex and advanced-looking equipment him whose purpose seemed to be to scan him. She took samples of his skin, blood, urine and faeces, which sometimes hurt but only briefly, and flashed brilliant lights in front of his eyes.
One day while Soderstrom was with him Saddam, as Enlil now knew him to be called, had reappeared. He marched up to the woman and said, "Well?"
"I've managed to teach it a little Swedish. That, I expect, will not be much use to you. I've also learned something of its own language." Saddam looked uninterested. "It learns astonishingly fast," she said admiringly. "Whether it's typical or not I don't know, but it's obviously highly intelligent.
"I've been through not just names for objects and their properties, but those for moral and abstract qualities too. It thinks in much the same way as we do. Two and two make four, and so on and so on. In language they don't define things according to their opposites, though that would be an odd thing for any intelligent life form to do. As a general rule they refer to things literally rather than metaphorically, and verbally rather than by physical acts. But they do use metaphor to emphasise points, just like us. “It astonishes me, the similarities between their species and ours. I'm not a biologist, but it would suggest to me that life in the Universe, intelligent life, conforms to the same basic, humanoid pattern." Again Saddam's expression was blank.
"I have already programmed the information into the machine. It's recorded the alien's conversation and analysed its language. Now we can - "
"Then let me have it." Saddam held out his hand.
Soderstrom gave him the black box Enlil had seen earlier, showing him how to work it. He pressed one of the buttons, then spoke to Enlil in his own language. For a few moments nothing happened, then a voice issued from the black box. It sounded like a human voice but it spoke in Enlil's tongue. "We are sorry to do this to you," it said. "But there are certain things we must know. Tell us how the spacecraft operates."
Enlil hesitated. He regarded Saddam keenly. Something about the man produced in him a strong reaction, a violent internal shudder. He had known almost from their first encounter that this man was not to be trusted.
"Why do you wish to know?" he asked. After a moment he heard the machine speak in Hair Under Nose's language. From this point on it enabled him to communicate with the humans, and they with him, without difficulty.
"We have powerful enemies who wish to destroy us," Saddam told him. "The power inside your ship could help us protect ourselves."
Enlil's lips flexed, forming a faint smile. "You have imprisoned me here. That means you intend to force me to tell you."
"If you help me, I will gladly let you go."
"I do not have the necessary skills."
Saddam turned to Monique Desgranges. "Is it lying, do you think?"
"Well, I could do a polygraph test, but they are not always reliable. And its metabolism is different from ours, remember. The results could be misleading."
Hair Under Nose moved closer to Enlil, his expression threatening. "Are you telling the truth?" he demanded harshly.
"Yes, I am."
"I do not believe you. I'm asking you again, how does the ship work? How can we transfer the power from the reactor to a missile?"
"If you attempt to do that the ship will self-destruct," Enlil told him.
“You are lying."
And Enlil was lying, as he had been in saying he didn't know how to operate the craft's functions. He didn't want these humans to continue exploring the ship, trying to learn its secrets. He knew, he just knew, that something disastrous would result.
"What have you done with An?" he asked.
"The other alien is still inside the spacecraft, in suspended animation."
"You must release me. He and I must confer on this matter."
Saddam ignored him. "How do we transfer the power?" He went on repeating the question, growing increasingly angry.
"You are lying, aren't you?" he snarled.
"No."
"You are lying!!!"
"Very well, so I am lying." Enlil sighed. "There are things inside the ship which will bring disaster on you. You must leave them untouched."
"What are these things? How would they be harmful?"
"I...I cannot tell you." If he told Saddam what they were, he might only be more strongly tempted.
Saddam stared hard at him, then thrust the black box back at Soderstrom. He turned to Desgranges. "What have you found?"
She went to stand next to Enlil, looking down at him. "Well, it's carbon-based, a vertebrate and a mammal. And I think I can classify it as a primate. I would describe it as humanoid rather than human; strictly speaking, it isn't one of us. The genetic code is not quite the same. Its ancestor was definitely a kind of ape, but I believe it's evolved a little further than we have. I think its species are what we may become in a few million, maybe just a few thousand, years from now.
"For one thing, it has lost those features which scientists think may be superficial in the long run, from an evolutionary point of view; that have no practical, survival value. It has no appendix or tonsils, and notice the absence of body hair.
"It's a male, but the sex organs are internal, no doubt to avoid unnecessary damage. I would guess they emerge when intercourse is desired. Another evolutionary improvement. Of course, since its kind are clearly extremely advanced it's possible there's a degree of genetic engineering involved; I just can't be sure at present. "The eyes are interesting. They're very small, almost vestigial. There are thousands of sensory receptors in the skin around them which have clearly taken over the purpose of seeing, making them more or less redundant. They're doing their job very well; he's got twenty-twenty vision. His hearing is exceptionally acute as is his sense of touch and smell.
"The structure of the larynx is virtually identical to ours, which has made it easier to communicate with him.
"We're obviously dealing with creatures of considerable intelligence. Where this particular individual is concerned, it's difficult to arrive at an IQ; the cranium is huge, but that by itself is not a reliable indicator of intelligence.
"Compared to the other alien its physique looks poor. It could be an atypical specimen, but then so could the other. Or they may both represent extremes. With only two of them, it's not possible to say.
"The specimen appears to be in good health. Its blood pressure is high, but that could be due to stress.
"Internally, its make-up is much the same as ours. The same organs with the same functions. Its blood is purple rather than dark red like a human's, suggesting there are elements in it that are not present in ours.
"We've analysed the stuff it was being pumped full of when it was in suspended animation. It's recycled waste matter."
"Do you mean the thing eats its own shit?"
"If you like, yes."
"The skin is very tough," Desgranges went on. "Like rubber, with the same texture, and hard to make an impression on. Getting a blood sample was difficult at first." By way of demonstration she took a sharp-pointed instrument from the bench beside her and pressed it to Enlil's right forearm. The flesh billowed and surged, but remained unmarked. She bore down, gasping with exertion, until eventually a drop or two of blood oozed out.
Red in the face from the effort, Desgranges produced a tissue and wiped the blood away. Hair Under Nose stared in amazement as he saw the wound close up, disappearing without trace in little more than a second.
"Yes. Flesh wounds and minor burns seem to heal very quickly. More serious injuries take longer, but no more than a few hours at most; nowhere near as long as with humans. Though their body cells are very like ours they contain a structure whose purpose I haven't yet been able to identify." She directed Saddam to a microscope and he squinted through the eyepiece for a moment before turning away, looking none the wiser for what he had seen. "I think it's what gives them their ability to repair themselves so quickly.
"Their skin is highly resistant to ultra-violet light and other forms of radiation. I can't account for the silvery colouring. It may be partly synthetic, which would explain its toughness."
"Well, let's see what a bullet does to it," grunted Saddam. His hand moved to his trouser pocket and Enlil saw something black and glinting sticking out of it. He pulled out a gun, a smaller version of the ones the soldiers carried, and stepped back a few paces. He aimed it at Enlil, who gave a whimper of fear. He could not brace himself because he did not know what effect the weapon would have on him.
Saddam pulled the trigger and the gun fired with a loud report which made the two women jump. Enlil jerked as the bullet impacted with his shoulder and bounced off. He felt a mild pain where it had hit, but thankfully that was all.
Saddam went up to Enlil and peered closely at the shoulder. He muttered something which Enlil guessed was an expression of astonishment and straightened up, impressed. "There's hardly a mark!"
Desgranges nodded. "It doesn't seem injured in the slightest."
"So what would we have to do to kill it?" Saddam asked.
"I would have to carry out further tests to determine its exact strengths and weaknesses."
"Then do so. Impress upon it that it won't be released until it has told us what we need to know. If it still won't co-operate, then at least we'll know a bit more about it."
Saddam turned to one of the guards. "Take her back to her room," he ordered, indicating Soderstrom.
"What's going to happen to me now?" Karin asked.
"You will come in useful should anything go wrong with the machine."
"And you still don't feel able to tell me what we are doing all this for?" She sounded uncertain, as if it might be better if she didn't know.
Saddam shrugged. "Aliens. The first contact between Man and intelligent beings from another planet. A key moment in history, is it not?"
"He isn't being given any choice in the matter. And there's more to it than that, isn't there?"
"It is to do with this country's legitimate interests. That is all you need to know." He rounded on her fiercely. "Dr Soderstrom, just remember what will happen to Bjorn if you don't do as you are told."
"Ah yes, Bjorn. Why can't I speak to him? Just a letter or a telephone call..."
"Because if you had any contact with him Western intelligence could use it to trace you here. I have told you that before."
"So how do I know he's all right?"
"You don't know he isn't, so just shut up and co-operate," Saddam snapped. He nodded curtly to the guards.
Soderstrom looked weary and anxious as she was led out. Since then Enlil hadn't seen her.
As soon as she had gone the torture began.
When they realised he was prepared to die rather than talk, it stopped. Obviously they thought he might still come in useful to them, and didn't want to lose him just yet. Saddam came along on one of his regular visits, and Desgranges explained the problem to him. "Chemical substances which would be harmful to us don't seem to do it much damage. They make it ill for a time, produce vomiting, but there are no lasting effects. I've tried all kinds of drugs, with the same result.
“It became distressed when deprived of oxygen. The same when we tried to fill its lungs with water.
“It can withstand extremes of temperature better than a human, especially hot ones. Its resistance to viral and bacteriological infection is remarkable. I have injected it with various toxic substances, both singly and in combination. Its immune system seems to render them harmless almost immediately. I'm reluctant at present to try AIDS or any form of cancer; I feel it's taking too big a risk. But..." She hesitated. "Venturing a guess, I would not be surprised if it were unaffected."
"And the more powerful of our weapons?"
"That's something we won't know until we try them on it. We'd need to test them on the one in the ship too. It looks much bigger and stronger."
She looked back at Enlil. "It can suffer psychological stress, that's another matter. For example, I don't think it's happy being tied down like this."
Saddam was thinking, assimilating all he had been told. "Carry on with the tests," he ordered Desgranges. "We'll see if starving it makes any difference. Tell it it won't receive any food until it tells me what I want to know."
She nodded.
And so they tried to starve him. But still he had held out. Now he was lying here, in a pool of his own filth, fed about once a day if he was lucky. He was weak, ill and depressed. But he could stand it and would go on standing it. There was something inside the ship which Enlil feared more than anything these humans could ever do to him.

TWENTY-FIVE
QADISIYYAT SADDAM
Caroline Kent sat on the floor of a small, cramped room hugging her knees, absorbed in wistful contemplation. There was no furniture in the room apart from a small bucket which you were left to assume was a toilet.
Her feelings were mixed. She felt satisfaction at having caused the Iraqis so much trouble, but it meant she was now separated from her parents and the other hostages. She had awoken to find herself in here with the door locked, and after pounding on it indignantly and yelling for some considerable time a guard had opened the door, looked in and told her to be quiet or she wouldn't get any food. She asked how long she would have to stay there for. "As long as we want you to," the man snapped.
"I'm an attractive blonde, you should be falling over yourself to please me. Or perhaps you don't like girls."
The guard disappeared.
At least she now knew the secret of the complex. What Saddam intended to do with it she didn't like to think.
She heard footsteps approach the door and glanced up. There followed the sound of two voices in conversation. Then the door was unlocked. The guard pushed it open and she saw Speyler standing there. Treating her to a smile of a sort that made her shudder, he entered. To her disquiet, the guard then closed and locked the door.
Caroline didn't get up. "What do you want?"
"I thought I'd carry on the conversation we were having a while ago. Such a pity it was so suddenly interrupted."
Inside herself she sighed wearily. Another one who'd taken a fancy to her. He'd be lucky.
Even though she'd thrown a highly caustic substance into his face, causing him considerable pain, he couldn't bring himself to abandon his pursuit of her. There was something pathetic and ludicrous about it.
"Must we do it sitting on the floor?" He nodded towards the bed.
She very pointedly planted herself on the chair instead. Wrinkling his nose, Speyler sat down on the bed. "I like you, you know," he told her.
"Thanks but no thanks."
"Don't be like that. You've got guts, and you've got style. You're a very brave young lady, all in all, and I must say I like the way you gave them the slip so you could get into the laboratory and find the spaceship. It was taking a bit of a risk. Now we've got the time, I think you deserve to know what's going on around here." Caroline stiffened.
"You saw the alien, I presume?"
"I certainly did. Who are they? Where do they come from?"
"They're a civilisation far more advanced than ours, and a good deal older. We've been trying to identify their planet of origin, but without any luck. I don't think we'll know until they tell us."
"So why don't you ask them?"
"Until now we've preferred to keep them shut up in their spaceship. We don't know the full extent of their powers, whether they'll be friendly or hostile." Speyler knew about Enlil, knew that he wasn't being particularly co-operative at the moment. What they couldn't be sure of was whether or not he was typical.
Caroline made a short, derisive noise. "You mean Saddam isn't certain they'll help him with whatever he's doing."
Speyler ignored this. "We don't know why they came here or why they stayed; why they put themselves into suspended animation. But that spacecraft has been down here a very long time."
"I think these aliens," he said, "are the gods of ancient Mesopotamia.
"In ancient times deities were really a figurative representation of the world about us. The product of Man's tendency to anthropomorphise things, to see a divine hand in the actions of the weather, the sun and moon and other natural phenomena. But I imagine that if there was a real god at some time, people would be all the more likely to believe. As those who had actually seen the gods died off, the true facts would become distorted. Easier to fabricate things or to embellish them.
“In later times it was all political; the most powerful of the city-states in the region had the most powerful gods. Gods moved up and down in the scheme of things, and you could threaten to abandon them if you felt they hadn't brought you success and happiness. One cynic drily commented that you could teach your god to run after you like a dog.
“But I think they were there, in the first instance. So awesome and powerful that you couldn't deny their existence or refuse their wishes.
“I imagine we don't have quite the full picture. There may well be writings, or other evidence, that haven't survived or are still waiting to be discovered. I think they must have landed during the Sumerian period - Sumer was the first civilisation to exist in this part of the world, founded roughly about 4500 BC. The gods were inherited by the later civilisations, Babylon and Assyria - Babylon isn't that far from here, by the way - but whether the aliens were active by then I've no idea.
“They ended up as largely symbolic representations of one thing or another, but what's intriguing is that originally the gods seem to have been worshipped as themselves. That suggests they really existed, although of course they weren't gods. They were highly advanced beings from another planet, beings who would have seemed divine to a human, especially in a pre-scientific, relatively primitive age. I said relatively. The civilisations of Mesopotamia were far more technically advanced than our own shitty race was then. It's possible the aliens may have re-emerged from time to time to give them a push, feeling they showed promise; you know archaeologists once discovered something round here that looked like a crude electric battery? It dates from the time of the Hittites, which is later than the events I've been talking about, but I've no doubt ones like it could have been invented earlier, and the Hittites copied the technology.
"After a while the aliens seem to have given up on Man and gone back into their spaceship. The ship somehow buried itself in the ground, creating a mound which over the millennia was destroyed by ploughing, until last year a poor farmer discovered it." He smiled grimly. "Poor in both senses of the word."
"I know," Caroline said. "All very interesting, but you didn't answer my question. I think Saddam is up to something dodgy with that spaceship and he's not sure the aliens would approve."
"He isn't," Speyler grinned. "That's why we've been keeping them under wraps." So far Speyler had seen little of the alien in the ship. The first time he had set eyes on it it had been in suspended animation, and since then Saddam had been working him twenty-four hours a day trying to complete Project Gilgamesh, so he hadn't had the chance. He wasn't bothered at the moment, to tell the truth, since from all accounts the alien was doing nothing but stand there looking mean.
He sighed. "Whether what we're doing is good or bad depends on one's point of view, I suppose."
"And what's yours?"
"I think the world as it is is complete and utter shit. Saddam, along with Bin Laden, is one of the few people with the will and the ability to change it. That's why I have allied myself to him."
"In what way is he going to change it? If we're being held here against our will, to serve as human shields, I'd at least like to know what it's all in aid of. To know why. What's Saddam trying to do with that ship?"
Speyler smiled. "What do you think he's trying to do with it? He wants to use it as a weapon, of course. It's the only use he could possibly have for it. There's power inside that ship, Miss Kent; Colossal power. It's a kind of energy, like light but alive. Composed of tiny microscopic organisms, existing just above the atomic level. Living photons. The whole ship is a reservoir for them, a giant battery, although most of the power is concentrated in the reactor. Reactor isn't the proper name for it, of course, since it isn't nuclear energy we're talking about. It's more of a storage vessel in which the energy can reproduce itself and accumulate until there's enough to power the ship's systems.
"The exact amount of it fluctuates constantly, and occasionally, although the hull of the ship is an almost perfect crystal, a small amount leaks through minute flaws in its structure. The farmer's wife was affected by it; it damaged the skin of her hand and she also experienced a wave of illness. From the effect on her and on one or two others we could tell what it was. A power source, with some of the characteristics of a biological weapon; I think it's meant to behave as such. We knew at once we could use it.
"The Iraqis didn't want anyone to know what they'd found, so they razed the village to the ground and arranged for its people to disappear."
"Bastards," said Caroline.
Again Speyler ignored her. "Then we built this complex around the ship, hiding it from view. It serves as the control centre for the whole project, as well a means of screening it from prying eyes. Fortunately the stuff the ship is made of seems to be impervious to ground-penetrating radar, so the UN didn't find it when they came looking.
“We've been trying to synthesise the stuff, but it takes a lot of time and effort. The little we did manage to produce we adapted into a virus, which was used up in knocking out our SAS friends. It's now dispersed into the atmosphere and been lost.
“From the quantity which leaked we've been attempting to analyse the substance, its composition and behaviour, ever since, using the money from various sources to fund all the scientific effort involved." He sighed. "It's been a long and difficult task. I've had to become a biologist as well as a physicist. We have had one big success: my colleague Dr Desgranges, who you met, has developed an antidote to its effects. Saddam and his principal henchmen, and all the staff here have already been injected with it. It can immunise a person against the effect of the virus, or restore them to full consciousness once they have been affected by killing the micro-organisms in their bloodstream.
"We've had to devise a means of communicating with the aliens, in case the need arose, and because we weren't sure exactly how strong or resilient they'd be we needed to provide ourselves with weapons that could disable or kill them if they proved hostile. You'd have thought that if they were regarded as gods they must have been pretty powerful, but as I said things may have got embellished. And a society that was relatively primitive in scientific terms would be sure to view them in that light anyway."
"Wouldn't they have been able to communicate with people OK, if they could have the influence on human affairs which they did?" Caroline asked.
"That's what we thought. We decided it was best to take out some insurance in case we were wrong.
"Altogether Project Gilgamesh has cost a phenomenal amount, more than our existing sources of funding could bring. Fortunately we've had help."
"From Mr Fouasi. What's in it for him? Does he just admire Saddam, or is he just a complete and utter headcase? I mean, surely only a madman would give any support to that brute. Present company not excepted."
"I'll explain that later. As I've said, Saddam is planning to use the technology on board that ship, which is far in advance of anything Earth has yet discovered, to create - "
"A superweapon. And what's he going to do with that weapon, once he's got it?"
"Attack the West, of course. And he's going to get away with it. It's not like nuclear warfare, the West won't have one of its own it can use against him. Alien spaceships aren't easy to come by, at least not on this planet."
"When you say attack the West..."
"Not destroy it altogether, I doubt if that would be necessary. Rather the aim will be to kill so many of its people, shatter so much of its infrastructure, that it's weakened to the point of total impotence."
“Why?" It was a plea as much as a question.
"Because that's the sort of person he is. It's the politics of the playground; he's acting out of spite, out of a desire for revenge. You cheated me so now I'm going to get my own back. I'm going to hurt you, hurt you in a very big and nasty way. The West armed Saddam, gave him the resources to build up this country militarily; then when he started to use that strength to fulfil his regional ambitions, it objected. It inflicted a crushing defeat on him, and he hasn't forgiven the humiliation. The betrayal.
“There's another factor that's motivating him. Saddam is in a bit of a dilemma. Like the rest of us, he's not getting any younger. And like all men in late middle age men he's looking back on his career, trying to decide if it was all worth it and what he can do to really make his mark on things before he withers into old age and dies. Now he succeeded in making himself dictator of Iraq and he's been in that position for the last twenty years or so, surviving any challenge to his authority. He can preserve his position by the fear he inspires, by sheer brutality, because he can pose as the nation's defender against Western oppression - and because no-one can think of an alternative to him. He's always been there, you see.
“But he wants to do something more than that. His ambitions have always extended beyond the borders of his own country. Iraq has always been the most pan-Arab of Arab states; you may be interested to know that the title of the national anthem here, translated into English, is "a homeland that extends its wings over the horizon." Unfortunately Saddam's grand ambitions have met a series of setbacks. He was unable to decisively defeat Iran, and had to make peace. He lost the Gulf War because he overreached himself, didn’t anticipate how the West would react. He lost so much of his military hardware in the war that he's been in a much weakened position ever since. Of course he rattles a few sabres every now and then, to make sure the world doesn't forget about him, for the sake of saving face."
"But he can't do much more than rough up defenceless Kurds," muttered Caroline.
"Anyway, he wants one last chance to achieve his great aim in life."
"Which is?"
"He sees himself as the leader of a single Arab nation - an Arab superpower. It would include Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf states and North Africa. Israel would have to go, of course, and Palestine would become an administrative region of the new United States of Arabia. The West has to be neutralized somehow because it would never let him do it; it would see the new state as a threat to its interests. As long as it doesn't stand in the way of his schemes I don't think he's too bothered about the rest of the world, in the end. If it takes your fancy you can see him as a bogeyman bent on world domination. Many people do; I suppose it's a symptom of the fear we've always had of the Arabs. But for Saddam what really counts is knocking out the Northern Hemisphere; Britain and America will have to be taken care of by whatever means necessary, and he doesn't want to take chances with the other European countries or Russia, although I'm not convinced of their ability or willingness to resist him effectively. He'll also need to take out Iran, India, and Pakistan. Which means China will also be affected by what we're going to do. Dangerous, in the long run; you don't prod a sleeping dragon. But the risk is unavoidable.
"I doubt if he's bothered about countries like Australia, or New Zealand. South Africa and the Latin American nations I'm not sure about. There isn't really anyone else who could conceivably pose a threat to the new superstate. But in any case, everyone would have to accept it as a fait accompli."
"Europe, North America, the Arabs, virtually the whole of Asia..." Caroline found herself physically reeling. "That's a pretty big slice of the world."
"He's not so much concerned with taking things over as making sure his enemies are out of the running while he establishes his new Arab empire. It'd be stretching himself too far to try to rule the whole world, even if he had the means to do it. It's too big a place to govern easily, cheaply or at all. In ancient times, you could if you had the right qualities dominate all or most of the known world. But that was a relatively small area.
“Hitler would have done it if it had been possible. I'm sure he kept the thought at the back of his mind. But it wasn't on his agenda. He could have created a chain of satellite powers but he'd have had a hard time enforcing his will over them. For the time being Europe - including Russia - would have whetted his appetite. He was quite sensible in some ways, was Adolf."
"I can see a lot of flaws in Saddam's little plan," said Caroline. "Not all Arabs would want to be part of his new superstate. They've never thought with one mind, spoken with one voice. Some of them are very worried about him and his ambitions."
"By the time everyone has been given the antidote to the virus, and recovered, he'll have destroyed their ability to resist him. In the Arab world only Iraq and those people in the countries who share Saddam's aims would have tanks and guns and aircraft."
"And the countries he regards as enemies. What would happen to their populations?"
"Tests we've been carrying out suggest that a relatively small amount of the substance, when it's acting as a narcotic, could knock out millions of people. A few grammes can take care of a hundred. We haven't yet found out how to make it kill, but in any case Saddam isn't thinking in terms of total genocide. He wants to leave some people in the West alive in case he needs to have dealings with them at some point. The substance will be programmed to render its victims comatose, without harming them physically, once we have found out how to do that.
“What he wants is to get the stuff into a missile. He's already got hold of one, from the former Soviet Union. Once it's in the atmosphere an explosive charge will cause it to come apart, and the wind will do the rest. Unfortunately we haven't yet worked out how to transfer the power along the cables into the missile.
“It's a form of light, it isn't solid, so you can't apply any pressure to it. I'm sure there must be a way of programming its behaviour so that it goes into the missile and does what we want it to once it's there. But the controls on the flight deck, from which every function of the ship seems to be controlled, are far too complex for us to understand. Their technology is simply too advanced. In any case it takes ages to dismantle anything, because it's so hard you can barely make an impression even with cutting torches, and there are no joins like there are in human technology. It's a single solid, integrated unit, grown I'll wager from just one crystal.
“I think I'm on the verge of cracking it, but at this rate there may not be time to get the missile up before Mr Bush comes along to do what his father balked at in 1991. That's why we're going to have to talk to the alien. I've a feeling they deliberately planned things so that we couldn't use the power without their consent."
"Sensible of them," Caroline said.
"Let's assume we do manage to overcome the problem, and the missile does its stuff. Once the Iraqis are in control of the other Arab states and their resources, the antidote will be administered to their populations and to the people of Iraq. But the West will not be receiving it, at least not until the new People's Republic of Arabia - with Baghdad as its capital - is in existence, with the nuclear and conventional means to defend itself against foreign threats. Saddam'll need Western technology and expertise for that. But with everyone in a drug-induced stupor, he can just walk in and take it.
“A certain number of people will be revived; a few others, I expect, will for one reason or another have been immune to the virus in the first place. But many will have died, because the effect of millions of people suddenly falling into a coma will be to cause chaos, economic and political. Essential services won't be provided, you see. The West will take decades, perhaps centuries, to recover from the catastrophe, supposing it ever does.
"It's appalling," gasped Caroline.
"I'm afraid my employer is no bleeding heart social worker."
"It's also crazy," she burst out. "For God's sake, think of all the disruption it'll cause the world economy if all those countries are more or less shut down. There'll be other problems too. The survivors will be looking for revenge because scores of their friends, loved ones and fellow citizens will have died. They'll find a way of getting back, somehow, unless Saddam is going to wipe out everybody with his virus. It'll only cause more instability."
"I quite agree. What's going to result from this is a bloody awful mess." Speyler shrugged, and smiled resignedly. "But has common sense ever been a deterrent to Saddam?"
"So why are you helping him, if you admit he's so dangerous?" Caroline's tone was incredulous.
"I've told you why. I suppose I could elaborate. The world is likely to go down the spout anyway at the present rate, Miss Kent, and serve it jolly well right. Our politicians are incompetent and narrow-minded fools who won't put money where it's really needed. Nor will they recognise true talent. If it's good, if it's clever, if it might just change things, then rubbish it. That's the British way for you. That kind of attitude ruined my career.
“Sometimes you have to shatter the mould in order to recast it. Whatever happens as a result of this, it can only be for the best, in the end.
"So that's Saddam's plan. He sees himself as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar. He'll rule the new state for a relatively short time before he dies. But he'll be remembered as the guy who made it all possible, and he'll make sure he's succeeded by men like him, with the same values and ambitions, who'll perpetuate his memory and preserve his achievement."
Speyler laughed derisively. "One big flaw in his plans is that his allies don't see the future in quite the same way. Those of them who were in the forefront of Arab terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s seem broadly in favour of a single Arab state, although I suspect Saddam may have deceived them as to the extent Palestine will be allowed its own independence. But bin Laden and his Muslim fanatics are another matter. They rather look down on the likes of Saddam. The Ba'ath Party, which rules this country, is a thoroughly secular affair, and although nominally Saddam is a Sunni Muslim he doesn't really have much time for religion and only plays the Islamic card when it suits him to do so; when he needs Muslim support against the West. His only religion is his own self-aggrandisement. Al-Qaeda don't want the Islamic world to be ruled by such a person.
“Saddam regards bin Laden as a dangerous lunatic, to be tolerated mainly because al-Qaeda are a convenient way of clearing up the mess he himself will have made. The idea of letting them loose on a helpless West appeals to him. After a while Saddam will probably rein him in, but by that time he'll have caused all manner of carnage.
"Where is Bin Laden now?" Caroline asked, overcome by a compulsion to know. "He's not here, is he?"
"Well, not here in this building. He's in Baghdad, along with Abu Nidal - remember him? - and various other notorious nasties. Saddam's assembled quite a rogue's gallery over there. It's because he thought victory was in his grasp, with the discovery of the spacecraft, that he thought he could take the risk of sheltering our friend Osama. Of course he's miscalculated again; it's proving rather more difficult to get the ship to work for him than he anticipated. We thought we might be able to copy the technology without having to actually ask the aliens to help us, but we need more money for that. Our supply of funds was suddenly cut off, which I believe you had something to do with. Fortunately, the West doesn't know and can't prove that Bin Laden and his associates are in Iraq.
"Then there's Mr Fouasi, Neghid Fouasi. You may have heard of him."
"I certainly have," said Caroline.
"He's basically a pimp, a white slave trader, a dealer in prostitutes. You asked what was in it for him. The answer's simple. He wants control of the West's wealth - and its women."
Caroline's eyes were like saucers. She took a step or two backwards, overcome with horror and disgust.
"Yes, that's right. He has an insatiable lust for white women. Whenever he can get his hands on them, he will. Prostitutes mainly, or girls lured into prostitution. But he's now setting his sights a bit wider.
“In mediaeval times, and in fact right up to the nineteenth century though it was happening less and less frequently by then, Western citizens might be captured and enslaved by Islamic powers, usually in the course of war. The women, at any rate the better-looking ones, ended up in the harem and the idea, at any rate, was that they would sexually pleasure their owners, even if they may not have been forced to. I think Fouasi would like to revive the practice – and with him the sex would very definitely be compulsory. He's fascinated by the thought of what it would have been like if Islam - or the Mongols, who had harems too - had managed to overrun the West, as they tried to do.
“But they failed, something Fouasi I think regrets because the whole idea of what would have happened to the women turns him on. And in recent centuries it's become more difficult still. The West is simply too powerful, technologically and militarily. But if somehow you could destroy its infrastructure, its industry and economy, its governments and armed forces, by causing some catastrophic disaster which wiped out a sizeable chunk of its population and threw everything into confusion...something like an outbreak of plague, or a nuclear strike. And that's what Bin Laden and Saddam want to do - one for political reasons, the other so he can eliminate Islam's enemies and establish a permanent Muslim hegemony. One reason why Islam can't invade and conquer the West, as it tried to do in the Middle Ages, is because there are nuclear weapons in the world. A conventional military conflict involving an entire continent would soon escalate into nuclear war, and if the battle were between Islam and the West it would be rather one-sided since the West has atomic weapons and Islam doesn't - except for Pakistan's, which at the moment are designed primarily for use against India. Then there's the general destruction and the danger from fall-out. It's raising the stakes too high. But if you have some means of killing everybody, or knocking them unconscious, before they can press the button...
“Saddam may not be thinking in terms of permanently occupying the West. But if its people were all to go into a coma he, or Fouasi, could take what they liked from it. Fouasi would have a massive reservoir of women for his harem. That's why he's attached himself to Saddam, supported his schemes. Saddam himself isn't really bothered about the white slave thing, one way or the other, though he’ll take his cut of the women nonetheless, when he feels like it. But mostly he wants political domination. Ordinary Muslims wouldn't necessarily approve, but I don't know what they could do about it. As I said, in the aftermath of all this things are going to be a bit chaotic."
"No," Caroline gasped. "No...it's horrible." She could only stare at Speyler in horrified amazement, quite speechless. "You....you're joking," she said eventually.
"I'm afraid not."
Speyler continued. "I think Saddam regards Fouasi as a bit of a liability; finds his obsession with him irritating. He may be regarded as having outlived his usefulness once Hussein has got what he wants. As for Fouasi's feelings towards bin Laden, well...Fouasi's motive is sexual greed. If he has his way the new Arab state will be a hotbed of lust, and bin Laden doesn't approve of that kind of debauchery. Whereas Fouasi wants to enslave the women for his own sexual gratification, Bin Laden would rather they were dead. He hates all Westerners, regardless of age or sex or any other factor. Fouasi isn't likely to feel any affinity with a man like that.
“So you can see they're all going to fall out with one another over how to divide up the spoils. It'll end in tears. I think what happens to the West in the long run will be a bone of contention between Saddam and his allies. One thing's certain; they're bound to get rid of the Jews. The Iranians too, I should imagine. You know one of Saddam's close associates once wrote a book called "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Jews, Flies And Persians.""
"So we are talking genocide?"
"Oh yes," said Speyler solemnly.
"And you're just going to stand back and let it happen?"
"I've no choice. You don't want to get on the wrong side of Saddam."
"Well, you shouldn't have got involved in this in the first place, should you?"
"It's too late to back out now."
"You'd stand by and let women of your race be raped...defiled..."
"Yes," Speyler shouted with sudden passion, jumping up from the bed. Caroline gave a start. "Yes, I would. What's so special about our women, compared to anyone else's? About us, come to that? We've got a lot to answer for, you know. All the colonialism, the racism, the economic exploitation. It's high time we paid the penalty. Why shouldn't Arab nations have the power to strike back, to make something of themselves in the world?"
"This isn't the way for them to do it."
"I think it is," he said savagely.
“You’ll be OK, you’re one of Saddam’s mates. You wouldn’t say what you’ve just said if you got caught up in it yourself.”
Suddenly she stepped to one side, snatched up the chamber pot and flung it at Speyler. The contents splattered over his face and down the front of his white coat. He staggered back with his face twisted in revulsion, screwing up his nose in a desperate attempt to prevent the smell infiltrating his nostrils. He glared at her murderously through the brown material.
"Don't look so mad," she implored. "It's the shit that's inside you you need to worry about."
He made to hit her but at that moment the door was flung open and the guard marched into the room. A restraining arm grabbed Speyler by the shoulder. The Iraqi looked at the mess on the floor and saw what had happened.
He told Speyler to leave. The scientist paused halfway to the door and turned to look at Caroline. "When the time comes, I'll make you regret that." He exited the cell, wiping the faeces out of his eyes and hair with a handkerchief.
The guard stared hard at her. "Since you are determined to abuse the facilities, you can shit on the floor from now on."
"I hope you get to clean it up," she retorted. A moment later the door was slammed and locked.
Caroline sat down again, to stare fixedly into space, her mind like the wall opposite her a blank white sheet. Soon she would be swimming in a lake of her own excreta. But after all Speyler had just told her, she found she didn't care much.

On recovering consciousness, with splitting headaches, the Major, Martin MacDonald and their troops were herded together and the SAS made to strip off their assault gear. Hartman and his men now stood in the T-shirts and jeans the Iraqis had given them to wear. Their weapons had already been taken from them.
They were kept at gunpoint for a few minutes before being marched off to what was obviously a hastily improvised prison. The former laboratory was now bare apart from a single unshaded light bulb hanging from the ceiling and had no window. "There's no toilet here," the Major pointed out politely. "Or any beds."
"I will fetch you a bucket as soon as I can," the sergeant had said. "But you will understand I am very busy."
God, with all of them crammed together into this confined space the smell of sweat and shit and body odour would soon be overpowering.
"And the beds?"
"We will see."
The sergeant smiled at them, not unkindly the Major thought. "Don't worry," he’d said. "You won't be here for very long."
And what exactly, the Major thought, does that mean?
So far they had been treated fairly well. Saddam wanted to minimise the damage if things didn't work out for him, and so ill-treating his prisoners would not be a good idea. The guards had contented themselves with the occasional kick in the ribs or thump on the back of the head with a rifle butt.
The greatest damage they were suffering was psychological, although they kept their feelings tightly under control, because that was what a soldier did and because they didn't want their captors to see their demoralisation. The Major had it worst. I didn't pull myself back from the brink just for this to happen, he thought bitterly. Sorry, Gill. It wasn't my fault, believe me.
To have almost done it, and then...they had no idea what had been used to overpower them, and they wanted to know, not least because of the threat it could pose to the West. The Iraqis merely said it was a chemical weapon, but not what kind. Presumably this was the secret Saddam had been so anxious to defend, although satisfying their curiosity on that point didn't make them feel much better.
They all knew what to do if the Iraqis should want to interrogate them. Don't react to provocation; make the enemy think you're cowed. Quite apart from giving you the chance to catch them off guard, it preserves what energy you've got left so you're ready for your escape. As for what you actually tell them, make it vague and woolly and misleading.
But the Iraqis for the moment showed no interest in interrogations. That to the Major and his men was an ominous sign.
This is not a normal war, he thought. It's the weirdest fucking mission I've ever been on.
As well as the most important. Something dangerous to the entire world was being planned here in this building.
And they were powerless to do anything about it.

The official stood outside the door of bin Laden's room, listening to the sound of their guest praying. When he judged it was safe to do so he knocked on the door and went in.
Bin Laden was sitting cross-legged on the carpet; he had evidently been praying. He looked up angrily.
Curtly the official delivered his message. "I thought you would like to know that the alien is to be released. We will be leaving for the complex in a few minutes. You may like to inform your friends."
He withdrew, closing the door.
He hadn't noticed bin Laden give a start when told the news, or heard his heartfelt sigh of relief.
The possible implications of Saddam's discovery - Saddam liked to think it was his discovery, although the true credit belonged to some poor farmer who no doubt had already been forgotten - had for a long time been wrecking bin Laden's peace of mind. The occupants of the spacecraft clearly came from a civilisation far older than Man's, and far more advanced. What if there were thousands of others like it, and none of them had any experience of Islam? The consequences were too awful to be lightly dismissed. They would mean that the cosmic significance of bin Laden’s faith was diminished, even destroyed. Out of a Universe full of advanced civilisations which might have been in existence for far longer than humanity, God had chosen to reveal Islam to men only once, and only on this planet. Different religions for different worlds, rather than a single creed which all intelligent beings everywhere must adhere to. It would be just one religion among many and thus, to bin Laden, downgraded to the point where there was little purpose in it.
When Saddam had first told him about the spacecraft, bin Laden's first thought was that the Iraqi dictator had gone mad; had gone the way of all ageing despots. Of course when Saddam offered to show him the craft, and what lay within it, he could not really have refused as it would have caused offence. The wisest course was to humour his host. Besides, he was curious to know what it was that had led Saddam to think he had found an alien space vehicle.
When he, Mullah Omar and the other al-Qaeda and Taliban members who had fled with him from Afghanistan stepped into the vast underground chamber and saw that massive, awesome, gleaming shape all their scepticism had evaporated in an onrush of sheer stupefying astonishment. More or less at once, they had known that the gigantic structure could not be of human origin. Saddam had regarded them with gloating amusement, pleased at their amazed reaction. He had known they would laugh at him, inwardly at any rate, and wanted to see their faces when they realised he had been telling them the simple truth.
They had not immediately begun to feel uneasy. One thought which occurred to Bin Laden was that the artefact was divine in origin, a sign from Allah. Saddam believed it was an alien spaceship but perhaps he was mistaken. The first pangs of disquiet had come when they had entered the ship and seen the alien itself. They had turned to one another, murmuring uneasily, unable to fully enjoy the wonder of the experience. Back in Baghdad they had discussed the implications of all they'd seen, talking well into the night. "They must have Islam on their planet."
"Not necessarily. Maybe we are meant to spread the faith there. When they have awoken, we can instruct them in it and perhaps they will undertake the task themselves."
"But would not Allah have done so himself at some time?"
"I am sure he would. It is what a just and caring God would have done. If our faith in Him is truly strong, we must believe that he did."
If there really is an Allah, thought bin Laden, and if he really does care about humanity. And he was shocked and disturbed to find himself thinking such a thought.
It seemed strange to them that they were so agitated over the matter, because the general belief among Muslims was that the discovery of intelligent extra-terrestrial life would not conflict with the truth of Islam. Yet now they had seen the evidence with their own eyes, they found themselves unhappy and disturbed by what it might imply. Perhaps it was only because aliens had not actually revealed themselves, or been revealed, to Mankind until now that they had avoided being perturbed by the question, indeed been scornful when told they definitely existed.
Just as the inability of two and two to make five, or of something to be in two places at once, must apply throughout the Universe and not just on Earth, so must the truth of Islam, which too was an unshakeable absolute. He should not be thinking the way he was. Perhaps it was the sheer intoxicating strangeness of the experience that was causing him to react so wildly, entertaining thoughts that were irrational and unjustified.
Saddam didn't care about the theological implications of the discovery; that, thought bin Laden, was typical of the man. Probably they hadn't even occurred to him.
For his part bin Laden would at least know the truth, now. The state of tormented uncertainty he had had to endure throughout the last few months would end. But if the answer was not what he wanted to hear, would that be something worse? Pushing the thought to the back of his mind for the moment, he rose and hurried off to tell Mullah Omar and the others.

Saddam's gleaming limousine drew up at the entrance to the complex, where a mixed group of soldiers and civilians had gathered to meet it. He acknowledged them with a brief, curt nod as he got out of the car. His mood as one might expect was sullen and preoccupied.
In the Mediterranean the US Fifth Fleet was on the move again, and there had been considerable activity in the last few days at American airbases in Turkey and Qatar, and at the British base on Cyprus. Despite recent anti-Western feeling there advisers had flown to Riyadh and Damascus for urgent talks with the Syrian and Saudi rulers on possible co-operation. The UN had already passed a resolution authorising the Allies to take military action to secure the release of its personnel. The Arab world was at best divided on the matter, although whatever happened Saddam did not think the West would be deterred from acting in defence of what it considered to be its interests.
He had ordered still more troops to the complex, but by doing so subjected himself to the nagging fear that the West would take advantage of the reduced military presence near the borders to launch the full-scale invasion he had always feared.
He had no idea what releasing the alien would lead to, but in any event was worried. The other alien, Enlil, would not be putting up with so much torture, so much pain, unless it was telling the truth and there really was some grave danger involved in trying to fathom the ship's secrets.
With Saddam were Neghid Fouasi, his manner like his patron's grim and subdued, and Abu Nidal, who was looking around him vacuously.
The dictator and his entourage waited a few minutes, Saddam shifting impatiently, before two more cars arrived and Osama Bin Laden and his followers, a dozen of them in all, got out. Without acknowledging them Saddam turned and made towards the entrance of the complex, his retinue automatically following.
A few minutes later they were entering the chamber underneath the complex. The scientists had respectfully stopped work, and the vast room was filled with an awesome, cathedral-like silence.
They halted a short distance from the ship's airlock. A scientist handed Karin Soderstrom's translation device to Saddam. He nodded to the group of soldiers standing nearby, who approached the ship.
Saddam and his companions waited. The tension had turned the air into a thin, fragile sheet of glass.
Saddam was stony-faced, but composed. Tariq Aziz and his other ministers were entwining their fingers nervously, casting apprehensive glances towards the airlock. Bin Laden and the other members of al-Qaeda stared fixedly at the opening, so still and rigid that they might have been dead. Fouasi and Abu Nidal seemed tense but excited.
For all of them, this would be the moment of reckoning.
Destiny.

TWENTY-SIX
SADDAM’S ALIEN
When An felt his consciousness start to return he experienced a fierce thrill of joy. He was anxious to find out how much time had elapsed since he and the others had put themselves into suspended animation, and how much this planet and its inhabitants had changed, if at all.
The equipment disconnected itself from him, the tubes snaking back into the wall, and he sat up stiffly, flexing his limbs.
As he sat on the edge of the couch waiting impatiently for his energy to return, he could hear no sound from the other occupant of the chamber, which puzzled him. Turning to look at the next couch, he saw that Enlil had gone. This shocked him immediately into full wakefulness. What had happened? They should have awoken at about the same time.
The equipment was meant to wake the sleepers as soon as anything entered the vessel. But the process was so designed that it took time for you to fully recover consciousness. Too sudden an awakening could kill you or permanently damage your brain. While the two of them were slowly reviving someone or something had taken Enlil, almost certainly the same life form or forms that had entered the ship in the first place.
He realised there were humans looking in through the transparent wall, studying him. All male, they wore dark green clothes which were different in style from what he remembered, and had round dark caps on their heads. He registered the long black sticks in their hands and decided they must be primitive weapons of some kind. Soldiers, then.
These humans were not too dissimilar, in appearance, from those he and his kin had dealt with before; brown-skinned, dark-haired and dark-eyed. There were still differences, but he would have expected some changes to have occurred over time. They had not let the hair on their faces grow, apart from that under the nose.
Was it they who had taken Enlil?
He straightened up and went to the door of the chamber. As he slid it open and stepped out the human soldiers shrank back nervously.
He had taken barely one step outside the chamber when the air around him seemed to catch fire. A searing, stinging pain rushed through him and he cried out in agony, staggering back into the chamber.
As he recovered from the shock, he registered that some apparatus had been set up around the door, consisting of a metal grid with wires draped over it. It must be charged with some kind of energy. He had indicated through gesture and facial expression that he wanted to be released from the chamber, trying not to seem threatening. The soldiers refused to comply. They just ran away, returning shortly afterwards with a man who although almost identical to them in appearance and dress was obviously their leader, judging by the reverential way they stepped aside to let him pass. He regarded An with curiosity and wonder. There was no fear in his manner, merely a degree of wariness; leaders, of course, could not be seen to be afraid. An concentrated his attention on the man, gesturing to him vigorously, but with no luck. The man turned away after a while and went off with the soldiers, leaving An in his prison.
He tried to break out with a really determined show of strength, but was driven back again by the burning pain. There was nothing for him to do but go back into suspended animation. He reprogrammed the equipment, setting it to revive him whenever one of the humans came near the door of the chamber. He needed to have some idea what they were doing.
From time to time he saw soldiers, along with a few people in white coats, one of them a female with long hair, who studied him with interest without making the slightest attempt to communicate with him, but they always ignored his approaches, scurrying past the rest chamber as if still afraid of him despite his helplessness, and there was nothing for him to do but go back to sleep again. He set the equipment to revive him after a few Earth weeks, thinking it probable something would change during that time.
But the humans continued to ignore him whenever they appeared. An decided something must be done. He could stay in SA indefinitely, but he didn't like to think what might be happening in the outside world while he was oblivious to it. So he remained standing in the middle of the chamber looking out at the passers-by, hoping they would get the message. He reconnected himself to the equipment whenever he needed nourishment, but always remained awake.
For a long time nothing happened, as before. Then one day there was a very interesting development. He heard footsteps in the corridor, and a female creature came into view. It looked like a human, but with several characteristics he hadn't seen before. Its long hair was yellow and its skin pale pink. But most striking of all, he thought, were its eyes: a startling, penetrating blue. At first he thought it must be lapis lazuli, then he realised it was a natural blueness, something he had not previously encountered.
He could tell by the creature's body language and expression that she was startled, and frightened, by the sight of him. She backed away, her eyes and mouth wide open, then stared at him for a minute or so before hurrying off.
Not long after that he saw some soldiers go past carrying her dead or unconscious body. He guessed she had tried to get into the sealed chamber and been knocked out. After that things returned to their normal monotonous routine.
He was growing increasingly restless and impatient. Enlil's absence disturbed him; and what were the humans doing inside the ship? Were they trying to work out how it functioned? Then there was the yellow-haired female; she was something that needed explaining. Whereas the green-clad humans were not that different in relative terms to those An remembered from the earlier time, this woman was rather more so. The dimorphism did not mean it couldn't be the same species; there might simply be different ethnic groups among the humans, as there had been among An's own people. Then again, because it looked basically the same as a human didn't mean that it was one. An had to be sure. If this was a different species he might need to deal with it differently, because it might prove more intelligent or more trustworthy.
It could be that in imprisoning him, the dark humans were simply frightened of him. Technically, they were obviously much more advanced than those of the earlier time, which was promising. Before, there had been nothing like the device which generated the invisible wall of energy that threw him back so violently.
He had to find out what it was like out there.
When one of the soldiers began dismantling the apparatus around the door, while two others kept him covered with their weapons, An's huge body stiffened with anticipation. Now at last he might find out something. They backed away as he stepped from the rest chamber, then hurried off down the corridor in the direction of the airlock. He set off after them.
He found the airlock door open, and emerged from it into a vast, echoing chamber whose walls consisted of blocks of a smooth grey-white material. Masses of what was obviously scientific equipment, though it was relatively primitive compared to that built by his own civilisation at the height of its powers, stood against them. Clearly some considerable time had passed since he had last walked among this species. What else had changed, other than their technology? He knew nothing yet about the state of their morals, and he needed to find out if he was to decide whether they could inherit his race's achievement.
Standing before him were about two dozen of the green-clad humans, grouped around their leader. Several of the white coats stood just behind them. In the background An saw still more humans in long robes and turbans, like the clothing the Muzalawi had worn on his own planet.
Saddam and the other Iraqis saw the alien pause and look around with interest, beneath which they could detect an undercurrent of wariness. But there was no fear in its expression or body language.
Something told them that if attacked the creature would be prepared to give as good as it got. The massive, powerful body certainly gave the impression it could do a good deal of damage.
Saddam stepped towards it, his bodyguards automatically moving with him, and raised the translating device to his lips. "Greetings," he smiled.
A moment later An stiffened on hearing the device speak in his own language. He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Who are you?" he demanded, guessing the machine would do the same to his own words.
To the humans the alien's voice sounded terrifyingly deep and guttural. Several of them jumped.
"I am Saddam Hussein al-Takriti, President of the Republic of Iraq," Saddam declared. If he was afraid of An it did not show in any way.
"You are the ruler of this political unit?"
"That is correct."
"Greetings. I am An. Where is Enlil?"
Saddam had already prepared his explanation. "He was taken by enemies of mine. They know what I am doing here and they are trying to stop me. They will experiment on him, treat him cruelly."
"Why did you imprison me within the rest chamber?" The hint of menace in the alien voice was unmistakeable.
"Forgive me. I assure you we did not mean to cause you any harm. We did not know how to communicate with you until now, so we could not be sure of your intentions, that you were not hostile."
The alien regarded him suspiciously for a moment, then nodded briefly, seeming to accept this explanation.
"The legends of our country told of your previous activities on this planet. And now we have revived you."
If Saddam expected the alien to be overflowing with gratitude, he was to be disappointed. It turned away from him to study the various components, some of them definitely not human in origin, laid out on the workbenches. "You have tried to make use of the technology of the ship," it said, its tone changing to indicate disapproval.
"I needed it. And as I said, we could not ask your permission."
"Why do you need it? Did you awaken me out of curiosity, or did you have some other purpose?"
Translated into English by the machine, the alien's language sounded odd and stilted. They doubted it really talked like that; most probably its speech was sprinkled liberally with colloquialisms, plus obscenities for use when angry, as was that of humans. The device had merely translated its words into a form that seemed adequate for getting its purpose across.
Saddam clearly disliked the alien's tone, the fact that it wasn't afraid of him. Managing to hide his feelings, he described the geopolitical situation as he saw it, the ambition of the West to dominate his country economically and deny its right to defend itself. "Our enemies have brought only greed and corruption to the world, and they would do the same to us. They kill and starve my people, deny us the resources we need for our prosperity. The power within your spacecraft could help us fight them."
Meanwhile Osama bin Laden and his followers were shifting with impatience. Unable to contain himself any longer, Bin Laden marched angrily over to Saddam. "You promised me I would be the first to question it."
"Wait," Saddam snapped. Bin Laden's eyes flashed with rage.
An observed the exchange with disinterest.
"Tell me," the alien said, "are these enemies of yours pale-skinned, with yellow hair and eyes like this planet's sky?"
It's seen the girl, Saddam thought. He laughed. "Some of them are - not all. A few of us too, but not many. The characteristics will have been diluted by interbreeding."
An’s lips pursed, his expression suggesting distrust. "One such creature, a female, entered the ship earlier. I had never seen anything like it before. If there are two intelligent species on this planet, I would speak with the other."
Again Saddam laughed. "There is only one. We are all the same species, even though we may not look alike."
He had only been forced to state the literal truth. But a Kurd, for example, might have reflected on the strangeness of those words coming from someone like him.
"I wish to speak with one of them," the alien repeated. Again its tone made clear it expected its requests to be met.
"Why?" asked Saddam, trying to sound as if he did so out of mere curiosity.
There seemed to be the briefest hesitation before the alien replied. "I may be able to help you against them if I understand their biology, their way of thinking. You must capture the female I saw."
"We have done."
"Good. But I would need a representative sample. Do you have any more specimens?"
It could do no harm, Saddam decided. "Have all the prisoners brought down here," he ordered General Fawzieh. Fawzieh saluted and gave an order to his men.
They might as well show it the UN team. For all Saddam knew the alien might demand that it be satisfied there wasn’t a third intelligent species on the planet, and a fourth, a fifth.
Saddam remembered bin Laden's request, and handed him the translator. "Go on, ask it whatever you want." He showed the terrorist how to use it.
Trembling more than a little, from fear not of the alien itself but of the answers it might give to his questions, bin Laden addressed An. "In the name of Allah, the most merciful and compassionate. I am Osama bin Laden. Tell me, do you have the Islamic faith on your planet?"
The alien looked puzzled. "Explain this faith to me."
"We believe there is but one God, and Mohammed is his prophet. We declare this five times a day in prayer, facing in the direction of the holy city of Mecca where the prophet was born. We fast from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan, give help to the poor as often as we can, and each of us undertakes the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in his lifetime."
"I and Enlil are the last of our kind," An told him. "But there were some of us who worshipped a religion similar to that you describe. They believed in a being called Allahu, the sole creator of the universe and everything in it. He first revealed himself to our people through one called Mohamza, who served as his prophet. His followers, the Muzalawi, prayed four times a day, reaffirming the principles of the faith. They too fasted, and subjected themselves to various hardships, for one month a year as a means of purification and so that they could prove their loyalty to Allahu. And each year they went on an annual pilgrimage to the city where Mohamza was born."
Bin Laden and his followers were silent while they considered this information. Then slowly the light began to creep back into their eyes and each man's expression changed to something like a smile.
"And what of other worlds?" bin Laden asked anxiously, still not quite put at ease.
"We were aware of no other intelligent species in the Galaxy. There is only us...and you." A note of sadness had entered An's voice.
Bin Laden's eyes lit up and he broke into a broad grin. There seemed little difference between what the alien was describing and the faith which was his whole reason for living. He turned to his followers, who had heard the exchange and were grinning at one another with gleaming eyes.
"Praise be to Allah!" he cried, falling to his knees with his hands raised in supplication. His followers did the same. For several minutes they wept and cried out in exultation, praying fervently. An looked on with indifference while Saddam's face showed a faint contempt. The scientists and soldiers were all stony-faced.
Then the Western prisoners were brought in, soldiers and civilians alike. Among them was Karin Soderstrom. Except for her and Caroline everyone halted automatically at the sight of the alien and its spacecraft. There were murmurs of astonishment and awe.
"What...what's that?" gasped Margaret Kent, gripping her husband's arm. "It...it can't be a...."
Their first reaction was that they were looking at a man in a suit. But then there was the ship. It only took a few seconds for them to realise that it was too fantastic, too alien, to be the product of human labour. In which case...
"So that's it," breathed Theodore Malikian, incredulous. "That's what he's been hiding away from us. My God..."
The alien was studying them with an intensity that unnerved them. Its eyes met Jordy Dennis' and the SAS man returned its hard stare. "Jesus Christ," he muttered. "So what the fuck are you, then?"
Since Jordy was too far away from the translator the machine didn't pick up his voice. An wouldn't have replied in any case; he was totally absorbed by what he was seeing. As well as the fair-skinned creatures there was an individual whose skin was so dark as to be almost black, and who had short crinkly hair, a broad nose and thick lips; and another yellowish in colour with eyes the skin around which was folded in a way that made them appear slanted. Assuming that it was the same race he was seeing before him, these humans really were a diverse species.
Basically, all Saddam's prisoners appeared on the outside to be physiologically the same as the Iraqis. Later he might dissect some of them to analyse their internal construction, but in the first instance what mattered was what they thought like. That would determine how he should regard them.
An continued to study them thoughtfully for a few more minutes, then seemed to come to a decision. "There is something in the spacecraft which I need," he told Saddam. "I shall not be long." He stared penetratingly at the dictator. "I must ask that no-one follows me."
"If that is your wish," answered Saddam graciously.
The alien turned and strode back towards the ship, disappearing through the airlock.
As soon as it was out of sight and hearing Saddam turned to his soldiers. Selecting one entirely on a whim, he barked an order at the man, who came nervously to stand before him, clearly awestruck in his leader's presence.
Saddam bent forward and muttered an instruction into the man's ear. The soldier stared at him in horror. But the look on Saddam's face discouraged any protest. The man moved slowly and quietly towards the airlock.
The prisoners glanced at one another.
Inside the ship the soldier crept cautiously, nervously, along the central corridor, torn between fear of the alien and fear of Saddam. He didn't know which of the two was greater.
He found the alien standing in front of the sealed door which they had been unable to open. He saw it touch its shoulder gently with one hand. Its silver fingers moved about as if pressing the keys on a computer keyboard. Then the area of skin beneath them glowed with a soft orange light and to the soldier's astonishment peeled back to expose a short, stubby metal tube, resting in a tiny pocket within the folds of flesh.
The alien took out the tube, fiddled with it for a moment, and the object expanded into a slender wand about a foot long. The alien pointed it at the door and the soldier heard a fizzing, crackling sound. There was a brief flash of light around the rim of the door. The alien placed its hand in the oval recess. Then suddenly it stiffened. It turned slowly towards where the soldier was standing. Somehow it had sensed his presence. With a cry of fear the Iraqi spun on his heels and raced back down the corridor to the airlock.
An stared after him for a moment, hissing low in his throat. Then he returned his attention to the door, replacing his hand in the oval recess and sliding it back. He stepped through.
The soldier burst from the airlock and staggered to a halt in front of Saddam, breathless and panting. He gabbled out an explanation, several times glancing fearfully back at the spaceship. Saddam's face darkened terrifyingly. "You idiot," he snarled. He raised an arm to strike the soldier, who cowered back in terror, lifting up his hands in an instinctive attempt to defend himself.
"What did you see in there?" Saddam demanded. The man told him.
They heard the alien's heavy footsteps from within the airlock. Ponderously it stepped out and approached Saddam, its body language none too friendly. Immediately a dozen rifles came up to point at it.
Saddam moved away from the soldier as fast as if the man had suddenly been found to have a contagious disease. He put several feet between the two of them in as many seconds.
An halted a few feet from Saddam. "You disobeyed my instructions," he said coldly.
Saddam indicated the soldier. "I am sorry. He acted against my orders." He drew his pistol, aimed it at the soldier and fired point blank at his chest. The sound of the report made the prisoners jump. The man gave a lurch, then keeled over. Margaret Kent collapsed in hysterics.
"Justice in Iraq is swift and effective," declared Saddam proudly.
An looked at him for a moment. Then he opened the pocket in his shoulder and took out a shiny black disc about an inch across. He tapped the centre of his forehead and a patch of skin there glowed briefly, undulating and then peeling back to create an indentation roughly the size and shape of the disc.
"That's fascinating," Malikian whispered. "It's got some control over its own physiology."
The alien raised its hand to its brow and fitted the disc into the indentation. It nodded towards the prisoners. "Have them stand within a few of your feet of me," it ordered Saddam. They were herded forward.
The alien touched the disc, in whose centre a red light began to pulse steadily. He moved his head from side to side, casting his gaze slowly over the crowd of people before him, Iraqis, Westerners and UN alike.
“What's it doing?" Mandy Dixon whispered.
Theodore Malikian heard her. "I think it's trying to size us up."
"In what way?" Brigitta Carlsson asked.
"It's already seen what we look like physically. That thing on its forehead must be some kind of gadget for reading minds." He had to fight to keep his voice steady, still awed by the knowledge that he was looking at an actual alien being, an intelligent life form from another planet. "Telepathy; it's incredible."
"I think it's trying to decide who it's going to throw in its lot with," said Caroline. "Us or Saddam."
The Iraqis, meanwhile, had come to the same conclusion. They were shifting about in an extremely nervous fashion.
While the alien was busy looking them over the prisoners took the opportunity to take stock of their surroundings. The size of the place was breathtaking, though it had to be big to accommodate the spacecraft. It must have had its own, completely artificial air-conditioning system, thought Malikian, independent from the building above, in which the oxygen was regularly recycled.
For the first time they noticed the ancient stone statues and tablets positioned against the wall. Seeing it as divine, the Sumerians must have built a temple around the spaceship, Caroline realised. And when the ship had submerged itself in the ground, the upheaval had caused the building to collapse, likewise becoming buried. One of the statues was of a priest or king or some other person of importance. He had braided hair and a short jutting beard and his face was Semitic, with a hooked nose and full lips. She remembered from a visit to the British Museum that the eyes of these statues were inlaid with gemstones; on this one they had long vanished, and the empty eyes gave the figure a sinister look.
Edward saw Caroline and nudged Margaret, drawing her attention to their daughter. Both smiled with relief to see that she was alive and well. Edward called out to her softly, and she looked round and saw them, flashing a reassuring smile.
Edward's eye fell on Neghid Fouasi and his face froze. He took an involuntary step towards the Egyptian, before realising that any attack on him might provoke the wrong kind of reaction from the Iraqis.
Caroline too had seen Fouasi, and the look on her face was downright frightening. Noticing it, Chris Barrett shuddered.
Caroline saw the Major too, and her face lit up with joy. It was good to see another familiar face. She also found that the Major's presence gave her confidence, lifting her spirits. He was someone you felt you could rely on.
She heard Mandy catch her breath. "Is that that bin Laden bloke?" the girl asked, in a voice hushed with awe.
Caroline looked round and realised with a giddy shock that they were standing almost within spitting distance of the familiar bearded figure with its long robe and turban.
"Yes," she said, swallowing. "That's him all right."
"Fuckin' hell," Mandy exclaimed, impressed. It was hard to say who fazed them the most, Saddam or bin Laden. Neither was a great figure, if great meant you had to be morally good. But both were makers of history and both had been equally in the news of late.
And then there was the alien and its spacecraft. When the reunion with old friends and enemies was thrown in the whole experience was disorientating, almost unbelievable. This must all be a dream, surely. Almost more than the mind and emotions could cope with.
Caroline realised that bin Laden's gaze was resting on her. His eyes had widened and his face wore a look of astonished disgust, as if it was outrageous that someone like her should be permitted to exist.
It was clear just what he thought of her. Infidel whore.
She locked her gaze with his, unafraid, letting the burning hate-filled eyes stare straight into hers. He went on staring, accepting the challenge. It was all she could do to keep her nerve, knowing who this man was and what he had done. But her steely resolution never wavered. To the others, it looked as if each was trying to swallow up the other with their eyes.
A sudden awesome thought occurred to Caroline, prompted by all the apocalyptic predictions there'd been lately, and the earth-shakingly evil nature of bin Laden's actions. Surely she was being irrational, superstitious, but could it be...was it possible that this man was the Antichrist of the Bible?
She was quite unable to suppress a shudder of dread. She recovered her composure almost immediately, but bin Laden decided her momentary discomfort was a victory for him and turned contemptuously away, grinning in triumph. Caroline would quite happily have kept the contest going indefinitely, and stiffened with rage, her eyes boring like knives into the back of the terrorist's head.
The Major was the next to notice bin Laden's presence. His men heard him gasp and saw him go rigid, his lips tightening and his fists clenching into balls. He stared fixedly at the terrorist, breathing in a rapid succession of short gasps.
Caroline, along with one or two others, just about recognised Abu Nidal. The sleek, darkly handsome looks they remembered from television pictures in the eighties were gone. Nidal's hair had receded and his face and body were plumper.
"The deadly alliance," muttered Caroline. "Saddam, bin Laden and Nidal."
The Major gave a short laugh. "I don't think it's as strong as that would suggest. I doubt if Saddam and bin Laden have much time for each other, and as for Nidal - well, look at him."
From Caroline bin Laden's gaze had moved on to Neghid Fouasi. He had met the man only once before but it had taken just that one short meeting to make clear exactly what he was. It was permissible in his view to use such people as one might a horse or other beast of burden, but still degrading to think that it was money from Fouasi's base and unIslamic practices that had helped bring about the triumph of the faith.
He would not have been surprised to know that Fouasi had an equally low opinion of him. The activities of such as bin Laden, their frequent Islamic clean-up campaigns, had always been a threat to his empire of sleaze. Fouasi caught his look of hostility and glared back at him in the same poisonous manner. What are you staring at, you fucking jerk? he muttered just above his breath.
The alien was still looking them all up and down, the disc on its forehead flashing rhythmically. What, they thought, was it thinking? How exactly did you read minds? And did it like what it saw in theirs?
Caroline presumed it would interpret what it found there according to the way its own mind worked. How different was that from the functioning of a human brain?
Everyone's gaze was fixed on the alien, waiting for it to finish what it was doing and give its verdict. Slowly, very slowly, she began to edge her way towards Saddam Hussein.
As one always did when using the discs and seeing into the minds of others, An was feeling slightly disembodied. The sensation wasn't that unpleasant, and anyway you got used to it after a while.
It would take time to read the minds of all those present. Individual facts were particularly hard to discern, requiring more time and effort. You could find them only if you were specifically looking for them, in order to avoid being swamped with data and mentally overloaded. And he couldn't understand the spoken conversation of humans, still needing the translator for that. There was another who was more adept at using the amplifier, but he could not take the risk of eliciting that other's help. In any case, what An was really looking for was strong emotions, passionate convictions, deep-rooted memories and cultural loyalties, all of which were more easily detectable because they were more vivid and intense, more fundamental to those who possessed them. And because they were the things that would tell him what he really needed to know.
In Saddam Hussein An did not sense the guilt and fear that might have told him the dictator had lied in the matter of the unfortunate soldier. Because Saddam had a reasonable expectation of being able to deal with the alien if it caused trouble, he felt no fear. And certainly he felt no guilt.
An saw the thoughts of those before him as one might physical images, but they were only barely that; clearly defined, but nevertheless giving an impression of vagueness and insubstantiality. They were seen half with the mind and half with the eye.
He realised almost immediately that despite their differences these creatures all belonged to the same species, as Saddam had said. But perhaps it was possible for some ethnic groups to be superior to others.
He probed their minds, their memories. What they had experienced at first hand, along with what they knew from their media and their history books. And through them he saw a panorama of human history, saw all that had happened since he last walked on the surface of the Earth. He saw empires rise and fall, battlefields littered with dead and dying bodies, severed heads and limbs. The faces of great leaders and soldiers swam before him.
He saw cheating, lying, killing and stealing. And the wars were spreading across the surface of the earth and of the sea; even to the skies. As time wore on, they became progressively more bloody and terrible. He saw a whole generation of young men drown in a sea of mud; the flowers of Europe cut down in their prime, never to see their sweethearts, their friends, their families again. Their bodies in many cases lost forever as the pounding shells turned their graveyard into a strange, surreal, grotesque landscape that was like the surface of Earth's moon...dead.
Time moved on a little further.
The man was small with a little black moustache and a cowlock of hair across his forehead. He looked comical, absurd, but you only had to gaze into his cold staring eyes to see that there was nothing funny about him. He stood on a podium addressing a vast crowd of people. His voice was harsh and grating but it cast a mesmeric spell over his listeners, infecting them with the hatred and anger that saturated it.
And then An saw huge piles of bodies, reduced almost to skeletons by illness and hunger. A few gaunt, hollow-eyed survivors, in little better condition than the corpses, stood staring out through the holes in a wire fence.
The scene changed, to a collection of wooden huts and a fenced-off compound in a jungle clearing, but the images stayed much the same, only this time the victims were not Jews. To this small yellow race called Japanese it was men, and women, with white skins who were inferior and depraved and must therefore be starved and beaten and tortured, though An sensed they would have done the same to anyone else who was not of their kind.
And it went on, year after year, decade after decade. It got worse.
Still more images drifted through the eye of his mind, some connected, some disparate. The wreckage of an airliner lies scattered across a Scottish moor. Among it are the mangled bodies of the crew and passengers, interspersed with bloodstained Bibles and Christmas cards, children's dolls with their heads and limbs torn off. One of the relatives has managed to find her way to the crash scene, to collapse in hysteria at the realisation that her sister cannot possibly be alive amid this appalling carnage. Even a policeman is suddenly overcome with grief and horror and has to be sent home in distress, weeping like a child.
The pale emaciated body of a young girl lay on a hospital bed, dead from the drugs that had poisoned her system for too long. Her limbs were horribly thin, like sticks. A man and woman stood over her, weeping.
Men in white pointed hoods marched around carrying burning crosses. They thought they stood for virtue and decency but the hoods only made them look sinister and evil which was what they were. They chanted hatred of the people with the black skins, tearing them from their homes and hacking them to death, killing them with guns and knives and fire.
A young man loved by his family falls dead at a bus stop, his lifeblood pouring into the gutter, because he is the wrong colour. Mandy Dixon lies in her bed, her fingers convulsively clutching the sheets in terror, while her father towers over her. "Come on, Mandy, it's time for our game again. Come on, Mandy...."
Gunmen open fire on a crowd of tourists; what should have been a happy, sunny holiday ends in unbelievable horror. Mothers fall on top of their children's bodies.
A cloud in the shape of a mushroom looms above the city called Hiroshima. Scores of bodies, horribly burnt and blistered, litter the streets.
Weapons of mass destruction. Weapons that can kill and burn thousands, even wipe out the entire human species. It is bad enough they should be used once. Since then they have not been used again; but the fear they arouse is bad enough. And one day, it will no longer be a fear. One day it will really happen. One day someone will lose patience, or the wrong kind of person, he who cannot be deterred, will come to power and unleash the holocaust everyone has dreaded.
Bombs raining on a jungle village, whose inhabitants run screaming in terror as the substance that had been in the bombs burns into their skins.
A similar scene in a Kurdish village. This time the evil is of Saddam's doing. The poison gas leaves hundreds of families dead, their bodies lying in a tangled heap, yellow fluid oozing from their mouths.
Israeli tanks pounding a Palestinian township into rubble. As too often happens, the oppressed have become the oppressors.
An was aware of Saddam stepping towards him. "I should point out that time is not on our side. My enemies may launch another attack."
An swung round to him angrily. "To do this concentration is necessary. You must not interrupt me."
He saw women with haggard faces skulking on street corners in a decaying district of some Western metropolis, waiting hours if necessary for someone to whom they can sell their bodies; forced through poverty to perform acts which have long ago ceased to hold any pleasure for them, for money most of which is snatched from them by the heavy hand of a pimp. Beaten up, abused, dying from the diseases ejaculated into them.
A plane crashes into a skyscraper and erupts in a ball of fire, killing hundreds. Hellfire rains on the street below, killing and burning and bereaving.
What is the place called? Africa. Skeletal figures like the ones in the concentration camp, holding up their begging bowls and pleading for deliverance from the famine which gnaws away their guts until death is almost welcome. Your son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, or wife lying dead in pools of their own excrement, surrounded by swarms of flies.
Pollution and filth leaking into the sea, killing the living things in it. Poisoning the air. The Earth cries out in agony. The contagion is killing the animals and plants and soon it will kill the people too.
A young girl is on her way home from school when a man appears from nowhere, stepping in front of her. She is dragged off the path and thrust into the shrubbery. Her clothes are torn from her and in seconds she has been irrevocably defiled.
But at least she has survived the experience. Somewhere else the police have cordoned off a patch of waste ground on which lies a pathetic little body, so that the pathologist can find out whether she is who everyone fears she is, while at home a family wait, desperately clinging to one last, faint, scrap of hope they know at heart is futile.
A shot rings out on a London street and a man falls dead. Not far away and at the same time another crumples with a knife in his guts while his wife and children look on, unbelieving at first, then beside themselves with pain and grief.
An saw Charles Manson. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Peter Sutcliffe. Charles Sobhraj. Donald Neilson. Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. And a whole host of others. Some were hard men who killed from what they saw as political necessity. Others did it just for its own sake; he saw the evil etched into their faces, their delight at the mastery they felt they had achieved over life and death.
And the victims. Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, John Lennon, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin. Keith Blakelock, Yvonne Fletcher, Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor, Rachel Nickell, Suzy Lamplugh, Jill Dando, Julie Ward, Nicole Simpson, Lesley Whittle. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Amanda Dowler. And hundreds, thousands of others. Their names would have meant nothing to An, but as the procession of faces drifted before him he knew that each one had died a violent, unjust and untimely death.
Lesley Ann Downey crying for her mother. Sharon Tate strung up and pleading for mercy, pleading not just for her own life but for the life that grows within her. Deaf to her sobs and screams they cluster round, eyes shining with drug-induced bloodlust. Her anguished cries are cut off as the knife tears a bloody slit in her belly, killing the unborn child. James Bulger led off by two older boys, bemused at first then uneasy. Soon he starts to cry as he realises something is very wrong. He pleads to be allowed to go home. But they won't let him go; instead they pinch him and poke him and beat him. And then they kill him and dump his body on a railway line to be severed by a train.
A lonely farmhouse, deep in the English countryside. A family sitting down to dinner. It is early evening.
The tramp of feet on the drive. The father hears the doorbell ring, goes to answer it. Then the four masked men forcing their way into the house, terrorising the occupants.
The father, mother, son and daughter-in-law all tied up on the floor, while the gang ransack the house taking all the valuables. They are distressed and angry, but they suspect they are going to be robbed and that is all.
The gang leave the house with the loot and they each breathe a long shuddering sigh of relief. Now they must get free and inform the police. It has been an unpleasant, shocking experience but they are still alive and that is the main thing.
But then they hear feet in the hallway again. One of the gang is coming back. Why?
He pours a colourless liquid from a metal container. It soaks into the carpet, staining it black. The family's fear and tension turns to unbelieving horror as they realise his intent. He stares down at them as they struggle uselessly against their bonds, their muffled voices pleading pathetically for mercy, their faces white and sweating. As their hysterical gibbering rises to an appalling crescendo, there is no feeling in his face. It is as if he does not see them as human beings, but merely as...things.
He strikes the match, throws it, turns and runs. Behind him there is a flash of fire, a roar like a hungry beast, and four lives are snuffed out in burning agony.
An saw it all.
And he did not understand.
The humans saw him recoil physically, his face twisting. Evidently he didn't like what he had seen, although rather than distress his expression was one of anger and disgust, as if at a child that has not kept its bedroom tidy or has failed to use the toilet properly.
What they could not have known was that just for a second or two, as the full horror of what he saw in his mind slammed into him, he had felt something more. And something deep inside him had lifted up its head, opened its mouth and screamed.
He stepped back, and his intense gaze swept over the humans. The skin on his forehead had wrinkled, suggesting he was thinking carefully. Trying to come to a decision.
Everyone was looking expectantly at him. Caroline shifted a little closer to Saddam.
"You are corrupt," An informed them, his voice a cold hiss of anger. "Depraved. All of you."
Those nearest to Saddam, who had the translator, heard the machine play back An's words in their own languages. Those further away couldn't understand what he was saying, but it was clear from the alien's manner that he was not pleased.
Saddam Hussein stared back at An, his face like stone. "All of us?" He was struggling to repress his anger. "Surely that can't be true. There must be some who are worthy of your assistance."
"The darker images blot out the light. There is too much violence, too much conflict. It is the same everywhere, regardless of race or country or religion." An's tone was one of utter incredulity. "It is not...it is not rational. You cannot and will not control your baser desires. It has always been so, but it is worse now than in the times of Sumer and Babylon and Assyria. There has been some progress, but always the achievement degenerates into violence and disorder. None of you are worthy to inherit our powers.
"You use your power to damage your own people, purely to spite your enemies." This was addressed to Saddam. "As do others in this part of the world."
The alien swung round to point at Caroline Kent. "With your kind it is different. One such as him - " - it indicated Saddam - "would not come to power. But your leaders are still devious, arrogant and incompetent. They mishandle their relations with the rest of the world and therefore worsen strife. They cannot solve the problems of a society that has grown too complex, too inefficient and clumsy. They cannot inspire confidence in themselves, and so provide the moral leadership that is needed. That is why people demand only material pleasure, and turn to crime when they cannot obtain it. Why they steal and rape and take drugs. You have rejected religion but replaced it with nothing except greed and apathy. You are in danger of destroying the very fabric of your society, sowing unrest and rebellion everywhere. Eventually the criminals and the extremists will take over, as they have done here. You merely have different vices from those you are in conflict with. Were I to give you the secrets of our science one of you would eventually misuse it."
Now he was addressing all of them. "I thought you might have changed since we first walked among you. But you have not. My presence here is futile."
"Do you mean that you are not going to tell us how to operate the spacecraft?" Saddam had been prepared for this possibility, but his tone was still angry and threatening.
"It will make little difference who has it," said the alien wearily. "Take it if you wish, Saddam Hussein."
Immediately Saddam's face split in a smile that was terrible to see, as he realised he had won. "I have already constructed a missile. Show me how to channel the power in the ship's reactor into it."
"Very well," An said curtly. He turned to go towards the spaceship, Saddam moving with him.
Then Caroline Kent sprang at Saddam and snatched the translator from his grasp. Her sudden unexpected action took the soldiers by surprise. Aware that his bodyguard would shoot her the instant he recovered his wits, she leaped away from Saddam and dived on the floor. Her mind was racing so fast that she was quite unaware of the bullets travelling through the empty air where she had been standing a moment before, to drill a series of holes in the wall of the hangar.
Anxious to get the key words out before the Iraqis could stop her, she shouted frantically into the translator, almost gabbling in her haste. "I know something you don't!"
When the bodyguard had fired at Caroline Edward Kent's reaction had been instantaneous and unthinking. He hurled himself at the man, almost knocking him off his feet as they collided, and grabbed his gun hand, trying to wrench the weapon from him. General Fawzieh and a soldier struggled to pull him off.
Then An stepped forward, grabbed the combatants and pulled them apart. "Wait!" he commanded. Such was the power and authority in the booming voice that they obeyed instantly. "If she has something of importance to say, I would hear it."
Saddam began to bluster. "I don't think..."
An ignored him, and turned expectantly to Caroline. Again she raised the translator to her lips.
"He lied to you," she told him. "He told that soldier to follow you into the ship and spy on you."
An stiffened, his face tautening. He stared intently at Caroline, concentrating hard.
After a minute he drew back. He rounded fiercely on Saddam Hussein, letting out a savage hiss of rage. Then he turned on his heels and strode rapidly towards the spacecraft.
Incandescent with fury, Saddam whipped out his automatic and fired. The bullet spanged harmlessly off the alien's back. For a brief moment a slight indentation was visible where it had hit, then it closed up as if it had never been there.
"Stop it! Stop it!" Saddam screamed at his soldiers.
All of them, except those guarding the prisoners, aimed their rifles at An and opened fire. The alien staggered a little under the fusillade of bullets, then recovered his balance and walked on towards the ship, completely unharmed.
"Use the stun guns!" Saddam shouted. Two of the soldiers shouldered their rifles and ran for the pair of oddly-shaped weapons that had been lying on a workbench, each snatching one of them up. They ran towards the alien, halted a few yards from it and pulled the triggers.
Above the nozzle of each gun a red light came on. A weird high-pitched noise with a warbling note cut through the air.
The effect on An was dramatic. He stopped, staggered, and threw back his head, letting out a thunderous roar of pain. They saw him lurch crazily from side to side, disorientated.
Rallying, he managed to stagger a few paces towards the ship, walking in a jagged, uneven line. All the time terrifying cries of rage and pain came from him. He stumbled into a bench and knocked it over.
He veered away from the ship, his hands clasped tightly to his skull. It looked like his entire nervous system had been thrown into disarray. He lurched blindly towards the Western prisoners and their guards, who scattered instinctively.
Suddenly in a maddened burst of desperate rage the alien lashed out. He knocked over another bench, scattering its contents on the floor. They heard the sound of shattering glass. A scientist screamed as a smoking green liquid splashed onto his arm from a broken beaker.
An picked up the bench and lifted it high above his head, hurling it thirty feet through the air. It crashed into one of the masses of complex equipment that stood about the room, smashing it. There was a loud bang and a sheet of flame licked from the blackened and smoking circuitry. The severed end of a cable lashed like a snake, spitting sparks.
As the alien continued to rampage about the laboratory, wrecking everything in sight, people scattered in terror, several of them running for the door. Saddam and his aides backed away towards the wall.
Their attention was distracted from the alien by sounds of struggling and shouting from close by. Saddam looked round and his eyes blazed with fury, a vein in his temple throbbing and pulsing.
The British soldiers had jumped their guards.
Steve Ferris snatched a rifle from one of the Iraqis and shot him with it. The Major wrestled another to the ground, grabbed his gun and knocked him unconscious with the butt. The other guards recovered their wits and fired back, killing several SAS and one of the Paras. Immediately the Major and Steve blasted a couple of them down.
Most of the hostages were running for the far wall, to get away from the shooting. Caroline ran with them, dropping the translating device in her haste.
An seized one of the few benches still left standing and raised it high in the air, an assortment of tools and other objects sliding from it. He flung it at the soldiers with the stun guns, who scrambled hurriedly out of the way. The bench splintered against the wall.
As his eyes darted between the alien and the gun battle Saddam saw bin Laden and his followers disappearing through the door, along with Neghid Fouasi and Abu Nidal. A few of the Western hostages were pressed against the wall, awaiting the outcome of the struggle between the British and their former guards. There was no sign of any of the scientists.
Although the stun guns were clearly disorientating An, still the alien remained conscious, refusing to succumb. He picked up another piece of machinery and threw it clean across the chamber.
"The Blowpipes!" shouted Saddam. "Get the Blowpipes!"
The two soldiers dropped the stun guns and ran to where a row of tubular objects stood stacked against the wall. Behind them the alien, suddenly freed from the searing pain, staggered on towards the airlock.
Dodging round upturned equipment and piles of debris, Caroline hurried on to join the hostages by the wall. She was nearly there when she stumbled over an Iraqi body and almost fell. Briefly she glanced down at it and in horror and distress saw it was Majid. He must have stopped a British bullet. His eyes, staring wide and sightless at the ceiling, would never see his family again.
Powerless to help herself, she turned and glared across the chamber at Saddam, her face a mask of rage. The dictator saw her and for a moment their eyes locked. Then her face changed as he levelled his pistol at her, his expression every bit as terrifying as hers had been.
"This is all your fault!" he screamed, enraged by the chaos and devastation going on around him. "Your fault!"
From her position by the wall Margaret Kent saw her daughter's plight. "No!" she screamed, running forward.
Caroline jumped to one side as Saddam fired, and the shot narrowly missed her, spanging off a nearby console. She ducked behind an overturned bench. As Saddam marched towards her one of his bodyguards saw an SAS soldier take aim at him.
For a moment the Iraqi hesitated. Should he pretend he hadn't seen the danger? Let Saddam be killed, and free them all from their hell?
If someone saw through it...
His courage failed him. "Look out, Mr President!" he grabbed Saddam and pulled him down, the bullet missing him by a fraction.
An had disappeared inside the airlock. The two soldiers rushed in after him, heard running footsteps and glanced to the left. The alien was hurrying down the corridor towards the front of the spacecraft, a hundred yards ahead of them.
They guessed Saddam wanted him disabled, not killed. For a moment they were torn between the need to stop him and the need to preserve his life. If the first shot missed, they would risk killing him with the second, they decided.
The first soldier lifted the missile tube onto his shoulder, aimed it at a point just to the left of the alien and fired. With its weird shrieking sound the missile shot from the tube and streaked away down the corridor.
The projectile missed the alien by a few inches and travelled on to impact with the bulkhead beside it. The explosion sent An reeling against the opposite wall with a high-pitched scream of agony as the blast ripped through his shoulder and tore a massive wound in his side. Gouts of purple blood and a steaming greyish fluid spattered against the surfaces around him.

The Major and his men covered Caroline as she ran the last few yards to join the other prisoners, to take cover with them behind a fallen mass of machinery. The Iraqis had done likewise, except for one who was making his way towards the Blowpipes. Steve Ferris saw him and shot him down.
They had to get out of the chamber before another got his hands on a Blowpipe and used it. At a shout from the Major the prisoners ran for the door, while the SAS men covered their retreat with a burst of rifle fire.
An Iraqi soldier lay on the floor a few feet away, groaning and struggling feebly to rise. It looked as if he had been hit and knocked out by one of the objects thrown about by An in his mad rampage. The Major grabbed the man and pulled him to his feet. "You're going to show us where all the weapons are kept," he snapped. "And if you try anything stupid like taking us to the wrong place, we'll kill you."
While the other British blasted away at the Iraqis he ran from the room, bundling the terrified Arab before him. His comrades let off a few more shots at the enemy and then hurried after him.

The two soldiers in the spacecraft watched as An regained his balance and staggered on, leaving a trail of blood on the floor behind him. The purple fluid was cascading down like a waterfall.
He reeled from side to side, every few seconds stumbling and almost falling. From the sounds he was making he must be in incredible agony. The soldiers contemplated each other indecisively. Surely he must drop at any moment; there was no need to risk killing him by a second hit. They decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.
With a burst of energy the alien broke into a lurching, stumbling run. They saw him reach the end of the corridor and disappear through a door in the right-hand wall.
An staggered onto the flight deck, bellowing in agony, fighting every inch of the way against the searing pain which threatened to overwhelm him. He could feel the blood oozing rapidly away, his consciousness with it.
He fell against the main console and started to slide down it to the floor. Rallying himself, he straightened and began tapping at the middle row of keys. His fist slammed down on the first key, then the second, then the third. As he pressed each one a light came on above it.
He hit the fourth key. Then, with a savage effort, the fifth, before the console blurred before his eyes. Weakly he lifted an arm to stab at where the thought the sixth and final key must be, but it wouldn't obey him. It dropped to his side, all the feeling in it gone.
He swayed and toppled sideways, crashing down like a falling tree. The soldiers came up to the door of the cabin and peered in to see the alien lying face down in a pool of the purple substance. It was breathing, but only just. A massive wound stretched from its shoulder down its back to the left buttock. More hissing, steaming purple liquid was pouring from the wound onto the floor of the cabin, and ragged fragments of flesh hung down from it. Through the pulpy mass of tissue protruded a nodule of grey-white bone. Satisfied An wasn't going anywhere, the soldiers hurried off to join the battle outside.

The battle as it happened was over, and Saddam and his companions were surveying the scene in the chamber. Covering a sizeable area of floor was a tangled mass of debris; papers, tools, cables, wires and splintered wood. A pool of nasty-looking yellow liquid was spreading slowly towards them. All around valuable equipment lay damaged or burning.
Two bodies were sprawled flat nearby. One was the Japanese United Nations inspector, his forehead a mass of blood and gore. He was quite obviously dead. A wounded British soldier lay groaning beside him; let him die, Saddam thought savagely.
There was a lot of clearing up to do. Again he quivered with sheer rage at the damage that bitch had done to his plans.
He felt a sudden twinge of pain in his chest, and froze in horror, cold sweat breaking out all over him. No...surely not...
"Are you all right, Mr President?" asked Tariq Aziz worriedly.
Saddam turned in a startled way, gaping at him stupidly. "Uh? What?"
"Are you all right, Mr President? You don't look - "
"Of course I'm all right," Hussein snarled, averting his gaze from his Prime Minister.
Aziz dropped the subject.
After a moment Saddam's breathing steadied and his heartbeat returned to normal. He shook his head furiously.
Thank God for that, Aziz thought, watching him. He breathed a sigh of relief.
But he can't be there forever, he told himself for the thousandth time.
Saddam was trying to pretend nothing had happened. The return of the two soldiers from the spacecraft provided a fortuitous distraction. "Did you stop the alien?"
"Yes, Mr President. We wounded it. Quite badly, by the look of it."
"Good. Come with me." The three of them went towards the spacecraft, Saddam's bodyguards in tow.
Inside, they hears the low moaning of the injured alien. Cautiously, they entered the flight deck and approached the massive sprawled figure.
Inside the jagged hole in its shoulder something metallic and gleaming lay exposed, the flesh around it ripped away. It was a slender metal tube about an inch or so long - the gadget with which the alien had deactivated the defence systems around the sealed door.
Saddam reached down, grimacing as his fingers sank into the clammy, gooey matter around the tube. Steeling himself, he grasped it and tugged. It came free of the surrounding tissue with a sucking, popping noise. He held the tube up to the light, which glistened on the sticky strands and gobbets of flesh that still clung to it. Thankfully, it had escaped damage.
Saddam hurried from the flight deck and down the corridor towards the sealed room, the soldiers scurrying along behind. Once they had reached it Saddam handed a soldier the tube, not wanting to take any chances. If there was anything dangerous within, he was quite prepared for others to get hurt instead.
He told the soldier to wave it around in front of the door, as his colleague had seen the alien do. Immediately there was a loud crackle and a brilliant flash, which made the soldier jump back in alarm.
Cautiously, Saddam stepped forward and placed his hand inside the oval depression. Nothing happened. He slid open the door.
They stepped through it.
The room was a smaller version of the rest chamber. Built out from the wall was a transparent canopy over a couch and attached life-support equipment. The arrangement was identical to that which had held An and Enlil.
On the couch lay a third alien. This one was female, naked and with the same smooth, silvery skin as the others. She was shorter of a more slender build than An, but still bigger and taller than any human. As she was on her back they couldn't see whether she had buttocks, but she did have breasts, large and well-formed but without nipples. She also, unlike the male aliens, had hair. The sleek head was crowned by a mass of coiled tendrils, the same colour as her skin, which gleamed brightly as if fashioned from metal. The bones of the skull-like face were finely sculpted, the hourglass figure perfect, the legs long and beautifully shaped. Saddam stared down at her in astonishment. "My God," he breathed.

The Major and his companions reached the door to the weapons store just as four Iraqi soldiers appeared from the opposite direction. The Major, Steve Ferris and Bob Moretti aimed their captured rifles and sprayed them with bullets while Martin MacDonald blasted through the lock and flung the door open. The civilians ran in while he joined the others in fending off the Iraqis. They waited for a brief, anxious moment before the three soldiers came running in, slamming the door shut. Moretti and Darren Haddon took up position on either side of it. "The first person who comes through there gets shot," said the Major. "We've no alternative."
He scanned the room, and his face twisted briefly in anguish. The British force was down to about twenty SAS and Paras. Only a few of them had been able to grab rifles from their guards and so defend themselves; of the rest, many had been cut down instantly in the frenzied gunfight that followed. But they would mourn the dead later.
"Are we safe in here?" asked Brigitta Carlsson nervously.
The Major studied an air vent thoughtfully. "They might try to pump gas in, or something like that." He ripped the battledress from the Iraqi they had captured and stuffed it into the vent, blocking it. The battledress's owner now lay tied up on the floor.
"It's as safe as we can make it," he told them. He looked round the room. It was stacked with weaponry of all kinds, some of it in boxes and some leaning against the walls. Their own captured arms were piled in a heap apart from the rest.
"We've got everything we need to fight our way out," Theodore Malikian said. He was no soldier but he could see the room's contents represented a considerable asset.
"Some of us might be killed doing it," the Major said grimly. "And I've got you lot to look after, remember. It's best if we stay here and wait to be rescued. The Iraqis won't try anything in the meantime, not with all the stuff we've got here."
He addressed the civilians. "Right, are you all OK?"
"I don't think Yukio made it," said John Cardall, his tone making clear precisely what he meant.
"I'm sorry," said the Major, bowing his head respectfully.
Caroline gave a sudden start. "Chris. He's still down there."
"Did anyone see what happened to him?" the Major asked. They shook their heads.
"Well, I'm afraid he's going to have to look after himself. We can't risk our lives for just one person. We're all clear on that, I trust?"
Caroline let her head sink, accepting his decision.
The Major, they realised, was now in full command of the operation, with the final decision as to all that happened. As there were more SAS than Paras left, it made sense. MacDonald seemed not to object, although they guessed he wouldn't.
"What if they've captured Chris?" said Margaret anxiously. "They'll threaten to do something nasty to him unless we surrender."
The Major looked her straight in the eye. "We can't surrender. Whatever happens. You understand?"
He shifted a crate round and sat down on it, facing Caroline. "Now then, young Miss. Before I call my superiors, I really need to know what's been happening here."
"Do you know her, Sir?" gasped Jordy, noting the familiarity between them.
"Yes, I do," he said affectionately. "But that, as they say, is another story."

TWENTY-SEVEN
Weakly, Chris lifted his bloody head and gave a long shuddering groan. His skull felt as if a red hot hammer was banging away inside it and there was a nasty pain all the way down his side. Something very heavy was pinning him to the floor, face down. He was conscious of a warm liquid trickling into his eyes.
He blinked and shook his head fiercely. Recovering his bearings, he realised he was lying underneath a heavy metal bench.
After a minute or so he succeeded in wriggling free. Painfully he straightened up and took a look around. He was surrounded by overturned and shattered equipment. One or two small fires were burning nearby.
For the moment, the massive chamber was silent and deserted. There was no sign of Caroline, or the SAS, or the other hostages. They'd taken advantage of the confusion to clear out.
Not an Iraqi soldier in sight, either. The jundies, as the SAS called them, had assumed all the hostages had gone. Not a very bright lot, are they? he thought. But then working for a totalitarian state did tend to stunt intelligence and initiative.
The only party whose absence wasn't accounted for was the alien. What could have happened to it? However, that wasn't his immediate concern.
He took stock of his injuries. He had jarred his ribs painfully, and his chest and stomach were badly bruised. Then there was the cut on his forehead. But otherwise, he could consider himself unharmed. At any rate, he had sustained nothing worse than one might in an average session on the rugby field.
What to do now, that was the question. Did he stay here, or go in search of the others? It wouldn't be much help to the Major if he got himself captured; the Iraqis might threaten to kill him unless the SAS surrendered. Better to stay down here in case the Allies mounted a second, successful rescue attempt. But if he was to do that he'd need a secure hiding place. The Iraqis would presumably be back at some point to tidy things up.
He started to search for one. As he looked around he caught sight of the translator, lying forgotten on the floor. He picked it up and slipped it into his pocket, having some idea that it might come in handy later on.
His eye also fell on the stun guns, which had been left leaning against the wall, and his face lit up. Now those would be useful.
Trouble was, if the Iraqis realised they were missing they would know he was around. And if it came to a shoot-out, he couldn't expect to knock out more than one or two of them before he stopped a bullet.
He still needed to hide. He tensed at the sound of footsteps from the spacecraft, and hurriedly hid behind one of the knocked-over benches. Peering out cautiously, he saw Saddam Hussein and his bodyguards come out of the ship and head for the exit from the chamber.
The thought of the spacecraft suggested it might be the best place in which to conceal himself. It seemed the Iraqis were in and out of it a fair deal; but the thing was huge, and there didn't really seem to be anywhere else.
He searched for a little longer, but the only other possibilities were too exposed. So he plumped for the ship. While he was in there, he could look for any sign of the alien.
A few minutes into his search he came upon the control room and saw An, lying dead or unconscious in a huge pool of blood which was starting to congeal. The telepathic amplifier had been roughly torn from his forehead.
No more of the purple liquid seemed to be oozing from his wounds. He saw the alien stir feebly, making a low, almost inaudible moaning sound.
He went to kneel beside it, examining the translator to see how it worked. There was just one button, presumably a toggle between on and off, and a grille below it for the user to speak into.
He pressed the button. "Can you hear me?" he asked.
The alien raised his head. With a massive effort he managed to heave himself over onto one side. He struggled to speak, lips moving soundlessly. "I...hear you..." he said eventually.
"I'll help you if I can," Chris promised. "But you look in a pretty bad way to me."
"Cell structure...self-renewing. But...weak..."
"But you're going to be all right, yeah?"
"Yes. I will...recover. But it will...will...take time. Saddam..."
"What about him?"
"The deactivator for the alarm system...he has taken it. He will...will try to open...sealed door. Must not...must not..."
Why, what's in there?" Chris asked worriedly.
The alien spoke a single word.
"Ishtar," he said.
"Ishtar. And what's that when he, she or it is at home?"
"She...she may tell Saddam how to...how to use the power. She is...not to be...trusted. Evil...treacherous..."
"Is there any way of stopping all this?" Chris asked.
An paused to summon up strength. "Self-destruct mechanism...on main console."
"A self-destruct? Does it work on a timer?" Naturally Chris had no intention of blowing himself up if it could be avoided.
"It can be triggered auto...automat...automatically or...or set to...activ...activate within any...within any period of time."
The intervals before the alien could manage to speak were getting longer.
"If we do set it I imagine there'll be a pretty big bang," Chris said.
"The explo...explosion will destroy...this building and several square miles of...terrain. You must be well clear of…of area."
And they couldn't guarantee that they would be. "Look," Chris began, "I think the best thing for me to do is to go and find my friends. With any luck someone will be soon coming to get us out of here. Do you understand?"
"Yes...you must go...must…"
The alien's voice faded to a whisper and then tailed away. He rolled over onto his back and his eyes closed.
Chris straightened up and looked down at him. His breathing was shallow but regular.
He turned to leave. Then he heard footsteps, lots of them, coming towards the ship.
It sounded like there were too many of them to fight it out. He ran down the corridor towards the rear of the craft.

The unit's radio equipment had been among the other captured items in the weapons room. The Major was doing his best to explain to General Le Chevallier what had happened.
"Some kind of airborne virus knocked us out, Sir. But we escaped and now we're holed up in their armoury."
"Are all the hostages safe?"
"One dead, I'm afraid Sir. The rest are OK. About half our lads have copped it, though."
A pause, then the General sighed. "Well, we knew this job was likely to be messy."
"There's a missile of some kind here, Sir. Hussein's intention is to fill it with this virus and explode it in the atmosphere." He thought it best not to mention the spacecraft or the alien just yet.
When the General finally spoke it was with a sharp exhalation of breath. "Are you sure, Mike?"
"Positive, Sir. I've seen the thing myself."
"Is there any immediate danger?"
"I'm not sure at the moment, Sir."
"Well, we're coming in to get you, as soon as everything's ready. We'll be there in a couple of hours, I expect. In the meantime you'll just have to sit tight."

A mixed group of scientists and workmen filed through the door of the flight deck. The workmen walked slowly, in single file, bent forward with the weight of the massively thick steel cables they were carrying on their shoulders.
Everyone stood looking down at An. Monique Desgranges squatted to examine the alien's injuries. The blood was clotting fast and she was sure the wounds in An's shoulder and sides had shrunk in size, as the damaged skin and flesh grew slowly back into place. "I think we can safely move it," she said, nodding to the workmen. They began to attach the cables to the alien's feet by the massive clamps on their ends. Outside the ship, the other ends of the cables were wound round the drum of a massive electrically-powered winch. The engineers operating the winch switched it on and slowly the drum began to rotate, hauling An inch by inch out of the control room and along the corridor.

In the secondary rest room, Malcolm Speyler stood contemplating the series of strange alien symbols on the wall. They had been unable to deactivate the equipment which kept the female alien in suspended animation, or even remove the canopy over her sleeping form. Speyler felt sure the hieroglyph-like characters told you how to do so, but his not being a linguist, and their alien nature, meant he hadn't the slightest idea what they said.
Saddam regarded him impatiently. "Well?"
Speyler sighed. "It looks as if they didn't want it to be easy to revive her, for some reason." The symbols were arranged in two groups, each consisting of twenty rows; the first, he suspected, were letters making up some kind of message.
Perhaps a warning. He looked down thoughtfully at the alien woman.
"We'd need a linguist to be sure - and to translate it. Unfortunately the good Dr Soderstrom seems to have disappeared." She had run off when An had gone berserk. "Now this second lot - I think they're a logic test." He studied the complex geometrical shapes with their multiple angles. "You have to find the non-conforming symbol, the odd man out, in each row."
"Well, can you do that?"
"Of course. But they're so complicated it'll take quite a while. And a lot of concentration. You know, I think they wanted to give us time to reconsider whether it was the sensible thing to do, assuming we'd read the warning and disregarded it."
As Saddam saw it there was nothing to lose. "Just do it," he snapped. "As quickly as you can."
Beside him General Fawzieh put away his radio. "We've got the British trapped in the weapons store," he said.
Saddam cursed savagely, fixing him with a withering stare. "The weapons store. Wonderful. If they decide to break out they will have all that equipment to use. At least make sure they stay there."
While he waited for Speyler to crack the logic codes Saddam played with the telepathic disc, rolling it around in his palm. He stared down at it fixedly, held it against his forehead and looked hard at Tariq Aziz for a minute or so. Eventually he slammed it down in disgust. For some reason, he just couldn't seem to make it work for him.
Behind his back his ministers let their relief show.
He put it in his pocket. "We must find out how to make this thing work. In the meantime I will look after it." There were very good reasons why he might not want anyone else to have the device in their possession.

It was beautiful, Chris thought; vast, glowing rooms where strange and complex machinery hummed with power, huge intricate structures whose purpose couldn't be identified but which looked more like the organs of some massive living creature than anything manufactured. He came across a lounge with couches and weird-looking plants standing in tall urns, kept watered by an automatic sprinkler system; a swimming pool filled not with water but some sparkling, shimmering, multi-coloured liquid; and a dormitory area with tiers of bunks built out from the walls. A library held rows and rows of video cassettes - but no books, Chris noted. There were even lavatories, whose design was more or less the same as those you'd find on Earth; after all, physiologically the aliens were much the same as humans, give or take a few improvements. That he could breathe without the aid of special equipment showed they too depended on oxygen.
A door had been left open, presumably by the Iraqis, and on passing through it Chris found himself in a vast chamber dominated by a huge sausage-shaped structure at its centre, from which a tangle of pipes emerged to disappear into the far wall. Here the glowing effect was so bright it hurt his eyes; no doubt the alien could stand it. The giant sausage looked to him like it might be some kind of nuclear reactor, but he couldn't tell exactly. Whatever it was it clearly represented a massive source of energy. The humming had become a low, rumbling growl, signifying the immense power being stored here.
In the far wall another door stood open. It led into a room the breadth of the ship, he reckoned, in which there were four lozenge-shaped structures like the one in the power unit, but of a slightly different design. This must be the engine room.
He concealed himself behind a cowling and waited for something to happen, preferably rescue by the Allies. When after a while it hadn’t he got bored and decided to go in search of the Major, despite the risks. He went back into the reactor room, opened the door and looked out. The coast was clear, so he left the room and moved stealthily along the corridor towards the flight deck. Hearing the sound of voices from behind an open door, he crept past it almost on tiptoe.
Reaching the flight deck safely, he found no trace of An except the pool of dried blood, which no-one had bothered to clear up.
What had they done to him, Chris wondered.
He went to the airlock, poking his head an inch or two out of it. All the wreckage had by now been cleared away. He saw An lying on his back on a steel platform which rested on four thick tubular legs and stood to about the height of a human's waist. He was secured to it by clamps around his wrists and ankles. Two scientists were standing over him talking.
He saw the alien flex his limbs, straining ineffectively against the clamps. He looked as if he'd more or less recovered from the state Chris had found him in. But the clamps refused to give. Whatever they were made of, it must be pretty tough.
There were no other humans in sight and the scientists’ backs were to him. He stepped from the airlock and moved slowly and quietly towards where the two stun guns lay. He took one of them and studied it; it looked simple to use, a slight pressure on the trigger evidently being sufficient to fire it. There was a button which he guessed must be a safety catch.
"I still don't understand what could have happened to the translator," one of the scientists was saying anxiously.
"We may not need it," the other responded. "It doesn't really matter whether we can communicate with it or not. We'll just take it apart, see how it differs from the other specimens, whether there's anything vital we can learn."
"Do you think the clamps will hold it?"
The scientist glanced at the stack of Blowpipes. "Well, we know how to take care of it if they don't."
He heard the shrill bleeping of the stun gun, and his colleague crashed to the floor in front of him. He whirled round and saw Chris Barrett pointing the gun at him. Before he could react Chris had pulled the trigger, and his unconscious body fell limply across his friend's.
Chris went over to the alien. "Hello again," he smiled. "Feeling better now?"
"My condition is…improving." An still sounded weak. "But I cannot...help you at present."
"I'll take my chances," Chris told him.
He studied the clamps holding An down. "There must be something that opens these." He rooted through the pockets of first one and then the other scientist. He found a massive metal key with a rubber handgrip, and deciding it must be what he was after inserted it into the slot at the base of each of the massive clamps. They sprang open. He closed them again but didn't lock them, so that people would think they were still securely fastened.
"With any luck those two will be out for a while," he said. "Meanwhile, I'll get on with looking for my friends. How long before this...Ishtar's up and about?"
"We have some time. It will be a lengthy process to revive them. I made sure of that. The Iraqis may try to force me to help."
"Torture you, you mean? Will you be able to stand it?"
"Yes. Our pain threshhold is higher than that of humans. But I may suffer further damage."
"Well, if I can help you I will. Catch you later."
An seemed to be drifting back to sleep again. Just after Chris turned away from him, he opened his mouth in an attempt to speak, rallying his energies.
He just managed to get the words out. "Ishtar has...special powers. The disc..."
But by now the human was out of earshot. An slipped back into unconsciousness.
When he awoke some minutes later, his injuries were completely healed. He felt strong and well. It was time to make a move.
He flexed his wrists again and the clamps burst open. He sat up stiffly, swinging his legs off the bench.
He pondered his options. He could go back into the ship and complete the self-destruct sequence. The problem was, there were sure to be Iraqis or their allies inside. He knew he didn't stand much chance, on his own, against weapons like that which had incapacitated him. Better to locate Saddam's enemies and join up with them against him. The man had betrayed him and must be punished. Nothing else remained to An now.
He crossed to the wall, then turned away from it slightly, drawing his arm back. He smashed his fist into the solid concrete.
A crack appeared in it. An punched the wall again and again, gradually weakening it. The cracks spread and widened until finally it exploded outwards, filling the corridor beyond with dust and rubble.

While the Major and his companions waited for General Le Chevallier and the Americans to come to their aid, there wasn't much for them to do except talk. "So how did you land this job?" Caroline asked the Major.
"Well, I didn't volunteer. But I would have done." He hesitated; then he remembered it was quite possible he might be dead in a few hours' time.
He wanted someone to know.
He spoke slowly and haltingly. "I...I wanted to have a crack at Saddam. But I also thought there was a possibility Bin Laden was in Iraq."
Caroline looked at him curiously, noting the strangeness of his manner. "I suppose we'd all like a go at that bastard if we could."
"I had my own special reason," the Major told her, his voice little more than a whisper.
"What was it?" she asked, equally quietly.
The Major turned to speak to his men. "You lads don't know this. I didn't think there was anything wrong with it coming out now.
"A few months ago I got engaged. To an American girl, a girl called Gillian Lands. She was...she was a lovely person. We both knew it was going to be great. And then..."
"What happened?" Caroline asked softly.
He turned to look at her. "September 11th," he said simply. "That's what happened."
"Do you mean...?" she began.
"Gillian was on one of the planes. The first to hit the World Trade Centre."
Caroline stared at him in horror. "I'm sorry," she gasped, reaching out to touch him on the wrist. A murmur of sympathy travelled round the room.
"For a long time I couldn't bring myself to find out just what happened on that plane. But now, now I've got a better picture of things. They don't think any of the passengers knew what was going to happen to them, at least not until it was far too late to do anything. The hijackers tried to calm them, make them think they weren't in any danger. But Gillian was smart; she'd have guessed something bad was on the way."
The Major started shaking and his face twisted in pain. "She left a message...on my answerphone...about the time of the bombing. At least it was her number. I...I wiped it.
"You...you can't possibly know how much it's screwed me up ever since...how often I think I should have played it back." His companions were listening in stunned silence.
His voice became an anguished sob. "I should have...I should have...she wanted me to hear the message. To know how much she loved me. But I wiped it. Do you know that? I bloody wiped it." His lips trembled, and the moisture appeared in his eyes.
It was an effort to get the words out. "Jesus, I can face some bastard with a gun in his hand who wants to kill me but I can't...I can't..."
Steve Ferris moved towards him, his face full of pity and horror. "Sir?"
The Major looked at Caroline. "When you told me your brother was on that plane those bastards blew up...I'd seen good friends of mine die before, but although I said how sorry I felt for you, how terrible it must have been, I couldn't...I couldn't imagine...well now, I...I..I know how you feel..."
He threw himself into her arms, all self-control finally disintegrating. They both cried long and hard and without shame. The others looked on silently, heads bowed. It was a moving, pitiful sight to see the big SAS officer reduced to such a state. But none of them, not one, felt the slightest contempt or derision.
They let go of each other and the Major slumped back against the wall, drained. A few minutes passed before he spoke again. "I didn't tell anyone because I thought if it got around they'd take me off the active list. And I so much wanted to get my hands on that bastard. "
"You could have told us, Sir," gasped Ferris. "We wouldn't have said anything. We'd've kept the lid on it, all right."
"Perhaps I should have done...I mean, if I'd cracked up..."
Moretti and Haddon were looking on from the door. "You wouldn't have, Sir," said Moretti with total sincerity. "We know that. That's why we'd go through hell for you." The others murmured their agreement.
"Thanks, lads," said the Major, his voice trembling again. "Thanks." He suddenly looked embarrassed at his loss of control. Caroline tapped him affectionately on the cheek. "You men," she smiled. "You know, it isn't silly to cry like that. I'm a woman; I should know. We're all the stronger because we let out all our stress, our emotional energy. Not like you lot, always bottling it up and tearing yourselves apart inside."
The Major smiled at her weakly. His composure now more or less recovered, he sat back. When he next spoke it was in a quiet, reflective manner. "As time went by I was able to cope with it a bit better. I think...I think it's possible the hijackers may have been more mad than bad. They'd been brainwashed into believing what they were doing was right. I imagine they were told to suppress any normal feelings they might have towards the passengers. They mustn't think of them as human beings because it would get in the way of what they had to do." He thought of the reports he'd heard in the media describing how surly the bombers had been after they'd finished their training sessions at the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, how their whole behaviour had changed. While their killers had been coming off Bin Laden's assembly line, that terrible day when evil was born, what had the dead of September 11th been doing, the Major wondered? He imagined them going about their normal activities, working and playing and relaxing, laughing with their friends and their families, their children if they had any, unaware that their fate had maybe just been sealed.
Again he saw in his mind the procession of grim-faced young men marching away from their training ground. Sullen, rude, and withdrawn because despite all their training a part of them was not sure they wanted to die. Or to kill so many others.
"I guess they used airliners as bombs because no other sort of weapon would have been available to them, not for something that big. Terrorism's usually the only means people like that have of getting back at what they think of as their enemy. They couldn't have used military aircraft because the security at the bases would have been too tight, they'd never have got on board.
"Of course, in a business like that there's got to be some evil at work somewhere. So the anger never goes away...or the pain.
"That's the gist of it, then. As you'll know, of course, we went into Afghanistan to get bin Laden and he wasn't there. At least, we couldn’t find him. It’s the sort of country it’s easy to disappear in. Certainly we didn’t suspect he’d be here, in Iraq. We couldn't imagine even Saddam being that daft. He wouldn't do it unless there was a very special reason, something that made it safe.
"And now, of course," he said grimly, "now we know."

Chris moved slowly along the corridor, the stun gun levelled before him. Whenever he came to a room he opened the door, if it was unlocked, and peered cautiously inside. So far, no SAS or hostages. Once he came face to face with a startled Iraqi soldier whom he blasted into oblivion before the man could react in time to fire.
He heard someone coming towards him. He hid behind the angle of the wall and stepped out as two more Iraqis came into view, shooting them down immediately.
Then from a few corridors away he heard shouting and running followed by An screaming in pain, mixed with the warbling note of what must be the other stun gun. He ran in the direction of the sounds. Peering round a corner he saw An reeling against the wall, struggling to move forward like a person caught in a strong wind. Two Iraqi soldiers were standing before him; one of them was directing the ray of the stun gun at the alien's chest.
Chris stepped from his hiding place and fired with his own stun gun. The soldier twisted and slumped like an empty sack. The other Iraqi spun round and was dropped immediately by the sonic blast, barely managing to aim his rifle.
"You OK?" Barrett asked the alien.
An didn't respond for a moment, then straightened up and looked at him. "Yes, I am recovered. We must go and find your companions." Picking up the fallen stun gun, he set off.
You might at least say thankyou, Chris thought.
He slung his own weapon over his shoulder and followed An down the corridor. They turned another corner and saw about a dozen Iraqis standing with their rifles trained on a door. Chris guessed at once that the Major and the others must be holed up in there.
They shot a couple of Iraqis down with the stun guns. The others, knowing An would be immune to their bullets, decided to give up the fight and ran off.
Chris sniffed. "Haven't got much bottle in them, have they?" He went up to the door and knocked on it. "Major? Are you in there? It's Chris. I've got the alien with me."
The door was thrown open and they saw Bob Moretti standing with his Heckler and Koch aimed point blank at them. Seeing there was no danger he stepped back, gesturing for them to enter with his free hand. Caroline gave a shout of joy and ran to embrace Chris. He returned the compliment.
Gently he disentangled himself from her. "We've got to warn your top brass," he told the Major. "According to this, er, bloke" - he nodded at An - "there's another alien inside the spaceship, and he reckons she'll tell Saddam how to work it."
The Major stiffened. "How long have we got?"
"A few of your hours," said An. "You must destroy this building, and the ship with it, before then. A sustained attack with high explosives will be necessary."
Swiftly collecting his thoughts, the Major turned to the civilians, speaking firmly yet reassuringly. "Right, you heard that. You'll appreciate that it gives me no option but to warn my superiors. They're sure to order an air strike on this building. Now obviously I don't want us to get killed in the process, if that can be avoided. So we're going to have to fight our way out of here."
He smiled at An. "Fortunately we aren't without help."
"We've also got these," Chris said, holding up his stun gun.
"As well as our own weapons. So you see, we do have a chance." Unfortunately, of course, they could only take as much as the soldiers could carry.
There were some Blowpipes in the room, and a couple of the soldiers picked up one each.
The Major saw that Margaret Kent was trembling with fear. "I realise there's a chance some of us may get killed," he said gently. "But we're even more likely to die if we stay here."
He got out his GPS again. "This is Major Hartman calling." A few moments later he was speaking to Le Chevallier. "It's a long story, Sir, and I don't have time to explain it all just now. But I have information which suggests Hussein will launch the missile within the next few hours. I believe he intends to detonate it in the atmosphere, somewhere over the Northern Hemisphere. I think you're going to have to bring the bombing forward, forget about the rescue operation."
"What about you?"
"We're going to try and break out of here."
You've no choice. All right, Major, good luck."
"Thankyou, Sir. See you soon, I hope." Hartman clicked off the radio. By now the soldiers had armed themselves and formed into two groups, flanking the civilians. "All of you keep close together," the Major ordered. "If you get separated from us, try not to panic. Take the nearest cover and try to work your way back to us. But if you get left behind we can't go back for you and if anyone tries we may have to shoot them." It was obvious he was dead serious.
His manner changed. "Come on then, everyone," he shouted cheerfully, making it sound for all the world like an outing to the seaside. Trying to be reassuring.
"What's in it for you, now?" Chris asked An as they left the room. "I mean, you're not exactly bowled over by any of us, are you?"
"There is little to choose between your West and Iraq. So I may as well help you, especially now the man Saddam has betrayed me."
"Your knowledge could do a lot of good as well as harm," Chris told him. He patted the alien on the arm. "Come on, let's go."

The B52s were gathered on the runway at Incirlik, looking like vast predatory birds with their long swept-back wings. They were awesome in both their huge size and the durability of their design. There were people flying B52s whose grandfathers had done the same.
"You are cleared for take-off," the control tower informed the squadron leader.
"OK, let's roll," he yelled into his radio.
One after another the five massive planes lifted from the runway and soared up into the stratosphere, levelling out at 55,000 feet. Banking, they streaked in formation towards the Iraqi border, ready at a second's notice to rain their deadly load upon the complex at Quarat and obliterate everything in it.

The Major and his companions didn't encounter any enemy troops in their search for a way out of the building. Perhaps the Iraqis had concluded it was safer to let them escape.
Eventually, An found a door and without bothering to try it smashed a hole in it with a massive fist, enlarging the opening until the wood was ripped to pieces. As the door disintegrated beneath his attack it revealed broad daylight and, visible between two outbuildings a couple of hundred yards away, part of the wire and steel fence which surrounded the complex.
The alien brushed aside the remaining splinters of wood and they followed it outside. The Major led them towards the fence. The whole party moved slowly and with caution, the soldiers continually glancing from side to side and listening for the slightest sound which might betray the enemy's presence.
They'd got about halfway towards the fence when they heard the sound of running feet from behind the outbuildings. Two groups of Iraqi soldiers, about a dozen men in each, burst into view, converging on them from either side. It looked like Saddam had called up reinforcements.
The Iraqis had waited until they were out in the open, and less protected, before engaging them. A good tactic. Here, they could use grenades and Blowpipes. Two of the Iraqis, one in each group, had the missiles mounted on their shoulders, and one was aimed directly at An.
A sergeant shouted out at them to surrender.
The Major saw at once that any chance of breaking out was gone. He thought on his feet. He had no intention of getting recaptured, especially with the bombing imminent, nor of alerting Saddam to his danger. There was only one course of action and that was to try to destroy Saddam's project, then if they succeeded call off the bombing. They had nothing to lose.
In a low voice the Major spoke to Ferris and Moretti. "Steve, Bob, get the civvies back inside! Take six of the lads with you. Get to that underground place and kill every hostile that's in it. Smash all the equipment. We'll stay here and cover you." With any luck most of the Iraqis would be out here, allowing them to reach the chamber safely.
Ferris and Moretti's group split off and hurried back towards the complex. At the same time the Major and the remaining soldiers opened fire on the Iraqis. An threw himself aside just as the Blowpipe shot from its tube, the missile streaking past him and impacting with the wall of the complex to blast huge chunks of concrete from it. Chris Barrett had disobeyed the soldiers' instructions, taking cover behind a fuel bunker from which he darted out to shoot at the Iraqis every few seconds. His one thought was that the stun gun was a weapon and he ought to be using it; otherwise he wasn't really thinking at all. He noted that An, too, stayed where he was, firing away at the enemy with his own stun gun. Chris saw the other Iraqi Blowpipe swing round to point at the alien, and shot the soldier carrying it before he could fire.
An knocked out three more Iraqis, bullets bouncing harmlessly off his massive body. He saw a grenade arcing towards him and sprinted for the cover of the fuel bunker. The grenade exploded on the ground and the blast sent him flying, to land on his back. Immediately he got up but before he could reorientate himself one of the Iraqis had snatched up the second Blowpipe from his unconscious comrade and fired it at him.
This time the missile struck An squarely in the back. The alien let out a shrill, piercing scream as his torso exploded in a shower of blood, gore and pulp. Chris turned from shooting down an Iraqi who had been about to hurl a grenade at the Major to see An drop the stun gun, stagger a few paces and then collapse. Looking on in horror, he saw steam rising from the massive hole, about four feet across, that had been blasted in the alien’s body. An twitched slightly, then lay still.
A British soldier selected a group of three or four Iraqis and launched his Blowpipe at them. They scattered immediately and the Major took advantage of their disarray, pumping a fusillade of bullets into the running figures. They twisted, fell and lay twitching on the ground. Darren Haddon let off his own Blowpipe; again the Iraqis scattered, allowing his comrades to shoot down several more of them. But not enough to win them the battle, and now the missiles had been used up.
As the Iraqis regrouped Darren threw the empty launch tube aside and reached for his rifle. He took aim and shot dead the Iraqi sergeant. Beside him Jordy Dennis twisted and fell as several bullets took him directly in the chest, one passing straight through his heart.
All around the Major SAS and Paras were being shot down. The British force broke up into little groups which blazed away at the Iraqis, taking whatever cover came to hand, diverting the enemy's attention from their friends while gradually retreating towards the complex. Behind them the remaining soldiers and the civilians were disappearing inside the building, scrambling through the hole the Blowpipe had made.
Joining Chris behind the fuel bunker, they started throwing their grenades out at the Iraqis. The series of explosions blew several of the enemy to pieces. Then an Iraqi grenade came hurtling over the roof of the bunker and they scattered instantly, forced out into the open. One man wasn't quite quick enough. The blast blew off his arms and legs, leaving him a helpless, writhing torso on the ground.
One of the Iraqis made to pick up An's stun gun. Chris fired his and the man fell unconscious. In that same instant another Iraqi dashed forward and picked up the fallen stun gun. Before Chris could react the Iraqi had blasted him with it.
A grenade went off uncomfortably close to the Major. He decided it was time to make a break for it. They were reasonably near to the complex now. "Back inside!" he yelled.
Everyone ran out from their cover and sprinted for the hole in the wall of the complex, their arms and legs pumping furiously. The Iraqis pursued them, rifles chattering away. Halfway there, Martin MacDonald turned and flung a grenade at them. They fell back, allowing the British several precious seconds in which to reach the safety of the complex.
Inside the building Steve Ferris came to the door of a food store and yanked it open. "In here!" he shouted to the civilians. They'd be out of danger there; they weren't the Iraqis' main concern at the moment.
"Where's the missile?" Steve shouted to Caroline before closing the door on them. She replied she didn't know, but it must be close to the spaceship hangar if not right next to it.
One or the other had to be knocked out; it didn't matter which. Ferris decided to make for the hangar, since he knew where it was. They ran towards the stairs that led down to it. Whenever they came to a T-junction Steve flung a grenade down the side corridor, bringing down the roof and walls and blocking it, or opening fire with his rifle to mow down anyone who might be standing there. Every few seconds he paused to glance behind them; the way had to be left clear for the Major and the rest of the lads to join them. If they were OK.
Would they make it to the hangar all right? They could go to the weapons store but the Iraqis had probably put guards on it. And they were outnumbered anyway.
Steve heard noises from behind, and looked round to see the Major and his group coming up behind them. Haddon paused to throw their last grenade back down the corridor, bringing the roof down and filling it with rubble.
"You made it, Boss!" shouted Steve.
They were nearly there. And once they were in the chamber they would kill Saddam and his scientists - and bin Laden too, if he was there, the Major thought. There was no choice.

"That's it," declared Malcolm Speyler, and rested his hand gently on the last of the nonconforming symbols. His voice was a weary gasp; the mental effort of solving the ten complex puzzles in rapid succession had exhausted him.
As Speyler stepped back lights came on inside the transparent canopy, and the network of tubes withdrew from the alien's body and retracted into the wall. The canopy too slid back into it. They waited expectantly for the alien to show signs of life.
The skin within her eye sockets shifted, folding and unfolding. She began to stir, moaning softly. Her fingers twitched, rising and falling to beat a gentle tattoo upon the couch beside her.
She sat up and swung her legs off the couch. Rising to her feet, she studied Saddam and the other humans with an air of keen interest, tinged with wariness. She eyed the soldiers' rifles, obviously trying to decide how much of a threat they presented to her.
Saddam remembered they didn't have the translator. He fingered the telepathic amplifier in his pocket, uncertainly. Without the device the alien wouldn't know what they were thinking, and would be at a disadvantage.
The alien moved to a square recess in the wall and placed her hand in it. A glowing yellow light appeared around the hand, and a section of the wall beside the recess opened like the door of a safe. The alien reached inside and took something out. She paused for a moment, as if seeing something which puzzled or disconcerted her, then closed the door and turned to face the humans. In her hand was another telepathic disc.
She pressed her other hand to her forehead and the circular opening appeared there. She slotted the disc into it and the flesh around it puckered, sealing it in place.
She spoke. "I am Ishtar," she purred. Her voice was soft, silky, entirely feminine. Speyler heard it in English, the Iraqis in Arabic.
Hesitantly Saddam stepped forward. This was a female, clearly, and Arab men were unaccustomed to show deference to a woman. "I am Saddam Hussein al-Takriti, President of - "
To his rage Ishtar interrupted him. "One of the telepathic amplifiers is missing. What has happened to it?" She glared at the humans suspiciously.
Slowly Saddam removed the disc from his pocket and handed it to her. She opened the subcutaneous compartment in her arm and placed it inside.
"Where are the others?" she demanded. "Where are An and Enlil?"
"Enemies of mine have taken them," Saddam replied. "We must - "
Ishtar smiled. "You lie," she said. "Enlil is a prisoner here, and An lies dying. He was injured while helping your enemies to escape from this building. I know who you are and what you want, Saddam Hussein." She studied Saddam thoughtfully; her manner not quite one of anger despite his deceit.
"Will you help me?" Saddam asked her.
Ishtar didn't reply. She seemed reluctant to commit herself straightaway.
"Will you help me?" Saddam repeated. "We do not have much time."
"I need to find out more about this planet, and about these enemies of yours," Ishtar told him.
"I should tell you you may not have much choice in the matter." At a nod from Saddam the soldiers tightened their grip on their rifles.
The amplifier pulsed. "Disingenuous," Ishtar sneered. "It would seem your - guns cannot harm me."
Monique Desgranges and a couple of other scientists came running in. Behind them appeared Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda associates. "The British," gasped Desgranges as she staggered to a halt. "They're here...in the chamber. They've killed...killed Dr Ahmed..."
"These are the enemies of which you speak?" Ishtar asked Saddam.
He nodded impatiently, his head filled with the thought of imminent disaster. "We have to stop them," he shouted.
Fawzieh was on the radio ordering his troops to the chamber. "I've closed the airlock," Desgranges told them.
"Even if they can't get at us they can still do a lot of damage," said Speyler. "And we can't stay in here forever."
"Do not worry," said Ishtar. "I will deal with them." She strode from the chamber and down the corridor, the others standing aside to let her pass.
She placed her hand on the door control and the airlock slid open. She stepped out and the Major and his men turned towards her, staring in astonishment at the exotic alien figure. Ishtar regarded then with equal interest.
The Major recovered his wits, aiming his rifle at her. "Stay where you are," he ordered.
The alien's lips twisted. "I am Ishtar," she hissed. "And I am not accustomed to taking orders from anyone."
And then a surge of invisible energy slammed into the humans like a force ten gale, tearing their weapons from their hands and sending them flying across the hangar. It felt like a strong wind charged with electricity, and the sensation as it hit them was extremely unpleasant. Each soldier screamed briefly in pain as his nervous system was thrown into complete chaos. Then they keeled over, slumped on the floor and lay still.
Saddam came up beside Ishtar. "Have you killed them?" he asked, his voice hushed with awe and not a little fear.
"No," she replied. "They are unconscious." She swung round on the dictator. "You have seen now what I can do. Do not think you can control me."
An Iraqi soldier came running in from the corridor. "Mr President...American bombers! They are heading towards the complex!"
"Bombers?" Ishtar queried.
"Aircraft with high explosives. They will destroy this building and everything in it."
"Stay here," Ishtar ordered, and hurried off.

The flat desert landscape stretching away beneath them, the B52s cruised on towards their target.

The Major and his squad recovered consciousness to find themselves encircled by a ring of armed Iraqi soldiers. They had been dumped on the floor of the hangar a short distance from the spacecraft.
Caroline and the other civilians were brought in at gunpoint and made to stand with them. "What happened?" Caroline asked.
The Major told her. "It must have been the alien. She hit us with something, what it was I haven't a bloody clue."
"She must have...telekinetic powers. The disc probably has something to do with it."
"We've had it now," muttered Ferris.
"While there's life there's hope," the Major told him. "Let's just see what happens." He addressed one of the Iraqi soldiers. "I don't suppose you can tell us what's going on at the moment? Where's the alien?"
General Fawzieh came over to them. "A squadron of American bombers is on its way to attack the complex. She has gone to deal with them."
They stared at one another. "Do you think she could - " began Malikian, astonished by the thought.
"Take out a whole squadron of B52s? Well, from what she did to us I wouldn't rule out anything."
Two Iraqis came towards them hustling a semi-conscious Chris Barrett between them. They gave him a push which sent him staggering, to lose his footing and fall heavily. He got to his feet, politely brushing aside the others' attempts to help him. "I'm OK," he said thickly.
A third soldier herded Karin Soderstrom forward. "I also found this one wandering around, Sir," he told General Fawzieh.
"Put her with the others."
Fawzieh regarded the Major and his companions in a way that wasn't unfriendly. "You are very persistent, Major."
"I was given a job to do and I'm doing it."
"What's going to happen to us?" Caroline asked.
"That depends on whether Project Gilgamesh succeeds in its objectives."
"And whether your alien friend can stop those bombers," the Major pointed out. "If she can't, then I'm afraid we've had it."

Ishtar stood just outside the perimeter fence, her eyes ranging over the surrounding landscape. It was just as she remembered it; bleak, barren, austerely beautiful. But there were many other places to visit on Earth; freed now from the restraints imposed on her by An and Enlil, she wanted to go there. Assuming she survived her current danger.
She waited, conserving her energy.
A droning sound in the sky made her look up and she saw the formation of arrow-like shapes, like giant metal birds, high above. So these humans had discovered how to fly, like her own kind millions of years before. Splendid machines, she thought.
Such a pity. Such a pity.
It would not be easy. There were five of them and all had to be taken care of; for all she knew just one could pulverise the building and its contents into powder. There wasn't time to find out.
Now, before they got too close. She closed her eyes - or rather, the skin where they had once been on her kind bunched up tightly. She stood very still, arms held out rigidly, legs slightly apart, head tilted back. As did all advanced users of the disc, she focused on one single, key thought. The mind is everything, therefore it can do everything. If you but have the will, the energy. And the skill to direct it.
With her mind and body refreshed after thousands of years' slumber, her powers were at their height.
Fill your head with the thought, and turn the thought into reality.
The sound of the bombers' engines had become a thundering roar. They were much closer now; in less than a minute they would be directly over the complex.
Every fibre of Ishtar's being tensed like steel. The skin on her face was pulled taut. She arched her back and from her lips ripped a savage scream of both pain and ecstasy.
Waves of psychic energy crackled from her, lancing up through the stratosphere towards their targets.

The bomber crews could see the complex sprawled out far below them, now less than a couple of miles away. Right out on its own like this, with nothing but sand around it for thousands of miles, it was an easy target.
And there would of course be no collateral damage. They had not been told that the Major, his friends and the troops under his command might still be inside it. There had been no need to tell them, because the job had to be done whatever happened. Not that it would have made any difference.
On each aircraft the crew waited for the squadron leader's command to drop the bombs, which had already been moved into position over the hatch in the plane's belly. The pilot heard his voice over the radio. "Bomb release ninety seconds."
And then each plane started to lurch about crazily, moving up and down and from side to side in a way calculated to put massive strain on the airframe. The crews stared wildly at one another, their jaws dropping in horror.
"What the shit is going on?"
"What the fuck - "
"What's happening?"
There was no time for any of the planes to contact base, no time to explain what was happening, and certainly no time to take any action to avert the tragedy. The squadron leader saw his instrument panel start to smoke, the thick acrid smell of melting plastic stinging his nostrils. Then it exploded, knocking out both him and the co-pilot and badly burning them. In seconds the smoke had filled the entire cabin. The same scenes were being repeated on all the other aircraft as the electronics caught fire and burnt out, or short-circuited with a flash and a crackle. With those in the cockpits unconscious, dead or severely injured there was no-one to take manual control of the planes. One by one they dropped like stones out of the sky, their engines screaming as they dived earthward. Those on board felt a wave of some powerful energy, like an electric shock, sweep through the fabric of the plane and charge the air around them. It knocked them unconscious before any could reach a parachute and bale out.
The planes were already starting to break up, partly from the aerodynamic stresses and partly from the alien energy itself. The wings snapped off first, then the tailplanes. Then the fuselages plummeted down in an almost vertical descent, to smash into the desert floor and shatter to pieces along with the bodies of the airmen. The other debris rained down around them. The fuel tanks, their contents streaming out in great black plumes as they fell, hit the ground and exploded in orange-red fireballs. Tongues of flame licked skywards.
Ishtar was standing very still, the skin within her eye sockets wrinkled and puckered, her head slumped forward. She remained in that position for about ten minutes, breathing softly. Then she lifted her head and saw the blazing wreckage scattered across the desert. A sigh of relief escaped her.
Straightening up, she turned and walked back towards the complex, a satisfied smile on her face. The deaths of the bombers' crews moved her not at all.
She strode into the underground chamber and up to Saddam. "We are safe now," she told him, grinning triumphantly.
"You destroyed those planes?" gasped the dictator. "All of them?"
"Yes. As I destroy all who oppose my will. Now your enemies will hesitate to attack you again. We have plenty of time."
"You are going to help me?"
"Perhaps," Ishtar said.
Her eye fell on the stun guns and she regarded them suspiciously, guessing what they were for. "I think we can do without these," she said. She picked them both up by their muzzles and squeezed. She squeezed harder and harder, until they were crushed into shapeless twisted lumps of metal and plastic.
"Now," she said, tossing the useless weapons aside. She strode over to the civilians, a number of whom flinched away, unsettled not so much by her alienness as the general aura she radiated. "I have not seen your like before. Can it be...a different species? No, I see now. The same one, but different ethnic groups." The amplifier pulsed as she sized them up.
Her attention focused on the Major and she moved right up to him. "You are a soldier, are you not? A brave man, a strong man." Her tone was soft, silken, seductive.
"Thankyou," said the Major flatly.
Ishtar placed a hand on top of his head, ruffling his hair, before running it smoothly down one side of his face to his chin and from there to his shoulder and upper arm, where she caressed the tightly bunched muscles. The Major was without expression.
"I like a strong man," she whispered. Her probing fingers moved to his chest, kneading it gently. Suddenly the Major felt the full force of her sweep through him, mind and body alike, trying to swallow up his very soul. There was nothing in the Universe but Ishtar, and a primeval instinct far older than any civilised value was demanding that he give himself to her entirely.
It was absurd, ridiculous, when he knew what she was and that he must not under any circumstances submit to her will. But that only made the feelings, the urges he was experiencing all the more disturbing. The intoxicating sensations he felt banished all rational thought.
Remember your training, a voice inside his head shouted at him. Your discipline. You're an SAS officer.
He shook his head fiercely, drawing away from her. Ishtar hissed with displeasure, and for a moment the Major felt a painful stinging sensation all over his body.
"So you will not make love with me. Very well, if that is your choice. You shall fight for me instead." Again she scrutinised him thoughtfully. "I knew one like you once. A warrior of great courage. It is a pity he refused to be my consort, we could have done great things together. Tell me, Major Hartman, do you consider yourself a hero? A Gilgamesh?"
"I just do my job," said the Major solemnly.
Nearby Saddam Hussein was shifting with impatience. "I think we should be..."
The alien failed to heed him, her attention remaining fixed on the Westerners. "Yes, I should like to see you perform," she told the Major. She stepped back and cast her eyes over them all. "You have done well to come this far. You are brave people, all of you. It would be a pity if you were to fail now."
Saddam Hussein's eyes were blazing with fury. He was not used to being ignored like this. And he was being humiliated in front of his subordinates. Controlling himself with a mighty effort, he stood there twitching in impotent rage.
"I think we shall have a little game," Ishtar announced. "Major Hartman, you will have another chance to win, without my powers working against you." She turned to Saddam. "Your scientists will continue their work on the missile. I will help them. It should be ready for launching in around three Earth hours.
"Before then, Major, you must defeat his soldiers. When you have, you may occupy the missile chamber and stop the project."
Saddam's jaw had dropped in astonishment and disbelief. His eyes bulged from their sockets. Unable to contain himself any longer, he rounded savagely on Ishtar. "What are you doing? There are important matters we must deal with. We cannot waste time on foolish - " his voice tailed off as he choked on his rage.
Ishtar smiled sweetly. "And what, Saddam Hussein," she purred, "do you propose to do about it?"
The Major fixed Ishtar with the withering stare he had used to terrify troublesome recruits as a Sergeant in the Royal Oxfordshires. "War isn't a game," he snapped.
"It is to me, Michael Hartman." That settled the issue as far as she was concerned. "And you will play it as I wish it played, or die."
The Major indicated Caroline and the other civilians. "They're not soldiers. Leave them out of it."
"What, are they scared?" Ishtar gave Caroline a challenging look.
The others saw her go rigid, staring hard at the alien. A raw nerve had been touched.
Ishtar scrutinised her keenly. "You like a fight, do you not? But you are not as brave as you like to think, or would have others think."
Caroline's face was set in an expression of fierce determination. The light of battle flared in her eyes. She'd show this Ishtar what she could do.
No, sweetheart, thought Edward, looking on in horror.
But Ishtar had noticed her look.
Caroline's resolution was already wavering, her face showing that she realised she'd just made a big mistake. "Leave her out of it," Edward shouted at the alien.
"She will fight if I wish her to," Ishtar said. She knew it was always an ordeal for Caroline to summon up and maintain the courage and strength she needed to survive a dangerous situation, repressing her fear. The thought of what she would go through was meat and drink to the alien.
"Him too," she said, nodding at Chris. "He is young and fit, and clever enough to learn."
Thanks a lot, thought Chris. But although Caroline would anyway have been in good company, some powerful instinct made him want to be there with her.
Ishtar's gaze shifted to the remaining hostages; Edward and Margaret Kent, Mandy, Zeke, Theodore Malikian, John Cardall, Brigitta Carlsson. Caroline had a nasty suspicion as to what she might be thinking. Those who were too old, or in other ways unsuited to fight, would only get in the way.
"Leave them alone," the Major said. "I came here partly to ensure their safety. I'm responsible for them."
"But your main concern must be the destruction of the Gilgamesh project. So I can kill them if I wish."
"No!" shouted Caroline, running to stand between Ishtar and her parents.
Ishtar considered. If her playthings were to fight, they must have something to fight for. The lives of their loved ones would be such a cause.
Deliberately she waited for a minute or so before announcing her decision. "Very well. I shall make that small concession. They may live, provided they do not interfere."
Once more she contemplated the Major. Something she had detected when probing his mind had caught her attention. "You wish to kill him, don't you?" She inclined her head towards Osama bin Laden. "And I know why." A smile like the grin of a skull split her face. "Very well. You shall have the chance."
She turned to bin Laden. "As for you, do not try to pretend you are a friend of this man." She gestured towards Saddam. "You despise him, do you not? Your wish is that you alone, along with your followers, should inherit the world that will be created when the missile explodes."
Saddam shot Bin Laden a venomous look. The terrorist returned the compliment.
Ishtar had moved on to the other Iraqis. Her gaze rested on General Fawzieh and at once he felt extremely uncomfortable.
Ishtar laughed scornfully. "Do you know, Saddam Hussein, I believe this man is not so loyal to you as you would like to think. He believes you are too dangerous for your country. He would like to see you overthrown if the chance ever arose."
Fawzieh automatically opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again as he realised there was not the slightest point. A cold, dizzy feeling of horror came over him.
Saddam was regarding him with contempt as opposed to anger. It was as if the revelation came as no surprise to him, but then it wouldn't.
"And I will give you that chance," Ishtar told Fawzieh. She selected about a dozen Iraqi soldiers at random, and ordered them to stand together in a group. "You will fight with him."
The soldiers looked at one another in horror, and began to object vigorously.
"The rest of you," Ishtar told the remaining troops, "will fight with this man." She indicated General Musawi. "I think he is still loyal to his leader.
"So - Major Hartman and his friends will fight al-Qaeda and the winner will then engage whichever of the two Iraqi factions defeats the other. The ultimate victor will take possession of the missile silo. You all have three hours in which to triumph - the time it will take for enough of the power to be transferred to the missile. I will intervene from time to time to tip the balance in favour of one side or the other." She fixed them all with a steely stare. "If any of you try to harm me, you know what will happen. In order that there should be no doubt about it, I will demonstrate further."
Her gaze travelled around to settle entirely at random on Brigitta Carlsson. Brigitta gasped in fear and shrank away, paling. "No," she stammered, eyes wide. "No, please."
The telepathic amplifier pulsed. Malikian broke away from his guard and ran at Ishtar. An invisible wave of energy flung him back.
To Brigitta it was like a giant fist had seized her in a crushingly tight grip and then begun to squeeze. The pain was excruciating, almost unbelievable, forcing all the breath from her body. She felt dizzy and sick. Her flesh quivered and rippled as if rats were running about underneath it. Her screams echoed around the vast chamber. They grew shriller and at the same time fainter.
To those looking on she appeared to shrink, her body twisting into a crouch. The disc stopped pulsing and they studied her in horror and disbelief. She was barely three feet tall and the skin on her face and hands was wrinkled and creased like an old woman's. The impression they got, however, was that she had not so much aged as been scrunched up, condensed. Her clothes had shrunk with her.
Brigitta looked down at herself and screamed in despair. "What have you done to me?" she shouted.
"All right, you've had your demonstration," Malikian shouted at Ishtar. "We're suitably impressed. Now change her back."
Don't...don't leave me like this," Brigitta sobbed. "Please."
Ishtar stared down at the midget before her. "As you wish," she said graciously.
The amplifier pulsed once more. A reddish glow appeared in the air around Brigitta's body, suffusing it. They heard her scream; then beneath the glow they saw her features blacken and blister. Her clothes caught fire, her hair became a blazing torch. Then her whole body burst into flames and she lurched crazily about the laboratory screaming in a way too hideous and chilling to be describable. They could hear the sizzling, popping sounds as internal organs burst sending gouts of steam pouring out. The screaming abruptly cut off as the shock and pain stopped Brigitta's heart and she crumpled to the floor like a collapsing Guy Fawkes dummy, continuing to burn until the fire had consumed itself to leave a blackened pile of ash in the shape of a human being. Even her bones had melted away completely.
Slowly Malikian turned to face Ishtar, his face grim with repressed anger and hatred. "You witch," he said simply.
She looked at him hard. "I can stand petty insults," she said coolly. "Fortunately for you."
The skull head swung round again. This time Ishtar was looking at Saddam's three surviving scientists.
Malcolm Speyler met her gaze. After a moment she turned from him with a smile. He was needed to supervise the transfer of the photonic energy to the missile. But there was another reason why she had decided to spare him.
She moved on to the other scientists. "These personnel are no longer necessary," she declared. She didn't want more people hanging about the place than was necessary; it made it difficult to control things.
Monique Desgranges opened her mouth to protest. Then her expression changed to something like puzzlement. A rippling movement coursed through her body as its cells changed, her flesh shifting, smoothing out. Her laughter lines disappeared as before their eyes she grew younger, losing five, ten, fifteen years. From a teenager she regressed to a little girl, looking about her surroundings with frightened, uncomprehending eyes. In a minute more she was a baby, wailing as it struggled to extract itself from the piles of clothes that had collapsed around it. The baby grew smaller.
At Ishtar's feet lay something red and glistening. A tiny foetus, its massive head dwarfing the rest of it. Its little limbs waved feebly, the fingers slowly clenching and unclenching, and its little mouth opened in a soundless wail. The foetus became an embryo, a twitching, writhing lump of protoplasm with stubby limbs which looked more like a fish or animal than anything human.
For someone who studied life, even if it was only so she could learn how to destroy it, it was an appropriate end, Ishtar thought with satisfaction.
The other humans turned sharply away, one or two of them retching.
Only one scientist now remained alive. He was already running for the door screaming in terror. Ishtar sent out a finger of mental energy and the man was spun round to face her.
He bent forward into a crouching posture, and his body hair grew and spread while his features twisted and elongated, became those of an ape. Gibbering, the ape ripped its way out of its white lab smock and denims and flung them aside. It looked around for a moment and then with a piercing scream bounded off, loping across the floor of the chamber to the door, searching for the wide open spaces outside the complex. For the wild.
Karin Soderstrom had been standing a little way apart from the other civilians. Ishtar's gaze shifted to her. Karin bit her lip, but otherwise kept her composure.
"This person was engaged by you to devise a means of communicating with us," Ishtar stated, addressing Saddam. "You do not need her now. We have the amplifiers."
"If she's going to kill me, please let me speak to my son first," Karin urged Saddam. "I must know that he's all right."
"He's safe," the dictator answered. "We released him some time ago."
Inside herself Ishtar smiled. She turned to Saddam, and again the disc in her forehead pulsed red.
"He is lying," she informed Soderstrom. "The child is dead."
Before this information could fully register with Karin Saddam Hussein had reacted. "What are you talking about?" he shouted, glaring at the alien. "I'm telling the truth!" He might sometimes pretend that he had lied about something in order to cause confusion among his enemies. But to be misrepresented without his consent was an affront.
Soderstrom stared at him and then at Ishtar, confused. Her gaze alternated between the two of them.
Then her face exploded with delight, eyes shining with sheer joy. There was genuine indignation in Saddam's manner. The alien had been trying to taunt her for its own amusement.
Ishtar rounded furiously on Saddam, the mental force of her wrath smashing him violently against a nearby workbench. It lurched and almost overturned. He clutched at it to steady himself, and just managed to stop himself falling. Dutifully his ministers ran to check he was unhurt; he waved them away impatiently.
He straightened up, rubbing his bruised thighs and arm. He was obviously badly shaken, both physically and mentally.
"Be careful," Ishtar warned. "You have already had one stroke. It would be a simple matter to induce another. And this time it would be fatal."
Collecting his wits, Saddam regarded her with a look of pure hatred. She met his gaze with a mocking smile, then turned away nonchalantly, returning her attention to Soderstrom.
The scientist's body slumped like an empty sack and a hollow, glazed look came into her eyes. Saddam and his ministers watched as the streaks of grey in her hair broadened and then multiplied, joining up until not a trace of red was left. Her skin crumpled and bunched, her body shrank and twisted into a stoop. She was eighty, ninety, one hundred years old. Her lips twisted in an effort to form words but the shock of the sudden ageing had struck her dumb.
Soderstrom keeled over and collapsed, drained of all energy. She lay unmoving. Her hair fell out and her flesh began to disintegrate, crumbling along with bones, organs and other tissue into a fine grey dust.
Ishtar addressed the whole gathering. "Now we have rid ourselves of all extraneous material," she said, "you will come with me." They followed her as she strode regally from the chamber, like an empress with her train of attendants.
"Not how I'd envisaged things turning out, I must admit," the Major told Caroline.
"It's better than the alternatives," Chris Barrett said. "At least we've got a chance."
"It's what she'd do," said Caroline. "I realise now. Those pictures I told you about, on the wall of Fouasi's study." She had seen one of them in the guide book she had read while in Lebanon, accompanying the section on the goddess Astarte. The sight of Ishtar had reminded her very strongly of the other, even though the alien was not wearing her priestess' robe. Other things started coming back to her, memories of a long-ago trip to the British Museum.
"Carry on," said the Major.
She explained. "Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of love and war.
"Ishtar - Astarte. The same deity in different forms. She was also goddess of the planet Venus, and Venus was the Roman goddess of love. There must be a connection. She's also been identified with the Egyptian Isis and the Greek Aphrodite. I think the different goddesses have been confused, attributes of Ishtar being given to other deities. Mind you, it's equally likely she got around a bit and ended up being the inspiration for all of them. They're all into prostitution, or at any rate aren't inhibited about their sexuality. And you can tell she's like that, can't you?
"But what really concerns us is the war bit. She likes to make people fight each other. She's one of the gods of ancient mythology - beings who liked to play with humans for their own amusement. We're just a lot of pawns to her and there's nothing we can do about it. We've got no choice but to play the game the way she wants and see what comes of it."

TWENTY-EIGHT
The funereal drums rolled, their ominous rumbling filling the air until it seemed the whole sky echoed to it. The pavements were lined with crowds gathered to pay their respects to their leader, watching the funeral cortege go by on its way to the city mausoleum where he would lie in state for a week before being committed for burial.
Thousands of silent, watching people. In the solemnity of their mood was more than just sadness at the loss of a leader who although not always popular was nonetheless respected, and at any rate had always been there, a comforting presence not fully appreciated until after it was gone. They knew that something had changed, forever. And that the change was not for the best.
An returned home to find Ishtar looking out through the window of their living room at the vast, luxuriant garden. She was practising using her telepathic amplifier; she had been given it as a birthday present after persistent, almost unbearable pestering on her part and considerable misgivings on his.
A small bird was perched on the branch of a tree, and Ishtar was staring fixedly at it. Its wings fluttered and it took off. Ishtar frowned, then concentrated her mind. An saw the bird's body explode, a little shower of red pattering down. The cloud of bloody feathers drifted slowly to the ground.
Ishtar gave a harsh, cackling cry of triumph. Even a small, moving target. She really was getting better at this.
An stiffened, angered as usual by this kind of thing. It continued to disturb him, the more so because it had of late been getting worse. "I see you chose not to attend the funeral," he observed.
"Such things bore me," she replied, thereby closing the matter as far as she was concerned. Tired of her psychic sport - what else had she been up to with the disc, An wondered with a shiver of dread - she turned from the window, crossed to a couch and sprawled herself on it, stretching out her arms and legs with a sigh of contentment.
An turned on the vision screen which accounted for one wall of the room and sat down to watch the news broadcast. Most of it was taken up with Chellnor's funeral. There was one other major item of news, and it did not surprise him. There had been another incident involving misuse of a telepathic amplifier.
Such cases had been rising of late. Ishtar's solution was simple: restrict them to a narrow elite, as indeed was being done. To those she felt were best suited to use them. Their number, of course, included herself. She had never had any doubts about her status within the society of the city.
The restrictions were not proving very effective. The trouble of course was that the ordinary people objected to them, not unreasonably, and insisted that they be given the discs too. They feared that if they did not have them they would be unable to protect themselves from those who had. It was causing serious social unrest. A complete ban might be the best solution - it was favoured by, among others, those who were naturally less adept at using them and would have been at a disadvantage anyway. But everyone knew at heart that it was unworkable.
An reflected guiltily that he himself was quite happy to have a couple of the devices in the house.
Everything had been all right before the discs. Of course there had been wars, which had spread to all parts of the planet and even to outer space, crime, social and political unrest. Eventually, through a long and painful process, the different nations had united themselves under one government and organised their society along rational lines, in a way which preserved a balance between order and liberty. That had mostly been Chellnor's work. But now the discs had upset the balance, as he had feared - known - they would. He had kept things going for as long as he could, but now...
No-one could explain exactly how the discs worked. They had evolved as therapeutic devices, partly organic and partly artificial, which produced low-frequency sounds, barely audible, that had a soothing effect on the mind at times of stress or mental illness. Their more alarming powers were a side-effect. Some philosophers believed that mind and matter were all part of the same entity and that therefore, if one's mental powers were strong enough one could produce changes in the structure of matter, whether organic or fissionable. The theory was that somehow the mental influence of the discs touched off a subconscious awareness of this and thus also the means of exploiting it.
The discs enabled people's darker desires to be easily realised. It didn't have to be premeditated. A sudden flaring of temper, and someone could be struck dead immediately. Sometimes the owners of the di