Iraq, February 2006
Steve Hunley needed to be credible as a mercenary-turned-warmonger.
He and his ‘henchmen’ arrived in two Land Rovers. The gleaming black exteriors of the vehicles were now stained a dusty brown after months in the desert wilderness of Iraq. The windscreen wipers had left twin arcing swathes in the tinted glass. Even as the dust cloud was settling, Hunley and his guys climbed out. Wraparound sunglasses shaded their eyes, preserved their vision under a brilliant sun.
To say it was hot was an understatement. Yet, for the act, Hunley slung his business jacket over his left shoulder. This was, after all, business. The mid-day sun glinted off the big shiny item slung under his left arm.
A Colt Marlin BFR - Big Frame Revolver. Big Fucking Revolver. A canon in a holster. Not a sidearm for a pussy soldier. The BFR sent a clear message: Hunley was a soldier’s soldier. A battle-hardened, world-weary man who had tangoed with everything armed conflicts could throw at a soldier… and had come out alive and kicking.
This was the kind of guy who cultivated contacts and sources and lacked a moral compass because he knew there was no such thing as good and bad. There was only selfish interest. Anybody who believed differently was a fool.
And as such, Hunley could draw on his experiences for his convincing portrayal of a selfish warmonger.
The mid-day sun also glinted off the gold Rolex adorning his wrist. This, and the finely tailored blue-grey jacket with its matching trousers, and a virgin-white shirt bestowed a veneer of refinement upon the soldier’s roughness. Of everything he wore, Hunley found the Rolex to be the most uncomfortable. A luxury accessory that ticked time for a ridiculous price. Yet, it was a sign of change: the soldier had upgraded to a shrewd businessman. On most occasions he had others who killed on his orders. He did not get his hands dirty anymore — unless somebody deserved his personal, ruthless attention.
So, what was a businessman doing in the Iraqi wilderness? Weren’t there better places to conduct business?
Well, selling weapons-grade plutonium core was not the kind of business you conducted over gastronomical delights at an upscale Michelin starred restaurant.
Hunley pressed a monocular to his eye. His team was in the east end of a gulch. At a range of two hundred feet, the buyers came into focus. Hunley panned the monocular, taking in the attendance.
As usual, there were the technicals — four of them. The Toyota pickups with Russian machine guns bolted to the carrier beds were the main fighting vehicles of the insurgents. That Toyota’s civilian vehicles performed reliably in harsh environs against military vehicles was a great, albeit awkward endorsement for the Japanese manufacturer. Each technical carried a crew of six, their faces swaddled in keffiyehs. They were armed with a motley of Chinese and Russian produced rifles and displayed their gun belts prominently.
That wasn’t all. Parked between the technicals was a Toyota Land Cruiser. White with pitch-black windows. A cluster of three men surrounded the Land Cruiser. Hunley deduced this was the boss’s carriage and the trio was his close protection detail.
Allegedly, the boss was inside.
Hunley’s group, numbering eight, were up against twenty-seven buyers. Twenty-eight if Hunley included the boss. A show of intimidation, Hunley thought dismissively. Terrorists compensating for the size of their dicks.
The boss. Real name, Unknown. He had assumed the alias of Nur ad-Din, to imbibe the aura of the historic Turkish atabeg, the bane of the crusaders in Syria. The man who had arranged five-point-eight million US dollars cash to possess the plutonium core that was sitting in the east end of the gulch.
Hunley wondered how many gallons of oil had been smuggled, how many kilograms of heroin had been sold in the streets of Europe and America, how many humans had been trafficked as slaves, how many priceless historical artefacts had been black-marketed into private collections to fund this purchase.
It was money tainted by an evil that harmed innocents. No good would ever come of it.
Then, there was another, more optimistic perspective: the prayers, hopes, and curses of every soul touched by that evil was being heard today.
Because, Hunley did not have a plutonium core.
Listening and watching the entire exchange remotely was the MI6 station chief for Iraq, Matthew Corney, and his team of two analysts. Also patched in, four thousand kilometres north west, in a giant command and control room, was Vauxhall Cross itself. And there were also the lawyers in attendance, the guys who protected the politicians from fallout if the exchange went sideways and claimed indigenous lives.
The lawyers made Hunley nervous. Their presence was mandated to ensure the United Kingdom was not in contravention of any international laws. Yet, their endless bickering on legal positions and the ramifications of action could cost him a mission that depended on split-second decisions. Not to mention the lives of his men.
He suppressed a surge of indignation.
The lawyers were probably ensconced in a regal room, sitting in high-backed Victorian-era armchairs, sipping tea and dipping biscuits in tea, their pinky fingers sticking out daintily, totally removed from the gravity of the situation in the godforsaken gulch.
For all the show of intimidation at the gulch’s west end, for all his misgivings about the remote support, there was one thing that assured Hunley.
It circled overhead, in the form of a USAF Predator drone, invisible to the buyers, armed with two Hellfire missiles, ready to blast Nur ad-Din to kingdom come… on Hunley’s signal.
At least that operational command had not been wrested from him. He had fought tooth and nail to have it.
And was glad for it.
In the monocular’s viewfinder, one of Nur ad-Din’s close protection detail raised a phone to his ear. After a slight delay, Hunley’s phone trilled.
Here we go.
Hunley set the monocular on the Land Rover’s hood and answered his phone.
“You have the plutonium core?”
Hunley snapped his fingers - as was expected of his character - and one of his henchmen produced a silver Samsonite military-grade suitcase, held it in plain sight.
“You have the money?” he asked with a touch of impatience.
The buyer mimicked Hunley: fingers snapped, and two insurgents hefted four trolley bags, one from each technical.
The undercover operative beside Hunley, a guy he trusted from their days in the SAS, was looking through the viewfinder. He gestured and Hunley muted his phone. The guy whispered, “I have a visual on Doctor Abbas Aboudi.”
Abbas Aboudi, Iranian nuclear physicist, reported missing a month ago.
As he spoke, an image captured by the monocular was already being processed by MI6. A confirmation arrived on the team’s comms. “Confirmed identity as Abbas Aboudi, Iranian nuclear physicist.”
Hunley unmuted the phone, demanded, “Where is Nur ad-Din?”
“He is in the car.”
“I want to see him. The deal was for Nur ad-Din to be present.”
“And he is.” Hunley detected the smirk in that response. “Now we will proceed.”
The exchange would occur at the midpoint of the gulch. Two of Hunley’s team would carry the Samsonite over. Two of Nur ad-Din’s would carry the money over. The Iranian would verify the plutonium core, the money would exchange hands, the Samsonite would exchange hands.
Except that Hunley couldn’t let it get that far. The moment the Samsonite was scanned the bluff would be called.
“Get Nur ad-Din out!” came the terse order over his earpiece.
“How do I know this is not a setup?” Hunley asked his peer across the gulch.
“It is not.”
“I want Nur ad-Din to show himself. Then, we proceed.”
“Predator has acquired the target,” Hunley was informed casually. This, by an inflexionless voice reaching him from a UAV command centre in Nevada, USA.
“They’re stalling,” Hunley’s buddy worried aloud.
“We have the money. If you have the core, then we do business now!” Nur ad-Din’s guy was insistent, nervous.
Hunley pressed the phone’s mic to his shirt. He appeared to be conversing with his buddy. “He’s not here!” Hunley decided aloud for everybody on the comms network to hear.
“What?” came the voice from Vauxhall.
Hunley’s buddy tensed.
“He’s not here,” Hunley repeated. “Don’t ask me how I know, but he’s a no show.”
“How can you be sure?” Vauxhall insisted.
Hunley’s station chief came out in support of Hunley. “I trust Hunley’s assessment.”
The airwaves devolved into an argument between the station chief and Vauxhall. Hunley was aware the lawyers would be complicating matters at this new intelligence. They had all the time in the world.
“We’re going ahead,” he blurted.
Hunley spoke into the phone. “Okay, we proceed.”
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” Hunley’s friend said as he and the SAS operator with the Samsonite readied to go to the meeting point.
Hunley disconnected the line.
“New mission: we grab Abbas Aboudi and blow the rest!”
The representatives of the sellers and the buyers closed the gap. Abbas Aboudi was preparing his scanner. Through the monocular, Hunley could see one of the money bearers checking in with Aboudi.
“They’re checking,” he informed his ‘reps’.
Aboudi was holding his own, the brains probably telling the brawn that the Samsonite was shielded and that was affecting the scanner’s reading. But the moment of truth — when the Samsonite needed to be opened — was drawing nearer. Hunley assumed the men with the money bags had a crash course in how a radiation scanner worked. If it didn’t register plutonium, it wouldn’t beep frantically enough, and the game would be up.
The representatives were twenty feet apart when one of Hunley’s guys shouted, “Contact right!”
A SAS operator never loses situational awareness. Hunley’s guys had been continuously scanning the area and one of them had spied a trickle of stones from the right wall of the gulch…
A preamble to the revelation that the SAS undercover operators had walked into a trap.
No sooner was the alarm raised than a rocket SHOOMED out on a smoking contrail and slammed into Hunley’s Land Rover. The blast kicked the SUV into the air on a ball of fire, and Hunley felt his ribcage collapse. He was thrown against the left wall of the gulch with enough impact to knock him out.
At the meeting point, the insurgents opened fire on Hunley’s men, killing them before retreating.
The SAS operators with the second Land Rover were retaliating but they had a disadvantage of numbers. And the gulch was filled with disorienting smoke and flame. The ambushers opened fire from the vantage positions as the SAS team took cover behind the doors of the surviving Land Rover.
Nur ad-Din’s machine gunners in their technical unleashed a devastating barrage of lead across the gulch, ripping into earth, SUV and humans alike.
Hunley regained consciousness only to have a bullet cut a crevasse in his face. Miraculously it did not kill him, but the left side of his jaw remained connected to his face by strings of sinew and skin. He crawled behind a rock. He wanted to call in the drone strike, but his mouth was non-functional.
Thankfully, Vauxhall and the station chief concurred. By another miracle, the lawyers — shocked at the sudden brutality with which an entire team of Britishers had been killed — did not disapprove the strike.
In a split second, Nur ad-Din’s men were dispatched to eternal damnation courtesy a Hellfire missile.
Fearing a second strike, the insurgents who had encircled the Britishers scurried away, discarding their rocket launcher, covering their retreat with pot shots.
The remote teams were glued to the images fed to their screens by the Predator. The smoke was clearing to reveal a man-made alteration to the gulch’s west end, strewn with charred bodies and vehicles. The hammer blow had eradicated twenty-four insurgents. They had a view of Dr Abbas Aboudi stirring, picking himself up, and running toward the east end. Was he hoping to escape the clutches of his abductors? He didn’t make his freedom. One of the insurgents who had accompanied him with the money bags came to, spotted the fleeing Iranian, and cut him down with a short burst from his rifle. Then the insurgent abandoned the bags and fled westward.
There it was then. The bags were phonies. Nobody would abandon five point six million US in the open.
And on the east, Hunley’s Land Rover still burned furiously. The other Land Rover looked like Swiss cheese. One of the lawyers overturned his chair in his haste for the toilet, clamping a hand over his mouth at the images of splotchy red, black and brown masses that had just seconds ago been living human beings. Faces at Vauxhall were ashen. Silence reigned supreme. Embarrassment and anger at the colossal mission failure burned as furiously as Hunley’s Land Rover.
And somewhere, from his secret hideout, Nur ad-Din was ranting into a video camera, gloating over another failed attempt by the West to capture him, and encouraging impressionable and hot-blooded Muslim youth to join the jihad against the infidels.