Today's Reading

So the opportunity to catch my breath in the Premier Bar was more than an indulgence. I washed the taste of blood out of my mouth. The situation was a mess, I didn't doubt that. My agent had vanished, Saudi Arabia looked like it might kick off, and someone somewhere in Vauxhall Cross was worried about my own potential capture. But I had also been expecting this: The intelligence service liked to keep you moving, to stop you from building empires and attachments. The longer you were in the field the more vulnerable you became, so the thinking went. As well as the dangers of overexposure, the theory involved some old-school notion of going native. Operations got pulled overnight and you rarely, if ever, got an adequate explanation. I sometimes wondered about HQ's envy of field officers, whether they created their own secrecy just to keep you in your place. Sometimes it was as simple as a budget cut.

For now I wanted to enjoy a last moment of freedom, of being Christopher Bohren. For all the professional setback and geopolitical consequences of my departure, I was pleased to be here. The magic of returning to places never diminished—of finding them still there: the tables, the weary face behind the counter. It felt like keeping a rendezvous.

On the TV screen: Saudi funder of terrorism arrested.

There he was: my agent, at a party beside Lake Como. I must have been a few meters off camera. The caption beneath his face: Is Saudi pact with extremism over?

That was the question posed by RT Arabic, the Kremlin's new Arabic-language station. They had good footage: a reporter standing beside smoldering ruins, with the carbonized Ferrari visible over his shoulder. I finished my beer and got another.

"You used to show Al Jazeera here," I said. The manager shrugged. "You prefer Russian TV?"

"My staff prefer it."

I took the drink to my table, wondering at the way the world changes in small details. The journey from the counter gave me an opportunity to scan my immediate environment. There had been one man sitting at the Starbucks across from me for fifteen minutes now. He'd taken a seat facing in my direction, although he hadn't looked directly at me once. He had an Arabic paper spread in front of him but his eyes didn't track the text. Not airport security, but I thought I glimpsed a holster.

I finished my beer, watched a group of businesspeople speaking Russian hurry toward the flight to Damascus. After another few minutes my Starbucks friend departed, slinging a laptop bag over his shoulder. I put my phone on encrypted mode and dialed a Syrian number.

"I've had to pause things. There's a few bits and pieces arriving which may be traceable to me. I'd like you to dispose of it all."

"Yes."

"And then I think you should also go quiet for a while."

"You are abandoning us."

"The situation's become precarious."

"We are ready."

"I appreciate that. I have to follow instructions."

"It is very bad here," the man said. "Very bad."

"I know." I rested my eyes on a video screen above the concourse, a woman in a field of lavender pressing a perfume bottle to her throat. "I will be doing everything I can to ensure you have no problems," I said. "If you speak to Leyla, will you tell her I'll be in touch as soon as possible?"

He hung up. I closed my eyes. The fabled license to kill is nothing beside the very real license to die; to walk out of a life and its responsibilities. No farewells, no last confession. I picked up my phone again and called CIA's station in Islamabad.

"Tell Reza, Courtesan's been arrested," I said. "Everything on ice for now."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. I'll message when I do."

I moved a British passport from my bag to my jacket pocket, booked a night at the Mandarin Oriental in Kensington. Then I went and bought a suit and a clean phone.
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