Today's Reading

I knew from experience that in five or six hours I'd be facing men and women in ironed clothes who would determine, from how I presented myself, the level of mishap they could pin on me. Luckily, routes to and from war zones make for good shopping: Rolex, Ralph Lauren, and Prada do their own sleek profiteering. The woman in the Prada concession—elegant, flirtatious—didn't blink at a man who stank of petrol smoke digging out his money belt and buying a three-grand suit.

"You have been staying in Jordan?" she asked.

"Just passing through."

"English?"

"Canadian. What about those boxes? What's in those?"

"Watches."

I chose a watch.

"Can you wrap this?"

"Of course." She wrapped it, tied a ribbon and offered me a choice of message tags. "Just a blank one, thanks."

Doors of carved dark wood led between potted palms into the Royal Jordanian Crown Lounge. No familiar faces inside. At the back was a disabled toilet that had served me well over the years. I changed, tore and flushed my receipts and tags, checked that my paperwork was in order. Then I took a condom wrapper from my wallet, removed a pouch of duct tape, and pried it apart. Inside was a small key, the key to my own life. I rinsed off the glue and transferred it to my pocket.

I shaved, used the corner of my boarding pass to get the dirt from beneath my fingernails. Finally, I tried looking into my own eyes. I was thirty-six, five-eleven, 160 pounds, ash-brown hair faded by the Middle Eastern sun. I started operations looking well: groomed, trim but not so worked-out that I could be mistaken for military. I ended them haggard and bloodshot and with a wired edginess that triggered attention.

I eased the tape off the new wrapping paper and removed the gift box, took out the watch, then tucked the diamond into the velvet lining and rewrapped it. I found the tag and wrote: Let's quit.

At the boarding gate, the usual sunburnt crew gripped their Western passports as if they might try to wriggle away. The flight took off at ten thirty a.m. I stayed awake over Lebanon, trying to see how much power was on, caught a glimpse of western Turkey, slept through Europe.

Heathrow was unusually quiet. No issues at the border. I walked into the UK, part of me hoping there was no one there to meet me, but I was out of luck.


2

MY DRIVER HELD A SIGN WITH MY COVER NAME. YOU COULD ALMOST BELIEVE HE was a standard chauffeur if it weren't for the eyes that scanned the people around me as he took my bag. Square-jawed, broad-shouldered—an army physique at odds with the gray suit.

"How was the journey?"

"Very smooth, thank you."

The car was convincing too: black Audi, authentic private hire license in the window. Its bulletproof glass and run-flat tires weren't easily identifiable for untrained eyes. The sky above it was gray, the bite of English winter refreshing.

"Alastair Undercroft apologizes for not being here in person to welcome you home," my driver said, when we were inside. "We're to proceed directly to the meeting."

"That's fine."

He kept his eyes on the mirrors as we drove, watching security and police.

After several years living the life of Christopher Bohren, the most likely source of trouble was New Scotland Yard. I let him get going before leaning forward.

"I'd like to go via Marylebone High Street."

"Sir?"

"I have something to pick up."

"I've been asked to take you straight there."

"We have time."

"Okay."

He looked uncertain, put a call in to someone announcing our change of plan. Everyone had their orders. But his was the last deference I'd get for a while, and I wanted to use it.
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