Today's Reading

I climbed the stairs. The first floor gave a view across the grounds. Most of the buildings I used in the Gulf were built with anti-ram walls, barriers, ballistics window film. This wasn't one of them. It had a defiant lawn, some cacti, date palms, and an elaborate sprinkler system. A Ferrari belonging to the man who used to live here remained beside those gates, a white shell of carbonized metal. Silver puddles gleamed in the burnt dust beneath it, which perplexed me until I realized it was the metal of the brake pads, melted and resolidified. That was surreal and beautiful. My own driver leaned against the gatepost, binoculars raised. A plume of dust from the convoy reached up from the suburbs of Abha, the nearest city. That was 3.4 kilometers away.

"Eajal!" Quick, he shouted, turning.

I estimated ten minutes before the men arrived, two more to breach the gates. The local Saudi police had vanished, the SAS unit attached to the intelligence services for scenarios such as these was caught by checkpoints on the highway. I was left with three temporarily loyal members of a carjacking gang high on anti-epileptic medication that they consumed by the handful, claiming it gave them courage. Maybe it hadn't kicked in yet.

One of my current allies, Samir, appeared in the corridor behind me, fat, eyes bulging, a pistol gripped in his hand.

"We go now." He was agitated. Beside him stood a cousin or nephew, no older than sixteen, in an FC Barça top, barely able to lift his Kalashnikov.

"Five minutes."

"Two minutes."

"Here, swap." I reached into my jacket, gave the boy my handgun, and told him to forget the rifle. "I'll be back down before they get here."

I took a breath, mixed some oxygen in with the fresh adrenaline. Nice and alert; let's get this done. I opened doors, looking for electronics and paperwork, for the secure room he had somewhere, finding abandoned Kevlar, fine china, leather-bound encyclopedias.

I had one minute left.

At the end of a second-floor corridor I found the door I needed, punched a code into its electronic lock, saw inside, and my heart sank.

Seven or eight crates of material filled the small, windowless space: bank statements, shipping documents, loose cash. I counted four laptops, seven concertina files, stacks of invoices for the weaponry he was funding. No doubt, somewhere within the mess was evidence of UK ties.

Samir appeared behind me, saw the haul, swore.

"We must leave it," he said.

It would take an hour to remove it all. If we had a van. A call came from downstairs: They could see the convoy approaching. I threw the rucksack into the pile.

"Get a can of petrol from the fuel house."

"We don't have time."

"We've got time. Go."

I began to sort through, taking the cash, ensuring the hard drives were exposed. A sheet of the 'South China Morning Post' caught my eye. It had been folded small, tucked into a box of necklaces. I unwrapped it and saw what looked like two uncut diamonds. Even in the murky room they sparkled: yellow-tinted and unmistakable against the newsprint.

I pocketed one diamond, wrapped the other back in the paper with half the money. When Samir returned with four jerry cans, I gave him the wrap of newspaper and told him it was a present for later; I needed him poor and wary for a few more minutes. We both splashed petrol over the hoard, and then he ran down to start the car. I took a final breath before lighting the place. Sometimes it's left to you to perform the ceremony alone, to lower the flag. To admit defeat.

An hour to the airbase, a flight to Medina, then a private jet into Jordan. No one had offered me a change of clothes. And petrol smoke sticks to you. Messages kept coming in on the phone belonging to Christopher Bohren, my cover identity: fellow art dealers, drug dealers, a company that specialized in installing infinity pools. All wondering why I'd disappeared.

I had no idea.

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