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First pages

Prologue

Air Traffic Control (ATC), Aeropuerto Internacional Ezeiza, Buenos Aires

 

3 June 2002

 

It may have been midwinter, but it was hot in the ATC room. Dario Gimenez looked up over his main screen and around the office.There were fifteen controllers crammed in a space smaller than his lounge. Elbowroom was in short supply and their Latin temperament didn’t help the atmosphere. He reckoned it was probably a lot calmer in a European equivalent. And cooler.

Each desk was equipped with two computer monitors. The bigger screen, which most of the controllers kept central, graphically displayed the aircraft in the sky. His and Fernandez’s next door were primarily focused on routes heading northeast towards Europe. A smaller screen to his right glowed like a radioactive green and black bus timetable. Details of every flight in the air within three hundred kilometres were listed, each designated with a set of flight initials of two letters and three numbers. Other information included destination and arrival airports, departure and arrival times, airspeed, direction of travel and height above sea level. If he wanted, he could have interrogated any of over two hundred flights that were in the airspace up and around Buenos Aires.

Twelve of the flights on his green and black screen were underlined and highlighted in bold. They were his aircraft, the ones arriving and leaving from Ezeiza International that his supervisor had allocated to him for today. A few more in italics, but not bold, came and went when they were within five kilometres of his designated aircraft. Italics meant caution

All of the pertinent information was displayed on his big screen as an electronic map. Against a dark blue background the red aircraft were his, the others were yellow. His job was to keep all the colours apart - well apart. 

Dario couldn’t stop his heart leaping into his mouth when two planes got close. Anything within five hundred feet was classified as a ‘near miss’ and would be subject to an external investigation. He mustn’t panic though.  Being on top of each other on the electronic map might look like a disaster, but would almost certainly mean that one aircraft was well above the other in height, even though in two-dimensions it looked like a train wreck. For peace of mind, whenever two aircraft appeared to get close to each other, Dario always triple checked elevations and bearings.  He hadn’t got it wrong so far. 

He made a sign of the cross and exhaled deeply. Just thinking about it was enough to ask for divine intervention.

‘Hello EZE this is BA244. We’re now one hundred miles out from you. Any further instructions?’ The airband radio crackled in Dario’s headset and jolted him. He was drifting off. He’d had a tough night. His young daughter, who was teething, had kept him and his wife awake. He’d eventually got some sleep but not enough to see him safely through a straight eight hours behind the ATC desk.  The temperature in the room didn’t help. 

They really must get the air conditioning sorted. 

He did need to talk to his wife about the division of responsibility at night. The problem was she was a theatre nurse and he ensured the safety of five-hundred-seater aircraft. They both needed their sleep.

He had a quick glance at both his screens. 

‘Hello BA244, I copy. No change to plan. Aim to adopt holding pattern, but it’s likely that you will have a straight run in. Runway Alpha, heading in from the north. Over.’

‘BA244. Copy. What’s the weather like on the ground?’

Dario half stood and looked over three desks to the single, long glass window in front of him. ‘EZE, still clear here…’. He glanced across at the tool bar at the bottom of the green screen, ‘...and holding at twenty degrees. Over.’

‘BA244, copy. Speak soon. Out.’

The crackling stopped. He prided himself on both his English and his radio procedure. Everything he said to pilots was recorded in case of an incident and often his supervisor would listen in on conversations, or replay tapes, to check that his staff were doing their job effectively. He’d always been complimented on the way he used the radio and his manner with his pilots. He tried his best. 

Dario had a quick scan of the main monitor. He checked that his aircrafts’ vitals were as they should be by putting a finger on each and cross-checking with the green and black screen. He finished the round of all twelve within thirty seconds. 

That’s all okay then.

He reached for a cup of cooling coffee that one of the off-going staff had made for him about twenty minutes ago. It was lukewarm, but strong. Good, he needed that. He checked his watch. Three and a half hours to go before the end of his shift. He’d talk to Maria tonight about who gets up for the baby.  

They would definitely talk about it. Definitely.

Dario leaned back on his chair with his hands behind his head. He yawned, closing his eyes as he did.

‘Hello EZE, this is KM595. We’ll be out of radar range in fifteen minutes and then we’ll switch to HF radio. Over.’ Dario looked up at the screen. It was the Dutch flight that had left Buenos Aires just under an hour ago, heading for Amsterdam. If he remembered rightly it was an Airbus A330; around two hundred and thirty passengers. It flew daily to and from both capitals. The Dutch pilots were efficient and never gave him any problems. They spoke good English, were polite and, thankfully, did as they were told. Unlike some nationalities he could mention, including his own.

‘EZE, copy. Give us one last call before you’re out of range and I’ll let LIS know you’re on your way.’ Lisbon, Portugal, would be the next ATC to get a ping on their radar from the plane’s transponder. But not for a good four or five hours.

Dario waited for a response, his mind already drifting as the tiredness began to take hold again. He shook his head hoping to wake himself up. It worked a little. 

Crackle. Crackle. ‘Roger...’ Then the pilot’s voice changed markedly as he spat out across the air, ‘Bokkerful!  YAA!’ 

And nothing. Silence.

Dario was awake now. Wide awake. He stared at the screen, not focusing. He tried to make sense of what he had just heard. It was Dutch, or gibberish. Or something else. The tone was sharp, frightened. 

He immediately pressed down on the transmit button.

‘Hello KM959 this is EZE, over?’ A question more than a statement, his voice rising uneasily at the end of the short sentence.

A loud, unwelcome emptiness was the response.

He tried again. ‘Hello KM959 this is EZE, over!’

Still nothing.

He looked at his main screen. The red letters KM959, which when he checked a few seconds ago were bright, strong and cheerful, were flashing. The plane’s transponder was no longer communicating with the tower. 

Dario tried again, but something deep inside him already knew that he would get no response from the Dutch Airbus. 

‘Hello KM959 this is EZE, over?’

‘Hello KM959 this is EZE, over!’  More fretful second time round, his finger pressing far too hard on the transmit button.

Nothing. 

Protocol in the tower now was to phone his supervisor. He stopped himself before reaching for the handset. The heat and dampness that he felt just minutes earlier had turned to cold. The sweat still ran down him, but now it left a sensation like getting out of a warm shower into a cold room. His heart was pounding and his mouth was dry.

‘Fuck,’ he said under his breath. Dario always swore in English. It always sounded so much more purposeful. 

He picked up the phone and pressed the button which would link him straight to his supervisor. This would be a call he always hoped he would never have to make.

Cock-Up

Chapter 1

Headquarters Special Intelligence Service (SIS), Vauxhall, London

 

Present Day

 

‘Gotcha.’ Sam smiled, a smile that she reserved for moments of personal triumph. She looked again at the screen to her left and then back to the one in front of her. Both were forty-inch, high-definition monitors which had pixel resolutions that were lost on her. What she did know was that there were no cameras out there that could take a photo with a higher resolution than her screens could manage. In the last three years digital photography, image enhancing, recognition software and the screens to manipulate the whole caboodle, had come on massively. She wouldn’t admit it in public, but the whole technology thing excited her.

Just under five years ago, as a military analyst, she had spent most of her time in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. She studied and compared digital photographs of men, vehicles and locations - some taken from the air, some from reconnaissance patrols and the odd one or two from spies and informants. At the time she felt that, while it was hardly Mission Impossible, they were truly in the digital age. 

Now, today, here in the bowels of Vauxhall Cross - or less politely Legoland - they really could pick out car number plates from keyhole satellite imagery and recognise faces taken by a hand-held camera over a kilometre away. It wasn’t just the quality of the cameras; the software that automatically enhanced images was exceptional. Using her fingers on the touchscreen to enlarge or even rotate an image up to twenty degrees - with the software filling in any gaps - nine times out of ten she could get a very clear picture of a face. The latest technology had made her job so much easier.

The software was making its own choices when it came to sharpening pixelated images and, doubtless, sometimes it cocked things up: a Roman nose instead of a Jewish one; a Ford rather than a Fiat. But she was trained to recognise Doris’ foibles - her mum’s first name and the pet name for the Dell tower that sat under her desk. She would caveat any match with the codeword ‘ENHANCED’ if she felt there were a chance that Doris was over-compensating for an original lack of clarity.

She rocked back on her chair and put her hands behind her head. She looked at the left screen.  There, now enlarged to a twenty centimetres square, was Captain Ivan Droganov. The picture had been illicitly taken at a recent Arms and Weapons show in Moscow. The image had an accompanying date at the bottom right of the screen: 15-Dec-14. He was wearing military uniform and stood among a number of Russian officers on the Rostec stand - selling drones, probably to Syria and Yemen. 

On the middle screen was a photo of a civilian, or what appeared to be one. Dressed in jeans, a grey hoodie, Asics sneakers, but shouldering an AK47 assault rifle, the face was clearly that of the same Ivan Droganov. Sam leant forward and, using a small swiping movement, turned the civilian Ivan’s face from left to right and then back again. She glanced across at her left screen. She did the same thing. 

‘Yup,’ to no one in particular, ‘they’re both Captain Ivan, for sure.’

Sam hadn’t been able to stop herself thinking out loud. She didn’t know whether it was therapeutic or not. All she knew was that at times of intense concentration, her thoughts often tumbled out of her mouth before she had a chance to stop them. While irritating to those around her, it was a release that she couldn’t stop. And hadn’t really bothered trying. It seemed to help keep potential suitors away.  Which was a good thing.  A love life was the last thing she needed right now.   

She noted the date of the middle photo: 12-Sep-15. Then the location: Georgiyevka. Right on the border between government and rebel forces in Ukraine.

Sam swivelled her chair to the right and, looking at her third screen, opened up the secure database. She needed to log the two photos electronically, plus all of the accompanying information. And then she would drop an ‘Alert’ email to her boss Jane, to let her know that she had made a match. Ivan was the third that week.

As she typed, her mind wandered. She’d only been operational with the SIS for three months. Her training had taken four and she had shadowed John, a fellow analyst, for a month before she had been given her own desk. She was now almost independent. There were five photo analysts in the team with responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Near Africa. It was where the action was, there was no doubt about that.

Between the five of them there was a continuously enlarging pool of photos and videos collected from every open source available: newsreel, papers and magazines, conflict tourists who posted photos on their blogs and on social media, and any other internet source you could think of.  Naturally, there were images taken by Government deployed and SIS-run sources and informants: they called these closed source material.  Sam was surprised that there were not more of their people working in these major war zones. Military sources’ input varied.  Nearly all were posted by Special Forces (SF) and most of these photos were taken by the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR). They also received a few photos from agencies of allied countries. All of these images were classified as closed source.

In Ukraine their job was to identify serving Russian military officers and soldiers working among the pro-Russian rebels. It was, as was nearly always the case with image analysis, a painstaking job. 

She was with a good team. Discovering that Jane was her boss was a surprising, but welcome, revelation when Sam was finally allocated a desk. She and Jane had got to know each other in Sierra Leone during the Ebola ‘incident’. Jane’s quick thinking had saved Sam from a grizzly death in a burning building. They had remained in contact while Sam deliberated joining the SIS. Since Sam had accepted the post, she felt that Jane had kept a watchful eye on her - in a positive way; more mother hen than domineering schoolmistress. 

What Sam loved about working for Jane was her clear direction. They didn’t waste time picking any old Russian officer and searching the Ukraine database for matches. Jane had identified Captain Ivan Droganov yesterday. He was born and bred in Eastern Ukraine, an obvious choice for the Russians to dispatch to assist the rebels. 

And Sam had found him. In Moscow, wearing Russian Army uniform; in Ukraine, wearing a hoodie and fighting for the rebels. 

Gotcha!

The Middle East work was the same, but different. Here the five of them were looking for Daesh - the new-to-the-West brand name for so-called Islamic State. Or al-Qaeda trained operatives. Or other known Islamic extremists, who were making their way into the UK via the refugee deluge. 

In the Cold War they would have been called ‘sleepers’ (a bit before her time, but she remembered the expression from watching an early spy movie). The difference between the Middle East and the Russian/Ukraine work was the former had fewer leads; there were fewer original photos to compare the migrating mass with. Identifying the correct Middle Eastern or North African fundamentalist in Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan, wasn’t as easy as glancing at the latest Moscow May Day Parade and picking out a soldier.

The sure way was to get up close and personal to a Daesh or an al-Qaeda training camp and photograph the trainees. But, she imagined, if the SAS have eyes on a confirmed terrorist training camp, surely the immediate action was to call in airstrikes or lob over a cruise missile? She wasn’t sure if they were still launching cruise missiles from USS Enormous, but the image did flash before her eyes.  However, that obviously didn’t always happen as they often received a number of mug shots taken in the desert with a long lens.  For which the five analysts were very grateful.

They also got some good quality images taken at close range. She assumed these were from informants, or payrolled local police where the individual had a known record. Rather them than me.

The bank of photos of High Value Targets (HVTs) was close to a thousand. Her job was to see if she could track any of them via the many conduits now open from the Middle East and North Africa, into the UK.

Until about ten weeks ago, this had been a question of comparing a couple of hundred images with a couple of hundred more. But since the summer and the tsunami of refugees pouring across the many European borders, it was no longer a target-rich environment.  Add to this the need to put disguises on the original photos, as many of those coming out of training camps adopt physical aliases, it was really now a case of finding a pin in a field of haystacks. 

But still, Sam gave it her best shot.

Jane had been able to restrict the search to four HVTs for each analyst. As a result, Sam spent the morning in the Middle East trying to match her four. And the afternoon in Ukraine looking for Ivan, so to speak.

Just as Sam was about to press ‘send’ on her ‘Alert’ email concerning good old Ivan, Jane came into the room.

Sam, closest to the door, looked up and smiled at her.

Before any pleasantries Sam launched excitedly with her good news. 

‘I’ve got Ivan. This image was taken on 25 September at Georgiyevka.’ Sam pointed at the centre screen. ‘Clear as anything.  And look here.’ Sam was now pointing at her left monitor.

Jane peered over her shoulder and looked intently at both screens.

‘Spot on, Sam. Impressive stuff. Really well done. We’re getting close to building a Russian Army grouping among the rebels in this area. I’ll go back and look at the wiring diagram and let you know what we’re missing.’ She stood up, placing her hands on the small of her back as she stretched.

‘How are you feeling?’ Sam asked. Jane had picked up malaria in Sierra Leone and it had taken some time to shift. As is the case with the disease, once you have it, it often resurfaces when you’re at a low ebb. And recently they’d all been uber-busy, with long hours and short breaks.

‘I’m fine thanks, Sam. What about you? Are you sleeping?’

Sam turned back to the screens. She and Jane had had many a frank conversation about Sam’s past and its impact on day-to-day life. She didn’t sleep well and when she did, the images of the ‘incident’ in Afghanistan often crept into her dreams. What surprised her, but seemingly not her psychiatrist, was that she was rarely affected by the terror of the drugging and arson in Sierra Leone. Three years ago in Kenema, without Jane’s and the Sierra Leonean Army’s intervention, both she and her UN sidekick Henry would have been toast. That must leave its mark, surely? 

But it was the previous, other near-death experience, the mortar attack in Camp Bastion, that wasn’t prepared to leave her alone. Clearly, the thing she had still not come to terms with was her military past, particularly the Afghanistan tour. The impact of the death of the man she loved, combined with her insides hanging out of a hole that shouldn’t have been there, were proving harder to shift.

‘I’m fine too, thanks Jane. I’m still not sleeping all the way through and, as you know, I do have a tendency to fall asleep at my desk with my nose pressing the ‘space’ button.’  Sam paused and sighed. ‘But it’s getting better day by day.’ She looked back up at Jane and smiled.

Jane suppressed a laugh. ‘Well your output is first rate, so the odd rogue email consisting of lines of zeds, courtesy of your nose, is something I’m currently prepared to live with.’ Jane placed her hand gently on Sam’s shoulder.

‘Thanks, Jane.  Means a lot…’

Jane smiled and moved to her left, stopping beside Frank.

‘How’s it going Frank?’ 

 

15° 23' 45” N, 44° 15' 37” E, Northern Yemen

 

Captain Tony Jones pressed the shutter button on the sand-coloured Leica S DSLR. There was no sound from the camera, the mechanical shutter beautifully silenced by Leica. He gently twisted the zoom lens, half pressed the shutter, checked the focus and pressed again. He squinted at the LCD screen. It was shielded by a short plastic visor fitted at the SAS’s technical centre in Pontrilas, so that pictures could be viewed in direct sunlight. The 37.5 megapixel sensor coped exceptionally with the distances they worked at. Using a small laser range-finder he knew he was 1,200 metres from the target. It presented no problems for this camera.

The photo he had just taken was of an Arabic-looking man dressed in a traditional floor-length white thawb. The top of his head and neck were covered in a red and white gingham keffiyeh, secured by a black rope around his scalp. On the streets of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, the man would have looked like thousands of others and indistinguishable in the crowd. Here, now, on metaphorical celluloid, Tony could make out the man’s facial details. He could pick him out from a thousand others.

He slid backwards from the rocky outcrop so that he was out of line of sight. Not that anyone would have picked him out at this distance. His observation post (OP) consisted of a desert-patterned waterproof poncho with a fifty centimetre-square observation hole at one edge. He’d thrown it up on the night they’d arrived, two days ago. He’d erected one of these, what felt like, a thousand times before. He knew that from any angle the shape, silhouette and colour of the OP blended in with the rock and the sand. Everything he wore and all his equipment was desert-coloured. The greatest threat to being compromised was from the shadow thrown by the observation hole - they had a more colloquial term for it in the Regiment - through which Tony had recently taken the photographs. Someone very clever at Pontrilas had developed a small bank of LED lights linked to a photovoltaic sensor which, depending on the outside ambient light, lit up the inside of the OP nulling the shadow created by the ‘a-hole’.

Tony scrolled through the photos. He counted thirty-two men at the makeshift camp. No women - no surprise there. In the past two days he had managed to snap all of them from at least three different angles. He had wirelessly transferred them to his Samsung tablet - also housed in a desert coloured case, grouped the photos by individual and annotated comments such as: weapons instructor; manager; chef; trainee. He reckoned the camp was being run by no more than ten individuals. The remainder were being trained for combat with Daesh (or al-Qaeda - currently the camp had no designation), in Iraq or Syria. Or destined for truck, bus, boat, or train transit to Western Europe.  And maybe, ultimately, into the UK.

The tablet was connected to an Iridium-style satellite phone - another Pontrilas special. He prepared the file package for upload to the Cloud using his two thumbs to swipe and tap as needed.

His earpiece burst into voice.

‘Mike 20 Alpha, this is 21 Charlie.’ 

Tony stopped what he was doing and found the pressel of his radio.

‘Send.’  Radio procedure in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) was minimal.

‘I’ve just had a ping from the northwest. The indication is French.’

Tony stopped himself replying for a second. He closed his eyes; the sweat from the mid-morning sun making them sting. 

‘Roger. Any visual?’

The soldier at the other end of the radio seemed to pause, as if he were using the break to look again.

‘I might have something. Too early to say, but we’ve just been pinged again.’ A further pause. Tony assumed that Corporal Ted Groves was looking at his transponder.

‘Definitely French. About five clicks away. Their machine has acknowledged us. Direction of travel is northwest, so away from the target. All’s well. I’ll keep an eye out.’

‘Roger, out.’ Tony closed the call.

What the hell are the French doing here? His troop had been given an Op Box of 200 square kilometres. They were the only troop of the SRR on the ground in northern Yemen and, while he had been briefed that the French Special Operations Command were also in Yemen, he had been told that their Op Boxes had been pre-determined not to be anywhere near where they were.

Thank goodness for Terry the Transponder. Everything in the Regiment had a nickname and the ‘identification friend or foe’ (IFF) was known as Terry. He wasn’t sure of the gestation of how it had been agreed, but all US, French and UK special forces carried an IFF transponder to prevent blue-on-blue whenever they were working in the same country.

He looked again at his tablet. He crooked his neck to get a view that didn’t include his unshaven, ugly mug as a reflection, while also stopping his head from raising the roof of the OP and spoiling the silhouette. The photos were ready. He added the text: Just been pinged by FR SF heading northwest. Thought you should know.

He tapped ‘Send’. The little wheel icon spun round a few times in the top left of the tablet and then stopped as the centre of screen lit up: Sent.

He reached for a handful of raisins which he kept in a plastic bag off to his right, took a swig of water from a sand-coloured water bottle and crawled back up into the OP position. 

He was just about to pick up his stabilised binos and focus back on the target area when he spotted a vehicle’s rising sand-cloud coming down the only track into the valley.  He put his binos down and watched the scene unfold.

The vehicle was a black pickup, not uncommon in Yemen.  After five minutes it pulled to a stop in the centre of the camp, with an ensuing billow of dust. The sound of gunfire continued to echo from the makeshift range up in the hillside to the left. There was no commotion; the truck was obviously expected. Two men got out of the truck, one from either side. At this distance, without binos, Tony couldn’t make out any detail. But he could see straight away that the men were not wearing flowing Arab dress. He reached for his binos.

He stared intently in the direction of the centre of the training camp. He blinked a couple of times.

Bloody hell

He put his binos down and reached for his Leica. 

He steadied the camera on its small tripod and then for about three minutes he snapped and snapped, altering the focus of the lens manually as he did.

Eventually, after what appeared to be a round of greetings and casual chat, the two men, accompanied by three Arabs, walked into the central tent. 

Tony took another four photos of the truck and then slid back down into the OP.

He scrolled through the images, chastising himself inwardly when a couple were out of focus.

Well, I’ll be damned.

There was no doubt about it. The training team had just been joined by a couple of very interesting characters. One was a white man, he guessed five-eleven, slim built and dressed in non-military khaki shirt and trousers. The second was a black man. About the same height, but slightly heavier, more ‘medium build’. He was dressed in lighter cotton trousers and a blue shirt. Both of the men openly wore holsters and the black man carried a small holdall. Both Western? Possibly American?

An insignificant, but nonetheless interesting point, was that as soon as the men got out of the car the black man reached into the flatbed and opened what looked like a cooler. He took out a silver can, pulled the ring and took a swig.

Tony needed to get this back to RHQ as soon as possible. 

 

A Nondescript Office, Fourth Floor of No 17, 3rd Avenue, New York

 

Ned Donoghue took a bite out of his apple, some of the juice spraying onto the computer screen in front of him.  He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and let out a frustrated sigh as the screen mistook his hankie-wiping for instructions and started to alter data, throwing up new tabs. 

‘Shit,’ he said out loud. He reached forward to the bottom left of the screen, turned it off and then finished his cleaning, chomping his apple between wipes.

The other four screens that almost circled him, updated away as stock markets from around the world went about their business of making and losing millions for traders in Frankfurt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Mumbai and elsewhere. 

He turned the central screen back on and using his finger as a pointer, highlighted PetroBelorus, a fledgling oil company working in and around the Black Sea. Using Google, he electronically dug deeper, looking for news and comment, both official and that from ordinary punters.  Joe Ordinary sometimes had a better feel for where stock was heading. There was nothing untoward that came from the investigation and he closed the tab down. 

He swung his chair a half turn to his left and took in the screen he had set up showing the trading values and vitals of the big six public-owned oil and gas companies: BP, Chevron, Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Total and ConocoPhillips. These six, known as the Supermajors, dominated the world’s oil and gas supply, although they had recently been joined by two Chinese giants: CNPC and Sinopec. He had included these two on this screen, having first cleared his decision with Herbert, his paymaster.

Looking to his right, the second static screen, also set up by him, listed the major environmental and nuclear energy companies. This list was a lot longer than that of the eight oil giants. It included a number of state owned companies, like the French nuclear giant Areva. The French company was currently struggling with orders and cash flow. He followed all of their vitals, keeping track of share price, comment and future ambitions.

The two further ‘wing’ screens had details of the emerging or fledgling companies, both oil and gas, and environmental. In short, if he spun his chair round he had, at his fingertips, the output and performance of all of the world’s energy companies split into two: oil and gas; and environmental and nuclear. And he had a permanent window open on the central screen showing CNN running its usual commentary on the world at large.

It had taken him about six weeks to get up to speed with the totality of all of the companies he needed to monitor. And an extra few days to set the screens up to display and follow the data he required. Now all Herbert asked him to do was write a daily, email report on how the ‘big eight’ - the Supermajors and the two Chinese giants - were performing, in comparison to the others. 

Herbert was particularly interested in start-up oil companies, which was why he had just drilled down into PetroBelarus. Drilled down - no pun intended! He had used that expression a number of times in his reports, seeing the funny side of it. Although, as far as he could tell, it hadn’t tickled Herbert. The man seemingly lacked any humour.

A sigh brought him back down to Earth. 

Back to work

He would need to include the detail (or lack of it) of the start-up PetroBelarus in tonight’s report.

Every so often Herbert would email him with a tasker: ask him to predict the eventual fallout of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster; or more recently, the impact of the VW ‘cheat device’ debacle on the future price of diesel. For these specific enquiries, he was normally given a couple of days and the reports were to be ‘no-longer than three pages’.

He had met all of Herbert’s demands and every so often, he received an electronic ‘well done’ and often a ‘thanks’. What he never got was a visit. Or a phone call. 

Indeed, he had never met Herbert, nor anyone else he might be working for. It was all very strange. At times, uncomfortably so. 

Ned had been recruited from the London Stock Exchange where he had been working for Deutsche Bank, trading mostly oil stocks and their futures. One day, during a lull in trading, he’d received an email from a chap named Herbert asking if he wanted to work in New York and ‘earn lots of money’. The email was as simple as that. At first he thought it was a joke - is anyone called Herbert nowadays? And, what fool wouldn’t want to work in New York and earn lots of money?

He had interrogated the email address and drawn a blank, which, with his knowledge of the Internet and coding, made him sit up and take notice. Not many people can hide behind their email addresses.

Over the next week, once he had offered Herbert a personal email address to correspond to, the digital exchange got more and more detailed. And more and more real. He knew he was onto something when £10,000 was deposited in his main bank account and a business class flight ticket to New York pinged its way into his mailbox.

So now here he was. 

Sitting pretty.

He didn’t like to talk about his salary. Or his free accommodation: a beautiful, expansive flat on 5th Avenue, which was as described in the email Herbert had sent him. The office was also as agreed - it was out of the way, hidden among a number of small firms and apartments, but had all the technical firepower Ned needed. And his salary, paid monthly in advance, amounted to $150,000 a year. Plus, wait for it, medical and six weeks paid holiday. What was there not to like?


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Roland Ladley draws upon 25 years military service, including tours of Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, to bring realism to his thriller writing. Subsequent work as a teacher enables him to communicate lucidly, and two grown-up daughters ensure that he can laugh at himself and find comic moments in his writing when the tension is at its greatest. Now a full time writer based in Bristol, UK, he lives an itinerant lifestyle with his wife in their motorhome, penning his third Sam Green novel

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Throughout my military career I met a number of interesting people and have visited various fascinating places. Fuelling the Fire is a pastiche of some of these experiences.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
If we ignore pluralism and discount tolerance then extremism will fill the void and conflict will inevitably follow. Doing nothing is not an option.
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
Sam Green is a female Jack Reacher, although slightly more edgy and much more prone to tears. I'd like to see a younger Jodie Foster (no offence to Jodie implied) play Sam Green - but looking like Velma out of Scooby Do!

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