Close protection specialist Marc Portman is used to finding himself in hostile situations. But none can be more unpredictable than troubled Ukraine, teetering on the brink of civil war.
When a US State Department official on a fact-finding mission to Ukraine is placed under house arrest, the CIA hire Portman (codename: Watchman) to get him safely out of the country. In that dangerous and volatile region, Portman will find himself up against local gangsters, Ukrainian Special Forces, professional snipers, pro-Russian separatists and power-crazed cops. What he cannot know however is that his most lethal enemy comes from his own side …
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A Marc Portman Thriller
By Adrian Magson
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Adrian Magson
All rights reserved.
The man I knew as Arash Bagheri was walking into a trap. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.
It's hard watching that kind of thing happen while knowing you've got to get the man out. It's three parts telling yourself you should have seen it coming and one part knowing it's your job to do something and it has to be right. Recriminations can come later.
Bagheri was approaching a street named Kandhar, not far from Tehran's central fruit and vegetable bazaar in the south of the city. A local CIA asset, he was there to conduct an exchange meeting with a man named Farshad Kasimi, an old friend who worked as a laboratory technician for the nearby Iranian Centre for Fuel and Technology Research Laboratories. Or, as the site is more accurately known among those who watch these things, the workshop where they build deadly weapons with which to kill people they don't like.
I had no idea what precisely Bagheri was here to exchange with his friend, only that it had to involve money going in and information or technology coming out. That's usually the way of these operations. My role was to make sure he came away without getting burned.
And right now that was beginning to look unlikely.
I'd scouted the area the previous evening, which was close by the ring road known as the Azadegan Expressway, noting the street layout, the exits and escape routes, and I'd left a vehicle parked in the shadow of a small park down the block just in case. Forward planning is a major element of getting this stuff right and staying out of trouble.
I hadn't seen anything about the surroundings to ring alarm bells, unless you call being stuck in a traffic jam on the expressway alongside a parked fuel tanker while the driver had a smoke and a chat with a friend, as normal. But what I had seen of Farshad Kasimi the technician, who I'd followed for a while, told me he wasn't the full deal. If you're going to put your faith in someone while spying for a foreign country, notably the USA, you should choose a man who isn't loud and gregarious and seems to like spending money freely. For a lowly technician in a state-run industry, that felt all wrong to me.
With these reservations in mind, I'd got here nearly an hour ago and found a position atop a deserted three-storey warehouse. The rooftop gave me a view of the streets near the bazaar and of the expressway running past in an east–west direction, and at least three exits if I needed them.
It was seven a.m. and the morning was heating up rapidly. I already had a coating of motor fumes, smoke and dust tasting gritty on my tongue, which sipping water from a plastic bottle did nothing to shake. And the tarpaulin I'd rigged up in the shadow of an air-conditioning unit wasn't doing much to keep the heat or the flies off me. But I knew I wouldn't have long to wait before we could be on our way out of here; the moment I saw Bagheri appear and do his thing, I'd be ready to pick him up and scoot.
The traffic in the area was a mix of private cars, buses, cabs and pickup trucks of every kind, all being buzzed by motorbikes like flies around rotten fruit. Everybody seemed eager to get their business over and done with as soon as possible before the heat of the day really set in, which meant a lot of pushing and shoving and blowing of horns.
Impatient people, the Iranians.
As I checked Kandhar Street through binoculars, I saw a familiar figure appear on the next block. From the photo I'd been shown I knew it was Bagheri. He was slim and of medium height, with receding hair down the middle and a heavy moustache. He was walking slowly and carrying a bag of fruit, and looked relaxed. He was even chewing on an apple to add a touch of casual colour, as he'd been trained to do.
Not standing out; that was essential for this business, but easier said than done when your life is on the line and you feel – know – that you're being watched because you're in a society where everybody is a suspect, even the innocent.
I ran another check of the streets around Kandhar, but there was no sign of Kasimi. He was either suffering the pains of a hangover or he'd been delayed by traffic, which is easy enough in a frenetic, crowded city like Tehran, where time is a fluid concept and apologies are always effusive and wellmeant.
Then I discovered I was wrong and the day was about to get blown apart.
A black sedan had appeared on the expressway. It was surrounded by other vehicles, yet somehow stood out within its own space, as if in a bubble. I knew instinctively why: it was too big, too new and too unlike anything a private citizen here would want to drive. Black sedans absorb heat but they also give off bad historic vibes. It had to be a car from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, known as MOIS, the successor to the dreaded SAVAK of the old regime, some said with many of the same senior personnel in place with the same nasty habits.
I thought it might be on its way elsewhere at first, that being here in this section of the city was just a lousy coincidence of timing and circumstance. But when it signalled and slipped on to the nearby exit ramp which led to the area around the bazaar, I felt hope take wings and fly.
I focussed on the car, which was full of men. Not unusual for ministry heavies; they like to travel in packs. But the screw in the coffin, as it disappeared from sight behind a scrum of traffic, was seeing a familiar face staring out of the rear window, which had been dropped to let in some air. It was Farshad Kasimi, his hair and shirt collar moving in the breeze. He was laughing at something that had been said by the man next to him, before taking a luxurious drag of a cigarette and tossing the end out of the window.
I ducked out from under my cover and crossed the flat roof for a better view, dodging the array of television aerials and satellite dishes, and bending low before I got to the parapet. For a second I thought I'd been wrong. No sedan in sight. Then it appeared from behind some buildings and began to weave through the streets, jinking occasionally left then right, but from up on my perch, ultimately heading in one direction.
It was in no hurry – there was still a good fifteen minutes before Bagheri's scheduled meeting – but from up here I could see it was somehow too focussed on a single destination, like watching a shark closing in on its kill.
I dialled Bagheri's number. He had to get out of there now. He'd been blown by his supposed friend and he was now a target. It rang several times. No answer. Damn. Hell of a time to have it stuck at the bottom of his shopping bag. I stood up and ran downstairs, surprising a building superintendent, an old man in a long shift who popped his head out from a room and shouted. It was too late to get the car and intercept Bagheri before the sedan reached him, but I had one chance of getting him out: I knew precisely where the sedan would go once they'd picked him up.
MOIS has a number of facilities in regular use around Tehran, mostly because of the logistics of operating in such a crowded city, where traffic in the narrow streets is a constant hazard. The nearest base to this quarter was less than a mile away, and that was where I headed once I hit the street.
The interior of the car, an old Fiat, was already like a pizza oven. I dropped the windows and switched on the fan, but it moved the air with the sluggish speed of stirring toffee. I drove as fast as I dared, hand on the horn, the little car skidding neatly between delivery trucks, cars and the ever-present motorcycles, some loaded with unidentifiable mountains of baggage. Three minutes later I was at the end of a boulevard in a mostly quiet commercial quarter where MOIS has its local security compound. It has a high wall topped by wire, and impressive double gates with a permanent armed guard, and it looked exactly what it was: the last place any sane person would want to be taken.
I left the car two hundred yards away close to a pedestrian crossing and figured I had maybe three minutes before the sedan appeared. Three minutes in which to arrange an accident.
Three minutes before I poked a hornets' nest with whatever stick I could find.
I checked out the buildings nearby. Two half-completed but deserted warehouse units stood on one side of the road, the bare walls un-rendered and grey, now covered with graffiti; and a row of empty stores on the other, gutted shells blackened by fire and long abandoned by their owners. Rubbish from the buildings had been piled nearby and was spilling out across the sidewalk; blocks of broken concrete, scaffold poles, lengths of burned timber and the ruined detritus from a dress shop.
It was going to have to be a MacGyver moment.
First, though, I leaned over and peeled back the carpet on the passenger side and lifted a section of the flooring. It revealed a box recess welded to the underneath of the car. Inside was a cloth-covered bundle. I removed the cloth and was left holding a 9mm Browning High Power and a fat tube suppressor, or silencer. The gun showed signs of being well-used, but the suppressor was new. Both looked ready to go.
It was hardly anybody's idea of an arsenal but it would have to do.CHAPTER 2
Arash Bagheri had the taste of blood on his lip and a swelling on his cheek where he'd been hit before being bundled into the black sedan. It was just one of many bruises he'd sustained and he knew there were many more to come.
He also knew that he would never see freedom again.
He had known within a split second of seeing the car waiting at the far end of Kandhar Street that he had made a grave error; that somehow he'd been betrayed. The vehicle was shiny black with tinted windows, and hung low on its suspension, a sure-fire sign of reinforced bodywork and bulletproof glass. Only one agency used such cars and he didn't even like to think of its name for fear he might utter it aloud. Secret police were the same no matter what they called themselves, and this lot were as feared as their cars were sinister looking, and with good reason.
He had stopped walking, his legs turning to liquid. The car was stationary, a large black bug. Maybe he was wrong and they had come here for somebody else. But who? The street was empty. Then he saw a puff of exhaust smoke and the car began rolling along the street towards him, a flash of sunshine bouncing off the windshield as if to greet him. A touch of irony, he decided, on a bad day.
He turned to run back the way he had come, to lose himself in the maze of narrow streets where people would provide the best cover and where he could duck into a doorway, God willing. But he realized his legs wouldn't carry him far enough or fast enough; there was no escape and nowhere he could go that would be safe.
He made a noise deep in his chest and wondered about his friend, Farshad, the man he had come to meet. Farshad had suggested they meet today at this very place, telling Arash that he had vital information to give him of new weapons being created in the 'laboratory', including small explosive devices that could be concealed in very restricted spaces such as hand luggage. Arash had expressed doubts about the location, preferring somewhere else. But Farshad had been insistent. He was certain he was being watched, he said, by security officers in the government laboratory where he worked, and was expecting to be questioned any day now. Somebody, he feared, must have noticed his interest in weapons development and had reported him.
Keen to secure the information, Arash had convinced himself that he would be safe among the crush of people and traders and traffic that clustered around the bazaar in great numbers. And in exchange for the information there would be money waiting that would be Farshad's safeguard to a better life.
In any case, they were old friends meeting up for a chat. What was wrong with that?
It struck him now that he had been stupidly naïve.
The sedan had stopped alongside him, the motor humming with suppressed power. The front seat passenger had stepped out and slammed him against the wall before punching him with vicious force in the stomach. Arash dropped the bag of fruit and curled away from his attacker, a heavy man in plain clothes, feeling a rain of blows descending on his head and back, and a heavy blow from another man hitting him in the kidneys. He felt his knee split on a piece of stone as he fell to the ground, and wondered if this was to end here.
'What are you doing? Why are you? What —?' He tried to protest, even though he knew it was useless. Protests of innocence were all he had left, but they never worked with such people, who only knew everybody as guilty, if not in deed then by intent. The men continued their beating without saying a word, their breathing growing heavier as they spent their energy in the growing heat of the sun, punching and kicking him with almost casual detachment as if he were no more than a punch bag in a gymnasium.
Then he was grabbed by his arm and spun around to face the car. He immediately saw the face of his friend Farshad staring out at him from the back seat. For just a second Arash felt a flood of relief. At least Farshad wasn't hurt; there were no signs of violence, no bruising or bloodshed, no face like death. That was good, surely ...
Then he realized that Farshad was smiling. And he knew he was finished.
The two men dragged him across the sidewalk and threw him into the back alongside Farshad. But he couldn't even look at the man he'd once valued; the friend who had espoused the same anti-government beliefs as himself and talked often of how he wanted to get out of the country to America, where he could begin a new and exciting life.
For Arash the betrayal was too much to bear and he tried to shrink away until one of the men jumped in after him and elbowed him aside.
There were three men in the car apart from himself and Farshad: the two who had attacked him and the driver. None of them spoke, although the one sitting next to him kept using his elbow, striking him viciously in the side of the head for no reason other than that it seemed to be something to do.
It was the silence that scared him most. If they had raged at him, spat on him, accused him of being a traitor and a criminal, threatened him with certain death, it would have been easier to take. But this wordless violence was the most frightening of all, in that it carried no message.
As the car pulled away and accelerated, he caught a last blurred glimpse of the outside world, his bag of fruit spilled across the sidewalk and already of interest to one of the many dogs roaming the neighbourhood. He assumed the driver was heading towards the expressway, no doubt on their way to MOIS headquarters where he would disappear, like so many others had done before him. He sank down in the seat, trying to control his bladder and wondering what would happen to his sister and brother, now his only living family who had a house far to the south of Tehran. Would they also be dragged in, bruised and beaten, victims of his desire to make a difference in the country, later to disappear? Or would they simply never hear from him again and be left forever wondering at his fate?
The driver and the front seat passenger were talking quietly and smoking, the air heavy with harsh tobacco fumes and adding to the stale smell of perspiration and unwashed clothing. Farshad and the man alongside him were silent, each looking out at the passing scenery.
The journey was surprisingly brief. Arash looked up. They were nowhere near the MOIS headquarters, but turning into a wide street in a quiet commercial district not far from where he had been picked up.
He looked around and felt his stomach flip. He knew of this place; he'd seen and read of people being taken here into a compound located at the far end of this street, never to emerge.
It was a place of death.
He moaned softly, earning another sharp elbow dig from the guard. The passenger in the front seat turned his head to say something, but was interrupted by the driver, who cursed and slowed sharply.
A couple had made to step into the road maybe thirty metres ahead. The man was nondescript, dressed in a dark jacket and tan pants. Alongside him was a slim figure in a long dress and a scarf covering her head, being supported by the man's arm.
Excerpted from Close Quarters by Adrian Magson. Copyright © 2015 Adrian Magson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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