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Marrakech, Saturday 12 May
President Gene Newman liked visiting new cities. In fact, he liked it so much he took the trouble to have one of his interns write up brief histories for each city he was about to visit. The note for Marrakech, named for Marra Kouch (meaning unknown), and peopled mainly by Berbers, being North Africans in direct descent from a prehistoric Ibero-Mauretanian culture, had run to five pages and been crammed full of similar facts.
When challenged, the intern informed the President that she hadn't been allowed enough time to make her essay shorter and he should try harder with the history. She was allowed to say things like that. Ally was his only daughter.
"Enjoying yourself?" the US ambassador asked.
The correct response was Yes. So Ally nodded, despite midday heat which had sweat running down her spine and was already making embarrassing stains under the arms of her T-shirt.
Most of Marrakech had turned out to watch the new American President, his daughter and their bodyguards trudge across the sticky expanse of Djemaa el Fna, North Africa's most famous square. They were accompanied on this walk by a very senior minister of the Moroccan government and the US ambassador, who was doing his best to look unruffled by the jellaba-clad crowds who pushed against hastily erected barriers.
Gene Newman was here against the advice of his own staff, mostly to prove that he was not the previous incumbent, a man given to calling up generals for advice when playing Command and Conquer on the PS2. So said Ally, who'd got it from another intern who had it from a woman on the switchboard. It was a good story, but probably not true.
Marrakech was the reason Ally had joined him on the North African section of this trip. She'd seen the Medina featured in an old Bond film and wanted to experience the crowds and the chaos of the Old City for herself. He could tell from Ally's expression that she'd been expecting more. That was the big problem with being fifteen, emotions showed on your face. Hypocrisy came with age, at least it did in his experience.
"Maybe that stuff was just for the film . . ."
"Ally?" The President bent his head.
"There were monkeys," Ally said. "And bald men juggling knives. Someone had a camel to give rides."
"We have snake charmers, medicine men and belly dancers." The Moroccan minister had to lean across Gene Newman to explain this. "And those people ringing bells in red with the huge hats are water sellers. But sometimes film companies want more."
Ally nodded, yet still managed to look doubtful.
Her black jeans and long-sleeved purple T-shirt, tied-back blonde hair and huge dark glasses to protect her eyes from the sun, while simultaneously hiding the top half of her face, had been carefully chosen.
Demure enough to impress those behind the barriers grown used to seeing the daughters of nasrani tourists wear little more than tight shorts or low-cut vests, but not so much of a compromise that her outfit played badly with hard-core liberals and redneck critics back home.
A scarf had been suggested by the Moroccans and politely rejected. No one really expecting their proposal to be any more than that, a simple suggestion made for form rather than anything else.
The man speaking to Ally Newman was a first cousin of the King, or maybe it was second. Gene Newman knew his name, he just wasn't able to pronounce it, at least not with sufficient confidence to use it socially. So he called the minister "my friend" and hoped he wasn't causing too much offence.
Although his very presence in Morocco had already caused offence to many, Gene Newman understood this. He'd read the digests and then demanded sight of the CIA originals on which the digests were based. It was touch and go whether this visit would cause more good than harm.
Gene Newman sighed.
"You also wanted to see the Barbary apes?"
His Excellency looked anxious. As if he should have realized that a thousand years of history was not enough.
"I've been here before," admitted President Newman. "After college. It's every bit as impressive as I remember . . . No," he said, shaking his head. "Just forgot to call my wife last night. Not clever."
"Ahh." The other man looked sympathetic. "You could do it immediately after this."
"You're right," said Gene Newman. "And we probably do need to turn back."
This last was addressed to his daughter. A nod to the nearest Secret Service agent told the man that the President was done, while an equally quick nod to his daughter, followed by a glance at His Excellency, told Ally exactly what was expected of her.
"Thank you," she said with a smile. "It's been really interesting."
"Interesting" was a Newman family word for boring, but the minister didn't know that and this was just as well, because Ally could see from her father's frown that she should have said something different.
"I mean it," she said hastily. "It would have been neat to see monkeys but this is really, really . . ." Ally gestured round the vast square with its jellaba-clad crowd now spilling out onto flat roofs and filling the upper balconies of a long café behind them.
“It’s really something,” said Ally.
“You like?” The minister sounded pleased. Although why the cousin of a king should care what a ﬁfteen-year-old American girl thought Ally wasn’t sure.
“Oh yes,” she started to say. “I really–”
That was when the ﬁrst bullet hit the dust beside her, and an agent she’d barely noticed before slammed Ally to the dirt, breaking a ﬂoating rib on her left side as he rolled over her, putting his bulk between the girl and the direction of the shot. “Stay down,” growled his voice in Ally’s ear. “There might be another.”
The riﬂe was an old Kropatscheck rechambered for 8mm. It had seen service with the Vichy forces in North Africa and then–a decade later–been wrapped in oilcloth and stacked in the corner of a cellar for a further ﬁfty years, half hidden and almost forgotten.
Wiping vomit from his lips, the man who was not Jake fumbled the riﬂe into its component bits, cleaned the bolt with a scrap of rag held between shaky ﬁngers, ejected seven unused bullets from the tubular magazine and haphazardly wiped down both magazine and bullets while he waited for the police to ﬁnd him.
He had failed and for this he would not be forgiven.
The darkness had suggested the minaret of La Koutoubia as an ideal place from which to shoot the President, but this proved to be out of the question, because uniforms of every hue had begun locking down the area around Djemaa el Fna before the tramp even remembered where to ﬁnd the riﬂe.
Actually, a minaret from any of the other three mosques overlooking the massive square would have done just as well, as would the roof terrace of Café Argana or even Les Terrasses de l’Alhambra, which hadn’t been there when he ﬁrst knew the city.
In the end he’d been reduced to climbing the scaffolding on a building site off Rue Zitoun el Oedim. “Shit choice,” said the man.
And the ghost at his back had to agree.
Ridiculously beautiful with his honey-dark skin and huge eyes, the teenage boy was arguing with a bare-kneed girl on a roof that no longer existed, but which the tramp could just have seen, had the dog woman’s house not fallen down in the years since he’d been away.
Neither the girl, the boy nor the man who remembered them had any doubt about the fact that the boy was losing. And even now, with the Kropatscheck reassembled in his hands and darkness still using his eyes, the bearded tramp could summon up Marzaq al-Turq’s thin face and that of the red-haired girl, all rounded cheeks and down-turned mouth, which only levelled out on the rare occasions when she smiled.
“Please,” Moz said, as he combed lemon-juice highlights into the hair of a girl called Malika. “This is important.”
The house had belonged to the English woman and it sat on the corner of Derb Yassin and a nameless alley, in the old Jewish district, in the days when the Mellah still held more than a handful of Yehoudia. Once, of course, there had been nearly forty thousand Jews living in the Mellah, but the foundation of Israel and the Arab—Israeli conﬂicts had put an end to that.
When begging didn’t work, Moz tried blackmail. “Look,” he said, “you have to–”
“No,” said the girl, “I don’t.” Her patience had gone, her voice was tight. If Moz possessed more sense he’d have paid attention to Malika’s warning signs.
“You would,” Moz insisted, “if–”
“If what? I loved you?”
“You know,” Malika said, “my mother warned me about boys like you.”
It was a bad joke. The woman was long dead and there were no other boys like Moz in Marrakech, nor girls like Malika either; that was what they told themselves. Moz and Malika were what Marrakech had for punks, a half-English waif given to wearing men’s shrts instead of dresses and a half-German boy in jeans, with newly dyed black hair and shades stolen from his employer, Jake Razor.
Sat there on the roof of Dar el Beida, at a time somewhere between noon and the next call to prayer, an hour when the city panted like an old cur under the weight of its own exhaustion, and only cats and occasional hippies were stupid enough to roam the maze-like streets of the Mellah, Moz ﬁnally realized that Malika wasn’t going to do what he wanted.
Beyond a certain point friendship broke. As for love, it seemed that was more fragile still.
“I can’t,” said Malika, as she took back her comb.
Moz poured away the saucer of lemon juice in silence.
“And I won’t,” she added.
“Then I will,” said Moz. “And I’ll do it by myself.”
Their ﬁght was about whether Malika would help him deliver a package of drugs for Caid Hammou and about the fact that Moz wanted to get his hands into Malika’s pants and Malika wasn’t entirely sure she’d let him.
The year was 1977.
Wreckless Eric had signed to Stiff, Television’s LP Marquee Moon was ripping apart the souls of all who heard it, Sheena was a punk rocker. The Sex Pistols, about the only good thing to come out of the jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, had got to number one in the UK charts and been banned from Woolworth’s. Neil Young was two years away from the greatness that was Rust Never Sleeps.
Despite their clothes, Malika’s attempts to bleach her hair and the shades hiding the tears which now hung in the corner of Moz’s eyes, none of the above names meant a thing to either of them.
Marrakech, Friday 25 May
Charlie Bilberg’s brief was simple: extract the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of Amnesty International outrage and clear the Marrakchi case off his section chief’s desk before the end of the third week in July.
Charlie’s section chief had not speciﬁcally tied this end date to the beginning of Ramadan, that month when all devout Moslems fast during the hours of daylight, but the young agent was bright enough to make the connection for himself. There was no point igniting an already ﬂammable situation.
A military court had been convened and the fact that Colonel Borgenicht had yet to hear any evidence was not enough to stop Fox News and a number of the tabloids reaching their verdict in advance. The only thing seemingly still open for discussion was how the execution should be carried out.
Agent Bilberg was there to sift advance evidence.
Actually he wasn’t there at all. He would be arriving in Marrakech next week and staying at a ﬂat in Gueliz arranged by the US consul on behalf of the American ambassador.
This week he was on leave, that was what it said on all ofﬁcial records. Which was how Charlie Bilberg found himself sleeping at a Hivernage tourist hotel in the New Town, surrounded by package-tour Austrians who descended on the morning buffet and cleared it of cheese, sausage and sliced meat before Charlie had ﬁnished his ﬁrst cup of coffee.
He’d been careful to do holiday things, spending two mornings at a café just off Djemaa el Fna, drinking mint tea at a plastic table, while hard dance from a tiny machine shop opposite competed with the café’s choice of soft rock, which often switched between French, English and Arab, mostly in the same song.
And both times he’d paid for his mint tea with a twenty-dirham note, one black with grease and smelling of ginger and cinnamon from the thousands of previous owners who’d eaten only with three ﬁngers and their thumb.
As night fell he’d wandered the oily smoke of Djemaa el Fna’s famous barbeques and watched belly dancers, covered from head to toe in thick white dresses which were sewn with golden chains that perfectly accentuated the fullness of their breasts and the divide of their buttocks.
A man in a loose jellaba had grabbed his own balls and jiggled them up and down in Charlie Bilberg’s direction as Charlie turned away from the belly dancers, and he still didn’t know if this was a deadly insult or an offer to come back to his hotel in Hivernage.
And in between all this, Agent Bilberg had sat at a desk in his ﬁrst-ﬂoor room and listened to the recording of an interrogation which was every bit as unhelpful as he’d been led to believe.
“Okay,” said a French-sounding voice. “When did this start?”
“Yesterday morning, about ﬁve.”
The man answering wasn’t CIA. An interrogator trained at Langley would have said “O ﬁve hundred.” The agent listening to the recording while simultaneously skimming a transcript to check its accuracy was glad of that. A few of the things the voice had been saying made Charlie very nervous indeed.
On a pad in front of him sat his notes. Little more than a handful of words and none of these rang any bells. A folder from the ofﬁce stood open next to the notepad. The only memo inside announced that the CIA, the FBI and the NSA had no record of this man’s ﬁngerprints but that searches at a local level were being instigated. Interpol had also been alerted, a P13 going out to all European forces.
The hotel room was larger than Charlie had expected, with a bathroom off to one side, a simple desk in the main room and a television that managed to get half a dozen channels, most of them in Arabic.
“And what happened at ﬁve?” The French accent probably counted for little. Almost every doctor who spoke English in North Africa spoke it with a French accent, such were the accidents of history.
“Oh,” said the American voice. “We injected another thirty milligrams of psilocybin...”
Downing his ﬁfth coffee of the morning, Charlie Bilberg skimmed the next ﬁfteen pages of transcript, barely reading the medical examination and the part where the doctor gave her permission for “Prisoner Zero’s” interrogation to continue. (So someone at the Langley press ofﬁce had thoughtfully labelled their captive. Charlie had his own views about giving catchy labels to criminals. As far as he was concerned it only encouraged them.)
Charlie jumped the recorder forward to the last intelligible block of answers and lit his ﬁrst cigarette of the day, drawing smoke into his lungs.
“Who helped you?”
“Someone Moz knew.”
Both names were currently being fed into the NSA system. If this produced no leads then the names would be passed to the European database in Brussels. Charlie was in favour of releasing them now at local level, but this had been overruled by Paula Zarte herself, everyody’s new boss at Langley.
Two odd numbers added together always made an even. Two evens added together never made an odd. If a number is divisible by eleven the sum of its alternate digits is always equal, say 121 (apart from when zero messed up the sequence). It was irrelevant if the ﬁrst 119 decimal places of vacuum energy exactly cancelled because it was what happened with the 120th that mattered . . .
There was no end to the information that Prisoner Zero apparently wanted to share. Speed-dialling a contact he’d been given at the NSA, Charlie zoned out a block of pure cracker-box maths while listening to his cell phone go unanswered.
“Chosen of what?” said a voice, when Charlie tuned in again.
“Of heaven . . .”
A sound, like someone sighing. “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
The silence which followed was broken by the ﬂick of a lighter, the old-fashioned kind, and an animal-like howl.
“Incomprehensible” read an anonymous, hand-scrawled note next to the relevant section of transcript. Not that Charlie Bilberg needed this. The exact time of each statement was printed in the margin. A gap of eighteen minutes occurred between that question and its answer. The hand-scrawled note recorded that the prisoner was conscious during this entire period and was not undergoing any additional form of heavy questioning.
The time track was designed to make sure any taped confession would stand up in court. The Agency could do without some judge throwing out key evidence on the basis that most of it was cut and paste.
Personally, Charlie thought that using a time track was an excellent idea, although he was in a minority. He wasn’t hopelessly naïve, however. Agent Bilberg had a good idea of exactly what had been done to Prisoner Zero before the man arrived at a point where he was prepared to make his statement.
Not all of it involved violence.
Running back, Charlie listened carefully, one hand against his ear to cut out noise from the room’s overhead air-conditioning. “Chosen of heaven,” that was deﬁnitely what the prisoner said.
On his wall behind the dressing table was a socket labeled “5-star hotelNet,” so he plugged in his Sony Vaio and waited for the little laptop to recognize the connection, then he *ed in his room number and Amex details. The price was a hundred dirham a day, about ten dollars.
Google gave him a Baptist site, chapter ﬁve of Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, some mediocre poetry, a ministry dedicated to the New Holy Cross of the Rosy Dawn and a handful of references to assorted verses from the Old Testament, none of which looked likely.
Shutting down his laptop, Charlie went back to the recording, matching what was said word-for-word against the transcript in front of him.
“Like Equal of Heaven, only that’s the monkey . . .” The answer, like the question, was in English, its slurring most probably explained by the medical prescriptions stapled to the back of the transcript.
Three hallucinogens, two sedatives and a painkiller mostly prescribed in childbirth but also used for lowering inhibitions. One of the sedatives and all of the hallucinogens were illegal in the US, which was ﬁne because this wasn’t the US and the various doctors who’d signed the prescriptions were not American. Charlie Bilberg had been careful to check.
“What makes you Chosen?”
“I’m not . . .”
“You just said you were.”
The reply, when it came, was too muffled to make out, the transcript using a row of Xs to show that this line of dialogue was beyond deciphering.
“This is pointless,” said a voice Charlie hadn’t heard before. “The man barely knows what he’s saying.”
“More chance of getting the truth.”
A snort, but the voice fell silent as the ﬁrst man went back to his questions. “This group of yours, who leads them?”
“Who leads the Chosen of Heaven?” The way the interrogator snarled this question made clear his belief that CoH were terrorists on a level with al Qaeda, the Baathist Party or the Taliban. “Well?”
“Only one person is chosen,” said Prisoner Zero. “And only the darkness knows how he is selected.”
The silence which followed this made clear that it was not the answer the interrogator had waited or been expecting.