Hadfish Systems in London are technological experts - but are they prepared to be caught up in a deadly game of international intelligence?
Julian and his business partner, Rami, run Hadfish Systems, a successful software developmentcompany. When Rami is offered the chance of a lucrative new contract, he doesn’t seem too fussed about where the money is coming from or for what purposes the software might be used.
Julian, though, has concerns, made all the more relevant by some secrets he’s been hiding, even from the people closest to him. When an old acquaintance of Julian’s reappears unexpectedly, full of promises and threats, Julian wonders whether this contract is really so lucrative after all, or whether it’s simply a chance to save his own life.
Caught between warring nations and competing interests, old secrets and new loyalties, Julian is trapped in a deadly game …
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Mischa Hiller is of English and Palestinian descent. Born in England, he has lived in London, Beirut and Dar es-Salaam. His debut novel, Sabra Zoo, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book.
Read an Excerpt
By Mischa Hiller
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Mischa Hiller
All rights reserved.
Europeans could no more tell a Turk from an Iranian, Mojgan thought, than she could distinguish an English person from an American, just by looking at them. That's why she'd had no problem at the airport, travelling on a German passport with a Turkish name.
She was sitting in a fast-food restaurant in St Pancras railway station, London, watching the rapid flow of people outside on the concourse. The chicken she'd ordered sat untouched in front of her, the nausea caused by the greasy smell quelled only slightly by the weak coffee they were fond of serving in Europe. They compensated for taste with volume, and served it in ever larger cups. Only in Turkey had she been served decent coffee, but that didn't really count; that was still within the realms of civilisation. It was late afternoon and just twenty minutes since she'd arrived on a train from Luton airport. She was tired after her four-hour flight from Bodrum in Turkey, which had been preceded by a forty-hour overland trip from Tehran which had taken nearly three days with stops.
On her smart phone — containing a new SIM card she'd activated on the train — she started an app that allowed you to play a version of online Scrabble. With practised thumbs she logged in as 'Mawlana' and keyed the username 'Shamsuddin' into the 'Invite to Play' box. As she waited for a response she looked out at the busy station concourse. Her first visit to England had so far been limited to the transport system. Soon she would have to venture into the city of London, and a period of decompression seemed like a good idea.
A soft tone meant that her invitation to a new game had been accepted by Shamsuddin. A set of random letters appeared at the bottom of the screen. She placed three of them on the board to create a basic word. Only five points scored. She waited. A new notification appeared telling her that her opponent had sent her a private message. She smiled and touched it with her finger.
Are you ready for a new game? it read.
Only if you are you ready to lose, she typed.
Shall we agree no dictionary? came the reply.
Agreed. No dictionary. With the prearranged authentication over with, she waited. At another table an overweight man in a suit, Asian by the look of him, was staring at her as he pushed fries into his mouth. She wasn't wearing her headscarf, although her hair, as always when she was in public without it, was tied back, and she was dressed in a grey trouser suit, just another woman travelling on business. Mojgan had learnt through experience that, on the whole, wearing the scarf in Europe attracted more attention than not wearing it. She wasn't sure which was worse: the openly appraising stare she was now ignoring, which every male thought was his right to indulge in, or the curious and sometimes hostile ones she attracted when she had it on. Since, in her current setting, she felt more invisible without it, and her job was, after all, to remain invisible, she kept it in her bag. It came in useful when needing to gain the trust of Muslim contacts in Europe, some of whom, especially the men, confused a love of the Almighty with piety and fervour. In some ways they could be worse than the people back home, so when their initial surprise at having to deal with a woman was replaced with a realization of whom she represented, they became obsequious. It was a moment she had come to relish, that switch from derision to deference.
She looked down at her phone. Her opponent, his beautiful face still fresh in her mind, had laid a six-letter word across hers and scored twenty-seven points. She smiled and typed, Are you cheating?
A delay, during which she worried that she'd strayed from the script, but then her remark was quite innocent to any possible eavesdropper. Then the message came back: No! My english is improving ;-)
She played another word, this time scoring nine points. Soon the expected SMS text appeared: just a message that said supper is ready. She went back to the word game and typed, I am going shopping now; I will continue this game tomorrow.
OK, came the reply, I hope you find what you need. Again she smiled. She could picture Farsheed's face, four hours ahead, somewhere in Azerbaijan. He'd told her it had become the new front line against the Zionists.
She logged out of the app and checked her make-up in a small mirror taken from her voluminous handbag. When putting it back she made sure, for the millionth time, that she still had the cash she'd recovered from the suitcase lining after passing through customs. She then took a piece of paper from a pad and wrote down a memorized address. She had associated the number and street name with various physical objects to make it easier. She left her meal uneaten and wheeled her small case out on to the concourse, then outside into what passed in England for heat, judging by the bare legs and arms of the women, to whom nobody seemed to pay much heed. After a short wait at the taxi rank she got into the back of one of those black London cabs she'd seen in films and held the piece of paper against the glass screen so the driver could read the address. She wasn't confident that she would pronounce it properly.
'First time in London, love?'
'Yes.' Had he just called her 'love'?
'Business or pleasure?'
'Business,' she said.
She sat back where the driver couldn't see her in his rearview mirror and ripped up the address, after which she gradually let the pieces out of the window in dribs and drabs. She tried to relax. She would feel much happier when the job was done and she was on her way back home, where Farsheed would have returned from his own mission and could comb his fingers through her unbound hair.CHAPTER 2
The doctor, a male somewhere in his fifties, looked suitably attired for someone charging Julian hundreds of pounds per consultation, not including all the tests he'd had. Julian reckoned the doctor's suit had cost him two sessions, the shoes another. The doctor looked at Julian over frameless reading glasses, a piece of paper held in both hands, his elbows on the heavyweight wooden desk. There was even a blotter on the table, for Christ's sake, and an ultra-sleek laptop to one side which was presumably designed to convey to patients that their doctor was up to date with technology but wouldn't let it come between him and his patients.
'There's nothing in the results to indicate any anomalies,' he said. He glanced down at the sheet before him and shook his head. 'No, everything looks fine.' It seemed to Julian that he'd wanted to add 'as usual', but 300 of professionalism had curbed his tongue.
'So where next?' asked Julian, shifting in the leather armchair. Maybe Dr Banerjee was too old fashioned. Maybe Julian needed a younger doctor aware of new scientific approaches that had bypassed Banerjee. The doctor put the results down on an open file and took off his glasses, folding them a little too affectedly for Julian's liking before placing them above the file on the pristine blotter.
'Well, where would you like to go next?' he asked.
Julian deliberately frowned, asking, 'Isn't that your job, Dr Banerjee?', keeping the stress on 'your' just the right side of sarcasm. Dr Banerjee sighed and his shoulders slumped as he did so. He wiped a hand down his face and revealed a different man.
'You've been coming here for' — he consulted the file in front of him — 'for nearly six months now and I've found nothing wrong with you. We've run various heart tests, you've had an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, X-rays, numerous blood tests and, if memory serves, a liver biopsy. The most I can find wrong is irritable bowel syndrome and slightly elevated liver enzymes; in line with most of the population, in fact. The truth is, much as I'd like to keep taking your money, I don't think there's much point to more tests. I'd be lying to you if I thought them necessary.' Julian sat through this without reacting. He looked at the fat fountain pen that Dr Banerjee was caressing with his chubby fingers.
'So there's nothing you can do for me?'
The doctor stopped caressing the pen and put his fingers together. 'Well, there is one approach left to explore,' he said. 'But it depends how open you are to it.'
'I don't know until I hear what it is, but I'm not into any New Age mumbo-jumbo,' Julian said. Dr Banerjee put his glasses back on, took the cap off his fountain pen and scratched something on a pad. He typed briefly into his laptop, peered at the screen, then scratched some more. He ripped the sheet from his pad and passed it to Julian.
'She's the best in her field. My recommendation is that you go and see her.'
Julian took the sheet and looked at the name and a London telephone number.
'She sees her private patients in Bloomsbury,' the doctor said, as if to reassure Julian that she was too classy to have a surgery in Harley Street, where hundreds of doctors rented rooms so they could use the prestigious address for their private practice.
'What's her specialty then?' Julian asked, studying the name as if it would tell him. Dr Banerjee put his elbows on the table, and his hands together as if in prayer. He hadn't removed his glasses, so he lowered his chin to look at Julian over the top of the frames.
'Have you considered the possibility, Mr Fisher, that your problems could be psychosomatic in nature?'CHAPTER 3
An hour after leaving Harley Street Julian was sitting in his business partner's office in north London. Rami, who was dressed in a more stylishly modern suit than Dr Banerjee but without a tie, sat knee-to-knee opposite. They had adjacent offices overlooking the open-plan area where the software development team worked. Glass-fronted, so that, according to Rami, less of a perceived barrier existed between management and workers at Hadfish Systems (an amalgamation of their surnames, Haddad and Fisher, had seemed like a good idea all those years ago). As it was, Julian spent a lot of his time sitting next to one of the software developers in the open-plan area, as he liked to keep his hand in, although Rami told him he was micromanaging. But then Rami didn't really understand project management, or coding for that matter.
'Everything all right at the doctor's?' he asked, swivelling from the waist down in his hitech chair. Rami had his desk against the wall because he said he wanted nothing between him and anyone popping in to see him. Julian had his facing the door, and, unlike Rami's glass slab, had something he could sit behind. A bit like Dr Banerjee, now that he thought about it.
'Fine. Everything's fine. Just a checkup.'
'Good. Good.' He got up and closed his door. The last time he'd done that was the day after Julian had taken ill in the office, believing he was having a heart attack. Paramedics had been called but they'd left, claiming it was a panic attack. Luckily everyone apart from Rami had already gone home. The next morning he'd ushered Julian into this office, closed the door, and insisted he go and see someone privately as the NHS were not to be trusted; all they cared about was keeping him from occupying a precious bed. So it was on Rami's recommendation that he'd first gone to see Dr Banerjee in Harley Street, a man who now believed Julian's symptoms were all in his mind.
'Listen, Jules, I think I'm on to something that might, just might, take us to a different level.'
'Oh, yes?' Julian was used to Rami's hyperbole, although he seemed more excited than usual. He was the sales side of the company, relentlessly chasing clients, doing presentations, pitching for jobs, submitting tenders. Julian did help with some of these things, especially on the technical side, but he was primarily responsible for developing the software they sold. Over the last ten years they had carved themselves a comfortable niche with their compression software which was embedded in high-end graphics cards used by gamers, scientists, engineers and designers around the world. But the market had stagnated, and new areas of work were proving hard to find. Whenever he tried to explain to Sheila what it was he did, she'd play dead, literally going limp and pretending she was unconscious.
Rami, long inured to Julian's cynical tone, was carrying on enthusiastically. 'You know how we've talked about expanding into other areas but not known how? Well, I think I may have found a path to the big money.'
'Really? You mean the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree gaming prototype using GPS?'
Rami shook his head and Julian shrugged off his disappointment. He'd spent two years developing the software that at one stage he had hoped would revolutionize online interactive gaming, but it was a dead dream. And as dreams went, Julian had come to the conclusion that it was rather pathetic.
'No, but it uses GPS technology, so you should be in your element. Tell me, what's the biggest and most recession-proof market that you can think of?'
'Drugs,' Julian said without hesitation. 'Although I can't see how drug-dealers would benefit from our expertise.' Rami stopped swivelling and leaned forward.
'Think again. Think legitimate. Think global.' Julian thought again and could only come to one unpleasant conclusion.
'The arms trade?'
'Bingo,' Rami said, pointing at Julian as if the room was full of people and he was the first to get it right. 'And the fastest-growing area of the arms trade is remote-controlled warfare using computers. No different to gaming, really. No different at all.'
Julian sat back in his chair, contemplating Rami. It was as if he was wilfully disregarding Julian's history. 'Weapons are not much better than drugs, are they?' he asked. 'Besides, you know my—'
Someone knocked on the glass door behind him. He looked round to see their office manager, Naomi, who had been with them for nearly six years. She had grown to become an indispensable part of the company and was the only woman, as far as Julian knew, that Rami looked up to, possibly because she was too old (or too black) to make it on to his sexual radar. Julian had encouraged more from Naomi who'd initially taken the secretarial job on offer as a way of filling the void caused when her kids (soon followed by their father) had flown the nest. But she'd shown an organizational ability both he and Rami lacked, acting as their de facto human resources person. If Julian hired on technical ability, Rami did it on communication skills and, if the candidate was female, looks and charm, so Naomi brought a level head and usually had a deciding vote. 'Look, we'll talk about the deal later, maybe after dinner, but I'm not talking about making weapons here, I'm talking about software. Listen,' he said, tapping Julian's knee, 'keep it under your hat for now, things could still go tits up. I haven't said anything to Naomi.' He waved Naomi in before Julian could reply. He stood up to leave.
'By the way,' Rami said, 'can you and Sheila be at the restaur-ant by seven thirty tonight? We've got to eat early because Cassie's got a crack-of-dawn flight tomorrow.'
As he turned away from Rami, Julian made a face at Naomi who smiled knowingly. He went next door to his office. Rami had used the word 'deal', like he had already made one. The ache in his gut started up again but it wasn't long before he was attending to a question from one of the coders.CHAPTER 4
Sheila showered off a day's worth of London grime. She'd shown properties in central London to three interested buyers, made two valuations, taken various offers from potential buyers by phone and relayed them to sellers, then relayed back the responses. As a result she had acquired one more property for her portfolio and made exactly no sales. But some days that's how it went and she'd gained a good property to have on the books. She came out of the en suite to the sound of her ringing mobile. She checked the caller ID before she picked it up.
'You on your way home?' She moved to face the long mirror, wedging the phone between ear and neck so she could dry herself with the towel.
'No, I'm ringing because I'm making up time for this morning at the doctor's.'
'OK. But we're meeting Rami and his new girlfriend tonight,' she said, unsure why he had to make up time since he was a partner in the company, but then he was conscientious if nothing else.
'Yep. And we have to be there by seven. She's got an early start, apparently.'
Excerpted from Disengaged by Mischa Hiller. Copyright © 2015 Mischa Hiller. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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