Today's Reading


THE SECRET INTELLIGENCE SERVICE PUTS TWO YEARS AND OVER £100K INTO the training of new field officers. You're shown how to steal cars, strip weapons, hack bank accounts. There are courses on the use of improvised explosives, two workshops dedicated to navigating by the stars. But nothing about what I had heard one old spy call whiplash. No one tells you how to go home.

You're marching through the bowels of Tripoli's Ain Zara Prison on Thursday; Saturday night you're at a dinner party in Holland Park. Cutlery tinkles. There is something you've forgotten. You lock yourself in the bathroom and call a restaurant on Martyrs' Square to hear a particular woman's voice and when the phone's answered there is automatic gunfire in the distance. The world cannot all be real at the same time. You apologize to your hosts as you leave, blaming jet lag, then sit on the Central line hearing mourners wail. After the first few times, officers switch to a desk-based role or they find ways of managing the transition. I can't do desks, so I had to learn.

I accumulated rituals, which veered in status between superstition and procedure. A lot of these involved returning to particular places—ones that I could touch as if they were charms and say: Everything's under control, you're here again. The Premier Bar in Jordan's Queen Alia Airport was a favorite. Travel between the lucky and unlucky parts of the world regularly enough and you'll find yourself killing time in Queen Alia. It was one of the twenty-first century's great crossroads. The Premier Bar tucked itself away in a corner of the main terminal, a fridge and three aluminum tables, with a clear view across the departures hall. It had Arabic news on a flatscreen TV and bottles of Heineken in a fridge. I thought of it as my local pub.

On this occasion, I was on my way from Saudi Arabia to London, with strict instructions not to stop until I was on English soil. This in itself was ominous—most of my debriefs were held in third countries. My operation had been pulled suddenly. I had one bag and the clothes I wore, which I was starting to realize stank of smoke and petrol. The pale jacket and chinos of a certain type of Englishman abroad are not made for arson.

I sipped a beer and tried to unwind, letting the adrenaline seep out, enjoying globalization at its transient best. A Congolese family in green and purple robes filtered through a charcoal-gray swarm of Chinese businessmen. Two dazzling white sheikhs led faceless wives in gold-trimmed burkas. Eastern European sex workers pulled Samsonite cases, heading to the Gulf, Southeast Asian ones in denim cutoffs on their way to Europe. The skinny, bright-eyed Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan laborers clutched mobile phones and scanned the departure boards. Staff of NGOs and media organizations sipped water, restless or exhausted depending on the direction of travel. I watched to see who responded as flights were called: Erbil, Jeddah, Khartoum. There were other solitary individuals like myself, traveling between identities, meeting each other's eyes but not for long. You found a lot of snapped SIM cards in the bins. Private security contractors favored duffel bags. They looked well-fed, and walked with the stiff swagger of men who'd been heavily armed until recently.

I could have done with some of them earlier today, I thought. Six hours ago I'd been in an abandoned mansion on the edge of Asir in Saudi Arabia, close to the border with Yemen. The mansion had been trashed. The previous night a local group of unknown affiliation stormed the place, looting what they could on the pretext of combatting decadence. The occupant—a notorious playboy, discreet funder of terrorism, and precious agent of mine— had fled. I now knew he'd been arrested by the time I got there. At that moment, all I'd been told was that I had ten minutes to clear the place of anything sensitive before a more purposeful crew arrived.

I walked through with an empty rucksack, my footsteps echoing as I searched. I'd been inside once at a party, two years ago, amid crowds of prostitutes and coked-up Saudi royalty. I hadn't been memorizing the layout. It was a fifteen-bedroom, thirty-million-dollar palace: fun to trash, difficult to search. Crystal teardrops from the chandeliers littered the floor among balls from an antique snooker table. There were scattered books, broken glass, trails of blood where the intruders had cut themselves climbing through windows. They'd shot his pets, ransacked his wardrobe, slashed some dubious abstract art and one haunting Fantin-Latour still life. A single word of spray-painted Arabic livened the wallpaper: Irhal. Leave.

Which was good advice.

"Are you seeing this?" a voice in my earpiece asked.

The satellite image on my phone showed a convoy of five Toyota pickups heading straight toward me. Unclear who they were, but there were no good options. The barrels of the rifles sticking out the windows were clear enough.

"I see it."

"Probably get a move on."

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