The Hidden Assassins


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‘What about the car models of UK registrations?’

‘They’re coming through now,’ said Gregorio, reading them off. ‘A VW Touareg, a Porsche Cayenne, a Mercedes M270 and a Range Rover.’

‘You remember the car manuals Yacoub saw?’

‘Let’s meet in your office now. I can get secure phone lines there.’

Forty-five minutes later Falcón was still waiting in his office, making notes as the complications to the scenario multiplied in his mind. Gregorio called from Elvira’s office and told him he’d set up a conference call with Juan and Pablo, who were in Madrid.

‘The first thing I want to hear is the line of logic in all this,’ said Juan. ‘Gregorio’s talked us through it, but I want to hear it from you, Javier.’

Falcón hesitated, thinking there were more important things to discuss than the workings of his brain.

‘This is urgent,’ said Juan, ‘but we’re not in a panic. These people are going to take their time travelling back and it’s going to give us time to find out what we’re up against. I’ve sent some people from the bomb squad to take a look at the Mercedes in the car-hire company down in Jerez. Let’s get the information first and plan our action afterwards. Tell me, Javier.’

Falcón talked him through last night’s thought processes, the transmission with Yacoub and the car manuals, the notes he’d looked over about El Rocío, the high brisance of hexogen, the idea of crippling the EU with attacks on tourist resorts and financial centres. Juan was irritable and interrupted frequently. When Falcón happened to mention seeing himself on television, Juan was sarcastic.

‘We saw it here, too,’ he said. ‘Very nice, Javier. We don’t allow ourselves to get too sentimental in the CNI.’

‘People need hope, Juan,’ said Pablo.

‘They get enough bullshit rammed down their throats by politicians, without having to listen to the police version.’

‘Let him talk,’ said Gregorio, rolling his eyes at Falcón.

‘I went to bed and woke up a few hours later. I watched a movie called Troy,’ said Falcón, and added a little jibe for Juan. ‘You know the story of Troy, Juan, don’t you?’

Gregorio shook his hand, as if this was getting hot.

‘The Greeks packed a wooden horse full of soldiers, left it outside the gates of Troy and faked a retreat. The Trojans pulled the horse inside and, in doing so, sealed their fate,’ said Juan, at speed.

‘The first thing that occurred to me was: how in this high-security age could Islamic terrorists get a bomb into a significant building in a major city’s financial centre?’

‘Ah!’ said Pablo. ‘You’d get the people who work in the city centre to take it in there for you.’

‘And how would you do that?’ asked Juan.

‘You’d pack someone’s car full of high explosive while they were unaware,’ said Falcón. ‘Tourists going to El Rocío stay in Seville before and after the event. The main celebration of the pilgrimage finished on 5th June. Hammad and Saoudi brought the hexogen to Seville on 6th June with the intention of packing it into “hardware” and fitting it into these people’s cars, so that they would drive it back to the UK and into the heart of the City of London.’

‘The first, and possibly the most important thing, about this scenario,’ said Juan, reasserting his control over the call, ‘is that the terrorists have intelligence. The four guys who own these cars all work for the same company: Kraus, Maitland, Powers. They manage one of the City’s largest hedge funds, specializing in Japan, China and Southeast Asia. The relevance of that is they are all wealthy men. They all live in big houses outside London, which means that they drive into work every day, and they don’t get stuck in traffic because their work day starts at 3 a.m. and finishes at lunchtime. Their cars are guaranteed to be in the building in the heart of the City at rush hour. Their office is in a landmark building known as the Gherkin.’

‘Where did you get all that information?’ asked Falcón.

‘MI5 and MI6 are already involved,’ said Juan. ‘They are now looking for various candidates who could have given the terrorists their intelligence.’

‘What about this woman, Mouna Chedadi—the one who made the bookings for Amanda Turner?’ asked Falcón.

‘They’re looking at her records now. She is not a known terrorist suspect. She lives in Braintree in Essex, just outside London. She’s Muslim, but not particularly devout and definitely not radical,’ said Juan. ‘She’s only been working for Amanda Turner’s advertising agency since the beginning of March. She would, of course, have known everything about their holiday arrangements.’

‘But possibly not very much about Amanda Turner’s boyfriend and his colleagues working in the hedge fund,’ said Pablo. ‘Which means the terrorists probably have two or more sources of intelligence.’

‘But we don’t know who they are, so we cannot talk to anybody in any of the companies associated with these eight people,’ said Juan.

‘We’ve also consulted with the British, and they agree that we cannot talk to the people in the cars either,’ said Pablo. ‘Only a highly trained soldier would be capable of behaving normally whilst driving a car known to be packed with explosives.’

‘Which brings us to the final problem,’ said Juan. ‘Because the “hardware” has been kept separate at all times from the high explosive and seems to be from different provenance, the British are concerned that the core of the hardware might contain something toxic, like nuclear waste. They are also assuming that the cars will be shepherded back to their destination. This means that the option of getting the people away from the cars is not a viable alternative.’

‘You’ve got a call on line four, Juan,’ said Pablo in Madrid.

‘Hold on a moment,’ said Juan. ‘No talking while I’m gone. We all need to know everything that’s said.’

Gregorio looked for an ashtray but it was a nosmoking office. He went into the corridor. Falcón stared into the carpet. One of the advantages of the clandestine world was that nothing ever achieved reality for these people. Were any of them to actually see Amanda Turner, sitting in the passenger seat of the Porsche Cayenne as it ripped past the Spanish countryside, it might be a different matter. As it was, she’d become an element in the video game.

Juan came back to the conference. Gregorio crushed his cigarette out.

‘That was the bomb squad from Jerez de la Frontera,’ said Juan. ‘They’ve found traces of a hexogen plastique mix in the boot of the rented Mercedes. They’ve also found two air holes drilled through from the boot into the back seat, and evidence of food and drink. It looks as if he drove into the hotel car park with the bombs and one or two technicians in the boot. They were left overnight to install the devices in the British tourists’ vehicles.’

‘I don’t think we need any more confirmation than that,’ said Pablo.

‘But now we have to find these tourists,’ said Juan, ‘without creating a national police alert.’

‘How long have they been on the move?’

‘They left Seville just after 7.30 a.m.,’ said Falcón. ‘It’s now 10.45. The Dutch couple said the British were heading north to spend a few nights in paradors.’

‘The slow route would be via Mérida and Salamanca,’ said Gregorio. ‘The fast route via Cordoba, Valdepeñas and Madrid.’

‘We should call the Paradors de España central office and find out where they made their bookings,’ said Pablo. ‘We can have a bomb squad waiting for them. They can disable the devices overnight and the tourists can continue on their way without knowing a thing.’

‘That should give us their route, too,’ said Gregorio.

‘OK, we’ll start with that,’ said Juan. ‘Any news from Yacoub?’

‘Not yet,’ said Gregorio.

‘Am I needed for this?’ asked Falcón.

‘There’s a military plane waiting for the two of you at Seville airport to bring you to Madrid,’ said Juan. ‘We’ll meet in Barrajas in two hours’ time.’

‘I’ve still got a lot to do here,’ said Falcón.

‘I’ve spoken to Comisario Elvira.’

‘Have you put anybody on Yacoub in Paris?’ asked Gregorio.

‘We’ve decided against it,’ said Juan.

‘And what about the three activated cells heading for Paris?’ asked Falcón.

‘They’re looking more like decoys now,’ said Pablo. ‘The DGSE, French intelligence, have been alerted and they’re following their progress.’

They closed down the conference call. Gregorio and Falcón drove straight to the airport.

‘I don’t understand why you’re involving me in this,’ said Falcón.

‘It’s the way Juan works. This was your idea. You follow it through to the end,’ said Gregorio. ‘He’s annoyed that one of us didn’t pick up on the piece of information that unlocked the scenario, but he always performs better when he has something to prove.’

‘But it was pure luck that I picked up on an inconsequential bit of information.’

‘That’s what intelligence is all about,’ said Gregorio. ‘You put someone like Yacoub into a dangerous situation. Nobody has any idea what he’s supposed to be looking for. We have a vision of a developing scenario, which he cannot see. He tells us what he can. It’s up to us to translate it into something meaningful. You managed to do that. Juan is annoyed because he was left looking at the decoy but, then again, he couldn’t afford to ignore it.’

‘Are you worried about Yacoub being sent to Paris?’ said Falcón. ‘If he was part of the diversion, that would mean the GICM know, or at least suspect, he’s spying for us.’

‘That’s why Juan is leaving him alone. He won’t even tell the DGSE about him,’ said Gregorio. ‘If the GICM are looking at him they’ll see someone completely clean. That’s the beauty of what’s happened. They put Yacoub into the position where he found the information, even though he didn’t know what those car manuals represented. It means he hasn’t had to expose himself in any way. When their operation breaks down, they won’t be able to point the finger at him. Yacoub is in a perfect position for the next time.’

‘Am I being stupid in asking why, if you know so much about the GICM, you don’t just take it out?’ asked Falcón.

‘Because we need to take out the whole network with it,’ said Gregorio.

They landed at Barrajas airport in Madrid at 1.15 on a hot afternoon, with the air crinkling above the tarmac. A car met the plane and took them to an office at one end of the terminal building where Juan and Pablo were waiting for them.

‘We’ve had some developments here,’ said Juan. ‘The Parador
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central office has records of bookings in Zamora for tonight and Santillana del Mar for tomorrow night. Pablo called both hotels and found that the British cancelled their bookings four hours ago.’

‘MI5 are trying to work out why they’ve changed their plans,’ said Pablo. ‘It could be a family matter. Two of the women are sisters. Or it could be work. The only problem is that they don’t have anybody vetted on the inside of the hedge fund company. There hasn’t been any seismic movement in the Far East markets. They’re talking to City people now to see if there’s talk of a buy-out, or a take-over.’

‘Have you found the cars yet?’ asked Falcón.

‘If they cancelled four hours ago they were already well on their way, so we still have no idea whether they’re heading north via Madrid or Salamanca.’

‘What about the ferries?’ asked Gregorio.

‘We’ve checked both Bilbao/Portsmouth and Santander/Plymouth and they’ve made no bookings. Their Channel Tunnel booking still stands, with no alteration to the date,’ said Pablo. ‘That’s the Interior Minster’s line, Juan.’

Juan took the call, making notes. He slammed down the phone.

‘British intelligence have now been in touch with French intelligence,’ said Juan. ‘Amanda Turner has just changed the Channel Tunnel bookings to Monday afternoon—tomorrow—so it looks as if they’re driving to northern France non-stop. Neither the French Ministry of the Interior nor the British Home Office want those cars going through the Channel Tunnel. The French have said that they don’t want those cars going through France. Their route north will take them close to nuclear reactors and through densely populated areas. The cars are on Spanish soil. We have areas of low population density. We’re going to have to deal with it here. He’s given us direct access to special forces.’

‘It’s about 550 kilometres from Seville to Madrid,’ said Gregorio. ‘It’s 200 kilometres from Seville to Mérida. If they changed their plans four hours ago they could have still switched to the quicker route north, via Madrid.’

‘So if they went to Madrid directly they should already be past us, but if they changed their route they should be around Madrid now.’

Pablo called the Guardia Civil and told them to watch the NI/E5 heading north to Burgos and the NII/E90 heading northeast to Zaragoza, emphasizing that they only wanted a report on the cars; there was to be no pursuit and definitely no general alert.

Juan and Gregorio went to the map of Spain and studied the two possible routes. Pablo contacted special forces and asked them to have two cars ready, a driver and two armed men in each unmarked vehicle.

At 14.00 the Guardia Civil called back with a sighting of the convoy on the Madrid/Zaragoza road, just outside Guadalajara. Pablo asked them to put motorbike police in all the service stations along the route and to report if the convoy left the road. He went back to special forces, gave them the route information and told them to watch out for the convoy’s shepherd. Their two cars left Madrid at 14.05.

At 14.25 the Guardia Civil called to say the convoy had left the road at a service station at Kilometre 103. They had also noticed a silver VW Golf GTI, whose registration number had shown it to be a hire car from Seville, which had come off at the same time as the convoy. Two men had got out. Neither of them had gone into the service station. They were both leaning on the back of the Golf, one of them was making a phone call on a mobile.

While Pablo relayed that information to the special forces vehicles, Gregorio called the car-hire company in Seville. It was closed. Falcón called Ramírez and told him to get it open as soon as possible. Juan ordered a helicopter to be ready for immediate take-off. He gave the Interior Minister an update on the situation and told him that at some point they would have to close the mobile phone network down for an hour on the Madrid/Zaragoza road between Calatayud and Zaragoza.

‘Special forces are going to have to take out the shepherd vehicle over one of the mountain passes,’ he said. ‘That way, if they’re using mobile phone technology to detonate the devices, the network will be down and if they’re using a direct signal there’s less chance of a good connection.’

At 15.00 Ramírez called back from the car-hire company. Gregorio gave the registration number of the silver Golf GTI. The car-hire company gave them the ID card of the driver. Gregorio checked it on the computer. Stolen last week in Granada.

The helicopter tilted and rose up into the cloudless sky above Barrajas airport. Falcón hadn’t wanted the privileged seat next to the pilot. It had been ten years since he’d been in a helicopter. He felt exposed to the elements and had an unnerving sensation of lightness of being.

They tracked the NII/E90 autopista from Madrid to Zaragoza and in less than an hour they were up above the mountains around Calatayud.

‘We don’t often get to see this,’ said Juan, over the headphones. ‘The denouement of an intelligence operation, I mean.’

Even now, as they raced towards the culmination of months of work and days of intensity, it hardly felt real. Spain tore past under his feet and men somewhere below made their final preparations as the convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles, full of real, live people, sped north unknowing and unconcerned at this vast and complicated mechanism moving into action behind them.

The pilot gave him binoculars and pointed down at the section of road where he watched as a silver Golf GTI was overtaken by a dark blue BMW. The BMW braked so sharply that puffs of smoke came out of the wheel arches. The Golf GTI slammed into the back of it, but the soldiers were out, their guns ready, arms jerking with the recoil. The helicopter swooped down on the scene. Two men were being dragged from the car; its windscreen was shattered, the front crumpled, steam pouring out from under the bonnet.

The helicopter hopped over to the other side of the mountain pass where the tourists’ convoy had been pulled over on to the hard shoulder by other armed special forces travelling in a forward car. The helicopter turned and hovered as the four couples got out and ran away from their cars.

To see it all played out with no sound—or rather, too much sound from the thumping blades thrashing the air—added to the unreality. Falcón felt faint at the thought that this final operation had all happened as a result of his hunch. What if reality yielded no bombs in the vehicles and a Golf GTI with two injured innocent men? He must have been looking bewildered and lost, because Juan’s voice came on in his head.

‘We quite often think that,’ he said. ‘Did this really happen?’

The helicopter banked away from the distant city of Zaragoza, which bristled under the heat and a stagnant smog. The pilot muttered his position and direction as the brown, hard-baked mountains settled back into the late afternoon.

Coda

Seville—Monday, 10th July 2006

Falcón was sitting in the restaurant at the back of the bar in Casa Ricardo. It was almost four years to the day that he’d last been in this place and it had been no accident. He took a sip of his beer and ate an olive. He was just cooling off after the walk in the atrocious heat from his house.

There had been no time for anything in the last month. The paperwork had achieved surreal dimensions, from which he broke away to re-enter a world he’d expected to find changed. But the bomb had been like an epileptic fit. The city had suffered a terrible convulsion and there had been much concern for its future health, but as the days passed and there were no further outbreaks, life reverted to normal. It left a lesion. There were families with an unfillable space at the table. And others, who regularly summoned their courage to face another day at waist height to people they’d always looked in the eye. There were the forgotten hundreds who looked in the mirror every morning to shave around a scar, or smooth foundation on to a new blemish. But the one force greater than the terrorist’s power to disrupt was humanity’s need to get back into a routine.


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