Salim Dhar looked over the limestone cliff and tried to imagine where he would fall. For a moment, he saw himself laid out on the flat rocks eighty feet below, the incoming sea lapping at his broken body. He stepped back, recoiling, as if he had caught the stench of his own death on the breeze blowing up from the foreshore.
He glanced around him and then out to sea. The moon was full, illuminating the fluorescence in the crests of the waves. Far to the west, the lights of reconnaissance planes winked as they criss-crossed the night sky, searching in vain for him. Somewhere out there a solitary trawler was drifting on the tide, crewed by men who would never see the dawn.
Dhar limped along the cliff edge to the point where he had climbed up. His flying suit was waterlogged, his left leg searing with pain. He knew he shouldn't be here, standing on Britain's Jurassic coastline, but the pull had proved too much. And he knew it was his only chance. After what had happened, the West would be hunting him down with renewed intensity. The American kuffar would increase their reward for him. $30 million? How about $155 million - the price of the US jet he had shot down a few hours earlier?
But would anyone think to search for him so close to home?In another life, Britain could have been his home. He pressed a foot against the rocky ground. Tonight was the first time he had stepped on British soil, and he was surprised by how good it felt: ancient, reassuring. The air was pure, too, caressing his tired limbs with its gentle sea gusts.
He looked down at the foreshore again, rocks latticed like paving stones, and imagined his body somersaulting towards it. Would he survive? His descent might be broken by one of the ledges - if he was lucky. In the training camps of Kashmir and Kandahar, luck had been a forbidden fruit, on a par with alcohol. You who believe, intoxicants and games of chance are repugnant acts - Satan's doing. Instead, Dhar had been instilled with the discipline of planning. 'Trust in Allah, but tie your camel to a tree,' as his explosives instructor had joked (he was mixing hair bleach with chapatti flour at the time).
Now Dhar was rolling the dice. His plan was uncharacteristically reckless, possibly suicidal, but there was no choice. At least, that's how it felt. He needed to see where his late father, Stephen Marchant, had lived, where his half-brother, Daniel, had grown up. Tarlton, the family home, was not so far from here. He had seen it on the aeronautical charts. If he was to follow in his father's footsteps, he had to be sure, root himself deep within the English turf.
Dhar stumbled as he picked his way down the steep path, pain shooting through his leg. His knee had been cut when he had ejected. Instinctively he checked for the mobile phone in his pocket. It was still there, sealed in a watertight bag with the handgun. He had taken both from the trawler that had rescued him earlier in the Bristol Channel. If everything had gone to plan, he would now be being debriefed by jubilant Russians back in the Archangel Oblansk. But everything hadn't gone to plan. Dhar had blinked, and listened to the other man in his cockpit: Daniel Marchant.
He thought again about the trawler. First the captain's phone had rung, then he had drawn his gun, but Dhar had been ready. Thinking quickly, he had disarmed him before turning on the remaining crew members. It was after nightfall when he had finally abandoned the trawler, making his way ashore in its tender with the captain. He was below him now, propped up against a rock beside the tender, hands tied, drunk on vodka.
After reaching the bottom of the path, Dhar checked on the Russian. It was important that he was sober enough to speak. He dragged the tender further up into the shadows of the cliff and tore at some long grass to use as crude camouflage. The blades cut into his soft hands and a thin line of blood blossomed across his finger joints. He cursed, sucking at a hand, and went back to the Russian. He couldn't afford to be careless.
'Walk,' Dhar said. After the captain had risen unsteadily to his feet, Dhar pushed him in the direction of the cliffs. He meandered across the flat, stratified rocks, head bowed like a man approaching the gallows. There was no need for Dhar to threaten him with the gun. He had seen what had happened to his crew.
Dhar looked up at the cliffs ahead: layer upon layer of limestone and shale, crushed over millions of years. The compressed stripes reminded him of the creamy millefeuille his Indian mother used to smuggle out of the French Embassy in Delhi when she was working there as an ayah. She was here somewhere, too, he hoped. In Britain, the land of the man she had once loved. Daniel Marchant had promised he would look after her.
When they reached the foot of the cliff, Dhar signalled for the Russian to sit. He circled like an exhausted dog before slumping onto the rocks, trying in vain to break his fall with his tied hands. Dhar stood over him and pulled out a bottle of Stolichnaya, his actions tracked by the man's aqueous, frightened eyes. Squatting down beside him, he unscrewed the lid and poured vodka intothe Russian's mouth, watching it trickle in rivulets through the stubble of his unshaven chin. His swollen lips were dry and cracked. Small flecks of white, sea salt perhaps, had collected in the corners of his mouth.
Dhar had thought about what lay ahead many times in the last few hours, trying to banish the notion that he had nothing to lose. He could have stayed on the trawler, made his way south to France and on past Portugal to Africa, Morocco and the Atlas Mountains, where he had hidden once before. But he knew he was deluding himself. Without Russia's protection he would have been caught by now, picked up by one of the search planes. So here he was, in Britain, a country he had never quite been able to wage jihad against.
'You've been to the pub, a nice English pub,' Dhar said, his face close to the Russian's. He could smell the vodka on his breath, mixed with what might have been stale fish. 'And you fell down the cliffs on your walk home. Too much to drink.'
He waved the Stolichnaya in front of the man's eyes like a censorious parent.
'Are you going to kill me?' the man asked. Dhar had chosen him because his English was good, better than his crew's. He had heard him talk to the coastguard on the ship-to-shore radio.
'Not if you do as I say,' Dhar lied. He was certain that the man was an officer with the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service. It would make his killing more straightforward, despite the company he had provided during the long row ashore, the talk of his young family, twin sons.
Dhar tucked the bottle in his flying suit and pulled out the sealed bag containing the mobile phone and the gun. Don't rush, he told himself. There was no hurry. According to a map he had found on the trawler, the stretch of shoreline they were on was near a place called East Quantoxhead. The signpost at the top ofthe cliff, on the West Somerset Coastal Path, had said they were one mile from Kilve, where there was a public house. They would find him easily enough. The Quantocks were not exactly the Waziristan hills.
Taking the phone out of the bag, Dhar dialled 999 and held the receiver up to the Russian's mouth. With his other hand, he pressed the barrel of the gun hard against the man's temple. Afterwards, he would drag his body back to the boat and hide it in the shadows.
'Talk,' he ordered, cocking the gun. Dhar's head was clear, purged of twins. 'You've had a fall, hurt your left leg.' He pointed the gun at the man's thigh and fired. 'And now you need help.'
DIRTY LITTLE SECRET. Copyright © 2012 by Jon Stock. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.