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A Colder War

by Charles Cumming

Hardcover, 388 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $26.99 |


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Charles Cumming

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Disgraced MI6 agent Thomas Kell is assigned to investigate the murders of an Iranian defector, an investigative journalist, and an Iranian nuclear scientist who had been recently recruited by Western intelligence, a case that is further complicated by a senior agent's suspicious death.

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The Dangerous Private Lives Of Spies In 'A Colder War'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: A Colder War


The American stepped away from the open window, passed Wallinger the binoculars, and said: "I'm going for cigarettes."

"Take your time," Wallinger replied.

It was just before six o'clock on a quiet, dusty evening in March, no more than an hour until nightfall. Wallinger trained the binoculars on the mountains and brought the abandoned palace at Ishak Pasa into focus. Squeezing the glasses together with a tiny adjustment of his hands, he found the mountain road and traced it west to the outskirts of Dogubayazit. The road was deserted. The last of the tourist taxis had returned to town. There were no tanks patrolling the plain, no dolmus bearing passengers back from the mountains.

Wallinger heard the door clunk shut behind him and looked back into the room. Landau had left his sunglasses on the farthest of the three beds. Wallinger crossed to the chest of drawers and checked the screen on his BlackBerry. Still no word from Istanbul; still no word from London. Where the hell was HITCHCOCK? The Mercedes was supposed to have crossed into Turkey no later than two o'clock; the three of them should have been in Van by now. Wallinger went back to the window and squinted over the telegraph poles, the pylons, and the crumbling apartment blocks of Dogubayazit. High above the mountains, an airplane was moving west to east in a cloudless sky, a silent white star skimming toward Iran.

Wallinger checked his watch. Five minutes past six. Landau had pushed the wooden table and the chair in front of the window; the last of his cigarettes was snuffed out in a scarred Efes Pilsen ashtray now bulging with yellowed filters. Wallinger tipped the contents out of the window and hoped that Landau would bring back some food. He was hungry and tired of waiting.

The BlackBerry rumbled on top of the chest of drawers; Wallinger's only means of contact with the outside world. He read the message.


It was the news he had been waiting for. HITCHCOCK and the courier had made it through the border at Gurbulak, on the Turkish side, at ten to six. If everything went according to plan, within half an hour Wallinger would have sight of the vehicle on the mountain road. From the chest of drawers he pulled out the British passport, sent by diplomatic bag to Ankara a week earlier. It would get HITCHCOCK through the military checkpoints on the road to Van; it would get him onto a plane to Ankara.

Wallinger sat on the middle of the three beds. The mattress was so soft it felt as though the frame was giving way beneath him. He had to steady himself by sitting farther back on the bed and was taken suddenly by a memory of Cecilia, his mind carried forward to the prospect of a few precious days in her company. He planned to fly the Cessna to Greece on Wednesday, to attend the Directorate meeting in Athens, then over to Chios in time to meet Cecilia for supper on Thursday evening.

The tickle of a key in the door. Landau came back into the room with two packets of Prestige filters and a plate of pide.

"Got us something to eat," he said. "Anything new?"

The pide was giving off a tart smell of warm curdled cheese. Wallinger took the chipped white plate and rested it on the bed.

"They made it through Gurbulak just before six."

"No trouble?" It didn't sound as though Landau cared much about the answer. Wallinger took a bite of the soft, warm dough. "Love this stuff," the American said, doing the same. "Kinda like a boat of pizza, you know?"

"Yes," said Wallinger.

He didn't like Landau. He didn't trust the operation. He no longer trusted the Cousins. He wondered if Amelia had been at the other end of the text, worrying about Shakhouri. The perils of a joint operation. Wallinger was a purist and, when it came to interagency cooperation, wished that they could all just keep themselves to themselves.

"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" Landau said. He was chewing noisily.

"As long as it takes."

The American sniffed, broke the seal on one of the packets of cigarettes. There was a beat of silence between them.

"You think they'll stick to the plan or come down on the one hundred?"

"Who knows?"

Wallinger stood at the window again, sighted the mountain through the binoculars. Nothing. Just a tank crawling across the plain: making a statement to the PKK, making a statement to Iran. Wallinger had the Mercedes license plate committed to memory. Shakhouri had a wife, a daughter, a mother sitting in an SIS-funded flat in Cricklewood. They had been waiting for days. They would want to know that their man was safe. As soon as Wallinger saw the vehicle, he would message London with the news.

"It's like clicking refresh over and over."

Wallinger turned and frowned. He hadn't understood Landau's meaning. The American saw his confusion and grinned through his thick brown beard. "You know, all this waiting around. Like on a computer. When you're waiting for news, for updates. You click refresh on the browser?"

"Ah, right." Of all people, at that moment Paul Wallinger thought of Tom Kell's cherished maxim: "Spying is waiting."

He turned back to the window.

Perhaps HITCHCOCK was already in Dogubayazit. The D100 was thick with trucks and cars at all times of the day and night. Maybe they'd ignored the plan to use the mountain road and come on that. There was still a dusting of snow on the peaks; there had been a landslide only two weeks earlier. American satellites had shown that the pass through Besler was clear, but Wallinger had come to doubt everything they told him. He had even come to doubt the messages from London. How could Amelia know, with any certainty, who was in the car? How could she trust that HITCHCOCK had even made it out of Tehran? The exfil was being run by the Cousins.

"Smoke?" Landau said.

"No, thanks."

"Your people say anything else?"


The American reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He appeared to read a message, but kept the contents to himself. Dishonor among spies. HITCHCOCK was an SIS Joe, but the courier, the exfil, the plan to pick Shakhouri up in Dogubayazit and fly him out of Van, that was all Langley. Wallinger would happily have run the risk of putting him on a plane from Imam Khomeini to Paris and lived with the consequences. He heard the snap of the American's lighter and caught a backdraft of tobacco smoke, then turned to the mountains once again.

The tank had now parked at the side of the mountain road, shuffling from side to side, doing the Tiananmen twist. The gun turret swiveled northeast so that the barrel was pointing in the direction of Mount Ararat. Right on cue, Landau said: "Maybe they found Noah's Ark up there," but Wallinger wasn't in the mood for jokes.

Clicking refresh on a browser.

Then, at last, he saw it. A tiny bottle-green dot, barely visible against the parched brown landscape, moving toward the tank. The vehicle was so small it was hard to follow through the lens of the binoculars. Wallinger blinked, cleared his vision, looked again.

"They're here."

Landau came to the window. "Where?"

Wallinger passed him the binoculars. "You see the tank?"


"Follow the road up...."

"... Okay. Yeah. I see them."

Landau put down the binoculars and reached for the video camera. He flipped off the lens cap and began filming the Mercedes through the window. Within a minute, the vehicle was close enough to be picked out with the naked eye. Wallinger could see the car speeding along the plain, heading toward the tank. There was half a kilometer between them. Three hundred meters. Two.

Wallinger saw that the tank barrel was still pointing away from the road, up toward Ararat. What happened next could not be explained. As the Mercedes drove past the tank, there appeared to be an explosion in the rear of the vehicle that lifted up the back axle and propelled the car forward in a skid with no sound. The Mercedes quickly became wreathed in black smoke and then rolled violently from the road as flames burst from the engine. There was a second explosion, then a larger ball of flame. Landau swore very quietly. Wallinger stared in disbelief.

"What the hell happened?" the American said, lowering the camera.

Wallinger turned from the window.

"You tell me," he replied.

Copyright © 2014 by Charles Cumming