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A Gentleman’s Game Excerpt

The first time Tara Chace was ordered to murder a man it was in Kosovo, as a favor to the CIA.

She used a Parker-Hale M-85 supplied by the Istanbul Number Two that had been moved, in pieces, to a cache near what would ultimately become her sniper’s nest in Prizren. She entered the country as a member of the British peacekeeping force’s support staff, attached through the Ministry of Defense, then traveled as a liaison officer in an observer group past the NATO checkpoint into the city before striking out on her own. Once on site, she hunkered down in an abandoned apartment on the third floor of an abandoned building to wait for her target and the dawn. The night had been cold, long, and Chace sat behind the rifle playing memory games in her head not solely to keep from falling asleep, but to keep her mind off what she was there to do.

The target, a former Soviet general named Markovsky who had leapt gleefully into bed with the Red mafiya, appeared just after dawn, riding passenger in the cab of a three-ton truck laden down with confiscated small arms. At first it had seemed Markovsky wasn’t going to exit the vehicle, and Chace, behind the scope and with her pulse making the optics jump with every beat, half-wondered/half-hoped she would have to abort. The driver seemed to be handling the buy with the KLA, who had pulled up earlier, and all throughout the dance of ‘let’s see the merchandise’ and its companion two-step, ‘show me the money,’ Markovsky stayed put.

Then the driver turned and signaled the general to join them, and before Markovsky had set a foot on the ground, Chace had put three pounds of pressure on the trigger and sent his brains misting onto the truck’s windshield.

All hell had broken loose, then, as everyone back in the Operations Room in London had known it would, and Chace had run, pursued by the angry KLA and the angrier Russians. Her alpha route out of Zone was almost immediately compromised, and her U.N. cover promptly blown soon thereafter. Running pell-mell through the streets, the KLA firing wildly after her, she had caught a ricochet in the left calf and gone ass over tit only to rise and run again. Two further near-misses with her pursuers before finally managing to steal a car, and then she’d had to keep a straight face and give a good lie past a Coalition checkpoint before finally making it to the British Sector.

At which point, safe at last, Chace permitted herself the luxury of passing out.

The mission had been considered a success, and her stock in the Special Operations Directorate of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service had risen accordingly, even as she limped back into the cramped and ugly little office in the MI6 Building at Vauxhall Cross. Her Head of Section, Tom Wallace, had rewarded her not solely with praise, but also with a glowing write-up in her AIR, the annual evaluation that all directorate chiefs were required to submit concerning their personnel. He had shown it to her before submitting it–not strictly against the rules, but an unorthodox decision—and taken great delight in pointing out his recommendation for “promotion at earliest opportunity.”

“You’ll have my job, soon enough,” Wallace had said, and his grin had been as open and good-natured as ever, the look of a proud mentor. Nothing in his words hinted at anything other than sincerity.

“Let’s hope so,” Chace had replied. “Then I’ll get the really good assignments.”

It had been a joke, and they had both laughed, and time passed and the glow of the job faded as other jobs came, but the memory of it stayed with her. It followed when she was sent to Egypt and nearly lost her life in an ambush, and was forced to kill three men in self defense. It trailed her to T’bilisi where a Provisional Minder Three by the name of Brian Butler, who had been recruited into the Special Section only four days prior, died mere inches from her side.

It accompanied her home, first to her bedsit in South Kensington, and then later relocating with her when she moved to a flat in Camden.

It was tenacious, and neither the comfort found in the bottle of scotch or the arms of an eager lover could break its grip.

It became part of her life; more, it became part of her.

Wallace and she had laughed at the joke, but the fact was, there were no good assignments when you were a Minder, there were only ones marginally less likely to get you killed. As Wallace had told her when she’d first joined the Section as an eager Minder Three, “It’s not the bullet with your name on it you have to worry about, Tara. It’s all those damn other ones, marked ‘to whom it may concern.’”

There were no good jobs, and in that hierarchy, assassination was the worst of them all. Even putting all moral and ethical questions out of mind—and when the order came, it was Chace’s job to do precisely that—they were fiendishly difficult to execute on every conceivable level. Politically, they were nightmarishly sensitive; logistically, they were almost impossible to adequately plan; and finally, once operational, even if the politics and the logistics had fallen in line, it would all go out the window, anyway. The First Rule of Field Work, of course, having been stolen from the teachings of the noted American philosopher and engineer, Captain Edward A. Murphy.

Everyone involved, from the staff in the Ops Room to the officers of the Special Section—known in-house as the Minders—to the Director of Operations himself, Paul Crocker, understood that. Chace, then Minder Two, had distinguished herself, and Wallace had been right. One day, she would have his job. One day, she would be Minder One, the Head of Section.

Which was what she wanted. Or, more precisely, part of what she wanted. Distinguishing herself wasn’t enough. The “good” assignments didn’t interest her. She wanted the bad ones, the ones no one believed in, the ones that required a Minder, and, more, required her. She wanted to prove herself, not just that she was capable, but that she was better.

While she had done all these things, she had also murdered a man in the name of queen and of country.

No matter how she tried, it couldn’t be rationalized.

And finally she understood why Tom Wallace’s laughter never seemed to reach his eyes.

* * *

CHAPTER ONE

LONDON – OXFORD STREET, MARBLE ARCH
07 AUGUST 1517 GMT

The planning was exceptional, the result of two years spent preparing for the action, an operation meant to run like clockwork. And much like clockwork, it nearly failed, simply because men are not machines, and they feel fear.

When it came upon him, it came by surprise. It stole his breath, and it cramped his stomach, and, for an instant, he was certain he would wet himself. Just inside the Marble Arch tube stop he balked, the wash of riders flowing past him in both directions, feeling the uncomfortable pressure of the glass bottles in his backpack, the sweat springing to the backs of his hands. The adrenaline filled him, made the stink of the diesel engines rising from the tunnels all the more rank, the perfumes and deodorants and colognes that much more cloying. The noise of the station, the echoes of the trains and the voices and PA became almost unbearably loud, adding to the sudden rush of vertigo.

For a second time, he thought he might vomit.

He steadied himself against the wall, closed his eyes, fought to control his breathing. Of all the things he had practiced, of all the things he had envisioned the eleven times he had made this same trip as a dry run, he had never considered this. He had known he would be nervous. He had even acknowledged that he might be scared. But this level of fear was unexpected, and it unmanned him.

Worse, it made him question his faith, and that only served to compound what he felt, and it added a new emotion, a rising sense of shame. He willed himself to move on, to continue through the turnstiles and onto the escalator and down to the platform, painfully aware that seconds were passing, that the schedule they had so carefully crafted was now in dire jeopardy.

He thought of the others, ready to board trains at Baker Street and Bank, and he was certain that their faith was stronger than any fear, and still, he couldn’t move. His mind, which had seized, as paralyzed as the rest of him, suddenly snapped into gear once more, began racing with doubt. Even if he could move, they would fail. Even if he could move, it wouldn’t work. Even if he could move, he would be stopped before boarding the train, before opening his backpack, and perhaps the others had been stopped already, had been caught already. Perhaps they had talked, and even now, on close-circuit monitors, he was being watched, and the police were beginning to close in upon him.

He prayed, or tried to pray, but the battering his faith had taken was enough to make him feel insincere, and he had no hopes for it. God worked through him and others like him, and everything he did was as God’s will, and wasn’t it, then, God’s will that he be weakened in this moment? Wasn’t it God’s will—all praise to him—that he stand here now, lost?

Someone laughed, and he was so certain it was directed at him, that it was mocking him, that his head jerked around in an attempt to find the source.

It was a woman, or, as he saw her, a girl almost a woman. Perhaps sixteen, traveling with a group of friends the same age, of both sexes. She was small and slender, with a lovely face and a mouth that, to his eyes, was impossibly large as it opened in her laughter a second time, teasingly batting at the hands of one of her male companions as he reached for her. A boyfriend, he thought, and watched as he wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her through the turnstiles. When the boy hoisted her, her skirt crushed between them, accentuating the curve of her maturing hip, the slender strength of her thigh. She twisted in his grip, laughing, and the cotton shirt she wore was trapped between them, the front pulling down slightly, and it revealed cleavage, and against the stretched fabric, the curve of her breasts and shape of her nipples.

Then they were through, moving towards the escalator, and without another moment of hesitation, he followed, his prayer answered, his faith restored.

He had seen it all throughout Europe, women without men to watch and protect them. Women forced to live what was so condescendingly referred to as liberated lives. They worked as clerks and hostesses and teachers to men, their bodies and voices and movements to entertain and to advertise. Even now, riding the long escalator down to the platform with the girl and the boy and their friends only a few meters ahead, he was surrounded by it. Placards and posters to both sides, advertising clothes and watches and perfumes and liquors and movies. All using women as bait, the promise of their sex, of their surrender. A tease and a temptation, degrading both the subject and the viewer.

How could they not see the danger this posed? How cruel it was to treat them in this fashion? To treat women in this way, to allow them to be used and paraded and corrupted, and in so doing, making in them creatures that could only corrupt others.

It made him angry, restored his strength, and made him feel righteous. All of it coming to a point in the form of this girl, at this moment. Surely Pakistani, perhaps born not far from his own home in Kashmir, now standing on the platform with her mouth pressed to the lips of that London boy, her skirt blowing against her leg with the crush of air from the approaching train.

That girl, who could have been a good girl—should have been a proper girl—raised in another place, in proper way. That girl, who would have been contented as one of many wives, protected and nurtured and honored, rather than corrupted in the arms of neglect. Perverted by a myth called liberation, an excuse for indulgence and hedonism, flying in the face of God’s Will.

That girl, who could have been his sister, if his sister had not been murdered.

He followed them into the car, entering as close to the front of the train as he could manage, so he would be near the conductor’s door, and so his back would not be exposed. The train was not so crowded that he could not find a seat, and he removed his backpack before sitting, then set it on the bench beside him, claiming it as his own. He heard the muted clink of the bottles inside as the train began to move again, but he was the only one who heard it, and it did not worry him. Even if it had been heard, it would mean nothing. He was just a young man, just another tourist university student with a backpack, youth hostel bound, nothing more.

His watch read three twenty-three, and he saw that his fear—already fading into an embarrassment—hadn’t cost him. He was still on schedule.

He hoped the others were, too.

The train squealed, began slowing into the Bond Street station. He waited, looking at nothing, until the doors slid open and passengers began to move, then used their motion to conceal his own. He opened the backpack just enough to reach inside, found the pistol resting between the two liter bottles of petrol. He wrapped his hand around the butt of the weapon, grateful for the solidity of it in his grip, anchoring him to the moment. It pleased him that his hand no longer perspired.

Doors closed. He looked to find the girl and the boy, and they had stayed aboard. The girl was touching the boy’s face, speaking to him, and the boy had placed one hand on her bare knee.

The train took speed again, heading towards Oxford Circus, and as its acceleration crested, he rose, pulling the pistol free from the backpack. His thumb struck the safety, knocking it down, and he raised the gun, and imagined himself as he appeared to them, moving with precision and grace, and he felt an indescribable elation.

He shot the girl first.

“Get out!” he screamed. “Get into the next car!”

Then he shot the boy, and then pivoted and shot the middle-aged man surging off a nearby bench, trying to reach him. The motion of the train and man’s own momentum carried him forward, and he stepped aside as the body slid to a stop by his feet, moving his sights across terrified faces, still shouting at them.

“Now!” he screamed, “Get out!” and to urge them, like cattle, he fired again, and again, and there was screaming now, and the passengers were scrambling over each other, pulling on one another to make for the door at the far end of the car. He fired into them, hitting a woman he thought was moving too slowly.

The car emptied, and the train was still swaying, speeding towards the station.

He turned to the closed-circuit camera in the corner above him and put a bullet into it, knowing that it had already witnessed what he had done so far. If all was to plan, the conductor was already contacting the station, and the station, in turn, had begun its emergency response. The evacuation would have begun, the police been notified, Armed Response Units dispatched.

All to plan.

With his free hand, he reached into the backpack and removed the first bottle, turning and throwing it down the length of the carriage. It shattered on a metal handrail, glass bursting, gasoline splashing, its scent sudden and almost sweet. He took the second bottle and threw it against the conductor’s door, smashing it apart. Petrol spattered on his pants and arms, sloshed across the floor, saturating the clothes of man at his feet.

He heard the door from the adjoining carriage opening, and he fired without looking, not caring who, or even if, he hit. The gun was almost empty, but the gun had never been the weapon, only a tool. Even the petrol was only a tool.

As he had been taught, he was the weapon.

He reached into the backpack a final time for the box of matches. He tucked the pistol into his pants and opened the box quickly. The door at the far end opened again, and he knew they were coming to stop him, seeing this moment as an opening, or perhaps realizing what would happen next. He fumbled the matchbox in his excitement, the wooden sticks spilling onto the floor. He heard cursing and shouting, but it didn’t matter, he had a match in his hand, now, and with a stroke it was alive, and he let it fall.

The air around him moved, heated, and saw flame race the floor of the car, eating the gasoline, taking purchase, growing hotter. The man at his feet made a noise as he caught on fire, and he glanced down to see that his own clothes had caught, felt the fire climbing his body. He looked the length of the carriage, saw that the flames now held the others at bay, feeling the flames sear his skin as his shirt caught.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the blackness of the tunnel open to the harsh light of the station.

He pulled the gun from his waist, put the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

It happened again three minutes later, on the Bakerloo Line, as the train pulled into Piccadilly Circus.

And again, seven minutes after that, on the Northern Line, at King’s Cross.

When the final numbers were in, the death-toll stood at three-hundred and seventy-two. Very few of these fatalities came from direct contact with the terrorists, all three of whom had used essentially the same technique; the gun an instrument of terror, to empty the car and to buy time; the petrol as the primary mechanism of attack, to set the trains aflame and to force them to stop on the tracks.

As described, the Underground suffered from not one, but two exploitable weaknesses, both of which had been capitalized upon. The first was that, at any given time on the Tube, there were more trains in motion than there were stations to receive them. A station closure, therefore, or an instance of track blockage, would result in multiple trains stacking up between stations. If those trains were then forced to evacuate their passengers, the evacuees faced walks of varying lengths through the tunnels until they could reach appropriate access back to street level. With most of the tunnels one hundred feet or more beneath street-level, it made for quite a trek.

In and of itself not life-threatening, but certainly an added complication for both riders and rescue teams, should the situation ever arise.

What made the situation not simply life-threatening but a deathtrap was the fact that the Underground had no mechanical means to circulate air, fresh or otherwise. No air conditioning. No fans. Air moved through the tunnels and the stations as a result of the movement of the trains, forcing dead air up and out at stops and other ventilation points, sucking new air into its wake.

While the cars on the Underground were constructed with fire-resistant and fire-retardant materials, gasoline can ignite dirt. With three trains set ablaze on the three busiest London lines, all within minutes of one another, the Tube had come to a violent and convulsive halt. Cars evacuated into tunnels that rapidly filled with roiling clouds of dense, black smoke, an orgy of burning plastics that in turn produced their own toxic gases. While counter-terrorist and emergency service personnel responded as best they could, as fast as they could, civilians succumbed all the same to the mixture of poisonous air and their own panic.

King’s Cross in particular, which had seen a fatal fire in 1987 that had claimed 30 lives, suffered the worst, as dozens of riders were trampled in the panicked attempts to flee the station.

There was an added tragedy, which came to light in late August, when The Guardian ran an article citing an uncirculated report commissioned by the Home Office through the Security Services at the request of the Government. The report had been undertaken specifically to determine what, if any, exploitable weaknesses existed in the mass-transit systems in and around London, and had concluded that the Underground—despite massive counter-terrorism measure taken in the past—was still vulnerable to “a coordinated attack directed against those traits unique to the system.”

Further investigation revealed that the document had actually enjoyed limited circulation and support, until it was killed by a senior civil servant in the Home Office, who had unfortunately given his reasons in writing. “While the report is admirable in its concern,” he had written, “it fails to take into account the difficulties, both financially and in terms of public discomfort and inconvenience, that a retrofitting of the Underground would require. Given the unlikelihood of such a coordinated effort as described, and the pointlessness of the result of such speculative mass-murder, the author’s suggestions shall be set aside until such time as action becomes feasible.”

Resignations followed immediately, culminating, in late September, with the withdrawal from public service of the aforementioned senior civil servant at the Home Office.

* * *

CHAPTER TWO
LONDON – CAMDEN, REGENT’S PARK TERRACE
07 AUGUST 1551 GMT

It was a peculiarity to those in her line of work, their habits and hobbies, the things they would obsess upon in lieu of family and friends.

Tom Wallace, for instance, had put his passion into cars, specifically into the Triumph, and precisely into the Triumph Spitfire MK I, 1962 model year. He had, in the years Chace had known him, acquired four of the vehicles at one point or another. Wallace had tenderly restored each, enjoying its comfort and power in his free time, then sold the previous to make room for the next. He hunted the Triumph online and in newspapers, engaged in long, enthusiast correspondence with others of the Triumph religion, and generally poured ever pound and pence not vital to his day-to-day existence into the hobby.

The late Edward Kittering had shared Wallace’s lust of internal combustion, but in his case it had been motorcycles, and like Wallace, he’d been a devotee of a particular make and model, the Buell Thunderbolt. Kittering had been in the Section almost three years before his death from an apparent brain aneurysm, and in that time she’d seen him go through five bikes, and ridden two of them herself. They were, in her opinion, nothing more than two wheels ornamented with an over-active engine and a saddle, an opinion Kittering had often mocked her for sharing. He had been a far less discriminating collector than Wallace, his only criterion that the motorcycle be built prior to 1996, when the Harley-Davidson purchase of Buell had led to a redesign of the bike, and the motorcycle had “gotten all nice and proper like,” Kittering’s words.

Chace had inherited the last of Kittering’s bikes, a black and yellow 1995 Thunderbolt S2T that made her feel like a wasp whenever she rode it. She didn’t ride it often, traffic in London being a perpetual nightmare and mass-transit being more than sufficient to service most of her needs. The Thunderbolt was expensive, as well, as she had to pay to keep the vehicle garaged, and on those rare occasions when she did ride it, it would invariably break-down. Whereas Kittering had the patience and interest in tinkering with the vehicle, Chace could hardly be bothered.

But she kept the motorcycle anyway, because it was one of her only links to Kittering, and because in the year before he had died, they had been lovers. The affair had ended shortly before Kittering himself had, and badly at that, with Chace breaking his heart. His death had left things unresolved, with each of them uncertain of the other.

So she kept the bike, and hoped that in doing so, it would bring more closure than grief.

Nick Poole, the current Minder Two and formerly of the S.A.S., was a passionate cook. The kitchen of his Spice Quay flat, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, had been renovated with restaurant grade appliances, and Poole invested in only the finest cookware, and tried—generally in vain, due to the unreliable schedule of their work—to grow his own herbs for seasoning. He took cooking classes, read cooking books, and was zealous in his pursuit of “the fresh.” The week after Wallace had left the section, leaving Chace as Minder One and Poole suddenly elevated to Minder Two, he’d invited her over for a dinner of sole paupiette with crab and smoked salmon mousseline, watching her like a hawk until she’d taken her first bite. The meal had been extraordinary, as fine as any Chace had tasted when she’d run alongside the Sloanes and their wealth, and her praise of the dinner had done more for her relationship with Poole than any interaction they’d had in the office or in the field.

As for Chris Lankford, Minder Three – Provisional, he was still too new to the Section for Chace to have discovered his particular passion, though she was certain he had one. Given her opinion of him, she guessed it was something boring, perhaps philately.

Chace herself had survived the Section for a couple of years without discovering a hobby of her own, not seeing the need for one. She had been wrong, and in the wake of Kittering’s death had reached a moment of clarity. Her desire for self-abuse, even as a child, had been dangerous and acute, less based in the physical than in the emotional. She had been a rule-breaker, a discipline problem, and what past lovers had charitably described as a “wild spirit,” an appellation Chace herself detested. She smoked and drank and, upon entering university, had discovered sex, three things she had pursued with the same passion that Wallace, Kittering, and Poole directed towards their hobbies. But without the same rewards, enjoyment, or results to show for it. Positive results, at any rate.

It was after the break-up with Kittering when Chace had come to the conclusion that, perhaps, such self-abuse was counter-productive. Certainly, arriving in the Ops Room for a crash briefing at oh-three-hundred carrying a hangover, or worse, a drunk, wasn’t going to help her career prospects. And the less said about what it would do to a mission, the better. These things, combined with a warning from the Madwoman of the Second Floor—staff psychiatrist Doctor Eleanor Callard—that should such behavior continue, Chace could find herself confined to a desk if not out of a job, served as a wake-up call.

“Find a hobby,” Callard had urged her. “Preferably one where you don’t punish yourself for sins you haven’t committed.”

“May I still punish myself for the ones that I have?” Chace had asked sweetly.

“By all means.”

It had taken Chace a while to find something that would engage her, mostly due to a lack of enthusiasm for the exercise in the first place. As a girl, her mother had taken great pains to see her educated in a ‘proper’ fashion, including piano lessons, ballet lessons, and riding lessons. Chace had loathed it all when she was six, and now at thirty-one, she discovered that nothing had occurred in the intervening time to alter that assessment. Unlike Poole, she had no interest in cooking, and her kitchen was merely the room where take-away was moved from a paper sack onto a porcelain plate, and even then it was most likely to be eaten straight from the container while she stood over the sink. Unlike Wallace, her interest in automobiles was entirely professional. She knew enough to break into them, to hotwire them, to drive them much too fast, to use them to kill people without herself getting killed in the process, and, sometimes, should the situation warrant it, to use them to travel from Point A to Point B.

It ended there.

Finally, she’d decided to try painting, resurrecting a dim memory from her boarding school days at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Not with oils and palettes or watercolors and easels, as she had learned, but rather with great sections of canvas spread on the floor or tacked to the wall, and pails of paint to spatter, drip, drizzle, and smear. She had no aspirations to Jackson Pollock, and at best considered her work to be more Modern Accident than Modern Expressionism. She had no idea if she had any talent for it at all, in fact, but she discovered that she did, indeed, enjoy it, to a degree that truly surprised her. It was the main reason she had moved house to Camden, to have more space in which to work. The sensuality of it, in particular, appealed to her, the indulgence of the paint on her hands and its scent clinging to back of her throat, the feel of the canvass as it drew color away from her fingers. She could lose herself in the activity for hours, her mind could relax as her body worked, and she would find herself finished, her clothes peppered with splatters, her trainers caked with paint.

And this is why Tara Chace was up to her elbows in grasshopper green when she learned that terrorists had attacked London.