33 years. Now he prospect of a ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish Referendum puts the secret at risk. How far might some people go to keep he secret safe….?
TOU CAN FIND EARLIER CHAPTERS OF ‘TOXIC’ IN THE ‘BLOG ARCHIVE’ ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE OF THE PAGE. CHAPTER ONE WAS RELEASED IN MAY 2014
BEDALE SERVICE AREA
Kathy was still on the road. So much for the glamorous life of a spook. For over a week her days had started and ended in a series of soulless hotels on the edge of northern towns. Nowhere was familiar any more. She felt as if she had been uprooted. When had she last spent an evening with a friend? It had been weeks. Sir Nigel had cast her into a wilderness of blander than bland hotel rooms where pastel colours ruled supreme.
She now carried a bottle of Gordon’s in her overnight case and most evenings she only found sleep after three or four doubles. Well. Trebles. Why? She couldn’t really explain it to herself. She felt like she was being damaged in some indefinable way. Wherever the trail led her, there seemed to be a feeling of darkness. For days now she had been trying to clear her brain of all thoughts of the patrol of the damned. But no matter how she tried, the images from the desert refused to go away. They had been the very finest men the British Army could put into the field and yet that long forgotten night in the desert had broken each and every one of them. It was as if they had cashed in their souls that night and never managed to find a way to come to terms with the vacuum that was left inside them.
Was her soul being slowly eaten away? It was a ridiculous thought. A stupid thought. An unprofessional thought. Not a Kathy thought. Kathy was organised and smart and level headed. Kathy was a high flier. Kathy was a fast track girl. Kathy did logic and evaluation. Kathy hadn’t been near a church since leaving school and she had no desire to go near one now. She hadn’t been a believer from the age of six. And she had always viewed all superstition with contempt. She believed in neither God nor ghosts. She was a woman of the 21st Century.
Or so she had thought. But now all of her comfortable certainties seemed to be crumbling away. She had been so very sure that the world was a place that could be organised so long as proper logic was applied. Now she saw such certainty as being plain stupid. Maybe the men who set out on the patrol of the damned had thought the same. They were highly trained and motivated. They must have felt that they were ready for anything.
But they hadn’t been ready at all. And they had never been the same again. Instead they had been sucked down into a pit of evil never to re-emerge. Was she entering the very same quicksand?
It felt that way. It felt like the evil that had eaten into the men of the damned patrol was contagious. Virulent. Infectious. Contaminating. The feeling made her lonely nights in lonely hotel rooms seem to go on forever. Hour after hour she forced her forensic brain to absorb overwhelming numbers of facts. Threads. Clues. And every night she felt like she was being pulled further and further into a dark world.
Rain on the window of her boxy room. Time to rise and shine. She showered and dressed and swallowed a couple of pain killers to ease the headache from last night’s gin. Today was a day to power dress. She donned black trousers and black jacket and a white shirt. She tied her hair back tight. No make up. Just a pale face and a hint of red in her eyes. Were they really her eyes? Those eyes in the mirror that seemed somehow lost?
She decided to get ten minutes worth of air. She found a place under an oak tree on the edge of the car park. Over a barbed wire fence, a huge field of wheat was ripening well. Trucks thundered north and south on the A1. A couple of crows picked away at the corpse of an infant rabbit.
And yet again everything was so ordinary that she felt like screaming. But she didn’t. Instead she lit up her first cigarette of the day and pulled in a hard lungful of smoke. Jesus Kathy. Gin for sleep and nicotine to get going again. She couldn’t believe she had started smoking again. It was so not her. But she had and she had no wish to stop.
Show time. Another day on Sir Nigel’s road.
She tossed her cigarette and made her way over to the café. A smiling young girl had just unlocked the door.
“Good morning.” An accent from the wide open plains of
Name tag? Magda. Of course it was. Poland
“Please. You can take seat. I will bring menu. Too much rain today I think?”
She took her seat. She ordered a cheese omelette and a pot of coffee. She read the Guardian. She checked her watch.
The door opened and a small wiry man stepped inside and cast his eyes around the room. She held her newspaper up to show the front page. He nodded and crossed the room to join her.
She tried out her best smile.
“Yes. Good morning. And you must be Mr Walters? Please. Take a seat. Have you had breakfast?”
He took a seat. He said he didn’t want any breakfast. He said coffee would be fine.
“I’m not happy about this.” And he didn’t look happy at all in his sensible grey slacks and red Pringle golfing jacket. She knew from the files that he was sixty four years old, but his thin white hair and bitter wrinkled face made him look a decade older. His mouth was set in a thin grimace of resentment. What levers had Sir Nigel pulled to coerce this angry little man to drive down from
Middlesbrough for a meeting
at a service station café on the A1?
“No. I don’t suppose you are. But there really is no need to be concerned Mr Walters. I am merely seeking background. There is no question of any wrongdoing here.”
What a joke Kathy. There was wrongdoing everywhere. She forked a piece of omelette into her mouth. Maybe seeing her in the simple act of eating breakfast might unwrap him a little.
“Please. Maybe it is best that you assume I know nothing. Just walk me through what you saw. I don’t need names and places. Just background. Just a sense of things.”
His thin shoulders seemed to tighten in annoyance and his nasty little eyes seethed with resentment. But it was clear enough that he had been given no choice in the matter. Being here was non-negotiable.
“OK. It was 2005. I was counting down the days to my retirement. I was a Detective Inspector with the Cleveland Police Force. A career man. Twenty five years and sick to the back teeth of it. Anyway. One day I got a call from some headhunting outfit in
. Would I be interested in a
potentially lucrative opportunity? Well of course I was. They sent me a first
class train ticket to London
and I met them for lunch in a five star hotel. All very top of the range.
Smooth bastards they were. Two of them. One man, one woman. As corporate as
they come. They said they had a client who was in the market for men like me.
Men with my skill set. I asked them what kind of skill set they thought I had.
They said their client was in the market for experienced detectives. They
wanted people who were expert interrogators. They said they represented an
American company and the contract would be for two years in London . I was about to tell them
where to get off when they told me how much the job would pay. Unbelievable. It
was a bloody fortune. Enough for me and
the missus to get a place down on the south coast of Iraq and still have plenty of
change left over.” Spain
He sipped his coffee and fastidiously wiped at his lips with a paper napkin.
“Well You already know I said yes. I took my retirement and got my clock. The Yanks had latched onto the fact that their efforts at “torture light” were only making things worse. The media were starting to get a whiff about what they were up to and nothing was really working anyway. Some bright spark must have come up with the idea of trying more conventional methods of interrogation. They drew up a profile for the ideal sort of guys to do the job. They wanted older guys. And they wanted a British voice. Nobody trusted Americans. Not bloody surprising. One way or another, they found their way to me. So I worked out of military bases, mainly in the Sunni Triangle. Every day they would bring in the poor sods they had lifted. Most of them had been kicked about. Just kids mainly. Bloody terrified they were about to be shipped out to
My job was to try and calm them down and relax them. I was Mr Soothing. Mr
Trustworthy. It was sickening. Anyway. I got there in the summer of 2005 and I
left in 2007.” Guantanamo
“And I gather that things changed during that time?”
He sighed. “Yes. Things changed. At first many of the men I interviewed had a defiance about then. Sure they were scared witless, but they still were determined not to be broken. I was rather impressed actually. But then there was a change. Suddenly they were terrified. They couldn’t wait to tell me everything they knew. I just got to hear bits and pieces. They said there were devils. One or two were so terrified they could hardly speak. They would talk of Shaitan and Iblis. That’s Satan, right? They said that Shaitan would come in the night and slaughter whole families. I’ll tell you, I have never seen such fear. It still makes me shudder. I have no idea what was going down, but it certainly had people shitting themselves….”
He poured another cup of coffee and seemed to stare straight through her. “I knew that all the talk of Satan was nonsense, but even so. I don’t know. There was a feeling of something evil in the air. I know it sounds stupid, but that’s how it was. Sometimes I would try to talk about it with some of the Yank officers I met, but they made it pretty clear that it was a no go area. Whatever was going down certainly worked. No getting away from that. By the time I came home, the whole of Al Anbar Province had calmed right down. I don’t know what they did. And I have no idea who they were. I didn’t want to know. I still don’t want to know. But whatever it was, it made people really, really terrified. When I got home I promised myself never to think about it again. But it doesn’t work like that. Oh we got our place in
and we go three times a year.
But it has never felt right somehow. I didn’t do anything wrong myself. Far
from it. I followed exactly the same set of rules I had always followed at
home. And my employers were a pleased as punch with me. But I didn’t feel
right. I still don’t. I never have. I don’t suppose I ever will. I just can’t
get away from the feeling that I was involved in something really bad. And that
word. Shaitan. Can’t seem to get it out of my head. Shaitan. You should have
seen the look in their eyes when they said it. Never seen men so scared.
He left her with a weak handshake. An anonymous little man who had allowed himself to be contaminated for the price of a villa in
I feel a pricking in my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…
Had Shaitan been Boy Masters?
Of course he had. Who else would it have been?
She finished her coffee and paid her bill and said her goodbyes to the smiling Magda. It was just before nine and the rain had clearly made its mind up to stay for the day. She checked out of the hotel and filed away the receipt in her purse. Methodical. Organised. An expenses claim to be submitted in due course. And a payment would be electronically transferred into her account in due course. Everyday transactions. The nuts and bolts of ordinary day to day life.
She struck out west on the A66 and crossed the drenched grey
Pennines. On the western side of the hills
there was a strong wind to go with the rain. But Kathy was on autopilot. She
half listened to her wittering radio and more or less chain smoked. Brough.
And no matter how ordinary everything appeared, she couldn’t escape a feeling of unease.
An hour north of the border. Shotts. Yet another beleaguered little town. Yet more doomed little shops. She was becoming familiar with these blighted little places that were so very far from the multi million pound mansions of Rickmansworth. Her SatNav took her clear of the town and back out into the countryside. A group of fed‑up looking cows stared balefully over a recently trimmed hedge. A kestrel hovered hopefully. A guy who had the look of a travelling salesman sat in a lay-by and reviewed some paperwork.
And then she turned a corner and the daunting sprawl of HMP Shotts was spread out before her. The sight of the place made her shudder. Acres of bleak, square buildings contained by a giant loop of high razor wire topped fencing. It seemed completely out of place in the gentle rolling hills, as if some vast alien spaceship had appeared from the sky and dropped it.
She parked up for a few minutes to sharpen herself and to smoke a final cigarette. She had never been inside a prison before and she thanked her lucky stars that she would be in and out in a matter of a couple of hours. How daunting must everything have looked to the men who arrived at the gates in the back of vans knowing that these dismal high security acres would be their home for the next decade or two. What an utter nightmare.
She had done her homework on HMP Shotts the night before. Well some things never changed, for Kathy King always got her homework in on time. Shotts was home to
lifers. To warrant your place you needed two qualifications. One, you needed to
be lined up to serve at least four years before being eligible for any kind of
parole. Two, you needed to be sane. If you were down to serve more than four
years and you were clinically insane, then you’d be put in the van to
She parked her car and checked her hair in the driver’s mirror. Did she need her umbrella for the two hundred yard walk to the front door? She did.
She introduced herself as herself. Shotts was no place for made up identities. The man on the desk had the kind of well worked tattooed arms that marked him out as having once upon a time served time with the Black Watch. He was all smiles and talk about the weather. Then he glanced over her credentials and he went cold on her. Soldiers and spooks. Oil and water.
“Through that door there please Miss. Someone will come for you”
The door led to a large and very empty waiting room. Posters on the wall advertised support services for families and strict sets of rules for visitors. Ten minutes passed slowly.
Eventually another warder appeared.
“This way please.”
He marched her down endless corridors without speaking once. No doubt the front desk guy had warned him off. How would these guys be voting? Hard to say. The silent treatment suggested a degree of contempt for any representative of the London Establishment. So maybe they were ‘Yes’ men. She realised that she had started to automatically assess everyone she met as soon as she crossed the border. Were they ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? One or the other?
“In here please Miss.”
A bare room with no posters or sets of rules. One window giving a view of some sort of back yard area. One table. Two chairs.
“Wait here please.”
She waited. And she wondered what he would be like. Asif Mohammed. He had turned to the dark side in 2005 and disappeared from the radar. Eavesdroppers collected local whispers that he had made it all the way to
to fight the Jihadist war against the unbelievers. He had re-appeared two years
later and hooked up with the wrong types. They finally had taken him at dawn in 2008
and in 2009 a judge had sentenced him to ten years for planning terrorist
activities. Then to everyone’s surprise he had asked to speak to someone from
the Security Service and he had told everything he knew. Nobody was willing to
risk leaving him in Belmarsh. He wouldn’t have survived no matter how hard they
tried to keep him safe. So they had moved him hundreds of miles north to Shotts
where he was to complete his reduced sentence on the protection wing. Sir Nigel
had suggested she should have a chat with him. The records suggested he had
been in Al Anbar Province in 2007. Maybe he could help by suggesting a few of
the tunes that might have played in the background. Iraq
The door opened and he was guided to his seat. A sweat shirt. A pair of non-descript trousers. Trainers. And young. Much younger looking than the twenty seven years in his file.
“Want me to stay, Miss?” asked the warder escort.
“No thank you. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
The warder departed without further comment.
“I’m Kathy.” She reached out a hand and he shook it.
Should she start with small talk? Maybe she should. “How are you Asif?”
He smiled. A shy smile. Rather a nice smile.
“Not bad. Dead bored to be honest. They keep me in solitary. I have my own cell, my own time in the yard, my own time in the gym. It’s a bit lonely, but it could be worse. The papers would hate it if they saw my cell. Xbox. Sky Sports. The time passes. At least I got to see
At least he got to see
in bloody Wonderland. Alice
“That’s your home town, Right?
“Aye. Born and bred. Mum and dad are from
, but I’ve never been. I support the Karachi England football team and the cricket team. When it
comes to football, I hate Blackburn and Pakistan . When it comes to
cricket, I hate Yorkshire and Argentina .
Did they tell you about me?” India
He had a sing-song cross of an accent, three quarters
East Lancashire and a quarter from the Sub Continent.
“They gave me your file. If you don’t mind, I would rather hear it all in your words.”
“Are we on the clock?”
“No. Take all the time you like.”
He did. He told her about his upbringing and working in the family shop. It had been an end terrace and they had sold everything under the sun. He had done well in his exams and he had been offered a place to study Law at
He had a season ticket at Turf Moor. He had always wanted to be good at cricket,
but he never had been. At primary school he had lots of white mates but then
things changed. The BNP came to town and the races split apart. The shop window
was smashed four times in 2006 and one morning he found ‘Fuck off Paki
bastards’ spray painted on the front door. Manchester
It hadn’t been a good time. But not the end of the world. He knew things would be different once he got to university. Burnley was
Burnley. The rest of the country wasn’t like that.
Then everything changed. A bunch of BNP nutters jumped his younger brother on his way from school. His brother had been thirteen years old. They kicked him into a coma and after three desperate weeks the family gave their assent for the life support machine to be switched off.
The memory prompted a single tear to climb out from his right eye and wander down his cheek. He didn’t bother to wipe it away.
He had lost it. Completely lost it. He had left home in the night and hitched his way to
He found the right mosque and the right men. They gave him a place to stay.
They gave him books to read and DVDs to watch. They checked his story and
checked to see if he ever missed prayers. He hadn’t missed once. London
And then they sent him east to a training camp in
He ran through all of it in a monotone voice with the air of a man who had told the story many times before. And he had told the story many times before. Over and over again in perfect detail. She had absorbed his story through the file. It had been pure gold dust. His story led to a drone strike on the
Waziristan training camp and a morale
boosting list of dead bad guys. The Americans had been as pleased as punch.
“At first it felt like we were winning. There was this bloke called Abu Saad in charge. Christ he was one scary guy. But everyone worshipped the ground he walked on. He’d been a colonel or something in the Iraqi army before the invasion and you could tell. He was seriously good. Dead organised. And almost of his operations against the Americans came good. I was loving it. No point pretending otherwise. I felt like I was really a part of something.”
And then he fell into silence for a long moment.
“Then everything changed. One minute we were winning and everyone was all fired up. The next minute it all started to fall apart. One by one the leaders started to get taken out. And it wasn’t like they were just shot or blown up or arrested. It was much worse. They were butchered. And their families. I only saw it once. The day after….. kids and everything…. And the flies….”
More long silence.
“And people started whispering about Shaitan. Or Iblis. The Arabic words for Satan, yeah? Everyone was completely freaked. It was like we weren’t fighting men any more. We were fighting pure evil. Soon we started to fall apart. Blokes deserted or went off to join other units. Even Abu Saad started to fall apart. He legged it off to
. But he didn’t take his
family. He should have taken his family.” Syria
A much longer silence this time.
“I didn’t see it myself. But I heard about it. Everyone heard about it. It was Shaitan. He came in the night. He killed all of them. Two women and seven kids. Abu Saad’s wife and kids and his sister in law and her kids. Two were just babies. They were beheaded. All of them. And the heads were all lined up. Just lined up. Well that was it. We heard that Abu Saad shot himself when he heard the news. Everything just collapsed. Nobody had the stomach to fight any more. I came back home and you know the rest. I fell in with a bunch of idiots. I was stupid. We would never have managed to actually do anything. But were got caught anyway. They had us bugged in every room. We were just pathetic losers.”
“And what changed for you, Asif?”
He looked up. “My dad. He came to visit every time he was allowed. I’d thought he’d wash his hands of me, but he didn’t. He stuck by me. He said he understood. But he said I’d got everything wrong. Little by little he brought me back. He persuaded me to tell everything I knew to the proper authorities. In the end I did. Mum and dad have moved now. To
Got another shop. Maybe when I get out things can go back to normal. Probably
“I really am very sorry to hear what happened to your brother. It must have been a terrible time.”
“It was. But Al Anbar was worse. Miles worse. It was….. I don’t know. I can’t explain. It was like there was evil everywhere. Pure evil. You’ve never seen people so terrified. Nobody could sleep. Everyone was having nightmares. Will you tell me something?”
“It depends. What would you like to know?”
“Are you after Shaitan? Not the Satan of course. There’s no such thing. But the man who did all that?”
“Maybe. I don’t know for certain.”
“So he’s still out there. I knew he was. I get nightmares all the time you know. All the time. Please let me know if you get him.”
“I will. I promise.”
“Don’t arrest him. He doesn’t deserve it. Just kill the bastard. Put him down. Cut his fucking head off…. Sorry. Shouldn’t have said that. It’s just…”
“It’s OK. Really. Thank you so much for being so helpful.”
He gave her a sad nod and she called in the warder. Just before he left, Asif Mohamed turned back to her.
“Be careful. He’s evil. Completely evil.”
She left HMP Shotts in a daze.
She lit up a cigarette in a daze.
She smoked one after another all the way to the M74. There would be no Premier Inn tonight. She was on autopilot all the way back to her soulless flat in
And in the morning she would make her way to Sir Nigel’s cluttered room. Cambridge
Because she was sure she knew.
She didn’t know exactly what was about to happen. But she knew exactly how it would be.