Authors: Michael Dobbs
Also by Michael Dobbs
The Harry Jones Novels:
The Lords’ Day
The Edge of Madness
The Reluctant Hero
The Historical Novels:
Last Man to Die
The Parliamentary Novels:
House of Cards
To Play the King
The Final Cut
The Touch of Innocents
The Buddha of Brewer Street
Whispers of Betrayal
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2012
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © Michael Dobbs, 2012
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.
The right of Michael Dobbs to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act,
Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
222 Gray’s Inn Road
Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney
Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN HB 978-0-85720-367-0
ISBN TPB 978-0-85720-368-7
ISBN Ebook 978-0-85720-369-4
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
actual people living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Typeset by M Rules
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
Dedicated to the memory of
Teacher and Gentleman.
Five days before Christmas.
They were young, innocent, excited, pumped high on an overload of Cola and fries. They were also vulnerable and entirely undeserving of great misfortune. Kids –
thirty-seven of them and none older than fifteen, wrapped in brightly coloured ski jackets and scarves against the December cold, their arms laden with the plunder they had snatched from the stalls
of the Christmas Fair during their day trip to Brussels. These were the children of the US diplomatic community in London: pampered, privileged, and now headed home.
One of them, Cartagena, named after the town of her conception, was crying, wiping tears from her cherry cheeks and still complaining about the tumble she’d taken on the outdoor ice rink,
but no one appeared to be taking much notice so she gave up. Even at the age of eight she was wise enough to realize she had already lost the sympathy vote and wouldn’t have any tears left to
impress her parents if she kept this up. Soon she had put aside her dramatic hobble and was skipping along with the rest of the crowd as they made their way to the departure gate. An ancient Tiger
Moth biplane in the colours of the Swedish air force was suspended from the rafters high above their heads. Cartagena looked up, incredulous. Did they really used to fly that stuff?
It was a scheduled flight, departing on time, not always what was expected at this time of year, but in any event it wouldn’t have mattered very much to the outcome. The men of evil intent
who were waiting for it were already in position.
It had been a makeshift affair, organized at the last minute. The three men had hired the boat the previous day at IJmuiden on the Dutch coast, an Aquabell thirty-three-footer, a fishing boat
with its cabin up front, substantial deck aft, and three-hundred-horsepower diesels that could get it out of trouble in the push of a throttle. It had been hired with few words and only the most
cursory inspection of the three men’s paperwork. As soon as they got on board it was clear to the owner they knew how to handle it, and any lingering doubts he might have entertained were
buried beneath the substantial wad of euros they produced, although the strange box-object in its canvas shroud that was lugged on board had nothing to do with fishing. Most likely a drugs run, he
reckoned, or perhaps people smuggling, dropping Middle Eastern filth off on some deserted stretch of East Anglia. He couldn’t care less, not at almost double his usual rate and in a bundle of
cash that was already forming a bulge in his pocket. If the British couldn’t keep an eye on their own coastline, why the hell should he lose sleep? He scratched his crotch and hurried off to
the nearest bar.
Now the three men waited anxiously, the boat turning into the swell of the North Sea, keeping station beneath the flight path. On another night and in a less chaotic world they would have taken
more time, employed more sophisticated equipment to track the plane, but they had to make do with an iPhone loaded with a Plane Finder app. Yet it was a remarkable tool. Press a button and tiny red
icons began creeping across a map with the details and destinations of almost every commercial flight in the air including their call signs, flight paths, positions, heights, speeds. Everything in
real time, and all a terrorist in a hurry would need. As they waited, they unwrapped their cargo from its polystyrene shroud, checking and rechecking every part of the gear they had brought on
board. They had spent wisely. The shoulder-held surface-to-air missile they had acquired was the latest Russian model, an SA-24 Grinch, one of the best in the business, its sophistication so simple
that operating it was easy enough even for ragheads: one as a spotter, the other the shooter. And as they waited, on their tiny iPhone screen the red marker of Speedbird 235 began its crawl across
the map towards them.
The Airbus was climbing, its twin CFM engines burning eighty-three litres of fuel a minute through the crystal air of the winter night. Soon they were crossing the coast slightly to the south of
Ostende, and even as they passed into the dark embrace of the North Sea, the pilots could see the gentle glow of the English coast more than sixty miles away. The flight would be short, a little
over the hour, cruising at twenty-two thousand feet before descending and flying almost directly west along the Thames estuary and across London to Heathrow.
‘God’s light,’ the captain whispered as the lights of the English coast began to emerge on the horizon, like a thousand candles being waved in greeting. On a night like this a
man could gaze all the way to Heaven. Karl was a family man, four teenage girls, and crammed into the aft hold was a bulging bag full of presents he’d grabbed in a frantic half-hour through
the crew duty-free at Brussels. Every year as they grew older the struggle to find something they appreciated got more difficult, but he didn’t complain. All too soon they would be gone.
It was the last flight of the day. The milk run. There were one hundred and eight passengers on board, two pilots and five hosties, making a total of one hundred and fifteen on the manifest. The
hosties – cabin crew – were moving down the aisle serving the boxes of antiseptic sandwiches and snacks that passed as in-flight refreshment. The napkins had dreary motifs of holly
printed on them, the sole concession the PC brigade at corporate headquarters had made to the festive season, so the hosties had retaliated and were wearing reindeer horns with flashing red lights
on the tips.
‘Time to make an idiot of myself,’ the captain muttered as he rose from his seat and pulled a Santa Claus hat over his head.
‘But, Karl, you do it so brilliantly,’ Bryan, his first officer, replied.
‘Just make sure you don’t crash the bloody thing while I’m gone.’
‘Haven’t done that in almost months,’ Bryan said, smiling.
The captain disappeared, but only for a few minutes. Not much scope for distraction on a short flight. By the time he returned, the first officer was already talking to air traffic control and
confirming the details of their course adjustment and descent, twisting the control knobs to set the coordinates into the flight computer. ‘Speed: two-two-zero, flight level:
one-five-zero,’ he was repeating.
‘Glad you managed to keep us in the sky this time,’ the captain muttered, draping his hat over the clothes hook behind him. As he slipped back into his seat, from the corner of his
eye he saw the hat fall forlornly to the floor. He sighed. His wife kept telling him he was getting too old to fly, but too old to play Santa Claus? He thought about retrieving it, but decided it
could wait. He would tidy up later if Abi, the senior attendant, didn’t find it first. She was always complaining about his untidiness. He fastened his harness. ‘I have control,’
he declared, reasserting his authority. Yet no sooner had the words been acknowledged by his colleague when from somewhere behind they heard a crash – no, a series of crashes, an extended,
evil noise, like the gates of Hell swinging open. In the same heartbeat the master alarm began to chime out a warning, and the Airbus started to bounce around the sky like a sweet wrapper caught in
From their vantage point fifteen thousand feet below, the three attackers gazed on, in glorious anticipation, which slowly froze to disbelief. The spotter had acquired the target, through
night-vision goggles bought on the Internet. The skies in this part of the world were lonely at night and Speedbird 235 stood out starkly against the clutter of distant stars. The Grinch was a
one-shot throwaway system, almost kid’s stuff; all the shooter had to do was clip on the power unit, press a button, and they were set. As he tracked the aircraft through the eyepiece he
engaged it with a half-trigger, then another gentle squeeze. Nothing more. The missile did the rest. The eruption of sound and light battered the two men’s wits. By the time they had
recovered and the fug of smoke had disappeared, the missile was already at a great distance, its trail a distinctive spiral through the night sky as it went in pursuit, constantly adjusting its
attitude to stay locked on to the heat signature of the engines. They watched it closing in. They saw it strike. They even witnessed the sharp flare of impact. Then Speedbird 235 carried on.
No explosion. No ripping of the wing away from its mounting. No tattered fuselage tumbling from the sky. Above them, the strobe lights of the Airbus were still flashing from the wingtips. A
malfunction, a dud perhaps, always a risk when these things were bought on the black market, or was it because the missile was at the very limit of its effective range, and even beyond? The plane
continued on its path through the night. They had failed, catastrophically, and in their line of business there was always a price to be paid for failure. For a few minutes they argued, screamed,
hurled curses at each other, threatened to drag each other’s mothers from the whorehouse, frantically interrogated the screen of their iPhone and stretched their necks until they could no
longer see the lights of the aircraft as it flew on, and on. In despair, the phone was hurled overboard, as far as it could be thrown. Then they hit the throttle and sped back into the
Back in the cockpit, there was no sense of panic. An engine had gone, that was the obvious answer, and they had practised for that any number of times on the simulator at Cranebank. Anyway, the
ECAM aircraft monitoring system was telling them all they needed to know.