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Authors: Matthew Dunn

Spy Trade

BOOK: Spy Trade
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To my children



Northern Iraq

ater today, Bob Oakland would wish he’d been killed in a manner that was quick and painless and nothing like how he imagined it would feel to have the blade of a penknife saw through his gullet.

A thirty-year veteran of the CIA, Oakland was due to retire in a few months and had been told that he could complete his career with pretty much any cushy job he wanted. Most in his position would have opted for a desk job in Langley: a nine-to-five idyll with ample time to dust off bass-fishing rods and prepare them for good use in retirement. Thing was, though, Oakland still had a mind that thought it was young, and no way was it going to let him pass over the opportunity to act like Wilfred Thesiger or T. E. Lawrence and trek across a desert that was hard underfoot, mostly flat, and so hot that he could feel its heat through the soles of his shoes.

The five men with him were half Oakland’s age. Four of them wore headscarves and shawls to make them look like Bedouins from a distance; though underneath the veneer of disguise they were thoroughbred Americans with military gear and weapons that were only issued to men who’d qualified to become Navy SEALs. The fifth was a Jordanian translator who was wearing jeans, a Metallica T-shirt, and Ray-Bans, and had modeled his psyche to be more American than that of anyone else in the group.

“You’re going to this meeting wearing a suit?” one of the sailors had asked Oakland as they’d boarded a Chinook helicopter. “We’re on foot for at least five miles once we land.”

“I’m wearing a suit,” Oakland had replied with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “because I must represent what can be.”

And though it was wholly impractical, he’d worn a suit every time he’d been inserted into parts of northern Iraq and western Syria during the last few weeks. The former Istanbul station chief’s assignment was to meet Shiite tribal leaders and exchange sugary tea for American dollars and guns. The leaders always gave him the warmest of embraces—not because he came bearing gifts but because he was a gentleman who was genuinely interested in them.

No doubt there were other officers in the Agency who would have been better suited to the hardships of the job. Bob kept himself fit, but long gone were the days when he could run half marathons in respectable times and win trophies for his athleticism in squash. Of medium height, and with a build that carried little fat, Bob still looked good though age was starting to make his body ache in odd places and stiffen his gait. But Bob had two things that age couldn’t diminish: a razor-sharp brain and a compassion for the foreign nationals he worked with. The Agency had decided the Middle Eastern job needed a man who thought like an intelligence officer yet conducted himself as a diplomat. Bob was that man.

Today was his final foray into the wilderness. Had he made a difference? Probably, but only time would tell whether it was one for the better. So often in history, donated American guns had been turned against the men who’d delivered them; freedom fighters were rapidly recategorized as terrorists; American students would go on protest marches against their government; East and West Coast American historians and journalists would rage against yet further examples of insidious American foreign-policy blunders; and always the Agency would be blamed, as if it were an all-pervasive force of evil that just plain and simple never learned from its mistakes.

In truth, Oakland didn’t care how his service would pan out in the history books. What mattered to him was that he was now doing what he reckoned Thesiger and Lawrence would be doing if they were alive today. Some might say that Oakland was a vainglorious liability who was urgently grasping a chance of unadulterated masculinity—what he did to his surroundings wasn’t what mattered; it was what the surroundings did to him that had meaning. But Oakland wasn’t so self-centered. On the contrary, his whole career had been one of selfless service. Postings to sweaty parts of the world; spying on the countries he worked within; processing defectors; getting married; getting divorced; getting married again; wishing he hadn’t; watching others steal the glory for his clever initiatives; visitors from headquarters taking him out for boozy lunches, telling him he was doing a great job, then getting on the fastest plane back to the States; and always thinking to himself that one day his life in the CIA would be exhilarating. And therein was the problem. Bob’s career had been interesting at times, for sure. But it had never been truly adventurous.

No. Oakland wasn’t in the desert because he was vainglorious.

He was here because he wanted to leave the Agency with at least one exciting story to tell.

Wind blasted his face with sand. The SEALs donned goggles. Oakland placed his hand in front of his eyes, and leaned forward a bit as he trudged onward, his mind imagining his grandchildren’s mouths wide open as he sat on his porch while telling them that this trek was in fact twenty miles long and bullets were whistling past them as they fearlessly moved toward their goal.

“Okay, we got it,” said one of the SEALs. “Stay here while I check it out.” He pulled out his carbine from underneath his shawl and jogged down an escarpment toward a distant and isolated village.

Thirty minutes later, the SEAL returned. “Seems fine. The lookout’s given us the signal to proceed, plus the correct hand code that all’s good.”

Cautiously, they moved over the baked-clay ground and past rocky terrain toward the village. Sand clung to Oakland’s sweaty face and his matted grey hair, but he didn’t care because to do so would ruin this moment. This was his last adventure. Alright, bullets weren’t whizzing past them, and the route here was shorter than it would be when recounting his tale, but there was one thing he wanted to be true, and that was making this final foray without complaining. If T. E. Lawrence could make the impassable Nefud Desert crossing to surprise the Turkish stronghold in Aqaba and do so without grumbling, then Oakland could darn well get to the village without looking and sounding like a sissy.

The village was mostly comprised of russet-colored stone buildings that were low in height and clustered close together. There were twenty-two of them, and they had no fortification to protect them from attack other than a wire fence that was in place to stop goats from wandering out of the encampment and dying in the scorched expanse that resembled the surface of Mars. Oakland could now hear the animals’ bells clanging as the beasts trotted between buildings and their occupants. Children and women were visible, the former dressed lightly, the latter wearing headscarves and ankle-length smocks. A handful of men were on the roofs of their homes, some holding Kalashnikov rifles, others brandishing muskets that were made in the nineteenth century. They were watching the group approach their homes, but nobody in Oakland’s team or in the village had weapons raised. That would have been bad manners. Good strangers arrived in places like these with their palms extended in a gesture of peace. Good villagers reciprocated by not shooting them in the head.

As they neared the wire fence, Oakland gestured for the SEALs to stop and for the translator to come with him. Both men walked up to the fence and waited.

A young man emerged from one of the huts, slung his rifle over his back, and walked quickly to the fence. The translator and villager shook hands and spoke a few words in Arabic. The villager lifted a fence post out of the ground, allowing a gap for Oakland and his team to pass through. Once inside the perimeter, the American sailors walked through the small settlement, checking for any signs that all was not well, before taking up defensive positions around the outskirts of the buildings.

As-salâmu alaykum,
” said the tribal elder while sitting on rugs within one of the huts.

Oakland replied, “
Wa alaykumu s-salâmu wa rabmatu l-lâhi wa barakâtuh.

“My friend, my friend,” said the elder in English while gesturing to the floor opposite him. “Come, come.”

Oakland sat. The translator joined him at his side.

“I have a few words of English, but not enough.” Switching back into Arabic, the elder said, “I hear you are leaving us soon. You return to the United States of America.”

The Jordanian translated the conversation.

“Where did you hear that?” asked Oakland.

The elder shrugged. “Words travel in the wind.” He waved his hand impatiently at another man in the room, who quickly disappeared to make tea. “You will miss us?”

Oakland laughed. “I’ll miss you people. But I’m not convinced I’ll miss the desert. I don’t know how you guys do it.”

The tribal leader nodded. “You know why we live here?”

Oakland answered, “You live here because no one else can.”

“An astute observation.”

The tea arrived and was distributed to the elder and his guests.

Oakland took a sip of his drink, masking the desire to gag because the liquid was so sweet. “Looks like others think they can also live here.”

“Ah, yes. Man-boys from the English city of Birmingham and other places believe the Internet can supply them with all the worldly knowledge they need; and despite never have been farther east than during school day-trips to Paris, they think their bodies and minds are strong enough to come here and establish a state of Islam.” The elder grinned though his eyes were piercing. “They are children, Mr. Oakland, who don’t know what to do with their desire for adventure. They would be better off joining your armies or getting drunk and having a fight.”

“Get it out of their system?”

“Before becoming true men.”

Oakland had never been in the military and spent more time in his late teens and early twenties reading books than propping up bars. “Not all of them are kids. There are a bunch of bona fide psychopaths in ISIS.”

“Indeed there are. And they are surrounded by the armor-plated naivety of youth and their false cause.” The elder lowered his head, deep in thought. “I do not dismiss them so lightly. Their tactics are barbaric but effective. They are well supplied. And they shoot with a steady hand and eye.” He looked at Oakland. “My men think they are devils. That means ISIS has won half the battle before they’ve even engaged with us. We need your help. Good guns and equipment will steady my men’s nerves.”

“And that’s why I’m here.”

“Yet, you travel light. I see no evidence of your carrying large sacks of guns and money.”

“Your friends should have told you that’s not how I work.”

“You are a thoughtful man?”

Oakland nodded. “I try to be.” He placed his tea on the rug and wondered if the elder would notice if he didn’t drink any more. “Every village is different—terrains, operating environments, population, skills or otherwise, food, crops, mobility . . . I made a decision when I took over this job that I’d give you folk what you need, not what I
you need. You tell me now what will help you kill ISIS, and in a couple of hours, that equipment will be air-dropped to your village.”

The leader beamed. “An enlightened American.”

“A practical one.”

“When you return to America, what will you do?”

“Retire, get bitched at by my wife, get fat, get bitched at some more, go fishing, and drink beer.”

“But you are an elder now, Mr. Oakland. You should have respect from your family and should give yourself respect.”

“You have a point.” Oakland took out a pen and notepad. “Tell me what you need.”

The first gunshots almost certainly belonged to the SEALs’ weapons.

The second volley came from the roofs of the village.

The return fire came from the distance: some of it automatic gunfire, others sounded like high-velocity sniper fire.

The elder leapt to his feet and started barking orders in Arabic as male villagers rushed into the room to usher their leader away to a part of the village where he could issue commands and be protected. But he shrugged off their hands, and asked, “How many?”

Oakland ran to the door and glanced toward the fence. A SEAL was nearby, on one knee while sending short bursts of gunfire toward the top of the escarpment. From somewhere on the rise, a flash of light preceded a thin trail of smoke that whooshed toward the village.

“Incoming,” screamed the SEAL.

A second later, a missile hit the adjacent hut, causing it to tear in half and send debris toward the SEAL. The operative was lifted off the ground, most of his face traveling onward with the debris.

Oakland spun back into the room, his whole body covered in dust from the explosion. “You’ve got to get out of here,” he shouted in English at the elder. “Evacuate the village!”

“No. We fight,” replied the tribal leader, withdrawing a pistol.

Oakland talked fast to the petrified-looking translator, before concluding, “Tell him!”

The translator spoke imploringly in Arabic to the elder. “It’s ISIS. You cannot be found here with Americans. Your children and women will be raped before they’re executed. Your men will be slaughtered. And you, sir, won’t be able to do anything about it before you are butchered. Please, get your village safe.”

The leader looked defiant and was about to speak.

But Oakland grabbed his arm, not caring whether the action was disrespectful. “We’re running out of time! Get your people away from here. Only come back to fight when they’re safe.” He heard the translator muttering Oakland’s words in Arabic.

The elder kept his eyes fixed on the CIA man. In English, he said, “We’ll come back and kill these dogs.” He handed him his pistol. “Keep the last bullet for yourself.” He left the room with his men while shouting further orders.

More rapid gunfire came from nearby, meaning some of the SEALs were still alive and engaging the enemy.

The translator looked imploringly at Oakland. “What must we do?”

Oakland ducked low as another nearby explosion tore apart a building. “Let’s try to get to the south side of the village and hope that ISIS is only hitting us from one flank and that my men can hold them off.”

They raced out of the hut into the center of the village. The noise of gunshots now seemed to be constant and much closer. Beyond the southern-perimeter fence, the Arab villagers were running into the desert, women clutching their children, the men covering their backs by pointing their weapons at the northern escarpment.

BOOK: Spy Trade
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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