Jack Higgins: The Judas gate

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Jack Higgins The Judas gate
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    The Judas gate
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Jack Higgins

The Judas gate




The Washington day in August had been almost subtropical, but by late evening an unexpected shower had cooled things.

The Hay-Adams Hotel was only a short walk from the White House, and outside the bar two men sat at a small table on the terrace, a canopy protecting them against the rain. The elder had an authoritative moustache and thick hair touched with silver, and wore a dark blue suit and Guards tie. He was General Charles Ferguson, Commander of the British Prime Minister's private hit squad, which was an unfortunate necessity in the era of international terrorism.

His companion, Major Harry Miller, was forty-seven, just under six feet, with grey eyes, a shrapnel scar on one cheek, and a calm and confident manner. A Member of Parliament, he served the Prime Minister as a general troubleshooter and bore the rank of Under-Secretary of State. He had proved he could handle anything, from the politicians at the United Nations to the hell of Afghanistan.

Just now, he was saying to Ferguson, 'Are you sure the President will be seeing us?'

Ferguson nodded. 'Blake was quite certain. The President said he'd make sure to clear time for us.'

Sean Dillon stepped out on to the terrace, glass in hand, and joined them, his fair hair tousled and his shirt and velvet cord suit black as usual.

'So there you are.'

Before Ferguson could reply, Blake Johnson appeared from the bar and found them. He wore a light trenchcoat draped over his shoulders to protect a tweed country suit. He was fifty-nine, his black hair flecked with grey. As a boy, he'd lied about his age, and when he'd stepped out of the plane to start his first tour of Vietnam, he'd been only eighteen. Now, a long-time veteran of the Secret Service, he was Personal Security Adviser to the new President, as he had been for several Presidents before him.

'We thought we'd been stood up,' Dillon told him, and shook hands.

'Nonsense,' Ferguson said. 'It's good of him to make time for us.'

'Your report on Afghanistan certainly interested him. Besides, he's wanted to meet you for some time now.'

'With all the new blood running around, I think that's very decent of the man,' Dillon said. 'I thought we'd have been kicked out of the door along with the special relationship.'

Ferguson said to Blake, 'Take no notice of him. Let's get going.' For those who didn't want to make a fuss, the best way into the White House was through the east entrance, which was where Clancy Smith, a large, fit black Secret Service man assigned to the President, waited patiently. He had met them all over the years.

'Great to see you, General,' he told Ferguson.

'So you're still speaking to us, Clancy?' Dillon asked.

'Dillon, shut up!' Ferguson told him again.

'I'm only trying to make sure there's a welcome for Brits these days. I seem to remember there was a previous occasion when they burned the place down.'

Clancy roared with laughter. 'Dillon, you never change.'

'He doesn't, does he?' Ferguson said bitterly. 'But let's get moving. If you'd be kind enough to lead the way.'

Which Clancy did, escorting them through many corridors until he finally paused at a door. 'Gentlemen, the Oval Office.'

He opened the door and led the way in. The President was in his shirtsleeves, working his way through a mound of paperwork.

The President and Blake were sitting on one side of the large coffee table, with Dillon, Ferguson and Miller on the other. There was coffee available on a sideboard and they had all helped themselves at the President's invitation.

Ferguson sipped some of his coffee. 'Trying times, Mr President.'

'Afghanistan troubles me greatly. The casualties mount relentlessly, yet we can't just abandon them,' the President said.

'I agree,' Ferguson told him.

The President glanced at Blake. 'What were those Vietnam statistics again?'

'At its worst, four hundred dead a week and four times as many wounded,' Blake told him.

'Two thousand casualties a week.' Miller shook his head. 'It wasn't sustainable.'

'Which was why we got out,' the President said. 'But what the hell do we do now? We have a large international army, excellent military personnel, backed up by air support and missiles. It should be no contest, and yet…'

Harry Miller put in, 'There's precedent, Mr President. During the Eighteen-forties, at the height of its Empire, Britain sent an army of sixteen and a half thousand into Afghanistan to take Kabul. Only one man returned with his life, a regimental doctor. I've always believed the Afghans were sending a message by allowing him to live.'

'My God,' the President said softly. 'I never heard that story.'

'To Afghans, family comes first, and then the tribe,' Miller told him. 'But they will always fight together to defend Afghanistan itself against an invader.'

'And that's us,' Dillon put in. 'And they don't like it. And now even young men of Afghan extraction who were born in Britain end up joining the fight.'

The President turned to Ferguson. 'That's what was in your report. Tell me more.'

Ferguson said, 'Are you familiar with Major Giles Roper, a member of my staff in London?'

'We haven't met, but I know of him. Once a great bomb-disposal expert, until an explosion put him in a wheelchair.'

'Yes. Well, he's since become the king of cyberspace. There's nothing he can't make his computers do-and sometimes that means he can listen in to battlefield chat in Afghanistan. The people flying with the Taliban come from such a wide number of countries that English has sometimes become the language of communication.'

Miller said, 'It's interesting to hear the voices. Yorkshire accents, many from Birmingham, Welsh, Scots.'

'That's incredible,' the President said.

'But true. Young British-born Muslims are being recruited by doctrinaire preachers who not only encourage them to go, but also offer plane tickets and a training camp, all courtesy of Al Qaeda, who then introduce them to the Taliban,' Miller added. 'It's an awfully big adventure when you're eighteen or so.'

'Just like joining the army,' Dillon murmured.

Ferguson glanced at him, but the President carried on. 'You know, there are many good people who advocate we withdraw and continue this as a long-range war.'

'Air strikes, cruise missiles, drones,' Blake said.

Ferguson replied, 'With respect, too often that can result in an indiscriminate attack on civilian targets. Terrorism can only be countered by a resolute anti-terrorism campaign that pulls no punches.'

'I take your point.' The President nodded. 'But let's ask an expert.' He turned to Dillon. 'I've been informed of your past, Mr Dillon. You must have an opinion. Share it with us.'

'General Ferguson is right. The successful revolutionary blends with the people. Which is why, with these British Muslim imports, American and British forces in Afghanistan can't be certain who is the enemy.'

'Which we counter by joining with Afghan Army units ourselves,' Ferguson said. 'But there's another aspect that concerns me more.'

'And that is?' the President asked.

'There's an incredible new sophistication by the Taliban concerning improvised explosive devices. Not only in the bombmaking itself, but their usage. They are becoming far too good. The only conclusion must be that they are being coached by experts.'

The President frowned. 'What are you implying? The Cubans or the Russians, something like that?'

'Good God, no,' Ferguson said. 'Those days are long gone for the Cubans, and the Russians wouldn't touch Afghanistan if it was the last place on earth. They couldn't crack that nut with an army of a hundred thousand men.'

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