Simon Toyne

The Key


I And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind…

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues…

King James Bible Acts 2:2-4


Al-Hillah, Babil Province, Central Iraq

The desert warrior stared through the sand-scoured window, goggles hiding his eyes, his keffiyeh masking the rest of his face. Everything out there was bleached the colour of bone: the buildings, the rubble — even the people.

He watched a man shuffle along the far side of the street, his own keffiyeh swathed against the dust. There weren’t many passers-by in this part of town, not with the noon sun high in the white sky and the temperature way into the fifties. Even so, they needed to be quick.

From somewhere behind him in the depths of the building came a dull thud and a muffled groan. He watched for any indication the stranger may have heard, but he kept walking, sticking close to the sliver of shade provided by a wall pockmarked by automatic weapon fire and grenade blasts. He watched until the man had melted away in the heat-haze, then turned his attention back to the room.

The office was part of a garage on the outskirts of the city. It smelled of oil and sweat and cheap cigarettes. A framed photograph hung on one wall, its subject appearing to proudly survey the piles of greasy paperwork and engine parts that covered every surface. The room was just about big enough for a desk and a couple of chairs and small enough for the bulky air-conditioning unit to maintain a reasonable temperature. When it was working. Right now it wasn’t. The place was like an oven.

The city had been plagued for months by power cuts, one of the many prices they’d had to pay for liberation. People were already talking about Saddam’s regime like it was the good old days. Sure, people might have disappeared from time to time, but at least the lights stayed on. It amazed him how quickly they forgot. He forgot nothing. He’d been an outlaw in Saddam’s time and had remained one under the current occupation. His allegiance was to the land.

Another grunt of pain snapped him back to the present. He began emptying drawers, opening cupboards, hoping he might quickly find the stone he was looking for and vanish into the desert before the next patrol swung past. But the man who had it clearly knew its value. There was no trace of it here.

He took the photograph off the wall. A thick black Saddam moustache spread across a face made featureless by pudgy prosperity; a white dishdasha strained against the man’s belly as his arms stretched around two shyly grinning young girls who had unfortunately inherited their father’s looks. The three of them were leaning against the white 4x4 now parked on the garage forecourt. He studied it now, heard the tick of the cooling engine, saw the shimmer of hot air above it, and a small but distinctive circle low down in the centre of the blackened glass of the windscreen. He smiled and walked towards it, the photo still in his hand.

The workroom took up most of the rear of the building. It was darker than the office and just as hot. Neon strips hung uselessly from the ceiling and a fan sat in the corner, silent and still. A vivid slash of sunlight from a couple of narrow windows high in the back wall fell across an engine block dangling on chains that seemed far too slender to hold it. Below it, lashed to the workbench with razor wire, the fat man in the photograph was struggling to breathe. He was stripped to the waist, his huge, hairy stomach rising and falling in time with every laboured breath. His nose was bloodied and broken and one of his eyes had swollen shut. Crimson rivulets ran from where the wire touched his sweat-slicked skin.

A man in dusty fatigues stood over him, his face also obscured by keffiyeh and goggles.

‘Where is it?’ he said, slowly raising a tyre iron that was wet with blood.

The fat man said nothing, merely shook his head, his breathing growing more rapid in the anticipation of fresh pain. Snot and blood bubbled from his nostrils into his moustache. He screwed up his one good eye. The tyre iron rose higher.

Then the desert warrior stepped into the room.

The fat man’s face remained clenched in expectation of another blow. When none came he opened his good eye and discovered the second figure standing over him.

‘Your daughters?’ The newcomer held up the photograph. ‘Pretty. Maybe they can tell us where their babba hides things?’

The voice was sandpaper on stone.

The fat man recognized it, and fear glazed his staring eye as the desert warrior slowly unwound his keffiyeh, slipped off the sand goggles, and leaned into the shaft of sunlight, causing his pupils to shrink to black dots in the centre of eyes so pale they appeared almost grey. The fat man registered their distinctive colour and shifted his gaze to the ragged scar encircling the man’s throat.

‘You know who I am?’

He nodded.

‘Say it.’

‘You are Ash’abah. You are… the Ghost.’

‘Then you know why I am here?’

Another nod.

‘So tell me where it is. Or would you prefer me to drop this engine on your skull and drag your daughters over for a new family photo?’

Defiance surged up inside him at the mention of his family. ‘If you kill me you will find nothing,’ he said. ‘Not the thing you seek, and not my daughters. I would rather die than put them in danger’s way.’

The Ghost laid the photograph down on the bench and reached into his pocket for the portable sat-nav he had pulled from the windscreen of the 4x4. He pressed a button and held it out for the man to see. The screen displayed a list of recent destinations. The third one down was the Arabic word for ‘Home’. The Ghost tapped a fingernail lightly on it and the display changed to show a street map of a residential area on the far side of town.

All the fight drained from the fat man’s face in an instant. He took a breath and, in as steady a voice as he could manage, told the Ghost what he needed to hear.

The 4x4 bounced over broken ground alongside one of the numerous canals that criss-crossed the landscape to the east of Al-Hillah. The terrain was a striking mixture of barren desert and patches of dense, tropical greenery. It was known as the Fertile Crescent, part of ancient Mesopotamia — the land between two rivers. Ahead of them a line of lush grass and date palms sketched out the banks of one of them — the Tigris — and the Euphrates lay behind them. Between these ancient boundaries mankind had invented the written word, algebra and the wheel, and many believed it was the original location of the Garden of Eden, but no one had ever found it. Abraham — father of the three great religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity — had been born here. The Ghost had come into existence here too, birthed by the land he now served as a loyal son.

The truck eased past a palm grove and bounced out into the chalk-white desert, baked to concrete by the relentless sun. The fat man grunted as pain jarred through his bruised flesh. The Ghost ignored him, fixing his gaze

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