I leaned forward and threw up all over his sneakers. I wretched and wretched until I was dry heaving, snot and tears and puke sliming my face. He jumped backwards, but it was too late.

'Bloody hell, man,' he said, grimacing at his vomit-coated sneakers. 'Do you know how hard it is to get Chuck Jones out here? Fuck.'

The guy with the knife laughed and said something to him in Arabic (is that what they spoke here? Or was it Iraqi? I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know). Sneaker man flipped him the bird, annoyed and sarcastic.

I sat back in the chair, feeling about as wretched and pathetic as it's possible to feel. I couldn't think of anything to say. My mind just kept replaying the image of my father sitting here, straining at his bonds as his throat was cut.

Sneaker man stepped forward, avoiding the puddle of puke. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a photo, which he held in front of me.

'My name is Tariq,' he said. 'Please, is this your father?'

It was Dad, in desert combats, smiling at the camera, holding a bottle of coke.

I nodded.

I wanted to scream 'where did you get that? what have you done with him?' but experience back home taught me that people who enjoy slitting throats don't normally feel the need to explain themselves.

'Shit!' he said. 'I thought you were one of the Yanks.' Tariq shoved the knife man aside, grabbing his blade as he did so. He knelt down and began sawing at the rope that bound my wrists.

'If I'd known you were John's son, I'd never have done this.'

The rope gave way and my hands were free. He shuffled around the front and began working on the rope that bound my feet.

'It's not like we were actually going to kill you. It's just a trick we use to make them talk. They think we're all Islamist nutters, so we play up to it. Works a treat.'

Where the hell did his guy learn his English?

My feet came free and I sprang up, reached behind me and grabbed the chair with my good arm. In a moment I was standing in the corner, chair held up in front of me like a lion tamer.

'Honest, we weren't going to hurt you,' he said, still crouching on the floor, discarded rope all around him. Then he rose to his feet, dropped the knife to the floor and kicked it over to me.

'We were just going to shit you up and make you talk.'

'About what?'

He laughed. 'You're going to love this.'

'Try me.'

'Well, we thought you could tell us where your father is.'

Before I could answer, a young woman ran in. She was also wearing jeans and a t-shirt. What kind of radical Islamists were these? She spoke to Tariq quietly and with urgency, he replied briefly, then she ran from the room. Tariq reached around to the back of his trousers and pulled out an automatic, chambering a round. Another rush of adrenaline and fear; was he just going to shoot me?

'Your arrival attracted attention,' he said. 'We have to move. I do not have time to explain exactly what is happening here, but we are allies, you and I, and should be friends.'

My disbelief must have been plain to see, because he sighed, stood up, ran his fingers through his thick black hair and said: 'yes, I wouldn't believe me either. Okay, listen to me, Lee. We have to get away from this building quickly and quietly. If you make a noise or shout for help, then you will be killed. Do you understand? And later, when we are safe, I will explain everything and we will laugh about this.'

'Right,' I said. 'If you say so.'

He shook his head wearily and threw me the cloth that had bound his face. 'Clean yourself.'

I used my good arm to wipe my face clean. I finished with the cloth and dropped it to the floor. Jesus, I ached everywhere.

'We should fix your arm.' Tariq reached forward and grabbed my useless limb. 'Ready?' I nodded. 'Don't scream.'

He lifted, twisted and pushed, all at once. I felt the bone rotate and then snap back into its socket. I grunted, and my vision clouded for a moment, but I managed not to scream or pass out. He let go and I lifted my arm up. I could use it again, but it hurt like hell.

'Toseef is going to lead, you will go after him, I will follow you. Please, I beg you, don't do anything stupid. If you do, we will all die.'

Then we were moving. We left that awful room and entered a living area with doorless frames and open windows. The girl was standing by the main door, rifle in hand, scanning the street outside. My three captors shared an urgent, whispered conference. It seemed the girl wanted to go out the front door and down the road; Tariq disagreed. Eventually he ended the discussion with a curt word of command, and we climbed out one of the side windows into a narrow, dusty alleyway that ran behind the houses on this street.

The sky was deep blue, not a cloud in sight, and the air was heavy and wet. I had expected Iraq to be dry, but Basra was a coastal town, humid and damp. It smelt different, the sandy tang of desert mixed with a dash of salt air from the sea. And something else, a hint of something thick and cloying; I would later learn that it was the smell of burning oil. As soon as I stepped out into that glaring sun I began sweating from every pore all at once. My t-shirt was patched with sweat before we'd even gone a hundred metres. I needed water. A whole great bathful, preferably, to wallow in for a week.

When we reached the end of the alley the girl motioned for us to flatten ourselves against the wall as she peered cautiously round the corner to see if the street was clear. She leaned back into cover and held up her hands to signal that there were two of whoever it was we were hiding from, to the right. She indicated that they were not looking our way.

Again there was a disagreement. The girl wanted to risk running across the road to the alley opposite; Tariq wanted to go back the way we had come. This time, she won the toss. She counted down from three with her fingers, and we broke cover. It was only a few metres to a burnt-out car, and we made it without the alarm being raised. We huddled behind it. She glanced down the road on my right, Tariq on my left. Stuck between them, with Toseef, I was unable to see who or what we were hiding from. All I could see was a tiny lizard, sunning itself on the rear bumper of the car, an inch from my nose. Lying there, frying itself alive on that scalding metal, it radiated warm contentment.

Toseef grabbed my bad arm to get my attention and I winced. He let go and gave me a look that said sorry. Tariq gave us a silent countdown and we all turned to face the other side of the road as the girl moved to my side, ready to run. There was no-one behind me. They all broke cover, scurrying for the other side of the road. But in the heat of the moment none of them tried to drag me with them; they were so focused on their own predicament they must have just assumed I'd follow suit. But I didn't. I let them run away and I stayed, crouched behind the car with my small, cold-blooded friend. They didn't realise I wasn't with them until they reached the safety of the opposite alleyway. Tariq turned, alarmed. I waved at him and smiled. He slapped Toseef around the head, annoyed, then urgently beckoned for me to follow them. I pretended to consider this for a moment, then shook my head, grinning. I didn't trust him an inch.

Of course, I hadn't exactly escaped, but I'd bought myself an opportunity. I turned away from his frantic gesticulations, and peered around the side of the car. About thirty metres down the road stood a humvee. Result! Through the heat haze I could just make out two soldiers standing either side of the vehicle, backs to me. I looked back at Tariq and I could tell he was about to come running back for me. Now or never.

I stood up and began walking towards the vehicle. I saw Tariq grasp the air in fury and frustration, so I gave him a jaunty wave and sauntered towards the soldiers. I was safe.

'Hey guys,' I shouted when I was halfway between the burnt-out car and them. I had stopped walking and had my arms raised high and wide. Didn't want to give them an excuse to shoot.

They spun around, rifles raised to their shoulders, but they didn't fire. They hesitated, obviously surprised and suspicious.

'I'm British,' I yelled. 'I just arrived here. I'm looking for my dad. He's a squaddie like you.'

That sounded as lame as it did unlikely, but it was the truth so it was all I had. I expected them to tell me to lie on the ground, hands behind my head, that sort of thing. But they didn't move. One of them reached for his radio and muttered something to someone, then his colleague shouted: 'take off your shirt. Slowly.'

Вы читаете Operation Motherland
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