taste terrible and there’s hardly anything in them anyway. What I wanted was monkey tea, the sort you can stand your teaspoon up in, the sort that comes out of a plumber’s Thermos looking like hot chocolate. But, then, could I really be bothered? Probably not. Depending on what George had to say, I could be leaving today. Where would I plug in my kettle then?

I thought about taking a shower, but fuck it. I just ran the kitchen tap and threw some water on my hair to tame the Johnny Rotten look, and pulled my trainers on.

On the way to the Metro I grabbed a Danish and got it down me before I reached Crystal City station. Eating, drinking, smoking – you name it, you can’t do it on the Washington Metro.

A few minutes later, as the pristine aluminium train rumbled under the capital, I found myself thinking about the guy on the news. Whatever problem he’d had, it was over now. He’d got it sorted.

I didn’t care what happened to me, but Ezra was right: if I really thought that way, I’d have already done it. I would never take that route. I could still remember the feeling I got when other ex-Regiment guys killed themselves, and it wasn’t envy, pity or anything else. It was just anger, big-time, for leaving someone else to pick up the pieces. Sometimes I’d had to sort out their kit before it went back to the next of kin. It was important there weren’t any letters from girlfriends or anything else from their secret lives to embarrass the family. I remembered burning letters to one particular guy, thinking they were from a girlfriend. When I took the rest of his kit round to his wife she burst into tears. How could Al not have kept any of the love letters she signed off as Fizz, his pet name for her?

Then I thought about all the insurance policies that were invalid because some selfish fucker had taken an overdose. If you’ve decided to do it, and you’re sane enough to stockpile painkillers or whatever, why not go out and do a couple of freefalls and just forget to dump the canopy on the third jump?

Worst of all was the effect on the kids they left behind. How could anyone be so selfish that they ignored the price their families had to pay? The guy on the TV, I wondered – had he got a wife, kids, parents, brothers, sisters? What if, like me, they’d watched the whole thing on TV?

If I took the easy way out, at least it’d make fuck-all difference to anyone else’s life.

But I wasn’t going to. I had other plans.


The sun was out at last, but I could still see my breath as I walked along Beach Street. It was ten to eleven and I was a couple of blocks south of the Library of Congress. That meant I’d have to slow down if I was going to be late. It was important for George to see everything was normal.

The other foot traffic eyed me as if I was driving at five miles an hour on the freeway. They rushed along in trainers with their office shoes in their bags, heads down and cellphones stuck to their ears so the world knew they were doing really important stuff. Everyone, men and women, seemed to be dressed in the same make of dark grey raincoat.

I sipped at the hole in the Starbucks lid. I didn’t want to drink it all before I got to Hot Black Inc. because that, too, wouldn’t be normal.

I reached the brick building in the centre of DC a couple of minutes before eleven. Dwarfed by modern, nondescript concrete blocks on either side of it, the Victorian original had been converted into office space long ago. Six or seven worn stone steps took me up to a pair of large glass doors and into the lobby. Calvin was waiting behind the desk. A huge black guy in a freshly laundered white shirt and immaculately pressed blue uniform, he’d either come with the building or was part of the Hot Black alias business cover, I never knew which. I went through the palaver of signing in, not having to show ID any more because me and Calvin had a sort of relationship going. I’d been in for quite a few meetings with George lately. But he still looked me up and down as usual, taking in my jeans, trainers and leather bomber jacket. ‘Dress-down Wednesday, is it, Mr Stone?’

‘Correct as ever, Calvin. The day after dress-down Tuesday, the day before dress-down Thursday.’

He laughed politely, as he had all the other times.

I rode the dark wood-panelled lift to the first floor, George’s part of the US intelligence jungle. I had no idea who really called the shots here: all I knew was that since I’d been working for George the apartment was taken care of, and I picked up eighty-two thousand dollars a year. As an employee of Hot Black Inc., advertising tractors or whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, I also received a social-security number and even filed tax returns. I was a real citizen, in theory as American as George. After so many years of being treated like shit by the Firm, it had felt good. I was still treated like shit, of course, but at least it was done with a great big American smile and a lot more money.

I checked Baby-G. Not late enough yet, so when the lift pinged open I waited a bit longer in the corridor, like one of the white alabaster statues set in little alcoves along the shiny black marble walls. The cleaners had been busy: the air was heavy with that morning office smell of spray polish and air-freshener.

At exactly five past I entered the smoked-glass doors into the empty reception area. Nothing had been touched since I’d first come here over a year ago: the large antique table that doubled as the front desk was still unmanned, the telephone still unconnected; the two long, red-velvet sofas still faced each other across a low glass coffee-table devoid of magazines and papers.

The main office doors were tall, black, shiny and very solid. I was still a couple of paces away when they were pulled open.

George stood on the threshold, looking me up and down. ‘You’re late. Haven’t you any other clothes? You’re supposed to be an executive.’

Before I could answer, he turned back into his oak-panelled office. I closed the door behind me and followed him. He hadn’t even taken his raincoat off. It wasn’t going to be a long comfy chat, then.

‘Sorry I’m late. It’s harder getting round the city, these days, with all the security.’

‘Leave earlier.’ He knew it was a lie. He sat down behind his desk and I took one of the two wooden chairs facing him. The fluorescent lights had at last been fitted with dimmers. George no longer had to worry that they were going to give him cancer.

As ever, he was dressed under his raincoat in a button-down shirt and corduroy jacket. Today he even had a pin through his chunky cotton tie. I wondered if he was Donald Rumsfeld’s secret twin brother. All he lacked was the rimless glasses.

He nodded at the Starbucks in my hand. ‘You still drinking that crap?’

It almost felt reassuring. ‘Yep, two dollars seventy-eight.’

He watched with disgust as I knocked back the dregs. They were cold, but I’d wanted to save some just to annoy him.

He wasn’t in the mood for beating about the bush. He never was.

I cleared my throat. ‘George, I’ve thought about what you’ve been saying this last week or so. But I don’t care about the war any more. I don’t care what you think you’ve done for me – I earned it. I’m not coming back to work.’

He sat back in his chair, elbows resting on the arms and his fingers steepled in front of his mouth. Whatever he was thinking about, his face didn’t give it away. The right index finger jumped away from the rest and pointed at me. ‘You think you’re ready for that world out there, son?’

‘Yeah, I do. I also think that the therapy is bullshit. All of this is bullshit. I’ve had enough.’

The finger rejoined the others. ‘You’re the one with all the bright ideas.’

I shrugged. ‘I was wrong: I’m ready. I’ve got over it. I’m going to buy a bike that works for once, and maybe get to see some of my new country.’

He pursed his lips behind the fingertips. ‘You were hurting after Kelly was killed, son, and quite understandably so. A loss like that – a child. Must be a lonely time for you right now. It’s going to be a while before you’re back on your feet.’

‘George, you hearing me? I’ve been telling you for fucking weeks now but it doesn’t seem to register. That’s it. No more. I’m finished.’

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