The Crooked Prince
“I will dispense with introductions.” Against the brick echoes in the vaults of his father’s palace, Prince Shumal’s voice was high, sing-song, almost a falsetto. Yet it was utterly devoid of any humility – a voice that could command. “Those of us who know each other already know too much. Those who can should remain strangers.”
There were murmurs of assent from around the circle. All meetings of the Brotherhood began in this way.
“I will tell you;” Shumal went on; “that this place was swept for devices this morning. We are free to discuss. Now, our brother,” He waved a vague hand towards the man in traditional Khubali dress, “will explain a problem which has arisen. A very serious problem…if you please, brother?”
“Highness.” The man was an Arab. His face wascreased by the scars of action, the badges of a soldier. He spoke in measured words: “As you know, a recent action initiated by one of us here did not go well. A target survived.”
Yahedi met the man’s stare, which had singled him out as he spoke.
“You refer to the London target?”
The Arab inclined his head.
“The security cordon was warned.” Yahedi stated. “Such was my report.”
“But a target was missed, right?” The American intervened.
Yahedi responded quietly: “If you are suggesting the miss was any fault of mine, brother, you should take great care.”
“No-one here is accusing you,” The Prince cut in hurriedly. “Your efficiency is not in question.”
“The target was, indeed, warned.” The Arab continued. “The warning was given by one of us.”
“Really?” Yahedi was surprised for the second time that morning. “Why, can I ask?”
“I had to.” This time it was the woman who spoke. “The alert came through the embassy – a logged call. If I had not passed the call on, my cover would have been blown.”
“And we have worked for many years to put our sister here in place,” The Prince said: “She has a grade two clearance with British Intelligence. She was very clever, in fact. Were you not, sister?”
“I gave the warning through the American Embassy staff line. US embassy staff have a low opinion of British Intelligence, so they gave it little credence. They allowed your target to present himself for you. That insured you would still have a clear shot. You just didn’t hit him.”
Salaiman Yahedi never flared, never lost his temper. Whenever he felt himself at a disadvantage he would evince great calm. But there were ice crystals in his eyes that only the innocent or the stupid might ignore: “The man simply ducked.” He said with exaggerated gentleness. “He was warned.” His gaze was focussed on the woman, who flushed and looked away.
“He did not ‘duck’.” the Arab said.
“He did move evasively;” The woman rejoined as levelly as she could, “But not because he knew a bullet was coming.”
The Prince took up the thread. “You did not see, brother, because your gun-sight was focussed on the target, not upon what went on around him.. He bent to retrieve a piece of paper which fell in front of his face.” Shumal’s voice rose to its most exasperated pitch.“A piece of paper from the sky, for love of Allah, blessed be his holy name!”
True, Yahedi reflected, his gunsight had been trained closely upon the target’s head. He had not seen any piece of paper. Of the faces around him, Bourta, clearly, had known of this: the Indian, the American, they had not. He had already pigeon-holed those two as the paymasters: presumably very generous ones, otherwise why would they be allowed to meet with such as Bourta and himself? The Arab? Salaiman was fairly sure he was not there because of his money. The woman…he let his stare rest upon her once more. She was ill at ease. Why? What anxiety caused those long, spidery fingers to be continually working? He knew why he had been sitting in Hyde Park at that early hour of that particular morning, but why had she been there?
Bourta voiced the question in everyone’s mind, “How could that happen – at the exact moment of the shot? Did it drop from a tree, or something?”
“And to place it so exactly!” the Indian chimed in. “To drop paper on a precise spot? Not possible, I think.”
“You know what I think?” Asked the smiling American: “Bullshit! That’s what I think, Sheik. Of all the half-assed crazy stories I ever did hear that has to be the craziest.”
“It happened.” Said the woman. “The paper does exist. I understand it is A4, printed with a picture of a young white male, apparently enhanced in some way. MI6 have it in their possession. And no, there are no trees in that precise area.”
“We think.” The Arab said, “It was dropped by a bird.”
“That is a very large piece of paper” Said the Indian eventually: “For a bird.”
“Can we get to this paper?” Yahedi asked.
The woman shrugged: “I am trying, but my level of clearance does not go that far. I only have the surveillance footage.”
“I got my own theory.” The American’s voice had a steely edge. “My theory is that I paid a cool half-million for a hit that didn’t hit. And the agreement your target tied up with the British that very morning cost me another one hundred and fifty million, because they’ve accepted the JAN-net ground defence system not the Hetton-Patton version, and my Company’s fenced out for maybe the next fifty years!”
“We all have our reasons for wanting this target neutralised.” Shumal said gently. “It will be taken care of.”
“Why, thank you, your Highness! But that’s no god-damned use to me now!”
“Peace, brother, peace! “ The Prince commanded: “Did you think that our cause was to be so used, that you could treat us like contract killers? You test our hospitality!”
There was silence, as each member of the group tried to assimilate what they had heard. The American’s youthfully-tweaked countenance was becoming very red indeed, but he said nothing.
At length Prince Shumal spoke: “Let us examine this from an added perspective. We need to take heed of a new and dangerous adversary. Brother,” He gestured to the Arab; “ I think you have something to tell us.”
“YourHighness.” The Arab addressed the whole group. “We must accept that someone, or something, had forewarning of this execution. Your informer was anonymous, yes?” He glanced at the woman, who immediately (a little too quickly, thought Yahedi) nodded assent; “And specific as to where and when the hit was to take place. So, an insider, a mole? But it was a further incident –apparently quite miraculous – which saved the target’s life.”
The Arab leaned forward, earnestly seeking to engage his audience: “We are all professionals. We move in a century of great human progress founded upon skill and scientific accomplishment. That is why it will be hard to accept, for us, that this miracle was the work of a sorcerer.”
“A what?” Said the American. “What, like a wizard or something? Oh, come on!”
The Arab spread his hands: “Nevertheless….in our brotherhood, greater wisdom has taught us acceptance of these things.”
“It is the only explanation,” Shumal cut in: “Unless you truly believe in coincidence. I am certain there were no leaks in this particular barrel. It was a very important barrel. And if it didn’t leak, and if he really was saved by a picture floating from the sky, then I take sorcery. I do not believe in such coincidences.”
“Prince, you can’t believe this.” The American was astounded. “I cannot believe you believe this!”
“The pieces fit.” The Arab said. “In our history there are plenty of instances where one with the gift of sight used a bird as a familiar. A bird would understand the action of an object floating in the air. There can be no other explanation.”
“I’m damned sure I can think of one!” The American muttered.
“Then I invite it.”
Prince Shumal got to his feet. “We cannot change what has been. But whether we believe the agent at work here to have acted at the behest of Allah or the Devil, we must find out who, or what it is, lest it should interfere with other projects. Our brother here…..” He indicated Bourta, “Will introduce himself to you, sister, and you will strive together to learn more: I want to see that piece of paper, and I want to know who telephoned the original warning. Our brother has special skills: he will be of great value to you in this.”
Again, Yahedi found his attention occupied by the woman. There was a certain cast to her eye – only momentary, but unmistakable – an unguarded second which spoke of duplicity, perhaps even of betrayal. And now he was convinced. He glanced across at Bourta, knowing the Moroccan would have seen it too. There was eye contact, a mutual understanding: the woman must not be trusted.
“This execution is deferred for a while.” The Prince continued: “We have generated too much interest in the target; but we shall return to him, at a later date. In the meantime, brother….” He smiled crookedly at the Indian: “We have your affairs to sort out. Never fear, no pieces of fluttery paper on this one!”
“That’s it?” The American asked, coldly. “We just let it go at that?”
“We will do all we can, my friend,” The Arab said. “We cannot change the past.”
“All this fatalism is very commendable,” The American’s voice was granite-edged: “But you guys are in the business of changing things. Now I have lost a contract because of your inefficiency, and I have put a cool two million into your god-damned ‘Revolutionary Fund’ and I want something changed. OK, not the past – let’s discuss how we get to the guy who has my contract – but I want some guarantee here today: I want something back.”
“Of course, of course!” The Prince was placatory: “We understand this. These are matters best discussed in confidence, between you and I. We shall set up a meeting together, I will look to it.” He spread his hands in a dispersive gesture: the meeting was concluded.
There was a procedure to follow now: discretion required that only a few might exit by the tunnel at one time – too many emerging onto the street outside the palace walls would invite suspicion. So the Prince would detain those with whom he had further business, releasing others whose business was already done. A brief word sufficed for the American, a promise to set up a meeting, then he was allowed to leave. Bourta singled out the woman to pursue the mission given to them both by the Prince. A great deal of verbal communication passed between her and Bourta: but the whole content of their discussion did not amount to a fraction of the meaning which Yahedi and Bourta exchanged between them with one momentary glance. Had she seen it, the woman would have felt much less secure. Bourta and the woman departed, more or less together.
Yahedi wondered about the Indian, just as he wondered about the Arab. Both were strangers to him, and though as far apart in character as two individuals might possibly be, each had another mystery about them which was unexplained. It was the Indian who was next to depart, leaving Yahedi and the Arab to remain with the Prince.
“Do you like the look of our brother?” Shumal murmured, gesturing towards the Arab, who stood apart. “I am convinced he is of great value to us. Takes one to know one, eh, Yahedi? An exemplary man at arms, hmmm? And a creature of such intelligence! His organisation – this ‘Portal’ of which I am sure you have heard – is at one with God and our cause. Walk with me.” Prince Shumal took Yahedi’s arm, guiding him towards a far corner of the room. “You see, killers, my friend, are twice a penny: is that the expression? They fall over themselves to work for us. One is lost to us, another is there to take over… this is the way of things.”
“Children ready to die for a cause, Highness, are not killers. They are food for killers.” Yahedi responded. “And many who are not children; though they pretend to much, do not have the necessary ice in their heart.”
The Prince patted his hand. “I have faith in you, Brother. I know your stamp. There are those who feel that you are vulnerable, some say even that you are corrupted: they mislike your Jewish ancestry, mistrust your western affinities. I say to them, no, we do not need to fear this. Yahedi is our friend. It is not true that he defers to the highest bidder, that his only god is the dollar. I say this, Yahedi, my friend, because I trust you. I believe you do work for us. I believe that, but I and our brothers know our Arabian friend is loyal…”
“If you wanted him,” Yahedi cut in: “I would not be here today. You would have sent him after me long before now.”
“How do you know the hunt does not start here?” The Prince chuckled. “Perhaps I shall give him your contract this very morning? What do you think, Yahedi my friend: could he collect?”
Yahedi shook his head, recognising that however menacing the Prince’s words might sound, he was asking for an honest opinion. “No. He is a man of arms, but he is not of our breed. Send him after me and I will send you his head by return of post. I do not doubt he is a good soldier, a devoted servant of Allah. But it is a thing apart to assassinate a woman, or to take out someone who has no gun, whose back is turned, who is standing hand in hand with his children.”
“So be it.” The Prince nodded. “The truth, brother, speaks of a time long delayed which cannot be delayed much further. An hour when you will both be needed. In the meantime, we must clean up this situation.” He handed Yahedi a small briefcase. “Go now, brother. Take this with you. Allah keep you until we next meet .”
Back at his hotel, Salaiman Yahedi opened the briefcase the Prince had pushed into his hand. It contained fifty thousand Dollars in neatly wrapped large bills, and a photograph of the American.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content
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