Welcome to the next stop on the blog tour for Matthew Richardson’s debut spy thriller, My Name Is Nobody. I reviewed this book a few weeks ago, and was struck by how it retains all the tension and atmosphere of a very traditional spy thriller, but with a refreshingly contemporary take on spies, lies and espionage. Here is the opening chapter from the book for your delectation and delight, and read my review here .
Solomon Vine was the best of his generation, a spy on a fast track to the top. But when a prisoner is shot in unexplained circumstances on his watch, only suspension and exile beckon.
Three months later, MI6’s Head of Station in Istanbul is abducted from his home. There are signs of a violent struggle. With the Service in lockdown, uncertain of who can be trusted, thoughts turn to the missing man’s oldest friend: Solomon Vine.
Officially suspended, Vine can operate outside the chain of command to uncover the truth. But his investigation soon reveals that the disappearance heralds something much darker. And that there’s much more at stake than the life of a single spy…
Istanbul, August 2016
‘I know a secret,’ he says. ‘A secret that changes everything.’
Solomon Vine pulls out the rickety plastic chair and sits down on the opposite side of the table. The room is stark and empty. Dust clings to the walls.
‘That wasn’t my question,’ Vine says, holding the man’s gaze. His voice is without colour, bare of any emotion.
‘No. But it is my answer.’
‘I don’t want your secrets, I want names.’
There is an interruption as the door screeches open. Gabriel Wilde fills the space, offering a slight nod of apology. He pads across the concrete flooring and takes the chair on Vine’s left. He slides over a manila folder. Vine doesn’t look at it immediately, as if he has already memorized its contents. Instead, it sits there, free of any official marking or classifica tion, anonymous and deniable.
Vine lets a beat of silence fall. He needs to make the sus pect hear the full, noiseless force of it. There is no one else here to save him. This isn’t official embassy territory, soft ened by rules and edicts. There are no platoons of lawyers ready to ambush the interrogation. He is theirs, to do with what they will.
‘You don’t understand,’ the man says now. There is a spike of volume in his voice. He leans forwards so his upperbody weight pivots on his elbows. Despite the handcuffs, he fights for dexterity with his hands, prodding his index finger at the
table top in rhythm with his voice. ‘What I know changes everything. Whatever you think you can do, you are mistaken.’
Vine reaches for the file and brandishes it. He opens the cover and scans the first page.
‘Mobile phone records show recent contact with five British citizens who have travelled to Syria,’ he says. ‘We have evidence confirming the supply of fake passports and illegal arms. Her Majesty’s government has an isolation cell pre pared specially for your return home. With the material we have in this folder alone, you will be sent down for life . . . Write down the names of your contacts, and we can talk.’
The man looks up, lips creasing into a smile. It is not a reflex, but a carefully calibrated action, the jaw wounded with amusement.
‘There will be no trial, no sentence, no cell,’ he says.
‘No one will save you, Dr Yousef,’ says Vine. ‘No one even knows you’re here. You have disappeared off the face of the earth. You’re lucky you ran into us before the Americans. Though if you would like to be transferred, I’m sure that can be arranged . . .’
He shakes his head. This time the smile thickens into laughter. ‘One word from me and they will let me go . . . Trust me, they will call.’
‘Who will call?’ says Gabriel Wilde, breaking his silence. He gets up from the chair and starts roaming the boxy parameters of the room.
‘The people who matter,’ says Ahmed Yousef. ‘They always do. If they want my secret, they will pay the price. It is the terms of business. Nothing more.’
‘A secret that changes everything?’ says Wilde. He stops behind Yousef ’s chair and dips his voice to a whisper. ‘It
better be a bloody good one. A grass can never be too careful . . .’
‘It’s the best,’ says Yousef. ‘They will call. You will see.’ ‘And if they don’t?’
Yousef doesn’t answer. He looks to the closed door. As if on cue, there is the flash of the alert light, a throb of red that upsets the blankness of the room. Vine feels the first cramp of unease as he gets up from the table and makes his way to the door.
It is cool outside. There is another sound behind, and Vine turns to see Wilde following him down the long line of grey corridor to the control room. An RMP guard – all fi ety eyes and nervous speed – waits with the phone.
‘Who is it?’
‘The switch at HQ,’ he says, handing over the red receiver.
As Vine waits to be connected, the guard turns to Wilde. ‘Your wife also called, sir. She needs you back at base. She
said it was urgent.’
Wilde doesn’t display any twinge of anxiety. Instead, he says to Vine: ‘You OK to finish this? I’ll be back as soon as I can . . .’
Vine nods, careful not to react at the mention of Rose. The control room is full of monitors, a glassy panorama of concrete floors and airless turnings. He sees Wilde make his way down the hall and in the direction of the car park. A voice emerges through the crackle on the other line.
‘Please hold for the Chief . . .’
One burr later, the gravelly tones of Sir Alexander Cecil fill the speaker.
‘Is it true?’ the voice says. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Is it true, Vine? You have Ahmed Yousef in custody?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘He’s not talking at the moment. But we’re getting there. The product he was carrying should be enough to put him away this time.’
There is no response on the end of the line. Vine can feel the weight of it, like a silent throatclearing. ‘I never said this, Vine. Are we clear? This never came from me.’
‘You’re to release Ahmed Yousef immediately. I don’t care where you drop him, but see that you do so within the next half hour.’
I know a secret . . . A secret that changes everything . . .
Vine halts, unable to reply immediately. Sweat begins to gather on his forehead, a tightness pressing on his gut. ‘The line’s bad. Repeat please.’
‘You caught it perfectly well, Vine. Just do it.’
Vine waits for another moment, topping up the compos ure in his voice. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing’s going on,’ says Cecil. ‘Drop him and continue with whatever you were doing. Don’t ask questions. Not this time.’
‘Sir, we have direct evidence implicating Ahmed Yousef in the cases of at least five British citizens arriving in Syria. He is a priorityone target on the NSC and CIA Most Wanted lists. We have more than enough material here to prosecute. This makes no sense.’
Cecil’s voice frosts over now, the words newly brittle. ‘This isn’t a discussion, Vine. There are more important things going on here than you can possibly imagine. Carry out this order or I’ll damn well get someone else to.’
With that, the line cuts off. Cecil’s voice is replaced by a scratchy monotone. Vine hands the receiver back to the RMP guard. He glances at the monitors.
He turns to the guard. ‘Is there anyone else in the building?’ ‘No, sir,’ he says. ‘Just you, me and the prisoner.’
Vine waits. Once said, the words can’t be unsaid. ‘Good. I want you to go dark until I say so. If anyone asks, blame it on a power cut.’ He notices the scrunch of concern on the man’s face. ‘Refer any questions to me.’
He looks up at the monitors for a final time to see Gabriel Wilde’s car inching out of the driveway – escaping all consequences with immaculate timing. He watches as the guard begins methodically turning the cameras off, each screen blinking fuzzily and then blank.
Then he leaves the building and walks into the blast of heat outside. He unfurls a lighter and a cigarette. The sun bruises his face. He can already feel the pincers moving to wards him. Cecil will have engineered things in London to make sure the call was never logged. If it goes wrong, Cecil will be able to plausibly deny he ever gave instructions to let Ahmed Yousef free. But, if Vine doesn’t follow through, he will find the full might of the fifth floor against him. The game demands a scapegoat, and he is now theirs.
He keeps on smoking, letting the minutes drift away, trying to will things clearer. Eventually, he douses the final one and turns. As he walks, the words repeat, tumbling over themselves.
There are more important things going on here than you can possibly imagine . . .
Curiosity compels him forwards now. The secret looms like a challenge. He treads back through the dour hallways, not yet sure what he will do. But he finds himself suddenly longing to be away from here, tired of patrolling the huts and compounds, starved of oxygen and scenery; tired of the decisions and the choices.
He buzzes back into the secure area and makes his way down the thin final corridor. The interrogation room lies at the end, aglow with a harsher whiteness. Vine wonders again what hold Yousef has on London. What does he know? What grubby deal has he engineered that sees him immune from further questioning? Why would the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service intervene personally to demand his release?
I know a secret . . . A secret that changes everything . . .
Vine reaches the door and pauses for a moment. He feels a new anger begin to work its way up from the pit of his stomach until it fills his throat.
He presses his card against the scanner and hears the door click open. He tries to brush aside any final doubt as he steps into the brighter light. He knows what he will do, what he must do.
It is then that he stops. In front of him is an empty chair, a hollow space where Ahmed Yousef should be. But that isn’t it. There is something else wrong. He looks down at the floor and sees the first splashes of colour against the grey ness. It seems to ooze and wander according to a logic of its own. Slowly, he traces the source, a lump of shadow behind the table.
Ahmed Yousef is lying on his back, blood haloing around him. It looks like a gunshot wound. Without stopping to calculate the consequences, Vine finds himself pressing the alert button. A keening noise smothers the building.
Soon the steps of the RMP guard sound outside. The door opens with a ponderous click.
He knows they have minutes at best. With the amount of blood loss, they could already be too late. He strains to feel a pulse. But there is just flesh, slippery and raw.
‘Call for an urgent medical team,’ he shouts. ‘We need to evacuate him now.’ As the guard turns, Vine says: ‘Find out who’s been in here and how the hell this could have happened.’
The delay seems to last for ever. He takes out the emergency medical kit and begins doing everything he can to stem the blood loss. But the blood spatters his fingers and up his arms. His clothes become damp and sticky. He tries again to find any signs of consciousness, feels just the fading echo of a pulse.
Minutes later, the guard returns. ‘Evac team on their way from base, sir. ETA five minutes.’ He starts to walk further into the room then stops and hovers.
‘What is it?’
Vine turns. He realizes what he must look like – a butcher, or a surgeon.
‘I’ve found the card that was used to enter the building, sir,’ he says. ‘Ten minutes ago. With the CCTV down, that’s the only identifier we have.’
‘And?’ Vine says impatiently. ‘Who was in here? Who did this?’
The guard doesn’t answer at first. He looks nervous, as if unable to summon the words.
‘It was you, sir.’
Meet the author…
Matthew Richardson studied English at Durham University and Merton College, Oxford. After a brief spell as a freelance journalist, he began working as a researcher and speechwriter in Westminster, and has also written speeches for senior figures in the private sector. My Name is Nobody is his first novel.
My Name Is Nobody is available now- published by Penguin Books