Why so silent, good MonsieursDid you think that I have left you for good?Have you missed me, good Monsieurs?I have written you an opera*Here I bring the finished score*'Don Juan Triumphant'

[from the Phantom of the Opera, Masquerade scene]

not quite an opera; perhaps a soap opera

not finished yet. Currently under edition. Again. I'm learning :-)

What a nice masquerade they have invited you to watch in the Project Down season... Now it is the time to rip some costumes off and tell you the M for blood, death, angst, wording and sex scenes – well, it's Strike Back. Kids, go to I do not own any of the fictional characters, but my shape-shifting Marie is mine.

This is a story of a shape-shifting creature called Pitsen (Пице́н) in Tatar is a story of the rabbit and the is a story of some relations between scientists and is a story of myths, archetypes, lullabies and fairy of this as a Strike Back pottage.Приятного аппетита. ਬਾਨ ਏਪੇਤੀਤ. Noşî can be. Guten Appetit. Head isu. Bon appétit.

Prologue

New Delhi, India, May 2009

The car sped along the highway after the skilful driver manoeuvred through the crowded streets of Delhi. The wind was blowing in Iman's face through the half-open window, tugging at her hair and drying her lips. Good, it would dry the still damp stains of blood on her black dress.

Good, that the dress was black since the stains had formed only darker and lighter shades. At least nothing red flashed anywhere on her. The spots had been elsewhere, on so many other people–the soldiers, the wounded hostages, the dead bodies in the Royal Hotel Lotus. Iman had never seen so much fresh blood in her life. Now each time she closed her eyes the vivid patterns of various shapes surrounded her all around. A crimson stain from a single shotgun wound on the white blouse of the barmaid. Droplets splattered from Latif's blown up eyeball. Even the blowing wind could not stop the harsh smell of material death still filling her nose.

Last afternoon she put her simple but elegant dress on, willing to look good for the meeting with Major Jamal Ashkani. And, to be on the safe side, to appear as a person working for a cosmetics company in London should appear. The matching black shoes with heels, delicate golden necklace and earrings, rich bracelet, and the ring on her finger complemented this image. A light make-up and mascara on her lashes were the most difficult part to do with trembling hands. She had done her best to get her hair right, but well, as usual, it had a mind of its own.

She had expected the dress would serve as a mourning gown–black is what they wore for funerals in the Western world, wasn't it? They would put on white here in Delhi as a colour of grief, but black was much more practical, the blood-stain-proof black.

There would be many funerals after the beautiful Royal Hotel Lotus turned out into a battlefield. She blamed herself as she should have made this last move with more caution. How could she be again so naïve to trust in Pakistani intelligence services, any Intel at all, and let them choose the place? What possessed them to arrange this meeting in a luxurious hotel? Any desert would have been a better spot. At least no one would be dead, no one but herself. Yet, deep down in her heart, she suspected it was Zahid's idea; he had invented unusual rendezvous settings before. She had used Mahmood's name on purpose, hoping, that Zahid would identify her if he was still in this business.

Iman had arrived at the hotel in the morning. Her apprehension, growing with every passing hour, restrained her from enjoying the adorned restaurant or spa services. A glass of white wine in a bar was supposed to give her some relax, but a guy interrupted her with his clownish trial to bed her down. Soon after the bloody hell broke loose. Instead of having a dinner she was hiding from the men with shooting rifles. Afterwards, they dragged her through the hotel corridors all night long. She had tried to escape, but the terrorist called Latif caught her and threatened her life. He ended up with a hole in his head due to a perfect shot from sergeant Stonebridge's gun.

Iman had been tired in the evening before, but in the morning she was drained. Before leaving the hotel she only washed her face and hands. It was this soldier again, Stonebridge, who led her petrified body to the bathroom and commanded her to wash. Then he left and locked the door. The fresh water running through her fingers brought at least a trace of calmness to her frightened mind. She splashed water on her face and the mascara got blurred under her eyes. Superfluous care about appearance, but a touch of white soft towel removed the traces. Stonebridge came back within a short while. After this mad race through the hotel, he watched over her and brought her shoes back. When they walked out of this terrible place, his arm embraced her for a long while. Even though she was not used to relying on any man's arm, it helped as a support not only to her weakened body, but also to her stunned mind.

The bright rays of rising sun dazzled her eyes when they left the shaded lobby, but again Stonebridge's hand came to her aid. While walking out of the building she timidly looked at the chaotic movements of the people. Soldiers and police officers were striving to impose order and guided the rescued hotel clients beyond the dangerous zone, medics were looking for wounds to bind up. At the same time, the fearful questions were swirling around in Iman's head. Where would they take her? What story should she tell the Brits?

Stonebridge led Iman to the group of few people standing outside the hotel. The shivers went up her spine when she saw Zahid there. After these six years he still was so handsome. He had shorter hair now, and had maybe gained a few pounds, but the same considerate smile highlighted his nonchalance. Iman understood at once he was waiting there to take her. It must have been risky as hell, but who would expect such an exposed action when everything was at a stake?

'These are friends,' said Stonebridge. 'Colonel, this is Iman Zubedah.'

'Doctor, I'm Colonel Grant, British Military Intelligence.'

Iman shook her hand. A woman in charge of this squad, impressive.

'This is Major Ashkani, Pakistani ISI. He's here to guarantee your safety,' said Colonel.

'I'm so sorry we missed our appointment,' said Zahid, scrutinising Iman's appearance, and extended his hand towards her.

'Me too,' she answered.

'Please. We should let the medics check you over. Come, it's okay.' Zahid continued to play a gentleman and led her to an ambulance.

Once Iman got in his car she furtively removed the ring from her finger and kept it in her fist, trusting it would work as she had expected. She tried not to let out any sign of despair, but her hands were still shaking. Iman Zubedah had no doubt that her rabbit-like zigzag escape route would soon come to an end on this day, born out of the bloody red dawn.