Absolution

Chapter One

June 6th 2010 20.00hrs Arbil Northern Iraq

It was a work of art he supposed; certainly the proprietor appeared to think so. He was treating the thick black coffee like the ambrosia of whatever God he followed. Porter really didn't care. At that moment he'd have settled for a cup of Spar's own coffee; that was how badly he needed the shot of caffeine to keep him awake. The man returned the coffee to the heat for the third and final time watching it carefully.

Just at the moment it came to the boil he transferred it to a small white cup. He placed it in front of Porter, with a glass of water to accompany it, and smiled

"You will like, no better coffee in Arbil."

"Thank you" He pushed a note across the counter to pay for the drink.

Money had been a problem over the previous weeks. He'd had to steal to eat. It was a dangerous thing to do in any society but especially in the Middle East where, if caught, the punishment was to lose a hand.

"Not many westerners get this far north. What brings you here?"

"I heard about the great coffee."

The man laughed whatever answer he'd been expecting that hadn't been it.

"You are a wise man. Enjoy and drink coffee while it is hot."

Porter nodded his thanks and took a sip. Christ, he thought no wonder they served it in such small cups. He'd never drunk such hot or strong coffee, and he'd had his share of the thick dark variety served all over the Middle East; more than a thimbleful would put a hole in the stomach. Still this level of caffeine would keep him awake; shit he'd be high for a week.

He looked around the café, with a little bit of luck in another couple of hours he'd be out of Iraq, and entering another country illegally. The only passport he'd had was back at his hotel in Afghanistan. It wasn't his name on it anyway; his name on this last op had been Tom Wallace. He sighed; that op had gone spectacularly tits up. Damn he was tired; it had taken him a month to get this far. After Collinson's death, aware that the Americans considered him armed and dangerous he'd been making his way across the Middle East through Afghanistan, Iran, and then into Iraq.

It was no coincidence that he'd chosen to make for Arbil he never left anything to chance. In a country as unsettled as Iraq this city was relatively calm. Since Saddam Hussein had been overthrown there had only been sporadic outbreaks of violence. He didn't want to be near any trouble or large numbers of coalition forces if it could be helped. The city was also close to the Turkish border, the border he hoped to cross tonight. He'd made a few contacts in the couple of days he'd been in the area and had managed to secure a lift into Turkey. His contact had said the man would come into the cafe at nine.

He took another sip of the coffee which was a little cooler now. He was attracting a fair amount of attention; other customers were giving him curious glances, but none approached. That was hardly surprising he was a big bloke not just tall but broad as well. He knew he exuded an air of danger which his unkempt appearance added to. He ran his hand across the thick dark beard. The opportunities for shaves had been few and far between in the past few weeks.

The proprietor had been right in his observation that westerners didn't normally get so far north. The man he was meeting would have no trouble spotting him. The door of the café opened and a group of young men, more locals, entered but apart from a cursory glance they paid him no particular attention. His lift wasn't with this group of boys. He was taking another sip of coffee when he saw him out of the corner of his eye. Not his lift, but a face from his past; a scarred face. As'ad, Porter would know him anywhere. He wasn't likely to forget him they shared too much history. He also couldn't ignore him, the young Iraqi boy was his only chance of absolution.

He walked across the room to the table where the boys sat. Their chatter stopped when they realised the tall stranger was making his way over to them. Porter knew the instance As'ad recognised him. Fear entered the boy's eyes and he look hastily around for a way out.

"I lay my life for your sake." Porter spoke the words quietly in Arabic. "You know those words don't you As'ad?"

The boy nodded too scared to say anything else.

"We need to talk."

The other boys tensed wondering if there was going to be trouble. One of them spoke rapidly to him, asking if everything was alright, Porter guessed. As'ad spoke to them quietly and Porter noticed the tension ease.

The young Iraqi was as out of place this far north as Porter. He was also just as much on the run. He looked at the man's eyes, and the expression was the same as the night he'd disarmed the bomb he'd been forced to wear. Trust me was what he had seen then, and it was what he saw now. Certainly those eyes were not hostile. Knowing he had nowhere to run he stood and moved away from the other boys.

Porter moved back to the counter. Not to finish the coffee would insult the proprietor and he didn't want to do that.

"How much English do you understand?" Porter asked.

"Some," the boy replied.

"Are you in trouble? Is that why you are this far North?" Porter pointed at As'ad trying to indicate he meant the boy and not himself.

"Trouble?"

"Yes, over Katie Dartmouth's escape."

"Family blame me. They will kill me if I am caught. So, when you leave me, I run."

"I'm sorry about that. I wanted to take you with us. So did Ms Dartmouth"

"Why, so you can kill me? I didn't shoot your friends."

"I know that now. I know the truth."

The boy nodded.

"Are they friends of yours?" Porter glanced at the group As'ad had come in with.

"Not really I get casual work with them. I came here because family won't look in a Kurdish area. I avoid trouble."

"As'ad I need you to come with me back to England."

"To UK. So I can be tortured?"

"No, so both our names can be cleared over what happened in Basra."

As'ad stared at the man.

"You have been looking for me?" he asked

"No, I thought you were dead. This is a serendipitous moment."

"What?"

"Fate," Porter explained. "I'm leaving Iraq tonight. You should come with me. I can protect you."

As'ad weighed his options. His choices were limited. Something about the British man's demeanour made him think that refusing to go was not an option.

"How will you get me out of Iraq?"

"Leave that to me."

*************

June 7th 2010 05.00hrs Cyprus

Porter finally allowed himself a sigh of relief. After several weeks of evading the Americans, he was at last on British territorial soil. Thanks to the foresight of the military or politicians, (Porter didn't know which,) in the 1960's when Cyprus was awarded independence, this small piece of land remained under British rule. He had just crossed from Cypriot soil to the Western Sovereign Base Area, a small parcel of the UK in the Middle East. As a soldier he understood the strategic importance of this base given the unrest in the area as a whole. As a man he was just bloody grateful it was there. It would have been easier for him to have made to the NATO bases in the area, but given recent events he wasn't about to trust anybody but the British.

He'd secured passages for both himself and As'ad from Turkey on a fishing boat bound for Limassol. For the boy it had proven to be a thoroughly unpleasant passage. The smell of petrol and fish combined along with the rolling waves to make the young lad violently sick. Even once off the boat his skin had remained a shade of green.

The dock was busy and Porter felt it was safer to wait until later before moving away from the coast. The hiding place behind a dumpster had been far too cramped for his tall, broad frame and his muscles had protested when he'd finally stood up, several hours after the boat had docked.

Telling As'ad to remain where he was Porter had disappeared to take a recon of the area. The dock had been quiet and he slipped into the shadows with no problem and made for the town. Heading towards crowds of people was a risk he had to take. For weeks he'd been off the map but now he had to contact the one person he'd trust with his life. Obtaining a phone that couldn't be traced to him hadn't been difficult. He'd simply walked into a bar and stolen a mobile from a tourist who'd been sampling the local vino all day. He'd had no trouble remembering the telephone number; he'd long ago decided he was a left-sided brain thinker. He liked sequences, analytical thinking, and problems. No, for him remembering numbers was never a problem.

It was strange, he hadn't expected the relief he felt at hearing her voice. He had however been prepared for her surprise and shock. It stood to reason she was a classic right- brain thinker, intuitive, creative and subjective. He smiled as he remembered her reaction to his call she had been stunned.

"Christ John where the fuck have you been?"

"Missed me Lieutenant?"

"Missed you? I thought you were dead. Six weeks John without a word."

Her voice shook slightly.

"I know, but to be honest the places I've been… well, BT decided there just wasn't the need for any call boxes."

"Fool, I repeat where have you been?"

"I have been on a scenic tour of the Middle East; Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey."

"Turkey, is that where you are now?"

"No I took a trip across the water. I didn't trust our NATO allies."

"Cyprus - You're in Cyprus."

"Yeah, and I could do with a lift home."

"How far are you from the Akrotiri?"

"I would say about twenty Klicks."

"Ok get yourself to the base and I'll ensure you're put on the first flight out."

"I suppose you know Collinson's dead Layla?" Porter's voice became devoid of emotion.

"Yes the Americans found his body and returned it."

"Found his body? They paid Sharq to kill him and me. As you can hear, they missed with me."

"I'm pleased they did John."

"Layla I'm not coming in alone."

"What?"

"I have As'ad with me?"

"How? I mean, when?"

"It's a long story but I require safe passage for two."

Layla's mind was whirring

"Ok, John we'll talk when you get home."

"Ok, Layla… about Alex…"

"She's abroad volunteering with Oxfam remember. She thinks you're on a mission. I didn't want to worry her."

"Thanks Layla."

"John, remember Eric Clapton."

***********

June 7th 2010 06.30 RAF Akrotiri

He kept As'ad moving, RAF Akrotiri was now less than a klick away and like a marathon runner in the twenty-sixth mile, the knowledge that the end of the race was close provided renewed energy so he increased their pace. The sun had only been up an hour but it was already hot approaching 23 degrees caused his T-shirt to cling to his body. He'd be glad to get out of the heat. Porter slowed as a 12ft high-wire parameter fence came into sight.

"This must be it: we'll follow the fence. Stick close to me. Don't touch the fence it's probably live." Porter said.

As'ad looked puzzled

"Electric." Porter pointed at the fence "Touch it and you'll be cooked." He hissed and shook.

As'ad nodded finally understanding.

Porter estimated that they'd traveled a couple of miles when the entrance to the base came into his line of vision. The sentry post and large sign proclaiming it to be RAF Akrotiri were a most welcome sight. The lights were still blazing out from the sentry post at the gate to the base, probably on a timer. Following the parameter fence, he moved quickly towards the entrance, noting two sentries were on guard detail.

"As'ad you have to do exactly as I say and follow what I do. Make no sudden movements. Do you understand?"

As'ad nodded.

Stepping out of the shadows they approached the security barrier with their arms hung loosely at their sides in a non-threatening manner.

"Halt, place your hands behind your heads gentleman," a young guard commanded, his weapon drawn.

Porter wasn't surprised by the guard's actions they must look a right bloody sight. He moved his hands slowly up and clasped them behind his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw As'ad do the same.

"State your names and business."

"Sergeant John Porter 3448756 returning from a covert mission in Afghanistan. The boy is an asset named As'ad."

The guard relaxed slightly remembering the photo he had been shown earlier.

"Sergeant Porter, could you confirm which former member of Cream is your CO?"

Porter smiled.

"That would be Eric Clapton."

"Welcome to RAF Akrotiri, Sergeant. Your flight awaits you."

John tried to sleep, but the Hercules was not designed for comfort. The benches which lined the cavernous fuselage were hard and uncompromising, making the arse numb within half an hour of becoming airborne. With your back pressed against the wall of the aeroplane it was impossible to ignore every vibration of the four massive turbo prop engines. A lesser man might have wondered at its safety, convinced that every rattle, shake and noise spelt imminent disaster.

He looked over at As'ad wondering if the flight was disturbing him. He appeared to be a sleep. It wasn't surprising the lad had been exhausted. Not having slept for close to 72 hours. He looked so much younger in sleep; he could not be much older than Alex. He'd witnessed too much in his lifetime, far more than any child should.

Porter was chilled to the bone. After the heat of Asia and the Middle East, the dim interior of the plane was Siberian. Because he was sat against the side of the plane he was losing heat through his back. He only had the clothes he'd arrived in: a grimy T-Shirt and sleeveless safari jacket, neither of which offered any protection against the cold. The small amount of kit he'd had in the vehicle in which he'd fled Afghanistan was long gone; lost or used, as he'd avoided the American assassination squad that had pursued him.

There hadn't been time to shower or change before boarding the flight. He couldn't wait for the luxury of a really hot shower, to stand beneath the spray for as long as he liked without the fear of being attacked.

The flight they'd been put on was returning to the UK after delivering supplies in Cyprus. John liked the Hercules; this was probably a new breed of the old war horse but it was familiar enough to John to be of comfort. Many of his missions had either begun or ended in an aeroplane just like this one. His luck had held once more and he was grateful that this journey was not in a flag-draped coffin.

Boredom might have set in; the RAF budget didn't stretch to inflight entertainment and there were no attractive cabin crew serving food and beverages. However to a soldier entering or leaving the theatre of war boredom was not normally a problem. Whatever direction the Hercules was flying there would be a million thoughts and questions occupying the mind. In this respect he was no different to any other squaddie.

Looking at As'ad again, he thought resting his eyes might be a good idea even if he didn't sleep. His eyes might have been closed but he remained alert and the sound of somebody approaching him had them flying open, his body primed and ready to move if necessary. He relaxed almost immediately, seeing that it was a Flight Sergeant carrying two blankets and two mugs of tea.

"Here you go mate. It's not much but it'll warm you up a bit. It's cold enough in here to freeze the balls of a brass monkey. "

"Thanks," Porter said, accepting the tea.

The airman paused uncertain what to do with the tea for the Iraqi lad who'd come aboard with Porter.

"Leave it with me. If he doesn't wake I'll drink it."

"Sorry it's nothing stronger."

"I'm sure it sounds boring, but I'd prefer the tea anyway. It's been weeks since I had a decent cuppa."

"Or any kind of ablutions by the look of you." The airman said, as he looked Porter up and down.

"No, well where I've been, washing facilities were few and far between. It's probably not wise to get too close."

"It's not quite that bad. You look done in Sergeant. I'll wager sleep hasn't been a priority either. There's no one to disturb you up here so get some sleep. I'll wake you before we land."

The airman draped a blanket over the sleeping As'ad and placed the other next to Porter.

"Thanks I'll just finish the tea and then I'll try and sleep."

Porter watched the airman head back up towards the front of the plane, before he closed his eyes, and thought about finally going home.

One Month earlier

May 6th 2010 18.00hrs Oxford United Kingdom

The first indication that Rhiannon Phillips had that her life was about to change forever had been when she had arrived home and seen the strange car parked outside the house. She not only knew all the neighbours' cars but their families as well. She was observant; working in some of the world's most dangerous areas meant she had learned that vigilance saves lives. She was puzzled; the car was expensive and new, and looking through the window she could see it was adapted for a disabled person to drive. She didn't think her mother knew any disabled people.

She was home later than usual, and hoped her mother wasn't worrying. She had said that she was going to the polling station on the way home but voting had taken her longer than expected. The queue had been long; the election it seemed had caught the attention of the country. The Prime Ministerial debates had been a huge success and the turnout was expected to be high. Working for Oxfam as she did and having been in parts of the world where voting was rigged and democracy ignored she took the right to vote very seriously. She hadn't minded the queues, but merely smiled at the grumbling going on around her. These people should queue in the African heat to vote, knowing that it wouldn't make a difference, and then they would have cause to grumble.

It had taken less than a minute to vote and then she had headed straight home. Her mother was cooking a special going-away meal and she didn't want to be really late. It had become a tradition that the evening before she left her mother would prepare a three course dinner and give her some silly gift to take away with her. Her mother didn't want her to leave; she hadn't said as much but Rhiannon had known. It was strange that her mother's concerns were far greater this time and yet Columbia was probably less dangerous than some areas she'd been in.

It was inevitable that she was close to her mother. It had only ever been the two of them. Her mother had fallen pregnant at university and had never revealed the man's identity. Rhiannon had never wanted to know his name sensing that it would cause her mother pain. She'd been wonderful in understanding when Rhiannon had said that she wanted to work for Oxfam. It couldn't have been easy letting her daughter go.

She'd been about to enter the house when the front door opened and her mother appeared along with another woman. A woman Rhiannon recognised immediately as Katie Dartmouth TV journalist and since her kidnapping ordeal in Basra national heroine.

"Mum?" Rhiannon was puzzled.

"Oh hello love go on in tea will be ready shortly."

"But Mum what's going on?"

"Please Rhiannon just go in."

Rhiannon might be twenty-eight but she knew that tone. How did her mother still do that she wondered as she went into the house? Make her do things just by the tone of her voice.

Rose Phillips waited until her daughter had entered the house.

"I've told you you're mistaken. I don't want my daughter bothered by this. Mr Clarendon is not her father. Your source, whoever it is, is lying."

"At least warn her that when this hits the press tomorrow she's going to be hounded day and night," Katie Dartmouth said.

"The press will have to find her first and that won't be easy. Now please leave."

Katie shook her head and turned away. Having seen Rhiannon Phillips with her own eyes she was in no doubt that Simon Clarendon, leader of the conservative party and probably Britain's next Prime Minister, was her father.

Rose Phillips watched Katie Dartmouth get into her car and pull away before going to face her daughter.

As she expected Rhiannon was waiting in the living room, a million questions in her eyes.

"Why was Katie Dartmouth here?"

"Rhiannon sit down sweetheart," her mother said as she clutched at her daughter's hand and tried to guide her to the sofa.

"I don't want to sit down." She jerked her hands away. "Tell me what on earth is going on?"

"It's about your father."

"This is about my father?" Rhiannon whispered.

"Yes…please sweetheart, sit down."

"Ok I'll sit and then you have tell me about my father and why Katie Dartmouth is interested in him, whoever he is?"

"Firstly, your father doesn't know about you. He made it quite clear he wasn't looking for a serious relationship. So when I found out I was pregnant I didn't tell him."

"I know that, you told me."

"The thing is…" Rose paused aware of the enormity of what she was going to say.

"This time tomorrow, he may be the new Prime Minister."

"What?" Colour drained from Rhiannon's face.

"Your father is Simon Clarendon leader of the Conservative party…"

"Oh my God. I remember talking to you about him being at Oxford, I even asked if you knew him. You told me you never met him."

"I know I did. I probably should have told you, especially when he was elected leader of the Conservatives."

"Well you didn't and I understood when he was nobody, so I guess I should understand now and I will, just give me some time."

Rose looked worried.

"How much time sweetheart?"

"Oh, you know, twenty or thirty years…" She smiled slightly. "Mum we'll be ok, we always are."

"Really? Rose fought back the tears.

"Really. I guess that was why Miss Dartmouth was here?"

"Somebody told the press that you could be his daughter."

" Shit…well, I'll go with whatever you want to do. I'll be out of the country

by two in the morning anyway. It's you who will be dealing with all this"

"In that case, if asked, I will deny it. I have to think of him and his family. It was my decision not to tell him about you. He shouldn't pay for that."

If she'd not been leaving maybe she would have wanted to see him. As it was she'd have six months, to at least come to terms with the news.

"Ok, look, let's eat. I have a flight to catch. By the time I get back everybody will have forgotten this."

"I hope so. I'm not cut out to be in the tabloids."

"True, Page Three couldn't cope with you."

"Cheeky. I am worried about this trip though. What if somebody gets to hear of the possible link to Simon? You'd be valuable to some terrorist organisations."

"Mum I'm going to a village in Columbia I don't think they will have a copy of The Sun or The Mirror. I'll be fine."

"What time are you leaving?"

"Eleven. I have to pick up a new girl, Alex Porter. It's her first trip."

"Oh, are you her mentor, buddy or whatever name they give it these days?"

"Yes, I feel sorry for her. Her Mum died about six months ago and her Dad is in the services I think. He's abroad anyway. She's only just eighteen and this is her first time away."

"Then, I'd be a friend if I were you. After all, you're only ten years older than her." Rose smiled, with her short hair and slim figure her daughter looked a lot younger than twenty-eight.

"Yeah, a friend sounds good. We can all do with a friend. Now feed me woman while I get used to having the PM for a father."

"He hasn't won yet."

"No but he will."