Jack Salter was amazed by his new lease of life. Eight weeks previously he’d learned of his impending death. Today, he felt more alive than he could remember. Focussed on the present, he had a part to play. Suddenly, his life had meaning, a purpose.
He listened, unconcerned, to the babble of foreign voices. The hood he was wearing was uncomfortable. It retained the heat from his breath which made breathing a little more difficult and caused his face to sweat more. But it was no more than that; uncomfortable, inconvenient.
He had expected his abduction to have been a little more sophisticated; perhaps a knock on his hotel room door followed by the production of a gun. Instead, he’d been picked off the street and bundled into a van. Salter reckoned he’d been travelling for a couple of hours. The motion of the van had been steady, no braking, no stops, so he’d assumed he was on an open road, perhaps a motorway. Still, it didn’t matter, everything was out of his hands now, his fate would unfold shortly. Salter wished he’d been able to live his whole life this way; intensely, in the present, utterly alive.
Eight weeks ago he’d been sitting in a hospital examination room listening to an oncologist telling him that he had pancreatic cancer. His reaction had been one of indifference which the doctor had interpreted as the first stage of shock. In fact, Salter’s indifference was just that. Since his wife’s death three years ago his life had been characterised by an ever present ennui. Every so often he would try and jolt himself back into the world, he would tell himself how lucky he was and to make the best of things, but he always, and very quickly, slipped back into a comforting torpor.
‘How long do I have left?’ he’d asked.
‘I’d give you an estimate of six months,’ said the oncologist. But that is exactly that, just an estimate. Some people don’t live that long, others live much longer.’
They had briefly discussed chemotherapy but Salter had been quite clear that he wasn’t interested.
‘You’ve told me it’s terminal, I don’t fancy extending my life for an uncomfortable few months. It’s really not worth it.’
A few days later Salter’s GP had asked him to come in and see him. The doctor had discussed the limited options which mainly centred around the palliative care that was available. He’d arranged a further appointment a week later so that Salter had had time to digest the news before the doctor could address some of the emotional issues; the anger, resentment and fear that patients usually experience as they digested the reality of their newly limited lives.
The doctor was relieved when Salter attended this second appointment. He had braced himself for the inevitable tears, self pity, regrets and recriminations. But Salter was calm and businesslike. They went over what had been discussed with the oncologist and the doctor again suggested that a place at a hospice could be a consideration nearer the time.
‘Do you have any family support?’
‘No, my wife died a few years ago, we had no kids and the only brother I’ve got I don’t get on with. I haven’t seen him in twenty years.’
As Jack began taking his coat from the back of the chair the doctor said, as though remembering an inconvenient bureaucratic detail, ‘Oh, there is one other thing. There’s a government research project that’s studying the implications of lifestyles on the development of terminal illnesses. They’re trying to establish whether issues such as stress, diet, lifestyle, etcetera, have any impact on the development of these diseases. Doctors have been requested to ask patients whether they’d be willing to take part in a telephone questionnaire. It’s obviously voluntary but I was wondering whether I could pass your details to them? It might help someone in the future but I shall quite understand if you’re not interested.’
Salter wasn’t bothered one way or another.
‘Yeah, no problem Doctor.’ He wandered home and then called work to tell them he wouldn’t be coming in.
Several days later Salter received a phone call from a very polite lady who introduced herself as Michelle. She explained that his doctor had passed on his details and would he mind answering a few questions? Michelle proceeded to question Salter about his work, habits and lifestyle, eventually finishing with more personal but superficial questions about his relationships and political views. When she’d finished she told Salter that his answers had hit some interesting indicators. Would he mind if she dropped by to gain some further, more detailed, information? She’d quite understand if he didn’t want to.
Salter was, by nature, a very private person and would normally have declined such a request. But during his short interrogation he’d been drawn by Michelle’s empathetic manner and alluring voice. He wanted to hear it again and he wanted to see who owned it. When Michelle turned up the following morning Salter was impressed. She was middle-aged and very attractive in a well groomed, cut-glass sort of way. He made her tea while they chatted and made general small talk. Salter had taken an instant liking to her. It had been a long time since he’d been attracted to another woman. When they sat down in the living room she produced a question sheet and again reassured him.
‘You really don’t have to bother you know, I will quite understand.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Salter, ‘I’ve nothing better to do. Besides, I like the sound of your voice.’
Michelle produced a dictaphone.
‘Do you mind if I record this? Some of the questions can be quite involved and I don’t want to break up the rhythm of your answers by asking you to stop whilst I write down what you’re saying.’
Salter had no objections. Michelle’s questions were, indeed, far more involved. She delved deeply into Salter’s background. He was questioned about his childhood, his teenage years, his early adult life and his marriage. The superficial questions previously asked about his moral outlook and religious and political beliefs were now examined in much greater detail. Michelle asked him to complete a series of multiple-choice questions on various imaginary scenarios and then picked apart his responses. Salter opened up about his time as a young marine and his service in the Falklands, a part of his life he’d only superficially discussed with his wife.
Michelle’s voice was soothing, re assuring. She was kind and sympathetic, yet unpatronising. She skilfully elicited information which Jack felt he’d freely given. She touched buried emotions that stirred a sadness and loneliness in him and, as the questions cut deeper, Jack found himself straining to keep his emotions in check. She uncovered his fears and laid bare his loneliness. Eventually, he broke down, sobbing and then berating himself, before apologising to Michelle whose serene empathy calmed and settled him. The interview lasted for hours.
It was getting dark when Michelle finished.
‘Jack I really appreciate your time, I can see you’re worn out. I’m still in the area tomorrow would it be okay if I popped by in the morning to finish off? What you’ve given me has been fantastic. I’m sure it will be really helpful for others.’
Salter readily agreed. Despite his embarrassment at breaking down he’d really enjoyed Michelle’s company, the time had flown by. When Salter woke the next morning he felt relaxed and strangely calm. When Michelle called he told her how he felt. She seemed genuinely pleased.
‘That’s good Jack, you’ve been able to get rid of all those buried emotions that have been eating away at you for so long. A lot of people never get the chance.’
They settled on the couch with a cup of tea and, after a few more pleasantries, Michelle opened her briefcase and began taking some papers out. Salter looked bemused.
‘You can’t have much more to ask me I thought we’d covered everything yesterday?’
‘You’re right,’ she said, ‘we did. Today, I wanted to explain to you what the real purpose of yesterday’s visit was. I think you can help us.’
‘Sorry, I’m not with you?’
‘Can you keep a secret Jack?’
Salter didn’t answer but gave her a quizzical look.
‘I think you can, in fact I know you can. I think you’ve got a deep sense of justice, of duty, of responsibility. Yesterday, You expressed regrets for all the things you never achieved but wanted to. You said how you wanted to make your mark but it was too late now.’
‘Well, that was yesterday,’ said Salter, defensively. He felt embarrassed at the recollection of his breakdown.
‘It wasn’t just yesterday Jack, that was you. You’re still the same man you were when you were a young marine fighting in the Falklands. I know you’ve become cynical over the years but deep down you’re still that decent man who wanted to protect, who wanted to do the right thing, who wanted to make a difference.’
Jack didn’t respond, he felt that unwanted stirring of emotion; sadness, regret, self pity, that was causing his throat to constrict. Jesus, he thought, what the fuck’s come over me?
‘What is it you want?’ he asked.
‘This study Jack, it’s not so much a study it’s more of an assessment. You see I work for the security services. We’re looking for certain types of people and this process helps us try and identify people who could make a positive contribution to the fight against terrorism.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jack, ‘you’re going a bit too quickly. I’m not really with you.’
Michelle had paused for a few seconds, as if wondering whether she should go any further. When she spoke again her tone had changed, it was determined and focussed.
‘Jack, you have a terminal disease. You will die in about six months time. I suppose you could go through all the possible procedures to try and prolong your life. But in reality whatever you do won’t be effective. At best, you may just prolong your life by a few months. The truth is, in the near future you will die. This news either stultifies people or it focusses them, it concentrates their minds. During this final period of their lives some people achieve fantastic things whilst others simply fade away or desperately cling on, living the remainder of their lives in fear.’
Michelle leaned forward and rested her hand on Salter’s forearm.
‘The choice for you Jack is whether you fade away as one of life’s bystanders or you make your mark. You throw off those years of cynicism and disenchantment and become again the warrior you once were.’
Salter would have scoffed at anyone else using the word ‘warrior’ in such an emotive way, but Michelle was different. Her use of the word sent a shiver up his spine, he felt uplifted.
‘But how could I possibly help? What is it I could do?’
‘Oh, there’s plenty you could do, but before I can explain anything I have to be absolutely convinced that this is a route, not that you’re prepared to take but that you want to take, something to which you are absolutely committed.’
They spoke for hours and eventually, feeling oddly enthused and strangely invigorated, Jack readily agreed to Michelle’s proposal.
‘All I can tell you, at this time,’ she said, ‘is that you will travel and you will die. It will be a painless death, but a worthwhile one. You will be doing something positive. You will be fighting against vicious people who want to enslave others, who want others to live in fear. You will be one of the first of a new breed of heroes.’
Two weeks later, Salter found himself in a small manor house in the grounds of a Staffordshire estate. Everything had moved at breakneck speed; the formal briefing, signing The Official Secrets Act, the operation.
Salter was still sore from the operation. Recovery would take between two and three weeks, he was told, but this didn’t stop them making use of his time. He was encouraged to view various videos, some containing hideous footage of torture and murder. He was visited by MI6 personnel who discussed any concerns he may have had and praised his participation. Not that Jack had any concerns. He was convinced at the righteousness of what he was doing. Over the years, he’d developed a contempt for what he saw as the cowardly moral stance of the West, of the soft people who enjoyed the freedoms others had fought for.
‘That’s right Jack,’ one of his visitors had said, ‘you’ve got to ask yourself; when does kindness become gullibility? Respect, obsequiousness? Tolerance, cowardice?’
Salter knew what they were doing. They were intent on keeping him angry and focussed. After all, they must have invested heavily in him. It would cost them a lot in time and resources if he were to change his mind at this late stage. But that wasn’t going to happen. He knew that and they knew that. They’d done their research well, they knew what he truly was. He wasn’t sure whether the information he’d been given was entirely or partially true. It sounded right. It fitted in with his notions and besides, at some stage, Salter told himself, you have to believe something. At some stage you had to step up to the plate.
The day before Salter’s departure, Michelle visited him. They drank coffee together.
‘I just wanted to see you again before you left,’ she said. ‘How’s the training been?’
‘Yeah, good, it’s all fairly straightforward, there’s not actually much I can do.’
‘For what it’s worth Jack, I admire you.’
‘Well, actually, Michelle, coming from you, it’s worth a lot. I’m not sure whether I would have gone into this if someone else had visited me.’
‘Shall I take that as a compliment?’
‘Oh, most definitely.’
Michelle reached out and touched Salter’s hand. They sat in silence for a while and then she stood up and bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
‘Well, goodbye Jack Salter, I won’t forget you.’
Jack, watched her go and sighed. I wish I’d met her a few years ago, he thought, then inwardly laughed. She’s way out of my league.
Salter’s journey had eventually ended. He was pulled, roughly, from the van and taken into a building. His hood and handcuffs were removed and he found himself in a small, windowless room dimly lit by a light bulb high on a wall. There was an old stained mattress on the floor and a plastic beaker that he assumed was for pissing in. The room was cold and he guessed it was probably night time. He lay down on the mattress and curled up. Despite his physical discomfort he felt unnaturally relaxed. Not long now, he thought.
He slept. For how long he didn’t know. He was woken by a guard shouting at him. They let him go to the toilet before putting the handcuffs and hood back on. As he was led outside he felt the dry heat on his body. It must be daytime. He was put in a vehicle.
Salter guessed that he was now part of a convoy as he could hear the sound of more vehicles and many voices. They travelled for some time before stopping for what seemed like an hour or so and then they were back on the move. Eventually, the journey came to an end. Salter was taken from the vehicle and his hood removed. He was in the desert. He looked around. The landscape was barren apart from a compound containing several buildings. He was led into one of the buildings, a small concrete block, and placed in a bare room which was much like his previous cell.
There were two other people in the room besides Michelle and the Foreign Secretary; her supervisor and a representative from the American ‘Joint Special Operations Command’. The Foreign Secretary had come to RAF Waddington, ostensibly for an impromptu visit but in reality for a further briefing on ‘Operation Walking Dead’, of which he and the prime minister were already aware. They had already approved its development, effectively rubber stamping a decision that had already been made by the Americans.
Michelle addressed the Foreign Secretary.
‘As you’re aware sir, the idea for this operation came about as the result of growing criticism of our use of drones. Although we’re satisfied that their actual use is legal and necessary, the collateral damage has become a major issue. Since 2004 there have been about 500 drone strikes which have killed about 4,000 people. Unfortunately, a considerable number of these have been non-combatants.’
‘You mean women and children?’ said the Foreign Secretary, pointedly.
‘Yes,’ said Michelle, ‘but this also includes minor militants and low level affiliates. We haven’t been able to establish exact figures.’
‘Yes, I’m aware of all that,’ said the Foreign Secretary, irritably. ‘Firstly, I’m not particularly happy with the name of this operation. ‘Walking Dead’ is not appropriate. If this operation becomes public knowledge, which I’ve no doubt will inevitably be the case, then this name does nothing to reflect what is a sensitive and serious business.’
‘It’s just a working title,’ said Michelle, defensively, ‘we’ll get it changed.’
‘So tell me, how can you be sure that this man won’t change his mind or, heaven forbid, he’s inappropriately detonated?’
‘Our recruitment process is designed to specifically target subjects with the character and motivation to take part in this operation. Once we’d recruited him we spent several weeks using motivational techniques to ensure he was primed and ready to go.’
‘You mean you radicalised him,’ said the Foreign Secretary, drily.
‘You could say that, although he was fully on board before we embarked on the training programme.’
‘I must say I still have grave concerns about this whole business.’
And I’m sure they’ve been officially recorded somewhere, should the shit hit the fan, thought Michelle.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘this operation is already paying dividends. Salter was abducted in Riyadh two days ago. We’d placed him in Riyadh as a British Aerospace engineer but made it known that he was an MI6 operative who’s visiting to establish a set of protocols regarding terrorists. He’s been taken south of Riyadh into the Al Dahna desert where they made an overnight stop then on towards the border with Yemen. They made another brief stop just before they crossed the border. He’s now in Yemen about fifty miles from Sanaa, in some kind of compound. We believe it’s a terrorist training camp. So, we’ve already identified three locations with terrorist links of which we were previously unaware.’
‘How have you been able to track him?’
‘When the S.I.E.D. was fitted …’
‘An S.I.E.D. Sir,’ explained Michelle’s supervisor. ‘It stands for: Surgically Implanted Explosive Device.’
‘When it was placed in Salter’s stomach a transmitter was also implanted.’
‘So, hang on,’ said the Foreign Secretary. ‘You’re surely not telling me that this man can detonate the device?’
‘No, we couldn’t risk that. Salter knows he will die. In the tip of his forefinger, on his left hand, we’ve implanted a small trigger device under his skin. The trigger can only be engaged by applying pressure, simultaneously, to each side of the tip of his forefinger by using his thumb and second finger. So he can’t possibly set it off by accident and he’ll be able to use it even if his hands are tied. The trigger causes a poison to be released and at the same time changes the transmission pattern. Salter will decide when to use this and we’re hoping it’s near the point when he’s likely to be killed or tortured. So we’ll know when Salter is dead and we’ll be in a position to decide whether to detonate him, which would kill those in his immediate vicinity, or perhaps use a drone strike to destroy a wider area which may, as in this case, be a terrorist hideout or training camp. We can always delay detonating Salter. If, for example, he was kept in a built up area and we couldn’t be sure innocent people were nearby we could wait until they got rid of his body and choose a time to detonate him then.’
‘So you see sir,’ said the American, ‘this is pretty much a win-win situation for us. By using resources like Salter we think we can eliminate much of the collateral damage from some of our drone strikes and at the very least be assured of taking out some serious players. Once we’ve evaluated the success of this programme then I think we can look at widening the scope of its participants.’
‘So,’ said the Foreign Secretary, shaking his head, ‘we have our first Western suicide bomber. How depressing.’
‘If you come through to the operations room sir,’ said Michelle, ignoring his unhelpful remarks, ‘we can show you, via satellite, where Salter is being held.’
When they arrived in the control cabin, Michelle stood by a seated Reaper drone pilot and pointed to a screen in front of him.
‘That’s where salter is.’
An intelligence analyst pointed to a few figures that could be seen walking across an open area towards a building.
‘He’s in that building at the moment,’ said the analyst. He tapped a key on his keyboard and a faint, high pitched pulse became louder. ‘That’s the sound of his transmitter, it will speed up as soon as he’s dead.’
Salter was laying on his mattress when the men came. There were two of them. He was taken from his dark cell, out into the blinding desert sunlight. His appearance caused shouts of excitement from the hundred or so young men who sat cross-legged at the far end of a large courtyard. The two men led him, handcuffed, to the centre of the yard where a man, holding a large scimitar, waited with another who was holding a megaphone. Several feet away another man was using a video camera to record the action.
Salter was pushed to his knees by the man holding the sword. The man with the megaphone began to address the audience of young men. Salter couldn’t understand what he was saying but every so often there was a loud cheer. When he’d finished addressing the crowd, the man approached Salter and said something to him.
Salter knew it was time. He looked at the crowd of young men. They could have been his army comrades, part of a football crowd, young men on a night out; sons, brothers, fathers, husbands. It all seemed surreal and pointless, as though everyone was part of some mad game. It will never stop, he thought, it just goes on and on. And it suddenly struck him that he didn’t want to be part of this world anymore. Life held absolutely no attraction. He felt serenely indifferent, almost transcendental. He gently pressed his thumb and forefinger against the tip of his second finger, until he located each end of the switch. He felt amazingly calm. It was a good way to die; in control, no pain, no further regrets. Well, perhaps one. He would have liked to have seen Michelle again. He applied pressure to the sides of his forefinger until he heard a click and then, still struck by the madness of it all, he began to laugh.
Salter lost consciousness and fell, face first, into the ground. His confused captors assumed he’d passed out. They gathered around Salter’s lifeless body and tried to revive him. When his corpse exploded the crowd were momentarily shocked into silence. The cacophony of outrage which followed drowned out the faint hiss of the approaching Hellfire missiles.
Julie Marshall sat in her armchair and pondered the news. A year, perhaps a bit longer, the doctor had said. She didn’t feel particularly concerned. A year or thirty. What was the difference? If her mother had been around then her life would have been so different. She’d raised Julie singlehandedly. They were so close. Since her death in the London tube bombings of 2007 Julie’s life had fallen apart. She’d called off her marriage, lost interest in her work and become cynical and withdrawn. She’d never been able to recover the excitement and enthusiasm she’d once enjoyed when her mother was alive. And now this. But so what? Her mobile sounded.
‘Hi, my name’s Michelle. I was given your name by your doctor. He said you wouldn’t mind if we asked you some questions for a health study we’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested, I’ll quite understand.’
Normally, Julie would have declined such a request but there was something about the woman’s voice, it was empathetic, alluring. It reminded her of her mother.
‘Why not?’ said Julie. ‘Why not?’