The write stuff: The Agent Runner by Simon Conway

Unlike many of his fellow MI6 officers, Ed Malik did not regard spying as a profession of cold betrayal. Picture: Contributed
Unlike many of his fellow MI6 officers, Ed Malik did not regard spying as a profession of cold betrayal. Picture: Contributed
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SIMON Conway’s new book, The Agent Runner, is a classic tale of spies and subterfuge set in modern-day Afghanistan. In this extract, hero Ed Malik has a Kabul showdown with the untrustworthy Ambassador.

It was mid-afternoon when Ed Malik arrived in Jalalabad to catch the Sabre Express back to Kabul. Transport was an American Black Hawk with dark green camouflage. As it fuelled, he sheltered from the wind at the edge of the landing site, squatting in the dirt in flip-flops and tatty shalwar kameez, with the tail of his black turban drawn across the bridge of his nose.

He’d been summoned to the British Embassy for what the Ambassador chose to refer to as a “fireside chat”, and as usual it provoked in him a mixture of resentment and unease. Waiting with him, and similarly disguised, was his bodyguard, Dai Llewellyn. Built like a prop-forward, Dai was a fair-haired, soft-voiced Welshman with a way of moving that never seemed hurried and a core of gentleness that a life of violence seemed to have left untouched. There were several occasions that Ed could point to when Dai’s actions had, in all likelihood, saved his life and Ed was careful to treat him with the utmost courtesy.

The Black Hawk lifted off ten minutes later. Strapped into a bucket seat, Ed stared through the cabin doors at the patchwork of green fields and plantations in the broad valley below. On the starboard side he could see the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush. It was too noisy to speak or be heard and, lulled by the vibration, he soon fell asleep.

When he woke up the sun was hot in his eyes and looking down through the open door he could see the helicopter’s shadow running over crumpled brown ridgelines. It was said that you could still find the bleached bones of British soldiers scattered in the gullies and barren washes. Every time Ed flew over he couldn’t help but reflect on the fate of his fellow countrymen there during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Eighteen thousand soldiers and civilians slaughtered in the winter snow by Pashtun tribesmen.

Dai nudged him, offering a paper bag full of dates. He took one, its flesh like sweet chewable leather.

At Sarobi, they dipped down into the gorge briefly before climbing again. He could see the churning serpentine of the Kabul River and beside it, on the narrow and winding road, trucks ablaze with reflected light, trucks full of ammunition and other supplies to maintain the NATO presence. It was difficult to imagine the current military adventure in Afghanistan ending as badly as the First Afghan War, but ten years on from the most recent invasion it was becoming clear that Britain’s fourth war in Afghanistan would end with as few political gains as the first three.

The Black Hawk came in to Kabul abruptly, swooping down from the ring of grey mountains that trapped a layer of smog over the city. They landed on an earth strip at the edge of the airport.

Ed jumped out into a hot wind laced with sand.

There was an armoured Land Cruiser waiting for them in Car Park B and an Afghan police pick-up joined them as they passed the old Mig-21 on a concrete plinth at the entrance to the airport.

‘Straight there?’ Dai asked.

Ed nodded.

The Kabul traffic was the usual slow-motion free-for-all. It was sunset before they arrived at the British Embassy and Ed began the laborious process of negotiating his way through the blast-wall chicane.

Inside the control room he found a sleepy watch-keeper as pale as a cavern-dwelling fish, and a water-cooler dispensing chilled Malvern water. He drank several cups. The watch-keeper informed him that the Ambassador was running late.

Ed kicked off his flip-flops and sat down on bright blue modular seating to read a long out-of-date Economist magazine. The control room smelled of floor wax and toner, odours of the NATO presence.

Within half-an-hour the Ambassador arrived. He looked Ed up and down.

‘Christ man, you’re not Kim astride the gun Zam-Zammeh.’

‘It’s good to see you too, sir.’

Ambassador Chetwynd-Marr was a vain man of patrician bearing with a grey widow’s peak and lousy teeth. He was a Classics scholar and an Arabist with a working knowledge of Pashto.

‘I know that something significant is underway,’ he told Ed, ‘and if it’s going to turn into a disaster, I don’t want to be the one to say: if only you’d told me I could have warned you.’

‘Thanks for your concern, sir.’

The Ambassador was well known for his deft command of hindsight. He was invariably wise after the fact, though rarely before it. Known to his staff as “Old Misgivings”, the younger diplomats mocked him behind his back, shaking their heads and imitating his ponderous voice: “Of course, I always had misgivings…”

‘I want to be part of a winning strategy here, Edward, not a losing one.’

‘We all want that, sir.’

‘I’m a reasonable person,’ he said in a sympathetic tone. ‘It’s just that things are volatile right now and I think I need to know what’s going on over on the other side. Pakistan, I mean. I need to know the identity of your agent.’

Unlike many of his fellow MI6 officers, Ed Malik did not regard spying as a profession of cold betrayal. He saw it as one of careful trust-building. He believed that you couldn’t run an agent without trust on both sides. Of course there were things you kept from each other. There were necessary lies. But if you were considering whether or not the information being passed to you was of vital national interest you needed to know that your agent had been trustworthy in other matters. And the agent needed to know that you weren’t going to chat about what they’d just told you. What was said was protected and – above all else – the agent’s identity was protected. That was the code he lived by and he didn’t like to have it challenged.

‘I can’t do that,’ Ed replied.

‘Why not?’

‘You know why not. We have an agreement when we recruit people. We don’t talk about them to anybody.’

‘Don’t you think I’m trustworthy?’

‘No actually, I don’t.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You wouldn’t be able to resist bragging about it.’

The Ambassador’s memoir was the worst-kept secret in Kabul. In a year or two he’d be strutting his stuff at every literary festival in Britain and spouting off on the Today programme first thing in the morning.

Chetwynd-Marr spluttered. ‘With one phone call I could have you on the next plane back.’

‘No,’ said Ed. ‘By all means make the call, though.’

The Ambassador’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’re hiding something from me.’

‘I can’t discuss it.’

‘At least let me see the intelligence reports first.’

‘You see all my intelligence reports. They don’t get circulated in London without it saying whether the Ambassador agrees or disagrees.’

It wasn’t true, of course. The intelligence that Ed was “sitting on” was known to only two people outside of the top floor at Vauxhall Cross: the Prime Minister and his Foreign Affairs Adviser, who’d had it stove-piped directly to them in a “red-jacket” folder. He could imagine the consternation on the Ambassador’s face if he told him the truth.

• Simon Conway was born in California in 1967, educated in Britain and studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of five novels, including A Loyal Spy, winner of the 2010 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. He is a former British Army Officer and international aid worker who has cleared landmines and other hazardous debris of war in Africa, Asia, Europe, The Middle East and the Caucasus. As co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned for an international treaty to ban cluster bombs. He is currently serving as an Executive Chair on the board of the mine clearance charity The HALO Trust.

He lives in Scotland with his wife, the BBC correspondent Sarah Smith. He has two daughters.