The official name was the Security and Special Measures Committee, but everyone called it the War Council.
Madari took his seat at the long conference table beside Jahni, who was deep in conversation with Major Dhan, the head of security at the airport. They broke off as he joined them.
“Major Jahni and I were just discussing the exercise at the airport last week,” Dhan said.
“It brought back old memories for me,” Jahni said, voice sombre.
Royal Guard soldiers had worked through the night defending the airport against a simulated attack by Jahni’s unit, playing the role of militants. Madari hoped that if such an attack came for real then the militants would not be as well trained and armed as Jahni’s men. But his own irregulars had managed to seize the airport, and Saifullah’s men were at least as well trained as they had been.
Across the table the police chief, Rafeel took his seat and Madari nodded a greeting to him. Rafeel nodded back, but met Madari’s eyes for only a second before looking away again. He’d never quite been comfortable with Madari since the day he’d brought the news of Sophia’s murder.
More senior military and police officers filled the table, but they all rose as the doors at the end of the long room opened and Zahir entered, followed by a small entourage. He wore a Western style business suit and was bareheaded, his usual mode of dress lately, which had made Madari wonder if he’d simply grown used to wearing Western clothes during his exile, or had made a conscious decision to dress in the same way the King himself usually did. Or even to dress in direct contrast to Saifullah, who apparently always wore Arab clothing.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Zahir said. “Please, sit.” He took his place at the head of the table and his aides brought coffee, arranged papers, and moved a water jug within reach. He ignored their fussing. “Let’s bring this meeting straight to order.”
An aide turned out the room’s lights, leaving only the low, bright lamps over the table. The underground room at the Defence Ministry had no windows and Madari found the set-up rather excessively dramatic, but these weekly meetings were undeniably useful. Zahir always chaired them.
“The first item on the agenda,” Zahir said. “Air Chief Marshall Kotekar has a proposal that he and I have been discussing and we’re now ready to bring to the rest of you. Air Marshall, please go ahead.”
Kotekar, a slender man with a moustache too large for his small features, came to the head of the table. Silver buttons and insignia glinted on his dark blue uniform.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” he said. “And may I add my thanks for allowing me to present the proposal to you and to the committee.”
Madari caught a glance between Jahni and Dhan, a small smirk and an eye roll. Nobody needed to worry about Kotekar’s willingness to work with Zahir, as they might about other senior officers. Kotekar never missed a chance to sing Zahir’s praises, usually to his face. To his credit, Zahir took little apparent notice of this blatant flattery.
“What his Highness and I have discussed is centralising all air power in the Qumari armed forces under the control of the Air Force. The Army and Navy will no longer have their own aircraft or pilots, but will be supplied with them by the Air Force.”
This caused a stir around the table, senior officers sitting up and speaking over each other. Madari caught Jahni’s eye, both of them frowning, but neither said anything, waiting to hear the rest. Zahir raised a hand for quiet.
“Please, you’ll all have a chance to discuss this. Go on, Kotekar.”
“The advantages of this should be obvious,” Kotekar said. “It’s a more efficient use of resources and expertise. That’s not to say we want to save money or cut back in any way. In fact with the money we save by concentrating the resources we can invest in new equipment and training for more pilots. We can do more with the money in one place then with it spread around the different services and regiments.”
“You’re saying my Navy pilots would actually transfer to the Air Force,” said Admiral Elmi, the Navy Chief.
Kotekar smiled. “I don’t think you need to worry about that being an appreciable loss of manpower for you, Admiral.”
There were some smiles around the table, even from Madari. Qumar was hardly a major naval power. The Navy’s few small warships mostly patrolled the coastline for smugglers and supported the coastguard in rescues.
Elmi bristled. “Naval officers will not like transferring to the Air Force.”
“I’m sure you can persuade them it’s for the good of the country,” Zahir said.
“Perhaps you can call them individually to give them your reassurance,” Kotekar said. There were open laughs around the table now, though Madari didn’t join in with those.
“Admiral,” Zahir said, waving a hand at the others to be quiet. “I’m sorry. Your Navy pilots may be few in numbers, but they are excellently trained. I want them to be able to share that expertise with all the military pilots in the country. We’ll be providing them with excellent new facilities and more flying time in fact.”
“Yes,” Kotekar said. “Centralising recourses will make sure we get the most out of both equipment and men. Now, planes and helicopters might stand idle while elsewhere none are available. That won’t happen in the future. Yes, Colonel Madari, you have a question?”
“I appreciate the logic of your ideas, Air Marshall. But I’m worried about the idea of my Special Forces unit not having helicopters on standby. As a rapid response unit they are required to scramble on a moment’s notice.”
“We’ve actually discussed that issue specifically,” Zahir said, looking from Madari to Jahni. “Kotekar and I both agree that there will always be helicopters available for their immediate use.”
“In fact,” Kotekar said, “You’ll always have a full complement of helicopters available. At the moment you have only your own, any one of which might be out of action for maintenance or repairs. And your pilots have to take leave sometimes. But with the full pool of all the military’s helicopters to draw from you’ll never be short of either craft or pilots.”
Madari glanced at Jahni, who gave a small shrug, eyebrows raised. It made sense, as long as the reassurances proved true. Madari had no reason to doubt them. Zahir had been generous with funding for the Special Forces unit, frequently reassuring Madari and Jahni it was one of his most important weapons in this war.
“Is it necessary for men and equipment to actually transfer to Air Force control?” Rahama asked. “Can they not remain under Army or Navy control, but be available more widely?”
“We have considered it,” Kotekar said. “But it would be less efficient. His Highness and I agree that complete centralisation is the best way.”
Elmi sat forward as if to speak again, but Zahir raised his hand to put him off.
“Full details are on the way to your offices now, gentlemen. Please study them and we’ll return this again next week. Now we need to move on. Next on the agenda, a report from Mr Gates.”
‘Mr Gates’ was George Gates, formerly an Inspector in the City of London police and now special consultant on the security of Az-Ma’ir. He didn’t speak Arabic, so some of the men around the table began to fiddle with the headphones that lay in front of them. While they did that, Gates moved to the head of the table beside Zahir, while Kotekar returned to his place. The Englishman, a bullnecked, middle-aged man adjusted his own headphones, plugging them in and settling them over his thin, iron-grey hair.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve all seen for yourselves many of the changes…” Gates began, when the opening of the door interrupted him. Zahir turned a furious look in that direction—the war council meetings were not to be interrupted by anyone—but his face quickly changed when the King walked into the room. He stood quickly, everyone following his example.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Atuallah said. “Please sit. Zahir, I am sorry to be late.”
“I didn’t realise you were coming,” Zahir said. He didn’t look pleased about it, Madari thought, inevitably put into second place in the room by the presence of his brother. And this was a rare event; Atuallah didn’t often attend the war council meetings, normally letting his brother take the lead on security matters.
“I only read the agenda this morning and decided I wanted to hear Mr Gates’ report first hand. I’m only here as an observer.”
“Of course.” Zahir nodded to the officer taking the minutes. “Note that, please.” He waved a hand to the seat beside him, but Atuallah declined it and took a seat at the far end of the table, beside Rahama. He waved away the headphones one of Zahir’s aides offered him.
“Inspector Gates was about to make his report,” Zahir reminded the meeting and everyone settled as Gates began again. As he spoke the soft drone of the interpreter lurking in a dark corner of the room and speaking into a microphone underlay his words.
“As I said, you’ve all seen some of the changes. Roads have been narrowed or had chicanes installed at strategic points, forcing cars to slow so we can capture registration details on CCTV. Random searches and checkpoints are in place. New parking restrictions are preventing vehicles being left on the street in the most likely locations for car bombs. Concrete barriers to prevent vehicles crashing through gates or entrances.”
“And these measures are proving effective,” Zahir said. “There have been no major bombings for a month.”
“Inspector,” the King said, speaking in English. “Isn’t it true that the searches you talked about are not in fact random? That you’re targeting particular types of vehicles.”
“Yes,” Gates said. “Vans. Trucks. Any that aren’t registered to a company. Any rental vans. Once we clock ‘em coming in to the city, we get them stopped for a check. But we have random searches too.”
“Are vans and trucks the most likely vehicles for bomb attacks?” Rahama asked. “Haven’t most of them been cars?”
“They have,” Gates said. “But a van or truck can be packed with enough explosives to bring down buildings. It’s harder for a car bomb to do so much damage.”
A car bomb had done quite enough damage to kill Sophia and several others, but Madari saw Gates’ point, having seen the devastating results of a truck bomb first hand. Worse carnage than a battlefield, because you didn’t usually see dead women and children on a battlefield.
“Once the system is up and running we can refine things,” Gates said. “Once we’ve built up a database of number plates and the habits of their driver, we can eliminate many of them from any suspicion and concentrate on anyone else.”
“That’s a lot of information to hold on the private lives of our people,” the King said.
“If someone’s out on the city street they can have no expectation of privacy,” Zahir said. “Chief Rafeel…” He turned suddenly to the police chief, who had been watching Gates with a thunderous scowl on his face. They’d clashed in several meetings and Rafeel made little attempt to hide his enmity for the Englishman. “Do you have anything to add?”
“Yes. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it. You’re relying too much on technology. Cameras. Databases! My officers have the experience and the instincts to know who to check and—”
“Your officers can’t cover the whole city all of the time,” Zahir said, “Inspector Gates’ measures will support them. These measures have a proven track record in Belfast and London, as the Inspector can tell you.”
“I think they could be even more effective here,” Gates said. “There’s more scope. Less red tape. More political support.” He smiled at Zahir and at the table in general. “You see what needs done and you aren’t asking a lot of questions about rights and privacy.”
“Just giving you the money.” The remark came from the King. Quiet, and in Arabic, so Gates took a second before a small frown crossed his face as the translation came through to him.
“If you’d care to go on, Inspector,” Zahir said. “You have some measures to report on at rail and bus stations.”
“Aye,” Gates said. “We know the enemy’s flexible enough to change tactics. If we make it harder to bring in large bombs in vehicles, then they’ll bring in smaller ones in suitcases or on their backs. And several men can carry in smaller amounts of explosives to combine into a large bomb. X-ray machines can help and we’re installing them at the railway stations already. But we need explosives detectors too. Dogs that is. You use them at the airport already of course.” He nodded at nod at Dhan.
“Yes,” Major Dhan said. “But people are more prepared for and accepting of security checks at an airport. I’m not sure how well daily commuters will accept being sniffed by dogs.” A tone of disgust slipped into his voice. “Perhaps Mr Gates is unaware of local beliefs about dogs.”
“Until someone invents a better way, dogs are the best explosives detectors available,” Gates said. “You can protect the sensibilities of people or you can stop explosives coming into the city. Your choice.”
“I think the choice you’re suggesting is one between us changing the character and culture of this city and the enemy doing so,” the King said. Again in Arabic and Madari wondered if he didn’t trust his command of English well enough to express his feelings. Or was it some kind of affront to Gates?
“I know which of those choices I’d make,” Zahir said. “Change is inevitable. I’d rather we decided on it, not Saifullah.”
“Some of the changes sound quite similar,” Atuallah said. “I hear you’ve made a proposal to ban people gathering in groups of more than ten.”
“Not quite. The proposal is to allow assemblies larger than ten people only with prior permission from the police. Mr Rafeel supports me in this.”
Rafeel looked embarrassed momentarily, as if caught on the wrong side. “Yes, ah, yes. I do support it. But of course, we don’t intend to try to stop legitimate protest. It just needs to be properly policed.”
“There have been more protests in the city recently,” the King said. “And not in support of Saifullah, but rather against some of the changes introduced recently.”
“You read of these protests in the newspapers?” Zahir said.
“Yes, I thought you must have, since you and your family venture into the city so rarely now.” A few sharp intakes of breath came around the table. Gates was the slowest to react, waiting for the translation, and even he looked shocked. Madari thought he heard the soft voice of the interpreter stumble for an instant as he turned the remark into English.
Atuallah didn’t rise to the provocation, though he tensed. Beside him, Rahama scowled furiously, and looked ready to speak, but the King got in first.
“Your point is well taken, brother. Of course, people naturally resist change and we must make difficult choices on their behalf. However, I suggest the law about assemblies is clearly designated an interim measure which will be regularly reviewed and rescinded as soon as circumstances allow.”
“Of course. An excellent suggestion,” Zahir said, though his face conveyed a different impression of his opinion about the idea.
The tension in the room cleared, with a few sighs of relief audible around the table.
“Now, Inspector Gates,” Zahir went on, “about the dogs. I believe you have already made arrangements for the first batch.”
“Aye, and training for the handlers. Rafeel, I hope you’ve got some dog handlers who speak French. These pups are coming from Paris.”
“Elmi isn’t going to be happy about the air power, however they implement it,” Jahni said in the car on the way back to barracks.
“No,” Madari agreed. “I think he sees it as an erosion of his forces.”
“He doesn’t exactly have a lot of pilots in the first place,” Jahni said. He smiled. “Dhan said to me that he could probably name all the Navy pilots individually and their wives and children.”
“Perhaps,” Madari said. “But does that mean he should be less resentful about losing them? I’d certainly resent it if anyone wanted to take the Special Forces unit away from the Royal Guard.”
Jahni sobered. “It’s been talked about.”
“What?” Madari said. “By who? When?”
“Relax. Just idle talk. After last week’s meeting I was talking to Zahir and we were batting ideas around.”
“Oh. Do you feel you need more independence?” Madari asked, unable to stop a flutter of nerves in his stomach. “More responsibility?”
Jahni snorted. “If I’ve learned one thing in the Army it’s that ‘responsibility’ is a codeword for ‘paperwork’.”
Jahni arrived back at his office to find Alex Black waiting for him.
“Did we have a sparring session scheduled?” he asked, glancing at his diary as he sat.
“No. I wanted to have a word with you and the Colonel. Can we go to his office?”
“I’ll check if he’s free,”
He was, for the next thirty minutes, so they hurried over there.
“Hello, Alex,” Madari said, rising to greet her as she and Jahni came in. He offered her his hand and she shook it. “What can I do for you?”
“I came to tell you I’m leaving Qumar.”
Jahni stared. She’d said nothing about it on the way over. “What? When did you decide this?”
“I didn’t. It’s the agency. They’re pulling all of their foreign staff out. There’ve been so many attacks on foreigners lately that we bodyguards are becoming bigger targets that some of our clients!”
“Anyone attacking you or your colleagues would be making a grave mistake,” Madari said.
Alex smiled at that. “Yeah. But it’s making it impossible for us to do our jobs, so the agency is transferring us all out of the country for now. I’m going home for Christmas, and then I’m going to Dubai.” She sighed. “I’ll spend my whole time taking rich ladies shopping.”
“What does Raian think of this?” Jahni asked.
“Kahil!” Madari said, sounding shocked at the personal question. Alex didn’t object to it.
“He’s not happy I’ll be gone, but he’s happy I’ll be safe. Well, as safe as I can be in my job. It’s near enough for him to pop over to see me, so, you’ll be very generous in the matter of three day passes, right?”
Jahni smiled at her mock glare. “Of course.”
“Alex, I’m so sorry,” Madari said. “I’m sorry my country has become a place where you don’t feel safe or welcome.”
Jahni heard the pain in his voice; saw the shame on his face and his anger rose at the unfairness of it all. For Alex, forced to leave. For Madari, feeling as if he’d failed when he’d fought so hard already.
“It’s not your fault, Colonel,” she said. “They’d have lost this war already without you two.”
“You’re too generous. And, please, we are friends. Call me Faris.”
She looked surprised at the offer, but nodded. “Faris. Thanks. Right, I’m having a goodbye party before I go, and I want to see you both there.”
“We’d be honoured,” Madari said. “I hope this is only a temporary goodbye.”
“I hope so too. I like it here. I want to come back and marry Izzy so you’d better get things sorted out sharpish.”
Madari laughed. “Alex, I promise I will dance at your wedding.”
“You never dance,” Jahni said.
“If I see this wedding, I will dance. I promise.”
“That I’ve gotta see,” Alex said.
After she left, Madari dropped heavily into his chair with a sigh. “More foreigners are leaving the country every day. We should be ashamed. This used to be such a cosmopolitan city.”
If Sophia had still been here would she have had to leave? Jahni wondered. Would Madari have sent her away? Was this breaking up other couples and families?
“The new security measures for the city will change things.”
“They might keep bombers out, but what about attacks?”
“Then Rafeel needs to get more police on the streets,” Jahni said. “And more CCTV.”
Madari just sighed again. “Is that what we want our city to become?”
“I don’t see that we have a choice.”
“No. I know.” He rubbed his forehead as if his head ached.
“Are you okay?” Jahni asked. He lowered his voice. “Are you sleeping?” Madari knew what he meant. It had become a kind of code question that they asked each other. ‘Are you sleeping?’ meant ‘are you waking screaming from nightmares about being tortured?’
“I’m fine,” Madari said. “I’m sleeping quite well lately. You?”
Jahni nodded. “Yes. Fine.” They’d had sessions with the counsellors of course, the medical officers insisting on it, and Madari said he had seen Fauzi a few times. Jahni had already been seeing the psychiatrist regularly in any case. It had proven effective. Madari had feared relapsing into the worst phase of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it hadn’t happened.
Because they’d been together, Jahni felt sure of that. Even the psychiatrist thought that had made the difference. The strength they’d drawn from each other during and after the ordeal had kept them from being dragged into the darkness Madari had taken so many years to escape before.
“I’ll be at home tonight,” Jahni said. “I’m not on duty. You can call me if you need to.”
“Thank you, Kahil. Perhaps I will.”
Jahni went back to the Unit, anticipating that call. Even longing for it. Even if they couldn’t spend the night with each other, they could lie in bed in the dark and speak to each other on the phone—though never about anything that could compromise them.
Those moments were the most intimate ones their lives allowed them right now.