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Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Recurrent images: beginnings and echoes

Using a leitmotif in your fiction can provide an added dimension. This is a recurrent idea or image. Indeed, there may be several different leitmotifs in the novel.

In my series of novels about Tana Standish, psychic spy of the Cold War, I begin each book with similar imagery. This serves a number of purposes – it thrusts the reader directly into the action and it reveals something about the characters involved, for example.

The first two books are out of print and seeking a new publisher; the third is a work in progress, with more to follow in time.

The Prague Papers - ONE: Prelude

Czechoslovakia, August, 1968
Six Soviet officers stood on the balcony overlooking St. Wenceslas Square and the definition through the sniper-scope was so good that Tana Standish could detect the black-heads round their noses and the blood-shot eyes that testified to late-night celebrating with alcohol. She had ten 7.5mm rounds, more than enough to kill all of them. 

            Tana had a steady grip but there was no risk of weapon-shake anyway as the new Giat F1 rifle rested on its bipod on the window-sill. She had also made sure that, as this weapon was fresh from the French production-line, it could not be traced back to England.            

            Dressed in his brown-grey greatcoat with bright red lapel flashes, General of the Army Ivan Pavlovsky cocked his head to the left while he listened attentively to his commanders. He was thick-set, with small dark eyes and a pug nose whose nostrils bristled with hair.

            Try as she might, she could not detect any thoughts from the officers. But she was able to lip-read. They were in a self-congratulatory mood, since the invasion had gone well, with only a few Czech and Slovak deaths. Vodka had indeed flowed last night.

            As one of the main architects of the offensive, Pavlovsky would have the honour to die first. She levelled the cross-hairs on the general’s forehead, just between the close-set eyes.

            For God’s sake, don’t! Along with the words that she snatched from Laco’s tumbling thoughts came a familiar dull ache at the back of her neck. Her mouth went very dry. Tana lifted her finger away from the trigger and felt cold sweat start its trail down the side of her brow.

            She turned her head as, seconds later, Laco unlocked the apartment door and rushed inside, slamming the door behind him.

            ‘Thank God I caught you in time!’ he gasped, eyes staring at the rifle on its stand.

            ‘We agreed,’ Tana said evenly, ‘if we got the opportunity, it was too good to pass up.’ Out of the corner of her eye she watched the Soviet officers. They weren’t going anywhere. Two of them were pointing down into the street, where a car was on fire.          

            Laco heaved a sigh of resignation. ‘We intercepted a radio message.’ He rested his back against the wall by the door and slowly sank down on his haunches, head in his hands. ‘They said there will be reprisals if we kill any of their officers.’

            ‘If I was one of the other ranks,’ she said, ‘I’d be a bit upset about that.’ But it wasn’t a joking matter. Reprisal was not a nice word in Czechoslovakia.

            She drew the lace curtain across the window, concealing the weapon.

            Kneeling beside Laco, Tana gently took his hands in hers. She understood. He was only nineteen and he didn’t want another Lidice on his conscience. ‘One day, we’ll beat them,’ she said, ‘I promise.’
FR1 rifle - Wikipedia commons

The Tehran Transcript – ONE: HEART

Friday, September 8, 1978
Dressed in his sinister black SAVAK uniform, Captain Hassan Mokhtarian looked every inch the evil man he was. A man who deserved to die.

            Tana Standish could see him quite clearly through the telescopic sight, even making allowances for the poor light as dusk descended over Tehran and the city’s surrounding mountains, turning the overshadowing snow-capped cone of Mount Damavand a delicate shade of mauve. At least today the city smog didn’t obscure the peak of the volcano which still belched out sulphurous fumes from time to time and killed the odd stray sheep.

            Hassan exuded an air of danger with his pitted complexion and deep-set ebony eyes under a prominent forehead ridge. While SAVAK was a civilian organisation, many of its officers were military men and they relished wearing a uniform which instilled fear in the population.

            Standing in the open doorway of his villa, he exhaled smoke through his nostrils and dropped the Marlboro cigarette to the lightly coloured marble-tiled step, grinding it under the toe of his boot. His eyes glinted, as if he took pleasure in the destruction of even small things.

Hassan smiled as he closed the door behind him and stepped down to the waiting limousine with its bullet-proof smoked-glass windows. The government driver opened the door.

            Going to fat, his black silk shirt taut against his stomach, Hassan paused, one shining boot in the vehicle, and glanced back at the window to the right of the entrance. His wife Rosa waved.

            He had excelled himself with the Koofteh Berenji. The balls of meat had been filled with barberries, walnuts and fried onions. They were delicious. Normally, Rosa arranged for the chief maid to buy their meat for the chef, but on this occasion he’d insisted they take from the freezer the most recent gift from headquarters.

            Rosa allowed his odd whim – it was about once a month, he supposed, that he dictated what they ate and actually cooked it himself. It just depended on the quality of the source. He joked that it made him stronger, more capable of doing the Shah’s work, and of course the chef got a day off into the bargain.

            Now he grinned broadly at the memory and he experienced a thrilling shiver down his spine. Hassan wondered what Rosa would say if she realised the ground meat they’d eaten was the heart of Savak Hoveyda, a particularly recalcitrant activist for “people’s rights”.

            He used his big nicotine-stained fingers to brush back the oiled hair from his forehead, gave Rosa a cursory wave and, abruptly, his heart lurched and his normally emotionless features contorted in distress, deep furrows appearing in his prominent forehead, and his eyes screwed tight as sudden intense pain assailed his hands. It was as if his fingernails were being pulled out by the same pincers his men had used on Hoveyda, the same he had planned to use tonight on the anonymous Mojahedin woman.

            Shaking violently, Hassan staggered back and fortunately his driver caught him before he could fall on the hard marble steps.

Tears streamed down Tana’s face and dampened the black cotton material of her chador as she watched Hassan Mokhtarian stumble backwards into his driver’s arms. The optical telescopic sight – the Mauser SP66 had no obscuring iron sights - provided her with a very detailed picture of her target’s sudden facial transformation.

            It wasn’t enough, though. It never would be, she thought, the familiar taste of iron in her dry mouth.

            Thought-transference was something quite alien to the self-satisfied torturer of the Shah’s Security and Intelligence Service, SAVAK. It pained her as much this time as it had when she’d received the psychic echoes from her friend Savak Hoveyda – so ironically did they give their security and intelligence service the acronym which was a common Persian name!

Mauser SP66 rifle - Wikipedia commons

The Khyber Code – ONE: HERAT

Wednesday, February 14, 1979
Cross-hairs of the telescopic sight centred on the man’s creased forehead, just below his brown and grey woollen hat. Steadying the weapon, Clayton tried calming the anger and disgust that threshed in his body. He needed a quick, clean shot. Stop breathing, squeeze the trigger. Now!

            The stock of the Mannlicher-Carcano carbine thudded into his shoulder as the gun’s report bounced off the hills. The 6.5mm calibre bullet made a bloody mess of the man’s head, splattering blood over his long-sleeved astrakhan coat. A lifeless hand dropped the curved knife.

            As the echo of his shot died, Clayton levered the bolt, feeding another cartridge into the breech, and fired again.

Not too many minutes earlier, Clayton had been on foot, gingerly leading his horse down the rocky scree slope towards the village. Although it was cold, he wore tough hide sandals, as did all tribesmen in the mountains. His disguise required it, since he was liable to pray five times a day and that meant preceding his devotions with ablutions of cold water on the back of the neck and feet. Few devout Afghans could be bothered with lace-up boots, they took too long to remove. He wore chalwar kameez, a wool hat and a black leather patch over his left eye. His pattu was slung over his back.

            He was about an hour early to pick up young Sher, his helper and guide, who reckoned that he’d found a buried ancient minaret just two days’ ride away.

            He stopped, noticing a gathering of men and a young woman outside an adobe house on the edge of the village. Two horses were standing idle by a hitching rail. Further down the village street, people watched furtively from windows and doorways, heads hooded, only their eyes visible.

            Clayton lifted the false eye-patch to get a better view of the group. Their body language indicated that something was amiss.

            Old instinct kicked in. Withdrawing the rifle from its leather boot under his woollen saddle-cloth, he sat back on the slope and rested his elbow on his knee and studied the group through the telescopic sight.

            Sher was being restrained by two stocky villagers with bushy black beards. A young woman was being held by two more men. Her shawl had been pulled away and her big brown eyes stared fearfully at the tall bearded man in the astrakhan coat. Clayton recognised him – he was Sher’s father, Asad Sattar.

            Clayton was too far away to hear what was being said, but he could read Asad’s lips, translating from the tribe’s Pashtu language: ‘You bring shame to my house, Nura!’

            ‘No, father, it is not like that!’

            ‘I have been informed that you dare to gaze with lust on an unworthy man!’

            ‘No, it is Ramin, he is jealous, he wants me but I don’t want him!’

            ‘What you want is of no consequence! You dishonour me and all your family!’

            ‘No, father,’ Sher objected, ‘that is not true!’

            Asad cuffed his son with the back of his big hand. ‘Silence, boy, or I shall cut out your tongue!’ Asad turned back to his daughter. ‘For your transgression, I shall pluck your eyes out and cast you into the wilderness!’

            Asad moved shockingly fast, pulling his curved knife from its belt sheath and flicking its point at Nura’s left eye.

            Clayton’s stomach lurched as the girl screamed. Sher’s eyes brimmed with tears but he didn’t cry out; like all young Afghan men, he was stoic in adversity for he had learned not to cry even if seriously hurt. Clayton steadied his arm and hands, aimed and shot Asad in the head. It was bad enough that anyone would do that to another human being, but for a father to be so brutal beggared belief. He knew all about the medieval practice of Islamic honour killings, but he’d never witnessed any; usually, they occurred behind closed doors. Girls as young as nine were sold or wed to old men and death while giving birth was commonplace.

            Trembling with after-shock, Clayton fired again. This second shot pierced the shoulder of the man on Nura’s left. His third shattered the kneecap of one of the men restraining Sher. Only seconds had elapsed and in that time the remaining men let go of the two youngsters and, helping their wounded comrades, turned and hurried towards the house. For an archaeologist, Clayton thought, he was a pretty good shot. The quality of the rifle helped, he supposed; nothing to brag about, the same type was used in the assassination of President Kennedy.

            Quick-wittedly, Sher spotted Clayton, waved briefly then ran over to his wailing sister who was crouched on the ground, hands covering her face. He grabbed her arm and tugged; reluctantly, she stood, covering one eye with a hand. They ran to the horses and Sher swung into the saddle and hauled his sister up behind him. In seconds, the pair was racing in Clayton’s direction, abandoning their home and village and family forever.

            Sher drew the horse beside Clayton; his sister hugged him tight, burying her face against Sher’s jacket.

            Clayton sheathed the rifle and swung into the saddle. ‘We must lose the pursuit, my friends,’ he shouted, pointing towards the village.

            Sher glanced over his shoulder, past the bowed head of his sobbing sister. Already, four horsemen were riding out of the village, furs flying out behind them, each brandishing long-barrelled jezails; sun glinted on the muskets’ elaborate lattices of mother-of-pearl.

            ‘Let’s go!’ Clayton said, urging his horse up the scree. An experienced young horseman, Sher followed, his sister clinging to him as if for dear life. Seven days from now, I had promised to be in Herat, Clayton fumed. Now, I may spend all that time eluding those damnable tribesmen!

            About an hour later, they entered a narrow defile and he halted his mount. ‘Sher, find me a place where I can transmit a message to Herat.’ His radio was concealed in several hollow sections of his saddle.

            The youngster nodded, his tone serious: ‘Yes, Greystock,’ using one of Clayton’s aliases. He signed for Clayton to follow him as he led his horse to the east.
Me at the gate (baab) to the Khyber Pass (1969)


Until I find a publisher for the series, I probably won’t finish Khyber (it’s one-third written already, however, and fully plotted).


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