Being invisible in today’s world is not difficult. With the advent of smart-phones, wireless earbuds and ever increasingly feelings of self-isolation, a spy could be wearing an outlandish outfit and still be unnoticed for hours.
Dressed in a smart suit, Gabriel Woods stared out from a cafe on the corner of a busy London street, a newspaper in his hand, with a coffee mug in front of him. As stereotypical a “spy” pose this was, in the city of London, such behaviour was almost obligatory once you entered a English cafe.
With his deep cover now assured by the SIS and stripped of any American gadgetry, Gabriel Woods was now operating as quietly and efficiently as he used to in the days of his Prince career. Anonymously, low-tech and armed only with his instincts and the Glock 19 in a shoulder holster, hidden underneath his dark navy blazer.
Gone were the smart surveillance glasses, the disguised earbuds that acted as a microphone and recorder and the voices of handlers in his ears. The British were stubbornly steadfast in their old-school spycraft, and James Ashford trusted his man to such a level, that he allowed Woods to operate completely on his own and instructed the Queen’s Assassin only to report to him if absolutely necessary.
It was this unique freedom and trust that made Gabriel Woods agree to come back into the intelligence community. Only the British would give him this amount of leniency. There weren’t even any support units to assist him, the 14th Det, the usual grey men that tracked terror suspects across the UK, having been repositioned elsewhere to track other elements of the Sphinx’s cell.
The Prince was finally allowed to operate on his own, to his own discretion and rules.
Woods kept his eyes alert as he scanned the streets, occasionally turning the page of his newspaper to mime the act of reading and relaxing with his morning coffee. Le Petite Cafe made decent coffee, but it was their fresh baked goods that enticed the likes of Sofia Sumarwata, courier to one of the world’s most feared terrorists.
Situated as he was outside the cafe, with very little opportunities to miss him, the moment Sofia Sumarwata would make entry into the cafe, she would notice him. The Valentine’s Day deadline was ever approaching and Woods had to be bolder in his attempts to track down the Sphinx.
As his watch ticked over to 10am, Woods saw an attractive woman come down the street, her long shapely legs encased in figure hugging jeans and calf-length brown boots. Her svelte figure was accentuated by a matching brown long coat, and a flattering cream turtleneck.
As she drew closer to Woods, he felt his breath catch slightly, as he noted that photos of her in the dossier, did little justice to attractiveness of the woman walking towards him. With her curly brown hair, tied loosely in a bun, soft brown eyes, full lips, and an attractive straight nose, Sofia Sumarwata stood out from the more conventional English Rose beauty like a warmer sunrise.
Nodding politely to Woods, she went inside and ordered her baked goods in a English accent that sounded natural. Woods paid an absent ear to the exchange but there was nothing untoward about the conversation. As Sofia waited, Woods continued to look at his newspaper, resisting the urge to look behind him, and into the cafe.
Holding her brown bag of baked goods, Sofia walked out and went back in the direction she came. Woods waited patiently for a good minute, when she had almost disappeared in the distance, before folding up the newspaper, and waving goodbye to the shop-keeper who nodded politely.
For Woods, urban tracking was a skill that came naturally to him. He instinctively understood body language and a key component of ensuring you are never spotted following someone, is to read the target’s behaviour with great skill and perception.
Little gestures like slowing their pace, hesitating before stops … turning around …. Woods could anticipate and predict these gestures and knew how to break line of sight, often dodging into shops or simply hiding behind poles, turning his back on the target.
Such skill was often underappreciated by the target themselves, unless they were a professional, which to Woods’ suspicion, Sofia Sumarwata was. Her elegant pace never changed once, but her alertness was high, as judged by her constant scanning of her surroundings. Woods also noted that she was a taking very circuitous route to her home, which to his concern, was not where she was heading at all.
The distance between her flat and Le Petit Cafe was no less than 4 kilometres, a simple right angle route that would take her only 20 or so minutes to cover.
They were now in the opposite direction to her flat and Woods could sense that Sofia Sumarwata was heading somewhere else, somewhere where her every movement wasn’t observed by UK intelligence services and every single electronic item in her home wasn’t teeming with bugs.
Woods’ original plan was to introduce himself her at her home, stating that he had only just moved in to the flat near hers, using his considerable charm to present himself as the “affable neighbour” but now that plan was scrapped.
As his mind raced to determine where exactly Sofia was going, Sofia herself made the answer known.
Stopping front of a completely unknown building to the SIS, Sofia fished out an electronic fob and waved it in front of the card reader.
In the 30 seconds that the entire process had taken Sofia to enter the building, a myriad of things happened in Wood’s mind.
The apartment building that Sofia was entering, was extremely upscale. It was christened the Londowntowne, and was promoting itself to be a home away from home, one of those new fads where people could rent an expensive place out for a week and enjoy luxuries that couldn’t normally be afforded at home.
With its contemporary design, all glass, steel, obsidian rock and carefully placed greenery, the Londontowne was a symbol of modernity amidst all the history that ruled much of the capital that had stood for 2000 years.
Naturally, it was an affront of English sensibilities and was an attractive eyesore to all that beheld it.
Owning to the newness of the building, Woods realised that he could still enact his plan.
As Sofia was about to let the shiny, automatic doors close behind her, Woods rushed forwards and banged on the glass.
The sound startled her and she turned around, nearly dropping the bag of baked goods.
Sorry! I forgot my key fob … do you mind letting me in? half shouted Woods.
Sofia nodded, and opened the door for Woods to enter.
Thanks so much. I only just moved in here. said Woods breathlessly, as he mimed a man in panic.
It’s not a problem. replied Sofia as she balanced the bag in her hand, whilst reaching for the elevator button.
Woods and Sofia stared at each other as they waited for the elevator to arrive, before Woods made the first move.
Say …. weren’t you at the cafe earlier today?
Sofia looked at him puzzled.
I only say that, because I recognise that bag. Le Petit Cafe right? queried Woods.
Yeah …. oh wait, you were the guy at the front weren’t you? said Sofia, as recognition dawned in her eyes, along with what seemed to Woods, a trace of suspicion
Yeah that was me. smiled Woods in a placating manner.
Sofia looked at Woods more closely and sighed.
It’s not going to work. she said softly and quietly with an air of resignation. There was a weariness in her tone, a quiet sadness that hinted at something darker within.
Any good spy knew instantly when their cover was blown. Woods hadn’t anticipated to be uncovered so soon, but then he was dealing with a fellow professional. Coincidences didn’t exist in the world of shadows. Both of them who each other was.
No more lies. Only the truth and a plea directly to the heart.
Woods didn’t reply to her, but merely ushered her in the elevator silently and looked at the buttons expectantly. Sofia pressed the button for the 9th floor. As they rode up in silence, Woods looked at Sofia with a blank expression, revealing nothing that was going on in his mind.
For the first time, in her life, Sofia felt a strange mixture of fear and hope blossom in her heart.
As the doors slid open, Woods checked both aisle of the corridors quickly before taking Sofia by the arm and leading her out gently. As they walked to the room 904, Woods kept his hands loose, ready to draw his pistol at any second.
How many inside? asked Woods intensely.
She shook her head. Woods glared at her and held out his hand for the electronic fob.
As the door beeped open, Woods motioned for Sofia to go in first, as he followed closely behind, his paranoia almost at a feverish pitch.
After a thorough search of the apartment, which was luxuriously furbished with contemporary aesthetics, Woods only found Sofia’s overnight bag. Going back, he motioned her to stretch out her arms. To his surprise, Sofia was completely clean. There was only her phone, wallet and keys.
Everything so far matching the intelligence gathered on her … whatever methodology she was using to communicate with the Sphinx was well-disguised. Her movements might be suspicious, but then so was the behaviour of people who cheated on spouses and that didn’t indicate mass murder on a international scale.
Motioning her to sit on the couch in the centre of the room, Woods took his place opposite her. He adopted a comfortable position, crossing his legs and leaning back. This only seemed to put her on edge further.
It was the tan wasn’t it? asked Woods with a cold ironic sense of humour.
Sofia looked at him puzzled. She didn’t know how to respond.
Yeah I figured … answered Woods to his own question. Do you mind if I ask you something?
Sofia didn’t respond.
Do you love him?
Her brown eyes widened in surprise. She was unable to hide her true feelings
Of course you do surmised Woods. Why go through all of this if you weren’t in love?
It can’t be out of revenge. Your husband’s ghost has longed been silenced in your mind …
It definitely can’t be out of religious zealotry. I know you pray everyday, but your clothes, your lifestyle … it fights who you see yourself before God.
There’s no real money in all of this either … I mean …. all of this Woods gestured at the phoney apartment they were sitting in. I know you didn’t pay for.
So … if it’s not money, revenge, fanaticism or patriotism … why be a courier Sofia?
Sofia Sumarwata looked at the spy before her, his emerald eyes boring into her own, eager to uncover the truth behind her actions, her long career as a enabler of terrorist acts.
She was certain that he was working for the other side. He was far too well dressed, and had an strange accent that seemed to blend American, English and Australian inflections. Then there was the suspicious timing of their meeting. Why, with only 2 days until the Valentine Day deadline was a person meeting her, at her safehouse?
That was, until Woods asked her in fluent Farsi
When did you fall in love with Hassan Malik?
Sofia Sumarwata did a double-take at the change in language. The man before her was speaking in her mother Iranian tongue with a curious dialect that could only be mistaken for a native. Now confusion reigned supreme in her mind. She was unsure how to respond to the man before her.
It’s OK Sofia, I am a friend. But I need to know that you are still loyal to the cause said Woods beseechingly in Farsi.
So tell me … when did you fall in love with Hassan Malik?
Sofia tore her eyes away from Woods, unable to speak. For some compelling reason, she believed him. Of course Hassan would send someone to test her on the eve of his biggest event. She had never felt lonelier than the past 6 months without him and here was a man who was part of the cause and wanted to know, so that he … and Hassan could trust her still.
Holding back a big emotional sigh, Sofia told the Queen’s Assassin the whole story.
My husband was a man who looked after his family. For Hakim, there was nothing more important than his younger brother, Assad who loved to make trouble.
It all started with Assad, when he decided to join the Taliban in their fight against the Americans. Hakim didn’t want any part of it, because he was betrothed to me. He made Assad promise to only join, after we got married so that he could look after him better.
But Assad didn’t listen. Only a week later, he got into a firefight with an American squad patrolling our area. He managed to escape, but was wounded in the fight. This was on the night of our wedding. Hakim heard what happened, kissed me once and ran into the night to rescue his brother.
I was left alone, in my wedding dress, screaming for him to come back. He didn’t once look back at me.
Hakim never returned.
Because when he finally found his brother, Assad had bled out in a ditch, alone. That very night, he marched into the caves and demanded a vest. Of course they gave him one …. and he immediately walked over to the checkpoint that had been set up near where we were getting married and killed 7 soldiers.
I heard the blast from my home and at that moment, I knew I had lost him.
My brothers later told me, that he was still wearing his wedding suit when he died.
I knew Hakim for 10 years. We grew up together, played football together, shared tea … He was my first and only ever crush. We kissed each other when we were 16.
Hakim and I made a promise to each other to stay together forever.
Then in one night, he was stolen away from me. By the Americans. By the soldiers who can’t seem to understand us, by men who think they have the right to decide what is good for our people.
4 months after Hakim’s sacrifice … someone came to my family’s home and asked for me.
They told me that if I wanted to honour Hakim, I was to enter the caves and be reborn a fighter.
They gave me a week to consider it.
I only needed 2 days.
The next 6 months, changed me forever. By the time I left the caves, I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had become a warrior.
My very first mission was when I first met Hassan Malik. I never thought I would ever meet anyone like Hakim.
Hassan changed all of that. He knew I would be nervous and afraid. My mission was to lure an American Officer away from the base, so that we could capture him and demand a ransom. But I didn’t know how to.
Hassan showed me the way. How I could be more of a weapon, how I could use my feminine wiles to further the cause. How much of an asset I could be. How I could bring justice to the memory of Hakim.
How I could be loved again.
I’ve never made love to a man as skilled and gentle as him. I felt like a woman reborn under him. Hassan gave me more than purpose, he gave me life.
After that first mission, I didn’t see him again for months. I did what he asked and maintained a low profile. But I missed him terribly.
It was only in the spring of that year, that I finally saw him again. He was just as gentle as I remembered, as beautiful as the green grass that surrounded us and as warm as the desert sun.
I am forever his. I will love another man, as deeply as I love Hassan now.
We used to chat online, but that became too dangerous.
Now we just deliver food to each other. It is not the same, but that is the only way I can continue to communicate with my love.
The Queen’s Assassin left the latest eyesore of London and the beautiful, grieving, romantic widow only minutes later, his mind racing at the genius of the Sphinx’s terrorist cell communication method.
Before he left, he had comforted Sofia the best he could, with one hand around her heaving shoulders throughout her lonely sobs and the other, hacking into her cell-phone to extract all the meta-data hidden in her apps.
Somewhere, deep down, he pitied her, but he couldn’t afford to spare any true sympathy for her. Her love made her vulnerable to manipulation and at the end of the day, no matter how tragic her story was, it didn’t give her the right to create more widows like herself.
The genius of their communication methodology could not be denied though.
Through the use of Just Eat food delivery service, Sofia had been coordinating all the individual cells, at their safe houses, with encrypted messages added onto the food delivery in the meals. It would be brief sentences that would contain the encryption key for cells to unlock further instructions online.
This avoided unnecessary online communication that could be intercepted, and also made everything subtle, as delivering food could be seen as a kind gesture. Even then, as Woods trawled through Sofia’s order history, she only made food deliveries occasionally, no more than once a day, to ensure the operational security was tight.
Hence why everyone missed this.
Gabriel Woods smiled coldly to himself. It was only hours into the chase and yet he was closer to the Sphinx than anyone before him.
Hailing a taxi to drop him back to his car, Woods checked his tail several times, making random loops around London to ensure no other operatives were following him, before driving back to his safe house in St James.
As Gabriel Woods began to make his dinner for the night, and prepare the steps for the next 24 hours, he wondered what was going on in the Sphinx’s mind right now.
It has been a long time since I returned to make another entry into the Espionage series. Sometimes I get huge writer’s block and need to step away before re-reading my own material and knowing where the story can go next.
It was originally planned to have Woods seduce Sofia into revealing the method in which the Sphinx’s terror cell communicated, but I couldn’t justify a completely random, out of the blue sexual tension between opposing side without a huge amount of build-up (one of the many lessons I learned not to do from Spectre (2015), that horribly written James Bond film).
So instead I wanted to delve deeper into why Sofia was doing what she doing and I think I took a lot of inspiration from the Gabriel Allon series which always highlight the common tragedies that plague the Middle East and how both sides suffer.
The food delivery idea is just something I happened to create on the spot, and personally would like to thank my own genius. Obviously the Sphinx’s terror cell must be well funded to afford the exorbitant prices that come with food delivery and doubtless an accountant in the terror organisation would be having a stroke at the running cost, but it is a very sneaky and clever way to deliver messages.
I am of course, not advocating for terror organisations to start using Uber Delivery Drivers as couriers and I definitely do not want them to adopt the idea!
If you wish to read the previous entries, merely type in espionage on my search bar!
Anyway, hopefully the next chapter comes soon!