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«Zero hour», Andy McNab

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Wednesday, 5 September 2007 22.39 hrs

The Arab guy at the keyboard was so small his feet only just touched the pedals. His shirt collar was far too big for him, and so were his green suit and matching bow-tie. It looked like the management had ordered a dozen the same size and tough shit if you didn't fit. Tonight's menu had been dished up along much the same lines, but at least the place had air-conditioning.

Diane perched herself on the stool next to mine. She was dressed up for a night out. Everything was covered, but she'd overdone the makeup. She crossed her legs and leant towards me. The pack of B amp;H glinted in the bar light.

I picked up my orange juice with a shake of the head. 'No thanks, I don't.'

'Quite right too.' She tapped a long red nail on her disposable lighter, took her first deep drag and reached for her G-and-T.

'What do you think of it so far, Nick?'

'My kind of party.' I checked my G-Shock. Less than nineteen minutes to go.

Her half-emptied glass went back on the bar. She studied me as she took another drag. 'Your first time?'

I gave her a grin. 'Thought I'd give it a go.'

'This is my second.' She swivelled to face me, losing herself for a moment in a cloud of cigarette smoke. 'The first time I didn't really want to come. It was so soon after my divorce. But all my friends- Well, everybody has their own lives, don't they? Kids and mortgages. Too much going on, I suppose.'

'Same here. I was left at a loose end. My mates have better things to do than play around with a single lad. Or maybe their wives won't let them out in case I lead them astray. I've always wanted to come here, so when I saw the ad I thought, Why not?'

She took another drag and raised her drink again. We clinked glasses, toasting our exclusion from the world. She sucked an ice cube into her mouth and crunched it.

'How long were you married, Nick?'

'Not long. Couple of years. You?'

'Fifteen.' She made it sound like we were cellmates comparing stretches.

'Long time…'

She downed the rest of her gin a bit too quickly. I sensed her life story was about to swamp me. I pointed at her glass and mimed a scribble to the barman.

She kept going. 'You're right. A very long time. We didn't have any kids. He left me for a younger woman, of course. He's got a little girl now.'

A fresh glass appeared. The first sip went down very smoothly.

'What about you, Nick?'

'Only one.'

'How old?'

'She was sixteen.'

Her face fell. 'I'm so sorry.'

'It was a long time ago.'

'How did she… pass away… if you don't mind me asking?' Her hand slid across and gripped my arm.

'An accident. In London. She was… run over.' I didn't care if she thought I was lying or not. 'Anyway, I'm knackered – I think I'm going to head back.'

'Oh, please, I didn't mean to upset you. Please stay.'

'It's not that.' I smiled at her. 'You know what? Maybe that's why I'm here. The women in my life don't tend to stick around for long. I tend not to get that involved, you know what I mean?'

The bill arrived. I made a move for my wallet but she gripped me more tightly.

'I think you and me are exactly the same, Nick. The last thing I want is an… attachment.'

I freed my sleeve and counted out some notes. She was getting ready to leave too. 'So, Nick, maybe we could go back to the hotel and have a quiet drink there, away from the rest of the gang?'

She nodded over at the restaurant area, where a table of eight or nine was still waffling about today's highlights.

'Thanks, Di. But I think I'll just get my head down.'

I grabbed my nylon day sack and slid off the stool. I turned for the door as she finished off her drink. She wasn't giving up. 'Nick, if you can't sleep, call my room. I'll only be reading. Or I'll be downstairs with the others. Anything but sleeping. It's just so… hot…'

She wasn't wrong. I pushed open the doors and walked out of the Jisr al-Kabir into the heat of the night. The restaurant was only a stone's throw from the landmark suspension bridge that spanned the Euphrates in the north-eastern city of Deir el-Zor, but there was no cooling breeze off the river. Deir el-Zor meant 'monastery in the forest', Baltasar had told us. I'd have to take his word for it. All I'd seen was rugged mountains and desert, and farmers tilling the fields on the banks of the river. Not much went on here unless it had to do with the newly invigorated tourist trade. All the action was eighty miles downstream, in neighbouring Iraq.

There were untold numbers of ancient cities around here, our guide had continued. They'd survived Romans, Jews, Ottomans and even the French, who ran the country until 1946. Just about the only natives we'd come across were street vendors trying to flog us camel-hair blankets or sacks of cardamom or coriander. What the fuck was I going to do with any of those?

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