The Frenchman – Jack Beaumont

The expert standing on the stage thanked the presenter, signalling an end to the session on solid-fuel propellants. Amin rose to his feet with two hundred other scientists and engineers as the lights came up on the conference floor. The large doors of the ballroom in Singapore’s Pan Pacific Hotel swung open and he moved towards them. As he reached the exit, a ruddy-faced Australian radar engineer approached him. Amin knew John Vaughan from other conferences but, despite the Queenslander’s friendliness, Amin had always kept his distance, trying to limit his social exposure. ‘Shit, mate, did you understand any of that?’ John shook his head. ‘I was a passenger for most of it.’ Amin chuckled. ‘It’s a small club, the rocket world.’ ‘Fancy an early beer?’ asked the Aussie. ‘The boys found a bar needs propping up.’ Amin glanced at his watch. ‘Sorry, I have some work to finish in my room.’ He caught the elevator to his room on the eighth floor and secured the interior mechanical bolt. Pulling the curtains, he shut out a view of the marina and fished a disposable cell phone from his wheelie case.

It was 1.59 p.m., one minute until his daily call. He assembled the battery and SIM card into the Samsung he’d bought at Changi Airport, and at 2 p.m. Singapore time he selected ‘Dan’—a name in the middle of a contact list of nonsense numbers—and hit the green button. The phone chirped as the call relayed to the Colonel, the man in charge of Amin’s project section. A silver-haired man with a thick neck who never wore a military uniform, he’d introduced himself the day before Amin turned twenty-six and made his proposal: Use your PhD to help build Pakistan’s missile capability and you’ll be paid more than your peers and work at the highest levels in the best labs. It seemed like a perfect birthday present, even if the trade-off was a profession he couldn’t talk about and a life controlled by Pakistan’s secret intelligence service, the ISI.

Not that a government employee could ever ask if they were being overseen by the ISI; persons being controlled by the ISI were not emboldened to ask questions about it. But after working on missile development for six months, some of the engineers told him that his phone and internet were probably monitored, as were his interactions with friends. He considered this a small price to pay. He got to travel, he wore nice suits and expensive watches, and the pay was good—it had taken his father, a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance, thirty years of service to earn what Amin was making before he was twenty-nine. It wasn’t until he met Anita that he’d started to question the compromises. Amin had disclosed his relationship with her, as required for classified workers, but the Colonel seemed to know about his new girlfriend already. Amin told his new love that he worked in a university research lab on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, without mentioning what he was actually working on. Anita worked at a classified scientific facility called the MERC, and they came to an unspoken agreement early in their courtship: don’t ask—don’t tell. Perhaps, Amin pondered once after he’d drunk too much wine, the Colonel was relaxed about Anita because he knew they didn’t discuss work? Perhaps he knew, because phone and internet were not all he monitored? Amin grew increasingly restless with the arrangement. He didn’t like lying to his girlfriend—now wife; he didn’t like it when the Colonel showed him photos of Anita from university, with her Western friends, or when he disclosed that Anita’s father was a secret alcoholic.

When Amin tried to push back, the Colonel explained the facts of life: This is not a job you walk away from—but you’d be smart enough to understand this, yes? Yes, thought Amin as he sat on the hotel bed, waiting for the call to connect with Islamabad. He was smart enough to have worked that out. ‘Amin,’ came the smooth voice of the Colonel, when the call connected. ‘What news?’ Amin was accustomed to these communications. When he travelled he made the same call every day and it usually lasted twenty seconds. Sometimes the Colonel would ask a pointed question about gyroscopic stabilisers or satellite guidance systems. He always asked who had spoken to him and his response. ‘An Australian engineer, John Vaughan,’ said Amin when the inevitable question was posed. ‘He invited me to go for a drink. I said no.

’ As the Colonel ended the call, Amin’s iPhone began to buzz along the desktop. He’d switched it to vibrate in the seminar, and now it just rattled on the wood veneer. He checked the caller ID; it was Anita. ‘Hello, my love,’ he said, happy to hear from her. Since marrying, he was prone to homesickness. ‘Amin, you have to come home,’ she said. ‘Please! It’s urgent.’ ‘Slow down. What’s happening?’ ‘It’s Mama—she’s sick,’ said Anita. He could hear the fear in her voice now.

Amin’s mother-inlaw was a healthy woman; any sign of ill health would be a shock to her family. ‘I’m on the two o’clock flight tomorrow,’ he said. ‘There’s a round table tonight.’ ‘No,’ she said desperately. ‘Mama might not make it through the night. We need you here now.’ ‘Okay, okay,’ said Amin, sensing panic. ‘There’s a flight from Changi at six,’ said Anita, almost shouting. ‘I’ve emailed you a ticket. You cannot miss that flight, Amin.

’ Amin frowned. Anita was a scholarship science student who completed her PhD in Britain before joining the best scientists in Pakistan at the MERC. She didn’t yell, she wasn’t easily flustered—and she was very, very careful with money. She didn’t just pay for an earlier flight when her husband was already booked on one courtesy of the government. Amin knew something very serious was driving this conversation. He looked at his watch. ‘I’ll try to make the flight. Don’t worry.’ ‘Don’t just try,’ she snapped. ‘Do it! I need you here.

’ She hung up. Amin had never heard her like this before. He opened his laptop, retrieved his e-ticket from Anita’s email and clicked the option to have it sent to his phone. It was now 2.10 p.m. Then he opened his ProtonMail account and saw a new email in the inbox from Marcus Aubrac. It said: Meet for a drink? Aubrac was a French aerospace consultant whom he’d first met in Vienna, at a conference like this one. Amin remembered it well. It was held in a grand old hotel that had been modernised while still retaining its imperial aura.

They’d bumped into one another at the breakfast buffet, exchanged pleasantries and shared a table. More conferences, a few drinks at the bars, with Marcus never asking for anything. In fact, it had been the Frenchman dropping tidbits about Israeli guidance systems and Russian quantum computing in their missile defence. Amin liked Marcus’s worldly grasp of missile technology—plus they had fatherhood in common. Amin must have talked too longingly about the advantages of raising his son Javed in Europe, because one afternoon, at a bar in Brussels, Marcus asked him outright what he’d be prepared to do to have a new life in Paris. It had been one of those precipice moments. After a long silence, Amin had finally said, ‘I gather this is not a hypothetical question?’ Marcus replied that he worked for the French government, and he was in a position to offer a pathway for Amin and his family to gain French citizenship and new identities. ‘And what does France want in return?’ Amin asked. The answer was updates on his missile development and any collateral he might be privy to. Over the next two weeks they’d worked out a deal, down to timelines, possible employment opportunities in Paris and the safety of Anita’s and Amin’s extended families.

They organised a meeting schedule, always at an international conference and always on the afternoon of the final day. Aubrac had advised him to use a burner phone, to use an encrypted email service such as ProtonMail, and explained how to wipe the history on his laptop—always seven times—to avoid having his ProtonMail discovered by the snoops at Amin’s lab. They became close, swapping tales of wives and children, work pressures and the eternal annoyance of politics. Amin assumed Aubrac wasn’t Marcus’s real name, but the details of his life— even if disguised by false names—rang true. There was something magnetic about the Frenchman— aged in his mid-thirties, he was handsome, with a lightly tanned face and sandy hair. His well-cut suit hinted at an athletic build, and although he was over six foot tall his movements were those of a more compact man. If Amin had seen Marcus in a public place he’d have assessed him as a professional tennis player dressed for an office job. Now Amin looked away from Aubrac’s email; he keyed a number on his burner phone and sent a text to the number provided in the email. The Frenchman responded quickly with his own text: Queen’s Inglish pub, two-thirty. Amin shut down the ProtonMail site, wiped his history and collapsed on the bed.

His stomach was clenched like a fist; his pulse banged in his temples. Something was very wrong. Aubrac had taught him some basic hygiene habits to avoid detection by the Pakistani secret services. First and foremost was to remain calm and never behave like a man who thinks he’s being followed, so for a few minutes he just stared at the ceiling, breathing slowly through his nose, until the jitters had passed. Then he rose and packed his wheelie suitcase, grabbed his blazer and headed for the elevators with his suitcase. He walked into the pub, one block south-east of the Pan Pacific, just before two-thirty and went to the end of the bar. There were twenty other customers in the pub but he couldn’t see Aubrac. That wasn’t unusual—Marcus Aubrac usually entered a meeting place after him. He ordered a lemonade and before it landed on the bar Aubrac arrived, smiling as usual, dressed in a light-grey suit, no tie. ‘Bonjour, Amin,’ said Aubrac, his pale eyes crinkling with affection.

Amin shook the Frenchman’s hand, trying to match his ease. As they took a table, Amin realised he still didn’t know what to say. He reflected on the deal he had made with Paris—two years’ worth of inside engineering data on the RA’AD II extended-range missile development, and Amin and his family would receive new identities and French passports. He was five months short of the two years, which would have given Javed the greatest gift—to grow up as a citizen in a rich European country. On his walk to the bar he’d toyed with the idea of asking Aubrac for the help of the French secret services. Could they find out what was up with his wife and her family? But he couldn’t bring himself to ask. He worried that telling Aubrac might result in the French cutting ties with him. The French were not known for sentimentality. He would just have to return to Pakistan on the evening flight and see for himself what was going on. ‘I just wanted to let you know I’ve been called back to Pakistan,’ said Amin, mustering a regretful smile.

‘My mother-in-law is very sick. I have to be at Changi in an hour.’ Aubrac looked briefly at his watch. ‘Family first, my friend,’ he said, gesturing to the barmaid for a beer. Amin noticed a pretty young woman at the bar staring at Aubrac with a gaze that required no interpreter. As usual, Aubrac pretended not to notice. ‘So, you have anything of interest for me?’ asked the Frenchman. Amin shook his head. ‘The new fuel loads and compositions are locked in for now and the testing engineers take over for a while. I’ll start seeing telemetry in two, maybe three weeks.

’ Aubrac nodded. ‘Keep the development and testing teams separate. That’s smart.’ Avoiding eye contact with his friend, Amin stood. Aubrac appeared to hesitate. Amin thought the Frenchman was on the verge of asking if everything was okay, but he merely said, ‘Well, I guess it’s goodbye, Amin.’ ‘Yes, my friend,’ said Amin, emotion welling up. ‘I’ll see you at the Paris conference?’ Amin nodded and then he grabbed the Frenchman’s hand in a double grip. ‘Farewell, Marcus.’ They parted with a smile but after two heavy strides, Amin stopped and turned.

‘Adieu, my friend,’ he said to a person who’d been privy to his deepest fears and ambitions and yet had never revealed his own name. The two men looked at each other for a moment longer than was normal, then Amin wheeled his suitcase out into the Singapore sunshine. The flight landed at Islamabad International Airport just after 2 a.m. Amin collected his suitcase and headed for the taxi stand, a strange nausea gripping his stomach. He’d brooded on the flight, wondering about Mina, his mother-in-law, and what could have stricken her. There was a lengthy queue outside the bustling airport terminal, and as he took his place behind a sweating businessman, a black Nissan Maxima pulled up in the taxi zone. A man alighted from the passenger seat, large and athletic. Amin knew him as Johnny—one of the Colonel’s staffers. His stance was threatening but he smiled.

‘The Colonel sent us to pick you up,’ he said, reaching for Amin’s suitcase. ‘Let’s go.’ The driver leaned across and opened the rear door, and Johnny leaped in the back with Amin after depositing the suitcase in the boot. They accelerated into the traffic, the smell of American aftershave thick in the car. ‘Where are we going?’ asked Amin as they left the terminal building. ‘The hospital?’ ‘Later,’ said Johnny, lighting a cigarette and cracking his window. ‘The Colonel wants a chat first.’ They motored east, presumably towards Noor Khan, the Pakistan Air Force base that was home to the missile research program and the Colonel’s office. As they closed on the west of Rawalpindi, the driver took an off-ramp and circled under the freeway so they were travelling south and around the outskirts of the sprawling city. ‘I thought we were going to see the Colonel,’ said Amin.

‘He’s not at Noor Khan tonight?’ Johnny shrugged and lit another cigarette. They veered off the main road onto a street with little lighting and a high security fence to the left. The only vehicles visible seemed to be security. Amin was about to protest that he thought they might be lost, when he saw a security checkpoint in the distance. Now he recognised the street. He’d driven Anita here once, when her car was in the workshop. He’d dropped her at the checkpoint and the guards had called for a golf cart to come down and pick her up. Even with his security clearance, Amin wasn’t allowed in this facility. Acid churned in his stomach as they swept through the checkpoint. This was not right.

‘Why are we here?’ he asked, craning to scope his environment. ‘This is the MERC, isn’t it?’ Johnny smiled. ‘MERC? I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ They pulled over beside a large white building, and were met by a plainclothes man—ISI, Amin guessed—at the side portico. The man searched Amin before walking him to an elevator. Amin wondered if he was going to faint; he couldn’t seem to get enough air. ‘We going down?’ asked Amin. His throat was dry and he was aware of sweat prickling on his forehead. Johnny and the ISI man ignored the question. The elevator stopped at B5.

Amin walked out first, and turned right at the guard’s direction. The concrete walls were a pale green, made putrid by the weak fluoro lighting. The corridor smelled of damp and bleach. Behind him, Amin heard a throat clearing, and he turned—the ISI man had his hand on the doorknob of an unmarked room. Amin walked back to him like a man in a dream. As Amin entered the dimly lit room, two thugs grabbed him, threw him into a steel-framed chair and shackled his ankles and forearms to it. ‘Hey,’ he yelled, struggling, but he knew the truth—he was going nowhere. He looked around as he tested the straps on his arms. The room smelled of industrial cleaning fluids and cigarette smoke. The Colonel sat on the other side of a wooden desk, smoking and silent.

There were four chairs arranged in a box formation. In front of him, Anita was strapped to her own chair, duct tape sealing her mouth. Javed stared back at him from the interrogation chair at his ten o’clock. ‘Why are my family here?’ Amin asked the Colonel, his voice high and frightened. The Colonel exhaled smoke through his nose. ‘Perhaps we should try to answer that question?’ Amin shook his head, trying to shake away the reality—he’d played with the French devil and he’d lost. ‘It’s me you want, and I’m here. Let them go. Javed is seven. He’s just a boy.

’ ‘And boys turn into men,’ said the Colonel, his voice flat. ‘They can develop all sorts of hatreds against their country, especially if their father is a chatterbox—a well-paid chatterbox, yes, Amin?’ Amin’s thoughts were a jumble, his breath rasping in fast, shallow pants as panic flooded through him. The Colonel nodded at the thug in a black business shirt who’d thrown Amin into the chair. The man walked to a table behind Anita and turned on a lamp, revealing a battery-powered drill. Black Shirt picked up the drill, and walked around to stand in front of Anita. Her eyes grew huge as the thug hit the trigger, testing the spin of the drill bit. The motor whined. ‘This Frenchman,’ said the Colonel, as the drill slowed. ‘Who is he?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Amin, shaking his head. He’d imagined what it would be like to be caught, but he’d never thought about what he would say.

‘Don’t know?’ The Colonel smiled. ‘You don’t know who he is? Or you don’t know a Frenchman?’ Amin opened his mouth to reply but no sound came out. ‘I’ll give you a clue. He’s a tall, handsome blond man with nice suits. Speaks with a French accent.’ ‘Aubrac,’ croaked Amin. ‘Marcus Aubrac, from Paris.’ ‘What does he do?’ ‘Aerospace. More on the finance and investment side, but well informed.’ Observing Anita’s eyes, which were wide with terror, he added, ‘My wife knows nothing about this.

’ The Colonel stood, dropped his cigarette and ground it into the concrete floor. Then he walked over to Amin. ‘What did he want from you?’ ‘Not much,’ said Amin. The Colonel nodded at his sidekick, who brought the drill to full revs then kneeled and drove the bit into the top of Anita’s bare foot. She arched her back as the drill bit exited the sole of her foot in a flurry of blood and flesh. Amin struggled against his restraints as the thug withdrew the spinning drill bit. He looked at Javed, whose face was flooded with tears, his accusing eyes boring into his father. ‘Stop, please!’ Amin begged. ‘I’ll tell you everything.’ The Colonel returned to his desk and lit a cigarette as Anita’s blood ran across the concrete.

‘Okay, so talk.’ ‘I told Aubrac about the fuel loads, and the weight and the range of the RA’AD II.’ ‘The test telemetry?’ Amin shook his head. ‘I couldn’t download it. I memorised the summaries, though, and I believe that was enough for the French to reverse-engineer the performance.’ ‘How did he contact you?’ ‘ProtonMail,’ said Amin. ‘And then?’

.

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