Who is your favourite thriller character?
Jack Reacher? Dr Kay Scarpetta? Will Trent? Dr Tony Hill?
Let me introduce Olivia Wolfe, a new and different thriller hero, in this extract from Devour:
It’s December and snowing. Their progress is slow as they dodge haggling shoppers, bicycles, wooden carts, ancient cars and overburdened, skeletal donkeys. Street vendors in thick coats call out to passers-by, offering pomegranates, eggplants, carrots, cauliflowers, nuts and spices, freshly butchered meat, birds in cages, hot green tea in urns. Cars honk, brakes screech, men shout, chickens squabble. Behind the stalls, ramshackle shops compete for custom. One sign in English and Pashtun, offering a ‘Modern Gym’, is riddled with bullet holes. She’s not surprised; foreigners are not welcome. Snowflakes settle on sand sand-coloured shattered shops and homes, and the slouching, weary shoulders of a people at war too long. Winter hides the beige city’s wounds. But it does not heal them.
Wolfe spots a woman in a head-to-toe pale blue burqa, accompanied by a man she expects is the husband. This is the first woman she’s seen in the street.
‘Blue Bottle,’ says Shinwari.
He glances at Wolfe and grins, but continues to lean over the steering wheel, as if somehow this will make the car go faster. She’s heard that derogatory term before, back in her foreign correspondent days when she accompanied the allied troops into war. The troops coined the expression ‘Blue Bottle’.
‘Where are all the women?’ she asks.
Accelerating around two boys pushing a bicycle, the horizontal cross bar laden with a bag of wheat they intend to sell, Shinwari then swerves across oncoming traffic to turn left up a mountain road, on either side of which are box box-shaped homes that appear to be carved into the sandy hillside. Children pick through the rubbish littering the slopes below.
‘I don’t like this,’ Shinwari says. ‘One road in and one road out. Very dangerous.’
Her ‘fixer’ of many years, Shinwari negotiates their way through road blocks and no-go zones, offering bribery and banter to officials and warlords alike, so she gets her interview. She trusts his judgement but this one is worth the extra risk.
‘I have to do this.’
Shinwari shakes his head. The car lurches and the chassis scrapes across exposed rock. Wolfe fidgets in her seat and clicks the stud of her tongue piercing against her teeth. Earlier on she was freezing – the car’s decrepit heating system gave up the ghost years ago. But now, as her heartbeat quickens, she is stifling in her long brown Afghan dress.
‘Her husband is not there? You are certain?’ Shinwari asks, his voice shaky.
‘He’s in Tajikistan.’
Shinwari peers through the filthy windscreen as he searches for the right address, the lethargic wipers fighting a losing battle.
‘If Ahmad Ghaznavi knows you’ve been asking about him, this could be a trap.’
‘Shinwari.’ She turns to face him. ‘I know what I’m doing. You know that, right?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he replies.
‘Going after Colonel Lalzad was just as dangerous. We exposed him for the torturer and killer he is. That’s why he’s now in a British gaol. Because of us.’ She squeezes his shoulder. ‘But he’s still running his organisation from prison and word is the drugs are funding an Isil terror cell in the UK.’
‘So why you see Ghaznavi’s wife?’
‘Ghaznavi is Lalzad’s right right-hand man in Kabul. He gets the drugs to England. Nooria Zia says she knows how the drug money reaches the man behind this British cell and who he is.’
Shinwari’s forehead is slick with sweat. ‘But why does she help you?’
‘She hates him. He raped her at fourteen. When she went to the police, she was convicted of the moral crime of being raped. Had his son in Kabul’s Women’s Prison. I did a story, remember? You got me the interview.’
‘Yes, yes, but this is big risk for her.’
‘Let me finish. Ghaznavi’s first wife only gave him daughters, so he pressured Nooria into marrying him, legitimising his son. She wants to be free of him.’
Shinwari nods his understanding and focuses on the narrow road. A hairpin bend. Fewer houses. A steeper climb.
‘You always thank me,’ he says. ‘Other journalists, they use me and leave. I thank you.’
‘Any time, mate.’
He scans the street. The houses are bigger, better built.
‘That one,’ Shinwari says, nodding at a mansion that is about as out of place as exposed cleavage is in Afghanistan.
‘A poppy palace. Of course,’ Wolfe says.
Shinwari whistles through his teeth.