Antony Johnston is perhaps best known as the writer of The Coldest City, the graphic novel that was adapted into the Charlize Theron-starring Atomic Blonde. This week, Lightning Books is due to publish his first novel, The Exphoria Code, which sounds really interesting. The publisher has kindly allowed me to share the first chapter from the book. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
Brigitte Sharp, a cyber-espionage specialist with MI6, has been deskbound and in therapy for three years, after her first field mission in Syria went disastrously wrong. But now one of her best friends has been murdered, and Bridge believes his death is connected to strange posts appearing on the internet, carrying encrypted hidden messages.
When Bridge decodes the messages, she discovers evidence of a mole inside a top-secret Anglo-French military drone project. Her MI6 bosses force her back into the field, sending her undercover in France to find and expose the mole… who may also be her friend’s killer. But the truth behind the Exphoria code is worse than she could have imagined.
Soon she’s on the run, desperate and alone – as a nuclear terrorist plot unfolds and threatens everything Bridge has left to live for.
The Exphoria Code is the first novel in the author’s Brigitte Sharp series. Read on for Chapter 1…
THE EXPHORIA CODE: Chapter 1
by Antony Johnston
He wasn’t really a mole. Not technically, and that’s how he justified it to himself.
Of course, he didn’t have any real choice in the matter. Not if he wanted to keep his job, his career, his pension, his family… his life. And what would his wife say, if she knew? If she knew where the money to buy their new car, her new clothes, their evenings in fine restaurants, came from?
The same money that had landed him in this current mess.
What he was doing was definitely spying, he couldn’t talk his way around that. But he wasn’t actually working for the Russians, not in the sense that people meant when they said, “There’s a mole in MI6,” in those classic stories of British public schoolboys growing up to betray their country. He didn’t work for an intelligence agency. Just another government man, punching his card and collecting his salary.
The only difference between him and anyone else on the project was that he was here, driving up a dark, tree-lined road in the middle of nowhere an hour before midnight, with a Toshiba SD card in his wallet. An SD card holding what were, technically, state secrets.
He wasn’t even getting paid for them. He’d already been paid, for the other thing, and that had gone about as badly as it could have, so now he owed them. It was only fair, the Russian had said when approaching him months ago, that he repay his debt. He couldn’t, of course. The money was spent. But the Russian expected that, anticipated it. People spend money when they have it. So the Russian would accept something else, instead. It wouldn’t cost him a penny.
But it had cost him more than enough sleepless nights. Tonight, he thought, tonight would be the last one. It had to be, didn’t it?
When the Russian first approached him, he’d asked if they could do the handovers at a café. Since coming here to work on the project he’d adopted a place in town as his regular lunch time haunt. The sort of place guidebooks and low-budget travel programmes would prefix with “charming little”, gushing about “local flavour” and “authenticity”, oblivious to how being invaded by people from out of town — people like him — would chip away at that very same authenticity, until all that remained was a place where tourists went to take selfies and feel pleased with themselves for finding somewhere “so off the beaten path.”
He just liked their tea.
The Russian had called him a stupid amateur, and insisted they meet at a secluded car park atop a wooded hill just outside of town instead. He’d noticed on previous visits there was no cellular signal up here. Perhaps that had something to do with it.
He pulled into the car park, stopped the car, and turned off the headlights. There were no street lamps out here, and the sudden darkness left him momentarily blind as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. A sharp rapping on the driver’s window made him cry out in surprise. He still couldn’t see, but as he opened the door he smelled familiar sour notes of alcohol and cheap German cigarettes, and knew it was the Russian.
And who else would it be, anyway? Nobody knew he came here for these meetings. Nobody followed him. For the duration of the project he was living alone, in an apartment on the edge of town, and on the Russian’s advice had removed the complimentary GPS unit in his long-term rental car. On the way here tonight there had been one car that seemed to follow him from somewhere in town — he didn’t notice it until they were on the outskirts, but it had definitely been there for some time — until the car turned off before they crossed the river, going in a completely different direction. After that he’d checked the rear view mirror every ten seconds for the rest of the journey, but saw nothing.
“Good evening, Comrade,” said the Russian, his accent as thick as the smoke he blew into the cool, dark air. “The stars are very fine tonight.” He was right. This far from town, the lack of light pollution meant you could see almost every star in the sky, right to the horizon.
He shook his head all the same. “Comrade? You do know the Soviet Union hasn’t existed for decades.”
The Russian looked back over his shoulder with a thin smile. “Yes, of course. Absolutely.” As usual, the Russian’s car was nowhere to be seen. Either he parked it elsewhere, or he walked all the way here from town. Both seemed plausible.
He took the Toshiba card from his coat pocket and offered it to the Russian. The card itself held everything incriminating; if anyone looked at the mini-tablet it came from, all they’d find were photos of his wife and family, and an almost complete collection of Chris Rea music. He was just missing a couple of the early albums. One of the project coders had offered to “torrent” them for him, which he knew was some kind of illegal internet thing, but that sounded too risky, considering what he was doing. The thought of his family made him protective and defiant, so as the Russian pocketed the memory card he took a deep breath and said, “I think now you’ve had enough.”
“Excuse me, what?” the Russian frowned.
“I said, I think you’ve had enough from me. I can’t keep doing this, someone is going to notice eventually. It’s amazing I haven’t been caught already.”
“You owe us. And your debt is not yet repaid.”
“It must be,” he protested. “The project will be finished in a few weeks, you must have enough by now.”
The Russian took a slow step towards him. He backed up, feeling the car against his back as the Russian held up the SD card between them. “I gave you many of these. You will fill them all, and then maybe we have had enough.”
“You, you can’t threaten me,” he stammered, “I’m your, your only source, I know that. Without me, you’ve got nothing.”
The Russian turned the SD card over in his fingers, its metal contacts gleaming in the starlight. “And without this, you are worth nothing… except perhaps the life insurance for your wife and children.” The Russian leaned forward, snorting sour breath into his face, and something hard pressed against his chest, something lodged under the Russian’s ill-fitting sport coat. He closed his eyes, trying not to think about what it was.
Something clicked. The Russian stepped back.
Nothing happened. He opened his eyes to see the Russian was holding the car door open for him. “You need rest. Go and have a good night’s sleep. I will see you here again in three days.”
He slid back inside the car and let the Russian close the door with a flick of his wrist. It started on the second attempt, and he drove away, back down the hill, not looking back. He didn’t want to see the Russian watching him in the rear view mirror, didn’t want to imagine the hint of a smile on the man’s face.
Just a few more weeks, he told himself. You’ve been doing it for months. A few more weeks and it would be over. The debt would be paid, and everything would go back to normal, because he only had this one thing to do, because he wasn’t actually a Russian agent or mole.