Published: Lightning Books (December 2017)
“Very possibly the definitive espionage thriller of the early 21st century” – Alan Moore
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.
“She staggered back, firing at Novak. The bullet hit him in the thigh, and he cried out. But his momentum carried him through, falling into her before she could brace herself, and now Bridge fell back, expecting to slam into the wall, but there was no wall, only the empty hole of the shattered window, nothing to stop her from tumbling backwards, out and down...”
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 espionage, 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 lunchtime 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 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 it. 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 against the car as the Russian held up the memory 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 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.
“Antony Johnston is a talent to look out for and this, his latest entry into the world of espionage, is a treat.”
“In The Exphoria Code, Antony Johnston delivers a crackling fuse-wire of a book with a plot torn from next year’s headlines and an understanding of contemporary spy-craft that will make your head spin. This is very possibly the definitive espionage thriller of the early 21st century. Read, memorise, and destroy.”
“If Atomic Blonde was my love letter to the cold war, The Exphoria Code is my encrypted email to the modern age of cyber-terrorism.”
‘Anthony Johnston’s first novel immediately establishes him as a fresh voice in spy thriller writing... An engaging character, top flight technological expertise made easy for the reader, fast action and a web of intrigue make this a propulsive read and, one hopes, the first of many outings for Brigitte, a spy with a marked difference and a breath of fresh air, compared to all the old spies of yesteryear. Highly recommended’
‘A fast-paced and cleverly constructed story that uses many of the familiar spy-novel tropes but does so in exciting new ways. Johnston makes good use of jargon and technical terminology to give the story an air of realism, although the story pushes itself right to the edge of plausibility, cleverly adding to the suspense. A rousing success’
‘Sharp turns out to be quite resourceful, physically and mentally, and thrilling action scenes keep the pages turning’
‘Anthony Johnston’s novel is one that could help to redefine the espionage thriller as a literary genre... In Brigitte Sharp, he has created the perfect, if reluctant, spy for this troubled modern age... This first in a projected series of novels moves the spy story into new territory’
‘Like almost everything Johnston writes, The Exphoria Code moves swiftly, is immediately engrossing, and has more than a ring of truth in its cloak-and-dagger shenanigans. This is...a fast-paced read that gets the adrenalin surging, and Brigitte Sharp is a beautifully realised protagonist. If you’re looking for an exciting new heroine and a thriller that will keep you reading long into the night, The Exphoria Code won’t disappoint. Personally, we can’t wait for the sequel…’
‘A very enjoyable piece of contemporary spy-fi. I hope someone picks up the rights to Brigitte sooner rather than later and we can see her in action on screen’
‘A really great read – a page-turner, I can attest to that’
‘Antony Johnston further cements [his] espionage credentials with the release of his first prose spy novel, The Exphoria Code.... [He] has created a three-dimensional spy that I’m eager to see again. Johnston does for hackers what Le Carré did for short, fat office managers – turns them into spies you can root for’
‘A page-turner to lose yourself in, so be ready for a satisfying reading session’
‘A thrilling and fabulous read. In the age of cyber crime, hackers make the best spies. The Exphoria Code is the perfect modern espionage thriller’
‘I loved The Exphoria Code: mixing real-world political issues with old school spying, it has a layered protagonist who is not a cookie-cutter ‘woman in a man’s world’’
‘Full of action, fast paced: I was hooked from the beginning. I hope there will be more Brigitte Sharp’
“I’’ll never utter the words ‘How hard could it be?’ again without a dozen colourful emoji in tow....” Antony Johnston tells Crime Time about his transition from writing best-selling graphic novels and hit video games to producing his first fully-fledged conventional novel.
Imagined Things bookshop in Harrogate recommends The Exphoria Code in The Observer.
For more information about Antony go to www.exphoriacode.com