Plymouth Crown Court, England
Seventeen-year-old Jack Chandler sat, head bowed, in the dock listening to the barrister for the prosecution making a case for his imprisonment. He smoothed a finger across the face of the chrome watch on his wrist and closed his eyes. His father would have been ashamed of him. As for his mother ... Jack didn’t want to think about his mother – not here, not now.
‘The evidence has shown that Mr Chandler’s behaviour defines him as a thug. Incapable of controlling his fists and incapable of controlling his drinking. This ...’ The prosecution barrister stopped and frowned at the dock.
Jack felt a hand grip his shoulder.
The security guard standing next to him nodded at Jack’s right thigh bouncing – his heel a rhythmic clack on the wooden floor – an involuntary habit when he wanted to tell someone they didn’t know what they were talking about.
‘Stop it,’ the guard said under his breath.
Jack moved back on the wooden seat and stared around the mahogany panelling of the courthouse trying not to catch the eyes of the jurors.
The barrister cleared his throat. ‘This is the second time Mr Chandler has appeared in court in almost as many months and on both occasions he has tried to place the blame for what happened on the victims. Victims, I might add, who required hospital treatment for their injuries.’ The man reached for a glass of water and drank slowly as if allowing time for the jurors to absorb the remark.
Jack was going down – he knew it. His barrister warned him last time that his boxing skills would go against him at court. But she hadn’t been there, didn’t see what happened. Didn’t see the goading – the smirked remarks about his father – the punches they threw first. Not that he had witnesses this time or last. No one wanted to take the side of the son of what the media had called a “Purveyor of Genocide”.
‘Again, this time,’ continued the barrister, ‘he insists the victims slandered his parent’s reputation and instigated violence against his person. However, on neither occasion, did or has he been able to produce witnesses to corroborate those allegations. It’s time he stopped trying to use his past as an excuse and moved on.’ The man flicked his gown to one side as he sat.
Jack’s barrister stood, her head tilted, eyebrows raised as she looked toward the dock. He guessed it meant I’ll do my best.
She turned to face the jury. ‘Eighteen months ago Jack Chandler was an average fifteen-year-old. He achieved good scholastic grades and enjoyed time with his parents in what was a close knit family.’ She glanced at the prosecution barrister leaning back in his chair. ‘My Learned Friend would have you to believe that what happened next in Jack Chandler’s life is something he could deal with and move on from. But that isn’t the case. On July seventh of eighty-eight just prior to the end of the Iraq-Iran war Jack’s father, Major Frank Chandler, was captured by–’
‘My Lord.’ The prosecution barrister rested both hands on his desk as he stood. ‘Major Chandler’s mercenary defection from the British Army to the Iraqi Military and his subsequent death is a well documented matter.’
Jack jumped to his feet. ‘My father didn’t defect ... and he wasn’t a mercenary. The Iranians tortured him. They made him say things.’ He pushed against the guard’s hands as the man grabbed his arm and tried to sit him down. ‘The newspapers lied. My father was a good soldier.’
The Judge wagged a finger at him and Jack sat. ‘You are doing yourself no favours young man. Now, did you ask for this matter to be raised in mitigation?’
Jack shook his head.
‘My Lord, I’d like a word with my client.’ At the judge’s nod, Jack’s barrister walked to the dock, crooked a finger and spoke quietly as Jack leaned forward. ‘I told you earlier, it won’t be a caution or a fine this time. Unless I can pull something out of the hat you’re looking at custody in a juvenile prison. Is that what you want? Is that what your parents would have wanted for their son?’
‘My parents are dead,’ said Jack.
‘Be that as it may, your parents are your only chance. Believe me, Jack, they would want this mentioned.’ She walked back to her desk and stood quietly for a moment, then looked at the jury. ‘My Learned Friend is correct, the case of Major Frank Chandler is well documented. Jack’s father was captured by the Iranians and accused of supplying nerve gas to the Iraqis for use on Iranian civilians.’ She glanced at Jack as she spoke. ‘Rightly or wrongly, our Government branded him a defector to the Iraqis and refused to acknowledge him. On the third of August of eighty-eight he was shot trying to escape a courthouse in Tehran.’ She paused for a moment as if considering whether to continue then pulled a hand-written note from the file in front of her. ‘What isn’t well documented is what happened to Jack’s mother. The media condemnation and then the loss of her husband had a dramatic effect on Mrs Chandler.’
Jack fought to suppress the recurring image of his mother lying on her bed, an empty pill bottle next to her. He’d tried to bury that memory along with her body a year ago.
‘She began drinking. And, despite Jack’s efforts, she very quickly spiralled into a depression that stopped her eating, and behaving rationally. Terrified of leaving her alone, he refused to go to school. Instead he spent his time caring for her and trying to bring her out of the daily round of alcohol and anti-depressants that was–’
‘Stop it!’ Jack leapt up again, his knuckles white on the dock’s handrail. ‘It wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t well. Send me to prison. I don’t care. But stop talking about her like that.’ He stumbled back as the guard heaved him onto the seat. ‘Just stop talking about her.’
There was silence as the barrister placed the paper back in the file. ‘Jack Chandler found his mother dead on Christmas morning of eighty-eight. She’d committed suicide. Jack was two weeks off his sixteenth birthday.’ She closed the file. ‘I believe my Learned Friend is misguided when he says someone of that age should be able to put those events behind them and move on. The trauma of losing his parents in that way will live with Jack Chandler for the rest of his life.’
The glance she gave Jack before she sat made his heartbeats deepen. He looked toward the judge – head down writing – and swallowed against a ball of emotion in his throat.
Finally the judge sat back, instructed the jurors to retire to consider their verdict then asked both barristers to accompany him through a side door.
As Jack was escorted from the dock he scanned the courtroom again. On a bench to his left a red-haired woman, the only reporter, stopped writing in a notepad and gave him a sympathetic look. It seemed his court appearance was going to get less press coverage than his father’s.
Forty minutes later Jack was led back to the dock. The judge and both barristers returned, resumed their places and the foreman of the jury was asked to state the verdict.
The word “Guilty” had Jack rock onto his heels. It wasn’t that he didn’t expect it, he did, but actually hearing it made him feel sick.
The judge fixed his gaze on him. ‘I have listened carefully to what has been said here this afternoon and I want you to know that, no matter what the provocation, violence will not be tolerated. This is the second time you have appeared on assault charges and it has to stop.’
Images of prisoners walking around a high-walled yard pushed in to Jack’s mind.
‘It is obvious that you are, of your own volition, incapable of changing your behaviour and it is therefore up to this court to ensure the sentence imposed achieves this.’
The wall became higher and the yard darker as Jack lowered his gaze.
‘The law requires that I send you to prison for nine months.’
Jack winced as his mother’s face materialised in his mind. He was glad she wasn’t here to see this.
‘That is what the law requires. However ...’
Jack held his breath.
‘I believe you would benefit more from having a new family.’
The remark had Jack wondering who would want to foster, what social services called “a wayward seventeen-year-old”.
‘The court reports show you to be a fit and healthy young man and in certain cases it is within my power to provide an alternative to prison.’ The judge leaned onto his desk and pointed his pen at Jack. ‘That alternative is the Army. I will allow you twenty-four hours to consider your position and make a decision. Prison or the Army. The choice is yours, Jack Chandler.’
Hit, Iraq – Aug 3rd 2010
14.37 hrs – local time
The dust-covered 1998 Toyota Camry heading north-west in a line of traffic through Hit looked like any of the other cars journeying through this small town on the Euphrates ... and that was exactly how Jack Chandler wanted it. He flexed sweaty fingers over the M4 Colt Commando assault rifle placed between his right thigh and the car door as he and the driver, Robbo Banks, scanned the roadside shops and derelict buildings they were passing.
As they headed out of the town, toward the blistering heat of the desert corridor to Haditha base, Jack’s mind flipped again between their clandestine commentary on their surroundings and the prospect of what lay ahead when he arrived back in the UK the next day. The former he could do almost without thinking – the latter troubled him. He hoped Sally appreciated what he was giving up for her.
A truck loaded with old tyres swinging out from between dirty white buildings stopped his thoughts and pumped adrenaline as it snail-paced along in front of them.
As Robbo braked Jack tugged up the Colt and checked back and forth along the road. No change in car movement or people busying themselves along the pavement – windows and roof-tops empty.
‘Clear,’ he said dropping the Colt back. He glanced at Robbo, the thought of them having a cold beer together back in Plymouth disappearing as the truck jerked to a halt – its front end turned toward the line of oncoming traffic.
Robbo braked again. ‘Where’s this twat going?’
Jack didn’t comment. He was staring up ahead, past the truck at a young girl in a yellow dress, amongst a group of people attempting to cross the road.
One hand tugged at the cloth of her mother’s black abaaya – the other pointed back across a hundred metres of wasteland to a derelict warehouse beyond a rank of shops on Jack’s right.
On the warehouse roof parapet the silhouette of a head and shoulders shimmered in the afternoon heat. A second silhouette tightened Jack’s gut.
He punched a fist at Robbo. ‘Machine gun! Three o’clock.’
A burst of 12mm rounds ripped across the wasteland dropping the people crossing the road – the shrieks of those crawling for cover silenced as the gunner opened up again.
More bullets cracked along the tarmac ricocheting off the bonnet of the Toyota.
‘Back up!’ yelled Jack.
Robbo rammed it into reverse, shunted the car behind them back a metre just as the fuel tank on the truck exploded.
Blazing tyres erupted, tumbling onto the Toyota as it careered back onto the pavement braking alongside the row of shops.
‘Call it in!’ Jack grabbed his rifle, kicked the door open and checked the street.
Behind them the doors on abandoned cars were open – engines still running – drivers and passengers crowded into doorways.
Across the road three more cars were locked together – bullet holes in bodywork, windows shattered, drivers and passengers dead.
Ten metres past the truck inferno the girl was screaming in the middle of the road next to her mother’s crumpled body.
The machine gun stopped.
Jack darted to the edge of the rank of shops, peered around the wall at the roof-top gunner, then glanced back at the girl pulling frantically on her mother’s arm. If the woman was alive Jack could see no sign of it.
The girl turned and looked at him, and for a moment he couldn’t move – couldn’t take his eyes off hers.
Robbo’s hand gripped Jack’s shoulder. ‘Don’t even think about it.’
‘She’s a kid for Christ’s sakes.’
‘This isn’t our business. Air support’s coming in. We’re to sit tight, then move out.’
Jack’s dark green eyes refocused on the girl rocking back and forth – arms crossed over her small frame – mouth open, body straining to scream but no sound coming out. He jerked away from Robbo’s grip. ‘Cover me.’
‘Fuck it, Ja...’
Robbo’s words were lost in an exchange of fire as Jack raced to the smoking truck, rounds from the roof top machine gun cracking around him.
He choked in a breath stinking of burning rubber and poked his head around the smouldering remains of the cab.
Beyond the three shot-up cars two concrete pillars marked the entrance to a market. If he could grab the girl he could make for them.
The machine gunner opened up again and bullets swept along the length of the truck.
A round zipping up off its front wheel jerked Jack sideways as it hit the iridium satellite phone clipped to his belt. ‘Shit!’ he cursed.
Heart thumping, he turned, pressed his back against the cab door and stared down at the dangling remains. ‘Comms out,’ he bellowed to Robbo. ‘Hit that Raghead now!’
A sustained burst from Robbo’s rifle interrupted the onslaught as Jack pounded along the road, swept the girl into his left arm and zigzagged to the pillars.
Slamming them both behind one, he held her head against him as bullets exploded concrete off the column. He dragged in hot powdery breaths, blinked gritty eyes clear and checked on their position.
This wasn’t good.
The pillar barely shielded their bodies and the girl’s wriggling was making them an achievable target.
‘La-titharrak!’ His order to her, not to move, was lost as more bullets ate into the concrete and she screamed in his ear.
‘Maaku syaah.’ Telling her not to scream had little effect as she began shrieking again.
He hugged her closer – tried to calm her. ‘Don’t be afraid ... la-tkhaaf, la-tkhaaf,’ he said edging a look around the pillar.
He ducked back as rounds whistled past erupting jars of spice on stalls inside the market. Suddenly, the warm, woody aroma of cinnamon filled the air and for a moment he was five years old again watching his mother bake apple pie.
More shells ricocheting off the pillar next to his head dispelled the image and he turned, squeezing the trigger on his Colt.
A second later his gun stopped.
He squeezed the trigger again.
‘Stoppage,’ he yelled at Robbo and slipped the girl to the ground behind his legs – his hand holding her shaking body.
He looked down at her. ‘La-titharrak.’
His warning again, not to move, had terrified, brown eyes and a dusty tear-stained face stare back at him while small shoulders lifted as she gulped air.
She must have been about eight he reckoned. ‘Look, I’ll get you out of this. OK?’
Her look told him she didn’t understand what he was saying. His language training before mission deployment generally consisted of shouting at people to drop their weapons or lie on the ground. Reassurance wasn't a priority in his trade.
What was Iraqi for “I’ll get you out of this”? He couldn't remember. He jabbed a finger at himself. ‘Sadiiq. Sadiiq.’
The girl didn’t look convinced that he was a “friend”. Maybe all she was seeing was that he was a man with a gun just like the terrorist on the roof. Jack looked down over his loose fitting shirt and jeans, and at the 9mm Sig Sauer P228 rammed into his belt, he didn’t even look like a soldier.
The distant screech of a jet stopped his thoughts and raised his pulse as he scanned the sky for the air support.
The girl’s cry for her mother and her body shaking against his legs made him glance down. ‘It’ll be alright,’ he said patting her back.
This time she didn’t look at him, didn’t take her eyes off the bodies in the road.
He raised his gaze again to the grey shape of a Tornado swooping down, vapour twisting off its wingtips.
The child’s questioning tone took his attention again. She was staring around the pillar into the road where her mother’s arm was half-raised.
It dropped back and the girl bolted from him, his rifle slipping to the ground as he made a grab for her – the ends of straggly, dark hair passing over his fingers as she ran into the road. ‘NO!’ he yelled. ‘Come back!’
He charged after her – the roar of the Tornado growing louder as he dodged bullets and crashed her jerking frame to the ground.
Overhead a missile sliced through the air and exploded against the warehouse.
Seconds later the sound of the machine gun was replaced by dogs barking and distant sirens.
A rifle butt tapped against Jack’s shoulder and he looked up at Robbo standing next to him.
‘Come on. We can’t hang around here,’ he urged.
Jack said nothing and returned his gaze to the girl. He eased her away from his chest, his heartbeats slowing at blood from a bullet wound above her right eye matting dark hair. She wasn’t breathing. ‘I thought I had her,’ he said. ‘I thought–’
‘She’s dead. So’s her mother. Let’s go.’
Jack cradled the limp body against him. ‘He got her in the face.’
‘Well, she’s out of it now, and–’
‘And nothing.’ Jack knew what was coming next and cut him short. He pushed himself up and, followed by Robbo, carried the girl’s body to the pavement.
He knelt and rested her gently on the ground. ‘Kids deserve a life,’ he said – a catch in his voice. He closed the girl’s eyes and frowned at a trace of cinnamon washing over him as her body was replaced by the image of his mother lying on her bed that Christmas morning. That was his fault too. He couldn’t save her either.
Robbo pulled at his shoulder. ‘Come on. We’ve gotta go.’
Jack glanced at the bodies lying in the road, then back at the girl. ‘This isn’t right Robbo. None of it’s fucking right.’ He wiped a hand across the sweat running into his eyes, pushed himself up and doubled back to the Toyota with Robbo trailing after him – a Colt in each hand.
Jack slammed the driver’s door and gunned the engine.
Steam curled out of two bullet holes in the front of the bonnet as the supercharged V6 block stuttered then growled a response.
‘Hang on,’ shouted Robbo as he clambered in.
Jack gripped the steering and raced the car along the pavement past the truck, slowing only as they passed the girl’s body. He gave her one last look, stamped on the accelerator and hammered back onto the road.
‘Let me drive, Jack.’
‘The fuck you are. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan? I’ve never seen you like this before.’
‘She died because I didn’t hold onto her.’
Robbo held up Jack’s rifle. ‘This thing jammed. It wasn’t your fault.’
‘It feels like it was.’ Jack glanced down at the old, scratched chrome watch on his wrist. He couldn’t help feeling his father wouldn’t have let her die.
‘Don’t beat yourself up over it. Kids get killed every day somewhere out here.’
Robbo’s remark as he began stripping down the jammed Colt rifle put Jack in reflective mood. He’d known this man since they were kids. Robbo joined up just after Jack took up the judge’s option – and Robbo was right, he hadn’t acted like this before. Maybe it was the memory of his father’s death on this day twenty-two years ago that had been niggling away at him since he woke this morning. That had reminded him of his mother’s suicide and the girl’s death was just more proof that he was fallible. Maybe Sally was right after all. Maybe it was time to call it a day.
For ten kilometres neither man spoke as the car headed west then north, then at an intersection Jack veered it off road onto a narrow desert track.
Robbo shot a look at him. ‘The Syrian Desert’s a fucking short cut now – is it?’
‘We were using the approved route back there and look what happened,’ said Jack. He sighed and loosened his grip on the steering. ‘I just want to get home, mate.’
‘Maybe it’s a good job Sally’s making you leave the Regiment.’
‘I’ve told you before she’s not making me leave. I decided.’
‘Oh, come on. You’ve been like a bear with a sore head since you announced it. Angie told me a year ago Sal had been working on getting you out. Our wives talk about more than their careers and buying clothes when they get together.’
‘What d’you mean – working on getting me out?’
‘She said Sal was worried about you after the Afghan shindig. You almost got slotted.’
‘I didn’t tell Sal about that. I knew she’d worry.’ Jack glanced across at Robbo looking out the side window. ‘You told Angie – didn’t you? Christ, it must be like living in a fucking confessional when you get home. You’d be no good working for MI-6.’
‘We’re not talking about MI-6. We’re talking about you leaving the Regiment.’
‘Twenty years is a long time in the Service,’ observed Robbo quietly.
‘A lifetime,’ he added.
Jack sighed. ‘Look, can we stop talking about it?’
‘I was only saying ...’
The next five minutes of silence was broken by Robbo slapping a hand against Jack’s rifle. ‘It’s working now. Probably the concrete dust – from the pillar. There was a bit of it flying around.’
‘Thanks.’ Jack turned and squinted past Robbo at a sand cloud in the distance. ‘What d’you reckon that is?’
Robbo snapped his head round and studied it for a moment. ‘Sand storm?’
Jack wasn’t sure. ‘Keep an eye on it.’ His gaze returned to the desert road as Robbo pulled a tobacco tin from his pocket and rolled a cigarette. ‘I thought you were giving those up.’
‘You’ve got flying lessons, I’ve got these.’
‘Flying lessons don’t kill you.’
‘They do if you crash.’
‘You promised Angie you’d give up.’
The sound of a helicopter made both men jerk a look through the windscreen as a US Military Sikorsky passed overhead.
Jack settled back in his seat. ‘You told her when you arrived home this time you’d be a cigarette-free zone.’
Robbo lit up, drew heavily on the cigarette and blew smoke across at Jack. ‘So, wind yer neck in.’
‘I was only saying,’ quipped Jack.
Robbo tapped ash out the window. ‘Did I tell you Knocker Harris saw Flymo on his last leave?’
The image of a stocky soldier with a flat-top haircut flashed into Jack’s mind. ‘Sam Mason? Where?’
‘Did he tell Knocker what he’s doing now?’
‘No, they didn’t talk. He said Sam was riding shotgun in a Bentley in Whitehall.’
‘I lost track of him when he went out. I wondered what–’ Jack braked, his pulse racing at an explosion that had the helicopter plummeting out of the sky – a whirlwind of black smoke recording its descent into the desert five kilometres away.
A blaze of orange light raged as it hit the ground.
Robbo threw his cigarette out the window. ‘Do we go?’ he asked quickly.
Jack nodded. ‘Radio in.’
He slammed the car in gear, headed off the track and across the sand.
‘Hello Zero. This is Alpha One, Zero.’ Robbo waited. He shook the satellite phone against his palm and repeated the call.
‘What’s happening?’ asked Jack.
‘I’m getting nothing.’ Robbo spoke into the phone again. ‘Nothing heard. Nothing heard,’ he advised. He looked at Jack and shrugged. ‘It worked OK back there.’
‘Keep talking. Someone’ll get a fix on us,’ said Jack.
As Robbo continued reporting, both men stared through the screen at smoke billowing into the sky from the wreckage.
‘What a fucking mess,’ said Robbo as they neared the mangled helicopter. ‘Poor bastards.’
Through gaps in the acrid fog Jack saw a man stagger and fall.
He slammed on the brakes and pointed. ‘Someone’s alive. Check out the chopper I’ll see to him.’
As the two of them jumped out and ran through the smoke, the man, his light grey suit torn and stained, one shoe missing, scrambled unsteadily to his feet and stumbled away from them.
‘Hey! Wait!’ shouted Jack.
The man lurched forward, tumbling headlong into the sand – his gold-rimmed glasses landing to one side.
‘Don’t kill me,’ he pleaded as he rammed them back over his nose. ‘I won’t say anything.’
Jack caught a clipped US accent. ‘No one’s going to kill you,’ he said kneeling beside him.
‘You’re British.’ The man ran a trembling hand through his mop of ginger hair. ‘You’ve got to help me. Please.’
‘We will. How many of you were on the chopper?’
‘Me and two pilots.’
Jack stood and shouted to Robbo. ‘It’s just the pilots on board.’
Robbo stepped back out of the smoke drifting from the smashed cockpit, shook his head and drew a finger across his throat.
Jack winced and returned his gaze to the man on the ground. ‘Are you injured?’
He thought for a minute as if taking inventory then shook his head. ‘No. No, I’m OK.’
‘You were lucky to get out of that alive,’ said Jack helping him to his feet.
The man rested for a moment, his hands against his knees and blew out a breath as he straightened up. He pushed his glasses back to the bridge of his nose and gave Jack an up-and-down glance. ‘Who are you? What’re you doing out here?’
Jack ignored the questions and pointed to the Toyota. ‘We need to get going.’
The man stared at Jack’s gun for a moment. ‘Are you private security?’
‘You could say that.’ Jack pushed a hand against his back and nodded in the direction of the Toyota. ‘Come on, we need to go.’
As they neared the car, the man glanced at the wreckage of the helicopter. ‘Killing the pilots ... there was no need for that,’ he said.
‘Ragheads aren’t worried about who gets killed,’ said Robbo opening the rear door on the car.
‘Ragheads?’ queried the man.
‘Insurgents. Terrorists,’ said Jack.
The man gripped the door frame and stood still for a moment, his eyes narrowing. ‘Terrorists didn’t do that. It was–’
A shot cracked and he fell.
As Robbo checked out the man, Jack peered over the wing of the Toyota.
On a steep rise seventy metres away a figure wearing a white dishdasha, his head and face half-hidden by a checked scarf, raised an AK47 from the open passenger door of an old red Fiat.
On the driver’s side, a second man in the same garb held up another AK.
Jack wondered if these were the cause of the sand storm he’d seen earlier, and if more were coming. He turned and glanced at Robbo scuttling round to join him. ‘Is he OK?’
‘Flesh wound. He’s out of it. How many are out there?’
Jack watched a battered Ford pickup, containing two men, jerk to a halt alongside the Fiat. ‘Two cars. Four men.’ He thumped a fist against the wing of the Toyota. ‘This is all we need. My radio fucked, yours on the blink and a team of Ragheads out there. Just our fucking luck.’
‘Luck?’ sniped Robbo. ‘You and your fucking shortcuts.’
‘No. Something’s wrong. They could be all over us.’
‘So why aren’t they?’
‘I don’t know.’ Jack glanced at the wounded man. ‘Let’s get him in the car and get out of here.’
Both men heaved him into the back of the Toyota then darted into the front seats.
Jack bent low behind the steering wheel, slipped the car into reverse and the wheels dug into the sand.
‘They’re moving,’ warned Robbo closing his door.
Jack glanced at the approaching cars, slammed his foot on the accelerator and the Toyota powered back, swinging from side to side.
His training kicked in.
Foot off – handbrake on.
Into first – foot down.
The engine spluttered a response as more steam issued from the bullet holes in the bonnet.
‘They’re coming,’ shouted Robbo.
Jack hit the accelerator again and glanced into the mirror. ‘Where are they?’
Robbo aimed his rifle out of the window as Jack tugged on the steering.
‘It’s no use. Go left.’
Jack dropped a gear and swung the wheel back. The engine raced noisily, cut out for a second then surged forward as it picked up again. ‘Hit ‘em now.’
Robbo emptied a magazine out the window. ‘Move it! They’re still on us.’
Pumping the accelerator produced a burst of life that quickly faded.
Jack glimpsed black smoke venting through the bullet holes. ‘Shit. Not now ya bastard.’ He eased the dying Toyota into second.
Its engine caught for a moment then shuddered to a halt.
‘She’s fucked. Get out.’
Both men grabbed their Colts, ran to the front of the car and watched the Fiat and Pickup stop a hundred metres away, the drivers shouting to each other.
‘What the hell are they doing?’ asked Robbo.
‘What’s he doing?’ Jack pointed at their passenger, clambering out of a rear door.
The man drew a hand over the blood on his head and swayed as he stared at his fingers.
‘Stay in there!’ Jack ran round and pushed him back in. ‘Keep your head down. They’re still out there.’
‘FLAG?’ he asked, eyes wide.
‘They’re terrorists not fucking cheerleaders.’
‘No, I meant–’
‘They’re coming!’ warned Robbo.
Jack slammed the door, ran back and dropped to his knees against the Toyota’s wing.
The cars raced across the sand – dust clouds billowing behind them.
Jack checked Robbo mirroring his position on the opposite side. ‘They’re gonna split around us. The Fiat’s yours.’
As the cars approached, Jack aimed and held his breath as he squeezed the trigger. The assault rifle clanged against the hot metal of the wing as bullets tore into his target.
Both screen and driver of the Pickup collapsed – the vehicle veering right then left. The passenger lunged for the steering, squeezing off bursts from an Uzi.
Jack rammed in his last magazine and fired back.
The gun crackled and stopped – the magazine empty. He pulled out the Sig and traced the Ford Pickup’s slowing path past him – the passenger slumped across the driver.
It ground to a halt a few metres ahead while the Fiat accelerated into the distance.
‘Looks like they’ve had enough,’ said Jack as he turned.
He froze at Robbo lying on the ground, blood spreading from a wound in his stomach.
‘No!’ Jack scrabbled across and lifted him into his arms, the sinking feeling in his gut deepening at the dead weight of Robbo’s unresponsive body. ‘Stay with me. Don’t you fucking die on me.’ He dropped his head forward at Robbo’s attempts to talk – sweat rolling from his chin onto Robbo’s face.
‘I’m cold. Don’t leave me,’ croaked Robbo, his words barely audible.
‘I’m not going anywhere.’ Jack pulled at his friend’s shirt, swallowing hard at blood flowing from the wound. ‘You’re going to be OK,’ he said wondering who he was trying to convince. How was he going to tell Angie, that taking a short cut had killed her husband – his best mate? He couldn’t – any more than he could let him die.
He needed the field dressings from the car, but the whine of the Fiat engine made him raise his gun as it headed back – a grenade launcher poking out the passenger window and an AK 47 spitting bullets through a broken screen.
Jack tugged Robbo’s body to the side of the Toyota and dropped next to him just as a grenade exploded against the grille, spinning the bonnet skyward.
For a couple of minutes Jack couldn’t move, the clanging in his head preventing thought and hearing, but the smell of leaking fuel and a dark patch growing in the sand under the engine pushed him to his knees.
Holding his gun with both hands, he slid unsteadily up the side of the Toyota.
He squinted across its smoking engine at the driver and passenger of the Fiat dragging the red-haired man back to their car.
Jack raised the Sig, aimed at one of the terrorists and winced as a pain over his eyes turned the three men into indistinct blobs.
He lowered the gun.
Get this wrong and he could kill the man they’d just saved.
He took a steadying breath and was about to aim again when one of the insurgents raised a hand eastward to where a US Sea Hawk was descending. The other, shouting and jabbing a hand south to an Apache helicopter sweeping through the sky at low level, brought a rush of adrenaline that cleared Jack’s head.
‘Choppers, Robbo. You’ll be OK. The radio must have worked.’
Dropping their captive, both insurgents jumped into the Fiat and tore across the sand in Jack’s direction.
He levelled his pistol at the driver just as the smoke from the Toyota’s engine roared into flames beside him, pushing him into the open.
The Fiat was almost past Jack when a round in his chest threw him back and another, in his left thigh, twisted him to the ground.
A shirt-sleeved General Edward Falcon studied the early morning office workers entering the coffee shop and checked his watch. His black-ops man, Conrad Velt, was late and President Lane’s message to Falcon an hour previous had been specific: “I want a meeting on operation Hammerhead as soon as I get back from the UK. Make yourself available”. The request had set off alarm bells in Falcon’s mind. Had Professor Kurtz already confided his fears about the operation to the President before Falcon sent him to Iraq, two days previously? He hoped not. Hammerhead had taken eight months of planning and Falcon was not going to let anyone put a stop to it now, not even the President’s personally appointed nuclear advisor to the operation.
Falcon rested back against his chair, ran both hands through his greying buzz cut and pressed stubby fingers against the ache in his neck. He’d had it since he woke and it was pissing him off.
Pushing his empty coffee cup across the small table, he gazed down at his folded newspaper. He wasn’t reading it – he was picturing the furore that would erupt if Professor Kurtz’s threat to expose Hammerhead made it to the media. Not that that was going to happen. By now Kurtz would be dead and, just as soon as Conrad Velt arrived, Kurtz’s memory stick of insurance would be in Falcon’s hands. The General glanced at the people passing the coffee shop window and rechecked his watch – where was Velt?
‘Would you like a refill?’
Falcon glanced at the waitress about to pour coffee into his cup. She reminded him of his ex wife – a memory that pissed him off almost as much as his neck. ‘No,’ he said looking back at the newspaper.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
She turned and left him with, ‘I’ll drop by in a while.’
He was going to ask why, but his cell phone rang. He slid it open and pushed it to his ear. ‘Yeah?’
‘It’s Chuck. The chopper went down, but Kurtz survived.’
‘Can’t you follow orders, Woodley?’ He glanced around and lowered his voice. ‘I told you to kill him.’
‘The pilots bought it. How was I supposed to know he’d get thrown free?’
Falcon sighed. ‘Where is he now?’
‘I sent some of our guys in a Sea Hawk to check the operation went OK. They put Kurtz on board, but there’s a complication. Two British guys got to him first.’
‘What British guys?’ There was a silence that had Falcon frown. ‘Chuck?’
‘I think they’re Special Forces.’
Falcon’s eyes widened. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘Their clothes, their car – their weapons. These weren’t lost tourists.’
‘What were British Special Forces doing out there?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Did Kurtz talk to them?’
‘I don’t know. Both Brits are pretty shot up. They may not make it.’
‘You should have killed them all.’
‘We couldn’t. A British Apache chopper turned up and rocketed our men in the Fiat. My men on the Sea Hawk had to put the Brits on board and get out of there before the Apache pilots started asking awkward questions.’
‘Did those pilots see Kurtz?’
‘I don’t think so. He was put on board before the Brits.’
‘Do they know the Brits are alive?’
‘Probably. They saw our crew stretcher them onto the Sea Hawk.’
‘Where’s the Apache now?’
‘Providing escort to the hospital. Look, Ed,’ said Woodley. ‘I’ve been thinking this through. That Apache chopper wasn’t out cruising about. It had to be looking for the Brits ... one of them had a satellite phone on him. They must have reported in on Kurt’s chopper going down.’
‘They could be witnesses. They could verify it was an insurgent attack. We could turn this to our benefit. Special Forces eye-witnesses. No one would dare question their evidence.’
Falcon considered the possibility for a moment.
‘If just one of them pulls through then we’d be home and dry on this,’ urged Woodley. ‘If they both pull through even better.’
‘And if they did manage to talk to Kurtz? Or worse still, testify that he wasn’t killed in the attack? Your fucking witnesses could blow this thing wide open.’ There was a silence during which Falcon could hear Major General Woodley breathing – heavily. ‘I thought you said you’d thought this through?’ The question was met with more heavy breathing. ‘This was supposed to be a simple operation,’ continued Falcon, his voice low, ‘now we have people crawling all over us and four of our black-ops assets dead. Six men if we count the two regular pilots on Kurtz’s transport.’ He wiped sweat from his top lip and cupped a hand over the phone. ‘If Goldman or the President get wind of this ...’ Now his breathing was heavy. ‘This whole thing has been a fucking disaster.’
The ensuing silence was broken by Woodley asking, ‘What d’you want me to do with Kurtz?’
‘Find out if he talked to those Brits.’
‘I have one of our men on the Sea Hawk questioning him as we speak.’
‘Sir?’ The voice came from a thin-faced, thirties-something man, wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, standing at Falcon’s side.
‘Where’ve you been?’ demanded Falcon.
‘What?’ asked Woodley.
‘Not you,’ said Falcon, ‘I’m talking to Velt.’ He slid the cell phone from his ear and jabbed the newspaper at the chair across the table from him.
Conrad Velt sat and the waitress reappeared.
‘What can I get you?’ she asked.
‘He doesn’t want anything,’ snarled Falcon.
She turned, coffee pot poised over Falcon’s cup. ‘Well then, can I get you a refill, now?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I’m sure – what are you, deaf? Fuck off.’
Her eyes narrowed at him as she turned and walked back to the counter.
He looked at Velt and blew out a sharp breath. ‘Where is it?’
Velt pushed a hand into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a small brown envelope.
Falcon snatched it, ripped at the taped flap and pulled out a memory stick. A thin smile crossed his face. ‘This was at their apartment?’
‘Yeah. I checked Kurtz’s office. There was nothing, so I sent my men to his apartment. His boyfriend was there. It looked like he was packing to leave. He said Kurtz was real scared about being sent to Iraq and told him to get that to a reporter at the Washington Post if he didn’t come home.’
‘What did you do with this ... boyfriend?’
‘He’s with my men. But I think there’s more to him than we’re getting.’
‘What sort of more?’
‘I don’t know. But something’s not right.’
‘Then find out what it is.’ Falcon fixed Conrad Velt with a stare. ‘Understood?’
Velt nodded, pushed his chair back and walked toward the exit as Falcon pressed the cell phone back to his ear.
‘I’ve got Kurtz’s memory stick. Now find out what those Brits know.’
‘Sure. But what do I do about Kurtz?’ asked Woodley.
Falcon glanced around the people at the other tables and cupped his right hand against his mouth again as he spoke, ‘How many times Major General Woodley? Code Green. Kill him.’
A US Lieutenant wiped sweat from his neck as he checked the webbing holding the bagged bodies that had been hastily dragged into the rear of the Sea Hawk helicopter. He covered them with camouflage nets, stood back and shook his head at the three wounded men lying on the floor – each with his eyes closed.
He kicked the shoeless foot of the one nearest to him and pointed a finger back at the bodybags. ‘You’ll pay for this Kurtz, you faggot – they were good men.’
Professor Kurtz’s eyes twitched opened and he pushed his glasses back to the bridge of his nose as the Lieutenant turned and gazed out the window at the Apache helicopter flying alongside.
Kurtz leaned over and pulled at Jack. ‘You awake yet, Brit?’ he whispered.
Distanced by morphine injections, Jack’s mind swam with the noisy pressure of rotors. He struggled to open his eyes and caught the indistinct features of the man’s face peer at him from beneath a mop of red hair.
‘Can you hear me?’ asked Kurtz.
Jack saw the bespectacled face come into focus then fade as his eyes closed again.
The man tugged on him. ‘You gotta help me.’
‘Hey, Kurtz, button it,’ snapped the Lieutenant.
‘Can’t this thing go any faster? These men are in a bad way. How much further is it to the hospital?’
‘Why so concerned? They ain’t gonna make it with the blood they’ve lost and you ain’t getting off.’
Kurtz flicked his hair back, wiped a hand against his head and stared at the blood on his fingers. ‘I’m still bleeding. I need to see a doctor.’
‘You’re going nowhere.’
‘I’ve answered your questions. You’ve got to let me go when we get to the hospital.’
‘I don’t gotta do zilch. You don’t exist. You died in that terrorist attack on your chopper back there, remember?’
‘Terrorist?’ Kurtz pointed at the bodybags covered in netting. ‘They’re the terrorists. They work for Falcon.’
‘You got a big mouth, boy.’
Kurtz gulped. ‘Look, whatever he or FLAG are paying you, I’ll double it. Triple it. I have money.’ He pulled dollar bills from his pocket and held them in a shaking hand. ‘Here, take this. I can get more. How much do you want?’
‘You couldn’t pay me enough.’
‘Just let me go when we land. You can say I escaped.’
The Lieutenant shook his head. ‘No can do, Professor.’
‘You’ll do time. I’m an important man. I work directly for the President. Falcon and Woodley, they won’t get away with this.’
‘Hospital ETA seven minutes. Woodley says Code Green on the mark.’ The pilot’s voice crackled from a speaker as the Lieutenant glanced out the window again.
Kurtz leaned across, pulled at Jack and whispered urgently, ‘Dogma. Remember Dogma.’
The Lieutenant turned, bent and clipped one arm around Kurtz’s neck. The Professor’s eyes widened and he gasped as his head was snapped round. There was a crack and he fell back to the floor. His face contorted.
Quickly bagging the body, the Lieutenant dragged it next to the others and covered it with camouflage netting.
As the Sea Hawk bounced its arrival at the hospital compound Jack’s eyes half-opened and the Lieutenant stared down at him.
‘Didn’t think you’d make it here Brit. Must be your lucky day,’ he said.
Minutes later, Jack was jolted onto an operating table and, as lights blazed over him and an anaesthetic mask brought the sound of laboured breathing, medical staff cut away his clothes. Their urgency and desperate encouragement told him he was in a bad way.
His eyes closed and a misty image of Sally and Mark appeared in his mind. He’d let them down. They wouldn’t understand if it all ended here. Sally had wanted him to leave the Regiment. He wanted one more mission.
But, now, in this place, five thousand kilometres from home, he wished he’d lost – and, as the image of his wife and son faded, Jack pleaded to be able to see them again – promised anyone anything to stay alive.
General Falcon’s Office
The Pentagon, Washington DC
Falcon pushed the memory stick into a port at the rear of his computer and glanced at an old oil painting of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, on the opposite wall, as a photograph of a younger, fitter Kurtz appeared on the screen.
Falcon read the writing underneath.
Professor Kurtz was born in Akron, Ohio in ...
He scrolled down the page.
The son of Anna and Mica Kurtz, his mother was a music teacher and his father a chemist who encouraged his interest in science ...
He scanned the text and photographs of the next four pages and sat back. ‘Where the fuck is it?’ he cursed as he reran Kurtz’s schooling, qualifications and government roles. Where was the man’s whistle-blowing about Hammerhead? His evidence about an enrichment plant and weapons store?
Falcon slammed the laptop lid down, pulled out his cell phone and dialled. ‘Chuck?’
‘It’s OK. Kurtz is dead. I’ve sorted–’
‘Shut up,’ ordered Falcon. ‘The stick has his obituary on it. The bastard wrote his obituary for the Post.’
‘Well, it’ll be needed, now.’
Falcon pulled the phone from his ear, stared at it disbelievingly and replaced it. ‘You’re not getting this are you?’
‘What’s to get?’ asked Woodley. ‘The man wrote his obituary – he’s dead – it’ll be needed.’
‘Four days ago that bastard threatened me. Here in this office. He said he had a stick full of insurance and he’d go up the Hill if I didn’t listen to him about the Iranian reactor site and get Lane to abort the operation.’ Falcon tugged the memory stick from the port. ‘This piece of narcissistic shit isn’t it. So, it’s still out there.’
‘Where?’ asked Woodley.
‘How should I know?’
‘Maybe he was bluffing?’
‘You better hope he was.’
Woodley’s voice sobered, ‘Maybe his boyfriend knows something. Should we bring him in?’
‘Velt’s already working on him. I don’t want any more mistakes.’ Falcon slid his cell phone together and stared at the painting of JFK. ‘Amateurs. I’m dealing with fucking amateurs.’
US / UK Military Teaching Hospital
The noisy bustle of the operating theatre dissolved into darkness, and Jack felt the presence of medical staff moving around him – their voices low, intense.
He heard his father’s name mentioned – his mother’s inability to cope.
‘Why’re you talking about my parents?’
‘– Blood pressure’s dropping –’
He felt his body lift off the bed.
‘What’s going on?’
His question into the darkness received no reply – only the sense that someone ... something was there with him.
‘Who are you? What d’you want?’ He swallowed. ‘Show yourself.’
‘– Still falling –’
‘– Come on Jack, stay with us –’
A hot breeze rippled his clothes and stroked his face as he was pulled forward.
‘Where’re you taking me?’
‘–We’re losing him –’
In the distance a pinprick of light grew as bright as the sun and for a moment he couldn’t breathe – couldn’t feel his heart beating.
The distant words “– We’ve lost him –” were replaced by screams and the smell of burnt flesh.
He winced at the noise – wretched at the smell.
Suddenly he stopped.
Blinded by the light engulfing him, he felt his boots hit solid ground then felt a layer of sweat stick his uniform to his back as he tried to stay upright.
As the brightness dulled, he choked back the sickness hovering in his throat as he stared around at men, women, children – thousands in every direction – limbless, bleeding, clothes and bodies burned, screaming in agony.
Heart pounding he scanned the sky for planes, helicopters, missiles – anything that could rend this amount of destruction.
There was nothing.
He patted hands down his uniform looking for his Sig. It wasn’t there and he glanced around again. A hundred metres in front of him a high brick wall with wooden doors dotted along its length curved for kilometres left and right into distant hills. He turned and traced those hills into a hazy horizon. It was as if he was standing in one half of a huge saucer, fifty kilometres across, littered with wounded people.
He turned back as one of the doors opened inwards and, as it closed, ejected a man – his clothes and hair on fire. As the man fell shrieking a woman ran from a group she was tending and smacked her hands against the flames until more people arrived and rolled him in a blanket.
Jack’s pulse raced as he surveyed more of the wounded.
Whatever had caused this, all these people couldn’t be the result of one attack – unless ... he panicked ... unless it was nuclear. He looked again at the sky, then at the wall. Not a brick out of place. Even on the periphery it would have been damaged – would have shown signs of the blast.
Two men running toward a naked, pregnant girl lying half out of another of the doorways caught his attention. The girl was screaming – her legs trapped in the charred wood of the closing door. As the men reached her and pushed against it, sparks traced over them while a woman pulled on the girl’s arms.
Jack glanced around – no one seemed to be aware of what was happening. If they were then he knew their own problems would prevent them from helping.
He began running toward the wall, his face screwing as the door juddered nearer to its frame ripping open the flesh on the girl’s thighs and tearing her stomach apart – her guts and unborn child bursting out as the door pressed on over the glistening red mess and burst into flames.
Their clothes on fire, the men struggled to keep the door from closing as the woman wrenched on what was left of the girl’s body.
With ten metres to go an explosion shooting out from the doorway stopped Jack.
In front of him the smouldering door was back in its frame, the men, the woman and the girl gone.
Jack pushed a hand at a soldier standing next to him. The man felt cold. ‘Where did they go?’ asked Jack.
The soldier stared silently ahead.
‘Did you see what happened to them?’
The man said nothing.
Jack turned to two stretcher bearers trudging past carrying the legless torso of a soldier. ‘Did you–’ Before his question was out, the men slew sideways as bullets ripped into their bodies. Jack froze as their patient fell from the stretcher, thudded to the ground and then a second later, rose back onto it – the bearers upright and plodding forward again as if nothing had happened.
Jack pulled on the ragged sleeve of one of the men, the material breaking away in his hand. ‘What the hell’s going on here?’
Again, no reply. No reaction.
Mystified, Jack turned to a group of women limping past, their clothes and skin burnt. The one nearest him, her eyes fixed on the bundle she carried, said nothing as he reached out and touched it.
The cloth fell away revealing the blackened skeleton of a baby.
Jack winced and tried to wrap what was left of the rags back over the tiny body as the woman moved on oblivious to him.
More wounded trekked past, their wounds open and bleeding as they stumbled across bodies in their path – the screams of those on the ground drowned by those shuffling over them.
‘You’re standing on them,’ shouted Jack. He held his hands out above a line of emaciated bodies being trampled underfoot. ‘Look where you’re going.’
People barged past, bending his arms back as he tried to stop them.
No one looked at him. No one spoke.
Just as he was thinking he had never seen anything like this before, something he had seen before sent a shiver along his spine. The bulge beneath the loose fitting shirt of a dark skinned youth standing twenty meters off made him dive to the ground. ‘Bomber!’
No one took any notice as the boy raised his hand, yelled a message and gripped fingers into a fist. A split-second later an explosion sent his head and a burning jumble of lungs and broken ribs into the air.
As the displaced body reached those around him, Jack watched it fly back together – the boy standing still, screaming his message again as his body reran the self-destruction.
Jack scrambled to his knees. ‘What is this place? Where am I?’
No one spoke. No eyes turned.
‘Help me!’ He buried his head in his hands. ‘Somebody help me. Please.’
The air filling with the aroma of cinnamon made him start. He raised his head and stared at the straggly dark hair of the Iraqi girl, her brown eyes fixed on his.
She smiled. ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’
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