Behind the Wire
Dan Taylor picked up the motor sports magazine, tapped it to his forehead in salute to the café owner, and stepped out into the harsh North African summer, unaware he was being followed.
A momentary shiver ran through his body as he adjusted to the heat after the chill of the air-conditioned café. The awning over the footpath offered little shelter as the sun cresting the rooftops opposite cast a fierce light over the narrow street.
He stood to one side to let a pair of tourists walk past, both carrying surf boards, their American-accented voices fading as their sun-bleached heads bobbed out of view amongst the throng lining the pavement.
A woman stepped off the path and pushed the door to the bakery next to the café open, the fragrant scent of freshly made pastries and bread filling the air.
Dan dropped his sunglasses over his eyes and jogged across the busy street to a convenience store.
He checked his watch.
He was due back at the harbour within the hour. Any later, and the man he’d contacted to provide a new fuel pump for the boat would disappear, and he’d have to spend another month convincing him to return.
He pushed open the door to the shop and made his way towards the lone refrigerator that stood against the back wall, its motor mimicking a death rattle as it fought a losing battle against the summer temperatures.
He grabbed a two-litre plastic container of milk and a bottle of water and joined the short queue at the counter.
The port town had become a favourite haunt of his; until recently, there had been fewer tourists than Casablanca or Fez, so anyone looking for him would stand out in a crowd.
He wasn’t a gambling man, though, and so as he waited in line, his gaze swept the street beyond the dirty windows.
He’d noticed a distinct increase in the number of tourists over the past six months, testament to the fact that at least two UK budget airlines had added the small Moroccan resort to their regular flight schedules, and decided it would soon be time to move on again.
It would be too dangerous to venture further south along the African coast, especially for someone trying to keep a low profile. Instead, he quite liked the idea of crossing the Atlantic and exploring the Caribbean islands for the summer, and he made a mental note to speak to the other boat owners at the marina. If another boat planned to head west soon, he’d find out if he could tag along.
A bus rumbled past and stopped a few metres from the shop. As it belched diesel fumes into the street, its passengers waited with bored faces while others climbed on, the screens of their phones held up to their faces as they tried to ignore the monotony of their journey.
Brakes creaked, the engine revved, and the bus moved on, and Dan’s attention returned to the man behind the counter.
He smiled and held up the milk and water.
‘How are you, Mr Dan?’ The shopkeeper grinned, revealing a mouth devoid of three front teeth, the remainder nicotine-stained.
‘Good, Farouk.’ Dan indicated the meagre purchases. ‘Just these today.’
Dan paid, nodded his thanks, and stepped back out into the morning heat.
The harbour was a fifteen-minute walk from the convenience store, and by the time he reached his destination, sweat pooled between his shoulder blades and over his chest.
The wind changed direction, bringing with it the pungent stink of the fishing boats from the working harbour further along the stretch of sqalas – esplanades fortified with ramparts, evidence of the port town’s Moroccan rulers implementing Portuguese design several decades ago.
The boats had been in for hours, their produce already sold in the markets, but gulls hovered over the masts, seeking out scraps of food as nets were repaired and the boats readied for the following morning.
Dan reached the entrance gate to the marina as the mobile phone in his pocket began to ring.
He cursed under his breath and ran through his mind all the threats he’d use on the parts supplier if the fuel pump were delayed again. He shifted the bag of shopping into one hand, pushed against the steel mesh gate that led to the concrete jetty, and pulled his phone from his pocket.
The metallic clang of the gate falling back into place obliterated the caller’s voice, and Dan glanced at the screen.
He tried again. ‘Hello?’
‘Long time, no speak, Dan.’
He almost dropped the phone and his shopping in shock.
He pivoted on his toes, surveying the boats that bobbed against the jetty, before he narrowed his eyes at the harbour master’s office and buildings beyond.
The place was deserted, save for a boy of about twelve fishing at the water’s edge.
‘David? How the bloody hell did you get this number?’
His mind raced.
He’d been careful, abandoning every aspect of his old life, even going as far as having his boat re-registered in Marseilles before sailing towards the Moroccan coastline, zig-zagging across the Mediterranean under cover of darkness.
After that, he’d kept his head down, telling any locals he’d befriended since his arrival that he was a former executive, tired of the city rat-race, while he regrouped and tried to figure out what to do next with his life.
His mouth dry, he gripped the phone tighter.
‘How the hell did you find me?’
‘I’ll explain later. We’ve got a problem.’
‘Sort it out yourselves. I’m retired.’
‘Bored, more like,’ said David Ludlow, a note of contempt underlying his calm tone.
Dan placed the bag on the ground between his feet, and then straightened and scratched at the stubble on his cheek while he tried to formulate an appropriate response in his mind.
His former boss interrupted his thoughts.
‘Got a job for you. No time to waste. Might even get you in the good books with the new Prime Minister.’
‘New Prime Minister?’
‘You do read something other than the sports section of the newspapers?’
Dan bit back the retort on his lips and instead did a quick mental calculation.
‘I must’ve been at sea when it happened.’
‘Right.’ David sounded unconvinced. ‘So you’ve only been checking the football scores for the past two weeks, then?’
‘Wait.’ Dan held up his hand and then sighed. ‘How did you know where to find me?’
He closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. ‘Mel?’
The analyst giggled at the end of the line.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Dan. ‘You put a tracker on the boat, didn’t you?’ He frowned. ‘Hang on. If you’ve known all along where I am, how come I haven’t been dragged back there and arrested?’
‘Because we haven’t told anyone where you are,’ said David. ‘Which brings me to the matter at hand.’
‘David? I’m standing here in ninety degree heat, and the milk for my coffee is about to turn into butter. Like I said, I’m not interested.’
Dan ended the call, picked up his bag, and stalked towards his boat, swearing profusely.
The good mood he’d had since he’d woken up that morning had disappeared, replaced with frustration and a seething anger that, despite everything, David thought it was okay to phone up out of the blue and demand his help.
‘Screw that,’ he muttered.
Dan forced a smile and raised his hand in greeting as he passed a 32-foot wooden-hulled ketch, her German owners enjoying a lazy brunch under a dark blue shade-cloth.
He swallowed, his throat parched as he envisaged the brew he’d make as soon as he returned to the relative coolness of his own vessel.
Despite the heat, the harbour allowed a little more of the Atlantic’s cooling winds to reach its residents, away from the closeness of the town’s sprawling buildings.
He trudged on along the jetty and tried to ignore the bead of sweat that ran between his shoulder blades, despite the cotton short-sleeved shirt he wore. His sandals saved his feet from being scorched by the hot concrete surface under his soles, yet even those were beginning to wear thin as the summer progressed.
He stopped at the end of the jetty, crouched down, and began to untie the rope that held his dinghy in place as it bobbed on the gentle waves that splashed against the rubber-hulled vessel.
He straightened, tugged his baseball cap lower over his eyes, and as he lowered his hand, jerked to a standstill.
His boat was fifty metres or so from where he stood, but even at this distance he could see the wheelhouse door swing open with the slight rocking of the boat in the water.
His hand fell to his pocket, and in the split second his fingers found his keys, his other hand dropped his shopping bag to the floor and wrapped around the gun tucked into his waistband that had been concealed under his t-shirt.
‘Shit,’ he muttered.
First, a phone call out of the blue from David.
He inched forward, his eyes tracking the rowing boats that lined this part of the harbour. He’d deliberately moored his vessel at this end – it was quieter, and away from prying eyes.
He glanced over his shoulder.
The German couple’s yacht was too far behind him to call to them, to find out if they’d seen anyone suspicious-looking hanging around.
He reasoned that they would have said something to him as he’d walked past. That was simply what boat people did. You spent your life drifting from one port to the next, marina to marina, often crossing dangerous waters, and so you looked out for each other.
He’d only started to pull the dinghy closer to the jetty to climb into it when a single white flash tore through the wheelhouse of his boat.
Dan threw himself to the ground as the air around him was sucked towards the explosion, before the ensuing flames devoured the available oxygen and spat out a ferocious fireball.
He sensed the shockwave pass over his body and put his arms over his head.
Splinters of timber and fibreglass peppered the jetty as the roar of the explosion died away, only to be replaced with the vicious crackling of flames.
Dan raised his head and then ducked as a secondary explosion ripped through the fuel tanks.
He rose into a crouch and, once satisfied no limbs were broken, stood on shaking legs and surveyed the damage.
It didn’t take long.
Within a minute, the first burning remnants of his late father’s boat began to sink below the water line.
As the ringing in his ears subsided a little, he became aware of the sound of running feet.
He spun round, ready to fight, before he realised it was only the other residents from the boats in the harbour running towards him, their faces full of concern.
He slipped his gun back into his waistband and tugged his t-shirt down.
‘Dan? Mein gott.’ The German man ran his hands through his hair, his face stricken as he watched the pieces of the boat smoking on the waves. ‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m okay. Thanks, Markus.’
‘You’re insured, yes?’
‘I think so,’ said Dan, and then frowned as he tried to calculate whether the policy had expired in his absence from the UK. ‘Maybe.’
Within moments, a small crowd had gathered, and, despite his best efforts to get them to move back to the relative safety of their own boats, they resisted, offering him advice, condolences and, in the case of one rich American widow, a roof over his head – with benefits.
When his phone rang, he answered it with relief and excused himself from the throng.
He walked a few paces back towards the direction of the harbour master’s office.
‘Are you okay?’ asked David, his voice laden with concern.
Dan bit back the first comment that came to mind and took a calming breath before he spoke.
‘Apart from losing a favourite part of my inheritance? Yes. I’m fine. How did you know?’
‘Satellite feed,’ said Mel.
Dan turned and looked at the smoking mess that had been his home. ‘There are nicer ways to get me to come back and work for you, David.’
‘It wasn’t us,’ said David. ‘Anyone else you’ve managed to piss off? Apart from the British government?’
‘Where do I start?’ said Dan, knowing the sarcasm in his voice would reach all the way to wherever David had based himself this time.
‘Right, well,’ said David, ‘given that you’re now homeless, perhaps you’d like to reconsider my offer?’
‘You don’t waste time, do you?’ Dan’s eyes found the rich American woman, who waggled her fingers at him, then pulled her sunglasses down her nose and cocked her eyebrow.
He shook his head to clear the thought that threatened to thwart common sense and began to stalk along the jetty, away from the disaster that had been his boat. He removed his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. Replacing his sunglasses, he switched the phone to his other hand and ran his fingers through his hair.
‘David? Why me? Why now?’
The other man paused, the silence stretching out over the miles until he finally spoke.
‘General Collins’s daughter is missing in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.’
Dan had last seen Anna several years ago as she was starting her last year of university in Arizona. He recalled a young, leggy blonde who was destined to break all her male classmates’ hearts.
‘How – how’s the general?’ he managed.
‘At his wits’ end,’ said David. ‘And given the sort of friends he has, and the sort of firepower available to him, you can probably work out for yourself why Her Majesty’s Government is keen to avoid him being directly involved in any search and rescue operation.’
The general ran a highly organised and extremely capable team of private military contractors. Dan couldn’t imagine what David and his colleagues could have said to the general to ensure he didn’t arrive in Africa with all guns blazing, but it surely couldn’t last.
‘Does he know you’re talking with me?’ Dan asked.
‘You were his idea,’ said David drily. ‘Actually, you were more his ultimatum,’ he added. ‘Something to the effect of “get Dan Taylor there or I’ll go myself” – you get the picture.’
‘Fine,’ Dan said. ‘Let’s talk.’
‘Meet us at the Argan Hotel in twenty minutes,’ said David.
‘I’ll be there.’
‘Great,’ said Mel. ‘I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?’
‘Very funny.’ Dan ended the call and pushed his way past the trickle of people that were walking towards the site of his boat.
In the distance, the forlorn siren tone of the town’s singular fire truck grew closer.
A man, local by the look of his clothing and sun-wrinkled skin, held up his hand and stopped Dan in his tracks.
‘Where is Englishman?’
‘That’s me,’ said Dan, his senses alert.
The man grinned and held up a cardboard box.
‘New fuel pump.’ He beamed and thrust a clipboard and pen at Dan. ‘One hundred dollars, on delivery. Sign here.’
Dan blinked at the courier and then glanced over his shoulder at the far end of the jetty as the last remnant of his boat sank beneath the waves.
‘I don’t suppose you offer refunds, do you?’
Three hours west of Laâyoune, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara
Anna Collins wrenched open the sliding door of the mini-bus before the driver had brought the vehicle to a standstill and jumped to the ground, her sneakers kicking up a small cloud of dust as she landed.
She pushed back a strand of blonde hair that had escaped her ponytail and shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun on the vehicle’s white paintwork before slipping her sunglasses on.
Shrugging her backpack over one shoulder, she waited impatiently while her colleague, Benji, clambered from the vehicle, gathered his laptop to his chest, and slammed the door shut.
The vehicle took off along the road as if the driver were taking part in the Dakar Rally, his pockets fat with the more than adequate compensation they’d negotiated with him for his last-minute diversion.
Anna swallowed as she saw the panic in Benji’s eyes.
Sweat poured from his brow, and she no longer wondered if he was as scared as she.
He fumbled in his jeans pocket for a second and withdrew his phone.
‘Still nothing,’ he said.
Anna shifted from foot to foot, trying to force her heartbeat to slow. She’d managed to speak briefly to her father before they’d left the mine office, telling him that she held grave concerns for hers and Benji’s security, but until she could tell him they had reached safety, she couldn’t rest. She had to get them both out of the country – and fast.
‘Okay,’ she managed, and ran her tongue over her lips. ‘Let’s go to our rooms, pack, and get to the airport. I’ll meet you by the car. Fifteen minutes?’
Benji nodded and glanced over his shoulder, back in the direction of where they’d travelled from the new phosphate mine that was being built. ‘Are you sure about this?’
‘Absolutely,’ said Anna. ‘You saw the same data as me. We’re in trouble.’
Benji cursed, a low hiss escaping between his teeth. ‘Okay. Let’s pack.’
They shouldered their bags in unison and hurried towards the temporary structures that comprised the mining camp set up for the construction phase of the new development.
The announcement of the discovery of a new phosphate deposit had brought workers from far and wide, desperate to earn good money from the mine. Although touted as a way to encourage the local Sahrawi people into employment and improve their prospects, in truth it was mostly ex-pat Moroccan workers who filled many of the roles on offer, eager to send more money home over the border.
The workers were housed in the main part of the mining camp, a sprawling metropolis of square cabins that resembled shipping containers stacked three high, towering over their occupants as they traipsed to and from work at sunrise and sunset.
Foreign nationals – the Westerners from the mining company and their guests – were housed in more luxurious accommodation at the front of the main camp.
Anna led the way through the small patchy garden that had been planted by some of the workers near the entrance to the reception building, her mind working in overdrive as she tried to contain her fear.
Running would only draw attention, and they couldn’t risk that – not yet.
Before they reached the coolness of the reception block, they turned right and passed through an archway.
Beyond, yellow grass and scrubby trees framed a collection of twelve bungalows; concrete and tin roof structures that offered running water and air conditioning, perfect for the use of the client’s management and guests such as Anna and Benji who were working at the mine on short-term stays.
‘Wait,’ said Benji, grabbing Anna’s arm. ‘Before we split up.’
‘What?’ She frowned as he rummaged in the side of his laptop case.
He held out a USB stick. ‘Take this. It’s everything we found out. You know the important stuff, the codes and everything, but this is the documentary evidence.’
Anna’s hand shook as she took the USB from him. ‘Why am I taking this? You’ve got all the evidence on your laptop, right?’
‘Back-up. I didn’t have time to copy this to your laptop at site. Download it the minute you get back to your room,’ he said. He swallowed. ‘In case you’re right and anything happens, and we get split up.’
‘Did you email this back to our head office?’
‘The connection was dreadful. I think some of it got through.’ His face fell. ‘But given what we know, I can’t guarantee the email will reach them without being intercepted. I used the encryption key I told you about, but—’
Anna nodded. Neither of them was prepared to voice their fears. ‘See you in a bit.’ She tucked the USB into her jeans pocket and jogged towards the bungalow at the far end.
With a bar just off the reception area, and the tendency for the ex-pat workers to get rowdy after a day’s work, she’d intentionally chosen accommodation as far away from the main building as possible.
The trees above provided some relief from the day’s heat, and as she climbed the steps up to the wooden porch and wiggled her key into the door lock, she breathed a sigh of relief as the coolness from the air conditioning enveloped her.
She locked the door behind her, shot the bolt across, and dropped her backpack on the bed.
She pulled her laptop from her backpack, logged on, and plugged in the USB stick.
While the files uploaded, she eyed the bathroom longingly but realised there was no time for the luxury of a shower. She shrugged the high-visibility orange shirt off her shoulders, replaced it with a plain black t-shirt, and tied a sweatshirt round her waist. Next, she packed the remainder of her clothes, not worrying about folding anything, and threw shampoo and bottles of sunscreen into her suitcase.
It didn’t take long – she and Benji were only meant to be in the country for three weeks to conclude an audit they’d started from the relative luxury of their Rotterdam offices.
Her eyes fell to the laptop screen. The download complete, she closed down the computer and put it back in her bag, then took the USB stick, placed it on the floor, and crushed it under her heel.
She collected the fragments, then hurried to the bathroom, wrapped them in toilet paper, and flushed them.
Anna thought back to the phone call she’d had with her father two hours ago. When Benji had knocked on her temporary office door and showed her the data on his laptop screen, panic had set in as she realised they’d uncovered much more than a simple hacking theft.
She’d risen from her desk and slammed the door shut, before she and Benji had had a heated conversation about what to do next. She knew that whoever had set the plan in motion had likely installed an alarm on the system that would warn of any unwanted attention, and given the level of intricacy involved, would also be able to pinpoint their exact location.
After ten minutes, Benji had agreed to her plan.
The phone lines in Western Sahara were notoriously bad, and when they couldn’t get through to their office, Anna had managed to phone her father in Arizona, the relief bringing tears to her eyes when she heard his voice.
He’d agreed with her assumptions and told them to pack and leave as soon as possible. Anna’s father had connections – he’d do everything he could to have someone meet them at the airport and see them to safety.
All they had to do was get to the airport at Laâyoune.
Since then, Anna had tried to phone him with updates, but her calls had gone straight to voicemail.
Anna returned to the bedroom, finished packing her suitcase, and zipped the lid shut. She smoothed out the creases in the fresh bed linen and checked the room.
None of her belongings remained in sight.
She checked her watch again. Five more minutes until she was due to meet Benji.
They’d hired a small sedan when they’d landed at the occupied country’s only international airport three weeks ago, and it had remained in the mining camp’s parking lot since their arrival. A sickness filled her with dread as she realised the engine might not start; she knew how temperamental vehicles could be in harsh climates and cursed her own oversight at not checking the oil and coolant levels on a regular basis.
A loud shout interrupted her thoughts, and she edged to the window, peering through the net curtains.
She stifled a scream.
A group of men were standing at the entrance to the grove that shaded the bungalows, assault rifles cradled in their hands, their camouflage fatigues leaving no doubt as to the reason for their presence. As one, they aimed at a crowd of workers who were running wide-eyed from the main camp and attempting to run between the buildings to escape the armed men.
The panicked screams and shouts of the construction workers grew louder as gunfire pierced the air, the people at the back of the crowd falling to the dirt as they were cut down behind their stumbling co-workers.
Anna’s knuckles turned white as she gripped the window frame and shrank back into the shadows of the room, unable to tear her eyes away from the carnage.
As the men with the weapons grew closer, they stopped firing, and the crowd tore through the shrubs that separated the grove from the car park beyond the main entrance, disappearing from sight, the shock in their voices still audible.
Anna cursed under her breath.
The militia had worked faster than she’d given them credit for. No doubt the alarm had been raised when she and Benji had first discovered the security breach, which meant that their fears were founded and that they had been under surveillance.
She tugged the curtains closed and switched off the air conditioning, then pushed her suitcase under the bed and pulled the counterpane down until it concealed the luggage. Next, she pulled out her mobile phone, turned it onto silent and disabled the vibration option, then punched in the speed dial to her father’s Arizona ranch.
She noticed the spinning ceiling fan, and killed the switch next to her shoulder while a distant dialling tone reached her ears.
She swore as it went to voicemail, and ended the call.
She almost dropped the phone as two loud gunshots reverberated through the complex.
‘No,’ she murmured.
She edged back towards the window, and knelt before tweaking the lower edge of the curtain to one side. She covered her mouth with her hand to stop herself from crying out as Benji’s struggling form was dragged from his room by two men and dumped on the small wooden covered deck that surrounded the bungalow.
He was bleeding from a wound in his leg, screaming in agony and terror before one of the men aimed a gun at his face and pulled the trigger.
Anna whimpered, dropped the curtain back into place, and scurried across the room. As she passed her daypack on the floor next to the bed, she grabbed it, swinging it over her shoulder, and then headed for the bathroom.
She crouched on the tiled floor and hit the speed dial for her father once more. It rang three times, and her mind filled with images of the satellite phone that sat in a cradle in her father’s office when he wasn’t patrolling the ranch, overseeing the business of a busy operation.
She forced back tears as the ring tone died, replaced with a single, lonesome beep, and hung up.
Shouts from outside reached her ears, and she realised she was rapidly running out of time.
Anna tucked the phone into the side pocket of her backpack and turned her attention to the small window above the sink.
She wrapped her fingers around the metal latch and pulled.
It didn’t move.
She swore under her breath, positioned herself so she was wedged against the vanity unit with her feet planted each side of the sink, and tried again, pushing her legs against the unit while she pulled with as much strength as she could muster.
She gasped as the latch gave a little under her touch, re-positioned herself, and pulled, gritting her teeth.
The latch shifted in its mounting, a small amount of dried paint spilling over the sink as the metal fastening gave way.
Anna’s attention moved to the frame, a wooden surface thickly caked in layers of paint. She placed her palms against it, and shoved.
It held firm.
She froze at a shout from below the bathroom window, and held her breath.
An order was barked, further away, and then footsteps retreated from the bungalow.
Did they hear me?
She counted to ten and then exhaled and turned her attention back to the task at hand, desperation seizing her as she realised her life depended on being able to hide – and fast.
The voices outside convinced her that any attempt to escape would be futile. She’d be located and killed, just like Benji, within seconds.
She bit back tears at the thought of the terror he must have felt as the armed men had burst into his room and tried to focus her anger and fear at the window frame under her touch.
‘Come on,’ she hissed under her breath, and pushed once more.
She forced herself to block out the terrifying sounds emanating from beyond her bungalow and instead used the heel of her hand to punch the window, inching it away from years of encrusted mould.
Terrified, she swore under her breath, and then shoved with both hands.
The window frame gave way so fast that she almost fell backwards onto the bathroom tiles. For a few precious seconds, she stood with her hands either side of the sink, breathing hard.
Another shout from outside, followed by a single gunshot, galvanised her into action.
They were searching the bungalows, one by one, killing anyone who stood in their way.
A moan escaped her lips, and her father’s voice echoed in her head.
If you’re ever caught up in a terrorist attack, don’t try to run unless it’s safe. Hide. Keep your head down. Stay quiet.
Anna swept her backpack up off the floor and tossed it onto the vanity unit before scrambling up.
She edged the window open wider and grimaced as the hinges placed along the top length of the wooden frame squeaked.
Her heartbeat thumping in her ears, she strained to hear any movement beyond the back of the bungalow.
Screams and shouting, closely followed by more gunfire, echoed across the main camp, but she saw no one emerge from behind the building.
Anna’s head jerked up at the sound of a loud crash against the front door of the bungalow, and she leapt up and pushed open the bathroom window, her dusty handprints visible up the wall.
She dived for the small opening and began to wiggle her way through, head first.
She cursed under her breath as her hip scraped the edges of the frame, and then forced herself back, trying to wiggle her way through the narrow gap. She twisted her shoulders until she could slide the top half of her body through, and then tried to twist around.
Her belt caught on the frame, the woodwork digging into her flesh.
She bit her lip, knowing that if she cried out, the armed men would find her within seconds.
She gritted her teeth and pushed again, but she couldn’t get through the gap.
Defeated, she wiggled backwards until her knees met the surface of the vanity unit, and then lowered herself to the floor. She rummaged in the side pocket of her backpack and pulled out her mobile phone, leaned against the sink, and pressed the speed dial for her father’s number once more.
At last, she got a signal, and then her father’s voicemail message reached her ears. She took a deep breath.
‘Dad? Tell Mom I’m sorry. I love you.’
eBooks & Print
"Right up there beside Lee Child and James Patterson"
"Fast paced and exciting for the very first page all the way through, this book is a thrill to read."