Three Lives Down
Captain Matt Ryan sat with his back pressed against the hard surface of his jump seat in the back of the Mk9 Lynx helicopter, ignoring the queasiness at the pit of his stomach as the aircraft banked sharply to the right.
He didn’t usually worry about being sick on a flight – all of them had been there, done that at some point – but the medic who sat across from him was new to the team, young and inexperienced in battle. The last thing he’d need to see would be his commanding officer throw up into the aisle between the seats.
Instead, he lifted his head and smirked at the man in front of him. ‘Nervous yet, Thompson?’
If the medic turned any paler, he’d be invisible. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve before shouting over the noise of the rotors. ‘Just a bit, sir.’
Matt winked. ‘You never get used to it,’ he yelled. ‘I usually throw up before we land.’
‘That’s why none of us sit opposite him!’
The shout came from a large soldier who was squeezed into a seat further along the fuselage, and the men next to Matt dissolved into laughter.
Pleased, he noted the young medic joined in and silently thanked Sergeant Simon Blake for lightening the mood.
The call over his headphones pulled him back to the job in hand, and the fuselage fell silent as each man began to rehearse the plan in his head one final time.
They’d been flying dark for the past hour, the sun slipping over the horizon minutes after they’d left German airspace, the pilot using the full capabilities of the aircraft’s night vision compatible cockpit.
The aircraft began a rapid descent, and as Matt’s ears popped, his experience told him they’d just crossed the border.
Last chance to turn back.
Instead, the helicopter surged forward, its engines powering the craft through the night and he imagined its camouflaged form hugging the landscape, churning its way over the mountains that led a path to their destination.
He’d spent the past forty-eight hours poring over the topology maps and then the building’s blueprints, planning the mission with his superiors, discussing the risks, describing his tactics for both the worst and best-case scenarios.
At one point, the Major General had stepped away from the window he’d been staring through, the grey outline of the HMS Belfast on the river beyond his silhouette.
‘Is it worth the risk?’ he’d asked.
A second man had pushed his chair back from the desk, and Matt had seen the cold steel glint in his eyes before he’d replied.
‘Yes. It is,’ he’d said. ‘We’re under threat, and he’s been compromised. We need him back here. Now.’
The meeting had concluded two hours later, the plan finalised.
Matt’s stomach lurched instinctively as the helicopter began a fast, sickening descent.
‘Get ready to saddle up!’ Matt yelled.
Last minute nerves threatened, as always, despite the knowledge that the Lynx had diffusers fitted to its exhaust to thwart enemy radar attempts to track its infrared signal, as well as the capability of disrupting its own electronic signature.
They were flying in as silently as possible, in one of the Army’s fastest aircraft.
Adrenalin began to course through his veins, the reality of the mission all too clear in his mind.
Get him out. Get him back to London. Alive.
‘Dead is not an option,’ the mysterious man at the briefing had said as he’d fixed his glare on Matt. ‘Is that understood?’
Matt had stood as the man had risen to leave, before turning to his superior as soon as the door had closed. ‘What’s going on, sir?’
The Major General had shrugged. ‘Fuck if I know, soldier. I know as much as you.’
Which is next to nothing.
Matt shook the thought away and concentrated on running his hand over the equipment strapped to his clothing.
At the order of the mission commander, all their insignia had been stripped away. Even the camouflage they wore belonged to a foreign state.
‘Just doesn’t feel right, not having Her Majesty’s crown on me,’ Blake had grumbled. The team had laughed, but Matt knew what he meant. He’d been involved in a couple of secret missions before, sure, but there was something different about this one.
All this for one man? And what if something went wrong?
When he’d posed that question to his commanding officer, the older man had glared at him.
‘Failure is not an option,’ he’d said.
Matt exhaled, closed his eyes for a moment, and stretched his neck, psyching himself up for the imminent attack. He consoled himself with the thought that at least they were landing, not jumping out with parachutes.
He heard the Sergeant pull back the starboard sliding door of the fuselage, then the port. The wind whipped through the gaping holes, and when he opened his eyes, they began to water. He slipped goggles over his face, and then stood and nodded to the medic. ‘Come on, Thompson. Time to dance,’ he shouted, the roar of the engines whipping his voice away as quickly as he’d spoken.
The young man nodded and leapt to his feet, his eyes wide.
Matt turned to the rest of the team. ‘Okay, you’ve rehearsed this enough times over the past twenty-four hours. Now it’s for real. Everyone knows their job. Get on with it. Get out. Get back here. Understand?’
The men lowered night vision goggles over their faces, and then reached above their heads for the hand straps dangling from the airframe as the gunner aimed his weapon towards the building that loomed below them.
Matt leaned forward until he could peer out the starboard opening and got his first glimpse of the granite-hewn prison they were about to break into.
The two lookout stations that had once towered over the prison walls were now derelict, crumbled from decay and exposure to the frigid elements, whilst the perimeter walls appeared deserted.
Evidently no-one expected anyone to break out – or break in – from the desolate location.
As the helicopter dropped from the sky, its wheels bounced on the ground, the pilot executing a textbook manoeuvre before he slowed the rotors.
‘Go, go, go!’ Matt urged as he stepped from the aircraft, keeping his body hunched over from the rotor wash above him.
The helicopter had landed in a large walled area, which Matt knew to be the exercise yard of the prison. His feet scuffed up dirt and small stones as he ran.
He didn’t look back – he didn’t need to. He knew his men would be right behind him, falling into position, covering him and the aircraft while he led the smaller team, including the medic, towards their target.
There was room in the cabin for one stretcher patient only.
The freezing temperature turned his breath to steam as he ran across the bare earth, his fingers already turning numb in the thin mountain air. He flexed his hand around his weapon and brought it up to his chest before he threw his shoulder against the far wall, turning to provide cover fire if required.
As Blake slid to a halt next to him, he glanced over towards the abandoned guard towers positioned along the perimeter and frowned.
‘Do you see anything?’
Matt tapped the microphone he’d stuck to his body armour with black electrical tape. ‘Alpha One, confirm area appears deserted, per intel.’
‘Where is everyone?’ hissed Blake.
Matt covered his microphone. ‘It’s an old Soviet prison,’ he murmured. ‘The CIA was using this for extradition purposes until they got caught. Intel suspects that someone’s been using this for their own agenda ever since.’ He dropped his hand back to his weapon, the familiar surface a comfort under his grip, checked the lead to the camera on his helmet, and then took a deep breath. ‘Okay,’ he said, turning to the men beside him. ‘Stay sharp. Let’s go.’
They ran single file along the length of the wall until Matt slowed and held his fist in the air. He recalled the blueprints, pleased that his superiors had, at least, managed to get the details right – so far.
Beside him, a solid metal door barred entry to the building. He beckoned to Blake, and then stood to one side as the man pulled out a line of det cord from his vest and began fixing a small explosive to the door. He waited until Blake stepped back, then joined Thompson by the side of the building and turned his head.
The explosion was short and effective.
The lock on the door disintegrated under the force of the plastique, and the men entered the building one after the other without incident. Matt ordered the last of the men through the door to pull it shut and stay on guard.
‘We’re in,’ he murmured over his comms link. ‘Heading towards the cells now.’
‘Intel says he’s on the inner block. Blueprints show a flight of stairs to your six o’clock position. Two levels down.’
Matt ducked, the urgency in Blake’s tone leaving no room for argument, dropped into a crouch, and spun on his toes, raising his rifle to his chest.
Gunfire echoed off the enclosed space, and he saw a shadow drop to the floor, the sound of metal on concrete reaching his ears as the victim’s gun fell from his hands a moment before his body collapsed.
Matt’s attention snapped to Thompson, who was standing, his rifle still raised, his face pale.
‘Good work, soldier,’ he said. ‘Stay focused.’
‘Stairs,’ said Blake. ‘So there must be more people somewhere.’
Matt ran through the building’s plans in his head, recalling the layout that he’d pored over in the room above the River Thames.
After the first flight of stairs, there was a room that intel believed was being used for storage. In the old days, prisoners would have been kept there, although that was supposed to have come to an end twenty years ago.
The real fun and games would begin on the second level.
Blake led the way, with Matt bringing up the rear as they descended.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Matt pushed his night vision goggles up onto his forehead and peered along the dimly-lit corridor over Blake’s shoulder.
A bare, unpainted wall, its surface slick with damp, ran to their left flank. On the opposite side, a series of heavy steel doors remained closed, the dark paintwork chipped and peeling.
‘Which one?’ hissed Blake.
‘Fourth,’ said Matt. His attention snapped towards the far end of the corridor. ‘Incoming!’
All three men dropped to a crouch, spreading out and raising their weapons at the two figures that had emerged from the shadows of the basement cell block.
Matt flinched as brickwork sheared off the wall while their enemies’ gunfire filled the enclosed space.
He squeezed the trigger of his own rifle and felt a moment’s satisfaction as one of the guards dropped to the floor, clutching his leg.
Next to him, Blake fired a rapid burst at the second guard, and the man’s silhouette spun with the force of the bullets before crumpling to the ground.
The first guard had begun to crawl towards his discarded weapon, one hand wrapped around his leg.
Matt stood, sighted his rifle, and fired.
The corridor fell silent; Matt signalled to Blake to cover their rear and then ran towards the fallen men.
He didn’t expect to find any identification on them, and he wasn’t disappointed. He left the bodies and jogged back to Blake and Thompson, pointing at the fourth door.
Blake pulled out a second line of det cord from his pocket, but Matt tapped him on the arm and held up the keys he’d taken from one of the dead men.
‘Quieter this time. And less chance of damaging the goods,’ he said and gently jangled the bunch of metal in his hand.
‘But also less fun,’ grumbled Blake, standing back.
It took two attempts before Matt found the right key and then twisted the handle and pushed the door open.
All three men took an involuntary step back at the stink emanating from the gloom.
‘Jesus,’ said Matt.
He swept his gaze across the floor in the dull light from the corridor until he located a bundle of ragged clothes, a pair of large feet sticking out from the far end. As his eyes travelled up the form, he picked out a pair of hands that clutched at a bare chest, the skin blotched and scratched, and then finally a face, bruised and battered, eyes half closed from the bruises that surrounded the man’s cheekbones and eye sockets.
Blake swore under his breath, and then returned his attention to the corridor, his rifle sweeping left and right.
Matt moved his fingers along the wall of the room until he located a light switch, but it failed to work, and then he noticed the fitting hanging from the ceiling of the cell, stripped of any light bulb.
He swallowed. Evidently, the prisoner’s captors were determined not to let the man take his own life. At least, not until they were finished with him.
‘Come on,’ he murmured to Thompson. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got.’
Matt crouched down next to the curled-up form and beckoned the medic towards him.
‘Assessment. Quickly,’ he said. ‘Can he be moved?’
Thompson joined him and pulled out a small flashlight from his vest, shining its beam over the man, who blinked through swollen eyelids and raised his hands to protect his eyes from the sudden glare.
The medic ran his hands over the prisoner’s body, checking for major injuries that his blood-stained clothing might hide.
Matt reached into his webbing and pulled out a small rectangular-shaped electronic device and switched it on. The screen flashed once, then a swipe screen on the front of it illuminated, casting a green glow across his face.
He reached out, turned the screen towards the man, and gently lifted one of the prisoner’s hands until his index finger rested against the swipe screen. He held the man’s hand steady until a low beep sounded from the device, then turned the screen and checked.
The man’s fingerprint had been captured, the whorls and folds of his skin scanned and evaluated.
Matt flinched at the cuts and bruises on the man’s face as he switched off the device and tucked it back into his webbing, and wondered if the prisoner could walk or needed to be carried.
Blake moved closer, his rifle aimed at the open cell door. ‘Is it him?’
‘Yes.’ He leaned towards the medic. ‘Well?’
The man turned, sweat pouring down his face. ‘I can’t find any compound fractures, sir. I can’t vouch for internal injuries. There appear to be cigarette burns on his legs. These cuts on his arm have had bleach or something poured onto them.’
‘Right, we’re going.’ Matt stood and gestured to Blake. ‘Help me. Grab him. Let’s get out of here.’
He ducked under one of the prisoner’s arms, waited until Blake had done the same, and then staggered for a moment as they adjusted the man’s weight between them.
‘Cover our backs, Thompson.’
Matt stepped sideways through the open cell door, fumbling to keep his rifle steady in his right hand as he moved.
Their progress was going to be slower than he’d have liked, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he gritted his teeth and instead kept a constant watch on the other cell doors as they passed.
A trickle of sweat began at his forehead as he wondered who else was being kept behind those locks – and whether anyone was coming to rescue them. He blinked to clear the thought and had begun to turn towards the concrete stairs that led back to the exercise yard when Blake shouted.
The guard had appeared out of the darkness – on his blind side. If Blake hadn’t shouted, they’d have been cut down without a chance. Stuck behind the rescued man, Thompson had no angle by which to shoot. Instead, Matt reached for his rifle, hell-bent on taking the guard before he could fire.
The comms lead had slipped down his arm during the extraction and was now entangled around his wrist, preventing him from turning his rifle towards the guard. The seconds passed by in slow motion as he kept his eyes on the guard, the man already reaching for his own weapon.
Matt gritted his teeth and tried to reach his weapon, all the while desperate not to drop the rescued man to the floor. He swore with frustration, cursing under his breath that he’d made such a rookie mistake in his haste to get the prisoner and his team to safety.
A tug at his arm caught his attention, and he looked down as the prisoner reached out, wrapped his hands around the rifle, and then swung the muzzle towards the guard and fired a quick burst.
The guard twisted where he stood, his face a mask of agony as he spun towards the floor.
The prisoner grimaced and relinquished the weapon.
‘Take it,’ he hissed before passing out.
Matt didn’t need a second invitation. He ripped the comms equipment from his neck, looped the loose wire, and then shoved it down his vest.
He turned to Blake and Thompson. ‘Let’s get out of here before we’re ambushed.’
They climbed the stairs, their progress hampered by the dead weight of the man they carried between them.
Matt could hear Thompson’s breathing, heavy and laboured. He frowned, almost ready to question the man’s fitness, until he realised the young medic was terrified. Matt glanced over his shoulder.
Sure enough, the man’s face was pale, sweaty, as he covered their rear.
Matt turned his attention back to the man whose arms were looped around his. Thompson would have to learn to live with the terror if he wanted to remain part of the elite group – same as they all did.
A dull light began to pierce the gloom as they neared the top of the stairs, and Matt squinted until his eyesight grew accustomed to the brightness compared to the underground complex.
Their team mate stood at the doorway, relief spread across his face as the team reached him.
‘Good to see you, sir.’
‘Likewise,’ said Matt. ‘Take him.’
He swapped places with the man, and then once he and Blake were heading towards the waiting helicopter as fast as they could, Matt turned his attention to the doorway.
Thompson was peering back into the gloom.
In a heartbeat, Matt cleared the space between them, pulling the young medic to one side, a split second before gunfire exploded up the flight of stairs.
Bullets sent chips of the concrete doorway flying past them as they huddled to one side.
Matt waited, keeping still until silence pierced the air, their attacker pausing to reload.
He pushed Thompson towards the helicopter. ‘Don’t stop. Don’t look back,’ he ordered.
He made sure the young medic was on his way, then swung his rifle up and fired a short round down the staircase. Next, he reached for one of the grenades fitted to his body armour, pulled the pin, and tossed it down the stairwell.
A loud curse in a foreign language echoed up from the depths of the prison, before it was carried away by the explosion.
Dust and smoke chased heat up the stairs towards Matt, and he leaned back, closing his eyes against the blast wave, before he spun around and launched himself towards the helicopter.
The rotor blades began to increase in speed as he approached, and Blake leaned out of the aircraft, weapon steady as he waited for him.
As he drew closer, he saw Blake swing his rifle to the left, before a shout reached his ears.
He hit the dirt.
He felt, rather than heard, the bullets as they ripped through the air above his prone body.
A cry from the direction of the building behind him carried across the wide expanse of the exercise yard, and then was cut off by another round.
In an instant, he was on his feet and running once more.
He glanced over his shoulder and his heart fell. Armed guards were pouring out of a roof access and running towards the top of the prison, taking up positions around the yard.
‘Move!’ he yelled.
The helicopter began to rise in the air, the downforce hampering his progress, slowing him down.
He gritted his teeth, dug deep for another burst of energy, and pumped his arms. The gap between him and the aircraft closed.
Blake leaned out, his arm outstretched as the helicopter’s wheels left the ground. He yelled encouragement at him as Thompson leaned over his shoulder with a rifle, providing cover fire.
And then he was there, being hauled up into the aircraft as it turned and lifted into the air at a sickening speed.
His men thrust him to the centre of the fuselage, before they turned their attention back to the guards on the prison roof, firing short bursts until the helicopter plunged below the line of the mountain and out of range.
Matt crawled towards the open door and peered out as the landscape rushed past beneath them. He signalled to the man next to him to close the door, then stood on tired legs and made his way towards the front of the helicopter where Thompson and Blake were strapping the unconscious prisoner into a seat.
As he approached, the rescued man opened his eyes and raised his head, his eyes taking in the fascinated stares of the team, before falling to Matt. ‘Who the hell are you? What’s going on?’ he rasped.
‘Captain Matt Ryan,’ said the team leader, ‘of Her Majesty’s British Army.’
The man frowned. ‘Where are you taking me?’
Matt’s answer was interrupted by the pilot’s voice over the radio.
‘We’re clear of their airspace.’
The aircraft erupted with the roar from Matt’s men as they celebrated. He high-fived Blake and then turned his attention back to the rescued man and grinned.
‘You’re going home, Dan Taylor.’
Three weeks later
Jack Halligan swung the door to his office open and hurried across the car park to the four-wheel drive vehicle that had been left within the secure compound.
His site office resembled a shipping container with a window punched in each side to let in light, and after three days responding to emails and phone calls and dodging requests from the client’s representative to attend yet another meeting to discuss progress, he was glad to escape.
He glanced at his watch.
The drilling crew were late – again.
He swore under his breath.
The project was already three months behind schedule due to a winter that had got its dates wrong and had piled snow on the Northumberland hills through to the beginning of April.
The project team had descended on the area within a single week from various parts of the world. He’d received the call as he was finishing a project in Saudi Arabia, and the opportunity to see the green rolling fields of England once more, not to mention pints of real ale, was too good to pass up. The company simply moved each of them around as projects were won and completed, and it was a lifestyle he enjoyed.
He turned at a shout from one of the other buildings.
‘What time do you call this?’ he grumbled as two men strode towards him.
‘Sorry, Jack.’ The taller of the two shook his hand. ‘Phone call from Brazil. Had to take it. Problem with a rig over there, and they wanted my advice.’
‘Nice to be wanted, eh, Greg?’
The man shrugged. ‘Might as well make the most of it while the work’s there.’ He turned to his slightly shorter companion. ‘Jack, this is Mark. He’s going to be joining us today.’
Mark frowned as he shook Jack’s hand. ‘Is it normal for a project manager to ride out with the drilling team?’
Jack raised an eyebrow at the remark and turned to Greg, who coughed and forced a chuckle.
‘Jack’s very hands-on,’ he explained. ‘And when the drilling is behind schedule, I think he’s got a right to ride out with us, don’t you?’
Mark grunted a response and pointed to the large square-shaped silver case that Greg held between his hands, the strain on his face reflecting the weight of the box. ‘Do you want me to help you with that?’
His boss shook his head. ‘No. I’ll see to it. You get in the truck.’
Jack watched as the younger man stalked round to the passenger seat and wrenched the door open. ‘New boy?’
‘Yeah – my last engineer went AWOL two weeks ago. Got this guy at short notice through an agency, but he seems to know what he’s doing,’ said Greg. ‘He’s not a bad worker when he remembers to keep his attitude in check,’ he added with a wink.
‘Rather you than me,’ said Jack.
He waited until Greg had secured the silver box in the rear of the vehicle, then jogged round to the driver’s door, leapt behind the wheel, and started the engine.
Once Greg was on board, Jack steered the vehicle towards the site gate and waited while the security team let them pass.
Minutes later, they were travelling along a hedgerow-lined lane, the hills rolling under the vehicle’s wheels with ease. Mist rose from the valley below, burning away the light rainfall from the previous night.
After a couple of miles, Jack slowed as they approached a high-wire mesh fence that separated the road from a wide field. He braked and turned to the right at a small shipping container that had been converted into a temporary security office, guarding the entranceway through a padlocked metal gate set into the fence.
The first three weeks of the project had been spent using a government contractor who had used two teams of six men to encapsulate the property within a high metal fence that ran the perimeter of the land.
Four teams of two security men plus dogs now patrolled that perimeter day and night, leaving the project team in peace to do their work and run their tests in the middle of the fenced-off area, out of sight.
Two security officers approached the vehicle from the shelter of the container, and as one of them approached the vehicle, Jack buzzed down his window.
‘Morning,’ he said and handed over the occupants’ three passes.
‘You might be in for a quiet day today,’ said the guard. He pointed at the black cloud hastening across the hills towards them. ‘Especially if that one stays on course.’
‘Cheers,’ said Jack, redistributing the security passes to Mark and Greg.
‘What’s your ETA back here?’
‘We’ll probably be four to six hours.’ Greg leaned over the central column. ‘It’ll depend on how easy it is to get the samples we need.’
The security man signalled to his colleague, who added the details to the clipboard. ‘Okay, well – have a good one.’
He turned and walked over to the gate, selected a key from the bunch hanging off his belt loop, and swung open the metal barrier.
Jack buzzed his window up, put his hand up to the security team as the vehicle passed them, and then accelerated along the muddy farm track towards the first test well.
As the vehicle bumped and slid across the field, Jack steered it expertly over the terrain. Next to him, Greg checked his mobile phone.
‘You’d think in this day and age, you’d get a bloody signal out here,’ he grumbled.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘It’s my little girl’s birthday,’ said Greg. ‘I wanted to speak to her before she goes to school.’ He put down the phone and stared sightlessly at the passing landscape. ‘These days, she’s usually in bed and fast asleep by the time I get home.’
Jack held his tongue. All the men had complained when the accelerated delivery schedule had been revealed. Sure, they knew the company was under pressure to perform and would lose millions if it failed to bring the drilling programme back on track, but their bosses either chose to ignore or didn’t understand the effect it had on the team’s morale.
He checked in the rear view mirror. Mark was staring out the back window, the security hut disappearing from view as they rounded the base of a small hill and followed the track to the rig.
Jack turned his attention to the towering structure that could now be seen through the windscreen.
At nearly forty metres tall, the steel derrick of the rig dwarfed the four-wheel drive vehicle, its mass casting a shadow over the ground that had been shorn of grass and cleared for the construction crew, engineers, and geologists to work.
At the base of the rig, an assortment of machinery and equipment had been set out, ready for the testing to be undertaken.
Today, however, only the three engineers were present, their remit to obtain more samples for analysis to ensure the bore remained a valid prospect for the project.
Jack steered the four-wheel drive to within a few metres of the well, rubbed his eyes, and killed the engine.
‘Right, let’s get on with it,’ he said, climbing out. ‘I’d like to be back at the project office before dark.’
‘Scared a sheep might get you?’ asked Greg.
‘It’s not the sheep I worry about,’ replied Jack. ‘It’s the locals.’
Both men laughed as they joined Mark at the back of the vehicle. Jack pulled open the doors and helped Greg slide the silver box towards them.
He nodded at Greg and, taking the weight between them, they lifted it out of the vehicle and carried it across the uneven ground towards the test well.
Mark followed in their wake, carrying an armful of measuring devices and a laptop bag.
Once they were at the well, the two men set down the silver box, and Jack stepped away, his gaze catching the radioactive warning symbols emblazoned in yellow and black across the locking mechanism.
‘Okay, Greg. Do your magic.’
‘Very funny.’ The engineer crouched down and placed his hands each side of a combination lock inserted on the side of the box. ‘No looking now, okay?’
Mark joined Jack and placed the bags of equipment by his feet. Both men averted their gaze as Greg rolled his thumb across the four combination numbers.
With a soft click, the locking mechanism released, and Greg pushed open the lid.
Jack moved until he could see the contents.
Inside the box, in individual chambers, sat six tubes, each bearing a further radioactive warning.
‘Okay, let’s get a move on,’ said Greg and reached forward for one of the tubes.
‘I don’t think so.’
Jack’s head snapped round at Mark’s voice, his eyes opening wide at the gun that the man held steadily between his hands. ‘What the fuck?’
Mark didn’t answer. Instead, he aimed the gun at Greg, and calmly shot the engineer in the chest.
Jack turned and fled, heading back to the vehicle, his brain trying to process what he’d just witnessed. He needed to reach the four-wheel drive, radio for help —
A fire scorched through the soft tissue in his calf muscle a split second before he heard the gunshot, and he fell to the ground.
He cried out in pain, his insides turning to liquid as he began to crawl, not daring to look over his shoulder.
Surely the security team have heard the shots, he thought seconds before he realised they were too far away, safely ensconced in their makeshift office with the radio blasting music.
He turned his head, trying to see if any of the dog patrols were within sight, but he couldn’t even see the perimeter fence from where he lay.
‘Shit, shit, shit,’ he hissed as he heard footsteps squelch in the mud behind him, getting closer.
What the hell was going on?
Why did Mark kill Greg?
His hands slipped on the damp grass beneath his fingers, and he tumbled to the side, landing on his wounded leg. An agonising burning sensation tore through the nerve endings, and he screamed with frustration as he tried to regain his balance.
‘Stop. Don’t make it harder on yourself.’
The calmness in the young engineer’s voice chilled Jack to the bone, and then the man was next to him. He glared at the man’s boots and then lifted his chin.
Mark lifted the gun until Jack could see down the barrel.
His mouth dry, he wondered if he would see the bullet that killed him as he raised his hands in the air.
‘Please, no,’ he begged.
Mark steadied his arm and pulled the trigger.
The project manager’s head exploded with the force from the close range shot, before his body fell backwards, his legs crumpling under him.
Mark flicked the safety on, turned, and stomped back to the silver box on the ground next to Greg’s prone body.
He kicked the dead man’s arms out of the way and then crouched beside the case and cursed.
Greg had been holding one of the thin canisters between his fingers when he’d been shot, and when he’d fallen, the canister had tumbled into the case, clipping the lead side of the box.
Now, it lay haphazardly across the rim of the box, its radioactive warning taunting him.
He exhaled slowly and reached out, turning the canister slowly back into its compartment. As it moved, his eyes opened wide, and he pulled his hand back with a jerk.
He squinted at the small crack that had appeared in the casing and then glanced at his watch and shook his head.
There was no time left. He’d just have to explain what had happened when he got to the drop-off point with the others.
Instead, he turned his attention to the security settings on the lid of the box. The lock was based on a simple combination mechanism, which could be altered only once the case was open. Now, Mark set the new combination to the pre-determined sequence and flipped the lid closed.
As he stood, the roar of a large engine reached his ears.
He raised his eyes to the lip of the small hill above the well site, spotting a second project-designated vehicle as it began a rapid descent towards him.
He lifted his hand in greeting and waited until the four-wheel drive pulled to a standstill next to Jack’s vehicle. A second man sat in the passenger seat next to the driver and appeared to be talking to him as they stopped.
The driver nodded to the other occupant and then leaned out of the window and called across to Mark, the engine still running.
‘Where’s the other one? I thought there were going to be two of them?’
Mark waved his hand across the meadow to where Jack’s body lay. ‘He tried to run.’
‘Didn’t work, eh?’
Mark shrugged. ‘What happens next?’
‘This,’ said the driver. He moved in his seat, revealing a gun of his own.
Mark’s eyes opened wide. ‘Wait, there’s a —’
His voice was cut short as two bullets entered his chest in quick succession.
As his body fell to the ground, the passenger door of the ranger’s vehicle swung open and the second occupant jumped out, hurrying over towards the silver box.
‘Come on – help me,’ he called to the driver. ‘We need to move.’
‘Wait,’ the driver said, pointing to the ground. ‘I’ll get the bullet casings.’
He retrieved the two casings from his own gun and then paced the ground until he worked out where Mark had been standing when he fired his weapon, bent down, and picked up the last casing.
He pocketed all the casings before joining his colleague and, between them, they hefted the box from the ground and hurried back to their vehicle.
Swinging the rear door shut, the men clambered back into the four-wheel drive. The driver flicked the handbrake and then floored the accelerator and steered the vehicle in the opposite direction of the site gate and security office.
A smaller, less well-advertised gate appeared in a dry stone wall, an access way for the farmer whose land they were on. A single project security vehicle had been parked next to it, its windows fogged. As they approached, an orange-coloured sleeve wiped the condensation away and a face peered out, frowning.
‘Shit, he’s seen us.’
‘Don’t worry about it. The project logo’s on all the doors. Just wave.’
The driver slowed to a halt and waited until the security guard had climbed out of his vehicle, huddled against the faint drizzle that was beginning to sweep across the hills, and jogged over to the gate. He threw a mock salute at them as they passed.
‘Okay, wait until we’re round this corner, and then floor it.’
The driver accelerated smoothly away, putting as much distance between them and the well site as he dared. Spotting a lay-by a couple of miles later, he swung the vehicle into it, and both men jumped out.
They worked silently, the driver fetching a large water container from the back of the four-wheel drive and used it to clear the worst of the mud from the tyres and bodywork, while his passenger pulled the magnetic logos from the vehicle.
As they clambered back into the vehicle and slammed the doors shut, the passenger glanced at his watch.
‘We’re right on time.’
"Spy thrillers with well-developed complex characters"
~ Manhattan Book Review
"I’m not sure whether Rachel has some sort of inside line to what’s going on in the UK and the wider world, but her stories are scarily current"