Under Fire



North Kent, UK

Grant Swift pulled his keys out of his pocket and glanced through the glass doors of the atrium in the large industrial building. His fingers flexed around the handle of the battered briefcase in his hand, the black leather peeling and faded to grey.

Sleet poured off the covered walkway, the force of the downpour echoing through the building’s reception area. Grant jumped as a gust of wind shook the glass doors and sent debris tumbling across the landscaped path which led towards the car park.

‘Going to make a run for it Mr Swift?’

Grant turned to the reception desk, manned by a solitary security guard who had looked up from a half-completed Sudoku puzzle. He pushed his scarf under his coat collar. ‘If I miss our anniversary dinner this year, I might as well look for a new home.’

The guard laughed, reached across and turned up the radio. ‘I reckon you should take your chances then. Better you turn up soaked and frozen than late.’

‘That’s what I thought.’ Grant swung the briefcase over his head and pushed his way through the glass doors, the sound of a top forty radio station echoing in his wake. His feet kicked up torrents of water as he ran through the puddles on the concrete footpath. His breath fogged in the air.

As he neared his car, a late-model silver Mercedes saloon with a personalised plate reading ‘GEN1US’, he swung his arm up and pointed the key fob at the door. The indicator lights flashed once. Wrenching open the door, he threw his briefcase onto the passenger seat and launched himself into the driver’s seat. Pulling the door shut, he sat stunned, watching the sleet streak down the windscreen.

‘Jesus,’ he murmured, ‘bloody English weather.’

He shivered. His last assignment had been on a project in the Middle East. Two months later he was ruing the day he’d accepted a contract with the organisation and returned to the United Kingdom.

He ran his hand through his sodden black hair, shivered as cold water dripped down the back of his neck, and then glared as a pool of water spread under the briefcase and over the upholstery of the car.

He shook his head, put the ignition card in its slot and started the car. The engine purred to life, the instrument panel lighting up like a primed jet fighter. Grant leaned forward and adjusted the temperature controls. The fog on the inside of the windscreen began to clear as he fastened his seat belt and switched on the headlights.

Flicking on the wipers, he put the car into drive and swung away from the complex.

A mass of architecturally-designed glass and steel, the organisation’s headquarters was the centre-point of the new business park. Its three storeys towered above the neighbouring offices, all designed to fit in with the tree line of the surrounding countryside. Twenty miles from the centre of London, the intention was to create an oasis of calm for the software engineers who had descended on the place nearly two years ago.

Grant fidgeted in his seat, got comfortable and pointed the car in the direction of the city. With the weather worsening, an hour’s drive had just turned into two hours and he was definitely going to be late. Twenty minutes later, he was on the road heading west, the traffic nose-to-tail while he did his best to avoid being blinded by the rear fog lamps the idiot in front of him had switched on.

The traffic slowed to a crawl and he craned his neck, trying to peer over the vehicles in front of him, He saw the red and blue flashing lights of emergency vehicles and groaned.  He glanced down as the phone began to ring in its cradle and flicked a switch on the steering wheel.

‘Don’t divorce me yet.’

A throaty chuckle emanated from the other end of the line. ‘That bad?’

‘I’m about forty minutes away, tops,’ he lied.

‘I thought as much.’ A pause. ‘I’ll phone the restaurant and tell them we’ll be there at eight o’clock, okay?’

‘Sounds like a plan.’ He checked his mirrors. ‘I’ll take the next exit. It’s a bit of a diversion but at least I’ll be on the move. I can’t see this lot going anywhere fast.’

‘Okay. Be safe.’

‘Always. Love you.’

‘Love you too. See you when you get here.’

Grant ended the call. Checking the mirror again, he indicated left and began to pull across to the left lane. Headlights flashed in his rear-view mirror. He squinted and angled his head so his eyes could adjust. He calculated the exit was only about two miles away and, sure enough, within a minute or so he passed a green sign pointing to the left. He started indicating half a mile before the slip-road began, easing himself out of the traffic and then edged the car down the ramp away from the dual carriageway.

The van behind him slipped into the wash from his tyres and followed him down the road. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, Grant smiled. Obviously someone else had had enough of the tailback.

As his car descended, he allowed it to pick up speed around a curving left-hand bend, and then slowed as he passed through the green traffic lights at the end of the slip-road. He steered the car across a right-hand turn and pulled up at a T-junction.

The force of the sudden impact from behind threw him forward, his body straining against the seatbelt. He blinked, shocked. Clutching the steering wheel tightly, he quickly corrected the car as it veered towards the middle of the road. The headlights behind him flashed once. He groaned, drove the car across the junction and pulled up on the opposite side of the road, cruising to a halt.

The road was deserted, and no traffic passed the two vehicles. A street lamp flickered above the Mercedes, its light shimmering across the wet tarmac.

Fantastic. He punched the steering wheel with the palms of his hands, put the car into ‘park’ and unclipped his seatbelt, his heart hammering between his ribs.

As long as the idiot’s got insurance. Reaching down to the glove compartment he popped the lid open, took out a small notebook, then felt further under the dashboard and pulled out a ballpoint pen with the end chewed off. Closing the lid, he put his hand on the door handle.

He glanced in the wing mirror and froze. A silhouetted figure emerged from the other vehicle, a coat pulled up over its head, running towards his side of the car. Grant pressed the button to lower the window and blinked as rain blew in.

The figure slowed to a halt at the car door and bent down. In the bad light, Grant could just make out a bearded chin, a hood covering the upper part of the face, while rain cascaded down the figure’s back. The man shouted over the noise of the storm.

‘Sorry! My wife’s at home – expecting our first. Tried to stop but the brakes seized up. You okay?’

Grant held out the notepad and pen. ‘Give me your insurance details – I’ll write mine down for you.’

The man nodded and opened his mouth to speak.

Without warning, the passenger door was wrenched open. Grant turned, astonished, as another man pushed the briefcase onto the floor and lunged for him. Grant yelled, pulled on the door handle, then felt an arm thread around his neck. He coughed, gasping for breath.

The man in the hood leaned further through the window and murmured in his ear. ‘Don’t struggle – you’ll only make it worse.’

The other assailant held a syringe in his hand, the needle upright and primed.

Grant kicked his feet helplessly at the floor of the car, his toes clipping the throttle pedal. The man with the syringe grinned, his short cropped salt-and-pepper hair glinting in the low beam from the light above the car door.

Bile rising in his throat, Grant tried to prise the hooded man’s grip away from his throat. The salt-and-pepper-haired man grabbed his wrist, yanked up the sleeve and plunged the needle into the vein in the exposed skin.

Grant opened his mouth to yell – fear, pain, frustration – and immediately the hooded man clamped a hand over his jaw, silencing him to a muffled cry.

The other man relaxed, sat back in the passenger seat of Grant’s car and watched him, his eyes gleaming.

Grant’s head started to spin, his heartbeat pounding in his ears gradually slowing, echoed by the rain drumming on the roof of the car. Black dots appeared before his eyes as the hooded man’s grip slackened and he fell back into his seat.

A muffled voice. ‘He’ll be out in sixty seconds.’

Sixty seconds? What happens after sixty seconds? The drowsiness began to claim him. Grant blinked twice, fought to lift his chin from his chest, aware his head was drooping.

The man with the salt-and-pepper hair lifted Grant’s briefcase out of the passenger footwell of the car, opened it and began sifting through the contents before he snapped it shut and shook his head at the other attacker.

‘Nothing here. We’ll take him with us. Let’s go.’

Grant’s body sagged as the car door was opened. The hooded man reached in and, checking over his shoulder for any unwanted witnesses, slowly began dragging Grant from the vehicle.

‘No…,’ Grant murmured. Dammit, what had they given him?

Before he passed out, he was lifted into the back of the vehicle and a blanket laid over his body. The musty aroma of oil assaulted his nostrils, while the hard steel floor of the vehicle dug into his spine.

Then darkness.

Chapter 1

Arizona, USA

Dan Taylor walked slowly across the parched earth. Dressed in a dark green Kevlar armoured jacket, with matching trousers and black lace-up boots, he paced towards a small malevolent object lying on the ground.

Across the barren plain, a late afternoon haze began to settle, liquefying the blue cloudless sky. In the distance the haze parted to reveal a long ridge of hills, scorched brown by the past summer’s heat. A few scrubby trees broke the monotony of the landscape, providing rare shade among the parched grasses and dust.

As he approached the object, his pace slowed. Almost reverently, he walked carefully around the object in a clockwise direction, kicking small stones and pebbles away from it.

He stopped, appraising his work as a thin cloud of dust settled in his wake, and stared at the device which lay glinting in the sun’s rays. A sigh escaped his lips as he waited for his heart rate to slow down from the fierce beating between his ribs. As it calmed, he carefully crouched down in the dirt, flexed his fingers and reached out to the explosive ordnance.

His eyes blinked rapidly behind the protective visor covering his face. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead, threatening to run into his eyes, but taking off the visor and wiping his face wasn’t an option. He shook his head slightly, flexed his bare fingers and re-focussed his attention on the device on the ground next to him.

Dan rocked back on his heels away from the object, unzipped a pocket on the front of his jacket, and extracted a small set of pliers. Re-zipping the pocket, he held the pliers up to his face, nodded, then bent back down until his eyes were level with the device.

He’d studied a similar object yesterday, only then it wasn’t activated and had sat benignly on a work bench while he’d methodically stripped it apart and tried to unlock its secrets.

This time it was different.

He remembered what he’d learned yesterday, which wires could be safely cut, which wires had to be left alone. And how much explosive power lay hidden under the layers of metal.

Pushing aside any thoughts of what could happen, he reached out and gently slid the pliers over the dry packed earth towards the object. Usually, any bomb disposal team would use a specially-designed robot to neutralise a threat. The problem was, some devices were placed where robots weren’t an option.

Between the dirt and the shiny surface of the device, Dan saw a space, about a centimetre wide. A thin yellow wire protruded from the device, just visible to the naked eye. Pulling back the pliers, he crouched on his haunches for a few seconds, thinking. He then lowered himself onto the dirt, laying prone on the earth and wriggled forwards, reaching out with the pliers once more, his head tilted to one side.

Carefully, he applied pressure to the pliers, the claws slowly closing in on the yellow wire. As the teeth bit into the coloured plastic covering, he stopped breathing.

Above him, he could hear the distant roar of a jet engine as an airliner spewed contrails across the azure sky. He waited for it to pass, until the silence returned to the landscape and the only sound was his heartbeat echoing in his ears.

Another heartbeat, then he cut the wire. Breathing out slowly, he pulled the pliers back, his heart racing.

Suddenly, a high-pitched whine began emanating from within the object.

Dan’s eyes opened wide. In one fluid motion, he stood up and began running away from the device as fast as he could, towards a piece of red tape which fluttered in the breeze between two fence posts.

In his mind he counted off the seconds – from habit rather than any knowledge of how much time he actually had.

It was going to be close.

Approaching the red taped-off area, he dropped to his knees and skidded under the temporary boundary, sliding into a shallow trench crudely dug into the earth just hours before, crouched down and burrowed his head in his arms.

The explosion rocked the landscape. The ground boiled and rolled upwards, lifting soil, shrubs, and rocks into the air. A small flock of crows scattered and squawked as dirt and fragments of stone fell back to earth, raining on his body, showering him in a layer of dust.

Then silence.

Dan slowly raised his head and looked over his shoulder. A thick dust cloud masked the area where he’d been crouched next to the device. Standing up, he scowled as fragments of dirt slipped under his collar and down the back of his neck. Dusting himself off, he swallowed as the ringing in his ears began to fade, and then turned around at a shout from behind him.

Two large white four-wheel drive vehicles parked a further hundred metres away framed a shaded area, a tarpaulin strung between them acting as a temporary respite from the bright winter sunlight. A swathe of red tape fluttered in a slight breeze, marking the outer perimeter of the temporary no-go area.

Dan began to walk towards the vehicles, awkwardly at first as he eased out the kinks in his limbs and wondered how many bruises he’d have the following day. As he approached the cordon, another man rounded the back of one of the four-wheel drive vehicles, tucking a mobile phone into the back pocket of his jeans, and then folded his arms, waiting.

‘Nice work,’ he said as the dusty figure approached him.

Dan removed his protective visor and frowned, running a hand through his brown hair which had grown long over the previous summer, compared with the buzz cut he’d preferred while in the British Army. He stopped and turned, looking at the ruined landscape behind him, a thread of smoke trailing into the blue sky above. He turned back to the man standing next to him.

‘That,’ he said, pointing over his shoulder at the smoking crater in the ground, ‘is a very nasty piece of kit, Chris.’

The man next to him shaded his eyes with his right hand and nodded. ‘Apparently they were found on a guy apprehended at a checkpoint on the Israeli border. Hezbollah of course…’

‘Had the Israelis come across anything like this before?’ asked Dan.

Chris shook his head. ‘No, that’s why they shared a few with us – and why we called you. Figured we’d work out how the hell to disarm them and test their capability to see what we’re up against.’

Dan nodded. Since leaving the British Army after being injured in an IED blast in Iraq, he’d started to dedicate himself to learning everything he could about new terrorist weapons to make some sense of what had happened to him, and try to save someone from going through the same hell he’d lived through.

Although his nightmares had gradually faded, it took only a news report to flick the switch for him to have sleepless nights for weeks. Working as a consultant to the British Army and using his skills as an EOD operator, he found the work satisfying and cathartic.

For the past few months, he’d teamed up with Chris Lewis, an ex-SEALS munitions expert pensioned out of the US Navy following a training accident which had left him with two fingers missing from his left hand.

Dan turned and walked over to one of the four-wheel drive vehicles. Under the shade of the tarpaulin, he began to strip off the layers of Kevlar body armour.

Chris followed him into the makeshift tent, and helped him lift the heavy protective jacket over his head. Dan almost staggered with the effort. As Chris dumped the jacket on the ground, Dan pulled off his boots then wriggled out of the armoured trousers. Underneath, he wore blue jeans and a black polo shirt, both faded from years of wear. While Chris put the Kevlar body armour onto the back seat of one of the vehicles, Dan re-laced his boots, then strode over to a mini-refrigerator hooked up to a small generator and took out a soft drink. Popping the lid, he drained half the contents in three gulps, and then belched.

He put the can on top of the refrigerator. On the floor next to it, a tarpaulin spread out over the ground held a display of butchered metal, wires, and detonating devices. Bending down, he pulled gloves over his hands, and retrieved one of the pieces of stripped parts. He turned it in his fingers, his blue eyes squinting at the parts, trying to work out how they’d been designed.

He turned and held it up to Chris. ‘It’s almost like a small limpet mine, but with a directional blast mechanism.’

Chris crouched down. ‘How come the one we just detonated tore a fucking great crater in the General’s paddock?’

‘That’s exactly what I’d like to know.’

Both men looked up as a shadow passed over them, and then stood and looked at the smouldering hole in the ground.

‘Rogue one?’ suggested Dan.

The newcomer rolled up the sleeves of his denim shirt, twitched the baseball cap on his head and scratched his ear. ‘Some rogue.’

In his late sixties, General Bartholomew ‘Bart’ Collins retired from the US Army, bought acreage in the middle of Arizona and continued to fight terrorism in his own way, which provided both the US and British armies, and any consultants such as Dan, the opportunity to team up with other experts and pool their knowledge.

Dan looked over the General’s shoulder and frowned. ‘I didn’t hear you pull up. Where’s your truck?’

A deep rumbling snort from behind one of the vehicles pre-empted the General’s response.

He smiled. ‘I didn’t buy a ranch so I could drive all day son. I was out for a ride – saw the explosion and thought I’d better head over here to make sure you were both still in one piece.’

Dan turned, stretching his back, and looked at the General who was frowning at the crater.

‘What are you thinking General?’

The older man turned. ‘There are some very nasty bastards out there.’ He shrugged, unhitched his horse from the four-wheel drive vehicle’s bull bars and launched himself into the saddle with the agility of someone twenty years younger.

‘Sorry about your paddock,’ said Dan.

The man shrugged. ‘Shit happens. I was going to plough it over this year anyway. You’ve saved me a job.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘You’d better clean up here and head back to the house before Wendy serves dinner.’

Adjusting the reins between his fingers, he looked down at Dan. ‘I’ll see you both in the study for drinks and a full debrief at eighteen hundred hours,’ he said, and gave the horse a swift kick.

As the horse cantered off, Dan gave the General a casual salute, and turned back to the task of tidying up. He bent down and began to gather the pieces of the dismantled explosive device, folded away the notes he’d made, tucked them into his back pocket and then started to put each piece of the device into its own separate plastic bag.

Chris used a permanent marker pen to label each bag before placing them into a metal container the size of a large toolbox. Dan threw the last bag towards Chris, stood up, then pulled off his gloves, balled them up and threw them in the passenger footwell of the vehicle.

They pulled down the tarpaulin which had been providing shade all day, rolled it up, and stored it in the back of one of the vehicles. Finally, they bent down and tested the weight of the metal box.

Dan glanced up at Chris and nodded. ‘On three.’

They carefully lifted the heavy box into the back of Dan’s four-wheel drive vehicle, and pushed the door shut.

Dan ran his fingers through his damp hair, a bead of sweat trickling down his neck as he surveyed the test area, checking they’d picked up everything. ‘I’ll follow you out,’ he said to Chris, who nodded and started the first vehicle.

Climbing into his vehicle, Dan threw the empty soft drink can and toolkit onto the passenger seat, swung the door shut and started the engine. He let it idle for a minute, rolled down his window, then swung the truck out onto the rough track and followed the cloud of dust behind Chris.

As he steered the truck along the narrow track towards the General’s house he glanced over at the winter landscape. He was already tanned from spending the previous six months in the barren vastness of Arizona.

Despite its remoteness, the small town where he’d based himself was friendly enough.

Which was just as well, given he was staying in the only available guesthouse.

"Be prepared for some extra time on your hands - you won't want to put this down!"

~ San Francisco Book Review

"A fantastic story, well researched and plot twists you won't see coming"

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