Somewhere in Iraq
Dan Taylor pulled at the padded vest, reached underneath it, and flicked another shirt button open.
Sweat poured down his face as the armoured vehicle bucked and swayed along the pot-holed road towards their target. He turned to the man seated beside him. He had to shout to be heard over the roar of the engine. ‘Who called it in Terry?’
The other man shrugged. ‘Some woman walked up to one of the patrols – said her boy had seen a couple of blokes running away from the house opposite and it looked like they’d buried something in the road there.’
Dan nodded, lowered his gaze to his feet and sat, trance-like, waiting for the vehicle to arrive at their destination. He shuffled, trying to work the cramp out of his legs in the tight, confined space. The man opposite kicked his foot. Dan looked up and took the proffered chewing gum with a grunt of thanks.
Not that a stomach ulcer is a major cause of concern right now, he thought. He pulled at the strap under his chin which held his helmet in place. He felt a headache materialising, the helmet squeezing his skull in the heat.
The armoured vehicle continued to power along the dirt road between dilapidated houses. Most bore battle scars – bullet holes, missing roof tiles. In some places, rubble and twisted metal were the only clues where buildings had once stood.
Dan closed his eyes and let his body move with the twists and turns the vehicle made along the road. The tiredness and exhaustion consumed him. Three months added onto an already extended tour in the desert, the team were struggling to keep their wits about them. Every day, more explosive devices were being detonated by the unit. Just as they safely disposed of one bomb, another two were discovered, lying in wait for them.
Dan opened his eyes and glanced at his watch. They’d been out of the compound for six hours straight, driving from one emergency to another. He tilted his head back, stretching his neck muscles.
A shout from the front seat made him jump. ‘Hang on!’
The vehicle veered around a sharp left-hand bend and the road widened out. Dust whipped across the road as small pebbles spat out from under the wheels of the vehicle. They’d left behind the suburban sprawl of the rocket-shelled town. The houses left standing along the road stood sentinel as the vehicle followed in the day-old tracks of a supply convoy. The main road in and out of the town was a popular target for terrorists. The armoured vehicle accelerated, swinging left and right to dodge the larger craters and pot-holes.
The men sitting on the back panel seats held on to straps hanging from the ceiling of the vehicle and swayed with the motion.
‘Dicko, could your driving possibly get any worse?’ yelled H.
Dan didn’t hear the reply but from the grin across H’s face, he could tell it wasn’t polite. Dicko had once told him he’d been a courier driver in London before signing up – Dan often wondered how temporary that career would have been if Dicko hadn’t suddenly decided on a change of direction. He felt the vehicle slow to a crawl. Dicko spun the wheel and stopped.
A voice called back to them from the passenger seat. ‘Everybody out!’ David Ludlow, a young ambitious captain, shouted over his shoulder. ‘Dan, Mitch – you’re on the robot.’
Dan waited while H leaned over to the back of the wagon and released the door. The team crawled out into the glaring heat. Dust devils whipped up small clouds of dirt and grit. Dan stretched his large frame, and then walked to the passenger door. He leaned against the vehicle while David radioed in their position from the GPS coordinates.
The scenery had all started looking the same after a couple of months into the tour. Dust, sand, dust, and more dust. A burst of static was followed by a faint confirmation from their base.
David replaced the radio and turned to Dan. ‘Let’s do it.’
Dan walked to the back of the vehicle. A breeze off the desert swept the sweat from his face. He held up his hand to shield his deep blue eyes from the sun’s glare and stared down the road ahead of him. A thick haze clung to the afternoon horizon. On the left, further down the road, two burnt-out cars had been pushed out of the way and over to the side, to not to slow yesterday’s supply convoy. Dan blinked and pushed his sunglasses tighter to his face. He turned to help Mitch unload the bomb disposal robot from the wagon.
A small machine, supported on large tracked wheels with two claws at the front and a camera mounted onto the top, the robot enabled the team to get closer to the suspected IED without endangering their own lives.
While the other man went to gauge the terrain, Dan reached into the back of the wagon and pulled out a reinforced case. He opened it, and then unfolded a small laptop and joystick controls. He switched on the computer and was soon relaying commands to the robot on the floor.
It twitched on its tracks, the cable attached to the back of the camera playing out as the robot began to roll away, relaying live pictures back to the computer.
Dan looked up and saw Mitch walking back towards him. ‘All clear?’
Mitch nodded. ‘Terry’s gone to take a look around that house over there, just to make sure no-one sticks their heads out while we do this. There’re hardly any buildings around, which helps. H says there’s not enough cover for snipers.’
Dan looked where Mitch was pointing. The house stood on the left side of the track – mud and bricks, with a low stone wall which hemmed in a goat and some chickens. An old couple stared at them from a front doorway. He watched as Terry approached the building, shouted to the old lady in the doorway and gestured to her they should move away.
Dan turned as David called out commands. ‘Dicko, H – make sure this area is cleared. One-fifty metre boundary. Take a look at those dunes on the perimeter. Keep your eyes open.’
Dan watched as the two men left the sheltered side of the vehicle and strode out into the bright sunshine, their heads swivelling from side to side as they scanned the landscape for any threats to the team. David kept watch from the rear of the vehicle, his eyes flickering over the small crowd of people staring at them from the opposite end of the road.
Dan jumped as Mitch slapped him on the back.
‘Come on posh boy, stop daydreaming. Let’s go play with a bomb.’
Dan shook his head and smirked. After two years working together, Mitch still took the piss out of his Oxfordshire accent. ‘Better still, send the robot. It’s too hot for the suit today.’
He glanced down the road and stopped. ‘Christ – where did he come from?’
Mitch looked up to where Dan pointed.
A young boy had appeared from the side of one of the houses to their right, about fifty metres away. The boy pedalled happily towards the road on a small beat-up green tricycle. He smiled and waved at Dicko and H as they approached. Unaware of the danger he was in, the boy began chattering loudly to them as he cycled faster into the middle of the road.
The two soldiers ran to him, oblivious of their own safety, and waved their hands at him to tell him to stop.
Dan could feel his heart hammering in his chest as he watched H bend down to talk to the boy. He couldn’t have been more than three years old. Dan watched, his throat dry, as the child was sent running back in exactly the same direction he’d cycled from.
As he got to the house, a woman snatched him up in her arms and scolded him. A man held his hand up in thanks. Dicko and H waved at him, indicating the family should go inside and shelter, before they continued their patrol, walking past the discarded tricycle and away towards the dunes.
Dan swallowed and wiped the sweat from his eyes. He breathed out slowly, trying to stop his voice from wavering. ‘Where did the report say the IED was?’
Mitch stood next to Dan and pointed. Dan ignored the fact he could see the other man’s hand shaking. They’d both been scared for the kid. ‘Check out the tyre to the left of the road, about eighty metres away. Got it?’
‘Okay – now look to the right of it. You can see where the surface has been dug up and replaced. It’s just a pile of dirt with a bit of debris around it, yeah?’
‘Yeah, okay – I see it.’
Dan moved closer to the laptop and took hold of the small joystick between his finger and thumb. He glanced up at the screen, checked the camera was working properly, and then sent the robot rolling down the road towards its target.
As the robot bumped over the rough surface, Dan moved the camera left and right, testing the camera angles and making sure the picture on the laptop was clear. The last thing he needed was a dodgy signal, especially if he was going to have to use the robot to cut any wires to timing devices.
He looked across at Mitch who was standing at the side of the armoured vehicle, watching the robot as it trundled over the rough terrain.
‘How are they doing?’
Mitch’s gaze changed slightly, taking in the road and H and Dicko walking up over the sand dunes. ‘Looks okay. As long as they keep that perimeter, they’ll be fine.’ He clicked his radio microphone. ‘How’s it going you two?’
Dan heard a burst of static over Mitch’s earpiece and kept his eyes on the computer screen.
Mitch guffawed. ‘Dicko reckons he’s actually found a sand dune dirtier than the ones back home in Pembrokeshire. Amazing.’
Dan smiled. ‘Just tell them to watch where they’re walking. It won’t be dog shit that gets them into trouble here.’
Mitch grinned and relayed the message.
Dan slowed the robot as it drew near to the pile of debris in the middle of the road. He took his hand off the joystick and turned to David. ‘I’m ready when you are,’ he called.
David nodded and clicked his own radio microphone. ‘Okay everyone. Here we go. Keep your eyes and ears open.’
Dan peered around the back of the vehicle and saw Dicko and H taking up a defensive position on the sand dune in the distance, their rifles swinging as they panned round, taking in their surroundings. Behind him, David covered his back, glaring at anyone who looked like they were going to approach the vehicle, occasionally shouting to make sure the small crowd stayed back.
Dan took hold of the joystick and began the robot’s final approach. Bringing it to a stop next to the debris, he stopped the machine and used one of its claws to gently lift a discarded piece of blue cloth. He tapped a series of keys on the laptop and the camera angle zoomed into the space underneath the cloth. He held his breath. Underneath the cloth, the tell-tale signs of an IED were just visible.
Mitch peered over his shoulder. ‘Bastards.’
Dan nodded. ‘There are plenty of them around here.’
‘Can you lift that cloth out of the way?’
‘I can try – it doesn’t look like it’s weighing on the device.’
Dan touched the joystick and gently pushed it forward. The robot’s claw began to lift the material slowly away from the bomb.
‘Lift it straight up,’ said Mitch. ‘You don’t want it dragging across otherwise it could catch on the IED and set it off.’
Dan blinked as sweat ran down his face. He paused, wiping his eyes, trying to stop them stinging and rubbed his hands down the front of his trousers. He took hold of the joystick once more and the robot trundled backwards, carrying the bundle of cloth with it. He waited until the robot was a couple of metres back from the bomb, then hit a series of keys. The robot’s claw opened and the cloth fell to the ground.
‘Okay, now let’s get back in there and see what we’re dealing with,’ said Mitch, as he leaned against the back door of the vehicle and peered at the laptop screen.
Dan steered the robot back up to the bomb. He swung the camera left and right, recording all the angles, then stopped. ‘Here.’ He pointed at the screen. ‘The wires are exposed just there, look.’
Mitch bent down and peered at the relayed image. ‘Can you get to them?’
Dan nodded. ‘I reckon so. Standard configuration.’
Mitch grunted. ‘Yeah, looks like it. Can you get the cutters under it?’
Dan hit a series of keys and the robot’s claw swung into the camera’s view. The pincers snapped together twice and Dan eased them steadily towards a set of three wires. He lowered the claw until its lower edge was touching the dirt road. He stopped, took his finger and thumb off the joystick and wiped his hand on his padded vest. He then rubbed his finger and thumb together, trying to lose the grease, then took hold of the controls once more.
‘Any time today will do,’ murmured Mitch.
In spite of Dan’s response, he had a lot of respect for the other man. After joining the team following extensive training at Vauxhall Barracks in Oxfordshire, Dan began his first tour in the Middle East and Mitch had spent a lot of time making sure Dan’s training continued.
Dan twitched the robot forward. The claw scraped the dirt as it eased under the bomb’s wiring. He punched a key on the laptop and the picture zoomed in.
‘Child’s play,’ commented Mitch.
Dan glanced sideways at him. ‘Don’t you have to be somewhere?’
Mitch chuckled. ‘No.’
Dan rolled his eyes and then concentrated on the picture in front of him. Despite being annoying, Mitch’s observation had been right. The construction of the IED was deceptively simple. Deadly, but simple. A set of three wires connected the explosives to a trip switch.
‘No sign of a remote detonator,’ he reported.
Mitch slapped him on the back. ‘Good, get on with it then.’ He turned and called to David, relaying the message. David nodded and turned his attention back to the small group of bystanders.
Dan lined up the robot’s claw and began to gently lift the wires apart. He hit another command on the computer, which sent a telescopic tube out from under the robot, a set of wire cutters protruding from the end.
He breathed out slowly and willed his heart rate to calm down. He closed his eyes, replayed in his mind what needed to be done, then opened them, focused and ready.
As he typed in the final sequence of controls, the robot’s claw gently pulled a blue wire away from the other two. When it drew close to the wire cutters, a single keystroke sent a message to the robot and its blades drove through the wire.
Dan breathed out, and turned to Mitch. ‘Job done.’
Mitch nodded, called to David and gave him a thumbs up.
David radioed the message to the others. ‘We’re clear.’
The small crowd lost interest and began to disperse across the road. Dan looked up and saw the old couple next to the house. They were arguing by the look of it, the woman gesturing wildly to her husband before storming into the house and shutting the door behind her.
David walked past and gave Dan the thumbs up. ‘Good work Taylor. Get that robot back and packed up quickly, otherwise the kids will have it dismantled for parts before we know it.’
‘I’m on to it.’
Dan pulled the joystick backwards on the laptop and the robot began its slow reverse journey back to the armoured vehicle, the relayed picture jumping as the on-board camera shook over the rough surface.
David signalled to Mitch. ‘Don’t stand around – go and grab that gear. We don’t want them recycling it for the next one they plant for us.’
Mitch nodded and jogged off towards the defused bomb. Dan glanced round the back of the vehicle and watched as he collected the parts while Dicko and H began to stroll back from the roadside dunes, their laughter carrying across the breeze.
David followed his gaze and sighed. ‘Anyone would think those two were on a bloody holiday,’ he said and shook his head, before walking round to the front of the vehicle to radio in their progress.
Dan looked up as Mitch jogged back to the vehicle, various wires, timers and parts cradled in his hands. He set them down in the back of the vehicle where they began to sift through them, looking for serial numbers or identifying markings – anything to provide information about who had supplied the pieces.
David appeared from the side of the armoured vehicle, a puzzled look on his face. ‘Have you seen Terry?’
Dan and Mitch shook their heads.
‘Last time I saw him, he was talking to a couple by that house over there.’ Dan pointed.
David glanced over. ‘His radio might have packed up. I’ll keep trying. If you see him, wave him over – we want to get back to the compound for some rest before we drop from exhaustion.’
He disappeared round the back of the vehicle, talking into his radio.
Dan turned a piece of the blue wire between his fingers as he monitored the robot’s progress on the laptop.
‘This is weird,’ said Mitch.
‘It doesn’t make sense.’ Mitch held up the pieces, and pointed to a single wire protruding upwards. ‘There’s nothing attached to it. Did you cut it by mistake?’
Dan shook his head. ‘No.’
He watched as Mitch stepped away from the back of the vehicle to watch Dicko and H’s progress. Terry was waving his goodbyes to the old couple outside their house.
Mitch turned to Dan, his face pale. ‘This isn’t the one – it’s a decoy.’
Dan looked at Mitch. ‘What? What?’
Mitch had turned back to the road, running his fingers through his hair and turning his head from side to side, desperately surveying the landscape. His eyes fell on the abandoned green tricycle standing in the middle of the road. It was the real bomb.
‘This isn’t the one Dan – we’ve fixed the wrong one!’
Then H yelled, his shout carried away by a blast before Dan could register the warning. The robot tipped sideways in the shockwave, the camera blinked once, then continued recording. A red light on the camera flashed silently and, as the dust began to settle, the screaming began.
Dan Taylor woke up in a sweat. The same nightmare punctuated his sleep, night after night – dust, sand, screaming, blood. He rubbed his eyes. He’d been crying in his sleep again. He knew the army shrinks said the memories would fade in time but he didn’t believe them. He’d spoken to enough people who had been caught up in combat before to know the dreams never left. He could almost hear the ringing in his ears from the explosion.
He tried to roll over and discovered he couldn’t. He opened his eyes, slowly. He’d passed out on the sofa. Again. He eased himself up onto his elbows and turned his head to survey the damage, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the stale odours in the room.
The remains of a Chinese takeaway littered the small coffee table next to him. He blinked in surprise. He didn’t remember eating last night. He reached down towards the floor and felt about until his fingers connected with a familiar glass surface. Clutching at it, he drew it up level until the whiskey bottle was in front of his face. He glanced at it and winced. Empty. He stood it on the coffee table.
He looked up and saw the television flickering on in the corner of the room. Some sort of daytime television talk-show rubbish. He reached between the sofa cushions underneath him. He pulled out the remote control, aimed it at the offending broadcast and hit the off switch.
He closed his eyes. He remembered thinking he’d have just one drink to help him get to sleep, to ward off the nightmares. He looked at the bottle accusingly. It had let him down. It no longer worked. He opened his eyes and blinked, trying to focus so the tears wouldn’t start.
He swung his legs off the sofa and sat with his head in his hands until he felt he could stand without falling over. Slowly, he straightened up and groaned.
He picked up the empty whiskey bottle and takeaway cartons and staggered towards the kitchen. He swore profusely as he stubbed his toe on one of the bags littering the hallway. A steel-capped boot fell out on to the floor and he stared at it accusingly. He’d arrived back in Oxford two days ago but couldn’t face the depressing task of unpacking. He yearned to be travelling again, even if it only meant returning to his old career of collecting more soil samples for yet another mining exploration company. It stopped him thinking too hard about the past. Or the present. Or the future.
He shook his head and shuffled into the kitchen. He opened the back door, swung the rubbish into the bins outside and blinked in the bright sunshine. He belched and watched in mild amusement as the hot emission turned to steam in the cold morning air.
He stepped back into the kitchen, left the door open to help air the house and switched the kettle on. As he turned and reached up to a cupboard over the kitchen bench for a coffee mug, he noticed his mobile phone blinking.
New voicemail message.
Dan grunted, picked up the phone and put it in the back pocket of his jeans. He got a coffee mug, organised the first caffeine shot of the morning and sloped back to the living room.
He grimaced. The room stank.
He pulled open the curtains and opened the windows. Cold air filtered through. He shivered. At least it would freshen up the place. He sat down in an armchair and winced. He reached behind him and pulled the mobile phone from his pocket. He glared at it, then dialled the voicemail service and put the phone to his ear.
He took a sip of coffee while the mobile service went through all the options available to him. According to the mobile service, the message had been left the previous night. He waited, and then the message began.
‘Dan, hi – it’s Peter Edgewater here. Listen, I’m in a bit of a rush but you’re the only one who will really appreciate this – I’ve done it! I know who’s managing to produce white gold on a commercial basis! Listen, I’m just finishing a lecture tour in Europe at the moment but I’ll be back in a few days. I’m organising drinks with a few people I haven’t seen for a while so I can tell you all about it – let’s catch up, yeah? Give me a call and I’ll…’
Dan hit the button to hang up the call and threw the phone on the coffee table. He wondered why he bothered to have one. He really wasn’t interested in catching up with old friends so they could tell him how successful they were. It just reminded him how low he had sunk.
He leaned forward, picked up the phone and deleted the message. Dan glanced at his watch and grunted in satisfaction. The pub would be open in another hour.
Peter hurried along the pavement in the direction of the hotel, his breath turning to vapour in the chill of the air. He shrugged the backpack further up his shoulder and thrust his gloved hands deeper into his jacket pockets, seeking out the last of the warmth from his body. ‘Note to self,’ he murmured, ‘next time, arrange lecture tours in the summer.’
Broad-shouldered, the man was athletic in build, tall and sinewy. He shivered in the bitter night though, and wished he had a few more natural layers of padding to cope with the cold German winter.
His attention was drawn to the familiar white and red of a Stella Artois sign protruding from the building on his left. Slowing down, Peter climbed up the two uneven narrow steps to an ornate hardwood door and pushed it open. Immediately, the cold of the night was forgotten as the warmth from the hotel’s reception area enveloped him.
A small, but effective, log fire burned in an elaborate fireplace set into the wall on his right, throwing out its heat across the room. To his left, a narrow doorway led to the hotel bar, which resonated with the sound of laughter and the soft clink of glasses as patrons eased out the creases of another day. Peter glanced at the bar, then made his way to the reception desk at the back of the foyer and let the backpack slide down his arm to the floor.
The receptionist, dressed in a blue suit with a white blouse, caught his eye as she took a booking over the telephone and motioned to him to wait. She finished the call and smiled.
‘Any messages?’ Peter asked as he removed his gloves.
‘One moment bitte.’
The receptionist turned to the computer and keyed in a command. She absently pushed her glasses up her nose as the screen refreshed.
‘A man was here asking for you earlier sir,’ she read from the screen. ‘He told the receptionist on duty he would telephone you. He didn’t leave his name.’
Peter frowned. The phone call was unexpected but, he reasoned, he’d met a lot of people over the past few weeks who would want to discuss his theories in more detail. He’d run out of business cards two days ago and had resorted to scribbling his name and phone number on catering napkins and beer mats to keep up with the demand of journalists, researchers and, he smiled, the occasional nut case.
He thanked the receptionist as he collected his electronic room key and shouldered his backpack once more before heading across the foyer to the elevator.
Stepping out on to the fifth floor, Peter walked across the hallway and inserted the swipe card to his hotel room, waited for the green light and the soft click of the lock, and opened the door. Reaching to his right, his hand automatically seeking the light switch, he yawned, closed the door behind him and ran his fingers through his hair.
The room was stuffy, the heating turned up high by the cleaning staff. He dropped the backpack to the floor, his shoulder aching with relief as the weight of the laptop and documents subsided. He closed the door behind him, tossed his swipe card onto the hardwood dresser and kicked off his shoes. He threw his jacket onto the bed, made his way over to the balcony door and pushed it open a little, letting the cold fresh air wash over him. Turning slightly, he reached down to the small refrigerator in the corner of the room and grabbed a cold beer.
‘Cheers,’ he said to the empty room, tearing off his tie.
Bending down to open his backpack, he noticed the answering machine light blinking. He punched in the access code and tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder while he gathered up his notes. The message began to play, the soundtrack a busy street, before a heavily accented voice cut through the static.
‘Doctor Edgewater, you know who I represent. If you continue to insinuate that my employer’s organisation is in any way involved in matters pertaining to white gold and super-conducted precious metals, we will be unable to guarantee your safety on this lecture tour. We will harm you and your family if you persist.’
The message ended abruptly.
Peter slammed down the phone in disgust and disbelief. He had expected a few idiots on the lecture tour, but not threats – not yet. He hadn’t even discussed the really controversial claims as he found himself still debating whether it was worth the trouble he could cause for himself. Now this. Someone was actively watching him and his research.
He shivered. He’d be glad to get out of Berlin tomorrow. Travelling to Paris meant being a little closer to home. Living out of a suitcase lost its appeal after a few weeks on the road.
Peter walked across the room and slid the balcony door shut, sweeping the curtains closed, though not before he’d glanced nervously at the windows in the building opposite. How long had he been followed? Had he spoken to the person who had phoned? Had he been approached after the lecture today without realising who he was speaking with?
Peter realised he no longer knew who to trust.
The university had threatened to cut his funding last month – the lecture tour was devised by Peter to create an awareness of the clandestine demand for super-conducted precious metals, particularly white gold, so the research couldn’t be ignored. He was sure the university was under pressure from the UK government to stop him before he uncovered anything it was experimenting with.
He wandered back to the bed, sat down and swung his legs up, grabbed the television remote and flicked to the 24-hour news channel. His flight to Paris was scheduled to leave mid-morning, with the lecture taking place in the evening. Hitting the mute button, he reached for his notes.
He took a long swallow of the beer and absently contemplated the label. Maybe it was time to ramp up the lectures now he was heading home, to see who came out of the shadows, he thought, then turned the page.
Despite the warning, he couldn’t quit, not now – he was too close. There was too much at stake.
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