Flight Lieutenant Kelly O’Hara would live for another forty-eight hours.
Right now, she was preoccupied with finding the packet of cigarettes she swore blind she had tucked into her pocket upon entering the van that collected them from the base last night.
She patted her breast pocket, then checked her trousers before uttering a string of curses.
‘Want a smoke?’
Turning at the sound of a male voice, Kelly rolled her eyes and stuck a hand on her hip as her colleague Josh Connor sauntered towards her.
‘Cheeky bastard – those are mine. Is nothing sacred around here?’
‘Your lungs.’ He grinned, and launched the packet at her.
Catching it in a practised grip, Kelly pulled out a cigarette and accepted the lighter Josh held out. ‘You sound like my mother.’
‘Perish the thought.’
‘Where’s Marie?’ she said, exhaling smoke to the side before making sure the packet went back in her pocket, not his.
Josh jerked his head towards the door of the building that resembled a large corrugated steel Portacabin. ‘Wanted a word with the chief.’
Kelly turned her attention to the setting sun, and breathed a trail of nicotine-laden smoke skywards.
The concrete landing strip in front of her provided an uninterrupted view across a wide vista.
An indigo tint darkened the fringes of the horizon while half a dozen small bats dived upon the insects hovering close to the hedgerows bordering the open space on the western edge.
An eerie silence had descended on the flat landscape. No birds called from the copse of trees behind the temporary building, no shouted commands carried across the airfield.
Compared to their home base, the place was a ghost field, similar to one of the crumbling World War Two bomber airfields that remained in the English countryside.
A countryside that was at least a five-hour flight from whatever Eastern European hiding place they had been ushered to in haste last night.
Kelly sighed, took another drag on the cigarette and rolled her neck muscles, easing the tiredness from her arms after a twelve-hour shift, and watched as the sun began to drop below the beech trees half a mile away.
Silhouetted against the quivering orange blush on the horizon stood the aircraft she had been flying, all thirty-six feet of it.
A MQ-9A Reaper, to be exact.
‘When are they taking us back home?’
‘I’m not sure.’ Josh scuffed at the dirt path running alongside the landing strip. ‘The chief said they’ve got some post-operational discussions to have, and then he’ll arrange for the car to take us over to the main hangar to save us the walk. I reckon we’ll be flown out of here before midnight.’
He squinted through the cigarette smoke to a large tumbledown hangar at the farthest edge of the field. ‘I could murder a beer after that. Do you think they’ve got a bar here?’
Kelly wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t think they’ve got anything here. I mean, look at this place. What did he call it?’
‘He didn’t say.’ He shrugged. ‘I didn’t catch the name if he did. Too much else to take in, to be honest. I was concentrating more on the mission briefing.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
‘Probably won’t tell us anyway. He did say this one was top secret, hence all the paperwork we had to sign on the way here.’
Kelly wasn’t overly concerned by the secrecy – it would still be noted on her service record and maybe, just maybe, add a little more weight to her credentials when she sought promotion at the end of the year.
Because it was one thing to be the Reaper’s pilot, but quite another to be the one in the background, calling the shots.
Giving the command to strike.
Six hours ago, that had been the chief’s decision.
Colonel Paul Richards had remained at her shoulder while the Reaper glided over mountains and rivers, crossed an inland sea and bore down on the Middle Eastern territory that was the aircraft’s final destination.
He stayed there for the entire flight, watching the screens, murmuring encouragement from time to time, and updating Marie on incoming intelligence about their target’s progress on the ground from a small group of resources who would do anything for cash.
‘Who is he?’ Josh had asked at one point, glancing up from his constant monitoring of the Reaper’s sensors.
The chief had shrugged.
Kelly had glared at Josh – the target’s identity was none of their business – but the chief had answered after a time.
‘Just another terrorist to deal with, before it’s too late.’
Satisfied, Josh had returned to his screens and fallen silent while Kelly had called in their approach.
The crew took no pleasure in what they did. It was a job, that was all, but a split second before the AGM-114 Hellfire missile found its target, Marie had let out a shocked gasp that made Kelly look up from her instrument panel.
The woman had turned white as she’d watched the black four-by-four vehicle explode thousands of metres below their cameras, her hands shaking as she reacted to Kelly’s barked command to stay focused, to bring the Reaper safely home.
A clatter shook Kelly from her thoughts and she turned to see Marie Weston, mission intelligence coordinator, push her way out through the Portacabin door, her boots clanging on the metal steps leading down to the stony soil where they stood waiting as the door crashed closed behind her.
The thirty-year-old had been quieter than usual once the Reaper had taxied to a standstill and Kelly had killed the engines, and now a shocked stare filled her eyes.
Kelly crushed the remains of her cigarette under her boot, blew the smoke away from the other woman’s face and peered at her.
‘What happened in there?’
Marie didn’t stop when she reached them. She grasped each of them by the arm and dragged them with her, away from the Portacabin, away from where the Reaper waited for its next mission.
‘We can’t say here,’ she managed, her breath short. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’
Her eyes darted left, then right, then over her shoulder.
‘What’s going on?’ said Josh. ‘You all right?’
‘No, I’m not all right.’ Marie’s pace quickened. ‘There’s a gap in the hedge over there, see? We can squeeze through it – with any luck there’s a road or something nearby. We might be able to get a lift off a local, or someone.’
Kelly frowned at the desperation clawing at the woman’s words, and pulled her to a standstill. ‘Marie? What’s going on?’
Marie’s eyes found the Portacabin, then Kelly once more. ‘Have you ever seen Colonel Richards before?’
‘Have you heard of him?’
‘No,’ said Kelly, then smiled. ‘But there’s a lot of top brass I haven’t met before.’
‘Did either of you check his credentials? His background?’
Kelly fished out her mobile phone. ‘No, but then there’s no mobile signal anyway. Besides, we haven’t stopped since we got picked up last night and flown here.’
‘Exactly.’ Marie turned away and began to walk again.
Josh held up his hands to Kelly, and she shrugged before nudging him forward.
‘We’ve been used,’ said Marie once they’d caught up with her.
‘What do you mean, used?’ Josh shoved his hands in his pockets, his height giving him an advantage over the two women. He reached the gap in the hedge before them and paused. ‘Used by who?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Marie. She looked as if she was going to cry. ‘But it wasn’t a terrorist in that car. I saw his face. He looked out of the window just before the missile hit. I saw his face.’
Josh’s eyes opened wide. ‘You mean you recognised him?’
Marie nodded, her expression distraught.
‘Who was it?’ said Kelly, keeping her voice calm despite her heart hammering, a sudden rush to her head that made it difficult to hear, as if she had just dived underwater.
‘He’s the special adviser to Robert Nivens. The Foreign Secretary,’ said Marie. ‘He’s been in the papers on and off for the past three months.’
Kelly swallowed. When she looked at Josh, he was staring at Marie with his mouth open in shock.
‘Are you sure?’ she managed.
‘I’m sure. When I asked the chief––’
‘Wait, that’s what you were talking to him about? Why would you––’
Josh’s words were cut short as Marie let out a scream.
When Kelly turned to face him, he was no longer there.
Confused, she took a step back, her mind trying to process the fact that her crew mate now lay on his back in the grass, a bloody entry hole in his torso.
He uttered a final gurgling breath, and then his head slumped to one side.
The second shot narrowly missed her cheek, but she felt its searing hot presence as it caressed her hair.
Marie’s scream galvanised her into a sprint, terror and confusion marring disbelief that this was happening, that Marie was right, that Josh was dead.
Another whip crack overhead shattered any illusion that someone had shot him in error, and she ducked as the tree trunk beside her exploded.
Raising her hand to protect her face from the splinters that showered her, Kelly grimaced as she stumbled over uneven ground, the terrain dipping and undulating under her boots.
Marie wasn’t slowing down – the intelligence officer tore through the undergrowth, vaulting fallen branches as she led the way down a hill.
Kelly could see a track at the bottom, a single ribbon of pebbles and dirt splitting the forest in two, and then collided with her crew mate when she stopped beside a fallen tree, hands on her knees as she gulped for breath.
‘I don’t know.’ Marie spun on her heel at the sound of voices at the top of the embankment and pulled Kelly into a crouching position.
In the distance a vehicle engine carried on the breeze, its driver clunking through the gears as he negotiated the twisting route.
Kelly strained her ears to listen. It was coming from below the airfield, not from it.
And it would pass right under their position.
‘We need to stop that vehicle. It could be our only way out of here.’
Marie clenched her jaw. ‘Listen, we know we’re in Eastern Europe, right?’
‘Okay. There’s a place I know about. They’ll help us.’
Kelly listened while her intelligence officer rattled off the details, her thoughts spinning. ‘Wait, how do you know this?’
‘I just do.’ Marie clutched hold of her arm, her fingers digging into the muscles. ‘We have to split up, Kel. You need to go.’
‘Are you sure? Where are you going?’
‘I’ll meet you there, but I’ll make my way down to a village, or find a house – something. I’ll get help once I’m there.’
‘What if something happens to you?’
Her colleague’s eyes hardened. ‘We have to tell someone what happened back there. We stand a better chance if we split up. Remember the code words, all right? They won’t help you otherwise.’
Marie rose and took off at a sprint, her boots snapping twigs as her figure disappeared amongst the trees until all that was left was the sound of Kelly’s breathing.
Panicked breathing, gasping breaths as she forced herself to move and half-ran half-tumbled down the slope towards the road and the sound of the engine.
She slid to a halt beside the thick trunk of an ancient oak, dappled sunlight turning its leaves, and peered around it.
Please don’t let it be them.
A rusting hulk of an ancient pick-up truck rumbled towards her, the suspension creaking as it negotiated potholes, puddles and deep ruts in the dirt track.
A single man was behind the wheel, his grizzly features more apparent as the vehicle drew closer…
Kelly stepped out from behind the tree and waved her hands above her head, moving to the middle of the track and blocking its path.
When the pick-up truck eased to a standstill, she moved to the driver’s window, and his brow creased as he lowered it.
‘Do you speak English?’
‘A little, yes.’
‘I’m sorry – I don’t know where I am.’
‘I meant, which country?’
The driver blinked. ‘Belarus.’
The driver was looking at her with an inquisitiveness bordering on suspicion.
Kelly forced a grim smile. ‘I’ll kill that boyfriend of mine when I find him. We got lost, hiking.’
He stared at her, his eyes running up and down the green overalls she wore.
She shrugged, held his gaze.
‘Ah. Do you want to wait here for him?’ he said, an eyebrow cocked.
‘No.’ She heard the fear in her voice, forced another smile. ‘He’s got the car keys. He can find his own way back.’
The driver threw back his head and laughed. ‘He doesn’t deserve you.’
‘Thanks.’ She drew the seatbelt over her chest and exhaled.
‘Where are you headed?’
Kelly swallowed, peered in the door mirror, and then urged the driver to get going.
Prague, Czech Republic
The bookshop provided a splash of colour against the grey sombre buildings crowding it on either side.
A light over its front door cast a soft glow over the uneven cobblestones, despite the early hour. In the window was a selection of maps and guidebooks for the tourists and, for the more discerning customer, first editions and other rare tomes.
A sandwich board on the footpath teased the titles of the more intriguing titles on offer, fat raindrops attacking the white and blue chalk lettering and obliterating the top of the Czech koruna symbol in front of the prices.
Nathan Crowe dried his glasses with the corner of his thin sweatshirt, held them up to the light above the till to check for smears, then replaced them and ran a hand through unruly brown hair.
‘Shit,’ he murmured as he looked down and saw the small puddle forming by his feet.
The rainstorm would put paid to any passing tourist traffic this morning – visitors to the city tended to stay close to their hotels when the weather was inclement instead of exploring the myriad back streets further east along the river.
Nathan sighed, wandered to the back of the shop and found a towel hanging from a hook in the kitchenette he’d installed a year ago after growing tired of walking upstairs to the flat every time he wanted a hot drink.
Drying his hair, he slapped the switch on the kettle and resigned himself to a morning of stock-taking.
Once a mug of Earl Grey tea stood steaming next to the till, its sweet bergamot aroma filling the air, he turned his attention to the day’s tasks. His eyes fell upon the row of six boxes stacked against a wall beyond an archway leading from the bookstore, and he smiled.
Despite the work, he looked forward to finding out if there were any more hidden gems amongst the dusty and spineless offerings cluttering the first box he’d peered into last night.
The delivery was made by Mr Svoboda’s grandson late on Saturday afternoon. As he owned the largest car in the family, it had fallen to him to dispose of his grandfather’s belongings after the old man had been moved to a care home.
Nathan had spotted a couple of first editions within the collection, offered a fair price and seen Mr Svoboda’s grandson on his way, the man returning to his car with a bounce in his stride.
Thunder rolled overhead, and Nathan turned to see the rain striking the cobblestones with renewed fervour, commuters hurrying past with their umbrellas held aloft.
Not one of them paused to look at this morning’s display.
He sighed, then moved to the first box and pulled back the lid.
Cradling eight hardbacks minus their original covers, he walked back to the computer, entered the details into stock, and then crossed to the shelves filling the space.
Once a thriving private bank, the building had changed hands several times over the centuries since being built. The first record of it becoming a bookshop was in the early nineties, although it had lain empty for a decade prior to that while the Soviet bloc around it dissolved.
As Nathan moved between the rows of shelves, his fingers traced gold leaf titles worn thin by age and authors’ names who had faded into obscurity for all but the shrewdest collector.
Three books were left in his hands when footsteps sounded on the patterned slate tiles that led from the cobblestones to the bookshop’s threshold.
He glanced up from his work. ‘Morning.’
A woman, dressed in faded jeans and wearing a short coat caught his eye before he turned back to the shelves.
She hadn’t acknowledged his greeting.
Perhaps she didn’t realise that his Czech was terrible and his German not much better, which was why he stumbled along in English for most transactions.
A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth in sympathy.
Wet strands of hair clung to the woman’s face, tendrils escaping from a short ponytail and plastered to her skin by the rain. He placed two more books on a shelf next to a collection of Charles Dickens’ works. Perhaps she would like a hot drink while she browsed.
Still, she had said nothing.
He tried again. ‘Morning.’
The woman wore a hunted expression as her eyes darted to the door, then back to where he stood.
Nathan lowered the book he was holding, and frowned. ‘Can I help you?’
‘I hope so.’ Her voice was soft, but abrupt – as if used to staccato responses. She took a tentative step towards him. ‘Do you have a 1915 first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan?’
‘I’m not sure there’s an edition from that year available,’ he managed.
The woman’s face fell. ‘I was told if I came here, and asked for that book, you could help me.’
He could hear the desperation in her voice, and yet––
‘Let me have a look behind the counter,’ he said. ‘Come over here.’
She shifted her weight from foot to foot, grimaced, then wrapped her left arm around her waist and followed him. She leaned against the mahogany and glass counter while he shuffled the mouse to wake up the computer screen.
A prickle of sweat began at the nape of his neck, and he resisted the urge to wipe it away under the woman’s scrutiny.
‘I can’t find anything listed here.’
His eyes flickered to hers for a moment. He could sense stress emanating from every pore as she clenched her jaw.
Her right hand gripped the edge of the counter, her knuckles white.
‘Look again,’ she urged. ‘Please. I don’t have much time.’
‘One moment,’ he said, his heart racing. ‘I think I might have something out the back. The 1915 edition, was it?’
Nathan scurried behind a thick brocade curtain separating the bookshop from a small windowless room that served as a cluttered office, crossed the space in three strides and with fingers that slipped on the dial at the first attempt, flipped the combination lock on the safe.
He ran his hand over the book while his heart tried to punch its way out between his ribs. Mid-blue cloth, a darker blue embossed title, and the author’s name underneath in tiny lettering almost as an afterthought, it felt heavy in his grip despite its size.
He closed the safe and went back to the counter.
‘Here it is.’
A palpable relief washed over the woman’s features as she reached out for it.
‘Thank you, I can’t tell you how grateful I am—’
A shadow fell over her right shoulder and the woman’s eyes opened wide at a smooth click.
She raised shaking hands.
Nathan held his breath.
Standing behind her, jaw set, eyes blazing under a choppy fringe of dark brown hair, was another woman.
One whose demeanour was the exact opposite of the book-seeking client.
Nathan dropped the book to the counter and glared at the figure before clearing his throat. ‘Eva, that’s no way to treat the customers.’
‘She’s not a customer. Not if she’s asking for that book.’
‘It could be a coincidence.’
Nathan leaned over the counter as the woman removed her left hand from her waist and peeled back her coat.
Sure enough, a rich blood stain bloomed across her shirt above her hip and now dripped upon the parquet floor.
Eva Delacourt moved until the woman could see her face, and pressed the barrel of the gun to her temple. ‘Who are you?’
A single tear rolled over the woman’s cheek.
‘Flight Lieutenant Kelly O’Hara. I’ve been shot.’
"Gives Bond, Bourne and the others a run for their money"