Authors: Andy McNab
Ex-deniable operator Nick Stone has spent a lifetime in harm’s way – but when someone he cares for very deeply is murdered in cold blood, he can no longer just take the pain.
A high-level internecine conflict at the dark heart of the resurgent Russian Empire and an assassin’s bullet on an isolated Alpine pass propel him from an apparently run-of-the-mill close-protection task into his most brutal and challenging mission yet.
As the body count increases, Stone becomes one of Europe’s Most Wanted. He must evade the élite police forces of three nations in his pursuit of faceless men who trade in human misery, and a lone-wolf terrorist who threatens to unleash the western world’s worst nightmare.
Vengeance of the most explosive kind is top of Stone’s agenda. The fuse has been ignited – but who really holds the detonator?
Women’s voices. One of them sounds … Russian …
You stupid little—
Not that one. That’s my mate Gaz’s mum. I’d know her anywhere. She’d caught us throwing condoms full of tomato sauce off the roof of his block of flats …
Fuck, my head hurts.
I can hear gunfire.
Not human screams. The scream of twisted, tortured metal.
I’m hiding in a storm drain. Darker than a shit pit down here. And colder than the grave. I’ve tabbed across the desert for ever, under fire. If I curl up tight, maybe they won’t find me.
The steel plates above me creak and groan.
‘I need your help, Nick …’ A man’s voice, now. ‘I need your help …’
I hear breaking glass.
I’m moving. Shards of gleaming light. Blindingly bright.
I’m being dragged into the sun.
Wait a minute …
Glass breaking in a storm drain?
Where the fuck am I?
My eyelids flicker.
I’m right about the daylight, at least. But I can’t see a thing.
I try to open them wide. The left one seems to work. The other’s been glued shut. I wipe it with the back of my hand, smearing my knuckles with crimson.
My stomach clenches. Bile floods through my chest. I can feel it burning its way up to the back of my throat. I can’t stop myself gagging. Whatever I had for breakfast fills my mouth. I try to control it. And fail.
Whatever … It’s all over the fucking place now.
I blink. Twice, I think. Maybe more.
A face looks back at me through the haze. A man’s face. Fucked up. Blood leaking from a gash on his forehead. Spiky hair. Vomit clinging to the stubble around his lips.
I open my mouth to speak.
So does he.
A strand of yellowy green mucus stretches between his top and bottom teeth, like a bar on a cage.
I’m staring into a mirror. A rear-view mirror.
I glance down.
There’s a wheel in front of me. A steering-wheel. At its centre, a silver badge.
I’m pretty sure I don’t drive a Nissan.
More creaks and groans. I lurch forward. A strap bites into my left shoulder.
Left shoulder …
What the fuck am I doing on this side of the wagon?
I grip the wheel hard. Both hands. Try to focus on the road ahead. But the windscreen is a starburst, a glass mosaic, impossible to see through.
I ram my foot down on the pedal. The middle one. The brake. It seems to make things worse, not better.
A digital display glows on a console to the right of the dashboard. An arrow at the bottom edge of a patch of green. Along the top, a thin orange line. Nothing else. Nothing to tell me where in the world I am. I scrabble at the knob on the right of the screen. Start to zoom out, maybe get some sense of my surroundings.
A crack. Then another. And another.
Not gunshots. Snapping wood.
Grinding. From below me, and each side.
Straighten my back, so slowly I can’t even see myself move.
Then silence. Except for the whisper of a fan.
I reach for the air-con button, a millimetre at a time, and switch it off. Air-con. Somewhere hot? Desert? Maybe just summer.
I turn towards the passenger seat, where I guess the first of the voices must have come from.
The seat starts to spin.
No. Not the seat. My head. It’s my head spinning.
I close my eyes. More vomit rushes up to invade my mouth. This time I manage to swallow it back.
When I open my eyes again I see there is no one there.
Which is fucking good news, because a very shiny black-and-white-striped steel rod has rammed itself through the windscreen and into the backrest.
Beneath it, where my passenger’s arse would have been, lies a cigarette pack. I pick it up. Examine it closely. Marlboro. With a picture of a pair of charred, weeping lungs, and some kind of warning I can’t read. Cyrillic, maybe. Whatever, the message is clear. These things aren’t good for you.
I run my tongue around the inside of my mouth, blow into my hand. I smell like a sewer. I can’t tell if I’m a smoker. I examine the index and middle fingers of my right hand. No nicotine stains. I don’t think the cigarettes belong to me. So whose are they?
I slide the pack into the left-hand pocket of my bomber jacket. There’s something in there already. Cold. Compact. A loaded mag for a pistol. Brass casing. Ten rounds. No. Thirteen?
Me. I should. You can’t just spray these things around without knowing how many you’ve fired. How many you’ve got left.
How do I know that?
What was the brand again?
I can’t fucking remember.
My hand retraces its journey into my pocket. It seems to know more than I do. Closes around a cardboard box. Brings it out.
Oh, yeah. Marlboro.
With a picture of a pair of charred, weeping lungs, and some kind of warning I can’t read. Cyrillic, maybe. Whatever, the message is clear. These things aren’t good for you …
I’ve been here before. I’m caught in a loop.
Pictures … words …
The same pictures, the same words, echoing in my head …
Then sliding away. Sliding beyond my grasp.
There’s a day sack in the passenger foot well. Still in slow-mo, I release the safety-belt and lean towards it, clutch its handle, drag it on to the seat.
I see an eagle, wings and talons outstretched.
A manufacturer’s logo, almost obscured by a smear of blood, stamped on to the stripy steel missile a hand’s width from where it has punctured the skin of the wagon’s grey leather upholstery. My blood, I reckon. I give it a wipe. There’s a string of letters and numbers beneath.
I repeat the words aloud. I have no idea whether they’ll be of any use to me, but try to fix them in my mental databank. I need something to grab hold of. Something solid.
It isn’t happening.
Above and beyond the missile: branches. Branches, covered with dark green needles. Pressed against the window. I swivel my head and shoulders to the left. Same on my side.
I’m in a malfunctioning dark green car wash. I need to get the fuck out of here.
I lean back. Bend my knee. Raise my foot above the dash. The wagon starts to tilt with me as I push at the screen with my boot. The safety-film balloons outwards, then bursts. A few fragments of glass lose their grip on the laminate and sprinkle across the bonnet. The rest cling on, but now I have a porthole to look through.
Cool air rushes in, heavy with the scent of pine.
More branches, left and right.
At the centre, sky.
A lot of sky. Sky of the brightest blue. A canopy of blue, rising from a distant jagged grey snow-topped mountain ridge.
That grinding sound again. The nose of the wagon dips far enough for me to see what’s directly in front of me.
A break in the trees.
A sheer drop.
And more rock.
A river snaking through a valley.
Maybe four hundred below. Maybe more. My eyes aren’t focusing too well.
Someone – fuck knows who – once told me it takes about five seconds for a falling body to reach terminal velocity. So how long before I hit the dirt? I have a feeling I once knew how to work out shit like that.
Now all I know is that it’s the distance between living to fight another day and being totally fucked, once and for all.
I try the door.
No joy there. My palm slips off the handle. Jammed solid. Bent panel.
And the window won’t power down.
I take a deep breath. Sit absolutely still. For fuck’s sake, I need to get a grip here.
I wipe away the sweat on my jeans and feel something solid under my right thigh. The shape seems familiar. I bring it out into the open. A pistol.
I know about pistols. Not sure why.
I remove the mag, eject the round from the chamber; realize I can run through this drill blindfolded.
I close my palm over the top slide, so that enough of the muzzle protrudes from the bottom of my fist to smash it against the corner of the side window, immediately above where the part number is etched. I don’t need to do it twice. There’s a crack and a pop, a shower of sparkly bits and a whole lot more fresh air where the glass had been.
I unzip the day sack, then shove the mag and the weapon inside. Looping its strap over my right arm, I brush away the remnants of the glass from the edge of the frame with my left sleeve, get my arse off the seat and start to lean out.
With a noise like tyres on gravel, the pointy end of the wagon drops even further and its tail comes up. The trees on both sides do their best to hang on to it, but they’re losing the battle. I grab the nearest branch, bend my knees, kick hard and launch myself out of the cockpit as it gives a final lurch and disappears over the edge.