Authors: Chris Ryan
Land of Fire by Chris Ryan
Also by Chris Ryan
The One That Got Away (1995) Stand By, Stand By (1996)
Zero Option (1997)
The Kremlin Device (1998)
Tenth Man Down (1999)
The Hit List (2000)
Chris Ryan's SAS Fitness Book (2001)
The Watchman (2001)
LAND OF FIRE
Published by Century in 2002
13579 10 8642 Copyright Chris Ryan 2002
Chris Ryan has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988,
to be identified as the author of this work
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
First published in the United Kingdom in 2002 by Century
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To my agent Barbara Levy, editor Mark Booth, assistant editor Hannah Black, Charlotte Bush and the rest of the team at Century.
"Air raid warning red!"
Autumn in the South Atlantic. 3.32pm on 25 May, a bright, cold afternoon in the narrow inlet of San Carlos Water, East Falkland. The alarm call sent a shiver through the British fleet and my war turned bloody.
This was Argentina's national day. In enemy sorties before lunch, missiles from HMS Coventry had shot down two A4 Skyhawk bombers over the sound, with a third destroyed by small-arms fire. But an hour later the bombers had returned to exact revenge, damaging Broadsword and hitting Coventry with three bombs, capsizing her and killing nineteen men.
Now the bombers were back again.
This new message meant that the long-range radar of a ship on the forward picket line had detected hostile aircraft in descent towards the island on a strike mission profile.
Minutes earlier a Sea King helicopter from HMS Invincible had set me down on the main deck of the SS Northland, a 15,000-ton roll-on roll-off container ship. There were four of us there from D Squadron SAS, under the orders of my brother, Troop Sergeant Andy Black. The other two were Tom one of my great mates, a huge and unflappable Fijian corporal and Doug Easton, the troop troublemaker, who had just made selection. Doug was a bullet-headed tear away from east London, violently aggressive and forever forcing his opinions on people. He and I had never hit it off.
The squadron was scheduled to undertake a major operation in the next couple of days, and now we were hunting for a missing container of stores. Some clerk in Portsmouth had screwed up on the cargo manifest and our vital laser target designators had ended up on the wrong ship. I was twenty years old, and the operation would be my first time under fire in a real war; so I was quite nervous about how I would perform in a major action.
A stench of diesel and avgas. The cavernous main hold was jammed with giant helicopters and massive crates holding spare engines for Harrier jump jets. Teams of R.A.F technicians' crabs in our language were labouring to bolt the rotors into place on a twin-engine Chinook. Andy sent Torn and Doug forward, and took me aft with him to check the lower vehicle deck. He purposely wanted to keep me apart from Tom when the order to leave for the Falklands came through, Tom and I had been out drinking. We had ended up pissed in some stinker's house and missed the flight out to Ascension Island with the rest of the squadron, and had to catch a later plane Andy hadn't forgiven me yet. A veteran of the Oman campaign, he sported the droopy tash and long hair of a seasoned SAS operator, and took no nonsense from anyone, officer or ranker.
As we searched for a stairwell we met a couple of airmen coming forward. "How do we get down from here?" Andy asked. One of the men jerked a thumb over his shoulder and hurried on without stopping.
"Fucking crab," Andy grunted. "Shitting himself in case the Argy planes come back."
You couldn't exactly blame him, though. It was bad enough being on a troop ship, but with holds full of fuel and ammunition these guys were sitting on a bomb literally.
The war at this point was becoming very real. I had seen enemy aircraft blown out of the sky over the anchorage, and ships burning from missile hits.
We clattered down into the bowels of the ship. The lower deck was shadowy, crammed with long lines of all-terrain vehicles, Land Rovers and eight-ton medium trucks packed to the roof with stores and chained to the deck by their axles.
"Take fucking hours to search this lot," Andy said. "We'll need more light. Hang on here, Mark, while I go back for a couple of torches. And keep your eyes open for anything worth nicking if the crabs haven't got there first, that is."
Hampered by my bulky life vest, I squeezed past a rank of bucket loaders belonging to the Royal Engineers and a grim contingent of battlefield ambulances. From up above came the sounds of a Tannoy blaring: probably another aircraft warning -the Argies were throwing their full weight against the landings.
Andy returned with torches, and we set to work. As we moved along the lines I was quizzing him about the forthcoming mission. Rumour had it the squadron was to send a patrol into the Argentine mainland. If true, it would be a major escalation of the war. I knew Andy was bothered by it because it was a four-man patrol, and I was listed number six in reserve which meant I was unlikely to be picked, a fact that was pissing me off a lot.
I made out four of the squadron's trucks among a fleet of BV lightweight tracked vehicles the kind that can go across the ice cap if you need to. The first contained bivvy bags and ground sheets as listed. I counted the bundles as best I could in the semi-dark. The canvas flap at the back of the second truck was partly unsecured, and I squirmed underneath to take a dekko inside. Jesus, I thought disgustedly as I played the torch around. The neat packs of arctic clothing and spare sleeping bags had been hollowed out in the middle to make a hiding place, and some pisser was kip ping down in there. I pulled the canvas back for a better look. Whoever it was had dug out a sleeping bag and there was a torch ready to hand, an army-issue water bottle and the remains of a meal from a ration pack. Fucking crabs, I thought, they get better fed than we do, and still they nick our grub.
Feeling around among the bundles, I turned up a camera and a miniature tape recorder, quality-looking items both. Along with them was a piece of electronic kit I didn't recognise, a flat grey plastic box around six inches long by two-and-a-half wide, with an extendable aerial like a transistor radio but no tuning dial, only a tiny red button that glowed to show it was switched on.
I was about to go back and show Andy what I'd found when there was a rustling noise from the front of the truck. A rat after the remains of the food? But it seemed like too much noise for a rat. A man and whoever had been living here was still around, by the sound of it.
Right, I'll have you, I thought, and launched myself across the piled stores. There was a frantic scuffling as a body tried to get away. I got a hand around a limb in the darkness arm or leg I couldn't tell.
"Come on, get the fuck out of there," I said, heaving.
A foot came out of the blackness and connected with my face with a force that rocked my head back against the steel frame of the roof. The torch went flying and the crack I'd taken felt as if it had broken my jaw. My head was singing and I could taste blood in my mouth. I was angry now.
OK, I said to myself, if that's how you want to play it, fine. I let fly a punch with all my twelve stone behind it. My fist connected with something solid. There was a gasp and a whimper and the struggles ceased. This was better.
Locating a foot, I dragged my opponent into the half-light near the truck tail to take a look at him. The guy was wearing army combat fatigues. I'd been expecting a crab or a sailor -maybe he'd nicked the gear too. He was so slight he looked more like a boy than a man. "Who the fuck are you?" I demanded.
The little bastard struggled violently and tried to knee me in the groin, unsuccessfully. I figured he had to be some kind of cabin boy, someone from the crew probably scared to death by the bombing, hiding down here when he should be topsides.
He twisted like a snake, diving under my arm to reach the roof flap. I was ready for him, though. Flinging myself after, I dragged him back, rolling him over and pinning him down. He fought and squirmed; it was a while since I'd fought with a kid his size, and it didn't feel right somehow. I was worrying I'd break a bone or something. Eventually, though, I got him pinned down by sheer weight. I straddled him between my knees and laced his hands across his chest so he couldn't move.
though he continued to snarl and wriggle like a wildcat.
"What's your name then, arse hole
His response was to spit in my face. I cuffed him a couple of times across the mouth to teach him manners, and he shut up. His wrists were so thin I could hold them together one-handed while I searched his tunic for ID.
It was while I was patting him down that I realised something was wrong and not in the way I had been thinking before. In addition to a combat jacket several sizes too large, he had on a roll-neck sweater with a T-shirt underneath. Ignoring his squirmings I pulled these up to reveal a narrow ribcage and a flesh-coloured sports bra hiding a pair of adolescent tits.
My cabin boy was a girl.
I let go her hands and sat up. The torch was lying nearby and I snapped it on definitely a girl. The dark hair was ragged and plastered to her grimy face, she was unkempt and pale but the dishevelled appearance and dirt could not disguise the fineness of the features or burning intensity of the eyes. A bit younger than me; seventeen or eighteen at a guess.
There was a reddening mark on one cheek where I had hit her. I reached down to touch the place. Her eyes flashed hatred. A hand swept out of the gloom, fingers curled like talons to rake my face, but I knocked the hand aside. "I didn't mean to hit you!" Well, I hadn't - I'd thought she was a bloke. "What are you doing down here anyway?"
A girl, I was thinking. How she had got here I couldn't imagine unless maybe she was some crab's bit of fluff smuggled aboard at Portsmouth. I hadn't seen a girl in six weeks. We'd heard rumours that a few were serving on the Canberra, but we'd never got near enough to find out. Or could she be a journalist stowed away on board to get a scoop on the campaign ...?
Then it dawned on me that she'd spoken in Spanish. I ran my gaze around the nest in which she had been lying up, taking in the items I'd found the camera, the tape recorder, the radio-type device.
And it hit me. Jesus, I thought, the bitch is a spy. She's down here vectoring the bombers in on us.
That moment she flew at me again.
I called Andy over. Even against the two of us she continued to put up a fight; she could kick and punch like a bantamweight. My teeth were aching and Andy took a poke in the eye that left him gasping, but eventually we got her tied down with some straps off a vehicle, and Andy told me to watch her while he went off to find the ship' sops officer.
After that, everything started to go rat shit The ship's captain and the ops officer took one look at the girl still spitting and snarling and the kit she had with her, and told Andy and me that on no account should we talk to anyone. I described to them the scene in the back of the truck, how I'd guessed she had a homing device which was what it seemed the thing was -and there were long faces as the officers tried to figure out how an enemy agent had managed to breach their 'impenetrable' security cordon. No one knew how she had got on, or whether it was at Portsmouth or Ascension Island where the ship had stopped en route. Small wonder we had been taking such losses to air attack.
By this time they had brought a couple of seamen down and told them to get the kit off her. These boys set to work grinning. The prisoner fought and kicked, but it didn't do her any good. In a trice she was shackled to a bulkhead and every shred of clothing was ripped away. It was freezing cold down below decks, but in the overhead light her olive skin was beaded with sweat.
Front on, she looked pathetically young and emaciated. I felt no anger now, only pity and disgust. I wondered what they were going to do with her. This was war, and in war spies are shot. I knew the procedure. I'd been through it myself on an escape-and-evasion exercise during the SAS initiation test in the Brecon Beacons before the war. Next she'd have the full treatment: the body cavity searches, the physical and verbal abuse, the threats, the hooding, and banging on the walls and door to induce disorientation. I could have told them they were wasting their time; she was never going to talk but it wouldn't have done any good.
The two seamen stayed in attendance to see that she didn't kill herself. Though God knows how she was going to manage that, the way they had her trussed up.