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Authors: Chris Ryan

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BOOK: Land of Fire
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We stayed where we were, not moving. It was on the cards that a party had been left behind to watch and wait for anyone who had been hiding to emerge, thinking the coast was clear. I twisted my wrist till I could squint at the face of my watch

6.45am. People would be starting the morning shift even though daylight wasn't due just yet. We couldn't afford to wait around much longer. It was imperative that we left the roof soon and made it to the cover of the drain or we would be trapped here.

I could feel the woman's hands still gripping the bracket alongside mine. Who the fuck was she, and what was she doing here? Was she connected with the guy we had surprised inside? It seemed likely. The search of the roof could have been simply a routine precaution after he had been killed. But what business were he and the woman engaged on? Were they thieves trying to make off with valuable equipment? Judging by Seb's tales the economic situation in the country was desperate enough to make that a possibility. Or were they part of some other intelligence outfit trying to gather information in the way we were?

Either way I felt pissed off. We had come here to do a job; we had virtually pulled it off and were set to go home and now these two had fucked everything up.

Well, it was just something that we would have to deal with. The most important task now was to get off the roof without being noticed. Gently I moved my hands out from under the woman's. "I am going up on top to see what is happening," I whispered, speaking slowly so as to make myself clear. "You stay here. If it is safe I will come back and help you out. OK?" It was important to establish control of her. I figured she might be capable of getting back on to the roof on her own and I didn't want her running off.

There was a moment of hesitation, then a single, breathed response in English. "Yes."

Holding tightly on to the bracket, I reached up and felt for a stanchion supporting the safety rail. I got a grip on it and swung myself back up on to the roof again.

Jesus, it was a relief to be off that ledge. I crawled along until I located Josh and helped him up. "We've got company," I said, and told him what had happened.

"A woman? Christ, where the fuck did she spring from?"

"I don't know yet. We'll have to find out, but for the moment we're stuck with her. Let's get her up and back to the LUP before we hear what she has to say for herself. First, though, we'd better check the roof in case they left an ambush."

Swiftly and silently we fanned out across the roof along the gullies between the peaks, using our night-vision goggles to check the shadows for lurking snipers. There was no sign of anyone. The weather was worse than ever and gale-force gusts blasted the rain straight into our faces. At least it would give us cover when it came to crossing the open ground to the drain entrance.

As soon as we were satisfied the roof was clear I blipped my UHF handset again and reported in to Nobby. There was no time for a long conversation; I simply informed him that we had evaded capture and were now coming in.

"Right," I told Josh, stowing away the transmitter. "Let's get the girl out."

She had obeyed my orders and was lying where I'd left her, good as gold. I reached down, took her by the arm and hauled her up bodily. She weighed not much more than 120 pounds fully clothed, and I judged her height to be around five foot six. It was impossible to make out her features; all I could tell was that her hair was shoulder-length and dark. She wore dark pants and a parka that looked too big for her with the hood pulled up. Younger than me, I guessed, but a woman, all the same, not a girl.

"You got a name?" I asked her when we had got her back from the edge.

She hesitated as the rain ran down her face and plastered her hair against her chin. "Tell me yours first," she said.

I nodded at Josh. "He calls me Boss, I call him Boy."

She was silent a moment, then with a shrug she said, "You can call me Dona."

Dona I knew meant woman; it would do for the present. "OK," I told her. "How many more of you are there?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"There was a man inside the hangar. He fell from the roof and was killed. We saw the marines drag his body away. Was he with you?"

"He was a friend, yes."

"So what were the two of you doing here?"

She shook her head. "That is our business."

"Answer the question."

Again there was a moment's hesitation. Her shoulders stiffened. "I make a deal. Get me out of here and I will tell you."

Josh and I exchanged glances. It was clear she had recognised us as British soldiers.

I looked at her, wondering what to do with her. We couldn't let her go, that much was clear. I put my hand on my knife.

Josh saw me. "She's a civilian, Mark. We can't do it."

"It's either that or take her with us."

"If we get her back to the LUP we could find out more from her."

I shrugged and took her arm.

She shook me off. "What are you doing with me?"

"You're in luck. We're going to have to take you with us."

We returned to the escape ladder. Josh and I spent a couple of minutes scanning the ground below with our night-vision goggles while the girl watched us with impassive hostility. I kept a hold on her arm. It must have been clear to her that her best chance of getting clear was to do what we said, but she didn't like it. If an opportunity presented itself for bunking off I was sure she would take it.

As soon as we were satisfied that there were no guards hanging around the bottom waiting for us, I sent Josh down the ladder. He went down rapidly and silently, sliding with his boots to the side and controlling his descent with his gloved hands. With practice it's possible to drop down very fast in this manner. He reached the bottom and crouched, ready to respond to any threat. Then he raised an arm to signal that all was clear.

"You next," I told the girl.

I made to help her on to the ladder but she rejected my offer with an angry gesture. "I can manage," she snapped. "I climbed up."

Jesus, I thought to myself.

I let her start down while I kept watch from the vantage of the roof and Josh remained at the base of the ladder ready to receive her. There were lights coming on around the base now as the shifts changed over and the morning duty teams checked in. In a way this might work to our advantage, I thought, as it might be more natural to see people moving about.

The woman took some time to get down but eventually I got a second thumbs-up from Josh, and I took my place on the ladder. I went down the same way as Josh, in a controlled fall. It was a quieter as well as a quicker way of descending.

"Head for the manhole?" Josh queried.

I looked around carefully. Already there were more lights showing as the base came to life. I shook my head. "No," I said. "Not the one by the fuel depot. Too much activity in that direction now. It only takes one person coming on shift early to spot us. We'll head out for the first manhole we came to on the way in."

I took out my GPS receiver and checked the bearing. On the way in I had taken a fix just in case, and now it helpfully gave me a direction and distance. All we had to do was follow the heading. We grabbed one of the woman's arms each and set off at a trot before she could protest.

We passed a couple of revetments where aircraft were bedded down snugly behind massive blast walls. None of them was armed as far as I could see; no missiles were slung under the wings. Nearby were anti-aircraft emplacements protecting the airfield, their radar dishes pointed silently at the sky. But the warheads of the rockets were shrouded in weatherproof covers, the crews nowhere to be seen. Evidently there was no anticipation of a sudden attack. Maybe we were on a wild goose chase after all.

Out here on the edge of the runway we could look across to the civilian side. There were lights showing over there and we could dimly make out the shapes of two small airliners by the terminal. A convoy of vehicles began moving out across the main runway. "Snow clearance team, "Josh said under his breath.

"Must be expecting another flight soon." It was now getting on for seven o'clock and I was anxious to be out of here.

We overshot the manhole and had to double back a few metres to find it. I got the lid up and dropped down into the inspection chamber. I was relieved to note that there was the same level of water in the drain with all the rain coming down I had been worried it might have filled up. "You lead this time," I told Josh, climbing out again. "I'll push the woman in ahead of me."

Josh stripped off his webbing and dived into the drain without hesitating. He was proving to be a good lad and I was very glad I'd brought him along. I turned to the woman. I was worried that she might baulk at entering the stinking dark tunnel or throw some kind of a panic attack, which we certainly couldn't afford. If that happened I'd just have to clip her one behind the ear and drag her unconscious up the tunnel behind me.

"We came in this way," I told her. "It's dirty but quite possible."

She shrugged in a fatalistic, Latin way. "If you can do it I can. I am much smaller," she said.

I took her arms and lowered her carefully down into the hole. She bent down and wriggled her way inside after Josh. I followed, pulling the lid of the manhole back into position after us. Just before I got down on my belly I made one final call on the UHF handset.

"Nobby," I said. "We're off the hangar and in the drain. Expect two of us plus one prisoner."

Then I set off.

Before long I discovered that I had been wrong in thinking the water level wasn't rising. Quite soon we found ourselves crawling with it up to our chests. It made the going much harder and more exhausting, because we had to hold our heads up all the time. There was also the very real possibility that it might rise further and drown us like the proverbial rats. But we were committed now, and the only thing for it was to press on as fast as we could.

Josh had clearly grasped this and he set a rapid pace. The woman slithered along behind him. Like she said, it was easier for her because she was of a slighter build. In fact I was hard pressed to keep up. We passed the two narrow points that I remembered from the way in, and at last Josh called back that he had reached the bars at the far end.

"The water's deep here. We'll have to duck under to get through."

This was just what we needed. Maybe, though, the water would wash some of the stinking muck off us, which would be a good thing. I could hear the water churning in the tunnel ahead. I guessed the ditch outside had become charged with water which was now backing up fast. Luckily there was only about two metres to go before the open air.

I explained this to the woman. "Take a deep breath and pull yourself through past the bars. Keep swimming till you meet Josh. He'll drag you out."

"I can do it," she said tersely. I heard her gulp air, then she was gone. Whoever she was, she certainly had guts.

The water was rising fast. My big anxiety was that something would happen to her and she'd get stuck, blocking the passage. I couldn't afford to wait long either way to find out. I gave her a minute, then, with the water rising around my nostrils, I took a deep breath and dived.

The water was cold against my face and thick with filth. I kept my mouth and nose shut, feeling with my hands for the bars in front of me. The gap was tight, but we had squeezed through on the way in. Water was bubbling past my ears, flowing back into the tunnel at a fast rate. I found the gap and pushed my webbing with my pistol and delicate equipment like the night-vision goggles in a sealed bag through ahead of me. Being underwater had once been something that didn't bother me. Diving through a flooded conduit was a standard part of every training assault course, and I had been good at it. The helicopter crash back in the Falklands had changed that. When my hands touched the bars, I rolled over on my back and started to pull myself through. All was going fine till I was about half-way and suddenly I found I was stuck. I couldn't go any further. Fuck, I

thought. I'd snagged on something. I knew it wasn't either of the main bars because I was holding on to them to pull myself through. So it had to be one of the sawn-ofF stumps that had caught. I tried to reach underneath to free myself but there wasn't room. I wriggled and squirmed to work myself loose, but still I couldn't get away.

By now I was starting to run low on air. Shades of going down in that Sea King began to close in, but I forced myself to ignore them. I relaxed my legs, took a firm grip with my hands and pushed myself back up the tunnel. I had to push myself a good few metres with my nose bumping against the roof before I found a pocket of air again. There was no time to waste. If I didn't get a move on I wouldn't have enough puff left to reach the bars again, let alone pull myself through. I took a couple of deep breaths, filling my lungs, and submerged again.

This time I went in on my front. Pushing myself along with my feet as fast as I could, I felt for the ends of the bars on the floor of the tunnel and covered them with my hands as I slithered past. I kept on pushing, felt my arse scrape under the roof bars and prayed that there was nothing else to catch. Something bumped up against my nose in front. It was my dry bag with my kit inside. I shoved it ahead up the tunnel. Another couple of metres should see me clear.

Next moment I felt a hand grasp my arm and start to draw me clear. I burst out from the water gasping. It was great to be in fresh air again. I turned to thank Josh, then I realised it wasn't he who had helped me out.

"Nobby!" I exclaimed, surprised. "What the fuck are you doing out here?"

Nobby's voice was sharp with anxiety. "Boss," he said, 'we've got trouble."

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

"Have the dawn patrols been round yet?" I asked Nobby as we set out.

"No, but we figure any time soon. There's a lot of activity."

I pushed the woman up the track beside the fence in front of me. Nobby was leading, with Josh following and me and the prisoner bringing up the rear. We were crawling on our bellies. I had explained to her about the minefield and she had replied scornfully that she already knew. It was still dark but lights were showing across the airfield, and Nobby said an aircraft had just taken off from the civilian side.

BOOK: Land of Fire
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