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Authors: Scott Mariani

Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Contemporary

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BOOK: The Heretic's Treasure
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The team moved on. At the end of the corridor was another door. The team leader booted it in as the others covered him. He burst into the room and the first thing his eyes locked onto was the old armchair in one corner with the stuffing hanging out of it. He glanced around him, adrenaline screaming through his veins.

In the other corner of the half-lit room was a dingy mattress, and on it were the two children.

The little boy and girl were strapped together, back to back. There were hoods over their heads, the girl’s long blonde hair sticking out from under the rough sacking cloth. Their clothes were torn and grimy.

The six men quickly covered the room with their weapons. There was no sign of the rest of the kidnappers. The silence in the place was total. Just the wind in the naked branches outside, and the cawing of a crow in the distance.

The team leader strode up to the children, holstering his weapon.

He was just three steps away from them when he saw it. By the time his brain had registered the device attached to the girl, it was too late.

The flash was blinding. The team members instinctively covered their faces, mouths dropping open in shock.

The incendiary device was small but potent. The children burst alight, their bodies twisting and tumbling, the flames curling around them, melting their clothes. Beneath the flaming hoods, their hair burned and shrivelled. The sackcloth dropped away to show the white, staring eyes in the blackening faces.

The room was filled with smoke and the acrid stench of melting plastic as the burning mannequins collapsed onto the mattress. Fire pooled all around them.

A door flew open, and a blond-haired man walked into the room. He was tall, just under six feet, dressed in black combat trousers and a black T-shirt with the word ‘INSTRUCTOR’ spelt out in white lettering across his chest.

His name was Ben Hope. He’d been watching the trainee hostage rescue team on a monitor as they’d approached the purpose-built killing house he used for tactical exercises.

The team lowered their weapons and instinctively flipped on their safety catches, even though every pistol in the room was loaded with blanks. One of the men stifled a cough.

Behind Ben, another man came into the smoky room carrying a fire extinguisher. He was the simulated kidnapper the team leader had shot earlier. His name was Jeff Dekker, and he’d been a captain with the Special Boat Service regiment of the British Army before coming to work as Ben’s assistant at the tactical training facility.

Jeff walked over to the burning mattress and the two half-melted dummies and doused the flames with a hissing jet of white foam. He looked up and grinned at Ben.

‘Thanks, Jeff.’ Ben reached into the pocket of his combat trousers and took out a crumpled pack of Gauloises and his battered old Zippo lighter. He flipped the lighter open, thumbed the wheel. Lit a cigarette and clanged the lighter shut.

Then he turned to the team. ‘Now let me show you where you went wrong.’

Chapter Three

Two hours later the session was over and the weary trainees filed back along the dirt track through the woods to the main buildings. The rain had stopped, and the sun was coming out.

Ben glanced at his watch. ‘I’d better get moving. Brooke’s plane will be coming in.’ It was a twenty-minute drive to the airport. He reached for the Land Rover key in his pocket.

‘I can go pick her up, if you want,’ Jeff offered.

‘Thanks. But I’ve got to go and fetch some crates of wine on the way back. We’re getting low.’

Jeff grinned. ‘And we can’t be having that.’

As the trainees wandered off to get a shower and a change of clothes, Ben left Jeff at the squat block-built office and walked across the cobbled yard to the battered green Land Rover. Storm, his favourite of the guard dogs, came running over from his kennel. Ben opened the back for him, and the big German Shepherd leaped inside, claws scrabbling on the metal floor. Then Ben swung up inside the cab, fired up the engine and steered the Land Rover off down the bumpy track through the gates, turning out onto the main road.

As he drove down the winding country lanes, he thought about the last few months, and how much they’d changed his life.

He could barely remember the young man he’d once been, the youth who’d given up his theology studies to join the British army at the age of twenty. He’d had the devil in him in those days. His relentless pursuit of perfect physical and mental fitness, his torturous determination, had seen him qualify for the super-elite 22
SAS
regiment while still in his early twenties. He’d seen bloody conflict in theatres of war around the globe. Over the eight years that followed, he’d battled, sweated and bled his way up to the rank of Major.

But by then he already knew that his time fighting dirty wars for the benefit of shadowy figures in the corridors of power was over. When he’d finally run out of illusions, he walked away from the regiment forever and turned his skills to a higher purpose.

Crisis response consultant.
That was a neat euphemism for the freelance work he’d become involved in for the next few years. The type of crisis he responded to was the havoc caused by a criminal industry that continued to grow worldwide at an alarming rate. From South America to Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia-wherever there were people and money, the kidnap and ransom business was booming more than ever before.

Ben hated it. He loathed nothing more than the kind of men who exploited the emotional bonds between innocent people to create suffering and hard cash. He knew their ways and how they thought. He understood the hardness of their hearts, that they regarded human lives as nothing more than a commodity to be traded on.

And in the modern world, everyone was at risk. The predators out there had their pick, and you didn’t have to be rich and privileged to get the call informing you that your loved one had been taken. The trade was so lucrative and so easy to operate that in many countries it had become bigger than drugs. In some cities, even moderately affluent families were foolish not to take precautions to protect their children from the grasp of the kidnappers. The problem was, the payouts available from insurance companies helped only to fuel the flames. It was a situation spiralling out of control. Everyone knew it, but as long as the kidnappers and the insurance companies kept raking in the money, there was little protection for the people that really mattered-the victims.

That was where Ben came in. When people went missing and their loved ones despaired of ever getting them back-when ransoms were paid and kidnappers reneged on the deal, or when the police screwed things up as they often did-that was when those people in need had a last line of resistance they could call on. He knew he’d helped a lot of people, saved lives, brought families back together.

But it hadn’t been an easy life for him. Those years had been a time of sacrifice and pain, driven by the horror of what would happen if he failed to deliver the victim home safe and sound. It had happened to him only once-and it was something he could never forget.

He’d been forced to kill, too. Every time he’d done it, it sickened him so badly he’d sworn it would be the last-but it never was. What tormented him most of all was that he was so good at it.

So many times he’d wanted out. So many times he’d sat on his little stretch of beach near his rambling home on the west coast of Ireland and prayed for a normal life.

But how could he retire from it all and still sleep at night, knowing that people out there were in need of his help? It was both a calling and a curse, and for a very long time he’d felt as though he was simply destined to sacrifice himself to it. He’d tried to walk away-but every time it would call him back, drag him back in, and his heart wouldn’t let him say no. Stability, happiness, relationships, any chance of a normal existence: he’d given up everything for it.

And it had cost the life of the one person he’d loved more than anyone. His wife, Leigh, had been murdered by a man called Jack Glass. A man he should have killed. He’d failed. She’d died.

For a long, long time, that had brought Ben to his knees. For a long time, he wanted to die himself.

Then, one night in Ireland a few months ago, while sitting alone on the empty beach, he’d had the idea that changed everything. More than a brainwave, it was like a miracle vision that had kept him awake all night and seemed to breathe life into him. By the next morning, his plans were already coming together.

It was a vision of a special training school, a place dedicated to passing on the skills that he’d acquired through hard experience. There was so much he could teach. As the demand for specialised kidnap and ransom insurance for high-risk business personnel rocketed higher each year, so did the need for trained negotiators to bargain with abductors and help bring people back safely. And, as the ruthlessness and organisation of professional kidnappers soared to overtake that of even the worst of the drug lords, increasingly expert training was necessary to help law enforcement response units deal with certain contingencies that normal agencies couldn’t handle. Then there was the need for bodyguards to learn special close-protection skills to protect their clients from professional kidnappers. The demand for courses in situational awareness and avoidance strategies for people at risk of kidnapping. And more. It was a long list.

So Ben had started calling on former army contacts, mostly Special Forces guys he could trust, talking to people he hadn’t talked to in years. He’d known from the start that some of the courses would involve firearms training. That couldn’t be done in the UK, or his home in the Irish Republic. He had to move.

After a few weeks of searching, northern France had offered the ideal location in the shape of a tumbledown rural property called Le Val. Deep in the Normandy countryside, the old farm was close enough to the international airport at Cherbourg and the town of Valognes to be practical, yet remote enough to allow him to turn the place into the kind of facility he wanted. Over sixty acres of sweeping valley and woodland, accessible only from a long, winding track. The only neighbours were farmers, and the tiny village nearby had a shop and a bar. It was perfect for him.

When the sale had gone through, he’d said a sad farewell to the old rambling house on Galway Bay where he’d lived for many years, and got on a plane.

Now he knew he’d never look back.

In the months since the move, Le Val had been transformed. The renovated stone farmhouse had a large communal room for the trainees, and a huge stone-floored kitchen with a big table where they all ate together at night. Ben himself had always had simple needs, and his private quarters consisted of a modest two-bedroom apartment upstairs.

Meanwhile, new buildings had sprouted up quickly around the large farmyard: the main office, canteen, shower and toilet facilities, a purpose-built gym. Trainees were housed in a basic dormitory building across from the farmhouse. Six small rooms, two bunks to a room, with metal lockers painted olive green. It could have been a military dorm and it was a little rough and ready for some tastes-but there’d been no complaints. People knew they were getting the best. The only concession Ben had made to the softer corporate types, the suits sent to him by insurance companies keen to train up capable kidnap and ransom negotiators, was to build a slightly more luxurious conference room and lecture theatre at the far end of the complex.

But the real focus and purpose of the place was for the more hands-on stuff-the kind of training Ben specialised in, for the kind of people who were serious about learning to deal with extreme contingencies. A number of European military and police units had already signed contracts to come and sharpen up their hostage rescue skills with someone they knew was one of the best in the world. Ben had built two outdoor shooting ranges, one short for pistol and shotgun training, the other for long-range sniper work. The semi-derelict cottage in the woods had been stripped out and equipped with plywood partitions to create a maze of corridors and rooms where teams were drilled in close-quarter battle and live-fire room entry. Some weeks, the school was getting through thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The facility had been tough to set up. Apart from the arduous building work he’d had to jump through a thousand hoops and wade through a jungle of red tape to get the clearance for live-fire weapons training. There’d been official permissions to obtain from the French and British governments, from
NATO
, from everybody. He’d been buried in paperwork, glued to phones and knee-deep in mud and rubble for three months. He’d never been more thankful that his
SAS
days had left him fluent in several languages, including French, allowing him to wrangle with the local authorities until his voice was hoarse.

But no sooner had the authorities finally greenlit the operation, enquiries started flooding in from everywhere. The diary had filled up fast and stayed that way for the last four months. Ben was in business, and he knew it was something he should have done a long time ago.

As he drove, he overtook a tractor that was ambling down the country lane. He waved, recognising Duchamp, one of the local farmers, at the wheel. The old guy waved back. Ben got on well with him, and had spent a lot of time in his farmhouse talking over bottles of excellent homemade cider. His visits to Duchamp’s place invariably ended with him loading up the Land Rover with cases of the stuff. Duchamp’s brother was the local butcher who supplied the meat for Le Val, and one of his cousins, Marie-Claire, came in to cook for the trainees.

When summer came, Ben was planning to hold a massive hog-roast for all the locals. He liked these people, their straightforward philosophy of life, their total attunement to nature, and the way they didn’t ask too many questions about his business. They didn’t care about the secrecy, the sound of gunfire, the barbed wire or the ‘
KEEP
OUT’ signs on the high wooden gates. As far as they were concerned, the facility at Le Val was just a glorified adventure tourism place for corporate types-and if they were happy, Ben was happy.

BOOK: The Heretic's Treasure
11.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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