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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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‘You didn’t like it?’

‘I didn’t like what it stood for,’ he replied truthfully. ‘That’s why I left, in the end. But I didn’t always feel that way. I loved it once. It meant everything.’ Ben surprised himself with the way he was so open with her. He didn’t generally discuss such things.

‘Harry speaks very highly of you.’ She paused. ‘He told you about his son? So terrible.’ She shook her head sadly.

‘Did you know Morgan well?’

‘Not that well,’ she said. ‘I only met him a few times. He and Harry didn’t always see eye to eye. And I think Morgan had a problem with having a step-mother who was two years younger than him.’ She paused. ‘I know what it is Harry wants you to do.’

That surprised him. ‘You do?’

‘He told me. He just can’t bring himself to go there and do it himself

Ben didn’t reply.

‘It must be so hard to visit the place where your son was murdered,’ she went on. And to try to find his belongings.’

That was all Paxton had told her. Ben wondered how she’d react if she knew the rest of it.

‘I was there with him in Cairo, when he had to identify the body. It was awful.’ She shuddered. ‘Poor Harry. I really hope you can help, Ben.’

‘I’m not sure yet whether I can or not.’

She nodded thoughtfully and glanced away from him, looking out at the sea.

‘So when did you two meet?’ Ben asked.

‘Eighteen months ago, in Sydney. I was organising a charity event. He was offering the use of the
Scimitar
for the occasion.’

‘I thought you were a professional archer.’

She laughed. ‘Have to be Korean for that. Anyway, I don’t work any more. Not since Harry and I got married.’

‘Harry’s a lucky man,’ he said, and immediately wished he’d kept his mouth shut. Zara made no answer, but he thought he saw her cheeks flush a little. She turned her face from him.

Just then he heard voices coming from across the deck, and looked around. Zara glanced over in the same direction. Her husband was approaching, accompanied by Kerry Wallace. As they came closer, Ben could see that Kerry looked much more collected now. The pallor in her cheeks had gone, and there was a lightness in her step that hadn’t been there before. He was glad she was recovering from the ordeal on the beach.

Zara seemed to be studying her. ‘Is that your wife, Ben?’

‘No, not my wife.’

‘Your girlfriend, then?’

‘Nothing like that. I don’t know her.’

She frowned. ‘But I thought-didn’t she arrive with you?’

‘It’s a long story,’ he said. In the background he could hear the burbling of the launch cutting around alongside the yacht’s gleaming hull. He glanced over the side. Thierry was bringing it around to the boarding platform, ready to take them back to port.

Paxton walked up to Ben and shook his hand again. ‘Remember, Benedict, whatever you decide, no hard feelings and I hope to see you this evening.’ He turned to Kerry. ‘It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Wallace. Do take care. There are bad people out there.’

Kerry blushed. ‘Thanks for looking after me. I’m very grateful to you, and to Marla. She was great. You’re all very kind.’

‘Please think nothing of it, my dear,’ Paxton said with a smile.

‘Shall we go?’ Ben said. The launch had pulled up. He took Kerry’s elbow to guide her over the side.

He looked back to say goodbye to Zara.

But she was gone.

Chapter Ten

Thierry dropped them off back at the jetty. Ben took out his phone to call for a taxi, but then saw one waiting on the quayside. ‘I think that’s for us,’ he said to Kerry.

‘They’ve thought of everything, haven’t they?’ she replied.

‘They certainly have.’

The cab took them into the heart of San Remo, and dropped them outside Kerry’s hotel. Ben walked her to the entrance of the lobby.

‘I don’t know what to say to you,’ she said. ‘I’m just so grateful you were there, and that you helped me the way you did.’

‘Don’t thank me,’ Ben said. He took out his wallet and gave her one of the business cards he carried with him. ‘My mobile number’s on here. I don’t think you’ll need to call me, but don’t hesitate if there’s anything I can do. Promise?’

‘Promise.’ She flushed a little, then went up on tiptoe and pecked him on the cheek. With one last look, she turned and pushed through the lobby door into the hotel.

He started walking, and thinking back to what had happened on the beach. But, as he wandered back through the narrow, busy streets in the direction of his own hotel, he soon forgot about Kerry. There were more pressing things to think about. Of the two things that were weighing on his mind, he didn’t know which worried him most.

The more he replayed Paxton’s request in his thoughts, the more it made his head spin. He felt trapped by it. What was he going to do?

The other thing on his mind troubled him a great deal. It was something he’d never imagined could happen.

Every time he let his thoughts drift, he kept seeing Zara Paxton’s face in his mind’s eye. The sun on her hair and the sparkle of her eyes. He kept replaying their short conversation, the sound of her laugh. The warm softness of her hand on his. Kept thinking about the way he could have stood there on deck all day long with her, just talking, just being near her. And remembering the ugly little pang of annoyance he’d felt when Paxton had interrupted their brief conversation and he’d had to leave. Now all he could think about was that he was going to see her again that evening, in just a few hours.

He caught himself.
What the hell are these thoughts? What’s wrong with you?

Ben was furious with himself by the time he reached his hotel. He stormed straight up to his room, flopped on the bed and lay there for a while, his mind choked with conflicting emotions. They washed over him, pierced his skull, tormenting him. Feelings he’d thought he would never have again in his life. Not since losing Leigh.

He sat bolt upright on the bed.

You’re lusting after the wife of the man who saved your life.

No,
he thought,
it’s more than that.

Gritting his teeth with frustration he jumped up, strode over to the mini-bar and wrenched it open. There were some miniature bottles of whisky inside. He pulled them all out, gazed at them for a moment, then shoved them back inside. He didn’t even feel like drinking. He didn’t know what he felt like. It was all just confusion.

He slumped back on the bed. Fought to squeeze Zara from his thoughts-but all his mind did was race back to thinking about Harry.
What am I going to do
? he asked himself again.

Just when he’d thought he was out of it-out of that whole ugly world, done with field work and violence forever-fate was dragging him back in. This man wanted him to do murder on his behalf.

And yet Ben only had to cast his mind back to the events of May 14th, 1997, to remind himself just how much he owed Harry Paxton.

A day he’d never forget. There’d been a time, years ago, when the memory of it used to fill his dreams almost every night. Now the nightmare visited him only sporadically. But he’d never thought it was going to return to haunt him like this. He closed his eyes, and suddenly he was reliving the events as though it had happened yesterday.

*  *  *

For the entire decade of the nineties, the West African country of Sierra Leone, one of the most deprived and corrupt nations on the planet, had been consumed in violent civil war. Atrocities were committed wholesale-burnings, machete hackings and mass executions became commonplace. Towns and villages were razed to the ground as brutal gangs of self-styled rebels rampaged through the countryside, murdering and raping everyone in their path. Among the rebel fighters were child soldiers as young as eight, drugged and brainwashed into a state of zombie-like inhumanity, who had been handed automatic weapons and commanded to kill, kill, kill. Which they did, ruthlessly and without compunction.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world watched with little interest. Just another African tribal war. Just another Congo. Just another Rwanda. To the cold Western political mind, African lives were cheap, generally not worth intervening over. So the suffering and bloodshed went on unabated, and men like Ben could only watch and wait and hope that one day they’d be given the order that could help make a small difference to those innocent victims.

The worst of the rebel groups operating in Sierra Leone at that time had been a vicious militia force, several hundred strong, calling itself the Cross Bones Boys. Its thirty-year-old leader was a psychopathic despot known as The Baron, whose idea of amusement was to order the limb-hacking, followed not too quickly by the beheading, of entire village populations. Under his command, the militia was cutting a swathe of death through the country. Whatever political or idealistic motivation it might have started out with when war had first broken out had long since been perverted. For years, they’d been left pretty much to their own devices as civil war tore the country apart. There was so much blood soaked into the soil that it seemed nobody even cared any more.

But in May 1997, six years into the war, the Cross Bones Boys broke the unwritten rules by daring to kidnap, and then butcher, three Western aid workers. At that point, orders had come from on high that reprisals be carried out against The Baron and his militia. Ben’s
SAS
squadron, headed up by Lt. Col. Harry Paxton, had been flown into the country aboard a UN aid aircraft and stationed clandestinely at the British Embassy in Freetown.

Officially, the
SAS
were never there. Unofficially, the mission objectives were simply to capture or kill as many of the Cross Bones Boys as possible, including The Baron himself, and chase off the rest. In theory, it was the kind of job the
SAS
were born for.

It hadn’t been that easy in practice. With the whole country locked down in terror and suppression, MI6 intelligence agents struggled to gain any leads as to the whereabouts of the Cross Bones Boys and their leader. For two weeks the
SAS
squadron had waited on standby, ready to move at a moment’s notice. It had been a frustrating, tense time.

Finally, agents had received a tip-off. The news was promising. In two days, The Baron and his second-in-command, Captain Kananga, would be passing through a Catholic mission on the banks of a river delta called Makapela Creek. The building complex had been deserted since back in 1992, early in the war, after the resident nuns and priest had been brutally slaughtered by another marauding rebel group. It was exactly the kind of place the Cross Bones leadership might hole up for a day or two and, according to the intelligence source, The Baron and Kananga would only have a light force of men with them.

An eight-man
SAS
team were quickly assembled and tooled up. A Chinook from
RAF
Special Forces 7 Squadron had flown them deep into the jungle. From the Landing Zone they’d trekked through the damp greenery and stifling heat. Reaching the Makapela Creek mission after dark, they’d got into position for the assault. It was meant to have been swift, surgical and decisive.

It hadn’t quite turned out that way.

As the assault got underway, it quickly became clear that there was a much greater enemy force in the area than the intelligence reports had led anyone to believe. Militia soldiers suddenly burst out of hidden positions in the trees.

Hundreds of them. A rag-tag army swathed in cartridge belts, fired up with bloodlust and crack cocaine, heavily armed and running at them like demons.

Before anyone knew what was happening, a wild firefight had erupted across the whole mission complex. It had been mayhem, fast and furious and deadly. The jungle was lit up with the muzzle flashes of automatic weapons as the enemy started closing in. Gunfire exploded from everywhere. Within minutes the
SAS
team had found themselves encircled and cut off. They’d established positions in and around the buildings and fought back ferociously as bullets pinged and zipped all about them.

But they were massively outnumbered and, however many bodies piled up in the killing ground around the mission, more screaming Cross Bones Boys kept pouring out of the jungle. The
SAS
squad were in real trouble, and they knew it. Once they’d run out of ammunition, the militia rebels would close in to take them alive. The ensuing machete party would provide hours of macabre entertainment for The Baron.

One by one, Ben watched his teammates go down. Milne and Jarvis were blown to pieces by a rocket-propelled grenade round that ripped through the building they were firing from. Clark, the radio operator, had been crouched right next to Ben in the roofless wreck of the old chapel when he’d taken a .50-calibre machine gun bullet that left his head like a scooped-out walnut shell.

Ben had used his last grenade to destroy the concealed machine gun emplacement from where the shots had come. Moving low through the insane torrents of gunfire, he’d clambered over Clark’s corpse and used the radio to call in air support. At that moment, he’d felt the hot punch of a bullet take him in the shoulder. He staggered, but stayed on his feet.

After that, Ben’s memories were hazy. He remembered the searing heat of flames tearing through the mission buildings. The constant frenzied chaos of gunfire. The screams that pierced the night. The bodies of his comrades lying slumped where they’d fallen. The blur of shapes darting between buildings as the enemy kept on coming. His teammate, Smith, crouching a few yards away with his rifle tight against his shoulder, firing right, firing left.

Suddenly the sky had been filled with roaring thunder as the air support came storming in out of the night-two Lynx helicopters, spotlights sweeping the jungle, flame blazing from their miniguns. Trees snapped and fell, enemy soldiers were mowed down as others ran in a panic. The downdraught of the choppers blasted dust and vegetation into the air, tore the tin roofs from what was left of the mission buildings.

As Ben glanced up at the hovering aircraft, he was suddenly pitched forward on his face by a second bullet. His vision went dim. He fought to stay conscious, struggled to get to his knees. Tried to twist around to see who had shot him. He could feel hot blood spilling out of him.

BOOK: The Heretic's Treasure
9.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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