Extract: The Break Line by James Brabazon
The Break Line is the compelling and suspense-filled debut novel from internationally bestselling author James Brabazon. Based in London, James has travelled in over seventy countries, investigating, filming and directing in the world’s most hostile environments. As a result, The Break Line is a debut dripping with authenticity and menace.
Officially, Max McLean doesn’t exist. The British government denies all knowledge of the work he does on their behalf to keep us safe. But Max and his masters are losing faith in each other. And they give him one last chance to prove he’s still their man.
Sent to a military research facility to meet a former comrade-in-arms, Max finds the bravest man he ever knew locked up for his own protection. His friend lost his mind during an operation in West Africa. The reason? Absolute mortal terror.
Max is determined to find out why. Ahead lies a perilous, breath-taking mission into the unknown that will call into question everything that Max once believed in.
Read on for an extract from The Break Line by James Brabazon!
The Break Line
Prologue: Last Light
Sunday 27 March 1994
It began a long time ago. I was nineteen then and a soldier. Not a killer.
Early that evening, I was called to Colonel Ellard’s office. He sent an orderly, who asked me to bring my rifle and follow him immediately. I asked if I was in trouble, and the orderly shrugged and smiled.
‘There’s a man with him. Smart suit. They’re in a hurry.’
We took off down the corridor at the double. The orderly smiled again and hung back, not wanting to be sent on another errand. I entered the room alone. Colonel Ellard was inside with the man who had been watching me all day. He sat at the back of the office behind the door. I couldn’t see him clearly.
That morning, when the sergeant major told us to break for a smoke, I’d noticed him standing inside the wire next to the main gate. It was not long after sunrise, and the air was still cold. He had his hands in the trouser pockets of a dark-grey suit and stared at me as I lit and then smoked half a Marlboro. The jacket had a red silk lining that flashed in the breeze and thin lapels that framed a white shirt open at the neck. I ground the cigarette out on a galvanized bin and stared back at him, and he turned and walked briskly towards the officers’ mess. He wasn’t wearing a coat and he was unshaven, which made me wonder where he’d come from.
Later that day I saw him again, speaking to Colonel Ellard. They were pointing at me as I laid out my kit – rifle, slip, scope, suppressor and a box of twenty rounds – and then he walked towards me while I lay prone on the firing line. Without introducing himself, he knelt down and asked me if I could see the retaining-bolt that held the hundred-metre target in place. I looked up at Ellard, who nodded. Through the scope, I told him I could. The man asked me to shoot it. I did. Then I looked up at him. He studied my face intently, as if looking for something he’d lost, and then walked away.
I stood in the office, at ease. According to the custom at Raven Hill no salutes were exchanged, but you could never quite relax with the colonel. He was so softly spoken that it was hard to hear him on the range, and so patient with us that he made you feel, instantly, as if his entire focus was on you, and you alone. He was the last Irish officer in the British army to come up through the ranks. ‘Not from private, but from the pits,’ he told new recruits: before he enlisted he’d cut coal on his back in the Arigna mines in County Roscommon. Now Ellard walked tall. He expected, and received, absolute obedience. What we feared was not his wrath, but his disappointment. And, because they worked, we were unquestioningly dedicated to his methods. We were, all of us, terrified of him, too – because we liked him but did not understand him. I’d learned quickly in the army that there was no progress of any kind without the fuel of fear.
Sitting behind the walnut desk in his office, Colonel Ellard motioned for me to give him my rifle, so I detached the magazine and pulled back the bolt twice to show that the breech was clear and handed it over. It was his policy that our weapons were always amber: charged magazine on, nothing in the chamber. He placed it carefully on the desk.
‘Thank you. You’ll find a black Mercedes out the front. Jump in and wait. You’re not driving.’
I made to leave. He raised his right hand to stop me and nodded towards the man.
‘Max, this is Commander Knight. You are to follow orders from him as if they were given by me. He is your commanding officer until further notice.’
Knight sat behind me and said nothing. I saw his face clearly as I walked out. He’d shaved. He smiled and gave me a curt nod of recognition.
I sat in the front passenger seat. Ten minutes later, Knight stepped outside and put a rifle sheathed in a slip in the boot of the car. He joined me and took the wheel. We drove for an hour and didn’t speak. I didn’t have anything to say. It was early spring. Dun-coloured hills soaked up the last of the evening light. The clocks had gone forward that morning, and the late dusk was unsettling. We were circling a large village due west of Belfast on a metalled road coated with mud well trodden by tractor tyres and peppered with cow pats. We looped behind the tallest hill and found the moon rising above Lough Neagh.
At a checkpoint below a cut in the road manned by crap hats we were joined by two soldiers in civvies – most probably from the SAS or the Det. No one saluted. They climbed in the back and seemed comfortable with Knight. They must have met before. Fifteen minutes later, we stopped again. I got out first and saw one of our passengers had a SIG semi-automatic pistol stuck in the waistband of his jeans. Knight asked me to take the rifle from the boot of the Mercedes and walk with him off the road, directly up the hill. His accent was from Dublin, sharpened in an English public school, and reminded me of my father’s Irish lilt. They would have been the same age, too, had my father lived. The man’s brogues found no purchase on the smooth grass, and more than once he stumbled so that he had to steady his ascent with outstretched palms. It had been a hot day in the end, and I’d been burned by the sun; now there was a chill, and the air was sharp and brittle again.
As we climbed higher, I began first to smell and then to hear the village. It was a Sunday. Traditional Irish music tumbled out the swinging pub door and down the hillside. A tang of roasting meat lifted on the breeze off the lake, mixing with the reek of peat smoke and wet grass.
Finally, the climb levelled off on to a broad grassy saddle. We ran slowly and at a crouch to the lee of the hill facing the south side of the village, the straps of the rifle slip bunched in my right hand. I could see the evening dew had soaked into Knight’s suit from where he had stumbled. Dark patches spread out from his knees and ringed his cuffs.
Below us, the kitchen clatter that heralded the end of dinner filtered through the half-open window of a stone house. I took a map and a pair of binoculars from one of the plain-clothed operators who’d followed us up and checked the range.
Three hundred metres away, in the failing light, I could see a family of seven lit by a single tungsten bulb, framed by net curtains darkened by smoke from the open hearth. Four children babbled and whooped, whirling round the table, licking grease off their fingers and taking empty plates to a middle-aged woman in the kitchen. She stood, as if transfixed, behind a deep butler’s sink beneath a second window. At the head of the table a man sat with another child on his lap, a young girl with long hair the colour of threshed corn. His daughter. Knight crouched next to me and handed me a loaded magazine.
‘The man at the head of the table has blood on his hands. Your orders are to kill him.’
‘Yes, sir. Understood.’
I eased the rifle from the padded slip. It was my rifle. Despite the bumps and knocks of the journey it would have kept its zero. I clipped on the magazine, adjusted the scope’s elevation drum and brought the glass in front of my eye. Inside the house I could see the stains on the man’s shirt, the shaving cut on his neck from when he’d prepared for Mass that morning. I saw his daughter’s lips moving. Their eyes were the mirror image of each other. I saw his chest rise, watched the rhythm of his breath. The target turned his face to the gathering gloom and stared out of the window, listening to the girl. I fed a round into the chamber. The wind dropped. There were no adjustments to make: safety off; weapon live.
The horizontal line of the crosshair ran beneath the target’s eyes. The vertical bar divided the tip of his nose. He inclined his head, resting his chin on the girl’s scalp. Time stopped. Taking the first gentle pressure on the trigger, the pad of my index finger crept to a stop, and then drew a hair’s breadth further back.
The clocks restarted. Only the faint dry echo of metal on metal remained above the sound of blood pumping in my ears, oxygen rushing in my throat. I cleared the breech and chambered another round. A flash of brass glinted in my right eye as the dead cartridge spun out in front of Knight’s face next to me. I settled the crosshairs. We were alone again, the target, his daughter and I. She touched his cheek. He looked out of the window straight at me, seeming to hold my monocular gaze. First pressure: already I was part of him, following the pin into the cartridge; already I was tethered to the bullet.
I gulped a lungful of air and felt the grass-wet palm of Commander Knight on the back of my right hand as I tensed and moved to rework the bolt. And then those three words that still wake me.
‘You did well.’
The firing pin had been removed from my rifle. It was the final test in Knight’s search for what he later described as a ‘legally sane psychopath’.
‘Your father,’ he said as we returned to the car, ‘would be proud of you.’
Twenty-three years later
I picked her up at the 360˚ Roof Bar. She was already half- cut. Her ex-boyfriend was the political officer at the US embassy in Caracas – a crew-cut spy with a face like a potato and a weakness for local women. He’d dumped her the week before, or so I’d been told. I guessed she was either drowning her sorrows or still celebrating. Outside, the city was disintegrating. Everyone was drinking hard.
I bought her a rum and lemon, cracked a joke in deliberately shaky Spanish and sat down beside her.
‘How do you know I’m not expecting someone?’ she asked.
‘Because you’ve been waiting for me all these years, corazón.’
She laughed, and her elbow slipped on the mahogany table. A slop of the sticky dark rum ran over her knuckles. She licked it off.
‘Just think how much more fun us two blonds could have.’ I raised my glass to her. ‘Double trouble.’
‘Double trouble,’ she repeated in Spanish with a wide, sad smile. ‘I’m Ana María.’
She held up her glass too and looked at me, waiting.
There we were: a businessman chatting up a local girl at a discreet corner table on the upper terrace, taking in each other and the view. Except she wasn’t a local girl. And I was supposed to kill her.
‘My name is Max,’ I said. ‘Max McLean.’
We touched glasses and both took a long swallow of rum. It seemed like an unnecessary cruelty to lie to her, that dead woman drinking. I was growing tired of being everyone except myself.
Spy fucking is bad for your health in Venezuela, especially for the jilted mistress of the Russian ambassador to Cuba. She was nothing, it seemed, if not consistent in her lousy choice of lover. Now she’d seen and heard enough to get her promoted on to everyone’s kill list. If we hadn’t got to her first the Russians would have been close behind.
She drank and talked, and I laughed and listened hard. I don’t like killing women, and I don’t like doing the Americans’ dirty work for them. I don’t like killing anyone. And after another glass of rum I didn’t want to kill her. Not because she was pretty, or fun to have a drink with, but because when you’re about to kill someone up close like that you watch them very carefully first. Whether you want to or not you get to know them before they are dead. Time distorts. What would normally take weeks – months, even – to pass between two people is compressed into fast minutes; seconds, sometimes. The emotional pressure cooker of near-death evaporates every superfluous detail until all you are left with is the essence of the person you’re going to kill.
And I didn’t want to kill her because that process of reduction didn’t leave me convinced. Instead, it left me with the sense of something being terribly wrong. None of the details of the brief checked out. Her cover story – that she was a doctor on holiday – was repeated with unnatural nonchalance. Her tipsy banter was light and unforced. She was either an exceptional professional or innocent. And very few people are that good.
I checked in and queried the target. The response was immediate: Verified. Proceed.
But it didn’t feel right. And it has to.
To kill at point blank, to feel a last breath on you as the light gutters out of their eyes – that is something: something to live with for ever. I’ve killed a lot of people. Some were holding a bomb or a pistol or a cell phone or a switch; some knew things they couldn’t unlearn, saw things they couldn’t unsee. Some died for good reason. Others didn’t.
That was the purpose of training. That was why I had been sent to Raven Hill. Training ensured you pulled the trigger when asked. No questions.
Most squaddies want to miss their target. My job is different. For me there are no misses. Only consequences.
But I have to believe in the shot.
So I didn’t take her to the killing place.
Instead I plucked her phone from her handbag and excused myself. I took the lift to the hotel lobby on the ground floor and I checked into the room I’d arranged to kill her in. I ripped the tracker from the hem of my jeans and left it with her cell phone in the bedside drawer. As a precaution I took the battery out of my own phone.
By the time I’d sprinted back up the fire stairs and scooped her up again she’d barely noticed I’d been gone.
Half an hour later, we dropped back down to the parking lot and wove our way through late-night Caracas traffic in a private taxi to a low-rent hotel room at the Garden Suites. We arrived just before two a.m.
Upstairs, I’d held her from behind as we fell on the bed, pushing her mane of dirty-blonde hair aside as she sprawled on the mattress to reveal the point, high on the nape of her neck, where I’d meant to place the muzzle. Then I saw it. Or rather, didn’t see it. Ana María Petrova has a scar the size of a bottle top at the base of her skull where the ambassador’s Ovcharka took a lump out of her. This Ana María didn’t have a ready-made target carved on her. Squirming around on to her back, she giggled and hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her panties. She wasn’t even a natural blonde.
It wasn’t her at all.
My stomach heaved. The unease in my guts spewed up into my mouth. I spat bile into the bathroom sink and ran the taps on my wrists, shaking. She’d been very close to never waking up again.
But you knew, I reassured myself, you knew.
Two hours and half a dozen Diplomático rums later and we both passed out.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I could hear the mortars before they landed. The air rips. Long, metallic screeches like sheets of black steel being shredded in the night sky. The first bombs landed in a cluster of three, creeping towards our position: one to the left – far out; one to the right – closer; then one behind – closer still. Rapid, deadly triangulation. Then the first white-hot shards of shrapnel hissed past at head height. Caught in the open. No cover. I dropped and balled up – foetal and braced for impact.
Where was she? Where was Ana María?
Around me, the elbows, chins, boot heels of other men grubbed in the dust. The slightest, shallowest groove you can plough just might make the difference between being shredded or not.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The reports were hard, flat, close and rapid. Then the bombardment paused, and there was only ringing silence. My ears screamed.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
And then a bright-white burst of light and rush of air and sound wrenched me to my senses like a floodtide ripping shingle from a storm-slapped beach.
Ceiling fan. Slatted blinds. Running water.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Empty bed, sweat-soaked, twisted sheets. Alone.
Ten a.m. and already the air was heavy, sticky.
She must have left.
‘Servicio de habitación!’
I reached over and patted the low bedside table, searching out the red and white carton and the barrel of a plastic lighter.
I drew a cigarette out, lit it and sucked the smoke down. The room pulled into focus as the reality of the dream receded. Sometimes it was Afghanistan, sometimes Iraq. Or Colombia. Uganda. Syria. London.
Almost every day began like that, robbed of clarity by a night of searing dreams. It was easier waking up in the war. Any war. At least I knew where I was then.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
There were hotel staff in the corridor to deal with.
‘Su desayuno, señor.’
‘Yeah, yeah I’m here. I’m just… Esperate.’
I hadn’t ordered breakfast.
I reached under the bed and tore free the stolen police Glock I’d taped beneath the mattress. Somewhere a Venezuelan cop was being framed for a hit that hadn’t happened.
‘Servicio de habitación!’
A key rattled in the lock. Stopped by a sliding bolt, the door caught with a bang, opening less than an inch. The pressure in the room shifted, sucking at a loose pane in the window which overlooked a garden below.
‘OK,’ I barked. I dropped the Marlboro into the dregs of her last rum and steadied myself at the foot of the bed, naked. This wasn’t going to be easy.
I pulled the bedroom door open, free of its restraining bolt: pistol at waist height; muzzle jammed flat-on against the plywood panelling.
Early twenties. Sunburned forehead. Neat, close-cut brown hair. White shirt, black tie. Black waistcoat. Shiny shoes.
His left fist was clenched and held high as if in some mad communist salute, poised to resume his drumming; his right hand was hidden under an unfolded napkin spread out on a service cart.
‘Can we do this in English? It’s been a long night.’
His right arm sagged. He looked deflated.
‘And you can take your hand off that SIG, too.’ He stared at me, unblinking, alarmed. ‘Now.’
‘Mister… Mr McLean,’ the peon whispered in English as his empty right hand emerged. ‘I’ve got orders to…’
‘…take me to the embassy where I’ll receive new orders.’
‘…my current assignment is terminated.’
‘I’m in deep shit.’
He looked obliquely along the hallway, ‘Yes. And… Look I’m sorry, but could I…?’
I shut the door on him and hooked the bolt back on. Either they’d let me get away with it or someone had fucked up. Passing out half-cut in bed with Ana María hadn’t been part of the plan. By rights they should have had the door off the hinges as soon as I’d walked through it. I listened carefully. No movement outside.
And then I remembered. I didn’t have a plan.
She was in the shower all right, planted like a statue under a fountain, staring into a white-tiled void. She turned silently when she saw me in the mirror, eyes widening. I realized I was naked; and that I was carrying a gun.
‘Coño! Max, qué…?’
I put my fingers to my lips and held up the semi-auto side-on, unthreatening. She turned around properly, and I pushed back the glass splash screen. Her eyes were dilated, carotid pulse fluttering.
‘Ana María.’ She moved to stop the water. My left hand caught her wrist. ‘I have to go. Right now.’
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Her nostrils flared. I let go of her wrist and put my finger back to my lips.
Muffled by the bathroom door and jets of water the knocking outside was barely audible. She heard it nonetheless and relaxed.
‘Who’s that, your fucking wife?’
‘It’s complicated. You’re not who I thought you were.’
‘What? You are a fucking liar,’ she hissed in English, her eyes moving between mine and the pistol. Fine spray misted the air between us. It was hard to see properly.
‘Wrong Cubana? Coño! You are like fucking unbelievable. You fucked the wrong woman? Eh?’
Then in Russian. ‘Idi na khui! Mudak!’ London had got that bit right at least. And I did feel like an asshole.
‘Caracas isn’t safe.’ I replied in Russian. Of the many gifts my mother gave me, Moscow street-slang was one of the greatest.
‘Not with maricones like you around.’ She slipped back into Spanish, which was progress of sorts.
‘There are men outside who will kill you if they see you. Stay in here. In exactly five minutes ride the lift to the first floor, then take the fire stairs.’ I was whispering in Spanish. ‘Leave through the restaurant out the back and into the children’s playground. Walk up to the tennis club and get them to call you a taxi. I’ve taken your phone.’
‘You stole my phone?’
‘No. Well, yes. It’s complicated. Don’t look over your shoulder and don’t come back. Do you understand?’
‘Listen. There’s money on the table…’
Her mouth pursed as if to spit at me.
‘No! Not for that. Ana María, please. Get out of the city. Take a week on the beach out of town and then go back to Havana, even Moscow. Take the money and go. They’d kill me too. Trust me.’
I tried to kiss her cheek, but she jerked her head away. I touched the back of my hand to her breast. She didn’t move.
‘I was supposed to…’ I could barely get the words out. Training: it helped you to pull triggers and keep your trap shut. I wasn’t doing great at either right now.
‘People,’ I struggled on, ‘very dangerous people, my people, think you are someone else. And they want that someone else dead.’ She stared at me blankly. ‘Now you’ve seen my face. You know my name. That’s enough to get you killed, too. For real. I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry? Fuck, Max, you know what? So am I. Coño!’ She pinched the water out of her eyes. ‘Get out,’ she whispered. ‘Go.’
I stopped the shower and turned around, taking a towel off the back of the door to wipe my face as I left.
She stood there shaking and spoke my name again. But she didn’t follow me. Her chances of making it out alive were slim. One way or the other I’d likely killed her anyway.
I pulled my clothes on, tucked the pistol into my jeans and opened the door on to my chaperone, pushing him and the service cart he’d hijacked a couple of feet down the corridor.
He was staring at the side of my face.
I looked back down at him as we clicked off down the parquet corridor.
‘How did you know I… I mean, do I…’
‘Because your bottom waistcoat button is undone. And please stop calling me “sir”.’
Enjoyed this extract from The Break Line by James Brabazon? Find out how James’ war reporting experience paved the way to writing crime fiction.