Extract: Crisis by Frank Gardner
The book introduces us to Luke Carlton – an ex-Special Boat Service commando now under contract to MI6 for some of its most dangerous missions.
Sent into the steaming Colombian jungle to investigate the murder of a British intelligence officer, Luke finds himself caught up in the coils of a plot that has terrifying international dimensions. Hunted down, captured, tortured and on the run from one of South America’s most powerful and ruthless drugs cartels and its psychotic leader thirsting for revenge, Luke is in a life-or-death race against time to prevent a disaster on a truly terrifying scale: London is the target, the weapon is diabolical and the means of delivery is ingenious.
Frank Gardner has a unique insight into the murky world of espionage and counter-terrorism – and Crisis combines insider knowledge and fly on the wall insights with heart-in-mouth excitement. The book is a smart, fast-paced and seriously entertaining thriller. You won’t want to miss it.
Read on for an extract from Crisis!
Butterflies. sunlight and butterflies. That was what he remembered. Dappled patterns on tropical foliage, bird calls from high up in the tree canopy, and so many butterflies. Really big ones. As big as a man’s hand and blue as a gem. Dazzling,
dancing, beckoning him to follow. Come with us, they seemed to say, and you’ll be safe.
In convoy they drove out that morning, the families of the oil company senior executives, singing on their way to the annual corporate picnic. Last year, it was a private beach near Cartagena, and this year a country club on the very edge of the jungle. Beside drooping vines there were trestle tables laden with food, baseball for the grown-ups, a makeshift jungle gym for the kids. And Luke Carlton, just turned ten, was bored to tears. Inquisitive and adventurous, the games did nothing for him. He watched, scowling and grumpy, as the CEO stood on an upturned crate. He was American, jowly and gregarious, with a big belly-laugh and a lime-green polo shirt that struggled to contain his ballooning waistline. He was making some sort of speech in slow, halting Spanish with a terrible accent. Luke reckoned he and his classmates could speak better Spanish than that.
Luke picked his moment. Unseen, he slipped away from the group and darted into the forest, following the butterflies. With every step, he expected to hear his name called and the sound of running footsteps followed by a sharp rebuke, but it never came. The path veered left and he took it, arrived at a fork and turned right. The butterflies were everywhere, folding their gossamer wings as they alighted. They were his friends – they had to be: why else would they be showing him the way? More than once he stopped and held up his hands for them to land on. He smiled when one fluttered onto his nose and another onto his blond hair, which his mother had brushed only that morning.
He should probably be heading home, he thought, and began to backtrack down the path. But there, blocking his way, was a large fallen log. He didn’t recognize it. At his feet a trail of chestnut-coloured ants swarmed across the track.
Soon the path gave out altogether and there, hanging off his bare leg, was a leech. Slimy, black as a slug, gorging on his blood. He tried to flick it off with his thumb and forefinger but it was stuck fast to his flesh. Luke shrugged. It didn’t occur to him that he was lost, just that he’d be in trouble with his parents when he
At that moment he saw that he was not alone. There were three of them, standing silent and watching. Never in his wildest dreams had Luke seen anyone who looked like that. Their faces were painted a vivid purple, their scalps shaven smooth, and each had some black object inserted into his lower lip. Round their necks they wore strings of animal teeth. Or were they bones? He couldn’t tell. The men were small and wiry, naked but for the filthy cloths around their waists. Two carried long, curved bows; the third clutched a blowpipe. Their language was strange, all rasps and clicks, definitely not the Spanish they were teaching him at school. One moved, an arm slowly extending. Were they going to shoot him? Rooted to the spot, Luke wondered what it was like to be hit by an arrow. Did you die straight away, or slowly? Would it hurt? Were they – were they going to eat him? But now they were making a sign to him, gesturing – they wanted him to follow them.
They walked for hours. With clicks and grunts they urged him on, offering swigs of brackish water from the gourds at their waists. And then through the tangle of forest vines he could see a clearing, a dozen round thatched huts, smoky fires, barefoot children, the discarded carcass of a monkey. He caught his breath. A jeep from his father’s company, with the familiar brown-and-yellow logo, stood between the huts. He ran to the door and yanked it open. ‘Dad!’ But a woman he didn’t know was sitting in the driver’s seat, her eyes red and sad. ‘Mi chico,’ she said to him and held out her arms.
He stood his ground. ‘Where’s my mum and dad?’ he demanded. ‘I want my mum and dad!’
‘Your mother and father . . . There has been a terrible, terrible accident on the road. All day they looked for you, and when they tell them you are found they came at once. They were driving so very fast. They could not wait to see you, they did not see the truck. Oh, Luke, we are so, so sorry.’
A butterfly fluttered close to his face. He slapped it away. ‘You’re lying!’ he shouted. ‘Where are they? I want to see my mum and dad!’ But she shook her head and her eyes welled with tears, though his were still dry. ‘They are gone, Luke. Your parents are gone. They are in Heaven now. May God look after you.’
First came the antennae. Brown, swivelling, twitching. Then the shiny armour-plated body, emerging from the dark recesses of the drains. Jeremy Benton watched with disgust as the first cockroach of the night crawled out from his hotel sink. This place was a dump and he couldn’t wait to leave it. Forty-seven years old, hair thinning, mortgage worries mounting. Alone in a Colombian hotel room, trying to focus on the job instead of fretting about his bank balance, while the ceiling fan turned lazy circles and the sweat rolled down his fleshy neck and soaked his fraying collar.
The insect grew bolder, probing the grime-encrusted porcelain, foraging and tasting. In one impulsive movement, Benton launched himself off the bed and struck with a rolled-up magazine. ‘Got you!’ He missed and the roach shot back into the drains. He sat down heavily, already out of breath. He looked at his watch. It was time. He reached under his jacket and felt the cold, metallic shape of the Browning 9mm automatic. Not the weapon he had asked for – this model had a date stamp on it that was even older than him – but it was all they’d had at short notice in the embassy armoury. They had even made him sign out every single one of the thirteen rounds that had come with it. He had put in his time on the range this year – you had to if you expected to keep your firearms licence in the Service – but he hoped he wouldn’t need the pistol. If he was honest with himself, Benton knew he wasn’t cut out for the heavy stuff. If he was really honest, he would say he was scared shitless.
Jeremy Benton had been offered the usual ‘security envelope’ for tonight’s job, a close-protection detail of SAS troopers disguised, not always convincingly, as civilians. It was a toss-up between personal safety and raising profile, so Benton had gone for a compromise. The security detail had dropped him off at the hotel, then melted away. This operation, he had told London, was so sensitive, so secret, it had to be kept low profile. He needed to be alone.
Dusk falls quickly on the Pacific coast of Colombia and it was not yet seven o’clock when he slipped out of his hotel in the dark. To Benton, Tumaco by night had an intangible, brooding malevolence. Maybe it was its proximity to the dangerous border with Ecuador, or perhaps the resentful looks cast at him by some of the ninety thousand impoverished townspeople, mostly of African descent, who stared out from darkened doorways with nothing to do and nowhere to go. There were still huge disparities of wealth in this country. In Bogotá you could mix with millionaires and dine in the finest restaurants, but down here on the coast, the Afro-Colombians were close to the bottom of the economic pile.
And always there was the dank, fetid smell that rose from the rotting shanty huts on stilts, perched above the mud banks where crabs competed for space with rats. Only one industry counted down here: the white stuff, in all its stages – paste, powder and leaf – and how to get as much as possible smuggled across the border or out to sea. Gone were the days of the once seemingly invincible cartels, the Montoyas and the Norte del Valle. The world’s most infamous drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, was long dead and buried. In twenty-first-century Colombia the cocaine cartels and traffickers, the narcotraficantes, had fragmented into numerous smaller cartels or criminal bandas, harder to catch and just as ruthless. But the Colombian government, with help from the Americans and the British, had been steadily taking them down, one by one, going after the structures, the family leaders, the organizers. You didn’t stay long at the top in this business – two years at most – before you ended your days bunkered in a flat with six mobile phones in front of you, waiting for the door to come crashing in.
Benton walked briskly away from the hotel security guard on the gate, turned a corner and dropped to his knees behind a wall, pretending to do up his shoelaces while glancing up and around him to see if anyone was following. Old-fashioned tradecraft, tried and tested. He breathed out slowly: yes, he was alone. He moved on, down a potholed back lane, past a row of street stalls where smoke rose from a dozen sizzling barbecues, and onto a string of strawroofed drinking dens. The soft lilt of salsa played from somewhere behind a bar, reminding him of how much he loved this continent. A boy ran up to him and tugged at his trousers. ‘Señor! Señor! Give me a present!’ Benton patted his pockets without breaking his step, produced an old pen and handed it to the child, whose face betrayed his disappointment. Benton smiled and walked on.
As arranged, Fuentes was waiting for him, one hand curled round a perspiring beer, the other drumming nervously on the Formica table. They spoke quietly in Spanish, Fuentes swigging his beer and looking periodically over his shoulder, Benton sipping
a lukewarm Sprite.
‘You’re absolutely sure it’s going down tonight?’ asked the MI6 officer.
‘Seguro. You brought the equipment?’ said Fuentes.
‘Por supuesto.’ Benton nodded. ‘Of course.’ He patted the day sack between his knees, feeling through the material for the angular contours of the night-vision goggles and the infrared camera. Fuentes was every bit as jumpy as he was – he could see that, even in the dim light of the solitary bulb that dangled above the bar. In two years of working together they had never undertaken anything quite as risky as this.
‘You know what they will do to me and my family,’ said Fuentes, ‘what they will do to you too, if they catch us?’
Benton didn’t reply. He put a handful of damp, curled peso notes on the bar for their drinks and motioned for them to leave. They had been over this before. No one was forcing him to take the risk, Benton reminded him. They had planned the operation together. The two men had built up trust between them, agent and case officer, and mutual respect. Both of them wanted to see it through. Privately, though, Benton drew some reassurance from the knowledge that the agent, Giraldo Fuentes, had been regularly polygraphed, hooked up by wires to several electronic monitors, while a dour security man with thin lips and unblinking eyes had thrown questions at him. He had passed each time with flying colours; his loyalty was not in doubt.
Not far south of Tumaco the track gave out and the jungle took over. Fuentes parked the pickup truck, backing it deep into the undergrowth as Benton had shown him. ‘No nosy parking,’ the MI6 officer had told him, when they had started to train him. ‘You never know when you’ll need to get out in a hurry.’ He switched off the engine and for a minute the two men sat in silence, adjusting their senses to the tropical night. A whining in their ears announced the first of the mosquitoes and Benton slapped irritably at his neck. ‘Bloody mozzies,’ he grumbled. ‘We don’t get them up in Bogotá.’
Fuentes put a hand on his arm, his finger to his lips, and shook his head emphatically. It would be an uncomfortable night for both of them. ‘Tranquilo,’ he whispered. ‘It is only the ones that bite in the daytime that carry the dengue fever.’ He didn’t mention the virulent strain of jungle malaria carried by the nightbiting variety.
The mission was simple: get in close, get the photos, and get out. It was what the military would call ‘a close target recce’. Fuentes had a good idea where the sentries would be posted – after all, he knew most of them by name. At his last meeting with his MI6 case officer he had drawn him a sketch map of the location and they had rehearsed what to do if they were compromised: disperse in opposite directions, then zigzag back through the jungle to the pickup. The practice run had not been a stunning success: Benton had tripped over a root almost immediately and had had to be helped back to his feet.
Twenty minutes after they’d set off they squatted, lathered in sweat. Benton was being driven half insane by the persistent whine of the mosquitoes. Fuentes poked him gently in the ribs and pointed. Down the track ahead and to the right, they could just make out through the foliage a yellow light. Benton reached into his sack, took out the NV goggles and fiddled with the focus. In the humid night air the lenses steamed up immediately and he had to wipe them twice on his shirt. On the third attempt the scene swam into focus.
He was looking at an open-sided thatched hut and a group of men sitting at a table, lit by a hurricane lamp that hung from a hook. He recognized the man in the middle from the files: El Gato. The Cat. A middle-ranking player. Why did these narco types always have to give themselves such stupid names? Benton panned right to the other men at the table and held his breath. Fuentes had been right. They were Asians, not Colombians. Chinese Triads? Japanese Yakuza? Christ knows, he couldn’t tell, but some kind of international deal was definitely going down. This would have to go in his next report and he would need the images to send back to London. And tonight was quite possibly the only chance he would get. Less than three months to go before his Colombia posting was up and he was not going to pass up this chance. For the briefest of moments he saw himself being ushered into the Chief’s office back at Vauxhall Cross and congratulated. Perhaps even a knighthood on retirement.
He gestured to Fuentes that he needed to move closer, but the agent shook his head and drew his finger across his throat. Benton considered him in the darkness, so close they could hear each other’s breathing even above the incessant chorus of frogs and cicadas; the jungle at night is far from quiet. For Benton, this was a fork-in-the-road moment and he knew it.
He rose to his feet, gently shaking off Fuentes’ restraining hand. Reaching down, he removed the Browning from its holster, slid back the mechanism and chambered a round. There was a loud metallic click as the gun was cocked and Fuentes winced.
Benton took tentative steps forward through the undergrowth, pausing every few yards. His heart was racing and his throat felt like sandpaper. He wished he had brought the bottle of water from the truck. He looked through the viewfinder and reckoned he was almost in range to get a good enough picture. He let the camera dangle round his neck and felt the comforting weight of the pistol. He took another step forward.
Without warning, a sentry reared up behind him and struck him hard between the shoulder blades with the metal butt of an assault rifle. Benton’s pistol fell uselessly from his grasp. He groaned and slumped.
‘Oye! Venga!’ the sentry called out to the men in the hut, and suddenly there was pandemonium, shadowy figures spilling towards them. Fuentes, unseen, hugged the ground, watching in silent horror as they dragged Benton backwards by his armpits to the hut. Guards were fanning out with torches in all directions.
Fuentes got up and ran, faster than he had ever run in his life, thrashing blindly through the lush foliage that tore at his face and shirt, stumbling like a drunk the last few yards to the truck. He jumped into the cab, dropping the keys at his feet. Scrabbling with his fingers amid the detritus he’d been meaning to clear out, he found them too late to start the engine. Crouched behind the dashboard, half hidden by the surrounding bushes, he could see figures silhouetted on the same dirt track they had driven down only an hour ago. They were calling to each other, their torchbeams probing the night. And then Fuentes heard something that nearly made his heart stop. The distant sound of a man screaming, in intense drawn-out terror and pain.