Extract: Line of Fire by Andy McNab
Nick is back in London – but if he thought he was home for a break, he’s very, very wrong.
Backed into a corner by a man he knows he cannot trust, the ex-deniable operator strikes a devil’s bargain. In exchange for his own safety – a life for a life – Stone is charged with locating someone who doesn’t want to be found, currently hiding out in the one of the remotest corners of the UK. And for the first time in a long time, he’s not operating alone.
But Stone and his team don’t find just anyone. They find a world-class hacker, so good that her work might threaten the stability of the western world as we know it. These are dangerous waters and Stone is quickly in over his head. Before he finally knows which way to turn, the choice is ripped out of his hands.
Most people might think of home as safety but Nick Stone isn’t most people. For him and his team, it’s just another place to get caught in the line of fire…
Read on for an extract from Line of Fire!
Line of Fire
I crossed what was left of the grass bank dividing the crescent from the South Circular, and wove through clumps of parked cars. Rio‘s place was one of the scores of narrow 1960s terraced houses with a garage each as the ground floor. From the number of vehicles clogging the street, nobody used them as garages any more. If they were anything like Rio, it was where they housed their freezer, washing-machine and tumble-drier, a set of wheels for a non-existent car, and bags of dog biscuits for a non-existent pitbull that would bite the a*** off anyone who tried to break into the house. They had ‘Buy One Get One Free’ labels all over them, which was probably what had given Rio the idea that he needed a dog.
Every time I’d entered the house I’d felt sure it was Pete’s old place. I’d gone into a familiar hall, then, almost by muscle memory, straight upstairs to the first floor where the living room, kitchen and toilet were, and up again to the three bedrooms and bathroom. A blue plaque on Fay’s wall to commemorate our union would have sealed it.
I fished about in my jeans for the door keys. Rio had taken pity on me a couple of weeks ago when I had nowhere to live. He was one of the good guys: he’d wanted to help me out and he really liked the idea of setting up a security firm for us four survivors to run. The Special Needs Service, as he liked to call it. He and the other two might not have the correct number of limbs for a private military company’s line of work. But that didn’t matter.
That was as far as it had gone. I’d forgotten about it, but Rio had got the bug. It would be right up his street because he’d be the ultimate undercover operator, a Rasta with only one good arm.
This being South London, there were so many keys in the set Rio had had cut for me that they filled my pocket. The uPVC-framed partly-double-glazed door hadn’t been there when I was a kid, but it was about the only thing that had changed. Within the glass was a grid of thin steel mesh and a ‘Beware of the Dog’ decal that Rio had picked up along with his dog-food bargain. Security was so much better now than it had been in my thieving days, when you knew you could just smash the unprotected float-glass and grab a fistful of coins from the gas and electricity meters – and then probably take a dump in the sink for a laugh.
Rio was in: only the cylinder lock needed turning.
I pushed the door and entered the small hallway with the narrow stairs in front of me. The smell of vegetable soup was overpowering. The cans were stacked like an art installation against the wall. Above, on the first floor, there was a landing with two doors. The one on the left led into the open-plan living room and kitchen; to the right was the toilet.
I pushed upstairs. The swirly carpet was almost thread-bare, and had probably been very smart when Pete’s mum installed it. I shouted up, ‘I remember the carpet pattern, mate. This is definitely the same house.’
Rio appeared in the living-room doorway, all smiles. ‘Mate, don’t believe you. Listen, we’ve got jack shit in. You want to go down to Maccy or get pizza? I’m f***ing starving.’
He came down a couple of steps to meet me. On the safe phone he had tapped out a text. Now he held it in front of me. It said, ‘Play safe.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Maccy’s great. Let me dump the bag first and have a piss, and I’m there, all right?’
He locked eyes on me and they weren’t as happy as the voice had been.
Rio wasn’t as house-proud as Pete’s mum had been, that was for sure. A half-eaten bread roll sat on the glass coffee-table, along with a spoon and a bowl, both encrusted with dried soup. A week’s worth of the Metro and the Sun were scattered on the old brown settee, most of them folded to the TV page to save us from Brexit and Islamic fundamentalism overload. If Homes & Garden ever did a feature and asked Rio to describe the look he’d gone for, shabby chic wouldn’t have cut it. Freshly burgled would have been closer.
‘Hurry up!’ Rio yelled after me. ‘F*** sake.’
I headed up to the second floor and dumped my daysack and mobile on the bed. I wanted it to look and sound normal, us not wanting to stay in the house any longer than necessary. If Rio wanted us out, then I wanted us out.
Play safe. OK, so who was watching? Who was listening? What was going on? Fortunately, I really did need a piss. I got it over and done with quickly and noisily by aiming into the water, as Rio shouted even louder, ‘It’ll be f***ing closed if we don’t get a move on. Come on!’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I bounced down the stairs, through the living room and on down the last flight, taking them two at a time until I was through the front door and he could start on the three deadlocks.
As casually as I could, I checked for bodies in the sea of parked cars. It would have been difficult for anyone to sit out there for any prolonged period. Curtains would twitch. Residents wouldn’t reckon on an assassin sitting in the car, they’d think it was someone from TV licensing, watching for the glow of a screen, or the Social checking if someone claiming disability allowance was mowing the lawn or doing a spot of street dance. I check, too, for anyone walking past or waiting at the bus stop across the road, lips moving as they gave the ‘stand by, stand by’ into their mics.
The answer was no, but that didn’t mean we weren’t being watched. Airborne optics would be able to pick us up from so far away we wouldn’t be able to see the helicopter platform.
We strolled towards the station and McDonald’s. His good arm swung freely. The other had done nothing but hang ever since an IED attack in Afghanistan. Just like the other two, Gabe and Jack, he was a casualty of the post-9/11 wars.
Rio was annoyingly taller than me, and far too slim, considering the amount of food he shoved down his neck. The dreadlocks had come on quite well since his medical discharge from the infantry four years ago. He reckoned it would be just another year or so before he had enough to bunch up into a woolly hat.
He looked at me, and forced a smile to reassure anyone watching that we were just bantering, but I could hear the strain in his voice. ‘You left your mobile?’
‘I got back from picking the kids up from school, and the tell-tales had fallen, all three of the f***ers.’
The last man out had to put broken cocktail sticks on the two landing doors, and another on the one that led from the living room up to the bedrooms. They were wedged into the gap between the top of the door and the frame so that they were held vertical. If the door was opened, its stick fell and, being so small, would never be noticed.
‘Shit. You’re still controlling your memory stick?’
He looked at me like I was mad. ‘Course.’ His face clouded. ‘We should do what we said we would if he tried to f*** us up. Let’s get the story out there and f*** up the Owl!’
I’d guessed this was coming. ‘No, mate, it’s too early. We don’t know anything about anything yet. The only time we dump that int out there is when we’re about to lose everything. Otherwise we lose any protection we have. We have leverage while we hold the int, but don’t think we’re bulletproof.’
All four of us had a memory stick that held the intelligence the Owl so desperately wanted never to be released into the public domain. But he had a problem. None of us four memory-stick holders knew where the other three were hidden, and Claudia held the fifth copy that all four of us would soon have access to. So far, that had kept us alive.
‘The girls, mate. Phase two was seeing if the missus would let me bring them to the house after school – you know, have their tea at mine, then I’d take them home later.’
Rio had been busting a gut to form a friendly relationship with Simone. His focus was on keeping her onside so he could see the kids. He called her his missus but, really she was his ex-girlfriend and mother of his seven-year-old twins. These were early days for him trying to reconnect but he’d felt he was winning her round. She had agreed he could pick them up and drop them off at school, and he had been perfect so far.
That was now history.
We took a left. Rio rubbed his face. ‘He’s been bugging and videoing the f***ing house ever since we got back, hasn’t he?’
‘Don’t assume anything. Look, I’m with you – it’s probably the Owl trying to f*** us up. But it wouldn’t make sense to re-enter the house if there were devices already planted – why risk compromising something that’s already been a success? It doesn’t matter why anyone was in the house, just that they were. All that matters is what we do about it, okay?’
Rio nodded slowly. He enjoyed learning this stuff. It wasn’t brain surgery: it was just stripping away the rubbish that meant nothing and didn’t help in working out what had happened and what we were going to do about it.
‘You have to think, So what? So what if someone’s been in the house? What does that mean to us right now, this minute?’
Rio didn’t need time to think. ‘We play safe and pretend we don’t know.’
‘Yes. We stay passive, for now. We need to find out who and why for certain, then get proactive and cut it out like a cancer. But that’s for another day. All that matters now is making sure we’re all safe, because we don’t know what his or their next move is.’
Today’s lesson on how to live life while constantly in the shit had got Rio past his wave of emotion. ‘We’ve got to tell Gabe, yeah? We need to make him safe, make his family safe.’
We passed the station and the golden arches came into view further up the South Circular.
I shot him a glance. ‘And Jack.’
He shook his head. ‘Mate, he’s still f***ing us all off. He’s doing his own thing. Tortured artist and all that.’ He gave a hollow laugh.
I split left, he split right around a couple of young women with buggies, toddlers dragging along in their wake.
‘We’ll get Gabe to talk to him. He’ll listen to Gabe.’
Rio pushed the glass door as we entered the kingdom of Chicken Legends and fries. For me, anyway. Rio always went for double whatever was on offer, times two.
We ordered at the touch screen, grabbed a booth, and Rio put the receipt on the veneered table next to the safe phone. We’d bought two of them from a CeX for forty pounds each in cash, along with a couple of PAYG Sim cards. We used WhatsApp. Most apps only encrypted messages between the sender and the app provider, but WhatsApp’s encryption was end-to-end. It ensured that only you and the person you were communicating with could read what was sent and nobody else, not even WhatsApp. No wonder it was the go-to choice of communication for drug-dealers and terrorists. For now, anyway.
Gabe was in Edinburgh, trying to patch things up with his wife and kids. From what Rio was telling me, the patches weren’t sticking.
Rio was still visibly shaken by what was going on at this end. His eyes darted to the large window every time a body walked past. The streetlights came on, and soon he was getting jumpy about shadows as well.
‘Mate, it’s all right. No harm’s going to come to the girls. Look, if this is the Owl…’
Rio took a breath, but now wasn’t the time for yeah-buts.
‘Hear me out, mate. If this is the Owl, that would make him stupid, and he’s not, is he? His priority is to find all five of the memory sticks and take control of them. Why would he do anything that would provoke us into exposing what we have on them, yeah? So, if we switch on, stay focused on the situation, we keep safe.’
‘What if he does get them, Nick? What happens then? We’re f***ed, aren’t we? We’re dead like the rest of them.’
A skinny boy, with enough zits on his face to fill a bucket, hovered while Rio lifted the mobile, then placed a tray between us on the table. He left to deliver the second tray he was carrying to a group of kids in my old school uniform. The boys were trying to be hard and the girls were being cool. Nothing had changed, just the lack of big collars, flares and, of course, platforms.
Rio was right that we’d be f***ed – but we weren’t there yet. ‘All we’ve got to do is be on top of our game and make sure they’re not found. In time, he’s going to see we aren’t a threat.’
Rio wasn’t convinced and neither was I. But we couldn’t undo the situation we were in because we didn’t know who was on our case, the Owl, his bit of the CIA-within-the-CIA or whoever the f*** it was he worked for, or someone else altogether. Right now, all we could do was control what was happening in our lives based on what we knew.
Rio lifted the bun to his face and, as he always did, nibbled the onions that stuck out. He gazed out of the window in a trance, probably worrying about his girls.
‘Let’s get back to the real world, mate. Hello?’ I waved a hand in front of the bun. ‘Before Gabe logs on, yeah?’
He sort of nodded and looked down at the screen to check there was still power and signal.
‘I’ve got real-world news. There’s no luck with the cash. The lawyers, bankers, everyone seems to be making money out of the money I can’t get to – not for now, anyway.’
Rio sucked sauce off his thumbs. ‘So no little start-up, then?’
I shook my head so there was no doubt. He wouldn’t let go of the idea. Maybe it was because my non-existent cash would provide the funding.
‘C’mon, Nick. The Special Needs Service. The world needs our super-powers, mate.’
It got a laugh out of me as I dipped a chip into the mayo oozing out of my bun.
Gabe, Rio and Jack had all received payouts and a pension from the government for injuries sustained in Afghanistan, but they weren’t life-changing amounts. They still had mortgages or rent to pay, families to feed, McDonald’s and Poundland to keep in business. There wasn’t much going on out there for an amputee. People might love them turning up at fundraisers, but the goodwill soon disappears.
I had no idea of Jack’s circumstances, but I knew for sure they’d be much better than ours. He had dropped out of the group, which was a worry. We really needed to be close, to look after each other even more now. Gabe and Rio certainly had to stand on their own two feet for cash. Well, Rio did. Gabe only had one foot left.
The mobile sparked up and Gabe was on WhatsApp. He delivered his normal welcome: ‘You f***ers there?’
Rio didn’t bother picking up the phone, just tapped with his middle finger, the only one that wasn’t covered with sauce. He tapped the keyboard again to signal to Gabe that he should get out of his hotel room before we made voice comms. Gabe was in a Travelodge by the airport on some fifty-quid-a-night deal where the only breakfast included was a sachet of coffee and a little pot of UHT milk. It was cheaper to stay there than rent the house he paid the mortgage for. I was hoping he would join Fathers4Justice so we could see him on his roof dressed as a one-legged Superman.
We got the word ‘Two’ in reply and went back to our food.
Rio was still looking about, but it was safe here in the crowd. It would be very bad skills for an operator to come in after us, especially as they had us contained. We were sitting by a window, and there was no other way out than the way in. It would be easy to get a trigger on us from outside, and remain out of the line of sight.
Rio licked his fingers and picked up the mobile as it vibrated. Gabe was a minute late. I lent in to hit the reply button.
Rio liked talking with his mate, even if it was to take the piss. ‘You’re late. There’s no early, no late, just on time. You’re late.’
He smiled at the ‘F*** off’ he got in reply, then handed over the mobile. I put it too my easy, speaking into a cupped hand, Japanese-style. ‘Rio’s tell-tales have been moved. You still got your memory stick?’
‘Yeah, safe.’ His tone was serious now: it was work time.
‘Good to know we’re all looking after ourselves. Listen, we’ll leave the house, but not to come north – keep this shit away from your doorstep. We need to meet up and sort out a plan.’
Gabe was ahead of me. ‘What about Jack? He know yet?’
‘We need you to do that. He still taking your calls?’
Gabe said exactly what I was thinking. ‘He’ll take this one, whether he likes it or not.’
‘But will he listen?’
‘He’ll listen. Call back in two hours. I’ll grip Jack and you grip the gimp, OK?’ He didn’t wait for a reply before closing down.
I handed back the phone and Rio pocketed it. ‘Getting out of Dodge, are we?’
I shoved the last of the bun down my neck. ‘Yup, let’s sort this shit out.’
We headed out for the disco lights of the South Circular. There was a small fire in a corporation litter bin, but no one was taking any notice of it, apart from a couple of schoolkids who’d been in McDonald’s earlier.
Rio was waiting for a plan. ‘Come on, mate. What?’
‘We pack a bag, get away from here. But we do it casually. Back to the house and talk about where we’re going out tonight. Then I’ll suggest we go away for a few days, both our lives being shit, and all that. We meet up with Gabe and Jack and get proactive, work out exactly who, what, where, when and why. Then we make sure they don’t get away with it.’
We crossed the grass and, as Rio pulled out his jailer-size set of keys, his front door opened and three bodies spilt out. They saw us and it was Rio who spotted their reaction. ‘Gun!’
Two bodies loomed up front; a third hung back. I kept my eyes on the one to the left. It wasn’t a gun in his right hand. It was a Taser.
‘Rio, run. Go for it. Run! Run!’
My eyes were glued to the lump of yellow plastic. Rio ran and so did I – straight at the Taser to stop it coming into the aim.
The dark shape holding it swung the weapon up. I jumped the final couple of metres, arms outstretched, head down so I didn’t knock myself out on his body. I rammed into him, throwing my arms to pinion his to his waist. I powered my toes into the tarmac and kept running, semi-stooped. My momentum was too much for him and he fell back on the path.
As he went down he attempted to tilt his wrist. The Taser popped and I braced for the zap. Nothing happened. The barbs bounced off the tarmac as we made contact with the ground, my knuckles taking the first contact.
I kept my grip, head down, burying myself in his bulk. He bucked, trying to wrench his arms free. I held on, knowing what would come a millisecond later. A flurry of punches from one of the others, still upright, rained into my head, arms and back as he tried to haul me off his mate. I squeezed in tight as the body below still bucked and heaved. I kept my head down and took what was piling into me.
The fact it was a Taser was a good sign: it meant they didn’t want us dead. If all four of us were being lifted at the same time, and Rio got away, there would be a memory stick in circulation and whoever else survived the lift would have some leverage.
I held on as the breathing of the body above me became labored, his hands pulling hard at my arms as he worked to get me off his mate. My face was buried so hard in the man’s stomach I had to fight for breath. His abs tensed, and a second later went soft, then tensed again in his effort to disentangle himself.
The hands let go of my arms now their owner had realized he wasn’t going to move me with them. Kicks thudded into my legs. I took a big dead leg on the right. It didn’t matter: so long as these two were focused on me, only one could be running after Rio.
I took the pain and held on. The one I was gripping dug his heels into the path and pushed. My knuckles scraped along the tarmac again. He could do what he wanted: I wasn’t letting go.
Still no verbal reaction. I wanted to hear their accents. I wanted some indication of who they were.
I tilted my head just enough to free my mouth from his stomach. ‘That all you got?’
No reaction. All I could hear were grunts and labored breathing. Somebody in one of the houses must have seen what was going on but round here people would turn a blind eye. So what if a dealer or the TV Licensing guy got filled in? Eventually somebody would call the police, and these guys knew that as well as I did. They wanted out of this as much as I did.
The standing one’s hands grabbed the back of my jacket and pulled. I didn’t let go of his mate. He pulled even harder and I suddenly released my grip and he flew backwards.
In that instant, I got what I wanted.
A voice, clearly American, clearly east coast. ‘You f***!’