SIX MONTHS AGO
It’s called Hell Hour.
Every kill or capture mission is the culmination of days, months, sometimes years of careful planning. Intelligence gathering and data crunching and rehearsal exercises and contingency development. But when the clock ticks down to those final few seconds, when Hell Hour begins, only two kinds of soldier know what’s going to happen next: fools and liars.
Mallory, who was neither, crawled to the top of the ridge and looked down on the compound, the closest wall barely a hundred metres away. Everything had gone to plan since
the Chinook had dropped them ten kilometres south-east of here. It felt like his boots had hit the ground five minutes, rather than two hours ago. He had been the last one out, Westwick and Donno immediately ahead of him in the line. He remembered the whisper of Donno’s short, nervous breaths before stepping out into the night. He remembered the deafening chatter of the rotor blades, quickly dropping away until the desert was as quiet as a graveyard at midnight. He remembered the lingering dust kicked up by the rotor wash, that familiar taste and smell overwhelming him.
To Mallory, the Afghan dust tasted like combat.
He heard Westwick’s clipped voice in his ear, drawing him back to the present. ‘How’s it look?’
Mallory tapped the button on his radio and spoke at barely more than a whisper. The wind was in his direction, but he didn’t want to risk the sentry catching the slightest hint that there was more out here in the dark than the odd wild dog.
‘One bad guy, north-west corner.’
He watched as the sentry moved along the interior walkway that ran the length of the walls. He was moving, which meant he was awake and alert. That was the bad news. The
good news was that it looked like there was only one of him. Mallory adjusted the focus on his night-vision goggles and studied the man.
From his size and body language it looked as though he was reasonably young, and in good shape. He handled his rifle with easy confidence. Something stuck out about the weapon. Mallory adjusted the magnification on his goggles to take a closer look. He was carrying a US military M4, not the usual antique AK- 47. Which meant it had to have been taken in battle. A highly prized weapon, which was more confirmation that this was the right compound.
The sentry paused a few yards from the corner of the building and then started walking again. What had he been doing? Mallory didn’t think he could have been communicating with anyone inside. He would have heard a voice at this distance.
He reached the edge of the wall and turned. At once, Mallory saw what he had been doing. He smiled as he spotted the soft red glow of a cigarette.
‘Looking good,’ Mallory whispered. ‘We’re unexpected guests.’
He widened the focus on his goggles and surveyed the area, clicking through the different settings.
The compound looked pretty much as it had on the diagrams back at base. Rough, ten-foot-high adobe exterior walls. One main entrance big enough to drive a vehicle
through when the steel gate was open. One rear door, heavily reinforced. Inside was a wide courtyard and a nest of buildings. According to intelligence, their high-value target was in the largest of the buildings.
The target had crossed the border from Pakistan at 2.27 a.m. local time three nights before. A positive voice ID was made on a call from his cell two hours later. The next two days he had spent on the move, bouncing between safehouses, making sure he had shaken any surveillance. He would have been spending his time reorganising troops, reaching out to his lieutenants, delivering the next set of orders.
Drone footage confirmed him arriving at this compound eight hours ago. He had settled down, apparently comfortable that his whereabouts were unknown.
He was about to discover how wrong he was.
Mallory broke the silence on his radio again to open the communication wider. ‘Everybody in position? Confirm.’
There were four teams of four ranged around the compound at a similar proximity. Each of the teams had a set objective, interlocking goals that would result in the successful completion of this mission.
If everything went to plan.
Mallory could quote dozens of aphorisms about plans going to shit. There was a reason why there were so many. Right at this moment, the one on his mind was from General Dwight D. Eisenhower: When preparing for battle, plans are often useless. But planning is indispensable.
He glanced behind him and saw Donno and Westwick had already crawled up to within a few feet of him. The rear man of the patrol, Yorkie, was hanging back, keeping his eyes on the ground behind them. Mallory was pleased. He had barely heard them move.
Donno reached him first. He was tall and wiry, just twenty- two years old, but with a maturity Mallory had found lacking in men twice his age. He caught a glimpse of Donno’s eyes and saw fear in them. He could see sweat glistening on the younger man’s forehead in the night vision. The night was warm, but not that warm.
‘Mate,’ Mallory whispered. ‘You’re good. This is just another one off the network. Be over before you know it.’
Donno swallowed and nodded.
Westwick made the crest of the hill next. He observed Donno, and then shot a concerned look at Mallory. ‘Is he all right?’
‘I’m fine,’ Donno whispered, before Mallory could answer.
His South African lilt seemed strangely out of place in the setting, even though Mallory knew his own and Westwick’saccents weren’t any more at home here.
Mallory took a deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth. He raised his goggles for a moment and lifted his gaze to look at the jagged black line of the mountains against the northern sky. The stars seemed unnaturally bright in the void – a billion pinpricks of light, each one of them utterly unconcerned with what was about to happen here on earth.
Donno tapped Westwick on the shoulder. ‘Let’s do this.’
Westwick lined up his rifle.
Mallory lowered his goggles again and waited until Westwick gave a thumbs up to say that he was all set. He sparked up comms again.
‘Stand by,’ Mallory said. ‘Three, two . . . ’
Westwick activated his laser sight and a second red dot appeared, a few inches higher and to the left of the red dot on the sentry’s hand.
Westwick squeezed the trigger.
And Hell Hour began.
Suddenly, everything seemed a lot louder. More noise, more flashing lights, more bodies.
Mallory leaned back in his chair and drank the last of his
pint, watching the three men standing by the entrance. They were in their early twenties, their brash, overconfident voices occasionally rising above the hubbub. Friday evening, seven o’clock. The after- the- office crowd mingling with the early starters. Probably a hundred people in the pub. A couple of dozen spilling out on to the pavement, braving the February chill in shirtsleeves and skirts. If there was going to be any trouble, he knew it would be started by the three at the door.
An orange- haired glass collector in a black, short- sleeved shirt noticed Mallory’s empty and adjusted his route to pass by his table. He picked up Mallory’s glass and the one next to him, and glanced at the empty seats around him. The only table in the place with only one occupant.
‘Something like that,’ Mallory said. ‘Quit my job today.’
Mallory sat back in his seat and watched the people. A few drinks had dulled his senses a little, but this was hardwired into him now. Getting the measure of any room he was in, looking for the unexpected. The group of young business suits by the bar. The hen party in the corner on their first stop of a long night. They sounded like they were Irish, going by the occasional exclamations rising above the rest of the voices raised in competition with the pop song that was playing too loud.
It had been quiet when Mallory had walked in here at four in the afternoon, fresh from telling Riccarton where to stick his job. He had sat in the same spot while the afternoon turned into evening and the character of the bar changed around him. It was like a different place now.
He thought about Riccarton again. He supposed the manner in which he had given his notice might cause him problems later on down the line, but it had been satisfying.
‘Ever thought about anger management?’ had been Riccarton’s parting shot. He couldn’t know it, but that was pretty much the same thing the military had said when they bid him farewell. Things had come to a head today, but he had known he wasn’t a good fit for Riccarton’s operation since day one. Which begged the question: what kind of operation was he a good fit for?
A roar erupted over by the door. Mallory tensed, straightened in his seat. But it was just the three loud boys greeting two more of their number as they arrived. The first in was
tall, broad and fair- haired. Despite the temperature outside, he wore only jeans and a blue T- shirt that was a size too small, with benidorm – northbank lads 2019 emblazoned on it. On his heels was a shorter, dark- haired guy with a pointed goatee. The plain white T- shirt he wore under his jacket gave no clue to his travel history.
Mallory had already stayed longer than he had intended to. But then, he had nothing else to do and nowhere else to be this evening, so inertia had won out.
One more for the road, he decided.
He got up and made his way to the bar, passing by the gaggle of men in suits and the hen party. He caught the eye of the barmaid.
‘Same again?’ she asked.
He dug in his pocket for a tenner as she moved away to get a clean glass. His hand came out with a handful of pound coins and some change. He may not have fitted in
with Riccarton’s business, but he would have to figure out somewhere else he could find gainful employment before the end of the month.
Someone brushed past his back roughly, almost knocking the coins out of his hand. He turned quickly, fists clenching. It was one of the girls from the hen party, tottering unsteadily on her heels. She looked about twenty, maybe even younger. Jet- black hair and purple lipstick. She flinched back and then smiled, ‘It’s all right, I’m not going to hurt you.’ Her accent was well-to-do Dublin. What they call a D4 accent around there.
‘Pleased to hear it,’ Mallory said, lowering his hands.
‘Sorry.’ He was more pissed off than he had thought about what had happened earlier.
She waved away the apology. ‘You having a good night?’
Mallory murmured something equivocal and turned back to the bar, watching as the barmaid poured his pint.
The Irish girl took the space at the bar next to him and started reading out a long order of different shots and cocktails written on the back of a crumpled receipt in her hand.
She stopped and squinted her eyes at something on the list, and then turned quickly to yell a question back at her table. As she turned, the bag around her shoulder clipped a halffull bottle of Becks on the bar, knocking it off. Mallory bent and caught the bottle one- handed on the way down, placed it back on the bar.
‘Nice catch,’ the barmaid said, returning with his pint.
‘And to think I was about to check if you had had too many.’
‘It’s either too many or nowhere near enough,’ he said. He handed over the contents of his pocket and told her to keep the change. Definitely the last one.
He turned away from the bar and saw that his seat had been taken. A group of students had pounced while his back was turned. He shrugged and turned back to the bar, lifting his drink.
The fair-haired guy in the Benidorm T-shirt from the noisy group had squeezed in between him and the Irish girl, who was still waiting for her massive order. He was leaning over her, yelling something into her ear above the music. She looked uncomfortable. When she saw Mallory looking, she raised her eyebrows. A plea.
Mallory tapped the big guy on the shoulder. No reaction.
He kept talking. The big guy put a hand up on the small of the girl’s back, and Mallory saw her shiver. He put his hand back on the beefy shoulder and squeezed. That got a reaction.
Mr Benidorm turned around, squinting at Mallory. He might just have arrived in this pub, but he had been to a few others first, going by the way his pupils were dilated.
‘Give her some space, mate?’ Mallory said, making sure to say it with a good- natured tone. He thought about what Westwick would have said: if you can resolve a situation with a quiet word and a smile, that’s always plan A. It was worth a try.
Benidorm took his hand from the girl’s back and glanced at her, then looked back at Mallory.
‘What’s it to you?’
Mallory felt his teeth grit together. But he took a breath.
‘No need for that. I’m not looking for trouble.’
As he spoke the words, a quiet voice inside his head questioned them. Was that really true?
‘Good,’ the big man said.
He turned back to the girl. This time, he put his hand on her back and ran it up her spine. A deliberate screw- you.
Sorry, Westwick, he thought. Time to move to plan B.
Mallory reached out and grabbed Benidorm’s wrist, his thumb and index finger digging into the pressure points on the underside. At the same time, he put his left hand on the Irish girl’s shoulder and moved her firmly out of the way. She took a sharp breath and backed off further. She was one of the only three people in the pub who knew what was about to happen.
Maybe two. One of the three still seemed to be lagging a little behind. Benidorm was looking down in surprise at Mallory’s hand around his wrist, as though confused about what was happening. Maybe he wasn’t accustomed to this part.
‘Does that hurt?’ Mallory asked, barely resisting a grin. This was his kind of anger management. ‘You going to do something about it? Or just run home and tell your mum?’
Benidorm wrenched his hand away and pulled it back, fist flying towards the side of Mallory’s head.
Mallory was ready. He ducked and punched him hard in the stomach. He doubled over and staggered back. Again, more surprise than pain in his eyes.
‘Speaking of your mum, you can tell her I was asking for her.’
Benidorm straightened up fast and launched himself forward, rage flashing in his eyes. Mallory sidestepped, caught him and helped him on his way. The big man’s momentum did most of the work, sending him crashing into the table the three suits were sitting at. Pint glasses and pitchers overturned, messing up some nice business wear. Someone at the other end of the bar screamed.
Mallory heard a grunt from behind and turned in time to block a punch from one of Benidorm’s friends. The one with the goatee. Mallory jabbed him hard in the middle of the face, feeling the nose break. He went down hard, almost taking a bystander down with him as he flailed. Mallory turned to see Benidorm scrambling up from the ruins of the table.
He needed to take this outside.
He moved quickly to the door, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea. A third man from the group came running for him, brandishing a chair: one of the three who had been in the pub for a while. He was slower and clumsier than his two recently arrived mates. Mallory caught the leg of the chair as it swung towards his head, tightened his grip and used it to launch the surprised assailant gripping the other end towards the door. He crashed out on to the pavement.
He was back on his feet to meet Mallory as he followed him outside. Mallory felt the sharp chill of the night air. It sharpened everything up, made everything suddenly feel more real than it had inside the bar.
Benidorm appeared from within a moment later. The broken nose had been enough for the third attacker, he guessed, and seemed to have dissuaded the others from getting involved.
These two would require more persuasion.
Mallory took a couple of steps back, placing himself at the top of a triangle. The two of them circled, fists clenched.
Little clouds drifted from their mouths in the freezing air, telling Mallory they were both a little out of breath from the sudden exercise.
Benidorm lunged in first. He had boxing training, looked like he knew what he was doing. Which is fine, assuming everybody is fighting according to the rules. Mallory ducked
again and hit him hard in the ribs. He turned in time to drive his elbow into the stomach of the other one who was coming from the opposite direction. As he was falling backwards, Mallory pressed forward, grabbed him around the neck and bounced his head off the guard rail separating the pavement from the busy road. The man yelled out in pain and put his hand up, yelling something that sounded like, ‘Stop!’ Mallory smashed his head into the guard rail harder.
He turned again, too slow to stop the next punch from Benidorm, but it glanced off the side of his head instead of connecting fully. It hurt, but it didn’t slow him down at all – the worst possible result for his opponent.
Blinking the stars out of his eyes, Mallory lunged forward. And then everything started to move faster. Like timelapsed freeze- frames and disconnected sounds. The first three blows connecting. Then Mallory’s arm up, blocking a clumsy retaliatory swing. Then Benidorm on the ground, his head swaying. Then Mallory with the front of the blue T- shirt bunched in his left hand. Then someone screaming.
Then nervous male voices, maybe speaking to him. He wasn’t paying attention.
At some point, he heard sirens.
A voice in his head told him he needed to stop. He didn’t listen to it.