Authors: Anthony Bellaleigh
Tags: #Mysteries & Thrillers
Copyright © Anthony Bellaleigh, 2012
Cover design, Book design, Artwork, and Thunder emblem by Anthony Bellaleigh.
All rights reserved.
Laid out, where relevant, using British English spelling.
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention. No reproduction without permission.
The right of Anthony Bellaleigh to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Mine is a love story, written in blood.
A tale of an ordinary life, destroyed in the same white-hot furnace of fire and metal that snatched away everything I ever wanted, that stole everyone I loved, that scorched my soul and then forged me into something new.
I am changed, alone, and in pain – with no friends, no allies, and no-one I can trust.
People call me Nick Tonner, but I don’t care much for names. Some might say I’m a hero. Some might say I’m no better than those I despise. Call me what you will, because it doesn’t matter to me.
I have nothing left to lose, and only one thing left to live for...
I want you.
Romans ch. 12, v. 21
William Congreve ~ The Mourning Bride (1697)
It’s like some massive giant’s
hands have grabbed me under my armpits and hoisted me into the air and I am suddenly flying backwards, arms and legs flailing helplessly in front of me. A huge weight is thrusting relentlessly into my stomach and chest.
My ears are full of excruciating pain, caused by the enormous concussion, and I wonder – somewhat pointlessly given my rapidly dwindling probabilities of survival – whether my hearing has disintegrated altogether.
All around me is a boiling, churning, fog of smoke. Tiny dark objects are flashing through it, all travelling in the same direction as me. One of these glinting projectiles emerges from the swirling mist as a strobing reflection of background flames and fire. It’s getting larger. Rotating as it hurtles forwards. Flying faster than me. Catching me. Resolving itself into a jagged splinter of metal. Metal which has been ripped bodily from its origin by some tremendous force.
What is happening?
The jagged piece of metal is closing quickly. Homing in. My flailing limbs are no protection and the shard hits me toward the top of my chest, slicing into my neck. The sudden stabbing pain makes me open my eyes wide and I try to scream but don’t seem to be making any sound.
Through horrified eyes I can see the dying flash of sun-bright light, see the white-hot core of the explosion, see the flying street furniture, pieces of vehicles, burning cloth, fabric, papers and – I suppose – flesh. The billowing smoke around me is tinged with crimson. It’s a bloody mist of atomised humanity and I sense that I’m surrounded by the last tiny fragments of those who were unfortunate enough to have been closer to the epicentre than I had been.
For some reason, I feel compelled to glance to one side – I don’t know why – and a face, a human face, emerges from the vapourous swirling fog. The face’s mouth is open and its lips are quivering as they’re driven outwards by the force of another inaudible scream. He looks like he’s an old guy: given the grey beard framing his soundless shriek. He’s tumbling too. Flying alongside me for a moment. I can see his hair burning. Can see the blood pumping from the stump of his severed arm. His torso ends just above his waist where another wave of bloody spray is erupting from its shattered edge. He is looking straight into my eyes: imploring me, pleading with me, begging me as he makes this one final, silent, cry for help. Then he vanishes into the billowing conflagration.
Hell is erupting around me. Erupting from the very place where, a few short moments ago, my life partner and my beloved daughter were standing, smiling and waving. Now here I am, just another piece of screaming fleshy shrapnel, flying backwards amongst the scattering flotsam, watching through wide eyes and slicing pain as my family are snatched away into oblivion.
Brigadier Crispin Greere – a squat, bland-looking, man with side-parted, flat, black hair and strangely bulging eyes – stood in silence alongside Lieutenant Walter Ellard – a taller, older, slimmer man with hair the colour of fresh snow. Their code-names were Ace and Deuce.
They were in one corner of a small office, buried deep inside the odd-shaped monstrosity of a building that many occupants nicknamed Legoland. Finding enough space to set up a private Operations Room in this weird Babylonian palace – the MI6 Secret Intelligence Service Building on Albert Embankment – was becoming progressively easier as successive governments chipped back at nonessential services like national defence and security. For a tiny unit, like Ace’s, it hadn’t been difficult at all.
The room was a simple cube: one door, no windows, and plain magnolia-painted walls. There were two long desks in the centre of the room, separated from each other by a tired, grey, four-foot partition. The desks were laden with massed piles of papers, computers, monitors and printers. In one corner, the corner where the two men were standing, was the only other table. On it was a large LCD flat-panel monitor. The monitor was displaying an array of live feeds from various London MI5 Security Service cameras...
“Fucking hell,” said Deuce.
His boss just shrugged. “This could be exactly what we’ve been waiting for,” he said coldly.
I can see a bright light. It’s like the biggest firework I’ve ever seen. My old dad would have liked it. He liked fireworks. I can imagine him scampering back from its fizzing fuse, grinning like some Cheshire Cat.
There’s a figure in front of the light, running toward me. Perhaps it
Dad, after all? Come on, Dad! Get a move on! Before it goes off ... but it
be him? He isn’t here any more. The cancer took him years ago. Long before his time.
It’s taken us a long time to recover from that. Both Mum and me, but Mum the worst. She imploded into a pale shadow of her previously jovial self. I guess she was always stronger when he was around? Like she fed off his good humour and boundless energy? Like he kind of made her whole... I do
to spend more time with her, but you know how it is: with all the pressures of work and everything, what can you do? She decided to move into a residential home recently... It means she’s got company around her... I feel a bit better about her now...
So why’s my old dad running towards me?
He looks like he’s shouting something but I can’t hear him. The roaring noise from that huge firework is drowning out all other sounds. And those flames don’t look right? They’re catching him up.
“Dad, hurry!” I yell.
He’s running quicker. Still shouting something. Getting closer but the flames are faster than him and they merge into a huge wave of fire which races toward me.
And now I can hear his voice: cutting through the raging storm, burrowing into my tortured soul, flooding me with unexpected calmness and confidence. And I can feel him reaching out to me: just like he always could, whenever I needed him most...
“Be strong, Nic,” says his voice. “Be patient. Your time will come. You know what’s right. Do the right thing.”
“Stop bitching, and see what you can do, Joker,” barked Greere. “I’ll send the pictures to your cellphone now.” He tapped away at his keyboard. “Try that drug dealer. He owes me, big time. Call me when you have something.”
Ellard, who was sitting at his own workstation, glanced over the partition at his boss.
Greere saw the look and tossed his encrypted cellphone angrily onto the desk. “Stranded asset,” he explained brusquely, in response to the unasked question. “From a previous operation. Useful residue. No-one you need to concern yourself with.”
Deuce grunted something incoherent and went back to his work.
Greere sat back in his chair. It would be good if Joker could get him a result. It might help raise his team’s profile. Things were happening earlier than he’d have liked, but this latest incident would be the perfect mission for them. Perfect and very high profile.
He cast his mind back to the meeting, all those months ago, when he had floated his radical idea to his own boss: Major Richard, ‘The Bull’, Charles; a.k.a. Sentinel. The meeting where he had risked everything. Pushed the edge of the envelope...
“Imagine it, sir,” he’d said. “A handful of our worst, most nasty, most extremist, individuals – just like
are – but backed by the financial and military assets of a whole nation state.”
rogues?” Sentinel had looked skeptical.
“Exactly,” he’d hurriedly continued. “Predefined as such. Completely segregated from the mainstream. Nonexistent. Untraceable.”
“Sounds like the terrorists we’re supposed to be fighting?”
“Fight fire with fire?” He remembered nodding as he’d watched his boss considering the suggestion. “Just out of interest, how many are you talking about?”
“Three, maybe four.”
“Completely isolated operatives?”
“Completely. Utterly ring-fenced. Packaged as isolated entities. Loners.” Greere had spent many years quietly developing this idea. He’d even started to design the loose network of financial and physical assets required to furnish, house, and fund such a unit.
“Do you really think you could find potential candidates with the right attributes? It would be extremely difficult. It doesn’t sound like they’d have much in the way of career prospects?”
Greere had anticipated Sentinel’s cynicism. “Very difficult, sir,” he’d acknowledged. “I’d like to try though. I’d like to give it a shot. I’ll run it. The operating budget would be negligible compared with the other projects. For instance, I’ll only need one other person assigned to me, to help with the legwork.”
“Got anyone in mind?” Sentinel’s response had sounded promising.
“Ellard, sir.” Greere had answered quickly. He’d known that he needed to keep his boss interested and, besides, he liked Lieutenant Colonel Ellard. Ellard had a straightforward and unassuming ability to do what he was told. Ellard was his ideal foot-soldier: too old to be ambitious whilst still fit enough to do all the donkeywork.
Sentinel had nodded. “Okay,” he’d said. “Come back in a week’s time with a detailed establishment plan, costings, and a list of suggested candidates. Assuming, of course, that you can find any.”
With that, it had started. Greere now enjoyed full autonomy and authority over his own, independent, splinter unit within Sentinel’s spiderweb of splinters and fragments. He had his own power over missions, over actions, over consequences, over life and, of course, over death. His unit would be assigned to undertake ‘radical action, suppression, countermeasure and selective target liquidation’ operations against extremist terror threats. The RASCAL Unit... Greere thought the acronym fit its agents just perfectly.
Like someone pulling back a pair of heavy drape curtains, light floods back into my mind but, this time, there’s no firework.
There is also, thankfully, no sign of Dad.
Instead it’s just another London grey-summer day. Not too cold. No rain. No need for a coat. Not too hot either. A good day for sightseeing. A good day for a small family to get a train up from the Home Counties. A good day to get away from the normal, nonstop, pressures of work. A good day for visiting a museum or a gallery. A good day for us to come wandering out of Victoria Station and to decide to make our way into the city, on foot, past Buckingham Palace. Lizzie’s never seen the Palace. Yes, this is a good day not to squeeze onto the tube like we usually would.
We’re weaving through the crowds that swarm endlessly on the pavements. Three ordinary souls, heading toward the traffic lights. Heading this way because the junction offers the only almost-safe place to cross the busy roads in front of the hectic station. Hemmed into the masses by heavy, black-painted, metal bollards which line the footpath like upturned-cannons and which are planted like sentries all along the edges – I guess they’re there to keep cars from parking on the pavements?
Now is the perfect moment for me to move into a niche between two shop fronts, to stoop to retie my shoe laces, and to notice a large plain-white box van pull up at the lights...
‘That’s odd,’ I’m thinking. ‘The lights are on green.’
A taxi behind the van hoots his horn angrily, but the van refuses to move from the junction. It’s stopped about a hundred metres in front of me.
Maybe he’s letting some old person get across?
The other two have nearly reached the traffic lights, I can see them moving away from me, the buggy working like some form of people-plough and cutting them a pathway toward their objective. I’m going to need to scoot to catch up with them.
Then there’s the light...
Like I say: no firework.
Fireworks don’t come packed in vans.
Time seems to pass. I’m not sure how long and, all the while, there’s a lot of pain. It hurts all over and I suspect that I may not know the half of it. Maybe I’d better stay asleep for a bit longer? The dreams might be unpleasant but I have a sneaking feeling that waking up will be worse.
There’s another light glowing in front of me.
Not as bright as the fiery one.
No, this one’s more manmade. More white. More neon.
I think I’m going to ignore it.
I don’t think I want to wake up. Not yet. Maybe not ever...
What are you doing here again, Dad?
There aren’t any fireworks now.
Why shouldn’t I sleep? I don’t want to wake up. Not yet...
Okay, I promise I won’t give in to the pain.
If that’s what you think is best...
Now I can see you. Laughing and joking with your friends. Not noticing me staring at you through the partying masses.
I like this dream better...
The loud pub is banging tonight. Jumping to the latest songs. Full of happy students.
Summer has arrived – hot and dry and full of promise and freedom from our otherwise endless studies. Long weeks of well earned rest and relaxation lie ahead of us and we’re celebrating the sunshine’s homecoming.
Then you look up.
Catch my eye through the half light.
You are staring and I’m suddenly feeling shy. But I steel myself. I’m going to be brave. I’m not going to look away. Your eyes are such a lovely ice-blue colour. So alive and bright. So unlike mine, which are as black as coals. You surely can’t be interested in me? I’m just plain and ordinary. Nothing special. Everybody’s friend. Good for a laugh. Good old, always single, me.
Then you smile and suddenly my heart is racing.
I dare you then...
I smile back...
And then I turn away.
The white light has returned.
Shining at the end of a very dark tunnel. Like a distant beacon.
Come home, it says. Come back...