Prologue to “Deadman Running” by Gerry Fruin
The night air was still and cloyingly warm, with no breeze stirring to cool the heavy air. In the back of the old Renault van the silent men sweated uncomfortably. Outside, the village held its breath. With no moon to cast any light, even the light coloured buildings were barely discernible. Any windows there were, were shuttered and no lamplight filtered through. The narrow alleys that made up the small remote mountain village remained silent and impenetrable barriers.
Inside the van a swift flash of the night-light from a wristwatch brought an instant tensioning from the men. A hand squeezed gently on an arm. The leader had given the ‘go’ signal. The five black-clad figures eased silently from the back of the rusting van’s well-oiled rear doors. No orders were given, and none expected. They had trained together for months, and their drill practised until each man knew precisely what the other’s role was. They were a team; they were the best.
Not a sound was made as they slipped through the darkness towards the house on the edge of the village. No cocking of weapons – this had been done earlier. Not even the click of safety catches. No sound. The team flanked the building as planned. The house stood alone, its single recessed entrance facing the village street. One man had taken position at the rear. He lay against the low dusty wall and sighting through his night-scope, he saw no movement from his comrades. Under his facemask he allowed himself a tight smile of satisfaction. The team were good, very good.
A muffled thump broke the silence. No shouting, no histrionics. The two clearance men had hit the door, and would now be in the building with their night-vision glasses sweeping the darkness. They would react instantaneously to any movement, moving at lightening speed, with weapons ready to be fired at any hostile figure. The earpiece of each man’s short-range radio crackled with the breathing of the two men in the building.
“Clear,” hissed the voice of number one.
He would repeat this every few seconds, so that the second entry team would know exactly where they were. Seconds passed.
“Chris, moving in.”
Wilson had no need to ask who had used his name. The French accent came over thickly, even though it was little more than a murmur. Jean-Paul Raoul, Lt. Colonel, French Foreign Legion. Team leader on this raid. Wilson scanned the roof and surrounding area. Nothing.
“Clear,” pause, “clear,” repeated the tension-filled voice.
“In,” came the French accent.
In those fleeting seconds, Wilson could not understand why no contact had been made. They had all been sceptical of this additional assignment. Most of them thought that the young ‘Rupert’ was too inexperienced an officer to be calling the shots. As a compromise, they had insisted that the legendary Jean-Paul lead the team. The intelligence team had added a new liaison officer and he was adamant that the information was good. With no time to check, the raid had been approved by ‘high authority’ on the dubious account of the unknown newcomer. It was against all the carefully laid out rules, but rumour had it that the new ‘Rupert’ had good connections.
The whole twenty-strong unit of special forces men had not liked the new influx of personnel. For eight months they had been one of the most effective anti-drug units in the world. Set up and run through an official multi-government quasi-police unit based in Brussels, they had been selected from the cream of the world’s special armed forces and tasked with spearheading the fight against trafficking. Most countries supported, at least on paper and with rhetoric, the drive to eliminate drug trafficking. Many, like the small Arab emirate they had flown into two days ago, were, at best, ambivalent. Despite this, the unit had fast gained a fearsome reputation for swift and incisive action.
They had flown in and out of numerous countries, striking ruthlessly at storage depots and distribution points. Such was their success, that some countries were even withholding approval of their entry on the grounds of “International violation of human rights”. The team knew little of and cared less about this political double-speak. They were now at, or purported to be at, a key manufacturing refinement base. Intelligence apparently confirmed that this remote and quiet village was a key distributor out of the Gulf area.
Uncharacteristically, Wilson was on edge, his gut instinct screaming that something was not right. He swung the night-sight ever more urgently left and right, his eyes straining to see any movement. The building and its surroundings, digitally enhanced in the state-of-the-art scope, showed nothing untoward.
“Clear,” pause, “clear,” he reported.
“Two, clear,” snapped the Frenchman.
Wilson came to his knees. The low ancient wall collapsed, leaving him with no protection. He sensed the danger and could virtually taste it. Sweating and adrenaline pumping, he swung round again to scan the hillside. Never in his ten years of soldiering had the feeling of menace and danger been so omnipresent.
A slight movement higher up the hill? He swung the scope back again while the calls kept coming through his earpiece. Time had stood still, yet only a few seconds had elapsed since the destruction of the door.
“Clear,” pause, “clea…er, smell,” hissed number one.
Wilson spun back towards the house, rising instinctively into a crouch, his nerves at screaming point. How could Rick smell? His self-contained breathing equipment would not allow him to smell. Unless… unless the smell was so powerful that it had penetrated the equipment.
“Allez, allez,” screamed the colonel, instinctively reverting to his native tongue.
In that same instant, Wilson saw the small house expand outwards in a fireball. Afterwards, he could not recall whether he had heard the explosion or had felt the searing heat first. He knew he was in the air, the black night turned into intense daylight for a few seconds, his night vision destroyed. The ground smashed into his back, stunning him and winding him at the same time. His instinct for survival took over. His night-vision destroyed by the intense light from the explosion and, although unable to see, he sought cover. Dimly he became aware of the sound of small arms’ fire. Christ! They’re raking the building.
He ran. A figure lurched away from the building, his flameproof clothes smouldering and stinking in the intensity of the heat. Wilson barely paused in his zigzag attempt to find cover. He heaved the semi-conscious figure across his shoulders, and ran. When the pain came it was after he knew he had been hit. He hurtled on down the hill. The pain became so intense that he struggled to keep upright and conscious. The body on his back had ceased screaming. Only the steepness of the terrain and his strength as an athlete kept him upright. His momentum came to an abrupt end when he literally hit the road into the village. He stopped fighting the nausea, staggering onto the road. The body fell from his shoulders. I’m dying, he thought. Slowly he sank to his knees, knowing that if he passed out he would indeed die.
The firing had ceased. Like a puppet he collapsed, his face hit the dirt and stone of the primitive road. As he fought to stay conscious, his unfocused eyes saw headlights.
“Are they alive,” asked the affected drawling voice from a long way off.
“Yeah! Or one of ’em is,” came the reply. “Shot to shit though, by the looks of it.”
“Get them then, and let’s get out of here quickly.”
“But the others, sir, we have to check!”
“Don’t argue man, you saw the explosion. No one could have lived through that. Get out now, the bastards may be following up.” There was no mistaking the fear in his voice.
“Shift them now you idiot, snarled the Rupert.
“Sir,” came the surly, reluctant response.
Wilson heard this exchange faintly through the red haze of pain. Next came the jolting of the vehicle and he finally gave way to unconsciousness.
Briefly he was aware of the noise of rotors, and vaguely he guessed that he was being ferried to their base, HMS Vulcan. Hands lifted him gently from the armour-plated floor of the chopper.
“OK, now pal, hang in there,” a deep Midlands accent spoke into his ear. “We’re taking you straight to M.I. Have you fixed up in a jiffy.” A needle punched into his arm. He felt nothing.
His mind was softly drifting on a wave of painkiller. In a final moment of clarity Wilson struggled to stand.
“Steady, steady, Sergeant.” Hands held on to him.
“I want to stand,” he heard a muffled voice croak, and realised he was speaking, albeit from a great distance. A storm of rage seared through him, overcoming the powerful drug. He strained to focus his blurred vision on the object of his fury. The young Lieutenant was standing apart from the medics, aloof, yet with eyes darting nervously left and right. Wilson sought and found him.
“We were set up, you wanker,” he croaked, blindly trying to shake off the supporting arms. “You gave no support. You left them, you yellow snivelling bastard.” He felt himself fading.
“You ran, Sergeant, not me,” the young officer smirked, stepping back quickly, his confidence restored now that he was safely on board the base ship. The accusation and the sneering tone snapped the last of Wilson’s control. With a superhuman effort, he shook his helpers off and, before the astonished medics could move, he struck the Rupert in the throat.
A week later, Wilson stood before his base-unit Commanding Officer. Two escorts stood inches away on either side, facing him as military procedure dictated. The Regimental Sergeant-major was behind the guard, and the Adjutant stood behind the Colonel, staring fixedly above Wilson’s head. Wilson was still sedated, but charges had been brought and discipline would be discharged.
“To summarise, Wilson,” the seated figure of the C.O. gravely continued, “you struck an officer of Her Majesty’s Armed Services, abused him, and called him a coward.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t bother denying it; more than ten people have confirmed in signed affidavits what went on.”
Wilson blinked. Bloody hell, he’s still alive! Throughout his week’s treatment, he had assumed the Rupert to be dead. He could only suppose that his injuries had prevented him achieving his objective.
“Apparently the officer concerned is lucky to be alive. You have a choice, based on your past impeccable record. Simply, you accept an honourable discharge as of now, or face a court martial. Of course,” the Colonel carried on as though Wilson was unable to speak, “you will accept a discharge!” His eyebrows rose in expectation. Dismissed.
Minutes later. “Richard, please bring the security coding up on screen, full eyes only for all security services and police anti-terrorist units.”
“Wilson’s that special, sir?”
The Colonel looked old and weary. “Yes I’m afraid he is, Richard, he’s more than special. Did you know they have a scale up to five, and would you believe they actually use X’s.”
“So how do we rate Wilson, sir. One X?” The newly-arrived adjutant smiled knowingly.
Deeply troubled the older man looked at his new aide. “To give you some idea, you remember the hoo-ha about the joker Carlos, the so-called Jackal?” The younger man nodded though his brow creased in puzzlement. Long before his time.
“Well apparently he rated a world-wide rank of 2 Xs, now Wilson, yes Wilson,” he paused brooding on his ancient pipe, and pointing at the office door through which the said Wilson had disappeared, “Wilson I would rate about 7.”
The adjutant looked sharply to see if the Colonel was joking, and gulped, and quickly bit back a smart response when he saw the look of deep foreboding on the face of the senior officer.
“I hope,” the older man spoke very quietly, so the Captain had to strain to catch the words, “that no one is stupid enough to underestimate Wilson.” He turned towards the by now clearly worried Adjutant, who had never seen the old man in this kind of mood; it was very disturbing. “That man is a walking death sentence.”