Going Rogue (Book 1: SAS Rogue Unit)
Damaged ex-SAS soldier, Grant Kerridge, blames himself for losing his entire team in Afghanistan during an ambush. Then his deceased teammate’s girlfriend goes missing, kidnapped by the Taliban. She was ‘on loan’ from the British government, working as a software designer on the Afghani’s military software system and holds vital information that the Taliban are desperate to get their hands on. Determined to honor his friend’s memory, Grant forms a rogue team of ex-soldiers and sets off for the Middle East to get her back. But what he doesn’t count on is his attraction to the feisty, bright software designer or her intense hatred towards him for the death of her boyfriend.
Lillian Devereux has always valued brains over brawn. Recruited by the British national security company, GCHQ, she is sent to Afghanistan to assist the Afghan government with their military software update. Then her soldier boyfriend dies in an ambush and the bottom falls out of her world. However, she resolves to finish her mission in the hopes that it will end the senseless fighting in the region. As soon as the new system comes online, she is kidnapped by the Taliban who plan to extract top secret codes from her to prevent the government from forcing them out of the opium-rich Helmand Province. With international tensions in the area at boiling point, Lilly is under no illusions about her chances of rescue. It’s just a matter of how long she can hold out before they extract the codes from her. Then through a hail of bullets, she meets rogue agent, Grant Kerridge, a man determined to rescue her no matter what the cost to himself, and she begins to hope again.
Grant Kerridge pulled his Suzuki GSX-R sports bike up on its rear stand so the back wheel was off the ground, then bent down to inspect the chain. He grunted in disgust. After his last cross-country expedition, it was filthy with road dust and splattered with mud. He pulled on his latex gloves, reached for the rag he kept on the workbench for just such occasions and set it down next to the chain cleaner and the circular brush. Time to get stuck in and give this baby a clean.
His favorite classic rock album was playing in the background, louder than his neighbors would have liked, but he needed the noise to drown out the voices in his head.
“Take cover!” yelled Joe, his signaling expert and best mate, when the unit first came under fire. “Contact to the north.”
Grant threw himself into a meager clump of bushes to the side of the mountain path which offered no cover whatsoever, especially not against flying bullets, but it was enough to get him out of the worst of the onslaught. Joe wasn’t so lucky. He took a bullet in the leg and went down with a yell.
Rick, who was closest to him, tried to help, but he was gunned down within seconds. Grant watched in horror as he performed a macabre dance of death while he took several rounds in the back. Then he fell face down onto the Afghan dust and didn’t move again.
“Hang on, I’m coming.” Grant twisted his head to work out from which direction the shots were coming from.
“No, stay there,” Joe shouted. He was lying on his back in the middle of the path, totally exposed, firing his automatic weapon up towards the high ground, a grim expression of determination on his face. His leg was bleeding profusely, forming a dark red puddle beneath him on the dry dirt. It needed a tourniquet or he’d bleed out.
Grant ignored his friend’s warning and crouching low, ran to assist.
“Cover me!” he yelled to the two remaining members of his unit who had scattered into the brush beside the path. He heard Chris open fire a few yards behind him. They were sitting ducks in this valley, with militants firing down on their position, but his overriding priority was to get Joe off the path and out of the line of fire.
Vance, the medic of the team, appeared on the opposite side of the path. Together, they grabbed Joe by the arms and pulled him off the path into the undergrowth, hoping to find shelter beneath a small rocky outcrop.
Vance took off his belt and tied it around Joe’s thigh, stemming the flow of blood.
“Hang in there mate, we’re going to get you out of here.”
Joe nodded, his face pale. “Rick?”
Grant shook his head. “Nah, he’s gone, mate.”
The haunted expression in Joe’s face said it all. Rick had been in the Regiment for eight years, give or take, and in their unit for the last five. They were as close as team mates could be.
Vance didn’t comment. They knew from experience they had to focus on the present situation if they wanted to get out of there alive. There would be time to grieve later.
“Where’s Sayed?” Grant looked around for their translator, the Afghan local who’d led them this far into the field on their reconnaissance mission to make contact with local populations in an effort to regain control of the region.
“Pissed off as soon as the shooting started,” came Vance’s reply. “Bastard gave us up.”
Grant looked around for an escape route. Nothing sprung to mind. Above them, the hills were dotted with militants, all with rifles trained down into the valley. He thought about traversing the opposite side but knew they’d be picked off as soon as they moved.
“Call for backup,” he ordered Joe, who shrugged out of his bergen and got the patrol radio out.
“HQ, this is red troop. We have contact and require assistance. Over.”
A tinny voice replied, “Red troop, we read you. The Afghan army is closest, and we’ve sent them your signal. ETA twenty minutes. Over.”
Christ, in twenty minutes they’d all be dead.
“Can you send a heli? Over.”
“Will do. Get yourselves to the rendezvous point. ETA one hour. Over.”
Even worse. He glanced at Vance who gave a little shake of his head. That would be too late. They needed extraction now but it was not possible. They were on their own.
From the south came more gunfire. For a split-second, Grant thought it might be friendly. Maybe the Afghan troops had arrived early, but he soon realized his mistake. It was another militant group approaching from the south, pinning them in. He watched as they slid down the mountain like an army of little ants with guns blazing.
They were ambushed in the valley with no way out.
“We’re going to have to fight our way out,” said Chris, joining them under the rocky outcrop. “It’ll be better if we split up.”
Grant knew his explosives expert was right. Normally they stuck together for as long as possible, but out here a group was a bigger target and easier to hit. The only problem was he had Joe who was injured and couldn’t walk. He’d have to carry him out which would slow them down.
“Leave me,” rasped Joe, who knew the deal.
“Shut up.” Grant refused to even entertain the thought. “You and I are going together or not at all.” He looked at Chris and Vance. “You guys go, we’ll be right behind you.”
They looked like they might refuse, then Joe said, “There’s no point in us all dying out here. Bugger off, you lot. We’ll meet you at the RV point.”
Chris wavered, then made up his mind, saluted and disappeared back the way they’d come, keeping low and sticking to the sparse cover of the shrubs alongside the path.
“Let’s at least try to get him to some decent cover.” Vance poked his head out from behind the outcrop and stared up at the hills. He could see smoke from rifle fire and several shadows moving amongst the trees.
Supporting Joe beneath each arm, the got him to his feet, but before he could move, a bullet hit him in the stomach and then another in the chest. He went down, a dead-weight between them.
Grant let out a strangled yell. “Joe!”
Vance shuffled back under the outcrop, but Grant dropped to his knees, cradling Joe’s head in his hands. His friend gargled something and Grant bent forwards, trying to hear.
“What’s that?” The emotion threatened to choke him. He knew there was no saving his friend now. He was going to die out here in this war-torn country, far away from home.
“Tell Lilly I love her,” he rasped before his head went limp and fell back onto Grant’s knee.
Vance patted him on the shoulder. “We’ve got to get out of here, man. Leave him.”
Grant nodded. They’d send a team in later to extract the bodies. Right now, they had to concentrate on getting themselves to the rendezvous point for the helicopter extraction.
“Good luck,” he said to Vance, who nodded and snuck out from the other side of the outcrop and slithered like a snake on his belly up the hill to deeper cover.
Grant took one last look at Joe, then melted into the shadows at the base of the hills.
A loud metallic knock bought him back to his senses. “Hey, Grant. You there?”
Grant got to his feet, recognizing the voice. It was Pat, Joe’s father, a man he’d got to know well over the last ten years since he’d met Joe during selection. Pat was an army man himself, more specifically, a retired army commander of the paratroop regiment. A tough old bastard, Pat weathered most storms – like the passing of his wife from cancer four years ago and his forced retirement from the army – with quiet dignity and control. The only time Grant had ever seen him cry was at his son’s funeral four months ago.
“Yeah, hang on.” He pressed a button and the garage door rolled up with a harsh metallic scrape that made his ears curl.
“Needs some oil,” grumbled the commander, ducking his head and coming inside.
Grant took off a latex glove and shook his hand. “Pat, what brings you out this way?”
Since he was no longer part of the SAS 22 Regiment, Grant had moved to a quieter part of the Herefordshire countryside. There was a lake nearby that contained some decent trout, and he even had a fishing boat that he took out occasionally.
“Thought I’d come and see how you were doing,” said the commander, his eagle eyes taking in the gloves, the bike and the assortment of cleaning materials on the floor. “You giving her an overhaul?”
“Just cleaning the chains. She got a bit dusty this last trip.”
Pat perched on an upturned crate and studied Grant for a long moment. “So, how are you doing, son?”
Joe’s death had been a turning point for Grant. After the heli had taken him and Vance to Camp Shorabak – Chris hadn’t made it out – and they’d had been debriefed, he’d decided he’d had enough. He’d lost half his unit in that ambush and had no one to blame but himself. Vance had gone AWOL that very night, while Grant had flown back to the United Kingdom with Joe, Rick and Chris’s bodies, which had been retrieved by the supporting Afghan forces later that day.
Grant didn’t look him in the eye. “You know…”
“Yeah, unfortunately, I do.”
Grant pulled on his gloves again and picked up the cleaning fluid. He aimed the nozzle at the chain, spun the tire and sprayed the overlapping portions of the rings on the lower rung for a full revolution. Then he took the brush and spun the wheel again, allowing the chain to pass through the bristles with a low hiss.
“I think about it all the time,” he murmured once the wheel had stopped turning. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
“You’ve got to let it go,” said Pat leaning forward. “It wasn’t your fault. It’s a goddamn war out there. Joe knew the risks, so did the others. It’s pointless blaming yourself.”
“I should have seen it coming. It was a bloody ambush. I was the one who led them to their deaths.” He turned back to his bike, picked up the rag and wiped off the excess liquid.
Pat was silent for a moment, then he said, “How are you keeping busy?”
Grant shrugged. “I take this baby out, I go fishing, you know, the usual stuff.”
Grant glanced up. “Out of my mind.”
Pat got up off the crate. “Let’s go inside. I could use a brew and I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“Do you remember Joe’s girlfriend, Lilly?” They sat opposite each other on two wooden benches either side of the oak table in Grant’s kitchen sipping coffee. Unused to milk due to years in the field, they both drank it black and strong.
“Lilly? Oh, you mean Lillian? Yeah, I remember her.”
Grant had a vague recollection of Joe’s girlfriend, a slender, waif-like girl with short, dark hair and thick glasses. He’d always thought her a bit of a nerd. They’d been together forever, but she didn’t socialize much with Joe’s special forces buddies. When Joe was on leave he made himself scarce, spending most of his time with Lilly, and Grant always assumed, her friends. “She worked with computers or some such, didn’t she?”
“She’s a smart girl. She works for GCHQ now.”
Grant was impressed. GCHQ was the British equivalent of the American NSA, an intelligence organization aimed at defending the country from cyber threats, supporting law enforcement as well as the armed forces. In the Regiment, they’d often used GCHQ’s data on ops ranging from satellite images to foreign intel. But why was Pat telling him all this?
“That’s great, Pat, but what’s this got to do with me?” He wasn’t one to beat around the bush. He saw the corners of Pat’s mouth turn up, and the commander gave a little nod.
“I’ll get to the point. She’s gone missing, Grant. Kidnapped while in Kabul on a project for the British government.”
Grant stared at him, a knot growing in the pit of his stomach.
“Kidnapped by who?” he said slowly.
“We suspect the Taliban.”
“We?” He narrowed his eyes. He knew the retired commander still had his fingers in a lot of government pies. It kept him busy, and it kept him from thinking too much about his wife and now his son.
“I’m an unofficial consultant to the Home Office on this. What I’m telling you now can’t go any further, you understand?”
He nodded, a flicker of sadness passed over his face and Grant realized just how worried he was.
“Lilly was on loan to the Afghan government.” He leaned across the table, his voice deep and low. “She helped them upgrade their military software, a move that would go a long way to removing the Taliban from the opium-rich Helmand Province.”
“So, they grabbed her to prevent it from going online.” Grant finished for him.
“Oh, it’s online,” Pat confirmed, a note of pride in his voice. “She was on route to the American base along with a small group of reporters, to fly back to the U.K. when the Taliban struck. The soldiers accompanying them were shot and killed and she was taken along with the reporters.”
“Why now?” asked Grant, getting straight to the point. “Isn’t it too late if the system is already online?”
Pat looked grave. “She is one of three people who have the top-secret codes they need to dismantle the system. The other two are Afghan military operators whose identities are unknown. She was the easier target.” Pat reached for his coffee and took a slow sip. Grant waited until he was done. “With those codes, they can render the entire system useless. All her work will have been for nothing.”
Grant was silent, studying his best friend’s father across the table. His rugged, tanned face was pinched and the fine lines next to his eyes were deeper and more pronounced. This meant a lot to him – she meant a lot to him – he could tell. The knot in his stomach began to expand, gnawing at him from the inside.
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked, dreading the answer.
There was a pause, then the commander said, “I want to go and get her, Grant. And I need your help to do it.”
“Isn’t this a job for the Regiment?” Grant leaned back in his chair, arms crossed in front of his chest. “That’s what they do, and you know as well as I do, that nobody does it better.”
Pat put his mug down with more force than was necessary. “The Home Office won’t sanction it. The Taliban and the top Afghan powerbroker have just finished two days of landmark talks in Moscow and they don’t want to rock the boat. As you know, we’ve withdrawn all our troops from the area, and the Americans are talking about doing the same. An insurgency now would destroy everything.”
“Surely the Taliban knocked that for a six when they kidnapped her?”
“They’re claiming they weren’t responsible, but it’s bullshit. We have satellite images of the attack and intel of activity at a known Taliban stronghold where the hostages were bought late last night.”
“Any visuals of the hostages?” he asked, wondering what condition they were in.
“We’re sending in drones to pinpoint their exact location.”
Grant gave him a hard look. “Why bother with the intel when they’re not going to send in the special forces?”
“I didn’t say they weren’t going to send anyone in, I just said it wouldn’t be sanctioned.” He met Grant’s gaze. “That’s where you come in.”
Grant didn’t respond. A million thoughts were flying through his mind, none of them good.
Pat continued, “I know you have contacts, guys who’ve left the regiment who are dying for some action. I figure we need a team of four, that should do it, plus me, of course, to feed you with the intel. We can hitch a ride on a military plane to Bagram tomorrow at oh six hundred hours.”
Grant exhaled slowly, trying not to let the panic rise within him. He could see this meant a lot to Pat. Lilly was the only link he had left to his son and the old man wanted to do something. He got that. But he was barking up the wrong tree coming here.
“You know I can’t do this, Pat. I’d love to help, but after what happened before…to Joe and the others… I don’t think I’m the right man for the job.”
Pat studied him for a long moment, then said, “I’m asking you to put your own situation aside, Grant, and do this for me. For Lilly. She’s like a daughter to me. I can’t leave her there to rot. God knows what those bastards are doing to her.”
“I wish I could, really, but I’d be a liability. There are better men for the job.”
“Listen to me,” Pat said, standing up. “You were the leader of the best troop in the best regiment in the best army in the world. There is no one better for the job.”
“I was, Pat. Past tense. Besides, I’m not battle ready. I wouldn’t be able to tab 20Ks without stopping.”
“Please…” Pat wasn’t buying. Grant was still in superb physical shape. Sure, he’d taken a knock but he still ran every morning, worked out in his spare room which was filled with gym equipment. Some habits were harder to break than others and he enjoyed feeling fit. It was one of the few things that motivated him, these days and Pat knew that.
“Come on, Grant. I need you on this. It’s the only chance she’s got.”
Grant bit his lip. Shit. The last thing he needed was to relive the trauma of that last op. Going back to Afghanistan would bring it all back, the pain, the loss, the guilt… It was insane to even consider it.
“What about kit?” he asked.
“All will be provided at the base. It’s been cleared, unofficially, of course.”
It seemed the commander had thought of everything.
“Christ, Pat. I don’t know if I can.”
Then, he said the words that would change everything. “It’s what Joe would have wanted.”
Grant sighed. It was true. Joe’s last words came back to haunt him.
Tell Lilly I love her.
Well, he hadn’t done that yet. She hadn’t been around to tell. Maybe it was time he did.
He nodded slowly. “Okay, old man, you win. I’m in.”
Lilly awoke from an exhausted sleep and cringed as the aches and pains from yesterday penetrated her fragile consciousness. They’d walked for nearly eight hours over rocky terrain, through the night, until they’d arrived at this place. She looked around at the filthy room with nothing in it other than a soiled mattress, a bucket, and a wooden chair with a missing leg that wouldn’t support anybody’s weight, and grimaced. Wherever this was.
She knew she was in a town or village of some sort because she’d heard the sound of children crying and dogs barking late last night when they’d arrived, and she’d smelled the aroma of cooking food, not that they’d been given anything to eat or drink since their capture. Her stomach rumbled as if pressing home the point.
She’d been separated from the other hostages, much to her dismay, and locked in here for the remainder of the night. At least having the English journalists with her had made the nightmare seem more bearable, and she was able to talk to them to stave off the growing terror. One of them had even spoken Pashto and had translated for the rest of the group so they’d known what was going on.
Don’t fall behind!
Basic commands, but it was so much better knowing what their captors were shouting at them than being left to wonder.
Now, she had no way of communicating with her captors unless they spoke English, which was highly doubtful. After four months of living in Kabul and integrating with the local community, especially the women, she knew the Taliban tribal factions were made up of men from rural communities acting on orders from tribal leaders. Some of them had no choice, they did it in order to survive, whilst others were searching for a cause, trying to make sense of the war-torn chaos.
She also knew why she’d been taken. The military software system. They wanted access to it and the only way they could do that was via the codes she had set up. No-one else knew the codes other than the two Afghan software developers on her team, Nabi and Anwar, who she’d trained and whose job descriptions read Office Administrator so no one looking at the facility’s employment records would suspect them. A copy of the codes was also stored in the Commander of the Afghan Army’s safe in an undisclosed location.
She was the weakest link.
The small window at the top of the wall let in a hard shaft of light, the beams of which picked up the dust hovering in the room. It was almost pretty. Lilly shuffled across the floor until she was under the light, then turned her face up to it, wishing she hadn’t lost her glasses on the trudge through the hills. Judging by the temperature and the position of the sun in the sky, it was late morning. She’d been in this stinking room for over twelve hours. Someone would come for her soon.
She shivered as she thought about what lay ahead. Torture, for sure, as they tried to extricate the codes from her. She could play dumb, pretend she didn’t know anything about the codes, but she suspected they’d done their homework and knew she was the one who’d upgraded the software. That would only work for so long.
She swallowed repeatedly trying to generate some saliva. Her mouth was parched. What little water she’d had on her had been left in the vehicle along with her handbag (containing her British passport) and suitcase. Lack of food and water made her weak and she shuffled back to the dirty mattress. Perhaps, they were going to leave her here to die of starvation and dehydration? Maybe their main focus had been the journalists, and she had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time? Under the circumstances, that would be the preferable option.
No such luck. There was a scratching outside the door and a young woman, her head and face covered, entered carrying a tray. She placed it at the foot of the mattress and with a little bow, retraced her steps towards the door.
“Wait.” Lilly scrambled to her feet.
The woman paused, her eyes aimed at the ground like she was afraid to look up.
“Thank you.” Lilly gave a little bow like she’d seen the local women do.
The woman nodded, then exited the room. Once again, the key turned in the lock.
Sighing, she went back to the mattress and sat down. So much for trying to establish contact. On the bright side, the tray had food and drink on it. It was only a flat bread along with a jug of water but Lilly fell on it like it was a gourmet meal. She’d just finished eating when the key turned again and the door creaked open. This time a man in traditional dress and a turban stood in the entrance. He beckoned for her to follow him.
The drive north took another full day but as far as Lilly was concerned while she was in transit, there was little chance of them having a go at her. They would leave that task to a Taliban leader, someone with the authority to coerce the information out of her and the know-how with which to do it.
She had a bag over her head for most of the journey, but she kept listening in the hopes of identifying where she was going. It didn’t do any good. Apart from the spluttering and ticking over of the old Ford engine, she couldn’t determine anything distinctive. The men spoke Pashto which meant she couldn’t understand a word, and apart from fastening her seat belt for her, she was completely ignored. There was no sign of the other hostages. With a heavy heart, she wondered what had become of them. Were they to be ransomed off? She’d heard kidnapping was big business in the Middle East these days. Governments and indeed wealthy families, maybe even media companies, would pay large amounts in ransom to have their citizens, employees, and loved ones back. Money that could be used to purchase weapons and bribe officials.
Tears sprung to her eyes as she thought about her own circumstances. There was no-one back home to pay her ransom. Her father had disappeared when she was a toddler and her mother had died in a horrific pile-up on the M4 motorway several years ago. Since then, she’d only ever had Joe.
Her heart twisted painfully, her loss was still raw despite it being four months since his death. Darling Joe… her rock… the person she’d clung to, who had always been there for her through thick and thin.
Oh, why did you have to die?
With Joe in the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, she’d known the day might come when he left on an op and didn’t return. She’d steeled herself against that inevitability, but even so, she’d been so unprepared to lose him, so unprepared to live her life without him. They’d been together for over ten years, ever since he’d signed up for the Regiment and made it through selection. She’d been there for him every step of the way, as he had for her. Tears stung her eyes under the foul-smelling hessian bag. Joe would have come to rescue her, she knew that without a doubt, but now there was no-one.
Eventually, the car stopped and she heard doors opening and footsteps on the gravel ground. Cold air flooded in. Her body tensed, waiting for someone to unbuckle her and take her to her holding place, the place where she would be tortured.
There was no chance of rescue. She didn’t kid herself that she was important enough. She was a civilian, not some high powered politician or powerbroker upon whose shoulders a fragile peace agreement rested. She was expendable, a computer nerd who’d done some work for the government. In addition to that, she’d be almost impossible to find. They’d moved her from the village to the mountains, judging by the extreme freshness of the air and the fact that the car had been traveling steadily uphill ever since they’d set off.
She had the military codes, that was true, but once the Afghans heard of her kidnapping they would put the back-up plan (that she’d devised) into action and reconfigure the codes. Nabi and Anwar knew how, she’d trained them well.
The thought gave her some modicum of comfort. At least the Taliban would need her alive and (relatively) unharmed to get into the system and override the codes. She was the only other person who could. No, she mustn’t give up now. There was still hope.
After she was unbuckled and dragged from the vehicle, the bag was removed from her head. The sunlight was blinding and she blinked furiously, her eyes watering, while they tried to adjusted.
Rough hands half-pulled half-dragged her towards what appeared to be a jagged mountain ridge, but then as they rounded a rocky outcrop she saw a dark slit that marked the cave entrance. Looking around, her heart sank, she was literally in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t a house or a farm in sight. The view, however, was breathtaking, and on any other day, she would probably have enjoyed it. From her vantage point, she could see for miles across the fertile valley with a twinkling azure river carving through it. The undulating hillside was blanketed in luminous green fur upon which shadows danced whenever the wispy clouds obscured the sun. There wasn’t time to admire it in more detail as she was pushed inside the cave and made to sit with her back against the cold rock wall while a young man, who couldn’t have been older than about nineteen, chained her ankles to two wrought-iron rings embedded into the solid ground.
Crude, but effective, she thought grimly. With these shackles on she wasn’t going anywhere fast.
“Please, can I have some water?” she asked extending her arm, but he moved out of her reach and shrugged like he couldn’t understand.
“Water,” she begged, making a drinking motion with her right hand.
He gave a little nod and disappeared back the way they’d come.
Lilly didn’t have to wait long before an older man with a long beard and flowing robes entered the cave carrying a flask of water. By the way he held himself, she reckoned he was the one in charge. He sat down opposite her, crossed-legged, and set the water down on the ground just out of arm’s reach.
“Salaam,” he said politely, although his face remained impassive. “I hope you are not too uncomfortable.”
Was he kidding?
She needed the bathroom, a long drink, and a shower, preferably in that order. And to be released from these iron shackles might be a good start.
“I’m okay,” she replied, keeping her eyes down in a submissive gesture like she’d seen the women at work do when talking to their male superiors. She’d be damned if she was going to beg him to go to the toilet if there even was one around here. At least in the village, there’d been a bucket in her room. Here, in this cave, there was nothing.
He nodded in approval. “Do you know why you have been bought here?” His English was heavily accented but grammatically correct and she got the impression he was well educated. Definitely, the one giving the orders.
She shook her head. “For ransom?”
It was, she hoped, a convincing shot in the dark. The last thing she wanted to do was let on she knew about the military software system and the codes. If she could make them think they had the wrong person, she might have a fighting chance of getting out of here alive.
He studied her, his dark eyes narrowed and filled with suspicion.
“What is your name?” he barked. He wanted to confirm she was who they thought she was.
“Jo Burke,” she said, using Joe’s name and surname. It was the first thing that popped into her head and in some weird way gave her strength. Joe wouldn’t have backed down in this situation. He’d have fought until the bitter end, and then when that had come, he would have gone out fighting. A lump formed in her throat as she thought about him. Hopefully, the Taliban leader would think it was fear.
He sucked in air through his teeth. “I believe you are lying to me. Your name is Lillian Devereux and you work for the Afghan government.”
She shook her head. “No, that is not my name. I am Jo Burke and I am a journalist with The Guardian newspaper in London.” She knew Felicity, one of the other hostages, worked for the Guardian. Hopefully, the similarity would give her story credibility.”
The man slammed his fist down onto the hard ground. “Liar. You are Lillian Devereux. Here is your picture.” He threw a laminated card at her feet and with dismay she recognized it as her work keycard which she’d used every day for the last four months to get inside the secure government building. How on earth had they got hold of it? They must have bought someone off or had a man on the inside.
She hung her head. Faced with the damning evidence, she couldn’t very well keep on lying. Her little charade was over.
“Now, I ask again. Do you know why you are here?”
Keeping her lips pressed firmly together, she shook her head. She might be Lillian Devereux but she wasn’t going to give him the luxury of answering his questions. If he wanted her to speak, he’d have to force the words out of her.
“I will tell you why. You are here because you have something that we want. Something that is very valuable to us. I think you know what that is?”
Go to hell.
She kept her mouth shut and her eyes cast down. God, that glass of water looked inviting. She fantasized about gulping down the cool, thirst-quenching liquid and began to salivate.
“You can have it, I bought it for you. Once you tell me what I need to know.”
Want to know, she thought savagely. You don’t need to know anything. You want to know so you can stop the Afghan army doing their job and kicking you out of Helmut Province. The opium-rich region had been terrorized by the Taliban for decades. The local farming communities were divided with half working the poppy fields and paying tariffs to the ruthless warlords and the other half living in fear trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to run legitimate businesses.
She clamped her mouth shut even harder.
After a long moment, the Taliban leader got up and sighed. “I’m sorry you feel that way. You’re making things very hard on yourself.”
And he picked up the water flask and left the cave.
The same thing happened later that night. The bearded man had come again, this time bringing a plate of food and another flask of water, as well as some blankets and a lantern. It was freezing in the cave now that the sun had set. Lilly gazed longingly at the blanket but didn’t utter a word. As she’d done earlier in the afternoon, she kept her eyes lowered and refused to speak.
In frustration, the man had left again, taking everything with him but the lantern. She still hadn’t gone to the toilet or eaten or drunk anything. Her last meal had been earlier that morning when the robed woman had bought her the tray in the village. The food and drink she could last without for a while longer, but she really needed to relieve herself. She knew what their plan was, now. They were going to rely on her modesty to beg them to take her to a toilet and they’d refuse unless she offered up the information. The same went for the water and the food. Nothing, until she cooperated. Well, it was better than torture, she supposed. Although, how long before their patience ran out, she had no idea.
First things first, she had to empty her bladder. Her modesty was not something she was particularly attached to, and with the cave empty, now was her chance. She maneuvered herself in a semi-circle until she was as far away from her previous position as she could get. Her ankles twisted painfully in their metal bindings, but she didn’t want to have to sleep in a wet spot, so she pushed it as far as she could, then pulled her underwear to the side and relaxed.
That was so much better. Luckily, the cave had a gentle slant and the liquid ran away from her. She felt a smidgeon of satisfaction knowing they couldn’t use that against her anymore. She resumed her position, hugging herself to try and generate some heat. Thank goodness for the lantern which offered a glimmer of light in the darkness, without which she might have succumbed to the fear that surrounded her heart and threatened to crush it at any given moment. The cold was her biggest worry. If they didn’t give her a blanket or light a fire, there was a very real possibility she might die of hyperthermia during the night.
The man didn’t come back again, obviously deciding to let her stew overnight. In the morning, when the cold, hunger and thirst had taken its toll, he’d try again.
It must have been about two hours after sunset when Lilly heard a ruckus outside. She’d been trying to doze off, to sleep through the worst of the cold and also because she was mentally and physically exhausted when a shout brought her to her senses. Fully awake, she huddled against the wall wondering if this was part of their plan. Had they come to frighten her or worse, to harm her in some way in an attempt to get her to cooperate?
She gasped as she heard a deafening volley of automatic fire. It wasn’t continuous, but rather several short bursts followed by shouting and sporadic blasts of return fire. Then she couldn’t determine what was going on as a cacophony of firepower erupted meters from the entrance to the cave. The Taliban youth ran in waving his weapon and shouting something to her in Pashto. She couldn’t understand him so she curled up in a ball and tried to make herself as small a target as possible.
There was more yelling and shooting, and then a monster of a man ran into the cave. He looked like something out of a futuristic horror movie, silhouetted against the light, with helmet-mounted goggles covering his face and an enormous gun aimed at the terrified teenager. Before she had a chance to shout out, the invader pulled the trigger and cut the youth down in two short bursts from his automatic weapon.
Then he turned to her.
“Lillian Devereux?” the monster asked her.
She scarcely heard him, her gaze was riveted on the bullet-ridden body of the youth lying at her feet. He’d been so young.
“Lillian! Is that you?”
English. He was speaking English. It filtered through her stunned mind that he must be here for her.
“Yes,” she whispered, then realized he couldn’t hear her.
“Yes.” More strongly.
“Good. I’m going to get you out of here.” He bent down to inspect her shackles, then pulled a lethal-looking combat knife out of his belt. Her eyes widened as she recognized it. Joe had exactly the same one.
“You’re special forces,” she gasped as the man pried the lock loose, lifted the shackles and released her.
He gave a curt nod and reached down to haul her to her feet. “Come with me.”
She stumbled, her ankles bruised and unused to supporting her weight, but his grip was firm and he steadied her. “Okay?”
After a moment, she nodded.
He led her towards the dark slit that was the cave exit. She couldn’t wait to get outside. They almost made it too, before all hell broke loose.
“Get back!” he barked, as gunfire rained down from above. There was a crackle and she heard someone shouting into his ear-piece. Lilly stumbled backward into the cave and out of the line of fire.
He put a finger to his ear. “Okay, you guys get the hostages clear. I’ll bring out Lilly.”
Something about the way he said her name rang a bell, but she couldn’t quite place it. Was this one of Joe’s SAS teammates? Had they met before? She tried to get a better look at him, but it was dark in the cave and the night-vision goggles covered most of his face.
“No, go. I’m not having history repeat itself. Get those hostages to safety, that’s an order. Over.” He was shouting now, tension in his voice. This wasn’t good.
“We’re going to retreat into the cave,” he told her, grabbing her wrist and pulling her towards the back of the cave. “Or look for another way out.”
“I felt a cold draught come from that direction.” She pointed to a dark recess to the right of where she’d been bound. “I think there might be a tunnel there or something.”
He moved to where she was pointing and lifted the night-vision goggles from his eyes. “You’re right, there is a narrow tunnel here with cold air blowing through it. It’s a pretty strong breeze. I think it could be another way out.”
“Can we fit through it?” she asked doubtfully. It was very narrow, about four foot wide by three foot tall.
“There won’t be much wriggle room, but it’s our best option. The insurgents are covering the front exit, and there are more coming down from the hills, so we can’t get out that way without support.
Which you sent away, she added silently to herself.
“I’m going to set a booby trap,” he explained. “So stand right back. Hopefully, this will buy us enough time to get away.”
“What if we can’t get through the tunnel?” Fear made her voice come out higher pitched than normal. “We won’t be able to come back this way after you blow it up.”
He gave her a wry grin. “No, but on the bright side, the enemy won’t be able to get in, either. It’s the only option we’ve got.”
Great. So he was going to blow up the only exit and take his chances in the narrow tunnel. She watched as he reached into his rucksack and took out several squares of explosive wrapped in masking tape. He placed them strategically around the cave entrance and then laid a thin wire across it, several inches from the ground, which he connected to the explosives. After inserting several plugs and grips, he stood back to admire his handiwork.
“That should do the trick.”
Lilly yelped as a bullet hit the rock a meter from where she was standing and sediment sprayed into her face. She only just managed to close her eyes in time. He released a deafening volley of automatic fire through the entrance. It was so close and so loud that Lilly covered her ears. Halting, he turned to her. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ll go first. Stay behind me.”
He switched on the light mounted to his helmet and eased himself into the tunnel. His massive shoulders took some maneuvering, but then he was in. She watched as he leopard-crawled along for a few meters. Her eyes were drawn to his khaki-clad butt, which was impressive in itself, but she wasn’t in a position to enjoy it. The dark hole beckoned. They were actually doing this.
“Looks safe enough,” he called stopping to peer ahead into the darkness. The breeze is strong. I think we’ll be okay.” A few seconds later he’d disappeared from view.
Well, if he can fit, so can I.
Dark, enclosed spaces weren’t her favorite thing. Taking a deep breath she ducked down and scrambled in after him. They progressed slowly, inch by inch for about twenty meters, him in front of her and her focusing solely on his wriggling butt. It helped keep the panic at bay. Eventually, the passage widened and they crawled into a small, rounded alcove where they could both sit side by side.
The soldier was wiping sweat from his face. “We can rest for five minutes.”
Thankfully, Lilly pulled her legs through into the alcove and sat next to him, her back against the wall. The stiff breeze made the confined space more bearable, and she wanted to believe the hilltop and freedom were only a short distance away.
“You okay?” the soldier asked her. The light attached to his helmet was still on so his features were a dark haze. She daren’t ask him to turn it off because it would be pitch black in the tunnel without it and that would probably send her over the edge.
“Yes, I–I think so.”
“Good.” He pulled out his compass and studied it for a minute. “We’ve been going steadily west and in an upwards trajectory, so I’d say it won’t be long until we reach the outside. Fifteen, twenty minutes more. Do you think you can handle that?”
What choice did she have?
It couldn’t come fast enough for her. The tunnel was damp and cold, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if it narrowed to a point where they couldn’t get through. What then?
A muffled blast made her jump and sent a puff of dust up the narrow tunnel. She glanced at the solider in alarm, only to see a spread of white teeth. He was grinning. “I’m guessing they tried to enter the cave.”
How could he be so calm? She felt the rising panic in her chest. Their only entrance was now blocked off permanently. There was no going back.
He must have read it in her eyes because the teeth vanished and he laid a firm, calloused hand on her arm. “Stay calm, Lilly, and keep breathing normally. We’re almost out.”
“Have we met?” She wondered again at the familiarity with which he said her name.
She couldn’t see his face but knew he was looking right at her. Hers, on the other hand, would be illuminated by his headlight.
“Yes, I’m Grant Kerridge, Joe’s friend from the Regiment. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch before now, but you left so soon after he… he passed away. Joe gave me a message for you. He said to tell you that he loves you.”