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 facedown 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.”