“He is here. I will dispatch him.” The computerised voice said over the secure phone line. “I have also taken steps to end the police investigation.” The line went dead as Lanker’s contact hung up. Lanker rubbed his eyes, took note of the time (3.30am), and decided to try and get a little more sleep.

****

Bevin opened the door for Harris, who held a glass of water and a small plastic packet. He still looked disgruntled, and now bruising was showing up around his nose. Despite himself, Eric was quite pleased – he’d rattled the younger man thoroughly, and could work with that.

“Now then Mr Cooper…” Bevin began as Harris sat back down and placed the water in front of Eric. “I would rather not force you to take the drugs. However, it is crucial that we learn the truth. I therefore ask that you cooperate.”

For a moment Eric sat in silence, then took the packet and scooped out a small white pill, that could have easily passed for an aspirin. He clasped the glass in his free hand, and Harris tensed. Eric almost laughed.

“Don’t worry son, I’ll spare you another beating.” He couldn’t resist a bit of mockery. Harris went red, cheeks flushing with anger, as Eric popped the pill into his mouth and swallowed it with a big gulp.

“It’ll take a few minutes to start working.” Remarked Bevin. “Perhaps then, we can finally get to the bottom of all this.”

“You know what you can do to get to the bottom of this?” Eric sat back and crossed his arms. “You can investigate One Touch Security, thoroughly.”

“I can assure you, they were vetted in every conceivable way.” Replied Bevin with a wry smile.

Without warning, the sensation of swimming through treacle nearly knocked Eric sideways. His eyes went wide, then he felt the world bottom out from under him. As Bevin, Harris and the meagre contents of the room began to blur together, Eric slipped off the chair, coughing, suddenly feeling a sharp pain in his chest. As Bevin raced around the desk, Eric shuddered, starting at him accusingly. As his world faded to black, his last thoughts were for Mary. She would never know…

****

“He’s having a heart attack! Harris, get the defib kit, now!” Bevin knelt by Eric, clutching him by the shoulder and rolling him onto his back. Eric was unconscious, barely gasping for breath, as Harris charged out of the room, going for one of the emergency medical kits stationed around the building. Bevin somehow knew it wouldn’t be enough. Already Eric was going still, but as the old man lay dying, the conversation was as clear as day in his mind. He can’t be right, he just can’t…

Harris rushed back in, holding the portable defibrillator. The two wide pads were attached by wires to a box roughly half the size of a microwave oven – Bevin ripped open Eric’s shirt and Harris slapped two green plastic stickers to the man’s chest. “Clear.” He said, then he pressed a button on the machine and pressed the pads to the stickers. Electricity punched its way through Eric’s chest, and his body arched, but fell flat again moments later. Harris upped the charge, delivered another one, but again Eric fell limp. A third, final charge surged into Eric’s body, and then Bevin shook his head. The man was dead.

“Shit, shit shit shit!” Harris was pacing. The younger man was flustered, hands going to his head. “Fuck!”

“Calm down! First things first, we need to notify any next of kin, we follow procedure, as always.”

“He’s dead, that USB is still out there, and our only lead is dead!”

“I said calm down!” Bevin stood, raising his voice then immediately regretting it. Telling someone to calm down by shouting was counterproductive at the best of times. “Now, deep breath, did you get the right pill?”

“Yes, I got the right fucking pill.” Harris spat.

“Okay, then we know it was natural causes. An autopsy will find out the reason. Don’t panic.” But what if…

Bevin wasn’t going to give voice to his thoughts, not in front of Harris and not with microphones listening in. Paranoia was a good quality for a spy, but it was also paralysing.

“Go and get some rest. I’ll call you once I know more.” Bevin herded Harris out of the room, looked at the camera, and pursed his lips thoughtfully.

****

The little Honda Civic had avoided any of Peter or Rob’s usual haunts. Paranoia was a quality not only found in spies, and the former SAS operatives had found themselves driving around at random. Exhaustion had kicked in – in a few hours it would be sun-up, and they couldn’t trundle down London’s streets forever. Coming up with a plan, a way forward, was proving challenging.

“So, we can’t go to the police, the Army, MI5, MI6, any government office – where do we go then?” Rob was doing a good job of narrowing their options.

“I need some time to figure out how to get into this data without being tracked. My bet is the USB has a tracking device – it powers up whenever the stick is plugged in, very clever. We can’t use it without giving up where we are.”

“So how do we get into it?”

“I’m gonna crack it open and find the transmitter.” Peter rounded a corner and parked up. “Then we can look at it to our hearts’ content. We need to expose what this does, and then go to the right people.”

“Who are the right people?” Asked Rob.

“Fucked if I know.” Peter turned the small white stick around in his hands, looking to see if he could prise it apart. A small seam, where the silver rectangle met the casing, was a vulnerable point. Using his thumb nail, Peter began to gently ease the casing apart. There was an audible crack as the plastic came apart, and another crack as a fracture appeared down the line of the case. Peter winced, but then let out an ‘aha’ as the casing fell away, revealing a small green board with gold lines, and a criss-cross gold structure on one side, with a small, red bulb on the other.

“Is that the transmitter?” Asked Rob curiously.

“Dunno. The light comes on when the USB is plugged in and getting power. I’ll have to have a proper look at this, but we’ll do it in the morning. We need a place to stay. You got any cash?”

Rob groaned. “Why?”

“I’m not slumming it in a car until this blows over. We’ll book into a hotel.”

“I don’t have unlimited funds you know.”

Peter shot Rob a dirty look. “I’ll get some cash too, we only need a few days, we’ll be alright.”

Rob sighed. “Ok, so, assuming you can figure out exactly what this code is, how it works and who’s behind it, who do we actually trust to help us?”

“Like I said, fucked if I know. First things first, we get into a hotel as soon as we can, and get some kip.”

 

 

He opened his eyes.

Took a gasping breath, and leaned up, coughing as he did.

A sharp pain jolted through his left side, and he grimaced. His hand went to instinctively clutch at the hurting region, met with cloth that had been torn or sliced through. The dull grey and beige rags adorning his body looked threadbare, and stained with… blood? Blinking, the man took stock of his surroundings.

Wheat, and lots of it. The plants and their fruit were still green, and they waved languidly in the gentle breeze. It was then that the man realised he was in fact laying upon some of it – several stems had been bent over where his body had fallen upon them. Others had snapped completely, and now the rough form of the seeds was irritating his back and neck. He sat up again, slowly, attempting to brush straggling bits of wheat from his back, though that was proving difficult.

He looked around him. The wheat had grown quite tall, and obscured his view of anything except more wheat, with the exception of a patch of sky. Above him the heavens were varying shades of red and orange; either the sun was coming up, or it was going down. He couldn’t tell. A few lazy wispy clouds were travelling eastward of him. Though it was unclear, he thought he could pick up on a few twinkling stars.

Pain continued to be a companion of his, but he propped himself up on his elbows, taking stock. His pain, thinning top was indeed ripped, and around the hole the fabric was mottled a dark red. My own blood? Trousers, a dull, faded brown, and flimsy shoes with brown leather that was starting to cure and peel, completed his meagre outfit. The man stole a glance around him, trying to find any clues as to why he’d ended up unconscious in a wheat field, with an apparent wound in his abdomen (though his body was without said wound, another mystery to solve). It was as he stood that he caught sight of the other body.

At first, all he could make out were the legs. The shoes and trousers were similar to his own, but as his eyes progressed along the other person, he noted that the top was cleaner than his own, save for one, glaring detail.

Around the collar and neck, blood had soaked the material. As it became apparent that he was staring at a man, and a corpse, the cause of death also revealed itself. The other man’s throat had been all but ripped out – it was a shredded mess of flesh, windpipe, and skin. The face was contorted in pain and fear, eyes still open, but devoid of life.

He recoiled in horror, stumbling backwards and tripping over, ending up on his backside. It was then that he became aware of how dry his throat was, and the hammering of his own beating heart as adrenaline surged through him. He wanted to retch, but he pushed the acidic sensation down, trying instead to focus. Something metallic glinted in the light (which by now was fading – night is setting in). One of them had brought a sword, which looked remarkably well-made. The blade was long, smooth and conveyed a sense of deadly sharpness. The hilt was simple – a plain black leather, easy to grip, but big enough to require both hands, with gold cross-guards. How do I know this?

Blood was still congealing on the sword, a marker that whatever had transpired between these two had happened quite recently. Some deep instinct stirred within him, told him he needed to leave, immediately. To linger would be folly.

As he stood again, his eyes fixed to the sword. There was no scabbard, and he himself had no belt upon which to secure the weapon, but he felt the urge to take it. The fallen man had a belt, a simple black leather one with a small hoop to contain the sword. Though he felt it wrong to rob the deceased, he hastily unclipped the belt and took it for himself. Next, he carefully wiped the blade against the wheat, no doubt spoiling a small portion of the farmer’s crop, but not too much. It wasn’t a perfect job, the sword was still stained, but it would have to do.

A question that had been floating around his mind since he awoke came to the fore. What happened? Why don’t I remember? Why didn’t he remember anything? Yet, he knew what a sword was, knew he was in a wheat field, knew the difference between night and day…

Now he was standing he had a clear view. A scare-crow made of straw had been crucified upon wooden beams, and stuffed into old cream-coloured clothing, but the blackbirds had been undeterred, and pecked at the exposed straw, occasionally squawking. Their noise increased sharply as he approached, and the birds took flight, annoyed that their surveillance had been interrupted. He ignored them and made for the small path he could see in the distance.

A crumbling stone street waited him, with several of the cobbled paving stones bearing the mark of cracks, water saturation and scratches from animal hooves and claws. It hadn’t been maintained for years. The path also offered no clue as to where to go next – did he go right or left? With the sunlight almost gone and the moonlight doing a wholly inadequate job as a replacement source of illumination, he had to make a choice. With a deep breath he started out to his left, not truly knowing if he were heading north, south, east or west. He just knew he had to put some distance between himself and the event behind him.

There was no one else around, not a hint of civilisation to be seen, or heard, or smelled. To his right was another field, filled with barley. A faint scent still carried from it in the wind, that was starting to pick up as night fell. Like the wheat, it wasn’t yet ready for harvesting. He couldn’t explain why, but he got a faint sense of dread when he thought of the harvest, as though a bad memory lurked underneath the veil of amnesia. Picking up his pace, he decided he wanted to be clear of the fields as quickly as possible.

After an indeterminate length of time, he became aware of a sound, the quiet but unmistakable sound of water, gurgling as it rushed along a river or a stream. The noise brought with it a reminder that he was parched, his throat feeling as though he’d swallowed a rusty razor blade. Ahead of him the path was bearing to the right, and starting to slope downward, which brought into view a welcome sight – thatched roofs, wooden slates, and a small windmill, with a brook running by it. He had stumbled upon a village!

It was then that he had to check himself. His top was blood-stained, and he carried a sword. What would the people in the little hamlet make of him? Maybe they know me…

If they did know him, was that a good thing? His mind was tying itself in knots trying to figure out if he should keep going forward, or whether he should simply turn around and seek solitude. No, I can’t run away, what will that accomplish? He went onward, for the first time spying people, putting away barrels and clay bowls, and closing up wooden shutters on their windows. So far, no one had noticed – or appeared to have noticed – his approach. With the sword gently slapping his thigh, and the leather soles of his shoes tapping the bumpy surface beneath him, the man wandered into the village…

With more than a little trepidation Peter opened the door. He managed to put on a false smile for Dalton, who wore a deeper scowl than he had earlier. Behind him stood Stanton, who shuffled nervously on his feet. Two other men, one short-haired dark-skinned man who looked like he’d been going to the gym all his life, and one wiry, beady-eyed pale-skinned man, stood a little further back. They weren’t in military uniforms; black jackets, ties and trousers were the order of the day for them, even in the middle of the night. They screamed spooks.

“Captain Myers, these men are from MI5. They have informed me that Eric Cooper is in possession of highly sensitive material that he shouldn’t have. They are here to arrest him.”

Peter did his ‘shocked’ face and looked at Eric with incredulity. “You fuckin’ wanker, I trusted you…” He took a step toward Eric but a restraining hand on the shoulder from Dalton stopped him.

“Not now Captain, he’ll be dealt with.”

Rob was wearing the same stunned expression. He shook his head at Eric as he walked out of the room, letting the MI5 officers head in.

“This isn’t true!” Eric shouted, kicking out at the wiry agent. The officer grunted in pain but moved quickly, yanking Eric’s hands behind him whilst his partner moved to slap on handcuffs. With practiced experience he delivered a head butt to the smaller of the two men, who gasped and grabbed at his nose. Peter and Rob both sprang into action, grabbing Eric, holding him still.

“Come on mate, don’t do this…” Rob said through gritted teeth as he tried to hold his struggling friend. “Just go with them.”

The other agent had pulled a pistol from a concealed holster. He held it by his side, eyes fixed on Eric. “Don’t do anything like that again.” His voice rumbled with threat. All Eric could do was to stare back, but his eyes held defeat.

Rob pulled the injured agent back to his feet. “Can we get this fella a towel, some tissue or somethin’?”

“Stanton, see to it.” Barked Dalton. The corporal scurried away. Other guards had clustered around, curious to see what was going on – a stern glance from Dalton saw them move on. “Captain Myers, you say you know this man?”

“Yes sir, we served together, as I said earlier. I can’t believe he would do this…” He began, as the MI5 agents began to haul Eric away. “I thought he was a decent guy.” His voice raised an octave, making sure Eric could hear.

“We’ll need to speak to you two as well…” The broader of the two agents said over his shoulder. By now Stanton had returned, handing a bunch of tissue paper to the wounded agent. Dalton rolled his eyes at what would inevitably be a messy scene. “Colonel, would you take their contact details for us?”

“Of course. I’ll have someone escort you out of the base.”

“Thank you for your cooperation Colonel.”

****

“Did you order it?” Peter asked Rob quietly as they climbed back into Rob’s car.

“Yeah, got the Chinese on order.” It was a code, in case anyone had planted a bug on his car. “You wanted the beef in black bean yeah?”

“Yeah. Let’s go home.”

****

The black Mercedes trundled down streets that were still surprisingly full of traffic, even though midnight had come and gone. Bright Christmas lights, hung between buildings, showed off the warmer spirit of the season, though Eric felt cold, and not from the weather. Will they torture me? Do they know anything of this code, or are they just following orders? He was handcuffed, and all too aware that the driver would probably have a gun in the glove box – MI5 agents and SAS soldiers were different in so many ways, yet alike in others.

The injured agent was muttering about his ‘broken nose’, to which the driver had told him – more than once – to stop moaning, and to not get blood on the light-brown leather interior. That was proving tricky, as the agent had nearly used up all the tissues.

Eric clung to the hope that Peter and Rob had avoided arousing suspicion and that they were safely away. The decoy USB was now in the pocket of agent ‘Harris’, the one nursing the broken nose. It wouldn’t take them long to realise what had happened once they arrived at their destination, but Rob and Peter were dab hands at evasion techniques. He watched as the car came down Horseferry Road and turned right into Thorney Street. Bollards protecting an underground car park to the left lowered and the security barriers retracted, allowing the car entry.

After heading down a couple of levels, the car parked up, next to another, similar vehicle. Eric was pulled from the car and marched toward a set of lifts.

“Am I actually going to be charged with anything, or is this all off record?” He said slowly.

“How about being charged with GBH you old fart.” Growled Harris. The other agent rebuked him with a look.

“Come on. And to answer your question…” He paused to slide a security pass into a reader by the lifts. “You’re facing charges pertaining to breaching national security.”

“Ah.”

The lift ride was quiet. They went up several floors, then the doors opened up into what could have easily passed for any average London office. A few private offices with their shutters down, a few rows of desks, a few of which were manned, even gone midnight (made sense), and several people walking around with folders. The water cooler looked nearly empty, and there was a half-empty vending machine too.

Toward the end of the bright corridor was a turn to the right, that Eric was led down, to see yet more offices. He was steered into one of them. Awaiting him was a simple room with a grey MDF desk, and three basic chairs that looked like slightly scaled up versions of what he’d been used to from his school days. A single fluorescent tube light was protected from tampering with thin grating, and Eric took note of the extractor fan in the corner, farthest from the door. A small camera poked out of the wall facing Eric.

Eric was manoeuvred into the chair, whilst Harris and the other agent sat down opposite him.

“I’m Agent Bevin, you’ve met Agent Harris…” Bevin’s voice was quite deep, a voice that commanded respect. “And you are Eric Cooper, formerly a corporal of the SAS. Currently working for One Touch Security, and residing in Upminster. Married, but no children.” Bevin leaned back. “You are also said to be in possession of highly classified material that compromises national security.”

Eric shrugged as best he could; he was still cuffed, with his shoulders starting to ache where his arms were crossed behind his back. “Given someone’s already tried to kill me to get it back, I’d say it’s very serious.”

Bevin and Harris exchanged a confused glance. It was very subtle, but Eric caught it.

“According to our report, an agent was sent to apprehend and arrest you.” Replied Bevin.

“Well, your report is wrong. Either you’re lying or someone is lying to you.”

Harris leaned forward. “You stole something you shouldn’t have, and killed to keep it.” Harris failed to keep the irritation from his voice.

“I found something, a backdoor, right into your systems, MI6, every government authority, every power grid and more. One so good you wouldn’t even know it was there.” Eric kept his voice calm and level. The camera would be recording every second, which meant anyone watching who was involved would be thinking of how to shut him up. If these two are compromised, I’m dead.

“Bullshit.” Spat Harris. “You’re lying…”

“Shut up Harris.” Bevin ordered. “Idiot…” He muttered. “Mr Cooper, we’re working to make sure we can defend this nation against any threats, internal or external, through the cleanest, quietest means possible. In this day and age, that includes computers and hacking, obviously. Let’s loosen those cuffs…”

Is this a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine? Eric wondered as Bevin got up, walked around and unlocked the cuffs, offering welcome and blessed relief to Eric’s sore shoulders. He rotated each one to get some blood flowing again.

“The fact is Mr Cooper, your employers are working on something for us. They’ve been working quietly for years to develop the tools we need to stop our enemies from getting into vulnerable systems. They have powerful corporate enemies of their own, to say nothing of other countries who are trying to develop similar systems. This is deep espionage, I’m sure you understand how far this rabbit hole goes.”

“Then why the backdoor into our own systems, including MI5?” Eric asked. “Why would you need a code so secret hardly anyone could find it or exploit it, in your own system?”

“There’s no ‘backdoor’. Our systems are completely secure, and sit outside the remit of One Touch. Has it occurred to you that one of their rivals, or ours, is trying to undermine us? Or perhaps you took the data in order to sell it.” Bevin stepped back in front of the table and stared at Eric. “A code like this is worth huge sums of money, and people will pay it. You’d be very wealthy.”

Eric sneered. “You know my history. You know what I’ve given for my country. I’m not about to sell out, and I’m telling you the truth. I’m sure you have ways and means of verifying if someone is being honest with you. Give them a try.”

Bevin exchanged a sideways glance with the pouting Harris. “Perhaps we will.”

There was a knock at the door. With a grunt Bevin walked over and opened it. A mousey-haired man in a suit whispered into his ear, but Eric could see the man’s lips. They’d discovered the USB he’d been carrying was a decoy.

The door closed again. Bevin stepped back to the desk. “Where is the USB with the code?”

“You took it.” Eric said simply.

“You switched it. Right now, the means to unlock every major electronic system of our country’s competitors, a vital tool to this nation’s security, is out there, who knows where, because of you. Where is it?” Bevin’s voice had taken on a harder edge.

“I have no idea.”

Bevin’s hands slapped down upon the table with an audible whack. “You’d better get an idea, and quickly. If that code falls into the wrong hands it can be reverse engineered and…”

“Ha. Someone’s already done that. You should be more worried about that than me.”

“Harris, get the drugs.” Bevin didn’t take his eyes off Eric. “I have the utmost respect for those who served their country, but you are playing a dangerous game sir. If you are telling the truth…” He said as Harris stepped out of the room. “Then why not come forward, to us, to me, right now. Why the cloak and dagger routine?”

Eric leaned forward. “Because I don’t know who to trust. I’ve already had one attempt on my life, and it cost me the life of a good friend. That tells me there’s someone in your organisation, feeding you disinformation. For all I know, you’re involved.”

“We need to verify your claims. I don’t act on someone’s word,  not unless I am very sure of that person.”

“Hence the drugs.”

“Hence the drugs.” Repeated Bevin.

A red Astra trundled up to the sleepy London street, with only a couple of people milling about. A few other cars were parked up on either side of the road, and only a couple of the street lights were on, casting a slightly disconcerting orange glow. In the distance Eric could hear the sound of traffic – London never truly slept, even on cold December nights, and as he got out of the car, that buzz of activity seemed closer than it actually was. The rows of white-walled terraced houses all looked alike, with steps leading up to each door. Some of the steps were quite clean; others were spattered with bird droppings and wrappers from crisps and other items. Black fence poles cordoned off several steps that led to low-level flats. At least, that was how it was meant to look.

Attention to detail was everything, that Eric knew. These people operated in shadows; they knew how to misdirect. Peter pulled his grey duffel coat tight around his waist. “This way.” He drew curious glances from the other people in the street, and Eric knew why. A couple of them were starting to walk closer, quite briskly, but Peter wasn’t hurrying. He led them down one of the small, curving staircases to a black door, and slid a key card between a pair of bricks. The door clicked and Peter pushed it open. He looked up as the two approachees came over and flashed his card. They looked a little uncertain, but nodded and walked off.

“You two had better be right, because if you’re not I’m completely fucked.” He almost snarled as he quickly pushed Eric and Rob inside. The narrow corridor was lined with florescent tube lights, several of which flickered pathetically. Despite the appearance of cold brick walls, the corridor was quite warm, enough to prompt all three men to remove their coats. Eric made sure the USB drive stayed in his pocket.

Before long the corridor turned right and became wider. The lighting improved; big, circular LEDs ensured everyone could see. Several doors were lined up on both the right and left side of the corridor, each one with a key card access slot for entry. Sentries in green military fatigues shot Eric and Rob suspicious stares, but backed off when they realised they were with Peter. He slid his card into one of the doors on the right. “Corporal Stanton…” He asked of the closest guard, a young man with shaven black hair and hard, grey eyes. “Could you sort out proper clearance for these two? Ex-SAS that Colonel Dalton wants given Level 1 access.”

Stanton looked Eric and Rob up and down. Eric felt very sheepish in his tatty, stolen clothes, but years of training kept him cool under pressure. Rob smiled pleasantly.

“Very good sir.” Stanton headed off down the corridor. Peter pushed open the door.

“Why did you go and do that?” Rob asked as the door closed with a click. “We want to be discreet not obvious!”

“Yeah, and I want to keep my job, besides, sneaking around this place without proper clearance is pretty damn obvious.” Retorted Peter. Eric had to admit that the man had a point. “Besides, Dalton won’t refuse me, he owes me.”

“I dread to think why…” Said Rob under his breath.

The room they were in was reasonably sized, with a desk and two computers at one end – big towers hooked up to 19″ widescreen monitors. Headsets with microphone attachments allowed for private communications. The walls were plain white – repainted recently, judging from the faint smell in the air, though a fan whirred in the top right corner of the room. Two small black leather chairs with armrests were in front of either computer.

“Right, let’s get to work.” Said Peter as he slipped into one of the chairs. Eric and Rob both gestured for the other to take the other seat, before Rob more or less pushed Eric into it. “You might as well sit, you’ve been the one doing all the walking.” Rob insisted.

Peter picked up a small crosshead screwdriver from a little rack of drawers beside his terminal, and began to take the screws out the side of the computer, making sure to carefully stow the screws as each one fell out. With practised hands he then disconnected the wireless card, and the network card for good measure. “This will likely trigger an alert when I switch it on, so we best work quickly.” He said, more to himself. “Give me the USB.” He ordered. Eric didn’t argue and handed it over.

Peter fired up the PC, and it hummed into life. Lights flickered and the screen flashed up with familiar corporate logos that even the Army couldn’t avoid. Peter tapped in his login details – guarding them quite severely – and a series of icons appeared on the monitor. He stuck the USB drive into one of the slots, and tapped on the keyboard at a speed even Eric envied.

“What do we have that’s so important…” Peter opened up folders and sub-folders, clicking on random files. At least, it seemed random. There was a knock on the door.

“Answer that would you please Rob?” Asked Peter, never taking his eyes off the screen as lines of code appeared. Rob sneered but did as asked.

Stanton was standing there, his eyes as stern as before, and behind him, in standard Army khakis, stood a tall man with a crown and two gold stars on his shoulders, signifying the rank of Colonel. Whisps of silver snaked through his thick black hair, that was nonetheless starting to recede from his forehead. His blue eyes looked tired; Eric suspected that was from the weight of command, though tiny red lines and flushed red cheeks indicated Colonel Dalton was a man who had over-indulged at one or point or another. A small moustache was technically a breach of protocol, but here, of all places, it went unquestioned.

“Who the hell are you?” Asked the Colonel, unimpressed with a complete stranger being in his base. The anger in the gravely voice deepened when he spotted Eric. His eyes turned to Peter, who had yet to turn around.

“Captain Myers, what do you think you are doing?” Dalton didn’t quite shout.

“Apologies sir…” Peter span the chair around. “Please meet Corporal Rob Dennings and Corporal Eric Cooper, formerly of the Regiment. I needed their help sir.”

“With what?”

“Again, apologies sir, I cannot say with uncleared officers present…” Peter nodded at Stanton, whose scowl remained unchanged. “… It pertains to the Ivory Coast.” There was something in the way Peter spoke the last two words that just slightly drained the blood from Dalton’s face.

“Understood. In future, perhaps you could run your plans by me?” It was less of a question and more of a warning.

“Of course sir.” Peter came across as far too nice.

“Very good. Carry on, inform me of your progress.” Dalton was all business now.

“Yes sir.”

Dalton gave them each one final, searching look, before stepping away. Stanton closed the door.

“Thank fuck.” Peter span the chair back to the screen. “Can’t stand that arrogant prick. Still, he knows I can fuck him over. This is interesting. Very interesting.” He tapped on the keyboard again. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“Well, don’t keep us in suspense!” Rob walked back over. “What is it?”

A 3D box had appeared on the screen, with different-coloured lines arching out of it and streaming off toward various icons. Eric squinted, making out a few words, including ‘power grid’ and ‘communications’.

“Eric was right, it’s a backdoor alright, the mother of all backdoors. Whatever this is, it allows unseen and complete access to anything with a chip made by One Touch, and fuck me do they get around. They’re global. They can get into the Pentagon if they want to. Access MI5 databases, the Kremlin’s computers, and Lord knows how many mobile phones, and no one – at least, not unless they were very sure of what to look for – would even know they’d been hacked. The coding is very well hidden. You said this was sent to you?”

“Yeah. Someone inside the company sent it to me. No idea why they chose me.” Eric wished they hadn’t.

“Probably hacked your personnel file, knew your history.” Said Peter casually. “God knows why they didn’t just go to the police or something.”

“Maybe the police are compromised, or they think the police are compromised?” Rob said. “After all, you said this software is everywhere, it must have taken one hell of an effort to do that.”

“Come to think of it…” Peter kept tapping on the keyboard. “One company managing to get all those contracts is very odd. I reckon someone up high is pulling some serious strings.”

“All the more reason to find out as much as possible before we go to the authorities.” Replied Eric.

“Yeah yeah. The USB only has details of this backdoor, it doesn’t seem to have anything else on it, no files on who’s involved or anything like that. Sorry mate…” Peter sounded apologetic. “You can suggest One Touch is up to something dodgy with this, but anyone might be working with them. Plus, if I were them, I’d just deny all knowledge. Easily enough done. Worse, you might get ‘plausible deniability’.”

“So, we’ve achieved nothing.” Muttered Rob.

“Oh, no.” Peter said with mockery in his voice. “We now know we face an enemy we can’t link anything to, stop, or even identify. That’s progress.”

“Don’t give us that sarcastic crap Pete. It’s not helpful.” Rob allowed disdain to enter his voice.

“Well what do you want me to say? That’s the boat we’re in, all of us, including me now you’ve dragged my arse into it. Only thing is, this code might…”

The sound of raised voices cut Peter off. An angry discussion started up, that quickly died down again. Someone started hammering on the door.

“Captain Myers, open this door, that’s an order.” Colonel Dalton sounded annoyed.

“Is there another way out of here?” Asked Eric, scanning the room for any options.

“Nope. Well, not from this room, but there are ways out of the base. You won’t like them.” Peter grimaced. “Fuckin’ dangerous but I don’t think we have a choice.” He yanked the USB stick out of the terminal and handed it to Rob. “They’ll want Eric, they’ll assume he has this.”

Rob smiled. “Diversion and misdirection. Just like old times.”

“Yeah, well, here’s where you go…”

Chapter 11

Back to Techno Fail

There was something that London did very well. It did opulence, finery and elegance in a way few other cities could match, and tied it all together in a setting that brimmed with a rich history. Looking out from the huge bay windows of the master bedroom, Mr Lanker savoured his glass of whisky, poured out of a diamond decanter. His tie had been discarded and was strewn upon the bed, as was his shirt and the remainder of his clothing. A female hand was wrapped around his torso, and he turned to look at his latest conquest. The pretty young brunette had been eager to go to bed with him, and he had decided to reward himself for closing off one side of the worrying leak. The young woman was an employee, but a low-level one, who wanted to impress her boss, and impress she had. Lanker could never be interested beyond sex, but if it transpired she was good at her job, she might get a promotion, one that kept her closer to him.

“Drink my dear?” He asked, before emptying the contents of his own glass. The liquid burned smoothly – he savoured it.

“Mmm, sure, what do you have?” She all but purred.

“Anything you like, though the red wine is particularly good, some form of vintage, I don’t know the label.”

“Sounds good to me.”

He got up, slipping on his boxers as he did. The drinks cabinet in the master bedroom was an extravagance he had afforded himself, and he poured out two glasses of red from a bottle stored within it, kept nice and chilled. The modern square-style chandelier provided a warm glow that wasn’t too bright, and made the wine seem a deeper shade than it actually was. He grinned as he handed over one of the glasses. “So how long have you been with One Touch?”

“About six weeks. I never thought, I mean, I wouldn’t normally…”

“Hush. It’s quite alright. You are single, I am single. We are two consenting adults no? Does it matter what our respective positions are? Does it matter if I am dominant…” He inwardly smiled at the little flutter of her eyelids that comment provoked. “and you are submissive, in a business sense of course? As long as we are hurting no one, then it doesn’t matter.”

“So, does this mean I’m not a one-time thing?” She asked cautiously.

“You are not a one-time thing Melanie.” She seemed pleased he knew her name. “But, I am not proposing anything other than the physical, and at work it is strictly business.”

“Oh, for sure, I’m not looking for anything serious anyway.”

“Good. You will have the second bedroom tonight, there are too many people who would wish to make a scandal of this, so discretion, we must always be discrete.” Young Melanie appeared crestfallen, so he cupped her chin in his hand. “But first, shall we finalise our arrangement with another round?”

She grinned again, and as his boxers came back off, his thoughts moved away from phase two…

****

Eric had desperately wanted to speak to Mary, to let her know he was alright, but instead Rob had dropped Fiona outside and she had knocked on the door, before a brief yet animated chat. Fiona had gone inside, and then Rob and Eric were off, heading toward a secret rendezvous. Rob hadn’t questioned Eric’s insistence on public phone boxes and landlines only, and now they sped down dark London streets to find the other person they were prepared to involve. They found themselves in Hampstead, thankful for the good luck that meant he was off duty.

As per their plan, the man was walking down the street. Dressed in a black button-up coat, he looked like he’d just stepped out of the nearby pub. As Rob pulled up, he and Eric made a show of a friendly greeting. The man smiled and laughed with them, and took them up on their offer of a ride. He climbed into the back, and his demeanour changed.

“Didn’t think I’d ever hear from you two again.” He said gruffly.

“Good to see you too Peter.” Replied Rob, matching Peter’s tone.

“It actually is good to see you Pete.” Added Eric.

“Hmm. So you said this was serious, as serious as it gets. What is it?”

The car started moving. Eric craned his neck to look Peter in the eye. “It’s serious enough that someone killed Andrew and tried to kill me.”

“Fuck! Harper’s dead? Never did like him, ran me too hard, but still… Who killed him?”

“I don’t know his name, but I took care of him. He was after this…” Eric pulled the silver USB drive from his pocket. “Someone wanted me to find what’s on this drive, and someone else thinks it’s important enough to kill for.”

“What’s on it?”

“A backdoor program to nearly every phone, computer and tablet in the world.”

“Fuck. You sure?” Peter’s tone was slightly disparaging.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Replied Eric curtly. “I worked for the company that designed this. You’re not the only computer bod.”

“Alright, keep your hair on. Any idea what they want it for?”

“No.” Admitted Eric. “But it will give them access to major government departments, military bases, major infrastructure and big businesses. Not just here either, but all over the world.”

Peter was silent for a moment. “Something like that is impossible.” He said slowly.

“Yeah, well, this USB says otherwise. We need a computer that’s isolated, completely off the grid.” Eric replied. “And we need one with military-grade anti-virus and decryption software.”

“I can’t just waltz into the base and take a computer. They do search us you know.”

“But you can get us inside.” Rob spoke up. “We can take out any… what was it, network cards? And do what we need to do.”

Peter rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Let me get this straight. You want me to invite you onto the barracks, then let you have access to a computer, unsupervised, because of some wild stupid story? Fuck me that’s good.”

“We’re serious. Do we think we’d make up someone murdering the Captain?” There was heat in Rob’s voice.

“I don’t know what you two would make up, but fuck it, even if I wanted to help, you two would need all sorts of clearance.”

“Well, we’re all ex-SAS, that will count for something.” Remarked Eric.

Peter sighed. “Yeah, I suppose. I’ll try to get you in, for old time’s sake, when do you wanna go?”

Eric and Rob both looked at him.

“Fuck, you want to go right now?” Peter sighed again. “Ok, fine. You two are gonna be the death of me.”

The car sped off, toward a military facility of non-descript appearance.

****

Lanker had not yet fallen asleep; the hour was only 11pm and he did not tend to sleep much. Melanie had ‘retired’ to the guest bedroom, as he preferred to complete one or private rituals in the evening. Another glass of red wine, one final peruse of work emails, and a few checks on other projects, to make sure everything was proceeding as it should – it all took place from the privacy of his bed. Fatigue was slowly claiming him, but he was not yet finished – too much needed doing. He was however, winding down for the night when his phone starting buzzing upon his sleek gloss-white bedside cabinet. The caller ID was blank.

Lanker pressed the green accept call button and scoope the phone to his ear. “Hello.”

“We have a major problem.” Came the non-descript voice of his contact. “”Have you seen the local news? My agent has not completed his scheduled check in – I believe he is dead.”

Lanker’s blood suddenly ran very cold. “How can that be? He was sent to kill an old man.”

“An older man with military training. Someone who probably suspected he was going to be hunted.”

“Your agent underestimated him.” Lanker allowed a little anger to creep into his voice.

“And Mr Cooper has failed to understand the lengths to which we will protect our plans. Right now the agent’s phone is moving out of the Hampstead region of London. He doesn’t know we can track it even with GPS turned off. I have people who will ensure he is silenced. Trust me.”

“I hope you are right. There is no telling who he has spoken to. Can you retrieve the agent’s body? That alone is a security breach.”

“Again, I am taking care of it. Do not concern yourself with my end of the task. Phase two is your only worry.”

Chapter 10

Back to Techno Fail

 

 

 

The tea grew cold as Eric recounted his story to Rob and Fiona. His old friend could barely contain his shock at learning of Andrew’s death. With each word the weight on Eric’s shoulders seemed to shift – it was a relief to get everything off his chest, but he was already tying Rob, and Fiona, to something that could potentially get them killed.

“So, the people behind Andrew’s murder think you’re dead?” Rob asked as Eric reached the end of his tale. Eric nodded. “Well, at least they won’t be lookin’ for ya eh?”

“That’s about the only good thing to come out of all this. I can’t go home to Mary, I don’t know how paranoid these people are. I am truly sorry mate, for getting you involved…” Eric was stopped by Rob’s raised hand.

“Don’t apologise mate. Some serious shit has happened and one of the best blokes I’ve ever known has been gunned down in his own home. I know where some of the rest of our squad live, I’ll rope them in, and we’ll find a way to stop these bastards.”

Eric smiled weakly. Even now, in his (suspected) sixties, Rob would be a force to be reckoned with. The mad fool had overcome so much in his life, from racist idiots (even some in the Army), to being tortured, and being shot, and even now he would do it all over again to help Eric and avenge Andrew. “I don’t know what to say. I owe you, big time.”

Rob put a hand on Eric’s knee. “Mate, you’re the one who got me out of that Colombian camp. I owe you, and I’ll repay my debt. My car is out front. Fiona babe…” He looked up at his wife, who was looking back at him with a mix of pride and worry in her brown eyes. “Can you check in on Mary for us? Make sure she’s alright yeah?”

“Not a problem.” Replied Fiona. She had accepted her husband’s choices a long time ago.

Eric felt tears sting his eyes. “Thank you, both of you.”

“Don’t get all mushy on me. Come on, let’s round up the old gang.”

****

Stephen’s phone on the desk went off with an annoying jangle that he’d never been able to change. He grabbed the handset and nearly dropped it – the caffeine had kicked in, but not nearly enough.

“Hi… yeah, yeah…. ok, we’ll be there soon.” He looked over at Adjoa, who was scribbling notes on a piece of paper. “Coroner’s office. They’ve finished their preliminary look, we can go down there if we want.”

Adjoa was already standing and grabbing her coat. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”

The Coroner’s Court was in Walthamstow, a short drive away. A tired-looking security guard waved them into the car park as they arrived, and another guard escorted them to the mortuary. The thick metal door swung open and the pair stepped into a bright room with a couple of examination tables and a work top of gleaming steel with several cupboards above it and under it. Medical instruments of various kinds were in containers on the bench, and a few more were soaking in sterilising alcohol in beakers. There was a strange odour, one of cleaning fluids, that made both of them scrunch up their noses. The body of the deceased lay upon one of the tables, cut open in several places where the doctor had performed the autopsy.

“Hi, welcome.” An older man, with thinning and greying hair, had opened the door. His face was somewhat thin and his surgical gown was spattered with blood. Narrow blue eyes gave both Stephen and Adjoa searching looks. Then the man smiled. “Apologies for the state of me, but it’s hard to not get messy doing this sort of work. I’m Doctor Lewinson, and you are…?”

“Detective Inspector Idowu and Detective Inspector Barrett.” Replied Adjoa. “What do you have for us Doctor?”

“Well…” The doctor gestured at the body. “This man is, judging from what I can gather, no older than forty, and was in generally good health. No signs of any abnormalities. The only issues of note are a few injuries sustained around the time of death, possibly before. Both ankles are badly bruised, as though kicked or stamped on. The left knee is fractured. There’s bruising on the ribcage. This man was assaulted before he was killed. There’s more…” Doctor Lewinson walked to the body. “I can’t be certain, but most of the bullet wounds appear to be post-mortem.”

“The plot thickens…” Muttered Adjoa to herself. “Have you been able to ID him?”

Doctor Lewinson gave a sympathetic smile. “I’m afraid not. I’ve sent off blood samples and taken finger prints, they might turn up something if he’s in the database. The placement of the shots from the killer were very good, designed to make it nearly impossible to ID, at least not quickly. One thing of interest did come up when examining his hands…” Lewinson peered at them. “There are fibres from two different articles of clothing. He didn’t die in what he was wearing when you found him.”

Adjoa and Stephen exchanged a glance.

“I’m not a detective, but your killer knew how to cover himself. However, I’ve got possible skin samples that would have carried over from his clothes to the victim. They’re also off for analysis.”

“How long will that take?” Asked Stephen.

“Oh, several hours yet. I’m due to clock out soon, but one of my colleagues will let you know when they’re ready.”

“Thank you Doctor.” Said Adjoa. You’ve given us a lot to go on already.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Thank you for your help.” Replied Adjoa with a tight smile.

“If there’s anything else you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”

The police officers bade the doctor goodbye, and headed back into the night.

“So now what?” Enquired Stephen as they climbed into the car. “This case is getting weirder and weirder.”

“Yeah. I don’t think that body is our mystery man. He’s still out there. We need to find out what links him to Andrew Harper.”

“Harper was ex-Army, maybe they served together?”

“You know, that’s a good call. I’d put money on it. So, shall we get a few hours sleep? I can drop you home.”

Stephen smiled. “Adjoa, you are a star.”

To Chapter 9

Back to Techno Fail

Eric walked as briskly as he could in the clothes that didn’t quite fit, acutely aware of the police vans that had raced past him a few moments earlier. They hadn’t suddenly stopped and come back for him, so it seemed that, for the moment, he had gotten away. He wasn’t prepared to ride his luck too hard though.

His thoughts turned to Mary. She would be in danger, even now, but would she be in even more danger if he returned home? One Touch Security would have his address on record; should he call her, warn her, or would that tip off anyone who was listening in? Then again, he had the advantage, the assassin’s employer thought he was dead. How long would it take for that news to reach Mary, if at all? Eric was leaving her in limbo.

First things first, get away from the crime scene… Eric had dumped the gun in a hedge, having taken care to wipe his prints off it. Up ahead was the familiar roundel logo of the London Underground, and Fairlop station. Within a few minutes he was walking under the bridge and turning right to head to the station entrance, only to be greeted by a throng of unhappy, cold Londoners milling about outside the station. Staff in orange hi-vis jackets were trying to address the various loud voices that were expressing their dissatisfaction in colourful terms. Eric watched, and listened briefly to the staff members explaining that the police had shut down the local section of the line temporarily. That had to be because of him. There wasn’t much he could do, so Eric considered his options. It was a long walk to another line, and despite his pride in staying fit he wasn’t getting any younger. The chilly December air was biting harder as night settled in.

A deep breath, a moment of composed thought, and Eric had an idea. He didn’t trust the assassin’s phone, so he had to rely on the map on the wall in front of the station. Sure enough, a possible safe haven wasn’t too far away…

****

With the body on the way to the mortuary, Adjoa and Stephen headed back for Barkingside. There was little conversation; both of them were wrapped up in their thoughts. As their car pulled into the car park Stephen stifled a yawn.

“Sorry, just dreading the all-nighter.” He said sheepishly as they both got out the car.

“No worries, I’ll grab us some coffee.” Adjoa replied. She actually felt a bit of a buzz – the case was rapidly developing into something quite interesting, it definitely wasn’t gang-related, of that she was sure.

“Three sugars in mine.” Stephen said as they started walking toward the brick-coloured building. Adjoa gave him a faux-steely glare. “What? I need the energy.”

She laughed as they stepped through the doors and waved their badges at the desk sergeant, who smiled pleasantly, before returning his attention to the computer screen in front of him. They started up the stairs, to the second floor of the building, that housed their desks. Adjoa’s was nearest the window, and the plain plastic desk was quite clear, with a couple of case files and a few notes spread out upon it. Stephen’s was just on the wrong side of chaotic, with multi-coloured folders and files everywhere. Somehow (though Adjoa would never understand how) he managed to keep track of everything.

No other officers were on duty in CID, so the pair had the office to themselves. Adjoa grabbed their mugs and headed into the small kitchen, focusing only on the caffeine. She’d worry about the case once she’d had a drink. Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she scooped it out and into her right hand. Jenna’s smiling face, with her hair freed to flow over her shoulders, appeared on the caller ID. Adjoa smiled as she answered. “Hey.”

“Hi. Just wanted to see how you were.”

“All good, looking after a very tired Stephen.”

Jenna chuckled. “He wanted to be a dad, it’s self-inflicted. Do you know when you’ll be home?”

“No idea, sorry, this case is gonna take up a bit of time I think. Still, overtime and all that.”

“Yeah, never hurts! Let me know when you’re on the way home. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Adjoa thumbed the red ‘end call’ sign and sighed. She couldn’t remember the last time she and Jenna had been able to enjoy some free time together. Dinner booked for our anniversary though… given the restaurant’s prices, she wasn’t cancelling that for love nor money.

With two mugs of milky coffee (and the scandalous extra sugar for Stephen!) Adjoa walked across the dreary grey carpet that seemed a requirement for the station, past the information posters on the cork boards, and back into the office. Stephen was typing something on the keyboard, eyes intent upon the screen in front of him. He smiled at the welcome sight (and smell) of the coffee.

“Cheers.” He said as she put the mug down. “So, I went back to the beginning. Specifically, the victims. Liam and Andrew.”

Adjoa sat down at the desk opposite and took a sip of her drink. “Let me guess, no links?”

“Right. I checked Liam’s name against the PNC, nothing in there, he’d never been in any sort of trouble, not even minor. Andrew Harper… Wow.” He stopped, peering at the screen.

“Well, don’t leave me in suspense!” Adjoa said sardonically. “What is it?”

“He wasn’t just a war veteran…” Stephen tapped a few more buttons. “He was ex-SAS. No records of what he did, naturally, but after he left the forces he did get into a bit of trouble here and there. A couple of bar fights, drunk and disorderly stuff, but nothing that would explain why he was murdered.”

“Maybe he picked a fight with someone who could hold a long grudge?” Adjoa queried. “There’s enough petty thugs out there who would do that.”

“Maybe.” Stephen rubbed his nose. “I don’t believe that though.”

Adjoa took another swig of her coffee. “Me neither. This mystery man that actually kidnapped the attacker – that’s the missing piece here. He was at Andrew’s home at the time of the attack, and took it upon himself to take the car and force a guy in a balaclava into the boot. We need to know who he is.”

Stephen looked up, his eyes lighting up a little. He took a quick, hot gulp of his coffee. “It just occurred to me… the body we found was wearing the clothes this mystery visitor was wearing, as described by witnesses…”

“But this guy had the advantage. Unless the attacker got free and tied off the loose end.”

They looked at each other. Somehow, Adjoa couldn’t quite believe that, and she suspected Stephen didn’t either.

“Why do I have the feeling that the body is the attacker, and the mystery man is still out there?” Asked Adjoa.

“We’ll get the chance to find out soon. Just had an email, the body is being examined now, we can go and take a look at what they’ve found in a couple of hours.” Stephen wrinkled his nose. “I hate dead bodies.”

“What’s worse, them or dirty nappies?” Adjoa asked teasingly.

Stephen shot her a look. “I haven’t decided.”

****

Standing before the terraced house, Eric felt a strong pang of guilt, and for the first time, grief for the death of his friend hit him. Andrew had died because of him, there was no doubt of that. Now he was about to involve another friend, putting them in the same danger. Was that fair? I don’t have a choice… Eric snorted derisively at himself. How often had that been used to justify actions? Still, he was here, he needed help, and he was thankful that his some of his former squaddies had settled in London. Things would be a lot tougher for him otherwise. Stepping up to the red windowed door, Eric took a deep breath then pressed the doorbell.

There was the sound of shuffling, and footsteps, and a couple of voices. A light came on, and he could see figures moving behind the glass. The door opened inward.

“Eric? Jesus man, what…?” The other man wrapped his arms around Eric in a bear hug, and Eric both smiled and grimaced. He’d forgotten how strong his old friend was, even now. Rob still had muscle – back in the day he’d embraced the racially charged nickname of ‘the Dark Destroyer’, turning it from a slur to a warning to anyone who might threaten his friends or himself. Even at what had to be sixty, he’d kept in good trim.

“How ya been Rob?” Eric returned the other man’s hug, patting him on the back.

“Not too bad mate, not too bad!” Rob clasped Eric by the shoulders. Jeez, time’s not been your friend has it?”

“Ha, speak for yourself, more silver on your head than mine.” Eric ribbed.

“True, but that’s fatherhood for ya! Come in, come in!” Rob ushered Eric inside, and herded him through the door at the end of the landing, that opened into a combined kitchen/living room. Standing in the kitchen was a woman, wearing a dark blue cardigan, and blue jeans.

“Hi Eric, been a long time.” She smiled radiantly.

“Hi Fiona, you keeping Rob in check?”

“Ha, he knows I’ll kick his arse otherwise.”

Despite himself Eric laughed. Rob and Fiona were terrific and always had been.

“Lemme get you something…” Fiona turned and pulled a couple of cups down from a gloss-white cupboard on the wall. “Tea, coffee?”

“Tea, please.”

“Have a seat, have a seat!” Rob implored, steering Eric to the three-piece cream-leather sofa. The TV was on, but muted – BBC News was carrying a story about Leicester City’s remarkable season so far. Rob sat down on the matching one-piece to Eric’s left. “So what brings you here out of the blue?”

“I need your help Rob, and I don’t know how I’m going to explain this… You know what, this was a mistake, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come here…” Eric got up to leave, but Rob’s earnest expression as he stood froze him to the sofa.

“What’s wrong mate? You know we’re like brothers right? I’ll do anything to help you, you know that.”

Taking a breath, Eric steeled himself to deliver bad news.

“It’s Andrew… Rob, he’s gone. He’s dead.” As he spoke the words, the bitter truth of them hit home. “And it’s my fault.”

To Chapter 8

Back to Techno Fail

Eric knew the shot would have been heard, though it would also take a while for anyone to place it. Staring down at the now lifeless body of his attacker, he knew what he had to do next. Moving quickly, Eric unbuttoned the dead man’s tatty jacket (once he had donned his gloves), and next came the man’s jeans. With difficulty, Eric then squeezed himself into the same pair of jeans and, once he had made sure to remove all his personal belongings from his own pockets, transferred them to the jacket, slipping it on. Carefully, he placed his own trousers onto the man, then fired three more shots – one to the face, to render it difficult to ID the body, and two to the chest. This had to look like a crime of anger and malice, rather than business. It was quite easy to present it as such, given his mood.

The man’s phone was curiously absent of texts or a call log, save for two numbers, neither of which were named. The first number contained only details of money transfers, but the second was more interesting.

Inform me once it is done, read the latest message, from earlier that evening.

Ok, I’ll inform you… for good measure, Eric took a picture of the corpse, and sent it over, with a brief message advising that it had been a surprising struggle, but that it was over. Before he pocketed the phone, Eric disabled the GPS, and the mobile data, and the Wi-Fi, and anything else that would be likely to give away his movements.

The next problem presented itself in short order. Eric could hardly get back in the taxi – it was being looked for by the police, and would flag up on every traffic camera. If he took another vehicle, the same thing would happen. He did however, need to get away, and quickly. Walking back out of the woods, he looked for a marker, trying to get his bearings.

“Forest Road…” The road sign offered a clue to his whereabouts. Eric began to walk, taking care to appear calm and measured to any passersby. The ill-fitting clothes would unfortunately run the risk of unwanted attention, but hopefully he would get away with that in the dark. From memory, a tube station was somewhere along the road, and from there, he could hopefully find some form of help.

****

The text gave Lanker momentary relief as he prepared to leave his office for the evening. His aides had not yet been able to uncover how Eric Cooper had been given such sensitive information, but at least the most pressing concern was now handled. He issued no reply to the contact’s text – none was warranted.

Sooner or later, he would have cause to call upon the man’s unique services once more – for now, he would journey home and partake in that most British of pastimes – tea.

****

Two marked police cars and one unmarked car raced down Forest Road moments after Eric had stepped off the main path. Reports of a taxi heading east and reports of what sounded potentially like gun fire had provided the best lead. Something was nagging at Adjoa as her car hurtled down the road, but she hadn’t been able to figure it out.

“This might be a wild goose chase.” Stephen remarked. He looked like he was desperate for a coffee. Instead of heading to the station they’d immediately turned around.

“Yeah, uniform called them back in. Should be right behind us. We’ll hang back once we arrive, unless something happens to force our hand.”

The cars pulled into the little car park. Sure enough, a taxi was parked up, which couldn’t be a co-incidence. Stephen was out the car first, and Adjoa swiftly followed, whilst the uniformed officers were already out and shining flashlights at the taxi.

“No one in it Inspector.” Kevin said. He and the other three uniforms all cast a glance at the woods. Darkness cloaked them. In the distance, more sirens wailed.

“I don’t think our suspect will be in the area.” Adjoa remarked. “He would have fled already. When SO19 gets here we’ll get them to go in, make sure the area is safe and then investigate. Steve, radio back, get them to seal off the immediate area, my gut tells me this was recent. Shut down the Tube if we can.”

Stephen looked hesitant. “I don’t think they’ll shut down the Tube for one suspect.”

“One armed suspect, who is highly dangerous.”

“Good point. Here comes SO19.” Stephen pointed to the pair of police vans coming up the road. Their reflective blue and yellow stripes caught the light from the street lamps, and their sirens switched off as they pulled in. Their flashing blue lights added to the non-stop alternation of light and dark from the other squad cars.

An officer clad in body armour stepped out from the driver’s cab and immediately walked around the back as other officers, also armoured and clutching MP5 submachine guns burst out. They pulled out the retractable stock as they prepared to assess the scene, then one of the officers, carrying the rank of Inspector, strode over to Adjoa, holding the weapon in his left hand and offering his right. Adjoa took it and shook it.

“Inspector David Ainsworth, SO19, do we think this is the same case?” His face was weather-worn and looked weary. Sunken eyes were the mark of not enough sleep, yet he spoke in sharp, clear tones.

“Detective Inspector Adjoa Idowu. Sorry we didn’t get to meet properly earlier. Yeah, we think it’s to do with the same case.”

“We’ll sweep the woods, once they’re clear we’ll have to re-assess the situation.” Ainsworth was all business. He turned and barked orders at his officers to move cautiously into the trees, flanking one another as torches fixed to the underside of their guns lit their way. It was unlikely the suspect was literally still in the forest – not unless they were stupid, or deranged – but the possibility couldn’t be ignored. Within a few minutes the small woodland was thoroughly explored, and Ainsworth’s radio burst into life.

“No one here sir, but there’s a body.” Came a voice.

“Understood. Secure the area.” Ainsworth shot a glance at Idowu. “Your killer isn’t in the woods, but I’d bet you’re right, they’re around here somewhere.”

“Stephen…” Idowu addressed her partner. “Get on the radio, let the station know that we need patrols, then we’ll take a look at the body. Inspector…” She turned back to Ainsworth. “What do you recommend?”

“If the suspect is still around here then we need to shut down public transport, especially if they’re armed. We’ll get in touch with local stations to expand a search of the local area.”

“Very good. Stephen, let’s take a look at the body, see if we find anything.”

The two of them headed off into the woods, brushing aside low-hanging branches that tried to impede them. It was impossible to completely ignore how dark it was, and the lights from the torches up ahead served to cast an eerie glow. They moved toward the lights, shaking off any nonsense of wayward things, and came upon three members of SO19 who were standing by a body. Blood was soaking into the earth beneath the corpse, and as they drew closer it was clear someone had done a number on it.

“Jeez, someone didn’t like this guy.” Muttered Stephen. He wasn’t exactly squeamish but the killer had put a bullet right through the body’s face, mangling it completely. A couple of shots had been planted in the chest as well.

“Yeah.” Idowu knelt down beside the body, looking it over. “The kidnapper stops the taxi, brings this mystery man in here, shoots him. No clue as to motive.” She slipped on a pair of blue gloves and started to search the pockets. She didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything, a fact confirmed at the absence of any wallet, ID, or anything else that might have been useful. “Nothing to identify the body, no phone, credit cards, nothing. We have to assume the killer did this and that he took any ID with him.”

“It all makes no sense, why kidnap this guy, kill him, and take anything that might identify him? There’s something very strange going on here.” Remarked Stephen. Mentally he tried to connect the dots. “Fair to assume the killer knew Andrew Harper, since he forced this guy into the taxi from that address?”

“Seems logical to me. We’ll have to get the coroner to examine the body for further evidence, but this is all utterly weird. I don’t like it, there’s something we’re missing.” Idowu stood and her lips curled in frustration. “We need to start from the beginning.”

To Chapter 7

Back to Techno Fail

Athena b had been surveyed some thirty years prior to the first settlements being opened to the public. First, deep space probes had reported on a suitable atmosphere on the second planet out from the system’s star, a K1 type body that weighed in 0.876 solar masses, and bathed the system in an orange hue. A small moon stabilised what would otherwise have been an uncomfortable degree of axial tilt (Athena d was a Saturn-sized body with sixty times the mass of the earth, and it exerted a powerful presence on the system). The moon had been dubbed Mykene, another name for Athena herself. The small rocky body had floated on even as the surface of Athena b had been ravaged, unperturbed by the machinations of sentient life forms.

The main city on Athena b, Thebes (once again named after Athena) had held the communications array that beamed messages back to the Commonwealth, and though Athena b was a new colony, and one reasonably far from the border with other species, it had been required by Commonwealth law to beam a message to the nearest system every three days – a means of verifying that everything was fine. The slow but steady flow of traffic in and out of the system had provided plenty of evidence that the planet was still spinning and its inhabitants were all A-Okay, but the law was the law. It took three days for the signal (a simple ‘hi, we’re all fine’) to reach the Delta Rama system, an older colony that spanned two habitable planets and with a population of nearly half a billion human beings. The failure to receive the signal was greeted with concern but not outright alarm – system failures were hardly unheard of, and there were ships emerging from warp space that had come from Athena whose crews reported nothing out of the ordinary. Worries grew when, after four days, the traffic out of Athena dried up completely.

Tight-beam signals were bandwidth intensive, and power-hungry, and only to be used in emergencies as they couldn’t be encrypted to any reasonable degree. It took twelve hours for the signal to reach Athena, with the expectation that it would be replied to almost immediately, with a return signal received more or less twelve hours later. Even so, Admiral Sonja Broadbent, commander of the Commonwealth Navy station that orbited Delta Rama d, ordered a pair of frigates that assisted the system to head to Athena to investigate, prior to the expected reply. At best speed, the ships covered the fourteen light-year distance in just under two days, averaging 0.3 light-years per hour. Their stocky structures slipped free of warp tendrils to discover they weren’t the first arrivals. The crew of the privately owned cargo vessel Spirit of the Sea had earned that particular misfortune.

****

“Shit. Shit shit shit shit!” First Mate Bobbie Kendrick fought to keep her emotions in check at the horrific sight. Athena had been a world bubbling with promise – the settlements had quickly grown into small cities and expanded from there, as ambitious, hard-working souls had irrigated fields, started to grow crops, develop mining operations, manufacture and sell products, and forge homes for themselves. Now that was all gone, reduced to ashes.

“Two million people…” Captain (a term she applied loosely in the informal environment of her ship) Lena Schäfer took in the same sight that the small viewscreen on the command deck displayed. They were alone in the small room, an informal affair compared to military ships with their set positions for each officer. Four round chairs, fixed to the floor but capable of swiveling, were once white but the leather had faded over the years and were now more cream in colour. The helm console to the right of the captain’s chair was where Kendrick sat, looking over her captain’s shoulder at the devastation below. The large navigational display in front of her was a virtual representation of what she could see on the viewscreen, except it painted everything in a blue hue, and offered up proximity alerts where needed. Her hand had instinctively gone to the chrome gear to the right of the screen, which, when slid forward, would activate the warp engine.

Now it retracted, that immediate urgency gone, replaced by shock. Tears began to well up in her eyes; Kendrick had known some of the colonists – not particularly well, but Spirit of the Sea was gaining a customer base and with it, a sense of familiarity with the people on Athena. That was now all gone.

“Bobbie, keep us a hundred thousand clicks from the planet and shut down the main engine. We’re switching to silent running.” Somehow Schäfer had kept her voice level; Bobbie could only carry out the orders numbly, trying not to let the magnitude of what had happened get to her. She envied Lena’s calm nature, but then, she always had.

“I’m going to tell the others, wait here.” Schäfer got out of her seat, and put a comforting hand on Bobbie’s shoulder, before stepping out of the command deck. When the door slid shut, Bobbie burst into tears.

****

Anthony Yau and Sanjay Menari sat on either side of the small glass table, clutching their coffee cups for comfort. Lena was sitting at the front of the table, having quickly explained what they’d found. Anthony stared down at the black liquid in his cup, unable to speak. Sanjay turned his thoughtful brown eyes upon his captain, his young, lean face contorted by shock.

“How did this happen? We’ve been coming here for six months, there are no asteroids that come anywhere near the planet, none.”

Lena didn’t answer straight away. Her mind was still racing to catch up to what she’d witnessed. She didn’t want to give voice to the awful idea forming in her mind, not yet.

“I don’t know what happened, but as we’re the only ship here we need to follow procedure and set up the beacon. I need you two to get it up and running, please. We’ll run our sensors around, see if we can learn anything, and transmit a signal back to Delta Rama. We’ll focus on our work, and wait for the Commonwealth, and help in any way we can.”

“How?” Asked Anthony. His voice was cracking, and Lena was reminded of how young he was. At twenty-two, he had only recently lost his teenage puppy fat, and spending the past few years working cargo on Spirit had seen him develop a lean yet muscular frame that did little to dispel his image of youth. With a mop of dark brown hair and hints of his Oriental heritage that seemed to enhance his grey eyes, Anthony looked innocent, and in many respects, was exactly that. Lena looked at him, seeing a man who was young enough to be her son.

“When other ships arrive – and they will – we will be faced with angry, grieving people. We’ll have to, somehow, organise them to avoid chaos.”

“No, I mean, how did the asteroids hit Athena? Like Sanjay said, they don’t come this close.”

“I don’t have an answer for that Tony. I wish I did. We’ll wait for the authorities, and in the meantime, see if we can learn anything that will help them. If we’re working, we’ll be focused, and that will help us. Let’s get to it.”

****

By the time the frigates arrived, they were welcomed by a semi-organised mass of civilian ships, that under Captain Schäfer’s guidance, had not descended into panic, though some had already jumped from the system, and were most likely spreading word of the terrible event to blight Athena. The dark blue hulls of the military vessels were narrow, with weapon ports sliding from recesses and locking into place to prepare for any threat. Thrusters to the rear of the ships fired up, trailing blue plasma as they moved closer to the planet.

Captain Sergio Coquelin watched as his crew buzzed about the command deck in a seemingly chaotic display, knowing that everyone was in fact moving to a finely tuned rythmn. Crew members carried tablets and sat at terminals, punching in data and relaying inforrmation to where it was most needed, whilst Coquelin sat in the rigid frame of his command chair and conducted the proceedings. He’d ordered the main viewer off; it made no sense to subject everyone to the horrifying image of Athena’s still-burning surface.

His four gold stripes – two on either shoulder of his navy-blue jacket – weighed heavily upon him. The straight-forward nature of combat was relatively easy for him to manage. Disaster relief was a different matter entirely, and to make it even more of a challenge, he was the senior commander of the two Lion-class frigates, by four years. Captain Tina Futrelle was a competent commander but Navy procedure mandated Coquelin take the lead, whether he wanted to or not. That meant every message coming in from the fifty-six civilian craft was being routed to Fearless, and everyone wanted to speak directly to him. Fortunately, his crew were handling matters with their usual efficiency, and he was grateful to Schäfer. She had possessed a calm and stablising presence that Coquelin had tended to only find in military officers. It had been no surprise to learn she had been in the service, albeit not for twenty-four years.

“Once we get a reply from Command, we’ll start routing all these civilian ships out of here. Are the beacons ready?” He asked of his first officer, seated beside him in a similar, uncomfortable chair.

“Yes sir.” Replied Commander Zara Jensen. She sat ramrod straight, turning only her head to look at him. “We can deploy them at your command.”

“Very good. Let’s get too it, and secure the system. This is going to take a while.”

To Chapter Four

Tarmel took satisfaction from the discipline his force had shown as transports and shuttles began to sweep toward the planet’s inhabited continents. The cities that had sprouted along the eastern coastline of the more temperature northern hemisphere were now vulnerable, their shields gone and most of their fighters destroyed. Pragmatism had overseen the pinpoint destruction of garrisons and other army equipment before a single Ork had set foot on the surface – a previously unpalatable move for his war-loving people, yet a measure that would preserve his troops, and also whatever experience they gained from the assault.

Only four ships had slipped out of formation and their wreckage would hopefully serve as a pointed reminder to the rest about the importance of following orders. Beside him upon the battleship’s command deck stood Creech, silent and sullen, yet quietly accepting of Tarmel’s new policies. The results were after all, emphatic. Now the troop transports were landing, with only two punched from the sky by defensive beam weapons (which were in turn reduced to rubble by returning fire moments later). The quicker, more nimble shuttles landed first, with armour-clad Orks establishing a perimeter and taking up positions of cover behind civilian vehicles and within evacuated shops and buildings. Each Ork had a rudimentary heads-up display in their new helmet, giving them information on the battlefield about the location of their squad, and Tarmel could tap into any individual feed as and when he wished. The chatter of the troops betrayed their desire to charge headlong into enemy ranks, but this time there were no enemy ranks to attack. The orbital bombardment had all but removed most of the marines and soldiers that would otherwise stand to oppose them.

Not that they were all gone. As armoured vehicles began to roll off the transports, and gunships launched from the retractable roofs, marines, clad in their reactive, powered armour, made their presence felt. The new armour of the Orks alerted them to incoming rocket launches, giving them half a chance to react and evade before explosions battered the buildings and cars they hid behind. The marines were surprisingly stealthy despite their bulky armour – they started firing their rifles – superheated pellets of metal, energy pulses and rocket-propelled grenades peppered the Ork lines.

The Orks though, fought back. Their new gunships, armed with a pair of forward-mounted anti-infantry weapons and with missile launchers on their fore-swept wingtips, zeroed in on the rough location of the enemy fire, liberally spraying the area with weapons fire and sending bits of uber-crete and other building materials everywhere as windows and walls were blasted. Craters were created in the roads, exposing water pipes, computer cables and the power lines to the smoky air, and the Orks now called upon their hovertanks, which sent concussive shells in the general direction of the harried marines. As their cover was rapidly chipped away, the marines, despite their best efforts, also came under attack from the infantry, who moved as a unit, strafing their foe, covering each other as they pressed forward.

It wasn’t perfect. Infected with the lust of battle, several Orks charged forward, firing wildly in the manner of old. They were cut down ruthlessly by the marines. The rest though, continued to squeeze the enemy, who were forced to retreat into a nearby office block, some seven stories high, and seek shelter from the Ork big guns. By now the Commonwealth Army was mobilising, sending infantry, tanks and gunships of their own, but the scale of the Ork assault meant Tarmel’s people enjoyed excellent air cover – fighters streamed toward the surface, strafing what remained of the defence forces protecting the city. A few brave human soldiers did manage to fire off anti-aircraft missiles that downed several fighters and gunships, but not only did the Orks enjoy a vast numerical advantage, their newfound use of tactics was reaping dividends. The humans were unprepared for such a fight, and Tarmel watched through the displays as the building housing the marines was pounded by the mobile artillery. Bricks, plaster, uber-crete, desks, tiles, power cables – it all collapsed in on itself like a house of cards, crushing the marines within, yet even as the building disintergrated amid huge plumes of dust, further shells rained down – the marines were resourceful and capable of surviving impressive degrees of punishment, so they needed to be dealt with thoroughly.

Not all of them were dead – a couple had been isolated from the main detachment, and several Orks were now firing stun grenades and firing short-range EMP weapons to disable their armour and disorientate the enemy. Capturing marines alive was proving to be a huge challenge, given their speed and ferocity, but it was a secondary objective worth pursuing. In the meantime, the Orks moved forward, into the city proper.

Civilians that had survived the orbital bombardment were streaming towards launch pads, but they had already been destroyed. Low-powered cannon bursts from the ships above hadn’t turned the surface into smouldering craters, but the various cargo ships, personnel carriers and private craft were gone, along with the pads and their control centres. Tarmel could not permit witnesses, not yet, but the primary objective had not yet been achieved. His troops drove deeper into the city, encountering sporadic resistance that the complete control of the skies allowed him to squash. His people were gaining invaluable experience, and such a decisive victory would surely boost morale as well. Roads ahead branched out toward different regions of the city, leading toward residential districts, commercial buildings that were already reaching for the sky, and the industrial region, that was still relatively small, given the colony’s young status. The centres of regional and federal government were nestled within the city’s commercial heart, as were other important facilities, and Tarmel wanted them.

More shuttles landed, bringing more troops to the city, this time in forward positions that allowed them to directly attack the impressive capitol building – a gleaming white structure with four cylindrical pillars in front of a set of extravagant walnut-coloured doors. The top of the building was domed, with glass set up in a ring (letting in natural light) around the Commonwealth flag (earth, surrounded by several stars, representing her colonies, a pale blue marble upon a darker blue background) sticking up from the top of the dome. It didn’t much to smash through the door, and other soldiers entered via jump cords via the easily broken windows. The structure had already been abandoned, but the whir of automated gun emplacements (which popped out of concealed panels in the walls and ceiling) momentarily forced the Orks back. A few well-placed grenades took care of the offending firepower.

It occurred to Tarmel that the humans wasted a great deal of resources on their symbols of power. Every desk was polished marble, with flecks of black upon the gleaming white surface. His Orks moved on a deep blue carpet (which had the Commonwealth flag embroidered upon it), and for visitors, the reception area had large, comfortable brown leather chairs, a walnut coffee table and a drinks dispenser. Oak wood doors – not automated ones – were on either side of the corridors leading left and right from reception, and the stairs and lifts behind the main reception desk (a large horseshoe-shaped monstrosity) led to yet more chambers and offices. There was a lot of bureaucracy on display. There were also computers that held data, and a communications office that would hold important messages. It was entirely possible the humans had already destroyed anything of value, but the speed of the assault might have prevented that.

Before long his troops found what they had been looking for – a lower-level room, actually two floors underground, that required fingerprint and card-key access. The door was a large metallic one, magnetically sealed and bolted as well. A pair of Orks placed small plastic pouches at various points around the frame, stepped back, and pressed a detonator. The door fell away with a loud clang, and revealed banks of data terminals, and row upon row of servers that funnelled every civilian, commercial, government and military operation and communique to and from the system. Another pair of Orks arrived, and set about the delicate operation to disconnect the large servers and prepare them for transport. Above them, holes were carefully punched in the Capitol’s roof, removing it, and then the same steps were taken to gently lower clamps from one of the transports and remove the floors that were between the Orks and their objective.

Other Orks arrived to grab the terminals, that were easily unplugged and folded shut. Other computers were being taken from offices, and still more from businesses. Tarmel wanted as much as he could.

When it was done, the Orks climbed back aboard their transports and returned to their ships. Next, with the flick of a green wrist, the Orks completed their mission. Several dozen asteroids were launched at the planet at speeds of fifteen kilometres per second. Some ranged from around twenty metres in diameter, others were over five hundred metres. Several were aimed directly at the colony, whilst others were directed at other continents and even the oceans. Thermal bow shocks started to vaporise the colony and its inhabitants even before the first rock hit the ground, whereupon the very earth seemed to erupt in a series of frenzied bursts, sending matter spewing high into the sky. As more rocks slammed down, the surface became superheated, beginning to glow as it became molten. Nothing was left of the colony, and for good measure, the wreckage of the Commonwealth cruiser was nudged on a course that would take her into the atmosphere, burning up as she went. The orbital defences were likewise pushed, removing any trace of Ork involvement in what had happened. No one would know.

Chapter 3

Fiction