Take a look at an extract from this new thriller…
Somewhere over Germany, his mind turned against him. The pure, undiluted terror had kicked in hours ago, but he’d been expecting that, even as it came on like a bout of gastric flu, giving him the shakes and making him rush to the toilet to void his bowels. As he left the cubicle he passed one of the Danes, also looking decidedly pasty. Hung-over, probably. Not uncommon after the stopover in Cyprus. Now this Dane would have to deal with the stench Charlie had left behind. Would he complain to his mates about it? Perhaps Charlie’s shit reeked of fear. He sat back down and while the other Movers laughed and joked and planned two weeks’ leave with their girlfriends and families, Charlie did his best to appear calm. If anyone did notice his sweating, the way he was gripping the armrest, he wouldn’t be able to blame it on the booze.
He hadn’t touched a drop, not even on the beach yesterday.
He had to get a hold of himself.
Think of something.
Bit of airsickness, mate, that’s all.
An airsick RAF man?
They’d still be laughing when they landed in England.
No, no. Fine, really. Bit nervous, that’s all. Got five kilos of uncut heroin taped to my chest.
Probably best not to mention that.
The five kilos of smack concealed beneath his uniform.
Better to think about the money instead. The five grand already in his account, the other five waiting for him once he made it through customs. And he’d get through customs. They’d been over it a hundred times, him and Baker the Military Policeman. They’d even Skyped Geddis, the other copper, the one who’d be waiting for Charlie when he touched down and who’d personally make sure he wasn’t picked out of the assembly and searched.
Every detail covered.
Geddis had said as much himself.
‘For this to go well,’ he’d shrugged, his face filling the computer screen, voice
blaring through the headphones, ‘it’s in everyone’s interests, right? You get caught, that’s bad for all of us. But that’s not gonna happen. I mean, think about it. You’re gonna get your own, personal, police escort, son.’
But it was Baker who really sold it, during one of their many bonding sessions at the gym. Unable to drink during their tour, all anyone did when they weren’t working was hit the gym. Baker was older than Charlie, and Charlie respected his casual approach to life in a war zone. Charlie also liked that Baker happily reinforced the reputation enjoyed by RAF Movers, who didn’t just plan and execute the transportation of personnel and equipment by air, but were also known for their partying, their love of the ladies, and even, on occasion, their willingness to smuggle a little contraband.
‘We control every aspect of that flight,’ Baker had said. ‘We walk you on, walk you off. Meanwhile, they’re looking at your luggage, not you.’
He was right, of course. Charlie had been in and out of Brize countless times over the last seven years and he’d never once been searched. After a stint in Gibraltar, his mate Westy had to be gently reprimanded for failing to declare his knife and several rounds of live ammunition. And what about Andy ‘Two-pints’ Thompson? Everyone knew Two-pints had an M16 stashed in his room back on base.
Got it off a Marine, he said.
Never said how he got it past security, though.
The point being, Charlie had no weaponry about his person, and that, primarily, was what they’d be looking for. That’s what he’d been telling himself. Only now that voice inside his head, the one that had been so sure this was going to work, had changed tempo. It was, in fact, no longer a voice. It was a huge, expansive noise, like the crashing of a jet airliner. This jet airliner. They were about to plummet to the ground, their bodies immolated and strewn across the first piece of dust-free pasture any of them had seen in months.
‘Cup of coffee?’ said the flight attendant, looming over Charlie with a fresh pot.
‘Something I ate,’ Charlie said, ungluing his lips.
The flight attendant, a thin, fresh-faced man, adopted a playful, concerned expression. ‘You alright? You’ve gone a bit pale, there.’
Charlie coughed, sat up straight, the tape beneath his uniform squeaking.
‘I’m fine. Some water would be great, though.’
‘No problem,’ the flight attendant said. He winked at Charlie. ‘And don’t worry. You made it. You’ll be home in an hour.’
As they touched down the other servicemen and women cheered and applauded, a sound
like static being blasted through a wall of broken speakers. Charlie was now sweating profusely, miming laughter, his head back, teeth bared. How wrong can you get? To think you can do something, only to discover you’re not up for the challenge.
Don’t just sit there, said the voice in his head, calling to him from somewhere far away, somewhere amid the whirlwind.
Get on your feet and make it happen.
He stood, pulled his pack from the overhead compartment. A series of simple, inculpable gestures. They taxied across the airfield, then waited for the cabin doors to open, his colleagues talking excitedly, busy with their own thoughts and feelings about what lay ahead. Charlie ignored the urge to vomit, told himself again how Geddis would be waiting. Geddis who was tall and ginger and therefore impossible to miss, and who had as much to lose as Charlie should anything go wrong.
He disembarked to congratulations from the captain and crew and descended onto the tarmac. It was dark, but he could still see the cloud cover that everyone had missed so much while under the glaring, Afghan sky. They were back at Brize, their home town. But it wasn’t home any more. Charlie realised that now. He was an interloper, an enemy, and still a long way from any Safe Zone.
Double doors parted and he walked into the terminal, bright under the lights and unkept as always. They formed an orderly queue, passports at the ready. Outside came the familiar roar of a C-17 taking off, and at the desk, friendly but efficient, were the customs officials. Charlie became aware of his mates, a few metres behind him. He should acknowledge them. They knew him as a talker, a joker. Why the silence, they’d wonder. And why was he was having trouble standing like a normal person?
How did he normally stand?
What if he fell down?
He reached the desk, the official looking over his documents and waving him through. On the other side of a large partition security personnel awaited, ready to stop-search some of the men as they made their way to Baggage Claim. Charlie fell in behind four or five identical uniforms, feeling momentarily camouflaged but knowing this was an illusion. He snuck a glance over the shoulder of the guy in front. Up ahead, an MP had pulled someone aside and was asking him to unpack his rucksack and sports bag. The MP was not Geddis. Where was Geddis? Charlie could see Baggage Claim through another set of automatic doors, so close he might be able to make it unnoticed. He’d simply put his head down and saunter over there.
A second later Charlie saw him: tall, ginger, walking the length of the queue.
He stopped at Charlie’s shoulder.
‘If I can ask you to come with me, sir. Won’t take a moment.’
Charlie looked at the floor.
Some mistake, surely.
Then Geddis ushered the man directly in front of Charlie to one side, saying, ‘Just a formality. The rest of you on your way, now.’
For a moment, as the flow of traffic started up again, Charlie just stood there, his feet rooted to the floor, until finally, on pins and needles, he shuffled through the doors into the adjacent hall.
He’d made it, and as he waited for his luggage to arrive he began to mingle, parading up and down the conveyor belt, clapping his co-workers on the shoulder, reminding them there was some serious drinking to be done. He felt light-headed, unsubstantial, but in a good way. Finally, their bags began to trundle past and as they did so another MP appeared, this one with a small, excited dog at his feet.
Charlie’s airways constricted, white pixels swarming at the edge of his vision.
The MP led the dog along the conveyor, the tiny canine sniffing each bag or pack as it passed, moving swiftly towards Charlie, who thought seriously about sprinting for the exit. Instead he put several men between himself and the mutt, which was looking for bombs or weapons but which probably wouldn’t discriminate should he catch the whiff of an illegal substance.
Charlie walked to the other end of the conveyor.
The stink of it.
Narcotics and dread, spreading like sonar.
His luggage curled into view and he lurched forward, overextending, making a spectacle of himself as he reached for the handles. Then he turned, an awkward, stumbling pirouette, away from the dog which yapped, leapt, and was yanked back on course by its handler.
Don’t run, Charlie told himself, his bags hanging off him as he hustled into Arrivals.
There was nobody waiting for him, but still the wives, kids and girlfriends searched his face to see if it was that of their loved one. A moment later, he was outside, into the freezing night air, where he disappeared among the hangars and buildings, taking the short cut back to his quarters.
His room seemed frozen in time, a different time, yet he’d only been away three months. It felt more like years. Back then, he’d packed up his stuff, ready to move into Claire’s flat so
he could spend more time with her before he shipped out. They were going to marry, get an RAF house, an Andrex puppy, until, one night, Charlie had sat in the local pub with his mates, having the same, work-related discussion they always had. But for once he hadn’t found it reassuring. It was tired, old as the stone fireplace he found himself staring into. He went to the bar, where the landlord poured his usual without saying a word. That’s when he knew for sure that nothing was going to change.
Not unless he did something about it.
So he broke up with Claire.
It took a while, but in the end she was surprisingly stoical about it, as though she either didn’t believe him or understood completely where he was coming from. He couldn’t be sure. You had to hand it to her, though: she knew how to keep him guessing. He wanted to call her now; not to get back together, just to hear a friendly voice. He also wanted to rip the packets of heroin from his chest, to be free of them, even by a few feet.
So why the paralysis?
Geddis was due at any moment, and tomorrow Charlie would receive the rest of his money. Things couldn’t have gone more smoothly.
He surveyed his room. Four years he’d been in here. When he’d first moved in it had been a step up. No more sharing with another lad, an en-suite bathroom (complete with black mould and an intermittently hot shower). Was that why he’d asked Claire to marry him? To get a house? He wondered what she’d say if she found out he’d carried drugs. (And not just any kind: the really bad kind.) No doubt she wouldn’t approve. Not an easy thing to admit to, anyway: doing something morally questionable for money. Of course, he knew guys who killed for money, and who talked openly about how much they enjoyed it.
Yet carrying smack would be seen as worse.
He’d be a disgrace.
But what did they know?
What did anyone know?
He took home seventeen thousand a year. It wasn’t enough, not any more. He knew he should have retrained, worked his way up the ranks, but somehow he’d lacked the necessary ambition. Easier to work, drink beer in the local with his mates.
Only now, suddenly, seven years had passed.
He sat down on the bed. Geddis would be here any minute. Perhaps Charlie should just ask him straight out: the drugs, how much were they worth?
More than ten grand?
Because, alone for the first time in months, it seemed so obvious.
He was being ripped off.
Without thinking, he began to throw random items of clothing into a bag. In the drawer next to the bed, his mobile and charger. He crossed the room and stepped into the hallway beyond. No one around, only the throb of dance music as the lads prepared for an almighty piss-up in their local. He moved quickly down the corridor, passing the communal bathroom, the sound of showers running. Outside, the cold was less of a shock this time, as though he’d acclimatised already. He heard voices, a couple of airmen approaching. He turned, walking the length of the building towards the car park where his second-hand Golf was waiting. Overhead, the steady drone of air traffic. He reached the Golf, had to remind himself he wasn’t going AWOL in any official sense. He had two weeks’ leave, starting tonight. He keyed the ignition, steered his way out of the car park, following the road to the front gates. Another security checkpoint, the MP there already leaning from his booth. Charlie flashed his ID and was through, pulling out onto the Carterton Road.
Don’t floor it.
That was the trick now.
Nice and steady.
He was on the A40 when his mobile rang.
‘Charlie?’ said Geddis. ‘I’m here. You gonna let me in, or what?’
‘Yeah. About that. What I mean is, I need to talk to you about that.’
‘What are you, driving? Tell me you haven’t gone walkabout.’
‘Well, actually,’ Charlie said, having to clear his throat, ‘what I’m thinking is, we meet up tomorrow. And we’ll talk then. Because the way I see it, there’s a few things we need to, you know, discuss. Anyway, it’s late. I’ll call you in the morning, alright?’
‘Charlie, I want you to listen to me very carefully. I want you to think about what you’re doing. About the implications of your actions, alright? Because you don’t wanna do this, understand? Believe me. You do not wanna do this.’
‘Alright,’ Charlie said. ‘I’ll talk to you first thing, then, alright? All the best.’
He disconnected the call.
Outside his window the landscape was dark and foreign.