Monday 31 July, 21:00 GMT+1
Sean Harker saw the danger racing towards them in the headlights.
‘Target is fifty – that’s five zero—’
‘Brace! ’ Sean shouted. He kept his grip on the steering wheel – too late, too dangerous to swerve – and felt the bone-crunching thud run through his body as the Land Rover Wolf hit the pothole. He lurched into his seat belt. In the split second before the engine caught up with the fact that the vehicle had slowed down, Sean had jammed his foot on the clutch, shoved the stick one gear too low and released the clutch again.
His foot stayed on the accelerator. The engine howled and the whole vehicle lunged forward, hurling him and a section of seven heavily armed bastards down the streets of night-time Lagos in pursuit of two fleeing terrorist suspects.
‘Bloody hell, Stenders!’ That was Johnny ‘Shitey’ Bright, one member of his human cargo clinging on in the back. None of them had belts.
Corporal Joe Wolston, next to him in the front, tugged at his seat belt to loosen its death grip on his body.
‘Try not to lose the lads, Harker?’ he grunted with all the cool and authority of a man who had faced worse shit than Sean ever had. He tugged the mike of his PRR back towards his mouth and finished his report.
‘Target is fifty – that’s five zero metres ahead.’
Sean bared his teeth. Even at this speed, the blast of warm tropical night air in his face made sweat trickle down beneath the rim of his domed Mk 7 helmet. He shook his head to keep the drops from stinging his eyes as he fixed them on the swerving tail light of the target ahead. His arms ached from hauling the powerful vehicle round the rubbish heaps, and clapped-out cars, and crowds of Nigerians out to enjoy the city nightlife.
But it felt good. After six months of taking care – looking twice at every shadow in case it contained an insurgent, at every bump in the road in case it concealed an IED – the British Army were now the ones in pursuit. Pity the two guys ahead. If the lads could just catch up with this pair, then they would be on the receiving end of six months’ pent-up tension.
And the Wolf was gaining. The two suspects were on a scooter, and its little putt-putt engine could never compete with a 300Tdi – on the straight and level, that is. Earlier they had tried to make a break down Lagos’s A1 highway, and the Wolf had come within metres of them. Then they had veered off onto a side road, and the game got harder again. The Wolf had power, but it also had bulk. It couldn’t just dance round any obstacles in the way, and it couldn’t just go through them, either.
But, Sean told himself as the speedo crept up and the revs crept down, all things considered, a fifty-metre gap swerving about in this traffic stream was pretty fucking good. None of the other lads could have done it. It wasn’t the first car chase he had been in, though it was the first where he was the one doing the chasing. He wondered if the cops he had so often led a dance round the North Circular in a wired Beamer or Merc had got as much of a blast as he was getting now.
And speaking of cops, there they were – a fence ofnflashing blue and red lights racing down the road towards them. Within a couple of minutes the suspects would have to turn off again.
Left or right? Sean braced himself, ready to match whichever way they went
Wolston spoke into the PRR. ‘Hound One, what is your position?’
‘On Herbert Macaulay Road, heading south. Estimate we are running parallel to your course, probably half a k behind.’
The platoon’s other section was in a Wolf like theirs, under the command of Sergeant Phil Adams. Adams’s voice was crackly in their ears. PRR was designed to hold platoons together on foot, not coordinate vehicle chases, and the second Wolf must have been right on the edge of the radio’s 500-metre range.
‘Roger that, Hound One,’ Wolston confirmed. ‘You going to come and join us?’
‘Negative – local int suggests that any moment now your lads are going to hang a left, and then we will converge—’
The scooter’s red tail light suddenly ducked off to the left, darting between a bus and an ancient VW Beetle.
‘There they go!’ Sean shouted. He just managed to bring the speeding two-tonne vehicle round without turning it over. The tyres ground against the road surface, digging into the loose grit and gravel and spitting them behind as the Wolf took to its new course.
‘Hound One, that’s the players heading towards Herbert Macaulay, ETA one minute. How did you know it would be left?’ Wolston asked.
‘Local liaison says they’ll be heading for Makoko. That is a shanty town – half of it’s on stilts over the lagoon.’
Sean filled in the blanks, and coaxed another five mph out of the engine without being asked. They had to get the suspects before they reached Makoko. A Wolf could never follow a scooter into a town built on stilts.
The Wolf shuddered so much on the bad road that it was like driving into a succession of brick walls, but now its powerful headlamps were close enough to light up the scooter. The next few things happened almost simultaneously. The pillion passenger on the scooter twisted round and raised his right arm in a gesture Sean recognized.
It took all his self-control not to stamp on the brakes or twist the wheel over – following the basic human instinct to avoid death. The windshield in front of his face starred and cracked, and he was squinting at the embedded lump of lead that would have drilled right between his eyes but for the Wolf ’s armoured glass. The part of his mind not concentrating on navigating took a moment to realize that the shit had finally got real. In nearly two years of army service – in nearly nineteen years of life – it was the first shot ever fired at Sean in anger. It made a subtle but very important change to their situation. The section was no longer just in pursuit of suspects. It could now reasonably say that it was in danger, and take the appropriate action to defend itself.
‘We’re taking hits!’ Wolston shouted. ‘Abort!’
Sean had learned to obey orders quickly – do first and think later. But this order, coming from Wolston of all people, didn’t feel right. It surprised him enough to delay him for half a second. And then it was countermanded by a voice that Sean would never disobey in a thousand years.
‘Negative! Keep going! ’ Adams bellowed in fury. ‘Step up the pace! The more they shake, rattle and roll, the more they’ll cling on for dear life and not take pops at anyone.
Harker, I want you breaking the fucking land speed record! ’
‘Yes, Sergeant!’ Sean shouted.
Dimly he realized he had no idea what was happening. The NCOs were disagreeing. People were
shooting at him. He did the only thing a soldier can: follow orders and keep going.
He had the brief impression of something heavy swooping in the humid air above him, and suddenly a bright white light from the sky was pinpointing the scooter like a death ray from a skyscraper-busting alien spaceship. Over the roar of the Wolf ’s engine he caught the thud-thud-thud of heli blades. Shit, the air force were in on this too. Everyone was in on it. Sean could almost feel sorry for the suspects.
The pair had done almost everything right – until they were spotted emerging from a hole cut in the army base fence. They had been round the back, away from the main gate, and had obviously timed it between sentry patrols to give themselves maximum opportunity. But they had done it just as two Wolfs full of British soldiers, a whole platoon of Fusiliers, were coming back from exercise, fully kitted and tooled up.
Two days earlier, insurgents had raided a village between Lagos and Ibadan, less than thirty miles from their present position. Boko Haram were meant to be holed up in the mountains on the other side of the country. The possibility that they were making a comeback – or, worse, that a new force was emerging to replace them – meant that the battalion had been on full alert ever since.
The suspects hadn’t had a chance. The chase was on the moment they were clocked. Commands and responses shot back and forth over the PRR. Adams’s speed-up strategy had worked – there was no way the suspects could afford the luxury of firing back and keeping hold of their ride at the same time. The heli searchlight still impaled them from above.
‘If it looks like they’re getting away, ram them,’ Wolston ordered.
Sean gripped the wheel a little more tightly and forced extra power out of the engine. It would be impossible to open fire safely from the Wolf without endangering civilians. The best weapon they could use was the vehicle itself. It wasn’t something Sean wanted to do, but it beat being killed.
And then the scooter was barrelling down an alley, piles of rotting rubbish on either side and a wheel-less Toyota partly blocking the way. The Wolf was barely twenty metres behind when the lamps of Hound One swung into the alleyway ahead, silhouetting the players in a neon outline. The suspects were trapped – they weren't going anywhere. As the scooter skidded to a halt, Sean swung the Wolf to a halt across the alley so that their retreat was completely blocked.
The sections were already piling out of the Wolfs, SA80 rifles in their shoulders, ACOG gunsights fixed unerringly on the two suspects’ heads – a body shot could set off a suicide vest. Only Sean and Tommy Penfold, Hound One’s driver, stayed in their places.
Sean gripped the wheel, bracing himself for whatever was to come as he clocked the two suspects. Their eyes were wide, their faces stamped with looks of terror.
They weren’t much more than kids.
The two sections advanced from either direction, with Adams and Wolston at the front. The suspects raised their hands above their heads, resigned to their fates. The scooter toppled over. Sean took in their battered jeans and faded multi-coloured shirts, and stared closely at each upraised hand. They had all heard scenarios of a cornered bomber surrounded by infidels taking the quick way out to Paradise. One little switch concealed in the palm was all it needed.
The driver’s shirt clung to his body, damp with sweat, and Sean couldn’t see any outline of a suicide vest. But the other one had a backpack and was still gripping the pistol he had used to fire at the Wolf.
Adams grabbed him first and pushed him to his knees, relieving him of the weapon in the same move. The other one was pushed down too, both of them frisked while they kept their hands on their heads. The boys stared wide-eyed at the half-circle of rifles aimed at them.
Adams studied the backpack, then slowly lifted the flap. Sean’s fingers tensed on the wheel, which would have made sod-all difference if several pounds of explosive had suddenly gone off. But Adams must have already decided it wasn’t a bomb. He barked a harsh laugh, and roughly pulled the pack off the boy’s back before turning it upside down. Several round metal objects tumbled out.
Someone shouted, ‘Grenade! ’
But only a couple of lads flinched. Most of them stood their ground, on the basis that their sergeant wouldn’t be chucking explosive ordnance around.
Adams shot a withering look at the soldier who had shouted, and stooped to pick up one of the objects. He held it in front of the thief ’s eyes, then up for everyone to see.
‘Insecticide spray,’ he said loudly. ‘Nice one. First thing they got their hands on that they thought would sell, no questions asked, at the local market. Only’ – he rapped the thief on the head – ‘it’s British MoD issue insecticide, you dickhead! Clearly labelled! You know this would instantly be identified as stolen? That you could have only got it from one place in the whole country? Pillock.’
He looked around. ‘They’re just kids. Chancers.’
The tension in the air evaporated.
Of course, as Sean and everyone knew, being a kid didn’t stop you being one of Boko Haram’s finest. The extremist group – a constant thorn in the side of the Nigerian Army, which was why the British Army was out here training them – was perfectly capable of sticking an AK-47 Kalashnikov in the hands of a tenyear-old, pointing them at the enemy and telling them to pull the trigger or have their throat cut. But the insecticide was kind of a giveaway. These two were just a pair of opportunists trying to lift supplies from the camp. Local kids, not too bothered about issues of ownership if it helped them get ahead.
A pair of young African Sean Harkers, in fact. The police sirens were drawing near.
‘Wood, Jardim, keep an eye on them,’ Adams snapped. ‘We’ll hand them over to the local plod when they show up.’ He jerked his head at Wolston, summoning him to one side. ‘So, Joe,’ he said with quiet intensity.
‘Abort? What the fuck was that all about? You’ve been fired at before, for Christ’s sake. Did you abort then?’
Sean couldn’t help earwigging. Now he’d had time to breathe and think, he reckoned that abort command had been uncharacteristic. Wolston had served with distinction in Afghanistan and had the Military Cross to prove it.
‘No, I did not,’ Wolston said hotly, ‘because in Afghanistan I was allowed to shoot back. Rules of
Engagement, Sergeant – they were taking wild potshots with a popgun. It didn’t justify responding with half a doz SA80s.’
‘Hmm.’ Adams grunted and looked at him sideways, then patted him on the shoulder. ‘Your hot seat, your call. Just remember that the key word in the Rules of Engagement is still engagement. These ones were innocent. Doesn’t mean the next ones will be. And I see the popgun still scored a hit.’
He ran his fingers over the starred glass and stared down at Sean. ‘Bit of a first for you, Fusilier. How are you feeling?’
Sean still had adrenalin pumping through his system. ‘Just fucking grateful for armoured glass,
Sergeant,’ he said. Adams grinned. ‘Excellent. I always appreciate a straight, honest answer. And it won’t be the last time someone takes a shot at you.’
He turned away and addressed both sections. ‘We’ll wait here until the cops show up, then proceed back to base in convoy. And just in case you’re all thinking tonight has had a happy ending, think on this . . .’ He had his hands on his hips, and a flat grin that always meant he was being deadly serious. ‘Thanks to this little op, word will be out all around Lagos that two sections of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are on the edge of Makoko and will now be heading back to their base, so if anyone fancies having a pop, now’s their chance. And once we’re back on base, don’t any of you lot think that, just because we’re going home in twenty-four hours, tomorrow’s going to be any easier. Not a chance!’
More about the author
HOW DO YOU FIGHT AN INVISIBLE ENEMY?
A high-speed chase through the backstreets of Lagos and an unexpected bomb explosion in the jungle – it’s all in a day’s work for soldier Sean Harker.
Looking forward to a well-earned break back home, Sean and his platoon fly back to the UK, only to find themselves fighting their way out of an airport hostage situation, and the country on high terrorist alert.
Barely escaping with his life, Sean must now embark on a dangerous mission: to locate a deadly weapon, capable of destruction on a massive scale
. . . a weapon no one will see coming.