Harry Tate is a loyal MI5 officer and a servant of the State. But when two civilians are shot dead during a drugs intercept gone wrong, he is forced to take an immediate posting to the Red Station.
What he doesn't know is that this remote Balkan outpost is a punishment, and he won't be going home. With an assassination team coming for him and invading Russian forces heading straight for the Red Station, Harry does whatever he can to save himself. But with few allies and enemies everywhere, Harry's chances of survival shrink with each passing day....
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Death came in at three minutes to four on a sluggish morning tide, and changed Harry Tate's life forever.
It edged up a shrouded Essex inlet, a scrubby white fifty-foot motor launch with a fly bridge, its engine puttering softly against the slow current. The exhaust sounds were muffled by a heavy, early mist rolling along the banks, blanketing the dark marshland like cold candyfloss.
Three figures stood outlined by a flush of refracted light from the open cockpit. One was on the forward deck, a swirl of dreadlocks framing his head like a war helmet. He was holding a thick pole balanced on one shoulder. Number two, the helmsman, was a bulky shape up on the fly bridge, head turning constantly between the instrument panel and the banks on either side.
The third man stood on a swimming platform at the stern, inches above the murky wake. Skeletal, with long, straggly hair under a baseball cap, he had one hand down by his side, the other bracing himself on the rear rail.
'It's Pirates of the frigging Caribbean!' The whisper drilled softly into Harry's earpiece, gently mocking, forcing a smile in spite of the tension in his chest. The voice belonged to Bill Maloney, his MI5 colleague, in cover fifty yards along the bank to his right.
A light breeze lifted off the water, brushing past Harry's position behind a hummock of coarse grass, fanning his face with the sour smell of mud and decay. The sickly tang of diesel oil seemed to ooze out of the ground everywhere, and something was seeping through his trousers. He tried not to think about the kinds of toxic waste festering beneath him from decades of commerce, skulduggery and neglect.
He toggled his radio. 'Where the hell are you, Blue Team?' The query was strained with urgency. As Ground Controller, he'd been chasing the back-up police unit for fifteen minutes with no response.
Still nothing. Accident or a comms malfunction? Either way, they weren't here. He swore softly. Having been slashed at the last minute – economic demands, was the vague explanation – and now with the support van lost somewhere in the darkness, they were down to three men. With what was rumoured to be concealed in the boat's bilges, from bales of hash to 'bricks' of heroin, each containing up to fifty individual pay-and-go bags, and enough methamphetamine crystals to send half the kids in London off their heads for a month, the prize was too valuable. They needed all the help they could get.
But it wasn't there.
He leaned to his right and peeled aside some strands of grass, eyeing the misty darkness where Blue Team should have been in position. Nothing. Instead, he heard a click in his ear, then a hiss of static.
'That's a negative, Red One ... repeat negative. We're up to our axles in mud, five hundred yards from your O.P. The fucking ground's like molasses. Blue Team out.'
Harry's gut turned to water, the urgency now the bitter pre-taste of panic.
With a narrow window the previous day to reconnoitre the area where the shipment was coming in, he and Maloney had ambled in on foot, posing as sometime fishermen on an idle day out. The inlet, bordered by a muddy track, was mostly used by working boats, weekend sailors and jet-skiers. The going, while reasonably solid underfoot, showed some evidence of a spongy sub-layer.
They'd spent an hour in the area, fishing, sipping beer and competitively skimming stones on the water, all the while scouting for cover in hollows, bushes and overturned or rotting boats. Other than a woman walking her dog and a couple of dinghies making laboured trips to boats further along, they had seen no-one who shouldn't be there.
As they were leaving, it had started to rain; hard, slashing drops like liquid gobstoppers, pounding the softer patches into mud holes and blanketing the harder ground with a layer of filthy water. They had highlighted these areas on a laminated map for special attention.
Blue Team clearly hadn't read the signs.
Harry closed his eyes against a rising nausea. Of all the luck. He could be at Jean's place right now, replete and warmed by her infectious humour, enjoying her company. Instead, he was stuffed with a growing disaster of Titanic proportions.
Except that he knew deep down that this was as much a drug for him as the narcotics on the boat were for others.
'Stand by.' He toggled the switch to warn the other two men and watched the boat slide by thirty yards away. It was too late to abort, too risky to do nothing; within hours the stuff on board would be hitting the streets, flooding veins with its false promise and sending the weak and vulnerable to an early, hazy oblivion.
It was now or never.
He was clutching a handful of grass with his right hand. He forced himself to let go and slid his fingers into his jacket, to the reassuring touch of a semiautomatic.
'Is it a go or not?' Parrish, the third man. A firearms officer on loan from the local force, he was to Harry's right, close by the water's edge, positioned to cut off the boat's retreat. A last-minute replacement for an MI5 officer off sick, he was nervy, impatient and looking to prove himself.
'Wait!' Tate breathed, and hoped the idiot wasn't about to leap from cover and do a Rambo along the bank. As he spoke, the helmsman on the boat called a soft warning to his companions and cut the engine, steering the nose towards a short wooden jetty jutting out from the near bank.
'Blue Team ... you out yet?' It was a wasted call, but gave him a few more seconds before having to make a final, no-going-back decision.
'Negative, Red One. We're not going anywhere. Sorry.'
'You forgotten how to fucking run?' he blasted back, and instantly regretted it. Five hundred yards in full gear, stumbling through the dark; even with night-vision kit they'd be like a pack of elephants.
He decided to give it another two minutes, to allow the boat's crew to split up and come ashore. Divide and conquer. Maybe, he thought wryly, when they saw they were surrounded by just three men stranded on a muddy bank in the dark, they'd give up without a fight.
Then bad luck and timing chose that moment to join the party.
From Harry's left, the opposite end of the approach track from Blue Team's last position, the familiar harsh roar of a Land Rover engine pierced the night, and a dark, square shape burst into view. Its lights were on low, but were sufficient to burn through the mist and highlight the surrounding bank ... and the white hull of the docking vessel.CHAPTER 2
'Fuck!' Maloney's curse registered deep shock. 'Where the hell did he spring from?' All approaches to the area were supposed to have been shut off one hour ago. Any sooner would have alerted the traffickers that their plans were blown.
'What's happening?' Parrish again, and by the catch in his voice, Harry knew that the firearms officer was about to make a move.
'Hold your position!' He turned to focus on the approaching car, gripping the hard outline of the gun and gathering his legs beneath him. Either someone had stuffed up the security cordon or the informant had lied about the smugglers' plans.
He used his radio. 'Red Three, this is Red One. A vehicle just arrived. What the hell's going on out there?' Red Three was another MI5 officer – a floater – operating the outer cordon with the local police. He should have warned them about the car's approach.
'Shit!' He pounded his fist into the soft ground. What else could go wrong?
The Land Rover slid to an untidy stop ten yards short of the jetty, throwing up a spray of ground water. Both doors opened and a man sprang from behind the wheel and ran round to the passenger side. He appeared to be urging the passenger – a young woman in a floaty dress – to stay inside, but she had already slid from the car's high seat, followed by the heavy beat of hip-hop music.
Christ, no, Harry thought, hardly able to believe his eyes. This is all we fucking need ...
As the driver tried to turn the girl back inside the car, he glanced at the boat ghosting into the jetty, its crew of three illuminated by the car's lights, and lifted a hand towards them.
But the girl didn't seem to understand.
'Hey, baby,' she cried plaintively, her voice slurred. 'Whassup? What're you doing?' She ducked past him and peered at the incoming vessel. 'Who're they?
As the boat brushed the jetty, the man with the dreadlocks moved forward on the deck, bouncing the pole up and down on his shoulder. Behind him, the figure on the rear platform got ready to jump ashore, a glint of something stubby and metallic in his free hand.
Harry Tate felt a kick of anguish deep in his gut.
Afterwards, he never was sure what he'd intended to say – something more definite, for certain – and nothing like the single, useless utterance which came out of his mouth. He pushed himself to his feet, muscles cramped after too long in the same position, and brought up his gun. It was a long shot for a handgun but doable; he'd managed under worse conditions before now. His instincts told him Maloney was still somewhere to his right, also ready and willing to mix it if he had to.
'Stop! Police! Don't move!'
It was Parrish. Shouting and running forward along the bank, faint in the reach of the car's headlights, he was swinging his Heckler & Koch in the air, the barrel aimed at the night sky. Harry couldn't tell if it was bravado or stupidity, but the gun was pointless if he wasn't going to use it.
And he was running across his colleagues' direct line of fire.
'Get down, you prick!' yelled Maloney.
The man with the dreadlocks looked at Parrish, then turned back to the Land Rover and screamed in defiance. He swung the pole down from his shoulder, catching it with a solid smack in his other hand. The car headlights glinted off dark metal.
The muzzle-blast ripped the night apart, and the driver of the Land Rover was punched off his feet. The girl screamed as he was torn from her grasp, and her legs sagged. She whirled round to see what was happening, incomprehension on her face. Then a stutter of automatic fire came from the man at the rear of the boat. It ripped into her, shredding the floaty dress and sent her spinning to join her companion.
Without pause, Dreadlocks swung his gun and pulled the trigger again. The heavy charge knocked Parrish over backwards. The helmsman shouted a warning and hauled on the wheel, surging away from the bank with a howl of engines. Taken by surprise, Dreadlocks grabbed for the side rail but missed. He sprawled headlong on the deck, while the man on the stern platform danced off-balance for a moment before grabbing the side bar and holding on tight.
Harry cursed. Whatever was housed below decks wasn't a standard engine, but something bigger – possibly twin diesels. The boat was already on its way out and would soon be gone for good if it wasn't stopped.
He took aim and squeezed the trigger, a controlled double-tap followed by another, then a third. He was aiming at the helmsman; stop the driver and the boat would go nowhere. The volley of shots was lost among the roar of the engines, and puny in contrast to the stunning blast of the shotgun. But a section of glass windshield exploded and the helmsman ducked as a chunk of moulding blew apart alongside the wheel.
Maloney was up and running, tracking the boat along the bank. He began firing steadily at the charging vessel, now nose-up as it increased speed, the wash flashing white against the sloping mud walls on either side.
At the stern, the man with the machine gun was trying to bring his weapon to bear, but was thrown off balance as the boat bounced and swayed in the narrow inlet. Dreadlocks, however, had regained his feet. Gripping the rail with one hand, he raised his shotgun and lined up on Maloney, barely thirty feet away and with nowhere to hide.
'Bill, down!' Harry bellowed, and as Maloney threw himself to the ground, still firing, he emptied his clip at the gunman.
Shots from both guns caught the man high in the body, flipping him overboard.
Seconds later, the boat had gone, leaving in its wake three bodies on the shore and a fourth bobbing in the cold, black water.CHAPTER 3
'We're sending you out of the country. Pro tem.'
The speaker was George Paulton, Harry Tate's superior and Operations Director for MI5. His office in Thames House had a fine view of the river below, but the scenery was lost on the three men facing each other.
'Why?' Harry stared at his superior, then flicked a glance at a heavy figure standing in one corner. The man, nameless and grey as battleship paint, had said nothing when Harry had entered the room, and there had been no introductions.
Two days after the shooting, and a raft of internal MI5 and Metropolitan Police enquiries had been kicked off with startling speed, engineered to analyse failure and avoid blame. Still numbed with feelings of guilt and remorse about the deaths of the young couple and Parrish, Harry had been called to Paulton's office to face what he was sure would be intensive questioning, yet maybe a reassurance that all would be well in the end.
Now he wasn't so sure.
'Needs must, I'm afraid,' Paulton explained smoothly. 'The press will be all over this like a rash, especially after Stockwell. The de Menezes affair,' he added unnecessarily, and adjusted a buff folder on his desk.
'That wasn't the same thing,' Harry protested. 'We didn't have enough men —'
'Maybe not. But we have to view things in a broader context. There are ... gaps in the sequence of events. Gaps we need to deal with. We can't do that while there's a danger you might be compromised by the press discovering your name.'
'How could they?' Harry looked from Paulton to the other man. He didn't like the way the conversation was going. 'There's no way they can find out, unless someone talks. And what gaps?'
'You're right: on balance, they shouldn't find out. But we can't take that chance.' He waved at the folder, which Harry guessed contained his and Maloney's debriefing notes. 'As to gaps ... there's the question of why the secure perimeter around the site allowed two civilians to pass through. And why the police officer on assignment wasn't managed correctly. It doesn't look good.'
'I've already been over this.' Harry had faced a three-person committee earlier that morning. A woman from Legal and two men, one from Human Resources and the other a limp-wristed individual from Operations. All faceless, all void of any emotion, they had absorbed detail like sponges but offered no help or empathy. It was as if his career so far counted for nothing.
It had been like facing a death tribunal.
'We're trying to safeguard your situation,' Paulton purred.
'Is that what it is?' Harry felt an uncommon rebellion building. His dealings so far with Paulton had been relatively few and at best remote. But he had always seemed to be on the side of his officers. Now something different seemed to be hovering in the air. 'Why do I get the feeling that the fault for what happened is being shifted my way?'
'There were failings, you can't deny that.' There was a hint of steely reproof in Paulton's voice.
'Damn right there were. Like the last-minute reduction in team numbers. Economics, I was told. What kind of economics?' Harry continued, before the other could interrupt, 'We were in the middle of an operation!'
'You could have vetoed it.' Paulton tapped the folder, his cheeks flushing. 'If you felt there were insufficient resources at your disposal, you could have said ... should have said. It's every officer's right ... every officer's judgement.'
'And let those drugs out on the streets? We'd have been crucified and you know it.' Harry felt himself beginning to boil over. He breathed deeply. Losing it here and now wouldn't do any good. But after the meaningless debriefing with the three Stooges earlier, he could sense the drawbridges going up all around him. He wondered if this was how establishment stitchups began.
'It was still your call.' The dig came from the man in the corner; pointed, cold, unfriendly. Silent until now, he had clearly decided to wade in on Paulton's side.
'Really?' Harry turned, the heat rushing to his face. 'And who the hell are you? When did you last go out on an op?' He glared at the man, saw only empty, hooded eyes staring back from a well-fed face. 'When did you last lie in shit and sewage for hours at a time, waiting to face men armed with automatic weapons – men who don't give a flying fuck about law and order because of what they're bringing in? You think they give a pig's tit about "stop, police" or us waving our ID? They don't.'
'The planning —' Paulton tried to interject, but Harry was on a roll, sensing his future going up in a fireball.
'The planning was done by the book, with all the assessment boxes ticked, just the way the suits like it. But guess what – someone was too concerned with budgets, targets and key performance indicators!'
'Tate —' The unnamed man lifted a pudgy hand, his eyes as cold as granite.
'It's Mister Tate to you,' Harry growled. 'Those two civilians died because they were allowed to penetrate a compromised security cordon and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As for not 'managing' the dead officer, that's bullshit. He ran across the firing line. He was brave, certainly, but stupid; he should have done as he was told and kept his bloody head down.' He could have added that in running out from cover, Parrish had probably exacerbated the situation and drawn fire on to the couple while using their arrival as a distraction. But he didn't say it; the man was dead. 'Ask Maloney – he'll tell you.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Red Station"
Copyright © 2010 Adrian Magson.
Excerpted by permission of Canongate Books Ltd.
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