Outside, he quickly got his bearings back. Stars up. Snow down. The Americans—presumably?—were mostly in front of him and to the right, directly facing the camp. To his left, what was left of Group 99 had taken up position in the two breeze-block buildings and were firing back. Gunshots flashed in the blackness like fireflies. Occasionally a strobe or flare would illuminate everything. Then you could see men running. Hunter watched as three of the American soldiers were gunned down just feet in front of him. His captors were clearly not giving up without a fight.
A whimpering sound to his left, like a wounded animal, made him turn around.
Crawling towards the sound, Hunter found the English boy codenamed Perseus sprawled out in the snow. Hunter had a particular soft spot for Perseus with his skinny, chicken legs, cockney accent and thick, dorky glasses. Hunter had nicknamed him “Nerdeus.” They often played poker together. The boy was good.
Now he lay helplessly on the cold ground, his eyes wide with shock. A deep crimson stain surrounded him. Glancing down, Hunter saw that both his lower legs had been blown off.
“Am I going to die?” he sobbed.
“No,” Hunter lied, lying down next to him.
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“It’s the cold,” said Hunter. “And the shock. You’ll be fine.”
Perseus’s eyes opened and closed. It wouldn’t be long now.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I never meant for . . . all this.”
“I know that,” said Hunter. “It’s not your fault. What’s your name? Your real name.”
The boy’s teeth chattered. “J-James.”
“Where are you from, James?”
“Hackney. OK.” Hunter stroked his hair. “What’s it like in Hackney?”
The boy’s eyes closed.
“Do you have any brothers and sisters, James? James?”
He let out one, long, fractured breath and was still.
Hunter felt his eyes well up with tears and his body fill with anger.
Not anger. Rage.
James was his friend. He was just a fucking kid.
“NO!” He started to scream, all the pent-up fear of the last few days erupting out of him in one wild, animal howl of fury and loss. In that moment he didn’t care if he died. Not at all. Stroking James’s cold, dead forehead tenderly, he stood up and ran towards the light of the Chinooks.
That’s when it happened.
One of the helicopters exploded, sending a fireball hundreds of feet high shooting into the air like a comet. Hunter watched it in shock. It dawned on him then that the Americans might actually lose this battle. This wasn’t the clean rescue they’d intended. It was all going wrong. Soldiers were dying. Group 99 were fighting back, fighting for their lives.
Hunter kept running, because really, what else was there to do? He would run until something happened to stop him. Until his legs blew off like James’s, or a bullet ripped through his skull like Bob Daley’s, or until he was free to write the truth about what had happened tonight. The truth about everything.
The lights grew brighter. Blinding. Hunter thought he was past Group 99’s control center now but he wasn’t sure. Just then a second Chinook roared back into life, its blades turning full pelt just a few yards from where Hunter was standing. Hunter watched camouflaged men leap into it one by one as it hovered just inches above the ground. Bullets flew over his head. Then, right in front of him, a hand reached out in the carnage.
The American soldier was leaning out of the Chinook, reaching for Hunter’s hand. He was younger than Hunter, but confident, his words a command, not a request.
Hunter hesitated, a rabbit in the headlights.
He thought about the story that had gotten him kidnapped in the first place.
About the truth, the unpalatable truth, that so many people wanted to suppress.
Once he got into that helicopter, would he ever be able to tell it? Would he ever complete his mission?
He looked behind him. Scores of corpses littered the charred remnants of the camp that had been his world for the last few months. It had all happened in minutes. Bad men and good men and naïve young boys lay slaughtered like cattle. Just like poor Bob Daley had been slaughtered.
And now a confident young American was holding out his hand, offering Hunter a way out. It was what he’d been praying for.
Hunter Drexel looked his rescuer gratefully in the eye.
Then he turned and ran off into the night.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ‘he ran’?”
President Jim Havers held the phone away from his ear in disbelief.
“He ran, Sir,” General Teddy MacNamee repeated. “Drexel refused to get into the helicopter.”
There was a long silence.
“Fuck,” said the president.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘he ran’?”
The British Prime Minister rubbed her eyes blearily.
“I don’t know how many other ways to say it, Julia,” the President of the United States snapped. “He wouldn’t get in the chopper. He ran into the fucking forest. We’re screwed.”
Julia Cabot thought, You mean you’re screwed, Jim.
Her mind raced as she tried to figure out the best way to play this.
“I’ve already had the Bratislavan president on the line, screaming blue murder,” President Havers ranted on. “The UN secretary General’s asked me for a statement as a matter of urgency.”
“What did you tell him?”
“What will you tell him?”
“That Drexel wasn’t there. He’d been moved. But that they successfully took out a bunch of terrorists.”
“Good,” Julia Cabot said.
“I can count on your support?”
“Of course, Jim. Always.”
President Havers exhaled. “Thank you, Julia. We need a joint intelligence meeting. To figure out where we go from here.”
“How soon can your guys be in Washington?”
“I think, under the circumstances, Jim, it makes more sense for your guys to come to London. Don’t you?”
Julia Cabot smiled. It felt good to have the upper hand with the Americans for once. Right now she was the only friend Jim Havers had in the world and he knew it. She must play her cards for all they were worth.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Jim Havers said gruffly.
“Wonderful.” Julia Cabot hung up.
EXACTLY ONE WEEK LATER, four men sat around a table in Whitehall, eyeing one another warily.
“Good of you to come, gentlemen.” Jamie MacIntosh rolled up his shirtsleeves and leaned forward, smiling amiably at his American counterparts. “I know you must both have had a difficult week.”
“That’s an understatement.” Greg Walton of the CIA looked desperately tired. He resented being summoned to London, especially at a time when his beloved agency was being ripped to shreds by Congress back home. But he made an effort at politeness. Unlike his FBI colleague, Milton Buck.
“I hope you have something important to add to this operation,” Buck snarled at Jamie MacIntosh. “Because frankly we don’t have time to waste on handholding you Brits.”
Sitting beside Jamie MacIntosh, Frank Dorrien stiffened. “Well, quite,” he said sardonically. “After the mess you made of what should have been a perfectly simple rescue mission, based on our entirely accurate intelligence, I imagine you want to devote as many man-hours as possible to training your own men. Heaven knows they need it.”
Milton Buck looked like he was ready to throw a punch.
“All right, that’s enough.” Jamie MacIntosh glared at Frank Dorrien. “None of us have time for chest beating. Let’s leave that to the politicians. We’re here to combine our resources and share information on Group 99 and that’s what we’re going to do. Why don’t I start?”
Greg Walton leaned back in his chair. “Great. What have you got?”
“For starters, we’ve got a name for Captain Daley’s killer.”
Walton and Buck looked at each other in shock. “Seriously?”
Frank Dorrien pushed a file across the table.
In the top left-hand corner was a photograph of a handsome, dark-skinned man with a strong jaw, long aquiline nose, and hooded, distrustful eyes. There was a detached air about him and a certain watchful hauteur, like a bird of prey.
“Alexis Argyros,” Jamie MacIntosh announced. “Codenamed Apollo. One of Group 99’s founder members and a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. Grew up in foster care in Athens. Possibly abused. A high school dropout but brilliant with computers and obsessed with violent video games from his early teens. Hates women. Sadist. Narcissist. All this is from his social worker’s reports.”
“Criminal record?” Greg Walton asked.
“Oh yes. Petty theft, vandalism, arson. Two years in youth custody for rape. And he was suspected in a hideous case of animal cruelty where a cat and kittens were burned alive.”
“You only get two years for rape?” Greg Walton asked.
“The Greeks can’t afford to run their prisons,” Jamie MacIntosh said matter-of-factly. “Not since austerity. Anyway, we believe Argyros was the man who pulled the trigger in Daley’s execution video. He was running the camp you raided, and his star is on the rise within Group 99. For months now he’s been trying to steer the group towards more violent methods, battling against the moderate elements within 99. Argyros appeals to disaffected young males in the same way that the jihadist groups groomed boys in the west after the Syrian war. He offers them a purpose and a sense of belonging, wraps it all up in a pretty parcel of social justice—”