By: Tony Kent
‘TWIST AFTER TWIST… IT BUILDS TO A BRILLIANT FINALE.’ Daily Mirror
A plane explodes over the Atlantic Ocean, killing hundreds of passengers, including controversial US presidential candidate Dale Victor. It appears to be a clear-cut case of terrorism. But as criminal barrister Michael Devlin is about to discover, everything is not as it seems.
Also suspecting there are shady forces at work, intelligence agent Joe Dempsey is driven to investigate. Who would have wanted this potential new president out of the way – and who would commit mass murder to do it?
All the way to the top of the US government, someone is determined to stop Dempsey and Devlin from discovering the truth. At any cost.
‘An intricate, twisty minefield of geopolitics and absolute power gone rogue. Kent has outdone himself with this one.’ DAVID BALDACCI
‘A gripping conspiracy thriller’ IAN RANKIN
‘A high-octane conspiracy yarn’ THE TIMES
10 * “[…] a thriller that races across continents with political twists and breathtaking action. Kapow!”
- Alex Gordon, Peterborough Telegraph
‘Scarily credible, and so pacy and well-written that I forgot where I was, who I was, and indeed that I was reading a book at all. Gripping, absorbing, a page-turner with characters you commit to 100%’
- Judith O'Reilly, author of Killing State
‘Absolutely stunning. Almost eerily topical, it hits like a heavyweight and refuses to let go until the final page. Addictive stuff from Tony Kent, who isn’t playing with his claim to be one of the rising starts of crime thrillers.’
- Neil Broadfoot, author of No Man's Land
Three minutes . . .
David Webb and Jim Nelson turned their heads at the sound of four knocks. Webb instinctively glanced towards the cockpit door. Nelson did not, his eyes instead flitting to the small monitor to his left.
The screen showed two stewardesses. One was facing the door, while the other faced out onto the First Class section of the Pan-Atlantic Airlines Flight PA16. Standard security protocol for the few seconds that the plane’s control centre would be vulnerable.
‘It’s Jade,’ Nelson said.
He unclipped his safety harness as he spoke. Climbing to his feet, he took the few steps to the rear of the cockpit and released the one-way lock.
Jade Cox’s smile greeted Nelson as he opened the door. It came as no surprise. She was always happy, or at least it seemed that way to him. He had to concede, though, that he was perhaps not the best witness. In Nelson’s eyes, Jade could do no wrong.
He stepped aside, giving the young flight attendant enough room to enter. It was no easy task in the already cramped space, and was made more difficult by the fact she was carrying a large tray. But Jade had a practised routine and she manoeuvred her way around Nelson as he closed the cockpit door and returned to his seat.
‘I hope you’re hungry, Jim,’ she said with a smile.
Two minutes . . .
Nelson glanced down at the foil-covered dishes on the tray Jade had placed on his temporary table.
‘Looks great,’ he said, looking back up at Jade. ‘Whatever it is.’
‘You got one for me?’
David Webb’s voice was gruffer than Nelson’s. The sound of an older man.
‘Of course, Captain Webb.’ Jade’s tone was less familiar with the senior officer, but just as pleasant as she placed a second tray in front of him. ‘Here you go.’
‘What’s that?’ Webb was examining the dessert doubtfully.
‘Treacle pudding, Captain.’
‘Treacle pudding? Is that another English thing?’
‘And here was me thinking we were on an American airline.’
‘We flew out of London, David.’ Nelson interrupted. He knew that Webb’s abrupt manner could make the younger crew uncomfortable. Whether the captain intended it or not. ‘We’ve got to cater for the Brits we’ve got aboard.’
‘I doubt our guest back there would agree with you.’
Webb motioned towards the cockpit door as he spoke. It was unnecessary; Nelson knew exactly who his captain was referring to.
Dale Victor. A candidate for the Republican nomination for the next President of the United States of America. And already the runaway favourite to win that race.
Nelson chose to ignore Webb’s political bait and turned his attention back to Jade.
‘Have you spoken to him yet?’ he asked.
‘I have, yeah,’ Jade replied.
‘And what did you think?’
One minute . . .
‘I thought he was bloody gorgeous!’
Nelson laughed. It was not quite the answer he had been expecting.
‘Gorgeous? Jade, the guy’s nearly sixty.’
‘Yeah, but still. It’s the charisma, isn’t it? It’s like you’re the only person up here with him when he looks at you. It’s . . . it’s . . . well, it’s a bit hypnotic.’
Nelson laughed again. He had flown with celebrities occupying the First Class cabin many times, often with Jade on the crew, but he had never seen her react so enthusiastically.
‘Have I got some competition back there?’ he asked, only half joking.
‘Course not,’ Jade replied. She waited a beat before adding: ‘I mean, he’s got his wife with him, hasn’t he?’
This time it was Webb who laughed. Loud and hard.
‘She’s got you there, buddy,’ he bellowed.
One second . . .
It is impossible to be sure what is faster: the speed of a human thought, warning that something is very wrong. Or the speed with which an explosion can spread throughout a fully fuelled commercial jumbo jet. And so it is impossible to know if any of them – David Webb, Jim Nelson, Jade Cox, or anyone else on Flight PA16 – was aware of the moment their lives were ripped away.
The explosion began in the luggage hold. A single case, filled to capacity with military grade C4 and a crude, home-made timer.
The C4 itself would have been enough to tear the plane in two. Enough to guarantee no survivors. But someone was taking no risks. The case had been carefully placed at the closest possible point to the base of the left wing, ensuring that the explosion ignited the fuel store within it.
The combination of the explosives and the fuel was devastating. The smooth, uneventful journey of the Boeing 747 was brought to an abrupt end, with white-hot, jet-fuel flames engulfing every inch of the massive flying machine.
No time for a brace warning. No time for oxygen masks. No time for crash positions. Just the sudden, fatal introduction of hellfire.
Flight PA16 from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK ended its journey in a violent storm of blazing debris, raining its charred remains across a five-mile stretch of the Atlantic Ocean.
Joe Dempsey sat in silence at the wheel of an aged Ford Galaxy people carrier.
The European-made MPV would stick out as unusually old in some parts of Manhattan – those neighbourhoods where a closet seemed to cost as much as a Midwest mansion – but it was entirely at home alongside the hard-worked cars and vans found in the island’s Chinatown district.
Lost in plain sight. Exactly as Dempsey intended.
‘How much longer?’
The question came from Dempsey’s right.
‘We’ll go as soon as SWAT’s ready,’ Dempsey replied, turning to face the speaker. ‘Not before.’
‘Then they need to move faster. Longer we’re here, more chance we get spotted.’
Dempsey did not reply immediately. Instead he just nodded his head in agreement, a smile threatening the corners of his mouth.
He forced that smile away. With the endless cultural differences between China and the West, Shui Dai might not understand it as an expression of admiration. And Dempsey would not risk an inadvertent insult. Not with Dai.
‘Agreed,’ he said to her. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
He put his hand to his ear and activated his wrist-mic.
‘How long until the safety net? Over.’
‘Three minutes at the outside. Last birds moving up high now. Over.’
The reply said what was needed and nothing more, exactly as Dempsey had learned to expect from the NYPD’s SWAT unit.
‘OK, confirm when ready. Over.’
He changed the mic’s frequency with a flick of his finger before speaking again.
‘Alpha Two, you get that? Over.’
‘Confirmed.’ The response was immediate. Another American voice. ‘Ready to move in three. Over.’
‘In place and waiting. Over.’ German this time. It was a clear, crisp response and would be worthy of a joke about Teutonic efficiency, if only the entire team were not equally well-drilled.
‘Hold to my mark,’ Dempsey instructed. ‘Out.’
He lowered his wrist and turned back to Dai.
‘I’ll be happy when we get in there,’ she replied.
‘Then you won’t have long to wait.’
Dempsey did not speak again. There was little point. He had seen Shui Dai like this before. ‘In the Dai Zone’, he had come to call it. The expression didn’t translate well to Dai’s native Mandarin, and he’d given up trying to explain.
Dempsey, though, knew exactly what he meant.
It had been over two years since he’d joined the International Security Bureau, a multi-national intelligence agency formed by the United Nations Security Council. In that time he had worked with agents from all over the world. Some were good: well-trained, intelligent and resourceful. Others were not. But a few – a very few – were exceptional.
And none were better than Shui Dai.
Dai had been recruited from China’s Secret Service, an agency so effective that it had no official name, or at least no name known to the West. And while it had taken her time to settle in to New York City, where the ISB was based, Dai had taken to the Bureau itself like a fish to water.
Dempsey had rarely seen a more effective operative. Maybe never.
That Dai was smarter than most – certainly smarter than him – had come as no great surprise. But what had been eye-opening was her ability in the field.
Standing five foot one and weighing 115 pounds, Dai was over a foot shorter than Dempsey’s six two and barely half his 225 pounds, yet she had proved to be every bit as fearsome as her team’s English leader. Highly skilled and utterly ruthless, Dai’s diminutive appearance gave no hint whatsoever of her physical capabilities.
Capabilities she would soon get to display, as the receiver in Dempsey’s right ear whistled into life.
‘All birds are perched. Over.’
Dempsey glanced towards Dai. He had no need to ask if she was ready. He lifted his hand back to his ear.
‘On my mark.’ Dempsey opened the driver’s door as he spoke. Dai did the same on the passenger’s side. ‘Let’s move.’
The entrance to the run-down tenement block was a green door that led directly onto the Chinatown section of Lafayette Street.
A busy New York thoroughfare, Lafayette was usually packed with streams of both locals and tourists. Today was no exception.
Too many potential obstacles here, and no way to remove them, Dempsey had concluded. An operational nightmare.
Luckily for Dempsey, those inside the building faced problems of their own. The tenement’s blueprints revealed a bottleneck in the corridor that led towards Lafayette.
The slightest panic and that exit becomes a death trap, Dempsey had observed. No way they’d risk that. They must have another route out.
With Lafayette ruled out, there was only one viable way in and out of the building: the adjacent, much quieter Walker Street, by way of the tenement’s fire escape.
Sharpshooters from the NYPD’s SWAT unit were already in place, dotted high on both sides of Lafayette and Walker. All carefully chosen locations that offered clear, downward lines of sight into the target block. They provided a lethal blanket of firepower, ready to extinguish anything that emerged.
The ultimate insurance policy, should anything go wrong.
But still not quite enough for Dempsey. Although a SWAT team would probably be sufficient, he was taking no chances. He had placed two of his own ISB agents – both male, both Chinese – close to the green door. Inconspicuous and ready to react in an instant.
They’d be crazy to come that way, he had thought again, but there’s no accounting for bad decisions.
Dempsey and Dai passed the two covert agents at the Lafayette entrance, turned the corner into Walker Street and headed for a break in the first block of buildings. The entrance to the alleyway that contained the tenement’s fire escape.
As they approached the alley, Dempsey slowed his pace, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
Coming towards them, from the opposite direction of Walker Street, were two men.
One was larger than Dempsey; several inches taller and significantly broader across the shoulders. A naturally huge frame that had been amplified by a lifetime of physical effort. And perhaps a few chemical enhancements.
The other man was much smaller than his companion. Barely five nine. Wiry build, with a hardness that cannot be honed in any gym.
The big guy was clearly armed. He was holding a rigid three-foot-long shape, poorly concealed by a sports coat he had draped across it.
‘What part of “covert” don’t you get, Sal?’ Dempsey spoke quietly as the four came together and turned into the alley.
Without waiting for an answer, Dempsey turned his attention to two ISB agents who were already there, waiting. The final third of his Alpha team, they had reached the alleyway first and brought the unit’s number to six.
In addition to Dempsey and Dai, the team was made up of Adama Jabari, a slim, quiet Ethiopian of Dempsey’s height who looked like he could have been aged anywhere from thirty to fifty. Dylan Wrixon, the hard, wiry Appalachian Dempsey had spotted on the street. And Kate Silver, a fierce-looking blonde in her early thirties who, at almost six feet tall and with the build of an Olympian, looked like a physical match for any man there.
Except, perhaps, for the big one. Salvatore Gallo, the team’s near giant.
Gallo had thrown the sports coat aside, revealing the M90 CAWS shotgun that had been so obviously beneath. Like every member of Dempsey’s hand-picked ISB team, Gallo was ready.
All six were dressed in casual, baggy sportswear. The clothing served as street camouflage, as well as concealing the firearms, ammunition and kevlar that were strapped across their bodies.
Those firearms were now in each agent’s hands. Small close-quarters assault rifles for everyone but Gallo.
Dempsey indicated to the lowered fire escape. He spoke quickly.
‘As you were briefed: entry via the empty sixth floor apartment, then up one floor. All three seventh-floor apartments are supposed to be unoccupied. One of them won’t be. That’s where the hostage will be but we won’t know which apartment it is until we breach. Or how many hostiles there’ll be. Understood?’
All five agents nodded as one.
‘We breach from the inside. Beta will be covering the rear via the roof. We go in hard. Anyone we don’t hit, we herd towards Beta. Clear?’
Another five head movements.
‘Silent all the way up,’ Dempsey continued, ‘then every apartment cleared in sixty seconds. I want you fast and fatal. Other than us, only one person is leaving that seventh floor alive. Understood?’
Four nods. Dempsey looked up towards Gallo, who had remained motionless.
‘Think you can manage that, Sal?’
‘Guardami e basta.’
Dempsey had picked up enough of Gallo’s native Italian to know the meaning.
Just watch me.
It was all he needed to hear.
The six ISB agents had climbed the tenement’s fire escape slowly and – in spite of the age and underuse of its metal frame – without a sound. Their movement once inside the building, as they made their way from the sixth floor to the seventh, had been just as silent.
Dempsey stepped up to the last of three closed apartments in the corridor. He looked to his left. Dai and Jabari were perhaps ten yards away, in front of the second apartment. Wrixon and Silver another ten, poised by the first.
Gallo was with Dempsey. Each apartment would be a two-man job.
Their intelligence could only take them this far. The building was old, its windows small and shrouded in years of grime. Its interior was all but invisible from the outside
Probably why the building was chosen in the first place, Dempsey surmised.
Even SWAT and Dempsey’s Beta Unit – both positioned on adjacent buildings – had no clear view inside. It left them blind as to which apartment was holding the hostage; all they could be sure of was that two would be empty and one would offer resistance.
Just as well, then, that the Alpha Unit carried no weak link. Each apartment would be hit as hard and as fast as the others. No matter which one contained their targets – no matter which two-agent team breached – it would not end well for those inside.
Dempsey raised his open left hand, as if preparing a vertical salute. With one last glance to his left, he lowered his thumb.
It had the desired effect. His first four agents all visibly tensed for what was about to occur. His fifth – Gallo – adjusted his stance and placed the muzzle of his M90 inches from the third door’s secure lock.
A second later and Dempsey lowered his little finger. One more and his ring finger was down. Another and only his index finger was left up.
Dempsey’s remaining digit had barely touched the skin of his palm as the gunfire began. Three doors. Three weapons. One result. Two simultaneous semi-automatic three-round bursts saw to the locks on apartments one and two. A single round from Gallo’s shotgun devastated the third.
The agents moved like clockwork. Countless hours of close-quarters assault drills had seen to that.
Dai and Wrixon moved in sync through their two doorways, rifles raised to their shoulders as they both swept to the right. Jabari and Silver followed their respective leads, each taking the left.
Perfect execution of the manoeuvres they had been taught by Dempsey.
He and Gallo were equally well rehearsed. So was their reaction when they instantly saw that theirs was the occupied apartment.
The door had been shattered by Gallo’s single shot; the wood from a football-sized hole in its frame had peppered the back wall, sending the targets inside diving for cover.
Having spotted them, Gallo stepped to his right and made space, allowing Dempsey to flick a flash-bang grenade through the doorway.
‘COVER!’ Dempsey stepped back into the corridor as he shouted.
The warning was unnecessary. Gallo had already shielded his ears and turned his back to the door. The corridor wall provided both men with a barrier to the blinding light that would follow.
But still, old habits die hard. And good ones never should.
Even with eyes averted and ears covered, neither man could miss the detonation of the flash-bangs. And so both were moving again in an instant.
Gallo breached the doorway first. He covered the entire right half of the apartment’s reception room with one sweep of his shotgun.
Dempsey was a heartbeat behind, sweeping the room’s left side with his own Heckler & Koch G36C assault rifle.
The first thing Dempsey noticed were two long tables, each running the length of the right and left walls of the apartment’s main room. Both were covered with steel bowls, scales and – most telling – brick-shaped packages of solid white and brown powder.
Dempsey made the observation in an instant, and in the same moment he noticed something else: there was no hostage in this room.
Or in the apartment, he instinctively knew. The intelligence is wrong.
Dempsey’s experience allowed him to register every detail at once, and to see the picture those details painted. It was a skill learned over countless days in the Killing House in Hereford. Staged assault after staged assault. Every possible scenario covered. Every possible threat anticipated and enacted.
He’d been thankful for that training in the years that had followed. Time and again it had been the difference between life and death.
But today it told him that they were engaging the wrong targets. This was clearly a drug factory. Nothing to do with their hostage. And there was not a single thing he could do to change that.
The sound from Gallo’s M90 was like a physical blow as the Italian discharged it to Dempsey’s right. Once. Twice. The violence of the vibration could have disorientated even the most experienced soldier.
To Dempsey, it signified nothing more than an increased body count.
The number was still passing through his mind as he noted the movement to his left. Four figures, dressed in sterile clothing. At first glance they looked like medics or forensic examiners – an impression ruined by the weapons each was now clumsily raising in Dempsey’s direction.
He aimed his own G36C, already at shoulder height, and applied four kisses of pressure to its trigger. Each touch discharged a three-round burst. Each burst found a target. Still disorientated from the flash-bangs, none of the four had a chance against a weapon far more lethal.
Dempsey glanced towards Gallo. The Italian was already facing him. Like Dempsey’s side of the room, Gallo’s was now clear.
Dempsey lifted his right index finger and drew a horizontal circle in the air: the signal that they were now moving to the next stage of their choreographed assault.
This was not why they had come. These people were not who they were here to kill. But with the shooting started, they had no choice now but to see it through.
Gallo acknowledged the instruction with a nod and turned his back towards Dempsey’s own, his shotgun now covering the only entrance to the apartment. They slowly progressed towards the sole interior door that led off the main room.
Dempsey stepped forward slowly. Carefully. The ringing in his ears from the gunfire had temporarily robbed him of a key sense. Hardly ideal, but he would manage without it. It was far from the first time, and he would not be the only one suffering.
Another step. And another.
Dempsey’s eyes kept a laser-focus on the empty opening that led to the rest of the small apartment. He had no way to know if there were targets beyond it, but he had to assume there were. In his experience, drugs factories were always heavily defended.
And even if this one was not, it was diligence that kept professionals alive.
One more step and he would be through the inner doorway.
Gripping his weapon with his right hand, Dempsey took his left away from the rifle’s magazine, slowly moved it past his own back and tapped Gallo’s hip. The Italian – his own eyes still fixed on the apartment’s main door – responded by placing a single flash-bang into Dempsey’s outstretched hand.
It was their only cover for the breach that was to come. Or at least for the breach they expected to come.
There is a difference between being deafened and being unable to ‘hear’. The key is to recognise the vibrations elsewhere. To detect that feeling that would ordinarily be called ‘sound’.
It was this vibration that Dempsey absorbed, just as he lifted the flash-bang towards his right hand. The sensation of movement, emanating up through his boots. Too light to be a footstep. Almost too light, even, to be noticed.
The small, brown object that rolled into the doorway was as rudimentary a hand grenade as Dempsey had ever seen. Barely larger than a squash ball and almost featureless, the antiquated fragmentation grenade’s blast zone would be small, but it was still perfectly capable of tearing Dempsey and Gallo to pieces.
Dempsey stopped the deadly ball with his left boot, scooped it up from the floor and sent it arching back from where it had come. In the next instant he unpinned Gallo’s flash-band and threw it in the same direction.
Dempsey grabbed Gallo hard by the shoulder as he shouted, using his full strength to pull the Italian to the floor and behind whatever protection the interior wall could provide.
It was not a moment too soon.
The sound of the first bang would have been deafening if either man could still hear, while its flash – fifty per cent of its disorientating arsenal – was harmless on this side of the partition. Even alone, the weapon would have been effective.
But it was not alone.
The fragmentation grenade exploded almost simultaneously. As soon as it hit the floor, Dempsey assumed. Its devastating effect made the first device seem like a child’s toy.
Large fragments of the grenade pierced the drywall that divided the main room from the rest of the apartment. None struck Dempsey or Gallo, thanks to their position on the floor. Had either man been standing, the result would have been very different.
‘LET’S GO!’ Dempsey yelled. If anyone was still alive through the doorway, they could not be given time to recover.
Both men were on their feet in an instant, with Dempsey first through the doorway and Gallo a step behind him.
The sight that met them was like a snapshot of hell. Whatever damage the grenade had done through the wall was multiplied ten times over on the partition’s other side.
It took a literal headcount for Dempsey to determine that a further four targets had been eliminated in the explosion. Two in the tight corridor off the main room – presumably the original source of the grenade – and two on the threshold of the first bedroom.
None of the four bodies were fully intact.
Dempsey was not distracted by the carnage. He continued along the corridor without missing a step.
He swept the first bedroom at speed. The two dead bodies in the doorway told him that the room had taken the brunt of the blast. The odds of a survivor were slim, but still the area had to be cleared.
This time it was Gallo who shouted. He had passed Dempsey as the British agent took the first door, and it seemed that his search had borne fruit.
Dempsey covered the few feet between rooms at speed. He entered to find Gallo with his shotgun raised to his shoulder and aimed towards the room’s large open window. A thick black curtain billowed in the breeze, obstructing both agents’ view.
Dempsey stepped forward, placed his palm on the barrel of Gallo’s M90 and guided it down. Gallo glanced towards him and Dempsey simply shook his head. He knew what was to come: the sound of three rounds, discharged just outside.
Dempsey lowered his own weapon and stepped towards the window. He moved the curtain aside and stepped through, onto the metal fire escape outside. Ahead of him was the body of a white man, his bloody eyes staring lifelessly into the sky.
‘Empty apartment, Kate?’
Dempsey looked across to the furthest end of the fire escape. Kate Silver was standing with her rifle raised to her shoulder.
‘Yeah,’ Silver replied. ‘Unlike yours.’
Dempsey pointed towards the first apartment.
‘No sign of a hostage in there, I take it?’
‘What about Dai and Jabari?’
‘I don’t know.’
Dempsey put his hand to his ear and reactivated his wrist-mic. He switched the frequency to the ISB band.
‘Dai, you there? Over.’
The mic crackled to life.
‘I’m here. Over.’
‘What have you got? Over.’
‘Nothing. Apartment empty. Over.’
Dempsey looked down at the body close to his feet. The man had been armed. He had worked in a drug den. There was no doubt that he was a criminal, and maybe he deserved his fate. But he was not the man the ISB were here to find. None of them were.