The third & final novel in David Gilman's supercharged sophisticated adventure series, perfect for fans of Anthony Horowitz, James Patterson, and the Jason Bourne movies.
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Darkness devoured him.
Eyes wide with terror, he saw only the gaping void, heard his desperate breathing hammering through his skull as the rasping one-eyed monster pursued him. Beneath his feet, death’s slippery tongue glinted dully into the belly of the beast.
A faint signal beat through his mind, a rhythmic note that was his own voice. Don’t fail. Don’t fail. Don’t fail. To do what? His thoughts were in tatters. He tried to scan the memory banks embedded in his brain. Terror gushed chemicals through his body. He couldn’t remember! Legs and arms pumped him deeper into the tunnel as crackling sparks of cruel laughter gained on him. The monster’s beam of light could not see him yet, his dark clothing morphing him into the nothingness. A grinding, pulsating sound of metal on metal. Arms flailing, he felt his coordination begin to fail. Always so strong, always so capable, and fit and young. Young. Yes, he was. He remembered that. And voices from the past--echoing in his head. Never give up. Keep going. You’re one of the fittest boys here, Danny. Danny! That was his name. He was too young to die. He knew this as surely as he knew that the blackness suffocating him was now the beginning of the end. Blood began to seep from his eyes, nose and ears. Like the tears of a clown, it dripped down his cheeks.
He fell forward, and in those two seconds it took before he hit the ground, lightning flashed behind his eyes and a rippling wave of enormous power reached up to him from the blackness, pulling him to his death. His muscles loosened; the coarse brown envelope he had been clutching fell from his fingers. His body jerked convulsively as the power surged through him.
The approaching London Underground train’s impetus created a vacuum that sucked air out of the tubelike tunnel. Rubbish scattered. Old crisp packets and a brown envelope addressed to Max Gordon at Dartmoor High School tumbled and fluttered their way to the platform.
The train shuddered over the unseen body now lying to one side of the electrified line, but the boy felt no pain or fear. He had already sunk into the vortex of death.
The brain worm had finally eaten its way through his skull.
A black Range Rover purred down the rain-slicked strip of tarmac, over gorse hills and around granite tors. As it crested each rise, the onrushing clouds skimmed above the roof of the vehicle. Hard rain pebbled against the windscreen as the road dipped and twisted through the folded hills. The driver wore black denim jeans that crumpled onto suede desert boots. A dark-blue T-shirt hid beneath a hooded sweatshirt that sported a San Francisco 49ers logo, and the crumpled leather jacket had cost a lot of money. Half-gloved hands teased the steering wheel round a snaking bend as the big Rover squeezed across an ancient bridge. Swirling copper-colored water, rich with peat, churned below the supports, threatening to spill onto the road. He pressed the accelerator; the four-wheel-drive pulled power effortlessly from the V-8 engine, and a whiff of steam hissed from the spray that slashed against the exhaust.
“Godforsaken place,” said his companion, a man similarly dressed, of similar age and in exactly the same profession. He shifted in his seat, the 9 mm semiautomatic catching his ribs. He eased the pressure.
The two men seldom spoke. Training and a natural tendency to stay silent meant their brains weren’t picking up pieces of useless flotsam to make small talk. The driver said nothing. He liked the bleakness of Dartmoor, the shifting light and the threatening power of nature that could catch the unprepared and kill them. Nature could be as efficient a killer as he. Besides, years ago, he had trained for many long months in conditions like these, being tested beyond his limit. It was a trial he had relished and overcome. He reckoned that the boys who attended Dartmoor High had that same instinct.
Weighted with rain, the clouds sucked any light from the sky. The road twisted across the side of a hill, rose up, and there in the far distance, barely visible between darkened earth and impenetrable sky, was a building hewn from granite. A Victorian fortress held by claws of black rock. Once a harsh prison constructed on the remains of Rome’s XX Legion’s outpost, it had housed the criminally insane, but the warders had been unable to stand the terrifying nights of banshee winds and tormented cries of the incarcerated.
It had been converted into a school a hundred years ago--a place where a boy’s intelligence was challenged as much by the no-nonsense education as by the demands of physical pursuits. With commanding views, the place was a solitary image of unyielding steadfastness in the face of the storms nature threw at it.
The driver smiled. No wonder the boy who died in the tunnel had given them such a long, hard chase. He had been from Dartmoor High.
Fergus Jackson, the headmaster, stood in the tiled entrance hall. Crumpled corduroy trousers, a rough knitted sweater over a checked shirt and a stout pair of hiking boots gave him the appearance of a moorland farmer. Callused hands would pull through a shock of gray horse-mane hair in a troubled gesture to any question he was uncertain how to answer--or when he wanted to buy time. It made him come across as a bit of a bumbler. Whoever thought that did not know Fergus Jackson. This was his smoke screen while he assessed those in his presence--what he was doing right now with the two men who stepped into the entrance hall as he closed the oak doors behind them.
He had observed them from his study window before answering the insistent doorbell. Two young men. Fit, strong. They moved almost lazily. Short-cropped hair and rough stubble on their faces. They ignored the flurries of rain when they stepped down from the Range Rover.
As he ushered them inside, he took in their every movement and gesture, saw their eyes scan the school’s entrance hall, watched as they turned back and caught each other’s gaze--a quick look that said each had checked the place with a professional eye.
“Sorry it took me a while to get to the door--it’s half-term. We’ve only a few teaching staff around, and the boys who are still here probably made a determined effort to ignore the doorbell. I’m Fergus Jackson. Headmaster here. Though I’m supposed to say ‘head teacher’ these days. We haven’t quite caught up with political correctness. All a bit silly, really, isn’t it?”
Another glance between the men. They’d get the information they needed from this old dinosaur without too much trouble. Mr. Jackson extended his hand in greeting. Each of the men shook it. Neither took off his half-fingered leather gloves.
Ill-mannered, Jackson decided. Men who don’t care what people think of them. He saw the band of skin under one man’s wrist, between glove and sleeve. A tattoo, three words, but only one word of the three was visible; the others were fragments: . . . nnia--Velvollisuus--Tah . . .
“We don’t get many visitors out here. Are you lost?” Mr. Jackson asked innocently.
The man who had stepped down from the driver’s side of the Range Rover pulled out a small leather wallet.
“Mr. Jackson, sorry to disturb you. My name is Stanton and this is Drew.” There was a hint of an accent. Mr. Jackson couldn’t place it, but he guessed the man had spent some time in the Nordic countries.
Stanton flipped the wallet open and handed it to Mr. Jackson, who patted his chest for his spectacles, thrust his hand beneath his sweater and pulled out the glasses from his breast pocket. The men waited as he scanned the identity card.
“Security Service? MI-Five?”
The driver smiled and took back his warrant card. As he returned it to his inside pocket, his jacket eased back, exposing the speed-rig shoulder holster and the semiautomatic that nestled against his ribs. The black nylon clamshell gripped the body of the weapon, allowing a fast draw when needed.
“We’re here to make inquiries about a former pupil, Danny Maguire. The boy who died on the London Underground a couple of days ago?”
“Yes, tragic. Absolutely tragic,” Mr. Jackson said. The television news images of ambulance and rescue crews as they recovered Maguire’s body replayed themselves in his mind’s eye.
“We think he might have been trying to contact one of the boys here. A Max Gordon,” said Drew.
No foreign accent here. British. Southeast England.
“Really? I see. Well, perhaps we should go through to my study,” Mr. Jackson said. He stepped to one side, aiming his arm toward the left-hand side of the corridor that ran each side of the main staircase. A couple of boys pounded down the stairs. Mr. Jackson shouted, “Boys! Come here!”
Obediently they slowed their exuberant descent. “Just because you are here during term break does not give you the right to behave as if you were at home.” He took one of the boys by a shoulder and turned him to face the two men. “Morris, take these two gentlemen to my study and put a log on the fire while you’re at it.”
Mr. Jackson smiled apologetically at the two men. “I have to speak to this other boy while I have him at my mercy. Morris here will show you the way, and I’ll be right behind you. Just a minute or so. Off you go, Morris.”
The two men were momentarily caught off guard, but there was no reason for them to be suspicious, so they followed the boy. As they stepped away, they heard Mr. Jackson raise his voice as he castigated the younger boy. “I have told you, time and time again, that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated at Dartmoor High. You are going to learn one way or the other, or I will speak to your mother!”
A heavy door closed behind the men as Morris took them farther down the corridor. Mr. Jackson immediately lowered his voice and held Sayid Khalif’s shoulders squarely.
“Sayid, listen to me. In five minutes I want you to phone my study from Matron’s office. Say one of the boys has cut himself and that Matron wants me to have a look. Got it?”
“I’ll put you on speaker phone so they can hear. And get down to the mailroom and see if there’s anything waiting for Max. If there is--hide it!”
With that final command, Mr. Jackson turned and walked quickly toward his study. Sayid knew Mr. Jackson must have a very good reason to make such a strange request. Something was wrong, and his best mate, Max Gordon, was in trouble. Again.
Torchlight cut through the darkness of the moor. Soldiers. A hunter group was after Max. Wind-whipped rain would help his escape, but now he lay absolutely still. The men were barely visible in the darkness; camouflage-pattern clothing broke up their silhouettes, and the mist and rain that swirled in and out of the gullies made them half-seen specters. But now they were getting closer, quartering the ground--a methodical search pattern. Max had watched them for the latter part of the day, saw them start wide a kilometer away and gradually tighten the search zone until it was barely a two-hundred-meter semicircle. The net was closing.
Max shivered. He’d give anything for a hot drink right now. That would improve his energy, take the cramp from his aching muscles and boost his morale. He had barely slept for two days. Always on the move, aware that others had already been trapped and caught, he had slithered his way through gorse, heather and mud, keeping a low profile, remembering tips his father had given him over the years: If you’re being hunted, stay below the skyline. Move at night. No fires, no torches. The tiniest speck of light can be seen for miles. And if you want the best chance to stay undetected, crawl into the biggest thornbush or the dirtiest, smelliest place you can find.
Well, Max hadn’t found a thornbush, but on the first night, he had come across a sheepfold scooped out of the ground, high on the moor. It was a bitterly cold night, exposed to the northwest wind that howled in from the coast. The small, half-walled stone shelter was virtually invisible to the naked eye. It stank of sheep droppings, which the rain had turned into slurry. Max had secured one edge of a groundsheet under the wall’s top stone, laid rocks on the other, laid a smaller sheet in the sludge underneath, then crawled into this shelter inside his lightweight sleeping bag. The place reeked of sheep urine, but he felt sure that if the hunter group had tracker dogs, this stench would throw them off his scent.
He hadn’t cooked a meal since he’d escaped from the army truck when this whole thing started, but had lived off dried fruit and water. Hunger would play a role in his survival, and he needed to keep the gnawing pangs at bay. If you knew where to look, Lathyrus linifolius--known locally as heath pea--would be invaluable. Max had gone straight to a shaded area of moss and heather, where the small tubers grew about ten centimeters belowground, and scrabbled beneath the thin surface of turf. He ate the tubers raw. They tasted bitter and smelled of licorice, but they were an appetite suppressant, which would halt his body’s craving for food.
The first two days saw him cover the most distance in avoiding the patrols, but then, as others were captured--a flare lit the sky every time one was taken--more troops came into the area to hunt for survivors. Max had covered more than fifteen kilometers over difficult terrain the previous day, and that night he saw a light flicker far across a valley. Another boy had succumbed and risked a hot meal. Max waited, lying shivering in the wet. Sure enough, the smell of food drifted across the valley. He watched, unmoving, staring intently into the darkness, searching out every sway of grass and heather, certain he could see shadows emerging from the deep gorse. Max’s instincts felt as though they sat on his skin--an animal waiting for the least vibration to alert him to danger.
And then a shout and a parachute flare shot into the blustery sky--it swung crazily in the wind, drunk with success.
How many of those being pursued like Max were left out there? He didn’t care. He was going to survive. After the sheepfold hideout, he set off before dawn and jogged along animal tracks, scars in the heather--uneven underfoot, but a good way to put distance between himself and those giving chase. The gorse needles covered the tracks at shin height, and they pierced his lightweight cotton trousers, pricking his skin, but they also stopped anyone seeing his footprints. Now, at the end of the third day, he ran on a bearing, zigzagging across the open moor, using his compass.