Portman’s latest assignment is providing back-up for a French intelligence agent sent to recover a hard drive from one of the most dangerous cities on the planet: Mogadishu in Somalia. What he hasn’t been told is that the device records secret negotiations between two leading western nations and a hardline terrorist organisation responsible for killing thousands of innocent people.
When the decision is taken to abandon the talks, anybody in the know immediately becomes a target to be silenced.
And Portman finds himself at the top of the list…
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A Marc Portman Thriller
By Adrian Magson
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Adrian Magson
All rights reserved.
I was six floors up in an abandoned office project with a dead man for company when I heard the sound of engines. Two at a guess, driven hard and sliding to a stop nearby followed by the sound of doors slamming, running footsteps and a lot of shouting.
A corner window gave me a grandstand view of the surrounding area, which included a collection of clearance sites once marked for rebuilding that never happened, a dense spread of squalid residential housing running out to the old port of Mogadishu and the choppy inshore waters of the Indian Ocean.
The new arrivals had stopped about eighty yards back in the parking lot. Two grey Mitsubishi pickups with tinted glass, disgorging six men in combat uniform, armed and ready for a fight.
Al-Shabaab, Somali troops or African Union? It was hard to tell. Al-Shabaab were well-versed in passing themselves off as regular army so they could slip into the capital to carry out regular bombing campaigns. Dressing the part had worked well in the past and served as useful propaganda, proving that they could go wherever they pleased while making Mogadishu one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
Whoever these guys were, arriving right now made an already hazardous situation a lot worse. This building, part of a dead dream of commercial growth several years back, had long been stripped of anything useful, especially hiding places and secret portals to somewhere safer. The elevator was lying in a heap at the bottom of its shaft, and every sound of movement echoed the length of the stairwell like a boom box. If I could have chosen a bad place to be, this had to be high on the list.
I watched as the men spread out across the parking lot. The way they moved told me all I needed to know: they were committed, armed with modern weapons, and looked too well-drilled to be extremists. Worse, they looked ready for trouble and I got the sense that they weren't expecting to take prisoners. Not surprising in a country where the rule of law comes mainly out of a gun and dissenters have a habit of disappearing.
My only professional criticism might have been that they should have approached more cautiously, rather than running across open ground with no cover like they were going to the chuck wagon for coffee and donuts.
Even as I thought it, someone down there showed the same line of thought. There was a shout and three of the men in the centre dropped to their knees and sprayed the front of the building at ground level with automatic gunfire. After the near-silence that had greeted my arrival, save for a few bird noises and the distant flap-flap from a piece of loose fascia board on the front of the building, it was a brutal invasion, the thump of shots impacting on the walls downstairs and echoing upwards like a trip hammer.
That told me they were serious. Always good to know.
Then they upped the ante. The three other men took their place and began firing at the other windows, moving up floor by floor and stopping only to change magazines. While they did that the first three men took over, leaving no window untouched. It was a murderous assault geared to kill and intimidate. From my perch I saw a shower of cement and cinderblock fragments raining to the ground, and could feel the snapping ricochet of shells bouncing around the inside of the building as the shockwaves moved up inside the structure. If I'd been on one of the floors below, I'd have been dead meat.
It was time to move out and I only had seconds left to do it. I figured any locals hearing the sustained gunfire would ignore it and stay out of the way. Mogadishu was well known for bursts of random fighting, and it was wise not to get involved. Being killed for a specific reason or by accident can be explained away as bad karma; getting shot because you were dumb is not so easy.
I moved back from the windows and considered my options. I had no valid reason for being here and in any case I didn't think the men downstairs would care a whole lot for chit-chat or due process. They'd obviously been sent in on a clearance exercise and that was what they were going to execute. Flushing out whoever they were after was probably secondary to making sure their target didn't leave the building alive.
A deeper thump sent a faint tremor through the building and an acrid smell drifted up the stairs. Smoke grenade. It was followed by another, this time higher up. Any second now the men would be ordered inside to clear the building floor by floor.
A much sharper bang was an indication of how they intended to do that: fragmentation grenade.
The dead guy on the floor nearby was André Masse, a Frenchman. Outwardly a consultant engineer based in Djibouti to the north, he was actually a deep cover operative for France's main intelligence agency, the General Directorate for External Security, or DGSE. Put in place to keep an eye on the situation on the Horn of Africa, he'd sent an urgent message to his bosses in Paris requesting a come-and-collect. It meant he had something important to hand over but couldn't leave the country himself or trust anyone local to handle it.
For reasons I hadn't been given, the French had hired me to play pickup instead of one of their own. Not that I was questioning their tactics. The French intelligence community was well known for doing whatever was required to protect the country and its overseas territories, often using unorthodox methods when called for. That didn't make them so different to any of the others on the planet including the UK and US; they were simply less bothered by any fallout if and when caught.
In short, hiring an outsider like me to go into a potentially lethal situation was one way of keeping their hands clean.
I hadn't been told what kind of information Masse had gotten hold of, only that it was on a hard drive and vitally important. So, meet, collect and carry back.
Unfortunately, Masse was now beyond caring what happened from here on in and had been for a while; he'd been knifed in the abdomen and there was a nasty open gash across the palm of one hand, showing he must have tried at the last second to ward off the attack. His face was a mess, too; he'd been savagely beaten to a point beyond recognition. The smell of infection and death were already heavy in the air, and I could only hope for his sake that he'd died before enduring the beating.
It at least explained why he hadn't been in touch since we last spoke.
I'd got his cell phone in my pocket along with a hard drive I'd found tucked into his sock minutes earlier. It was an electronic biscuit, slimmer and smaller than a pack of cigarettes. He had no ID and nothing that could lead the authorities to his family, friends or contacts. There was nothing else I could do for him but get out of here with the information he'd been trying to get to his bosses, along with a snapshot of the scene. It would be up to them what they did with it. While giving his body a final pat-down I'd found a semi-automatic pistol under his hip. It was a French PAMAS 9mm, a variant of the Beretta, and hadn't been used in a while, going by the dust on the inside of the barrel. But it worked fine and looked ready to go, with a full clip. Maybe it had been his intended way out if he'd got caught; unfortunately his killer had trumped that option. I was carrying a similar weapon, and after what I'd just seen downstairs I had a feeling I might need the spare firepower.
I stepped across to the elevator shaft and looked down. Six floors doesn't sound a lot if you think of an average office building. Eighty feet or so as near as makes no difference. But that's still a lot of feet if you fall. Not that I was planning on it. Masse must have checked out the building previously ready for the handover – or maybe he'd used it before and had planned for all eventualities, because a coil of thick rope lay by the shaft doors. It was tethered to a length of steel pipe jutting from the wall, offering a quick way down and avoiding the stairs.
I could see a pool of light down below on what looked like the fourth floor, where I'd noticed one of the elevator shaft doors was open. All the others were closed and threw the shaft into darkness save for another faint glow on the ground floor where the doors had been blasted open moments ago by one of the grenades. They'd been partially closed when I arrived, although I'd been able to see where the elevator had crashed after the cables had rusted through and finally given up the strain of holding it up.
More shouting and shooting and another grenade blast that sent a tremor through the floor. So, it was this way or no way. Going down the outside would leave me open to target practice by any of the men waiting in the parking lot. And with no other way down save for growing a set of wings, I had to trust to the gods of vertical travel.
I looped the rope through a sturdy bracket on the inside of the shaft walls for luck, then threw the coils over my shoulder. Dropping the heavy hemp down the shaft ahead of me would be like sending up a flare saying, here I am, guys! With a quick breath, I kicked out from the open doors and began my descent, feeding out the rope as I went.
There's always one eager beaver who wants to spoil the party. I was approaching the fourth floor and sliding nice and quiet in the dark, hoping to avoid unseen obstacles, when the firing stopped as if a switch had been flicked. The sudden silence was intense, and I stopped dead. Then I heard a shout and the thump of feet coming up the stairs. Some poor duck had drawn the short straw and been sent up as a decoy.
He was ignoring any idea of stealth, his boots crunching noisily on the layer of grit and filth on the stairs and landings, each sound filtering through the fourth floor elevator shaft door. I hung there in the dark, spinning slowly. The footsteps stopped. He must have heard something; maybe a fragment of debris I'd inadvertently kicked loose on my way down. Whatever it was, I was hoping he got moving soon; I wasn't going to be able to hang here for long and my shoulder muscles were already beginning to pop with the strain.
Then I got lucky. He poked his head through the elevator door just as I spun that way. He didn't see me at first because he was looking down the shaft. He was a big guy with a shiny head and huge shoulders, and I could hear his breathing coming in short, ragged bursts. I was barely ten feet away from him and it was only a matter of time before he sensed my presence and reacted.
He was carrying what looked like a bullpup, which was lousy news. A bullpup is a shortened military-style shotgun designed for close-quarter fighting, for taking down doors and conducting building clearance operations in confined spaces. The idea is, you send in the man with the bullpup and wait to see what comes out. If he's good, he'll either blow away any opposition or frighten them into giving themselves up when they see what they're facing.
When this guy finally looked up, it took a couple of seconds for him to compute what he was seeing. Then he snapped his jaw shut and began to bring up the gun. The barrel looked huge and menacing even in the poor light. If he got even a single pull on the trigger, he'd fill the shaft with hot lead and I'd be dead before I hit the bottom.CHAPTER 2
I grabbed my gun. I had no option but to take him out; nothing wild, just a straight head-shot. Going for the centre body mass with the kind of weapon he was holding risked my bullet hitting the gun or simply wounding him. This had to be a one-time thing and no mistakes.
He stood for a second, and would have probably looked shocked if his brain were still active. But he was beyond all that, his body pinned momentarily against the elevator door frame until his legs got the message that it was all over and done. As he began to crumple the shotgun slid out of his hands and fell to the floor by his side. It bounced a couple of times, and teetered towards the open shaft with nightmare slowness.
I was already swinging, kicking off the shaft wall and releasing my grip just enough to drop level with the man and kick him and the shotgun away from the shaft. As I swung away again, a shout echoed up from below, asking what was going on. If the gun or the man had gone down the shaft, they wouldn't have asked twice; they'd have come up on the run, firing as they advanced to keep my head down until they were in a position to overpower or kill me.
'Rat!' I shouted back as I swung back towards the doors, and got a burst of derisive laughter from below. Rats are detested by most people, even soldiers, but you have to be a wuss to admit it. I dropped the rest of the rope and slid down the shaft as fast as I could, hearing more footsteps pounding up the stairs. It was going to be a close call. Then came another shout, this time from above me.
They'd found the man I'd shot.
A split second later the shaft was full of the hammering noise of gunfire as whoever was up there opened up in the hopes of getting lucky. Elsewhere I heard the sound of running feet and more shouting and it was clear the ruse hadn't lasted long enough.
I was now the rat and on the wrong end of the chase.
I hit the remains of the crashed elevator, feeling the sting of a close shot scorch my back, and let go of the rope. I was effectively standing on a pile of noisy junk with my feet level with the half-open door. All I had to do was step across and out of the shaft.
Easier said than done; they'd left a man on guard while the remainder of the assault posse thundered up the stairs, eager to be in on the kill. He was dressed in camouflage uniform, boots and hat, and carrying an assault rifle. He looked lean, sinewy and quick on his feet, and was now turning to see what the hell all the noise was from the dead elevator, especially the sound of gunfire coming down from above.
When I stepped out of the darkness it took him by surprise, but only for a moment. He began to move so I slapped him with the pistol and dropped him to the floor, then checked out the rest of the small lobby. Nobody. He was on his lonesome while the rest of the group played commando.
Through the filthy lobby windows I could see the two Land Cruisers out in the parking lot, and a guard standing by the front of the nearest vehicle, toting a rifle. He looked nervous; a driver, probably, and the least experienced. But the distance between us was too great and he looked ready to start shooting if anybody other than his comrades stepped out of the building. It gave me an idea.
Tucking the pistol into my waist I stripped off the unconscious guard's camo top and hat and put them on, then bent and pulled the man up onto my shoulder and grabbed his rifle. Tugging the hat down over my face I made sure my head was shielded by the body and stepped outside. Hurrying across the parking lot towards the nearest pickup, I waved the rifle and called for the guard to help me.
The blatantly unlikely is sometimes the best way of fooling somebody. He wasn't expecting anybody to exit the building, not with all the men checking out the upper floors and having such a banging time, so his thought processes were a little off. The gunfire alone would have convinced him that the man they had come here to arrest was trapped on the upper floors. But seeing a figure emerge carrying one of his colleagues, probably wounded in the first contact inside, looked close enough to be plausible. It helped that he couldn't see my face, only the camo top and hat.
I was ten steps away when he must have remembered that his colleagues were in uniform. He began to swing up his assault rifle and open his mouth to shout a warning that the bad man was on the outside, when I put on as near as I could a sprint and threw the man off my shoulder right at him, knocking him over. His head hit the side of the Land Cruiser with a vicious thump and he dropped his rifle. I followed it up with a tap to the head to make sure he stayed put.
As I jumped aboard and turned on the engine, I heard a shout from way up in the building, followed by a volley of shots hitting the ground around me and a couple punching through the pickup's thin bodywork. Somebody had been admiring the view and seen me come outside.
I hit the gas and accelerated out of the parking lot, pausing long enough to put a couple of rounds into the tyres of the other pickup on the way by. I had no idea what these men's tyre-changing skills were like, but unless they'd all been recruited from a Formula One pit crew, I'd gained myself several minutes' advance on any pursuit.
Excerpted from Dark Asset by Adrian Magson. Copyright © 2017 Adrian Magson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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