Zero Option

Zero Option

by Chris Ryan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780099460138
Publisher: Random House UK
Publication date: 07/28/2003
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 4.33(w) x 7.01(h) x 1.06(d)

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It took me a few moments to get myself together. I sat on the arm of the easy chair, practically paralysed, staring at the polaroid photo, unable to believe that my son and girlfriend - my whole family - had gone. My hand began to tremble so badly that the outline of Tim's little face blurred; I could hardly see Tracy at all. Then a shudder pulsed through my body. It seemed to start at my feet, then rose quickly through my knees, hips and trunk. When it reached my head I suddenly regained power of thought and movement.

I studied the picture again. It had been taken with a flash from a few feet away. Tracy was standing in front of the fireplace holding Tim on her right hip. Her face was twisted into a smile of sorts, but I could see the fear behind it. That grin was one of bravado, defiance. Close on either side of her stood two men in black balaclava ski-masks, brandishing pistols like in those crappy, mock-heroic wall-paintings you see on the walls of buildings in West Belfast. Both were wearing dark sweatshirts. They weren't actually holding her, but you could see that if she'd moved an inch either way they'd have grabbed her.

The picture had been taken horizontally, so that it cut off the grown-ups at waist-level. There must have been three intruders at least: these two, and the guy who held the camera.

Fingerprints, I thought. Don't destroy any. I realised I shouldn't have touched the photo at all. Without changing my finger-and-thumb grip I stood up, crossed to the bureau, fished out a brown envelope with my left hand and slipped the photo into it. Then I spread a handkerchief over my palm and fingers before picking up the phone and dialling the emergency number in camp.

'Hello,' said the switchboard girl. 'Stirling Lines.'

'Guardroom, please.'

'One moment.'

I waited, glancing at my watch. It was less than half an hour since I'd checked out of camp and said goodnight. Then I heard, 'Guardroom. Sergeant Howard.'

'Chris,' I said. 'It's Geordie.'

'What's up?'

'Listen, they've lifted the pair of them.'

'Who? What are you saying?'

'They've taken Tim and Tracy.'

'Who, for Christ's sake? Who are you talking about?'

'It's the PIRA.'

'Don't be daft. How d'you know? Where are you?'

'At home. I found a photo on the floor. Two guys in ski-masks, either side of Tracy and the kid. Nothing else. Chris, what the fuck can I do?'

'Jesus! You'd better head back into camp.'

'OK. But can you get someone out here to keep an eye on the house?'

'Of course. I'll put a guy on his way. Sit tight until he arrives. Then head right in.'

'OK. And listen: get the police to activate their plan to close every main road out of town.'

'Operation Cougar. I'll tell them right away.'

I switched on the outside security lights and stood in the hall, trying to think. How in hell had the IRA found out where I lived? How had they known that I was abroad?

Waiting was tough. I started pacing up and down like a lion in a cage, frantic to get some action going. Yet there was nothing positive I could do. Every minute that passed gave the snatch party a better chance to make their getaway. Deep down I knew it was already too late to intercept them anywhere nearby: they'd have had far too long to get clear.

I walked out into the dark and made myself take a few deep breaths, inhaling the soft, damp, earthy smells of England in late April. For a few moments I enjoyed the night, but to somebody fresh from the jungle the air felt cool and I was soon back indoors. I tried thinking back, to see where there could have been a leak. What about the man I'd chatted to in the pub on the coast of County Antrim? The one who'd called at the cottage Tracy and I were staying in while I was out?

My other immediate inclination was to blame Farrell - Declan Farrell, the big PIRA player with whom I'd been feuding for months. But now . . . it could hardly have been him. I and my mates in an SAS hit team had captured him in Colombia only a couple of days before, and the last I'd seen of him he was being hauled off to the nick in Bogotá.

Unless, of course, he'd ordered this operation before he went out to Colombia . . .

Less than forty-eight hours earlier we'd blown the shit out of a cocaine processing laboratory beside a tributary of the Amazon. We'd taken one casualty - Sparky Springer, killed by shrapnel from a rocket - but after a dawn shoot-out we'd wounded Farrell and caught him. So now it was a real kick in the bollocks to find that his pernicious influence had struck on my home territory.

Fighting to keep calm I took another look round, keeping a handkerchief draped over my fingers so that I left no prints. As far as I could see nothing was missing; I owned very little of any value, but the obvious targets for a gang of thieves - the hi-fi, the TV, the microwave - were all still in place.

Then, in the dishwasher, I made a small find: two plates smeared with tomato sauce, two glasses, and knives and forks in the basket. In the waste-bin was an empty packet that had held two cod steaks. So they'd had tea, probably at about six o'clock.

I went upstairs. Tim's bed was still made up, his pyjamas neatly folded under the pillow; he'd never gone to bed or had his evening read. The idea of the boy being grabbed made me feel sick, but I forced myself to think. The snatch must have taken place between six and eight - seven or eight hours ago. The hostages could be anywhere by now.

I went to the answerphone. The blinking red light was indicating two messages. I ran back the tape and listened, but the calls were the two I'd made myself - one from the airport, one from Camp on my way home.

The scrunch of wheels on gravel whipped me to the front door. Two of the Regiment's duty Range Rovers had pulled up outside, their sidelights still on. I went to the driver's door of the first and saw that the guy at the wheel was Nobby Clarke.

'Thanks for coming,' I said.

'No sweat. I'm to run you back in. We'll leave Les Abbott here.'

'OK.' I nipped across to the second car and said, 'Hi, Les. Back off till you're level with that bush there. You'll be out of sight of anyone approaching, and you can sit in the vehicle to watch the house.'

'Fine. No one's to enter the house until the police arrive. But I'm not to walk around either. There may be footprints, and they don't want them spoilt.'

'Fair enough. Good luck, then.'

'Have you locked up?' Nobby asked.

'Just going to.'

I pulled the front door to, then at the last minute I realised I probably wouldn't be back before morning, so I dived inside again and grabbed my day-sack, which contained washing kit. Finally I closed the door and turned the key.

Nobby slung the Range Rover through the lanes, making the tyres scrabble, and we were back at the gates of Stirling Lines in eleven minutes flat. In the guardroom the four guys on fire-picket were watching a porn video with that glazed look that comes over everyone on duty in the small hours.

Chris stood up, slim and trim in his DPM shirt and trousers and blue stable belt with its silver buckle. 'Ah, Geordie,' he said. 'I buzzed up the ops officer and he's come in already. The CID are on their way. You'd better get your arse up to the ops room.'

I never looked forward to meeting the ops officer, Major Alex Macpherson (generally known as 'Mac'). He was efficient enough at his job, but he had a sarcastic manner that pissed the guys off. Having been a troop commander in the eighties, he'd returned to his regiment (the Black Watch) for a spell, and then wanted to come back to the SAS as a squadron commander; but the fact that at the age of thirty-six or thirty-seven he'd only made it to ops officer seemed to sour him. Even at the impromptu party which greeted our return he'd been low-key.

I ran up the stairs of the head-shed building, known to all and sundry as the Kremlin. The door of the ops room stood open and I found Mac, dressed in a dark blue polo shirt and jeans, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Serve the bugger right, I thought: normally it was he who routed us out of bed in the middle of the night, and took some pleasure in doing so. His short black hair was standing upright, as if he'd forgotten to brush it when he staggered up. His DPM uniform was thrown over a chair, and his kit - bergen and a pair of boots - stood in a corner.

'Christ, Geordie,' he said. 'That didn't take long.'

'What d'you mean?'

'You've only been back in the UK about five minutes and already you've stirred the shit something wicked.'

'For fuck's sake, Boss. It's nothing I've done.'

'No - well . . .' He stopped, looking at me. The edge in my voice must have made him realise what a state I was in.

'This is the picture they left.' I held out the envelope. 'I've touched it once, in the corner, but otherwise it's clean.'

He went to a shelf and brought down a new file-holder with a flap of cellophane over the front. I decanted the photo carefully into it so that the picture was protected but visible, and laid it on a desk.

'Bastards!' he muttered as he looked at it. 'Let's get a brew on, anyway.' His tone had softened. 'We're going to have to do some talking. Sugar in your tea?'

'No, thanks.'

He moved off into the little annexe where there was a kettle and stuff for making hot drinks. I glanced round at the room: desks with computer terminals on them, filing cabinets with combination locks, shelves full of books . . . this could have been an ordinary office but for the fact that on the walls drab grey curtains were drawn over boards which carried details of the Regiment's current secret operations.

I heard the kettle coming to the boil, and after a couple of minutes' fiddling about Mac handed me a mug. As I drank it I could feel my head clearing. The ops room started filling up with people. First came the Intelligence Officer, a thin, bespectacled guy called Jimmy Wells, carrying a hefty, buff-coloured file of papers; then his clerk (or gofer), who'd also been dragged out of bed, and brought a laptop computer with him. Then came Detective Sergeant Ken Bates of the local CID - prematurely grey-haired, sporting a spiky grey moustache - together with a dumpy, fair-haired detective constable called Mary.

When everyone was seated round a table the int officer led off, telling his gofer to record everything I said on the laptop. The police girl was also to take down my statement in shorthand, to save me saying everything twice.

'The trouble is, I know so little about it,' I began. 'I just got home, and they were gone.'

'Wait a minute,' said Bates. 'I need to take your full name.' He had a blunt Northern accent - Manchester, perhaps.

'Sharp,' I told him. 'Geordie Sharp.'

'Army number?'

'24369207.'

'Rank?'

'Sergeant.'

'Age?'

'Thirty-one.'

'Where's home?'

'It's called Keeper's Cottage. Out in the country, quite isolated - six miles from town.'

'What's the village?'

'It's not in any village. It's just off the Leominster road.'

'What time did you get there?'

'Just about two.'

'And where'd you been?'

Jesus! I thought. This guy knows nothing. But then, how could he know anything about me? I've got to explain everything from scratch.

So I took a deep breath and said, 'We've been on an operation overseas. I've been away six weeks. We landed back at RAF Brize Norton at ten - that's near Oxford - then we came on here and had a bit of a piss-up to celebrate our success. We must have got into camp about midnight.'

'But you'd tried to phone home earlier,' Mac put in. 'You mentioned that at the party.'

'That's right. I called first about half-ten, from Brize, while we were waiting for our baggage. Then again about half-one when we reached camp. The answerphone was on both times. And listen . . .'

I told them about the plates with tomato sauce on them, the packet in the waste-bin, and Tim's unused bed.

'But your wife could have used the plates at lunchtime,' said Bates.

I tried not to glare at him. 'It's not my wife,' I said evenly. 'My wife was killed by a bomb in Belfast.'

'I'm sorry . . .'

'It's all right. We're talking about my girlfriend, Tracy Jordan. She came to live with me and look after my kid after Kath had been murdered.'

'What about Susan?' asked the int officer. 'Where was she?'

'Susan?'

'Susan Jones, the woman who's been sharing the house with Tracy.'

'God - I'd forgotten all about her. She's away a lot of the time, travelling for a cosmetics firm. She's probably on one of her tours.'

The detective sergeant cleared his throat. 'Can you describe Tim, please?'

'Well, you can see him in the photo.' I swivelled the file cover so that the picture faced the sergeant. 'He's four and a bit. Very fair, fine straight hair, and blue eyes.'

'How tall?'

'Jesus! I don't know. Two foot six? But he's normal for his age.'

'What about his clothes?'

'Like here: green polo shirt, grey jogging pants and trainers. That's his regular gear.'

'And can you describe Tracy?'

'She's tall and slim, with red hair.'

'How tall?'

'Five ten . . . Here, look.' I pointed at the photo. 'She's level with both the PIRA guys, at least.'

'And is her hair the colour it looks here?'

'No, it's not as dark or chestnutty really. It's quite a fiery red. I've got better pictures of her at home.'

'We'll need to see them, then. What else can you say about her?'

'She's got freckles on her face and arms.'

'Anywhere else?'

I looked up sharply. Was Bates trying to take the piss? He read my reaction correctly and said in a flat voice, 'It may be a body we're dealing with.'

I swallowed. 'All right, then. On her shoulders as well.'

'D'you recognise the clothes she's wearing?'

'Yes. That turquoise top is a loose cotton sweater that comes down nearly to her knees. She was probably wearing dark blue jeans and white Reebok trainers. Those big earrings are regular fixtures too. And she always has that gold chain round her neck.'

'Tracy's how old?'

'Twenty-eight.'

'When did you last have contact with her?'

'Oh Christ, I don't know.' My mind spun as I tried to unscramble events in Bogotá and the jungle. 'Several days ago. A week, maybe. But a mate of mine phoned her from Colombia the day we left. That was yesterday - no, two days ago. She was fine then.'

The questions fired on, one after another. What security systems did I have on the house? Only lights outside. Had I ever been followed back from camp? Not that I knew of. Had I or Tracy ever hung out military uniform on the washing line? No, I washed all my kit at the launderette in camp. Did I ever travel home in uniform or a military vehicle? No. Had we ever seen strangers hanging about near the house? No. Had there been any strange phone calls?

'Yes,' I said. 'There was one. When I phoned her from Colombia she told me a man had rung and asked if I was enjoying myself in the sun.'

'When was this?'

'About a week ago. I spoke to her from Bogotá.'

There was a pause as my inquisitors thought things over, and I began to feel desperately tired. Our flight home had stretched out over more than twenty-four hours, with demoralising periods of waiting in between, and we'd gone through several time zones. That would have been an ordeal on its own . . . and now I had all this.

The ops officer knew almost everything about my background, and the int officer knew some of it; but the detective sergeant, because he was starting from scratch, needed filling in on possible motives for the kidnap. Again, I had to make a big mental effort to go back to the start of the trouble.

'Kath was a Belfast girl,' I explained. 'She'd gone home to look after her mum, who'd had an operation. She was killed by an IRA bomb that went off prematurely outside a supermarket.'

Bates nodded and gave a sympathetic grunt.

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