Passenger 13, p.1Scott Mariani
This eBook novella is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed therein are creations of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published by Claymore Publishing
An eBook Original 2011
Copyright © Scott Mariani 2011
Scott Mariani asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Artwork design and layout by Pentacor Plc
All rights reserved. This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way without the prior permission of the copyright holder.
It was a sunny June afternoon as the man walked into Selfridges via the Duke Street entrance and made his way through the bustling crowds to the restaurant and champagne bar overlooking the accessory hall.
If anyone had been paying close attention to him, they would have seen a man somewhere in his thirties or early forties, lean, neatly but unobtrusively dressed in a crisp dark suit. He had the bronzed complexion and jet-black hair of a Middle-Easterner; silk shirt, navy tie, gleaming patent leather shoes. The hand holding the calf-leather briefcase wore a large gold ring, but other than that there was nothing too ostentatious or especially noticeable about him.
It was 1.15 and the restaurant was filled with shoppers, tourists, people on lunch breaks. The man took a seat at the edge of the restaurant and slid his briefcase under the table by his feet. When the waiter came he was warm and friendly. From the lunch menu he ordered crispy baby squid with wild garlic mayonnaise, then for a main course a pan-fried fillet of Scottish salmon with kale and shrimps on the side. As he ate his lunch calmly, washing it down with a half bottle of good white wine, he watched the people come and go. A small group of Japanese tourists settled at a table to his left, surrounded by bulging shopping bags; to his right a young couple with their two small children, speaking French and scouring a London travel guide.
The man watched the little boy and girl. He smiled and went on eating. When he’d finished, he looked at his watch, picked up his case, and paid a visit to the bathroom. He was gone three minutes. When he returned, he settled his lunch bill in cash and then left.
And if anyone had been paying close attention to him, they would have seen that he’d left the gents’ without his briefcase.
The man was on the corner of North Audley Street and Green Street when he took out the mobile phone and dialled in the number that sent an electronic signal to the remote detonator. The case was packed with an expertly-prepared combination of RDX nitroamine high explosive and other substances that together were designed to produce a blast greater than a powerful car bomb.
The initial explosion engulfed the restaurant and champagne bar within one hundredth of a second. At its core, the temperature was high enough to vaporise human tissue on contact. Nothing at all would remain of the Japanese tourists, or the French couple, their little boy and girl, the bar staff or anyone else within a radius of thirty metres.
In the next three hundredths of a second the blast filled the ground floor of the department store, obliterating everything in its path. One hundred and sixty-eight shoppers were reduced to tatters of flesh and clothing; scores more were horribly maimed and burned.
The store’s ground floor windows blew out onto Duke Street and Oxford Street. Passers-by were caught in a storm of flying glass. Vehicles skidded and swerved all over the road. Broadsided by the terrible shockwave, a passing bus mounted the opposite pavement and toppled over on its side, flattening fifteen pedestrians as they stood gaping in frozen horror at the smoke pouring from the shattered department store.
In the immediate aftermath of the blast came the moments of stunned, deathly silence.
Then the mayhem began. But before the first wild screams were heard among the devastation of Oxford Street, and long before the racing convoy of emergency services units came wailing in through the panic, the man in the dark suit was already heading fast towards Grosvenor Square and his two colleagues inside the waiting car.
Six weeks later, July 23
Whatever deal with God the jazz festival organisers had made to keep the rain off that year, He’d delivered in spades. The night was warm, the stars were bright, and over two thousand people were crowding the open-air gig.
Onstage, the band were delivering too: the bass and drums laid down a thundering groove as the alto saxophonist took up his instrument and blasted out a solo that scorched the air. The sax glittered red, blue, green under the lights. At the searing climax of the solo, the crowd roared its delight.
That was when Ben Hope started making his way towards the beer tent for another drink. Pretty damned impressive, he was thinking. Not quite up there with Coltrane, but pretty damned impressive.
The girl he was with didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. Ben didn’t know much about her, except that her name was Ally, she was local, she was twenty-two, and she liked rum and Coke – a lot – was onto her fourth already.
But then, she knew even less about him. In his line of work, the less people knew the better.
In the beer tent, pressing to the front of the throng and speaking loudly to be heard, he ordered the drinks: the same sticky sweet shit for her, another whisky for himself. ‘Not that one,’ as the barman went for the blended cheap stuff. ‘The malt. That’s the one. Make it a double. No ice.’ Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet, Ben felt the muscles in his right side cramp up and he winced sharply. It took him a second to get his breath back – the kind of pain you know your face has gone pale.
‘Been in the wars?’ the barman asked cheerfully.
‘You could say that,’ Ben replied, laying a fiver on the bar and taking a gulp of his drink. The twelve-year-old scotch burned a warm river down deep inside him. The pain was passing already. It didn’t hurt anything like the way it had when he’d taken his R&R leave three weeks ago. Considering the close-range impact of the AK-47 rifle bullet that had gouged through his side and severely cracked three of his ribs before going on to pass right through a wall, he didn’t think his recovery was going too badly.
‘Got a cigarette?’ Ally yelled over the music when she’d finished her drink. She frowned at the one he handed her. ‘What are these?’
‘They’re Greek,’ Ben said, lighting it for her, then one for himself. Lying about what he did for a living often entailed lying about where his job took him, and it was second nature now. In fact the cigarettes were Jordanian, one of the last of the packs he’d bought a few days before his SAS squadron had been dropped in the Iraqi western desert to seize key airfields.
He hadn’t had much chance to smoke them. A couple of weeks after securing the airfields as forward operating bases and pushing eastwards into the desert, supported by RAF Harriers and unmanned Predator reconnaissance spyplanes as they clashed with retreating Iraqi forces, Ben’s unit had received a report that two undercover SAS soldiers, posing as Arabs to investigate an Iraqi police captain in the Basra area suspected of passing information to Shia militiamen, had been hijacked and abducted by an armed gang. Just a few weeks earlier, six military police had been hacked to death in the same area.
Within hours of the report, an unofficial rescue mission had been greenlit deep within the corridors of Whitehall and two dozen troopers under Ben’s command were kitted up and en route to Basra on a Hercules transport plane.
SAS intelligence sources were sound on the location of the hostages, not quite as sound on the force of men holding t
The fourth guard, the one with the AK, had been hiding behind a doorway. Ben hadn’t had time to react as the gunman had come leaping out with a wild scream and let rip with his rifle. The next thing Ben had known, he was waking up in the military hospital, pumped full of painkiller, his side heavily bandaged. It wasn’t the first time a bullet had found him, it wasn’t the worst, and it might not be the last. But at least the hostages had been extracted safely.
‘Are we going soon?’ Ally said. ‘This music’s giving me a headache. Or maybe it was that shitty cigarette.’
Ben shrugged. The next act up was a jazz-rock fusion guitar trio, and that wasn’t so much his thing anyway. ‘Fine,’ he said, and they walked away from the crowd towards the car. The blue BMW Alpina came courtesy of the regiment. Perks of his rank.
Beyond the festival enclosure, the enhanced police and security presence was as noticeable as at any other large-scale event in Britain that summer. Ever since the Selfridges bombing in June, the whole country had been in a state of red alert. And as Ben drove back through the outskirts of Brecon towards Ally’s place, it was no surprise that the news programme that came on the radio headlined with the breaking story that, after a frenzied manhunt, Scotland Yard had finally detained a suspect.
‘… early reports suggest he may have been part of the same extremist Jihadist terror group responsible for the Lisbon Embassy bombing in February, in which seven people died.’
Ben grunted. The antiterrorist boys had had their hands full the last few weeks. And the odds were it wasn’t over yet. Every city in Britain was braced for another attack, security services stretched to breaking point. The tension everywhere was palpable.
‘In another breaking story,’ the presenter went on, ‘Cayman Islands authorities fear that today’s air crash off the island of Little Cayman may have claimed the lives of all twelve passengers and three crew members. It has emerged in the last few minutes that the aircraft’s British pilot and owner of Cayman Islands Charter, Nick Chapman, is thought to have ditched into the sea in a deliberate act of suicide …’
Ben hit the brakes. The BMW slewed to a halt in the middle of the empty road.
‘Hey! Watch it!’ Ally yelped, nursing her shoulder where she’d jolted against her seatbelt.
‘Shush.’ Ben turned up the radio volume.
‘… a Home Office source has revealed that Chapman, a former member of the British armed forces, may have served with the SAS during the 1990s. Police and rescue divers continue to comb a large area of sea, but as yet no survivors have been found in what appears to be the worst air tragedy ever to hit the British territory …’
Ben said nothing more as he drove Ally the rest of the way back to her place on the edge of Brecon.
‘Don’t you want to come in, then?’ she smiled at the door.
‘I have to get back,’ Ben said.
‘When will we see each other again?’ she asked.
Ben hadn’t even heard the question. ‘Thanks, Ally. I had a lovely time,’ he said, and drove away.
The place Ben had rented during his leave was a little ivied stone cottage right on the River Usk, in wooded countryside a few miles outside the Welsh market town of Brecon. Low ceilings, exposed beams, thatched roof, old-fashioned leaded windows that peeked out through ivy and climbing roses. The stone fireplace was adorned with brass ornaments, and in a nod to tradition a pair of crossed cricket bats hung over the mantelpiece.
Ben didn’t care too much for cricket, but he did care for the peace and quiet of the place, as far as you could get from the boiling white heat and madness of the desert war front line. He could have spent these few weeks at his house near Galway Bay on the western Irish coast, but they didn’t hold annual international jazz festivals there and the gunman who’d almost managed to kill him had kindly done so at just the right time to allow him to catch some acts he’d long wanted to check out.
Jazz was the last thing on his mind that night as he burst inside the cottage and went straight over to flip on the TV. Scanning through the channels in search of a news programme he grabbed a fresh bottle of Laphroaig from the cardboard box that served as his temporary drinks cabinet, ripped off the cap and poured himself out a triple measure.
When he found a news programme he wasn’t surprised to see that the Cayman Islands air crash was one of the headline items. He listened and watched intently: interviews with shocked island airport authorities; grim-faced mourners; aerial footage of Royal Cayman Island Police and Navy rescue craft pulling wreckage from the water. From the air it was clear that the inter-island shuttle aircraft must have come down on a bar of exposed coral reef in the middle of the sea while on a routine crossing from the tiny island of Little Cayman to Grand Cayman, its larger sister seventy-five miles south-west. The plane appeared to have detonated on impact. Judging by the charred state of the bodies so far recovered, nobody had stood a chance of escaping a horrible fiery death.
Ben gulped whisky and went on watching. The three-engined Britten-Norman Trislander being too small a plane to carry a ‘black box’ flight data or cockpit voice recorder, the primary witness on whose testimony the suicide theory hung was the air traffic controller reported to have been in radio contact with the pilot shortly before the crash, struggling to talk him out of bringing the plane down. In the aftermath of the crash, the controller was unavailable for comment.
Four of the dozen passengers aboard the CIC inter-island flight had been British: a holiday couple, their son, and a retired dentist. But the main focus was on the man the media were already branding ‘kamikaze pilot’ and ‘suicide killer’, Nick Chapman. His final words to the air traffic controller, captured on tape moments before the crash, were a distorted, muffled yell over the chaos of the screaming passengers and the roar of the propeller engines. ‘I’m taking her down! I’m taking her down!’
As the dramatic audio clip played, the TV screen flashed up a photo of the man who’d said those words and plunged fourteen people to their deaths along with him. A tanned, lean-faced man of forty-six, smiling warmly for the camera. His hair was greyer than Ben remembered it.
But there was no doubt about it. He was the same Nick Chapman that Ben had served with in 22 SAS, not so many years ago.
Five days later, Ben was standing on the edge of the family burial plot in a little churchyard near Bath, where Nick Chapman – or what remains of him the Cayman Islands salvage teams had managed to retrieve from the sea and flown to the UK – was being laid to rest.
Other than the few reporters and photographers who’d tried to get in and been turned away at the gate, only a smattering of people had turned up to pay their last respects to the deceased. Ben looked around for Chapman’s ex-wife, Joan, but there was no sign of her. The only face he recognised was that of Hilary, their daughter. Last time he’d seen her had been a few years earlier, when he’d been one of the twenty or so regimental guys invited to her engagement party. Then, she’d been the happy fiancée, bubbly and full of laughter. Now, even with her face half hidden behind oversized sunglasses and her straggly blond hair, she looked pinched and haggard and aged way beyond her twenty-four years.
It was warm under the sun. The minister read a few words. His manner was somewhat forbidding, somewhat disapproving, a distant echo of the days when suicides hadn’t been allowed church burials. Ben quickly tuned out and stood there watching the coffin being lowered into the grave, lost in his own thoughts and memories of the man inside it. Nick Chapman had done a lot of brave and worthy things in his time. None of them would be remem
What saddened Ben most of all was the thought that, perhaps, the tragedy of July 23 had been inevitable. Of the troubled soldiers he’d known – and the extreme physical and psychological demands of the life of an SAS soldier took its toll on a few – Nick had been the one most ravaged by depression. After many years in the army, his problems had finally become too crippling a burden for him, and with drug and alcohol dependency mounting, the trauma of his divorce from Joan tearing him apart, he’d finally hit rock bottom. During an SAS operation in Serbia, Nick had barricaded himself into a room with a bottle of gin and threatened to blow his own brains out. Shortly after that incident, in October 1998, he’d been quietly dismissed from Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Many months had passed during which Ben had heard nothing from his friend, and often feared the worst. Then, out of the blue, two years ago, a card in the mail: Nick was up on his feet, had qualified as a commercial pilot and had set up a successful little air charter business in the Caribbean. He’d found Paradise, he’d said. He’d sounded truly happy, freed from his demons, as if the dark days had finally been put behind him. Ben had fervently wished it would stay that way.
And now this.
Ben didn’t want to judge Chapman for what he’d done. He was trying not to. Trying hard. He could scarcely bring himself to believe his friend had done this. And yet …
Sensing a presence next to him, Ben looked round and recognised the face of McNeill from B Squadron. He smiled sadly. ‘Hello, Mac. I didn’t expect to see anyone else here.’
‘Almost didn’t come,’ McNeill said dourly. ‘Now I’m here I feel like spitting on the grave.’
Ben said nothing.
Afterwards, he was walking slowly back towards his car when he heard footsteps running up behind him and a woman’s voice calling his name. He stopped.
‘You probably don’t even remember me,’ she said, catching up. Her face was flushed behind the dark glasses, her voice husky from weeping.
Passenger 13 by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes