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“This is bollocks, Sarge,” Mac said. “Why are we jumping in the dark? We’re out in the middle of nowhere; it’s not like anybody’s going to see us coming.”
Captain John Banks smiled. Mac was always the first to complain; you could set your watch by it. It was a small bit of normality on a night where the normal was too far away. They cruised in darkness at fifteen thousand feet, somewhere to the west of Baffin Island, silent running through the Canadian skies. Twelve hours ago, Banks was ready for a spot of leave, even had a ticket booked on a flight to Greece with wife and both kids excited, packed, and raring to go. Instead, he’d driven them to the airport to see them off, before reporting to base at the urgent request of the colonel. Now where he was headed was going to be a tad colder. At least he had his own handpicked men with him, but it had been the only choice he’d been given.
“There’s a Russian boat out there somewhere where she shouldn’t be, John,” the colonel had said back in Lossiemouth that afternoon. “And we think it’s in trouble, maybe big trouble if the sketchy report we have is to be believed. There might be something worth salvaging though, and it’d be nice to know what they were doing snooping about so deep in Canadian waters. It’s the usual deal for your team; get in quick, have a shufti, and report back. And don’t get dead in the process.”
So now Banks, his Sergeant Frank Hynd, and the small squad of four men he trusted more than anyone else in the world were out – in the middle of nowhere as Mac put it – getting ready to fall out of the sky into the cold black below.
“Coming up on drop point. Two minutes,” the pilot said over the tannoy.
“Okay, Sarge,” Banks said. “Line them up.”
Mac looked like he might grumble again, but Frank Hynd put a stop to that quick enough – one look from the sarge was usually enough. The other three; McCally, Nolan, and Briggs – Tom, Dick, and Harry as the sarge called them – lined up behind Banks as the rear of the plane opened up, showing roaring blackness beyond. Mac and Hynd lumbered forward, shoving the box of their gear ahead of them. Banks counted them down from five and they rolled the box out into the night.
Seconds later, all six of them flew free in the air, following it down.
This was Banks’ favorite part of any mission; the leap into the unknown, with butterflies in your belly and wind roaring all around you; it felt like freedom, even despite the bite of the cold and the frost forming at his lips and ears. In those early seconds, it scarcely felt like falling but more as if he skimmed, like a flat stone, across the rim of the world.
The rest of the men were merely darker shadows in the black but they’d done enough night jumps together to know they’d be in tight formation; and if any of them had a problem, it was too late for him to do much about it now.
He saw the chute of their gear box below him, counted to five, then pulled his own cord, following the other canopy down. It was a moonless night but also cloudless, the canopy of stars providing enough light for him to see the darker shadow of the island, their drop point, loom up below them. He looked over the shimmering waters of the bay to the north. If there was a Russian spy boat out there, it wasn’t showing any lights.
He stayed almost on top of the gear chute all the way and came in for a perfectly controlled landing twenty yards to the north of the box. He had plenty of time to gather up his chute before the wind could catch it again and drag it away, then made quickly for the box; despite its weight, it was being dragged, albeit slowly, across the rocks, its passage facilitated by the ice underfoot. Hynd landed nearby and hurried to help. By the time they’d got the gear chute disengaged and rolled up, the rest of the team were gathered around the box. All save one and Banks knew who that must be even before he checked the faces.
“I think I saw him drifting off west. You know Pat, sir,” Mac said. “Fucking useless at this jumping lark. Could be anywhere by now.”
“Okay, lads. Get kitted up before you freeze your balls off; five minutes, then we’ll go and look for our lost lamb.”
They were travelling light and fast so kitting up went smoothly; cold weather gear, lined and hooded parkas, balaclava hats, gloves and night vision glasses, each man with a flak jacket and webbing belt of ammo and a small backpack, a rifle and a knife. Banks knew they could all do a steady six miles an hour all night geared up in this terrain; he hoped to hell they didn’t have to.
“Mac – you’re on point, Briggs and McCally, you fetch Nolan’s gear – the stupid wanker is going to be an iced lollipop by the time we get to him and it’ll serve him right. Sarge – move them out.”
The ground was icy but rough underfoot, slippage kept to a minimum by the deep ridges and treads of their boots. Banks warmed up almost immediately inside the parka but knew better than to unzip it; it was a clear night in late spring, but they were above the Arctic Circle and he couldn’t afford to take any chances with the weather. He followed Mac as the Glaswegian led them quickly west toward where he said he’d last seen Nolan’s chute. They were heading toward the sea; Banks could see it ahead of them, the shimmer clear in his night vision goggles. He could only hope that the Irishman’s cack-handedness with a chute hadn’t brought him down in the water, for if that was the case, he might be dead already.
Nolan was alive and blue with cold by the time they found him a few minutes’ walk later, but he didn’t seem to notice it; all his attention was on the scene around him. He’d landed on a rocky shoreline, yards from the water. His chute still lay, opened out and spread, behind him, soaked, looking black and glossy in the night glasses. Despite the lack of color, Banks knew from bitter experience what blood looked like in the goggles, and there was a lot of it on the chute.
Banks went straight to his man, fearing the worst.
“Nolan, are you hurt, man?”
Nolan didn’t reply, even as Banks checked him out for a wound. But the blood wasn’t the Irishman’s and Bank’s noticed it soon enough when he looked at their feet; they both waded in wet slush that was also running red, and when he followed Nolan’s gaze along the shore, he quickly found the cause.
The beach had been home to a score or more of large basking mammals; walrus by the look of it given the size of the rib cages and the large ivory tusks he saw on the nearest body. They must have made an impressive sight hauled out on the shore, but now all of them were now little more than stripped carcasses. Gleaming bone and chunks of fat looked to be all that was left of the animals – that and the blood washing in and out with the small wavelets in the slush.
His team fell silent and still. Every man had his weapon in hand, and they’d taken position so that the squad as a whole had three-sixty warning of any attack.
“What the fuck, Sarge?” Mac said quietly.
Sergeant Hynd silenced the man with a finger to his lips and motioned that he would go south along the beach, sending Mac away to the north. Briggs and McCally got Nolan out of his chute and handed him his cold weather gear; Banks was glad to see that the Irishman was finally coming round from his shock.
“I missed the landing again, Cap,” he said as he got himself into his lined parka. “I fucked up. Sorry.”
Banks clapped the man on the back.
“Try to follow the rest of us. I’ve told you and told you, look below you, not at the view on the way down. You’ll live longer. But at least you stayed out of the water. And you’re still in one piece, that’s the main thing, unlike these poor beasties.”
Nolan’s eyes were still wide as he looked around.
“What could do this, Cap? Polar bear?”
“Maybe,” Banks replied, “if there were three or four of them. Maybe. Or, if they were closer to the water, I’m thinking a pod of orca might do this much damage.”
But it didn’t look like any kind of predator feeding Banks had ever seen. The carcasses looked like they’d been stripped and butchered rather than torn apart; it might be bears, but they’d have to be the tidiest bears he’d ever come across.
He put the thought away; whatever the cause of the carnage, it wasn’t why they were here – he couldn’t see how it had anything to do with their mission. Hynd and Mac returned from opposite ends of the small rocky beach.
“Anything?” Banks asked.
Hynd shook his head.
“Whatever did it, it was around this bit of the shore. And they must have left in the water. There’s no tracks, no blood or spoor over to the south.”
“Same the other way,” Mac said and repeated his earlier observation. “What the fuck, Sarge?”
Hynd spoke dryly.
“I know one thing, Mac. It wasn’t the fucking Russians; there’s no empty vodka bottles.”
Banks saw that the men were spooked by the extent of the slaughter around them; standing amid bloody ruin never did anybody any good, whether it was animal parts or human ones. He had to get the squad moving, before they all got the heebie-jeebies.
“Focus, lads,” he said. “We’re here ...