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In 2003, journalist Connor Regan marched through London to add his voice to a million others, decrying the imminent invasion of Iraq. Eight months later, his brother, James, was killed in action in Mosul.
Three years on, Connor finds himself bound for Iraq to embed with an elite SAS team. He sets his boots on the ground looking for closure and solace—anything to ease the pain of his brother’s death. Instead he finds Sergeant Nathan Thompson.
Nat Thompson is a veteran commander, hardened by years of combat and haunted by the loss of his best friend. Being lumbered with a civilian is a hassle Nat doesn’t need, and he vows to do nothing more than keep the hapless hack from harm’s way.
But Connor proves far from hapless, and too compelling to ignore for long. He walks straight through the steel wall Nat’s built around his heart, and when their mission puts him in mortal danger, Nat must lay old ghosts to rest and fight to the death for the only man he’s ever truly loved.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“If we cannot find Osama, bomb Iraq,
If the markets hurt your Mama, bomb Iraq,
If the terrorists are Saudi
And the bank takes back your Audi
And the TV shows are bawdy, bomb Iraq . . .”
On the fifteenth of February 2003, my sister and I joined a million people on the streets of London and put our names to the biggest antiwar protest the world had ever seen. Eight months later, our elder brother, Sergeant James Napper, was shot dead on a British Army base just south of Mosul.
I remember both days with perfect clarity. The protest had felt like a carnival in muted colours—black, white, and khaki. There were children dressed in hessian, and peace puppies with tie-dyed bandanas knotted around their necks. Cans of Red Stripe littered the ground and spicy bean burgers scented the air. If I closed my eyes and let the drums and folksy music wash over me, I could’ve been at Glastonbury—a place James would’ve found far easier to picture me, the “artsy fartsy” baby brother he still called “our kid.”
Except, I wasn’t at Glastonbury this time. Instead, I was heading to Hyde Park with a million others in the most civilised act of anarchy I’d ever seen. It was kind of beautiful; a march of peace in the truest sense of the word. It felt like it mattered, like I mattered . . . like we all did. For those precious few hours, I’d honestly believed every soul on those streets had made a difference. Little did I know James was long gone, dropped over the Turkey/Iraq border with his unit, already fighting a war the rest of the world seemed convinced they could stop.
My sister, Jenna, sixteen years old at the time, hadn’t had much concept of why we marched that day, and she went home that night with no more understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East than she’d woken up with. When the war exploded on our TV screens, it didn’t feel real to her, or even to me, with my insider knowledge from working at the Guardian. Sporadic emails from James were the same as they’d ever been, and despite the constant parade of death and violence in the news, I never dreamed any of his short, crude messages would be the last.
Naïvety, or just plain old denial, who knew? Both mind-sets suited me back then. It was almost too easy to ignore it all and pretend the uniformed men would never come to my doorstep.
But they did come. They came at dawn on a Sunday morning, and by the time they left, my brother was gone, and I knew I’d never see him again. They’d told me where and when, but despite the inquest, which didn’t take place until two years after the event, details were thin, and the final brutal moments of my brother’s life remained a mystery. For three long years, his death haunted me. Restless with grief, I did everything I could to distract myself—moved house three times, changed my role at the Guardian, but I still missed him, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t put my heartache to bed. Couldn’t silence the nagging in my heart that I needed to show his ghost that there was more to me than the pop-culture hack he’d left behind. More to his kid brother than a Doc Marten¬s–wearing hippie who marched through London, chanting to politicians who ignored a million-strong protest like it was nothing.
The desire to prove myself to a dead man was a welcome distraction from my grief. It took a year of training and planning, but it seemed like no time at all before I found myself on a plane to the most volatile region in the Middle East.
Was I afraid? Of course I bloody was, but as the aircraft took off from Brize Norton, somehow I knew I was on a path that would change my life forever.
September 2006. Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.
Connor Regan stepped off the cargo plane into the balmy Turkish heat and scanned the sprawling air base. For a moment, he searched for someone he recognised, before he remembered that, James aside, he’d left behind the only soldiers he knew at the reservists’ base in Hereford.
Connor blinked. In his travel-weary haze, he’d missed a thick-set Army official stepping into his personal space. “Er, yeah. That’s me. How could you tell?”
The man raised an eyebrow. “You just got off a plane with twenty-five Royal Marines, mate. No offence, but it wasn’t hard to pick you out.”
“Fair enough.” Connor raised a tired grin and resisted the urge to roll his eyes. The scruffy band of men he’d shared the long flight from Brize Norton with had been no bloody Marines. They were SAS, like James had been, and Connor and his new friend both knew it. “Where are the Marines headed?”
“Am I going with them?” Connor’s pulse quickened as he followed the soldier into a nondescript corridor. He’d pushed for a Special Forces assignment back when the Guardian had first contacted the MOD more than a year ago, at the time, struck by a deep-rooted need to feel closer to James, but with the SAS stationed all over the Middle East, it had seemed unlikely that he’d be sent anywhere near where James had died.
The man dug a swipe card from his back pocket and opened a secure door. “That lot are being dropped over Tikrit. The gang you’ll be embedded with aren’t here yet. Here, park your arse. The Head Shed will be out in a bit to fill you in.”
Connor’s guide pointed at a battered plastic chair and promptly disappeared. For a while, Connor sat and observed the vast aircraft hangar that housed the administration area of the air base. There were a lot of military personnel, obviously—American airmen, mainly, but he spotted a few Brits, and heard the odd familiar accent floating through the buzz of chatter. He wondered if James had ever been here, but doubted he’d ever find out. The SAS was, by nature, secretive, and no amount of Googling their operations had borne Connor much fruit. It had taken a year to confirm James had even been Special Forces, and by then, Connor had lost the stomach for pressing the issue.
So why are you here? Connor silenced the devil on his shoulder. He’d asked himself the same question, more than once, when he’d first spawned the idea of shadowing British Special Forces in Iraq. His long-suffering editor and mentor at the Guardian seemed to think that Connor was looking for answers—closure on James’s death—but the more Connor thought about it, the less that seemed to fit. In a vortex as big as the war in Iraq had become, Connor was cynical enough to know any answers he went looking for would likely be thin on the ground.
Besides, James had died three years ago. With so many lives lost since, who the fuck would care? No. Connor was here to find out why, not how. Why had James died? Why were others still dying? What the hell had been so important—?
Connor glanced up to find another soldier staring at him like he was an idiot. “Yup. That’s me.”
“Thought so. You’ve got that green stare all you hacks turn up with.”
“Journo, ain’t ya? From the Guardian? Yeah, we’ve heard about you and your fancy column. Couldn’t find nothing when we looked it up, though.”
Connor chanced a wary grin. “That’s because I haven’t started it yet. Planning on sending a piece home every couple of days while I’m here.”
The soldier snorted. “Good luck with that. I’ve been trying to email my missus for a fortnight, and the bugger won’t go through. I’m Dib, by the way. Nice to meet you, mate.”
Connor shook Dib’s hand, trying not to wince at a grip so firm his hand felt bruised when Dib let him go. Dib. He turned the name over in his mind, but knew better than to query it. He’d learned long ago from James that squaddie nicknames often meant little to an outsider. “Are you part of the team I’ll be shadowing?”
“Me? Nah. You’re going out with Nat’s crew, Charlie-3, but they ain’t here yet. Due in tonight if the weather holds.”
Connor peered over Dib’s shoulder at the cloudless blue sky. “Expecting rain?”
“Sandstorm,” Dib said. “Not this end, though. Back at the shithole they’re flying in from.”
He turned and walked away before Connor could question him further. Lacking any brighter ideas, Connor picked up his bag and followed him out of the administration area, and into the main hub of the base.
Noise hit him like a truck: aircraft, vehicles, and the shouts of at least a thousand men cooped up in close quarters. The fierce Turkish sun warmed his bones, and it was hard to believe he’d been warned that nights in the Middle East could be chilly.
He caught up with Dib by what appeared to be an exercise yard. “Where are we going? Thought I had to see the boss?”
“He’s busy,” Dib said. “I’ve been tasked with getting you settled and keeping you out of mischief till your crew gets here. You can meet the big man later.”
Another jolt of anticipation surged through Connor. His colleagues at the Guardian thought he was mad for ditching his cushy beat in the pop-culture department for the brutal world of war reporting, but even without the need to close the door on James’s death, he’d probably have been keen to get stuck in. He’d trained for this moment for more than a year. He was ready, damn it.
“Your bedroom, sir.” Dib stopped abruptly in front of a plain building that looked a little like an office block. “Room service is shit, but enjoy the bunks and showers. Fuck knows when you’ll next get the chance.”
“Don’t suppose you know where I’m going, do you?”
Dib shrugged. “I’m just a minion, but my bet is you’ll head out to Kuwait for a few days before Nat gets his orders. Get you acclimatized and halfway competent at looking after yourself. Nat won’t put up with any stragglers, so get your head down and do as you’re told.”
“Nat? Is he going to be my commanding officer?”
“Jesus. Curious motherfucker, ain’t ya?” Dib shook his head. “Nat’s your fairy godmother for however long we’re stuck with you. Everything you’ll do goes through him. Not that he knows it yet. Grumpy bastard’s gonna bloody deck me when I give him the good news.”
Connor wondered if he should be offended, but he wasn’t. It had taken months of negotiations, and even then, the SAS—the Regiment—had made it clear their eventual agreement had been the result of political manoeuvring beyond their control: a desire from the government spin doctors to repair the damage caused by the Basra prison abuse scandal of recent years. “When do I get to meet him?”
“Hmm?” Someone called Dib’s name. He glanced over his shoulder. “Who, Nat? Bloody hell, listen, will ya? You’ll meet Nat tonight when he gets in, or maybe in the morning. Depends how long his debrief takes. You okay from here?”
“S’pose so. Which room is mine?”
“Whichever one you find a corner in. Get some sleep. You’re gonna need it.”
Dib disappeared, leaving Connor to shuffle into the accommodation. He found a vacant bunk in the last room, a bottom bunk by a window that seemed to be jammed open. He dumped his bag on the floor and flopped onto the bed. He was exhausted, but a little lost too, and anxious, perhaps even afraid. He’d left London two days ago, but it seemed like a lifetime. Was this how James had felt every time he’d boarded a plane for a war zone? Guilt prickled in Connor’s veins. A heavy dose of denial and avoidance had meant he’d rarely asked James where he was headed.
Not that he’d have got much of an answer. James had never been one for fuss. “Don’t worry about me, mate. I’ll be back for my dinner before you know it.”
Connor’s eyes burned with tears. Idiot. You’ve had three years to cry. Don’t do it here. But it was hard. In the years before James died, he’d become guarded and coy about his work, but with hindsight and a bucketload of regret-laced grief, Connor often wondered if James would have told him how he spent his days, if only Connor’d just bloody asked. A brisk “fuck off” would have been far more bearable than the guilt that tortured him now. The idea that James had died believing Connor wasn’t interested—that he didn’t care—cut deep, though it was less painful than considering the possibility that James simply hadn’t trusted him enough to really talk to him.
He sat up and retrieved his bag, searching out the reinforced netbook he’d brought along to work on. When it powered up, he typed a short email to send home when he found an internet connection, letting Jenna know he’d arrived safely for his eight-week sabbatical in the Mediterranean—the cover story he’d concocted with his editor over too many beers last Christmas. With that done, he closed the laptop. He’d had every intention of dumping his stuff and exploring the base, but after travelling three thousand miles, exhaustion outweighed curiosity. He lay back on the bunk and closed his eyes. The noise of the air base became a dull roar, and he fell asleep dreaming of James—his laugh, his smile, and the pine box he’d come home in.
Sergeant Nat Thompson jumped from the Chinook and wiped the desert dust from his eyes. He was exhausted and, glancing at his team, it seemed the feeling was entirely mutual. Their latest mission had been brutal, ending with a cramped flight in the helicopter, and now he was craving a hot shower and a few hours of decent shut-eye.
“Oi, Nat . . . catch this, mate.”
Nat turned and caught the bergen that Wedge tossed down the ramp. “Bloody hell. What have you got in there?”
Wedge smirked. “Nothing B Squadron won’t miss.”
Nat didn’t want to know. Knowing meant giving a shit, and giving a shit meant culpability when B Squadron came looking for revenge. He chucked the bergen back. “Just get it squared away somewhere better than you did last time. I don’t want those knobbers going through our kit again. And don’t forget to file the debrief, got it?”
“Got it, boss.”
Wedge sauntered off with Marc, the team medic, in tow to deliver Nat’s report on their latest operation, and hide his loot, probably before hitting the sack with a hot brew and the BBC World Service to keep them company. Nat watched them go and then shook his head as the remainder of his team disappeared too. The aircrew vanished, and it wasn’t long before he found himself alone, completing the kit inventory that was technically Wedge’s job.
“You’re too nice, Nat. Let ’em pull their weight. No point you being knackered while they’re kipping round the bloody campfire—”
Nat silenced the voice before it could take hold. Pogo had been his best friend and he missed him something fierce, but he didn’t need the company of ghosts tonight. Fuck that shit.
“Yeah?” Nat glanced over his shoulder. “What’s up, Dib? You need me?”
“Not especially, mate. Them upstairs wants to see you, though. Said to send you in.”
Nat suppressed a sigh. He’d had his feet on the ground for barely an hour and command wanted to see him already? That didn’t bode well for the downtime his crew so desperately needed. “On my way.”
He abandoned the inventory. Inside the base, he caught sight of the rudimentary camp the lads had set up around a box of Minimi rounds. By the look of it, they were all fast asleep, but he could see they’d left a space for him and a meal in his mess tin. His stomach growled, reminding him it had been twelve hours since his snatched breakfast in a flooded ditch, but his supper would have to wait.
“Evening, Nat,” the operational commander greeted Nat when the latter found him in his office. “I’ve read the debrief. Looks like a success. Anything else to report?”
Nat shrugged. Slinking in and out of Baghdad to eliminate a renegade Sunni cell that had been wreaking havoc on the city had proved eventful, but his report had been thorough, completed on the bumpy Chinook flight back to Turkey. “Reckon I covered it all. We’re running short on kit, though, sir. We’ve only got three vests between us.”
The OC hummed and made a note, but Nat knew his complaint would fall on deaf ears. Equipment shortages had been a reality they’d learned to live with since operations in Iraq began. Who cared if they were facing the biggest terrorist uprising in recent history with no body armour, boots that melted in the desert heat, and rifles that jammed every other round? No one, apparently. “It ain’t the jihadis that’ll kill us, Nat. It’s the bloody penny pinchers.”
Nat let Pogo have that one.
“Anyway . . .” The OC shuffled some papers. “I have a task for you.”
“Yes. I know you’ve just got back, but this is a little different. Take a seat.”
Nat sat and accepted the coffee pushed his way. He had a feeling he was about to be hit with something fucking ridiculous, and sure enough, by the time the OC had finished, he could hardly believe what he was hearing. “You want us to take a journalist out in the field?”
“Yes.” The OC eyed him steadily. “You’re going to Basra to help coordinate the security situation. We need to get a grip on the militias down there, and I want you to take this bloke with you. Show him what we do when we’re not up to our necks in crap: the aid parcels, the schools. Give him some soft shit for his column.”
“Soft shit, sir? How does that fit in with chasing militias?”
“From what I hear, you’ll have to find the bloody militias first.” The OC stood and tapped the large map pinned to his office wall. “You’ll get a better picture when you touch base with the major on the ground, but I reckon you’re going to have your work cut out tracking these fuckers down. In the meantime, show this journo how you conduct an aid drop. How you mingle with the natives and do your best to not kill them. Anything. I don’t bloody care. Just give him what he came for and get rid of him.”
“Great.” Seriously? A fucking tabloid hack?
The OC sighed. “Listen, Nat, I know it’s bollocks, but the MOD let him in because of the fucking mess the boneheads at the prison made, so we have to play ball. Just behave yourselves for a few weeks while you get a feel for the place, then send him home with something clean to write about. After that, you can get back to business.”
Back to business. Right. With his mind racing, Nat left the OC, all thoughts of supper and sleep forgotten. He’d known before Baghdad that they’d eventually end up trying to square away the melting pot of chaos Basra had become, but with a civilian in tow? A journalist civilian? All beige chinos and well-meant bloody ignorance?
Fuck that shit.
Nat left it until dawn to seek out the hack. He figured he’d find him asleep in a corner somewhere, clutching a Dictaphone, a pair of geek glasses stuck to his face. So he was surprised when Dib directed him to a lone figure jogging around the perimeter fence.
At least he’s fit. He’ll bloody need to be. Nat hadn’t had much contact with the swarms of war reporters who’d flooded Iraq when the war had begun, but the few he hadn’t managed to dodge had left him little hope for this bloke’s ability to keep up with his crew.
Nat waited by the exercise yard for the hack to finish his lap. It was part of the job to scrutinise strangers, so he lit a smoke and studied the man. From a distance, with his strong shoulders, tanned skin, and a week of dark scruff on his face, he didn’t look much different to any other bloke on the base. As Nat got closer, he took in his close-cropped brown hair and keen dark eyes . . . dark eyes that were distracted enough for Nat to walk right up to the hack before he got a reaction.
The man blinked. “Jesus. You’re the third person to sneak up on me since I got here.”
“I didn’t sneak up on you,” Nat retorted. “Maybe you should pay more attention.”
“If you say so. Who are you?”
“Nathan Thompson. D Squadron. Been sent to babysit you for the next few weeks. You ready to be briefed?”
“Briefed?” The man raised an eyebrow. “Thought the OC was doing that?”
“Nope. He’s busy. Just as well, really, though, ’cause I reckon as I’m in charge of keeping you alive, my rules take priority.”
“Fair enough. I’m Connor Regan, by the way, from the Guardian.”
“I know.” Nat shook Regan’s proffered hand, though he hadn’t known his Christian name. Connor. Yeah, it suited him and his rakish half grin. Shame the bloke was a hack. He would’ve looked good with a Minimi and gun grease smeared up those strong forearms—
“Bloody hell, Natty. Stop ogling me. I know I dance like a stripper, but I gotta missus back home, ya know . . .”
Nat stifled a chuckle that made his chest ache and recalled his reply to Pogo, growled so long ago he could hardly picture where they’d been at the time. “In your fucking dreams, mate. Stop fucking prancing about and get your shit done. Besides, your only missus is your ma.”
Connor grinned that damn grin again. “Where we doing this? Out here? Or have you got an office?”
“An office?” This time Nat couldn’t suppress his amusement. “Yeah, okay. Let me show you my office. And by the way—”
“It’s Nat, not Nathan. Only my nan calls me that.”
“You’d better call me Connor, then. Regan reminds me of my cunt of a stepfather.”
The crude insult sounded wrong wrapped up in Regan’s—Connor’s—gentle Mancunian accent. Nat waited for him to elaborate, absorbing the new hardness in his dark gaze, but Connor looked past him to the main hangar, so Nat led the way inside to a quiet corner of the munitions store.
“So,” he said when Connor had taken a seat on a box containing enough explosives to blow the whole building apart. “I don’t know what they told you before they let you out here, but if you’re running with my crew, there’s going to be rules.”
“Fuck yeah. I’m not having you bumbling about on patrol and getting yourself killed, or worse, getting one of my men slotted.”
Connor nodded. “‘Slotted’ means killed, right?”
“Right.” Nat stopped, once again distracted by Connor’s smile. Get a grip, dickhead. “Anyway . . . we’ll do whatever we need to keep you safe, but before we get to that we’ve got to be clear on what you can write about in that column of yours.”
“I signed a waiver back in Hereford. Nothing goes to my editor without clearance from the MOD.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nat had heard that shit before, only to see a comrade’s name and photo printed in the fecking Daily Mail. “I don’t give a fuck what bollocks you were fed in Hereford. You’ve got to use your noggin. No names or descriptions, even shit you think is innocuous. And no bloody cameras, either, video or otherwise. No photos, no voice recorders, nothing.”
“Got it,” Connor said. “Soldier A, Soldier B, and I’ll write everything shorthand with pen and paper.”
“Pencil, mate. They don’t run out and you can sharpen both ends.”
Connor frowned. The crease in his forehead made him seem older, and Nat wondered how old he actually was. Didn’t look much over thirty, but he had one of those faces that had likely been the same since he’d turned twenty-five, and would remain so until he hit fifty.
Connor cleared his throat. “Anything else?”
Nat thought on it a moment. “Yeah, fuck the shorthand. I can’t read that shit, and nothing leaves here without my say so.”
“Veto power. Got it.” Connor rubbed his face. “Reckon we’ll figure it out. I knew there’d be a lot of things I couldn’t write about, even before I got word I’d be shadowing an SAS team.”
“And there’s your first lesson,” Nat said. “There is no SAS here, especially in the field.”
“But you are SAS, though, aren’t you?”
Connor attempted to stare Nat down for a moment, then shrugged. “Point taken. What about access in the field? The OC back in Hereford said it would be up to whoever had command on the ground. I’m guessing that’s you.”
“It will be when we get out there. How fit are you?”
“Fit enough,” Connor said. “I run marathons.”
Nat smirked. “With full kit under the desert sun? If you’re coming with us, you might as well make yourself useful and carry some gear.”
Connor met Nat’s smirk with a grin of his own. “Think I can manage that. I did winter selection with the ARs last year. Froze my nuts off in the mountains. Jumped out of a plane and all the rest of it.”
“The reserves aren’t the same as us,” Nat retorted, though in truth, the selection course for the Regiment’s civilian unit was tough for any man.
“Us? Thought there was no such thing out here. You’re slipping, Nat.”
Something about the way Connor uttered his name set Nat’s skin alight, though he couldn’t quite figure out if he liked it or not. He shivered. Must be the generator. “If you say so. Anyway, while you’ve got your running legs on, let’s get back out there, see what you can really do. No offence, but I’m not taking your bloody word for it.”
If Connor was offended, he didn’t show it. He slid off the box of explosives with a sinuous grace, and left Nat to ponder a heady mix of the looming mission and the perfect shape of Connor Regan’s calves.
[A] gritty read about the lives of soldiers that are fighting a sometimes invisible enemy that is determined to kill them. . . . [I]f you are a Garett Leigh fan and/or a fan of military stories then this is for you!
[A] very lovely book, realistic, and a definite eye-opener when it comes to our troops.
I loved every page, and I was sorry when it was over!
[A]n incredible story from a viewpoint that I didn’t expect, told in a way that’s very impressive.
[F]abulously descriptive and vivid writing, and some moments to make you think or to squeeze your heart.