An excerpt from “What Sets Us Apart”, a mystery with a twist

See excerpt from the story below, just a taste of what’s in store…

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whatsetscover

McCallister was old school, a man who would most likely fit in perfectly campaigning on the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War. He’d been like a fish out of water in the army, post-Falklands, and while he retired a hero, he still felt he’d more to give.

He’d applied and was accepted as head of a SWAT team, and, watching him now as he and his men disembarked from the truck in almost military precision, a look passed between Annette, the police liaison officer, and I that said she’d seen it all before. I know I had.

There was a one in four chance his team would be selected for this operation, and she had been hoping it would be one of the other three. While waiting for them to arrive she filled me in on the various teams. His was the least co-operative, and the more likely to make ad-hoc decisions rather than adhere to the plan, or any orders that may come from the officer in charge.

This, she said quite bluntly, was going to end badly.

I still had no idea why Prendergast instructed me to attend the scene of what looked to be a normal domestic operation, but as the nominated expert in the field in these types of situations, it was fairly clear he wasn’t taking any chances. It was always a matter of opinion between us, and generally I lost.

In this case, it was an anonymous report identifying what the authorities believed were explosives in one of the dockside sheds where explosives were not supposed to be. The only reason why the report was given any credence was the man, while not identifying himself by name, said he’d been an explosive expert once and recognized the boxes. That could mean anything, but the Chief Constable was a cautious man.

With his men settled and preparing their weapons, McCallister came over to the command post, not much more than the SUV my liaison and I arrived in, with weapons, bulletproof vests, and rolls of tape to cordon off the area afterward. We both had coffee, steaming in the cold early morning air. Dawn was slowly approaching and although rain had been forecast it had yet to arrive.

A man by the name of Benson was in charge. He too had groaned when he saw McCallister.

“A fine morning for it.” McCallister was the only enthusiastic one here.

He didn’t say what ‘it’ was, but I thought it might eventually be mayhem.

“Let’s hope the rain stays away. It’s going to be difficult enough without it,” Benson said, rubbing his hands together. We had been waiting for the SWAT team to arrive, and another team to take up their position under the wharf, and who was in the final stages of securing their position.

While we were waiting we drew up the plan. I’d go in first to check on what we were dealing with, and what type of explosives. The SWAT team, in the meantime, were to ensure all the exits to the shed were covered. When I gave the signal, they were to enter and secure the building. We were not expecting anyone inside or out, and no movement had been detected in the last hour since our arrival and deployment.

“What’s the current situation?”

“I’ve got eyes on the building, and a team coming in from the waterside, underneath. Its slow progress, but they’re nearly there. Once they’re in place, we’re sending McKenzie in.”

He looked in my direction.

“With due respect sir, shouldn’t it be one of us?” McCallister glared at me with the contempt that only a decorated military officer could.

“No. I have orders from above, much higher than I care to argue with, so, McCallister, no gung-ho heroics for the moment. Just be ready to move on my command, and make sure you have three teams at the exit points, ready to secure the building.”

McCallister opened his mouth, no doubt to question those orders, but instead closed it again. “Yes sir,” he muttered and turned away heading back to his men.

“You’re not going to have much time before he storms the battlements,” Benson quietly said to me, a hint of exasperation in his tone. “I’m dreading the paperwork.”

It was exactly what my liaison officer said when she saw McCallister arriving.

The water team sent their ‘in position’ signal, and we were ready to go.

In the hour or so we’d been on site nothing had stirred, no arrivals, no departures, and no sign anyone was inside, but that didn’t mean we were alone. Nor did it mean I was going to walk in and see immediately what was going on. If it was a cache of explosives then it was possible the building was booby-trapped in any number of ways, there could be sentries or guards, and they had eyes on us, or it might be a false alarm.

I was hoping for the latter.

I put on the bulletproof vest, thinking it was a poor substitute for full battle armor against an exploding bomb, but we were still treating this as a ‘suspected’ case. I noticed my liaison officer was pulling on her bulletproof vest too.

“You don’t have to go. This is my party, not yours,” I said.

“The Chief Constable told me to stick to you like glue, sir.”

I looked at Benson. “Talk some sense into her please, this is not a kindergarten outing.”

He shrugged. Seeing McCallister had taken all the fight out of him. “Orders are orders. If that’s what the Chief Constable requested …”

Madness. I glared at her, and she gave me a wan smile. “Stay behind me then, and don’t do anything stupid.”

“Believe me, I won’t be.” She pulled out and checked her weapon, chambering the first round. It made a reassuring sound.

Suited up, weapons readied, a last sip of the coffee in a stomach that was already churning from nerves and tension, I looked at the target, one hundred yards distant and thought it was going to be the longest hundred yards I’d ever traversed. At least for this week.

A swirling mist rolled in and caused a slight change in plans.

Because the front of the buildings was constantly illuminated by large overhead arc lamps, my intention had been to approach the building from the rear where there was less light and more cover. Despite the lack of movement, if there were explosives in that building, there’d be ‘enemy’ surveillance somewhere, and, after making that assumption, I believed it was going to be easier and less noticeable to use the darkness as a cover.

It was a result of the consultation, and studying the plans of the warehouse, plans that showed three entrances, the main front hangar type doors, a side entrance for truck entry and exit and a small door in the rear, at the end of an internal passage leading to several offices. I also assumed it was the exit used when smokers needed a break. Our entry would be by the rear door or failing that, the side entrance where a door was built into the larger sliding doors. In both cases, the locks would not present a problem.

The change in the weather made the approach shorter, and given the density of the mist now turning into a fog, we were able to approach by the front, hugging the walls, and moving quickly while there was cover. I could feel the dampness of the mist and shivered more than once.

It was nerves more than the cold.

I could also feel rather than see the presence of Annette behind me, and once felt her breath on my neck when we stopped for a quick reconnaissance.

It was the same for McCallister’s men. I could feel them following us, quickly and quietly, and expected, if I turned around, to see him breathing down my neck too.

It added to the tension.

My plan was still to enter by the back door.

We slipped up the alley between the two sheds to the rear corner and stopped. I heard a noise coming from the rear of the building, and the light tap on the shoulder told me Annette had heard it too. I put my hand up to signal her to wait, and as a swirl of mist rolled in, I slipped around the corner heading towards where I’d last seen the glow of a cigarette.

The mist cleared, and we saw each other at the same time. He was a bearded man in battle fatigues, not the average dockside security guard.

He was quick, but my slight element of surprise was his undoing, and he was down and unconscious in less than a few seconds with barely a sound beyond the body hitting the ground. Zip ties secured his hands and legs, and tape his mouth. Annette joined me a minute after securing him.

A glance at the body then me, “I can see why they, whoever they are, sent you.”

She’d asked who I worked for, and I didn’t answer. It was best she didn’t know.

“Stay behind me,” I said, more urgency in my tone. If there was one, there’d be another.

Luck was with us so far. A man outside smoking meant no booby traps on the back door, and quite possibly there’d be none inside. But it indicated there were more men inside, and if so, it appeared they were very well trained. If that were the case, they would be formidable opponents.

The fear factor increased exponentially.

I slowly opened the door and looked in. A pale light shone from within the warehouse itself, one that was not bright enough to be detected from outside. None of the offices had lights on, so it was possible they were vacant. I realized then they had blacked out the windows. Why hadn’t someone checked this?

Once inside, the door closed behind us, progress was slow and careful. She remained directly behind me, gun ready to shoot anything that moved. I had a momentary thought for McCallister and his men, securing the perimeter.

At the end of the corridor, the extent of the warehouse stretched before us. The pale lighting made it seem like a vast empty cavern, except for a long trestle table along one side, and, behind it, stacks of wooden crates, some opened. It looked like a production line.

To get to the table from where we were was a ten-yard walk in the open. There was no cover. If we stuck to the walls, there was equally no cover and a longer walk.

We needed a distraction.

As if on cue, the two main entrances disintegrated into flying shrapnel accompanied by a deafening explosion that momentarily disoriented both Annette and I. Through the smoke and dust kicked up I saw three men appear from behind the wooden crates, each with what looked like machine guns, spraying bullets in the direction of the incoming SWAT members.

They never had a chance, cut down before they made ten steps into the building.

By the time I’d recovered, my head heavy, eyes watering and ears still ringing, I took several steps towards them, managing to take down two of the gunmen but not the third.

I heard a voice, Annette’s I think, yell out, “Oh, God, he’s got a trigger,” just before another explosion, though all I remember in that split second was a bright flash, the intense heat, something very heavy smashing into my chest knocking the wind out of me, and then the sensation of flying, just before I hit the wall.

I spent four weeks in an induced coma, three months being stitched back together and another six learning to do all those basic actions everyone took for granted. It was twelve months almost to the day when I was released from the hospital, physically, except for a few alterations required after being hit by shrapnel, looking the same as I always had.

But mentally? The document I’d signed on release said it all, ‘not fit for active duty; discharged’.

It was in the name of David Cheney. For all intents and purposes, Alistair McKenzie was killed in that warehouse, and for the first time ever, an agent left the Department, the first to retire alive.

I was not sure I liked the idea of making history.

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