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Twenty One













Chris Ryan Readers’ Club?

Letter from Author

About the Author



At eight o’clock in the morning, on a damp grey Saturday in late March, Josh Bowman felt the pain flooding through his system.

It came on suddenly, without warning, as he waited in the lobby of the Broxbury Hall Hotel, a swanky five-star establishment located just across the road from Hyde Park. The pain started as a sharp scraping inside his head, clawing along the surface of his brain and quickly migrating through his bones, pricking his skin. It would only get worse, Bowman knew. Twelve hours since his last pill, and he could already feel the first pangs of nausea in his guts. Soon the stomach cramps and the sweats would kick in. Then the hallucinations. Like the flu, but a million times worse. A few hours from now, he would be a pale, shivering wreck.

You know what you need to do, the voice at the back of his head told him. The one that had hijacked his brain, rewiring his pathways. The voice was always there nowadays, invading his every waking moment.

You need another hit.

Just one pill, that’s all.

Something to get you back on the level. Make the pain go away.

Bowman shoved the voice aside, forced himself to concentrate on the sleek TV mounted on the wall opposite. On the news, vast crowds lined the streets around Westminster Abbey, ahead of the day’s wedding between Princess Amelia and her investment banker fiancé, Lucas Wentworth. Bowman saw a huge cheering mass of people dressed in red-and-blue hats or jackets, many of them waving Union Jack flags. There was a definite buzz in the air, despite the crap weather. The biggest live audience for a royal wedding ever, the commentator said. A clock in the bottom corner counted down the time until the ceremony began. Three hours twenty-nine minutes.

Christ, Bowman thought. I’m supposed to be preparing for a mission.

Instead, I’m getting the bloody shakes.

The pain briefly faded. Dave Kember glanced at his watch and cursed.

‘What’s taking these idiots so long?’ the SAS sergeant snapped. ‘They were supposed to be here by now, for Chrissakes.’

Bowman glanced at his colleague. With his pitted skin and slab-like forehead, Dave Kember was one of the ugliest guys in the Regiment. The lads had nicknamed him ‘Toxic’ on account of his bad breath. A teetotal clean-eating fanatic, he also had a reputation as a world-class moaner. The kind of bloke who could have a Virginia ham tucked under his arm and still complain that there wasn’t any food to be had. Bowman couldn’t decide which was worse. The withdrawal pains, or the prospect of spending the next sixteen hours working with Kember.

They had arrived in London the previous afternoon, as part of a four-man team sent up from ‘The Wing’, a covert unit within the SAS working alongside MI5 and MI6. According to the briefing they had been given, Six had uncovered intelligence of a plot by dissident rebels to assassinate Ken ‘The Viper’ Seguma, the president of the tiny but mineral-rich Central African state of Karatandu, and a close friend of the royal family. Bowman and his colleagues had been tasked with boosting the president’s security during the royal wedding.

While the other two guys on the team carried out security checks at the Abbey, Bowman and Kember had been ordered to rendezvous at the Broxbury with the president’s personal entourage. They had driven over from their hotel, stowed their armoured Land Rover Discovery in the underground car park and sent a message to the president’s flunkey to let her know they had arrived. Then they had settled down to wait.

Thirty minutes later, they were still waiting.

Kember checked his watch for the hundredth time since they’d arrived. ‘Bloody typical. Bodyguard duty. Always a pain in the arse, waiting for some fucker to show up.’

‘I thought you’d be well up for this job, Geordie,’ Bowman said. ‘Rubbing shoulders with royalty and all that.’

It was one of the worst-kept secrets at Hereford that Kember was planning to leave the Regiment in the next few months. At forty-one, he was four years older than Bowman, a veteran soldier with more than fifteen years of service under his belt. The contacts gleaned from close-protection duty for a foreign head of state could be priceless for an ex-SAS man looking for work on the private circuit.

Kember said, ‘Aye, it’ll look good on our CVs, I guess. But that’s the only good thing about this op.’

Bowman looked away, gritting his teeth. Jesus, he thought. This bloke really is a serial whinger. It’s only eight in the morning and he’s already getting on my nerves.

‘It’s not that bad, mate,’ he said, trying to lighten his mucker’s foul mood.

Kember snorted. ‘Ain’t it? We’re staying in a crap hotel, living on shite food and sitting around waiting to take orders from some jumped-up flunkey.’ He nodded at the TV. ‘And the bloke we’re safeguarding is a murderer.’

Bowman looked up. The cameras had cut away from the streets of Westminster to a grey-haired presenter in a news studio, rounding up the rest of the morning’s headlines. There was a report on the protests in Karatandu. Some sort of violent government crackdown against pro-democracy activists. People were fleeing through the streets, pursued by security forces decked out in black riot gear. Several officers opened up with tear gas canisters while their colleagues battered the helpless civilians with sticks and batons. The background was a tableau of burning cars and bloodied corpses and screaming children.

The camera cut to a short, stout figure dressed in army fatigues, aviator sunglasses and a purple beret. A chinstrap beard accented the officer’s strong jawline. He sat on a mountainside, flanked by a couple of tough-looking soldiers, their massive arms crossed in front of them. The caption at the bottom of the screen identified the guy in the middle as General Moses Kakuba, leader of the main rebel opposition. He smiled at a question asked by a journalist

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