Authors: Stephen Leather
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Short Stories, #War & Military, #Genre Fiction, #War
SPIDER SHEPHERD: SAS (VOLUME 1)
By Stephen Leather
Stephen Leather is one of the UK’s most successful thriller writers, an eBook and Sunday Times bestseller and author of the critically acclaimed Dan “Spider” Shepherd series and the Jack Nightingale supernatural detective novels. You can find out more from his website
and you can follow him on Twitter at
. The six short stories in this collection have previously appeared as self-published short stories. They cover the time before Shepherd joined the SAS, how he acquired his nickname and detail his adventures in war-torn Sierra Leone.
Dan Shepherd stared at the canvas ceiling above his bed as the dawn light slowly strengthened. His tent was pitched on the edge of the airfield outside Sarajevo in Bosnia. It was part of the Pegasus Camp, home to a battalion of British Airborne Troops. Shepherd was a Patrol Commander in the battalion Patrol Company, with the rank of Corporal, and had come to regard himself as the shit in the sandwich between the officers and senior ranks on one side and the private soldiers on the other. Truth be told, Shepherd was starting to get bored with his life as a Para. Just like the rest of the “Green Army”, the Paras were trained to react in an absolutely standard and predictable way to a particular set of circumstances; every Regular Army unit operated in the same way, enabling the Army hierarchy to be certain of their troops’ response in advance. The Paras reinforced this with a rigid and hierarchal system of command; those at the top gave the orders, the job of everyone else was to salute, say ‘Yes Sir’, and make sure the orders were carried out to the letter. Part of Shepherd’s frustration was that the same rigid adherence to carrying out orders even applied in the Patrol Company. He had hoped that things would be different after he’d transferred, but his hopes had been dashed. The concept of the company had been based on the SAS system of small, well-trained and equipped patrols working independently, but in reality the company was little different to the rest of the battalion. The senior officers were nervous of giving too much leeway; the system that produced some of the best infantry shock troops in the world was not tolerant of too much individual initiative or intellectual discussion in any branch of the Paras. Shepherd sometimes felt they wouldn’t tolerate any at all. As he lay on his cot he stared at the canvas and went over his options. He loved the Army and particularly liked serving with the Paras but he was not totally happy with the way his life was panning out.
Without reaching any firm conclusions, he kicked his sleeping bag aside, dressed in his running kit and, having gulped down some water, did his customary six-mile dawn run around the compound. He sluiced off the sweat in the shower that was rigged up in another tent using the trickle of cold water that was all the supply they currently had, then drank some orange juice and black coffee as he sat on an empty crate outside his tent. The camp slowly came to life around him as his thoughts once again drifted to how his military career was panning out. Adding to his frustration was the fact that he and the Patrol Company had just spent the best part of six weeks in a Muslim enclosure in Central Bosnia surrounded by Serbian militia. The Serbs dominated the high ground all around the enclosure and were firing their heavy weapons at will down onto the hapless Muslims.
Snipers had wounded and killed men and women indiscriminately and even taken shots at young children. Just yesterday, on their last patrol before pulling out, Shepherd had seen the effects of that at very close quarters. As he and his men moved down a village street, hugging the shadows by the walls, a woman with a vividly coloured cloak wrapped around her, hurried from the shelter of her house and ran to the water pump in the centre of the village square. She was holding a gun-metal grey water jug in one hand and cradling a small boy against her shoulder with the other. She had gazed fearfully around, then bent over the pump handle and began pumping a thin stream of dubious-looking water into the jug.
As Shepherd had watched her, he’d seen a puff of dust from the ground a few feet behind her. He’d started to shout a warning as the following whip-crack of the shot echoed around them, but it was too late. Startled, the woman had frozen for an instant, looking around, uncertain which way to run. The next moment Shepherd saw a spray of blood and torn fibres erupt from her cloak as the sniper's second shot smashed through her chest and exited through her lower back. The child had spun from her grasp and turned a somersault in mid-air before crashing to the ground, a heartbeat after his mother had gone sprawling in the dirt.
The Paras had unleashed a storm of firing in the direction from which the shot had come, though more to keep the sniper’s head down than with any thoughts of hitting him. At that range, without a clear target, it would have been a miracle if a round had struck him. Two men had sprinted across the square and dragged the woman and her child into cover. Howling its shock and hurt, the child was eventually claimed by an old woman who might have been his grandmother, but the woman was already past help, her eyes rolling up into her head as her life-blood began to congeal around the wound that had killed her.
It was a sickening end to a deployment in which they had achieved almost nothing, Shepherd felt, because whatever the Paras had tried to do had had very little effect. Any airstrikes they called in had to be controlled by a Forward Air Control Officer or the fast jets would not respond, but the system was so slow and cumbersome that, although the aircraft were overhead very quickly, by the time the air-strikes began to go in the Serbs were already long gone.
Despite their best efforts, they had never got on top of the sniper problem. They had placed men on every likely sniper location and while they were there nothing happened, but as soon as the Paras withdrew, the sniper fire would start again. Shepherd was sure that there was more than one sniper and that the answer was to put fewer Paras out so that they were less easy to detect. Now it was over but still he could not stop mentally wrestling with the problem.
His thoughts were interrupted by the stentorian voice of his sergeant shouting ‘Corporal Shepherd to report to the Adjutant at the double.’ Shepherd groaned and jogged over to the Battalion Headquarters where he found the Adjutant incandescent with rage. ‘The bloody SAS are sending a patrol into the area that the Patrol Company has only just vacated,’ said the adjutant in an aggrieved tone. He was in his late thirties, with dark patches under his eyes that suggested he hadn’t been sleeping well. ‘It’s one of our designated areas and to add insult to bloody injury they’ve actually had the brass neck to ask us to provide someone who knows the area and the people to go with them. And the worst of it is that since all the top brass from the Prime Minister downwards think the SAS are the best thing since sliced bread, we have to bloody well do it.’ He fell silent, still with a face like thunder.
‘Sir?’ Shepherd said, having waited in vain for the Adjutant to explain what he wanted from him.
‘So, you’d better get your kit together, Corporal,’ he said, as if surprised that Shepherd was still standing there. ‘Because you’re the one who will be going with them. And the best of British, that’s all I can say.’
Shepherd always left his kit ready for an almost instant response to any alert and it took him only a couple of minutes to pack the last few things into his bergen. He was then taken by Landrover to a country hotel several miles away. It was outside the Paras’ previous areas of operations and he looked around him with interest. After the devastation he had become used to seeing, this glimpse of a rural Bosnia that seemed almost untouched by the war was as welcome as it was surprising. Only as they were driving up the long lane that led to the hotel buildings did Shepherd realise that it had been commandeered as a military base. Enormous aerials were dotted around and several vehicles, some shrouded under camouflage netting, were parked under the trees. Most surprising was that the soldiers he could see strolling around were all wearing a mixture of civvy and military clothing.
The Land Rover skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust and Shepherd jumped out and shouldered his bergen. A grizzled-looking character, one of a group of men sitting on upturned crates and battered camping chairs in the shade of a huge beech tree, got to his feet and walked over to him. He was no more than medium height and did not look over-muscled, but his grip as he shook hands was like a steel band and there was something about his steady gaze that spoke of an inner strength and a will that would never give up. Next to Shepherd’s youthful face, the man’s lean, lined features and the beginnings of grey streaks in his hair made him look much older than he probably was.
He did not return Shepherd’s crisp regimental salute, merely waiting with a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as Shepherd, still holding himself to attention in true Para style, barked ‘Corporal Shepherd reporting for duty, Sir!’
‘And I’m Warrant Officer Thompson,’ he said with a cheery smile, his strong Geordie accent taking Shepherd a couple of moments to decipher. ‘I’m the commander of the patrol that you’ll be working with, but we don’t set much store by ceremonials here, so give your saluting arm the rest of the day off and call me Harry! And if it’s okay with you, we’ll call you Dan until we think of something more appropriate. What’s your specialty?’
‘I’m a sniper, sir.” He grimaced and corrected himself. ‘I’m a sniper, Harry,’ he said.
‘Well, never mind,’ Harry said. ‘Nobody’s perfect. Now, let me introduce you to my gang of vagabonds. This is my second in command,’ he said, gesturing to a tall, rangy-looking man in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. He had jet-black hair and a swarthy complexion, his cheeks scarred by the marks left by chicken pox. ‘He’s our Transport NCO, who had the misfortune to be christened Norman but, unlike his mother, we took pity on him and called him Diesel instead. We’re not sure if his dark complexion is due to his habit of rubbing his face with his filthy, oil-stained fingers or because he’s got some gypsy blood in him, but since he doesn’t tell fortunes, we are assuming it’s the oil stains.’ Diesel nodded to Shepherd and his severe-looking expression was at once transformed by the smile that creased his face.
Harry was already on to the introductions to the other members of the patrol. A senior sergeant called Spud had the standard SAS build: five foot six to five foot nine in height with a lean body-shape like a distance runner, better suited to the endurance that was the SAS’s stock in trade than the raw power of a sprinter or shot-putter. He had a round moon-face that must have earned him his nickname, though Shepherd suspected he was a lot sharper than his bland expression suggested. There was also Geoff, a signaller from a non-specialist signals unit. He wore a black beret like all non-specialist signallers, giving rise to the Paras’ nickname for them “crap-hats”.
‘I’m not sure what we need him for,’ Diesel said, making no attempt to lower his voice and spare the signaller’s feelings, as Shepherd was introduced to him. ‘Any idiot can use a voice set and that’s all we need for communications here because the whole of Bosnia is covered by a system of rebroadcasting stations and AWACS aircraft so normal voice communications can be used anywhere in the country.’
‘Thanks for sharing, Diesel,’ said Geoff. ‘Always good to get an opinion from an expert.’
The last member of the patrol was a short, stocky, sandy-haired ammunition technician called Gus, who was in charge of a Laser Target Designator, a piece of equipment that Shepherd had heard of but not set eyes on before. It was a heavy, cumbersome metal apparatus, mounted on a small tripod. Shepherd frowned as he test-lifted it. ‘Why is it so heavy?’
‘It’s the cooling system that weighs heavy, not the laser,’ Gus said, with the irritated tone of a proud parent who’d just been told his baby was fat.
‘It’s a bit bulky though, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, but it works, and if you think this one’s bad you should have seen its predecessor. This is a hell of a lot less unwieldy than that. It needed a Pickfords removals van to shift it and a small power station to fire it up.’
Shepherd shrugged. ‘You’d have thought they’d have come up with something smaller, that’s all I was saying.’
Gus ignored him and addressed the team. ‘Now listen up. If you’re going to be using it, keep in mind that the LTD has to be used in short bursts. If the laser overheats it will shut itself down for sixty minutes. Otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward: once the pilot has spotted the target, he tells the operator and when he drops his laser guided bomb it only takes a few seconds to acquire the target and will not then deviate from it.’
‘We’ll see,’ Shepherd said. ‘I have to say I’ve lost my faith in airstrikes recently. We’ve been trying to take out the Serb artillery for weeks but our SOPs are that strikes can only be called in by a Forward Air Control Officer and the fast jets won’t respond to us directly.’
‘And by the time that’s happened the circus has packed up and moved on to the next town?’ Spud said.
‘Exactly. It’s been a bloody nightmare.’ He looked over at Gus. ‘I’m not trying to rain on your parade, I’m just saying that in my experience the fly-boys don’t always come through.’
Harry gave him a broad smile. ‘I think you’ll find that things move a little quicker than that when we’re around. We’ll have top cover from F-16s and 18s carrying laser-guided bombs, so all we need to do is show them where to drop them, which is where you may be able to help. I’ve had to come out of the admin system to lead this particular operation. I can’t be away too long because my job is to supply all the other patrols in the field and believe me, there are plenty of them. The person I left in charge of the admin couldn’t organise a gunfight at the OK Corral, so I can’t leave him too long, or the whole thing will go to rat-shit.’
‘Jesus, change the record, Harry, will you?’ Diesel said. ‘Don’t pay too much attention to him, Dan. He’s always whingeing about something.’
‘What I’m saying is, this is going to be my last operation,’ Harry said, ignoring the interruption, ‘and, if it’s all the same to you, I want to come out of it alive. And even if this is your first operation,’ he shot a sideways glance at the signaller, ‘believe it or not, I want you to come out of it alive too. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to get yourself killed, that’s up to you. The only thing is that I hate paperwork and if you guys go and get yourself killed, there will be a shed-load of paperwork to be filled in. So let’s all try and avoid getting ourselves or each other killed, shall we?’ He paused for a moment. ‘Right, now I’m going to be running what you might call a Chinese Dictatorship patrol. You’ve heard of a Chinese Parliament, haven’t you, where everyone contributes and we reach a consensus on the best plan of action?’