27220378To mark the publication of debut author Matt Johnson’s thriller Wicked Game, I am delighted to bring you an extract of this taut, action-packed and emotive thriller about a man who is forced to confront his past in order to face a threat that may wipe out his future…

2001. Age is catching up with Robert Finlay, a police officer on the Royalty Protection team based in London. He s looking forward to returning to uniform policing and a less stressful life with his new family. But fate has other plans. Finlay’s deeply traumatic, carefully concealed past is about to return to haunt him. A policeman is killed by a bomb blast, and a second is gunned down in his own driveway. Both of the murdered men were former Army colleagues from Finlay’s own SAS regiment, and in a series of explosive events, it becomes clear that he is not the ordinary man that his colleagues, friends and new family think he is. And so begins a game of cat and mouse a wicked game in which Finlay is the target, forced to test his long-buried skills in a fight against a determined and unidentified enemy.

Early the following morning, I walked the mile or so along the River Mymram to Mym Wood. It was an old wood, oaks, wild cherry and other natural English species, overgrown to hide a dark and secretive interior. Close enough to the cottage that I could drive to it in a few minutes, it was also off the beaten track, without bridleways or footpaths, which was exactly why I had chosen it. There was a local syndicate of pheasant shooters who turned up every so often during the winter in pursuit of the wild birds, and the local hunt would sometimes draw it for a fox, but most of the time it was undisturbed. I wasn’t alone in having a personal collection of kit. Many soldiers did it. Often, when a retired serviceman died, guns he’d kept as war
mementoes would turn up when his relatives went through his personal effects. That wouldn’t happen with me: my mementos were buried, in plastic dustbins in Mym Wood. I had made an initial visit to the wood a few days previously. That trip had been simple reconnaissance, a check for surveillance or discovery. Even then, I had been uncertain whether I should uncover the hide or leave it where it lay. If the cache had been discovered then the ground would be disturbed or, possibly, it would be under observation. It was unlikely, but I had to be careful.
The hide had remained intact. This time, I dressed as if I were taking a walk in the country. If the wood was being watched, I would look like an innocent passerby. The morning was hot and still. It was something of a relief to get away from the uncomfortable humidity of the open meadows and enter the cool cloisters of oak and hawthorn. Flies jinked in the shade under
the arching tunnels of trees. In the distance I could just see my objective, a brilliantly lit clearing full of wild flowers.
As I reached the glade, I smelled the heady scent of hot, damp vegetation. Pink mallow, willow herb, teasel and the fragile, creamy flowers of the meadowsweet complemented the still air. As a schoolboy I had little interest in plants. But on army survival courses, you soon learned their value. Some could be eaten, some would kill you, others were a natural painkiller and many could be used to make even the worst army cooking taste great.
I breathed deeply, hands on my hips.
The interior of the wood seldom saw a man. As I walked slowly forward a small muntjac deer started from near my feet, making me take a quick step back. It must have tucked in to hide as I had appeared in the clearing and now decided to make its escape. I watched it go. It was a young male, its tusks barely grown. As it reached the edge of the woodland it stopped and turned. Human and cervine eyes met for a moment, and then the creature was gone. My goal was an old gnarled oak on the north-east corner of the glade. At head height, I had cut a blaze from the bark. Now overgrown and stained, it was hardly visible, but it was there. I didn’t touch it, just observed it. If prying eyes were watching me I didn’t want to give my deliberations away.

Everything had to appear casual.

I turned and faced south-west. Seven steps ahead lay the first dustbin. I sat at the base of the oak and waited.After five minutes, I stood and paced seven casual steps. I bent down, untied and re-tied my shoelaces. The ground wasn’t disturbed. A flint still lay where I had placed it. To the casual eye it was just a large stone, but here in the wood it was quite out of place and could
only have been put there by man. Had it been moved I would have known that someone else had been there.

I wandered around the wood, checking through places I had already identified as being suitable observation points. Again, I kept my stroll apparently aimless and casual. It took over an hour. I was being extra careful. The ease with which Jenny had crept up on me and Kevin at the common had disturbed me. We should have been more careful. Age and lack of practice had made us sloppy. If she had been one of the terrorists, then we would have been finished. Deciding that I had lingered for long enough, I relaxed and returned to the oak. The coast was clear. Not only was there no observation, there was no evidence of anyone having been here at all. Everything told me that the wood was undisturbed. But I was still uncomfortable. Electronic surveillance could have developed to the extent that observation might have been undertaken from a distance. A satellite could even have been watching my every move.Finally, there was nothing for it. I started digging using a small trowel that I had slipped in my pocket. Progress was slow. After about twenty minutes’ effort, I had the first plastic bin exposed. Reaching
down into the darkness, the first item to emerge, which I placed in the plastic bin liner I had brought with me, was my National Plastics composite helmet. It still bore the scratches and scars of both training and live operations. Across the brow was the crease mark of a bullet
that had nearly taken my head off in Armagh.
‘Never thought I’d see the day when I’d be digging this lot up,’ I muttered under my breath.
Next came my integrated personal protection system. Superseded by modern improvements, it was, nevertheless, effective. All finished in black, the Nomex fire retardant boiler suit, Armourshield GPV25 body armour vest and SF10 respirator gave the wearer a sinister
appearance. I’d sprayed everything with moisture repellent oil before consigning it to the ground. As a result, it all looked almost as good as new. The bin had remained airtight and dry.
The last item to go in the plastic bag was a Davies CT100 microphone transmitter and receiver. Kevin had the same system, so at least we would be able to talk when wearing the respirators.
At the bottom of the bin was the first item of hardware. Wrapped in a small towel was my old Beretta, the same pistol that I’d used to defend myself when attacked in Northern Ireland. It was an older version of the weapon that I’d been using on Royalty Protection duties, but just as reliable, and just as effective. As I weighed it in the palm of my hand, I felt a wave of nostalgia, as if I was being reunited with an old friend. I checked the clip and pulled back the slide. A full
fifteen rounds, with one up the spout, just as I’d left it.The pistol was heavily greased and looked to be in good order. I wiped the bulk of the grease off with the towel. Proper cleaning would have to wait. I slipped it into the side pocket of my coat.Finally, I pulled out the disassembled sections of an Armalite AR-15, which I placed gently onto a hessian sack I’d laid on the grass beside me. The light in the wood was diffused but I hadn’t forgotten the art of battlefield weapon maintenance. Had I been blindfold it would have made little difference. Within a minute the parts were together and the shape of the assembled Armalite was silhouetted against the morning sky as I held the weapon up to the light to check over my work.
The clearing remained peaceful and unmoving as the trees watched my shadowy figure load the thirty-round rifle magazine. Dustbin lid and turf replaced, I stood up.A gust of wind rustled through the surrounding trees as a flock of starlings settled in the nearby oaks chose that moment to launch into the air. I shivered as the noise of their beating wings filled my ears. It made me stop for a moment. There was something about the trees. It was as though the old oaks had eyes. Like ghostly sentinels, their icy stare seemed to bore into my soul. The feeling of being watched was unnerving.
The second bin containing the heavy stuff would have to be collected later. It was now time to head home. Tomorrow I would call Kevin again and tell him I was nearly ready.
As I trudged across the peaceful meadow, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I stopped and listened but heard nothing. Jenny attributed such feelings to ‘guardian angels’, the spirits of departed relatives who look over us and protect us. Of course I was sceptical, but there had been many times when we had been driving along a country lane and she had suddenly warned me to slow down at a bend. Every time a fast-moving car had appeared from the opposite direction and by slowing down we had avoided a collision. Jenny said it was her angels and nothing to do with luck.

Perhaps the sensation of being watched was those angels looking out for me?
Perhaps I just needed to understand their warning.

Matt Johnson- Wicked Game published by Orenda Books.

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