Rock Hard - Danny Lancaster

"I could not put this down. Gripping, thrilling, entertaining"

"Genuinely so much better than a lot of better known authors"

When Danny Lancaster gets a call from an old friend it looks like a chance to swap work and women worries in Brighton for a sunshine reunion.

Danny hasn’t seen Pogo since they fought together in Afghanistan. They have war stories to retell, beers to drink.

But Pogo is broke, sick and in serious trouble. It started in Gibraltar smuggling cigarettes to pay his debts. Now his Russian boss has taken on a dangerous job for a mysterious businessman. A priceless package must be smuggled into Europe across the narrow straits from Africa.

But unseen eyes are watching. Lives are in danger. A game of Russian roulette is just the start of a deadly clash where two continents meet.

The two friends are way out of their depth. And Danny must make a decision.

How far do you go to help the man who saved your life?

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The heat was murder but that wasn’t the worst of it. There were the bodies. They’d seen them from the road, knew what had happened. They knew it was pointless but had to check, had to cover themselves.

Joaquin had bumped the minibus onto a dusty patch by the side of the road. Pyotr climbed out and scanned the beach through binoculars. The rest of them stayed in the vehicle, making the most of the aircon.

It didn’t last. Pyotr waved them out and they all clambered into the searing sun. The Englishman winced. Even wearing shades, the brightness made his head hurt.

They started down a narrow dirt track. The Englishman hung back, reluctant, lighting a Marlboro before he followed the others.

The path wound down a sand dune pocked with tufts of coarse grass like an old man’s chin. It wasn’t much of a challenge but the Englishman still stumbled, the toes of his trainers clipping embedded rocks. His sweat-sodden T-shirt stuck to his body like Clingfilm.

When the slight breeze dropped away completely it was quiet and still, no traffic on the road above them. He could hear himself wheezing.

He clawed his wet T-shirt away from his beer gut, tripped again, kept his eyes on the track. It saved him having to look ahead, towards the waterline.

They were spread out around the little cove, a dozen or fifteen of them, sprawled and limp, arms waving with the water like a bored chorus line. Fit young men, women, kids, a baby.

Scattered around them was the wreckage, what there was of it. A few broken planks, an oar, some plastic sheeting, drinks cans, a load of plastic mineral water bottles riding high in the water, bumping the bodies as if trying to wake them.

Pyotr’s men walked the line of bodies, kicking one here and there to be sure. The Englishman hung back. What was the point? He shouldn’t even be here. Fucked up again. He could just hear The Ex’s voice screaming at him.

When he glanced up he wished he hadn’t. Joaquin was waving him over. Slowly, dragging his feet, the Englishman walked up to him.

“This make you sick?” Pyotr grinned.

The Englishman heard sniggering behind him, said nothing. What was the point? He knew what had happened. They all knew. Just one of the risks of the business. Unfortunate but there you go. No big deal. The passengers had paid up front.

They’d handed over more money than they had ever seen in their lives and set off. Desperate people heading for hope in a belt of bright lights on a hostile shore. So near and yet so far.

They weren’t sailors, many had never even seen sea, never heard of currents and tides.

It could have been anything. One person panics, kicks off, then they’re swamped, all in the drink, non-swimmers splashing for their lives in the darkness.

Or it’s all ticking along nicely when a cliff of ship’s bow powers out of the night, flooding them, smashing the boat, sucking them under where the gigantic copper propellers made them into mincemeat.

The Englishman tried not to look at Pyotr. His eyes went down to the body at his feet. What was he? 12? 13? The eyes rolled up behind half-closed lids made the kid look like some sort of zombie. The skin was blue black but the age, the build, he could be Jackie.

The Englishman could hear The Ex shouting again. Wondered how Jackie was getting along with his mum and a new dad. A fucking estate agent, for chrissake. What was it? Darren? Darryl? Gelled hair and greasy personality to match.

He hoped Jackie was ok, really hoped. He had footballer’s legs, skill, potential, should be out kicking a ball, getting into a bit of bother. That boy would be a magnet for the girls when he was a bit older.

The Englishman wished he could be there to see it but it was too late now. He’d fucked that up big style. He slapped his bicep as an insect landed. The sun was making the big angry mosquito bites all down his legs itch like hell.

Pyotr grabbed his arm, squeezed. The Englishman broke the grip, shook him off.

“This make you sick, English?”

The Englishman looked down again. The boy’s knock-off Man United shirt was sun faded. It was a No3 shirt, Patrice Evra. Is that what the boy had dreamed of? The shirt was torn under one arm. Kids playing? Heavy tackle, maybe?

Big black flies were flickering around the boy’s eyes, lips and nostrils. The Englishman waved a flip-flopped foot at them. They scattered, then immediately settled again.

“What’s the point of this? We know what happened. Why hang about?”

Pyotr’s laugh triggered the sniggering again. The Englishman scraped trickling beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, wiped it on his shorts, turned, started for the path.

They were calling out now, taking the piss. He didn’t stop, didn’t look back. When he reached the minibus he pulled open the door, sat on the step, lit a cigarette.

Looking down he saw one of the others rummaging through a sodden backpack. Another pulled bangles from a dead woman’s wrist.

He could feel his heart pounding, the beat thumping in his ears. Fucking heat, fucking flies, his whole life was one fucking big dog’s breakfast.

Then the Englishman had an idea. He pulled his mobile from the pocket of his shorts. It should have been in the box by the door, back at the house. Pyotr was strict on security like that. But to hell with Pyotr. The Englishman began to scroll through contacts. The others were starting up the path.

He found the number, looked at it on the little screen. As he lifted the phone to his ear someone grabbed his wrist. The Englishman looked up into Joaquin’s dark suspicious eyes.

“What are you doing, English?”

“Phoning a friend.” He shook off the restraining hand, pressed dial.

The pause seemed to last for ages. Then the phone began to ring. When he looked up, Joaquin was at the front of the vehicle, whispering to Pyotr. Both men looked back towards the Englishman.

The phone kept ringing. The others were dawdling up the path now, casting curious glances.

The phone kept ringing.

Joaquin said something else to Pyotr. The boss nodded, then they both looked over at him again.

The phone clicked. “This is the Vodafone voicemail service for….”

Bloody voicemail!

“…hang up or press the hash key for more options…”

The voice sounded almost reassuring, a distant echo of something normal as he sat amid the heat and flies, the wreckage of his life.

The Englishman was startled when the recorder kicked in with a beep.

“Oh… hi… yes. Hey, Danny boy. It’s me… Pogo.”



The helicopter had gone on ahead but they could still hear the throbbing of its rotors somewhere behind the rocky rise to their left.

It was an M-24 Hind, a Krokodil. The machine had a fearsome arsenal of rockets and machineguns but it was a military fossil of the Cold War provided to the country’s tiny air force by Bulgaria.

Sous-lieutenant Thierry Levavasseur thought it a miracle that the helicopter was still flying. Most of their air force was grounded due to lack of spares or expert maintenance.

Still, he should not complain. This was what he had wanted, why he had joined the Régiment Étranger de Cavalerie. Serval, the latest Opération Extérieures gave him the chance to lead, the opportunity for real combat experience. It would look good on his service record.

And it would impress Sylvie. She was the child of a service family, had grown up with the tales of uncles and older cousins who had fought for France. The stories excited her. And now he had some of his own to tell.

Levavasseur gripped the turret ring of the AMX-10RC. The wheeled reconnaissance vehicle with its 105mm gun was bouncing like a fairground ride as his driver, Doutreleau, eased it over the scorched rocks and boulders strewn across the dry river bed.

Levavasseur loved the desert. The silence. The isolation. The way a spectrum of vivid colours glided across the savage terrain, strengthening and fading as the brilliant arcing sun played with its rich pastel palette through the day.

Sylvie would like that. He could picture that strange light that would glow in her eyes when he told her the story.

Gripping the turret ring, Levavasseur half turned to look behind him. The two aging BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers bearing the local military were just about managing to keep up, bucking and lurching as their eight wheels bit the boulders, climbed, slammed down again.

The engine of one at the rear was still giving problems, thick grouts of diesel smoke belching from its exhausts.

As they ground on up the river bed Levavasseur wondered if he should take more photos. He already had an excellent collection on his digital camera, of the country and the men. Sylvie might enjoy them, both personally and professionally. She was in Paris, serving with the Direction du Renseignement Militaire.

But, then again, it might be more personal if he described his campaign in words when they were together again. More intimate.

He remembered, before his posting, their brief time together at Le Lavandou, the rich sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, exploring the small coves and hillsides dressed with pine trees, mimosa, eucalyptus and palms.

The AMX halted and backed up as Doutreleau manoeuvred round a large bolder. They were close to the end of the wadi now.


The fear was everywhere. An elderly man’s liver-spotted hand went white where his wife gripped it. A father put his arm around his daughter who pressed her face into his shoulder. Somewhere a baby was crying.

A whining thud was followed by a juddering that sent out a ripple of gasps like a pebble in a pond. May Daniels smiled at Danny but there was no conviction in her eyes. Danny gave her a nod and a grin and she seemed to relax a little.

He looked around, hard to tell what was happening. There was something white out there. Must be a building. Couldn’t be sure.

Another judder. Another ripple of gasps.

Danny looked down. He could see the deck of a ship for a fleeting second. Black paint streaked with rust. A white face looking upward, shielding his eyes.

The baby was screaming now. The young girl was whispering demands for urgent assurances from his father. The elderly man laid his other hand on top of his wife’s and squeezed.

The juddering got worse, the whining louder. They were swaying. Somewhere something fell down. Most of them were startled when the big bang came, followed by a ragged rumbling.

They were pushed forward against their seatbelts as the brakes and reverse thrusters slowed the easyJet Airbus but most heads went back against the headrests with relief.

As the aircraft slowed to taxying speed the passengers burst into clapping and cheering.

“Told you it would be fine,” said Danny.

May Daniels smiled with warmth, showing two perfect rows of white dentures.

“Thank you. I know it’s silly but that part, the landing, it always worries me.”

Danny pointed past her, out of the window.

“See that barrier over there, the people and vehicles. That’s what I told you earlier. Winston Churchill Avenue crosses the runway. They have to close the road into Spain every time an aircraft lands.”

Mrs Daniels looked out of the window and chuckled.

“Well I never.”

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I’ve spent most of my working life as a journalist and was pleased and surprised to win an award for my travel writing. Before that I tried all sorts of jobs including furniture removals, photography, teaching and running a magazine group.

Travel writing is not all cocktails under the palm trees but it’s a fantastic job that has taken me to more than 40 countries, from the pure white wastes of Arctic Finland to the ancient deserts of Namibia.

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