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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Asprin Robert, Эванс Линда

«For King and Country», Robert Asprin и др.

For David James Hollingsworth, the sunshine of our lives.

*  *  *

My deepest thanks, as always, to Robert R. Hollingsworth, military historian and battle choreographer (whose wonderful archery post graces the cover) and to his lovely wife Susan Collingwood, whose discerning eye keeps me on track. Thanks to them, as well, for the loan of their libraries and their highly limited time!I owe special thanks to Susan Gudmundsen, for climbing the immensely steep slope of Cadbury Hill, just to take photos for me. The weather was raw and thoroughly disagreeable, but up she went, into the wet clouds, to get my 360-degree panorama, which illuminated the whole climactic ending of the novel.And another special thank-you to Patricia Grohowski, for her tireless cheerleading, for pointing me in the direction of that wonderful little shop where I found the books on Glastonbury Tor, for lending me half her fascinating library, and for always finding a way to make me smile, in the midst of all the howling.I couldn't have done it without them!

—Linda Evans

Chapter One

The election should have made things better.

Would have, in fact, if held virtually anywhere else in the world. But this was Belfast, the blazing heart of Northern Ireland, where sanity was a concept seriously out of fashion. With the election only twenty-four hours old, the Irish "Troubles" were heating up again, threatening to spiral as badly out of control as they had in the middle decades of the previous century. And Captain Trevor Stirling was caught in the middle, a place where no self-respecting Scotsman had any business to be.

Worse still, it was his ruddy birthday.

Stirling stood gazing down at the cake for long moments, its multitude of candles a disquieting sight against the backdrop of the grim barracks. The dip and flare of the flames echoed other fires, causing Trevor to recall stories about the explosion of '69, when half of Belfast had burned. He'd lost a great-uncle in the fighting, an idealistic Scots lad sent in by Britain to keep the peace. Young Trevor McArdle, his mother's only uncle, had been caught dead in the cross fire.

Now it was Trevor Stirling's turn.

Memory replayed, cuttingly, the moment four years previously, when Trevor had come home to his mother's cottage an hour outside Edinburgh, bursting with the news.

"I've just joined the Special Air Services!" he'd shouted, jubilant to be following a good half of his male progenitors.

She'd run into the bedroom, weeping.

He hadn't really understood why—until his unit was posted to Belfast.

Stirling glanced up from the cake to see Murdoch, cavorting as usual in his underwear and trading ribald jokes with Balfour and Hennessey, who were shouting out punch lines above the blare of music. Good men to have at one's back in a place like this, among the best in his command, in fact, and they hadn't forgotten his birthday, despite the rising tensions and sporadic outbreaks of violence. He supposed there were worse situations in which to find oneself. Nor was he afraid of the job he'd been sent here to do. He just wished somebody else had been sent to do it, since he couldn't see either side in the centuries-old feud backing off or seeing reason.

Stirling squinted back down at the flaming cake, attempting to count the improbable number of lit candles, and had just come to the conclusion there were seven too many, when Colonel Ogilvie sent the barracks-room door crashing back into the wall. Laughter and party uproar chopped off. Someone killed the music even as Stirling snapped around, blazing cake already forgotten. He blanched at the look on Ogilvie's face.

"We've got riots heating up in West Belfast, boys," the colonel growled, voice harsh with strain. "Goddamned Paisleyites are burning down Clonard Gardens and ten blocks surrounding Divis Street, and the IRA's not having any of it."

They scrambled for riot gear amidst a clang of slamming locker doors and thudding boots. Candles guttered out on the forgotten cake, puddling into rainbows of melted wax across the frosting. Chairs went crashing in the rush. Stirling prided himself on being first out the door, shoving all civilian concerns back into a little-used corner of his mind. On a job like this, anything less was suicide. Murdoch and Balfour were right on his heels, Murdoch still struggling with zippers and Velcro on hastily donned battle gear. A convoy of armored vehicles waited outside, engines idling in the muggy June heat.

Stirling stood by the barracks door, directing the lieutenants and sergeants who reported to him while other sections down at the next barracks did the same into a second line of troop transports. Stirling's men were counting off their squad members as they jumped into the lorries. One hundred twenty strong, in four-man fire teams, with lieutenants and sergeants shouting out their counts, the loading went smoothly, at top speed. Once the squads reporting to his section had called out their readiness by the numbers, Stirling flung himself over the tailgate of the final transport, mashing his radio send button to signal their readiness to move out.

Lieutenant Ian Howell and Sergeants Griffin and Everleigh, with their respective teams, plus the men of Stirling's own squad, had piled willy-nilly into the armored lorry's rear compartment, slamming loaded magazines into Browning Hi-Power pistols, SA-80 rifles, and MP5 submachine guns. Stirling was glad to have an MP5 in his hands, rather than the service Patchett regular troopers were issued.

As the lorries jerked into motion, Hennessey snarled over his SA-80. "Wish to bloody hell Ministry of Defense had never adopted these useless bits of trash. IRA's got AR-180's, why the hell don't we?"

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