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Authors: Elizabeth Darrell

French Leave

BOOK: French Leave
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Recent Titles by Elizabeth Darrell from Severn House
BEYOND ALL FRONTIERS
SCARLET SHADOWS
FORGET THE GLORY
THE RICE DRAGON
SHADOWS OVER THE SUN
UNSUNG HEROES
FLIGHT TO ANYWHERE
The Max Rydal Mysteries
RUSSIAN ROULETTE
CHINESE PUZZLE
CZECH MATE
DUTCH COURAGE
FRENCH LEAVE
FRENCH LEAVE
Elizabeth Darrell
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
 
First world edition published 2009
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2009 by E. D. Books.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Darrell, Elizabeth.
French Leave – (A Max Rydal military mystery)
1. Great Britain. Army. Corps of Royal Military
Police–Fiction. 2. Rydal, Max (Fictitious
character)–Fiction. 3. Military bases,
British–Germany–Fiction. 4. Detective and mystery stories.
I. Title II. Series
823.9' 14-dc22
ISBN-13: 978-1-7801-0178-1 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6780-3 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-146-1 (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
My thanks again to Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) John Nelson, Royal Military Police, who always manages to come up with answers to my questions.
Thanks also to the lads of Martinique Company 3rd Battalion Mercian Regiment (Staffords) for telling me about their experiences, and for allowing me to clamber over and inside one of their Warriors.
ONE
T
he oppressive heatwave over Germany had been burning up most of Europe for ten days, with no end yet evident to the Met men. Crops and grass had withered, small streams had dried up. The levels of rivers and lakes had lowered drastically. More alarming was the extent of evaporation in reservoirs providing water for people needing more than usual. Restrictions of usage, recently put in force, threatened failure of fruit and grape harvests, which would bring hardship to many peasant families come winter. The death toll of the frail and vulnerable was rising daily.
Private Smith believed he was slowly roasting inside the Warrior advancing over a simulated battleground. His underpants clung soggily to his skin, his feet felt spongy in damp socks, his throat was dry and dust-filled, his vision blurred by sweat running from wet hair beneath his close-fitting helmet.
Enclosed in this armour-plated personnel carrier with six other fully-equipped infantrymen, his latent claustrophobia was getting difficult to control. The high temperature, the overpowering reek of diesel and the stink of sweaty bodies combined to induce the fear of being unable to breathe.
That was not the only fear besetting him as the tracked vehicle bucked and plunged over the undulating, rock-hard earth of the military exercise area. Once they reached their designated objective, Sergeant Miller would order them out to attack and capture some entrenched rocket-launcher, or a small contingent of pseudo-enemies. Seven soldiers would disgorge from each of the four Warriors of 3 Platoon, Purbeck Company, advance in a crouching trot and attempt to overrun the hostiles' position. They would be met with gunfire, and cascades of soil as hard as large pebbles when dummy explosives were activated. This had been the pattern of the last eight days and he was reaching breaking point, both physically and mentally.
The exercise had been set up to prepare men of the 2nd Battalion, The West Wiltshire Regiment, for deployment to Afghanistan in October. Staff Officers were delighted that temperatures hovering around 40° provided the kind of conditions their troops would encounter in the war zone, but
they
were sitting in their offices back at base, not experiencing them themselves.
Thrown violently against his neighbour as the Warrior plunged steeply, he was given a mouthful of abuse and shouldered hard back against the metal rear exit. He always endeavoured to be last in so he would not be squashed against the inner bulkhead, but that meant he was also first out. That did not suit him one bit, so he always paused pretending to adjust his equipment until several were off and running.
They drove on and on. How bloody far were they going today before they reached the grid where the action was to take place? The headache he had awoken with was growing worse. He had always been prone to them and sleeping for nine nights beneath the awning attached to the Warrior, close-packed with six others, had given him little rest in this stifling heat. At night the pong of diesel invaded his lungs with every breath, and he could barely turn over without rolling against one of his companions, who invariably retaliated with force.
He raised little friendship in others. At school he had always been on the periphery of those little gangs of boys who did everything together. He had once tried to find favour with one such group by reporting the transgressions of their arch-rivals to the teacher. To his total mystification, both gangs then ostracized him. He was now twenty and had still not worked out why.
It had been the same at the woodyard where he had first been employed on leaving school, and again at the music store. He had liked that more than stacking wood because girls came there to buy CDs and DVDs. He had gone out with one or two, but it had never progressed beyond one-night stands when they had been drunk enough to have sex with anyone. Silly bitches had little idea what they were doing, or who with. His mum said it was always the boys who got the blame, never the slags, and she was right.
The big plus about working at the store had been the opportunity to augment his own collections. Every Saturday, bunches of kids practically took up residence. He had claimed it was impossible to watch everyone the whole time, and daft Susi had backed him up, never cottoning on to his little scheme. The boss had written off regular amounts each month to shoplifting. Pity it had had to end.
Ten months ago the Army had seemed the ideal solution. Paid employment, free accommodation, working clothes provided, three hearty meals a day, plenty of leisure activities on tap, decent enough pay and the opportunity to
belong
. A squad, a platoon and a company were the military equivalents of schoolboy gangs, but a guy could not be excluded from them. They were closely-knit bands of young men with mutual dependence on the members.
Were they, hell! 3 Platoon had accepted him with bad grace. He had tried to make allowance for the fact that he was the replacement for one of their number killed at Basra – a semi-bloody-hero, to hear them talk – but time had not altered anything. He had decided to force a change in their attitudes. He had certainly done that.
It had been the turning point; the realization that he was trapped in an organization he now loathed. Things had gone downhill from that day.
Glancing up after another sickening plunge into a crater, he met the knowing leers of Chas White and Corky Corkhill and knew they would never let up.
The Warrior halted; it was all systems go. Time to shake the drowsiness from his brain cooked by the heat, force his lethargic body wrapped in wet clothes into action, remember the battle plan, think
aggression
. Practically falling out when the door opened, he followed his usual practice of lingering to adjust the straps of his daysack while the other six leaped out and surged forward with the rest of the platoon, led by Lieutenant Farley.
‘
Move yer bloody arse, Smith!
'
Sergeant Miller's stentorian roar caused him to look up to where the NCO surveyed everything from the open hatch, and the expression on the man's face chilled him to the bone. It was brutally sadistic.
‘I'm going to sort you out once and for all at close of play tonight, Smith, if you manage to get through today, you spineless
bastard
!'
Fear multiplied as he began to follow men who had no intention of ever counting him one of their number. His legs were shaking; his pulse raced. For eight days they had played at war. In Helmand Province it would be for real; men had lost an arm, a leg, half a face, been paralyzed. It had all gone wrong. Everything! He now knew joining the West Wilts had been a dangerous mistake.
Dan Farley stood with his hands on his knees, body arched. Today had been the most punishing yet and he was bushed. The only bright aspect was that 3 Platoon had succeeded in capturing and holding the objective, despite one Warrior breaking down during the advance. There would be a post-mortem on that but not until later, after they had cleaned up and had a short period to cool down.
Dan straightened as he saw Eric Miller, the senior Sergeant, making his way across to him, wearing an expression that was even grimmer than usual. The man was clearly on the warpath. Miller managed to stay just on the borderline of respect, but Dan knew the experienced soldier was not prepared to defer to an officer of twenty-three, straight from Sandhurst, until he had proved his worth. Afghanistan in October should resolve any doubts.
‘Problem, Sergeant Miller?' he asked in as bracing a tone as he could summon up.
Miller's face, like everyone's, was caked with dust that had clung to the sweat. His eyes were also red from weariness, yet the man still managed to radiate energy. Dan unconsciously pushed his own shoulders further back and raised his chin.
‘Smith's absent, sir.'
‘Absent?'
‘As in no longer with us.'
Dan did not rise to the bait. ‘He's wandered off for a pee,' he said, surveying the troops sprawling on the ground beside the vehicles.
‘He never returned in the Warrior.'
‘Sure about that? Who saw the men back into the vehicle?'
‘Corkhill. Said he thought he'd counted six in. I've just given him a bollocking.'
‘Have you checked with the other Warriors?'
Miller nodded. ‘Zilch. He's gone. Scarpered during the assault.'
‘No way would he go AWOL out here, with limited water and rations.'
‘The river's only six Ks distant, and he'd have no trouble selling his weapon and kit for a stack of euros. He's gone, sir.'
Dan met Miller's unwavering stare with one of his own. ‘I'm not prepared to accept that until I'm satisfied he's not out there hurt or disorientated, which is the more probable explanation. While I call up a rescue helicopter, start questioning the men to ascertain when and where Smith was last seen.'
Thrusting back his dismay at this delay to getting a meal and some sleep, Dan glanced back across the vast military practice ground, shimmering beneath a brassy sun. This was going to be one long, long day. ‘Once we know where he was last seen, we'll take the vehicles back out there and start quartering the area.'
BOOK: French Leave
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