Authors: Paul Burston
Tags: #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Military, #Crime, #Mystery, #Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Thriller
Owen smiles. ‘You’d better not let Jackson hear you talking like that! You might give him ideas.’
The lad continues punching. ‘I don’t care what Jackson thinks of me. I’m as much of a man as him. Or you.’ He lifts his head and swipes the sweat with the back of his hand.
Owen meets his gaze. ‘I don’t doubt it’.
‘Prove it, then.’
‘Go a few rounds with me.’
‘No, you’re alright, thanks.’
Collins grins. He has a soft, youthful face. But his jaw is strong and there’s a determined look in his eyes. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. ‘Afraid I’ll beat you?’
‘I didn’t come here to spar with anyone,’ Owen says. And yet here he is, already sparring – verbally, at least. Jackson may be trouble, but Collins certainly knows how to wind a man up.
The gym is housed in a huge tent and is open around the clock, though it’s rare to find anyone here quite this early. It was dark when Owen left his bed and walked the short distance in his sweatpants and T-shirt. Now the sun is starting to rise, but the air is still cool. The air conditioners are on full blast, but they won’t be needed for another hour or two.
For a battlefield gym, the place is surprisingly well equipped – more so than the one back in Iraq. Soldiers there were used to training without any equipment whatsoever, using their own body weight to maintain the level of fitness required for the job. Owen has seen men perform squats with fellow soldiers on their backs, or improvise with a small ledge for tricep dips. A gym like this is something of a luxury. There are free weights and some multi-gym equipment, mats, punch bags and even a few treadmills.
There’s one big difference between this and a regular gym, and it’s this Owen thinks of as he watches Collins take another jab at the punch bag. Here, a shower means a ship shower, rather like a portaloo. You step in, run a small amount of water, soap yourself up, and rinse off. Water in the camp is strictly rationed. There’s no time to enjoy the sensation of hot water on tired muscles. But at least these showers are private. Try as he might, Owen isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of showering next to a man who might be gay.
Over by the treadmills is a wooden shelf where Collins has placed his helmet and body armour. Owen has left his own body armour in his tent. It’s only a short distance away, and he’d rather leg it back than lug it around with him. The last thing he wants after a heavy workout is to be weighed down with his kit.
He walks over to the treadmill and punches in a few numbers. The machine starts up and he steps on, pacing himself slowly at first, then gradually building up speed. Soon he can feel beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. He wipes it with his forearm and increases the resistance. The pounding of his footsteps becomes louder and his breath shorter. His legs and lungs begin to ache. He’s in good physical shape, but he likes to push himself to the limits of his endurance. It’s a hangover from his boot camp days. But working his body like this feels a lot better than climbing ropes or crawling through the mud on his hands and knees.
He settles into a pace and lets his mind wander. So much has changed since he first swapped his unhappy childhood for the rigours of basic training. He’s made a life for himself. He has a wife and a house. Helen is his family now, not the mother who started drifting away when he was small or the father he regarded with a detachment far colder and more final than hatred. One day soon they’ll have a baby, and the transition from troubled child to happy family man will be complete. But for now there’s the army – the men he serves with and on whose courage he depends. Men like Collins. Even men like Jackson.
The young private is still jabbing away at the punch bag. Owen wonders who he’s picturing as he delivers those punches. Jackson, perhaps? Or is he just trying to prove a point, to demonstrate that he’s every bit the man he claims to be? Owen has met lads like Collins before – new to the army, never having shot a man or been in the line of fire, always acting like they had something to prove, always wanting to ‘get some’. They calmed down eventually. The lucky ones, anyway.
Abruptly, the boy stops punching and walks towards him.
‘Well, that’s me done,’ he says. His face is flushed, his short dark hair soaked with sweat.
Owen nods, saving his breath.
‘So what’s on the menu today?’ Collins asks. ‘Another day of sitting on our arses doing fuck all?’
Owen smiles despite himself. ‘Welcome to the world of war.’
The boy grins. ‘See you later in the tanning shop then?’
As Collins heads off in the direction of the shower; Owen turns off the treadmill and makes his way over to the shoulder press. Upper body and back strength is vital when you spend so much of your time weighed down with body armour, weapon, ammo and a rucksack. He’s straining under the weight of his third set when the siren sounds. It’s like a car alarm, loud and insistent. But this isn’t someone breaking into next door’s Volvo. The base is under attack.
Seconds later, there’s the tell-tale whistle and warbling sound of an incoming rocket. Muscle memory kicks in and he throws himself face down on the floor, covering his head with his hands. Rockets are designed to hit the ground at a low angle, sending red hot shards of metal casing through the air, ripping through everything in their path. Without his body armour he has no means of protection. His heart races as he pictures himself after the blast – squirming around in a crimson, sticky mess, chunks of flesh missing, bones hanging out, body fluids soaking into the Afghan soil.
But the impact never comes. From outside the tent, he hears half a dozen voices shouting simultaneously. He pictures the trucks peppered with holes, their windows blown in. Dawn raids had been a regular method of attack in Iraq, but it’s the first time he’s experienced one here. No wonder the voices sound panicked.
He raises his head and sees Collins half dressed, running towards his body armour. There’s another whistling sound, closer this time. Owen looks up over his shoulder. Horrified, he sees a second rocket come tearing through the roof of the tent. It lands at the far end of the gym.
‘Stay down!’ Collins shouts.
Their eyes meet.
There’s a moment’s delay as Collins finishes kitting up, then the younger soldier runs towards him.
Owen ducks his head. Moments later, he feels the full weight of the younger man’s body as he throws himself on top of him, forming a human shield. They lie in this position for what seems like an eternity but is probably no more than a minute. Owen waits for the explosion, but none comes. There’s no deafening bang, no blinding flash, no red hot metal tearing through flesh. The rocket doesn’t detonate.
Finally, he feels Collins exhale. With his warm breath on Owen’s ear, he whispers, ‘I think we’re okay.’
As she regains consciousness, Helen hears the sound of someone moving about downstairs. Her first thought is that Owen is in the kitchen preparing one of his famous fry-ups. Then she remembers. Owen is in Afghanistan. She went out drinking with the girls from work. Some women attacked her in the street, and another woman came to her rescue.
Footsteps sound on the stairs. The floorboard on the landing creaks, there’s a knock on the bedroom door and there the woman is, grinning. ‘You’re alive, then!’
Her skin is tanned, her hair thick and black. She’s dressed in a simple white vest top and jeans. Though physically small, she seems larger than life, like someone famous. Her eyes are dark and seem to glitter as she speaks. When she smiles, her teeth are startlingly white.
Helen tries to smile back, but it’s too much of an effort. She’s been hungover before, but never like this. Her head is pounding. There’s a terrible taste in her mouth. And there’s something unnerving about this strange woman standing in the doorway to her bedroom. She doesn’t know her. She can’t even remember her name.
‘I’m Siân,’ the woman says. ‘Remember? I was there when that cow shoved her chips and curry sauce in your face.’
Helen puts her hand to her cheek.
‘You’re alright,’ Siân says, stepping into the room. ‘It looks a bit red, but it’ll soon fade. I brought you home in a taxi last night. You weren’t looking too clever so I stayed over to make sure you were okay. I crashed on the sofa. I hope you don’t mind.’
Helen tries to take it all in, but all she can feel is the pain in her head and a flush of embarrassment. She can’t remember getting home. But at least she is home. She’s in her own bed. She’s safe. And it’s all thanks to the woman standing a few feet away.
‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘I’m Helen.’
‘I know. I couldn’t get much sense out of you last night, but at least you knew your name and address.’ Siân shrugs. ‘Now, I’m not one for outstaying my welcome. So if you want me to clear off, just say. I won’t be offended.’
Helen hesitates for a moment. Then her manners get the better of her. ‘No,’ she says. ‘Stay for a bit.’
‘Okay. But tell me when you want me to sling my hook. You’ve probably got things to do.’
Helen smiles despite herself.
‘Not really. Just as well. I don’t think I’m in any fit state.’
‘You’ll be fine in a few hours. It’s just a hangover. And the shock. You did seem pretty freaked out.’
‘Weren’t you scared?’
Siân shakes her head. ‘Nah. It takes a lot to scare me. I’m from Sarn, remember?’ She holds her fists up like a boxer. ‘I’ve dealt with a lot worse than them before.’
‘So how come you were out on your own? Where’s your husband?’
She must sense Helen’s discomfort because she adds quickly, ‘I saw the wedding photo downstairs. Tell me to mind my own business if you like. I’m just a naturally curious person.’
‘He’s away,’ Helen says. ‘On business.’
‘Army business?’ Siân smiles. ‘Sorry. I saw that photo too.’
‘He’s on tour,’ Helen says, then quickly changes the subject. ‘My head’s killing me. I think I’ve got some paracetamol somewhere.’ She starts to haul herself out of bed, then suddenly feels self-conscious about exposing her bare thighs in front of a stranger. Silly really, after the show she’s already made of herself.
‘Stay there,’ says Siân. ‘I’ll bring you something better.’
She turns and disappears. Minutes later she’s back with a glass of water. She drops two large white tablets into the glass.
Helen props herself up and watches as the water fizzes. ‘What’s that?’
‘Solpadeine. It’s a mixture of paracetamol and codeine. The codeine works like endorphins.’
Helen looks at her blankly.
‘Endorphins. Y’know, like the buzz you get at the gym?’
Helen doesn’t know. She hasn’t been near a gym in years. ‘And you carry these with you?’
‘Only when I’m planning on getting completely wasted.’
‘But you weren’t, were you? Wasted?’
‘The night was still young.’
Helen looks at her. ‘Sorry I spoilt your night.’
‘Don’t be daft. Now are you going to get that down you, or not?’
Helen raises the glass to her lips and takes a sip of the cloudy liquid. ‘It tastes bitter.’
Siân smiles. ‘Mind if I sit down?’
Without waiting for an answer, she perches herself on the foot of the bed. ‘Do you know the best cure for a hangover? Porridge. Warm milk, a bit of honey. Works wonders. I can make some for you if you like.’
Helen pictures the sorry state of her kitchen cupboards. She hasn’t been to the supermarket in over a week. The only cereal she has is cornflakes. She’s even out of milk.
Siân must have read her mind. ‘I’ll just pop out and get a few things,’ she says, leaping to her feet. ‘It’s no trouble. The keys are downstairs. I’ll be back before you know it.’
Before Helen can put up any kind of protest, she’s gone.
The sunlight burns through the blinds, illuminating the room and the tiny dust motes that swirl and eddy in the air. Helen hears the front door slam and lies back on the pillow. She closes her eyes and tries to gather her thoughts. Frank was right. She should never have gone out. It isn’t safe. Anything could have happened to her last night. She could have been robbed, or raped, or ended up in the local paper with her face slashed open, like that woman a few weeks ago. Thank God Siân came along when she did.
But you don’t even know who this woman is! And she just walked off with your house keys!
Helen opens her eyes.
Her handbag! She can’t remember where it is. Everything is inside that bag. Her purse. Her phone. Her credit cards. She scans the room. Nothing. She throws back the duvet, pulls on her dressing gown and runs downstairs. The bag isn’t where she usually leaves it, hanging at the bottom of the stairs. For a split second she has the awful sinking feeling that her fears have been confirmed. Then she spots the bag lying on the kitchen table. Opening it, she’s hit with a mixture of relief and shame. Her purse and phone are still safely inside. The phone is switched on. There isn’t a single missed call or text message.
So much for Angela and Kath looking out for her. And to think she was even starting to consider Angela a friend.
The last time Helen had brought a friend home she was twelve. It was the year she’d changed schools, not long after they’d moved house and her mother had taken up with Frank. She’d had friendships before then. There’d been birthday parties, sleepovers, invitations to tea. But everything changed when her father died. She still remembers the headteacher making the announcement during morning assembly – and the way everyone turned to look at her and then looked away. It was as if she’d committed some awful crime or caught some dreadful disease.
Rebecca Green was a loner like her, but tougher and more glamorous than the rest of the girls in year seven. Her black hair was always backcombed and her purple nylon uniform had been taken in at the sides and shortened to reveal a few extra inches of thigh. She talked back to the teachers and wore a knowing smirk that came from being a few months older and having a boyfriend who was rumoured to ride a motorbike.
The day she sat next to her in the school canteen, Helen could hardly believe it. She remembers the looks she’d got from the other girls that day, the way they’d stared at her as if they were seeing her for the first time. In a matter of days, she’d gone from being the least interesting girl in her class to the one everyone was suddenly eager to make friends with. Of course she’d known all along that it wasn’t really her they were interested in. But it was a good feeling – while it lasted.