Bill Kitson

 

Read below for an exclusive extract from Altered Egos

The house was like all the others in the row. Semi detached, built during the 1950s, with economy as the overriding principle. The contractor had enthusiastically taken the instructions from the Ministry of Defence on board. Materials were the cheapest, appliances purely functional. Even the plot size was minimal. Profits were the only item that hadn’t been cut to the bone.

It was one of the coldest nights of the winter, with temperatures well below freezing point. Bereft of adequate insulation the house was like an icebox. The central heating had been on the blink for months. It was scheduled to be replaced in spring. Reluctantly, but with two young children to keep warm, the housewife turned to the backup heating. The gas fires were old, but at least they worked. She wasn’t happy about leaving them on all night, especially as they hadn’t been serviced for over twelve months, but realized she’d no choice. Anyway, the workmen would be coming to do them tomorrow.

She wished her husband was home. Steve was good with his hands. He could fix things. He’d have sorted the heating out. But he was thousands of miles away; she’d no idea how far. He wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for the money. Or lack of it. That, and the argument. The row had been about money; what else. ‘I can’t manage on what we’ve got. How do you think I’ll cope with an extra mouth to feed and no money coming in? You’ll be out of work and all the bills still to pay? This place may not be up to much but at least we don’t have the rent to fork out. That’d change. And all we’d have is family allowance, and a bit of money from the Social.’

Of course he’d stormed off; gone to the pub. Next morning he was up and out of the house before she woke. By the time she was dressing he’d signed on for another tour. This time it wasn’t cushy. Not Gibraltar or Falklands. Not Germany. This time it was the big one. The one all the wives feared. This time it was Afghanistan. Afghanistan. Even the name struck fear into her heart, as it did with all the wives. Not knowing. That was the worst. News bulletins didn’t help. ‘A British soldier has been killed....’ Her heart lurched every time she heard the words.

A few months ago they’d lost one; Sonya’s husband, from across the road. Too close for comfort. She’d seen Sonya’s light on at all hours of the night. Could only guess at what she was feeling. Apart from the grief there was the worry. The MOD widow’s pension wouldn’t go far. The widow’s mite they called it. And Sonya was what, twenty-eight and with three youngsters all under seven. Sometimes she worried because she daren’t face Sonya; still didn’t know what to say to her. What do you say? What can you say? ‘Sorry, Sonya, some bastard with an RPG has blown the rest of your life to hell and back?’ You can’t say it, even if you’re thinking it: even if it’s the truth. So you stick with meaningless platitudes.

She poured another glass of wine. It was late. Both children would be fast asleep by now. She sipped the wine as she watched TV. When the reality show ended, she drained her glass, switched the TV off. Everything done, she yawned, time for bed. Strange that doing nothing should make you so weary.

Somewhere in the early hours one of the children started to cough. In an instant, she was awake; listening. She waited for a repeat. When it didn’t come she drifted back off to sleep.

*

The workmen arrived late. It was almost 9 a.m. when they pulled up outside the house. They rang the bell. Getting no reply they hammered on the door; still nothing. One of them went round the back. He reappeared a few minutes later, shaking his head.

‘Can I help?’

They turned. The neighbour was young, young and pretty. ‘We can’t raise the lady of the house,’ the younger workman explained. ‘We’re here to service her’ – he paused, leered – ‘appliances.’

The neighbour ignored the innuendo. ‘She must be in. That’s her car.’

The older workman stepped back and looked up at the bedroom windows. The curtains were still closed. Despite that, he thought he’d caught a glimpse of something glinting in the weak morning sunlight: condensation.

He’d been in the job a lot of years; realized what the condensation meant. ‘Oh no,’ he muttered. ‘Stu, come here, quick.’

*

The tent was hot, dusty and uncomfortable. Unable to knock, the signals officer coughed. ‘Excuse me, sir. Message from HQ.’

The colonel looked up. His signals officer, usually phlegmatic, looked distressed. ‘What is it?’

He listened as the man gave him the gist. ‘Oh God. Poor devil. How the hell do you tell a man that sort of thing? You never think of something like that happening, more the other way round. Better bring him in here.’

They were back in less than ten minutes. Not long enough for the officer to rehearse what he had to say. The man knew something was wrong; knew before the officer spoke; knew by the look on his face. Even if he hadn’t known, the CO’s opening words would have given the game away.

‘Come in, Steve.’

‘Where’s Captain Smith?’ Steve asked.

‘Major Smith,’ the colonel corrected him. ‘Transferred back to Military Intelligence and promoted; all to do with that effort of yours last month. Now, you’d better take a seat. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. Very bad news.’

*

Memories and sadness, memories and guilt, memories and anger; they were all he had left. If it hadn’t been for the row it would never have happened. He wouldn’t have been here in this godforsaken hellhole. That was why he’d volunteered; agreed to go on their special assignment.

If they’d been able to afford it he wouldn’t have come. If he hadn’t been away, they wouldn’t be dead. The ‘ifs’ swirled round and round in his brain, like loose ball bearings in a pinball machine. And all the time his guilt, his anger and his grief fused together like a hard knot in the pit of his stomach. He remembered his words at the time. ‘If all I’m good for is a pay cheque, I might as well sign on again. That way you’ll have less food to buy.’

He’d seen the hurt look on her face, ignored it. So busy with his own pride he hadn’t attempted to console her. Just slammed out of the house and gone to the pub. He’d signed up again next morning, gone for the MAD assignment they’d been punting at the barracks. No one knew what it was about, but you’d to be highly qualified before they’d consider you.

The officer he’d reported to was specific. Outlined what was needed. ‘Special forces training, sniper grade, para qualified. Those are minimum requirements.’

‘I’ve got those, sir. And my BELT.’

Behind enemy lines training it stood for. Hadn’t had to use it in anger, but obviously worth mentioning because the officer said immediately, ‘If you’ve got those, I reckon you stand a good chance of getting selected.’

‘Can I ask what this assignment involves, sir?’

‘Of course you can. Just don’t hold your breath for a reply.’

That had been over eighteen months ago. Since then everything had changed. And now this.

He sat alongside the airstrip, a dusty, barren landscape bisected by the thin ribbon of tarmac. Waiting; waiting for his transport. Transport to home; that wasn’t home any longer. To England, suddenly more desolate than this place. To England, and a new mission: revenge. Revenge on those who’d brought this about. He thought about Smith and his anger doubled. Promoted; he’d almost blurted it out in the colonel’s tent. Promoted, for shooting one of his men in the back. Because Steve knew that’s what had happened. Smith, crazed by the drug, had shot Johnny in the back for objecting to his orders. Not only that, he’d left Steve to die out there. Smith must have thought he was safe. He’d have got a hell of a shock when Steve came out of the desert. Was that the real reason Smith had been transferred?

They were here to protect the nation. That’s what they were told. Protect the nation against terrorism. And because he was here, he was unable to protect his own wife, his own daughters. Protect them against what he knew was little short of murder. Well, if it was murder they wanted, they’d come to the right man.


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