© Ltcdr. 21.09.2019
The events in this story occur shortly after the episode ‘Mindbender’.
Straker dropped his suitcase in the boot, lamenting the
mechanics that denied him the satisfaction of slamming the lid down again. A
minimum of ten days enforced medical leave ahead of him because his psyche
report was five points down. If Jackson had delayed the tests for just a couple
of days or so, he would have been fine; back to normal, the nightmares and
sleepwalking a mere inconvenience that would disappear. Eventually.
But no. Five points. He scowled and opened the car door,
slipping behind the wheel and starting the engine before he noticed his
briefcase lying half-hidden on the floor beneath the passenger seat where he
had thrown it earlier in a rare fit of pique. A quick grin. They’d forgotten
about that: laptop, files, phone. All he needed to keep up with work. He still
had the incident report to finish, though Henderson wasn’t pushing, at least
not this time, and they were both a little more tolerant now.
He woke sweating and uncomfortable and his head sore and
aching for some unknown reason. Perhaps it was the heat; summer in the trenches
was worse in some ways than the freezing cold of winter. The heat and stench.
The lice and drying mud that caked everything. The lack of water for washing or
shaving. The insects. Biting and tormenting. Nothing stopped the insects. He
could feel a cluster of them right now, on the side of his head, buzzing round
his ear, crawling and stinging.
A clear night, the moon close to full and the path to
easy to follow. He sat on the steps to pull on his boots and then set off to
where his Tourer was parked. The car was spotless, all evidence of the mudslide
washed away and he opened the luggage compartment with a sense of unease,
hoping that whoever had cleaned the vehicle had not found the rifle and other
equipment hidden beneath the floor of the boot.
The Enfield was safe in its oiled case and he slung it
over his shoulder, the weight familiar and comforting, the binoculars over his
other shoulder and his torch tucked into one pocket well away from the
revolver. A last look around to make sure no one was watching and then he set
off along the grass verge, grateful for the bright moonlight that made his late
night trek possible.
It was late afternoon by the time the Dower House came
into view. Straker led the horse round under the portico and halted her as the
front door opened to reveal Cooper.
‘Use the servants’ entrance round the back and put him in
one of the empty storerooms. Cool enough down there and they’re well out of the
way.’ He stepped back, making it clear that he was not prepared to assist in
The traditional glass of sloe gin was stronger than
expected, and alcoholic enough that he refused a second although the other men
were not as circumspect. Then he took his seat for the journey to the first
drive: a couple of cars for the paying visitors, the loaders in a wagon, beater and dogs in
another and a horse drawn cart following behind to transport the day’s trophies
afterwards. A rough and jolting journey, his back still sore from sleeping in
the chair and his whole attention fixed on his environs and fixing the details
in his mind: the wide sluices and narrow bridges, the sweep of water in the
distance and the dark woodlands, the sky heavy with the promise of more rain.
He hoped Jackson had managed to get the car up to the House. He did not relish
the thought of coming out here again at night without his Enfield. A shotgun,
however accurate, didn’t have the range or accuracy required for his purposes.
Sunlight woke him, a thin beam forcing its way into the
room to bring him out of restless dreams of blue-painted tanks moving through woodland
in search of the enemy and an overwhelming sense of being adrift in a strange
world. He had slept in the chair, the fire nothing more than white ash now, his
back aching and his feet cold. He forced
himself out of the quilt’s cocoon, stretching to ease the stiffness in his
shoulders, then halted.
Colonel Edward Straker, until last November Captain in the 94th Aero Squadron US Air Service and now employed on more secretive missions, knew the symptoms well enough, knew that sick feeling and the accompanying dread. His tiredness and lack of concentration, the headaches and dizziness plaguing his waking moments since that last dreadful sortie near St Maire. Thick plumes of smoke from dying aircraft as his own Spad withered under a hail of bullets, the engine shuddering and breaking part as he fought to bring her down in one piece. The crash landing, well behind enemy lines, had been a miracle of sorts and he had dragged himself from the burning wreckage, mouth full of blood, pain in his ribs, but alive and still free. He could not forget the cloying weight of mud, dragging him down as he crawled through abandoned trenches, the bones and corpses and shattered remains of men who had once been his enemy.
© Ltcdr. 21.09.2019
The events in this story occur shortly after the episode ‘Mindbender’
Straker dropped his suitcase in the boot, lamenting the mechanics that denied him the satisfaction of slamming the lid down again. A minimum of ten days enforced medical leave ahead of him because his psyche report was five points down. If Jackson had delayed the tests for just a couple of days or so, he would have been fine; back to normal, the nightmares and sleepwalking a mere inconvenience that would disappear. Eventually.