Authors: Priscilla Masters
CATCH THE FALLEN
This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.
Published by arrangement with the Author
Epub ISBN 9781471311413
Copyright Â© 1996 by Priscilla Masters
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
All rights reserved
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental
Jacket illustration Â© iStockphoto.com
The man's head had been carved out of rock. The distinctive shape black against the violent pink of the dawn sky: large domed forehead, crooked broken nose, granite chin pointing down towards the foot of the mountain. It had been naturally carved, by wind, by rain, by season's weathering, by frost that had split deep fissures into the crags. Bitter cold and unprotected from miles and miles of moorland, high soft ground with no guiding path and one solitary road that crossed it. It was no place to be on this chill morning which heralded the first frost of the winter. Here â so high â wind blasted the granite man but he never moved except to wink at people passing along the road. This wink was a trick of nature â rock behind a hole â that made the eye appear to close and open again as the traveller passed.
Normally at this time of the morning there was no sign of human habitation â a few skylarks, a kestrel, rabbits, stoats, weasels, but no sign of man.
This morning was different.
As pink was glazed with gold, a wisp of smoke heavy with the scent of burning meat touched the damp air. A small blue spiral wound upwards across the ridge, wafting the unfamiliar scent across the cave entrance.
Four o'clock on a chill September morning?
A strange time and place to be cooking meat.
In the truck they bumped across the solitary stripe of moorland road, shining black slicing through dull grey scrub, laughing and chucking the tube of camouflage to one another.
âHow do I look?' Gary grinned, smeared a wide streak across his face, another, wider one underneath his eyes, gripped his rifle, pulled on his balaclava and looked across at the others. They all seemed different now, aggressive, threatening. He made an animal noise deep in his throat, the sound of a young, adult male, predatory and ready to hunt... to hurt. He felt better now, much better and dug his companion sharply in the nails.
âReady for action then, Tom boy?' He laughed, exposing a gap in his top front teeth â an incisor lost to one of the wardens.
Gary leaned forward in his seat, looked out of the back of the truck and watched the narrow moorland road disappear. Already he felt the familiar buzz. He got a kick out of these exercises, A team and B team. Hunting the enemy set the juices running. And the others were in the truck behind, just approaching the brow of the hill. Today they were the enemy. And Private Gary Swinton needed an enemy much more than he needed a friend. Object of this exercise: to reach the Winking Man first â unseen. So they would crawl on their bellies up one side of the crag. And B team would be on the other side. With a yell and a sharp dig in the ribs with his bayonet they would announce victory.
The truck jolted to a stop. The sergeant leapt out and stood aggressively in front of them, legs apart, hands gripping his rifle butt.
LISTEN TO ME, YOU IGNORANT BUGGERS.
He was bellowing. He always bellowed. It was his only voice. Never a whisper or a coax. He had no dulcet tone in his voice. He bellowed to his children when he saw them. He bellowed to his wife when he wanted to leap on her.
âTwo companies â right? One of you get to the west of the rocks. B team to the east.'
He looked around dubiously. â
HAVE YOU GOT THAT?
They grunted assent, sat tensely coiled like springs, ready for action.
âWhoever gets to the nose first gets free beer tonight. Right?'
The sergeant's eyes wandered slowly round the company, memorizing every man until his glance fell on Swinton. âAnd I catch you so much as tickling anyone with your rifle butt or your fists you're in can for a month. Understand, Swinton?'
Gary glowered, looked past the sergeant to the sharp, black crags and beyond to the Winking Man's profile.
The sergeant dealt him a blow on his shoulder.
âUnderstand, do you, Swinton? You touch anyone and I'll bloody thrash you to within an inch of your miserable life.'
Gary's breath came fast and hard but he nodded.
âRight, any trouble ...' His eyes swept the whole company and his hand tightened on the rifle butt. He had no need to say more. Not one of the watching soldiers doubted he would use it, hard and on the back of the head with a practised blow that made you dizzy and sick for days.
The ground was soggy and wet, the wind biting and the soil black, soft peat that stuck to your boots, as you sank up to your ankles. The whole scene was lit with the dull, grey glow of yet another dismal day. The brief glimpse of sun at dawn had gone. It had hidden behind thick, dark cumuli. Swinton stared up the mountain and began to plan. To reach the summit they should have to crawl on their bellies up the gullies.
Tom boy was staring at the crag too. âIt's these bloody rifles that make it difficult.'
Swinton turned around. âDon't start your moaning, Tom,' he said through his teeth. âJust get on with it and keep your bloody head down. If you don't want to carry your rifle you can leave it behind.'
âHa bloody ha.'
Swinton faced forwards, towards the pinnacle of the crag. âWell, don't moan then. We're soldiers. We have to have guns. If you don't like carrying them be a bloody cook and carry a spoon.'
Tom boy seemed to shrink inside the pale skin, striped with dark camouflage which somehow failed to offer the macho look he so craved.
Swinton glanced at him and felt like lashing out â folding his fists into the soft, white flesh. Instead he thought about conquering the mountain.
The sergeant barked an order to B team and they melted behind the rocks, invisible now in khaki and face paint, leaves stuck to their helmets. But Swinton knew they were there.
âRight, you bloody bastards. Get down.'
The sergeant kicked Tom boy on the rump and the soldier fell on his face with a soft moan.
In unison the others dropped. Rifles clattered to the floor.
The sergeant bent down and put his face close to Swinton. âNow get to the fucking top, bastard.'
Swinton wriggled forward, using his elbows, his knees, his belly. Puddles and streams had chosen the same, easy route in the low contours of the hill and the water seeped in, reaching his knees first. But if they kept their heads down in their khaki and camouflage they were invisible. And one day â in Northern Ireland or some other troubled spot â being invisible might save their lives.
Swinton crawled a few feet further up the gully, his eyes trained on the hook nose of granite and the black ridge beyond, watching for signs of movement against the dull sky. He inched forwards, ignoring the creeping wet and Tom boy's noisy pants behind him. He crawled through sheep pellets, keeping low, his gun banging against his back. He never looked to the side or behind but could hear the others rasping through the heather, squelching through the mud as he concentrated on the ridge and the first sign of the B team reaching the top. But the silhouette remained unbroken as they crept towards the summit.
It was when he was three-quarters of the way up the hill that he stopped, sniffed, caught the burning scent on the wind. He froze, sniffed again, turned around.
âTom boy,' he said urgently, âcan you smell something?'
Tom took a deep breath in. âSmells like meat,' he said, âcookin'.'
He frowned and gave one of his nervous giggles. âGary,' he said tentatively, âit's just after five in the morning. It's been raining half the night. It's absolutely freezing up here.' He paused, unwilling to say more. When he spoke again his words were said softly, and he paused between each word:
âFancy â having â a â barbecue â now.' The last word came out in a rush.
Swinton's eyes narrowed. He had smelt this scent before. He breathed in quickly. âBarbecue?' His eyes looked strangely disturbed in the tiger stripes of camouflage. His head shot up. His mouth dropped open. To cover his uneasiness he sneered at his friend. âWho'd have a barbecue up here at this time of the day, Tom?' he said in a strangled voice.
Tom, never quick, missed his meaning. âI can definitely smell it,' he insisted. âMeat â cooking.'
Swinton's eyes scanned the rocky outcrop, black and angular against the sky now streaked with heavy rain clouds, then slowly his gaze dropped along the valley until they found the origin of the scent â a spiral of smoke, a little to the right, where a deep fissure in the rock swept downwards towards the road. It was from here that the scent of meat cooking was wafting up the gully, wrapped in faint blue smoke. At the bottom of the gully something was burning. Through the gloom, Swinton peered, his eyes shaded with his hand, his head craning forwards, as though to take his bulging eyes nearer. At first he could pick out only huddled, charred rags ...
The next instant, ignoring all his training to keep low, quiet and invisible, Private Gary Swinton stood upright and hurled away his rifle with a high-pitched scream that seemed to last from the top of the hill all the way down until he reached the pile of rags.
A confused and muddled Tom boy ran with him, not understanding anything until they got to the bottom and flung their flak jackets on the burning body of a boy.
Detective Inspector Joanna Piercy locked the door, then peeled down her cycling shorts and threw off her T-shirt. She stepped out of her trainers, sluiced her face and arms in the sink, patted herself dry with a balding towel. From a shelf she took a tin of deodorant and sprayed liberally. Next she folded the clothes carefully and placed them in the top drawer of the filing cabinet. The shoes she threw in the bottom of the cupboard. Then from a coat hanger behind the door she took a short, black skirt and a cream blouse. A pair of tights from her bag and some high-heeled black shoes. Nearly ready. Damn â she jumped. Someone was banging on the door.
âHang on a minute.'
They did this every morning, knowing she had to change before she was ready for work. Perhaps one morning she would forget to lock the door and then they could barge in and pretend it was all a mistake, catch her in knickers and bra. Honestly, she thought, coppers' schoolboy humour.
The banging came again. She flicked a comb through her thick, dark hair, let the water out of the sink and stared at her reflection. What the hell was she going to do?
There were so many parts to this story ... Matthew a lover, Matthew a loved colleague ... Matthew a married man â unattainable. These were all the Matthews she knew ... familiar, comfortable people â someone who weaved in and out of her life with an undemanding casualness. She had somehow imagined it would always be like that.
The letter had come as a shock. It had sounded so very decisive. He would give his marriage one last, committed try. If it failed he had to leave. âYou do understand, don't you, Jo? Eloise is only ten. For her sake I must try.'
She took a deep breath in and was unsure that she wanted her equilibrium rocked so fundamentally.
The hammering on the door became more insistent. She grimaced. No time to ponder now.
Another bang. âIt's Mike.'
âWell, come in,' she said, irritated.
âThe bloody door's locked.'
She opened it and faced him in the doorway. âWell?'
âBody found on the moors.'
Mike's voice was quick and excited. This was a small, safe town. Bodies weren't common. She stared at him.
âAccident? Someone slip while climbing?'
He shook his head. âNot unless they tried to cook themselves after they fell. When it was found it was still burning.'
He nodded. âSoldiers found it. Saw the smoke.' Mike's voice held the same creeping horror she felt. âSomeone had tried to burn it.'
âSteady on, Mike,' she said. âIt doesn't necessarily mean it's homicide.'
Mike looked at her pityingly and Joanna found herself wishing Matthew was around.