by Nick Cooper © 1993

He opened the case and stared at the gun.
     Not the gun he'd used in service himself; not any of the countless standard-issue Browning pistols he'd faced countless nightmare demons with. No, this had been his father's, but in a way it had seen worse enemies - worse because they had been human.
     Captain Andrew Giles Lethbridge-Stewart had been one of the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen. It wasn't until Alastair's last night on leave before flying out to Korea in '50 that his father had told him what he found there. The stench of death and the walking skeletons he had to remind himself were human; the mass graves and the incinerators. Wandering around, he'd come across three members of the Hitler Youth casually finishing off some of the emaciated prisoners. He'd shot the first two dead without thinking, and wounded the third in the knee as he tried to run. Then he'd walked calmly over to the boy thrashing on the ground, and emptied the gun into the back of his head.
     This gun.
     Alastair took it out of the case, broke it open and loaded a single .38 calibre round before snapping it shut and pulling back the hammer. He spun the chamber and placed the muzzle of the barrel to his right temple, squeezing the trigger gently....

"Want to try again, Tom?" she asked, peering over the top of the low wall at the squat form of the Warrior APC. "The shooting's died down a bit."
     A bullet thwacked into the brickwork above their heads, embedding a shattered piece of fired clay into Sarah-Jane Smith's flak jacket.
     "Shit!" he cursed, gasping for the breath that had been knocked out of her.
     The cameraman laughed. "At least we know they work now!"
     Sarah slipped her hand under the jacket, checking that the fragment hadn't pierced through to her skin. "Yeah, great, we'll have to send a letter of thanks to the manufacturers," she muttered.
     The blast of a airhorn prompted her to look over the wall again. The APC was now moving slowly away, and out of the back door two blue-bereted squaddies where shouting to her to get the fuck over there, or else they'd leave without them.
     "Looks like it's now or never," she said, "You know the routine: Get to the story, get the pictures, and get the fuck out..."
     "I can run faster without the camera," Tom said as he manúuvred himself into a crouch, ready to jump and run.
     "You leave the Betacam," Sarah said, "And you can be the one to explain it to George."
     With that she launched herself over the wall and ran towards the APC. Machine gun fire churned up the road surface around her, but she ran on, hurling herself through the open door of the APC and into the arms of a burly sergeant who was grinning from ear to ear.
     "Jesus," he said in a thick Geordie accent, "You're one fuckin' mad cow, aren't ya?"
     "What? You call this bad?" she grinned back, "I've been in worse shit that this...."
     She checked herself. No, don't say that. Don't ever mention anything like that, because it couldn't stand elaboration.
     But the guys in the DPM and combat boots understood part of it. They understood the buzz that came from dodging shrapnel and bullets, and not from a cushy desk job in London.
     A flurry of activity at the doorway made her turn round in time to see Tom being hauled inside by two soldiers, before that hatch clanged shut and the APC gathered speed.
     Sitting on the hard bench, Sarah ran both hands through her sweat-damped hair, eyes closed as her breathing slowed and the adrenalin rush eased. Yes, that had been great - not quite a match, but good enough. It deserved a celebration. When she opened her eyes again, she found herself staring into those of the Geordie sergeant.
    "What're you doing tonight?" she asked....

As he walked towards his car, the man in the Saville Row suit and £500 raincoat said how much he regretted this happening, but the Bank had to protect its investments, and there had been no alternative.
     "Yes, I understand."
     Only he didn't. It was bastards like this one who'd done for the country in the first place, not content to let things run along smoothly, but preferring the peaks of boom years, and then whinging like spoilt children when the inevitable recession followed. Bastards.
     The man from the Bank didn't say another word as he climbed into his gleaming Mercedes and drove off. John Benton assessed the vehicle automatically: 1992 model, mileage perhaps a bit high, but it would go for at least...
     No, that was all over, wasn't it?
     He walked back to the office, past the rows of cars - all the Bargains of the Week and Specially Reduced's that hadn't saved what had once been one of the biggest second hand dealerships in the county.
     Collapsing into the chair behind his desk, he pulled a bottle of Teachers from the top drawer and took a swig.
     "Bastards," he muttered as the 'phone started ringing.
     He let it ring. Even if it was the deal of the century, it was too late now. But whoever the caller was, they were persistent and the ringing continued for over a minute before he snatched it up.
     "John? It's me, Elizabeth."
     "Oh, right. I wasn't expecting...."
     "How bad is it?"
     "It's all over. The Bank's called in the Receivers. I don't think you'll be getting that ten grand back."
     A pause. "It doesn't matter about that. Look, I'll come over tonight..."
     "Now there's no need for that, you're too busy."
     "Not that busy," she said, "I think you'll need the company."
     Yeah, he thought, but do I deserve it...?

She drew hard on the cigarette, and then stubbed it out with the remains of three others in the ashtray. Swirling the last dregs of her fourth straight tonic in the glass and taking a careful sip, she never took her eyes off him. He glanced over at her again, their eyes locking momentarily before he looked away.
     Jesus, she thought to herself, Make your mind up - we've been at this all evening.
     Then he made his move, finishing his own drink and walking over to her nervously. She smiled sweetly as at first he seemed at a loss as to what to say.
     "I was..." he began, "I mean... I noticed you earlier..."
     "You've been watching me all evening," she said, although with no trace of animosity.
     "Yes," he said simply.
     She glanced at her watch, then asked: "What's your room number."
     He seemed taken aback at her bluntness, but still managed to say: "560."
     Decisively, she rose to her feet and headed out of the bar, towards the lifts. Pressing the call button, she stared back to where he was still standing and mouthed a deliberate "Come on, then," as the lift arrived with a delicate synthesized bell chime.
    As the doors closed behind them, they were locked in a sudden tight embrace. Now he was no longer an abstract; he was real. She could feel the warmth of his lips, the slight roughness of stubble on his cheeks, the scent of his Cologne filled her senses, and - as always - she seemed to die a little inside.
     His room was as comfortable and well-maintained as £500 a night would buy, commanding a almost pleasant view of the nocturnal London skyline. He made a move towards the mini-bar, but she headed him off, saying there was no need to waste time with that - they both knew why she was here. Again he was thrown, and started to say something about money, but she cut him off.
     "I'm not a whore," she said, "I do this for fun."
     Then she broke the rules. She should have done it there and then, but something made her play the rest of the scene, one she was more than familiar with, but never in these circumstances. Maybe it was because he was so young - a good twenty years younger than herself. She knew exactly how old he was, and that he must have trodden on a lot of toes to get this rich so quickly, but she hadn't expected the naïveté. Maybe she was apologising in advance when they made love, maybe it was just for herself.
     Three hours later he was snoring lightly, lying face down on the bed, the sheets pulled back from his smooth perfect back. She lay next to him, staring at the nape of his neck, vaguely and halfheartedly considering whether to cry off and leave it to someone else, but deep down she knew she couldn't.
     Leaned back over the side of the bed, she pulled the silenced Walther PPK from her handbag, slipping off the safety with a barely audible click. He stirred slightly and she stroked his back lightly.
     "Go to sleep," she whispered reassuringly.
     "I don't even know your name," he murmured.
     "It's Jospehine," she said, placing the muzzle against the back of his neck and squeezing the trigger.
     It took less than ten minutes to get dressed and tidy up, wiping the fingerprints from every surface she'd mentally noted she'd touched. The minefield of forensic evidence in the bar didn't bother her - the glasses and the ashtray would be washed, dried and stored long before the body was found. As a final touch she emptied his wallet, before leaving the room and slipping the "Do Not Disturb" hanger over the handle.
     She took the service lift to the sub-basement car park, climbed into her white Porsche 924, and drove away from the hotel. Parking in a lonely sidestreet, she peeled off the fake registration numbers hiding the real and very conspicuous JOS1E underneath. The blonde wig, the tinted contact lenses and the clothes went into a bin liner which would be tumbling into a municipal incinerator within twenty-four hours, the pistol down the grating of a drain not due for routine maintenance for another two years. Then she rang Leonard.
     "Ah, Mrs Jones," he purred and she hated him even more for being so cheery at this time of the morning, "I was expecting your call earlier. No problems, I trust?"
     "Nothing to worry about," she said, "It's done."
     "Well, it's a living, isn't it, my dear? Legally you're unskilled, remember? And it is for Queen and Country, after all. He had to die."
      She put the phone down without even bothering to hear him tell her the £20,000 had been transferred to her Swiss bank account.
     As she started the car again, she found herself brushing a tear from her cheek.

The hammer fell with a dull click.
     He sat there for a few moments, his breathing returning to normal with a smile on his lips. He then removed the bullet from the revolver and placed the weapon back in the case. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he made mental note to check the odds on how many times he'd managed to survive that so far. But it was enough to keep him going, although he did sometimes wonder what they would say the day the hammer fell on a full chamber.
     He expected they's say it was an accident. Might even be covered up. After all, why would he want to kill himself. He had a respectable and well-paid job, and a beautiful wife. Yes, a quiet, steady and peaceful life.
     Maybe that was exactly why he did it.
     But not today....


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