Storyline - 25: Dead Cert, a Soldier's Story -  the Chase Is On
It all began far away in the foothills of the Hindu Kush...
"Where'd that come from - who left the back door open?"
One of his fellow Riflemen chuckled,
"Maybe the wind blew it open".
Two men looked up over the low stone wall and another shot rang out. They ducked, one sucked air through his clenched teeth and grinned sheepishly.
"That was close. Give me covering fire, Chalky".
"Right, Sarge. When're you going?"
Chalky stood briefly and sprayed the buildings opposite with a hail of bullets from his gun. Meanwhile Serjeant Rush rolled out to one side of the short wall and sprinted to the shelter of a small hut. He hissed,
"Right, Chalky, don't want to use up all your clip but give them another burst and hold fire until I say so!"
"Right Sarge", Chalky stood again very briefly, opened up and dropped down again.
"You all right Chalky?" Rush hissed again.
"Caught a bullet in my right shoulder, Sarge!"
"Damn'!" Rush looked around for cover nearer to the buildings across the way but he'd already got the only other shelter.
"Corp, are you there?" Rush called out for Corporal Burns. No answer. "Burnsy, where the hell are you when I need you?!"
"Sarge?" Burns answered from further to the right, out of view.
"Burnsy, see if Chalky's okay will you?"
"Right Sarge. Cover me, Noddy!"
A hail of bullets ricocheted off the far wall and on the dirt road as Burns rolled quickly toward where 'Chalky' Durrant lay breathing hard, eyes up at the darkening sky. Rush waited until he heard Burns again,
"He's not doing too badly, Sarge. Needs patching up a bit, but otherwise -"
"Patch him up then and get onto base. Ask them to send a chopper for Chalky". No answer again. "Burnsy, what's up?"
"Nothing, Sarge. Just pulling Chalky's shirt away from his shoulder to get a dressing in".
"Get on it then. Noddy, what's it look like your end?"
"A bit too quiet, Sarge. What's happening?"
"Nothing's happening, Noddy, not until you make it happen. I need a diversion, that's what. Where's Lieutenant Aitcheson?"
"He's back behind us with a bullet in his knee".
"Give them a spray then, Noddy".
Noddy rolled over to his left and fired off a few shots from around the end of the wall and rolled back into cover.
It would be night soon, Rush knew. They might be able to achieve something then, but things were not going to wait that long. He could sense something was not right. One of the Taliban fighters showed momentarily at the door of a hut and fired rapidly, haphazardly. A bullet found his forehead and he fell forward, crumpled like a rag doll.
"Who was that fired?" Rush asked aloud.
"It was Suggsy, Sarge", Burns told him, chortling.
"Bloody good shooting, Suggs!" Rush yelled. "Any more in there?
"Don;t know Sarge. What're you doing?"
"I'm racking my brain for ideas right now. Give me cover".
"Acros that open ground, Sarge? You're nuts, if you don't mind me saying so", Noddy cackled.
"Don't give me that, Noddy! Do as I tell you!"
As 'Noddy' Braine rolld out from behind his part of the low wall a hail of bullets crashed into the darkened buildings. The noise covered the racket from the rotor blades as the chopper neared a mile away. Rush hurtled across the open space and threw himself at the wall between two shuttered windows. The impact shook the wall and one of the occupants poked his face out from the darkness. Mistake! A bullet caught him and spun him round, to drop lifeless onto the street. Was there anyone else in there with him? Rush pushed against the wall, his back scraping the rough limestone mortar between crumbling brown bricks. With the safety catch off he turned and fired in through the open doorway, spraying from right to left.
Nothing stirred within as the chopper set down several hundred yards away. Rush waited briefly before sliding his back against the doorway to reduce his profile against the dimming light outside. Now something stirred and he cocked his rifle again. Whimpering from the darkness gave Rush the impression children cowered in the darkness. He lowered his rifle and then felt something press against him. Then all went black.
"Sarge - are you okay?" Noddy was at the door and saw a flash, a blade in the light of the doorway came at him and he stepped back. As he did so he cocked his gun and fired. Something - or someone - fell in the half-darkness of the doorway.
"Corp, the Sarge has been knifed in the stomach!" noddy shone his torch onto the floor of the hovel. Several bodies lay around, mostly elderly Taliban. A young boy lay crumpled, half over Rush's bloodied chest.
"Quick! Stretcher bearers!" Noddy yelled hoarsely. Two men ran from the chopper.
"We'll get him back safe!" one of them breathed hard front the sprint.
"Is there room for three stretcher cases?" Noddy asked.
"Why, who else have you got?"
"We've got one with a bullet in his shoulder, other side of that low wall. The lieutenant is back there", he pointed back with his right thumb, "with a bandage on his right knee".
"That's all then?" the second stretcher bearer asked. He sounded a bit gormless but Noddy resisted temptation.
"If we hang around I'm sure the Taliban could muster a few more to lay into us".
"All right, mate. Keep your hair on!"
"Daft question", Noddy wiped the sweat from the back of his neck with his hand. Sweat ran down his back like Niagara Falls.
"I only asked because we can take all dozen of you back to Bastion".
"Well, why didn't you say so?" Noddy grinned hugely and lowered his gun with the safety catch on.
At home on the Range or in the backwoods
A year on, Rush was back in Edinburgh after a long stay in hospital near Brize Norton.
Because of the wound in his knee the lieutenant had to leave a career he;d only recently begun. The bone was shattered. 'Chalky' Durrant had occupied the bed next to Rush to keep him company over a six month stay. They were both given the 'all-clear' and shipped back to barracks at Dreghorn near Edinburgh.
No-one seemed to be aware of the taxi driver who often parked across the road from the main barrack gate. He was no different to the other migrants of Middle Eastern origin, another refugee from the violence at home - another asylum seeker perhaps. Certainly Chalky was oblivious of the stranger when he observed to Rush one day during target practice on the range with the rookies,
"Noddy's been kicked a step up the ladder".
"Oh?" Rush didn't look remotely interested. He had other issues foremost in his thoughts. Something deep within set the hairs on the back of his neck on end. He didn't know what it was, but he had the a feeling of being watched. On looking around he dismissed the thought. Who could be watching them - and from where? Yet something told him all was not right. Then the light reflection caught his eye.
"Chalky, step away, forward a stride".What?" Chalky was puzzled.
"Just do -"
There was no sound. Chalky stumbled backward and fell heavily on his right side.
"Sarge! Chalky's not breathing!" It was Noddy, now lance corporal. He fairly leapt onto Chalky's chest, both hands spread out to revive his comrade. One of the other Rifles serjeants bellowed for calm. The rookies went down on one knee and looked around.
"There was a flash of sun on glass from that gantry crane on the building site - there!" One of the rookies pointed. It was a Sunday afternoon after Church Parade, and the construction workers were not due on site for another sixteen hours or more. There was a flash from the crane cab.
"Down!" Rush yelled. All ducked but it was a false alarm. It must have been the sun on glass in the cab interior. What glass though?
A young subaltern, fresh from Sandhurst strode purposefully to Rush's side. As senior serjeant here, it befell him to organise the men in an emergency.
"What seems to be the problem, Serjeant?" He sounded like a GP in his surgery.
Rush saluted and brought his boots together smartly,
"Corporal Durrant has been hit by a bullet, Sir".
"A bullet, you say?" The lieutenant looked around, alarmed. He went down on one knee in classic Rifles manner.
"I think the danger's past, Sir", Rush assured him. "Whoever it was must've been in the crane cab over there".
"What makes you say that, Serjeant?" The young officer still crouched as the others rose to their feet.
"The lance-corporal here saw a glint of glass, possibly the sniper was putting his sights away. He'll be long gone now, abseiled from the crane cab and off. But I don't think he's finished here".
"Oh, why not?" Captain Harker was on the scene now. Rush turned to him, saluted and brought his boots together again at attention. "Explain yourself, Serjeant Rush".
"It's what happened on our last tour. A sniper got Corporal Durrant last year, then left apparently. One of the men had to kill a young lad who stabbed me in the chest when I entered a Taliban hideout".
"Yes, Rush, you were in hospital a long time, weren't you. See to it Durrant is taken at once to the medical centre. We shall see what king of bullet it is".
"I'd be willing to bet, Sir, it's the same as he got in his shoulder", Rush answered flatly.
"We shall see, Serjeant. we shall see. Come to my office after practice, will you? Bring Lance-corporal Braine with you. There is someone I want you both to meet - yes?"
"Yes, Sir", Rush saluted again and went back to the young officer. They were joined by a medic and stretcher bearers.
"Your Corporal will pull through", the medic told Rush as the stretcher bearers went about their duty. "It was close. Any further to the left and I'd have been helpless to do anything for him. Poor lad, first last year and again now".
"That close?" Rush whistled.
"That close, aye Serjeant", the medic pointed at his right epaulette.
"Sorry, Sir!" Rush saluted the officer.
"We're both too long in the tooth for niceties", the medic tapped his arm as he left and followed after the stretcher bearers.
Practice ended, Rush and Braine left for the captain's office.
"Ah, Serjeant Rush, Corporal Braine - at ease", Harker told them. "This is Mister Thomas, a solicitor from town. Mister Thomas is to appoint a barrister-at-law to represent you both in the High Sheriff's Court.
"Might I ask what this is about, Sir?" Rush nodded at Thomas, who tacitly returned the gesture.
The captain turned to Rush,
"Rush, have you heard of a law firm called Baird & Company?"
."Baird & Company, Sir? Can't say I have. What is this all about?"
"Mister Thomas will tell you in the ante-room, Rush, Braine. That will be all".
Rush and Braine saltured the captain and followed Thomas out of the office.
"There is a complaint about your conduct in the field", Thomas told them."You killed a young boy".
"That was me, Mister Thomas", noddy offered. "I saw the flash of a blade and the Serjeant was down on his knees".
"You talk to me as you would an officer, Lance-corporal Braine", Thomas stopped him short. "However there is no need to salute".
"Yes Sir. Sorry Sir", Noddy looked sidelong at Rush, who raised a brow wordlessly. He wondered, was this normal now? After all Thomas was a solicitor, not a barrister or an Army officer. Whose side was he on?
"We will discuss the matter when you are off duty in my city office". Thomas got out a plush diary. "When shall we say - tomorrow?"
"Yes, Sir", Rush answered, "What time?"
"What time could you make it?" Thomas sighed. It sounded pained, as if losing patience.?
"Early afternoon, Sir. I have weapons inspection at twelve -"
"You are relieved duties", Thomas informed him. "Both of you will be escorted by Military Police. We will see about fitting you in at eleven in the morning. Thank you, gentlemen".
Rush and Braine looked at one another, the question unasked. "What can this be all about, that they are to be suddenly pilloried for action in combat against an unremitting enemy?"
The redcaps entered the ante-room. A tall, rangy serjeant followed them out, a redcap either side of Rush and Braine.
"You're not under arrest, Sergeant Rush", a Military Police captain told him. "Not yet, at least, unless the court finds you guilty".
"Why a civilian court, though, Sir?" Rush asked.
"It's a civilian who brought the action, Serjeant. The man's name is Mukhtab or something like that. You will be escorted to and from your quarters. You will not leave until someone bids you, or escorted to the mess for meals. Is that understood?"
"It certainly sounds like arrest", Braine began, but was silenced by the officer's quiet stare.
"We were under fire from the Taliban", Rush added.
"You say 'Sir' to an officer", the captain reminded him. "And the solicitor will tell you the firing had stopped at the time the boy died".
"The Serjeant had been knifed by the boy, Sir".
"Not according to the witness, Lance-corporal", the officer told him patiently. "Anyway it's out of our hands until the verdict is given. We will take you to Thomas' office at ten-thirty for eleven, and leave you to make your own way up. He's on the second floor, I believe".
"Yes Sir", Rush and Braine saluted and were taken to their respective quarters. The captain left them and they were taken on to their doors by the redcap sergeant and three corporals.
"See you later", Braine gave Rush a hurried salute and stood at the door to the room he shared with Durrant, and added, "Sarge".
They parted company and only saw one another the following morning when they were taken together to a mini-bus for the journey into town.
The redcaps got in with them and sat either side of Rush and Braine.
Nothing was said, no words exchanged until they arrived at Thomas' office building, where the redcaps took them to the door and withdrew back to the vehicle.
Just then a shot rang out and Braine fell limply to his knees. The redcaps rushed forward but the lance-corporal was already dead, Rush knew it. They had been set up, but by whom? Thomas would not have stooped so low as to conspire against Army personnel, surely?
"Get inside", Rush heard the redcap sergeant yell at him, "Before he gets you as well!" Rush needed no second bidding. He didn't bother with the lift, bounded instead up the four flights of steps and strode purposefully into Thomas' office suite. A pretty brunette receptionist sat, mouth open as he passed her, ignoring the challenge,
"Can I help you, Sir?"
Thomas' secretary was behind her desk and stood to stop Rush from hurtling into her boss's office.
"Who are you to behave in this rude manner?" she haughtily demanded. Rush didn't answer the demand.
Instead he demanded to know,
"Who is Thomas?" The secretary bravely put herself in the way of the solicitor's personal office door.
"Your boss, where is he?"
"If you would kindly wait, in the manner of the gentleman you plainly are not. Mister Thomas will see you when his meeting is over", her crisp, haughty upper class tone annoyed him.
"Where this meeting?" Rush snarled and looked around. He strode to a closed door to see who was in the consulting room. Thomas was there with a dark-skinned gentleman in a business suit - probably Savile Row, definitely not 'off the peg' - so he barged in.
"I am in a meeting, Serjeant Rush, as you can plainly see. If you will go back to the waiting room now I shall say nothing -"
"You set us up, Thomas!" Rush snapped. "Coming in on the street just now, my Lance-corporal was hit by a bullet as we approached your door. Five Military Policemen will attest to that. They saw Lance-corporal Braine cut down and killed right in front of them!"
"I do not know why you would blame me, Serjeant Rush", Thomas held back from grappling with Rush and his client stood beside him.
"Was it you brought the hit man?" Rush asked. "Mister Mukhtab, if that's your name, you'll have more than me to answer to if you did".
"Are you threatening me?" The client asked in a way to suggest he was important enough to be acknowledged by those in high places. "If I had smuggled in a hit man as you suggest, it would have been you who was shot not your Lance-corporal -"
He stopped suddenly, realising he had said more than he ought.
"What are you saying, Mister Mukhtab?" Thomas' voice was shrill.
"It was my grandson your Lance-corporal killed!" Mukhtab stared hotly at Rush, stabbing the air at him with a long, bony index finger.
"My Lance-corporal defended me from further injury at the hands of your grandson", Rush pointed back at Mukhtab accusingly.
"My grandson was a boy!" Mukhtab snapped.
"And it was boys who were sent at our road blocks with explosives strapped to their coats. They didn't detonate the explosives, someone else did. It wasn't you or your men was it, Mister Mukhtab?"
"How dare you, Serjeant Rush? You accuse me of using my grandson as a weapon?"
"What else then?" Rush felt his blood rise. He didn't know how he held back from striking Mister Mukhtab, but he went on, "We were told to make friends with the locals. 'Be nice to their women and children', the general told us at Camp Bastion. Next thing we know they pull the pins from grenades and blow everyone around to kingdom come. Hearts and minds, eh? Our hearts, their minds!"
It all welled up within Rush. Mukhtab didn't stir, but Thomas was aghast. He should have known better, having been a young officer in the Republican heart of Belfast two, maybe three decades earlier with the Black Watch.
"Hearts and minds", Rush repeated. "Most kids were happy to see us. It was the first time their girls went to school. It'll all go back to what it was before, like the Middle Ages I suppose. The Taliban tells everybody what to think, how to dress - who to blow up".
Mukhtab stared, dark eyes betraying nothing. He took in Rush. He had come halfway round the world to see these British soldiers pilloried to be lectured by this menial soldier? The solicitor eyed his client warily, realisation plainly dawning on him. He had been used to get at these soldiers who had done their duty - as he had - and one had died outside his office building.
Mukhtab walked across to the door, drew a mobile phone from his suit and gave instructions to someone. He turned back to Rush,
"For now you have nothing to fear, Serjeant Rush. But whether you stay in or leave the Army, watch your back". With that he left Thomas' consulting room and strode out past the receptionist to the lift. Not knowing who he was, the redcaps touched the peaks of their caps. They watched him open the door to a black Audi and disappear down an avenue into traffic. As they lost sight of the car Rush left the building.
"The bastard threatened my life", he told the redcap sergeant and looked down at the pavement, still damp after someone had swabbed the blood from the pavement where Noddy fell.
"The bullet I pulled from Braine's chest was Russian, something like the NATO issue 7,62 X 51 mm", the Army surgeon captain told Captain Harker. Rush listened intently. "The gun it was fired from was probably Russian, made after Glasnost".
Harker nodded mutely, his eyes on Rush. The surgeon went on,
"It was the same as the one I dug out of Durrant's shoulder the other day. Someone's selling them on the Continent to anyone with the right money".
"What does that mean, Sir?" Rush asked, suspecting the answer.
"A hit man's been hired to get the three of you, Rush", Harker confirmed the serjeant's suspicions. "Fancy a posting to Belize, or God forbid, Port Stanley?"
"With The Rifles, Sir?" Rush wondered.
"With anyone", Harker almost laughed.
"I'll take my chances here, Sir", Rush answered glumly.
"Oh no you won't, Rush. It was the Brigadier who suggested your posting if you stay in the Army. If you leave us you're on your own. Durrant's been offered the same, so you're not completely on your own".
"Can I think on it, Sir?" Rush asked. Maybe he knew the answer.
It must have been predictable but all the same the captain took a sharp breath when it came,
"Be it on your own head, Serjeant Rush".
It took little time for Rush to mull it over. A day passed, and when he had finished his duties for the day he knocked on Harker's office door.
"Well?" Harker seemed to know Rush would tell him he had decided to leave the Army. "You've thought it through I expect?"
"I have, Sir. While I'm here with the Regiment others would be put in the firing line", Rush announced.
"You think it's just you and Durrant he's after, now Braine's been taken out?" Harker offered whisky and Rush nodded.
"It is, Sir, aye", Rush took the proffered glass and emptied it in one mouthful. He felt the whisky 'scrape' his throat, but that was the least of his worries. He cleared his throat to add, "Where I intend to go he'll stick out like a sore thumb, Sir".
"Durrant wants to leave as well?" Harker was visibly taken aback. "We need good men like the two of you to train up the youngsters and Territorials. I wish you'd think again. The Army looks after its own, Rush. You don't need me to tell you that... There is an alternative course to take, you know".
"There is?" Rush peered at Harker.
"I'm surprised you haven't thought of it yourself". When Rush said nothing Harker went on, "You have leave due to you, I understand?"
"Yes, Sir", Rush waited for Harker to add more.
"I could add on sick leave for you both - you know, stress and all that mumbo-jumbo. That would give you six weeks. Think that would be enough?"
"Could you stretch it to eight, Sir?" Rush forced an expectant smile.
"That's pushing it". Harker brushed the hair on his upper lip with his right index finger, and after what seemed to Rush to be an eternity Harker nodded resignedly. "I'll see to the paperwork. Will you tell Durrant your plans?"
"Yes, Sir", Rush stood to attention, saluted and brought his boots together before wheeling sharp left for the office door back to the general office block.
"Not that one", Harker coughed and with a jerk of his head indicated his own door, the one he used when he finished his day behind a desk he had come to hate.
Rush was an unusual sort, the ideal Rifleman who thought for himself and could make his own decisions 'on the hoof'. He halted, saluted again and took the outer door from Harker's office. The captain merely smiled.
Eight weeks to sort out their problem, Rush considered, and headed for Durrant's ward in the hospital.
"Chalky sit tight while I tell you something".
"What's that, Sarge? Chalky Durrant looked up, surprised to see Rush again so soon.
"I've got leave and O'm going to draw the sniper to where I can deal with him".
"Oh, aye?" Chalky winked at a passing nurse.
"I'm going south for a spell. Don't do anything I wouldn't do".
"Such as?" Chalky chuckled with a knowing wink. "There's a few nurses in here I wouldn't mind showing my rifle to".
"You keep your weapon where it belongs, Chalky. Get well and show these cadets how to be a Rifleman".
"Am I supposed to salute, Sarge?" Chalky yawned wide.
"You'd probably do yourself a mischief. No, I'll be in touch. Don't go anywhere".
"Er, no Sarge", Chalky's eyes rolled upward to his brow and Rush laughed.
"Just make sure you take your warrant card with you, Sarge. If the cops catch you with a dead 'un, you'd have to have a good story".
"Don't worry, Chalky. Just drink your Horlicks like a good lad and keep your wandering hands off these nurses", Rush winked at the ward sister as he passed her desk. "Just be glad you're not in an Army hospital, Chalky".
With that Rush was in the corridor, on his way to the main entrance.
"George Rush! I haven't seen you in an age. What're you up to in this part of the world?
Rush stopped dead and turned to see who it was who had addressed him.
"Jeffrey? I haven't seen you since before I joined up!"
An old school friend, Jeffrey Capes had been a classmate of Rush's at the Comprehensive School in Richmond, North Yorkshire. Jeffrey's family were butchers who had a shop in the market square near the National Westminster Bank, at the top end. Rush's own family were farm workers. He'd decided to make a break from driving tractors and milking cows. He'd joined the Regiment from youth section a few years after leaving school.
"We've gone into wholesale, George. You're still in the Army?"
"I am, Jeff, for better or worse. It's been a strain of late, although I've got a spot of leave coming up", Rush answered.amiably, then gave his old friend a brotherly hug. Glad to see you, Jeff, and that you're well".
"Why not stay with us? We're at Marrick now, bought a farm with beef cattle we grave near the Swale. The only decent bit of pasture that side of the river for miles".
"Coming up in the world, eh?" Rush led his friend to the door. "Visiting?"
"Dad had a heart attack visiting a business associate here. He's been told to rest. Some hope! Anyway I've come to mop up, so to speak. Well, George, will we see you at Marrick? We've got a B&B in one of the old converted outbuildings. You can stay there free, eh - what'd'you say to that?"
"What's the name of this farm?" Rush asked out of curiosity. One day, maybe soon, he might look in on them - but not now. The sniper could use them to get at him.
"It's Ings Farm, not far from the Swale as you go into the village from Richmond -"
"Well, Jeff, I've got to go now", Rush rested a hand on Jeff's right arm where they stood at the main door. "Sorry about knocking into you".
That was for the benefit of any of the sniper's accomplices.. Jeffrey wasn't to know that. He frowned, not knowing what it was about. He watched Rush stride down the steps to the street, heading for the Barracks. He didn't see the stranger on the bench nearby, a swarthy, lean looking tall fellow in jeans and T-shirt. The man saw Jeffrey. however. He'd watched them both leave the hospital together. Did he link them? Rush had deliberately tried to divert the man's attention away from his friend, knowing he was being followed.
Jeffrey walked toward the city centre, coincidentally in the opposite direction to his friend. That alone would be enough to convince the stranger that there was nothing between them, wouldn't it?
A taste of things to come?
© 2017 Alan R Lancaster