CHAPTER THREE

I saw Mac with his father once, on speech day. Jon and I walked behind them for a while, fascinated by the way they talked. His father, being a Lord, was all fruity vowels and wot-wot, and the brilliant thing is that Mac was too. He was all ‘Gosh Daddy’ and ‘Super’ and ‘Cripes’. Once he actually said “Oh, my stars and garters!” Jon and I had to walk away at that point because we were finding it impossible to stifle our giggles.

I looked at the wannabe gangster who sat in front of me now and all I could think was: what would your father think? And also: I know you, fraud. Everybody else may think you’re a hard nut but underneath it all you’re just a spoiled upper class daddy’s boy overcompensating for the silver spoon you’ve got shoved up your arse.

“Right,” he said, in his broad cockney accent. “From now on, as far as you’re concerned I am your fucking God. I am the law. Proper Judge Dredd, that’s me. What I say goes and you don’t question a fucking word, got it? You are mine.”

He paused for effect and graced us with a menacing leer.

“But I’m not unreasonable,” he lied. “I’m not unfriendly. Stick with me and you’ll be all right. I’ll take care of you. I like loyalty. If you’re loyal we’ll rub along just peachy, clear?”

Again, we nodded.

“Right. So. The Colonel has made me second-in-command and you lot are my officers. You’re my go-to guys. You’ll be able to give orders to all the other scrotes and you’ll carry weapons at all times. I’ll be doing some extra training with you over the next few days – leadership, strategy, warcraft, that sort of shit. And you’ll be leading scavenging groups, raiding parties and any other kind of operation too fucking menial for me to dirty my lilywhites with.

“Stick with me and you’ll be in clover. Fuck with me and you’ll be pushing it up.

“Now, most of you were in the CCF under me, so you know how I like things done. Those of you who were fucking flyboys will learn.”

I’m sure we will, I thought.

“Keegan!” he bellowed suddenly, making me jump.

“Yeah?” I stammered. He glared at me dangerously. “I mean, yes sir?”

He nodded, letting it go this once.

“You showed a lot of initiative this afternoon.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“For a flyboy,” he added. “And a fifth-form scrote. Bloody good shooting too. Almost as good as mine, eh?” He laughed at his little joke. Pugh sniggered sycophantically until silenced by a contemptuous look from Mac.

“We’re going to need you, Keegan, if things get sticky,” he went on.

He turned his attention to the others and I sighed heavily, suddenly aware that I’d been holding my breath.

“The rest of you could learn from this one. Proactive is what he is.”

He leaned in close to me, his hot sour breath in my face, and hissed: “But not too proactive, yeah? Don’t want to be too smart for your own good, do you, Keegan?”

“No sir,” I said, crisply. He leaned back and smiled.

“Right, let’s get you lot into patrols.”

As the briefing got underway I realised that I was being given an opportunity. If I was to be part of the officer corps then I could get close to Mac, and if I could get close to him perhaps I could influence him, divert him, maybe even, if the need arose, deal with him.

I prepared myself to be Mac’s bestest of best mates: reliable, steadfast and sneaky as a bastard.

Speight and Zayn got first watch, the rest of us were dismissed. I’d be reporting for guard duty with Wolf-Barry first thing in the morning so I wanted to get my head down.

The difference between night and day used to be blurred by electricity; streetlights turned the night sky orange and blotted out the stars; electric lights in the home allowed people to keep doing whatever they wanted all night long; car headlights made travel in the darkness a cinch. Things were different now. Battery torches were only used when absolutely necessary, so any light after dark had to come from flame. People were returning to the old rhythms of day and night, rising and retiring with the sun.

Nonetheless, the old term-time routine of lights-out was still being being preserved by Bates; juniors in bed at 8, fourth and fifth-formers by 9:30, seniors by 11. So normally I’d need to be tucked up by 9:30, but I’d been told that as an honorary senior – with all the duties that implied – I could observe senior bedtime, so I had some time in hand and there was someone I wanted to see.

The door of the sanatorium was closed, but the candle light flickering through the frosted glass windows revealed Matron moving around inside. I knocked and I saw her freeze. She didn’t respond. Perhaps she wanted to be left alone. I knocked again.

“Matron,” I said, “It’s me, Lee. I just wanted to see how you are.”

Her silhouette relaxed.

“Come in Lee,” she said.

I pushed open the door and entered to find Matron standing at the side of the padded table she used for examinations. There was a livid purple bruise on her forehead where the horsewoman had clubbed her, and for an instant I was so furious I wished I had shot the bitch after all. Matron was dressed in medical whites and an apron stained with fresh blood. Her sleeves were rolled up and she was wearing thin rubber gloves which she was removing as I entered. Her face was as white as her clothes.

Four bodies lay on the floor, covered with sheets. Both boys had died then.

I stood there in the doorway, unsure what to say. She broke the silence.

“Too many pellets,” she said simply. “Not enough anaesthetic.”

Next to the table stood a complicated system of tubes suspended from a metal stand. She must have been giving transfusions.

She followed my gaze and nodded.

“Atkins gave blood first, then Broadbent, Dudley and Haycox. They were so brave, but it just wasn’t enough.” Her voice caught in her throat and she leaned against the table as if light-headed. Then she looked up, remembering.

“Oh Lee, I forgot to thank you. You saved my life, didn’t you?”

I nodded, still unsure what to say.

“Bless you. You saved me, but I couldn’t save them.” She slumped to the floor. “What a fucking waste. To survive the end of the world just to be murdered for a Mars bar.” She hid her face in her hands and wept.

I walked over to her, knelt down, and gingerly reached out to touch her shoulder. As I did so she leaned forward and embraced me, burying her face in my neck, soaking it with tears.

We sat there like that for quite some time.

With the bodies buried, one horse butchered and salted, and the other released ten miles down the road, we removed all evidence of the confrontation on the school drive.

The minibus that had been abandoned in Hildenborough was thankfully not one of those with the school name and crest painted on the side, so no-one could trace it back to us without checking the registration plate with the DVLA, and they weren’t taking calls. We just had to hope that McCulloch or Fleming hadn’t revealed our location to our neighbours before they were hanged. However, Bates wasn’t prepared to take any chances, and the next afternoon he called all the officers to the common room. He got straight to the point.

“We need ordnance,” he said simply. “Our armoury holds ten rifles and a few boxes of rounds, but if it came to a shooting war we’d be lucky to last a day. Of course with law and order entirely broken down there are weapons and ammunition there for the taking, if you know where to look. And I do. So we’re going on a field trip.”

He took out his whiteboard pen and started drawing a map.

Pugh and Wylie stayed behind to guard the school. Mr Hammond was planning to teach a class, so most boys would be safe inside. Meanwhile the rest of us hit the road, with Mac and Bates each driving a minibus. In full combats, all armed, and with mud and boot polish rubbed into our face, we were off to get ourselves an arsenal and we were ready to meet resistance.

Giving Hildenborough a wide berth we headed out into darkest Kent. The only cars we passed had been abandoned, and the roads were well on their way to becoming impassable. With no council workers to operate the hedge trimmers or clear fallen trees, the narrow country lanes were rapidly disappearing under the greenery. On some roads the hedgerows scraped along both sides of the bus. A couple of summers and they’d be buried forever.

We passed through picturesque villages with large greens, their cricket squares so neat for so long, now shaggy and unkempt. We saw ancient churches with their stained glass windows smashed and their huge, centuries-old oak doors hanging off thick, bent hinges. We drove past fields of cows, most dead or dying, suffering agonies because they’d been bred to produce milk that nobody was around to extract.

There were some signs of life: a man driving a horse and cart carrying a crop of leeks; the occasional cottage with a column of thin smoke snaking up into the dull grey sky; a village hall ablaze. In one hamlet a gang of feral children heaved bricks at us as we drove past. Mac fired some warning shots over their heads and laughed as they ran for cover.

When we were half a mile from our destination we pulled into a farmyard. Mac and I swept the buildings to ensure they were empty, and then we stashed the buses in a barn. From here we were on foot. We split into two groups. Me, Mac and Green went one way, Bates, Zayn and Wolf-Barry went the other. Speight and Patel stayed to guard the transport. The intention was to approach the target from different directions.

We headed off into thick forest. One startled, honking partridge could reveal our presence, so we trod lightly. We did startle a small family of deer, but they ran away from our objective, so we reckoned we were okay. Off to our right a brace of pigeons noisily took flight and flapped away; Bates’ group were clearly less covert than they thought they were.

As we approached the edge of the trees we fell to our stomachs and crawled through the wet, mulchy leaves, rifles held out in front of us. Eventually Mac held up his hand and we stopped. He took out his binoculars and studied the terrain beyond the tree-line for a minute or two before handing them across to me.

“What do you see, Keegan?”

I took the glasses and looked down onto the Kent and Sussex Territorial Army Firing Range and Armoury.

A chain link fence stood between us and the complex. A burnt-out saloon car was wedged into one section directly in front of us, presumably the result of someone’s ill-advised attempt to ram their way in. It was riddled with bullet holes. There were plenty of possible entry points; the fence wasn’t much of a barrier, it was falling down in various places, but the state of the car implied that the complex had been defended at some point. Was it still?

Off to our right were the firing ranges. A brick trench looked out onto a long stretch of grass with a huge sandbank at the far end. Propped up in front of the sand stood the fading, tattered shreds of paper soldiers, stapled to wooden boards. Many had fallen to the floor, or hung sideways at crazy angles as if drunk. Both the trench and the sandbank could provide excellent cover for attackers or defenders.

Directly in front of us stood the main building. It was two storeys high, brick built, with an impressive sign hanging across the large double doorway proclaiming its military importance. Many of the windows were smashed, and the far right rooms on the top floor had been on fire in the not too distant past; streaks of black scorching stretched from the cracked windows to the roof.

The car park in front of the building was empty except for one shiny BMW which, bizarrely, appeared untouched, still waiting patiently for its proud owner to return. Beyond the car park, to our left, was the driveway, lined with single storey outbuildings which appeared to continue behind the main building; there was more of the complex out of sight, presumably a parade ground and maybe an assault course.

There were two sandbag emplacements at the entrance to the main building, but there were no men or guns there. They were the remains of a previous attempt at defence, long since abandoned.

If I were defending this place where would I station myself?

I scanned the roof and windows of the main building but could see no signs of life or other, more recent fortifications – no sandbags, barriers or not-so-casually placed obstacles behind which to hide. The firing range appeared empty, as did the outbuildings lining the drive. Perhaps any defenders would be stationed behind the main building, but that would leave them unable to cover the most obvious routes of approach, so that seemed unlikely. So either I was missing something, or the place was deserted.

I was just about to hand the binoculars back to Mac when I caught a glimpse of a brick corner poking out behind the portico entrance to the firing range trench. I shuffled left a bit to get a better view and found myself gazing at a solid, brick and concrete Second World War pillbox. Anyone in there would have a 360° view of pretty much the entire complex, a mostly unimpeded line of fire, and bugger all chance of being killed by some yokel looter with a shotgun.

I pointed to the pillbox and handed the glasses back to Mac, who nodded; he’d seen it already or, more likely, been tipped off by Bates earlier.

“Bit obvious, though, innit,” he whispered, handing the glasses to Green, who took his turn scanning the area. “I’d have someone somewhere else too, covering the approach to the pillbox. Now, where would that fucker be, d’you think?”

“Sir,” whispered Green. “The car in the fence. Rear right wheel.” He passed back the binoculars and Mac took a look. He grinned.

“Not too shabby, Green. Not too shabby at all.” He passed the binoculars to me. Sure enough, just visible poking out from behind the rear wheel was a boot. As I watched it moved ever so slightly. There was a man under the car. Between him and the pillbox all the open spaces in the complex were exposed to crossfire.

We didn’t have walkie-talkies, so the next thing was for Green and Wolf-Barry to skirt the complex, staying in the woods. They’d meet halfway between our positions and compare notes. Green scurried away while Mac and I shuffled back from the edge of the wood into deep cover and sat up against a couple of trees. Mac took out a battered packet of Marlboros and offered one to me.

“They might see the smoke, sir,” I pointed out. Mac glared at me, and for a moment I thought he was going to pitch a fit, but eventually he nodded and put away the packet.

“Fair point,” he said. He regarded me coolly. “Yesterday, why didn’t you just shoot that bitch?”

Because I’m not a murdering psycho whose first instinct is to open fire.

Breathe. Calm. Play the part. Earn his trust.

“Wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get her mate before he shot Hammond and the others. Didn’t want to shoot first, I suppose. But I was just about to pop her before you did. So thanks. Saved me the trouble.” I grinned, trying to make out I thought it was funny. “Good shooting, by the way.”

“Had lots of practice, ain’t I.”

Oh very good, hard case. Make out that you shoot people all the time. I know where you got your practice – shooting pheasants on Daddy’s estate in your plus fours and Barbour jacket.

Then again, not too fast. I didn’t know what happened to him during The Cull. I didn’t know what he’d been doing for the last year. He could have been on a killing spree. After all, who’d know? He may have been a pampered Grant Mitchell clone, but I knew it would be dangerous to underestimate him.

“Killed many people since The Cull started, have you?” Casual, unconcerned, sound interested not appalled.

“A few.” Cagey, giving nothing away. “No-one who didn’t have it coming, anyway. First time’s the worst. Easier after that.”

“So who was first, then?”

Long silence.

Green emerged, limping, from the trees and the moment passed.

“What the bloody ‘ell happened to you?” said Mac.

“Slipped, sir. Think I’ve twisted me ankle.”

“Fuck me, Green, I’d have been better off sending my little sister. Right, sit down. What do they reckon?”

“The parade ground round back is deserted and they can’t see anyone, so it’s probably just the man under the car and the one in the pillbox. The Colonel and his men are going to take up firing positions in the main building, on the top floor left. Our job is to take out the guy under the car without drawing the attention of the pillbox. He said that’s your job, sir.”

But Mac was already moving. He’d pulled a vicious looking knife from his backpack, placed it between his teeth, and was crawling away on his belly.

“Cover me, Keegan,” he whispered as he slithered out of the woods and began inching his way towards the car, which sat about fifty metres away and down a slope. The long grass provided good cover.

I took up position at the tree-line, nestled the rifle into my shoulder and scanned the area for nasty surprises. The place was as quiet as the grave.

And then, just as he made his final approach to the car, Mac burst out of the grass and ran as fast as he could back towards the trees, blowing our cover completely. I thought he’d lost the plot until the car exploded in a sudden blossom of flame and smoke, flinging Mac forward onto his face. He staggered upright again and continued running. No-one opened fire, and he made it back into cover safely. He sat next to me panting hard.

“Fucking tripwire,” he gasped. “There wasn’t a man under the car at all. Just a fucking leg, attached to a piece of wire that some bastard was tugging. Lured me in and I didn’t see the booby trap ’til I crawled right into it. Fucking amateur!” He threw his knife in fury. It thudded into a tree, thrumming with force.

“Where’s the puppeteer then?” I asked.

“The wire leads off to the left, so anywhere between the car and the main gate I reckon. But we’re blown now. There could be any number of hostiles in there and they know we’re here. We need a rethink.”

At that moment there was a crackle of static and an ancient tannoy system hissed into life. A man’s voice echoed tinnily around the buildings.

“This facility is the property of His Majesty’s Armed Forces and is defended. In accordance with emergency measures, and standing orders relating to Operation Motherland, any attempt to infiltrate this facility is an act of treason. Any further incursions will be met with deadly force. This is your first and last warning.”

The speakers fell silent, as did we.

“What the sweet holy Christ,” said Mac eventually, “is Operation Motherland?”

He bit his lip and surveyed the complex nervously.

“Right. That place is full of ordnance and I’m bloody well having it, standing orders or not.”

“We could wait ’til after dark, sir,” offered Green.

“And if they’ve got night goggles we hand them a major advantage, numbnuts. Nah, we need to do this quickly.” He pulled out the binoculars again.

“Two wires we need to trace. The tannoy ones and the puppet one. Let’s see where they go.”

As he tried to trace the tannoy wires back to the mic I caught a glimpse of a flash from the top floor of the main windows. I looked closer and there it was again. I tapped Mac on the shoulder and pointed it out. He took a look.

“It’s Bates,” he said. Not ‘the Colonel’ I noticed. Interesting. “Signalling us with a mirror. Bloody idiot, keep your head down.” But it was too late. A burst of machine gun fire raked across the face of the building, splintering the window frame and spraying the remaining shards of glass inward at Bates and the others. The pillbox was manned.

“I think someone’s hit, can’t see who,” said Mac. “Fuck, this is a shambles. Right, enough of this.” He handed the binoculars to me. “Green.”

“Sir?”

“The tannoy wires go to the pillbox and the puppet wire leads down to the main gate. I think there’s a man in cover there, probably a sniper in camouflage. You could probably walk right up to him and not see him, if he knows his job. But I want you to keep in the trees and move down to cover the area. He won’t risk a shot until he sees a target the pillbox can’t deal with, so I need you, Keegan, to draw his fire.”

“Sir?” I asked, trying not to sound incredulous.

Mac grinned. “I know you’re the better shot, Keegan, but Green’s not going to be doing the 100 metre sprint anytime soon, are you Green?”

“No sir,” he said, abjectly.

“And you can shoot that damn thing, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well then. You’re the bait, Keegan, and Green shoots the shooter. Sorted.”

“And what will you be doing while I’m being shot at, sir?” I asked.

He opened his backpack, pulled out a stick of dynamite and waved it in my face. “Passed a quarry on my way back to Castle, didn’t I? I’m going to blow that fucking pillbox wide open.”

“And the Colonel?”

“Fuck him, if he’s not been shot already he deserves to be. We’re dealing with this. With me?”

“Yes sir!” yelped gung-ho Green.

Oh yeah, this was going to end well.

We synchronised our watches and then, always staying in the trees, Green and I went left, while Mac went right, towards the pillbox. Green took up position covering the long grass near the main gate and I kept going. I travelled some way past the complex, out of any possible sniper’s line of sight, and scurried across the road leading to the gate. I made it safely into the trees on the other side and started to move back towards the fence. It didn’t take long to find a breach and I snaked under the chain link and crawled through the grass until I was behind the first outbuilding on the opposite side of the road to Green.

Even higher on my list of Things-I-Never-Want-To-Do than ‘shoot somebody’ was ‘be shot by somebody else’. So I wasn’t entirely comfortable with Mac’s plan that I should run up and down in plain view of a sniper, presenting a nice juicy target for a thumb-sized piece of supersonic, superheated lead that could push my brains out through my face.

I lay there for a minute, breathing deeply, calming myself, considering. Should I leg it? Just cut my losses and run? Go it alone? Did I need to remain at the school, taking orders from nutters and idiots, getting involved in unnecessary gunfights and risking my life… for what? For the school? For Matron?

But where else could I go? And if I left, how would Dad find me?

No, there was no choice. I’d made my decision to return to the school and I was stuck with it. I just had to stay alive long enough for Dad to come get me, and then I could split and leave Mac and Bates to their stupid army games. Until then I had to play along. After all, there was supposed to be safety in numbers, wasn’t there?

I checked my watch. Time to go. I walked forward slowly. The gap between this outbuilding and the next was about ten metres. I had to cover that distance slowly enough to allow the sniper to notice me, sight, and fire, but sufficiently quickly that he didn’t quite have time to take aim accurately enough to kill me. I’m sure an experienced SAS man would be able to do some calculation based on distance, running speed and firing time and tell you, to the second, how long he should be visible for. I was just going to have to guess using my vast experience of watching DVDs of 24.

Fuck it.

I ran.

Three steps, that’s all it took. Three bloody steps and I was flat on my face unsure what had hit me, and where. My mouth was full of grass before I even heard the shot.

And then, as I tried to work out if I was bleeding to death, a burst of machine gun fire and a huge explosion from up ahead. Shards of pillbox brick impacted all around me.

And then, before the dust had settled, a series of sharp reports off to my right, as the sniper and Green exchanged fire.

And then a scream.

And then silence.

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