War isn’t like training. For starters, there’s a great deal more bloody noise. There is far more chaos, blood and death. There are also far fewer second chances. Our war was to be more of everything, except, we hoped, the noise. And the death. At least, ours. I’d hoped I’d prepared my men. They were good men, all. They’d seen their share. But we were heading into a very different sort of war. Your warnings, no matter how loudly delivered, can’t make them understand. You can only hope you’ve given your men adequate training to cope with it once they arrive.
Over the past two months, Delta Company had proven well bloody prepared.
“Briggs,” I nodded to the corporal. “Bring a squad round back. Check your watch. In ninety seconds I’ll storm the front.”
I looked to Lieutenant Hastings. “Lieutenant, your platoon provides covering fire for mine.”
“Sir, I should go. It’s far too dangerous.”
“Steady, Lieutenant. I select the best man for the job. You’re a better shot than I am, while I am the better man at close quarters. Better you cover me than the other way ‘round.”
“Briggs, yours is the most important job. We’ll not take that bunker unless you distract the gunner on the peppermill.” That machine gun would cut us all in half. “But mind you don’t get yourself shot.”
“Too bloody right, sir.” The sergeant took off round back, keeping low with his squad. We waited, firing the occasional shot. I kept my eye on my watch. Ninety seconds passed like ninety minutes.
“Right, lads, over the top.” The Lieutenant and his men popped up, laying down a barrage of automatic fire while my platoon dove in two directions ‘round our cover. We pelted across fifty feet of open ground that felt like fifty miles, but made it to the doors. I waited until I heard firing round back, then rounded on the door. I kicked out, and sent the metal door flying from its hinges, launching it inward along with the lookout standing immediately behind.
Knife in one hand, pistol in the other, I dove inside. Right behind me, my men leaned in, peppering the room with bullets. I came up out of my dive into the face of the very surprised German soldier manning the peppermill. Ah well, he wasn’t surprised for long. Twenty others grabbed for their weapons, but it was too late. I fired and stabbed with abandon as, behind me, my men streamed inside, weapons firing. It was all over in short order.
Later, blood washed out of my hair and uniform as best as I could manage, I enjoyed a pleasant coffee – no tea, damn this war – with my men. All of them. Delta Company had suffered no serious casualties in a month of fighting. My men were the sharp edge and I loved them for it. But today they’d seen something. Something I knew was inevitable, yet still dreaded.
“Captain, that was bloody amazing.” I knew the look in the eye of the private as he spoke. I’d seen it before, and despised it. I’d rather have faced fear, or contempt, than what I read in the private’s eyes.
“Steady on, private. I’m a soldier, like any other, and can die as easily as any other. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking otherwise.”
“But the way you kicked in that door, and dove into the bunker, and--“
“And if Briggs hadn’t diverted their attention, that peppermill would have cut me in half.” I looked around. The others had all heard, I could see it in their faces. Time to own it and pray they could accept it. I looked back to the private.
“Lad, there’s no point in denying it. Yes, I can fight. I can fight like a bloody devil. But I’m no one-man army. The very second you start to think of me as anything but a soldier, is the very second you seal your fate. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” His tone told me he did not.
Wisps of evening mist curl in the light of the street lamp. The night is quiet, save for distant noises of traffic, too far from this sleepy road to be of any real concern. In the wavering light, Kevin watches the man opposite him. That man wears casual clothes and is in need of a shave, but his hard eyes and tightly laced combat boots tell another story, one Kevin is more inclined to believe at the moment.
At Kevin's feet, a second man stirs, groaning lightly. A few moments ago, Kevin knocked him rather hard on the chin. Like the one still standing, this man's attire and attitude tell different stories.
"Take it easy, mate," the man says to Kevin. He speaks slowly and clearly, and has his hands held out, not anywhere near his jacket. "He was only going for his identification. I'm going to show you mine, nice and slow. It's in my inside left jacket--"
In a blur, Kevin stands before the man, hand already withdrawing the leather ID holder. The man controls his surprise well, Kevin notes, hardly flinching at all from the sudden move. Kevin inspects the ID, then offers it back, speaking as the man reclaims it.
"Alright..." he trails off, unsure what title to use. "Sorry for your partner there." By his tone, Kevin isn't all that sorry. "When I confront a burglar, and he reaches inside his jacket, well..." He trails off, glancing at the man who is just beginning to come around. "Now, what interest does Security Services have with me and my flat?"
The agent considers Kevin a long moment. Reaching a decision, he looks the younger-appearing man in the eye.
"Sir, we have reason to believe you are in possession of information which has been classified by His Majesty's government. Our objective tonight was to ascertain whether this was true, and to plant a listening device in the hopes you would have further contact with the woman who gave you this information."
Now Kevin can only stare. Bloody spies? he thinks. Jenny, what are you mixed up in this time?
"So you lied to us all?" Kevin asks. His tone is more tired than anything. He's angry, and later he'll feel it more. Right now, he's just... tired of feeling used. But... fool me twice, the saying goes. He turns to look at her. So sweet. So beautiful. So full of shit. "Again?" he adds.
Seated on the hotel room's bed, Jenny looks up at Kevin, Her face is a mask of calm, almost indifference. Any emotion she feels right now is safely bottled up. "Yes," she affirms. "I needed specific behavior from each of you, so I told you each what I knew would get the response I wanted." She pauses a moment, aware of how damning her words are. Then she shakes her head. "I'm sorry, Kevin, but I needed to control as many of the variables as possible."
"Dammit, Jenny!" Perhaps Kevin's not too tired for anger after all. "We're not your damned lab experiments!" He glares at her, her own seeming indifference making him more angry. Jenny shakes her head.
"I know that, Kevin. I was looking after the needs of the many, and..." she trails off, then stands and steps toward him. "I'm sorry."
Kevin backs away, throwing his hands in the air. "Well, fine. As long as you're sorry, sign me up for the next puppet theater, too!" He turns away from her, heading toward the door. At the door, he stops, looking back at her. "You know I would have done anything you asked." It's not a question. They both know he would have. "That's the worst of it, Jenny. You knew, and you did it anyway." His voice is mostly just hurt, now.
Jenny nods. "I know. But I needed--"
"To hell with what you needed," Kevin spits. "And to hell with you."
Kevin leaves the hotel room. Behind him, Jenny just watches. Was it worth it? she wonders. Objectively, she believes it was. But... that doesn't stop the tears that come.
"Goodbye," she says softly. Too softly for Kevin to hear her words, or the finality in her voice.
The agent watches Kevin carefully, trying to read his reaction. After a long moment, Kevin shakes his head, and sighs.
"I don't understand what any of this has to do with me. I'm a network infrastructure consultant, who occasionally teaches courses at Oxford. I don't--" Kevin breaks of, snapping his fingers as if a thought had just occurred to him.
"You said a woman? I did see an old girlfriend just yesterday. She showed up unexpectedly at my great-grandfather's funeral." Kevin thinks a moment, before adding. "She tried to give me something, an old satchel. She said it belonged to my great-grandfather. But... well, I told her I didn't want it."
The Agent nods. "From all reports, you two seemed pretty friendly at the funeral."
Kevin smiles, not needing to fake the wistful feeling which comes over him. "Have you ever loved and hated someone in equal measure?"
"I'm married with three children, sir. So of course I have."
Kevin offers a small laugh. "Well, that's how it is with Jenny. There was a time I thought she was my one. When she appeared yesterday, while I was mourning, and slipped her hand in mine, in that moment, she was the most welcome thing I'd ever seen." He shakes his head. "But... then the other memories begin to resurface." Kevin shakes his head again. "I still love her. And I still hate her. But I'll never trust her again."
"I understand sir," replies the Inspector. "For what it's worth, I sympathize. But I've a job to do. We planned to be covert, but--"
"No," Kevin interrupts. "Say no more. Please, have a look in my flat." He takes his keys out and offers them to the agent. "And should a few bottles of my good beer happen to go missing, I'm sure I'll never notice. Consider it my apology for knocking your partner out." He glances at the other agent, just now sitting up. "If you don't mind, I'll just wait out here."
"That's likely for the best, sir," the agent replies, accepting the keys. "We'll give the listening device a miss; no sense in placing one you know about anyway." The agent turns to give his partner a hand up, and the two head into the flat, the latter man looking back at Kevin with a mix of anger and awe. It was a solid punch.
Kevin moves to lean up against their car, arms folded while he waits, lost in thought.
Kevin walks across the grounds, looking not for the first time at the well-kept lawn, neatly trimmed hedges, white-clad orderlies watching out over the elderly residents. He strides toward an elderly man in a wheelchair, sitting alone near some trees. The man has a full head of hair, gone all snowy white, and hunches in his chair. He’s been looking out over the grounds, living in his memories. But now he smiles and focuses at the younger man’s approach.
“Kevin, my lad!” Major Baxter says, greeting his great-grandson with bright, sharp eyes.
“Major,” Kevin replies bending for a brief, careful hug. Use of his title is done easily, with affection and respect. Major Baxter is accustomed to its use now.
“Let’s see it, then,” the Major orders. Forty years after retiring, his voice is still commanding, even when the request is a friendly one.
Kevin reaches into his laptop case, removing his diploma. Kevin J. Baxter, it reads, hereby awarded a doctorate in Computer Science from Oxford University. The Major looks it over for a long moment. His smile threatens to split his head.
“I’m so proud of you, my boy.” Kevin smiles with pride of his own, taking a seat on a nearby bench.
Four years since his relationship with Jenny ended, Kevin has found a new life. His graduate work earned him a spot on the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship roster, and with it a chance to earn his doctorate at Oxford. Along with that came the chance to meet his great grandfather, a chance to forge a relationship with the man for whom he was named.
Kevin would have refused. Thinking back, he sees how foolish it would have been, but he was young and in love, a powerful combination to promote foolish choices. But breaking up with Jenny changed all that. Kevin couldn’t cross the ocean fast enough.
Kevin laughs at one of Major Baxter’s old anecdotes, something about the Scottish Captain and his predilection for wearing kilts in even the windiest conditions.
“Bloody hell,” Kevin says, as realization strikes. He hadn’t thought of these things in some time, but now... “That bloody bitch,” be breathes to himself.
“You’re welcome," comes the reply from the shadows outside the street lamp's pool of light.