Read an Excerpt
Seventeen years later
St Swithun's Day Sunday, 15 July 2007 Whittlesea Mere
The Capri shook to the sound of snoring, and through the fly-spattered windscreen of the mini-cab Philip Dryden contemplated the Fen horizon. Humph, the driver, slept peacefully, his lips brought together in a small bow, his sixteen stone compressing the seat beneath him. Around them the drained wasteland that had once been Whittlesea Mere, an inland lake the size of a small English county, stretched beyond sight. Overhead a cloud the size of a battleship sailed across an unblemished sky.
The cab was parked in the cool shadow of a hawthorn, the only tree visible to the naked eye. They'd presented themselves at 9.00am precisely that morning at the checkpoint to Whittlesea Mere Military Firing Range, and been directed down a potholed drove to the assembly point: the wreck of a wartime tank, ferns hanging from the dark observation slit. They hadn't seen another human being since they'd been waved through the gates, which had not stopped Dryden imagining they were being watched.
The reporter smoothed down his camouflage tunic and felt the familiar anxieties crowding round. This isn't a war zone, he told himself, it's a military exercise. And I'm not a soldier, I'm a reporter. I'm here to write about it, not take part. But the sight of a line of soldiers marching towards them, raising a cloud of desert-red peat dust, made his heartbeat pick up. A trickle of sweat set out from the edge of his thick jet-black hair, down towards his eye. He brushed it aside, aware that another one would quickly take its place.
Dryden checked his watch: 10.15 am. The time had come. He fingered the webbing inside the blue combat helmet he was holding. The neat carved features of his medieval face remained static. He got out, the Capri's rusted door hinges screaming, and circled the cab to Humph's open side window.
'You can go,' he said, waking the cabbie, watching as he struggled to remember where he was and what he was doing.
'Really ...' said Humph, wiping his nose with a small pillowcase. 'Can't I stick around until they start trying to kill people?'
Dryden tried to smile. 'Just remember. Same place, five pm. And for Christ's sake don't leave me here.' Boudicca, Humph's greyhound, dozing on a tartan rug in the back seat, yawned in the heat, trapping a bluebottle. Humph turned the ignition key, the engine coughed once and started, and he pulled away at speed, leaving an amber-red cloud as he raced towards the safety of the distant checkpoint. Dryden, alone, felt the hairs on his neck bristle.
The soldiers approached the tank and at a word from an officer made temporary camp. They sat, feet in the ditch, and broke out water bottles while a billycan was set up on a portable gas ring. Winding chimneys of white smoke rose from cigarettes in the still, hot air. Dryden sensed their collective antagonism to the presence of the press, and watched, oddly fascinated, as one soldier dismantled and oiled an automatic rifle. Another stood, walked a few yards downwind and urinated into a ditch.
Sensing the calculated insult Dryden looked away and heard laughter at his back, then footsteps approaching. He turned to face a heavy man with three pips on his jacket. The officer made his way through the gorse, picking up his legs and arms as he walked, a self-conscious compensationperhaps for the onset of middle age. Dryden guessed he was in his late thirties, but a military uniform had never made anyone look any younger. The major's hair was boot-polish black and shone unnaturally, but his complexion was poor, blotched as if his face had been scrubbed with a nailbrush. Cross-checking his position on a hand-held GPS with a map in a plastic see-through wallet he noticed Dryden, and was unable to hide a frisson of annoyance.
'Dryden?' he asked. 'Philip Dryden - from The Crow?' They shook hands, the soldier's grip was surprisingly weak, the voice higher than he'd expected but holding some warmth, despite the clipped tones. 'Broderick. Major John Broderick.' He seemed embarrassed by the informality of the first name and turned to scan the horizon. 'You've signed the blood sheet?' he asked.
Dryden nodded. At the gate he'd been presented with an official form for signature which effectively removed his right to claim compensation if some idiot with a long-range peashooter turned him into a human jigsaw.
The major smiled, taking five years off his age: 'Just routine. Only with live firing we insist. Regulations. You lot in the press would be the first to get on our case if we broke the rules.'
Laughter rolled along the line of men by the ditch, and Dryden wondered what was funny. Excluded, he looked towards the north where the guns must be, hidden beyond the horizon.
'So they'll fire over our heads, right?' he asked, realizing immediately that there was little alternative. 'Sorry. Stupid question.'
The major nodded.
'When does the shelling start?' Dryden asked.
'Maroon - that's the signal flare - goes up 10.50am. They'llhit it on the pip. Ten minutes later they open fire with an eight-minute bombardment, then we go into the first line of attack and stop. Then, 11.20, another maroon, followed by a further five-minute bombardment at 11.30. Then we move forward to the targets.' Broderick rubbed his hands together. 'Pictures?'
Dryden swung round a digital camera. 'I'm a one-man band.'
'Great.' The major smiled. That was all the military was ever interested in, thought Dryden - pictures to send home, pictures for the scrapbook, pictures for the mess wall, pictures in the local paper, pictures for the MoD. Sod the words.
Broderick looked up at the sky. 'St Swithun's Day,' he said. 'Looks like we could have a good month.' The battleship cloud was a distant smudge to the east, and the rising sun was already compressing their shadows around their boots.
Dryden slapped a mosquito against the back of his hand. 'You Territorial Army too?' he asked, keen to talk about something other than the weather.
'Sure, sure. These are my men,' he said, managing not to make it sound proprietorial.
'So what do you do in Civvy Street?'
The major looked him in the face. 'Business,' he said, ducking the question.
A maroon thudded from the direction of the checkpoint, the signal that they had ten minutes before the bombardment began. The dull percussion in the sky was marked by a purple blotch and matched by a solid jolt through the earth.
The men stood and gathered round, following Broderick up onto the top of the old tank. The billycan was passed around, the tea inside reeked of tannin, had been sweetenedwith Carnation milk, and was the colour of liquid cattle manure. Dryden took a gulp, casually, knowing he was being watched.
Broderick sat on the turret, spreading out a map for the men. 'Right. Listen up. Today's exercise is live firing. This range was requisitioned in 1907. That's a century. So far the number of soldiers who have left Whittlesea Mere in a body bag is four. There is absolutely no law of nature which says one of you can't make it five, so listen.'
Dryden imagined the crumpled body bag, his own hand peeping from the folds of black plastic, blood under the fingernails. 'War games,' he thought, realizing what an obscene juxtaposition of words it was.
The major's briefing was brutally short. The Royal Artillery would bomb the two targets - twice - then the company would move in, conduct house-to-house searches, flush out insurgents, secure the target and replace the red target flags with blue. All shells would be live, all personal ammunition blank. Blue helmets denoted Blue Force - those attacking. Red Force, the enemy, was in position. Its soldiers, wooden cutout targets with concentric rings running out from the heart, wore red hats; a helpful designation Dryden could not help feeling undermined the integrity of the exercise. His own yellow armband proclaimed him a non-combatant.
'And this is our target,' said Broderick, stabbing a finger at the heart of the Fen wasteland shown on the map. 'The lost village of Jude's Ferry.'
THE SKELETON MAN. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Kelly. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.