The sound of running footsteps outside made me glance out of the window. Down below in the street, a gang of young men and a couple of women ran past laughing and shouting. Some of them were carrying knives; some clutched looted hi-fis and computers to their chests. Further down the road, it sounded as if a glass window was being smashed in.
The world had gone to hell.
At the very least, it was knocking on the Devil’s door. I tried the light switch, even though I knew it was futile. A twist of the tap at the kitchen sink had the same result. Nothing. There had been no electricity in the flat for fourteen days, no water for eight. It seemed that it was the same for the rest of the city too; and maybe everywhere else. The telephone was dead and there was no signal on my cell phone either.
Two weeks ago, the TV had been full of news reports of a massive solar storm that was heading for earth with unprecedented speed and strength. We were warned that some radio and electrical equipment might be affected. Twenty four hours later, on the 8th June at 2200 hours, all the lights went out, TVs went blank and radios stopped working. No-one could get a signal. At first there was no panic, just the good old British Blitz spirit: make do and mend until the government made it alright again. Surely it wouldn’t take long, we all thought. A week later, with no signs of improvement, and water supplies also drying up, people began to panic.
Earlier today I watched as a tank rolled down the road. Perched on top was a man with a loud hailer calling for people to gather at the sports stadium, a mile away. There they could find food, bottled water and safety, he said. An armoured van would be along later for any who wanted an armed escort. As promised, loud hailer man returned with the van an hour later and announced their arrival. From behind the curtains I watched as people crept from their houses: families with children and pets; singletons young and old, all carrying whatever meant the most to them. Some had suitcases, as if they were going away on holiday. Not much chance of that: no planes were flying and no trains were running. Many of those with cars had already left in hope of finding somewhere where things were better. Good luck to them.
I knew I should have gone too, but I figured that having a mass of scared people in one place might prove to be a greater problem in the long run. Besides, I didn’t like crowds.
A few miles to the north, over the river, I could see that central London was already in flames: swollen grey columns of smoke were rising, spreading out like an umbrella over the tall buildings. From the same direction I could hear the ‘ack-ack-ack’ of gunfire, some sort of assault rifle by the sound of it. Of course: this was an ideal opportunity for any gangster or criminal seeking to enrich themselves with loot, or else fight to gain control over parts of the city.
Not for the first time since the blackout, my thoughts turned to Leo. What would he do if he were here? He’d had plenty of experience in war zones, both in the military and as a private military contractor and he lived for the adrenalin of action. He certainly wouldn’t have gone to a place of safety; the local streets would have been his playground. But he was dead, his body rotting somewhere in a far off African country, leaving me to pick up the pieces back home.
I rubbed my forehead, feeling the beginnings of a headache. I wished I could say I was distraught, a grieving widow whose world had fallen apart on hearing the news. But throughout the last three weeks I had remained, for the most part, dry-eyed. If I cried at all it was for the man that I first knew: funny, determined, fit. Not for the man who left for a security job in Sierra Leone last December. That man was obsessed with control, discipline, guns. He no longer wanted a wife, he wanted an underling to train, shout at; serve him. Since leaving the SAS and taking on work with Blacksands Security Solutions he had become secretive, paranoid and played mind games the whole time. The truth was, I had learned to hate him.
At the will hearing, I’d felt like a complete fake. There was just the solicitor and me. I wore black and the required sombre expression, but inside I felt free at last, and without the cost of a messy divorce. It was all straightforward: I got everything – the flat, his money, the car that needed fixing. And a notebook.
The notebook lay on the coffee table in front of me. In itself it looked harmless: a battered, brown faux-leather cover with the corners curling upwards, an elastic band holding it all together. A strange thing to have left in a will, but the solicitor insisted Leo had wanted me to have it in the event of his death. ‘Maybe it tells you where he’s hidden all the treasure,’ he had joked and then, remembering the solemnity of the occasion had given an embarrassed cough behind his hand and looked down.
Ironically, his joke was closer to the truth than he realised. At first, the notebook just seemed full of irrelevant jottings: people’s names and numbers; messages obviously taken over the phone, and doodles. I wondered why the hell Leo thought I should have it, unless it was one of his ‘jokes’ to wind me up, making me think there was something more than there was. I wouldn’t have put it past him.
The blackout and subsequent events had pushed it from my mind for a while, and it had sat on the table, untouched, while I, like everyone else, busied myself with the usual panic-buying of supplies and watching as the chaos unfolded outside my window. Today, out of boredom, I picked it up again and idly flicked through it. One page, somewhere near the end, was not like the others. Instead of writing there was a hand-drawn map and written across the top of it: ‘CACHE’. Scribbled lines seemed to indicate a path and a river; around the edges were inverted Vs for mountains and cloud shapes that I assumed were meant to be trees. At one point, off the path and in the middle of what looked like a wooded valley, Leo had marked a cross in red pen.
At first the drawing made no sense, but the red cross, pressed so emphatically into the page, drew my attention as if it was trying to tell me something. Was it indeed, as the solicitor had joked, some buried treasure that Leo had hidden away? Even if it was, it wasn’t much good if I didn’t have a clue where to begin. Underneath it was a child-like drawing of a key, linked by a dotted line to four letters: ‘DanA’. It had to be Danny Andrews, the name of his old friend in the Regiment, who had got him into the job in Africa and who was the last to see him alive. But what the hell did Danny have to do with all this? Did he hold a key to the place?
I had put the notebook down, half intending to throw it away. But the image of that map wouldn’t let go. It nagged around the edges of every conscious thought, each time the lines and squiggles seeming to become more familiar, more like the features I’d seen time and time again on an Ordinance Survey map long ago. Then, suddenly, I knew. And once I knew, it became obvious. It was a place in the Black Mountains that we used to go to when we lived in Hereford. At the time we had regarded it as ‘our place’, our playground for walking, target shooting with air rifles and, in the breaks between, for lovemaking.
As far as I remembered, Leo had never spoken of there being any secret cache. I needed to get to Hereford and find Danny. Maybe he knew something. There again, trying to travel that far without a car certainly wasn’t a prospect I savoured, and what if it was just a prank? No, I told myself. I would be better off staying put, finding a way to survive in the middle of this anarchy. And I told myself that again and again.
As evening fell, the flames from the growing inferno in the city lit the living-room with an orange glow. I sat and ate some tuna from a can, and tried to estimate just how many more days I could survive here on the food and bottled water in the cupboards. I made it ten, maybe thirteen if I really rationed myself. But what then? There was nothing left in the shops and from the sound of breaking windows along the street, the people who remained had taken to looting food from empty houses.
As if on cue, there was a loud banging downstairs. I ran back to the window and peered out. Three youths were trying to kick down the front door to the flats. For an instant I froze in panic: what if they got through and then attacked my door? Then I remembered something. Taking a deep breath, I rushed to the bedroom, pulled back the carpet beneath the window and tried to lever up the floorboards with my fingers. All I got for my efforts was a broken nail. Frantic, I looked around, spotted some scissors on the dressing table and grabbed them. This time I was more successful, prying a board up just enough to get my hand underneath and force it back. The second board came up much more easily. I reached into the space until my hand touched cold metal. I pulled the object into the semi-light.
It was a HK53 carbine, part of Leo’s little cache of weapons kept in the flat for an ’emergency’. I never asked him how he came by them or what emergency he expected, but I was now damn grateful for his forward planning. Another brief inspection of the hole yielded a loaded magazine. There was no time to check and clean the weapon; I slotted the magazine onto the rifle and walked back out to face the door leading onto the landing.
It was just in time. The thugs had finally breached the lower door and were running up the stairs. I could hear them laughing and swearing at each other. Then there came the thudding kicks against my front door. I stood ready, the barrel pointing at the door handle. The kicks continued, but the door held. Leo had had it strengthened, a symptom of his paranoid nature that the world was out to get him. I relaxed a little, but part of me still expected it to fail.
Eventually the little bastards gave up and continued up the stairs to the next floor where they resumed their breaking and entering spree. I lowered the HK and sat down, feeling shaky from the adrenalin rush. The door had held this time, but what if the thieves were determined and came back with a handheld battering ram or some kind of explosive? It seemed far-fetched, but also possible. There were enough weapons and criminals on the streets who would have those things. My mind was now made up. I had to get out of London. Other places surely had to be safer than this.
I went back into the bedroom and fetched the other things that Leo had hidden under the floorboards, carrying them into the kitchen and lining them up on the table: one Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol, one commando knife and plenty of ammunition for both guns. I sat down and began to clean and check everything. It was just like being back in training again, only this time I didn’t have Leo breathing down my neck and criticising everything I did.
With the weapons ready I grabbed an old backpack from the wardrobe, stuffed my light sleeping bag inside and then rummaged through the cupboards, cramming in as much food and water as would fit in the pack. Being small, it wasn’t much. Then I picked up the notebook and placed it safe in an inner compartment. A search through Leo’s wardrobe revealed an old Gore-Tex jacket with lots of handy pockets. It was too big for me, but wearable and extremely useful for carrying the spare magazines.
A large explosion overhead made me jump. It was followed by laughing outside. Had those bastards returned? I risked looking through the curtains. Down below, in the road, some kids were setting off fireworks they had looted from somewhere or other. By chance one of them looked up and saw me before I managed to duck back into the darkness. Shit, I didn’t want anyone to know that someone was still living here. There again, they were only kids: what could they do?
I walked back into the kitchen and finished gearing myself up. The Glock went into a pancake holster hitched onto the belt of my jeans; the knife was sheathed at my hip. I picked out a small pen torch from the kitchen drawer and flicked the switch on. The light wavered, but there were no more batteries to be found. It would have to do. Finally, I put on my Mendl walking boots: they’d only been worn a couple of times, but were the stoutest footwear I had. I was just bending down to pick up the backpack when the living room window burst inwards with a boom and a flash of light. The little fuckers had set off a firework right at it. Shit! I ran into the room, which was now filled with smoke. One of the cushions on the sofa was well alight already, the flames reaching towards the ceiling. The sound of running footsteps outside told me that the perpetrators had run away.
Coughing, I grabbed the backpack, hoisted it on my shoulders and then readied the HK. Going to the landing door, I unlocked it and swung it open fast, covering the stairwell with the gun. There was no one there.
Then, with a last glance back at the burning flat – all that was left of my past life – I walked down the stairs, through the smashed front door and out into the night.
The street outside was empty as I slid into the darkest of shadows and, hugging an ivy-covered wall, headed west. In front the sky was lit by the glow of flames and occasional bursts of gunfire punctuated the night. Like a wild animal on the prowl I was wary of every sound, scent and movement, but nothing stirred. For the moment at least, it seemed all the action was taking place elsewhere.
Then I heard something move, a sound so slight I thought I might have imagined it, but I spun around all the same. A shape exploded from behind and ran at me. I lifted the rifle and fired. Three rounds found their mark. There was a grunt and a slumping noise as the body hit the floor. Setting the weapon to single shot, I approached, but not too close. I could see the shape of someone lying on the tarmac, legs sprawled. The amount of blood flowing like a black river from his head and chest told me he had to be dead. Listening for any other movements – after all, he might not have been alone – I bent over him. It was a young lad, only about fourteen years old and skinny. A knife lay close to his open hand.
I had never killed a person before. I remembered from films and TV cop shows that I should now turn and vomit into the gutter; that I should feel some kind of guilt or maybe even elation that it was I who survived. But I did not. I felt nothing. It was all too surreal, like I was in some video game.
Taking a deep breath, I considered the situation. Someone must have heard those shots. I had to get away before anyone came to investigate. Maybe it was delayed reaction, but a laugh bubbled up into my throat, the sort of laugh that comes with hysteria when you realise you are on the edge of madness. I felt invincible, drunk on my own power. If anyone did come here, they would not dare to come near me. And if they did, well bring it on.
I began to walk west again, keeping to the shadows as before. A couple of bundles in the middle of the road soon revealed themselves as corpses, more by the smell than anything else. My sense of invincibility started to fade and I had never felt more alone. Damn you Leo! I thought. Damn you for dying and for not being here.
I was so caught up in my anger that I turned a corner without thinking what lay beyond. I caught a glimpse of an object flying through the air in front of me and then something solid connected with my head. I sprawled sideways onto the ground, stunned, face scraped by grit. The rifle flew out of my grasp. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ Without Leo’s training my reaction would have been non-existent, fatal. While my brain was still trying to work out what the hell had hit it, my body rolled and I was on my feet, hand reaching for the Glock. There was the noise of gunfire, flashes in the dark – I realised it was me. Then there was the sound of boots on tarmac running away and two more shots, this time not mine.
I pointed the Glock in the direction of the other shooter, but he was still hidden in the darkness. Knowing without doubt that he would have his gun trained on me, I waited for the inevitable.
‘Who’s there?’ I called out.
‘Put your weapon down first,’ said a male voice, calm, steady.
I had no choice but to do as he asked. I tossed the weapon away from me, towards the HK.
‘And the knife.’
I threw that to join the others.
The darkness in front of me moved. A figure emerged and stood before me, his rifle still trained on my body. He paused for a few seconds, perhaps satisfying himself that I was unarmed, and then lowered his weapon.
‘Impressive,’ he gestured to the two bodies lying on the floor.
‘What do you want?’
‘To make you an offer.’
Here it comes, I thought, a quick shag in return for my life.
He pointed at my backpack. ‘I take it you’re going somewhere. Leaving the city perhaps?’
‘So what if I am?’
‘I also need to leave. Two people with weapons are going to stand a better chance than one. And you won’t always be as lucky as you were back there: you need someone to look out for you.’
Arrogant shit, I thought.
Clearly he mistook my silence for acquiescence. ‘I just need to pick up my pack from around the corner…’
‘Why should I trust you?’
‘Well, pardon me but I do believe that I just saved your life; you could sound a little more grateful. Anyway, like I said, you’re far more useful to me alive than dead.’
‘I’m sorry, but I’d rather travel alone.’ I kept my tone polite: after all, he still had a gun.
‘It’s nothing to me either way,’ he shrugged. ‘I’ll get where I’m going with or without you. I just thought it would make it easier for both of us if we teamed up.’
‘I think I can manage without a bodyguard, thank you.’ This time I could not keep the sarcasm from my voice, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew deep down that they were not true. To have someone watching my back would have eased my anxiety no end. However, he was still a stranger and a potentially dangerous one at that. If Leo had taught me anything, it was to trust no one.
‘Your loss, sweetheart,’ he backed off. ‘Anyway, it’s time for me to be gone. I’m trusting you not to shoot me in the back.’
Turning, he made off down the side road my attackers had come from, walking down the middle of the road, whistling. Cocky shit! I picked up my weapons and slipped back into the shadows, and as I watched his retreating back it felt as though we had just exchanged places, traded the advantage. I could feel the Glock’s hard shape against my hip and for a second fantasized about taking him out simply for being a dickhead, but then I saw sense again. You can’t shoot a man just for that.
I took a deep breath and realised that I was shaking. Stupid fool, stupid bloody fool! My situation was now clearer than ever. It did not matter how much time I had spent on firing ranges or practicing close-quarter combat. I was still vulnerable to anyone with greater skill or greater luck. I needed to be even more careful.
My body was aching, my head throbbing from the blow. I felt foolish, weak, and very alone.
In the distance lightning split the sky. A storm was rolling in from the Channel, blending its thunder with the music of war.