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First pages

~ Chapter One ~

The security guard closed the door behind me and leaned with his back against it.

“So, you’re that squaddie that nicked five million from the Minister for Disability and stuff, what’s his name? Oh yeah, Stephen poncy Lethbridge.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Respect to you.”

“Ex-squaddie,” I said. “And I didn’t actually nick it.” I settled onto the hard wooden chair by the radiator and stared at the walls. Drab cream with highlights of institutional grime, broken only by the odd poster explaining various rights to which I was entitled. I wondered if this was the last I was going to see of the outside world for a while.

“They’re all innocent in here.” He wriggled his back against the door as if trying to scratch an unreachable itch. “I’ve been working in these courts for ten years now and I’ve yet to see a guilty man.”

“No, seriously, I didn’t steal anything. I just made it go away.”

The guard pondered that piece of information for a moment then, “What, magic, like Derren Brown? How did you do that then?”

“I hacked into his bank account. Money is only ones and zeros in an electronic box these days. I just poked around in the box and turned all the ones into zeros. It all went away. It can’t be stealing if I didn’t actually take it.”

“Did the jury buy that?” He nodded his head towards the courtroom across the hall.

“No.”

“You should’ve kept it for yourself and buggered off to Marbella. That’s what I would’ve done.”

“That wasn’t the plan,” I said. “He’s the self-serving prig who cut all the benefits to the disabled. I wanted him to feel what it was like to have to live on the pittance he voted for.”

“And now you’re facing a spell inside and he’s back to swilling down the Moet on his yacht. Makes ya’ think.”

A knock on the door jerked the guard upright. “Here we go,” he said and opened the door.

My solicitor, Eric Hansard, nodded his thanks and headed for the little desk against the wall where he placed two cardboard cups. “Coffee,” he said.

I looked at the muddy brown liquid. “I’ll take your word for that. Any chance of a cigarette?”

“Not in here, sorry.” Eric looked at the guard. “Thank you, Jim. Can we be alone for a moment?”

Jim shrugged and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“Well?” I said. “What’s happening?”

“You know the Crown Prosecution want your blood, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“Look, Mike –”

“It’s Michael.”

“What? Oh, right. Look, Mike, I have to be realistic with you, you’re in quite a lot of trouble here. The CPS is requesting a custodial sentence. They’re calling for an example to be made and for what you did, you could get up to five years.”

“Five years?” I did a mental calculation. “That’d make me forty-four. That can’t be right?”

“What makes you think the justice system has anything to do with rights and wrongs? You’ve offended the Establishment and now they want blood. Remember what they did to the Great Train Robbers?”

“Five years though?”

“At least it’s a roof and a dry bed.” Eric took a sip of the coffee and flinched slightly.

I pondered the thought of a guaranteed bed and roof. No, it wasn’t going to happen, I’d go crazy. Crazier.

“You did point out that the money went straight back the next day, didn’t you?” I queried. “Five million, straight back, no problem yet it took my bank six months to refund me when they screwed up my rent payment. And then they went and added charges for going overdrawn. That’s how I lost my flat.”

“I do understand; it must have been very difficult for you. However, we may have an option. I happen to know Judge Carrington; he’s a member of my lodge. He’s a retired colonel from the Fusiliers and served in the first Gulf War, so he does have a modicum of sympathy for ex-services personnel.”

“There’s a chance of probation?”

“Hmm, not quite that simple, I’m afraid. Probation is a non-starter if you don’t have a fixed address.”

“What then?”

“Carrington’s old-school and he’s taken to thinking that the rot in society started when conscription finished. He’s long nurtured a belief that the cure for all society’s ills is a military style boot-camp training programme. You know, teach offenders how to survive off nothing and they’ll stop thieving from the rest of us.”

“But I’ve already been through Boot Camp once,” I said. “The army are not likely to let me have a second go. Not after this.”

“Bear with me. Have you ever heard of Approved Premises? They used to be known as Halfway Houses or Bail Hostels. Sort of a Not-Quite-Prison for those who Don’t-Quite-Need-Prison.”

“And you think I might be sent there instead of prison?”

“Sort of. He’s finally managed to persuade the Department of Justice to allow a pilot Boot Camp linked to one of these A.P.s and they need an ex-military type to run the pilot for him.” Eric went to take another sip of coffee but his face crumpled in resistance before the cup arrived at his lips. He shook his head and replaced the cardboard cup on the desk. “Basically, he wants somebody with survival skills to take a group of villains off to some God forsaken spot and teach them to be self-sufficient. He had Wilderness Jack lined up. Do you know Wilderness Jack? He was in your lot. Anyway he’s the chappie who parachutes into random jungles or deserts then has to walk out. He was all set to do it but he was offered a celebrity reality TV show at the last minute and went off to do that instead.”

I gave my coffee cup a little swirl. The liquid didn’t seem to move in quite the way I expected coffee should. I replaced it on the desk. “I’m still not sure how all this helps me?”

“You’re ex-Special Forces aren’t you?” He leafed through my file. “Ah, yes, here we are, I knew I’d seen it somewhere. Electronic Warfare Operator assigned to Special Forces units in various locations 2012 through 2015. Perfect.”

“Oh, I see. I think I might need to explain.”

Eric placed his pen on the papers with a degree of precision and care I’d not seen since I’d watched Jacko Williams disarm a roadside IED in Helmand. “Go on,” he said.

“I was a Signaller, assigned to 22 SAS. The key word here is assigned. Not actually in the Special Forces. You see?”

“No, not really, but please elucidate.”

“Well, you know when James Bond abseils over the side of the desert stronghold and blows the doors off with an explosive concealed in his Rolex?”

“Yes.”

“And then he kills five bad guys with his hat before opening the case which holds the nuclear detonator?”

“I’m familiar with the tropes.”

“And when he looks at the timer on the control panel and talks through his radio ballpoint pen to a geek sat in the back of a van twelve miles away and asks him to crack the password?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s me. The geek in the van that is, not James Bond.”

“I see. But…” He leafed through my file. “Your nickname was ‘Bomber’ Purdey? Why Bomber?”

“Hmm, Bomber, it’s army humour. I used to destroy Taliban IT systems using a sort of virus bomb. Quite clever really, it delivers an infinitely rotating zero-day packet…” I watched his eyes drift. “Never mind.”

He thought for a moment. “Well, it doesn’t really change anything, I suppose. I mean to even get close to the SAS you had to pass some sort of survival training, surely? As long as you can catch a rabbit or two, that’s probably all that’s going to be needed.”

“Um, well. Not exactly. You see, it all started with a bet with an old mate that I could get through the SAS selection so I hacked into their systems to record that I’d previously completed the survival course. And the Combat Medic module. Oh, and the Escape and Evasion training.”

Eric let out a long sigh and I felt my chances of avoiding a prison sentence expiring with it. “Why on earth would you do that? I mean, you’re fit, so surely survival training wouldn’t have been that bad?”

“It is for a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat so catching a rattlesnake with a spoon and turning it into a soufflé was never something which really appealed.”

“How on earth does a vegetarian survive in the military?”

“Hitler managed okay,” I said.

“Hitler? What’s he got to do with anything?”

“He was a vegetarian.”

“Hmm, perhaps we won’t mention that to the judge. It might not help your case.”

“Now, do you have any teaching qualifications?”

“Teaching?”

“You’re not allowed to supervise offenders without something called…” He referred to a file he had on the desk. “PTLLS, it’s a sort of basic teaching certificate. Apparently you can be issued with one if you’ve ever done any teaching.”

“I taught basic computer skills to OAPs for a while when I first came out. Clapham Community Centre on Wednesday nights. Does that work?”

“I think we can make it work.”

“I did mention that I know bugger all about survival training, didn’t I?” I said. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to teach something I know nothing about.”

“Just do what everybody else does. Look it up on Wikipedia.”

“I’m not allowed access to a computer,” I reminded him. “Part of my bail conditions.”

“I’ll clear that for you. Judge Carrington is in his last year and wants a notable achievement to smooth his path to a knighthood. And short of Andy McNab turning up in front of him, you’re his only hope.”

“I’m to be his path to a knighthood?”

“And he’ll be your path to avoiding prison.”

“I guess I’ve made worse deals.”

~ Chapter Two ~

I’d been assigned to a group of several Approved Premises known as Newstart Houses, each located in quiet residential suburbs of Bristol. Apparently this group had already been earmarked as a candidate for the project which was now known as Camp Newstart. Julie, the Project Co-ordinator and one of the House Managers, showed me to her office and indicated a chair opposite her desk.

“These are generally some of the lower security Aps,” she said.

“Aps? Oh yes, Approved Premises.” I settled into an old armchair which threatened to engulf me.

“That’s right. They used to be called Probation Hostels. We’re a halfway house for offenders but this one focuses on lower risk clients, you know, drugs, petty theft…”

“And computer hackers.”

“I suppose. Not had any before. We had a TV repairman once but I suppose that’s not quite the same thing.”

“Not quite.”

“He was very useful though. He fixed up my Nan’s old Binatone a treat. The only trouble was it kept picking up next door’s home video channel. You wouldn’t believe what they got up to. I tried to get him back to fix it again but Nan wouldn’t let him touch it again.”

A young man in jeans and white T-shirt brought a couple of mugs in and set them on the desk.

“Tea?” Julie asked him.

“Dunno,” he mumbled. “Jo made it.”

“Thank you, Jerry. Close the door on your way out.”

I reached for a mug.

“I wouldn’t,” said Julie. “Not if Jo made it.”

I looked at the mug in my hand then sniffed. It smelt like tea. “Jo?”

“One of our regulars. He has a bit of a predilection for experimental chemistry.”

I very carefully placed the mug back on the desk. “Do you know who’s going on the camp yet?”

“No, I don’t have a say. The only person I know of is Simon Reeves; he’s your Camp Colleague.”

“What the hell’s a Camp Colleague?” I asked.

“He’s your… um… support. He’s just retired from Shapham High Security Prison. He was Senior Officer there.”

“I see.”

“The Department of Justice regulations. You didn’t think they were going to let you all go unsupervised, did you? Judge Carrington’s had to pull enough strings to let you all travel abroad; you’re hardly going to be allowed to wander round the backwoods of Spain on your own.”

“Spain, huh.” Things were looking up. “Any idea whereabouts?”

She reached behind her to an overstuffed shelving unit and pulled out a map book. “Southern Spain,” she said as she leafed through the pages. “Andalucía. Somewhere called the Alpujarras. Mostly mountains and…” she pushed her glasses up off her nose and squinted closely at the pages. “Nope. Just mountains.” She pushed the open map book across the table. “Don’t know exactly where until we have the right permissions from the local authorities there.”

I took the map. It was fairly low scale and really only showed major topographic detail and a few major roads. Very few.

“Why there?” Any hope I’d been fostering of a nice beachside location was fading fast.

“I think one of Judge Carrington’s old service friends knows somebody out there, somewhere. Apparently it’s very… original. Not too much chance of the little rascals causing mischief when the only other inhabitants are mountain goats.”

“When do we start?”

“You’re flying out in the next few days to set things up, until then, you’ll be staying here.”

I was shown a small room on the top floor, not much more than a badly converted loft, but at least the small window showed me the outside world. My possessions these days fitted neatly into a rucksack so unpacking wasn’t too much of a chore. I’d managed to secure a new laptop from Eric as part of the deal on the condition I only used it to send in a daily blog from the camp. I opened it up, hacked into the Wi-Fi network, downloaded a full set of programmes I kept hidden on a web server and disappeared off into cyberspace for the rest of the day.

The day before I was due to fly out to Malaga, I met with my newly assigned Probation Officer, Pauline. She took no time making it quite clear that she really didn’t approve of the deal I’d been given and that it certainly wasn’t normal to have her clients running around the continent wherever they pleased. She also explained in great detail that the first sniff of a transgression and she’d unleash the Hounds of Hell to hunt me down and drag my backside straight to a waiting prison cell on a small rock just off the Isle of Skye. I thanked her very much for her faith in my rehabilitation and dutifully signed the mountain of paperwork. I tried to read it but my eyes glazed over by page two. I did manage to glean however that I was under some sort of extended Community Service Order, which, I assumed, was how they had managed to set up this particular project.

***

The Departure Hall floor was cold and hard and having to sit on it did nothing to lift my mood from the Gatwick Airport school holiday mayhem. Over my years in the army I’d certainly spent more than my fair share of hours in airports, both civil and military. On balance, I always preferred the military versions. Despite their Spartan nature, one could usually find a seat and there were certainly fewer screaming babies, stag party rowdies and badly driven luggage trollies.

A family of seven, in disturbingly matching tracksuits, passed by in a cloud of argument and discarded crisp packets, completely oblivious to the fact their overladen trolley had just run over my foot. I pulled my feet in closer to avoid further injury and once more scanned the departures waiting area for a vacant seat.

I spotted the man through a crowd of milling holidaymakers. He was a young man, Asian and maybe early twenties. The small rucksack on his back was what first alerted me; it seemed too new and out of keeping with his clothes. His head moved, checking out the departure area in all directions. I looked around. Crowds of tourists, families, children, business types. Far too many people, far too close together. I stood slowly, flexing the cramps from my legs. The adrenaline flushed my system. Should I alert the police? Shout a warning? I could reach the man in about three or four seconds. What then? Snatch the bag and run? Where?

He raised his arm in the air and just as I was about to sprint I spotted a young woman. She had clearly caught eyes with the man and moved towards him. I hesitated. They both looked at each other, waving their arms, they were smiling. They closed on each other and embraced. I let my breath go as I watched them take each other’s hands and head for one of the departure gates.

My heart banged in my ears and the excess adrenaline took the strength from my legs which threatened to collapse under me. I pulled a cigarette from the pack and fumbled it to my mouth. I was about to click the lighter when I heard a voice.

“You can’t smoke in here, sir.” The policeman had come from nowhere.

“Sorry,” I said. “I forgot.”

“There’s a designated area just past the gates over there.” He pointed to the far distance.

“Thanks.” I hoisted my rucksack on my shoulder and he wandered off.

I needed a drink more than a smoke so I headed for the nearby Happy Burger Eatery, searching the tables for a space. My eyes caught the signs of movement as a young mother decamped her ketchup-laden child from highchair to buggy. I moved quickly to the table.

“You going?” I asked.

“I will if this little sod stops wriggling and lets me strap him in.” She nodded to the buggy. “Hold it still for me will you? He’s like a bleedin’ octopus on meth when he don’t want to go nowhere.”

I obligingly held the buggy still while she fastened the straps so tight I was sure the child’s head had actually started expanding.

With a, “Now get out of that, you little toad,” she wheeled the child off in the direction of the departure gates.

I turned to the freshly vacated table to find a young woman had just settled herself down at it. She looked to be in her late thirties. Her short, sun-bleached hair, sharply defined features and deep tan told of an active lifestyle.

“Oh, I was going to sit there,” I said.

“You still can,” she said, pointing to a vacant chair. “I don’t take up much room.”

“Thanks.” I settled down and moved the empty burger boxes and escaped fries to one corner of the table. “It’s chaos today, school holiday isn’t it?”

“Probably.” She pulled a paperback from her rucksack. I couldn’t see the title but it looked like a Game of Thrones.

I took a serviette from the holder and wiped ketchup from the table. “Going anywhere nice?”

“Depends how you feel about an overcrowded rock in the Med full of drunken Brits and Matelots.”

“Ah, not keen on Gibraltar then?” I dropped the soggy serviette in the burger box.

“It’s work.” She leafed through the book to find a turned down corner which marked her place. I repressed a shudder.

“I didn’t think there was much work on Gib. You’re lucky,” I said.

She closed her book and placed it on the table. “Ah, you want to talk.”

“What? Oh, sorry. No, carry on reading.”

“We can talk if you like?” she said.

“No, it’s just that I was there for a while.”

“That’s nice.” She opened the book again.

I glanced up at the departures screen. My flight wasn’t even listed yet. This was going to be a long wait.

“Could you keep an eye on my bag?” I asked, nodding towards my rucksack.

“Is this the bit where you want me to take your bag through security for you?” she asked.

“No, I promise. I’m just going to get a beer; do you want anything from the bar?”

“A coffee would be good, thanks. White.”

“Just white?” I stared across at the Planet Costa outlet and although it was too far away to read properly, it looked like the coffee menu ran over three chalk boards. “Only they seem to have lots of different options. Café Latte Skinny Dipper with Mocha?”

“Just coffee, thanks.”

“It’s all a con anyway,” I said. “Mostly they’re just cups full of bubbles with made-up Italian names.” I glanced back at the woman but she’d already returned to her book.

The price of the beer almost made me contemplate going without. Almost. I ordered the beer and searched the chalkboard for something resembling plain white coffee but that option didn’t seem to exist. I had to go for a black double espresso grandé and take the milk from the jug supplied for tea drinkers. I got a helpless glance from an elderly woman as she tried to extract a teabag from her scalding cup with something that resembled a toothpick but I think was actually supposed to be a planet friendly, disposable stirrer. I took a plastic knife from the cutlery tray provided for the Danish Pastry eaters and retrieved her teabag.

“Thank you, young man. It’s bad enough they make us tea drinkers stand in the corner here like naughty children for not drinking their frothy rubbish, the least they could do is give us a proper spoon. You can’t make a decent cup of tea with a twig. It’s not right.”

I dropped the teabag in the bin. “It’s all American, they don’t understand tea anyway.”

“That will be that dreadful president they’ve got.” She picked up her cardboard mug in its little cardboard sleeve. “I’d box his ears if he was my grandson.” She headed off in the direction of the tables.

I carried our drinks back to the table and placed the coffee in front of the woman.

“I think it’s coffee,” I said. “But it might equally be beef soup, I don’t speak Planet Costa.”

“Thanks,” she said without looking up from her book.

The beer went down way too easily and I tried to make it last but failed. My eyes drifted to the departures screen for what was probably the twentieth time. My flight was at least now on the board although there was no gate attached yet. I thought about pulling out my laptop and looking at the Earthview of the Alpujarras once again. Why had they chosen such a remote area? I’d rather hoped that when they’d told me I’d be heading to Spain for this farce, I’d at least be close to a beach and a bit of nightlife. But as far as I could see from Earthview this was just mountains and forests.

The woman sipped at her coffee without moving her eyes from the page. I could see now it wasn’t Game of Thrones but an Arthurian Fantasy and, going by the cover image, with a definite LGBT twist.

“Good book?” I asked.

“I don’t know yet.” She studied her cardboard coffee mug. “Mike?”

“Michael, actually.” I looked at the name the lad behind the counter had scrawled on my paper cup. “I guess they didn’t have enough room to write Michael on the cup, or they were trying to be chummy in a sort of vomit inducing way. Anyway, everybody calls me Bomber.”

She glanced at my rucksack. “Are you telling me I just looked after an abandoned bag in a busy airport for somebody who goes by the name of Bomber?”

“Hmm, you can call me Shotgun, that’s what they called me in school. It’s a play on my surname, Purdey. Although I’m not sure that would help much.” I grinned.

“Let’s hope my new employer doesn’t find out.” She took a sip of coffee and wrinkled her nose. “You sure this is coffee?”

“That’s what Jason told me, he’s my personal barista and new best friend. What’s the problem with your boss?”

“I’m due to start work tomorrow as a contractor for Blacklance Security.”

“Ah, I can see how looking after a bomb in an airport might look messy on your CV. I promise not to tell. They offered me a job once. Mostly ex-service personnel, were you in?”

“Yes.” She opened the book again.

“I did ten years.” I looked again at my beer glass but it was still empty. “Signals mostly but attached to 22 SAS at the end.”

“I’m impressed,” she said without looking up.

“Don’t be. I was an Electronic Warfare Specialist and I only got hooked up with them by accident.”

“How does one accidently end up in the SAS?”

“It was a bet. I bet my mate five quid I could pass selection then I hacked their IT systems. I got top marks.”

“Well done.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t expect them to actually assign me though. That came as a bit of a shock.”

“Ah yes, I can imagine. I think I heard about you.” She folded a page and closed the book. “When you got out, didn’t you go on and steal all the money from that politician’s bank?”

“I didn’t steal it. I just got inside his bank’s systems and made it all go away.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I wanted him to see if he could live on the benefits levels he voted for.”

“How did that work out?”

“It didn’t. Somebody just pressed a button and made it all come back again and I’m now having to nursemaid a bunch of thugs on a ‘Personal Development Course’ in some god-forsaken wilderness in a forgotten part of Spain that looks to me to be impassable to anything other than a hyperactive mountain goat.”

She pushed her coffee cup to one side. “Wasn’t that tried some time ago? I seem to remember a huge outcry in the Daily Mail because the courts were paying for groups of young hooligans to go on holiday in Ibiza.”

“Yes, I know. But some retiring judge wants to make his mark on the system in the hope of bagging himself a gong and they needed a fall-guy to blame it all on when everything goes tits-up and the Dirty Dozen make off with the Spanish Crown Jewels.”

She smiled and glanced up at the departures board. “Are you sure you’re the right person to be taking that job? Only, if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem to be fully on-board with the philosophy.”

“I’m not. I think it’s insane but if it keeps me out of nick… Anyway, Wilderness Jack, the guy they had lined up to do this, changed his mind and he’s gone off to do Celebrity Death-Camp somewhere in the Kalahari Desert.”

She stood and threw her backpack over her shoulder and nodded towards the departures board. “That’s my flight. Have fun.”

“You too,” I said. I watched her as she disappeared into the throngs around the departures gates. Quite cute, in a boyish sort of way.

I pulled out the folder Julie had given me which contained all the project details. Pages one to forty-eight gave the background to the project. I’d tried to read that section on a couple of occasions but never got past page three which went into Judge Carrington’s philanthropic nature and how he believed even the worst recidivists could be rehabilitated as long as they were given enough tough love.

I opened the folder and turned to the section detailing the resources at my disposal. This section ran to one and a bit pages and gave an outline of the location, telephone number for a Fernando Hernandez, my local contact, and the list of equipment waiting for me. I read through the list again, even though I could remember it clearly. Saws, axes, a machete, two tarpaulins, a hundred metres of rope, fire starting kit, three water purifiers and miscellaneous cooking utensils. There was also a starter box of ‘Basic Rations’ to keep us going until we’d shot, grown or gathered enough to keep us fed. Not much to support a group of seven people for six months. She had also thoughtfully provided the numbers for the full range of emergency services, including SASEMAR, the Spanish Coastguard. I wondered just how badly screwed up things would have to get before we needed the coastguard halfway up a mountain. Although I hadn’t yet been given the exact location, I knew it was in the Alpujarras, a region in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain. There was also a field plan included which clearly showed which parts of the area we were allowed to use, where we could cut wood, set up camp and where we were permitted to light fires. The appendix referenced the various local regulations relating to fires, tree felling and permitted constructions along with the penalties for transgressions. It looked like I would be better off copping to the full sentence for my crime in England than getting caught lighting a fire in the wrong place.

“Is this seat free?” I heard a voice and looked up. Three young women stood facing me, they wore matching pink onesies and penis shaped hats. One wore an L-plate around her neck.

“Yes, I’m just leaving,” I lied. Returning to sitting on the floor would be preferable to sharing a table with a hen party.

“Don’t leave on our account, lover.” They all giggled and I hoped they weren’t going to Malaga.

As it happened, my flight was called as soon as I started to move so I headed straight for the gate. Time for my new life.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

In case you don’t know, I write comedy. Gentle British comedy. Having grown up with P.G. Wodehouse and the Ealing Comedies, I like to think I’ve captured the tone of traditional British Humour but brought it firmly into the… where are we now? No… not thinking about that. I also write to a theme. I believe many of us have lost sight of who we are in our rush to ride the next big wave. But when that wave dumps us on the shores of ‘Couldn’t Care Less’ then carries on without us, who are we then?

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I write gentle comedy, a comedy of the style which I personally enjoy. I want to make people laugh, or at least smile for a moment. I like to bring a little sunshine and fun to life, it’s all far too serious as it is.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
All my books focus on that point in one’s life where we suddenly realise the world has moved on without our noticing. That time when you try to write a cheque for your groceries and everybody in the queue starts filming you for YouTube.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I was touched by the problems facing returning forces personnel. Not the more publicised problems such as PTSD or injuries, but the everyday and seemingly mundane issues. What happens when a major Life Change makes us reassess our identity?

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