This week, Let’s Get Published will be revealing the top finalists and the grand prize winner of our inaugural short story contest.
Today we are pleased to present Skulduggery, a thriller by John Milligan.
Skulduggery by John Milligan
In the target I waited patiently. The shallow curtained alcove behind the counter that concealed me was cramped and claustrophobic. My feet and legs ached from three hours of standing. My nostrils itched from the dust in the air but I resisted the urge to scratch. The curtain was a scant two inches from my chest; I couldn’t risk moving it even slightly. I knew they were watching, waiting, they’d only come once they were certain all was well.
‘Get there an hour or so before their team arrive Jack, that should be time enough. I suggest covert entry from the rear, the back door has only an old mortice lock.’
Frank had briefed me in his laid-back, understated manner, anyone would think this was a run of the mill surveillance job not a mission to kill two people.
‘There’ll be a driver and a minder with the bomber, all will be armed.’ He paused glancing at his notes ‘once inside the minder will stand at the door watching the street whilst the bomber is working if things follow the usual pattern. The driver will disappear until collection time. They don’t like risking him being spotted hanging around outside the target. That should give you plenty of time to do the job and get clear. OK so far?’
Apparently, it doesn’t take long to set the bomb so don’t hang around once they’re inside and the driver has left.’
Frank looked slightly ill at ease ‘I cannot stress enough the importance of placing your shots accurately, understood Jack?
I nodded ‘Of course, Frank.’
He glanced at his watch ‘Their Estimated Time of Arrival is oh two thirty hours but they are seldom on time so you might have a bit of a wait on your hands.’
He paused, looking slightly uncomfortable. That was another first for Frank ‘now for the bad news: The intel we have says they are very cagey about this job. They’ll scour the whole area before they approach so that means no back up, OK? If they suspect the smallest thing is wrong, they’ll abort and god knows if we’ll ever get another chance. So, sorry Jack, but this is a solo mission.’
Frank looked far from sorry, as long as he got the job done, I could fry in hell directly afterwards for all he cared. The bastard treated like I was shit. He was an Eton educated, Brigade of Guards, aristocratic cunt.
I was a Barnardo’s brat, an orphan, an expendable commodity, there was no one to weep for me if I got killed.
Frank had never showed even a glimmer of embarrassment in previous briefings. Strange I thought.
‘Anything else I should know, Boss?’
‘That’s all Jack so go and get whatever you need. I’ll leave the rest to you. You know what to do.’
Anyone who didn’t know Frank well would never have noticed his eye contact was not quite the same as it normally was. I couldn’t put my finger on what was different. Was Frank holding something back or was it paranoia on my part? Why would he hold anything back? It didn’t make sense. I pushed the thought out of my mind and concentrated on the floor plan of the target committing it to memory.
I arrived four hours before the ETA. I checked the place and surrounding area out carefully before deciding to enter. The back yard was enclosed by a crumbling seven-foot-high brick wall, the gate sagged open on broken hinges.
The yard was full of shite the nieghbours had dumped there, forcing me to step gingerly. A dilapidated washing machine, parts of old bicycles plus the heaps of other junk were a real noise hazard. I negotiated this carefully, fearful of alerting others to my presence.
My picks made short work of the old mortice lock. The shop had been empty for months now; the last tenant hadn’t even bothered to throw the bolt. There was nothing to steal anyway.
Sliding quietly inside I crouched motionless against the wall smelling the stale damp odour of dereliction. I listened intently for full two minutes. I heard nothing except the faint buzzing of traffic up on the main road. I relocked the door then checked out every inch of the place from attic to cellar moving slowly, quietly, disturbing nothing.
Too many of my predecessors had walked into an ambush trusting duff intelligence. Not this soldier, check and double bloody check.
I found a hand print in the dust on the polished mahogany shop counter. My masked torch showed fresh dust had not yet begun to settle back into it. So, they’d been and checked the place out very recently. A good sign, that.
I thought carefully before choosing my hiding place. The curtained alcove behind the counter had shelves that were only resting on their supports. These I removed and hid under the counter. The odds were they would have looked in here seen the shelves and dismissed it as a possible hiding place, though that was far from certain.
I watched though the small gap at the curtain’s edge where it didn’t quite meet the wall. This allowed me a view of the glass door, half of the shop window and the street beyond. I would have a clear shot at the minder when he took up his position. I settled my mind into meditation mode.
An hour before the ETA a man came into the shop through the front door using a key. He stood in the doorway shining a powerful torch around the walls. I thumbed off the safety catch and held my breath, my heart pounding. The guy went into the back and rattled the back-door handle vigorously then he went up the stairs, his footsteps echoing in the empty space.
He came back down quickly and descended into the cellar. He was back again in a moment.
Returning to the front door he turned and shone the torch around the walls again, dwelling on my hiding place for what seemed an eternity. The whole of the alcove was lit as bright as day, the thin curtain offering a scant barrier to the probing light. God, I felt exposed, as though the guy must be able to see right through it though logic dictated otherwise.
I held my breath listening for a gun being cocked, poised to rip the curtain aside and start shooting.
The man switched off the torch turned and left, locking the door behind him. I breathed out releasing the tension.
I watched as the guy crossed the street and took up position in a darkened doorway. I couldn’t see the bastard but knew he’d be watching for any unusual activity.
That there would also be someone in the alley behind the shop I didn’t doubt. Stay alert Jack I told myself, they’ll be coming soon.
Yet my mind went back to the briefing running over it again evaluating every nuance, every gesture of Frank’s. My suspicion that Frank had held something back returned like an itch I couldn’t scratch. My instinct said there was definitely something he had not told me, but what? And why? Surely, Frank wouldn’t fuck me about on a job this important?
“Deadly” Declan Dooley was Libyan trained and had set booby- trapped bombs that had so far taken the lives of three highly skilled bomb disposal officers as well as a number of innocent civilians.
Dooley was not a local, he came to The North when sent for, used his expertise and was spirited away again to safety. He was one of the Provisional IRA’s greatest assets and they wouldn’t risk him unduly. If he hadn’t been shagging some IRA commander’s wife, I wouldn’t be waiting for him now.
Intelligence knew almost nothing about Dooley, they had no photos, his age and description was also unknown. Only his lethal work bore his unmistakable signature.
Another hour dragged by before I was alerted by a movement across the street. The man emerged from the doorway and moved off.
Ten minutes later a car drew up at the shop and three people got out. It was too late to worry about the briefing now. Taking great care not to move the curtain I slowly drew my pistol.
A massive man got out of the car first, the gun looking tiny in his huge fist. He looked up and down the empty street then opened the car boot. The driver was the watcher I’d seen earlier. He came and unlocked the shop door. All three then started carrying sacks into the shop. No one spoke. After five sacks were carried in the driver jumped in the car and drove off. The smell of diesel on fertilizer reached my nostrils and I almost sneezed. The hairs on my neck were tingling.
The smallest of the trio, a slim silhouetted figure carrying a briefcase, shuffled forward clad in a baggy boiler suit and black beanie hat and knelt down by the sacks out of my sight below the counter level.
I heard the click-clack of locks springing as the brief case was opened. The bomber’s torch cast a faint glow, causing ghost-like shadows on the ceiling. It would be enough light to do my business.
Then the minder, instead of guarding the door, started prowling around the sales floor opening cupboards and kicking at empty cardboard boxes. Christ, I thought, what’s he doing? This was not supposed to be happening. He should be standing at the door watching the street where I could get a clear shot at him not mooching about the shop. I couldn’t risk exposing myself and hoping to place my shots with the precision the job demanded.
Things were rapidly turning shit-shaped. The bomber wouldn’t take long and then the driver would be back. I didn’t want a gunfight. This was supposed to be a double execution not the fuckin’ OK Corral.
Happenings like these are known as the ‘buggeration factor’ in Army-speak. Nearly every job had one when things went off plan. This was buggeration big time.
Then the minder came behind the counter. I checked my breathing. Had I been stitched up? Fuckin’ Frank, have you stitched me up you twat? Where was this guy’s pistol pointing? Was it to pointing to his front ready to fire the instant he saw me? I heard him pulling out the old-fashioned cash drawer. What the hell did he expect to find in there for god’s sake? But at least this told me he had no knowledge of my presence. His shoe scraped as he swivelled to the alcove and the curtain was jerked aside.
A huge jowly face stared down at me in shocked disbelief, his weapon pointing ceiling-wards Hollywood style. The guy recovered fast and started to bring his gun to bear but he was way too late. I rammed my pistol into his throat and fired. The plop of the suppressor, though quiet, sounded like a thunderclap to me. The big man’s eyes instantly went blank, his face sagged as he flopped, his weapon clattering on the floor. Quickly stepping over the corpse I leaned over the counter weapon pointing.
‘Don’t shoot. I surrender. You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed woman, would you?’ the tiniest of pauses then: ‘I’m pregnant.’ Her voice came with heavy Dublin accent, urgent but not panicky.
Declan was a woman? I was stunned and, momentarily taken aback, I hesitated for a second. Then I read her intentions.
As she rose swiftly to her feet it looked for an instant like she was putting her hands up. Then her torch arced into my eyes and her right hand flashed into her pocket. I sensed rather than saw her pistol appear. I had changed my point of aim as she rose but half blinded it was fire and hope. My bullet went into her throat.
‘Yes, I’m afraid I would shoot you, lady, pregnant or no.’ I told her corpse.
I knew the ‘pregnant’ claim was an add-on by a quick-thinking enemy, an appeal to my humanity in the hope of delaying me for another second. Instead it had betrayed her deceit.
‘Shoot them in the neck’ Frank had told me ‘That way when they’re blown to pieces there will be very little chance of bullet holes being found.’
I saw the sense in that, their limbs and heads would be torn off and mangled almost beyond recognition. However, even after suffering a huge blast, the torso tended to stay fairly intact. Bullet holes found post mortem would make the bombers martyrs and we Brits murderers.
‘And what if I can’t manage that boss? It will be pretty dark you know. That’s bloody difficult shooting.’
Frank’s icy blue eyes had glinted their displeasure, his face set hard. Gone the laid-back attitude ‘If you fail’ he emphasized the word to indicate I’d better not ‘just get the buggers dead, OK? We’ll sort the flack out later.’ It was clear Frank had not wanted his plan questioned.
‘We picked you because you’re supposed to be the best. Now fuckin’ prove it’ his voice was harsh, the cut glass accent radiating disdain.
Yes, there had definitely been an edge to Frank’s briefing. Now I knew why and I was not happy.
With a great effort I dragged the big man from behind the counter, Ye Gods, the bugger weighed a ton. I dumped him next to the door. Briefly inspecting my handiwork, I saw both bodies had large gory exit wounds made by my 9 mm hollow point bullets.
Next, I picked up her flashlight and examined the bomber’s equipment. Bloody hell, she’d meant business. There were three trembler switches, a mercury tilt switch, a pressure plate and several detonators as well as an American made timer.
Each device had its own power supply and would work independently but was also to be interconnected so that cutting a wire on one would collapse electro magnets allowing contacts to close. Once armed, these devices needed only a slight nudge to detonate the explosives. After setting the timer and arming it there was no going back. Switching off the timer would also cause detonation.
I grudgingly admired the bomber’s handiwork. By utilizing a clever prewired loom a highly complex bomb could be set in minutes.
On top of the fertilizer was a kilo of the powerful commercial plastic explosive, Semtex1A. That was the booster charge. For some reason I couldn’t explain even to myself I cut the charge in half with my jack knife and wrapped it in my handkerchief before pocketing it along with a detonator and the tilt switch.
I connected a detonator to the timer, switching it on. If there was a fault it would blow the detonator and not the main charge making it a nasty but survivable shock. I pushed the detonator into the plastic.
Now I had to consider the timing. After pondering for a few seconds, I thought three minutes would have to do. I had to get clear but if I left it too long the driver might return, discover the bodies and flee. There could be no witnesses.
I took a final look around. The street as far as I could see was empty but there was no way I would risk leaving by the front door.
I lifted the top bag and placed the Semtex beneath it. I flicked the arming switch to set the timer going.
Making my way carefully down the alley at the rear of the shop I kept my pistol out and ready. It was highly unlikely any watcher would still be there but caution was everything in this game.
There was a movement to my front left, slight, yes, but a movement. I froze watching, listening, breathing suspended, my eyes straining to penetrate the inky blackness. I was still too near the target, I had to move soon or risk being killed by the blast. After thirty seconds the movement came again, I raised my weapon my finger on the hair trigger. A cat yowled its protest at me for invading its territory, leapt off the waste bin and fled.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I moved on as quickly as caution permitted. I had no more time to waste.
Reaching the end of the alley I turned right along the gable end of the terrace of shops and stopped. Peering around the corner into the dimly lit street I was about to cross when the car suddenly returned, its headlights illuminated the gloom all the way down to where I was hiding. It pulled up outside the target; I was a scant fifty metres away, too bloody close for comfort.
The car waited outside the shop its engine idling. A long minute dragged by, I couldn’t move. If the driver saw me he might take off and then there’d be a witness.
The man left the car gun in hand glancing nervously up and down the empty street.
I watched him through the gap between the drainpipe and the wall, he check his watch, then went to the door and knocked. As if in answer the bomb detonated.
The blinding flash lit up the street as bright as the sun, the pressure wave crushing my eardrums. I flattened myself hard against the wall. I knew I was safe from the blast but not from falling debris. A huge brick landed not a foot in front of me, shattering into fragments. A small shard of glass slashed my ear causing me to cry out in pain, blood spilling down my neck and into my collar.
It was another forty seconds before bricks, slates and more shards stopped raining down. Sirens started their electronic hee-hawing in the distance. It was time to go.
In the debriefing I contained my fury. There was no point in showing how pissed off I was, not yet anyway, not until I knew for certain. After going over the briefing yet again I realised that Frank had never once used the name Declan, ‘he’ or ‘him’ always ‘the bomber’ or ‘the targets.’
I slumped sullenly into an armchair as far away from the desk as I could get, staring defiantly, daring Frank to ask me to sit closer.
I was ignored as Frank continued to write in a document folder with studied indifference. Finally, he looked up.
‘How did it go, Jack?’ I heard you were injured, nothing serious I hope?
I ignored his questions staring for a full ten seconds before answering, my emotions in turmoil. ‘Deadly Declan turned out to be Deadly Delores’ I said carefully keeping my voice neutral. Frank’s eyes flicked away for just a fraction of a second but it was the final proof that the man had known. ‘But of course, you knew that at the briefing’ I added.
Frank started a denial but I cut him off abruptly ‘don’t bullshit me Frank, OK?’ I continued to stare unblinking. Christ, I wanted to punch the devious bastard.
‘They thought you might not do the job if you knew’ he said lamely ‘Declan was killed in a drink driving incident a week ago but the job had already been scheduled. He’d taught his girlfriend all he knew. She simply took his place and the IRA didn’t announce the death to keep his legend alive.’
‘So, that’s why you didn’t give the job to the SAS, eh? Most of ‘em are known to be squeamish about killing women.’
Frank’s face reddened ‘Sorry Jack, it wasn’t my idea, it came from above.’
My temper finally snapped ‘just who the hell are “They” Frank?’ I yelled ‘When you recruited me for the hit team, I told you I would only work for you and not for any damned buck-passing committee.’
‘Aw, c’mon Jack, everybody has a boss, you know that. I…’
I got up and crossed rapidly to Frank’s desk, the fist I wanted to slam into his face I slammed onto the desk instead.
‘Those reptiles in Whitehall are too interested in their own fucking careers to give a shit about us blokes in the field Frank, and you know it. You should have told me and bollocks to their orders.’ Normally I control my feeling well but this was a betrayal of trust. The job was dangerous enough without my own side playing me.
I was furious that Frank was playing down the significance of it, siding with the interfering bastards.
‘Again, all I can say is sorry, Jack. Now, can we press on please?’ he said impatiently. He was trying to brush it all aside, like my life didn’t matter. Well it mattered to me.
‘No, we can’t’ I shouted ‘sorry isn’t good enough Frank. I will not be manipulated by a bunch of Whitehall wankers who know three fifths of fuck-all about life in the field.’
I had to fight for control whilst I continued to stare at the bastard. He looked down at his hands unable to meet my gaze.
It was a while before I could speak calmly again ‘well, you can find yourself another man mate, I resign….. as of now.’
‘Be reasonable Jack, it was only a small omission.’
‘Small omission my arse Frank, it was a breach of trust. Surprise damn near got me killed.’
‘Believe me Jack, it’ll never happen again.’
‘You’ve got that bit right Frank’ I said ‘there’s no such thing as ninety nine percent total trust. You’ve blown it.’
I turned and walked swiftly to the door, the anger still seething inside me.
‘Where the hell do you think you’re going Sergeant Major? This meeting isn’t over yet.’
I turned, ‘yes it fuckin’ well is’ I said ‘and don’t pull that rank shit on me Major whatever-the-fuck-your-real-name-is.’ with that I marched out slamming the door.
In our unit we never used rank for practical reasons. If we were working in the field together, we didn’t want any slip ups like calling someone sir. Frank had deliberately reintroduced rank in an attempt to control me. He was on a loser there.
In my room I pulled out a bottle of Bushmills and poured myself a stiff one, my thoughts dark.
Resigning from the two-man hit team was a big no-no and I knew it. Once in there was no way out until you either stopped a bullet or they released you.
Our unit rarely killed anyone, only those otherwise untouchables who caused hugely disproportionate damage; the ones beyond the reach of law. The other guy on the hit team was still a probationer, fully trained but lacking in field experience. Frank wouldn’t give up.
14th Company (The Detachment) was an off-shoot of the British Army Intelligence Corps that did the dirty, deniable stuff. Most other soldiers didn’t even know we existed. Our main task was gathering intelligence to brief the Special Air Service on covert ops. We also spread half-truths, rumours and subtle lies to keep the enemy on the hop.
The IRA and the Provisional IRA were deeply suspicious of each other and we exploited this schism to the full. If they were busy fighting amongst themselves, they would have less time to focus on murdering soldiers and policemen.
Declan Dooley had not only killed three ordnance experts but also a dozen innocent civilians, too. Captured, he would have been a hero, a symbol of resistance inspiring others. Imprisoned, he would have been able to pass on his knowledge.
Now Dooley was just another failed bomber who’d made his last mistake taking two comrades with him. The legend was ended. Bleeding-heart Liberals would not be bleating about the so-called ‘moral’ issues, calling for a public enquiry. No propaganda victory for the IRA, no cloak of victimhood to be paraded in America to raise funds.
Frank would leave me alone tonight of that I was sure. He wouldn’t report my insubordination until his routine visit to Army HQ two days hence. In the meantime, he’d try to win me round. They couldn’t afford a loose cannon in their midst. If it ever got out what we were up to the repercussions would echo not only around the Government but the rest of the world, too. It would generate huge sympathy and funds for the enemy.
Receiving duff information at a briefing was a common enough occurrence. Intelligence is far from an exact science and I accepted that but deliberately omitting vital information went beyond the pale. If I allowed the bastards to get away with it this time, they’d do it again when they deemed it expedient.
Fuck ‘em all I thought. I threw back my drink and poured another one. ‘Fuck ‘em all to hell’ I muttered then I got slowly and grandly pissed.
Frank called me to his office the next day ‘You thought any more about what you threatened last night?’
‘Yes’ I said ‘and my decision stands.’
He let out a long sigh ‘Look man, they aren’t going to let you resign, you must know that, surely?’
We bandied the issue about for a few minutes before he said ‘I’m sorry Jack, but I’ll have to report this. I’ll leave it to the last minute, until I go to HQ tomorrow, but then my hands will be tied.’
‘OK’ I said, ‘I’ll think on it’ knowing full well I wouldn’t. My mind was made up. Sure, they’d find a way to take me out and they had a lot more resources than me however, I had half a plan.
Next day I was waiting by the gate as Frank drove up. He stopped and lowered the window of the Jag ‘You got something to tell me, Jack?’
‘Yeah’ I said ‘will you drop me at the off-licence? I need some stuff.’
He looked surprised ‘Get in.’
We drove the half mile to the shop in silence, he was expecting me to tell him I’d changed my mind and was back on the team. I knew that wasn’t an option now that I’d shown prolonged defiance of authority. They couldn’t live with that, these staff officer types who thought they were so fucking superior.
At best I’d be given the most dangerous of jobs until, inevitably, I got unlucky. At worst, they’d engineer my demise.
‘Thanks’ I told Frank as I opened the car door ‘you go ahead and make that report.’
‘Jack, are you serious? Don’t do this.’
‘Bye Frank’ I said as I closed the door and made my way into the shop.
He drove off. I watched from the shop seeing him stop at the traffic lights a hundred yards away. When the lights changed, he turned left up the steep hill towards HQ. I heard the explosion as the tilt switch and Semtex did their job. HQ would never get his report now and maybe my next boss wouldn’t be a pandering arsehole.