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The Reluctant Promise

Short story By: Peter Hunter
Mystery and crime



Computer expert solves riddle of artificial intelligence - inadvisably tells girl in wine-bar. Backfires with sinister repercussions 46 years later...
(is this really fiction?)


Submitted:Feb 11, 2012    Reads: 9    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


The List

by Peter Hunter

By now he was technically an alcoholic…

The thought amused Sam Fields, downing his eighth or ninth vodka of the evening - he'd long lost count. But it really didn't matter. One certainty remaining was that he would not die from alcoholic poisoning.

The shabby little flat was almost passable viewed through eyes softened by strong spirit. Home? Not really - just a place to sleep, eat perhaps - and store the few pathetic belongings he had accumulated over the years.

Not a place to share with friends, this hovel overlooking Endless Street in the historic cathedral city of Salisbury. Not a home to cherish and spend money on or look forward to returning to.

Not - certainly a place in which to die…

Thank Christ for the alcohol - it made it just a gnat's better - it was preferable to conventional painkillers.

Where would be a good place to die?

What would dignify a last resting place for an old soldier like Sam Fields? Not the cancer ward in that new hospital built at Odstock on the outskirts of the city. Not any bloody hospital if he could help it. Fussed over, prodded, examined. He'd had all that - nearly two bloody years of it.

Fat lot of good it had done…

Already he could taste the decay - sense the darkness creeping in, edging out what little light remained in his life. It didn't help that he had no one to talk to - no one to tell, perhaps glean a little support. That had been one of the best bits about the army - there were always mates to share things with.

Outside - nobody gave a damn…

Another vodka - straight - no longer a drink, but rocket fuel to kick his rotting body into a dim orbit of artificial well being.

Why had he agreed?

Months of surgery and chemotherapy - then the indignity of intensive care wards, unfulfilled promises, periods of hope - all proven desperately futile…

He must have visited every pub in the centre of Salisbury in the six or seven hours since discharging himself from hospital.

A record perhaps? Sam Field's latest pub-crawl? Sergeant Sam Fields to give him his full title - his life perhaps had not been a complete failure.

There were good times when fit and wild and driven by a love of life. No need for the drink in those days either. Not with the Paras - the buzz, the high of adrenalin from the action was all he needed then.

The blade flashed silver - spinning lazily through the shaft of sunlight cascading from the window. Its last half-turn ended with a satisfying thump as the needle-sharp point sliced an inch into the whiteness of the deal board fixed to the door - hanging quivering slowly into stillness.

The speed and angle the knife left the thrower's hand had been judged perfectly - hilt first, aimed exactly at the heart of the silhouette pencilled onto the wood.

With a sly grin of satisfaction, Sam walked the seven feet to retrieve the missile to repeat the throw for perhaps the fiftieth time. He relaxed this way - helping him think - his personal yoga, a habit first acquired in Vietnam whilst on secondment to the USA military.

Minutes earlier, searching for his least grubby glass, he had glimpsed his face in the mirror. His face? It must have been his face but even his mother would not have recognised it.

Hollowed cheeks - where a ruddy plumpness had once contoured his leathery flesh - days of beard growth shading a jaw line sagging with despair, tight grim lips, drawn into a cruel thinness that would shame a skeleton - all pointed to something - illness, old age or a debilitating tiredness borne out of losing his will to live in a world that had lost all moral direction?

Now lines etched deeply in his face, resembling a nineteenth century railway map, and his eyes - once his best feature, grey-blue lenses piercing as they probed and scanned for weaknesses in others. Daunting eyes that once excited women and frightened men - now just deep dark slits, crevices in a furrowed receding cliff passing as his forehead. Now he looked twenty years older - it had taken so little time, this accelerated ageing.

'Thank you, National Health Service

Thank you for making me age so quickly,' he muttered at the mirror before ripping the oval glass from the wall and shattering it into ten thousand shards around the refuse bin.

'No more bloody looking glasses…'

Fucking doctors - what a bloody waste of time.

He could have spent all those long months enjoying himself - pissed and happy along his final march into oblivion. Why did the medics fed him so many false hopes? Why didn't they bugger off and practice on someone else? He'd suspected the truth from the beginning - the inevitability of it - since the first persistent pain in his guts.

Why had he been sucked by their words - gone along with their optimism?

He was very sleepy now, sedated by the combination of alcohol and strong analgesics. From underneath the mattress he extracted the big Colt 44 Magnum semi-automatic pistol. He checked the magazine's contents before gently caressing the worn blue-black finish of the heavy weapon. It was illegal of course - a little present; a memento, donated posthumously by a teenage Argentinean soldier he'd unofficially executed on the slopes above Port Stanley.

He continued caressing the gun - the memories of the Falklands War stimulating him along with the warmth from the vodka. It had been a bloody good war - the highlight of his life. Years of training and then climaxed finally by the chance to put it all to work.

Everything since had seemed so banal…

Perhaps, he reflected, it would have been better if he'd died there - killed while his adrenalin was hyped by fear and excitement. That would have been better than the future now promised…

Future?

Strange word after the events of his day. What had that consultant said? Three months at the most, Mr Fields. I'm sorry - we've done our best…

Three months - three lousy stinking months - ninety more sunrises and sunsets at the most. Two thousand hours lying awake, breathing the air, eating, drinking - thinking about imminent, endless darkness. The pain increasing, body getting a little weaker each moment as more of what were once his guts rotted away by the cancer. Each new morning a dawn to curse, no flag to salute. It would have been so much better in the Falklands - a landmine perhaps, or a sudden bullet.

Not that he wasn't prepared for it. He'd known in his heart these past two years - known what was coming. So, what was different about today?

The moment of truth. Hearing it from the specialist - the officer class - hearing it officially?

At least two years of pain, operations, the discomfort, had given him time to prepare himself mentally, to start carrying out his one remaining ambition. Long, had been the hours of pondering and planning, thinking how he would react, what he would do.

What does someone do when they have at the most, three months to live?

Reaching up to the shelf holding his few books, he extracted from between his favourite two thrillers, Time Of The Eagle and Time Of The Spider - a sheet of white paper. It contrasted brightly with the smoked-stained dull wallpaper and the room's faded paintwork.

How many more would he have time for - two perhaps? Five names were carefully listed down the left hand side of the paper.

The first two were ticked - items attended to or dealt with. His finger settled pedantically on the third name. It had no mark beside it. He read aloud, as if tasting the words - 'John Bellingham - CEO of Wessex Fabric Industries'.

Picking up the gun, he checked its magazine. Once more, he stroked the pistol as if it were a much-loved pet - then with sudden urgency, he pulled back the sliding action, cocking the hammer with a crisp click.

Another spasm from deep in his rotting intestines twisted his face into a hideous, distorted and grotesque mask. He hefted the big Colt, two handed - a professional's grip - sighting it at a fading photograph of his mother propped up on the shelf. Her features dissolved into soft focus amongst the cigarette haze.

Deliberately he sighted on the narrow space between her eyes. The image dissolved - losing its detail. Now it wasn't his mother - it was Bellingham's face.

He wondered how so many folk found it difficult to understand the 'madness' - the motives of those committing atrocities such as multiple shootings - mass murder, that sort of thing.

Sam understood it only too well - wondering why it was not more common.

He squeezed the trigger…

The silence - ended by the sharp snap of the firing pin hitting the empty receiver…

Yes, he thought - this was the only, his only conceivable way. Two down - next Bellingham. Perhaps there would then be time for the other one. Why should he, Sam Fields, die alone?

Take some of the bastards with him and with luck he might himself get it in the process.

Preferable to this sordid room or some sterilised hospital bed.

Best by far…

Better than waiting for Big C to extinguish the lights…

* * *

The animal paused - stopped its nervous chewing, body freezing in an instant. Only its ears moved - each one half-rotating slowly, independently, like two radar scanners, as it sat almost upright. But its big eyes - liquid jet pools reflecting the light.

Alert, senses tuned for danger…

Slowly a head emerged above the bracken fringing the tiny clearing, where the animal and its friends had cropped the grass, short to the consistency of lush turf. The man's senses, his nose and taste buds appreciated the air now clear and fresh, flavored with that faintly acidic tang that lingers long after a passing shower.

Instinctively the animal tensed, ready to bolt - its hind legs bent double to propel it into the safety of nearby brambles. Its large eyes, designed for twilight or darker, were slower than its hearing in detecting danger. A short hop, just eighteen inches or so - then it crouched again, expecting a threat - but uncertain what direction it would come from.

Undecided on the best escape route…

The sixteen inches of wrist-thick beech branch the man used for a throwing stick, missed the rabbit by a hand span, after spinning across the fifteen or sixteen wide yards between them.

He cursed - not been a bad shot but the creature had moved slightly during the second or so the heavy stick had been in flight - a near miss - but still a miss. He reflected that his success rate using a throwing stick was no better than one or two out of ten.

The animal - unwilling to offer him another chance - bolted towards its home in the nearby bramble thicket. It did not see or hear, hardly even felt what killed it - as during its startled flight along the twelve yards of grazed turf along the worn track to its burrow - it accelerated rapidly.

When a three-pound animal going fifteen miles per hour, is stopped instantly by its head entering a wire noose - there is but one outcome - a somersault as the heavy bodyweight stopping immediately - snapping the creature's spinal cord cleanly and instantly.

Just below the cranium…

Releasing the fat bunny from the noose, the man grunted with primitive satisfaction. Amateurs think such traps kill by strangulation - but only a useless hunter permits that.

Rabbit snares are set precisely where the animal bolts when alarmed. Its head goes through the noose - pulling it from its fixing stick, taking up the three inches of slack - the sudden stop uses the momentum and weight of the animal itself, to break its own neck.

The hunter wished his own death might be so quick and clean…

Smiling, pleased with himself - this trick had worked many times - the carefully positioned snare providing him a second chance after the usual miss with the throwing stick startled the animal into less cautious bolting.

Automatically, using thumb and forefinger, he firmly stroked the animal rearward from its lower rib cage towards its tail. The first two or three caresses inducing a thin squirt of piss onto the thick turf. With no more urine remaining inside to contaminate the meat, he rested the creature's paws each in turn on a convenient section of dead log, chopping them off with a heavy bladed knife.

Cutting a groove in the fur around the neck, he used his fingers to separate the membrane between skin and flesh, easing the coat from the carcass, skinning it in a few seconds. Still warm and steaming, the fur-covered skin parted readily from the meat. Only its legs remained - needing care to prevent the sharp, severed bones piecing his skin.

Taking the blade, he slit its belly from rib cage to tail, trying not to inhale the stench from the animal's guts, then scooped out the mass of entrails carefully separating the liver, heart and kidneys.

A whittled hazel twig provided a convenient skewer to impale lumps of meat - bunny kebabs over his small fire. In half an hour they would be done - the cooking smell was making him hungry - unusually so considering his medical condition. A thinner de-barked hazel twig then made a skewer for the heart, liver and two tiny kidneys. Little could compare with their taste…

The rapidly fading light would hide the smoke from his minimal campfire but he had not yet found signs of any gamekeeper in this corner of the estate. Feeling secure, he ate only half the rabbit - the most his stomach could take these days.

The remainder would make tomorrow's breakfast.

Raising his binoculars, he resumed his lonely vigil - watching, spying on Elton Hall, John Bellingham's country residence.

For a while at least, he forgot the cancer pain in his guts…

* * *

Sam cursed the dawn - as he had done every recent morning.

As the light unfolded and the land again renewed its energy and life, he resented its fresh vitality, craving only his own personal eternal darkness to relieve him from his helplessness to control his own survival.

Each new dawn was a personal betrayal - and he cursed death's failure to finish him the previous night…

The pain was now very bad. He had neither painkillers nor his old friend Alcohol, to pull death's teeth, blunting its aggression. At each fresh betrayal, he screamed abuse at all the gods of destiny, though he could not name one of them.

Each day true sleep become increasingly elusive, the pain ensured that. His only relief was from drinking the drug he extracted from a common waterside tree.

Repeatedly… Sam defied those gods, cursing them, calling them all sorts of bastards - and challenging them to prove their power - by squashing out his life. Not one picked up his gauntlet - his challenge, whether from sadism, retribution or simple incompetence, he would never perhaps know. No bolt of lightening struck him down. For now, only the creatures of field and woodland, rabbits, crows, an occasional deer or squirrel - were close enough to share his anguish and heed his cries.

Each day his bitterness grew with the awakening light - intensifying as morning dragged by so slowly - his mouth foul and stained by the dirty brown drug infusion that he dosed himself with continuously to dull the agony. Towards each night the bitterness would subside a little, helped no doubt by his hope it would be his last.

Many times he caressed even kissed his Colt automatic, whilst sharing his nocturnal loneliness with a hooting owl or prowling fox. Often he slipped off the safety catch then inserting the muzzle of the pistol into his mouth. As the tang of oil and steel mingled with the other metallic copper juices of fear already on his tongue, he would lightly brush the curved trigger with the ball of his thumb.

The ultimate blow job, he thought… but then…

Just two pounds of pressure on that sliver of steel and his world would end in a white-hot explosion shattering flesh and brain tissue.

The ultimate orgasm, or just excruciating pain..?

Who amongst the living, could ever, really tell? Perhaps going would be even better than coming

The idea of such a climatic exit fascinated him - but each time he stepped back - hesitating to take that final action. However on every occasion he knew that one tiny wrong move on that small blue steel lever would write his ticket to the thereafter.

Surely if there were indeed gods - any god - one would by now, have joined in his game?

Now another painful, lingering night was creeping in to torment and overwhelm Sam Fields…

Perhaps there would be no more dawn to curse. Each time he toyed with the gun, the temptation became greater and greater - and he'd always believed he was the ultimate survivor?

Death he realised - made fraudsters of us all...

Long gone were the days when he inflicted pain on strangers but seldom received it. Only others, what he thought as lesser men had screamed with agony, begging their gods for death's ultimate relief. Then he'd scorned their weakness. Now he craved for the same thing, but some stubborn ideal, perhaps that old survival instinct, prevented him from ending his own life.

He now spent very little time spying on Bellingham's estate house. Each day he again reminded himself of his purpose - he was there to kill the man. To taste the sweet and sour flavour that rewards revenge - enjoying a meal that he always believed was best eaten cold. But each day his motivation faded - his body growing weaker, dragging his spirit with it.

Perhaps he should have stayed in Salisbury - drinking himself to death.

He grinned at his little joke…

Most of his time was now spent lying in the shelter he had built, sipping his pain-killing white willow infusion. He had constructed a bender - a Gypsy dome from bent hazel poles and covered with thick layers of green pine branches. He'd built it carefully and hidden remotely in the centre of a dense plantation of middle aged spruce trees.

The bender was wind proof, kept out most of the rain and was well camouflaged. There was little likelihood of being disturbed, and the thousands of pines surrounding him gave added protection when the wind blew strongly.

His improvised shelter was comfortable and he could light a small, almost smokeless fire made only from twigs that had been dead and drying for many years. It was extremely unlikely he would be detected. There was an abundance of the pine twigs, one less reason to leave his lair - but he had to bring in water from a stream half a mile distant. His main need to travel was to feed his need for more painkillers - as the cancer limited his appetite and he needed fewer journeys to trap or collect food.

Apart from his irregular visits to Bellingham's estate three miles distant, the longest trips he now made were to collect the material for the infusion. He took care never to visit the same location more than once, in case the scars of his harvesting attracted the wrong sort of attention.

The drug had by now become addictive. It tasted disgusting, acid sharp and left an unpleasantly bitter aftertaste that dried the skin inside his mouth and throat. But it meant survival. Without it, he would by now have returned to Salisbury to try to drink himself into oblivion.

As he reclined in the premature darkness under the pine tops he didn't fully understand why the drug helped so much. Long ago, attending a survival course, it had been comprehensively explained to him.

Salicylic acid, present in some common painkillers is found in a very common tree, the white willow. The preparation is known amongst many survival specialists and probably has been used for thousands of years before the advent of modern medicine. It is quite an involved process and can be very dangerous if the correct skills are not known.

Sam needed so much of the drug that he was continuously working on producing it whilst he was in his camp. As soon as the contents of one can were ready, he strained the debris, through a clean handkerchief into a two litre plastic bottle. He immediately started making up the next batch. It gave off a smell infinitely better than its taste - slightly sweet, and herbal - the aroma in keeping with the pine scent of the woods around him.

He swore it also kept insects away…

Sam had too much time to think and remember. He was confused - the survivor in him resented the imminence of his departure, but the pain made him crave for death's release. Strangely, there also existed another emotion - one telling him that the world, as he had so often enjoyed it - was, like him, fading away fast.

He had long resented the greed, the hypocrisy - the worship of money as the only real god - an increasing jettisoning of ancient values that had long sustained him and his kindred spirits.

Perhaps death would rectify that, sort of purify it - maybe transport him to the warmth of some flickering heavenly campfire where he could share with comrades - men of his own kind, the stories and memories of more honourable days. Whenever the pain subsided a little he fantasised about such of place.

One in which old warriors might find, enjoy eternal peace.

With others of their fugitive kind…

Sergeant Sam Fields was not the Last Warrior, he knew that, but he thought himself one of the last of the breed. His kind was fast disappearing, sinking beneath a crazy electronic world of flashing lights and flickering screens - computers controlling everything…

…perhaps eventually, even what men believed?

In his imagination he saw no more room for personal decisions or creativity. Everything pre-mapped, pre-planned, squeezing out initiative or originality - maybe even leadership. War by remote control - a giant computer game no longer with a rôle or even a need for heroes…

A world, madly lusting for self-destruction.

He would be well out of it…

Now, with a gentle breeze rustling the dark pine needles - more desolate nocturnal hours were promised. Sam compulsively swigged his foul willow concoction. Under its foul bitter-sharp acidity, he imagined he could taste the sweet shadows of eternal night.

The darkness surrounding the campfire that warmed his old comrades - waiting for him to join them…

* * *

The man Bellingham recently hired for his private security felt slightly uneasy - as if he was being watched. He was an ex-army man having spent years as a professional hunter in Kenya. Now, back in Britain he hired out for interesting and risky jobs where his skills could be utilised. Seldom using his real name - he was widely and popularly known as Tracker.

Slowly scanning the trees, plants and the ground for unusual signs beside the narrow stream he found fresh mud, where a byway forded it. The path was used by horse riders, keeping it soft and damp. Amongst the hoof prints from yesterday's equestrians were fresh ones made during the night or earlier that morning. Between them were the slot-marks, prints of a fallow deer and Tracker's admired friend the fox - but most visible were those of an army type combat boot.

Tracker tensed, he was not the only man in this early morning woodland. Gently he screwed his Mars Bar wrapper into a tight ball, before storing it in a jacket pocket. Leaving the dead vixen beside the dead tree trunk, he picked up his Sauer rifle and turned around.

He listened. The woodland was almost silent. Strange at this early hour, when it should have been loud with bird song. It might, he believed, be his presence that caused the intrusion. But he thought not. He'd long been able to move almost silently though countryside, automatically becoming one with it - a rare but valuable gift. No - there was something else unsettling this corner of the wood.

The face watching him - did so behind the barrel, along the sights of a heavy Colt automatic pistol…

Raising his rifle to hip level, Tracker slipped the safety catch and fired in one smooth movement - but the bullet only caught the edge of the man's jacket as he flung himself sideways into a bed of young stinging nettles. For the second time that morning, the woodland resonated with the sound of rifle fire after Tracker's earlier shot, killing the vixen. Looking into Tracker's face he dropped the pistol in a pathetic gesture of surrender as the hunter chambered another round.

'Don't shoot. I mean you no harm.' the other man's voice was breathless and feeble. 'All the energy's knocked out of me, mate. I've got nothing left.'

Tracker stared at the other man's face…

'I know you from somewhere?' He found the gaunt pale face against the ground in front of him, vaguely familiar.

'Catterick, late seventies,' said the face, '…you're Max Abbot aren't you?

It had been so long since anyone had addressed him by his full name that Tracker hesitated before nodding agreement.

'I'm Sam Fields,' said the face, '…you obviously don't recognise me…'

Catterick, 1977, the sergeants mess, Tracker slowly recalled, Could this really be Sam Field? This old man before him clearly displaying death in his face - was he the once super fit lightweight regimental boxing champion?

'I can see what you're thinking,' said the face. '…you're right; I'm no threat to anyone now - not even the bloke I'm here to kill...'

For an hour or so, they talked. Sam was now physically very weak. Dodging Tracker's bullet had severely drained his remaining adrenalin. He told of his health problems - how he was living out his last few hours.

He confessed to having come to kill Bellingham, but no longer had either the strength or the motivation.

'I've had it mate,' he told Tracker, his voice subsided to only a whisper, '…my lights are almost out. Probably won't make it back to my bivvy...'

'Where's that?' the ex-hunter asked.

'West of here - two miles… In a fir plantation by the Devizes road.'

'I know it. Would you like me to help you back there?' He reached forward, to assist the dying man to his feet. Sam waved him off.

'No thanks mate. Either I'll make it on my own or I'll drop somewhere on the way. Whichever, I want to be on my own… private, see?'

Tracker understood…

'One more favour, for an old army mate?' he looked at Tracker - eyes fast losing their light.

'Yes…'

'If you find my body - bury me… Near to where you find me…just you. Don't involve anyone else… OK?'

'OK,' agreed Tracker.

'Deep enough…' insisted Sam, '…so some bloody dog doesn't dig me up. I don't want to go back to any town. Don't want to be near people… Make it some place where I could watch the sunset from my grave….'

'I promise…' said Tracker - preparing to leave the old soldier - his former mate… to make his own way back to Bellingham's house…

A little later - for the third time that morning, the woods echoed with a gunshot. This time it was not a rifle - but the short sharp crack of a heavy Colt Automatic pistol. Tracker paused listening whilst he worked out exactly where the sound came from and started walking in that direction.

When he reached Sam he stopped silently, pausing for a moment and, out of respect and from habit - saluted.

He would return later and carry out what he had promised…

End

© Peter Hunter 2012





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