Following Vic Messina’s instruction, Alex Moran had driven him to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere.  It was past midnight.  Vic made him turn off the headlights a few hundred yards before they arrived and told him to reduce his speed to a minimum.
   “Stop here,” Vic said as they reached a narrow dirt track leading up to the cabin.
   “Vic, you shouldn’t be doing this, man,” said Alex uneasily.
   Vic bristled at Alex’s words of caution.  He stepped out of the car and Alex followed.
   “She’s got to be in there,” Vic whispered as he glanced at the cabin in the distance.  “With him.”
   Alex looked at the cabin and saw that the lights were on.  He sighed.
   Vic had suspected that his wife had been having an affair for months.  Alex had suggested that Vic searched her route history on the satellite navigation device in her car and his investigation had led them to their current location.  He was now expecting his suspicions to be imminently confirmed.  He had been spurred on to relentlessly address his wife’s betrayal when he noticed that a very large amount of money had been taken from the safe at their home.
   Vic ran a cocaine dealing operation in partnership with Alex.  They received five hundred kilos with every shipment that came from a discreet cartel running out of Colombia, so the money kept in the safe was usually a very large sum.
   “I can’t believe you dragged me out on this reckless errand when we’ve got business to attend to,” Alex said as they walked along the dirt track.
   Vic pulled a glock pistol from his waistband, increasing the pace of his stride as he did so.
   “Don’t do anything rash,” Alex said, noticing the determination on Vic’s face in the moonlight.
   Vic kicked the door open and burst into the cabin like a shot.  Alex did his best to keep up with him, but he was a few steps behind him when he heard the clatter of furniture being thrown, immediately after Vic entered.  By the time Alex reached the same room as him, Vic was holding his wife, Tyra, up against the wall with the glock pointed at her forehead.
   “Where is he?”  Vic growled.
   Vic had not seen Alex retrieve his revolver from beneath his jacket.  He raised it to Vic’s head, pushed it into the back of his neck and cocked it.
   “I’m here,” Alex said.
   Vic froze.  He stared at Tyra and blanched.
   “No,” Vic managed to say, the realisation washing over him.  “Not you, Alex.  You’re yanking my chain, right?”
   “Lower the gun, Vic,” Alex told him.  “Now.”
   “How long?”  Vic began to tremble with rage.
   “What do you care?”  Tyra blurted.  “As long as you’ve probably suspected, I guess.  You’ve only intervened this time because I took off with all that cash.”
   Vic’s arm tensed and he looked like he was approaching breaking point.
   “Vic,” Alex warned him.  “You put that gun down or I swear to God I’ll put a hole in your head.  Taking the money was the only way we could get you out here.  You could have found us here before now if you’d made the effort.”
   “You son of a bitch,” Vic said as he steadily lowered his gun and loosened his grip on Tyra.
   “Turn around,” Alex said.
   Vic obliged and Alex pulled the trigger.  The bullet went through his forehead and out through the back of his head, spraying Tyra’s face with blood.  She screamed with fright and Vic’s body hit the floor with a thud.
Alex let the gun drop to his side and Tyra ran to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly.
   “It worked,” she said hysterically.
   “There’s nothing to stop us now, babe,” Alex said.
   They had it all planned out.  Tyra was to clean the cabin while Alex buried the body in the deep hole he had prepared a week earlier.  There was no civilisation for miles, so they had no concerns about being interrupted.  The task did not take as long as they had anticipated and, two hours later, they were ready to leave.


It was five o’clock on an afternoon in early December.  Harry was sitting at his writing desk in his study, staring out the window at the snow falling onto the back garden.  He had withdrawn from the intensity of the living room downstairs to take advantage of the solitude and serenity that his study provided.  He did not have a headache yet, but he had escaped before its approach.  His grandchildren were very excited about Christmas being a few weeks away and were begging his wife to dig out the decorations from the cupboard under the stairs.  He knew it was inevitable that she would give in to their nagging, so he was ensuring that he was out of the way when she did.
He picked up his fountain pen and flipped over the page on his writing pad to a blank one.  It was probably not the best time that he could have chosen to start his new novel, but Harry had never been one for convention.  He did not know where to begin.  He thought about some of the recent events from the news that he could try to draw inspiration from.  Lord Lucan had gone missing a few weeks before and was still missing.  Two pubs had been bombed in Birmingham, which had killed twenty-one people.  The Home Secretary had announced that the government was intending to criminalise the IRA.  A lot was happening, but nothing was getting his creative juices flowing.
It was 1974 and he was sixty-seven years old.  He had published nine novels and had no intention of stopping.  The way he saw it, if people were still prepared to read his stories, he would keep writing them.  It was not writer’s block that was preventing his thoughts from spilling onto the page – he actually did not believe that such a concept existed.  His consciousness was effortlessly able to place itself beyond the present to envisage a story and narrative.  It was his reluctance to reveal everything about himself that led to his inability to allow the writing to flow freely.  Even after thirty-years, he still preferred to keep his experiences as a young man to himself.
There was a knock at the door.  The door opened and Harry’s son, James, appeared.  He smiled and held a cup and saucer aloft.
“I’ve brought you a cup of tea, Dad,” James said.
“Thank you,” Harry replied.  “I could do with that.”
James entered the room and set the tea down on Harry’s desk beside his writing pad.
“How’s it going?” James asked.  “You making progress?”
“I haven’t even started yet.  I don’t know where to start.”
“Do you know what it’s going to be about?”
“I haven’t got the foggiest idea,” Harry admitted.  “Can you believe it?”
“I can’t believe that you can’t find something to write about, no.  I’ve always wondered why you haven’t ever written about the war.”
Harry lifted his head in surprise and his eyes widened.  “I’ve never been able to face it,” he said.  “When I write, the story plays out in my head.  I’ve been to war, and I’d rather not go back.”
James sunk his hands into his pockets and frowned.  “You’ve never really spoken about the war.”
“You never asked.”
“Fair point.”
They stood in silence for a moment.  Harry took a sip of tea.
“So, what about it then?” James eventually said.
“Come on, Dad,” James pleaded.  “Katie and Sam are running mother ragged down there.  It’s chaos; give me an excuse to stay up here.”
“What do you want to know?”
James stifled a sigh as he sensed that Harry was purposefully being evasive.  “Anything.  You tell me.  Where did you go?”
“I was in the Netherlands in forty-four, if that’s of interest to you,” Harry offered.
“You don’t mean Operation Market Garden?” James asked with surprise.
“That’s what they called it, yes.  So, you know all about it anyway then.”
“I’d still like to hear your take on it.”
Harry stared ponderously at the garden outside the window again and mumbled something that James was not able to hear.
“It could have ended the war,” Harry began to remember.  “It was looking good when it started too.  The plan was to force our way into Germany by crossing the Rhine at the border.  That would have placed the Alliance in an excellent position to pile the pressure onto the retreating Germans.  Do you know why it was called Market Garden?  It was a dual operation, that’s why.  Market was the airborne force that went in first to seize the bridges at various points along the border.  It was a very ambitious operation, to say the least.  They were supposed to secure the bridges so that a swift offensive into Northern Germany could be possible.  Garden was the second phase of the operation, where the ground troops entered the fray.  It was one hell of a battle, let me tell you.  The big one started on a Sunday and, to start with, the news was very positive.  But it must have been obvious to the Germans what was going on.  Intelligence told those strategists that the anti-aircraft capabilities at Arnhem were going to be too strong, so the troops were dropped a few miles away from the target.  The Germans got wind of this and they were quick to react and organise their defences.  Thing’s didn’t go to plan for us.  The drops were going to be staggered, but the weather was atrocious and it had a detrimental effect on the air support over the following days.  A lot of risks were taken in deciding to push forward with the operation, that’s for sure.”
“It was a very bold plan though,” James said when he sensed Harry pause to reflect.
“Oh, yes, dropping thirty thousand allied troops behind enemy lines to seize the bridges on the border, with the tanks and the infantry following behind to relieve them later.  Like I said, it was supposed to end the war.”
Harry looked at James with a sad smile and shook his head.
“What is it?” James asked.
“It’s amazing how the memories don’t fade.  My God, we thought we were going to do it.  When it seemed that the path to Arnhem was clear, the German tanks arrived and they were too much to handle.  On the eighth day, the orders were given to withdraw.  The crossing had been abandoned the day before and we were on the defensive.  We were out of ammunition and running very low on food, so we were really struggling by then.  I remember seeing my best mate fighting in the distance with just a knife in his hand.  Alec his name was.  I’d known him for over a year by then and he was the greatest man I’d even been able to call a friend.  I didn’t see him die because I was distracted by the tanks demolishing the houses that we were fighting in.  I turned and saw him lying on the ground in the distance.  It broke my heart, but I had to carry on.  I couldn’t reach him.”
“How did he die?” James asked.
“I’d rather now dwell on that.  But, I can tell you how he lived.  He epitomised the word bravery.  Whenever we were up against it, he would keep my spirits up.  It seemed that he wouldn’t let anything get him down.  He used to say that he had no intention of giving his life for his country, but he was going to make damned sure that many on the other side were going to for theirs.  He was my hero.  At the bleakest of times, when the the sight of dead bodies was becoming a banality, he always knew the right thing to say.  His words dragged me from the depths of despair and drove me forward.  He’d tell me about how he was going to show me his glorious hometown in Northumberland when the war was over.  He used to bang on about taking me for a pint in Morpeth.”
“He was from around here?” James interjected with surprise.
“He was,” Harry continued.  “But I knew it couldn’t simply be a hankering for home that gave him his motivation.  So, one night, I asked him.  In the end, it was simple after all.  He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a photograph of an angel.  She really was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.  Just the thought of returning to her was enough for him and he really believed that it was going to happen.  Of course it would, he thought.  The war would end one day and he’d simply go home into her arms.  She was his childhood sweetheart and he knew that she would wait for him.  He’d spoken about her that very morning.  Even amongst all that chaos, she was still at the forefront of his thoughts.  When I saw him for the last time, he was the picture of courage.  I thought of running over to join him, but then there was the blast from the tank’s cannon.  I was thrown backwards and I was fortunate not to get crushed under the falling rubble.  I hit my head on the ground and everything went dark.  When I got myself together, I almost choked on the mouthful of dust that I had taken in.  I couldn’t breathe, but eventually I threw up.”
James listened diligently as his father recounted what was obviously a distressing memory.  When Harry paused, James did not know what to say.
“I don’t know how I managed to get out of there,” Harry continued, “but I reached a clearing with my eyes burning from the dust covering my face.  I looked in Alec’s direction again and that was when I saw him lying on the ground, not moving.  A young corporal grabbed me as he ran past and dragged me away with him.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but it turned out I’d been knocked unconscious.  I didn’t get his name; the kid who pulled me out.  That’s...that’s all I have to say about that day.”
“Bloody Hell, Dad,” James eventually said.  “I never knew.”
“But I had a responsibility,” Harry went on, his story apparently unfinished.  “I owed it to Alec to find his girl and let her know how he had died valiantly and how he had thought of her everyday they had been apart.  All I had to go on was her name and her hometown.  When I got home, I headed north from Manchester and departed the train at Morpeth.  His death was a terrible thing and I didn’t expect anything would lighten the burden of bearing the bad news.  It was the most awful way to meet her.  When I found her, she was even more beautiful that in the picture I’d seen.  She was an amazing person to meet at such an unhappy time.  I had to tell her and she was crushed, devastated.  After a while, she appreciated that I had found her and insisted I stay a while.  She was in a hopeless place and needed someone to be with her.  I had nowhere else to be and nothing else mattered as much as being there for her in her time of need.  I told her all about what Alec had done for me, how he’d told me about her, and what he meant to me.”
Harry picked up his cup of tea and leaned back in his chair as if to indicate his account was at an end.  He placidly gazed at the window once again.  To look at him, it seemed that the tragic tale had rendered his languidly devoid of emotion, but James knew different.
“What happened to her?”  James asked.
Unruffled, Harry smiled serenely and answered, “She’s downstairs with her grandchildren.”
James was speechless.
“Remember never to speak of it in front of her.  Fate chose a cruel way to bring us together.  We’ll never forget the grief and hopelessness that led to us meeting.  It’s really amazing what can happen.  Hope is one hell of a thing to come out of what happened.  You know, you can’t see the stars shining brightly in the sky until darkness falls.”
“And you say you haven’t got anything to write about?”  James said, still reeling in surprise.
“It’s our story, Jim,” Harry said.  “No-one else’s.  I’ll be eternally indebted to Alec.  We’ve never spoken of it in front of you because it doesn’t need to be said.  We both know and we could never forget, but there are no words that could do justice to destiny’s sacrifice.  If the war hadn’t taken him, your mother and I might never have met.  You certainly wouldn’t have been born and neither would those two little scamps downstairs.  You understand?”
James nodded solemnly at the falling snow.  He appreciated Harry had shared a memory that was close to his heart, something which he had never done before.  He was not going to press him further on the matter.  If he wants to reveal more, then he will, James thought.
Harry drank his tea.  He felt that he had said enough.


“How did you do?” Melissa asked her husband, Joshua, before the door had even had a chance to close behind him.
“It could have been better,” Joshua replied, trying his best to convey indifference rather than the misery that he was actually feeling.
“You didn’t get it,” Melissa realised, her excited demeanour drooping as she slumped into the sofa.
“Sorry,” said Joshua.
Melissa quickly realised how unsupportive she must have seemed and adjusted herself.
“Hey, come on,” she said with more of an upbeat tone.  “Something’ll come along.”
Joshua had returned from a job interview for a position that they had both desperately hoped he was going to get.  Melissa had been praying that he was going to breeze into the apartment with good news since he had left three hours earlier.  Alas, it was not to be.
He hung up his raincoat and joined her on the sofa.  Dejected, he placed his hand on Melissa’s belly and sighed.
“How’s the bump been today?” he said.
“Lively,” said Melissa.  “He’s having a party in there.”
Melissa was just over eight months pregnant with their first child.  Joshua had been made redundant from his role as a bank clerk three months ago, and one look at Melissa reminded him not to allow himself to succumb to the pressure that he was under.
“Did they specify anything?” Melissa asked, referring once again to the interview.
“It was my QPRS score,” Joshua said.  “It’s just too low for that kind of job.  I should have realised that before going for it.  I’m sorry.”
Melissa held his hand and squeezed it.  “Don’t be silly,” she said.  “You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
The Qualification Points Rating System, or QPRS as it was commonly known as, had been implemented in 2045 as part of a raft of legislation introduced by the New Government.  It was what established which citizens were permitted to do specific activities, kerbing the free-for-all society of years gone-by.  The government deemed QPRS to be a fair, flexible and transparent criterion for defining suitability in modern society. 
Each citizen was rewarded with a thousand driving privilege points for passing their driving test.  That was a citizen’s starting QPRS score and there was only one direction for that score to go.  Deductions mainly occurred as a direct result of a traffic offence, which since 2042 could likely be attributed to driver error or lack of sufficient ability.  2042 saw speed sensor inhibitors fitted to vehicle as standard, preventing it from rising above an allocated speed appropriate to a geographical area’s limit.
“Maybe I’m aiming too high,” Joshua said.  “Perhaps I should be looking at jobs with a specified points requirement rather than punting for the overambitious.”
“It’s ever since that remote reporting technology came out,” Melissa said.  “I’m sure it wasn’t this bad before.”
“You used to be able to dodge the hotspots.  These days, they’re everywhere.”
The remote reporting technology that they referred to was another recent innovation in the automotive industry, serving as an extension to the QPRS policy.  Vehicles rolling off the production line were fitted with panoramic cameras, which provided a live feed to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, enabling drivers to report offences that had been witness to.  Regulation of the system was fierce.  Abuse of the system using fake allegations was punishable via a deduction of points for every spurious instance, rendering citizens likely to only submit reports where they were certain it could be enforced.
“It certainly has its pros and cons, doesn’t it?” Melissa said musingly.
“It does.  On one hand, the driving experience is far less stressful there days.”
“I haven’t heard you moaning about all the old codgers who shouldn’t be on the road anymore,” Melissa observed, before adopting a puerile voice to mockingly imitate Joshua to say, “These fools aren’t fit to be on the road.  I bet they wouldn’t pass the test these days, they should be stripped of their licences.”
“There are good points and bad points to most things in life,” Joshua rationalised.
“Well, just you be careful for the next couple of weeks at least.  The last thing we need is for you to lose your driving privileges when you need to be able to take me to the hospital at a moment’s notice.”
Joshua was young and was still quite a way from reaching zero on his QPRS score, which was when a citizen’s driving licence became permanently revoked.  However, more than three enforceable offences within the space of a calendar month resulted in the suspension of a citizen’s licence for six months.  Joshua had already committed one instance so far that month and it had triggered Melissa’s mind into thinking about its implications.  A citizen’s driving privilege data was stored on a database of DNA and fingerprints, which determined whether a vehicle’s ignition could be activated when a citizen pressed their thumb to a sensor pad on the dashboard.
“I’ll be careful,” Joshua said.
“I bet you weren’t in a careful frame-of-mind driving home from the interview were you?”
Joshua did not answer.  A few seconds later, his mobile phone beeped.
He squeezed his wrist to access the message and sighed despairingly when he received it.
“Don’t tell me...” said Melissa beseechingly.
   Joshua did not say a word.  His face said it all.

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