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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapesm Fiction

Single-action Bookmaker
Richard Bell

Returning to consciousness, Dave became aware of a dull, throbbing pain at the base of his skull. A low rumbling caused the floor to rattle violently. He was in a car. No, a van. Vaguely, he could hear the voice of the driver, muffled and indistinct. Dave opened his eyes, but the blackness before him was so complete that he couldn’t see a thing.

He attempted to move, but his hands had been tied behind his back, his feet lashed together at the ankles. Before long the rumbling ceased. Footsteps crunched on gravel, a grinding roar issued in front of him and sunlight filtered weakly through the canvas sack over his head. Rough hands grabbed at his arms and waist as he was hauled upright, pulled from the vehicle and dragged across a lawn.

Quite suddenly there was an explosion of voices all around him, a multitude of questions supplied with a multitude of answers. The voices were all male and English speaking, with mostly British accents, though he caught snippets of German and even Arabic. Their tones were gruff, almost business-like, and yet each spoke with an unmistakable air of excitement. But only segments of conversation reached Dave through the pain fogging his senses: just two of them… usual… black and white… odds… health… how old?

A man just on his right said, in a soft American accent, ‘I wish you’d get those microphones installed, Bookmaker. I’d love to hear the screams.’ And in reply, someone shouted good humouredly, ‘You’re sick, Carlson!’
Another, in an almost bored voice, said, ‘Yes yes. We’re all sick here. Now Gentlemen; your bets, if you please.’

Dave began to struggle frantically, but his wrists and ankles were bound tight. Bets? Screams? Wherever he was, he wanted out. He tried to speak, to shout out against his captors, but a gag tied across his mouth reduced his words to a choked growl. All around him the voices began to laugh mockingly, and Dave knew how ridiculous he must look, wriggling on the spot like a helpless worm. Even so, a burst of anger momentarily dispelled his fears, and he strained against his binds with all the strength his powerful frame would permit.

The men around him seemed not to notice. Instead, they went on with their chatter, and somewhere close by he heard the sound of an automatic weapon being loaded.

This is it, they’re going to kill me! He’d survived four years of Afghanistan and fourteen of married life, and now he’d die blindfolded, shot like a wild dog. He rallied his thoughts and tried his best to prepare himself. But no one fired.
Instead, a pair of arms tied a belt around his waist, considerably heavier on one side. Have they given me a gun? Jesus Christ, what is this?

The hands holding him up pushed him forward, the voices fading away behind him. After stumbling on for a minute, they stopped. A key turned in a lock. Then his escort shoved him from behind so violently that he hopped once, lost his balance and pitched over, landing hard on dusty concrete. Something clattered to the floor beside him, the door was locked again, and then he was alone.

Or was he? Someone groaned, but the sound seemed far off. Quickly, he sat up and tore the bag from his head. Harsh lights blinded him momentarily, but then his vision slowly cleared and he stared up at rafters hanging beneath a corrugated roof. He wrestled the gag from his mouth and glanced down, snatching up the knife they’d tossed him. First he endeavoured to cut the nylon ties from his wrists, then his ankles.

With his limbs finally free he stood, taking a moment to register his surroundings. The building looked like some kind of warehouse, packed with steel containment crates of varying sizes, like the kind they used on a freighter. One sat half open, but a quick check inside showed it to be empty. Where the hell am I?
He jumped like a startled cat when a tinny, monotone voice echoed through the cold silence. The words, though clear, were distorted electronically.
‘Black and White,’ it said.
Names, thought Dave, noticing they’d changed his shirt for a plain black sweater. He cast around for the voice’s owner, but it seemed to resonate from all around. ‘I see you have both cut yourselves loose. That is good.’

Both? The faint whir of an electronic motor drew his gaze up and to the right, where he noticed a red-eyed security camera blinking down at him. There were more, one to his left, and another up ahead. He couldn’t see far the containment crates seemed to form a maze of narrow passages and corridors, down which icy metal walls reared on either side.

The voice went on. ‘In the holster at your waist is a single-action, semi-automatic handgun with five rounds in the magazine.’ Dave looked down, curling his hand around the butt and lifting it clear from the leather. A Browning L9A1, standard army issue. It’d been almost three years since he’d held one of those. ‘You will use this handgun, and the knife if necessary, to kill your opponent.’

Opponent? Instinctively, he pressed his back to the nearest container.

‘Only when one of you is dead will the other be allowed to leave. If no one has been killed upon the sound of the claxon, both of you and your immediate families will be executed.

’Oh God, what did he say about my family? Julie, Stephen…

‘Your ten minutes start now!’

Panic threatened to take hold of him. Ten minutes. He’d killed twice before, in Kabul and Helmand. But not since then. Not since he’d been given a comfortable desk job in Recruitment. Ten minutes to kill… who? Dave looked at the Browning again, loading it this time. The idea of taking another human life didn’t appeal to him, but if the only alternative threatened his wife and lad, then so be it. Still, who do these people think they are? If I get out of here alive, I’ll hunt them down myself. One by one.

Come on Dave, he urged himself. Anger never helped anyone. Stay calm. He breathed slow, deliberate breaths and held the handgun in a high, two-handed grip, right arm extended, the left cupping the base of the butt. Okay, let’s go…

He stood in a wide passage which ran for some twenty meters on either hand, and no doubt ringed the inside-perimeter of the warehouse. Directly ahead, a sizable gap between two crates offered an entrance to the labyrinth. He took several cautious steps forward, gun raised. Listening, he thought he heard a carefully placed foot scrape the concrete floor. Movement flickered ahead and left, down a passage which opened up onto his own. Dave grunted and brought the pistol to bear on the figure. A muzzle flashed and a shot shrieked past his face to ring out against the metal behind him. He swore and dived behind a low crate, not before firing a shot in retaliation.
‘Who’s there?’ he called out from behind his cover. No reply was given.
‘I said who’s there?’ Fresh waves of anger flared inside him. ‘Answer me! Were you kidnapped too, or are you the only prick they could find daring enough to fight? Well?!’

He heard movement and braced himself, ready to shoot at the figure he was sure would loom up over his shelter. No one came. In the ensuing silence, the only sounds to be heard were the hum of the cameras, and his own panting breath. Occasionally, birdsong murmured from outside.
And then, a voice stammered: ‘We-we don’t have a choice.’
‘I heard what they said,’ Dave called back. The man sounded more terrified than he was. ‘Jesus. Our families.’
‘Look. I’ve got to do this, I have a son.’
‘Well so have I!’ he countered, picturing Stephen’s face, and the stupid grin he adopted whenever Dave scolded him for something. It would infuriate the average parent to breaking point. But it never failed in dissolving Dave’s temper. He would loose the will to shout and snatch the lad up in his arms, growling into his ear like an angry tiger. He smiled, in spite of the cold metal crate pressing against his back, and the unwelcome feel of a weapon in his hand.
The stranger sighed audibly and cleared his throat. ‘We should just get this over with, mate. Both stand and shoot. Fifty-fifty, either way.’
‘No chance. How do I know you haven’t got me covered? The second I poke my head out…’
‘You think I want to kill you? You think I enjoy it?’
‘You’ve killed before?’
Hesitation laced his reply. Reluctance. ‘Yeah. Unfortunately.’
A murderer? No. Carefully shifting himself into a crouch, Dave asked, ‘Afghanistan?’
So, another soldier then. Coincidence? Dave didn’t think so. ‘What’s your name?’
‘James Sterling. Sergeant.’
‘Corporal David Bewley.’

He felt a sudden kinship with the stranger, an unquestioned mutuality familiar only to men and women of the armed forces, sharing the same hardships, a common enemy. Brothers-in-arms, as they said. Nevertheless, both men remained behind their cover.
‘I see how it is,’ said Sterling, darkly. ‘They’ve kidnapped two officers, so they can call their bets while we scrap it out like Staff’s in a pen.’

At first Dave made no reply. His mind had gone blank. He felt strangely apathetic, like the man home from a long day at the office, lacking the energy for conversation and wanting only for sleep. But before that… could he take the life of a complete stranger? You’ve done it twice before, he reminded himself. What difference does it make if the man is British? None at all. It’s kill or be killed.

He tightened his grip on the Browning. ‘That sounds about right,’ Dave said after a pause, willing himself to stand and charge his opponent, to gun him down and be done with the whole affair.
‘Well, I say sod it!’ Sterling barked angrily. Defiance. It could be an act, but Dave settled back down to listen. ‘I say we wait here and save our bullets for the first ones through the door.’ And then, raising his voice, Sterling shouted, ‘You hear me faggots?’

Dave remembered what he’d heard back in the room full of gamblers, a plan taking form in his mind as he spoke.
‘I don’t think they can hear us. A bloke before said he wished someone called the Bookmaker would get the microphones fixed, or something like that. Said he wanted to hear us scream.’
‘Sick bastards…’
‘I know, but listen. We’ve still got some time left. I think… I think I have an idea.’

The Bookmaker sat back in his chair, bony fingers forming a steeple before his gaunt face. Screen eight showed Black hiding behind the box. It had been so for the last five minutes.
‘This is easily the most boring one yet.’ The speaker was Carlson, a fat American sadist.
The Bookmaker didn’t like him, but his wallet was seemingly unlimited. ‘That is inconsequential,’ he replied, hiding his own disappointment well.
‘Why won’t they fight?’ asked another, the Arab Al Musad.
‘Give them a minute,’ he replied without turning. ‘They think their families are on the line. They’ll fight. Look at them talking trading insults, probably.’ He knew they were not. Their faces were too calm for that. One of them even nodded and smiled.
‘I can’t believe it. What a waste of time!’ It was Carlson again. A waste of time, thought the Bookmaker. Not a waste of three-quarters of a million dollars? Just time? ‘We’ll have to kill them both and start over.’ His irritability vanished then, and the Bookmaker knew Carlson would ask to do the deed himself. Presenting the request lightly would enable him to pass it off as a joke if refused which, of course, it would have to be. Given the go-ahead, he would kill with sickening eagerness.
‘We execute the winner anyway,’ said the Bookmaker. ‘It doesn’t matter. What’s this?’

On screen, Black and White had risen from their cover to face one another, but neither offered any sign of aggression. The men watching the screens went berserk. Kill him! Shoot him now! The Bookmaker’s money was with Black. He remained calm, watching intently.

They continued to talk. If only he’d had the microphones installed. What were they planning? Did they think they could settle down and wait for their captors to come and get them? Trapdoors in the roof offered a clean shot into the maze below. Resistance did not worry the Bookmaker.

He watched Black and White turn to look at the door through which Black had entered. Quite suddenly, White darted forward, put his pistol between Black’s shoulders, and the man slumped lifeless to the floor.

As always, the death of a combatant provoked a storm of reactions from the viewers. Al Musad roared and tugged at his beard, turning away from the scene. Carlson cheered and clapped, despite having made a substantial loss. Handshakes were exchanged, curses spat.
Only the Bookmaker remained impassive.
‘Gentlemen, please,’ he called over the commotion. ‘If I may have your silence whilst I address the combatant.’ Leaning forward to thumb the button for the speaker, he said: ‘White, drop the handgun where you stand, and walk to the crate on your left. Press your forehead to the metal, and clasp your hands behind your back. Remain still until otherwise instructed.’

He issued the commands as he had done so many times before, and White cooperated as Black had done last time, and White had the time before that.
‘If you will all excuse me for a moment.’ The Bookmaker rose and picked up a Heckler and Koch from a nearby table, motioning for the two big men by the door similarly armed with submachine guns to follow. They strode from the room and down the corridor to the warehouse entrance. After each made a quick preliminary check of their weapon, the Bookmaker opened the door.

They entered slowly, and once inside they spread out from one another. Keeping the barrel of his MP5 trained on the body of Black, he looked to White, standing as he was bid with his hands together, and his face pressed against the crate.

For Dave, the tension was unbearable. He found it hard even to keep his eyes unmoving, resisting the urge to shut them tighter against the bright glare of the overhead lights.

The door was unlocked and then opened. Men entered the room. He felt horribly exposed, lying sprawled on his back as he was, one leg caught at an awkward angle beneath the other. But he was left with one minor reassurance.
The cool metal of the Browning still rested in his right palm.

He listened attentively, trying to picture the position of each man. There were three of them, one standing on the left, another on the far right, and one slightly closer in the centre.

The centre man spoke, and Dave recognised the voice of the Bookmaker. ‘Very good, White,’ he said to Sterling, his outward calmness failing to mask his irritation. Had he put his money on Black? ‘However, I regret to announce that we cannot allow you to...’

And then Sterling gave the signal. He shouted, not any recognisable word or phrase, but a harsh, guttural noise so sudden that it demanded the attention of all eyes. Their chances were slim: Dave’s only advantages would be added millisecond on the draw, and the surprise of his captors at seeing an apparent corpse suddenly move.

That surprise was evident in the Bookmaker. His eyes widened, his disbelief causing a momentary hesitation. It cost him his life. A bullet from Dave’s Browning thudded into his chest. He gasped, sucking air into a ruined lung, but a second punched him from his feet, hurling him out into the corridor.

As his first shot rang out, the eyes of the others snapped to Dave, whereupon Sterling whipped the knife from his belt and flung himself into the left hand man. A submachine gun to the right screamed and shattered the concrete at Dave’s feet. His Browning bucked, and the man crumpled to the floor.

Sterling and the last man had been struggling furiously with the knife. The Heckler and Koch still hung from the man’s shoulders, clattering between them. Then Sterling’s arm gave way, and the blade sank deep into his chest, blood spurting through his gritted teeth. Dave shot his attacker dead.

Then all was still. Dave got up on unsteady legs. His hands trembled violently from the aftershock. Around him, the four bodies had ceased to pump blood from their wounds. He looked at the Browning and stared into the grey wisps spewing from its barrel. He let the pistol fall from his grasp, barely noticing the echoing clatter it kicked up in the now silent warehouse, which seconds before had been a whirlwind of muzzle flashes, cries of pain and splashes of red. From somewhere outside sounded the slam of car doors and of wheels groaning against gravel, fading away into the distance.

The gun smoke cleared and ceased to sting his nostrils, and Dave looked around, his expression devoid of life. He was tired. Terribly tired. He checked each of the bodies all of them were dead.

Dave squatted next to Sterling, and gently he closed the man’s eyes. Then, moving out into the corridor, he searched the pockets of the Bookmaker and found nothing of use, save for a set of car keys. These he stowed in his back pocket. On the floor beside the body was a submachine gun, which David took up, looping the strap over his head. He thought of his wife, Julie, and Stephen, his lad.
He would return to them soon enough...

Richard Bell June 2009

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