Heroes, p.37
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       Heroes, p.37

           Leigh Barker
 
Suspect Package

   

  The Global Airlines Lite check-in desks were located strategically in the furthest corner of the airport — the cheapest bit. Three of the four desks were occupied by GAL’s very best Customer Experience Assurance staff. Well, okay, GAL’s only Customer… check-in jockeys.

  Rob Thorn. Not his real name, that being Warwick Cornelius Thorne. He’d changed it, but who wouldn’t? Rob was in his early thirties, skinny, except for early signs of a beer-gut, and had short, honey-blond hair. Not ginger. It was not ginger. No way was it ginger. It was honey blond, so we’ll just let it drop there, no point going on about it. And it was a bit lank, but Friday’s wash would sort that out.

  Sitting at the next desk to his right was Maurice. He was also in his thirties, but he was everything Rob was not. His orange GAL uniform was immaculate, his dark hair was immaculate, his shoes were immaculate, and he sat immaculately on the uncomfortable swivel stool, his legs crossed just enough to crack his knees on the desk whenever he swung around. He wore just a hint of eyeshadow, not too much, just enough to accentuate his dark eyes. Oh, and that was something else Rob was not.

  On Rob’s left sat Shirley. She was still in her forties and had been for over a decade. Her lips were too thin and applying copious amounts of bright red lipstick did nothing but make her scary. And she didn’t need lipstick to achieve that. She wore the same orange GAL uniform as the others, but hers had little lapel badges to let anyone who couldn’t guess know that she was The Boss.

  The three GAL Customer Experience Assurance executives looked out across the empty concourse and listened to the clock ticking slowly behind them. If there’d been a wind blowing, a tumbleweed would have rolled by.

  “It’s Major Tom’s birthday,” Rob said without taking his chin off his hands. “We should get him something.”

  “I, for one, have got better things to do with my money than spend it on any of you lot,” Shirley said without taking her eyes off the customer approach route.

  “That’s not nice, Shirley,” Maurice said. “Grant you, he can be a bit… err… pompous, but his heart is in the right place, I’m sure. You know what I always say—”

  “Yes, Maurice,” Shirley said after the customary scowl, “we all know what you always say.”

  Maurice gave her a long, hurt look and turned pointedly away, cracking his knee on the open drawer. “I was just saying, that’s all,” he muttered, rubbing his knee.

  “There you go, Shirley, hurting his feelings again,” Rob said. “You know how sensitive he is.” He slid off his stool and put his foot on the baggage conveyor belt separating the desks. “Do you need a hug, Maurice?”

  Maurice jumped visibly. “No, thank you, I’m particular who I hug.”

  “I’m particular whom I hug,” Rob said with a shrug.

  “I doubt that,” Shirley said.

  “And I don’t believe that either,” Maurice said. “I think you’d hug a sheep if it stood still long enough. And having seen some of the women you’ve had, I think you already did.”

  A narrow door leading to the secret place behind the check-in desks swung open, and Major Tom stepped out into the bright, artificial light. He looked both ways as if expecting to see snipers, marched over, and leaned on the unoccupied desk. He looked around the empty concourse for something interesting. Anyone could see he was ex-military, and if they didn’t, he’d soon tell them. And just in case, on the lapel of his blue, ill-fitting uniform he wore the insignia of the Parachute Regiment. A mini, cut-down version. Understated, he would say; against company rules, Management would reply.

  “There’s nothing wrong with sheep,” Rob continued, after a quick nod to Major Tom.

  “Oh no!” Maurice groaned. “Wash my mouth out.”

  “Well,” Rob continued, “they never talk about relationships or ask you to settle down or meet their mothers.”

  “Don’t start,” Maurice pleaded.

  “Two sheep fall off a cliff. Were they pushed or were they jumpers?” Rob said.

  Maurice climbed over the baggage belt and started to back off across the concourse. “You know, I worry about you,” he said, waving immaculately manicured hands at Rob, as if to shoo him away.

  It didn’t work. Rob climbed over the baggage belt and followed him as he backed off. “Sheep protesting about karate. They object to the chops,” he said, demonstrating karate chops. Badly.

  Maurice turned and ran away, his legs flicking out almost sideways from his knees. It was like watching Bambi in full flight.

  Rob watched him for a moment, sighed, and returned to his desk to await ‘the rush’.

  “You need therapy,” Shirley said, shaking her head slowly. “You know that, don’t you?”

  “I’m having therapy. How do you think I manage to work here?”

  Maurice returned to his desk slowly, without taking his eyes off Rob. Major Tom shook his head in despair and strolled off across the concourse, his back ramrod straight, and his arms swinging in counter-time to his stride. A wonderful thing to behold.

  “Where’s he going, all marching and stuff?” Maurice asked, as much to get the subject off sheep as any real interest in Major Tom’s objective.

  “He’s the security man, right?”

  Maurice shrugged.

  “So he’s off to find something to secure,” Rob said.

  Maurice watched him go. “We should get him a present.”

  “I said that,” Rob said.

  “Yes, I know. I’m trying to divert your attention from bloody sheep,” Maurice said with a long sigh.

  Rob smiled. “A goat and a sheep going through a gate. The goat says… after ewe.”

  “Oh, for God’s sake,” Shirley snapped, “will you pack it in?”

  “Err…” Maurice said in an elegant segue, “are you going to that sleazy nightclub again tonight?”

  “I like it there,” Rob said. “They serve apple crumble.”

  Maurice managed to close his mouth, with a visible effort.

  “Don’t ask,” Shirley said, looking like she was chewing a wasp.

  Maurice didn’t ask. It didn’t save them.

  “Mara joo-warna gives you the munchies,” Rob informed them helpfully. “They sprinkle it on apple crumble. Two birds, one stoned.”

  “I thought you had to smoke marijuana?” Maurice said.

  “Not me, it’s bad for your health, smoking.” He frowned. “Didn’t you know that, Maurice?”

  Shirley stared at him for several seconds, her thickly caked eyelashes blinking slowly. She pressed a button on the desk, just to visit the real dimension for a moment, and the baggage belt juddered and screeched into half-life.

  “That’s the motor sprocket drive missing the little drive teeth,” Rob informed them, pointing helpfully at the motor that no one could see. “You should report it… if only for the sake of my nerves.”

  “You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?” Shirley said.

  “It’s one of those men things…” Maurice said. “You know, where they think they know everything about everything.”

  “We do know everything,” Rob said.

  “Oh, yes,” Shirley said, “everything about drinking and football.”

  “And your point?” Rob said, raising his eyebrows.

  “Anyway,” Shirley continued, ignoring him. “I have reported the faulty belt… missing motor thing… three times, but nobody cares. Not here… not like when I was at Virgin Atlantic. They had standards there. This would have been repaired at once.” She pointed at the motor, which was no more visible than before.

  “Yes,” Rob said, raising a finger for emphasis, “but that’s Virgin, and this is GAL.” He didn’t even bother to make his usual crack about virgins. What was the point? That line had been done to death.

  “Not that there’s many virgins working for them.”

  Oh well, one more outing wouldn’t hurt.

  The others stared at him. And sometimes, staring says a t
housand words. Mostly abusive, with a dash of blasphemy.

  He raised his hands to fend off the tidal wave of silence and changed the subject. “And comparing Virgin with GAL is like comparing… oh, I don’t know… a 747 with a Tiger Moth.”

  “Did you know that Tiger Moths served this country well before and during the Second World War as training aircraft for the RAF?” Major Tom said, returning from his scouting mission in time to catch the drift. “I, for one, think we would not have won the war without them.”

  “And did you, Major Tom, know there’s no proper name for the back of the knees?” Rob asked, his head tilted questioningly.

  “Ah… many people believe that, but, in fact, you will find that the technical term for the back of the knees is popliteal fossa, or knee pit. Though some clinicians refer to it simply as the posterior region of the knee.”

  Rob squirmed on his chair. “And I’m getting a pain in my posterior region right now.”

  “Perineal numbness can be caused by cycling. Do you have a bicycle?” Major Tom asked in a tone of genuine concern.

  Maurice snorted as he fought to suppress a laugh and then found something vitally important to look at behind his desk.

  Rob gave him a shitty look. “I used to ride, but when I found out that Janet rides a road-racer, it put me right off.”

  Shirley’s face creased in a deep frown. Not a spectator sport. “But why would that put you off, for heaven’s sake?”

  “Because,” Rob said slowly, “she wears white spandex shorts.” He described a shape with his hands. A description best left undescribed.

  Maurice looked up sharply, his face losing its usual pink glow. “Ahhh! God! Oh God! Why did you tell me that? That image is going to haunt me to my grave. Oh God!”

  Maurice was saved from any further revelations on their colleague Janet’s sportswear by the arrival of a young boy, maybe twelve years old — but who knows; he was a kid, and a kid can be any age. They’re just a pain, everyone knows that.

  This one was standing in front of the desks, crunching cheese puffs from an enormous bag. Noisily.

  “Bugger off,” Major Tom said, doing security things, as was his duty.

  “You can’t talk to a member of the public like that,” Shirley snapped. “Why if I’d heard any of my people talking like that when I was group manager at BA, I’d have fired them on the spot. On the spot.”

  “Thought you worked as a Virgin?” Rob asked, clearly unaware of the Freudian slip.

  Shirley studied his face for several seconds, just waiting for the slightest tell. She got none, but she was dealing with a maestro of the poker face here.

  “That,” she said in an exasperated tone, “was after BA, as you very well know.”

  “You sure it was BA?” Rob asked.

  “Yes, of course I’m sure. I was there, wasn’t I?”

  He shrugged. “Just thought it might be BS.”

  She scowled at him, and she really did do an excellent scowl. “Now that’s the kettle calling the pot black if ever I heard it.” She slid off her stool, careful to avoid her skirt riding up and showing things this person should not see. “I’m going for a break. If any VIP passengers arrive, send for me. Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to handle them yourself. God, the thought of it.” She smoothed down her skirt and maintained her dignity as she climbed slowly over the mini bridge to the back of the baggage belt. She looked back just before she disappeared through the staff door from which Major Tom had appeared to start his security sweep of the coffee shops, but no one was watching, so they hadn’t heard the escaping wind as she’d stepped off the belt. No more Mexican food, she swore to herself.

  The kid was still munching his puffs — a task he would be doing for a long time. Why would any loving mother buy a kid a sack of regurgitated yellow vomit and yuk? He walked up slowly to Maurice’s desk, took a soggy mess from between his lips, and pointed it at Maurice. “What’s the matter with him?” he asked no one in particular.

  “What do you mean?” Rob asked, suddenly intrigued.

  The kid put the mess back into his mouth, munched it, and looked Maurice over slowly. “He’s all…” He squinted as he searched for the word. “He’s all shiny.”

  He’d found it.

  Rob chuckled. “Yeah, he is a bit.”

  Maurice scowled at him, but Shirley’s scowl was still hanging in the air, so his ran away and hid.

  The kid was still squinting.

  “Bugger off,” Major Tom said.

  “Nah, hang on a minute,” Rob said. “I like this kid.”

  “Are you a perv?” the kid asked, backing off a little.

  “Not at work,” Rob said. “Come over later, and we’ll see.”

  The kid shrugged as if he’d been propositioned by perverts many times. And who knows? He looked back at Maurice. “Are you a poof?”

  Maurice’s jaw was moving, but he wasn’t making any sound.

  “Brighter than he looks,” Major Tom said.

  Maurice cut him with one of his looks.

  “Where are your parents?” Rob asked, looking around the deserted concourse.

  “In the bar,” the kid said without taking his eyes off shiny Maurice.

  Maurice glanced pointedly at his watch. He frowned. “It’s nine in the morning.”

  The kid shrugged. “They’re on holiday. That’s what my dad says.”

  “Drink much, does he?” Major Tom asked, not really caring one way or the other.

  “Nah—”

  “If you say he spills most of it,” Rob said, “I’ll give you a thud.”

  The kid gave him a long, slow look, as if measuring his body against his words. He looked away.

  Well, there you go; out of the mouths of babes.

  “Bugger off,” Major Tom said, more in hope than expectation that repetition would deliver any better result.

  The kid blinked at him a couple of times before plunging his hand into the huge bag of puffs. He stuffed a handful of orange yumminess into his mouth. “Dad says,” he said through a small cloud of froth, “they have to do their bit to keep the pubs in business.”

  “So he drinks at nine in the morning,” Maurice said, “to keep the pubs in business?” Oh God, did he really care? He closed his eyes and tried to will it all to go away. There had to be more to life than this.

  Of course, there isn’t, but we all knew that before his silent, desperate cry.

  “It helps him forget about the plane landing,” the kid said.

  Rob nodded. “Makes sense. Have a few drinks to steady the nerves before a flight. Lots of people do.”

  “When is your flight landing?” Major Tom asked.

  “Week on Thursday.”

  They looked at each other and frowned.

  “No, kid,” Rob said. “He means the one you’re flying on today.”

  The kid frowned now. “What’s that got to do with anything? They drink to forget about the plane landing at home.” He shrugged. “They don’t like going back to work.”

  “Bugger off,” said Major Tom and Maurice in perfect harmony.

  To everyone’s surprise, the kid wandered off. Major Tom looked pleased with himself. The voice of authority prevails in the face of modern youth. Or… the kid was just bored.

  That’ll be door number two, then.

  The kid stopped and swung back to the desk. He pointed at Major Tom, and they all waited for the accusation.

  “What’s your job, then?”

  Major Tom was taken aback a little, as it was obvious to him what his job was. Wasn’t he wearing a security guard uniform?

  Well, yes.

  “He’s the pilot,” Rob said quickly.

  “Where’s his plane, then?” the kid asked, his hand resting in the bag of cheese mush.

  “Where you going for your holiday?” Rob asked.

  “Can come,” the kid said.

  “That’s Cancun,” Rob said, showing off his D in geography. “When are you going?”

&
nbsp; “Three o’clock.”

  “He’s the pilot of the three o’clock flight to Cancun.”

  “What’s he doing here, then?”

  “Waiting for the plane to get fixed,” Rob said, leaning his elbows on the desk.

  “What’s the matter with it?”

  “Well,” Rob said with a quick look around to see if they were overheard, “it’s a really old plane, and a piece fell off on the way over.”

  The kid’s mouth opened, revealing part-chewed sludge.

  “Don’t worry,” Rob said reassuringly. “It was only a small piece.”

  The kid looked relieved.

  “Nobody hurt.”

  Well, that’s good to know.

  “Just a few kids got sucked out through the hole, that’s all,” Rob added with a cheery smile to ease the kid’s fears.

  The bag of cheesy goodness fell to the floor, scattering bright orange puffs across the concourse.

  “Hey,” Rob said, seeing the child’s distress, “no need to worry. You’ll be okay… as long as he doesn’t fly too high. See, he’s afraid of heights and faints if he goes too high. That’s why his planes keep crashing.”

  The kid ran away.

  Maurice watched him go and shook his head slowly. “You’ve probably scarred that child for life, you know that?”

  Rob shrugged. “That’s life. Why should he get a free ride?”

  Maurice stared at him sadly for a moment, then slid off his stool. “I’m going to get some coffee. Can you cope with the pressure?” He stopped as he stepped over the baggage belt and looked back. “What will you do if he brings his father back?”

  Rob turned from watching the passengers in the distance passing this deserted space. “I’ll tell him I’m Major Tom’s co-pilot. And fresh out of the nuthouse.”

  “Many a true word spoken in jest,” Maurice said as he stepped through the staff door.

  Major Tom eased the ache in his back, checked the area for security-type things, and followed Maurice back into the staff room. Another good morning’s work completed to his satisfaction, and time for a well-earned rest.

   

   

  The GAL staff room was a dump. A converted lost-luggage storeroom that hadn’t been converted, unless you count the addition of a scarred wooden table, a couple of lumpy stuffed chairs, an equally lumpy nearly-leather couch and a kitchenette — that broke all the health and safety rules at a glance.

  Still, it was home. And there, in a phrase, is our merry band’s lot.

  At the back of the room, a door dared anyone to open it and proclaimed the dare with an over-sized ‘do not open’ notice, recycled from an aircraft engine cowling. Below the threat was a handwritten notice taped to the door, informing anyone who needed it that this was the office of Richard Marks, GAL Customer Services Manager.

  “Is our master in?” Maurice asked as he checked the kettle for water and pressed the little lever-switch to start the thing complaining.

  Shirley looked up from her magazine and shifted a little on the sofa so that she could see the closed door and the sign with the electric shock lightning bolt. She sighed heavily, as she always did whenever she was forced to confront the fact that she worked here. “He’s in,” she said, exchanged a long, knowing look with Janet, who was sitting at the battered table, and returned to her magazine.

  Major Tom stopped at the noticeboard half-screwed, half-nailed to the thin wall and checked the security duty roster. There was only one name on it, his, but he was the only security officer, so no surprise there. It was, however, part of his daily routine: check the duty roster. Tick in box. “Any coffee in there?” he asked Maurice.

  Maurice poured hot water into his mug and put the kettle back in its spot by the dented stainless-steel sink. “Yes,” he said as he walked tiredly over to the table. “No hot water, though.”

  Mutual support. Pulling together. Watching each other’s back. That is what makes a team hum like a perfectly tuned machine. The team in question wasn’t this bunch, but it was worth saying.

  The heavily noticed door opened, and He came out into the break area. Major Tom stood to attention.

  Richard Marks strode youthfully up to the table. Richard Marks did everything youthfully. It was part of the Management Training Programme. And anyway, he liked it. Stomach in, chest out, big smile. Walk with purpose. That was also why he wore a polo shirt and khaki cargo pants with junk in the knee pockets. It’s what hip kids wore, right? Hip kids… that’ll be street talk, right? Or was, once.

  “How’s everything going out there, Janet?” he asked.

  “Good morning, Mister Marks,” Major Tom said, still at attention.

  Richard smiled at him. Someone should have told him tooth whitening bleach isn’t left on overnight. “Good morning… err… troops.” Good catch. “You can call me Dickie,” he said, to err… thing. “And you know what I say to the girls?”

  Yes, everybody knew exactly what he said.

  “You can’t say Marks without saying mmm…”

  Oh God, take me now.

  But they smiled at the clever joke. Except Janet.

  “And you can’t say Dickie without saying dick.”

  Now was that nice?

  “You’re not married are you… Dickie?” Maurice asked from his seat next to Janet.

  “No,” Dickie said slowly, expecting a catch.

  “Then you might want to drop that line.” Maurice raised his hand. “Just saying, that’s all. But what would I know?”

  “While we’re just saying,” Janet said. “You might want to call yourself Richard instead of Dick.” She knew exactly what he called himself.

  “Oh,” he said, rolling out the smile again, “I like it. I think it makes me sound like an actor.”

  The silence hung in the room for several seconds.

  “Have you put it together?” Shirley asked, without looking up from her House Interiors magazine.

  He frowned again, then stopped. Frowns cause lines.

  Maurice was hoping the heartburn was an impending heart attack about to snatch him away to a soft seat on a cloud and a nice musical instrument. “Dick Marks?” he said with his eyes closed.

  “It sounds,” Janet said, fixing him with a steady stare, “like the sand trail of a turtle.”

  And it did.

  Dickie flushed and pointed at his door. “Have you seen the sign on my door?”

  They all looked, though to be accurate, they had all seen the sign before.

  “What?” Maurice said. “Fire exit?”

  “No. No,” Dickie said. He stamped his foot. “The one below that.”

  Maurice climbed to his feet and crossed the small room and leaned closer to the door. “Ah!” He squinted. “Holding yourself while those around you fall… is a disgusting habit.” He shrugged. True.

  Dickie gritted his teeth, his very white teeth. “No, not the graffiti!” He stepped closer and pointed at the handwritten sign. “Manager! It says manager. Right?”

  “Yes,” Janet said, “but that’s a throwback to another era.”

  Dickie frowned again and risked the lines.

  Janet gave him a smile she’d borrowed from a diamondback. “Before our Christmas party.”

  Dickie looked like he was about to run for it, but controlled the impulse. “I thought I’d explained that?” There was a note of desperation in his voice.

  “You may have done,” Janet said, “but I have the photographs.”

  “We must talk about that again… err… at a more… err… appropriate moment.” Dickie looked around for something to change the subject and found it. He pointed at the staff door. “Who’s holding the fort out there?” As if he didn’t know.

  Shirley glanced up from her magazine. “Rob.”

  And she said it as if it didn’t really matter. Amazing.

  Dickie gave a visible start. “Do you think that’s wise?” He clearly didn’t.

  Janet put down the pen she’d been using to hig
hlight lines in the document she’d been reading. “I’m sure we can trust him to screw things up royally at the earliest possible moment.”

  “That’s a little harsh,” Maurice said.

  “Possibly,” Janet said, “but true.”

  Maurice nodded and returned to his coffee.

   

  Rob was indeed screwing things up. He leaned on his hand and idly tapped the keys of the booking terminal. It bleeped loudly and went blank. He jumped up, looked around quickly, and stepped over to the next desk and checked that this terminal was working. Okay, that’s one problem resolved. Or at least moved to someone else, which is the same thing.

  He looked up as movement in the deserted concourse caught his eye and saw an elderly man and his wife approaching the check-in. It was clearly his wife because he tutted at her, sighed at her, and generally harried her towards the desks. Good to see the age of chivalry wasn’t dead. Mortally wounded, yes, but still with enough breath to tell the old lady to sort out her brain cells.

  The old man rummaged in his inside jacket pocket for a moment, pulled out a ticket folder, and slammed it on the desktop.

  Rob looked at it and then back at the scowling old man, who glared at him and pointed a slightly shaking hand at the tickets.

  “Ah,” Rob said with a toothpaste advert smile, “you want to check in?”

  “Of course I want to check in!” the old man said. “I’m not here to order a gin and tonic, am I?”

  Old people can be funny. This was not an example of a funny old person.

  Rob picked up the ticket folder and took out the tickets. He examined the front of the first one. Then the back. Then the front of the second one. Then—

  “I haven’t got all day!” the old man said charmingly.

  “They’re tickets,” Rob said, nodding sagely.

  And sure enough, they were.

  The old man spluttered, but before he could select the best abuse from the deluge that crossed his mind, Rob spoke. “Business class,” he said, slid off his stool, and pointed to the desk to his left. “If you’d be good enough to come to the VIP desk, mister…” He checked the tickets again. “Ah, Colonel Butler.”

  “Why?” the colonel said.

  Rob climbed over the baggage belt and sat at the desk. “Because it’s the VIP desk, Colonel. And you are a VIP, are you not?” As well as other things.

  The colonel didn’t move. “It looks exactly like this desk,” he said and glared at his wife, who was moving towards Rob’s new position.

  “True,” Rob said, “but this one has been designated the VIP desk.”

  “That’s stupid,” the colonel said.

  And it was, clearly.

  “You’re a colonel,” Rob said, “so you will understand that rules are there to be obeyed.”

  And that, too, was stupid, but also true.

  The colonel sighed heavily, collected the ticket folder Rob had left, and started to move to the designated VIP desk as instructed. He passed Rob coming the other way, stopped at the VIP desk, and looked back as Rob sat on the stool.

  “Are you being deliberately insolent?”

  Yes.

  “No,” Rob said. “You’re right. It is stupid. Let’s use this desk.”

  “But I’m at this one now.”

  Rob gave him the toothpaste smile and waited.

  The colonel glared at him. He glared at his wife. He glared at the tickets. He took a deep breath and let it out with muttered curses. But he came back.

  “Now,” Rob said, tapping the terminal keyboard. “Let’s get you booked in, shall we?”

  “About bloody time.”

  This terminal was dead, as someone had apparently broken it.

  Rob tut-tutted, tapped the keyboard, checked the back of the monitor, and shook his head. “The terminal is broken,” he informed his VIP passengers.

  The colonel glared at him. His wife smiled nicely, probably thinking about a nice cup of tea.

  Rob slid off the stool and stepped over the baggage belt. “Shall we move to this desk?”

  The colonel’s mouth was open, and his jaw was moving up and down.

  “Shall we, dear,” his wife said with a soothing smile.

  The colonel squinted at Rob suspiciously, but walked back to the other desk.

  “Now,” Rob said, tapping the terminal keyboard, this time with satisfactory results, “where are we flying to today?”

  “I’m going to Prague,” the colonel said. “I have no idea where you’re going. And frankly, I couldn’t care less.”

  “Don’t get many colonels using Global Airlines Lite,” Rob said, ignoring the rudeness.

  “Not bloody surprised.”

  Rob smiled a micro-smile. “We have our own major, Colonel. Major Tom. He looks after security.”

  “And I care about this, why?”

  “He was a hero in Iraq,” Rob said.

  “Fascinating.”

  “Won all sorts of medals for doing brave things,” Rob said, selecting a seat near the toilet for the miserable old—

  “Really?” the colonel said, showing interest for the first time. “Which regiment?”

  “Paras, I think.”

  “I was seconded to the paras,” the colonel said, standing up a little straighter. “A major? I would probably know him.”

  “Hang on a second,” Rob said, “and I’ll go get him.”

  “If you must.”

  Rob crossed to the staff door, leaned in, and said something before returning to the desk. He glanced at the screen and moved the colonel and his dear little wife away from the toilet.

  Major Tom stepped over the baggage belt and stood behind Rob. “What’s so important I have to leave my coffee?”

  “Major Tom,” Rob said, “meet Colonel Butler.”

  Major Tom looked quickly at he colonel, took a step back, banged his legs against the conveyor, and sat down on the belt.

  The colonel looked at Major Tom for several seconds before speaking. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t know you. Go away.”

  Rob frowned, but his eyes were alive. “Bit odd, though,” he said, “you not knowing each other.”

  “Not really,” Major Tom said, getting up quickly, ready for a rapid retreat, “there were thousands of us over there.”

  “This…” The colonel pointed a finger at Rob. “This person said you were with the paras. Which regiment?”

  “Err…” Major Tom said. “Three para.” Then he felt more was needed. “At Najaf.”

  Sometimes less is more.

  The colonel frowned. “Three para was in Basra. I may be old, but I still have my faculties.”

  “Oh, I meant two para,” Major Tom said quickly.

  “Easy mistake to make,” Rob said mischievously, “there’s only a one in it.”

  “This annoying individual,” the colonel said, flicking a finger in Rob’s direction, “said that you were awarded medals. Is that so?”

  Somewhere in the distance, Major Tom could hear the carpenters erecting the scaffold. His mouth was dry, and he could hear a blowfly buzzing in his ear. “Err…”

  “Well, were you or were you not awarded medals?” The colonel seemed miffed. Odd, that. “It’s not a difficult question, is it?”

  “Err…” Major Tom decided to man up and tell it like it is. “No. I mean yes. Well, no.”

  That worked well.

  The colonel eyed Major Tom suspiciously and opened his mouth to say something, but Rob beat him to it.

  “Got an ‘I saved marines from certain, gruesome death’ medal, haven’t you, Major Tom.” He didn’t give the poor man time to respond. “And there’s the one for parachuting behind enemy lines and blowing up a dam.”

  The colonel spluttered and shook his head to clear it. “Behind enemy lines?” More spluttering. “There were no enemy lines in the Iraq war.”

  “I saw enemy lines,” Rob said.

  The colonel stared at him through slit eyes and dared him to continue.
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  “They were on the roads heading for home as fast as they could,” Rob continued. “And,” he said quickly, before the old duffer could butt in, “our Major Tom here was right behind them, kicking them in the ass to hurry them along.”

  The colonel’s eyes opened, and he looked back at Major Tom. “Three Para, you say?”

  “Yes,” Major Tom said quickly. “Among others. I was bounced about quite a bit over there.”

  The colonel nodded. “We all were, Major.”

  ‘Major’, that was a good start.

  “I’d like to see your medals,” the colonel said.

  Major Tom’s face dropped.

  “But I have a plane to catch. Perhaps another time?”

  “Yes. Yes. Any time. Whenever you’re in the… err… vicinity.”

  “I’ve got you a nice window seat, Colonel,” Rob said, squashing a smile.

  Major Tom retreated through the staff door at an undignified pace.

  “That fellow,” the colonel began.

  “Oh, don’t worry about him,” Rob said, smiling. “He’s getting old, and all that nuclear fall-out from Iraq has scrambled his marbles.”

  The colonel took the boarding passes and tickets from Rob and hurried his wife away, glancing back repeatedly, as though afraid the madman would follow.

  Rob looked back at the staff door and smiled.

   

   

  Shirley looked up from her magazine again as Major Tom came back into the staffroom a bit too quickly. “Is everything okay out there, Major Tom?”

  “No. Yes. I mean Rob is dealing with the colonel.”

  Shirley stood up quickly. “What colonel? Why wasn’t I informed there is a colonel? Is he a VIP?”

  “Yes,” Major Tom said.

  “Yes, what?”

  “Yes, ma’am?”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake! What is the matter with you?” Shirley stood up sharply, threw the magazine onto the couch, and marched out to do her VIP duty.

  Rob’s head appeared around the door as she approached. “Give me a hand, Maurice. I need to go.”

  “Use your own bloody hand,” Maurice said, shocked. “What do you take me for?”

  “No,” Rob said with a sigh. “I mean take over out there, I need to pee.”

  “Oh,” Maurice said.

  “Are you dealing with a VIP?” Shirley asked.

  “No.”

  “Major Tom said you were dealing with a colonel.”

  “Oh, him,” Rob said. “He’s gone.”

  “I told you to call me before handling VIPs—”

  “I never touched him,” Rob said, raising his hands in mock horror.

  “I’m going to escalate this to Mister Marks.”

  “Why, is he on the top floor?” Rob asked and ducked back out of sight.

  Maurice stepped past Shirley and followed him out.

  “Did you see that, Janet?” Shirley asked.

  “That’s the trouble with working for a tin-pot company,” Shirley said tiredly, “all your colleagues are morons.”

  “When I was at Virgin,” Shirley said with a sniff, “we had quality people from top to bottom.”

  “Get rid of all the rubbish, did they?” Janet asked pointedly.

  “I’ll have you know, leaving was entirely my idea!”

  Janet shrugged. “PMS can be a terrible affliction.”

  “Well, I never!”

  “Perhaps not, dear,” Janet said, returning to her paperwork, “but I can tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

  Shirley struggled to find a suitable retort, but was saved by George, the maintenance man, banging the door full open and squeezing his huge bulk in through the gap.

  “Somebody report that the baggage belt is missing?” he asked, a little breathless from the effort of moving his twenty-stone lump about.

  Shirley brightened. “Ah, yes. That was me.”

  “Well,” George said, “I am pleased to inform you that the baggage belt was found next to the check-in desks after a short search.”

  Shirley’s mouth opened and closed.

  “And someone reported evidence of an oil leak from the motor?”

  She nodded slowly. “That was Rob.”

  “Right. Tell him the evidence has now been removed.” He backed out and made a token attempt to reach for the door handle before giving up and waddling off.

  Shirley shook her head slowly and stared at the open door. “He couldn’t be serious,” she said, almost to herself.

  “I believe he is quite serious,” Major Tom said. “That was George.” As if that explained everything.

  “But that’s insane!” Shirley said.

  “And your point?” Janet added without looking up.

  Before they could explore the madness of George any further, Rob and Maurice stepped up to the open door, and Rob beckoned to Major Tom.

  “Better get out here, Major,” he said, half-turning and pointing… out there. “We’ve got a problem.”

  Major Tom made a visible effort to return to reality from wherever it was he’d retreated. “What’s the problem?” he said, setting off towards the door. A little more slowly than his best pace. “It’s yoofs, isn’t it? Always the same at this time of the morning. I think it’s all that modern coffee… it hypes them up. A spell in the army is what they need, spot of discipline.”

  “No,” Rob said, leaving a silence for dramatic effect. “It’s a suspect package.”

  They all froze.

  The fire-exit/executive office door banged open, and Dickie almost fell out. “Suspect package!” He caught his balance and took a moment to regain his composure. No point letting the staff see him as anything but perfect. “Where? What? How big? Has the bomb squad been called? Are the police attending? Are we safe in here?”

  Yes, perfect.

  Rob shook his head in answer to one of the questions. “I’ll skip the first questions and cut to the chase, shall I? I’ve never been one to beat around the bush or to use a sentence where a word will do. You know me, I call a spade a shovel. It’s not in my nature to ramble on or blather, so to speak, so I’ll just get straight to the point. Right from the shoulder, tell it as it is—”

  “For Christ’s sake… begging your pardon, ladies,” Major Tom said. “Just tell me what is the nature of the suspect package?”

  “Suspect,” Rob said helpfully.

  “I mean,” Major Tom said in an exasperated tone, “where is this suspect package?”

  Rob pointed vaguely towards the concourse. “Out there. Lurking.”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Janet said and stood up. “This is hopeless. Come with me, Tom.”

  She strode out, and Major Tom followed, throwing a pleading look at Rob, who just shrugged. Security-type work required a security-type person. Logical.

  “Should we help?” Maurice asked, with little enthusiasm.

  “No,” Rob said, “but we should definitely go and watch.”

  They stepped up behind Janet and Major Tom at the desks and looked out across the deserted concourse.

  “Is it still there?” Dickie asked from behind the half-closed staff door.

  “Can’t see,” Rob said. “Major Tom has bravely interposed his body between us and the potential blast.”

  Major Tom visibly jumped, looked at Rob quickly, and took a long step back, allowing the rest to edge forward to the desks.

  They could see the suspect package. A large, brown cardboard box sat in the roped-off lanes leading to the desks. It was highly suspect.

  “There is the suspect package,” Rob said, pointing at the box. “Over there. That cardboard box.”

  Janet turned to him slowly and studied him for a moment. “Really?” she said, raising her eyebrows. “I was looking for a big black ball with a fizzing fuse and the word ‘bomb’ written on it in white paint.”

  “No,” Rob said, shaking his head. “That’s it there. That cardboard box.”

  Dickie closed the
door a little more.

  “Are you going to remove it to a place of safety, Major Tom?” Rob asked enthusiastically.

  “Err… well…” Major Tom said decisively. “I wouldn’t like to overreach the limits of my… err… responsibility. We should… err… wait for the proper authorities.”

  “But you said in the war you were always fiddling with things that go bang.”

  “True, in my time in Iraq, I often had cause to handle ordinance, and sometimes it was necessary to diffuse it. But that was war, and if it wasn’t me, then some poor marine would probably have been blown to bits. You might say it was my duty.”

  “Then do your duty, and get over there, and diffuse that cardboard box,” Janet said, pointing at the lanes.

  “It might be somebody’s washing,” Maurice said.

  “Does your mom know you’re out?” Janet asked.

  “He’s got a point, though,” Rob said. “We can’t just sling it. It might have a cat inside or a snake or something.”

  “Then I’m afraid it’s down to you, Tom,” Dickie said from behind the door, now even more closed.

  “We should evacuate and wait for the disposal boys,” Major Tom said.

  “You’re kidding,” Maurice said, “the garbage men won’t take that!”

  “Take your medication, Maurice,” Janet said.

  “He’s right, though, we can’t leave it, what if some kid comes by while we’re hiding?” Rob said. “One was here earlier, and much as it wouldn’t bother me to see him blown up, it might be bad for the airline.”

  “Can’t have bad publicity for the airline,” Dickie said. “Go and take a look, Tom.”

  “With respect, Mister Marks,” Major Tom said, his voice strained, “we should wait here for the security boys.”

  “You are security,” Janet said sternly.

  “He means,” Rob said, “those eager beavers who slide down ropes, shouting, ‘Go! Go! Move it!’ and military things like that.”

  “I called them,” Maurice said. “They have an alert on and won’t be here till after lunch.”

  “They’re probably practicing what to do should someone find a suspect package,” Janet said.

  “Yeah,” Rob said, “and their package is probably in the bar.”

  “I could go and look for them,” Maurice said.

  “One stays. We all stay,” Rob said. “That right, Major Tom?”

  “I believe the expression is, you go, we all go,” Major Tom said, sensing an opportunity.

  “Do something,” Dickie said. “I need to go to the bathroom.”

  “I could go over and just take a quick look,” Major Tom said.

  “What if there’s a hidden terrorist with a trigger device? I’ve seen it on the TV,” Maurice suggested.

  “For heaven’s sake, shut up!” Janet said.

  “Just saying, that’s all,” Maurice said, sulking.

  “Well, don’t,” Janet snapped. “Tom, go and take a look. Now.”

  “Pretend it’s Baghdad and twelve-year-olds are throwing rocks at you,” Rob said.

  Major Tom started to move.

  “Hang on,” Rob said and ignored Janet’s squinted stare. “You can’t just go over to the bomb without some sort of body armour.”

  Thank you, Lord.

  Major Tom nodded sagely. “The boy’s right. It’s procedure. No body armour, no fiddling with bombs.” He turned towards the staff room and sighed. Free. Free at last.

  “Hang on, then,” Rob said, crashing the moment. “I can sort something out for you. Come on, Maurice.”

  “Not me,” Maurice said, shaking his head.

  Rob crouched and crept behind the baggage belt, keeping low to minimise the impact should the package detonate.

  “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” Janet said.

  “Oh, yeah, great,” Major Tom said sullenly, his escape now in tatters.

  “Knowing that at any moment we could be blown to pieces,” Janet said.

  Dickie closed the door.

  “We never had bomb threats at Virgin,” Shirley said with a sniff.

  “No,” Maurice said under his breath, “in those days the terrorists would just set fire to the paper wings.”

  “Did you say something, Maurice?” Shirley asked, coming back from her memories of happier, bomb-free days.

  Before Maurice could lie, a cleaning trolley trundled around the corner and onto the concourse. The two women pushing the trolley very slowly could have been sisters. Sixty-something — a lot of ‘something’ — wearing button-up blue overalls and silly baseball caps with oversized GAL logos.

  Everyone behind the desks began waving them away. They smiled, waved back, and kept on coming, and stopped in front of the desks.

  “Are you expecting a rush?” Mrs T asked.

  Jessie handed her a brush.

  “No, Jessie, a rush—”

  “I’m going as fast as I can,” Jessie said. “It’s not easy you know. Not with my… problem.”

  Nobody knew. And nobody really wanted to.

  “There’s a suspect package, Mrs T,” Janet said. “You should move away from the danger zone.”

  “It’s too late now,” Major Tom said, raising his hands as if to block the way. “The vibration could set it off.”

  “This is an airport, have you noticed?” Shirley said. “With planes landing and taking off.”

  “That’s not localised vibration, is it?” Major Tom said pompously.

  “The bomb can tell the difference, then, can it?” Janet said.

  “Well, it depends if it’s got a trembler.”

  “My Herbert used to say he’d got a trembler,” Mrs T said.

  Nobody spoke, they just watched her watching the box.

  “Okay,” Janet said, “I’m going to ask. Even though I know I’m going to regret it.”

  They waited.

  “Why did your Herbert say he’d got a trembler, then, Mrs. T?”

  “Oh, it’s okay now. He takes pills for his distemper.”

  “What?” Janet said, totally confused.

  “I had a dog once,” Shirley said and received a sharp look from Janet.

  “I didn’t know that,” Maurice said. “How nice. What was its name?”

  “Just Bloke,” Shirley said, glancing at her watch and thinking it would soon be time for a break.

  “That’s a strange name for a dog,” Maurice said.

  “Not for this one,” Shirley said, looking up absently from her watch. “He was lazy, messy, insensitive, and violent when woken.”

  Janet sighed heavily. Life shouldn’t be like this. Her mother had told her, “Janet, go to the city, make something of yourself.” She probably hadn’t meant make a loser. “Why did the doctor give Herbert distemper pills, Mrs T?”

  She really couldn’t care less, but it passed the time.

  “Dunno, it was the doctor’s idea,” Mrs T said. “I could never understand him.”

  “Oh, I know what you mean,” Maurice said. “All that medical talk makes my head spin.”

  “Oh, I don’t know if he did medical talk. He was foreign, I could never get what he said. Except he told Herbert he had to calm down and take pills for distemper.”

  They all watched her for a while, waiting for her to smile or say something. They waited in vain.

  At that silent moment, Rob returned, clutching a big canvas holdall.

  Janet frowned and watched him suspiciously as he dropped the bag onto the check-in desk. “What have you got there?”

  “A bag.”

  She waited patiently. Not an easy thing for her.

  “Sports bag.”

  She continued to wait, though her foot began to tap.

  “Been in lost baggage for ages,” Rob said, starting to feel the heat. He smiled at Mrs T and Jessie. “Morning, ladies. Come to watch the fireworks?”

  “No, thank you, dear,” Jessie said, returning the smile. “I can never see what the clues have got to do with the answers.”
/>
  He looked at her for a few moments while he tried to unscramble it, but gave up. Life is just too short. “And how’s Herbert and the kids, Mrs T?”

  “Oh, they’re lovely, thank you, Rob. But he says he’s not having any more. He’s having a hysterectomy next month.”

  “It’s a snip, Mrs T,” Rob informed her.

  “Doesn’t matter, dear, we don’t have to pay.” She smiled. “The government are doing it for him.”

  “The government are cutting off Herbert’s nuts?” Maurice asked in shock.

  “Why is that a surprise to you?” Rob said with a sad shake of his head.

  “It’s the health bit,” Mrs T said.

  Jessie shook her head and woke up. “And good health to you, but it’s a bit early in the day for me, thanks.”

  “You tell Herbert those snippy things can be painful,” Rob said.

  “Oh, not to worry,” Mrs T said, “they’re giving him a… err… anus… thetic.”

  “Ah, right,” Rob said, “that should take his mind off it.”

  “Okay,” Janet said sharply, “stop it right there.”

  Rob put his hand on his heart and gave her a ‘what, lil ol’ me’ look.

  “Shall we get on with it,” she said tiredly. “I’m expecting a rush.”

  “I bet Jessie has something for a rash, don’t you, Jessie?” Rob said.

  Jessie woke up again with a start. “Told you I’m going as fast as I can. What is the matter with everybody this morning, all this hurry?”

  “Not got your hearing aid fixed, then, eh Jessie?” Rob said with a smile.

  “No, I haven’t, dear. But why would I want to flush it? It won’t work any more.”

  Maurice sighed. “Oh, we wouldn’t want that, would we? God knows what confusion would follow.”

  Rob unzipped the sports bag and began rummaging inside and putting things onto the desk. The others gathered round. He placed a sports box next to one half of a pair of hockey shin guards.

  “My Willie had one of those,” Jessie said, pointing at the jockstrap.

  Rob smiled. “I think you’ll find that’s a truss, Jessie.”

  “Never any bother, he’d trust anybody. Anyway, he liked it, said it filled out his trousers. Quite suited him.”

  “Put those on, Major Tom,” Rob instructed, pointing at the pile of cast-off sports equipment.

  Major Tom started at him and then at the equipment. He closed his eyes slowly in surrender, reached over, and picked up the ice-hockey helmet with the broken visor. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

  Rob reached over and flicked the visor. “This’ll save your brains from the blast.”

  “Very reassuring,” Maurice said. ‘At least it’ll keep them all in the same place when it blows his head off,” he said under his breath.

  Major Tom’s head snapped around, proving he wasn’t as deaf as Maurice assumed. “Wait a minute here—”

  “Ignore him,” Rob said, handing him a padded vest. “He’s just jealous that you’re going to be the hero.”

  Major Tom took a deep breath and nodded slowly.

  “Posthumous hero,” Maurice said.

  Major Tom took a little step back, but he was too slow. Rob took his arm and slapped a lacrosse stick into his hand. Major Tom held up the long stick and looked at the triangular net.

  “That’s for scooping,” Rob said with enthusiasm.

  “Scooping?”

  “Yeah, you know?”

  Major Tom didn’t know. In fact, no one knew, but that didn’t stop Rob, who took the stick back and demonstrated scooping imaginary explosives out of an imaginary bomb. A quite safe imaginary bomb. He handed the stick back to Major Tom.

  “Right, get into your bomb armour, Major Tom,” he said, handing him the shin guard. “And let’s see you do hero things.”

  Major Tom was caught. He slid on the fat, protective gloves and held them up. “What am I supposed to do wearing these things?”

  “Oh,” Mrs T said, “is there a game? Ooh, Herbert used to love sport. He used to spend all day asleep in front of the telly when it was on.”

  “My sister used to do that,” Jessie said absently.

  Janet raised her hand. “Nobody try to stop me. I’m going to ask.” She leaned on the desk to be closer to Jessie. “What, Jessie?”

  “No, dear, I can’t squat any more. Not since me operation.”

  Janet had the bit between her teeth and wasn’t going to be put off. “No, Jessie. I meant what did your sister used to do?”

  Jessie bristled a little. “They never proved anything. It was that Mrs Hardcastle who started that rumour. Anyway, she was too old.”

  “No, dear,” Janet said almost desperate now. “I meant—”

  “For heaven’s sake,” Shirley said. “Who cares what the old bat says?”

  “Oh no, dear. They wouldn’t let him bat… well, not after the incident, anyway. You know, they never got the marks off.” She shook her head sadly.

  “There you go,” Rob said, patting Major Tom on the shoulder. “Ready for action.”

  The others gave up on the fascinating life of Mrs T and Jessie and turned to look Major Tom over. He’d lost the fat gloves and was wearing the jockstrap on the outside of his trousers and had the broken helmet perched on the top of his head. The padded jacket was way too small and was held in place, straining across his chest, with a lace from the one sports shoe.

  “Well, what do you think?” Rob said, turning to his audience. “An action man if ever you saw one, right?”

  Maurice opened his mouth, but closed it in response to Rob’s dirty look.

  “He looks like a total loon,” Janet said helpfully.

  “No, ignore her, Major Tom,” Rob said, steering the hapless security guard around the desk. “Go get ’em, tiger!”

  The tiger edged slowly onto the concourse, the jockstrap bunching up his trousers into wrinkled pantaloons, while the tiny helmet slid slowly over his face to hang on his chest by the frayed straps.

  Okay, hero at work here.

  “Whoa!” Rob said suddenly.

  Major Tom stopped. Thank you, God.

  “When… if it explodes,” Rob said, “the blast will go up and out, right?” He held up his hands in surrender. “Not that I’m an expert. Not like you.”

  Major Tom stood up a little straighter, and the jockstrap crushed his nuts. “Correct,” he said through a flinch and bent a little again. “Exploding ordinance will generally follow that explosive trajectory.”

  “Then,” Rob said, raising a finger for emphasis, “you should stay low. You know? Under the blast.”

  Major Tom’s life was over. Ended before it had barely begun. Okay, before his old age at least. He leaned on the desk and lowered himself to his knees.

  “Don’t you think you should get down as low as possible?” Rob said with a worried frown.

  Major Tom sighed heavily and began crawling slowly across the concourse, with his backside sticking up heroically.

  “Isn’t that the bravest thing you ever saw?” Maurice asked, wiping away a tear.

  “Looks like somewhere to park my bike,” Rob said.

  “Have a little respect for the man risking his life,” Janet said sharply.

  “And ours,” Rob added, “if we stay here.”

  They moved as smoothly as a well-oiled machine and hid behind the desk.

  Mrs T and Jessie stayed out on the concourse, standing behind their cleaning trolley and watching Major Tom crawl under the tapes zigzagging across the concourse.

  “He’ll leave scuff marks,” Jessie said reproachfully. “And who’ll have to scrub them off? Us, that’s who.”

  “The blast will clean off the scuff marks, Jessie,” Rob said in a muffled voice from under the desk.

  “I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” Major Tom said. “The disposal boys will have sandbags and things.”

  “Don’t worry, Major Tom,” Rob said, “we’re quite safe behind these de
sks. You go ahead and do your stuff.”

  Major Tom pulled the helmet away from his chin and let it go. The elastic straps did what elastic straps are supposed to do. “Ow! Ouch!” he said, as the hard helmet smacked into his face. He pushed it to one side under his ear and crawled on.

  At that moment, Stephanie arrived for her shift. In her early twenties, probably blonde, and wearing a GAL orange uniform that was three sizes too small and pulled in and pushed out in all the right places.

  “What’s the old idiot doing now?” she asked, leaning across the desk to talk to the brave souls hiding behind the desk.

  “Perhaps you should come back here with us, Stephanie,” Shirley said.

  “Yes,” Rob said, “sit by me, I’ll protect you.”

  “Yeah, right,” Stephanie said. “In your dreams.”

  “He’s checking out that suspect package,” Janet said. “Come behind the desk in case it explodes.”

  “What? That old cardboard box?”

  “Yes,” Janet said. “He thinks it might be a bomb.”

  “Don’t be bloody daft,” Stephanie said with a sniff. “Who’d want to blow up this dump?”

  “She’s got a point,” Maurice said but continued to stay low. “Who’d want to blow up GAL?”

  “Well, me, for one,” Rob said.

  “Yes,” Janet said, “but you’re certifiable.”

  “Stephanie,” Shirley said, “I really do think you should come back here with us.”

  “Why?” Stephanie said. “Is there a party?”

  “More like a wake if you don’t take cover,” Rob said.

  “Don’t like wakes,” Stephanie said. “All that blubbering and having to say nice things about weird uncles.”

  Rob frowned. “What uncles, Steph?” He waved her over. “Come and sit down with me, and tell me all about it.”

  “That,” Stephanie said, “is what the weird uncles used to say.”

  “My uncle Harry was wired,” Jessie said and frowned and shook her head. “No, it was Uncle Harry who was wired.” She nodded confirmation. “Yes. Broke his pelican on a motorbike.”

  “I didn’t know your uncle Harry rode a motorbike, dear,” Mrs T said.

  “He doesn’t.”

  “But you just said he broke something riding a motorbike.”

  “He wasn’t riding it,” Jessie said.

  Silence.

  Rob and Maurice exchanged a long look.

  “What was he doing with it, then?” Mrs T asked.

  “It fell on him when he was lifting it over the garden wall,” Jessie said. She shook her head. “Never was very bright, Uncle Harry.”

  “Why was he lifting it over a garden wall, dear?” Mrs T asked.

  “It was the reverend mother’s,” Jessie said.

  “The garden wall?” Mrs T said.

  “No,” Jessie said, “the motorbike.”

  Major Tom lifted the edge of the cardboard flap and tried to peek inside. “Oops!”

  “Now that’s one of two words you don’t want to hear,” Rob said.

  “What words?” Maurice said.

  “A doctor saying interesting,” Rob said, “or a pilot saying oops.”

  They all edged up slowly until they could see above the desktop. Which, thinking about it, was probably not the best move with the threat of an imminent explosion. Rob tore his eyes off Stephanie’s breasts and forced them to check out the concourse—with the occasional glance back, just to make sure she was okay. Of course.

  Major Tom was backing off from the box, his backside still arched into the air.

  The bomb exploded.

  A white mushroom cloud blew up and out across the concourse. Major Tom flattened himself against the polished floor in an effort to avoid the coming blast. The others ducked down behind the desk. Stephanie put her hands to her mouth.

  And Jessie and Mrs T shook their heads slowly.

  “I suppose they’ll expect us to clean that up,” Mrs T said.

  “Bound to,” Jessie said with a long, tired sigh.

  The others raised their heads slowly above the desk and saw the inflatable girlfriend sticking up from the box. It was swaying gently from its sudden inflation, and its fortunately shaped hand held a stick with a banner:

  HAPPY BIRTHDAY MAJOR TOM!

  It had two medals strategically taped to its enormous chest and wore oversized khaki shorts.

  Major Tom unclenched his hands from his head, climbed slowly to his knees, and stared at the doll and the cloud of polystyrene and confetti drifting down across the concourse.

  One by one they all turned and glared at Rob, who stood up, shrugged once, and sauntered off to the staff room for a well-deserved coffee.

  “That’s good,” Mrs T said.

  Major Tom’s face was already scarlet, but managed to get just a couple more degrees of red. “What?” he hissed through clenched teeth. “What could possibly be good about this… this…”

  “Raving madness?” Janet suggested.

  “Raving madness,” Major Tom said, taking the offer. “What could be good, Mrs T, about me getting a bloody heart attack?”

  Mrs T smiled sweetly. “Well, dear, if it had been a real bomb, there would have been a much bigger mess to clear up.”

  Mrs T and Jessie trundled the cleaning cart in the direction of the birthday surprise, and Major Tom marched past with as much dignity as he could muster. Whilst wearing a jockstrap on the outside of his trousers. And being covered from head to toe in confetti, talc and sequins from the bomb blast.

  He saluted. “Good day, ladies.” The jockstrap crushed his nuts, and he screwed up his face in agony.

  “Happy birthday, Major Tom,” they said with a smile.

  _______________

 

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  About the Author

  Leigh Barker is the author of:

  Bitesize Reads:

  Action Adventure Series:

  Clan – Season 1, 2, and 3

  Soldiers

  The Hellfire Legacy

  First Responder

  The Orpheus Directive

  Men at Work

  Fantasy Adventure Series:

  Requiem for Eden

  Novels:

  Action & Adventure (prequel to The Hellfire Legacy series):

  A Whisper of Armageddon.

  Fantasy Novels (prequels to Requiem for Eden series):

  Eden’s Last Hero

  Winterwood.

  The series are published in Bitesize Read Episodes, where each episode is a one-hour read, with a beginning, a middle and a cliff-hanger ending.

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  More at: LeighWBarker.com

  Books by Leigh Barker:

  The hugely successful Bitesize Read Series (1-hour episodes)

  ‘Clan’ Season 1

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  Season 1 Box Set (All 13 Episodes at a big discount)

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  The Adventure Continues.

  Season 2 Box Set (All 12 Episodes at a big discount
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  2nd Action-packed Ethan Gill Adventure.

  Season 1 Box Set (All 10 Episodes at a big discount)

  ‘The Orpheus Directive’ Season 1 — In production

  3rd Ethan Gill Adventure.

  ‘First Responder’ Season 1 — In production

  Explosive adventures with the FDNY Fire Marshals

  ‘Soldiers’  Season 1

  Explosive Great War Adventures.

  Season 1 Box Set (All 11 Episodes at a big discount)

  ‘Requiem for Eden’ - Season 1 – In Production

  The Eden Adventure Continues.

  ‘Men at Work’ Series

  Occasional, mostly ‘True’ stories of anarchy in the workplace.

  Full-Length Novels:

  A Whisper of Armageddon (1st Ethan Gill Adventure)

  Off-the-wall characters, furious action and suspense

  ‘Eden’ Fantasy Series (Requiem for Eden Prequel)

  Great adventures with our reluctant hero.

  Eden’s Last Hero

  Winterwood

   

 
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