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Read the first chapter:
Jude stared down the hill at the glint on the water and then across to the fields baked hard by weeks of sun. He’d followed the directions to the letter, so this was the right place. But where was Hewhay Hall?
A row of swallows balanced on a wire stretching overhead, each facing the same way as Jude, who rested against a five-bar gate. They too seemed to be eyeing the fallen tree trunks that littered the overgrown path down the rocky hillside. They were lucky—they could fly, but Jude had to hobble.
The air moved on the other side of the marshland. He didn’t imagine it. A definite ripple, the kind that alters your vision when a migraine’s about to start. Although the shift was fleeting, he had the idea something was down there after all, very faint and hard to describe. The outline of a building? Or maybe just heat haze. Whatever, he’d come this far—he’d go and investigate.
The latch and hinges on the gate were so rusted, Jude couldn’t open it. Nothing for it, then, but to climb over. He propped his crutches against the wooden bars, placed his hands on the top, and hauled himself up so his right leg got a footing on a lower rung. Now he could sit on the top. He bent down, picked up what was left of his other leg, and maneuvered it over until he straddled the gate. It creaked under his weight. As he swung his right leg over, he teetered, tried to grab the top bar but lost his balance and fell headlong into a bramble patch.
Prickles stabbed him as he lay on his back, his whirling gaze locked on a wiggly jet trail in the cloudless sky. Once the world righted itself, he pushed himself up on his elbows and extracted some of the more painful brambles before rolling onto his right knee. His bum in the air, he hoped no one was looking and that he retained a shred of dignity as he balanced on his right leg and wobbled his way upright. As he tried to stand, his knee locked. He was a second away from landing back on the ground but he grabbed an oak tree trunk for support.
Bloody hell. Wasn’t it about time they gave him a prosthesis? He bent to rub his stump, still raw after all this time. Why wasn’t he healing?
The thought was barely out of his head when the gate clicked and glided open behind him as if the latch and hinges had been well-oiled. He scratched his head and glared down the valley at the space where he thought he’d seen the outline of a house a moment ago. Was someone having a laugh at him here? Watch the ugly cripple struggle over the gate then open it on remote control? I tell you, he silently told the marshes, if I find out who did that, I’m going to nail him to this oak tree by his ears.
Fat chance. Even if the culprit were five years old, he’d still be stronger than Jude—and able to run faster.
A rifle shot resounded, the boom echoing off the hillside. Jude dove into the tall grass, his arms over his head, his chest bruised by the stony ground. When his heartbeat slowed, he lowered his arms and parted the weeds he was lying in to check out his surroundings. Of course it was only a local farmer scaring crows. God dammit, why did every little noise set him off?
Post traumatic stress disorder, the shrink had told him. Having experienced a bomb blast, you’re bound to get flashbacks.
I’m an idiot, he wanted to shout at the now-darting swallows, but until he got his trembling under control, he was speechless. Anyway, he had to find the strength to get back on his feet, or rather, foot.
Maybe he’d better just sit a moment, catch his breath and get his thoughts in order. Up to his chest in seed-grass, he wondered why the place called Hewhay Hall wasn’t here. The leaflet had said to follow the track as far as it goes, then to parkwhen you got to the gate leading to Hewhay Hall because you could go no farther.
He reached over and grabbed his fallen crutches. With their help, he clambered upright, fitted his arms in, and squinted against the glare of the light. Even his damned eyesight seemed to be going these days. Anyone would think he was ninety, not thirty. What a wuss.
He scrubbed his hands over his face. Christ, he was tired. He’d lain awake for most of last night, tossing and turning, wondering if coming here was the right thing to do.
“It looks all wrong to me,” Tess, his wife, had said when he’d said good-bye to her this morning at home. And she’d thrown him that look—the one she’d acquired over the past year that had pity written all through it
Now he had two choices: go down and look for this Hewhay Hall or head back and admit his failure to assess a situation—again.
Another shot rang out, scattering a flock of crows. Jude swayed like a wind-blown sapling but kept his balance, even though his mind was thrown back to his final call-out…
“Jude, code 10-79.”
Code 79. For a moment he’d forgotten what a 79 was—he had been on duty at the fire station for twenty-four hours, it was a wonder he remembered his own name. Oh yes: bomb threat. Imminent. Needing senior officer, on scene, stat. Hostage situation.
“OK,” he’d told his divisional officer, reaching for his white helmet. “Let’s hit the road. Who are the hostages?”
“A family at the top of the building. Woman—mother—has a bomb attached to her.”
“She’s a suicide bomber?”
“No, it was a break-in. The perp held the husband at gunpoint—heavy weaponry—and forced the woman to put on a waistcoat with the armed device.”
“Jesus. What is the guy? An octopus?”
“Nope, typical fucking terrorist.”
“Where is he now?”
“He lit outta there somehow. Bloody cops. Sheer incompetence, if you want my opinion. But he evaporated into thin air.”
Now, standing on the wasteland, Jude pictured the children who’d been held hostage with their parents. Kids he’d seen and heard crying before they were blown to smithereens.
He clasped his hands together to stop them from trembling as he relived the blanket of dust, the earsplitting crack as the ceiling gave way, and the rubble falling on him, tons, crashing down from above. It hadn’t hurt at the time—pain and repercussions had come later. Maybe it hadn’t been his job as a firefighter to go in like he had, maybe he had been disobeying orders. But he’d been driven by an overwhelming instinct to help.