The 9mm Parabellum slammed into the side of the target bullseye. Milliseconds later the next hit less than a millimeter to the left and a third missed altogether. It was followed by ten more in rapid succession peppering the target, but none hitting the bullseye directly.
“Out of sorts then, Frank?” said Bill Hodges, firearm instructor on the indoor firing range at Fort Monckton, as he reeled in the target card from twenty yards away. “That shoulder injury seems to have affected your aim, I see.”
The instructor picked up the SIG that Ryder had placed on the shelf in front of him, ejected the empty clip and inserted a new one. “Try again.”
“I prefer the P226; holds a fifteen clip, this,” – Ryder held up the gun – “only thirteen. I need time to get used to it,” he said loudly, smiling inwardly. The trap was set. Would the bait be taken?
“Yeah, but it’s lighter – more compact.” Hodges came back, following the lead and playing the game. “Twenty-eight ounce as against thirty-four and, I might add, a three point eight-inch barrel instead of four point four makes for better balance and a quicker draw. You’ll soon get used to it. The P228 could be standard issue for the squadrons soon, so you won’t get a choice.”
Ryder preferred the P226 but had to admit the P228 felt good. It was easier to handle, the recoil was almost negligible, and it was much lighter than the Browning, which had been army standard issue for many years.
“OK, OK, Bill, you win.”
“I bet, Frank, you’ll miss the bullseye, again,” said the instructor, a glint in his eye.
“Put your money where your mouth is, Bill?”
“I’ve got fifty to say you won’t do it,” he replied in a raised voice.
A group of MI6 officers in the adjoining booth glanced at one another as Ryder put on the ear muffs, picked up the P228 and raised it, holding the SIG with two hands in the standard firing stance. Then, suddenly, he lowered it; they weren’t biting, stretch it a bit. “I can’t do this to you, Bill,” he said, feigning concern. The instructor smiled, insisting he go ahead.
Then, from the adjoining alley: “I’ll have a hundred evens if you can do it single handed,” said one of the officers, who had scored a bullseye on his last shot. “I’ll take a hundred of that too,” said another.
That brought an inward smile. “Not with one hand I can’t,” Ryder shouted back over gunfire from along the range. “That would be difficult, even using a P226.”
“I’ll double it then,” said the first officer, real cocky now. “Two hundred, evens.”
The second quickly followed, “And two from me.”
“Whoa, you guys sure? That’s a lot.”
They both nodded, wide smiles broadening features.
Ryder shrugged his shoulders, grinned at the instructor, replaced ear muffs and turned towards the range. “OK, have it your way. I’ll take it.”
He raised the SIG in his right hand, racked back the top slide with his left to feed a round into the chamber and, without hesitation, let loose the full thirteen rounds in quick succession, filling the underground range with a crescendo of noise. Seconds later, Hodges reeled in the card, took it out of the rack and held it up for all to see.
The two black centre rings of the white target card had been completely blown away.
Ryder laid down the empty handgun, removed ear muffs and looked almost apologetically at the two officers. The instructor handed him a fifty-pound note with a false grimace and the other two each extracted notes from their wallets, handing them over without a word.
“Sorry about that boys, must be one of my luckier days.”
On leaving the range, he handed back the instructor his original fifty plus another fifty before pocketing the rest and leaving the firing range feeling better than he had for weeks.
One hour later Ryder sat in one of the Fort Monckton bars overlooking the English Channel sipping a cold beer and admiring the architecture of what remained of the fort, built in the Middle Ages by Henry VIII to defend the Portsmouth naval harbour against the French and now used primarily as a training centre for MI6 and the SAS. He was feeling his old self, now the shoulder wound from his last mission had almost completely healed and the scar, from his right shoulder down to below his pec muscle, hardly showed. He’d spent two months so far convalescing at a private rest home in West Sussex in conjunction with a recuperation programme here at the fort to get his muscular six-foot frame back into shape and to keep his survival skills intact. But with another week to go, he’d had enough, despite a number of pleasant escapades to the local pubs. He was becoming bored in the confined environment; it was time to get back to London. A keen angler, he missed the serenity experienced fishing in his local lake in Battersea Park, an oasis of calm within his beloved city he saw as a sea of controlled chaos.
He reflected on how different life might have been had he remained on the mean streets of Brixton, exposed to drugs and gangs and being slowly drawn into a life of crime. At eighteen he’d lost any dreams of a better life he might have had at the tender age of sixteen, seeing only a dead-end spiral, so he joined the army. The security and independence the army provided instilled discipline and purpose, channelling his energy. But most of all it gave him the opportunity to discover his full potential, in particular an aptitude, surprisingly, for foreign languages. He’d worked hard, kept his nose clean and had finally gone from the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment to a fully badged member of the elite 22 SAS in less than five years. There he participated in “executive actions” with the Sabre Squadrons, followed by two years with E Squadron before he caught the eye of the SIS and invited to join their ultra-secret Omega Unit. This move satisfied the need to express his individualism and be part of an elite clandestine organisation operating covertly in some of the world’s most dangerous places. At twenty-eight and a loner, he’d found his niche. But, he also found remembering the more violent aspects of the past as a highly trained killing machine for Queen and country, the smells, the tastes and often gory outcomes of close combat, he would rather forget, if for nothing else but to maintain his sanity. In calculating the number of times he’d been called upon to risk his life, he sometimes wondered how long it could last.
His cell-phone suddenly broke into his thoughts.
“Frank, mum. Sad news.” Then, after a short pause, “It’s dad, he’s died.”
Shocked, he hardly knew how to respond. Seconds passed before he could: “When and how?”
“Yesterday – heart attack, in hospital. Apparently it was quick.”
Unable to fully comprehend, all he could say was, “When’s the funeral?”
“This Thursday, four pm. Putney Vale Cemetery. Can you be there, son?
“I’ll be there.” He heard himself say. He had not seen his father for several years, they were far from close. His mother, too, hadn’t been in contact for months.
A short silence followed before she said goodbye and cut off.
He sat there stunned. A feeling of emptiness and loss prevailing, despite the estrangement with his father. Draining his drink he headed for reception and signed out.
Ryder rode his Harley Fat Boy out through the portcullis entrance in the thick stone walls of Fort Monckton, over the drawbridge that spanned what passed as an empty moat, and followed the narrow winding road alongside the Gosport and Stokes Bay Golf Club to the main road. From here he headed for the West Sussex rest home where he had been staying to collect his things before taking the road back to London.