A U.S. Marine is ambushed in a hotel bathroom. With the door locked, how can the killer have escaped?
This exclusive short story is the first chapter of my upcoming novel, The Locked Room. Acting as a sort-of-prologue, the plot introduces us to Kenneth Rhys as he investigates the death of a U.S. Marine.
For more information and further chapters of the upcoming book The Locked Room, check out The Locked Room (Book).
The Locked Room - Chapter 1 - Private Eye
The short story is available in its entirety below. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here).
Author: P.J. Bergman
Word Count: 8,000 (about 30 pages)
© 2014, P.J. Bergman. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. Extracts may be used, provided that full reference to the source is available to the reader.
© 2014, P.J. Bergman. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. Extracts may be used, provided that full reference to the source is available to the reader.
The manuscript had arrived that morning. At first Anthony withheld from opening it, toying gently with the corner of the adhesive flap as he examined the lopsided postmark on the envelope. He didn’t need to look inside to identify the author. The stamp in the corner would have been enough, but the distinct handwriting that formed the barely legible address on the front served to reinforce his suspicions.
At one time the handwriting had been as familiar to Anthony as his own. Notes littered around the apartment they shared would detail small tidbits of the cases they were working on, or outline a few of the bizarre incidents in which they found themselves. Despite his best efforts, Anthony couldn’t bring himself to throw out the deluge of paper scraps that now occupied a dusty box in the corner of his office. His brother always had been one for writing, and judging from the weight of the package Anthony now found in his hands the intervening years had proven no exception.
He ran his finger along the underside of the flap, the sticky residue giving way to reveal the contents of the envelope. The ease at which the paper separated suggested that the package had previously been opened and resealed, either innocently during transit or after an inquisitive eye had examined the consignment and judged it unworthy of their attention.
Inside the envelope was a thick block of neatly bound paper. Carefully wrapped around the manuscript a stiff card cover added weight to the already cumbersome package. Displayed prominently on the front were three handwritten words: The Locked Room.
Anthony hesitantly turned over the card to reveal the first page. A folded yellow note slid down the paper before being halted by his palm.
3rd December 2007
At time of writing it has been two years to the day since we last spoke. I don’t blame you for not seeing me, however I trust you will read the enclosed with an objective eye. Contained within these pages are my memoirs of our time together. I thought you should be the first to read them. Much of it you will already know, yet hopefully it will go some way to explain my actions.
From what I have read in the papers your skills seem to be serving you well in my absence. I always believed you would make an excellent investigator. If not for my deteriorating health I would like to think that we could have continued to work together for many years. We made quite a team. I take comfort in knowing my lessons didn’t go unheeded.
I hope this finds you well. For the first time in a long time I can say my own health is improving. Chemotherapy is every bit as bad as they say. It has taken a series of treatment cycles, as well as a number of surgical interventions, however the doctors are now much more optimistic about a full recovery. If I never see another needle it will be too soon.
Though it may seem impossible now, my primary wish is to earn back your trust that was so understandably lost two years ago. I hope my ramblings illuminate the motives for my actions, and help you forgive my deception.
The Locked Room
Case Log #001 - September 2004
'How many was it? How many have you killed?' I asked.
'I would say eleven, all told,' came the reply. There was no hesitation or remorse in his voice, but Brian Mitchell was not one for hesitation or remorse. He sat unflinching in his chair, his powerful hands resting on the table. Having just passed fifty his physical prowess had diminished, yet he was still an imposing sight. Intense eyes sat below a furrowed brow with a crop of short thinning hair exposing a number of scars on his scalp.
Two of my younger colleagues, Sergeants Powers and Godderidge, examined him closely from across the table.
'All shot?' questioned Powers.
'Mostly. Two I stabbed and one I strangled as he tried to call for his friends,' said Mitchell bluntly. The room sat in a stunned silence for a few seconds.
Godderidge tapped twice on the metallic table with his fingernail, the sharp ring breaking the silence.
Powers glanced back to Mitchell. 'When was the first?'
A solitary bulb in the center of the room illuminated the wrinkles of Mitchell’s forehead as he looked up to form a memory. 'You know, not even sure now. Guess it was October ‘85. Yeah, ‘85. Germany.' His slight smirk indicated it wasn’t a source of regret.
Powers leant back in astonishment, apparently unable to comprehend how Mitchell had weathered almost twenty years of death. He didn’t understand men like Mitchell. Men without compassion, without conscience.
All eyes were on Mitchell. He remained unmoved, staring down his inquisitors.
I leant forward and gestured towards him. 'So?'
'All in,' he smiled, pushing his chips to the center of the table.
The game was running into the early hours of the morning. Four of us remained from the six that started earlier that evening and the tension was beginning to show. Mitchell and I had organized the poker tournament as we had many before: high stakes, extreme secrecy. I should have known how many military laws we were breaking. Improper conduct, fraternizing with subordinates, illegal gambling. A United States Code of Military Justice phrase I had read a thousand times over the course of my career echoed through my mind:
Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
Mitchell may have been an officer though in no way was he a gentleman. Poker was my vice but Mitchell was an adrenaline junkie. Anything that offered him a thrill was fair game, no matter the consequences. Ex Special Forces, he now trained the recruits on survival skills and hand-to-hand combat. The career shift left him longing for drama and I suspected our little business initiative was only one of a long list of activities his superiors weren’t aware of. There had been many times that I had been called to investigate a crime and my first thought ran to Mitchell. Over the years we had developed a silent understanding but there was no denying he was a dangerous man. Luckily none of the assaults, robberies or murders I had come across could be attributed to him. The man had more dirt on me than I cared to remember.
Powers sat eyeballing Mitchell, considering his bet. Mitchell didn’t flinch.
A gentle buzzing interrupted the staring match. It took me a few seconds to realize it was coming from the phone in my pocket. A call at this time only meant one thing.
'Kenneth Rhys?' said an unrecognized voice at the other end. 'You’re up. East gate, 0300 hours.'
'Roger that.' I replied. Ten minutes. Damn. Leaving the table between breaks meant forfeit. I’d have to abandon the game. Luckily it wasn’t one of my better days - I was hanging by a thread anyway.
I pushed my chips into the center pile. 'Sorry guys, duty calls.'
- - -
Camp Banzai was situated in Northwest Baghdad with the bustle of the city wafting in over the high walls of the complex. It was late 2004, six months in to my deployment in Iraq. The summer had hosted some of the most intense fighting of the war though with winter came a period of calm. The odd explosion still echoed in the distance, but then everything is relative.
I made my way across the dusty concrete towards the East Gate. Its heavy metal barriers were flanked by imposing pillars that connected the structure to the thick concrete walls of the perimeter. Beside them sat two guard towers just inside the wall. They looked as if they could have been constructed with Meccano, though the mounted M-240B machine guns positioned on the parapets were very real indeed. As I approached I could see General Hall waiting beside one of the pillars.
'Major Rhys. Good that you’re here. Did I wake you?' Hall was a well liked leader with a face dominated by a thick moustache, the likes of which had gone out of fashion a number of wars ago.
'No sir. What’s going on?'
'A marine. Private First Class Frank Allsop. He was K.I.A. during a patrol just outside the base.’
‘Friendly on friendly sir?’ I had been involved with a few cases of friendly fire since moving to Iraq - determining the sequence of events and deciding if an individual was at fault. They hadn’t required my attention at three in the morning before.
‘No, enemy contact. It’s the damndest thing. The squad was ambushed just outside the base - they managed to separate Allsop from the rest of the unit, then disappeared into thin air!’
‘I’m not sure I follow,’ I replied.
‘I’ll let Private Coleman explain,’ continued the General. ‘This way.’
We made our way out of the gate and past a dilapidated section of a sandbag barrier. To our left an abandoned swing found itself squeaking desolately in the no man’s land overshadowed by the looming gate. I had heard that prior to our occupation it had been a popular spot for the local children. Funny how a few machine guns can put a damper on a playground.
General Hall led me towards the source of the commotion. 'I thought the damn reporters were bad, but this is something else. Couldn’t have come at a worse time. My job is on the line with this one Rhys.'
'Reporters?' I inquired.
'You haven’t seen? We’re getting hammered in the press. Video report went out last week. Couldn’t be more critical about what we’re trying to do here. Somehow she’s got her hands on footage from inside the base. I had to apprehend one of the jarheads a few days ago - the moron got himself taped doing pot.'
It sounded like our poker ring wasn’t the only illicit activity on the base. Life in the military was much like what I imagined a prison would be. Discipline and order provide the foundations, but an undercurrent of secretive activity was always present. The harder the rules were enforced the more enticing the thrill of rebellion.
'How did she get in?'
'Hell if I know,’ Hall replied. ‘Must have someone on the inside doing the filming. We have a leak, and now we have one of our own in the dirt as well.’
A few hundred feet past the swing was the Baghdad Central Hotel. A common destination for western diplomats and businessmen prior to the war, it was peppered with bullet holes and all but stripped bare by the locals. A perimeter had been established surrounding the building by a squad of marines who were calmly scanning the streets with their night vision scopes.
Banzai was the closest I would ever come to actual combat, though in some ways the role of the military police was less interesting in the hot zones. Belittled by the ‘real’ soldiers, Military Police and the Criminal Investigation Division were primarily responsible for prisoner detention and internal affairs. As the unit’s investigating officer I travelled between the local bases regularly, yet none provided much I could sink my teeth into. The most interesting cases I had seen during my thirty years of service had all originated in friendly countries where troops faced the universal enemy - boredom.
A soldier wearing an immaculate uniform lifted the tape covering the door as we entered the building. The interior was dark yet spacious, a blistered remnant of what must have been quite a luxurious hotel. On the other side of the lobby General Hall led me through a couple of tight turns before we emerged into the light of a small room illuminated by standing floodlights. After my eyes had adjusted to the brightness I could see that it was a male bathroom, the stalls now exposed by broken or missing doors. Unlike most places in Baghdad the bathroom was very similar to that of western standards. Rather than rows of holes in the floor there were urinals and stalls with ceramic toilets. In many ways I admired the Iraqi culture however one tradition that I could not abide was the open and often putrid lavatories.
In the center of the room lay the body. I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting prior to entering the room, however the twisted corpse immediately established that this was no ordinary K.I.A. Private Allsop’s hands were bound behind his back with a cable tie and his ghostly face was covered by a transparent plastic bag. The bag was secured with duct tape around the neck and clung to the marine’s face like a laminate cover. The section around the mouth had been ripped, presumably in an attempt to resuscitate him, though the bulging of his eyes suggested it had been too late. It had been an age since I’d investigated a fully fledged murder. My pulse began to race. Finally, something decent had come my way.
The General shook his head and removed his hat. 'Poor sod. I’ll have to tell his wife and kids.' He seemed genuinely affected by the events, a reaction I dreaded having to mimic in front of grieving friends or family. Pretending to share in their mourning was one of the most difficult parts of the job. My only relative was my younger brother Anthony. Fifteen years his senior, we had never been close. The General’s comments made me wonder how Anthony would react if it was me there on the floor. In truth I had no idea.
‘It never gets any easier,’ Hall continued. ‘How do you quantify something like this?’
The total benefits paid to a married soldier with three children could reach up to $1.9 million including life insurance and survivor benefits. It seemed high to me - if the US military presence of Iraq was wiped out the country would owe in excess of a quarter of a trillion. Someone in an insurance company somewhere probably had a get-out clause for such a contingency. I decided that wasn’t what the General was looking for as a response.
'Back up a bit, I’m still getting the shots,' interrupted a young medical examiner before I had a chance to think of a more adequate reply. His all-white plastic jumpsuit made him look like an oversized grocery bag.
'What have we got?' I asked.
‘Cause of death was asphyxiation, though there is a secondary wound in his shoulder. Close range fire from a small caliber rifle would be my guess. The bullet entered from the front just above the axillary artery and exited at the rear.’ He waved his camera at the spatter of blood covering the wall next to the entrance. The pattern reminded me of an inkblot from the Rorschach test we were subjected to as part of our annual psych evaluation. I figured it was perhaps best not to mention the resemblance during my next assessment.
‘We’ve retrieved the bullet from the wall,’ continued the examiner. ‘It’s not one I’ve seen before, we don’t use them for our boys. I’ve got a ballistics contact trying to identify the type now.’
As I turned to face the doorway a tanned marine in fatigues entered and saluted. ‘Private Coleman reporting sir.’
‘At ease,’ replied Hall.
Coleman approached the General. ‘You asked to see me sir?’
‘This is Major Rhys. He is investigating the events here. Tell him everything you know and extend him every courtesy.’ The General swept a hand through the thinning hair covering his head and tucked it under his hat. ‘Now I have to be getting back. Rhys, you can find me in the communications room when you’re finished here.’
- - -
Coleman sat on one of the benches leaning against the wall of the bathroom. His appearance reminded me of a description provided by a witness on another case a few months previously - white, average height, well built, and with very short dark hair. In other words he looked identical to ninety percent of the Americans in Iraq. I stood in contrast to the stereotype, greying and overweight. I was twice the age and perhaps twice the weight of the testosterone filled twenty-somethings that made up the majority of the military population.
‘I don’t know how this could have happened,’ he started as he stared at the body. ‘We were right behind him. Soppy... I mean, Private Allsop was only in here a minute.’
I lowered myself down to the bench on the opposing wall. ‘Could you lead me through what happened?’ I asked as I dug my military issue notebook from my pocket. As with most stationery its cover was printed with desert camouflage, though like me I doubted it would ever see combat. The purpose of the design seemed to be solely to make it easier to lose.
‘Yes sir. We were on regular patrol. Private Allsop was covering the left flank when he heard a noise from the hotel.’ Coleman spoke slowly and purposefully. If he did harbor any emotions about Allsop’s death he was doing a fantastic job hiding them. ‘We entered the building and Frank went to cover the corridor down there.’ He pointed to the floor outside the bathroom. ‘We heard him shout ‘Contact!’ and fire a few rounds. By the time we got across the lobby he was already in here. The door banged shut behind him and we heard a shot from inside. Sounded like a small caliber rifle, a .30 or .40 maybe. Wasn’t one of ours at any rate. We tried to contact him or open the door but it has a heavy deadbolt.’
I looked towards the entranceway. As described, a thick steel bolt was hanging from one of the only sections of the door that remained intact.
‘Sergeant Harris had a breaching kit so we set it up and blew the door. Soppy was like this when we found him.’
‘And the enemy?’ I asked.
‘Vanished. We searched every inch but he wasn’t here. He’d just gone.’
I couldn’t stop myself scanning the room, as if a quick glance would reveal an obvious escape that Coleman had somehow missed. It didn’t. The room was mostly tiled, though many of them were cracked and some were missing. Areas of the wall had crumbled to reveal the insulation and pipes running just beneath the surface.
‘Could he have somehow passed you in the corridor as you blew the door? Slipped out as you entered?’
‘Not unless he could get past the rest of the squad unnoticed. Simo and Liffey were covering the rear from the corridor just outside.’
‘Sorry, Private Simons and Private Lifferman.’
I jotted the names in my notepad.
‘Besides,’ added Coleman, ‘how could they have known our patrol route? We vary it to minimise risk, haven’t been ‘round here for a couple of days. Only people who know the route in advance are back at base.’
It was a good point. It seemed to me that an ambush like this would require meticulous planning, and routines were constantly changed to avoid such scenarios. Perhaps whoever did it had help. Another factor to consider. The interruption to my poker game had originally been an irritant, however the case was developing into quite an alluring puzzle.
‘OK, well if you think of anything else be sure to let me know. I’ll be in touch if I need anything.’
Coleman seemed surprised as he found himself being ushered out of the room. In truth I wanted a few moments of silence to inspect the area. I managed to clear out the medical examiner without much fuss and began working my way around the scene.
As far as I could tell the blood next to the door was consistent with the examiner’s report. The bullet, previously lodged in the wall, had been removed for forensics to look over. I made a note to see them later to confirm Coleman’s estimate of the rifle caliber. The door itself was all but destroyed, the wooden frame obviously no match for the breaching kit used to open it.
I followed the wall round to the right, occasionally tapping on the tiles to ensure there were no cavities behind the walls. The tiles were worn and dusty but retained their decorative pattern. It made the room look a little like the bath houses I had experienced while stationed in Europe. Every few feet the crumbled walls shattered the illusion, the exposed plaster bringing me back to the reality of the situation. The west wall was the hardest hit with a large proportion of missing tiles and a multitude of exposed pipes running vertically from the urinals.
Having checked each basin and toilet for movement or a hint of them concealing a hidden entrance of some kind I flopped back down on the bench. The latrines that remained intact were firmly affixed to the surrounding floor and walls, and some even had working taps and flushes. The room, as it appeared to me, was sealed.
After a brief moment of contemplation I moved towards the corridor from which we had entered. As Coleman had described, I found two bullets embedded in the plaster from Allsop’s attempt at the assailant. The pellets were a few inches apart and sat just below shoulder height. Combat troops were continually trained with their rifles and the bullet holes reflected the skilled aim of a U.S. marine rather than the ‘spray and pray’ philosophy that I had encountered on a number of cases before.
Traversing the rest of the corridor towards the lobby failed to reveal anything that seemed relevant to the case. Like the bathroom the decorative paintwork on the walls had eroded and crumbled yet a wave-like pattern on the ceiling remained mostly unharmed. Half way along the corridor a single door interrupted the continuous passage. Behind it I found an empty storage room no larger than a cupboard, though the only thing stored within was a broken broom handle.
The lobby seemed less grandiose than my first impression, and I made a mental map of the building layout as I exited the building.
As I made my way to the gate the dusty air hit the back of my throat and rattled into my lungs. The Baghdad climate never did agree with me. I was struck by a coughing spree that felt as if I had inhaled a brick, and lasted until my chest ached and I could cough no more. These had been plaguing me for around a month, though I was hesitant to visit the medic. The on-site physicians were always a bit too liberal with needles and tubes, and I didn’t relish the thought of having my insides inspected. In the early years of my career I had enjoyed the constant fitness drills and training, but over time had succumbed to the lethargy afforded to senior officers. My lungs weren’t what they used to be, and any interactions with a medic always resulted in a tedious lecture on workout routines. I figured it was allergies anyway. The sand and dust in the desert worked its way into every nook and crevice. It was a wonder it didn’t hit everyone as hard. I paused for a minute to gulp down air as the spasms subsided, then continued on towards the base.
Just outside the gate two MPs were removing the entrance sign from its stand as a new board rested against the steel pillars. Camp Banzai was to become Camp Justice. Someone on high had decided that the bases in Iraq needed a new naming system and ‘Banzai’ was just too aggressive for a military facility. Apparently the Iraqi people wouldn’t think us an occupying force if we lived in a friendlier sounding encampment. It seemed a strange concept to me, but I suppose that’s why I never made it past Major.
- - -
The communications room was a large temporary building that housed a plethora of computers, screens, and various ambiguous technology I couldn’t hope to identify. Cyberspace was as alien to me as outer space. In the center of the room several headset wearing operators typed furiously on their keyboards. The General seemed just as lost as I was among the cables.
‘Rhys, anything on the Allsop ambush?’
‘Not yet, just checking in before I interview the other witnesses. Any word from forensics on the bullet?’
‘Early analysis suggests it came from a small tactical rifle, perhaps a TAC-308 or an L96A1.’ replied Hall. ‘My firearms contact tells me they are small caliber portable rifles, pretty common in these parts. Not anything we stock for our boys. They’re looking into it in more detail anyway - I’ll give you the full report as soon as I have it. In the meantime have a look at this.’ The General turned to one of the operators, 'Whelan, put the Slatt tapes up on the screen here.’
The television sprang into life with a grainy image of a disheveled reporter. Behind her I could see the East gate towering above the few armed guards who were patrolling the exterior of the wall. 'This is Rebecca Slatt reporting from just outside Camp Banzai, Iraq. The camp is one of a number of forward operating bases here in Baghdad, and houses thousands of US troops.’ The camera cut to a shot from within the base with several semi-clad marines passing obliviously. ‘The base, originally a bastion of strength for the US war effort, has slowly withered to something more closely resembling a frat party,’ continued Slatt in voiceover. ‘Discipline, professionalism, honor. The values that we are here to represent have somehow become distant memories of a more innocent time.’ The shot shifted back to Slatt. ‘Over the next thirty minutes we will be exploring where it all went wrong, with exclusive footage that Uncle Sam never wanted you to see.’ A number of quick edits flicked across the screen showing soldiers playing football, drinking and smoking before a final shot of a young marine taking a long hit from a glass bong.
'It goes on like that for a while,' growled the General.
‘Seems a bit sensationalist,’ I replied. ‘The guys have to let off steam somehow. Here more than anywhere.’
‘You don’t have to tell me that, but it’s not what the guys in Washington want to hear. I’m being accused of letting the kids run wild. They think I don’t know there might be a little weed circulating every so often? I’m kind of glad there isn’t anything worse. If they were looking for scandal they did a piss-poor job of finding it. Most of the footage is just in and around the base, marines doing drills, that kind of thing.’ Hall motioned up to the screen. ‘Private Pothead there got the worst of it. Real name’s Benkins, we have him in lockup until I figure out what to do with him.’
‘In lockup? Isn’t that a bit extreme?’
The General shrugged. ‘Like I said, the paper pushers are really up my ass for this. Someone’s head is going to roll, that’s for sure.’
‘Any leads on where the footage came from?’ I asked.
‘Not so far. Whelan here has been looking into it.’
‘It’s recent, no more than a few weeks old,’ added the operator sitting behind Hall. ‘The way no-one looks at the camera suggests a hidden device of some sort. By ruling out anyone who is in the footage we’ve narrowed down the suspect list. Only person that interacts with whoever’s filming is Benkins. The cameraman was the only other person there when Benkins was… indulging, but he says he can’t remember. Maybe he’s being threatened, or maybe he was just high.’
It seemed like too much of a coincidence. One soldier refusing to talk just after another was mysteriously killed? Maybe it wasn’t an enemy I should be looking for. Perhaps Allsop discovered the leak and was killed because of it. Benkins wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
‘Allsop is the priority,’ added the General. ‘Filming or no, if any more of ours are in danger of an ambush like that we need to know about it.’
- - -
The first hints of sunlight were creeping through the rooftops of the city as I made my way to the prisoner detention center on the far side of the base. Rows of marines had set up tables along the main track and were effortlessly disassembling and rebuilding their rifles under the scrutinous surveillance of their drill instructor.
I had been informed that Private Simons had returned to his post at prisoner detention following the squad’s ambush, so arranged a meeting with him before he retired for some shut-eye. The detention area was housed in what looked like an old barn. Originally made of cob, a combination of straw and clay, the structure had been reinforced with concrete following our occupation. It was not a decorative improvement. The stained walls and floor were a brownish grey that absorbed any light that struggled through the barred letterbox acting as a window. My job required frequent trips to the lockup, but it wasn’t something I relished. Even a few minutes in the cramped heat made my skin itch.
I found Simons awaiting my arrival just inside the main doors. He was a stocky creature, seeming almost as wide as he was tall. Despite his size he was visibly shaken, managing to hold back tears with only the occasional sniff.
‘We weren’t even meant to be out there,’ he muttered after the usual formalities. ‘Soppy usually worked the fort, wasn’t that experienced outside the walls. We should’a had his back.’ Simons led me through the events at the hotel, his description matching that of Coleman. ‘I just can’t believe we could be ambushed like that, someone must have known we were coming.’
'Did he have any enemies inside the base? Anyone who may want to harm him?' I asked.
‘You think it could have been one of our own who killed him?’
‘I’m just ruling out possibilities.’
'I don’t think so. Frank was a decent guy, a family man. He was from a proud line of soldiers - he was always going on about how his father had served in ‘Nam and his grandfather in Europe before that. I can’t imagine anyone going after him like this. Had a problem with the cards but this...' his voice trailed off.
'With the cards?' I didn’t like where this was going.
'Yeah, he was a bit of a gambler. He mentioned he owed big, bigger than usual this time. He was trying to scrape it together, though I don’t know who for.'
I had a horrible feeling I did.
'I assume you’ve heard about the unauthorized press on site?' I said, trying to force Mitchell from my mind.
'Yes sir. I’ve been assigned to the lockup while Benkins is here. It’s not right, being held for what he did. General said I should try and make him comfortable, you know?'
I nodded in agreement. ‘You weren’t in the footage yourself?’
‘Don’t think so, though I haven’t seen it all. Probably a good job considering what’s happened to Benkins.’
‘Probably,’ I replied, thinking the same about myself.
‘Did you want to see to him?’ added Simons. ‘Not that I think you’ll get much out of him, there have already been a couple of the guys from comms’ down here but he wouldn’t say a word.’
I nodded and motioned for Simons to lead the way.
‘Down here,’ he gestured as he started down the corridor. ‘Cell thirteen.’
Private Benkins was lying flat on the weathered bunk that hung from the far wall of his cell. He had at least been afforded some of the comforts absent from the other occupants. Below his bunk was a neat pile of magazines and a portable music player, some uneaten rations and a variety of soft drink cans. The power cable of a small fan by the door meandered out through the bars and into an extension socket in the corridor.
‘You know who I am?’ I asked.
Benkins twisted his neck towards me, then rose from the bunk to stand to attention.
‘You know why I’m here?’
He nodded sheepishly before lowering his head and staring at the floor.
‘We know the video was leaked by someone inside the base. Did Private Allsop know who filmed it?’
Benkins didn’t move.
‘Who are you protecting?’
I hadn’t expected to get much from him - not if my suspicions about Allsop’s murder were correct, but it was frustrating nonetheless. ‘You think that you’ll keep your mouth shut, get a slap on the wrist for the pot and be on your way? As of this moment you are withholding information from a murder enquiry.’
I could see Benkins’ lower lip trembling. The kid was upset, bottling everything and glaring fiercely at the concrete between his toes.
‘People have got court martialed for a lot less.’
‘You’ve got thirty seconds to give me something or I will personally ensure you’re on the next flight stateside and in front of a jury of your peers within the month.’
What can only be described as a bleat emanated from Benkins’ mouth. He was weeping, his face turning purple as he struggled to keep it together. A quick glance at me, eyes glassy and watering, told me I wasn’t going to get anything from him. Whoever had gotten to him had done their work. Benkins wouldn’t talk. The image of Allsop’s pale body flashed across my mind. Benkins was probably thinking exactly the same.
‘Same thing as before,’ said Simons quietly as he leaned towards me. ‘Like I said, he just stands there.’
If the threat of a court martial wasn’t going to break him I didn’t know what would. There was no point belting more questions at him. He was in shutdown. Often suspects would talk too much, building lies to exhonerate themselves. You could work with those guys, keep asking questions until they trip up. A blank stare and sealed lips were as good as a brick wall.
I waited for a moment before releasing a hushed, ‘alright’. The boy was more scared of whoever he was protecting than he was of me, there was no value in upsetting him further. At least I had Allsop’s gambling debt to pursue. There was really only one person on site who sprang to mind.
- - -
Thanking Simons for his time I navigated the base before finding Mitchell in the Rec room playing rummy with some of the senior Special Forces officers.
'Mitchell, a word?'
The other officers looked up at me curiously. The table was well known among the men as one you did not approach. Special Forces were often given a wide berth by even the most experienced of marines.
Mitchell didn’t even raise his head to acknowledge my presence. 'I’m in the middle of a game here.'
'Now,' I stated firmly.
The table froze, unaccustomed to such demands. Mitchell glared at me angrily but calmed once he registered the solemnity on my face. 'Be right back fellas,' he stood to leave, 'look at my cards and I’ll have your ball-sacks as grenade pouches.' The others gave short sniggers. Special Forces humor eludes me.
'What’s up?' asked Mitchell once we found a secluded area of the room. He slouched back into a sofa and put his feet up on a nearby plastic chair.
'Frank Allsop. You know him?'
'Yeah I know him. So?'
'So he’s dead. He was killed in the hotel just outside the base.'
He stretched his arms along the back of the sofa. 'And?'
'And you don’t seem very upset. You know anything about it?'
'Can’t say I’ll miss the guy, but I’ve no idea how he ended up dead.' Mitchell was impossible to read, his blank expression never faltering.
'A friend of his mentioned he had some gambling debts. That anything to do with you?'
'The kid owed me some money, yeah. But I didn’t murder him if that’s what you’re saying. He was only about ten G’s down, not worth killin’ for. Anyway I set him straight about a week ago. I didn’t touch him, but I did explain why he was gonna’ pay every cent he owed. Kid almost wet himself. He came up with a good chunk of it a few days later. Resourceful little guy, I’ll give him that. I guess I’ll have to write the rest off now.'
I didn’t know whether Mitchell was recruited because of his detachment or he was just a product of his profession. In the end we all come out damaged to some extent. Our unusual poker partnership had come about through a mutual friend and our love of the game. Mitchell had endless contacts around the base who were willing to field the considerable stakes and I knew my way around the security personnel who posed a threat to our discovery. I shouldn’t have worried so much - it didn’t take long for some of the other MPs to start playing themselves. Mitchell was the better player, yet I held my own and mostly came out on top. I had been experiencing a losing streak for the last few weeks but nothing I couldn’t come back from given time. I had no idea how much cash Mitchell had extracted from the unfortunate gamblers occupying the base.
‘What about...’ My question was broken by a pain in my chest. The words would not come out. After a few seconds the cough flared up again, cramping my stomach until I was clutching at my abdomen. For a second it was excruciating, but passed fairly quickly.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Mitchell, looking more puzzled than concerned. The sound had attracted a number of inquisitive stares from some of the marines around the room. If it happened much more I couldn’t put off a trip to the clinic.
‘It’s nothing,’ I replied once I caught my breath. ‘Allergies.’
A rough vibration shook my pocket. 'Rhys here,' I rasped as I flipped open my phone. 'Just a sec.'
Mitchell stood and stretched his colossal frame. 'If you’ve no more questions I’ve gotta’ get back, good luck with your investigation.’
My strength was returning as I inhaled deeply. ‘I do have more questions.’
He made his way back towards the table anyway. ‘Oh, and be sure to keep me out of it.' With that he was gone.
'What is it?' I sighed into the handset.
‘It’s Hall,’ stated the speaker.
‘Yes, sir,’ I replied, startled. I wasn’t used to the General calling me directly. ‘Apologies, it’s been a long...’
‘...Never mind that,’ he interrupted. ‘We’ve just picked up Rebecca Slatt filming outside the base. I told her I wanted a word, she’s in the communications room now. Came in easy enough but when she realizes it’s not a social call she’ll start with all that civilian rights gibberish and we won’t be able to hold her. I suggest you get down here now.’
I dragged in a few more lungfuls. ‘Yes, sir. On my way.’
- - -
‘If you’ve just brought me here to complain about the report then I’ll be on my way.’ Rebecca Slatt sat with her arms crossed on a plastic chair in the corner of the communications room as I approached. Opposite her General Hall was leaning back and examining his hat. ‘You’ve only got yourself to blame,’ she continued. ‘It’s not like we used actors - that was genuine footage of what goes on inside these walls. The taxpayer has a right to know what they’re paying for.’
‘It’s not the content of the footage we’re concerned about, it’s how you got it,’ I said as I extended a hand towards her. ‘Major Kenneth Rhys, Criminal Investigations Division.’
She looked at it but remained seated, tightening her arms around her chest. ‘I can’t disclose my sources. I thought you may have some comments for the public, or a statement of some kind. If you’re hoping I’m going to break a confidentiality contract you’re wasting both of our time.’
Her quickfire statements and stubborn determination were typical of the war correspondents I’d come across in Iraq. The job was a harrowing one - often they would spend more time in the hot zones than our troops. It attracted a certain type of individual and that meant any investigations involving the press were like wading through tar.
‘Recording footage of an active military operation could be considered leaking state secrets,’ replied Hall. ‘If the enemy was to come into possession of that information it could jeopardize the safety of our troops.’
The reporter snorted. ‘How? By limiting their access to drugs? You just want to persecute anyone who may object to the farcical way this base is run.’
Hall’s neck began to bulge. ‘Farcical?!’
I put a hand up to stop him. Slatt was an effective journalist - raising stress levels until someone said something incriminating.
‘Whether the footage represents a liability is something we will be examining separately,’ I said. ‘For the moment our primary concern is the source. We currently have other investigations ongoing and we believe whoever filmed this may be involved.’
‘What other investigations?’
‘I’m not at liberty to say, however I can tell you that lives may be at stake.’
Slatt examined me closely. ‘I’m supposed to just take your word for it? Tell me about the other cases and if they do require me to reveal some information I will consider it.’
This was not a position I wanted to be in. The General would have to release a statement to the press about Allsop, but only after the family had been informed. The possibility that someone from within the base may be involved only made things worse, let alone the fact that whoever did it had not yet been identified. Sharing the details early was risky, but the way I saw it was the fastest way to find out who had filmed the video.
I looked towards Hall.
He stared back at me for a few seconds, then shrugged. ‘Not like it can get much worse. Tell her what she needs to know.’
I sighed. ‘Just to confirm this is off the record?’ Though not legally binding my experience had taught me that journalists usually respected the codes of conduct, particularly in a place like Baghdad. Their stories were often sensitive and they relied on their reputations to preserve the integrity of their information. I wasn’t familiar with Slatt’s history, yet she was giving us a hard enough time for the name of her source.
‘Off the record,’ she confirmed.
To be safe I omitted any specifics about the time, location and any names, but led Slatt through the rough details of the ambush. She nodded solemnly as I described the state of the body, the layout of the room and the mute marine we had in confinement. Save the occasional brief question she sat in silence until I had finished.
‘It’s easy,’ she said once I had run out of details to share. ‘There’s a gap in the wall somewhere. Just big enough for someone to fit through. It’s the only way.’
‘There’s no gap. I examined every corner,’ I replied.
‘There must be. You said the structure was damaged. There has to be a hole in the concrete.’
‘There’s no hole. That’s why we need to know the identity of your source, to find out who may...’
I stopped, frozen. It clicked. Maybe there was a hole in the concrete, just not in the way I had imagined.
The General looked at me. ‘You have something?’
‘A hole in the concrete,’ I repeated, dazed.
‘We’ve been over that room,’ he replied.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it. If my suspicions were correct I had been staring right at it. ‘I have to go back to the hotel. Wait here, I’ll only be a minute.’
I was heading towards the door before they had a chance to respond.
- - -
My hands shook as I hurried back towards the East gate. The adrenaline was starting to pump, quickening my breathing as I exited the complex.
The squad guarding the perimeter around the hotel were diligently patrolling the area as I returned to the building. They looked sharp and alert despite the hour, though their combat gear made it impossible to tell if they were the same men I had seen earlier.
Navigating through the corridors again I noticed the two bullets still embedded in the wall outside the bathroom. Throughout my career I had always prided myself on piecing together the events of a firefight after the fact, though this one had proved the exception. It occurred to me that I had never actually seen an engagement, just the resulting debris. Perhaps I envied the bonds that were tied by those who returned to base afterwards. If so any jealousy was outweighed by my knowledge of those who didn’t.
Allsop’s body had been removed from the bathroom and had been replaced by several small markers that looked like miniature traffic cones. It made no difference to me - it wasn’t the body I was there to search.
Beginning at the door I made my way round the room once again, though this time focusing on the thin pipes that were visible in the damaged walls. Each of the metal cylinders was shaken as I tested their resolve to remain in the plaster. Finally, having almost circled the entire room, my efforts were rewarded as one quick tug revealed the key to Private Allsop’s death.
I could predict the discussion to come yet could think of no way to avoid its inevitable conclusion. Reporter, Accomplice, Motive, Mitchell, Me. It was unavoidable. I could pretend not to have found anything in the hotel, hidden the evidence and returned with excuses of a mistaken confidence. The General would waste little time finding someone else to look at the case, and any of my colleagues may come to the same realization that had just hit me a few minutes earlier. I had no alternative but to continue with the investigation.
- - -
Slatt and the General were still sitting in their respective chairs when I returned. I had passed by the prisoner detention center on my way back and was accompanied by a nervous looking Private Benkins. The General looked at him with intrigue as we approached.
‘You mentioned,’ I started as I turned to face the General, ‘that whoever was filming could easily have captured something much more juicy towards the story. It didn’t occur at the time, but perhaps they weren’t filming to provoke criticism. Perhaps they were filming something else. What if whoever was behind that camera didn’t know what the footage would be used for? What if they were just documenting life in the military?’
Benkins’ eyes darted to the floor once again.
‘Imagine an attractive reporter approaches an impressionable young marine,’ I continued. ‘She offers him money, a significant amount, and all she wants is some footage from within the base. Nothing confidential, nothing that could be used by the enemy. Just a taste of army life that she could take back to the general public and document the bravery of the troops.’
‘If you’re hoping to goad me into confirming or denying any of this,’ replied Slatt, ‘you’ll find yourself disappointed.’
‘What did you pitch it as? Showing the public what it’s really like over here?’ I asked.
She ignored the question and cemented a bemused expression.
‘He’d have to hide it, of course,’ I continued, ‘but he wouldn’t be doing any real damage. Maybe he’d risk a slap on the wrist, or a week working the latrines. So the marine completes his task, hands over the tape and gets a nice paycheck as a reward.’
The General shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t say that’s how the film turned out.’
‘Exactly! Ms Slatt here takes the footage and manipulates it into anti-military propaganda. Through editing and voiceover she’s turned army life into a laughing stock, turned his footage into something closer to treason.’
Slatt’s expression still didn’t falter.
‘The marine is devastated. His career would be over if anyone discovered what he’s done. He’d be court-marshalled, even prosecuted. His family name would be ruined. So instead, to spare his family and friends the humiliation, he decided to try and preserve his honor by taking his own life.’
‘You’re talking about Allsop?’ asked Slatt. Suddenly her eyes expressed a concern I hadn’t been anticipating. ‘He’s the one you found locked in the bathroom?’
Benkins let out a short sob. ‘He made me promise. He made me promise I wouldn’t say anything.’
'I know,’ I replied. ‘Suicides aren’t eligible for the death insurance payout, so he had to engineer a way in which he could be killed in action. Allsop had his family to think about. He had no money to pass on and without the military death benefits they would be left to fend for themselves. There was no way he could predict we would link his death to Benkin’s silence about the tape. He just wanted to be killed in action.’
‘But he can’t have - what about the shot?’ interrupted Slatt.
‘He could and unfortunately I’m now sure he did. All it took for Allsop to deceive us was the use of an enemy rifle he discovered on a previous patrol. Allsop had hidden the rifle in the hotel in anticipation of his suicide. When returning to the area he engineered a fake confrontation with an enemy to bring him back to the bathroom. Locking the door behind him, Allsop placed the bag over his head and secured it so that it was airtight. He then shot himself in the shoulder with the tactical rifle he had placed there so that there could be no argument that he had died in combat. Even with a damaged shoulder he could dismantle a rifle in under a minute, breaking it down into its components.
‘Allsop then flushed the various pieces down the toilet. Unfortunately for him there was one piece that wouldn’t fit round the U bend - the barrel.’ I took the item I had pulled from the bathroom wall and held it so that everyone could see. ‘With seconds of air remaining he wedged the barrel into a crumbled section of wall, disguising it as one of the pipes that ran beneath the surface. All that was left to do was secure his hands behind his back to complete the illusion of an ambush.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the General. ‘If he was such a loyal soldier why risk everything for a quick buck? Why was he so desperate for money?’
Private Benkins offered the two-word answer I had been dreading. Two words that would eventually end my military career. ‘Gambling debts.’
- - -
It didn’t take them long to discover our poker ring. Everyone was called in for questioning: Powers, Godderidge, Mitchell. He knew as well as I that this couldn’t just be swept under the rug. Allsop’s death led to a full investigation. Allsop may have been the first to take his life but the inquiry uncovered many more soldiers Mitchell had threatened, intimidated and blackmailed. I knew he was a better player than me, yet I hadn’t realized how much he had been pocketing. Compulsive gambling was a common disease among military personnel and Mitchell had been exploiting desperate men for all that they were worth. Half the base owed him money.
All the fingers, as I suppose they should have, pointed to Mitchell and I. We had instigated the enterprise and organized the games. Rebecca Slatt’s video report fueled a media frenzy of military corruption and addiction, centering the piece on Camp Banzai. Most of it was erroneous, as the media always is, yet it caused enough of a stir to incite the wrath of the higher-ups. The trial was over before it began. We were to be made example of. The war was unpopular enough as it was, let alone with scandals of misbehaving soldiers and esoteric activities. The brass had to make a strong statement, assert their authority. They would go through the motions, as they must, but everyone knew where it would lead. We didn’t stand a chance.
Following a hasty military trial we were dishonorably discharged. Humiliated and ashamed, Mitchell and I found ourselves in hostile environment we previously had rarely explored - civilian life. I was numb. Fueled by self-pity, I returned stateside with barely a clue as to where I may end up.
Two thoughts occupied the majority of my mind. There was no way things could get any worse. My career as an investigator was over.
As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts.