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Hard Knocks excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 6
I was about to ask more, but the door opened and the scarred man with the clipboard stuck his head inside.

“OK,” he said. “They want the three of you to head on up to the house now.”

We picked up our bags and stepped back out into the rapidly encroaching darkness. After the stuffily overheated shed, the cold was dazzling.

Declan shivered, looking round. “So where’s the transport?”

“There isn’t any,” the man said, with a certain amount of relish. He waved a hand along the barely discernible track towards some hidden point in the distance. “It’s only a kilometre or so. You walk.”

The three of us looked in the direction he’d pointed. The sky had darkened through indigo towards an inky darkness, but above the jagged black outline of the treetops, a waxing moon had risen.

“Oh you have to be feckin’ kidding me,” Declan muttered.

Elsa squared her jaw. “If you want to stay, stay,” she told him, dismissive, “but I am going. Charlie?”

I hoisted my bag higher onto my shoulder. “I’m with you,” I said with a smile.

Declan groaned. “Ah well, I suppose I can’t let you two ladies venture out alone on a night like this.”

Elsa threw him a withering glance and set off at a determined pace. I fell into step alongside her. Within a couple of strides, Declan had caught us up.

He immediately started up the conversation, as though he was using the sound of voices to keep at bay whatever might be lurking in the trees. He asked where we were from, and I learned that Elsa was born in Bochum, and had lived most of her life there. Declan’s family owned land outside Wicklow.

“Before you arrived we were swapping our life stories,” he said to me then, grinning suddenly in the silvery light. “So, Charlie, what do you do in the outside world that bores you so much you want to be a bullet catcher?”

I returned his grin. It was difficult not to. “I work in a gym,” I said. Supervising weight training programmes was something I’d only begun in the last year. It kept me occupied and fit, although lately I’d found the monotony suffocating. Sean had warned me against telling anyone about my army background, or the women’s self-defence teaching I’d done after that.

“What if they check up on me?” I’d fretted.

“So what’s your story, Declan?” I asked now.

“Oh, my old man is in this business-works out in the States wet-nursing rock stars. He wanted me to join up first. You know, see the world, meet lots of interesting people, and kill them.” He laughed. “I thought I’d miss out the rough-arsed bit where you have to spend four years cleaning out lavatories with your toothbrush, and go straight to baby-sitting the Hollywood babes.”

“What about you, Elsa?”

She inclined her head slightly. “I was a policeman here in Germany,” she said, and although I caught the dim flash of Declan’s smile, we neither of us corrected her. “I left to get married, hoping to have many babies but, my marriage did not work out.” She shrugged. “And so, here am I.”

The simple words belied a good deal of pain, I considered. Even the Irishman didn’t come back with a smart remark to that one, and for a few minutes we trudged on in silence. Until Declan put his foot into a particularly deep pothole, and picked up a bootful of cold dirty water for his pains.

“Oh Jesus, will you look at that?” he complained. “What the feck do they think they’re doing leaving us to wade through this shit? And to think I’ve paid out good money for this.”

“Don’t whine, Declan,” Elsa said calmly, “it will probably be the same for everyone.”

“So, Charlie,” he went on, ignoring her, “what’s your story? I’m escaping from dead boredom, Elsa here is escaping from a dead marriage-what’s your little dark secret?”

I didn’t get the chance to think up a believable lie.

“Ssh!” Beside me, I almost felt Elsa tense and come to an abrupt halt. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Declan said, although I, too, could have sworn I caught the quiet crackling of dried branches, somewhere off to our left in the trees. “Oh don’t start getting paranoid on us now, Elsa,” he said, but there was a nervous tickle to his voice, “you’ll be giving the lot of us the jitters.”

He went on a few strides, moving close to the edge of the track. “Hello, hello,” he called, out into the forest. The trees took his voice and sucked the power out of it, handing it back to him somehow small and lonely. “Are there any ogres, wolves or bogeymen out there?” He turned back towards us. “You see, fair ladies, noth-“

Out of the blackness a dark shape flowed up. In less than a second it seemed to utterly engulf the Irishman, taking him down like an animal kill. He fell as a dead weight. The only sound made was the breath exploding from his body as he hit the ground.

Memories and images I’d thought were buried deep reared up, vivid as a nightmare. Shock and fear clutched at me, and it was the fear that held on hardest. It gripped my heart, my throat, my gut, with steel-tipped talons. Just for a second it stopped my breath, and froze my limbs.

Then, almost in unison, Elsa and I dropped our bags and started to turn. Instinct made me keep low as I spun round and I felt the slither of something sweep across my back. An arm. It gave me a bearing and I lashed out, chopping the side of my fist into a leg at the knee. I was rewarded by a grunt of pain.

I dived sideways, hearing the German woman’s wrenched-off cry as she was overwhelmed by the shadows. They seemed to swallow her up whole.

And then there was just me.

I rolled to my feet, tensed into a crouch, eyes raking the darkness. My blood was thundering through my veins, scrambling oxygen to my muscles. Every nerve and instinct told me to flee while I still had the chance.

Another heartbeat. The shapes surrounding me converged another step. The edge of the tree-line was less than two metres to my right. I could still make it…

I straightened up, stood still, and let them come and get me.

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