Chapter 4





chapter four

The “something” that was rustled up turned out to be an old army bus, which had already had the seats ripped out so that it could be used for cargo transportation purposes. All they needed to do was put in a couple of cots near the back, and a table along the side, bolting everything to the floor of the bus for when they were moving—not that they were intending to break any speed records. 

Strauss watched as a stream of men loaded everything they needed on board. ‘Wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,’ he said to his assistant, ‘but it’ll do till we can get something better here. All our resources...’ He flapped his hand. ‘I don’t know, remind me again why I’m doing this.’

‘You know why,’ she said coolly. 

He turned to face her. They hadn’t really had much of a chance to talk since the hotel—for one thing they hadn’t been alone, for another it had taken his hangover a while to subside—but, until now, he’d been glad of the fact. As he looked at her, though, Andrew was worried about what it might mean when they were in the field. 

‘Listen, are we okay here? I mean, are you going to be able to work with me on this one, Bridg?’ He let out a slow breath. ‘I need to know that we’re okay.’

‘I’m a professional. Like you,’ she replied. 

‘I’m sorry, all right? I’m a complete arse. I know it, you know it. But I’m trying to do good here, just like we always do. Trying to save lives, remember?’

‘You think I don’t know that? I was the one who came to get you.’

‘You hate me now, don’t you?’ He studied her face for a reaction. Her eyes were tearing up but to her credit she refused to cry. 

‘No,’ said Bridget, looking down and away. ‘No, I don’t hate you Andrew. I wish I could. I just don’t think you’re going to find what you’re looking for, not here. Not anywhere. It’s just a pity you can’t see what you already have.’ When he didn’t answer, she broke the silence. ‘I’d better go check on where those Hazmat suits have got to.’ 

She began walking away, hugging herself. As he watched, Andrew felt like crying a little, too. 

*    *    *

Bridget pulled her coat tighter, rounding the corner of the nearest portacabin before breaking down and bawling her eyes out. She’d managed to keep it together on the way to fetch Andrew, even on the way back after seeing him again—the first time in three bloody weeks!—but it was getting harder and harder. 

He’d asked if they could work together, and sure they could. It’s what she wanted. But she also wanted something else. Was it more than he could give her? She refused to believe that. If only he’d stop hanging on to that hope he had, the idea of the perfect woman, the only one he’d ever “connected” with. For Heaven’s sake, she only existed in his imagination!

Bridget had learned about her fairly early on in their relationship. She’d known Dr Andrew Strauss was odd right from the start; hell, she’d known that just from what she’d read about him, before even going for the assistant’s job. And in a funny way it made him more attractive. But when he came out with that one, she’d had to wonder about his sanity. 

‘It’s hard to explain,’ he’d said to her late one night as they’d worked on breaking down some samples. ‘I have this recurring dream... when I can actually get to sleep, that is. I’ve been having it since I was a little kid.’

She’d smiled; even in the short time Bridget had been working with him, she’d become used to Andrew unburdening himself, confessing things to her because there was no-one else around to listen. Sometimes that was nice, it made her feel special. Other times, like when he’d tell her about some of the stupid mistakes he’d made with women, it hurt so much because of the way she felt about him. Then there was this, the hardest thing to hear, to understand. ‘Tell me about it,’ she’d said, and wished to God she’d kept her big mouth shut. 

So he’d told her about the dream, about the girl. ‘I can’t really make her out, make out her face—the dream’s so foggy, you see. Her features are indistinct. But when I heard her voice for the first time, I knew she was the one.’ Bridget stopped what she was doing on the computer and studied him. She recognised that look; she’d seen it in the mirror enough times when she’d caught herself thinking about Andrew. He was in love with this person. She was quite literally his dream girl.

‘But she’s trapped,’ Andrew went on. 

‘In the dream?’

He nodded. ‘Something has happened, or will happen. Some kind of plague... again, it’s all pretty muddled. But she’s trapped, stuck there waiting to be rescued.’ Andrew stared at Bridget but he wasn’t really seeing her, she knew that. 

Like a knight in shining armour, something from a fairytale. Talk about wish fulfilment, thought Bridget. 

‘She’s the main reason why I got into this game, why I’ve been doing this for so long. I have to be ready, I have to be prepared.’

‘In case you ever come across this plague, you mean?’

‘I need to free her,’ Andrew declared. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

Then you can both be together. It was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard, falling in love with someone from your dreams. That’s why she’d hung on in there with Andrew, convinced that one day he’d see that there was someone in the real world who cared about him, who thought the absolute world of him. She was his partner, in every way barring the most important. If she could crack that, they’d be laughing. And they’d be the ones living happily ever after.

That’s why, when the opportunity presented itself, she’d taken it. They’d both been very emotional after Africa, grateful to be in one piece; you take risks with this job every day, but that had been the most nerve-wracking yet. It seemed like the right time to celebrate life, to celebrate the fact they had each other. 

They’d started drinking and Andrew had loosened up a little, begun laughing and joking with her, telling her how much he relied on her. But that man’s capacity with alcohol was legendary—she knew that also. That’s when she’d decided to... help things along a bit, slipping him a concoction she’d whipped up earlier on. Something that would make him relax even more, and then they could—

Unfortunately it had relaxed him a little too much—maybe she’d overdone the dosage in his last vodka?—and he’d slumped to the floor in the living room. She’d tried to bring him round, but no dice. Grumbling to herself, she’d slung his arm over her shoulder and part-carried, part-dragged him to the bedroom, dumping him on the bed where he began to snore. So much for that idea, she’d thought. Then another, altogether more dangerous, notion occurred to her. What if Andrew should merely think something had happened? Who’d ever know? Certainly not him. She’d undressed him, taking her time with that, marvelling at his naked body—totally naked, not just in his boxers like back in the hotel. She had to make him hers now, there was just no other way. 

Casting the clothes around the room, she’d stripped and done the same with hers. Then she’d climbed into bed with him, snuggling up under the covers and drifting off to sleep, knowing that when he woke he would see her there—a real, live woman he relied on (he’d said so himself)—and realise the error of his ways. They could finally take this relationship to the next level. 

But it hadn’t quite worked out like she’d planned, had it? Riddled with guilt, he’d been unable to talk to her—apart from to jabber on about that bitch again; the irony being that while he was unconscious he’d probably been with her (stupid, stupid... how could you be jealous of someone who didn’t even exist?). Then he’d bailed, leaving the wreckage of what they’d done—or hadn’t done—behind him. 

She’d screamed out loud when he’d clicked off his mobile, trashing her rented accommodation and then just sitting in the middle of the debris, sobbing. Instead of bringing them closer together, what she’d done had actually ruined the closeness they had, which she’d intended to build on. How could they ever come back from that? She’d made every attempt to find him, in spite of what she’d said, but he’d covered his tracks pretty well. That is until she’d been contacted by the military, asking for Andrew’s help. It was a way of getting back in touch again, an open door she had to walk through. They’d found him after searching online, and she’d watched the YouTube footage with horror. It was the last place she’d expected Andrew to be, that conference. Bridget saw him cavorting, the women there dripping from him. It had made her feel physically sick. 

But it had also told her where he was. 

The virus here in Middletown had given her the opportunity to approach Andrew again without losing face, but it also worried her—not least because of the unique nature of the disease. She didn’t really believe in precognition, the power of dreams to predict future events, but something Andrew had told her once now haunted her: ‘The girl in the dreams says everyone there has gone to sleep.’ 

The coincidence was uncanny, and she’d started to think to herself—if that part of his dream was real, then maybe...

No. She was looking at this the wrong way. If he truly believed this was the virus he’d dreamt about, been preparing for, then it was her opportunity to go in there and show him that his dream girl had never been real in the first place. He’d be disappointed, sure, heartbroken, but then he’d need someone to turn to. And Bridget would be there, still acting wounded from the last time he’d hurt her—vulnerable, and making him feel guilty enough to do something about it. 

It was another plan of sorts. It was hope, at least. 

‘Pardon me, ma’am,’ came a voice, making her jump. Bridget spun round and saw a man with dark skin, dressed in a US army uniform, standing not far away. There was concern etched on his face. ‘Are you all right?’

Bridget nodded, wiping the tears away. ‘I’m fine, thanks. Just being silly.’

He came a little closer. ‘Anything I can do to help?’

Bridget smiled. ‘Sadly, no.’ What was wrong with her? Any woman would have jumped at the chance to get to know this bloke; he was gorgeous. Broader and quite clearly more muscular than Andrew, he nevertheless wasn’t Andrew, and her heart belonged well and truly to one man. 

‘Okay then.’ He flashed her a smile in return. ‘Well, I’ll be on my way then. Oh, my name’s Monks. Jackson Monks.’

‘Bridget,’ she said as a reflex. ‘Bridget Clarke.’

‘Maybe see you around, Bridget Clarke.’ There was that grin again, the one she was willing to bet had made many hearts skip a beat.

‘Maybe,’ she told him. It was giving him hope, she knew, but there was nothing wrong with that. Bridget could relate. 

She watched as he began walking off through the compound—off to where a group of American soldiers were gathering—and she realised that she might actually see him sooner than she thought. 

If she wasn’t mistaken, that was where the military escort, or at least the US contingent, were reporting for duty. 

And she began to wonder, not for the first time, if this might end up being worse than Africa.

*    *    *

Private First Class Jackson Monks had always considered himself to be a lucky man. 

Some people didn’t like to think about that. It was tempting fate, they said. They thought the moment they began to call themselves lucky, that luck would vanish. His never had. There had been times, especially on some foreign battlefront, where that luck had come in damned handy as well. He’d always acknowledged it; had never, ever taken it for granted. 

Today it appeared his luck had finally run out. Not even the appearance of a damsel in distress that he might be able to rescue could lift his spirits, not when he knew what awaited him. It was one thing to be part of a quarantine barrier, keeping the sick at bay as best you could—and it wasn’t his first time doing that, either. It was yet another to be going into the lion’s den. To face that sickness head on, and know that every moment you were inside you were at risk of catching whatever this thing was.

They’d said they were asking for volunteers, but Jackson hadn’t seen much in the way of volunteering going on. Just like there hadn’t been a choice in his family when it came time to enlist; his father and grandfather having served their country just like him. He’d been practically ordered to report for this duty by their colonel, something Jackson’s sergeant—Baker—didn’t seem at all happy about. In fact Jackson had seen the two men talking after the team was chosen, and it didn’t look like a very friendly conversation. But orders were orders, and Jackson fully intended to obey them. He had to shake himself out of this. If he thought about his luck that way, then he never would have been shipped off to those conflicts abroad in the first place. He had to hold on to the fact that he’d made it back from those alive. 

And he’d make it back from this mission, as well. 

As he walked past, Jackson took in the huge shape of the bus they were kitting out with equipment, saw also the man who must be the doctor rumoured to be able to help cure these people. Jackson hoped to God those rumours were right, because that was the only thing which would make sense of all this. 

He also saw the British team that would be escorting the bus, their opposite numbers—brothers in arms, supposedly, only separated by an ocean and a couple of hundred years or so of independence. He’d always wanted to visit this island, which was why he’d put in for a tour of duty here. Seeing the British countryside would be nice after some of the places he’d been posted. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t bothered. Not only had this sleepy (You might want to rephrase that, Jackson, old buddy) little part of England suddenly become one of the most dangerous places on the planet, but they were also getting grief from the natives they were supposed to be assisting. 

The British soldiers milled about, waiting to report to their own commanding officer—just like he was to do with Baker. And when one of the closest moved aside, Jackson’s heart sank. There was Timms, laughing and joking with the others, punching one of his comrades on the arm. What in Heaven’s name was that asshole doing coming along? The man was a moron. Not only that, he was a violent moron. If things did kick off, then he’d be at the forefront of it all. Jackson thought about mentioning his misgivings to Baker, but it probably wouldn’t make much difference. They had no say in what the Brits did, and it would more than likely look like Jackson was fishing for a way out of this. Timms saw him, fixed him with an evil glare, and stuck two fingers up. 

He began to wonder again about his luck, whether it was turning decidedly against him. Jackson shook his head. It would all be okay, he was certain of that. Had to believe it. 

Because if he didn’t, then it wasn’t just him who’d been screwed—but every single one of them going out there into that cursed city.

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