‘I don’t really want to talk about it.’

Charlie looked pained. ‘Let me get you a drink. Shit, this is terrible. I was going to ask you something, but now I don’t -’

‘It’s fine. Ask. What is it?’

‘Let’s talk in private. See if we can find somewhere quiet.’

Ben followed him across the lawn to the marquee, through the crowds of people talking and sipping champagne. ‘A lot of guests,’ he commented.

‘Mostly Rhonda’s side,’ Charlie said. ‘I hardly know anybody, outside of the regiment. And Rhonda didn’t want army people here.’ He rolled his eyes.

‘That’s your brother over there, isn’t it?’

Charlie stared at him in amazement. ‘It must be seven years since you last saw Vince. And he doesn’t even look anything like me. How the hell did you recognise him?’

‘I never forget a face,’ Ben said with a smile.

‘You certainly don’t.’

By the marquee, a waiter was offering drinks from a silver tray on a table. He handed Ben and Charlie a glass of champagne each.

Ben shook his head and pointed. ‘The bottle.’

The waiter stared for a second, then set down the glasses, took a fresh bottle from the ice and passed it over. Ben grabbed it with one hand and scooped up a couple of crystal champagne flutes with the other. He and Charlie walked away from the throng and the chatter. He sensed that Charlie didn’t want anyone listening to what he had to say.

They sat on the steps of a gazebo, a little way from the reception. Ben popped open the bottle and poured them each a glass.

‘You’re sure you’re OK with this?’ Charlie said nervously. ‘I mean, under the circumstances -’

Ben handed him a glass and took a long drink from his own. ‘I’m listening,’ he said. ‘Go ahead.’

Charlie nodded. He took a deep breath and then came straight out with it. ‘I’ve got some problems, Ben.’

‘What kind of problems?’

‘Nothing like that,’ Charlie said, catching his look. ‘Like I said, Rhonda and I are happy together, everything’s cool in that department.’

‘So is it money?’

In the distance, the band started up a version of String of Pearls.

Charlie made a resigned gesture. ‘What else? I’m out of work.’

‘You left the regiment?’

‘Just over a year ago. Fourteen months. Rhonda wanted me out. She was scared I’d get myself killed in Afghanistan or somewhere.’

‘That’s fairly understandable.’

‘Well, it nearly did happen. More than once. So, what the hell, it’s civvy street for me now. Problem is, I’m no damn use in it. I can’t hold down a job. I’ve had four since I left.’

‘It’s a common problem,’ Ben said. ‘Hard to adapt, after the things we’ve seen and done.’

Charlie took a long drink of champagne. Ben reached for the bottle and topped up his glass. ‘We bought a house a while ago,’ Charlie went on. ‘Just a small place, but you know what property prices are, and this is hardly the cheapest part of the country. Even a bloody cottage is worth half a mil these days. Rhonda’s folks put up a deposit for us as an engagement gift, but we still can hardly keep up with the mortgage payments. It’s killing me. I’m just drowning. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

‘What about Rhonda? Does she work?’

‘For an aid charity. It doesn’t pay much.’

‘Plenty of desk jobs in the army. Why don’t you apply?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘They’d go crazy if I went anywhere near that again. Scared I’d be tempted back into active service. God knows I probably would be, too. Rhonda’s dad made his money selling mobile ringtones. Wants me to go and work for him. He’s putting a lot of pressure on me. The whole family is. I mean, fucking ringtones. Can you imagine?’

Ben smiled. ‘Maybe you should go for it. Sounds cushy – and lucrative. And safer than getting shot at.’

‘I wouldn’t last long,’ Charlie said. ‘It would put a strain on the marriage.’ He took another long gulp of champagne.

‘I didn’t bring you a wedding present,’ Ben said. ‘If it’ll help, I can give you some money instead. I could write you a cheque today.’

‘No way. That’s not what I want.’

‘Then you could consider it a loan. Until you get on your feet.’

‘No. I wanted to ask you something else.’

Ben nodded. ‘I think I know what. You want to ask me about working together.’

Charlie let out a long sigh. ‘OK, I’ll be frank with you. How is the kidnap and ransom business doing these days?’

‘Better than ever,’ Ben said. ‘Snatching people and holding them for ransom is a growth industry.’

‘I was talking about your end of the business.’

‘There’s always call for people like me,’ Ben said. ‘Involving the police is nearly always a bad move. K and R insurance agents and most of the official negotiators are just nerds in suits. People in trouble need an extra option.’

‘And you’re it.’

‘And you want to be part of it?’

‘You know I’d be good,’ Charlie said. ‘But I can’t just set up on my own. I don’t know anything about it. I’d need some training. You’re the best teacher I ever had. If I was going into something like that, I’d want to work for you.’

‘From what you tell me, I don’t think your new family would approve.’

‘I’d tell them I was a security consultant. It can’t be as dangerous as what we’ve seen in the regiment, can it?’

Ben said nothing. Both their glasses were empty, and the sun was beating down. He poured out the last of the champagne and set the bottle down with a heavy clunk of glass on concrete. ‘Problem is, I can’t help you,’ he said. ‘If I could, I would. But I’m out. Retired. I’m sorry.’

‘Retired? Really?’

Ben nodded. It had been his promise to her, the day she’d said she would marry him. ‘Since the end of last year. It’s all over for me.’

Charlie sank back against the steps of the gazebo, deflating. ‘You have any contacts?’

Ben shook his head. ‘I never did. I always worked alone. Everything was strictly word of mouth.’ He finished his drink. ‘Like I said. If it’s money I can help.’

‘I can’t take money from you,’ Charlie said. ‘Rhonda can ask her folks to bail us out any time, and they probably would. But we see this as our responsibility. Our problem. We need to deal with it ourselves. I was just hoping -’

‘I’m sorry. There’s really no way.’

Charlie grimaced with disappointment. ‘But if you hear of anything going, you’ll let me know?’

‘I would, but it won’t happen. I told you, I’m out of it.’

Charlie sighed again. ‘I’m sorry I brought this up.’ He paused a long time, watching the people dancing and having fun in the distance. ‘So what are you going to do next?’

‘I’m going back to Oxford. I’m heading there right after this. I’ve already rented a flat there.’

‘What’s in Oxford?’

‘The University,’ Ben said. ‘I’m going there to study.’

‘You, a student? To do what?’

‘To finish what I started before I went crazy and joined the army almost twenty years ago. Theology.’

Charlie’s eyes opened wide. ‘Theology? You want to be a priest?’

Ben smiled. ‘Reverend. Once upon a time, that’s all I wanted to be. Seemed like the perfect life.’

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