When the Olympic Torch passes through Portsmouth, the torchbearer is going to see what I think is one of the weirdest public structures since Chicago’s Picasso sculpture:
That’s the Spinnaker Tower.
In 1805, when he set out for his rendezvous with Destiny at Trafalgar, this tower is one thing Admiral Lord Nelson would not have seen.
I’m not sure he’d have approved, either. Classic architecture was much more the thing in Nelson’s era. What I think he would have approved, wholeheartedly, was this – probably the most famous ship in the Royal Navy – his own first-rate man o’war, the Victory:
It’s probably fitting – even if I’m not crazy about the modern architecture – that Portsmouth continues to have new landmarks popping up, because the city has been one of England’s major ports about as long as people have been sailing there, and its buildings reflect the changing eras.
Portsmouth itself is on an island – Portsea Island, where the Solent meets the English Channel. The city’s nickname is “Pompey.” Sources differ as to why – one is that the nickname is taken from Le Pompee, a captured French gunship that was the resident guardship, but I think the other explanation is more likely – that the navigational abbreviation for Portsmouth Point – Pom P – was adapted into slang. In any case, you can’t read an Age of Sail novel without finding this reference – Portsmouth is mentioned in every one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels.
I had the chance to visit Portsmouth in 2002 – before the Spinnaker dominated the landscape – and my own favorite landmark (apart from Victory herself) was the Round Tower – a much more human-scale building, built in the early 1400’s.
This was originally going to be the site of the slam-bang shootout that winds up my novel Walking Wounded, until I sent a copy of the final draft to Charlie Cochrane for a Brit-pick. It had been a few years, after all. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to learn that the long stretch of beach where I’d intended to have a rainy-night chase was now “a block of posh flats.
However, as a local expert, she did offer a nearby stretch of road that worked perfectly, and I think in some ways the open space made for more suspense – and a couple of surprises. Thanks again, Charlie!
Here’s an excerpt from Walking Wounded, with a little local colour. John and Kevin, both military veterans recovering from less than successful careers, have rediscovered each other after their budding romance was cut short by assignments that took them away from each other. But the joy of reunion is marred by a dangerous enemy from Kevin’s past…
They both felt the winter’s bite when they left the house the following evening. A sleeting rain was blowing fine as needles in the icy wind.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Johnny said under his breath.
“I haven’t written a word yet,” Kevin countered. “And if you think I’m going to start with Snoopy—”
“Actually, it was Bulwer-Lytton, but you can go for dull if you like. ‘The sun went down hours ago, and the weather was inclement.’ That should cure anyone’s insomnia.”
It was a stupid thing to quibble over, but it was a distraction—probably why Johnny had started the foolishness. Kevin didn’t want to talk about what they were doing, making targets of themselves. He felt alarmingly exposed on the quiet street, and knew his lover must be in much the same state.
The walk to the pub should take no more than ten minutes. It wasn’t John’s local, just the closest to where they now lived. And it wasn’t as though they were unprotected, either. They were being watched every step of the way, by soldiers stationed in buildings and parked cars. The body armor hidden under their bulky sweaters and jackets gave an extra measure of protection. But none of it was enough to provide peace of mind.
“Think we’ll see him tonight?” John asked quietly.
“It’s possible. Not likely.”
“I almost wish he’d try. Be nice to have it over.”
“I wouldn’t object.” But Kevin didn’t want Blackwell to make an attempt tonight, not really. Body armor would be no use at all against the crushing force of a vehicle, and the narrow streets and alleys meant it might not be possible for them to avoid such an attack—or for Jones and his men to stop it.
They stopped at the corner. “Cross or turn?” John asked.
“Turn,” Kevin said. The cars parked on the near side formed a convenient barricade, and he knew that one of the team had strolled down the block just minutes ahead of them to make certain those cars were empty. Two more blocks straight ahead, then across the street to the pub on the corner.
A car’s engine growled as they cleared the last building before the cross-street at the end of the first block. Kevin caught John’s sleeve to keep him in the shelter of the building and scanned the storefronts, spotted a doorway a few yards back that they could duck into—
But the dark sedan that pulled up to the corner and paused before making its turn was just a car, the driver an older gent who never even glanced at the two tense young men standing a few feet back from the curb. The tail lights receded slowly until they disappeared around a bend in the road.
“That was fun,” Johnny said, his voice tight.
“Fresh air and exercise.” Kevin took a deep breath and stepped out again. The streets were very quiet—no one with any sense would be out in this weather—and they made it the rest of the way to the pub without encountering another soul.
It was quiet inside, too. Kevin felt himself relax a bit as they stepped inside. The aroma of something delicious wafted around them on the indoor warmth. After the days of isolation, it was almost strange to be out among people, but you couldn’t honestly call this a crowd. Half a dozen patrons occupied tables near the front windows and a twenty-something couple sat at the bar, the girl looking at her watch as her boyfriend talked to someone else on a mobile phone. Kevin saw one of their minders down at the far end of the bar, sitting at an angle that let him watch the entire place. Their eyes met, then moved on; neither acknowledged the other.
Kevin took a table near the back, beside the fireplace. He could see the entrance from there, as well as the fire exit beside the loo. There should be a covert team stationed out in the alley, just in case. A pity they weren’t just out for an evening; the pub was a relaxed, comfortable place, with its old oak wainscoting and dark green walls. A gas log flickering against the opposite wall completed the picture of a cozy retreat.
“It’ll be nice to have a meal we didn’t fix ourselves, and no washing-up after,” Johnny said, looking over the menu. “Hmm. This may take a little thought.”
“You’ve never been here?”
“No, never came down this way. Looks like I should have, it’s going to be a tough choice. They’ve got a lot of veggie meals, Kev.”
“So I see.” There really was quite a selection, Italian and Indian as well as the more usual fare. “Hm. Mushroom-walnut stroganoff. That sounds good.”
“I think I’ll have the turkey curry. Cross-cultural.” In response to Kevin’s puzzled frown, John explained, “American Indian bird, East Indian sauce. Oh, and they’ve got winter ale. Would you like a pint?”
“Sure.” While John went to get their drinks, Kevin checked his mobile phone for text messages. If there were an immediate danger, Jones would call; otherwise, whoever was in charge of communications would send them an update or all-clear every ten minutes. There were two all-clears queued up, and no voicemail.
Kevin had a hunch the Colonel had been waiting for them to volunteer for this sort of thing. He had accepted their offer of help without hesitation, immediately doubled the number of men assigned to the mission, and provided a few suggestions as to how and where they might begin appearing in public. He also recommended that when they were away from home a team of soldiers would be posted in the house, in hopes of catching Blackwell if he should attempt to set up an ambush.
They’d agreed to all of it. Anything that shortened this center-stage, looking-over-the-shoulder kind of life was worth putting up with, at least for a little while.
“Any messages from your secret admirer?” John asked, returning with two pints.
“All quiet on thePortsmouthfront,” Kevin said. “It’s what we could expect, at this stage.”
“I gave them our order, without starters,” John said. “Hope you haven’t changed your mind.”
“No, that’s fine. We’ll be served quicker this way, and I’d rather not stay out too long.”
“Same here. It’s funny, I thought I’d enjoy an evening out, but—” John shrugged. “I suppose it’s the teflon underwear—crimps one’s style.”
“No doubt someone, somewhere has a fetish for the stuff,” Kevin said. “Doesn’t do much for me.”
“Oh, so you want to take it off before we go to bed?” Johnny feigned a look of mild disappointment. “I thought all you special forces boys had surprising kinks.”
“That’s probably why I washed out,” Kevin said. “Too damned normal.” What was surprising, though not at all kinky, was that he felt not the slightest twinge when he said it.
Their food arrived. “That was quick,” John said as the waiter began transferring the dishes from tray to table.
“You picked two of our top favorites. There’s always curry on, and the cook just finished a batch of the stroganoff. Enjoy!”
As Kevin had guessed, the stroganoff was what had smelled so enticing when they first walked in, and the taste was even better.
“Looks like hobbit food,” John said. “Lots of mushrooms.”
“It’s excellent. How’s yours?”
“Tastes like chicken.” He grinned at the cliché. “Actually, it tastes like curry, but it’s good, too. Want a bite?”
They traded tastes, and decided Kevin’s entrée was more interesting. “But you know,” John said, “In our grandparents’ day, it would’ve been the other way around. We have so much Eastern food now that we take it for granted.”
“I wonder if QueenVictoriaever imagined the way the wholeBritish Empirewould wind up in our restaurants,” Kevin mused.
“I expect the old girl’s spinning in her grave,” John said. “She’d have taken a dim view of us, for certain.”
Kevin raised his glass. “Here’s to a long and happy rotation for Her Majesty.”
Sitting there chatting with John, he actually managed, for a little while, to forget about the threat that hung over them. But in too short a time, they were pulling on their jackets, paying their check, and preparing to go back out into the cold to make targets of themselves.
The entryway had a tiny vestibule space, an airlock between the cold outside and warmth within. Kevin closed his eyes as he stepped into it, counting off thirty seconds.
“What’s wrong?” John asked.
“In half a minute, I’ll have some of my night vision back. Three minutes would give more, but we don’t want to be too conspicuous.”
“I know—sorry, I don’t mean to be a nuisance.” He shouldered the door open into sleet, and pulled his watch cap from his pocket.
“You aren’t,” John said, winding his muffler up to his ears. “I didn’t realize how much was going on in your head—all the cloak-and-dagger details.”
“I just want to be certain I see Blackwell before he sees us.” The street had been checked minutes before they left the pub, but Kevin crossed so they’d be walking back on the opposite side. He found himself compulsively peeking into parked cars, just in case.
John snorted. “To hell with that—I want Sergeant Jones to see him before he sees us.”
“I like the way you think.” One block covered, no cars. “Johnny, I probably don’t need to say this, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way—”
“Bloody hell. How bad is it? Did I do something stupid?”
“No! No, I was just thinking ahead. If anything should happen, the worst thing you could do is to try to throw yourself on top of me, or fling yourself into harm’s way.” He winced at John’s dead silence. “I’m sorry, I put that badly. It’s no reflection on your ability, Johnny—I was just thinking about what I would do to protect you, and realized you’d probably have the same impulse—and I don’t want us to trip each other up trying to save each other. We’ll both be safer if each of us just gets himself out of the way.”
“I understand,” John said at last.
“No, you’re right. We have to treat this as a potential combat situation, each of us has to trust the other to do his job.” The corner was approaching. “Cross or turn?”
“Turn. Of course, if you see something and it’s obvious I don’t—” Kevin glanced toward John for a moment, and the corner of his eye caught a door fly open just behind his lover, a man’s figure come charging out.
Completely forgetting what he’d just said, he reacted instinctively. He elbowed John out of the way and caught the stranger’s outstretched arm, dropping his own weight to throw the intruder off-balance, spinning him around and then pinning him against the brick shop-front with an arm around his throat.