London. December 18th 2009. The last day of work before the Christmas holidays. Offices were emptying out and shops beginning to fill up with those buying presents in the last minute rush.Out of the doors of The Guardian walked James Hargreaves. He had only worked for the paper for two years after he was forced into a change in career following a shot to the knee. He had been in the army for five years, working as a photographer. Although working for the paper was interesting, only two days ago he had photographed Barack Obama, he missed the camaraderie, the banter, the harmless pranks of the barracks. And most of all, he missed the thrill of it. The adrenaline boost . The feeling that you could never truly rest. That you were doing something worthy, serving your nation.
James turned is collar up to the wind and continued down towards Kings Cross. The station was packed with workers from all over the city desperate to get home or start that last minute Christmas shopping. As usual the top of the escalators was packed as tourists attempted to navigate the Oyster Card system and everyone else just wanted to get home. As he descended deeper and deeper below London he thought about his old job again. Although he did miss it, there was a certain freedom to being a civilian that you simply didn’t have in the forces. He now felt able to enter a long term relationship without putting strain on his other half whilst he was away. Taking his phone out of his pocket he checked the time and looked at his wallpaper. It was a little cheesy but it was of himself, Russell and their new dog Axel, who used to be a military working dog. It would be nice to spend Christmas with them instead of in a desert. As he stepped off the bottom of the final escalator he heard the sound of a train pulling into the station. He tightened the grip around his rucksack and set off at a run. James was slower than he used to be, something which he was still to get used to. As he rounded the corner to the platform, the Victoria Line train pulled away. Never mind. Another would be along in three minutes. He stood looking at the tiled wall of the station.
"No-one really appreciates these" he thought. It was the photographer in him speaking, wanted to frame an amazing picture almost everywhere he went. He loved the underground. It was nearly 150 years old now. The trains running through the vast network of tunnels had changed as had the people travelling on them, but the system still had a charm he was yet to find anywhere else. He looked up to the board. Delayed for another five minutes. James took the backpack off his back and began to rifle through it for his camera. So what if he'd look like a tourist. London was beautiful. It was his home now. He took out his camera and walked back a few paces and started taking pictures of the signs, the tiles and (rather covertly) the people. He loved taking photos of people. Preserving moments in time to be viewed and reviewed in years to come. Some of his favourite photos he ever took were taken of his friends between patrols. Just having a laugh in the barracks.
James walked back towards the bottom of the packed escalators and positioned himself in the middle of the floor. The perfect Christmas photo of the underground.Workers desperate to get home. Shoppers laden with bags. Travellers hauling suitcases and backpacks around. But from the mania and jostling at the top of the escalators came order. The left of each escalator kept free, whilst the right side was packed.
He raised the camera…looked through the lens…took aim…
The shot travelled straight down the barrel of the lens, killing James instantly. He didn't have time to feel his phone buzzing in his pocket with the final message he would ever receive on this earth;
"Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”
John never really felt the need to meet up with friends from the army. That part of his life seemed so distant, almost alien, to him now, which was why he was surprised when he agreed to meet up with an old colleague. There were certain parts of his days in Afghanistan that he would rather forget. But Sherlock was doing a sterling job of filling John's head with new and different adventures. John would never tell Sherlock what he meant to him though. The guy had a big enough head already.
"Listen, I'm going out tonight" John started, tucking in the shirt Mrs Hudson had ironed for the occasion. Sherlock was sat at the kitchen table in his second best dressing gown after he’d accidentally shot a hole in his best one the previous week.
"And?" Sherlock replied, without even looking up from dissecting what looked to John horrifically like a human hand. John decided not to ask. He'd questioned Sherlock's experiments before and either nothing had happened or he'd received far more information than he ever wanted to receive.
"Well, I'm going to be back late so please remember to -“
"Eat, sleep, not overthrow the government…”
"Well yes to the first two and if you're going to do the third, could you wait until I get back?"
"Ah yes, because you need to document my every move for that blog of yours” Sherlock threw down his scalpel and began writing in his moleskine. John rolled his eyes.
"I'm being serious here. Its Friday. That's two days after Wednesday's wheatabix. Eat."
Sherlock finally looked up to reply but John had gone.
Paul had worked with John as a nurse. He'd been a sidekick almost. Someone to bounce ideas off. Have a laugh with. But it had been a good two years since either had made contact with the other. Shortly after John's injury they drifted. Whilst he was waiting for Paul to come back with the third round of drinks John did his best to try and bury the memories of the events leading up to their separation. But as the night wore on he couldn’t avoid talking about the past, about their other friends, for any longer.
"How are the others doing?" John asked before taking a long drink of the latest round of Strongbow whilst Paul set his pint down.
"Tom's doing well. He's back on his feet again…well one of them. He's done really well, you know. He's started running again." Paul had evidently done a better job of keeping up with them than John had and was able to joke with them and about them. John attempted to join in,
"Well, Paralympics are just around the corner!”
"You know, I wouldn't be surprised if I saw him there. Peter is still touring, taking all the photos. He's got a new partner now of course. Guy called Tom. Apparently he's nice but not nearly as good as James was. Poor soul.” Paul shook his head and took another swig of his drink.
"James never went back then?” John couldn’t hide his surprise. Out of all of them James was the most fanatical about his service. Paul shook his head again.
"Nah. He would have been a liability. Couldn't move so quickly you see.” Clearly James’ injury was worse than John thought. John was desperate to keep the tone light and return it back to the jokey tone that had vanished just moments ago;
"What's he up to now then? I suppose he's doing exhibitions of his photos now.” John smiled nervously, willing Paul to join in but instead Paul looked taken aback.
"What do you mean?" Paul scoffed. "He's dead. If you're wondering whether he got past the pearly gates and is now showing the beloved departed his shots of dogs in bullet proof vests, I reckon he didn't. He saw too much. Let too much go."
John sat there. Staring at Paul. It was a good thirty seconds before he spoke up.
"Didn't you hear? Oh, actually you might have been in rehab still. He was shot. Clean through his camera. Right down the barrel of the lens” At this news John sobered up instantly.
"I though you said he didn't go back"
"He didn't. Kings Cross underground station. 5:30pm. Busiest time of the day. Couple of years ago now” How on earth had John missed this? Surely it would have been on the news. Surely someone would have told him? Had he really been that distant. Instead of asking these obvious questions John implausibly opted for something more neutral,
"What was he doing taking photos there?” Paul shrugged. Was Paul not bothered about the fact that James had been killed in a very public, very busy place?
"I dunno. He used to go all artsy like that occasionally didn't he. Bet he was on Instagram"
"Do they know who did it?” By now John had got his head back on straight.
"Hard to tell. Top of that escalator is a nightmare. It was a sniper though. I heard he'd got into debt. You know, gambling and that. He always was a bit of a risk taker. Probably someone that he owed money to or something. There was an enquiry but nothing ever came of it. It was closed after three days. Anyway, enough about that. Lets talk about something else grim. Hows Harry these days?"
Paul took a large swig of his pint. It was clear that all talk of James Hargreaves was over. John didn't appreciate the change in subject but went with it anyway and decided to act like he wasn't at all shocked that a comrade had been shot through the camera in the middle of a packed underground station. If Paul didn’t seem phased, why should he be? Anyway he was quite enjoying talking to someone who didn't treat you as a substitute for a skull. He needed to get out more.
The evening continued and drifted into the early hours of the morning. The two men gathered their coats and said their goodbyes on the pavement.
"I'd best be heading off. Wife will kill me if I'm late. You know how it is. Your man will be having a go at you as well if you're not careful. See you around John" Paul gave a wave before walking his bike down towards the nearest tube station.
"He's not my — lovely seeing you again Paul"
John sighed, turned on his heel and headed towards the main road. John was, as far as a person could be, used to those around him being injured in combat and occasionally killed. But the fact that James was shot in the relative safety of Kings Cross underground station unnerved him a little. He believed Paul when he said that James had started gambling. He didn't believe that he would be bad at it. If anyone wanted James out the way it would have been for something else entirely. Paul was right. He did see too much. They all had. John shook his head. He was a different man back then. Younger, a little more reckless, too easily led. Too easily led by Corporal Hargreaves. As he rounded the corner a sharp pain ran through his leg followed by the dull throb that had become so familiar to him. The limp was back.