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Desert Heat

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Death Is Only The Beginning - Chapter 1

Chapter One

London 1942

 

Except for the vivid streaks of explosions like lightning overhead, the sky was grey and shrouded, and people scurried this way and that like rats leaving a sinking ship. Millicent Packer walked swiftly toward the bunkered air-raid shelter that belonged to the London government building where she worked. A barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the ground tried desperately to chase away the enemy aircraft that were indiscriminately bombing the capital. As she reached the sandbags that were yards from her objective, the screech of an aircraft drew her attention toward the skies. With fascination, she watched as the fighter swooped up and down in a zigzag fashion with black heavy smoke billowing in its wake. One of the soldiers on the ground will have a wide smile on his face, she thought as seconds later the loud drone of the plane plunged to the ground.

 

In the distance, which she thought was probably at least a half mile away, she saw a plume of smoke along with the flashes of fire. The plane had crashed into London’s East End, which already had its fair share of destruction. Albeit bringing the plane down was a victory, where it landed could be as equally devastating as if it had continued its bombing run. There were no victors in war. Every second of the battle claimed casualties. Only yesterday, a fighter crashed directly on an air-raid shelter with its full payload of bombs and claimed every living soul inside. The tally now had risen to a hundred and was still growing.

 

“Miss, I’m closing off the door, please get inside,” the solider who guarded the artillery at this point shouted.

 

Sirens were ringing in her ears as people brushed past her, fleeing the destruction and noise into the relative safety of the shelter.

 

“Sorry.” Milly walked inside the dark area and heard the heavy door clank shut behind her. Her last thoughts had been so sombre that she wondered if today was to be her final one, and if this dark, stone room holding her building’s personnel would be her tomb.

 

Milly, giving little notice to the others in the bunker, walked farther into the dank space where she would stay until the crisis above was over. She took a seat on the first available bench. With one last look at the people in her vicinity, she shut her eyes and thought of her home and Charlie.

 

Tonight, she was planning on going home, transport willing that was. With the war raging, no one could be certain that the trains would run. Had she bothered to learn to drive, she could have gotten there under her own steam. If she couldn’t get home, she had a party invitation the following evening at the army nurses’ barracks at Potters Gate. It would be fun and light relief from being stuck in town alone on a weekend. Not that she ever was alone—a few discreet calls and she could have any comfort she wanted.

 

A brief smile crossed Milly’s lips as she recalled a particularly surprising and satisfying rendezvous she had enjoyed with her superior. They’d always had a good working relationship, and somehow they had both been at the same restaurant across the street from work, and decided to have dinner together. Dinner led to a bar in the West End and then to another one of Milly’s frequent one-night stands.

 

War had created more than the monster of death—it had allowed promiscuity to be embraced by anyone tempted to follow its path. There were plenty of willing candidates not wanting a long-term relationship. What would be the point? While the war raged, everyone’s time on earth was tenuous at best. Milly validated her actions by citing the premise that she was helping her fellow men, or in her case women, in their pursuit of passion in an ocean of horror. Besides, it never hurt anyone.

 

Charlie would never find out because she hated London and never visited. Her lover at home was a dyed-in-the-wool country girl and that’s exactly how Milly liked it. Good old Charlie was her rock. Though Milly rarely admitted her feelings, she really did love Charlie. Any other relationship she indulged in was the temptation of the moment. While in the city alone with war raging around her, she had no other choice, or so she told herself.

 

As a subtle reminder of her situation, a loud blast made the building shake. Screams of terror from many of the inhabitants of the underground world pinged off the walls. It was usually the younger women who hadn’t been in the city long, usually coming in from smaller villages to help with the war effort who sobbed in panic. But it didn’t take long for them to become seasoned campaigners during the continual barrage of bombs or sirens that occurred at all hours. A stiff upper lip was what was called for. No one wanted to let the outside world know that occasionally the English trembled as the enemy grew stronger and their own forces appeared to be weakening. The bulldog fighting spirit was something they were all proud of and she, as much as anyone, strove to prove it was still alive and kicking in any way she could.

 

Milly looked at her hands and clothes and she frowned at the grey dust that covered her. She had hoped her clothes might stay clean until the following week. Damn, this is going to cost me another ration coupon to buy more soap powder.

 

A female, who was no more than sixteen, with tears rolling down her terrified, dust-caked face stood before Milly. “Do you mind if I sit near you? Please.”

 

Milly wanted to say no. She didn’t need a snivelling tearful kid next to her for God knew how long. Then, she mentally heard Charlie telling her she was becoming too cynical for words and relented. “Yes. I could do with the company. Are you new here?”

 

The girl’s clothes told their own story. She was probably one of the cleaning or catering women, fresh from the countryside. Every able-bodied person in the country had rallied to help the war effort in any way feasible. Just as Milly’s talent for deciphering German coded messages was vital to the war effort, domestic work was equally essential to keep them going.

 

A watery smile passed the young girl’s lips as she gratefully slipped in beside Milly. “Yes, I came here with my cousin. She’s cleverer than me and works in one of the offices. She got me this job only last week. I’ve never been to London before.”

 

Milly smiled at the admission. If her instincts were correct, and in this, she was rarely wrong, the girl had probably never been to any town larger her village. “I live in the country too. I’m going home this evening. God willing.”

 

“Oh really? I wish I were too. I feel as though I’ve been gone for months. I miss my mother.”

 

The girl’s plaintive voice echoed in Milly’s mind for she felt much the same. She missed Charlie. “Who knows? The war might be over soon and you can go home for good.”

 

Innocent, trusting brown eyes stared back at her and Milly felt a glow of satisfaction. The girl looked less fearful now. It hadn’t taken much; a little patience and a few kind words. Charlie would be proud of her. “Let’s hope so. I think enough people have died, don’t you?”

 

“Yes, I do, thank you.”

 

Milly glanced in her direction and saw a faint tinge of red touch the girl’s cheeks. “No, thank you. I was getting bored sitting here alone. It’s always nice to have the company.”

 

She hadn’t been bored, impatient more likely, but this child wasn’t to know. Now that the benevolent part of her had kicked in, it wasn’t such an unpleasant sensation. Perhaps I will do it again one day.

 

“Can I ask what do you do here?”

 

Had anyone else asked the question, Milly would have bitten their head off and told them to mind their own business. Her role, translating encrypted German documents, wasn’t exactly top secret for the best papers went to those better qualified. Yet, her present assignment was more sensitive than anyone would have guessed and she was close to cracking the code. Once she was out of the shelter and back at her desk, she was sure to have the basis of the underlying message and she would then share it with her superior for validation. If she cracked a big one, she might be the toast of her office floor. She hated mysteries, which was why she enjoyed her work so much. This kind of thing didn’t happen in normal working conditions.

 

“I work on floor three. The language centre. Where do you work?”

 

“Oh, are you one of the secretaries? I’ve always wanted to be a typist myself, but the war, you know, prevented that. I work in the canteen, peeling all the veggies and stuff.”

 

Milly heard the awe in the voice of the girl. A secretary was good enough and she wasn’t ever likely to find herself in the girl’s company in the building. Therefore, it didn’t matter if she held back her actual role. “We all need to eat and I confess I can’t cook. Can you?”

 

For the next two hours in the shelter, Milly listened to the girl explain how to cook various dishes. Pity Charlie isn’t here. She would have traded recipes.

 

The sound of the siren giving the all clear brought a sigh of relief from everyone including Milly. She would be glad to get back to the relative harmony of her office surroundings and the mystery of her code breaking. It was far better than being in a small area with too many bodies, although she had to admit that this time it wasn’t as boring as usual. Maybe Charlie is right. I should relax more with strangers. Where Charlie was too trusting, it wasn’t in Milly’s nature to be, and she probably never would trust people in general.

 

When they stood to leave, the girl grinned at her and said, “Goodbye.”

 

For a few moments, Milly watched her leave the shelter before she followed. Before she forgot the whole incident, she realized that she never found out the girl’s name.

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