- The Assessment
Some jobs are dangerous. Some job interviews are explosive.
Security consultant and former Royal Marine Commando, Captain Ryan Kaine expects his crew to be the best. When executing classified government military contracts, they need to be.
The latest group of potential recruits are enthusiastic. By the time Kaine’s finished with them, they’ll know enthusiasm alone doesn’t cut it in a war zone.
When ‘retired’ soldier, Arthur ‘Big Jenks’ Jenkinson attends one of Ryan Kaine’s recruitment trials, he thinks he’s a shoo-in. Powerful, tough, and arrogant, Big Jenks strides into the assessment centre and asserts himself from the start. He’s ready to grind ‘Captain Runt’ under his boot heel and show the little pipsqueak what a real soldier can do.
Big Jenks in for a rude awakening.
The raging fire of arrogance meets the ice cool hand of experience in this Ryan Kaine origins novella.
The Late — Big Jenks
Finally got here. And about frigging time, too.
My car’s hotter than hell. Bloody aircon hasn’t worked since I bought the shitting box of rust, but at least the effing thing carried me here—eventually.
I screech the car to a halt at the barrier and kill the engine to stop the dark blue exhaust fumes fouling the otherwise crystal-clear atmosphere. Then I wait as patiently as possible, forcing myself not to drum my fingers on the steering wheel. I close my eyes for a moment, to chill, centre myself, but it ain’t working too well.
Me, I hate screwing up. Hate waiting, too.
Although keen to make a good impression, I’ve missed the start window by over half an hour, although I left home in plenty of time. Chuffing holiday traffic and road works on the M6 screwed me over, big time. Bloody M5 wasn’t much better, and as for the frigging A4103.
A complete and utter joke. An “A” road? Bollocks. I’ve driven over farm tracks with fewer potholes.
Fuming at the added delay, I stretch my lips into a pleasant smile and roll down my side window. A blast of hot air scorches my face. Jeez, it’s hot out there, but way cooler than even a winter’s day in Helmand Province. Need to remember to keep hydrated, especially as there’s a yomp or two in store for us. Be prepared for heavy exercise, the assessment’s instructions said.
Yeah, well Big Jenks is always prepped and ready for action.
Movement inside the guardhouse catches my eye. Here he comes. A redcap, colour sergeant, all spit, polish, and bluster. The buffoon’s heavily armed with a weapons-grade military clipboard, ready to cause me untold physical damage.
Watch out for them paper cuts, Colour.
I hide my smirk and a snort behind a raised hand designed to cover the forced cough.
Redcaps don’t take kindly to soldiers taking the piss. This old boy is carrying a jellyroll of blubber around his waist, and he’s favouring his right leg. The scarring over his left eye and a cauliflower left ear says he’s either an ex-boxer or he played rugby back in the day. Either way, he’s clearly seen action, but not recently. The bloke must be pushing fifty, fifty-five easy. Closing in on retirement with a mind-numbing security posting out in the sticks. Can’t blame him, really. Ending military service with a nice cushy billet must be every soldier’s wet dream. Pity I couldn’t hang on for another twelve years and draw a decent pension, but the arseholes wouldn’t let me.
The civilian bastards in charge decided I was “Surplus to military requirements”. Yeah, me and a quarter of my brigade. Moronic, short-sighted politicians and their defence cuts hacking so deep. The arseholes in charge basically told me to fuck off back to civvy street. Then they left me with nothing more than a “Thank you for your service” and a severance cheque barely big enough to cover a decent knees-up at the Royal Oak, my local boozer.
Them’s the breaks, Big Jenks.
On the other hand, the tasty barmaid’s contented smile in her bedroom the following morning made up for my lightning-fast demob into civvy life, as leas partially. The woman’s responses to my ongoing amorous attentions and her enduring gratitude for my skills between the sheets made me smile, too.
Yep, that’s Big Jenks sure enough. Always ready for a little hand-to-hand combat.
But that were six months ago. Hardly found a decent day’s work since. Government handouts don’t do much more than cover the cost of bog roll, which is why I’m here in the back of beyond, cap-in-hand, begging for work at the only military contractor still hiring. Fucking recession’s hit every industry the world over. Life is such a goddamned ball ache.
Still, I’m ready for anything these DefTech beggars are going to throw at me. Keep myself fit and healthy, I do. Big Jenks they call me and it ain’t just because I’m hung like a horse. Don’t have no problem finding references, either. Ask the barmaid from the Royal Oak.
Let’s see what DefTech has in store for yours truly.
The colour sergeant pulls on his pristine Royal Military Police cap with its red cover, hence their nickname, Redcaps, and glances in the mirror hanging on the back of the guardroom door. He’s checking it’s straight before opening up and stepping out into the stifling heat. A wispy silver moustache pushes out from his upper lip, looking like the slime trail from a slug. Not a great image if you want to impress. Probably just started growing it to build some kudos ahead of his retirement. Wonder who gave him permission to grow the daft thing?
The Redcap turns the corner and marches past the barrier towards me, trying his best to hide the fact he’s nothing but a gimp. As he approaches, he runs his right index finger down the form attached to his clipboard. Checking off names, I bet. Looking for mine.
The old boy stops alongside my open window and sniffs at me as though I’m giving off a bad smell. Sod that, I had a shower this morning. Used deodorant and everything. In the aroma department, I’m okay. In the time-keeping department though, I’m a bag of excrement as far as the military is concerned.
Okay, Big Jenks, best behaviour. Smile, but don’t make it look too cocky.
“Corporal Arthur Philip Jenkinson, formerly of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, I assume?”
He stares down his nose at me, acting like he’s trodden on a steaming lump of dog turd, but his tone is bored and impatient, not aggressive.
“Yes, Colour Sergeant,” I say, keeping my voice level, non-committal but keen. It ain’t easy getting the right balance, but I could have chosen a career in acting, me. Might still do, if I fail this gig.
“Good guess,” I add. “You must have my car registration on that form, right?”
“No, son,” he says, smirking and starting to take the piss, “you’re the last one to arrive. Black mark already.” He tuts, shakes his head, and makes a mark with his pen. “The captain won’t be impressed with tardiness.”
Been reading a thesaurus have we, Colour? Send you on pre-retirement education courses, did they?
“I’m betting you won’t last ’til lunchtime,” he says after checking the time on his watch and marking it down against my name, making sure I see him do it.
I think about giving him the harrowing tale of my hideous journey, but why bother? He’s nothing but a bleeding doorman. “The other candidates made it on time,” he’d say. “You should have left earlier. No sympathy in this man’s Navy.” So, I keep my mouth shut and wait until I can toady up to the captain, whoever the fuck he might be. The paperwork summoning me to the job interview didn’t give many details away. Date, time, location, and “Rough terrain PT gear essential”. Bugger all else. The instructions didn’t even say how long the tests would take. At least overnight and maybe the whole weekend. I’m that good, if I get past the jobsworth redcap, and the “tardiness” tag, I’m bound to make it ’til the end.
Good candidate, me. One of the best they’ll ever test.
“Sorry, Colour Sergeant. My mistake for being late, but I’ve got a hundred quid that says I’ll be the last man standing. What odds are you giving?”
“Cheeky little sod.”
The slug’s trail twitches into a stiff smile. I’m clearly getting to him, warming him up. The old Big Jenks charm. Works every time.
“I’ll take two-to-one,” I say to the old boy.
“No gambling allowed on the ship.”
I look around, taking in the Royal Navy Shore Training Establishment, HMS Tillingford. It’s not particularly impressive. Nothing but an ancient airfield, built circa WWII, surrounded by rusting chain-link fencing topped with shiny new razor wire. Seven single-storey buildings, some little more than wooden huts and a large brick-built two-storey monstrosity, surround a concrete drill square. Typical Royal Navy. How come they call land-based training bases HMS—Her Majesty’s Ships? This place is set in the foot of a valley surrounded by thickly wooded hills. Can’t even see a lake or a river. No open water anywhere, but they still call it a ship?
The old colour sergeant turns and points to a bunch of cars off to the right. “Park your jalopy over there”—his arm arcs to the left and targets the two-storey building on the far side of the drill square—“and then get yourself over to the main admin block, double-time.”
“Thanks, Colour Sergeant,” I say.
After all, no harm in being polite, is there?
I reach for the ignition key, hoping the engine won’t let me down, when the old boy leans closer to my open window.
“Want some advice, son?” he says, lowering his voice and fixing me with a pair of steel grey eyes.
“Always happy to take guidance from my betters, Colour Sergeant.”
Yep. I can schmooze with the best of them.
The Redcap gives me a sideways look that tells me he ain’t buying it. “Don’t keep the captain waiting any longer, or he’ll tear you a new one.”
Some retired, rum-swilling navy captain’s gonna tear me a new arsehole?
“Don’t look at me like that, sonny-boy. Captain Kaine’s fair, but he doesn’t take kindly to malingerers wasting his time.”
“Big Jenks ain’t no malingerer, Colour Sergeant.”
He taps his clipboard against his leather-covered wristwatch, telling me times a-passing, but gathering information’s important. It might give me an edge and, as the old boy said, I’m already a little “tardy”.
“Captain Kaine? Don’t think I’ve ever heard of him.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. The captain isn’t one to seek publicity. Not like others I could mention.”
Now I’m intrigued.
“This Captain Kaine. Tough cookie?”
“Tougher than you, son. Tougher than most.”
Ain’t no one tougher than Big Jenks, but I keep my face straight and nod like I’m taking the his warning seriously.
“I’ll bear that in mind, Colour Sergeant. Ta very much.”
“What are you waiting for? Get a move on. The other candidates are most likely in the gym by now, listening to the briefing.”
After he manually raises the barrier, I turn the ignition key. Thankfully, my luck’s finally in and the ancient Fiat’s gutless engine catches first time. I crunch it into first gear and point the bonnet towards the car park.
After hiding the embarrassing Fiat behind a top-of-the-range Audi A4 and making a mad dash across the drill square, toting my backpack, I duck into the nearest latrine to change. I’ve brought along standard PT fatigues—green T-shirt, black shorts, black trainers, no socks. Don’t need socks, ’cause my feet never blister. Then I hot-foot it to the gym, following the oh-so-helpful signs. Hand-written they are, real amateurish. What the hell have I let myself in for?
Before barging inside, I press my ear to the door panel. A bloke is talking, but his voice isn’t carrying well, and he’s too quiet for me to hear him properly. Sod it, here goes nothing. Need this job, me.
The hinges squeal loud and harsh as I push through the double doors. Eight heads turn to find out who’s disturbing them, the ninth, standing in front of the others, is still talking. He’s short, slim—bordering on scrawny, the runt of any litter—and late thirties or maybe early forties. His face is craggy, but some might call it handsome. I wouldn’t, ’cause Big Jenks don’t see at blokes that way. The scrawny guy doesn’t look in my direction, doesn’t break his rhythm.
“…all come highly recommended, and I’ve vetted most of you myself. So, I don’t expect anyone to find the assault course too taxing, not while you’re fresh. Just familiarise yourselves with the layout to begin with.
“Over the next two or three days, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to learn its special peculiarities, but for the first run we won’t even be putting you on the clock. Think of it as a pre-trial exercise. A meet-and-greet. Competition will come later.”
Still in the doorway, I snap to a smart but silent attention. Waiting.
“You have thirty minutes to warm up,” the little guy continues. “After that, gather at the start of the course. Private Simms will lead the way. Dismissed.”
The five men standing in a straight line, dress right and fall out. Then they troop into one corner and are taken through a series of standard stretches by the one called Simms—a tall, muscular guy in his late twenties. The candidates, my competition, are well-muscled, and look pretty fit. Each gives off a testosterone-rich vibe.
They may be my competition, but they ain’t scary. Not in the least.
After a few moments watching and studying, I’ve seen enough to know I can take each one of them with one hand tied to my crotch. One—the largest—might cause me to break into a sweat. As for the other four? No hopers. Cannon fodder. A waste of space. Don’t know why they’ve even bothered to turn up.
The other two men, one of whom is a monster, a real giant, are dressed head to toe in dark blue, the same as the runt—T-shirts showing DefTech logos, long shorts, ankle socks, and trainers. They gather around the little guy and are clearly the DefTech assessment team I need to impress.
C’mon now, Big Jenks. Best behaviour.
Finally, the three men in blue turn and fix six beady eyes on me.
Runt is shorter than the other two by a good eight and ten centimetres. In fact, next to André the Giant, he’s not far off being classed as a dwarf.
André must be pushing fifty, and he’s massive all over: shoulders you could land a helicopter on, a full head of dark hair in a military buzz-cut, and a huge black beard, navy style. I’m guessing André is this Captain Kaine geezer. The bloke the Redcap Gimp said would be able to tear me a new arsehole. We’ll see about that. He’s big, but old and probably half my speed, especially in terms of reaction time. Can I take him?
The third guy is a six-footer and lithe—another fit-looking dude. He has mid-length blond hair and deep blue eyes, but his skin is smooth and wrinkle free. Damn it, the guy looks like he should still be in school—sixth form college at best.
I wait and watch them staring at me, and it doesn’t take me long to realise I’m totally wrong. Seconds only. The way André and the schoolkid are deferring to the little one makes it clear he’s the geezer in charge.
Bugger me sideways, Runt is Captain Kaine!
What’s all this fucking bullshit? A puff of wind would put the little guy flat on his arse.
Redcap Gimp must have been yanking my chain. This is bullshit. I’m half expecting a TV crew to pop out of the woodwork and tell me I’ve been Punk’d.
After a full minute’s silence, Captain Runt approaches, frowning all deep and serious, like. André and Schoolkid follow half a pace behind.
In the background, Private Simms is balancing on one leg, demonstrating a quads stretch. He’s angled himself so he can eye me without turning his head. The candidates are pretending not to watch or earwig, but I can tell they are. Let ’em.
“You’ll be Corporal Jenkinson?” Captain Runt asks, stopping three metres from me, keeping more than an arm’s length away for safety. “Not impressed with your time-keeping, Corporal. Stand easy.”
I stamp my left foot shoulder-width away from the right and clasp my hands behind my back, thumbs interlocked, palms open. Although I’m standing at ease, I remain stiff-shouldered and tense, prepared for action. If this is all for Punk’d, I’ll make it look good for the cameras. A real-life show pony, that’s me.
“Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again, sir.”
He stands still, brown eyes studying me closely. Can’t tell what he’s thinking, which is weird. I can normally tell what’s going on inside people’s heads. My old squad buddies used to reckon I was part psychic. Some tried calling me Wizard, but I soon stomped that out of them.
It’s Big Jenks or nothing.
“If you’re unable to make the assessment session on time, how reliable can you be? Tell me why I shouldn’t send you packing right away.”
“As I said, sir, I’m really sorry …” I work through my explanation, struggling to strike the right balance between apologetic and keen, and finish with a plea, “I need this job, sir. Please give me a chance.”
During my explanation, André steps alongside the captain.
“What do you think, Staff Sergeant?” Captain Runt asks the big bugger. “Think he’s worth a second chance?”
André’s beard bristles as he creases up his face. “Not sure, Captain. Doesn’t look like much. Seems a little scrawny to me. Might not be up to it.”
Scrawny? Me? Say that to me outside, you giant bastard.
I’m ready to explode but hold myself in check, just about. If these arseholes think they can wind me up, I’ll show them how cool Big Jenks can be.
Captain Runt drills me with another appraising look before turning back to André. “Don’t remember reading his application, Staff Sergeant. Who put him on the list, and when?”
“Major Valence added his details yesterday afternoon, sir.”
“An afterthought, eh?”
I’ll teach you to smirk at me, dickhead. Just you fucking wait.
The captain nods and turns to face me again. His eyes are still calculating. Weighing up my worth. Time to pull my big nuts out of the fire.
“I’m no afterthought, Captain Kaine. I’m up to anything you can throw at me. Try me. I’ll beat any man here in any military test you care to set. Any man.”
Risky perhaps, arrogant probably, but I need this job, and I ain’t backing down to no one. If the runt of a captain and his lackeys give me the chance to show what I’m made of, they’ll end up begging me to stay.
The guys in the background have stopped stretching and have given up all pretence at ignoring the scene. They’re all looking and listening along with Private Simms. I’m guessing they’re wondering what the captain will do as much as I am.
Eventually, after what seems like ages, Captain Runt nods, says, “We’ll see,” and turns about-face. “Follow me.”
I jump to attention and fall into marching step behind him. No idea what he’s got in store for me, but I can handle it.
Bring it on, Captain Runt.