Authors: Andy McNab
I threw everything back into the sack, including the empty bottle, and slung it over my shoulder, then moved towards the track.
I did a three-sixty before stepping out beyond the treeline. My head was spinning a bit, but maybe that was because of the sunlight. Pretty much everything stayed in focus as I looked right, up the hill. No sign of anything moving except the gentle sway of the firs as they reached for the ribbon of sky.
There was a trail of snapped branches and gouges in their trunks, some flecked with blue vehicle paint, on both sides of the track. The turf between them had been chewed up by tyres. Parallel furrows slalomed about eight metres to my left, ending with a short stretch of churned earth and rock where the funnel narrowed. Then nothing.
I walked to the edge of what must have been a four-hundred-metre drop.
A buzzard rode the thermals below me.
A river snaking through a valley.
Smoke billowed from a chunk of burning wreckage. I narrowed my eyes. Shielded them with my hand. Some kind of wagon. Smashed beyond recognition. But I knew with sudden certainty that it was a Nissan. A 4WD. And that Hesco and his black sidekick thought I was still behind the wheel.
Good. Perhaps they’d relax now and leave it at that. Perhaps they’d get careless. But that didn’t mean
I turned back and followed the scars the Nissan’s tyres had ripped into the grass that carpeted the break between the trees. The gradient steepened as I went. Thank fuck I hadn’t a clue about my journey down. Was I even conscious? It must have been one hell of a ride.
I stopped short of the open ground and ducked into cover. I needed to check out the next tactical bound before making it. I knew that. Just like I knew the rules of concealment. Shape, shine, shadow, silhouette, spacing and movement are the shit that give you away. Two more lessons that must have been driven into me so deep they had become second nature.
I wove my way twenty or thirty paces through the wood, until I found a vantage-point with a clear view of the next three hundred and fifty metres of slope.
My eyes swept right to left and back again. Outcrops of bare rock, bald baby’s heads, were scattered randomly across the turf. A small furry creature appeared briefly beside one, sniffed the air, then made itself scarce.
No other bodies, no other sign of life in the territory that separated me from the place the tyre marks seemed to begin. Black-and-white-striped rods, spaced at regular intervals, stood proud of the crest to either side of it.
I guessed that was where the road must be.
I waited, listened and looked.
I set off, running at the crouch. My head bounced around on my shoulders, like my neck had turned into a Slinky.
About fifty up, I doubled over and puked my guts out again. There was hardly anything there, but it seemed to take for ever to come out. Not good in open ground.
Once I’d stopped retching, I waited for my vision to clear. The splashes of watery puke by my boots were a world away from the multi-coloured explosions you see outside pubs and kebab shops: they were clear and shiny and flecked with brown. I kicked over the traces anyway.
About a hundred up, I had a clearer picture of my objective. A stretch of retaining wall to my half-left; thickly mortared stone, constructed to stop the tarmac throwing itself downhill. I paralleled the tyre tracks then veered left towards it. As I drew closer, I could see it was waist high, enough to give me cover. I stooped beside it and listened for vehicle engines and the crunch of boots on gravel and allowed my stomach to settle.
All I could hear was a siren. Somewhere behind me, a few Ks further down the valley. It wasn’t getting any louder.
I raised my head fractionally above the parapet and scanned beneath the safety barrier. There was no one in my field of vision in either direction. A two-lane blacktop that had been carved out of the rock face which towered above me. I was at the apex of a curve. Fragments of shattered glass glittered in the sunlight on the far side of it.
I skirted the stonework for a metre or two, then clambered on top of it. To my right, violent skid marks swerved across the white centre line, leading to a point, short of the barrier and beside another clump of trees, where the edge of the metalled surface had crumbled on to the turf.
This was where my rollercoaster had kicked off.
A sudden flashback …
I’m leading a two-car convoy. A shiny black SUV with darkened windows is behind me. I can see it in the rear-view. Then red lights fill the screen inside my head. A big fuck-off flatbed artic slamming on the anchors with zero warning.
A big fuck-off flatbed artic with a company name on the rear panel and an eagle logo on each mudguard.
The kind you’d expect to see clutching at a swastika.
I can hear the screech of tyres, see the smoke pouring out of the wheel arches. I can smell the burning brake fluid and bubbling rubber on the tarmac …
I could feel the sweat prickle in my armpits and groin and on the gash below my hairline. I could feel my shoulder muscles clench. But I tried to hang on to the image.
I needed to know what happened next.
The artic’s brake-lights faded, bleached by the sunlight. I hadn’t a clue where the SUV had gone.
But I could see another skid pattern on the tarmac now. Twin sets of parallel tracks – a wide-wheel-base monster – starting behind the first traces of the smaller vehicle’s attempt to avoid collision, and ending after its side exit from the highway.
I took a closer look at the nearest of the striped poles that lined the roadside, designed to keep winter drivers from taking the quickest route – my route – down the mountain. There was an ID code stamped on its paintwork, about a hand’s width from where it had been sunk into the verge. Then the manufacturer’s name: Adler Gesellschaft.
And a graphic of an eagle, with wings and talons outstretched.
I’d seen this shit before.
I fished the UZI pen out of my day sack and rolled back my left sleeve. I saw a pattern of raised, bite-sized scars just below my elbow. Guard dog. German Shepherd? Rottweiler? I had the vaguest recollection of one not liking me in another life.
Painfully slowly, I scrawled ‘Adler Gesellschaft’ on my skin, then did my best to draw the logo as well. The drawing was shit: it looked nothing like an eagle. But the cogs in my brain seemed to be moving up a gear. I knew that one of these missiles had been buried in my passenger seat.
I looked along the line of rods standing to attention at the roadside. There didn’t seem to be one missing. And even if it had been, there was no way it would have jumped up and hurled itself through my windscreen just for the hell of it. It had been launched off the flatbed. And some fucker must have helped it on its way.
I needed to find out who.
I needed to find out why.
And if I got half a chance, I’d plant the pointy end of one of those things – or something similar – in the middle of his fucking forehead.
I walked to the place my downhill adventure must have begun.
The ground fell away big-time from there. Going right or straight ahead, you’d leave the grass sharpish and the odd bit of shrubbery clinging to the rock couldn’t stop a wagon launching itself off the precipice. That must have been the reason they’d chosen to force me off at this point. The wooded strip bottom-left offered the only safety barrier once you’d left the tarmac. And it didn’t look as big from here as I’d thought it was when I was hidden in it.
So what had happened to the SUV once it had melted away from my rear-view?
I turned back to the road. As far as I could see, it was still deserted. Both ways. It continued beyond the curve, heading up the mountain through a corridor of trees. There was no sign of the artic. Of course there wasn’t. After fucking me over, it would have kept on going.
I walked about fifty paces in the direction I must have driven from. To my left, the road hugged the hillside. To my right, there was another stretch of safety barrier. In the distance, the mouth of a tunnel bored into the mountain. I retraced my steps past the skid marks and carried on round the curve.
From there the tarmac snaked towards the trees. A hundred-metre length of heavy-duty wire mesh lined the scar that was left where it had been blasted out of the granite.
A signpost came into view, warning of a P half a K ahead. It didn’t tell me where the fuck I was, but it told me what language they spoke here. Beneath a graphic of a big white tyre with snow chains in a blue circle were the words ‘AIRE DE CHAÎNAGE’. So, France or Switzerland. Not Belgium. No mountains in Belgium.
Almost immediately, the bank of firs sheltered the left side of the main. I could see a gravelled area to my right, tucked into a fold in the rock. And another tunnel a half-K beyond it.
As I got closer to the turn-off I heard the sound of rushing water. I left the verge and took to the trees. It was slower going here because of the steepness of the slope and the uneven footing, but I didn’t want to be caught in the open. I dropped down below the level of the road.
I stopped for a moment to draw breath. My head wasn’t pounding any more, but my heart was, and my gut ached. Fuck it, I’d worry about that later if I needed to. Right now I had to keep going. I did my best to avoid the tangle of roots and dead branches that littered the slope, but slid from time to time on loose scree.
Water spewed from a concrete pipe running under the road ten metres in front of me and splashed down the mountainside. I got close enough to scoop some handfuls of it over my face and into my mouth. It was cold and clear, washed away the acid in my throat and tasted fucking wonderful. I got as much as I could down my neck. I had no idea when I’d last rehydrated. Did I have a bottle in my day sack? Did I drink it? Maybe. But who knew when I’d have another chance? I rinsed as much as I could of the vomit off the front of my gear.
Built over the mouth of the pipe, a small metal gantry bridged the stream. Using it as a platform, I raised my head gradually above the verge.
A wooden hut, shutters down, stood by the entrance to the layby. Nothing special. Just somewhere for the snow-chain police to take a break from the winter-sports traffic and have a brew. A row of slatted tables and benches were anchored to a patch of concrete alongside it. This place obviously doubled as a picnic spot for anyone who didn’t fancy an Alpine view.
The waterfall cascaded down the rock face at the back of the gravelled area, throwing up a curtain of spray. Nosy-parked a safe distance away from it was a shiny black SUV with darkened rear windows and a showroom shine. Armoured, probably, judging by how low it sat on its suspension.
My missing SUV.
A flash model that looked like someone with the world’s biggest arse had sat on the roof and squashed it. A black Range Rover Evoque. I knew that was what it was because it said so on the tailgate.
It had French plates. I took out my magic pen and scribbled the registration on my wrist.
The wagon was completely still. No vapour spilling out of the gleaming twin exhaust pipes. I scanned the entire area for any sign of the big lads or their mates. Hesco had been talking to somebody at the top of the precipice. Somebody up here?
The place seemed deserted. Unless they were using the brew hut as cover.
I heard an engine. Lights blazed in the darkness of the tunnel. I stayed where I was long enough to check that they were just bog-standard headlamps, not blue and flashing, then dipped out of sight.
It slowed as it drew alongside the layby, and for a moment I thought it was going to pull in. Why? Reinforcements for Hesco and Dreads? Or holidaymakers stopping for a pig roll and a piss? I hoped neither. I didn’t want to spend all day there.
Seconds later the engine note changed and the vehicle accelerated away towards my bend.
I grabbed the nearest trunk and hauled myself back up. The second vehicle was nowhere in sight. The brew hut was directly between me and the Evoque. Keeping low, I scooted across the tarmac and sheltered behind it. Right up close to the woodwork. Not good. Especially on a dodgy gut. It had recently been given a coat of preservative. The stench caught at the back of my throat.
I worked my way round to the far corner, keeping eyes and ears open for movement on the dead side of the hut. Not that I’d have heard anything above the roar of the waterfall. A fine mist hung in the air as it crashed against a pile of boulders before draining away under the road.
I was now invisible both from the Evoque and any passing traffic. I put down my day sack, took a deep breath and leant out.
It was a five-door model. I couldn’t see through the darkened rear windows: they just reflected whatever happened to be opposite them. The front ones were tinted, but transparent enough to let me check the driver and passenger seats for movement or shadow.
They looked clear.
And if I was wrong about that, so what? Mincing about wasn’t going to change anything.
The nearest door was on the passenger side and I expected it to be locked, but I strode across to it like I was the owner.
It opened with a soft clunk. And, fuck, was it heavy. Armoured, for sure. The window glass was laminated, and as thick as my thumb.
As I slid on to the seat the screen inside my head kicked off again. I’m in the Nissan, shortly before it loses its grip on the mountain. And I know that if I hadn’t swerved left when the artic rammed on its brakes, the stripy steel missile would have gone right through me.
I was now in a world of cream leather and dark-wood veneer. No sign of ignition keys. A small medallion – the patron saint of travellers – swung gently from the rear-view in the air I’d managed to disturb.
Air that smelt faintly but unmistakably of cordite and blood.
I raised my eyes to the mirror. The St Christopher hadn’t worked its magic for the body that was sprawled across the bench seat behind me. I swivelled and squinted past the headrest.