Authors: Andy McNab
‘Right. We’re sorted.’ I kept it simple. ‘I’m going to get you home.’
I planned to tab as far as we could down the valley, then we’d make our way to Courchevel. After what had happened to his dad, I wasn’t expecting it to be a place of safety, but I needed answers to the questions that were buzzing around in my head, and I had nowhere else to start.
‘Do you think you can walk?’
I loaded myself up again with my day sack and his rucksack, and he reached for my free hand. His palm was cold and a little bit clammy. I gripped it and aimed us at the point where the stream looked like it exited the trees.
The gradient was still steep, but the ground was solid and we made steady progress. Every so often he grabbed a low-hanging branch to help him keep his footing.
There was a sheer drop at the edge of the treeline, but only for a couple of metres. I lowered the bags, transferred the pistol to the back of my waistband, then got down on my belt buckle and slid over the edge feet first.
He followed the same drill and wriggled after me. As soon as my Timberland boots touched the ground, I put the Sphinx back where it belonged and reached up for him.
The next stretch wasn’t pasture, exactly, but the slope was no longer forty-five degrees. We zigzagged down it, ramming our heels firmly into the turf with every step.
About two hundred further on I had a clearer view of the valley floor. I could see our stream gather momentum with a series of leaps and falls, on its way to join the river. I could see the still smoking wreckage of my wagon. And I could see blue lights flashing in the distance, making their way along the road towards it.
A cluster of farm buildings were dug into the hill another four or five hundred below us. I brought up the binos and took a closer look. Stone bases; wood cladding; shallow-raked slate roofs. Barns, cowsheds, all that sort of shit. Movement. A couple of carrot-crunchers in dungarees and wellies loading stuff on to their quad bikes.
We weren’t kitted out as hikers, and Stefan’s crocodiles looked like they’d be more at home in a five-star hotel than yomping across the hillside, so we had to stay out of sight as much as possible. I steered him to the right, towards a fold in the ground that would give us cover and allow us to skirt around them.
He stepped into a rut or a rabbit hole as he changed direction and fell heavily, twisting his foot. He immediately heaved himself up and stumbled on.
After a few paces I could see he was hurting. His teeth were gritted – he was determined to stick at it – but his cheeks and forehead had lost their colour and his eyes were starting to leak. It wasn’t just the injury: the nightmare in the Range Rover was going to fuck him up too.
I grabbed his hand again to help him along, and made encouraging noises about home, but it made no difference, so I sat him down and took a closer look at his injury. The ankle wasn’t broken, but the flesh around it was ballooning fast.
I took out my T-shirt and tore a clean four- or five-centimetre-wide strip off the bottom of it. I unlaced his trainer and bound the swelling in a figure of eight, starting under his arch and finishing halfway up his calf.
Then I carried him the rest of the way to the gully our stream had cut into the hill. It was only about a metre wide and a metre deep to start with, but enough to give us both some cover. I sat him down again, took off his trainer and shoved his injured foot in the stream. He tried to remove it almost immediately, but I didn’t let him. I knew that the water was bitingly cold, but it would reduce the swelling and ease the throbbing. I handed him the water bottle and the chocolate bar to try to take his mind off it.
As he got munching I had another look at the map. I wasn’t wrong: no shortcuts. That settled it. I couldn’t leave the kid in a stable and pretend it was Christmas. And carrying him all the way to his dad’s front door would take for ever. ‘Mate …’
Stefan looked up.
‘We need to find us some transport.’
We went into piggy-back mode again. The gully widened and deepened as we went. After a hundred metres I put him and the luggage down, crawled up on to the turf and, keeping low, eased myself forwards until I could take a closer look at the outbuildings.
A track ran through the property below me. One of the carrot-crunchers was bouncing his quad bike towards a barn that stood at the far end of it, beside a low wooden bridge spanning our gully. Beyond it, a bunch of cows grazed at the edge of the pasture, beside a stand of firs.
I ducked back into the gully and loaded myself up again. It broadened and deepened as it headed downhill. I had no idea whether the lad I hoped was about to become my new best mate was on his way to do a bit of routine maintenance or to have a chat with the livestock, but I had to start somewhere, and I figured this was our best chance of a result.
I reached the bridge before he crossed it. It was a sturdily built, slatted hardwood affair. I deposited Stefan underneath it, with his ankle back in the stream and the bags alongside him, and put a finger to my lips. His eyes were glassy and there were beads of sweat on his forehead, but he was on receive. I handed him the water bottle again and motioned for him to drink.
I stayed under the bridge with him and listened. I could no longer hear the engine, so the driver had either taken a detour or parked up. After a moment or two a hinge creaked, a can rattled and – judging by the sudden flurry of grunts and groans – some heavy-duty equipment was being moved close by.
I grabbed hold of the nearest post and hauled myself up until my eyes were level with the top of the bank. The side of the barn was about five metres away. The quad bike was parked out front. The grunting and groaning continued, but there were no bodies in sight.
I brought up the binos and had a good look along the track. When I was satisfied that no one else was approaching from the main farmyard, I scrambled into the cover of the wall, stopped and listened again. More grunts and groans and sounds of heavy lifting, then silence. I moved round to the front of the building and took up position beside the open door. It was one of a pair. The other was bolted shut. A padlock the size of a landmine hung from a staple not far from my elbow.
The quad’s engine was ticking. It was a red Honda 300 4x4 All-Terrain Vehicle. It said so on the cowling, underneath the odd splash of cow shit. It had front and rear racks and a key in the ignition. But I couldn’t just leap on to the saddle and fuck off. The owner was probably fit as a butcher’s dog and I didn’t fancy my chances of hoisting Stefan and our stuff out of the ditch and scooting into the trees before a couple of big lads in dungarees jumped on us and fucked us over. I needed to buy us some time.
Sunlight flooded through the entrance into the barn. I looked inside, as far as I could without making myself visible. From where I was standing I could see a big fuck-off workbench with a circular saw. Behind it were shelves of farm kit, fuel cans and well-maintained hand tools, rolls of gaffer tape and baling twine, all in their proper place.
The trick was going to be to gain entry without presenting a target. The only advantage to being backlit was that my face would be in shadow. I didn’t want to have it imprinted on anyone’s memory if I could avoid it.
I heard movement inside. I opened my mouth to deaden the sound of the blood pumping through my head, and listened more closely. Whatever Mr Dungarees was up to, he was doing it at the back of the building, as far as I could tell. Fuck it. I couldn’t play guessing games all day. I needed to get in there.
I gripped the Sphinx and removed it from my waistband. I didn’t want to use it unless I had to, but it would go a long way towards persuading my target to keep quiet while I constrained him. And if I had to make it go bang, it would guarantee his full attention.
I took a couple of deep breaths, flexed my knees, bent low and aimed for the shelter of the workbench. There was no sawdust anywhere near it. Either this guy was the tidiest carpenter in the universe or this was what he’d just been relocating.
I stayed in the crouch and scanned the space beyond it. The sunlight picked out some bits and pieces of agricultural machinery and a couple of galvanized-metal feeding troughs. After that, the whole place was in shadow.
I reached for a roll of tape, shoved it over my forearm, and crept past the workbench and the troughs. I didn’t have time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but I immediately felt safer in it. As long as I didn’t collide with anything noisy, it was the best protection I had.
I heard movement again at the back, to my half-right.
With my brain not yet firing on all cylinders, getting to grips with one body was never going to be easy. Sorting out two – and without being pinged – was pretty much out of the question. That was where the Sphinx came in. I somehow knew I didn’t kill real people. I also knew that when you’re staring down a muzzle and it’s a new experience you tend to do exactly what you’re told.
Then I heard a slap and a gasp and a giggle, and some of the grunting I’d caught earlier made more sense. This lad hadn’t just been rearranging the furniture.
The giggles and gasps were coming from the far corner of the barn, but I followed the line of the wall rather than heading across the middle of the floor. The sounds got louder as I drew nearer. They were coming from a storage room, whose door wasn’t quite closed. I eased it the last couple of centimetres into its frame and quietly fastened both bolts. They were big old-fashioned cast-iron rods, and wouldn’t go anywhere in a hurry.
Whatever, I reckoned it would be a while before the lad inside got his dungarees back on, and with any luck he’d then assume that his mate was taking the piss by shutting him and his girlfriend in. Who knew? I was just pleased I didn’t have to give him the good news with the weapon, after all, and risk compromising myself. I tucked it back under my jacket and, keeping to the shadows, began to retrace my route.
My next priorities were to help myself to a pair of bungee cords off the storage shelf, then to push the ATV to the bridge before firing it up. The couple I’d locked up were already making quite a bit of noise of their own, and an extra bit of distance would help to draw less attention to mine.
As I skirted the largest of the feeding troughs I sensed movement in the darkness behind me and to my right.
I turned, but wasn’t quick enough to see whoever smashed me across the back with the world’s biggest lump of wood.
The roll of gaffer tape flew off my arm and skittered across the deck as I dropped to my hands and knees, fighting for breath. I toppled forward, hoping the lip of the trough would get between me and the next blow.
My kidneys felt like they’d been belted with a railway sleeper and my lungs weren’t too happy either, but by the time I hit the ground I’d got some air into them and pulled up the front of my jacket to clear the pistol grip. I stayed face down for a moment, curling my body to take the pain and free the weapon. My right hand went into autopilot and whipped it out of my belt as I rotated to face whoever had taken me down.
All I could see above me was a mass of dungarees and wellington boot. My head spun as the Sphinx swung up and into the aim, almost as if it had a mind of its own. A chunky moulded rubber sole, caked in cow shit, steamed towards me and connected with my knuckles. The Sphinx flew out of my hand, clanked against the galvanized-metal side of the trough and spun into the darkness.
I rolled and turned, then scrabbled after it. The boots were crunching in the same direction, a metre in front of me. My only option was to try to climb aboard him, try to control him before he reached the weapon. Fighting to maintain my focus, I threw my hands around his legs to slow him or bring him down. He kicked me away with one but I managed to hang on to the other.
I was a dead weight, clamped to his ankle like a ball and chain, but he was a very big lad. He took another couple of paces, dragging my body with him, and started to bend down. I glimpsed a giant paw brush the concrete ahead of me. There was nothing I could do to stop him.
I let go of his leg and made a grab for his forearm as the pistol grip disappeared into his right hand. I put every ounce of strength into trying to stop the business end of it pointing my way. It wasn’t enough. His grip was like a vice. Slowly but surely, the muzzle came round towards me.
I grabbed the barrel. He grunted as he struggled to shake me off. His knuckles turned white as his right fist tightened around the grip. His left banged down on the top of my skull, then pounded against the back of my neck. I felt something dribble down my right temple.
I jerked and twisted, and somehow managed to dodge the full weight of his blows. Then I felt the cold gunmetal pressed against my cheek and went very still indeed.
From this angle, there was a chance the round would go straight through my oral cavity, just fucking up some of my teeth, gum and upper jaw before it exited.
If I carried on jerking around, I might dislodge the muzzle, but I might also end up with a 9-mill ripping a hole in my brain.
Everything went into slow-mo.
I could hear him clear his throat.
I could smell the garlic on his breath.
I could feel the sweat dripping off his palm and running down my chin.
I could almost feel his finger squeeze the trigger.
If this was where the story ended, then fuck it: that had always been part of the deal.
The hammer reached its tipping point and rocketed the firing pin towards the round’s percussion cap.
But instead of losing a big chunk of my face, I heard the unmistakable sound of the dead man’s click.
Every second I was alive after that was a bonus.
Reaching up, I grabbed two clumps of damp and greasy hair and wrenched his face down hard on to the top of my skull. He tried to resist, so I cannoned upwards until we connected and he gave a yell. I didn’t know where I’d hit him and it didn’t really matter. I tightened my grip and butted him once more. I saw star-bursts, but I was expecting them. That’s the shit that happens.