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By JASON ELLIOT
Copyright © 2010 Jason Elliot
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Chapter One For a few moments the illusion is complete, as if my work is done and I am finally at rest after every threat and uncertainty has passed. My eyes are open but I am not awake, and my senses are suspended in a dream that ignores the ordinary rules of time and space. I feel neither cold nor pain. Above me stretches an expanse of sky, as featureless as you would expect for an April morning in England, onto which my eyes have opened. At the centre of this hypnotic whiteness a solitary hawk is hovering.
I see nothing else but his lonely silhouette, and my mind goes through none of its normal efforts to assign any scale or context to this vision. He hovers directly above me, like a captive of my own gaze, and seems to defy both gravity and the laws of motion. Even though his body is in constant motion, his head is as still as a sniper's, held in a perfect equilibrium against the invisible stream in which he swims. As the wind flows over his wings, the trailing feathers tremble and flutter, and his wedge-shaped tail treads the air with incalculable speed and precision. The leading edges of his wings sweep back like those of a fighter plane, his head is streamlined like the point of a lance, and his beak resembles a scimitar poised high above its victim. Every line and movement of his body expresses the beauty and lethal prowess of the raptor. For a strange few moments it seems as though I enter into the spirit of the bird and feel what it feels. But all this takes shape in a different language, free of thinking itself, because I'm spellbound by the silhouette overhead, and my mind has yet to intervene.
Then, too fast for the eye to follow, he swerves downwards a few feet, brakes to a sudden stop, beats his wings to compensate for the loss in speed, and hovers again. He repeats the movement in an upward direction, to get a better view of his prey on the floor of the forest. I watch this faultless airborne ballet, mesmerised all the while, until a cry comes from his mate, its sound carried unevenly on the wind. The shrill call repeats, then falls in pitch and fades to silence. It is this sound that breaks the spell.
I hear a sudden breath, which is my own, entering my body like the gasp of an infant at birth and bearing with it all the burden of the senses. I struggle up in a spasm of fear, and the world and its nightmare tumbles in. My hands are swollen from scratches and thorns and I feel the toxin of fatigue that makes every muscle ache. I get to my feet and throw off the bracken that I have used for my improvised bed, which is a muddy crater left by the torn-up roots of a giant beech, and I curse out loud. I have already broken the only rule: never stop.
I wonder how long I've slept. Not long, going by the feeling of exhaustion. Under a half-moon I have run, walked, staggered, waded and crawled through the night. I am filthy and freezing but am grateful for the jacket that fends off the bite of the wind, which is more dangerous than the cold. Running my hands over my pockets I'm reminded they've been emptied, so there is no point returning to my car, even if I did know how to find my way back to it. The sudden recollection of my capture sends a shiver through my body. It's only yesterday but, separated by the long and hateful night, now seems like years ago.
I'm returning home after a weekend session with H, most of it spent learning about improvised explosive devices and how to set them off. Useful skills, he tells me, even if we never have to call on them, though he says this about all our sessions together. He shows me how to make an anti-disturbance device from two U-shaped nails, how to use a clothes peg for a tripwire-activated circuit, and how to make a pressure pad, suitable for detonating the explosive of one's choice, from two bits of old drawer and a thin copper strip from a household draught excluder. He also demonstrates the more modern technique of using a mobile phone to ire one or multiple ignition circuits, an operation which can be accomplished with disturbing ease from anywhere in the world with a single phone call. Useful skills, as he says.
When I stop for petrol on the outskirts of Hereford, where H, between frequent trips to seldom-heard-of African republics, teaches these and related skills to his Regimental apprentices, I suspect nothing. I'm tired after having spent the night on a freezing hillside in the Black Mountains, and not feeling at my sharpest. Even after all our sessions devoted to security, which is H's business, it hasn't occurred to me to check whether I'm being followed, which explains my surprise and anger when a black Range Rover parks neatly in front of my car just as I'm getting out.
The driver stays in the vehicle but from the rear doors emerge two short-haired and mustachioed men in casual clothes, one of whom addresses me in a neutral accent by my own name and requests that I accompany him. They're not hostile but speak with the muted ambition of people whose agenda is fairly clear to themselves.
'Are you arresting me?' I ask. 'Nothing like that, sir.' 'So it's social, is it? You're not behaving very socially.' 'If you'd just like to come with us please, sir.' They look it and have the poised restraint of men who turn readily to physical exertion. I have no wish to tangle with them. They don't behave like men from the Regiment, who tend to have a better sense of humour. I wonder what the worst thing is that can happen. This is England. I cannot be held against my will. Perhaps Seethrough, with all his love of cloak-and-dagger, has arranged to have me escorted to a classified location. I wonder if it's Pontrilas or some subterranean comms facility nearby.
To buy time, I protest indignantly that I can't leave my car on a garage forecourt, thinking that from the safety of the car I'll call Seethrough before going anywhere with these purposeful-looking strangers.
'We'll take care of that, sir,' says one of them. I am not sure if the 'sir' is an expression of genuine or artificial deference until my head is pushed down in the manner of a prisoner as we enter the Range Rover, and the two of them squeeze in on either side of me and request that I empty my pockets. It definitely doesn't feel very social, but perhaps it's a security requirement like having to surrender your mobile phone inside the Firm's headquarters at Vauxhall Cross. As I'm complying the driver gets out, reverses my car, parks it at the edge of the forecourt and returns. My possessions, including my watch, are put in a ziplock freezer bag, to which my car keys are now added, and stowed in a seat pouch. There's a squawk of static from a discreet two-way radio on the driver's belt, which he adjusts without looking down. We pull out from the garage.
'If you wouldn't mind leaning forward, sir,' says one of the men next to me. I'm forced to fold my arms over my knees and can't keep my head up to keep track of the route. We drive for sixteen minutes, during which nobody speaks, and I count the minutes on my fingers, folding them into my palm in turn. Judging from the frequency of turns and stops, we're sticking to country roads. Then a mobile phone rings from inside the bag in the seat pouch. It's mine, and they've forgotten to turn it off. After a moment's thought, the man to my left extracts it and looks at the screen.
'Lili Marlene. Who's Lili Marlene?' I feel his body turn slightly towards the other man, as if he's consulting him.
'It's my girlfriend,' I say, which is a calculated risk. 'She's wondering why I haven't called her back.' I can't see his face, but I can sense that he's deciding whether he should pass me the phone or not. 'I'm supposed to be meeting her later,' I add.
'You'd better cancel, then.' He hands me the phone without looking at me, but pushes me firmly forward again so that I can't see where we are. 'Make it quick.'
Lili Marlene is the alias I've assigned to the number that's calling, but the voice at the other end belongs to H, a lifetime soldier and twenty-two-year veteran of the Special Air Service, better known to its members as the Regiment. I've never been quite so glad to hear it.
'Listen,' he says in a tone that sounds concerned but not worried. It reassures me, but not much. 'I just heard you've been picked up. Sounds like you're in a vehicle. Just give me yes or no answers.' He lowers his voice. 'Can anyone hear what I'm saying?'
'I don't think so.' 'Do you know where you are?' 'No.' 'Have they told you where they're taking you?'
'No. Very sorry.' 'Sounds like there's been a bit of a balls-up. I can't explain it all now, but you need to get out of that vehicle.'
'Yes,' I say, after a pause.
'Whatever it takes. Just get away. It doesn't matter where to. Never stop, remember? Don't give them anything till you see me again.' A grittiness has entered his voice. 'Not a word, just the big four. Have you got me?'
'Alright,' I say.
'I'll catch up with you as soon as I can. Now get out of that vehicle and get moving.'
I hand back the telephone to the sullen man at my side, who looks straight ahead as he returns it to the seat pouch.
'She sends her love,' I tell him. 'You should try a bit of romance yourself sometime.' There is no visible reaction.
The truth is I'm not ready for this and feel a kind of dread rising from my abdomen. I need a plan to focus on and to control what H calls the fear factor. It is nearly dusk. Within half an hour I will have darkness on my side. So fifteen minutes later I decide it's time to act and start making the appropriate gestures.
'I'm going to be sick,' I say.
There is no immediate answer. I imagine the two of them exchanging a questioning glance behind me.
'I'm going to be sick all over you if I don't get some fresh air.'
'Pull over, Snapper,' says the one who does the talking. 'Passenger needs to make a pit stop.'
'Quickly, please,' I say, with my hand over my mouth.
The nearside door opens and I feel a hand on my right arm.
'Watch him,' growls the one who stays behind.
The hand stays on my arm as I walk diagonally to the rear of the vehicle, where I'm hoping the driver won't be able to see us in his mirrors. There's a fence by the side of the road, and woods beyond the adjacent fields which will give me the cover I need.
I kneel compliantly by the verge on all fours, and for a minute imitate the violent spasms that accompany the worst kind of hangover, throwing in some profane muttering for extra effect. My adopted minder stands mutely behind me.
As I stand up, I turn but not all the way, and raise my right hand in a gesture of exasperation, complaining that no one carries a handkerchief these days. I repeat the gesture, which will have the effect, I'm hoping, of distracting any attention away from my left hand, which is about to connect with the bridge of my victim's nose. A second later the two meet in a crunching embrace, and a jolt of pain travels up my arm as my victim topples backwards. While he's struggling to figure out what's happened, I hit him again.
I am over the fence and a good few seconds into my sprint across the field when the first shout goes up. When I risk a backward glance half a minute later, I see the car skidding and lurching, lights blazing, across the field towards me. There's no time for hesitation when I reach the chalky escarpment at the far side, which cuts steeply downwards to what looks like a broad river beyond the trees. I'm under the barbed wire and slithering down before I hear more shouts as the three men above me spread along the lip of the escarpment. I catch a glimpse of their silhouettes and the drawn weapons at their sides. Their hesitation gives me precious extra seconds. By the time they plunge down the slope after me, I've already sprinted to the far side of the trees, and the current of freezing water which has taken my breath away has already carried me more than fifty yards downstream. Providing I don't drown, I rate my chances of a successful escape as being fairly even.
Now I have lost time to make up, even if I do lack a destination. H's house seems like the best haven to aim for, if I can only find out where I am. I'm guessing it's within twenty miles. I must find a map in a bus shelter or an unlocked car. After the cold and bewilderment of the darkness, the daylight seems like a luxury. I rub some mud on my face and move to the edge of the trees that have sheltered me, keeping below the ridge that runs above so that I'm not silhouetted and won't become instantly visible from a distance.
The landscape below and beyond is a picture postcard of the English countryside. The hills are low and rounded, and their slopes a patchwork of different shades of green separated by dark lines of hedgerows. Bands of well-maintained forest reach across their contours and resemble the angular shapes of a children's puzzle. There's no movement except that of the clouds, which are steaming in a swift mottled convoy of greys from one side of the world to the other. No part of the sky is brighter than any other, so I cannot even judge the position of the sun. I wonder again how far I've come during the night, and how well my pursuers have organised themselves in the meantime.
If I stick to the patches of forest I will be harder to spot, and I begin to plot the best route across them. There are some scattered houses and I wonder if anyone in them will be on the lookout for a fugitive on foot. It depends, I reason, on the resources that the hunters have brought to the capture of their game. This thought has just taken hold when I hear a sound that ignites a sudden feeling of dread: dogs. A pack of them, by the sound of it, coming from some buildings that look like a farm, about a mile away and several hundred feet below. A dark-coloured Land Rover is moving towards the farm on a sliver of road, but I can't afford the time to watch its progress. With dogs after me I have no time to rest and must find a way to break free of the net before it closes on me. My whole body is shivering violently and I must run to keep warm. I will think on the move.
A rough formula is trying to take shape in my head, although pushing my fear aside is like leaning on a heavy door that refuses to close. I want to keep moving downwind from the dogs, which I'm hoping will make things harder for them, but I don't know how much harder. If I find an empty plastic bag or sack I'll tie it around my shoes to weaken my scent, but in the meantime the only hope of evading them is to find a wide enough river and cross it far enough downstream to break the trace of my own scent. It means losing my precious height and descending into the valley on the far side of the hill. I run to the ridge, break out of the trees and find myself on a single-track road between two enclosing walls of tall pines. To judge from the worn surface it's not a public road but belongs to the Forestry Commission. There will be no traffic on it. I can make better speed on a hard road than cross-country, and I run along it for about half a mile until the land opens up again. I'm grateful for the running I've been doing every day under H's supervision, which allows me a steady pace even if my lungs are putting up their usual complaint.
I reach a second track, which descends to the bottom of the hill in a straight line along the edge of the forest. I take it without stopping. Several times what sounds like the hiss of tyres against the wet surface of the track makes me leap into the undergrowth, but it's the sound of wind in the tops of the pines, not a vehicle. A jay cries from somewhere in the woods, and ahead of me a pheasant runs a few panicky yards and disappears into the undergrowth. I stop twice just to listen. There is nothing but the wind and the sound of raindrops hitting the leaves around me. No barking, which is a mercy. I put my lips to a tiny rivulet of flowing water at the road's edge to soften a horrible thirst. I cannot allow my pace to slow.
Excerpted from THE NETWORK by JASON ELLIOT Copyright © 2010 by Jason Elliot. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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