© Barry W Litherland
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Text revised Jan 2017 Thanks to all for the helpful reviews.
Part One Soon - Somewhere
Hannah stood by the kitchen window, her hands resting on the polished granite worktop. Silver birch trees were palely breaking into leaf outside. It was their second spring in the house. Daffodils flourished below the trees and beside the path, curving between shrubs at the side of the house. There were vegetables too, though not growing yet - just shoots. The lawns were fresh from their first cut.
Joe stood behind her next to the kitchen door, ready to leave, an old canvas backpack beside him on the floor.
‘I’ve got to go,’ he said.
She didn’t look at him. She stared out through the window at nothing in particular, vaguely aware of cattle steaming in the field beyond the fence. The pasture rose towards a copse of trees. Beyond lay a farm, a lane and a distant horizon.
‘What will you tell the children?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. I’ll think of something.’
‘Tell them I’m sorry. Tell them I wish...’
She turned round and looked at him.
‘No, I won’t tell them that. Maybe I’ll just tell them the truth. Maybe it’s time. Maybe they’re old enough now.’
‘Which truth is that?’
‘The simple one maybe.’
But seven and nine years old; could that ever be old enough to know that their father had to go away because he could die, any time, that someone was trying to kill him?
She shook her head to drive away the thought.
‘I’ll think of something.’
The sun emerged from behind clouds. Mottled foliage was shadowed on the wall; on her face too.
‘Tell them I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye. Say I kissed them while they were asleep.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘I’ll just keep on the move. I’ll drift up towards my brother’s cottage in the north. Alan will be happy to take me in for a while. Maybe they’ll get tired and leave us alone.’
‘You think so?’
‘No but I hope so.’
‘I’m tired, Joe, really tired. We’ve got the children to think of. We’ve got a home. My father says we can live here as long as we like. We can’t always be running away. They said it would be okay when the trial was over and they were sentenced - but it wasn’t. Then they told us that things would settle if you went away so you left and we were alone. Then we moved here and we were together and they said we were safe again.’
‘How did they find you?’
‘Someone told them.’
‘Someone always tells them.’
‘People believe the lies they tell.’
‘Why won’t they leave us alone?’
She turned and looked back into the garden at the side of the house. A gentle breeze rippled the leaves. He crossed the kitchen and stood behind her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and she leaned back against him.
‘The phone call was awful. I knew it was him - Caine – the way he laughed.’ She shuddered. ‘He knew you were here.’
‘I’ll go to Alan’s and plan what we do next. I’ve got to go, Hannah, before the girls wake. There’d be too much explaining – and tears.’
‘Why do they hate us so much?’
He spoke to her gently and kissed her hair.
‘You know why.’ He paused for a moment. ‘It’s like we were walking down a country lane – all of us together. The sun was out and there was a cool breeze and it was just right, you know. There were birds and butterflies in the hedgerow and deer across the field over by the trees’ edge. That was our life. Everything was perfect, just perfect.
‘Then we came to a junction and suddenly we were scared. We could turn left or just go straight on. We knew that left was the harder way but it was the right way, even though it was tangled and overgrown and we couldn’t see where it led. Straight on it looked like nothing would change, just the same country lane going on forever.
‘Only we’d pay a penalty to go straight on. We’d pick up a weight and the weight would get heavier with every step. Soon all we’d feel would be the weight. We’d want to turn back, take the right path, only we can’t because we’ve gone too far and we don’t know the way anymore and all we can do is keep going, further and further away from where we want to be.’
‘You turned left, Joe. You always turn left.’
‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry. I’m not. It’ll be over one day, though, won’t it? Promise me.’
‘One day soon, I promise.’ He smiled.
She turned towards him and rested her head on his chest.
‘This time they’re really close, aren’t they? They know you’re alive and they know you’re here.’
‘It was worth it, Joe, wasn’t it?’
She raised her eyes to look at him, wanting reassurance. Round eyes, overflowing, blue beneath the surface, like sky in a pond.
‘Sometimes I wish I’d taken the easy path.’
He held her close for a minute and then another minute and then took her arms and pushed her gently away.
‘If I don’t go now I’ll never. I’ll go before the girls wake.’
He walked to the door and picked up his backpack. He slung it over his shoulder and turned the handle of the kitchen door.
‘If they catch you will they kill you?’
He tried a smile. ‘They’ve got to catch me first.’
‘I know but will they?’
‘You know the answer.’
‘We’ve got to be honest, always. It’s the only way I can manage.’
He paused. ‘Yes. Yes, they will. But they won’t catch me. Sooner or later they’ll stop and then I’ll come home. See if I don’t.’
‘Cross my heart.’
‘Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.’
‘I’ve got to go. I’ll phone when I can.’
She turned back to the window and the garden, the child’s swing moving gently in the breeze as if recently vacated, the honeysuckle, not yet in fragrant bloom, twined round the fence. She heard the door close.
Joe walked down the narrow lane to the village. From there he took a bus the few miles to the centre of Grandstadt, the old market town where he would catch the intercity coach north. The village bus was quiet, just a handful of old people going shopping. He didn’t speak. If you begin a conversation you never know where it might end - maybe with difficult questions and even more difficult answers. Better to say nothing. He nodded and smiled and sat alone near the back of the bus.
Once in the town he crossed a grey car park and followed other pedestrians between high buildings and down a narrow lane which opened into a wide main street lined with wild cherry trees with pink blossom. The trees segregated the traffic from the pedestrians, the footpath and the shops. They created a rural arcade where he walked on pink petals. He barely noticed. Nor did he see the benches beneath the trees, black wrought iron with the town’s coat of arms on their sides and the blossom drifting down and settling around them. He paced on through a dark world of his own where there were no flowers.
Familiar shops marked his progress – the jewellers established 1849, the butchers, a family business now in its tenth generation, the old post office and an 18th Century coach inn. At the end of the road, the church stood behind angular granite walls, 14th Century with a solid grey tower, a clock and a bell, a graveyard and yew trees. It rose on solid buttresses and gazed down blankly, an impassive old man, his sight failing. Joe felt waves of loneliness sweep over him.
He turned to cross the river over a double arched stone bridge. There were goosanders on the water below and a solitary heron hunted the still water above the weir and the tumbling foam. Downstream were trees and fields where sheep and cows grazed, like in a story book, like it was forever.
Not much had changed here during the conflict and the ceasefire. Grandstadt waited it out, as it had before during other wars and other conflicts. It would change at its own pace. The inhabitants read about the troubles in their conservative newspapers and they watched the television news. They were like witnesses at a car crash. They looked after refugees who dragged themselves from the carnage further north and they wrote letters to the press denouncing the outrages but mostly they just watched as the cities crumbled and everything descended into chaos.
They were grateful it was someone else and somewhere else and not them, not there. There but for fortune, they thought.
But fortune was kind to the residents of places like this. History taught them that.
The unrest affected food deliveries, of course, and disrupted services and transport. It was dangerous to travel too far from home, especially to the cities. In most respects, though, life, for the people of Grandstadt, continued unchanged. They followed the different factions like participants in a game - and they guarded their own privileges. They even had a militia – old men, young men and young women – toy soldiers playing war games.
When the riots and unrest finally ended and an uneasy truce prevailed they watched with everyone else as the truce became a ceasefire and the ceasefire edged cautiously towards peace. Some people complained about the new devolved administration but mostly they were just relieved it was over.
Armed guards still accompanied buses and trains as they headed north. One stood by the door of Joe’s coach as he queued to embark at the bus station. There was an old man behind Joe. He had wrinkled brown skin like he’d worked the land and rough hands like sandpaper.
‘Never used to have all this trouble,’ he said, ‘not in the old days. If someone had told me then I’d have to go through this just to get on a bus I wouldn’t have believed them.’
‘Sign of the times.’
‘Never thought I’d see the day; armed police to watch you get on a bus. Got no-one to blame but ourselves, I suppose.’
The old man wheezed a hoarse, dry laugh. ‘Yes indeed, except others; always good to have someone to blame – insurgents, whites, blacks, Asians, Muslims, Jews. I prefer to blame the politicians. It does less harm.’
‘All of them, every single one.’
‘At least there’s hope now – if the agreement holds.’
‘I gave up hoping; it’s not healthy. I’m just glad I’m old. I just want to live till I die.’
They shuffled to the front of the line until they reached the guard.
‘Papers and tickets!’ The order was peremptory, abrupt.
Joe opened a plastic wallet and held it towards the guard. He looked the officer in the eye. The guard looked at the photo and he looked at Joe and he nodded. Dark glasses, bullet proof vest, no hint of a smile. The old man held a tattered card. He followed Joe onto the bus, breathing heavily as he climbed the steps.
‘Mind if I sit with you?’
‘No. You want the window seat?’
Joe sighed. He would have preferred solitude and silence and time with his own thoughts.
‘That’s kind of you, very kind.’ The old man shuffled in and sat down. ‘I never understood it, you know - the violence. People are people. They’re born, they live and they die – black, white or brown, Muslim, Christian or Hindu – all the same. If you could tell what kind of a person someone was by their colour, that’d be different – but you can’t.’
The police guard was last on. He sat near the door with his gun on his lap. He glanced back down the aisle and then along the road and at the riverside. The door slid shut with a quiet hiss and the bus edged out onto the road.
‘It’d be easier for him,’ Joe said, ‘if you knew a killer just by looking.’
‘Colour and creed don’t make terrorists.’
They were quiet for a moment.
‘Mind if I ask you something?’ the old man said.
‘Did you see the guy back at the bus station, sitting on the bench by the ticket office?’
‘No, I can’t say I did.’
‘Slippery looking guy, not someone I could take to, a scruffy, unwashed, unemployable sort with too much of the weasel about him.’
‘No, I didn’t see him.’
‘He seemed to be taking special interest in you. One minute he was reading his newspaper – or looking at the pictures, maybe – the next he was staring over it right at you. He watched as we got on the coach and then he took off. He looked in kind of a hurry.’
Joe fought back the anxiety that surged momentarily.
‘Can’t imagine why he’d be looking at me,’ he said. There was an annoying tremor in his voice. Were Caine and his spies really so close?
‘Maybe you look like someone he knew.’
‘Yes – a famous film star maybe. I’ve got the profile.’ He turned his face sideways.
The old man grunted a laugh. ‘Are you going far?’
‘Far as I can.’
‘Past the Zone?’
‘Maybe. What about you?’
‘Just North of the Zone; I’ve got family there – a sister and her husband. They got through the insurrection alright. Now they’ve got to get through the ceasefire. Keep staring straight ahead, I tell them. See that light? That’s the end of the tunnel. Keep watching.’
‘What’s the road like? Is it safe?’
‘Pretty good; there’s a bit of trouble now and then but that’ll never stop. That’s just a sad fact. There’s no reasoning with the militants.’
‘Still, with the settlement people may suddenly find they’ve a future after all.’
‘Maybe, maybe - you’re young so you can be optimistic. Seems to me it just puts a pleasing gloss on failure. If we hadn’t failed, we wouldn’t need it.’
Slats of sunlight hit them for a moment as the bus turned a steep corner and dropped down a slipway onto the motorway. The bus accelerated and joined a convoy of traffic heading north.
‘Are you from hereabouts?’ the old man asked.
‘Last few months but my wife’s family have lived here a lot longer.’
‘Where were you before that?’
‘Somewhere else; I’ve spent a lot of time being somewhere else.’
The old man leaned his head against the seat and closed his eyes.
‘Me too,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you just want to keep moving - saves thinking about the future.’
‘Or the past,’ Joe said quietly.
He thought of choices he’d made, of actions and consequences and he fell silent. He couldn’t quite shake off the anxiety he felt. Someone had seen him. They would know he was heading north. He glanced back along the bus. There were few passengers - a woman with a child, a few older men, a young couple – no-one to cause alarm. He tried to relax. When he got to the city he’d soon disappear again. Shame they knew where he was headed, though.
The old man was leaning against the window and was snoring lightly, his mouth half open, his eyes closed. Joe yawned. It would be an hour at least before they hit the conurbation. He wouldn’t sleep - he had too much to think about - but at least he could rest his eyes.
He wouldn’t think about the future.
Or the past.
Hannah’s morning passed slowly under the oppressive routine of daily tasks. Just a few years ago she had a job, a career, but that had disappeared after the court case. There was too much uncertainty and she didn’t like to leave the children any more, just in case. She didn’t resent it, not normally, but this morning, without Joe, everything felt unreal, a performance acted out without interest or reason. She glanced at the pendulum clock on the kitchen wall. Eleven o’clock; He would be on the bus now heading north. The pendulum swung slowly, without pity. Pain and loneliness coiled inside her.
‘We’ll stay with my sister for a few days,’ she’d said to Joe, ‘just for a few days. I don’t want to be on my own, not without you. The girls will have their cousins for company. It’ll be good for me too, with Lisa and Adam.’ She paused, just for a moment. ‘Sometimes I imagine they’re out there, you know, watching and waiting. I hear a clock ticking and I think that when it stops the bodyguard will be gone, my father won’t be able to help us and we’ll be alone.’
‘They won’t touch you or the girls.’
‘Are you sure?’
A moment’s pause – just too long.
‘I won’t let them. I promise.’
That word again – promise – a burden from which they could never be free.
On her own in the house she felt vulnerable and anxious. She looked along the garden path and listened for sounds in the lane which passed in front of the house. A car drove by without stopping. A dog barked from a neighbour’s garden, two hundred yards away. The bodyguard, hired by her father, was out there somewhere, out of sight.
Nothing bad could happen here, she told herself. This landscape was forever.
But bad things do happen, everywhere, all the time. She knew that too.
She wasn’t old, only thirty one, but she looked older. She looked tired too. The last couple of years had been hard on her. The lustre had bleached from her eyes and her skin was drawn thin, like canvas. The fire that burned within was reduced to glowing embers.
She’d never seen the men who hunted Joe but she’d heard them and she knew what to look for. The tall one, Caine, had pale skin and a scar across his cheek. His short, blond hair covered his head like a coat of paint. The shorter one was darker, his beard and hair untidily cropped. He was muscular and stocky, with a face like a night club bouncer. They called him Bull on account of the broad neck. His eyes were small and close together, like a snake’s.
‘If they ever had a redeeming feature it was cut out long ago,’ Joe said.
She kept a hand gun in locked wall cupboard in the hall. Her father insisted. Sometimes she wondered if she could use it.
‘If they ever come near the girls,’ she said and her lips grew tight like a bow string, and bloodless, ‘if ever.’
She opened the cabinet now and took the pistol out. She held it in her hand and checked the mechanism. She pointed it at the wall but even then her hand shook. The black grip was cold in her hand, the short barrel polished and shiny.
She put the gun back and closed and locked the door. She put the key on top of it, out of reach.
‘Hopefully never,’ she murmured.
She made a sudden decision. There was no point waiting for the weekend. She left the kitchen and gathered her coat and a couple of overnight bags, ready packed, from the banister at the foot of the stairs. She picked up a bunch of keys and left the house. She went to the school which the children attended and knocked on the classroom door.
‘I should have telephoned. I need to collect the children. I’ve got to take them to my sister’s – a family tragedy, a death. They’ll be gone for a few days, a couple of weeks at most.’
The primary school teacher, probably her own age or maybe a couple of years younger, smiled a compassionate, professional smile. Her face was round like a doll’s. She was elegant and slender and had dark hair which shone. Hannah felt a fleeting pang of envy.
‘I’m so sorry. Was it someone close?’
It was a foolish question but Hannah smiled nonetheless.
‘I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t.’
‘No, no I suppose not.’ The teacher blushed gently.
‘Closer to my sister than me but that’s why I’ve got to go. She needs me.’
‘Families have to stick close at times like this.’
‘We’ll miss the children.’
She smiled a bright eyed, pretty sort of smile. She looked young and naive. Had she any idea what was happening out there? Probably not, Hannah thought. She was warm and friendly though, maybe even sincere. The children liked her anyway. Teachers are like gods to children. They can’t do anything wrong; not like parents. The two girls gathered their bags and coats and, under the dead gaze of the other children, she hurried them out of the door.
‘Where are we going?’
She didn’t speak until they were in the car and Jessica and Meg were belted in and secure.
‘Where are we going, mum?’
Jessica never knew when to be quiet. She was two years older than Meg and nearly ten now, but she didn’t read people the same. Meg was like her father. She saw everything a face could tell. She felt it too. Even now she knew something was wrong. She sat quietly whilst Jessica asked again and again.
‘Where are we going, mum?’
‘We’re going to visit your cousins for a few days; just a little break.’
‘But it’s school time. You can’t take holidays in school time.’
‘Your teacher says it’s ok. It’s a special holiday.’
‘You said someone’s died. Who’s died?’
‘Then why did you say?’
‘For Christ’s sake, Jessica, give me some peace, will you?’
Jessica fell silent for a while. She opened her school bag and took out a magazine and some pencils. Meg looked through the window. A troubled, little face looked back.
‘Is dad coming?’ she asked.
‘Dad’s got some work. He’ll be away for a while. You know that. He sent big kisses to you both.’
‘Will he be back soon?’
She didn’t answer. What could she say? It’d been tough on the kids when he went away last time. That was two years ago, after the trial, and he’d been gone for months. They’d moved house while he was away and they took a different name, grandpa’s name, Savage. Then they’d moved to grandpa’s house – the one he didn’t live in any more, not since Gran died. Then Joe came home and they were together again. The girls were four and six when it all started, too young to remember much. They’d grown up as Jessica and Meg Savage, with Hannah and Joe, their mum and dad. That’s who they were. They lived at Turnpike Cottage just outside a pretty village. It was a village with a church and a school, a shop and a hotel. They went to the village school with all their friends. When they were older they would go to the comprehensive school in the town where they went shopping with mum. Their aunt and uncle and cousins lived in the countryside just outside the town but on the other side. The two families were close. The girls often visited to play with their little cousins.
‘Where’s he gone?’ Jessica looked up from her drawing.
‘He’s got a job offshore, on the rigs.’
‘Will he come back on holiday?’
‘Maybe. Yes, yes, I’m sure he will.’
Meg was quiet. She saw that her face in the window had tears. It was an unhappy sort of face, like a storybook face in a sad story. She closed her eyes. Please, she asked, please give my story a happy ending. Please.
‘We’ve got no games or clothes,’ Jessica said.
‘I’ve thrown a few things in the boot.’
‘Just a few things – clothes, books and games. You can share your cousins’ toys. It’s only for a few days.’
‘They only have baby toys. I need my tablet and phone.’
‘You won’t die for want of them.’
She fell sulkily silent and the car turned down a slip-road onto the dual carriageway. Within minutes they were absorbed into the stream of traffic.
The soporific effect of the bus gradually drove away troubling thoughts and Joe dropped into a light sleep. Sunlight flickered through the window as if through foliage. An hour passed.
He awoke suddenly to the sound of gunfire. The window beside him shattered. There were screams and muffled cries and the bus swerved to left and right, weaving crazily across the carriageway like some wounded animal. He held to the seat in front of him as the bus slid, with a tearing of metal, against the central barriers and flung him against the old man and then back towards the aisle. More glass shattered and fell. His face and hands felt warm and sticky and he looked at the blood barely understanding what it was.
The bus veered back across the carriageway and flung him back against the seat. It broke through the roadside barrier and came to a sudden stop, nose down at the road edge, steam and smoke billowing. There was a moment of silence before the gun shots started again. He crouched down. They were under attack. He reached across and pulled the old man away from the shattered window and down to the floor behind the seats. He heard more glass shattering and then distant sirens gathering momentum as police cars sped towards the scene. The gunshots petered out. He lay still. He could hardly see for the blood in his eyes and hair. For a moment he imagined it was him they were after.
The old man lay across him as if in some hideous embrace, his arm cast limply across his chest and his head, what was left of it, resting on his shoulder. The bullet had entered between the eye and the temple and had proceeded diagonally through his head to emerge behind his ear. Blood and brain splattered Joe’s coat and face.
He pushed the body away, grabbed his rucksack and scrambled into the aisle. It was littered with the detritus of the journey – plastic bottles, food packages, discarded sandwiches. He looked up and around, trying to understand. His mind was still several steps behind his body but it was catching up fast. The guard lay dead in the seat by the door, his body hanging limply into the aisle, his head to one side; the driver was slumped over the wheel. People screamed and cried. Someone in a window seat was moaning and swearing. A woman opposite cried out to him. Blood dripped from a gash in her arm. A little girl lay across her, four years old, maybe five.
‘Help me,’ the woman cried, ‘Please.’
The little girl look up, wide, frightened eyes, like an animal.
Joe heard more gunshots. He looked along the aisle towards the door and then at the woman and the child.
‘Help me.’ The voice cried out again, desperate and fearful. A hand stretched towards him. With the other she clung to the girl who lay still, numbed by shock.
Joe pulled the woman to her feet and wrapped an arm round her.
‘Keep low and keep going.’
Together they scrambled to the door. He pushed them forward, down the steps and out of the door.
‘Run,’ he said. ‘Run fast and don’t stop.’
He fell down the steps of the bus and rolled onto the hard shoulder then staggered to his feet. He saw the woman and the child disappear across the barriers and up a low embankment towards some ruined buildings, probably destroyed during the insurrection. They’d be safe there, for the moment. He limped after her but stopped where a small group gathered beside an old tumbled down wall. From there he could look down to where drivers and passengers, caught in the carnage behind the bus, leapt from their vehicles and ran hunched, searching for any cover. Some stayed by their cars, crouched low, shaking and fearful, unable to move. Some, overcome by shock, didn’t open their doors.
There was a gunshot, like some ghastly firework, and one man fell in the road by his car. He didn’t move. Joe could hear children howling unearthly, frightened cries, like some alien life form. After a few minutes silence fell, full of menace. Nothing moved. Everyone waited. Smoke and steam rose from crashed cars and rose vertically, unmoved by any breeze.
‘They’re still out there,’ a voice next to him whispered. ‘They’ve not finished. They’re waiting.’ He had dark eyes, an olive complexion - eastern, Indian maybe, about thirty.
‘What are they waiting for?’
Another man, red haired and bearded, nodded towards the screaming sirens. ‘They’re waiting for them,’ he said. ‘I’m getting out of here.’
‘Keep down and wait for the police.’ the first voice warned. ‘They’ll be here any second.’
‘What good will the police do? Look.’
He turned and stumbled away, crouching low. Joe nudged his new companion and indicated where, a hundred metres to their left, half hidden by a crumbling wall beyond the sloping embankment, stood one of the gunmen. They watched as he emerged and took up a better position, leaning forward to rest his elbows on a broken wall. He was holding a semi automatic machine gun.
Joe turned and looked at the other people beside him, crouching beside the rubble, as grey as the dust that covered them. A broad, heavy looking man leaned forward holding a phone to capture the images. A wave of revulsion swept over him but before he could act the dark eyed Asian slapped the phone from his hands. The man swore viciously. A few more people took advantage of the lull and slipped away towards the ruined buildings, out of sight, safe.
‘He’s not alone,’ Joe whispered, pointing towards the gunman. ‘There are others, lots of them.’
Dark figures emerged like strange subterranean creatures and took up positions near the wall. One held an improvised rocket launcher, others had machine pistols or hand guns. The police cars came closer. They slowed as they approached and the sirens relented.
‘Now they spring the trap,’ the heavy man muttered. ‘This’s what they want, not us – them.’ He turned and stumbled away, his phone now tucked into a pocket.
There came one explosion and then another and the cars which were not hit screeched and turned and halted. The men with semi automatic machine guns started to fire. Others emerged now from cover, rising like dark, avenging angels, all alike, hooded and walking forward. The people in the cars had no chance. Those who had not been killed by the explosions stumbled from the battered vehicles and were cut down where they stood.
Joe seethed with cold fury. He watched as one man, taller than the rest, emerged and strode down the embankment and across the road towards the vehicles. He looked neither to left nor right as the others gave way before him. He stared straight ahead, a hand gun held loosely at his side. He raised one hand and the gunfire stopped. He peered in each car and calmly aimed and shot once, twice, into each vehicle. No-one was left alive. When he was sure there were no survivors he looked slowly around as if waking from a dream and then signalled the others to retreat.
He was about to turn and follow them when he was distracted by the sound of a car door grinding open. He paused at the roadside and watched as a young man dragged himself free of the wreckage and crawled, trailing a blood-soaked, broken leg, towards the roadside. Every movement he took sent a spasm of pain across his face. He was about fifty yards from the dark, watching figure but much nearer to Joe and his hidden companion. The dark figure seemed to hesitate for a moment. He stared with indifference, watching the crawling figure as one might watch a writhing insect. He paused, contemplating a choice of actions.
Joe too made a choice. He stood up and stumbled forward into the open and he looked at the killer and he looked at his prey. He saw the carnage of fire and smoke, of bodies and blood and he stumbled towards the helpless figure, raising a desperate hand towards him.
‘What are you doing? For God’s sake stay hidden. You’ll get us all killed.’ Joe heard the voice behind him but he paid little regard.
He turned towards the tall, murderous figure on the road.
‘You bastard!’ he shouted. His fists clenched, his eyes blazing, he glared. ‘You’ve got no right!’
He stumbled forward towards the prostrate figure beside the wrecked car. The dark figure turned slowly and called to his colleagues to watch. He was laughing gently. Even at that distance Joe could see the slight movement of chest and head.
He had reached the wounded figure now and helped him heavily onto his feet.
‘Thank you. Thank you.’ His breath escaped painfully with the effort of speaking.
‘Thank me later,’ Joe muttered, ‘when we get back.’
Another gunman, some yards from the tall figure, slowly raised a gun and pointed it towards them but Joe had no time to think about that. He focussed on each step forward as if that alone was a measure of success. He could see the one dark complexioned figure still waiting for him by the crumbling wall. He was reaching out a hand, shouting encouragement. The others had taken advantage of the distraction to slip away along the row of derelict buildings, crossing the broken tarmac and heading back down the line of stationary traffic towards safety. In the distance a helicopter thrummed and military vehicles approached down the by-pass.
At a peremptory signal from his leader the gunman lowered his weapon. Joe watched the tall figure and, for a moment, even over that distance, their eyes met. Joe did not flinch. He could not. He walked, half supporting, half dragging the injured man until they reached the wall where his one companion drew him into safety. He reached out a hand to Joe.
‘I don’t know who you are but you live a charmed life. Here, quickly, before they shoot you.’
Joe paused and stared at the distant figure.
‘What are you waiting for?’ the voice behind him hissed. ‘Do you want to get shot?’
The leader of the terrorists walked casually towards the rubble above the embankment and then clambered on top of it. He stood still and stared at Joe and then slowly raised his pistol and took aim. He mouthed a gunshot and mimed firing then he lowered the pistol. Joe could hear his laughter as he walked away.
His new companion dragged at Joe’s arm and pulled him behind the wall. The wounded man mouthed his thanks and held out a hand. Joe took it.
‘I’m Joe. You’ll be okay now, Alex.’
A number of vehicles ground to a halt and troops emerged and took cover behind the wreck of cars. The helicopter thrummed overhead. An armed soldier scanned the area.
‘I’ve got to go,’ Joe said. ‘I can’t be here when the troops arrive.’ He turned to the injured man. ‘You’ll be alright now. They’ll get you to hospital.’
They left him by the wall and Joe and his new companion crouched low and sped across the tarmac and past the ruined warehouse. They clambered through a gap in some tangled wire fencing hanging from rotting posts. It was torn into unnatural shapes like old, arthritic limbs. They crossed a narrow and deserted road and disappeared into an alleyway between red brick terraced houses.
‘Jival,’ his companion said as they turned onto a narrow street and slowed to a walk.
Joe held out a hand.
‘I’m Joe; nice to meet you, Jival.’