7 Days in May by Peter Barns - HTML preview

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Day 6

 

=04:05 hrs=

Alex checked the instruments and adjusted his heading. Ten minutes more and he should be off-shore somewhere alongside Military Road. Then it would probably take him a further ten minutes or so to find a secure place to hide his submersible and swim ashore.

I’ll be there in half an hour baby. Just hang on, he promised his daughter.

The journey across the Sound and around to the southern side of the Isle of Wight had gone without a hitch, the Dawn running silently on her batteries. The work he’d done on the rewiring had paid dividends, the new sonar set-up guiding him safely to his destination, and even the seal he’d replaced was holding up.

When Alex finally surfaced it was to a dull rainy day, the small craft tossing about on the surging waves. Even though it was early morning, the low clouds and lashing rain made it so dark that he was concerned about taking the submersible any nearer to the shore for fear of damaging it. He sat thinking for a moment, bracing himself against the swells, wondering how to get ashore.

Then a yellow blinking light caught his attention. It was a large warning buoy about fifty metres to leeward. The coastline here was obviously dangerous with underwater rocks. He’d have to be very careful.

Keeping a sharp eye on the sonar Alex manoeuvred the bobbing craft as near as he could to the buoy. He needed to be quick once he opened the hatch as the heavy seas might flood the small submersible.

Alex punched a few buttons and slipped a hand into the control glove that operated the Dawn’s claw-like appendage attached to one side of the viewing bubble. It took him five attempts before he finally got a grip on one of the buoy’s big anchor points, by which time he was dripping with perspiration.

Locking off the claw Alex donned his wetsuit, took a pair of flippers from a locker, stuffed a pair of deck shoes into his pocket and squeezed himself through the tight opening of the hatch.

As he struggled his way out on to the top of the Dawn, he was met with pounding waves and stinging rain, almost loosing his grip as he fought to dog the hatch closed.

Dropping backwards off the submersible, Alex fell into the sea, turning to orientate himself. He saw it coming too late, just managing to raise a protective shoulder as the Dawn twisted on its claw, crashing into him.

Coughing seawater Alex fought down the panic.

I’m okay! I can do this!

His shoulder felt numb and he was having difficulty moving his right arm, but he kicked out with his flippers, keeping his head above the waves, slowly fighting his way towards shore, wishing he’d used his air-tank, instead of just a face mask.

The morning light was dim, rain shrouding any lights that might have been showing from the houses dotted along the shore. Alex could just make out the dark outline of a hill in the distance and set out towards it at a slow crawl. He was strong but had never attempted a long swim in such dangerous conditions before.

Alex had only swum a short distance when he realised that he might have made a terrible mistake. The clouds had lowered, cutting what little light there was even farther. Behind him just black waves, in front an impenetrable wall of rain.

All sense of direction had suddenly deserted him.

 

=05:01 hrs=

The wind clipped the tops of the waves into long white frothy streamers that lashed Alex’s face. He was tiring quickly but could see the rocky outline of the shore not far away. Thin fingers of sand stretched out into the sea, like a cupped hand ready to support him.

His knees hit the seabed and he stood, bracing himself against the incoming waves breaking against his back, feeling the exhilaration flood through his body.

He’d made it. He was ashore. As though in celebration of his success the rain eased and a weak sun showed through the clouds.

Spitting salty sea water Alex staggered up the thin sandy spit and flopped down behind a large rock, digging a hole in which he buried his wetsuit and flippers. Then donning the deck shoes he’d bought with him, he made his way across the dunes to Military Road.

The swim had been the hardest physical undertaking that Alex had ever experienced and he felt exhausted. He needed a rest.

Crossing Military Road he found a thick bush and burrowed his way into the middle. The ground was dry and he lay down, hands behind his head, thinking of his daughter and how good it was going to be when he held her in his arms again.

Alex suddenly realised that, since Karen’s death, he’d been distant with Dawn, afraid to get too close in case she was taken from him, as his wife had been. The situation had grown without him really realising it, sort of crept up on him unawares; an emptiness that had its origins in the terrible numbness of Karen’s funeral, a rejection that forced him to lock away his feelings. Perhaps it was time to open that particular door again and examine what lay hidden behind it.

Being physically separated from Dawn this way had shaken Alex from his self-cantered behaviour, made him realise that he had to change, make up for the loneliness he’d caused his daughter. Rejection could be a terrible thing to bear. Alex knew this first hand, from the way he had felt after Karen had left him to raise their daughter on his own.

And maybe he should start dating again, perhaps find a mother for Dawn. That thought brought a tight smile to Alex’s lips and he wondered if he’d even know how to go about dating after all these years.

Alex felt his eyes grow heavy and closed them, telling himself that he’d just have a short rest, then get back to finding Dawn. The swim had really taken it out of him. His muscles ached as if he’d run a marathon. His last thought before slipping into a deep sleep was whether or not he should use the internet to meet someone, or try speed-dating.

As Alex slept, a dark shadow made its way through the damp grass and across Military Road, its sensitive nose close to the ground, following the scent trail. It moved nearer to where Alex was sleeping, its curiosity aroused. Something was hiding here. Excitement rose in the animal and it pushed its head further under the bush, moving stealthily so as not to frighten whatever was there.

 

=05:43 hrs=

Dawn and Sheena had sat at Terry’s side all through the long night waiting for him to die but he’d hung on, moaning softly now and then, eyes moving beneath blackened lids as though he was dreaming.

Sheena had finished a quarter bottle of whisky and Dawn was swimming in coke. Neither of them had eaten. Apart from a helicopter flying low overhead about half an hour before - which had revived their hopes for a short period - there had been no sounds from outside.

The room was dark, except for the red glow of the morning sun reflecting from the high clouds. Outside the chorus of birds had died down and a thick silence lay over the room - just the odd creak of expanding wood as the structure of the house warmed up.

Dawn was sitting in a half-daze, thinking about her dad when someone spoke. “Huh? What did you say?”

Sheena sat upright, hands on her knees, staring at Terry open mouthed.

“I . . . tried . . .” The skin around Terry’s mouth split as he spoke.

“He’s trying to say something,” Sheena said jumping out of her chair.

Kneeling beside Terry, Sheena leant close to his ear, ignoring the smell. “Can you hear me Terry?”

The voice was almost inaudible, disjointed, as though each word was uttered with great pain. “The pilot . . . tried to save him . . . but the cat . . . too late.” After a long pause, during which they thought he’d passed out again, he continued, “The car is in the wood . . . wood . . .”

Sheena felt tears stinging her eyes and wanted nothing more than to hold the dying man in her arms to ease his pain, but knew that was impossible. “Hush now Terry. Do you want a drink of water?”

“The car . . . take a knife . . . cut the lead . . . the lead to . . .” Terry gave a shudder and his head rolled to one side.

Dawn could see the rawness of his tongue protruding from his mouth and swallowed hard. “Is he dead?” she asked.

Sheena shook her head and sat back on her heels. “No, he’s passed out again. I wish there was something we could do.”

“What do you think he meant about the car?”

“I don’t know.”

Dawn thought for a moment. “He said the car was in the wood. Do you think we could get it and take him to a hospital?”

Without realising it Dawn was already replacing ‘Terry’ with ‘him’ in her mind, making it easier to deal with the situation.

Sheena stood up, easing the muscles in her back. She looked weary and pale, not the vibrant woman Dawn had first met such a short time ago.

“Perhaps . . .”

Sheena’s words were cut short by the noise of the French doors crashing open. A man in camouflaged fatigues stood in the doorway, his swarthy face glinting with a light sheen of sweat, his hard gaze locked on Terry, along with the gun he carried.

“Thank goodness,” Sheena said. “We need to get him to a hospital. Will you help us? Do you have transport? Where you in that helicopter?”

Dawn shifted uneasily, her gaze darting from the intruder to Sheena and back again. She felt anxious and took a few steps nearer Sheena. The man looked at her. His eyes were cold and uncompromising.

“You’re Doctor McKenzie,” he said.

Sheena nodded. “Yes but Terry needs help. It’s urgent.”

“He’s beyond help.”

The cold, clipped words made Dawn feel as if her heart had been dipped in icy water. She moaned softly.

“Sit over there,” the man told Sheena, pointing at the couch with his gun.

“Now wait a . . .”

Sheena’s protest was interrupted when the man kicked the French doors shut behind him and walked further into the room.

“Where’s your laptop. The one you took from Area 7?” he asked.

“Look, I don’t know who you think you are but . . .”

The slap was hard, almost taking Sheena off her feet. Dawn screamed, jumping up.

“Sit down! Unless you want some of the same,” he ordered, his finger stabbing at the couch in anger.

Dawn sat, her eyes wide, hands trembling as she watched Sheena wipe the blood from her lips.

“Fetch that chair over here.”

Sheena did as the man ordered and he pushed her into the seat, securing her hands behind her back with plastic ties.

“Now you.”

Dawn pulled over an antique dining chair and the man cuffed her wrists to the arms. He sat on the couch opposite them and took out his gun again.

“So,” he said, “just like in all those films you no doubt watch, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. For both your sakes I’d suggest you do it the easy way and answer my questions honestly.”

Dawn stared at him with hate-filled eyes, wishing she had the shotgun in her hands.

Where was it? Where had she left it?

“Let’s start with the crispy guy on the floor shall we. Who is he?”

Sheena struggled with her bonds. “You heartless bastard!” she shouted.

“Who is he, or do you want me to wake him up and find out myself?”

“His name is Terry. He’s Mr Booker’s Estate Manager.”

“How did he end up like this?”

“When the helicopter crashed and exploded.”

“He was on board the helicopter?” Gonzalez asked, his voice rising in doubt.

Sheena nodded.

“Well I guess that’s two things I owe him for then.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Tell me where the laptop is.”

“What laptop?” Sheena was worried. If the laptop got into the wrong hands her work could be easily replicated.

The man leant forwards on the couch, forearms resting on his knees, gun held steady in a two handed grip. Slowly raising the gun, he pointed it at Terry’s head.

“Can you live with another man’s death on your conscience doctor? I know it might be a mercy to put him out of his misery, but still.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” Sheena’s voice shook with indignation.

“You sure you want to test that theory doctor?”

“Upstairs. It’s in the bedroom upstairs,” Sheena capitulated in a beaten voice. “The third one along. Under the bed.”

The man stood up, holstering his gun, a sneer on his lips. “Don’t even think about trying to escape,” he said. “Otherwise Crispy there won’t need a doctor, he’ll need an undertaker.”

Dawn looked at Sheena, seeing the shock in her eyes. She felt totally numb, like when she’d first heard that her mum was dead.

“What’ll he do when he gets the laptop?” she whispered in a subdued voice after the man had left the room.

“Hopefully he’ll go,” Sheena replied, not really believing what she was saying, just trying to reassure Dawn.

Footsteps sounded and the man came back into the study, a laptop clutched in his hand. Sitting at the desk, he opened the lid and pressed the on-off button, tapping his fingers as he waited for it to boot up.

As the screen finally lit up he chuckled quietly to himself, then turned to Sheena. “Well doctor,” he said, “are you going to tell me the password or do I have to guess it?”

Sheena sat staring at him for a moment, her heart pounding.

Should she take the chance or not? she searched for the right answer, mind in a turmoil. Which password should she give him? The one that would give him access to her research, or the one that would completely wipe the disc?

The first would mean that others would continue her work - with all the terrors that inferred, the second would probably result in their deaths.

“A, C, r, o, n, 25, A, D, G,” Sheena responded to the man’s raised eyebrows, carefully calling out each character.

The man rattled the keyboard then looked across at her, checking the password with her one last time. Sheena nodded and he hit the Enter key.

 

=06:41 hrs=

The room had grown unnaturally quiet. Sheena watched the man studying the laptop. The hard disc light was flickering but nothing seemed to be happening. He turned to look at her, his eyes flashing in the dim light. She shivered, looking at the floor.

“It can take quite a while to load up,” she said looking up at him through her eyelashes. “The files are big.”

As Gonzalez sat watching the screen, waiting for the computer to finish booting up, he smiled to himself. He’d been right to come back to the mansion instead of staying at Area 7 and directing operations there. After he’d finished here, he would go back and take over where he’d left off.

Sheena watched him, praying that the programme had loaded and was running in the background.

“What’s your name?” she asked, trying to divert his attention from the laptop.

“Gonzalez,” he answered, gaze still fixed on the screen.

He suddenly straightened in his chair, leaning forward, swearing under his breath. Raising his fist he brought it down on the keyboard with a crash. Half a dozen keys shot from the laptop, rattling off the desk and flying in all directions.

Gonzalez slowly turned his look on Sheena, shaking his head from side to side.

“That was a big mistake doctor,” he said.

Turning back to the laptop, He picked it up and slammed it down on the desk. Pieces of plastic flew off. Tearing the back from what was left of the chassis, Gonzalez pulled out the hard drive.

“There are people who can retrieved information from this doctor,” he said holding it up for her to see. “All you’ve done is make things more awkward for me.” Standing up he walked over to Sheena. “Where’s the rest of the paperwork you took from Area 7 when you left?”

Sheena cringed back in her seat, feeling the anger radiating from the man standing over her. She looked away, closing her eyes. “Do what you will to me,” she whispered. “There’s no paperwork. The laptop was all I took.”

Without warning Gonzalez drew his gun and shot Terry in the head.

“Oh but it’s not you that I’m going to hurt doctor. At least not straight away.” A smile spread over his face and he turned the gun on Dawn. “After I’ve killed this one, then I’ll get to work on you. You’ll be surprised at how long I can keep you alive, wishing you were dead. Where are the papers? I won’t ask again.”

Dawn was in shock, her fingers tingling, her eyes wide, her ears picking up every little sound, even her nose telling her that the cut flowers in the vase on the far side of the room were lilacs. The whole world was brighter, more alive. She was trembling uncontrollably.

Sheena’s mouth hung open, her mind fighting to hold onto the contents of her stomach. She looked at the face that had once smiled at her - now a blackened mess oozing brain tissue onto the floor. She worked her mouth, trying to speak, desperately shaking her head as though it might turn back time and release her from the nightmare.

Gonzalez put the barrel of his gun under her chin, raising her head so he could look into her eyes.

“Well doctor, what’s it to be? Another death, or the paperwork?”

Sheena gasped a series of breaths, trying not to lose control of her stomach. “Please . . .” she managed through a tongue-filled mouth. “Please you have to believe me, there are no papers. The laptop was all.”

Gonzalez turned, holding his gun against Dawn’s temple. “Last chance doctor.”

“NO!” Sheena’s scream was full of anguished terror. She was straining at the ties binding her wrists, cutting them deep into her skin, pulling the chair over the carpet in a series of disjointed jerks. Her voice bounced from the study walls as she shouted at Gonzalez, her whole body thrashing in panic.

“PLEASE NO!”

 

=06:42 hrs=

Alex woke with a start. He was disorientated, not knowing where he was or what had woken him. Then something licked his cheek again and he turned to see a large dog looking down at him, it’s big tongue lolling from its mouth.

Alex frowned, wondering where it had come from. A voice called in the distance and the dog’s ears pricked up. It looked back out of the bush, then at Alex again, head tipped to one side, panting.

“Bugger off,” Alex whispered, pushing at the dog’s head.

The voice called again and the dog barked, making Alex jump.

“Go away before he comes and finds me. Go home!”

The dog backed half-way out of the bush, then hesitated. This time, when the voice called the dog disappeared in a flurry of falling leaves. Alex breathed a silent sigh of relief, his heart still hammering in his chest.

Crawling out of the bush Alex stood up, the sharp tang of seaweed and the sound of waves reminding him of where he was and what he had to do. The sky was light, promising a sunny day. Checking his watch he saw it was coming up for a quarter to seven.

Christ, he’d been asleep for an hour and a half!

Blue flashing lights suddenly appeared in the distance, accompanied by the he-haw of sirens. Alex hid behind the bush as a red fire-tender flashed past, the Doppler effect adding to its appearance of speed. It was followed by two other rescue vehicles and a police car.

As the dust settled, Alex pulled out a map and studied it. Booker’s house was about four miles in the opposite direction to that taken by the fire engines. It would take him at least an hour, probably more the way his legs were aching.

He set out along the road thankful that the rain had stopped. The low clouds were beginning to break and the humidity was rising. Alex frowned, hoping it wasn’t going to be too hot once the sun burnt the low lying mist away. He had a long hike in front of him and too much heat would slow him down.

As Alex strode along the side of the road, his tired legs consuming the distance at a steady pace, a lone animal followed him at a distance, gaze fixed unwaveringly on his back.

 

=07:30 hrs=

Alex checked the map one last time, then folded it, slipping it into an inside pocket. Not long now, about another half hour’s hard walk. Since the rescue services had roared passed there had been little traffic on the road - just a couple of cars and a lorry.

Realising that he stood out like a marshmallow man at a weight-watches convention Alex had dropped into the roadside ditch when they approached. He didn’t want to chance getting picked up by the police after all the effort he’d put into getting here.

Sitting down for a rest, he pulled out an energy bar and chewed on it, wondering why there were so many half eaten rabbits and other small dead animals lying about.

As he chewed the bar Alex thought about Dawn. She was so young and vulnerable and inexperienced. He wondered how she was coping, hoping that the doctor was looking after her properly. Finished with the meagre meal, he took a drink from the bottle of water he was carrying and strode off down the road again.

As Alex’s shadow lengthened behind him, another darker shadow stopped beside the wrapper he’d just dropped, licking the remnants of chocolate before silently following after him.

Twenty minutes later Alex saw a high stone wall that obviously surrounded a house of some kind. He came to a large ornate gateway, the nearest post of which displayed a fancy iron plaque declaring that this was the Booker Mansion.

While Alex was examining the high gates, the cat that had followed him scaled the stone wall farther back along the road, working its way along the top. It had been persistent, stalking its prey patiently, knowing its time would come, not now but soon.

The cat was young, not much more than a kitten. It knew instinctively that the prey was too big for it to tackle on its own. It sensed others of its kind nearby, others that would help. Inching its way along the top of the wall the cat stopped just above the man’s head, fighting the deep rage that urged it to attack the prey right now.

Alex rattled the gates. They were firmly locked. Reaching out, he put a finger on the entry unit’s call button but hesitated. Lowering his hand, he curled his fingers in a fit of indecision. He didn’t know who might be at the mansion. Maybe the doctor had taken Dawn back to Area 7 so that she could keep an eye on her. If his little escapade with the navy had been on the news he might be recognised and stopped before he could get to Dawn.

Making up his mind to take a look first, Alex scaled the gates and sat astride the high stone wall, catching his breath before climbing down the other side. A noise made him turn. A young cat lay crouched farther along the wall, watching him with wary eyes.

Alex’s face lit up in a smile. He was a cat man, always had been, preferring their independence to a dog’s need for a pack leader.

“Well hi puss. What are you doing there?”

The cat lowered its head, its whole body flattening, its fur standing erect, lips curling back over sharp teeth.

“Whoa puss! Now that’s not nice is it.” Alex held out his hand, rubbing his thumb over his fingertips, making clicking sounds with his tongue. “Come on, let’s be friends shall we?”

When Alex reached out the cat lifted a paw, extending its claws, hissing and growling in the back of its throat.

“Fair enough,” Alex muttered to himself, turning away and dropping to the ground, rolling over as he landed to lessen the impact.

Can’t win ‘em all, he thought, leaning one-handed against the wall while he brushed the leaves off his clothes.

The cat ran along the wall, looking over the edge, it’s yellow slitted eyes widening. Its prey was getting away. Its heart-rate climbed, speeding the virus through its veins, flooding its brain with an almost palpable rage.

Gripping the top of the wall with its claws, the cat bared its teeth and launched itself into the air.

 

=08:01 hrs=

Alex heard a noise and looked up. The cat had jumped from the wall onto the low hanging branch of a tree. It seemed to be following him. Smiling to himself, Alex turned his attention back to the mansion that he could just make out through the trees.

Halfway along the drive Alex caught the flicker of something to his left and looked over. The cat was pacing him. He stopped. The cat stopped. He began walking again and the cat did the same. Then, from a nearby bush another animal appeared, joining it. This cat was bigger. It looked like a male.

Alex shrugged and continued up the drive, his deck shoes crunching on the stones. Glancing over at the cats again, he frowned. There were four now. Just how many cats did Booker have?

The animals kept pace with him, watching his every move. Warning tingles ran up Alex’s spine. Something wasn’t right here. Cats didn’t behave this way.

Stepping off the drive he cut across the lawn to his right, putting some distance between himself and the cats. As he neared a large flower bed three more of the animals emerged from amongst some tall fancy grasses, flanking his other side.

“What the . . .”

Alex stopped, looking around. He could see at least five other cats in the distance. If he didn’t move right now they’d have him surrounded.

Although he knew that cat’s didn’t attack people, Alex’s rising uneasiness turned to fear, overtaking logic. He broke into a run, heading towards a garden shed behind a low hedge.

Glancing over his shoulder Alex could see that the cat’s were running after him and he piled on some more speed, gulping lungfuls of air as he neared the hedge. Another quick look told him that it was going to be a close thing. The cats were just a few metres behind him now but he would make it.

Vaulting over the low hedge, Alex threw himself through the open shed door and slammed it shut behind him, leaning his forehead against the rough woodwork, heaving and coughing as he tried to recover his breath.

“God-damn!” he whispered, raising his head from the door. “God-damn!”

It was then he heard the low growl from behind him.

 

=08:05 hrs=

Gonzalez studied Sheena’s face, his finger whitening as he put pressure on the gun’s trigger.

“Please, you have to believe me,” Sheena pleaded. “Why would I lie to you when I told you were the laptop was?”

Dawn could feel the muzzle of the gun pressed against her temple. It filled her world. She was unable to think, unable to speak, hardly able to breathe. Her whole being was waiting for the explosion that would end her life.

“Please . . .” Sheena tried again, closing her eyes when she saw Gonzalez’s finger tightening on the trigger.

Instead of shooting Dawn, Gonzalez released the trigger and lowered his gun. “Okay doctor,” he said.

Holstering his weapon, he began a thorough search of Booker’s study, pulling books from the shelves and emptying drawers onto the floor, adding to the mess that Booker had made when he’d left. Finding nothing, he turned his attention to the rest of the house.

As Gonzalez ransacked the mansion, Sheena and Dawn sat tied to their chairs, Dawn sobbing quietly. Sheena’s heart went out to her, realising the poor girl must be terrified.

“Are you okay Dawn?” she asked.

Dawn raised her head, sniffing back the tears. “Bastard!” she said. “I thought he was going to shoot me.”

Sheena was taken aback, realising that the tears of fright were really tears of anger. She had misjudged Dawn, again.

“Can you get free?” Dawn asked pulling at her own restraints with no luck.

“No. My hands are numb, I can’t feel them.”

Dawn looked over at Sheena and gave her a small quirky grin. “Thanks for saving me,” she said.

“I’m not sure that we’re saved yet,” Sheena said.

Dawn turned her gaze to the body lying on the floor, her face drawn. She had laughed and joked with this man such a short time ago, and now he was dead.

“I didn’t know him that well but he seemed a nice man,” Sheena said.

Dawn nodded. “He was,” she replied, giving a quiet sigh and taking a deep, shuddering breath.

“Someone will be here soon,” Sheena said with as much conviction as she could muster.

Dawn looked her straight in the eye and Sheena glanced away. “That’s what my dad told me,” she answered quietly.

“It’s not his fault Dawn, the island’s been shut down.”

“I know.”

“He’d be here if he could.”

“I know.”

“Do you and your dad live alone?”

Dawn nodded, a sad smile on her face. “My mum died when I was young.”

“It must have been hard for you. For the both of you.”

Dawn’s eyes clouded over, as though she was deep in thought. “Yes I suppose it was. For him as well.”

“He loves you.”

Dawn shook her head and her eyes hardened. “You don’t know that. Stop patronising me.”

Sheena nodded. “Yes you’re right. I’m sorry Dawn.”

“I know he loves me,” Dawn whispered, her conviction growing inside her.

Yes, he does love me!

The realisation was like a light suddenly flooding a dark room.

He does love me and I love him right back.

 

=08:08 hrs=

Alex froze, the patch of skin between his shoulder blades tingling as though touched by an icy finger. He turned, his back thudding against the door.

In the dim light coming through the cobweb covered window, Alex saw that he was faced by the biggest cat he’d ever seen. For a moment he thought it was a leopard or some other kind of wild animal that had escaped from a zoo.

The cat's large ears were erect, long tufts of hair lining the insides. Its eyes were mere slits, lending them a fierce quality. It appeared to be looking down its nose at him, lips pulled back, showing large canine teeth. Long whiskers quivered each side of its brown tipped nose.

Unlike most cats Alex had seen it had unusual markings, the spots and stripes reminding him of a Scottish wild cat. Whatever it was, Alex knew that it was about to attack him.

The cat studied him, tail moving slowly from side to side. It turned, walking around the shed. Alex turned with it, aware that he had nowhere to run. At least inside the shed he only had one animal to contend with. Outside, who knew how many.

Alex edged backwards, spotting an old gardener’s jacket hanging on a hook. He reached out slowly, making no sudden movements. The cat watched him wrap it around his arm, hissing like a snake.

For some reason Alex didn’t understand, he found it almost impossible to tear his gaze from the big animal’s eyes, and they continued moving around the shed, circling each other, eyes locked.

The cat struck out but Alex managed to kick it away, his deck shoe doing little damage. Alex crouched slowly, his hand searching for the garden rake he’d spotted laying on the floor, but as his hand found the cold steel handle, the cat attacked him again.

 

Alex flung his arm in front of his face and the cat crashed against it, pushing him backwards.

Alex staggered, falling over, landing on the rake’s upturned spines.

His screams confused the cat for a moment, giving him time to stagger to his feet again.

Outside the shed the other cats began yowling and attacking the shed door, thumping against the flimsy wood time and again. Alex could see that the home-made hook wouldn’t keep them out for much longer.

The big cat was stalking him again, edging him nearer the door, almost as though the animal was somehow communicating with those outside, herding him towards them.

There was another flurry of thumps against the door and it gave a little more, daylight showing down the frame. As he was forced closer, first one paw then another pushed its way between the edge of the door and the post.

Paws dabbed about, thick claws tearing pieces from the jamb as they strained against the failing hook.

Alex kept his attention on the big cat, trying to reach the door before it gave way. He reached out towards the rake again, but the cat lunged at his hand, ripping four deep lines across his knuckles.

Alex kicked out at the animal . . .

. . . just as the shed door burst open.

 

=08:15 hrs=

Gonzalez paced the study floor, his patience wearing thin. Holding the two-way radio to his lips he tried raising his companion. “Gater Two, Gater Two, come in.”

Gonzalez has spent two hours tearing the mansion apart and had nothing to show for it, which pointed to the doctor having told him the truth.

“Where’s the door to the garage?” he asked Sheena.

"Through the kitchen, the door beside the tall fridge,” Dawn answered, "but there's no car there. Terry . . ." She stopped, a lump rising in her throat. "Terry leant it to one of the staff."

Gonzalez threw her a suspicious look and headed out the door. As Dawn had told him, there were no cars in the garage, but he did find a half-filled plastic container of petrol and a quad bike. The bike looked as if it had been dragged through a mud bath - thick dirt encrusting every surface - but when he tried it, the engine purred into life.

Taking the container back through to the house, Gonzalez ran up the stairs and poured petrol over the beds. After the fumes had dispersed a little he set light to a ball of paper which he threw on the bed. It exploded in a sheet of flames. When he was sure that the fire was well under-way, he moved onto the next bedroom. He soon had three good fires going and opened every door on the first floor to spread the flames.

Going back to the study again Gonzalez stood in front of the two women. They looked back up at him with fear-filled eyes. The smell of smoke was strong in the house now.

“Gotta go doctor,” he said picking his backpack off the floor. “Good luck.” Just before he closed the door quietly behind him, Gonzalez threw a lighted paper ball against the curtains.

Returning to the garage Gonzalez opened the big doors and rode out on the quad bike, eyes constantly on the move as he searched the grounds for any danger.

 

=08:22 hrs=

Alex brought the garden rake down in a vicious swing, pinning the cat to the floor like a museum exhibit. His triumph was short lived though because the shed door had already burst open, the space quickly filling with cats, all staring at him with rage filled eyes.

In the distance a noise grew from a faint buzz to a loud constant roar. Somebody was tearing the guts out of a small motorbike, and as it roared passed the shed, the cats turned as one, attracted by the moving prey. A moment later they were chasing after the disappearing quad bike.

Alex walked out of the shed. The cats that had attacked him were trying to head off the bike when two of them suddenly cartwheeled head over heels. The rider re-holstered his gun, slewing the bike onto the driveway, kicking up stones as he headed towards the main gates. The remaining cats sped after him, doing their best to keep up.

Alex ran from the shed across the grounds, his heart beating hard as he pounded his way up the long flight of stone stairs leading up to the front doors. Slamming his way through them he crashed them closed and broke into a fit of coughing as thick smoke swirled around his head.

The house was on fire!

“Dawn, you here?” he shouted, collapsing into fits of coughing again.

Keeping low, Alex made his way into the big hall, opening the first door he came to. The lounge was empty but clear of smoke, so he went in and took a few deep breaths. Recovered somewhat, he went out into the hall again, standing under the large staircase, calling Dawn’s name.

Hearing a faint shout from behind a closed door, Alex headed for it. When he looked into the room he saw Dawn and another woman sitting in the middle of a large study, surrounded by a ring of fire.

Without thinking Alex threw an arm across his face and ran through the flames, ignoring the heat that singed his hair. They were tied to the chairs and Alex knew that he didn’t have time to free them. Picking Dawn up bodily, he swung her and the chair up onto his shoulder, then ran across the room, shouldering his way through the French doors. Glass showered over them, some small splinters nicking the skin on his cheek.

Putting Dawn down Alex ran back into the room and grabbed the back of the other chair, dragging it backwards on its legs. Struggling the chair and woman out onto the patio Alex set her upright and collapsed into a fit of coughing.

“Where’s the kitchen?” he finally managed to ask.

Dawn cleared her throat. “At the front of the house dad, to the left as you come through the front door.”

Taking off around the side of the house Alex entered by the front door and headed for the kitchen. A few minutes later he was at the back of the house again, a sharp knife in his hand.

“Are you alright? Are you alright?” he kept asking Dawn over and over, cutting the plastic cuffs from her wrists.

Dawn shot out of her chair and into his arms, hugging him so tightly that he could scarcely breathe.

“Oh dad, I told them you’d come for me. I told them but they didn’t believe me.”

Disentangling himself from Dawn’s embrace, Alex turned his attention to the woman. The plastic handcuffs had cut themselves into her skin and were slick with blood. He slipped the knife between her wrists and tried to cut one. She cried out and he stopped.

“No it’s okay, go ahead,” the woman told him.

Alex was aware that Dawn had run into the study again but was too busy cutting the woman free to stop her. Just as he’d freed the woman and helped her to her feet, a loud blast sounded and he ducked.

Dawn was standing behind him, a large shotgun in her hands, smoke rising lazily from its barrel. A cat lay a few metres away. Others were circling them warily.

“Did you do that?” Alex asked, eyes wide in shock.

“Dad we have to go. There’s a car in the woods over there, come on we can’t stay here.”

They took a few steps and then Dawn stopped, pointing back to the chairs. “The knife dad. We need the knife, quick.”

Alex ran back, grabbed the knife and rejoined them. They ran along the track towards the woods, aware that the cats were following them at a distance.

Rounding some bushes Dawn shot two more cats crouched together in the centre of the track. She’d hardly broken stride before she was off again, leading the way into the wood.

“There, there,” she shouted, pointing towards a silver outline further in the trees.

“Dawn wait!”

Hearing Sheena’s shout Dawn skidded to a halt, turning quickly, gun at the ready, primed to kill any cat that threatened them.

Her dad was lying on the floor. Sheena was kneeling at his side shaking him. She looked back up at Dawn.

“DAD!” Dawn screamed, running back.

 

=08:42 hrs=

The cats circled, moving from tree to tree, excitement growing when they saw that one of the prey was down. Mostly they kept their distance, knowing the danger, but the rage drove one closer.

It darted forward, then stopped, body half-turned, ready to flee. The prey didn’t respond, so it moved nearer.

The sun disappeared behind a cloud, casting the wood in shadows. In the gloom the other cats crept forward, following the first, using the trees as cover, whiskers quivering as they scented the fear.

Hissing low in its throat the lead cat slunk to the next tree, slithering around it, body close to the ground, yellow slit eyes fixed on the man lying on the ground.

It moved the last few metres until it was within striking distance, bunching its muscles, readying itself. Then, with a short run, it leapt, front feet spread, claws out, ready to strike at the man’s eyes.

The cat exploded in a spray of blood and fur, slamming back against the tree. The blast was quickly followed by the snick-shuck of a shotgun reloading, then silence.

The sun broke from the clouds again, glinting from the tufts of hair on the large tom-cat’s ears. It sat high in a tree watching the attack. As the wood fell silent, it leapt down from branch to branch, joining the others that were now gathered at the base, twisting its lithe body in and out of the clowder crowded around it, purring loudly with pleasure.

Then the feeling of contentment died, pushed aside by rage as the cat remembered the cage, the fire, and the exhilaration of the attack. Pushing its way free, the big male studied the prey, searching for weaknesses. It had learnt to be patient and use the rage to its own advantage.

 

=08:45 hrs=

Dawn shucked the pump-grip on the shotgun, squinting through the trees. She couldn’t see any more cats but knew they were out there somewhere - waiting.

“Is there anything you can do Sheena?” she asked. “What about the vaccine you gave me?”

“It’s back in the house in my purse.”

“Sheena think, there must be something.”

Sheena rubbed her face with both hands, her brain refusing to function.

“Sheena . . .” Dawn insisted.

“Wait, I had another batch back at Area 7 in my office.”

“Do we have time, you said the virus acts quickly.” Dawn paced up and down, shotgun held tightly as though she wanted to take on the world.

Sheena shook her head, feeling a deep depression slip over her. “I don’t know Dawn. It depends on the individual.” She sat back on her heels looking defeated.

“Help me,” Dawn said slinging the shotgun over her shoulder and grabbing one of her dad’s arms. “Come on, don’t just sit there!”

Sheena looked up at Dawn, seeing something in the girl’s eyes that snapped her out of inaction. Together they pulled Dawn’s dad to his feet and set off, each with an arm draped over their shoulder, supporting his back.

“I don’t even know your father’s name,” Sheena said as they stumbled along.

“It’s Alex.”

“How did he get here?”

“If I know dad, he came in his mini-sub.”

Sheena looked over at Dawn with a quizzical expression. “Your father owns a submarine?”

“No, a small submersible. He bought it second hand the other day. I haven’t seen it yet.”

They stopped talking, concentrating on dragging the half-conscious man towards the car, casting worried looks over their shoulders all the while.

Settling Alex on the back seat, they moved around to the front of the car. Dawn stared at the engine, one hand resting on the raised bonnet, bottom lip clenched between her teeth. Sheena stood by her side, her attention back the way they’d come, thinking that she might have seen a movement in the trees.

“He said . . . “ Dawn stopped, thinking. “Terry said something about a wire.” Leaning over the engine Dawn picked up the disconnected high tension lead. “Do you think this is what he meant?” When there was no reply Dawn glanced up from under the bonnet at Sheena.

Sheena was staring at something in the woods. “I think you’d better hurry,” she whispered.

Dawn saw the nick in the wire and pulled out the kitchen knife, slicing the thick cable just above the damage. “Here, take this,” she said, holding the knife out to Sheena.

Dawn held the end of the wire in her hand, wondering where it fitted.

Where the hell did it go? Wait, what are these other black cables?

Dawn followed the cables with a finger and there, on top of a plastic cap, she saw a deep socket. Pushing the end of the cable into it as hard as she could, she prayed it would work, because if it didn’t, they weren’t going anywhere soon.

Dawn closed the bonnet with a thump and turned to Sheena, who was still staring off into the trees.

“Sheena?” Dawn said quietly, placing a hand on her shoulder.

Sheena was trembling, like a frightened dog about to be beaten.

“Hey?” Dawn turned Sheena around, gasping when she saw the knife clasped in her hand. It was dripping with blood. A dead cat lay at her feet.

“Come on, get in the car, quick.”

Dawn pushed Sheena, who broke out of her shock and dropped the knife as though it were red-hot. Slamming the passenger door, Dawn belted herself in and looked across at Sheena, who took a deep breath and smiled back.

“Sorry,” Sheena said with a shiver, “I’ve never killed anything that way before.”

 

=09:17 hrs=

The car engine cooled, ticking unnoticed as they sat looking out of the windscreen, neither wanting to believe what they saw. Area 7 was a burning ruin, smoke still rising in thick columns as the fire-fighters did their best to damp it down.

Dawn turned to Sheena, the horror plain on her face, tears threatening to fill her eyes. “We have to try to find the vaccine,” she said. “Tell them to find it.”

Sheena opened the car door, “Wait here and I’ll go and see what I can do.”

Easing her aching body out of the car, Sheena walked across to the police tapes fluttering in the breeze, lifting one up.

“Sorry madam,” a voice said, “But the public have to stay on that side of the tape.”

“I’m . . .” Sheena suddenly moved her body sideways, hiding herself from the tall man who appeared to be directing operations. “What’s he doing here?” she said in a harsh whisper.

The policeman turned, looking at the man for a moment. “Him? Oh I think he’s from MI5 or MI6 or something. Anyway one of those gung ho, we know best, departments. Bloody people come up here . . .”

But the policeman was talking to himself because the woman had disappeared. He shrugged, pulling out a packet of mints.

Strange bloody carry on, he thought chewing slowly. Terrorists they were saying.

Sheena slammed the car door, reversing out onto the road, bucking the car off the bumpy grass verge. Ramming the car into gear, she floored the accelerator, constantly checking in the rear-view mirror as they sped away.

Dawn pulled on her arm. “Stop! We have to go back! What are you doing?”

Sheena shrugged off Dawn’s hand, glancing in the mirror again, her foot to the floor. The steering wheel began vibrating and Sheena’s knuckles whitened. Glancing at the speedometer she saw they were doing eighty-five.

“Sheena, you’re frightening me,” Dawn said in a small voice, her eyes on Sheena’s pale face.

“He was there,” Sheena managed through clenched teeth. “He was there and I think he saw me.”

The terror in Sheena’s voice set Dawn’s heart racing.

“Who saw you?”

“Him. The man in the house. Gonzalez!”

“What?”

“He was in the grounds. Seemed to be in charge. The policeman said he was anyway.”

The car tyres squealed when Sheena took a corner far too fast. Dawn put her hand on the dashboard to steady herself. The car fishtailed and Sheena took her foot off the accelerator, correcting the steering, regaining control.

“What are we going to do about dad?”

“I’ve got an idea, but we need to get some stuff and hide out. If that man finds us we’re all dead.”

The certainty in Sheena’s voice frightened Dawn and she looked back over the seat. Her dad was lying on his side breathing heavily through his open mouth. His face was drenched with sweat.

“But the police . . .” Dawn protested.

“Gonzalez appeared to be in charge of the police,” Sheena cut across her. “Do you really want to take that chance?”

Sheena concentrated on her driving, pushing the car and her luck to the limit.

Fifteen minutes later Sheena drove the car into the car-park of the local shopping mall, telling Dawn to stay in the car and watch her dad. Ten minutes later she was back, a large shopping bag clutched in her arms.

Throwing the bag into the boot, Sheena jumped in the car and started it. “Okay let’s find somewhere safe to stop and treat your dad.”

A couple of miles from the car park, Sheena turned the car off the main road on to a dirt track. She had to slow right down as the deep ruts threatened to damage the suspension.

“Not far now, should be here somewhere,” Sheena muttered to herself, winding down her window to get a better view. “Yes, there it is.”

Stopping the car in front of an old ramshackle wooden building, Sheena killed the engine and climbed out, stretching her neck. Retrieving the shopping bag from the car, she led the way into the shack. Inside the single large room was a battered old table, a couple of rickety chairs, and over in one corner, a grubby looking mattress.

Taking her purchases from the bag, Sheena arranged them on the table. Dawn walked over and stood opposite her, watching as Sheena laid things out; a couple of bottles of spring water, eight bags of frozen peas, four energy bars, a camping lantern and a small white plastic bag branded with the name of the local chemist.

“Frozen peas?” Dawn asked, one eyebrow rising.

“I’ll explain later,” Sheena replied, pulling the lamp from its box.

Screwing the two parts together with a twist, she lit the gas and the dim room took on a more cheerful air.

“Come on, let’s get your dad.”

They struggled Alex into the shack, half-carrying, half-dragging him. When they finally had him lying on the mattress, they were both so breathless they couldn’t talk, collapsing in the chairs. Dawn took a drink from one of the bottles, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Is he going to be okay?” she asked, looking across at her dad.

Sheena sat for a moment, wondering what to say. Dawn’s father was dying but she didn’t have the strength to tell the girl that. Instead she got up and emptied the chemist’s bag out, picking up a thermometer.

Dawn watched Sheena take her dad’s temperature, seeing the frown on her face as she read it.

“It’s high,” Sheena told her. “Bring over the peas will you?”

Dawn knelt by her dad’s side while Sheena packed the frozen peas around his neck, placing his wrists on top.

“We need to get his temperature down,” Sheena said, standing up, managing a slight smile. “But right now, I have to take some of your blood Dawn.”

Dawn hated injections and she felt the usual spidery tingle down the back of her neck at the thought of needles.

Sheena picked up a syringe and rubber tourniquet. “Sit down and put your arm on the table for me please.”

Dawn did as Sheena asked, turning her head to look away when she felt the tourniquet, followed by the cold swap rubbed over her vein.

“What do you want my blood for any way?” Dawn asked, taking a quick peek and quickly turning away again.

The needle was the size of a pencil!

“It’s the only thing that might work,” Sheena answered slipping the needle into Dawn’s vein. She pulled the plunger back slowly, feeling the resistance as the barrel filled with blood. “I’m hoping that because you’ve had the vaccine already, your blood will help your father recover.”

Dawn felt light-headed when Sheena released the tourniquet. She held the antiseptic swab in place while the blood from the small wound coagulated, trying to be nonchalant.

“What’s wrong with yours then? You’ve had the vaccine too,” she said.

Sheena smiled to herself, wondering at the two Dawn’s she’d seen. The one so child-like, the other so adult.

“Well, I’m hoping that because you’re related, your blood will have a more positive effect.”

They crossed to the mattress and Dawn held her dad’s arm while Sheena attached the syringe of blood to a long thin tube and taped it to the wall above his head, slipping the thin needle into his vein. Next she splashed cold water on Alex’s face, slapping it lightly.

“Alex? Alex can you hear me?” Alex groaned, licking his lips. “Come on Alex, I need you to wake up now.” Sheena persisted, shaking his shoulder.

Alex’s half-opened eyes were bloodshot and tinged with yellow. They dragged him upright, leaning him back against the wall, feeding him tablets one at a time with small sips of water.

“These should help with his fever,” Sheena explained as the last one disappeared. “Right, let’s get him comfortable. Then all we can do is wait.”

Sitting at the table they ate some energy bars, both lost in their own thoughts.

Sheena suddenly got up and went outside. She was back a few minutes later with an armful of magazines.

“Here,” she said, dropping them on the table. “I just remembered I had them in the boot of the car. I was going to take them to the second-hand book shop. Might as well have something to do while we wait.”

A few hours later Dawn sighed loudly and closed the magazine. She was fed up reading about the lives of people who had more money than sense.

“How did you know about this place?” she asked.

Sheena looked up at her, a sad expression on her face. “Oh someone I know once brought me here,” she said in a quiet voice, tears glistening in her eyes.

Dawn could see how upset she’d made Sheena feel and mentally kicked herself. “I’m just going outside for some fresh air,” she said standing up.

Sheena put a hand on her arm as she passed her. “Be careful Dawn, its dark and there might be some cat’s around.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll sit in the car. The gun’s in there. I’ll be okay. Just need some alone time.”

After Dawn had gone, Sheena was left with her thoughts. It hadn’t occurred to her until now, but with all that had happened over the past few days, she hadn’t taken any time out to mourn Gary.

Poor Gary. What a terrible way to die. They had been at the start of a friendship that might have blossomed into something more, but now he was gone. Sheena felt so weary. Laying her head on her arms, she let the tears come, sobbing quietly as the moon rose on a cloudless black, star-studded sky.

Dawn sat in the car, the shotgun across her knees, hoping that some cats would turn up. It would feel good to point the gun and pull the trigger and watch the beasts that had killed her dad splatter into a red mist.

Dawn realised that her dad was going to die. Sheena hadn’t been able to match her blood type with her dad’s, and the probability that they would be the same was slim. He was going to die, with or without her blood, and there was nothing either of them could do about it.

Lowering her head, Dawn sobbed quietly, her tears falling onto her knees. Then shaking her head, she looked through the windscreen at the dark shapes of the night shimmering through her tears, knowing that she hadn’t meant it. She loved cats. What she hated were the scientists who made such things possible. But then again, she didn’t hate Sheena, did she.

Dawn dropped her forehead onto the dashboard, her confused thoughts making her head hurt. Shutting her eyes, she told herself that she’d just take a moment, then go back inside and check on how her dad was doing.

On the far side of the shack a cat sat licking its paws, cleaning the fur along the sides of its neck and head. The clowder had fed, leaving little of the deer for other animals to pick over. The chase had been long and the killing exciting, but not as exciting as the kill that waited for them in the shack.

 

=17:21 hrs=

Sir Craig Holland sat in his chair, feet on a pouffe, newspaper between his hands. His wife was sitting in a matching chair opposite him, reading a novel. She glanced up, wondering if her husband was really reading the newspaper or was just using it as a shield. He’d been so preoccupied over the past few days, not his usual self at all.

They seldom talked these days, their lives separate on so many levels. She wasn’t sad - she’d expected as much when she’d married him - just a little disappointed that life had crept up on her so fast that she’d had so little time or energy to enjoy it. Their children had grown up and left, seldom visiting these days, and she didn’t get to see her grandchildren, unless she took the trouble to visit them.

The paper rustled as Holland turned a page.

“Grouchie needs a walk,” she said quietly.

The paper rustled again and another page turned.

“I said . . .”

“I heard what you said,” Holland answered lowering his paper to look at her over the top of his glasses.

Folding the newspaper with meticulous precision, as he did everything else in his life, Holland took off his glasses and pushed them into the leather case he kept on the small table by his chair.

“I might pop into the pub on the way back,” he said, levering himself out of the deep chair.

“Yes why don’t you do that dear.”

Holland gave his wife a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and went looking for the dog. He shouted out the back door and the ugly bulldog came up to him, slobbering as usual. Its legs were so short they allowed it to do little more than waddle. Clipping the lead onto its collar, he closed the door and headed for the rear garden gate.

Holland fancied a walk through Wooten Woods, he liked the solitude and he could let Grouchie off his lead without the headache of meeting other people. Grouchie lived up to its name, baring its teeth at any dog who so much as looked at him.

Stupid name for a stupid dog, he thought, closing the gate with a soft click, checking again that it was closed before moving off.

The wood was up a high rise and by the time Holland had reached it, he was puffing and panting. He’d have to make an appointment to see his doctor again and get his lungs checked. Letting Grouchie off the lead, he sighed, watching it waddle its way into the trees, sniffing and slobbering over everything.

Holland thought about the conversation he’d had with the American yesterday. It had been hard but he’d said what needed saying. The man had to be shown who was in charge back here, and that America didn’t run the whole world. The project had to be closed down right now. He’d already called a meeting of the COBRA group for tomorrow and would let the Prime Minister know what had been going on. It would probably mean the end of his career but at his age that didn’t overly worry him. It would be kept from the public of course, these things always were. He would retire somewhere abroad, probably without his wife.

As Holland walked further into the wood a dark shape followed, keeping well back in the trees, watching as he turned off the main pathway towards a clearing he’d discovered, calling the dog to follow him. It was a nice place to sit in the late afternoon sun and have a quiet snooze.

Holland stopped, looking back over his shoulder. The stupid dog was standing in the middle of the path, head up, sniffing the breeze, facing back the way they’d come. He called, and after a brief pause, it turned and followed him, casting backward glances now and then.

Holland found the clearing and walked over to his favourite spot, sitting down on the soft grass with his back against a fallen tree trunk. Taking the newspaper from his pocket he spread it open and began reading.

Nothing to beat a lazy Saturday afternoon in the sun, catching up on the news.

Grouchie flopped down beside Holland but soon had its head up again, ears pointed forward. Giving a gruff bark, it stood up, panting.

“Will you shut up and give a man a bit of peace and quiet!” Holland shook his paper as though that would make the dog obey.

It didn’t. Grouchie had spotted something amongst the trees and his curiosity had been aroused. He waddled off to investigate. Holland gave the dog a quick glance, then went back to his paper.

The man following Holland saw the old bulldog coming towards him and smiled, pulling an air-gun from his pocket. Taking careful aim, waiting until the dog was just a few paces away, he tightened his finger on the trigger.

“Night, night, Grouchie. Sweet dreams,” the man muttered, pulling the trigger.

The dart hit the dog in the neck and it yelped - an unusually high pitched yelp for such a barrel-chested dog. Grouchie shook its head, pawing at its neck, knocking the dart free, but the anaesthetic had already begun to have an affect.

The dog looked around as though confused, tottering on uncertain legs back towards where Holland sat, but it didn’t get far before collapsing on the ground. The man bent over and picked up the dart, slipping it in his pocket for later disposal.

Holland put down his paper, laying his head back against the trunk, closing his eyes as the sun heated his face. Then hearing something, he flicked them open again, sitting up straighter. Someone was walking towards him.

“Sir Craig Holland,” the man said in a well cultured voice.

Holland nodded. “And you are?” he asked in his usual arrogant tone, displeased that he’d been disturbed by a stranger this way.

And where was Grouchie? That bloody dog was never around when you needed it.

Something about the self-assured man staring down at him had set alarm bells ringing in Holland’s head.

“The Senator sends his regards,” the man said, pulling the air-gun from his pocket.

As the steel tip penetrated Holland’s shirt, he scrambled to his feet, surprisingly nimble for a man his age. Pulling the dart from his chest he looked at it, realisation dawning in his eyes, his hand whipping up to his mouth.

“Nice try old timer,” the man said, grabbing Holland’s wrist before he could swallow the dart, watching as his target’s eyes slowly glazed over. “Nearly had to do an autopsy on you right here in the woods.”

Holland sank to his knees, then fell to his side, mouth slightly open, breathing gently. The special anaesthetic would take a few minutes for the target’s liver and kidneys to disperse, so while he waited the man pulled Holland upright and leant him against the tree, the way he’d found him.

Taking a large penknife from his pocket, he opened it.

The cuts were deep, the blade grating against bone as the man slashed each wrist. The cuts themselves weren’t enough to kill Holland, such cuts seldom were, but they signalled that here was a man who wanted to end his life.

Dropping the knife on the ground beside Holland’s outstretched legs, the man pulled six packets of paracetamol from his pocket. He opened them, tossing the bubble packs on the grass. The packs were empty, each tablet carefully removed from its blister by gloved fingers and disposed of down the hotel toilet earlier.

Sitting beside Holland the man read his paper, waiting for the blood to pool on the ground. Satisfied, he folded the paper, putting it back in Holland’s jacket pocket. Then he injected him behind the ear with a compound that would lead the pathologist to conclude that Holland had died of paracetamol poisoning.

Fifteen minutes later Grouchie shook its head and stood up, swaying from side to side, eyes still glazed. A little later the dog wandered back to his master, lying at his side, tongue lolling, waiting for him to wake up and take him home.