A clear night, the moon close to full and the path to easy to follow. He sat on the steps to pull on his boots and then set off to where his Tourer was parked. The car was spotless, all evidence of the mudslide washed away and he opened the luggage compartment with a sense of unease, hoping that whoever had cleaned the vehicle had not found the rifle and other equipment hidden beneath the floor of the boot.
The Enfield was safe in its oiled case and he slung it over his shoulder, the weight familiar and comforting, the binoculars over his other shoulder and his torch tucked into one pocket well away from the revolver. A last look around to make sure no one was watching and then he set off along the grass verge, grateful for the bright moonlight that made his late night trek possible.
The entrance to the tunnel was half-blocked by the overgrown rose bush and he spent several frustrating minutes pulling the thorny branches away, thankful for his leather gloves that were all too soon in shreds. He pulled them off and flung them aside. Then he was inside and switching on the torch – a thin beam but better than nothing. The tunnel was brick-lined and damp underfoot, the ceiling arching just over his head, close enough to make him hunch over as he made his way forward. The floor sloped downward and he could hear unpleasant noises in the darkness: eerie creaks and rustles, the squeal of rats, water dripping from above.
The roof seemed to press in on him, the rough walls edging closer and closer with each step but he forced himself onwards, fighting a desperate urge to turn and run. The collapsed dugout. The mud and broken planks, the screams of those men trapped around him. The struggle to breathe, to free himself. The darkness. Water rising beneath him. They had dug him out, caked in slime and filth. He had washed off the mud and changed into a spare uniform and drunk a mug of cocoa and sat there, shaking. And then the shouts came and he forced himself to his feet and went out to his Spad. Even now he hated enclosed spaces, the inability to get outside a building.
He’d looked it up once. Claustrophobia. A morbid dread of enclosed spaces. The words seemed inadequate to express the sheer terror he experienced, but even worse was the fear of failing, of allowing his own foolish dread to govern his work. He swallowed. And took another step forwards and then another.
Step after step, splashing into puddles, feet slithering on patches of slime, one bare hand outstretched against the side in an attempt to stay in the centre of the tunnel and avoid banging his head. Shale from the crumbling bricks scraped his fingertips raw. A tangle of cobwebs stuck to his face and he stopped to scrub them clear with a shaking hand then paused.
A sound behind him, not the scurry of rats or mice, but the muted drone of an engine. And he pressed himself against the wall, listening as the sound increased and there was a glimmer of light far in the distance. Something was outside the tunnel. A soft tread of feet moving along the passageway. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to take cover. He tucked the torch in his pocket to hide its beam and reached for the rifle, slipping it from its sheath and kneeling to face whoever – whatever – was coming towards him. He could not see with any clarity, just a distant glimmer of light flickering against the ceiling and walls and catching for one brief second his fingers stained with muck and blood on the stock of the rifle.
If he failed he would be sliced from breastbone to groin and left to die here, alone. He held his breath, tightened his finger on the trigger, counting off the seconds until his target was within easy range. The light played on his face bright enough to make him blink, and then the sound of that familiar voice made him jerk the muzzle of the rifle upwards, to safety.
‘Colonel? You were not in your bed when I checked on you. It took me some considerable time to discover that you had left the House.’
Jackson. He lowered the rifle, put it back in its sheath, pulled out the torch. ‘You shouldn’t have come.’ But even so he could not help the surge of relief that he was no longer alone in the darkness.
‘And why is that?’ Jackson was close enough to see now, and moving even closer.
‘This has nothing to do with you. It’s my responsibility, my job.’ And he had seen enough innocent men die in the past. There was no need to have even more blood on his conscience. ‘Go back to the House. Please.’
‘And if I don’t?’
Dammit, the man was more stubborn than expected. ‘Then you should stay here in the tunnel where it’s safe, and wait for me. I won’t have you getting involved, not in this.’
Jackson’s hand touched his shoulder. ‘It’s too late for that Colonel. I am already involved. I purloined your car and drove here from the House though I left it on the far side of the orangery where it will not be seen by anyone. It was the only way I could catch up to you. And,’ he pursed his lips, ‘I think that perhaps you may be glad of my assistance when we reach the Folly, if not before. Now, shall we go?
There was nothing for it but to continue and he walked on in silence, Jackson’s presence right behind him insufficient to stop his growing sense of discomfort despite his attempts to crush down his absurd phobia. Then the sloping floor ended. A steep flight of steps leading upwards, no handrail and the sandstone treads worn down by countless feet. A careful climb, both men cautious of wet walls and slime underfoot, and treading in silence. The thought of servants making this journey laden with baskets of food and other such comforts for visitors with no consideration for their own safety, repelled him.
The steps ended in yet another long narrow passage and his foot slipped and he staggered, dropping his torch with a clatter. It rolled against the wall and went out. He cursed, hands scrabbling in the dark, his fingers meeting those of Jackson for a moment.
‘No, don’t move, Colonel. I’ve got it here.’ Surprisingly strong fingers grasped his wrist and held tight and he felt the familiar shape of the torch as Jackson pressed it into his palm. He gave it a gentle shake and the light flickered, went out for a heart-stopping moment and then returned and he was about to start walking again, when the Jackson took hold of his wrist.
‘A moment if you don’t mind. You are shaking. Is something the matter?’
The concern in Jackson’s voice pushed him closer to the edge and he could do nothing but shake his head, too afraid of to risk speaking aloud in case his voice betrayed him.
‘No. Take a breath please. And another. You fear the darkness?’
He shook his head again.
‘Ah. I understand I think. It is the tunnel itself? The sensation of being imprisoned, entombed with no escape? I am right am I not? No. Don’t answer me Edward. Just listen to me. Breathe, and listen.’ The hand tightened. A comforting grip, surprising strength and compassion combined. ‘You are not trapped, not in the slightest. The passage is open behind you, and in front. You can walk out right now. Another two hundred paces perhaps, maybe even less, will bring us to a flight of steps and at the top of those we will find ourselves in the Folly. Open space. All you have to do is to keep walking, just those few yards. Two hundred paces if that. Count each step aloud if you must, but keep walking.’
So he did, counting off the paces and all the time aware of Jackson’s quiet reassurance from behind. Fifty-three and he was trembling, sixty-eight and he paused, unable to move only for a hand to rest on his shoulder for a moment. A light touch but enough to calm him and make him take yet another step forward. Seventy-one, a hundred and three, a hundred and eighty-eight and he was sweating and sick and then his foot caught the edge of the first step and he paused, gasping for breath, his heart pounding.
It was easier then, climbing to freedom and knowing he was close to a way out. The steps were dryer, the air less damp and musty now and then he was at the top and on a level floor, the torch lights revealing a high vaulted ceiling and wide walls. An unbelievable surge of relief and it was easy enough from that point to make their way through the passages and up to the turret overlooking the lake. He stood there, composing himself and taking deep breaths. It was still dark, though he was surprised to see that it was just over an hour to dawn. Enough time to get himself accustomed to the area.
Jackson perched on the corner of one of the stone benches that ran around the edge of the roof, watching him.
‘What happens now?’
Straker leaned out between two of the merlons, peering into the darkness, not that there was much to see other than the surface of the lake shimmering in in the moonlight and the darker swathes of woodland on the far side. ‘We were shooting over there? When Halliwell was killed?’ He pointed.
Jackson came up to join him. ‘Yes. The beaters work their way from that direction to fly the birds away from the lake. It’s too far from the Dower House to be practical for a shooting party to walk there. So what are you going to do now?’
The air was sharp and still and no untoward sounds disturbed the sounds. He knelt down, rueing the hard stone beneath his knees, then put the thought aside as irrelevant and positioned himself behind the crenellation, binoculars focused on the serene water of the lake. ‘Now we wait.’ He heard the other man settle down on the floor, wrapping his coat around him in an effort to keep out the early chill.
His fingers grew stiff and cold, but he did not dare put the binoculars down to rub his hands together. His knees ached and then turned numb and still he knelt there as the stars faded into the soft greyness of pre-dawn.
It would be now if they were going to make a move. He could hear Jackson behind him, a soft shuffle as the man changed position.
And then the surface of the lake shimmered, wavered, and there was no time to do anything other than hiss a warning at Jackson to get back.
He trained his binoculars on the two figures as they emerged from beneath the surface, water streaming from their spacesuits. A difficult shot. He should have been closer, but that would have been foolish. These were not ordinary soldiers emerging from their dugouts at the start of the day, these were creatures with abilities far beyond human understanding.
A whispered expletive from behind him but he ignored it. He had heard worse in the trenches, had even resorted to swearing himself on occasions. He grabbed the rifle and stood, stifling the groan as his knees creaked in protest and then he was leaning on the rampart, the Enfield steady in his hands and everything – sore knees, the persistent headache from not nearly enough sleep, his gnawing hunger and thirst, the stiffness in his fingers – all faded away as he focused on the first shape, aiming for the centre of the faceplate. A squeeze of the trigger, the recoil a welcome thump against his shoulder and he saw his target jerk backwards, arms outstretched and a great splash of water as it fell back into the lake.
No time to waste. He slid the bolt forward, sighted on the second one a few steps ahead, held his breath.
This time it took two attempts before the alien collapsed and even then he was not sure if the second had been a killing shot. The first man was a dark shape floating on the water but the other had managed to reach the reedbeds before falling and was lying half-submerged among the rushes.
There was no sign of anyone else, the surface of the lake once more placid and undisturbed apart from a dark shape bobbing in the deeper water. He turned from the rampart, sheathing the rifle in one smooth act before he saw Jackson standing at one corner of the roof terrace staring down at the lake. ‘Stay here.’ Another brusque order, but the man was unarmed and could be in danger. Or was it that he had no wish to let anyone witness what he might be forced to do next; to kill, without any thought of mercy or compassion.
He ran down the steps, the thin light of dawn that filtered through the arrow slits the only aid as he made his way down to the ground floor. The oversized oak door leading outside was barred and he dragged the bolts back, wincing at the screech of rusty iron. Then he was outside and heading for the lakeside several hundred yards away, the rifle thumping against his back as he ran across the rough grass towards the reed bed.
His target was face down, arms and legs tangled in the tall rushes, helmeted head dipping up and down in the slight swell and he splashed his way across, thigh deep in cold water, thick mud underfoot. The man was dead, his helmet smashed either from one of the bullets or on one of the rocks in the lake when he fell. It made no difference.
Straker began dragging the corpse away from the reeds to clear water, a difficult task but one that needed to be done. He had no spade with which to dig graves, and not the energy to do so anyway. The water would do the job for him. Without its crew the craft would blow up within the next few hours and the resulting explosion would destroy the bodies.
He was wading back through the reeds when he heard the splash of small waves and he turned round in horror as the water behind him began roiling and bubbling. The ship. It was still active, still operating. There was nothing he could do but run, reeds slowing him down, thick mud clinging to his feet in an effort to hold him back. Five yards, four, his feet slipping, the rifle sliding from his shoulder to hamper him even more, his hands grabbing hold of the tall rushes in a futile attempt to drag his way to safety. But nowhere was safe now.
He reached the bank and started scrambling up, waterlogged boots threatening to drag him back down, the ship rising behind him huge and threatening. A high pitched whine deafened him, a gust of foul smelling air blew past, a vivid yellow light illuminated the ground ahead and the woods beyond and then he flung himself forward, still entangled in the reeds, his face pressing into the soil at the very edge, his bare hands scant protection around his head. He waited for the explosion behind him and the shock of shrapnel slicing through cloth and flesh and bone. One last breath, his body rigid with fear. The rich smell of damp earth and fresh grass.
And then there was nothing but deafening noise and scorching heat and brilliant light and the smell of burning wool and singed hair and the skin on the back of his hands tingling and the hiss of white-hot metal crashing into cold water and the thud of shrapnel impacting with soft earth. Then sharp pain, a blinding explosion in his head and just long enough to be grateful that it was going to be quick.