A Falling Body

by Art Kavanagh

List of chapters | Fiction
Previous chapter | Afterword

Chapter 8 — Run, crawl, hide, fall

I woke up with an unusually dry mouth, a slightly sore head and an unaccustomed feeling of constriction. In that interval, elastic but finite, when I couldn’t tell for sure whether I was awake or still dreaming, the struggle to orient myself seemed to take an abnormally long time. Then, barely noticing the transition, I was clearly awake and just ordinarily puzzled. The bed I was in was familiar but unexpected. I recognized it at once but my consciousness refused to accept that I was where I seemed to be. If this was really the day immediately following the last thing I could remember, then it was surely impossible that, in the course of a single night, I had travelled between Bordeaux and here and had a good night’s sleep. Yet — the dry mouth, headache and sense of constriction notwithstanding — I certainly felt as if I’d had a good night’s sleep. The constriction, at any rate, was soon explained. Contrary to the habits of at least a dozen years, I was wearing night clothes; specifically, a long t-shirt, knickers and — for heaven’s sake! — a bra. I’m perfectly certain that I had never once since my student days either gone to bed or woken up wearing a bra. I sat up and threw back the quilt as my reluctant brain forced itself to accept the evidence of my senses. I was in the cabin in the Pyrenées. Impossible. Yet evidently not impossible because tangibly true.

I got out of bed — cold, clearly I had neither lit a fire nor turned the heating on — and pulled the t-shirt off over my head, then immediately released myself from the bra. The knickers were the next puzzle. They certainly weren’t mine; they weren’t in a style I’d have bought even when I was buying knickers regularly. Wine-coloured, trimmed with scratchy lace and cut at the back so as to draw a line diagonally across each buttock, they struck me as designed primarily to remind the wearer that they were there, quite the opposite of what I had used to look for in underwear. I could imagine Amber wearing such a garment, but one that would fit her would be at least one size too small for me, whereas these fit me perfectly. As, I now saw, had the t-shirt, which wasn’t mine either. Where had these clothes come from and how had I come to be wearing them?

What the hell are we doing here?

Good morning, Legrand.

Why are you in the Pyrenées? Is this your idea of some kind of clever trick?

I was hoping you could tell me what I’m doing here.


I just woke up and here I am. I don’t even know how it’s possible. I thought you might have some idea of what happened in my sleep, or before I went to sleep.

The feed was dimmed. You asked me to fade it out.

I thought you might not have complied.

Next time I won’t. This is unacceptable. We agree to meet, you ask me to give you some privacy and the next day you’re hundreds of kilometres away, having evidently travelled through the night. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull but you have to know that it looks like desperation rather than a smart move.

I’ve no idea what’s going on. It must be something Émile and Amber arranged.

Émile and Amber? You’ve been in contact with them?

They came to the apartment last night, don’t you remember? It must have been after you’d tuned out. It was completely out of the blue. You obviously know that I haven’t had the opportunity to get a message to them. Anyway, Émile said they had an idea but he didn’t want me to know too much about it so that you wouldn’t either. We drank a bit and talked, about Jacob, of course, and also about Sarkozy and Putin and Khadafi and pretty well everything except why he was there. Both of us flirted with Amber, who seems to be getting on with Émile surprisingly well. I don’t know whether there’s any attraction on her part, but — anyway. We talked until I felt sleepy and then I went to sleep. And here we are. That’s all I know.

Who had undressed me? Amber, certainly, would have known better than to put me to bed wearing a bra, and she was surely familiar enough with my habits to know I was comfortable sleeping naked, even in an unheated wooden cabin. It followed inevitably that Émile had been responsible. I had a strong sense that I ought to feel outraged at the invasion of my privacy and dignity, not to mention the presumption, but I was moved to hilarity, not anger, at the mental image of the earnest introvert struggling to get my slumber-heavy limbs into the completely inappropriate, if well fitting, underwear. And where the hell had he got those knickers?

I was still cold and I reflected that, since the heating hadn’t been turned on, there wouldn’t be any hot water for a shower. I dropped the knickers in the bin, pulled the t-shirt on again with nothing underneath and went looking for something else to wear. I’d kept a suitcase in the boot of my car since I’d been considering the possibility that I might exploit Legrand’s vertigo by taking him for some extreme mountain hiking. I’d wanted to be able to depart on impulse, to reduce the risk that Legrand would send someone to meet me. I guessed that Émile and Amber would have brought me here inside a Faraday cage, to avoid alerting Legrand if I’d woken up on the trip, so I wasn’t expecting to see my car outside. Yet, when I looked out the window, there it was. There was no reason why my suitcase shouldn’t still be in the boot. I’d need some kind of footwear if I was going to find out. And where were my keys?

They were on the bedside table. I hadn’t noticed them when I was getting out of bed. No doubt, the disorientation would explain that, but I had a strong sense, not merely of not having seen them, but of having positively noticed that they weren’t there. But that was just my mind playing tricks, wasn’t it? I mean, however disoriented I’d felt, why should I have noticed that they weren’t in one place (the place in which they subsequently turned up), rather than another?

Damn, my thought processes were tangled. What had Émile and Amber given me? Evidently something that had properly knocked me out. So maybe they hadn’t needed to use the Faraday cage after all? It would have been a bit risky — but would it really? Legrand would have known where I was as soon as I’d woken up, so keeping my whereabouts from him during the journey can’t have been a priority. They must have driven me here in my car, with me stretched out unconscious in the back. Was that why I’d felt so rested when I’d woken?

Boots or shoes, that’s what I needed next. There was a standalone wardrobe in the bedroom. Maybe there were boots there. I went to look. Not only was there a single pair of boots, there was also a full set of hiking clothes: jacket, shorts, full-length trousers, four t-shirts and four pairs of thick socks. I could already tell from the size but I quickly confirmed that, with the socks, the boots were a perfect fit. I noticed for the first time that under the t-shirts were a couple of cotton-Lycra crop tops. I pulled the long t-shirt off again and tried on one of the crop tops. Again, the fit was uncannily exact. My boobs were held firmly in place, without the preposterously overengineered contraption of straps and hooks that was usually required to do that job. I shook them. No discomfort. Could I really walk for a day wearing just this lightweight garment as boob-support? I had every intention of finding out. Perhaps I should carry my bra as back-up just in case? No, sod that.

I knew without bothering to try them on that the other clothes would fit perfectly as well. Yet, none of them was mine. I’d never owned anything like that, nor had they been in the wardrobe the last time I’d stayed in the cabin. It had been empty and I’d used it for my own clothes. So whose were these? Surely Émile and Amber hadn’t got them in advance, in preparation for bringing me here. But why not? Clearly some amount of preparation had taken place. Was it possible that Émile, who’d got my nightwear so wrong, had got my hiking wardrobe so right? Actually, it was possible, just about. Hiking gear — not that I know a lot about it — is a kind of uniform; pretty well everyone, whatever their preferences, does it the same way. Yet, there was something that jarred. If Émile had thought it was OK to send me to bed in a bra, how had he known that I’d prefer not to wear one for walking in the mountains? Immediately I’d posed the question, I saw there was no real mystery. He’d thought I’d still be wearing the bra when I’d got up, the crop tops were just … what? An alternative? Apart from the t-shirts and socks, there was just one of everything. There were four each of the t-shirts and pairs of socks. And two crop tops. Was this some kind of puzzle, or perhaps a message? And, if so, who was it from?

Is this something to do with you? I asked Legrand.

I’m just as taken aback as you are. If there is some message here, it must be from Émile and/or Amber. There’s no one else it could be.

Suddenly I felt weak with hunger. I went into the kitchen, to look for something to eat. There were eggs, tomatoes, onions, unsalted butter, Gruyère and some bottled water. The seal on the water was unbroken and the tomatoes and onions were firm and apparently fresh. I broke four of the eggs individually into a cup and then emptied the cup into a bowl before breaking the next, to make sure each one was fit for consumption. They were all perfectly fresh. The pan was dusty but clean, so I rinsed it in cold water and put it on a low heat to dry. I turned on the water heater. I reluctantly decided to leave the Gruyère out of my omelette — I love cheese in omelettes but hate the mixture of onion and cheese. The latter would be just fine eaten sliced and cold afterwards. I melted some butter on the pan and began to beat the eggs.

You like to cook dangerously, I see.

What do you mean?

Shouldn’t you put something on, in case you get splashed with hot butter?

No. I’m going to have a shower when the water heats up. As you may have noticed, there’s only one set of clothes.

There’s always the night-shirt thing.

I’ve made an omelette before. I’m not going to injure myself. What are you so worried about?

Nakedness around food makes me uncomfortable. From the point of view of hygiene.

I laughed. You’re not going to be eating the food, I am.

If you give yourself food poisoning, I’ll feel sick too.

You really are the man who has everything, aren’t you? Not least hypochondria.

I tried to force myself to eat slowly, intending to savour the omelette, but it was gone within a couple of minutes. Then I started on the cheese. Heavenly as it would have been melted on the eggs, it was almost better nature. I’d worked my way through more than a third of the block of about 200g when I heard the unmistakeable sound of a car door being quietly shut. I grabbed the now empty pan and crouched down, getting under the window, in case anybody looked in.

Did I imagine that?

You definitely heard it. Or so it seemed to me, bearing in mind we’re using the same pair of ears.

Do you know anything about this?

Absolutely not. I wish I did.

It was reasonable to assume that there was more than one of them. Since the cabin was small, with only two exits, I wasn’t going to be able to sneak out the back without their noticing. Better to wait until they came to me. Would Émile and/or Amber have remembered to lock the doors when they left me here? I was certain that they’d have taken more care than I would have done, so it was lucky I’d been barefoot when I’d thought about going out to look in the car boot. Not that a locked cabin door was going to hold a determined attacker up for very long. That thought had barely formed when the back door shattered. The surprise was that they’d come from the back, straight into the kitchen. I like to think that it was a surprise for them too. I was on my feet in an instant, swinging the cast iron pan with all my strength. The man coming through the door got it full in the face and staggered. I hit him again, with less force this time, but he went over. I stepped across him and was out the door and heading for the cover of the nearest trees. Behind me, I heard a shout, closely followed by a gunshot. I didn’t stop when I reached the trees, just slowed down. They’d easily be able to follow me by the noise I was making but that was OK as long as I could move at least as fast as they could. On the plus side, I wasn’t wearing anything that was likely to get caught in a branch.

Had they been shooting to kill or just to stop me from running? Did it matter? If they stopped me, I’d soon be dead anyway, or maybe not soon enough. And, in these circumstances, moving at the speeds we were attempting over that sort of terrain, they’d need to be highly skilled marksmen just to make the distinction.

And, to be frank, I was pleasantly surprised by my speed and agility. It felt as if gravity and air resistance had been turned down perceptibly and my bones strengthened so that I didn’t need to be too concerned about landing awkwardly or getting my foot caught in some natural trap. Had there been something in the cheese? I felt I could do anything. I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed a run so much. I was having the time of my life, in spite of the threat to it. Every now and then I stopped for a moment to try to hear the progress of my pursuers. It certainly sounded as if my lead were lengthening and soon I could hear nothing at all. Had they given up?

A loud explosion almost knocked me off balance and, when I turned back towards it, I could see a black cloud of smoke rising over the trees. It could only have been the cabin. Had they blown it up, or had I? Perhaps I hadn’t turned the gas off completely after my omelette, so that the room filled up and a spark from the water heater had ignited it. It didn’t sound likely. Apart from anything else, I doubted if a single canister of gas could have fuelled such a big bang. So it must have been my pursuers. Why? To destroy evidence? Or to make me feel more vulnerable and under threat? The only clothes I had, apart from the footwear and crop top I was actually wearing, must have been destroyed in the explosion. Worse, it suddenly struck me that it was most unlikely that the car, parked as close to the house as it was, could have survived intact. Not only was I virtually naked, I was stuck in a remote mountain area with no transport. Kind of thrilling.

We should do this more often, I said to Legrand.

He didn’t answer.

It was time to change direction. Wherever they were, my pursuers weren’t close enough to follow my sound trail. I’d try to get higher up, at the edge of the tree line, so that I’d have a better idea where they were and what they were doing. And how many of them there were. I set off, more at a walking pace than a run this time, but still feeling that the environment was more hospitable to me than I had any right to expect. The air still offered less resistance, though it was not yet thin enough to affect my breathing. I bounced rather than stumbled on the densely wooded, uneven ground. I didn’t expect this situation to last. As I climbed, the atmosphere would certainly have less oxygen and it was obvious that I was ludicrously underdressed for the climate. Yet I had no hesitation in concluding that my best move was to get high up into a position where I could see what was going on.

As I settled into the trance-inducing monotony of my trek, time seemed to be playing tricks on me. I was apparently making better progress than I’d have believed possible but progress towards what? The walk stretched on, apparently interminably. The sun moved in the sky but surely not as far as it ought to have done? Not that the sun bothered me, protected as I was by the shade of the trees. I still didn’t feel cold and my exposed limbs and torso picked up remarkably few scratches and abrasions. As my breakfast omelette faded from memory, I began to feel increasingly insistent pangs of hunger, but without any sense that lack of food was making me any weaker. I had no doubt that I could reach my target without my blood sugar dropping to a level that would slow me down. But then what?

I didn’t know who I was up against or how many of them there were. I had no reason to be confident that I could deal with them, or escape from them. And, with or without a reason, I wasn’t in fact confident. And yet I felt calm and happy. I’d made the right moves in the circumstances and, if I felt pleased with myself about one thing, it was that I hadn’t been guilty of any serious errors.

When I eventually reached the edge of the trees, the sun was still some distance from the horizon. If I’d been in a normal landscape, I’d have estimated that there remained at least 40 minutes before dusk. The way the sun had been moving today, I thought there might have been anything up to three days of daylight remaining. I was tired and, by this stage, ravenous but I still didn’t seem to lack strength or energy.

If my pursuers were searching the forest, they were probably not keeping a close eye on the unwooded terrain higher up. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive as I moved quickly from the cover of the trees to that of a snow-covered rock, from where I meant to survey the landscape. My first thought was a wish that I’d had binoculars, my second that at least some of those who were after me almost certainly had. I was quickly able to confirm that the cabin had indeed been the locus of the explosion. The car parked beside it was blackened and apparently burned out. I identified seven areas in the forest where I thought there might be evidence of movement. Were there really seven people chasing me?

Legrand’s disavowal of any involvement, and particularly his sense of puzzlement, had seemed sincere. But if he hadn’t sent these hunters after me, who had? The only possibility I could think of was that they were associates of the unlamented Goldfisch, who assumed that, because I’d been questioned over his murder, I must have been responsible for it. But six or seven men added up to an expensive operation. Too expensive merely for a revenge mission, surely? So who were they and what did they want?

More to the point, if there were as many as seven of them, they wouldn’t have needed to commit all their resources to searching through the trees. At least one would be surveying the search area, either from the site of the cabin or, it suddenly seemed obvious, from a higher vantage point. No sooner had this frightening idea occurred to me than I heard the sound of a boot sliding on snow as it dislodged a rock behind me. I swung around immediately, to find an automatic pistol pointing directly at my bare midriff.

“I hope you get the weather you were expecting,” the man holding the gun said in English. “It looks as if you couldn’t make up your mind between the mountains and the beach.”

Do you recognize the voice? Legrand demanded.

I certainly didn’t recognize the face, which was concealed by a ski-mask. In fact, if I was decidedly underdressed for the weather conditions, this man tended towards the other extreme: the only parts of his flesh that were visible were on the fingers of his gun hand and around his eyes and mouth.

I’m almost certain I’ve never encountered this individual before. The only tiny room for doubt comes from the fact that there’s just nothing to distinguish him from any other generic thug. In build, pitch and tone of voice and, so far as I can tell, in age, he could be Goldfisch’s clone.

What the fuck are they playing at? I’m not paying for this! What do they want?

“Sorry, am I failing to hold your interest?”

“I was just communicating with the unseen presence of a very powerful, distant old man. Sorry. Now you’ve got my full attention.”

“You were praying? Highly appropriate. You’re religious, then?”

“Not at all. Are you?”

“No, unfortunately. Why are you dressed like that? Undressed like that, I should say.”

“You interrupted my breakfast.”

“And you haven’t eaten since. Well, the last thing I want is for you to faint from hunger as we’re trying to get you out of here. All I have is chocolate. Lie flat on your front. I don’t want you to try anything funny while I’m getting it out of my backpack.”

I did as I was told. I heard him put the backpack on the ground and a few seconds later he told me I could get up. I raised my head. Ski-mask had broken a double square off a bar of chocolate and was holding it out to me with his left hand. The gun was in his right, pointing straight at me.

Disgust can be a very effective weapon, Legrand said, reminding me of his excessive reaction to my naked breakfast-frying.

I raised myself to a crouching position and put the fingers of my right hand between my legs where I held them for a couple of seconds, before raising them just in front of my nose.

“Wouldn’t you know it? Impeccable timing as usual. And the only tampons I had were in the car.” I reached for the chocolate. The bit about the tampons was true, but my period wasn’t due for another four days.

It was a silly trick, and I tried it out of desperation rather than with any expectation of success. But I was in luck: Ski-mask recoiled involuntarily, with an exclamation of disgust. I pushed forward and he stepped back. He stumbled and, while he was recovering his balance, I leapt at him, hitting him in the chest and knocking him over. He held onto the gun but I knelt on his arm so that he couldn’t aim it.

“Let go of the gun and I won’t hurt you.”

“And if I don’t let go?”

I picked up a rock. “I’ll bash your head in.”

“It wouldn’t be as easy as you think.”

“So, which would you prefer, that I do it cleanly or that I make a mess?”

“I’m guessing you don’t know how to use a gun.”

“Correct. And I’ve no interest in injuring you more than is necessary.”

He let go of the gun. I got off him and picked it up.

“I’ve hurt my ankle. I think I’ve twisted it,” he told me.

“Which foot?”

“The left.”

“Take off your right boot.”

“The right one? OK.”

He managed to get it off without putting too much pressure on his other foot. I picked up the boot by the laces and swung it around my head as hard as I could before letting it fly along the line of trees. It actually hit a tree, so it didn’t travel as far as it might have done, but at least it fell into the undergrowth. Had it landed on the snow, it would have been plainly visible and Ski-mask would have known exactly how far he needed to crawl to recover it.

“That means I don’t have to hurt you,” I said.

“Great. Thanks.”

“How many of you are there?”

“More than enough.”

“Why? I know Legrand isn’t behind this. So who is? Whose while is it worth to send so many people after me?”

“The name I was given is Levèque. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a name.”

It didn’t mean any more than that to me. I debated whether I should take his clothes but decided against it. They wouldn’t be anything near a good fit for me and could only slow me down. Also, if his ankle really was twisted, getting his trousers off over it would certainly not be worth the trouble. Besides, I still wasn’t feeling cold. His weapons were another matter. I already had the gun, but I hadn’t been exaggerating when I’d said that I didn’t know how to use it. All the same, I’d carry the gun until it became a nuisance, just so that Ski-mask wouldn’t have it. What else did he have?

There was a knife hanging from his belt. I made him give it to me. I almost took the belt too, thinking that I could stick the gun in the back of it, but could see that I really needed a more secure way to carry it. Searching in the backpack, I found one of those money pouches that’s supposed to go around your neck under your clothes, to prevent theft. This one contained his UK passport and some other papers that I didn’t have time to read. I glanced at the name on the passport but it meant nothing to me. I put the passport and papers in the backpack and found that the gun fit rather snugly into the wallet. Forcing it to close put a strain on the zip but that was OK. I didn’t think I’d need it to last very long. There was no way that the knife was going to fit in there as well as the gun, though. Maybe I needed the belt after all.

Look at your left boot, Legrand said.

There was a slit on the inside of the ankle, the opening of a kind of pocket or sheath. The knife fit in it perfectly, with less than a centimetre of the hilt showing.

I hadn’t noticed that.

I noticed. I used to have a pair of a similar design.

“Where’s your radio?”

“What radio?”

“You were up here, surveying the scene. How were you letting the others know what you could see? You certainly weren’t relying on mobile phone coverage in the Pyrenées.”

“I’m sorry to say that that’s exactly what I was doing. We had to put this whole thing together in a hurry and, of course, we weren’t expecting you to get out of the cabin.”

I didn’t believe him, naturally. Maybe I should make him take his clothes off after all, and search them for the radio. But no, I didn’t have time for that.

“How come I did get out of the cabin? There were enough of you to surround it completely.”

“When the first car got there, they decided not to wait. They thought they’d take you by surprise before you noticed they were there.”

I moved the backpack about fifteen metres away from where he was sitting and emptied it out on the ground. Still no radio.

“And the phone?”

He took a phone from the pocket of his jacket and tossed it towards me. It landed nearer to him than to me but, I felt confident, outside his reach. Keeping my eyes and the gun both fixed on him, I managed to recover the phone and retreat to the scattered contents of the backpack. I decided against keeping the phone. I couldn’t remember anybody’s number and, strange as it felt to form the thought, I believed I could rely on Legrand as my link to the rest of the world. I removed the sim from the phone and left them both, separately, among Ski-mask’s other belongings, the sim buried in the dirt.

I took what was left of the chocolate bar. There had been another in the backpack; I left it on the ground within fairly easy reach.

“I told you I don’t know how to shoot the gun. That’s perfectly true, and it means that it isn’t much use to me in the long term. So, if you start yelling while I think I’m still in range, I’ll empty the clip in your direction.”

“Understood. Till next time.”

He waited till I was out of sight before he started to shout.

I weighed my options. Since the cabin had been destroyed and the car would by now be a burnt-out shell, there seemed little point in trying to make my way back there, particularly as the men who were after me would certainly be allowing for that possibility. The cover of the trees was useful, but I could move slightly more quickly on open ground. Only slightly, because there was some snow and much of the ground was rocky. The rocks were coated in half-frozen water and were treacherously slippery. I concluded that I should make my way just at the edge of the trees, in the opposite direction to the cabin, which was to say roughly eastwards. That way, I could break out onto the open ground quickly, if I needed to. I set off towards the east.

Immediately, I had second thoughts. The process of reasoning which had led me to choose this path was surely predictable. I needed to do something that would surprise my pursuers. Also, I was climbing. Wouldn’t it be better if I were descending, getting closer to sea level and, more to the point, to roads? But I kept going. If there were at least seven of them, my followers would be able to cover almost all of the options and wouldn’t be relying on prediction. And I couldn’t be certain that there was more likely to be a road downhill to the west than there was to be one straight ahead of me.

I walked for what seemed like an infinite duration but probably wasn’t even half an hour. The sun was up to its tricks again and had slowed its progress through the sky to the point where it hardly seemed to be moving at all. The gun in its pouch bumped against my right boob in rhythm with my steps. I stopped to see if I could lengthen the string by which it hung around my neck but it was a fixed length — and too short to tie around my waist. In the end, I turned the string around so that the pouch was hanging down my back, hitting me on the shoulderblade instead of on the breast. I wasn’t going to win any quick-on-the-draw contest, but who had I been kidding anyway? I finished the chocolate and wished I had some water. Had Ski-mask not been carrying any? He must have, but where had it been? Never mind. I was surrounded by mountains and snow. One thing I could count on finding was a river.

I hadn’t been worried about the noise I made while moving through the forest, because I’d assumed that each pursuer was making enough of his own to drown it out. Even if one person stood still periodically, the progress of his fellows would be hard to distinguish from mine. When I stopped to put the gun behind me, I’d discovered something disconcerting: there were “followers” ahead of me as well as behind. Were they aware of this? Were they deliberately surrounding me so that they could draw in the loop? And, if they were, had the time come for me to make a dash for the snow-covered open ground? Six of one. I decided to stick to the familiar shelter of the trees for the time being. Then immediately changed my mind and was scrambling across hard snow.

It was fully forty seconds before anybody noticed. Then there was a shout. I didn’t stop to look at what happened next but I imagined seven different perturbations in the trees each suddenly changing direction and moving quickly towards the forest’s edge. My break of cover hadn’t been completely impulsive. I’d spotted a ridge of rock some 150 metres up the slope and I’d been making for it. Once I reached it, I ducked down and risked a look behind me. I saw three men, all dressed as Ski-mask was, come out of the forest and look more or less in my direction. They were followed by a fourth, then a fifth. It must have been obvious to them where my hiding place was. The only factor in my favour was the length of the ridge. They’d assume that I’d have taken the most direct route between it and the point at which I’d left the forest, but they wouldn’t be able to fix the latter precisely. So, the question for me was whether I should stay where I was or should I move? Assuming, rightly or wrongly, that I could move without being heard and rather more quickly than I had in the forest, I reasoned that it made no sense to stay where I was and wait to be caught. I was opposite a point between the third and fourth of the men I could see, counting from west to east. I decided to get as far to the east as I could before they crossed the ridge, and I set off.

As they had only one quarry, me, I reasoned that it would make sense for them to fan out so that, when they did eventually see me, I’d quite likely be caught between two of them. They wouldn’t get too far apart, however, on the assumption that I couldn’t cover much distance in the time it would take them to reach the ridge. My tactics therefore, such as they were, were to move to the east as quickly as possible, in the hope that I’d be past the fifth man by the time they crossed the ridge, while at the same time looking for a hiding place or an exit from the well defined path I was on. I was now crossing ground that was entirely covered with snow. My boots were doing an excellent job of keeping my feet dry but the rest of me was at last feeling the chill. I sensed that I was moving more slowly and tried to counteract that for obvious reasons, including the belief that vigorous movement would help to warm me up. As I ran, I scanned the rising ground to my right for an alternative path that wouldn’t be too obvious to the men behind me. The snow was hard and I wasn’t leaving any very clear footprints. That would make a difference only if I could find some cover without delay.

I heard a shout behind me and failed to resist a quick look. Two men had appeared over the ridge. Attempting to allow for parallax, I guessed they were about 150 metres apart, and nearly 500 from me. I had no way of knowing whether these were the closest of the pursuers to me, or whether there were others to their east who had yet to get over the ridge. Anyway, now that I was in view of two of them, my tactics, already rudimentary, were simplified further. All that was left for me to do was to try to outrun them. With this realization came an unexpected burst of energy. I heard more shouting behind me and surmised that one of those who’d spotted me was telling those still out of view to change direction to try to cut me off. I hoped it was that, and not that he was telling somebody who was already to my east to double back. I didn’t risk another look behind, so I couldn’t tell how many men were now on the ridge and how close the nearest one was to me. I just kept going.

My energy began to flag again. It was at the point where I had concluded that my best remaining option was to hand myself over to my pursuers when I saw the rock. It wasn’t immediately clear that it could offer me either shelter or a means of escape but it was at least a change from the snowy monotony of the path. The rock was, I estimated, maybe four metres high and almost the same in width. As I changed direction to get behind it, it belatedly crossed my mind that, seeing as they hadn’t begun shooting the moment they’d spotted me on the ridge, they presumably had a decided preference for capturing me rather than killing me. That was encouraging and I wished I’d thought of it earlier.

Behind the rock was a little recess, barely big enough for me to squeeze myself into. Not having any better ideas, I did exactly that, having first had the presence of mind to retrieve the makeshift holster from behind my back. I couldn’t bend enough to get the knife out of my boot, but I was hoping that none of the men would get close enough for the knife to become a useful weapon. I waited until I heard footsteps stop at the rock.

“There was at least one more of you,” I shouted. “I left him back at the tree line with a twisted ankle. I have his gun. I’ll frankly admit that I’m not much of a shot, but there are five of you and I have a full clip and that gap will allow only one of you at a time to try to come in. I’m guessing you don’t want to be stranded up here with a potentially disabling wound. Anybody who tries to follow me in here will get a bullet at point blank range.”

I hadn’t checked that there was a full clip; indeed, I didn’t know how to. But why wouldn’t there be?

“Fine by us. We’ll just wait till you get hungry. Or fall asleep.”

“OK. I’m not going to say any more. When you’re certain I’ve fallen asleep, you can come and get me.”

I wriggled back into my confined space, facing the entrance and with the gun pointed towards the front. It was certainly a tight fit. I wondered how long it would be before my claustrophobia sent me screaming into the arms of my would-be captors. For most of my life, claustrophobia hasn’t caused me anything more than minor inconvenience. The feared nightmares about the end of The Vanishing still hadn’t materialized and, in general, a panicky refusal even to contemplate getting into an enclosed space at the very worst made me look a bit of a wimp while at the same time protecting me from at least one kind of danger. In my present unusual circumstances, in contrast, claustrophobia was a downright nuisance. One of the fundamental certainties of my existence was that I’d sooner hand myself over to be raped, tortured and slowly beaten to death than I’d allow myself to be trapped in a dark enclosure where I didn’t have enough room to move. So maybe the easiest thing after all would be to fall asleep and let them come for me. But, if the passage was as narrow as it felt to me, how would they even be able to get me out? Only one of them would be able to come in. He’d have to grab my arms and pull, all the while propelling himself backwards. How would he get the traction? Maybe one of the others would have to pull him by the legs. I stifled a giggle: I didn’t want them to make any noise while I was awake, in case they noticed when I stopped.

What do you think, Legrand?

No answer.


I fancied that I felt his not being there as a positive phenomenon. Not so much the absence of Legrand as the presence of anything-but-Legrand. Was the mountain blocking his radio signal? Or had his own claustrophobia — if he had a particularly extreme version of my own fear of heights, why shouldn’t the same be true of my terror of enclosure? — forced him to turn down the feed? One way or the other, he was gone. Whatever dangers lay in my immediate future, I’d have to face them toute seule, sans Legrand. As these thoughts had been passing through my mind, I’d continued to wriggle backwards. I was now a good 150 metres from the entrance, quite a distance at my slow pace. The light from entrance was dimmer. It occurred to me that the men might be blocking it deliberately. Smart move, if they were.

The thing about panic is that it’s both unpredictable and uncontrollable. Roosevelt was perpetrating a benign lie when he said that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The thing one can’t avoid being afraid of is not fear but panic (which, to be sure, is related to fear). For me, the worst thing about tiny spaces is the awareness that at some point I’m likely to panic, and that will make me want to flail my arms and legs about, but I won’t have room to do so, and that will make the panic worse and — but I didn’t think my present circumstances were the best ones in which to expatiate on this.

I continued to wriggle away from the opening. The passage was narrow and left me barely enough space to move my body. There was no more than a centimetre or two between me and the walls on each side and the roof was low enough to prevent me from raising my head to the point where I was directly facing the entrance. So, where was the panic? I felt calm and in control, if a little tired and hungry. Maybe I should sleep soon. By now, I was so far away from the mouth of the passage that I wasn’t going to be extracted without a mechanical digger. But I might as well keep going, for now. Who knew what was behind me? Maybe a wider, higher cave with another way out. Had that been all there was to it, all along. Could I defeat panic by going in in reverse, not seeing what was ahead of me? Wriggling backwards into the unknown? Wriggling bare-assed into the unknown, I fancied I heard Amber’s voice correct me.

This time, I didn’t bother to stifle the giggle: if anybody had even heard it they would surely refuse to believe that the sound was coming from as far away as it seemed.

Should I rest now? I understood that I was wary of falling asleep in case I panicked on waking. At some point I was going to have to take the chance — unless I came to the wider cave first. For now, I’d keep moving, though I was getting very tired.

I think I must have continued to move backwards in my sleep, or near-sleep, because suddenly I was jolted wide awake by the sense that my knees were no longer in contact with the earth. I pulled myself forward, back into the passage, now less afraid of being narrowly enclosed than of plunging into something I couldn’t see. It was pitch dark of course. Was it night, and could I expect there to be even a little more light in daytime? I had no way of telling.

It struck me for the first time that there hadn’t been a watch on my bedside table when I’d woken that morning. What had Émile done with it? Notwithstanding the fact that in my work I’m surrounded by computers and other devices nearly all of which include a clock as one of their features, I have continued to wear a watch. One of the reasons is that, unless you configure the devices to get the time periodically from some authoritative, central repository, they’re soon out of sync with each other and provide you with an array of minimally differing figures instead of one definitive one. So, I choose to treat the time as displayed by my watch as definitive. And I habitually put my watch on unthinkingly as part of the process of getting dressed. But this morning I hadn’t: because it wasn’t there. Émile must have taken it off me, because I’d certainly been wearing it the night before. Where would he have put it if not on the bedside table, and why?

Whatever the reason, I was going to have to manage without my watch. A torch would have been vastly more useful in any case. I turned onto my back without difficulty. I raised my head without bumping it off the roof of the passage. I tried to sit up, and found there was enough room. Since I couldn’t see and was going to have to feel my way, I needed both hands. I put the gun back in its wallet, which was still hanging around my neck. As I didn’t plan to do any more running immediately, I let it hang in front of me instead of behind. I turned again and lay on my front, but this time facing in the direction of travel. I felt the ground in front of me. Since I’d had the distinct sense that my knees had been hanging over an edge, I expected the descent to be steep, perhaps even sheer, and my hands immediately confirmed this. Unless I could determine how long the drop was, I was faced with three options. I could stay where I was and hope that Legrand would have somebody try to rescue me. I could take a leap into the unknown. Or I could go back the way I had come.

Of these, the leap into the unknown was the least unattractive, though it was still a long way from being acceptable. At the thought of crawling back through the narrowly enclosed passage, I felt my panic begin to return. I could see that this was irrational. I’d already established that I could pass through the tunnel-like opening without difficulty, and I had an approximate idea of how long it would take; but the one thing of which I was absolutely certain was that I was never going to attempt it. Even that knowledge did not make the incipient panic go away.

What if going back the way I had come, or through some equally narrow passage, was the only way out of this cave? Would I just sit here and starve to death? Of course I wouldn’t, that’s what had been at the edge of my consciousness during the long crawl, keeping panic at bay. If I died in the cave, it wouldn’t be from starvation. I had the gun, and no ethical, religious or practical objections to suicide. However bad a shot I might be, I couldn’t miss my own head at point-blank range with a full clip. I giggled again, with the realization that, if I was right in my surmise that the mountain was blocking his reception of the signals from my nervous system, to kill myself here would be the perfect way to frustrate Legrand’s original scheme.

My difficulty was that I thought I had a better use for the gun, one that would mean it was no longer available when the moment came — if it came — when suicide was the only acceptable option left. I needed to drop something heavy off the edge of the steep descent and listen very intently to see if I heard it hit anything. A large stone would do, but all the stones that I could locate by touch were embedded in earth and I didn’t want to risk making the roof of the cave unstable by trying too vigorously to dislodge one. The only suitable object that I had was the gun. If it came to it, could I kill myself with the knife? Given a choice between that and dying of starvation in the tightly enclosed dark, I believed I could. Anyway, it made no sense to hold the gun back against an extreme eventuality, when I had an urgent need of it now. I took it out of its wallet again. In the dark, of course, I couldn’t see whether the safety catch was on. Even in daylight I might not have been able to tell. I didn’t know where it was. But I hadn’t changed anything since I’d taken the gun off Ski-mask, and there was no reason why he’d have been carrying it without the safety catch in place.

I was by no means confident that, if I heard the gun hit the ground, I’d be able to estimate with any degree of accuracy how far it had fallen. I had been taught that a falling object accelerates at the rate of 9.8 metres per second squared. That is to say, every second it falls, a speed of 9.8 metres per second is added to the speed it was falling at before. But what would its original speed be? Clearly, it wouldn’t be moving at all at the moment I dropped it, so could I assume that the velocity at the end of the first second would be 9.8 m/s? I doubted it, but I didn’t have a better assumption, so that one would have to do.

I lay at the edge, with my head sticking out and my right arm holding the gun over empty space. I let it drop, and started to count the seconds. Before I’d got to two, there was an ear-shattering explosion as the gun went off. A lump of earth fell past my head, another hit me on the left buttock. It seemed to take forever for my hearing to come back.

When it eventually did, I was able to determine that I wasn’t surrounded by the sounds of the cave roof falling in. OK. A second and a half, say 20 metres? I’m one seventy-two, so that meant a drop of more than eleven times my height. Out of the question, particularly in the dark, where I couldn’t see what I’d be landing on. The sensible thing would be to stay put and see what the passage of time might bring: help from Legrand, the penetration of daylight into the cave, perhaps even my pursuers approaching from a different direction, with torches, having found a less constricted entrance to the cave. To stay put, however, would require patience, the kind of patience that I’d be astonished to discover, at this late stage of my life, that I possessed. At the very least, I’d need something to keep my mind occupied and the thing that was keeping it occupied at the moment was a fantasy of pressing forward, leaping off my little ledge into the deep dark. If the outcome was that I shattered my skull, I’d have nothing more to worry about. And if I broke one or more limbs, it was likely — overwhelmingly likely, I assured myself — that I’d still be able to reach the knife in my boot. In the end, I compromised. I’d sleep for a bit and reassess the situation when I woke, well rested.

It was still dark when I woke — I have no idea how much later, but I didn’t feel all that well rested. I was stiff and very hungry and had a debilitating headache. But, above all, I was parched. My mouth felt completely dry of any moisture whatever, and an experimental and unnecessary attempt to utter a spoken word had no effect other than making the pain in my head a little worse. In the almost silent darkness, I became convinced that I could hear the sound of flowing water coming from below. How far below? I couldn’t decide whether it was reassuringly close or discouragingly remote. Either way, I knew that if I didn’t attempt to reach it the combined effect of the sense that it might be within reach with my own extreme thirst would be to drive me irrecoverably mad. Without any further thought, I turned on my tummy, pushed my feet over the edge and eased myself backwards until the lower half my body was hanging over the void. I pushed myself back further. I tried to hold on to the edge but the earth crumbled under my fingers. And then I was falling. Almost immediately, my left foot struck some kind of protuberance which literally knocked me sideways. Then, I hit something which took but did not hold the full length of my body. And then I was rolling ever faster. I was on a slope; a very steep slope which seemed to offer no features that might have stopped my descent. It held many protruding rocks which surely must have left bruises and perhaps cuts but which didn’t break any bones.

The worst thing about the descent was having no idea how long I’d have to endure it. After what seemed like several minutes, I became bored without feeling any less terrified. Finally, my descent was halted, none too gently, by a boulder. It took me several minutes to recover my breath. When I had, I felt myself carefully all over. I had dozens of little cuts but, as far as I could tell in the dark, none that was liable to lead to serious blood-loss. I was stiff and aching all over but I was reasonably sure that nothing had been broken. Now the sound of the stream was very close. I climbed over the boulder, half-expecting that it was at the very edge of the stream. My disappointment was tinged with fury. I crawled around in the dark, exploring the terrain with my hands. I was still on a slope but here it was a lot less steep than it had been further up. It took me nearly fifteen minutes by my own reckoning to find the stream. It flowed down the slope at, I guessed, an angle to — but I’m not going to waste time on my mental map of a landscape that I never saw clearly. It would be wholly inaccurate anyway.

I ought to have smelled and sipped at the water cautiously. Suppose there had been a decomposing animal carcass upstream? Instead, I pulled off my crop top and lay face down in the stream, with my knees bent at right angles to keep my boots dry. The water flowed into my open mouth. Even if it had been polluted, it would most likely have smelled and tasted delicious to me. I stayed in that position for several minutes, then rolled out of the water and sat up. I felt around in the dark for my crop top and failed to find it. Had the water carried it away? But no, I’d been careful to put it on top of a small boulder to keep it dry. This boulder? I couldn’t find another one. I forced myself to stop looking, though I found the loss frustrating out of all proportion to its significance. My thirst slaked for now, but having no container in which to carry a water supply, I decided not to leave the vicinity of the stream until I’d had another rest, a proper one this time. I curled up in a hollow formed by the boulder against the slope.

When I woke again, a faint, grey light suffused the cave. It must have been night when I’d rolled down the slope. I felt as if I’d slept for a very long time, so perhaps the light was faint because the sun was about to set again. On the other hand, it might well be noon outside, and perhaps only a very small amount of light made its way through to the cave. Or it might be dawn. I thought that the light was getting perceptibly stronger but this was most likely the effect of my vision adjusting to the murk. I looked around for my crop top but saw no sign of it. I didn’t believe that it could have been washed away, as the only reason I’d taken it off was to keep it dry while I lay in the flowing water. Well, if I couldn’t find it, perhaps I could recover the gun, which must be somewhere on the cave floor.

I was now weak with hunger and when I stood up I wasn’t sure for a moment whether I could keep my balance. My priority, if I wanted to stay alive, had to be to find my way out of the cave and get myself something to eat. My search for the gun was accordingly perfunctory and fruitless. As far as I could judge in the dim light, the roof of the cave varied from 10 to 15 metres in height. My calculation that the gun had fallen 20 metres before going off had been a wild overestimate. Also, my rolling descent must have taken a lot less time than it had seemed to. I was relieved to see that the light seemed to be at its strongest at a point near the cave floor, over to the left. I’d been afraid that I’d have to climb in the dark to reach any potential exit from the cave. Walking unsteadily over the uneven, poorly lit ground, I was pleased to discover that my boobs didn’t flop or jiggle uncomfortably now that they no longer had the crop top for support. My progress towards the light was slow but straightforward and uneventful. As I approached it, the light got brighter but the cave narrowed to a small opening. I was growing apprehensive that I’d have to struggle with my claustrophobia again before I could leave the cave. However, at its narrowest point, I could pass with room to spare, while walking upright. The path made a dog-leg around a boulder and, once I’d passed this, I began to cry with relief. I was now in almost full daylight and I could see that the exit was unimpeded. If I’d had the energy, I’d have run the last 200 metres.

I emerged from the mountain, almost as if it had pushed me out, naked, wet, bedraggled, streaked with mud and many times hungrier than I had previously believed possible. Dazzled by the sun on the snow, I turned slowly through 360 degrees, trying to decipher the turbulent stream of visual sense impressions. What my hearing discerned, in contrast, was unmistakeable and unambiguous: the click of a firearm. I stopped turning and blinked in the direction from which I thought the noise had come.

“You’ve lost the rest of your clothes, I see. And the gun. When we heard the shot last night, coming from deep inside the mountain, we thought maybe you’d decided to end it all. We just found this cave this morning. We were about to come looking for you — or your corpse. Thank you for saving us the trouble. Are you ready to let us take you back now?”

I tried to speak but my throat wouldn’t produce a sound. I nodded.

The man — not the original Ski-mask, but somebody else with his face similarly covered — handed me a bottle of water. I poured most of it down my throat in one go.

“I need to eat,” I croaked. “First give me food, then we can talk about where you can or can’t take me.”

I did not hand back the water bottle.

“It’ll have to be chocolate, till we get back to the vehicles.”

“Chocolate. Great.” I crouched down, placing the water bottle beside me on the ground.

“Are you all right?”

“Dizzy,” I said. “It’s probably the hunger.”

The man who had spoken was about five metres away. Behind him, I now saw, was a second man, similarly dressed. He held a gun, a rifle of some sort, I thought. There had been five of them; I guessed they’d left three watching the place where I’d gone into the cave, reasoning that I was more likely to come out the same way. Or perhaps there were two there and the fifth man was watching yet another potential exit. For whatever reason, it seemed that I had only two to deal with for the moment. The nearer man tossed me a bar of chocolate. I made a deliberately ineffective attempt to catch it and it fell a little short of my feet. I reached forward to retrieve it and fell, not entirely unintentionally, on my face. As, with some difficulty, I got back into a crouching position, the man stepped forward and picked up the chocolate. As he straightened up, I drew the knife from my boot and launched myself at him, bringing up the knife with all my remaining strength. I was aiming to insert the knife into his body just under the ribcage, approximately where the liver is. He was nearer to me than I expected by the time I hit him and the knife went into his abdomen instead. He screamed. I twisted the knife, pulled it out and pushed it in and twisted again, in imitation of the way I’d heard that bayonets were used in the first world war. Almost immediately, I was covered with his blood, intestines and partly digested food.

The second man had raised his rifle but hesitated to shoot, presumably in case he hit the other man instead of me. Idiot — by then his companion was beyond saving. But maybe I was the one he didn’t want to kill: their instructions evidently were to bring me back, presumably alive. I let go of the knife, instinctively wanting to distance myself from the disgusting things it had done to my adversary’s body. I ducked behind a boulder and tried to run. Predictably, to get away from the rifle man, I had to go up the mountain again, instead of down. Acutely aware of the rifle behind me, I attempted to run with my head down, minimizing the target that I presented. The path was covered with hard-packed snow. Lightheaded and weak with hunger, looking down rather than ahead and desperate to put a solid piece of the mountain between me and the rifle, I was almost bound to put a foot wrong. It was my left foot, as it turned out. I felt it slip from under me, throwing me off balance without costing me sufficient purchase to stop my forward momentum. For the second time in less than a day I found myself rolling down a steep slope. This time, I wasn’t rolling in the dark, however, but on snow that blindingly reflected the late morning sun as I accelerated alarmingly. The other difference was that there was no boulder to bring me to a halt. As I rolled ever faster down the dazzlingly bright slope, I shut my eyes involuntarily. Suddenly, after what seemed like several minutes, the light grew less intense and I could no longer feel the rocky, cold ground beneath me. I reopened my eyes.

I don’t pray, ever. On this occasion, uniquely, I made an exception. I prayed that I would lose consciousness before my body smashed itself onto the sharp, jagged rocks several hundred metres below.