Line of Descent Chapter 20
Krupmeyer sneaked out of the house and across the lawn with five of the guards. Each was armed with a sub‑machine gun and a pistol. Before entering the forest, they stopped at the edge to rub some earth on their faces and hands. Krupmeyer went around each of them checking out the results. When he was satisfied, they filed into the forest with Krupmeyer taking the point and the rest strung out behind him at six-yard intervals. Harting had given him a pocket compass which he consulted before setting off. It was very hard to read because the forest canopy cut out what little light was being cast by the moon. They had estimated that if they walked due east they should meet up with the slowly moving Canfield.
He adjusted his pace to a slow measured tread, trying to put out, what they used to call the beam in Vietnam. It was an idea that Krupmeyer had scoffed at until the first day he took the point on a patrol. You would be walking along in front, through jungle so dense that it could conceal a whole company of soldiers feet away from you, and suddenly you knew they were there, could sense their presence without actually ever seeing a single one. You could stand there and feel them waiting to kill you. It was like projecting an awareness ahead of you. Probing ahead, with a sense you never knew you had until that moment. It was a dormant faculty which only came to light under the unique stress and lonely terror of walking into death. Not everybody had it, and a man who did, was prized by his comrades, because they knew their very lives depended on his special talent, his little bit of magic. Krupmeyer had it once but that was a long time ago. He hoped it was still there.
He tried to get the pace right, to get in tune with the gloomy forest around him. He opened his eyes wide to catch every stray piece of light and regulated his breathing until it was slow and noiseless. Slowly, he could feel himself tuning in, getting in sync with the forest. It was coming back. Gradually, he could listen to all the little sounds coming in to him from the night and sort through them automatically, filtering and discarding them as harmless. His pace became the noiseless thread of a sleepwalker, steady but sure as he picked his way silently between trees and obstacles.
He looked behind to make sure they were keeping the interval between each other. They had bunched up. It was the natural thing to do, to stick together in the face of danger. He waved them apart and continued on, his head moving as his eyes roved constantly between the bushes and up into the trees. They had walked for nearly half an hour when he felt it. In front and to the left. A tall clump of ferns. There was something in it. He could feel it. He froze, looking at it, slowly bringing the gun around to bear.
He waved the men behind him down. They dropped to a crouch and watched tensely as he circled to the left, never taking his eyes off the primordial clump of vegetation. He could just see something moving between the leggy stalks. It was too small to be a man. He advanced slowly to within yards of it and dropped down to one knee and squinted in. It was some sort of small animal. A hedgehog, he realised. It stared back at him with black beady eyes. He smiled in relief and after having a careful look around, slowly straightened up and waved the others on. He checked the compass again and set off.
They worked their way through until they came to a large natural clearing. The moon shone down on it, turning the high rye grass that carpeted it into stalks of silver. It looked peaceful and preternaturally still. A fairy ring inviting you to dance there in the moonlight. But there was something wrong about it. He stood just in from the edge of the trees and searched every square inch of it that he could see. He could not localise it, could not pin it down to a specific tree of bush. But it was wrong and he could feel it. The sense of menace built up as he stood there. His nerves were jumping and his stomach was starting to react. He did not know what was wrong but he didn’t like it. He slowly backed away into the forest, keeping the gun pointed out defensively in front, as if warding off evil. When he moved, he knew straight away he had made the right decision. With every step backwards, the feeling of threat clicked down a notch. The impulse to break into a run was almost overwhelming. He waved the team back into retreat.
They walked carefully back the way they had come and began a large circle around to the right of the clearing. He was so spooked that he put a flanker out to guard their left approach. By the time they had cleared it, he had begun to wonder if he had just imagined the whole thing. Maybe he had read it wrong. That had happened once or twice before. You imagination began to supply threats and you treated it just like the real thing. There was no way of telling the difference.
It didn’t matter, either way they were still safe, he thought. He put it away and concentrated on the surroundings but it worried him still. It was like a fear of gradually losing your sight in a world where you knew there were sharp points and nasty pitfalls. He was under no illusions. Out here, it was the one insubstantial thing which could stop them falling into Canfield’s hands and now it was playing him up. A gossamer net of hope that was starting to fray at the edges.
Eventually they arrived to within a hundred yards of the end of the forest. Beyond that was the area, cleared of trees, where the sensors were embedded in the ground. It led up to the walls of the estate. They had not found Canfield. He paused for thought, wondering which way to search. He decided to stay in the tree cover and head in a southerly direction, estimating that their wide diversion around the clearing had slowed them up enough to miss him.
Up ahead and to their right, from deep in the forest, came the sound of something thrashing about in the undergrowth. It sounded as if someone was snagged on a bush and trying to pull themselves free. He fanned the men out on either side of him, and led the approach himself. The noises were coming from a natural depression which was completely overgrown with gorse. At fifty feet short of it, he ran out of tree cover. He dropped down and started crawling forward, keeping behind the small bushes that were dotted around the depression. To either side, he could see the others gradually working their way around to encircle it. He slowed up and waited, giving them time to complete the manoeuvre.
When he thought they had reached position, he eased himself forward to the lip and looked cautiously down into the large gully. It was occupied by a large sprawling thicket that had expanded to fill the entire gully. The whole thing was jerking and quivering strongly like an apple tree being shook to get apples to drop off.
It must be another animal, he thought, before taking the plunge and pulling himself over the lip. He slid down the damp side and skidded to a stop at the muddy bottom. Whatever it was, it was within ten feet of him. He squinted in the darkness, trying to make out a shape. It was wide but disjointed and seemed to change form in front of his eyes. What the Hell was it, a deer? There was nothing for it, he would have to get closer. He pulled himself along the marshy bottom, trying to hold the gun up out of the stuff to keep it clean. Gradually he made out the shape in the darkness.
It was a dog. No, it was two dogs and they were leashed together. Alsatians. As he got closer, he could see that their mouths had been tied shut with rags wrapped around their snouts. Their eyes rolled with exhaustion and fear. The rope tying them together had caught up on something on the ground and they were desperately trying to pull away from it with small tired bounds. He watched them making sporadic jumps trying to get themselves free. They were in a bad state. He rose onto his hands and knees and crawled carefully into the thicket to free them.
One of the dogs saw him and started making small hopeful leaps in his direction. He reached it and ran a hand along its head and down the side to gentle it. With a start, he realised the animal was injured and bleeding freely. His hand came away with blood on it. He pushed the animal gently but firmly to the ground and crawled over it to free the snag.
He froze on all fours over the dog when he saw what it was tied to. A body.
He reached over and turned the averted face in his direction. He could just make out the pale features in the darkness. It was Lomax, the man they had sent for help.
His thoughts raced as he looked about apprehensively. It was Canfield’s doing. He had roped the body to the dogs to sucker them out. And he had succeeded. Now he was out there somewhere, waiting. He cursed himself for doubting. It had been Canfield, back there at the clearing. He was sure of that now, but it was too late.
Where was he though? They hadn’t walked into the trap at the clearing. What would he do now? He could either go for them or turn and attack the house, now that the defence around it had been stripped of some men. With grim inevitability, he realised that Canfield would still have to go after them. They posed the most immediate threat to him. They were the ones who could complete Lomax’s mission ‑ get away to fetch help. He couldn’t allow that. That being the case, he had to position himself between them and the wall of the estate to cut off their escape. The safest way for them was a retreat back to the house but Canfield would follow them all the way, picking off as many as he could.
He freed the dogs from the body with difficulty. As soon as he did so, they bounded off, tearing their way out through the bushes and off into the night. He squirmed his way out of the bush and softly called the others in. They arrived but one was missing. Krupmeyer wrote him off to Canfield straight away and quickly explained the situation to the others. The man’s disappearance increased his sense of urgency. He was afraid Canfield would lob a grenade into the gully at any moment.
‘We’ve got no choice about the direction’ he told them, ‘but we can do it slowly or we can do it quick. If we do it slowly, he’s got a better chance of picking us off one by one. I’m all for running like Hell. Does everyone agree?’ Around him, heads nodded quickly.
‘Good. Get going and don’t stop for anything until you reach the house. I’ll stay here and stall him. Good luck.’
They slipped out of the gully one at a time, racing back in the direction of the house while he crawled back up to the lip of it and propped the gun up on the edge. He heard them crashing their way through the undergrowth while he searched the darkness, looking for any signs of Canfield. Gradually, the noise of the last one’s retreat faded away and with its disappearance came an acute feeling of isolation and mounting fear.
He stood it long enough, until he was satisfied he had given them a decent start. He crawled over the lip and after a careful look around, sprinted after them. With every bound, he imagined Canfield closing in behind him, catching up. A nameless hound from hell, a predator racing after him, about to make that final bound that would bring him crashing down for the jaws.
The adrenaline pumped, imbuing his muscles with inhuman energy. He accelerated, dodging between trees and hurdling over bushes that flashed past in a blur. Suddenly, far off to the right, there was a huge explosion that momentarily illuminated that whole side of the forest, blinding him.
That was about where the clearing was; the thought flashed through his head as he turned sharply left, instinctively veering away from the light. Booby-trapped. The light faded as quickly as it had come, robbing him of his night vision. He ran on, slackening his pace slightly, to give his eyes time to adjust back to the darkness. With a crash, he cannoned straight into a tree trunk. He bounced off it, and staggered on, ignoring the throbbing pain from his forehead.
Off from the left, came the rattle of a machine gun. He veered to the right. It echoed through the maze of tree trunks spurring him on to fresh efforts. Canfield or one of his men, he wondered, desperately trying to regain his previous pace. Exhaustion and the effects of the collision fought with his will to survive but he slowly built up speed again.
Finally he burst out of the forest into the naked moonlight and collapsed onto all fours on the lawn, gasping for air. Sweat rolled off him in rivers and his chest heaved as his lungs fought for oxygen. One of his men was already there, down on one knee, prepared to put out covering fire and turn back a pursuing Canfield. He joined him and they both scanned the forest, anxiously looking for the others, as they crouched there, mouths wide open panting for air. Another one burst out of it to their right. Both guns swiveled in his direction automatically. He threw his hands up in fright. Krupmeyer waved him towards them. They waited for more but there was none. After a while, Krupmeyer told them to get back to the house.
He waited, covering their retreat. He stared into the forest, hoping Canfield would show his face. Nothing happened. He backed slowly towards the house, all the time watching the treeline. When he thought it was safe, he turned around and walked towards the house briskly, head down.
His thoughts were angry. He had ignored his feelings at the clearing. He should have gone with them. If Canfield was there, then he should have known the reading from the alarms was sucker bait. There was no comfort in the thought that he had avoided the booby-trapped clearing, three men who had relied on him were still dead.
Drayton had been right. He had gone in with the thought of rescuing a wounded Canfield always at the back of his mind. He had been blinded by that. He’d been a sympathetic fool and maybe that’s what Canfield had been relying on, he thought with self-disgust. He swore he would never make that mistake again. From now on, it was kill or be killed and he was determined that Canfield was going to be the one to die.