The long road through rural Hampshire was devoid of any other traffic, and John Wilkins’ mind began to wander. Increasingly it focused on the meal he had waiting for him when he got home, not to mention a nice glass of cider, rather than on the road ahead of him or on his surroundings.
He was snapped out of his reverie by a noise that dragged his attention back to the here and now, a noise his instincts and experience recognised all too well – a gunshot.
Though he was sure of what he had heard – he had heard enough gunshots during his time in the army to recognise one when it reached his ears – his brain reminded him that he was no longer in the military, no longer in Afghanistan or Iraq; no longer did every noise signal a threat to his life. Just to be sure, he reached down to turn the radio off; no sooner had he done so than he heard a second report, this time there was no mistaking the sound. His head snapped round as he searched his surroundings for the source of the gunshots, at the same time he tensed, ready to react the moment he detected danger to himself.
He could see no-one, though that didn’t surprise him; to his right was woodland, it wasn’t dense but there were enough trees and bushes to provide concealment for anyone who didn’t wish to be seen, while on his left was a four-foot-high hedge, which made it all but impossible for him to see anything of the farm on that side of the road.
His eyes had just returned to the road ahead when a figure appeared from behind the hedge. John slammed his foot on the brake and spun the wheel in a desperate bid to avoid the figure, which he realised was a teenage girl when his brain caught up and processed what he was seeing. He missed the girl, to his enormous relief, but there was no way he could avoid the man who ran out after her – he didn’t even see him until the moment of impact.
The man was caught a glancing blow by his Audi and he spun away before collapsing to the ground, where he lay, unmoving. The moment his car stopped, John released his seatbelt, threw open the door and got out. A small part of his brain was concerned about possible damage to his car from the collision, it was overridden, however, by worry for the girl he had almost hit and the man he had hit. He looked around for the girl, but quickly turned his attention to the immobile figure in the middle of the road when he didn’t see her.
Unsure what sort of situation he had found himself in, but certain that it was a dangerous one, John approached the man cautiously. He stopped a dozen or so feet from the prone figure when he saw the gun on the ground, and turned slowly on the spot, his instincts and his senses in overdrive as he searched for an ambush or some hidden danger, like someone else with a gun.
His heart raced as he mentally returned to his tours of duty in the heat and the dust of Afghanistan and Iraq. Everything and everyone there, at least everyone who didn’t wear an Allied uniform, was a potential threat, including – especially – the environment.
It was a good half a minute before his brain and his body accepted that he was no longer in danger from the Taliban or IS insurgents hiding amongst the local populace, and he didn’t have to worry about the possibility of stumbling on a hidden bomb that was going to tear his body apart.
Slowly, he approached the prone figure, stopping when he reached the dropped gun. He bent to pick up the pistol and examined it quickly – the muzzle was warm, and there were traces of gunpowder around it, which told John that it had been fired recently and was the source of the gunshots he had heard. Hoping that there were no other gunmen around, he slipped the safety catch on and then ejected the clip and the round in the chamber. Once he had made it safe, he tossed the gun and the clip in opposite directions and moved to check the man he had hit.
He had studied first aid, both before he joined the army and while he was in uniform, but his medical knowledge was still limited. As far as he could tell the man had, miraculously, suffered no major trauma, though there was still a chance of internal injuries – it was impossible for him to tell. It was no consolation to know that there was no way he could have avoided the collision, and he wasn’t legally culpable.
His brief and, he was sure, inadequate examination completed, John stood and reached a hand into his pocket for his phone. The emergency operator answered almost immediately and John quickly explained the situation and gave his location – he couldn’t be exact since he was on a back road between two villages with no real landmarks or signs, but he was sure the ambulance and the police would find him without too much difficulty; it would actually be harder for them to miss him than to find him so long as they were on the right road.
When a second examination of the man he had hit revealed he was still breathing okay, and was not about to die or suffer complications from his injuries in the immediate future, John went looking for the girl he had somehow managed to avoid. He had seen no sign of her since she ran across the road in front of his car, but he was sure she was still nearby; the road they were on ran for almost four miles, with only a few farms and a single stretch of half a dozen houses along its length; the nearest place the girl could make for, other than the farm she had run from, was about half a mile away.
He searched the woods around where the girl had disappeared with his eyes; it wasn’t easy, for the only light came from the headlights of his car and the pale moon overhead, which was alternately concealed and then revealed by the wispy clouds being blown across the sky by the brisk breeze.
He saw movement out the corner of his eye but dismissed it as just the breeze playing with the foliage; when the movement came again, he turned towards it and spotted the girl, who was hiding behind a tree and using a bush to conceal herself, not very well, as she peered out in an obvious effort to see what was going on.
“Hello,” John called out, keeping his voice as friendly and non-threatening as possible. “Are you alright?” There was a quick rustling and the girl’s eyes disappeared. He wasn’t surprised by that – he didn’t know who the girl was, or what had happened to her, but it was clear that something serious had. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.”
John waited a few moments to see if the girl was going to respond, when she didn’t he called out again. “It’s okay, you’re safe now, he can’t hurt you anymore.” The girl still didn’t respond. “What’s your name?” he asked, trying another tack.” I’m John, John Wilkins,” he said, hoping that by giving his name he would appear less threatening to her, which would encourage her to speak – it worked.
“Are you one of them?” she asked. Her eyes, the only part of her that was visible, were filled with fear while the concealing bush shook in time with the trembling of her body.
“No,” John called back with a shake of his head, not that he had the first clue who ‘they’ were. The news that there was more than one person to worry about had his eyes darting all around, searching again for any possible danger; the figure in the road hadn’t moved and was, apparently, still unconscious, and John couldn’t see anyone else, despite that he remained alert. “I was driving home when you ran out in front of my car – as he said that he couldn’t help wishing that he had stuck to the dual-carriageway, instead of leaving it to avoid the chaos caused by a three-car pileup – what happened? Who are you?”
The reply came after a silence that stretched on for long enough that John thought she wasn’t going to answer him. He knew the name, he had heard or seen it somewhere recently, he just couldn’t remember where.
“I was kidnapped, I think it was a couple of days ago,” Alice said uncertainly. She wasn’t sure exactly how much time had passed since she was taken from the back of her family’s Bentley, she had lost track of how long she had been locked in the room she had escaped from.
The moment she said that, John remembered where he knew her name from – he was surprised he hadn’t remembered it straight away, after all, her kidnapping had been all over both the local and the national news the last few days.
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