Chapter Forty-Two

Then he heard the whimper from under the bed. He pushed Alex against the wall. ‘Don’t move.’ He squatted down and peered under the bed.

For the first time in nearly twenty years he was finally face to face with Zo? Bradbury. Unlike the happy, smiling young woman in her photo, her face was pale and thin from nearly two weeks of incarceration. She shrank away from him with a look of terror.

‘Zo?, I’m a friend.’ With the rising agony in his shoulder it was a struggle to keep his tone soft and reassuring. ‘My name’s Ben Hope. I’ve come to rescue you. Your parents sent me.’

She shrank further away, back against the wall.

‘Come on out,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you home. It’s over.’

She wouldn’t come out. He had no time to mess about like this. Jones was still in the building. Ben grabbed the steel bed-frame and slid it away from the wall on its castors. He reached down and grasped her arm. She squealed with fright.

‘Look, I know you’ve been through a lot,’ he said. ‘I know how you’re feeling. But you need to co-operate with me.’ He jerked her to her feet, and she stared at him in bewilderment. Then she caught sight of Alex Fiorante across the room and started wriggling to get free of his grip. ‘She’s one of them!’

‘Zo?, it’s all right,’ Alex said gently. ‘Ben and I are going to get you out.’

‘No! No! She’s one of them!’ Zo? struggled harder, her voice rising into a scream.

Ben hit her with a straight jab to the jaw.

She went down without a sound. He gathered her up and slung her over his right shoulder. The pain was excruciating.

‘That’s one way of doing it,’ Alex said.

‘Let’s go.’ Ben pushed open the door and surveyed the corridor. No sign of Jones. They paced cautiously down the corridor, stepping over the dead bodies. Blood was dripping fast from his left arm, leaving a trail as he walked down the corridor. His shirt was soaked with it.

The lift had gone. Ben pressed the wall button and heard it lurch into motion down below. ‘Stand back.’ He aimed his gun at the doors, bracing himself.

The lift was empty. They rode it down to the ground floor and crept out into the deserted lobby. Zo?’s limp body was becoming a dead weight. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes, fighting to stay alert.

Alex pointed. ‘The entrance is this way.’ They hurried outside. He suddenly felt chilled to the bone as the cool night air hit the sweat on his body. He glanced all around him, taking in his surroundings for the first time since they’d caught him and brought him here.

The derelict hotel was perched high up on a rocky mound, with a narrow road snaking down through the trees and disappearing into the distance. The dying sunset was an explosive panorama of red and gold behind the rugged line of mountains. On the other side of the sky the moon was rising. Vast plains and forests stretched out for miles all around them.

He turned to Alex. ‘Where are we?’

‘About fifty miles south of Chinook, Montana. One road in, one road out. A million acres of nothing all around us.’

‘What the hell are we doing in Montana?’

‘Getting out of it, if we have any sense.’

There were a few vehicles parked outside the hotel. ‘We’ll take that one,’ Ben said, pointing to a GMC four-wheel-drive parked opposite. Alex trotted over to it and reached inside the driver’s door to flip down the sun visor. A key dropped into her palm. ‘I’ll drive.’

Ben opened up the rear and laid Zo? gently down on the back seat. She stirred and groaned. He was sorry for what he’d had to do to her, but there was no time to worry about it now. He climbed in beside Alex as she gunned the engine into life. ‘There’s a first-aid kit under the seat,’ she told him. He opened the box and sifted through. Bandages. Surgical tape and scissors. A tube of codeine tablets. He swallowed two of them and leaned back in the seat, pressing hard against the wound to stem the bleeding.

Alex accelerated hard away from the hotel. The road was narrow and twisty, forest on either side.

‘We can’t stay on the road,’ he said faintly. ‘I don’t want to come face to face with forty of your Agency friends, FBI and whoever else. If you see any kind of track, take us down it.’

‘You’re crazy. You’ll lose us in the wilderness.’

‘That’s the idea.’

Alex was a good driver, and the big GMC felt solid and planted on the loose surface as she kept her foot hard on the floor. After a couple of miles there was a gap in the trees, and Ben saw a dirt track snaking away to the right. ‘There.’

She threw the car into it, skidding into the turn. The car juddered and hammered over the uneven track. Branches and bushes skimmed past in the lights, raking the windscreen. Ben pulled the bloody material of his shirt aside and felt the wound. The bullet-hole was in the fleshy part of the shoulder. He didn’t think it had hit bone. The whisky flask was still about half full and he sluiced the wound with it as she drove, grimacing at the sting. He peeled off his shirt, unravelled a length of bandage and started binding himself up.

‘How bad is it?’ she said, glancing across, raising her voice over the engine roar.

‘Fine,’ he muttered. The pain was dulling as the codeine hit his bloodstream.

‘It’s not fine. We’re going to have to get that bullet out of you fast.’

‘Just keep moving,’ he said.

The track carved deep into country. After about six miles it was so overgrown that they were driving blind, crashing through dense undergrowth. On the back seat, Zo? was groggily propping herself up, rubbing her face where Ben had hit her and holding onto the door for support as the GMC lurched wildly from side to side.

Alex’s eyes were concentrated fiercely on the screen, hands tight on the wheel. After a few more miles she was forced to slow to a crawl, and the track had petered out to nothing. The GMC battered its way through a giant thorn bush, broke free and suddenly they were in open countryside with an ocean of dark prairie stretching out in front of them. The stars were out and twinkling, and the mountains were a black jagged silhouette against the sky.

‘The Montana hi-line,’ Alex said. ‘Where the great plains meet the Rocky Mountains. Nothing but wilderness.’

After a dozen more brutal miles, the terrain was becoming increasingly rough and the rocks and ruts were forcing them to take a wild path. Alex was getting exhausted, shaking her head to stay focused. Then the GMC lurched violently sideways and pitched to the left, almost going over. Ben felt himself sliding across the seat and braced himself with his legs. In the back, Zo? cried out. The car ground to a halt, something clanking from the front end. Alex swore and pumped the accelerator, but the wheels had lost traction and were spinning in the dirt. She swore again.

Ben opened his door and jumped down, clutching his shoulder. The bleeding had stopped, but his shirt and jeans were black with blood. He staggered in the dark, light-headed with pain, cold sweat on his brow. The GMC was tightly bedded into a rocky rut that had been hidden by bushes, impossible to spot in the dark. ‘We’d need a tractor to tow us out,’ he said. ‘We walk from here.’

Zo?’s jaw dropped open. ‘My God, this is your idea of a rescue? I’m not walking out there.’

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘You stay here to fend for yourself, among the rattlesnakes and grizzlies.’ He turned to Alex. ‘We’ll need to conceal the car. It’s easy to spot from the air.’

‘You think they’ll come out in helicopters?’

He smiled weakly. ‘Wouldn’t you?’

They salvaged what they could from the car – there were a couple of blankets in the back, bottled water, a Maglite, some matches, binoculars. Ben packed all the stuff into his bag together with the first-aid kit. Then he and Alex explored the wooded valley around them, gathering branches and bits of shrub by torchlight and building them up in a mound around the car. There were a hundred questions he badly wanted to ask her, but right now there were more important priorities. He felt he could trust her, though he didn’t know why.

After a few minutes the vehicle just looked like a big clump of vegetation under the moonlight. Ben nodded to himself, and hefted the heavy bag onto his good shoulder. They set out in single file across the rocky terrain, the moon lighting their path. Ben kept Zo? close by him, grabbing her arm to keep her moving when she fell back. She was sullen and unwilling, and complained loudly whenever she stumbled over a rock or a tree root.

He ignored her and trudged on. Every so often he glanced up at the stars to maintain their northerly course. Alex had said the hotel was fifty miles south of Chinook. It made sense that the closer they got to civilisation, the more likely they would be to come across a road or a farm from where they could work out their next move. And Ben knew that sooner or later he’d need medical attention. Untreated, the wound would fester. He was thankful for the recent tetanus booster he’d had – but he’d seen gangrene set in quickly in lesser wounds than this.

As he walked he could feel his energy gradually dwindling and the grinding pain in his shoulder beginning to intensify again. He fought the urge to take another painkiller. He couldn’t afford to waste them. There was a lot of distance ahead, and a lot of pain.


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