Protected Species: Chapter One

My jumper was clammy with hangover sweat that didn’t warm me up. I had been walking in circles for two hours and it was nearly midday. Time for a break. I stopped and looked around.

The sky was still the same slate grey and the grass was green and yellow and rustled in a light breeze that swayed the leaves in the wooded hill I had been circling. I could just make out my handlers as dots in the distance where they’d parked up on the brow of a hill for the day. Sun glinted off the bonnet of the 4×4, a monogrammed hip-flask, or a telescopic sight.

I pulled the phone they’d given me from my cargo pocket and made the call. It was a full minute before they answered.

“Avon calling.” It was Davenport, being witty.

“I’ve been round the wood four times and haven’t seen anything,” I told him. “Think maybe we should take a break, maybe try somewhere else.”

“Sure, sure, I can feel you. Taking a break sounds like a great idea. We’ll drive back to the lodge, it’s only an hour, you can shower, get a bite to eat, put your feet up, check your social media, take a nap and we’ll start all over again this afternoon.”

“I’m not on…”

He snorted. “There’s two kinds of hope mon frere – Bob and No. Guess which you’ve got.”

“Look, I haven’t even got any water on me, I need a drink.”

“Ach, guess we forgot to give you some. There’s plenty here, but ah, well, I think I spy a speedier solution already. Look around and you may notice this thing called a stream. Y’know, where water flows before it goes into a bottle.”

I hear sniggering in the background. Davenport’s got me on speaker, and Wilson and Montgomery are listening in. “Okay, here’s what you do. You walk over to that stream, you kneel down like you’re praying, you cup your hands, lower gently, cradle that H2O, lift carefully to lips and hell, just go and glug away.”

More laughter. He’s in raconteur mode. “Look at the beauty and the wonder of the wilderness all around you. That’s nature man. People pay a lot of money to breathe that fresh air, drink that cool water, dine on berries and take a dump with those squirrels. You’re getting a holiday right now. Be grateful.”

“You want me to stay here.”

“I want you to keep walking until what we want finds you, or it gets dark. That’s what we’re paying you for. We’ll call you if we want you to change direction.”

The phone clicked off. My throat was parched and my eyes were gummy, and I still weighed up how much his advice would stick in my craw. I walked over and dunked my head straight in the stream so hard the pebbles on the bottom nicked my skin.