Today's Reading

When he hit the ground he dropped into a crouch, and waited to see what happened next.

Which was nothing, for a while. A pair of small owls hooted in the distance, a familiar duet of hunt and swoop, while on the main road, a quarter mile away, a lorry banjaxed the quiet, hauling freight westward. There was cloud cover. Max knew the skies well enough to guess what stars he'd be looking at, this particular time and date, but had to be content to see them with his mind's eye only. More practically, from where he crouched he had a cross-section view of the lane and a full-frontal of the cottage opposite, which enjoyed enough shadowy places—the baggy hedge in front; the nook behind its outjutting porch—to conceal a ninja army. But if there were an actual professional threat lurking there, would they have sent a lone warrior into his kitchen? One he'd made pretty short work of, come to that? But it was pointless trying to second-guess an enemy whose purpose he didn't know. The owls hooted again. You could set your watch by them. If you were a mouse, it was probably wise to.

He wasn't sure how long the woman in the kitchen would be out, but no more than a few minutes would be his guess. It wasn't like calculated violence had been a habit even when he'd moved in circles where, if not the norm, it was at least an accepted accomplishment. No: the force with which he'd banged her head on the floor had more to do with outraged householder sensibilities than long dormant expertise. It would be sensible, though, to at least attempt to don the thought processes of the professional. Whoever they were, they suspected already and would soon know that their first incursion had failed. What they did next depended on their operational priorities. They wanted to be quiet, but they also wanted Max, and they might abandon thoughts of the former if the latter was within their reach. What, after all, would be the outcome of pandemonium? Lights going on in cottages, and a phone call to the police? Which might bring a rescue party, but not within the next thirty minutes, given the village's isolation. So it was a risk they'd doubtless take. In which case, he'd better formulate a response to an all-out assault on the cottage.

Legging it through the dark was the best he came up with.

And this wasn't the worst idea ever. They'd presumably arrived in a vehicle, maybe more than one, but they hadn't driven down the lane, or he'd have heard. So they had likely parked at the junction, where another lane headed to the main road, and a choice of exit routes. That would be their objective, and whether he'd be lying back here with a hole in him or trussed up in the boot of their vehicle while they achieved it, he couldn't know. The Taser, rather than—say—a knife or a gun or a cruise missile suggested that killing him wasn't Plan A, but all plans have contingencies, and if they couldn't take him alive, they might prefer to leave him dead. Neither outcome held appeal for Max, who, if he could make it twenty yards up the road, could slip through the hedge and into the field where their vehicles couldn't follow. He knew the terrain; they presumably didn't. He'd walked that field at night times without number; he'd lain on his back and admired the stars there, which was not a habit he boasted about to the neighbours. He wouldn't claim to know every bump and hollow, but familiarity should give him an edge. Still, he was a long way from being persuaded that this was the way to go when the decision was made for him: a familiar clunk and sigh told him the front door was swinging open. The woman he'd laid low was back on her feet, and her reappearance had galvanised the waiting troops: a shape, two shapes, materialised out of the darkness and ran to join her. There could be others. If he was going to move, it had to be now.

People entered his cottage, and over his head an eerie light broke through the window. They were using torches, and his sill clutter—plant pots, vases, candles on saucers—came briefly alive, casting ghostly shapes onto the night air. Slipping out of the lee of the wall, he crept round the Volvo, whose keys were on a hook by the front door, and onto the lane. This was thickly hedged on both sides, its surface rockier than it used to be, thanks to the recent heavy traffic. It curved as well as sloped and the gap in the hedge allowing access to the field was at the point where the junction ahead became visible. He was walking by memory, trusting his feet. His jogging pants were deep maroon but the top he'd pulled on had a silvery sheen, and if there were moonlight he'd show up as a ghost; a disturbance in the dark, the shape of half a man. But there was no moonlight; there was cloud cover, and the black vault of a February night, and a bitter chill he was increasingly aware of, and then—no warning—the twin headlights of a parked vehicle at the top of the lane, pointing in his direction. He was pinned like a butterfly against a velvet cloth. Noises erupted behind him; not a circus, but a battery of urgent whispers. Torch beams picked him out as he reached the gap in the hedge, and slipped into the field.

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