When Diane set off in bright sunshine to camp in the mountains and experience the wildness of nature, she gave no thought to the wickedness of man. A happy, successful student, she meant to enjoy to the full her last week of freedom before starting a career. But the power of nature almost overwhelmed her; and the malice of man was worse…
Mrs Reeves looked doubtfully at the computer screen where, courtesy of Skype, she could see her daughter, Diane.
“I’m still not happy with this idea of you hiking off into the woods on your own for a week. It’s bad enough you’re in America all those miles away without thinking of you unprotected and defenceless.”
Diane sighed. “Mum, it’s one of the reasons I came over here, remember? There’s no real wilderness left in England, and I want to go somewhere where it’s just me and nature. It’s not really dangerous, you know.”
“You’re an attractive young woman, Diane. I wish you’d let Howard go with you. He could take care of you.”
Diane covered a smile. Bookish musicologist Howard, six foot four and a scant ten stone, wouldn’t even be able to keep up with her, never mind look after her. She loved him for who he was, and she jolly well didn’t need a protector anyway. Besides, Howard was in LA at a conference.
“I’ll be fine, Mum.”
“Just phone me every night, Diane. I’ll be worried sick.”
“Okay, Mum. Provided my cell phone has a signal. You look after yourself, too. Love you!” Diane broke the connection. She shook out her wavy, auburn hair, and her face gradually cleared. Six years of university study had been fulfilled with the award of a PhD; in two weeks time she would start her career with a merchant bank in the City. For the next seven days she would be freer than she had ever been, probably freer than she would ever be again.
She hardly noticed the fifteen kilograms of her pack when she set off the next morning. The gentle air buoyed her up. The sun made the distant peaks seem close. She breathed deeply, and exulted in the sense of freedom as she set off from the hotel along the Storm Valley Trail. A man in the car park looked up from his pick-up, and grinned at her. He was wearing a camouflage jacket and trousers, and a hint of ginger hair showed under his military-style cap. Diane wondered whether he was a hunter; her guidebook had warned her to be cautious when she entered wooded areas.
She walked steadily, with no sense of haste. After an hour she paused to remove her jacket, and have a drink. The day was warming up. The river flowed broad and strong beside her. As she sat completely still and gazing at the water, she saw a flash of blue. A kingfisher dived and reappeared with a small shiny fish in its beak. “Oh, wow!” she exclaimed, under her breath, and watched as the bird flew upstream with its catch.
Diane walked on. She could smell the warm grass, the damp riverbank, and her own sweat. Sometimes she passed grazing cattle, and even at a distance she could detect their sharp, sweet scent. The riverbank was alive with the buzz of insects.
At midday she sat down in the shade of a tree. The knobbly bark massaged her back, and the grass was soft beneath her. The triple-decker club sandwich had looked intimidatingly large when the hotel had delivered her packed lunch; now it seemed an ideal size. Diane devoured buttered wholegrain bread stuffed with mayonnaise, salad, turkey and small crunchy pieces of salty, smoky bacon.
Satisfied, she sat quietly and thought of Howard. No good imagining him out here in the countryside; you would never catch him more than a hundred metres from civilization. So she thought of him instead in the Conference Centre in LA, arguing animatedly about the music of Geminiani and the significance of a recently discovered manuscript in Dublin. She loved his passionate enthusiasm; she loved to hear him perform. Mentally, she conjured up the sound of a recorder consort, with Howard playing a virtuoso sopranino part. She chuckled.
Still, there were miles to be covered before she could camp up for the evening. She smeared on more suncream, put on her hat and pack, and set off again.
By five o’clock she had arrived at her intended destination and pitched her tent. She sat late that night, and savoured the stars. There was no moon, and yet the sky was ablaze. Mingled with the familiar twinkling crystals were swirls of faint light like milt in a rock pool, the whole forming a great arch across the sky. Diane had never seen the Milky Way so clearly before, and she was filled with awe and delight.
She woke early, five o’clock. She was a little stiff from sleeping on the ground, but her sleeping bag felt luxurious.
“Oh, bother!” Suddenly she remembered that she hadn’t called her mother as she’d promised. She reached out of bed for her cell phone. Wait a minute. What time is it in London? One o’clock. That’s okay. She dialled, but there was no reply and she was transferred to voicemail.
“Hi, Mum! It’s only me. Just letting you know I’m alright – sorry I didn’t call yesterday. Bye!”
The second morning’s walking was harder. The path became rough, and climbed slowly but persistently. The river on her right was noisy and fast, the brown water breaking over boulders, churned to froth, a cappuccino river. A precipitous rocky slope rose on her left keeping her close to the water; she couldn’t avoid the tumultuous noise of the rapids. She looked wistfully across the river, at the grassy meadow on the other side and the woodland beyond. Could she somehow cross? No, the torrent would wash her away in a second. And what was that at the edge of the trees? It looked like a human figure; but when she looked again it had merged into the background as though camouflaged.
She felt a sense of relief as she crested a slope and saw that the land in front of her opened out. She lost no time in walking away from the river to a place where she was less battered by its sound. Lunch was a frugal meal. Bread, cheese and an apple. She filled a one litre water bottle from the stream and dosed it with a chlorine tablet.
Clouds were gathering, and the wind was rising. She checked the weather forecast on her cell phone. The storm that had been due to strike sixty miles south of her had changed course; she was going to have the worst of it. ‘Still,’ she thought, ‘provided I pitch up properly I shouldn’t have any problems. The tent’s advertised to stand up to Force 10 winds.’ She walked on.
That evening she stopped early. The sky was solid grey, and the air was gusty. She chose a small raised plateau well above the river as her campsite. There was just time to heat her meal before the storm broke. As she ate, she sat at the entrance to the tent looking through the lashing rain. This time she had no doubt. There was a man in camouflage on the far bank, and he had pitched camp about fifty metres from the river. Was it the man she’d seen in the car park? She shook her head. Whoever he was, and however irritating it was that he should encroach on her solitude, he was on the far side of a fast, deep stream. He was no threat. She was peacefully asleep in bed before nine o’clock.
The crash of thunder woke her abruptly. She lay still, heart pounding, not sure what had disturbed her. The rain was still hammering on the walls of the tent, which were bellying out to one side like sails. They flapped and clattered in the gale.
The tent was lit brighter than day for an instant, and within a heartbeat came the crash of thunder. Diane buried her head in her sleeping bag. It didn’t help. The flashes of lightning were so bright that she could see them with her head under cover and her eyes closed. It was like being on a battlefield.
The quilted sleeping bag muffled Diane’s laughter.
“I wanted adventure,” she said to herself, “and it looks like I’ve got my wish. Ow!” LA would have been more comfortable and definitely safer…
The electrical storm gradually receded, but the rain continued relentlessly. Diane dozed.
It was broad daylight when she woke and the rain had stopped. She looked at her watch. 06:15. Should she go on, or go back? She took a biscuit from her pack.
“Breakfast in bed!”
The sleeping bag was surprisingly comfortable, and after her disturbed night, Diane was tempted to go back to sleep. But the wind had dropped, and the light coming in through the wall of the tent was golden. It would be a shame to waste a beautiful morning. She levered herself up onto one elbow.
“That’s odd.” She could feel vibration through her elbow, vibration that was intensifying. She began to feel a pressure in her ears, which became a rumble, which became a roar. She scrambled out of the bag, unzipped the tent door, looked out and gasped.
The whole mountainside seemed to be moving, rocks, mud, trees, cascading helter-skelter.
A fir tree that had stood a hundred feet high drifted past her, canted at a ludicrous angle like the mast of a stricken sailing vessel. She looked uphill. The edge of the mudslide wasn’t approaching her any more closely, and the flow seemed to be slackening. Just to be on the safe side, though, she grabbed her protective jacket and boots and moved away from the avalanche. She glanced again up the slope, wondering uneasily whether the area directly above her was stable.
When all movement had stopped, Diane packed up her kit. Time to go home. She looked more closely at the mudslide, to see whether it would be possible to cross it. She shook her head. No. It would be far too hazardous. She looked up to the top of the landslip. There was solid rock up there, but it was at least a thousand feet higher than where she was standing. She could see new streamlets spurting out of the scar left by the landslide. It didn’t look like an easy passage; it might well be impassable.
It was starting to seem as though she would have to follow the original route, up to a point where she could cross the river and then hike down the far side. She glanced across to the far bank. The river, in spate from all the rain, had been dammed by the mud and debris. It was pooling, and rapidly spreading and deepening. She saw the man again. He wasn’t looking at the pool, or the landslip.
“He’s looking at me!” realised Diane. And the man made a lewd gesture.
Suddenly the route across the top of the landslip seemed a great deal more attractive.
As quickly as she could, Diane shouldered her pack and set off diagonally up the mountainside, away from the fallen hillside. The ground was very wet. Every careful step squeezed water out, little runnels that trickled downhill. Sometimes the soil slid backwards under her tread. Her boots became turgid with mud. She turned upstream, at an angle to the fall line, trying to find solid ground that would not be likely to slip. Reaching a line of rocks, she followed them up into the trees.
Once inside the woodland and out of sight of the stalker, she breathed more easily. She took out her map and identified the plateau where she’d camped. She estimated how far she’d come, and in what direction, and marked the place on the map. So, if she was right about the exact location of the apex of the mudslide, she needed to travel north-north-west and climb steeply.
The woods were dense, and there were no visible landmarks. There were many obstacles that stopped her from following a straight path. It was exhausting work. Almost, Diane turned round to follow her original route, but her fear of the stalker was too strong. She paused at midday. As she sat down on a rock, she remembered her mother and pulled out her cell phone. There was no signal. The battery was nearly spent, too. With a sigh, she zipped it up again in her pocket. She ate a few biscuits, and drank some water, pulling a face at the taste of chlorine.
Although the day was bright, under the canopy of the wood it was twilight. Diane felt tired. Surely she should be close to the mudslide? Or had she climbed too high? She wished she could see a landmark, or preferably two, and take compass bearings. Never mind. Moping wasn’t going to take her home. She slogged on.
After another hour the light ahead brightened.
“The trees must be thinning out, thank goodness,” she muttered.
Not knowing whether she was above the unstable ground or not, she went forward cautiously. She could see rock ahead; that was a good sign.
Suddenly, her breath caught in her throat. Surely that was a figure there, just outside the wooded area? She slipped behind the trunk of the closest tree and peeped round it. Not a hundred metres away stood a man in camouflage, looking into the wood. Hardly daring to breathe she backed away, keeping the tree between her and the stalker. When she had placed another hundred metres between herself and the man she paused. There was no sign of anything but trees, no sound of anything but the wind in the canopy and a single bird singing.
She trotted, at a measured pace she knew she could maintain for hours if necessary. The stalker must know the mountain very well, she reasoned, and he must be fit and fast to have overtaken her. She tried not to think of him. The rising sense of panic interfered with the rhythm of her running and her breathing. She reached the south-eastern edge of the wood. No sign of him. She looked over the valley. Was that a place where she could cross?
Now she ran like a sprinter, heedless of the risk of falling. If she could just cross the river and reach the woods opposite without being seen, she had a chance. She skidded on scree as she neared the stream, almost sliding into the torrent. She climbed onto a rock. It was wet and slippery. The water looked very close and fierce, a lion waiting to pounce and devour her. She stepped onto the next rock, and nearly slithered off. Another step, and another.
With a yell of defiance, she made it to the penultimate boulder. Even as she tensed to spring over the last gap she heard a shout from behind. Her legs weakened, the jump fell short and her feet slipped back off the rock. She hurled her upper body forward, winding herself, bruising her chest and gashing her face, but falling clear of the water.
Desperately, she hauled herself to her feet, struggling to breathe. Her vision flickered and greyed, and she fought to stay conscious. The stalker was close to the water’s edge, he was at the water’s edge, he was on the first rock. At last Diane forced some air into her lungs, and her sight cleared a little. Bending down, she grabbed a large stone.
“Stop!” she croaked. “Stop, or I’ll throw this at you!”
The man laughed, and took another pace. Diane hurled the rock. The man swayed to one side and the projectile missed. The man snarled. Diane bent down, grabbed another missile. The man was only metres away. She hurled it, fiercely, and it struck him full in the face. He wobbled, but advanced relentlessly. Diane bent to gather another stone as the man took the final pace over the torrent. Blood was streaming down his face as he lurched across.
Diane hit him in the face with the rock, as hard as she could. She pushed him, toppling him back into the stream. His head caught a boulder, and then he was whirled away in the spate.
Diane shrank back, horrified. She wondered whether to run downstream and try to help the man. But he couldn’t have survived the rapids? Could he? Perhaps it had been her final blow that had killed him. Certainly she had caused his death.
She sat down a little away from the stream, still gulping in air, still dizzy. She ached in every part. She rubbed her face where it stung, and was amazed at how much blood there was on her hand when she took it away. After a few minutes, she stood up and walked unsteadily down the path by the stream. She looked intently at the torrent, dreading that she would see the man’s corpse, and dreading that she wouldn’t see it, that he would be waiting for her downstream, waiting for revenge. She wept as she walked.
It was only a mile downstream to the site of the landslide. The pool had already overtopped the dam and was carving itself a new channel. Even as she watched, debris from the mudslide toppled into the water draining from the lake, and the flow speeded up. Floating face down in the lake, a figure in combat fatigues spun gently in an eddy.
Diane wondered about her cell phone. Would she have a signal here? With clumsy fingers she pulled it out. Thank goodness. There was a signal. She dialled the emergency services, described where she was.
“And there’s a man here,” she told them. “He’s in the river. I think he must be dead. He must have fallen in. He’s not moving.”
They were very quick.
Within an hour, Diane was seated in a helicopter. Beside her, on the floor, lay the corpse of the man in fatigues, a wisp of red hair, dark with mud, across his brow. Water trickled from his clothing and spread like a bloodstain across the floor.
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