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5
Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way – Part Two

Disclaimer: See Chapter 2


~~~

“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” – James Baldwin

Kim stood by the bed and folded her towel carefully, edge to edge, until it formed a perfect rectangle with no overlapping or untidy sides. It wasn’t that she was some kind of obsessive-compulsive; it was more that when she occupied herself in mindless tasks it stopped her from thinking about the bad stuff. This bad stuff lay on the outer edge of the sea of insanity and she was determined not to go there.

“Are you decent? Can I come in?” The welcome voice of Chief Knowles interrupted her folding. She turned and joyfully flung herself into his arms.

The Chief was understandably taken aback to find that one of the senior and most level-headed members of his usually orderly Orderly Room staff had suddenly turned into a limpet and was clinging tightly to him.

“Ah…Kim? Oxygen is becoming a huge issue here.” He gently disengaged her arms from his shoulders, but did not release her hands. Instead he gently rubbed them and turned them over to examine the vicious scratch marks that had scored the soft skin. He made a soft sound of distress under his breath when he finally lifted her chin and saw the bruises and deep scratches down her cheeks as well. “Damn it Sergeant what the hell have you been doing to yourself?” He asked softly. “All I did was send you on a Fieldcraft Training exercise.”

She hung her head. “Sorry Chief.” The tears that were constantly on the verge of falling spilled unchecked down her cheeks and the overwhelming grief that had dogged her since that awful night finally overflowed.

He gently pulled her back into his arms and rocked her, as he would have one of his own daughters, stroking her hair and making soft reassuring noises all the while.

The figure of Gary Matthews appeared momentarily in the doorway and Knowles smiled at him over Kim’s bent head.

“I’ll come back later.” Gary mouthed and Knowles nodded.

After a few moments Kim lifted her head and Knowles handed her his clean handkerchief. She blew on it loudly and then tried to give it back to him. He chuckled and pushed her hand away. “No. It’s all right, really. You keep it for now; give it back to me later, when it’s been laundered. Well and truly!”

Kim gave a watery chuckle. “Oops. Sorry Chief, I wasn’t thinking.” She stuffed the offending damp article into the pocket of her combat trousers. She looked mournfully at Knowles. “I think they think that I murdered everyone.” She said despondently. “There’s even a copper outside the door in case I run amok and start on a bloodletting spree.”

He glanced at the door in confusion. “Copper? Well there’s nobody there at the moment, so they obviously don’t think you’re too much of a threat.” He went to the door and looked both ways down the corridor, but all he could see was the Adjutant coming back in company with another man. He came in and shook his head. “Nope. No men in blue anywhere to be seen.”

“Does that mean I’m free to go then?”

“Not quite.” Inspector Alun Davis came into the room with the Adjutant. “The hospital still has to release you. However I am happy to say that forensics have ruled you out as the murderer and also that dagger as any kind of murder weapon. Not that I ever thought you were. However we would still like you to assist us in some further enquiries.”

The relief on her face rapidly turned to consternation. “What sort of enquiries?”

“Well, if you’re feeling up to it, we would like you to visit the crime scene area.” He said matter-of-factly.

She paled. “But why? I thought you said I had been ruled out.”

“Yes, you have, but there is still the matter of the ah…missing head.”

“Mr Irwin’s head.” She said quietly.

Knowles listened to the conversation and watched Kim’s reaction with narrowed eyes. She had taken the handkerchief out of her pocket and was crushing it convulsively and nervously in her hands. The idea of going back into those woods terrified her that much was plain to see.

“Yes.” The Inspector smiled at her. “We really need to try to locate it, along with your weapon if possible. Can’t have lethal implements lying around in the woods for some hiker or kids to find, can we? Or bits of body parts. Do you think you could retrace your steps back to where Mr Irwin died?”

She bit her lip. “I...I think so.” She looked up at Gary as if to say ‘Do I have to do this?’ and he nodded reassuringly at her.

“Think of it as a duty to Mr Irwin and his family Sergeant.” Gary said gently. “And losing your weapon is a chargeable offence in the British Army. You should know that more than anyone.”

She flushed. “I didn’t do it deliberately Sir.”

“I know that. If I thought otherwise you’d have been brought up on a charge by now. There were extenuating circumstances. However now we need to retrieve it.”

“Did you retrieve everyone else’s weapon?” She asked.

Gary and the Inspector exchanged a speaking glance and the sudden cold certainty hit the Chief that they hadn’t managed to retrieve the weapons. He looked at Kim to see if she had noticed the slight silence but she was staring down at the bed, so he decided to remain quiet and not ask the sixty-four million dollar question that was rattling around in his head.

“It’s in hand Sergeant.” Gary replied rather diffidently. He looked at his watch. “We can go out to the scene as soon as the hospital discharge you and after we’ve had some lunch. Is that okay Inspector?”

Davis nodded. “Sounds fine to me except that I’m needed back at the station. I’ll send PC Moore back to go with you. He’s a local lad, knows the area and woods like the back of his hand.”

“Good, then let’s get you discharged Sergeant. I’ll go and see if they’ve sorted out the paperwork.” Gary left the ward and was halfway down the corridor to the nurse’s station when Chief Knowles caught up with him.

“Sir, is it all right if I come with you this afternoon?”

Gary stopped and stared at him. “I don’t see why not Chief, you are her boss after all. In fact I think it would be a good thing if you did. She obviously trusts you and feels safe with you. Yes, do come.” He said the last almost as though he was inviting the Chief to a tea party at Buck House with the Queen rather than on a gruesome expedition to find someone’s severed head.

Knowles chuckled. “Thank you sir. I appreciate the confidence in me.” He said dryly.

oOo

They travelled to the forest in the Chief’s huge Mitsubishi Shogun with PC Moore trundling behind in his police car. They had travelled from Lydney and on through the village of Whitecroft where Kim had stumbled into after her flight from the forest.

She looked out of the window curiously to see if it seemed familiar, but she recognised nothing at all. Everything that had happened after she took to her heels and scrambled through the woods was a bit of a blur. She vaguely recalled dizzying bright lights and a man asking her questions, but apart from that there was nothing.

What was interesting for Gary and the Chief at least was the distance Kim must have covered that fateful evening. The minor road they took from Whitecroft into the forest proper ran for quite a few miles and passed through at least two other villages.

They pulled into the last village, which was called Parkend, and parked the vehicles up. Jim Moore got out of his police car and came over to the Shogun. “This is where we need to leave the cars. We could go a little further up the road, but the track we need to take doesn’t have anywhere we could leave them. It’s not far, perhaps a mile, mile and a half.” He looked at Kim, obviously wondering if she was up to it physically.

Gary answered for her. “Sgt Freeman is a trained soldier Jim, she’s used to hiking and getting on with it. That’s what soldiers are supposed to do.” His tone was mild, but underlain with a gentle admonition.

“Of course.” Jim acknowledged and smiled at the pale young woman. To him she looked as fragile as a china doll, but he supposed that the military have to keep up appearances of being tough. “Shall we then?” He had already donned a pair of thick socks and heavy duty Wellington boots. He slipped into the familiar fluorescent yellow jacket with POLICE written on the back, checked his torch and radio and headed off down the road followed by three soldiers dressed in combat clothing.

Lace curtains twitched at cottage windows as the motley group walked past. The small village had already had a taste of notoriety with the comings and goings of the crime scene and forensics teams. There had even been TV cameras and the man from the BBC nine o’clock news in the village, but the authorities had so far been very tight-lipped about the goings on in the wood. This didn’t stop the denizens of Parkend being curious though. For them, the only thing that made this little group slightly more acceptable was that they had a local Coleford boy with them, even if he was a copper.

Just as Jim Moore had said, they hadn’t got more than about a mile along the small road when they stopped and he indicated a stile and a path that led into a thick clump of dark conifers.

“This is it.” He said pointing at the path. “We head along here for another three miles and we should reach the crime scene. It’s not too far from my village, which is Coleford. Beyond there is the A4136 which splits the Forest of Dean and runs all the way from Huntley to Monmouth which is the nearest large city and where the River Monnow joins up with the River Wye.”

Gary turned to Kim. “You ran a hell of a long way Sergeant.”

She gave him a wan, unenthusiastic smile. No matter how she tried she couldn’t recall any details of her terror-filled flight, which was, perhaps, just as well under the circumstances. Now, standing at the edge of the dark clump of trees, she found that the idea of entering there again made her feel sick to her stomach.

Jim smiled. “Yes she did and the sad thing is that if she had run in the opposite direction she would have hit Coleford a lot faster than she did Whitecroft.”

“And presumably if she had run forwards instead of back, she would have run straight into the arms of the killer or killers.” The Chief put in quietly.

“Aye, there is that.” Jim said sombrely. “Her instincts were probably right in the first place.” He looked around at the three soldiers. “Everybody okay to go in?”

Gary glanced at Kim’s deathly pale face and beckoned to the Chief. “Chief, if we let Jim go first because he knows the area then either you or I should go last. Keep Sgt Freeman in the middle.”

The Chief nodded. “I’ll be ‘Tail-end Charlie’ sir. You and Kim can be ‘piggy-in-the-middle’”

Gary chuckled. “Dear heaven Chief, that takes me back a bit. I haven’t played ‘piggy-in-the-middle’ for years, not since I was about seven.”

“Ah.” The Chief nodded sagely. “My speciality was ‘knockie-nine-doors’. Never did like ball games. The old geezer at Number Fifty-One used to regularly chase me with his garden shears at the ready. Of course that was why we did it, for the excitement. It probably led to me joining up.”

Gary gave a snort of laughter and followed Jim over the stile.

“After you.” Chief bowed to Kim with exaggerated courtesy and ushered her over.

She gave him a ghost of a smile. “You trying to protect me Chief?”

He stared at her for a moment and then a mocking grin stretched his mouth. “Protect you? Not on your life Sergeant. I’m hoping that when they fire from the front you and the other two will be there to take the hits. It’ll give me the chance to turn tail and run. I’m not daft.” He tapped the side of his nose knowingly and was gratified when Kim gave the first giggle he had heard out of her all day.

oOo

It didn’t matter that the sun was shining above the canopy of foliage, none of it managed to penetrate down to the forest floor, so it was a damp place smelling of moist dark earth, the musky scent of the wildflowers that could grow and the smell of pine sap.

Ferns and bracken were abundant on the ground, as were walls of thorn thickets similar to the one Kim had lain in on her previous visit. The forest was also eerily silent except for the occasional furtive rustle in the undergrowth. No birds sang and any sounds from the modern world outside were non-existent. Even a light aircraft flying high above them failed to make its presence felt.

The deathly silence and the damp vegetation had different effects on all of them. Chief was immediately taken back to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Although the foliage was by no means exotic jungle fare, the closeness and stillness aroused his alert system. There was something here. What kind of something he wasn’t sure, but it was here and it was watching them.

Gary recollected summer holidays spent in the New Forest in Hampshire with his family. He and his brother thought that they had got lost one hot summer’s day and were close to the verge of panic as they stumbled frantically through the trees and hit the campsite, only to find that they had been running in circles. However the sombre stillness of this ancient conifer wood with its occasional spreading oak made him recall how threatened he had felt when he didn’t recognise anything familiar. He felt an odd prickle on the back of his neck and got the fleeting impression of someone looking at him, but when he glanced at the others Kim had her head bent and the Chief was looking closely at the trees on his left. He dismissed it as fanciful and trudged on.

Jim Moore had grown up and played, both as a child and a young teenager in these woods. Nearly every tree was an old friend and although he acknowledged that the place was quieter than it usually was and there was an absence of animals, like the fallow deer that often wandered through looking for forage, it still seemed like a friendly place to him.

Kim was almost stiff with fear. She tried to tell herself that they would be fine, but the same oppressive stillness that had lain over the forest that late afternoon clogged the very air. The atmosphere around her felt electric and her heart was beating far too fast. The whole stupid place had eyes. Eyes that glittered like obsidian in nasty brutal faces, but that could see for long distances. She shuddered and crossed her arms protectively around her chest.

Jim stopped and held his hand up. So did Gary, however Kim who was walking with her head down smacked into his back and bumped her nose. “Ow! Oops, sorry Sir.” She smiled apologetically at Gary who had turned around. “Why have we stopped?”

Gary pointed at the fox that was currently crossing the path. The fox had also stopped and stared suspiciously at this human intrusion into his domain, but since they all remained quite still he obviously assumed that they meant him no harm. He trotted on into the bracken and ferns on the other side of the path and disappeared from view.

“That’s the first sign of life we’ve seen in here since we entered.” Jim said softly. “It’s very strange, usually there’s a lot of wild life activity.”

“Perhaps something spooked them.” Chief commented.

“Or someone.” Kim shivered again.

“Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we’re all aware that something very nasty happened here in the very recent past?” Gary said in practical tones. “It’s called hyper-vigilence, you were in Papua weren’t you Chief? You should remember how twitchy the blokes on patrol got after a while.”

“I do, sir. I remember it well, and at the risk of making everyone uneasy, I’ve had the same feeling in here that I used to get there. As if someone is watching me.”

“Well whatever it is, the crime scene is just past that group of young oaks ahead.” Jim pointed in front of them.

Gary turned to Kim. “Recognise anything yet Sergeant?”

She looked around at her surroundings and frowned in concentration. Finally she shook her head. “I’m not sure sir. I don’t think I was this close to where they were setting the camp up. The noises sounded to me like they were coming from my left, but Mr Irwin.” She hesitated over his name a little. “Well he and that thing came from almost directly in front of me, but then I had stopped to...” She stopped with a flustered look on her face.

“Why did you stop?” Gary persisted gently.

“I…oh...bloody Nora, I stopped to pee, okay? I needed to pee. I found a convenient bush; so I may not have been facing the same way I was before and Mr Irwin and that thing could well have come from my left. From the direction of the campsite.”

“We all need to pee at some stage Sergeant.” Gary said with a smile. “Even me.”

Chief let out a bark of laughter. “And here was me thinking that officers didn’t do mundane things like that.” Gary raised his eyebrow and the Chief chuckled. “Sorry sir, I take it back. Officers are human beings after all. Who knew?”

Gary grinned at him. “I forgive you Chief. I think officers stop seeing to the call of nature when they get to Major General or Field Marshal. I still have quite a way to go before I get that privilege!” He turned to Kim again. “And the dagger, where was that in relation to your bush?”

She blushed furiously. “It wasn’t exactly my bush sir. It was near the bush, half buried in the soil. I was digging it out when I noticed the sounds had stopped, then they came, crashing through the woods. Mr Irwin looked half crazy or terrified and he was covered in blood. When he saw me he grabbed me by the arm and threw me into a row of thick bushes. He told me to stay down and then that awful sound came.” In her mind’s eye she saw the instructor falter again and then drop to his knees in front of her. With difficulty she jerked herself back to the present. “Then he died and that thing came out of the trees and chopped his head off. It picked his body up and it threw the head into the bushes where I was lying. I saw his eyes.” Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. “Oh god I saw his eyes.”

Chief put his arm around her and she clung to him like a child after a nightmare. “I think that’s enough for the moment sir.” He said calmly. He met Gary’s gaze with a slight challenge in his own.

“I agree.” Gary said quietly. “Take a few moments Sergeant and then we must crack on. I really don’t want to be wandering around here in the dark.”

She straightened up. “I’m all right sir, really I am. It’s just that I keep seeing his eyes.”

“I know you do, but the best thing to do is to talk about it. Try not to push it down too deep.” He looked at Jim who was standing quietly to one side. “You said the campsite was straight on?”

“Yes. Straight ahead past those trees.” He pointed again.

“Okay troops, let move out.” Gary started to walk towards the trees, followed by the others. They hadn’t got more than a few yards when Kim let out a cry.

“There!” She pointed at one large girthed oak. “I sat there and sorted my blisters out.” She ran over to the tree and picked up something small and white. “The wrappings from the plasters. Here they are. I got up and went in the direction of the noises.” She said triumphantly.

They all stood and looked at the tree, then as one they glanced at the clump of trees. The yellow crime scene tape could be clearly seen now. Kim saw the puzzled looks of her companions as they glanced from the tree to the campsite.

“What’s wrong?” She faltered.

“It’s nothing love.” Chief soothed. “You were just closer to the camp than you realised.”

Jim was pale. “Damn, she had a narrow escape. She must have misjudged the direction the sounds were coming from. In actuality the Sergeant walked away from the campsite, not towards it. Blimey. Come to think on it, there is a clearing about a quarter of a mile away, which is used by hikers to pitch camp. They’re not supposed to start fires, but they do anyway.”

“Well let’s head over there.” Gary said quietly.

As they walked Kim began to get her bearings. Halfway along the path she stopped and bent down. When she stood up she had a Mars Bar wrapper in her hand. “That was mine.”

Three pairs of eyebrows raised. “Whatever happened to the Country Code Sergeant?” Gary asked.

“I was hungry!” She protested and then blushed again. “I should have put the wrapper in my pocket, but if I had then we wouldn’t have known we were on the right path would we?” She gazed at them triumphantly.

“I suppose I can think of worse things to follow than a paper trail of chocolate bar wrappers.” Chief said dryly.

“There was only one Mars Bar.” Kim replied loftily.

Jim had scouted on ahead. “I’ve found something.” He called.

They saw him rummage in his pockets and pull out some plastic gloves and a large green coloured baggie. Kim looked up at Gary who smiled reassuringly at her.

“What is it Jim?”

“I would suggest that you don’t let the young lady come any closer.” Warned Jim. Kim saw him put something carefully in the large bag and firmly zip it up. None of them needed to be told that one of their objectives at least had been achieved.

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