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They say that if you're born with a taste for adventure, it never leaves you.
They're wrong. Up to the age of 23, I courted danger. I loved living on the edge. Today, it's the last thing I want.
My name's Nick Moreton. I live in a village that's nothing more than a scattering of houses, a general store cum petrol station and a long disused Methodist chapel. My home's located in Cornwall. That's all I'll tell you, other than hint it's close to Padstowe.
I run a community newspaper from which I draw a modest income. It helps that I live in the rambling old house I inherited from my parents. It's a struggle to maintain the place. I could never have afforded to buy it.
I have two children, neither of whom are mine. There's Jillian who's 13 and Josh who's 12. Both are from Pat's previous marriage to Mark Leeton. I'm Pat's second marriage. She's my first, and I hope, only marriage. Mark's a nice guy: a successful stockbroker in London. We see Mark and his new wife, Angelica every six months. During his last visit at Christmas, he generously offered to pay for the kids to attend public schools, but I told him we'd make do. Besides I've never liked public schools, having gone to several myself.
My family, I think, see me as a pleasant and unambitious man. But I wasn't always dull.
Certainly, my children unfavorably compare their quiet life in Cornwall with Chelsea where they were brought up. 'Buried in the sticks' is one description I overheard.
Jillian wants to become a ballet dancer. I think she's dreaming, though I'd never tell her. To my admittedly untutored eyes, she lacks the ineffable grace of a good dancer: all the gliding effortlessness demanded by that most difficult art At best, I suspect, she'll become an also ran: third cygnet on the right in the Swan Lake chorus. Besides, she's already too tall. In time, I hope she'll find something that suits her.
Josh is more fortunate. He already knows what he wants to be. I wish I could have said the same at his age. I don't know if Josh is a genius, but already the security software program he's written has excited interest among some heavy hitters in the hi tech world.
The other day, he suggested I become a presence (his word, not mine) on Facebook.
'What for?' I asked. 'I haven't many friends.'
'You would if you joined.'
'You mean pick up a lot of people I don't know? Strangers who want to be pals? Sounds phony to me.'
'Well, why won't you at least upload your photo to my website? People asked to see you.'
I said with a straight face. 'I don't want to advertise myself. There may still be an international warrant for my arrest. I'm wanted for multiple murder.'
Josh goggled, then howled with laughter. 'Yeah right! Nick Moreton: international man of mystery!'
It must be said Josh is an unusually persistent, read bloody snoopy 12-year old. A few days later, he was back to nagging me.
'Dad, how come you never talk about yourself? Your childhood. Stuff like that.''
'That's because it was so boring,' Jillian suggested.
'That's right,' I agreed. 'Shockingly boring.'
And generally it was. I was a hopeless student. The only gift I had was taking clear, well composed photos and stringing words together. My grades were so bad that both my parents and teachers were relieved when I began work. Rather surprisingly, I drifted into a reasonable job as a cub reporter on a London daily. In those far away days, an ability to write vivid, concise prose was considered more valuable than a fancy journalism degree. I learnt my trade and moved from one paper to another. In my early twenties, I decided to travel to Europe and file a story from a country that had been largely closed off for decades. I had a vague plan that this might establish my reputation: not a big ask, considering that my public profile was almost invisible.
Georg Jepsen disliked me. How strongly, I was soon to learn. It didn't bother me. My money was his friend.
I neither knew nor cared how Jepsen, a middle aged Dane ended up in a god-forsaken village on the border of the most backward nations in eastern Europe.
He had one thing I needed: the only hire car for a hundred miles. Not only that, but for a grossly inflated price, he agreed to take me across the border into the lawless, but historically interesting and visually beautiful country.
'Will I need a visa?' I asked innocently.
'No, just bring an open wallet. If we're lucky, they'll take a heavy bribe.'
'And if we're unlucky? Very unlucky?'
'Then we'll be killed soon after we cross the border for both the car and what we carry.'
Mentally I dismissed this. My first big mistake.
Jepsen condescendingly described the country we would enter. I learnt that for many years it had been a vassal state of the Soviet Union. The collapse of communism thrust the nation into independence. Democracy however brought starvation. The government had lurched from one crisis to another. The first popularly elected President had looted the Treasury before fleeing to Switzerland. Three months before my visit, the country had fallen under the spell of a nationalistic demagogue. Personal security had become a joke. Policemen and soldiers hadn't been paid for nearly a year. There were plenty of guns, but little food. Some soldiers deserted, while others moonlighted as armed robbers.
I began to feel uneasy. Seeing this, Jepsen smiled maliciously. 'Don't be scared. I've a secret weapon.' He took me to his car. Opening the glove box he took a heavy revolver. The gun looked about thirty years old, but the smell of fresh oil suggested it was kept in good condition.
'It's wise to be prepared. Can you shoot?'
I could, but something warned me to shake my head.
'Very well,' Jepsen said wrapping the gun in a soft rag before pushing back into the glove box. 'We'll leave at 7 am tomorrow morning. Have a hearty breakfast. It'll be your last for a while.'
It took less than an hour to reach the border post.
'Wait,' he advised. 'I'll fix the price. Stay out of sight. That way the guards can truthfully say they never saw you.'
He went into the small hut and ten minutes later, emerged. Two guards came out smiling. They all shook hands. Everyone avoided looking at the car.
After an hour, we were halted by a makeshift barrier of empty oil barrels and wooden spars. Three men carrying AK47's strolled over to the car. They wore shabby military uniforms from which they had torn their insignias of rank.
'Give me your wallet,' Jepsen muttered. He got out of the car holding the wallet open and walked smiling toward the men. The men glowered back.
I sat in the car, engine still running. I slid behind the wheel. This, I thought, is not going well.
I watched Jepsen talking. The men listened. Two seemed undecided while one shook his head. The two began arguing with the third. He abruptly raised his gun, but another gently pushed down the barrel. Whatever the two had said, seemed to work as Jepsen now openly sweating now got back into the car. My wallet was empty and I was glad I had hidden another roll of US dollars in my backpack. The barrier was drawn back and without a word we eased the car past the men.
We climbed into the mountains. The narrow road was sometimes made even tighter by the need to skirt rock falls. It swung back and forth. On one side was the steep cliffs. On the other, dizzying drops into the valley. I saw with alarm the burnt out wrecks of several cars and trucks far below.
The alpine scenery was wild and beautiful: gray hills of bare granite interspersed with clumps of pine. The hillside was generally unscalable, but occasionally a faint track descended to the road.
Jepsen glanced into his rear vision mirror and frowned. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
'What is it?' I demanded.
There was no disguising his fear. 'The soldiers we passed before are behind us in a jeep. They're signaling us to stop.'
He lifted his foot from the accelerator.
'What are you doing?' I asked with alarm.
'I'm going to give you up,' he replied. 'that way, perhaps they'll let me go.'
I was stunned. 'You'd let them kill me?'
'Of course,' he answered indifferently. 'You're nothing to me.'
I pulled open the glove box and unwrapped the pistol. Sliding back the safety catch, I jammed the barrel hard into Jepsen's ear. 'Like hell you'll give me up,' I snarled. 'Now listen you bastard, floor the accelerator or I'll blast your brains out the window.'
If I had we'd both die, but Jepsen didn't argue. He hit the pedal and the car surged forward. It was however old and the road steep and treacherous. We began to fall back.
I glanced behind. The jeep was hidden for a time, but I knew they were gaining on us.
Then I saw what I needed.
'Stop the car,' I ordered.
'Why?' Jepsen was confused.
'Don't argue!' I screwed the barrel cruelly into his ear. 'Hit the brakes!'
As soon as the car stopped, I grabbed my backpack and jumped out. I threw Jepsen's gun over the cliff. It would be no use against automatic weapons.
'Now get out of here!' I told him. He thrust the car into gear and roared away.
I sprinted over to the small track I had seen and began to climb, praying I'd reach cover before the jeep swung into view. I made it with seconds to spare.
Then as the jeep pursued Jepsen's car, I stood up and began to swiftly climb into the hills. It was a steep climb, but I was young, fit and desperate.
Before long, I reached a point where I could look down onto the road. I searched for the two vehicles. They were parked in a small layby. Both were empty. Jepsen's driver's door hung open. The three soldiers were grouped around Jepsen who was curled up on the ground. He looked up. I didn't need to hear a sound. He was clearly pleading for his life. One man kicked him in the face and as he fell back the others fired their guns. Sickened, I turned away and continued to climb. I knew that as soon as they had finished, the men would search for me.
I wondered if I should have kept Jepsen's revolver, but knew my best defense was to both run and hide.
Cursing my stupidity at having entered the country, I decided to work my way back to the border crossing as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, we had traveled quite a distance by car and it would take at least two days of hard hiking to reach safety. Already it was growing dark.
I made a stocktake of my supplies. What I found heartened me. In addition to my camera, tape recorders and notebooks. I had brought a small compass and a detailed map. I also had water and energy bars. I wouldn't get lost, nor would I go hungry or thirsty. I determined to keep out of sight as much as I could, not knowing the loyalty of the mountain villagers.
By nightfall, I found myself in a small forest and stretched out on a bed of pine needles. In less than a minute, I was asleep. Hours later, I was woken by a sharp prod in my ribs. I opened my eyes to see with alarm an old man standing over me with a double-barreled shotgun. He had opened and examined my backpack. The secret roll of money was on the ground beside my scattered goods.
He lifted up my wallet and by the light of a torch read my name from my international drivers' license. 'Mr. Nick Moreton,' he said in passable English, 'a freelance journalist.
'This was a stupid place to come for a story,' he said severely.
'I can't argue with that. Could you lower the gun? It frightens the hell out of me.'
'You have much more to worry about than my gun,' he told me, breaking the shotgun.
'How do you speak English?' I asked, getting to my feet.
'I fought with the British as a partisan. Why are you alone in the mountains?'
I told him. He nodded grimly. 'And what are your plans?'
'To leave your country as quickly as I can!'
He nodded. 'Yes. You'll only bring trouble on everyone you meet.'
'Then let me go.'
'Pick up your stuff', he ordered, 'and come with me.'
'How did you know I was here?' I asked as we walked through the forest.
'There are no secrets in the mountains,' he replied shortly.
After several minutes, we reached a small cottage standing in an orchard. He opened the front door to reveal a large room that served as a kitchen, eating area and bedroom. A ladder led to an attic. A fire was burning in the hearth and a delicious aroma of bacon, cabbage and bean soup drifted from a large blackened pot suspended by chairs over the fire.
The old man introduced himself and Margarita, his tiny, silver-haired wife. Two small boys giggled in the shadows. 'My grandsons,' he explained. 'Come forward,' he commanded with mock severity 'and present yourselves.'
The woman and children didn't speak English, so I showed my appreciation for the delicious food that was generously ladled into my bowl by rolling my eyes and rubbing my stomach: gestures that greatly amused Margarita and the children.
The man offered me home brewed beer, but I asked for water. A plan was beginning to shape itself in my mind: a plan that would demand a clear head.
After the meal, the woman took the boys upstairs to tuck them in while I spoke with the man.
'You know these soldiers?' I began bluntly.
'And they did you harm?'
'They ruined my life.' A glance at his agonized expression told me why the couple's son and daughter-in-law weren't there.
'If these men were to die,' I asked carefully, 'Would there be reprisals?'
He thought about the question, then shook his head. 'No. Especially if their bodies were hidden.
'But why speak of dreams?' he asked bitterly. 'My shotgun is no match against automatic weapons.'
'You're right. I have in mind something that can be easily found on a farm and no one thinks of as a weapon.
'Before I tell you what I'm thinking, do you know of a traitor in the village? A man or woman who would betray my whereabouts to these killers for money.'
'There is such a man.'
I explained my plan. When I finished, my host looked at me with surprise. Then he laughed. 'You have a wicked imagination!' he told me approvingly.
'So what do you think?'
He stared into the fire. 'It might work,' he conceded ''But it would put Margarita and my grandchildren at terrible risk.'
'They're at risk every moment those three killers breathe,' I pointed out.
He said nothing, continuing to stare into the fire. I heard the crackling of the burning wood, the ticking of an ancient clock and the soft voice of the woman telling her grandchildren a fairy tale before they slept. It was a rare moment of peace, but I knew beyond the cottage evil forces might at any time invade this sanctuary.
'I'm old,' the man began. 'I've begun to doubt myself. You're here to show me what I should have done long ago. Stand up to those who threaten my family.'
He stretched across and shook my hand. 'By tomorrow, we may be dead, but it will be as men, not cowards.'
That night the informer was told where I sheltered. Villagers watched him take his truck to where the soldiers were camped.
Scarcely 30 minutes later, the killers roared up in their jeep. Two got out and I watched them kick open the door. The old woman screamed. The third soldier sat in the jeep smoking.
I broke cover, running through the orchard toward the forest.
The soldier dropped his cigarette and bawled to his companions' 'Leave them! He's out here.'
As the two soldiers burst out of the cottage, the man jumped out of the jeep and began to fire. I had passed the orchard in a weaving run and had reached the thin cover of the first trees when a stream of bullets hit the forest, cutting branches and sending splinters flying around my face.
Being under fire is frightening. Being targeted by an AK47 however is the most terrifying experience in life, but it lasted only seconds before I disappeared into the gloomy forest.
Behind me I heard the jeep roar into life. I ran swiftly through the forest. Before putting my plan into action, I had run the course several times. I knew had to reach a certain tree by the road before the jeep. I did.
I had twisted thin wire around the trunk of the tree. Now in the minute before the jeep caught up, I took the loose end of the wire and twisted it tightly around the trunk of a tree on the opposite side of the road. My plan depended on two things. Firstly that the jeep's windscreen was down, which it was and secondly that I had set the wire at the right height.
I tightened the wire that could scarcely be seen in the dusk then scrambled for cover. The jeep hurtled around the corner and drove straight into the wire. The heads of the three soldiers were sliced off as cleanly as a guillotine blade. The heads each spurting a crimson parabola of blood were flung back, bouncing along the road. The jeep charged on smashing head on into the trees at the next turn. A large cloud of steam rose from the crumpled bonnet.
From the forest, figures emerged: villagers laughing and weeping with relief. Several kicked the heads contemptuously. When the old man arrived with his wife and grandchildren arrived, applause broke out. Margarita try to shield the children's gaze from the horrifying sight of the heads and decapitated bodies, but the children appeared unconcerned.
That night, two of the men from the village quietly took me to see the remains of the informer. It was a sight that even now I can't bring myself to describe.
The next day, the border guards stamped my passport with indifference.
Sometimes, the road to freedom is long. In my case, the distance was less than 20 feet.