They turn left and on they go down the track that is getting increasingly sandy. Their tires slip in the sand until at long last Helena gets off and starts walking, bike in hand.
“We did not see you come from this side yesterday,” Stephan says. She can hear him panting behind her.
“Well no, we took the other track, didn’t we?” she calls back.
But as they go deeper into the forest, she also knows that time is running out, and that there will be a point, quite near, where she will have to stop. Her hands tremble and her heart races. Sweat is running down the nape of her neck and all along her spine, making her shiver. At long last, the trees clear again and they reach another meadow. The dark outline of the water mill can be seen in the morning mist. It looks as eerie as it did before, except this time there is birdsong in the woods behind them and birds can be seen wheeling across the sky. This is a relief.
Apart from the mill and the birds, there is also the van. Fred is leaning against the side of it and staring at the mill as they come out of the forest, dragging their bikes and panting. He straightens up at their approach.
“The mill?” Stephan pants and halts at the edge of the meadow, ignoring his husband. “Are you fucking kidding me? We definitely know it is not here! We searched all night yesterday!”
Indeed, Helena can see from a distance that most of the gully is now surrounded by muddy mounds and footsteps. They must have been digging all through last night, before realising that it wasn’t there and then chasing the sounds of Helena and Rick once they caught them through the trees. Yes, Helena thinks, Stephan must have been pretty pissed.
“You searched here? How could it have been here?” she asks, buying time “I never made it here after Amsterdam!”
“The hell you didn’t” Stephan growls, “we waited for you at the station. And the bus stop!”
Helena cannot help it and snorts. “You did!” she chuckles, “bloody hell.”
“But you didn’t take the train.”
“No I didn’t. I hitched a ride with a few of my friends” she hiccoughs. The laughter is escaping her now in short bursts that bubble up from inside of her, and there is no way she can stop them. It must be that payback from the adrenaline that Marina warned her about, but she is powerless in her own mirth at the thought of these men sulking in their car, realising she wasn’t going to show up.
“And so you assumed…” she gasps for breath.
“We assumed you had gone ahead to bury the stone at its proper place,” Stephan grunts. Helena bites her lip to stop herself from laughing again. “So we know it is not here. Yet you led me here, despite my warnings not to try and deceive me.” Menace is dripping from his words. He hands his bicycle to Fred, who is still only standing by without saying a thing. “Hold this,” he says, and pulls the shovel from the bike without his eyes leaving Helena’s face.
“Now wait a minute,” Fred starts.
“Shut up!” Stephan hisses.
“Stephan,” Fred presses on and he lets the bike drop between them, then steps over it. “Stephan, I know we have money problems but don’t do anything stupid now…”
“Shut up!” Stephan screams. A number of crows take off from the mill, cawing their protests to the open sky. “Don’t tell me not to be stupid, you useless lump!” Helena can see his hands shaking as they grip the shovel more tightly. Fred stops and stares at his husband. “Do you really think that I am going to stop now, now that I have come so close, now that I am on the brink of restoring my family’s glory and fortune? I have worked years for this!” He advances on Helena, his shovel raised. There is no way she can take on a grown man, let alone two, with a shovel. She drops her bike on the ground and runs for it.
She should have exercised more! She should have done more running, more stretching, more of everything! The cold morning air is tearing into her lungs as she ducks into the forest and weaves her way between the trunks of the trees. She can hear Stephan charge after her, bellowing like a madman. “Get her! Don’t just stand there, get her!” She doesn’t look back if Fred obeys but runs on, jumping over roots and branches and making for the general direction of the main track. There are bound to be people there, aren’t there? Why is it that when you want a little peace and quiet, tourists crowd around you to eat their sandwiches and discuss their life problems loudly, but when you actually need people there, there is absolutely nobody on the trails? The thrashing behind her comes closer and Helena can hear him panting. Obviously Stephan has kept his exercise up but he is not used to this terrain. She suddenly ducks to the side, skirting a wide patch of bushes and changes course quickly. She can hear Stephan cursing behind her as he is surprised by her sudden move. The van! She must get to the van, she cannot keep running like this. Her breath is already coming in sharp short bursts and her heart feels like it is about to burst. A bird comes flapping out of a trees beside her and startles her. Another curse from Stephan, a metallic sound and a thud. Did he just swipe his shovel at that bird? It slowed him down but not enough. Helena can hear him gaining on her. She can see the light becoming brighter around her again and spots the van standing only about twenty or thirty yards away. She can make it to the van, surely? With lungs bursting she looks around, panicking to find where Fred is and with Stephan catching up with her fast.
Looking around was a mistake. She runs into something solid and is immediately caught between two heavy arms. She is pressed against a green jacket with force.
“Don’t be stupid, Helena” Fred says quietly, “You can’t win this.”
“Not if I don’t fight back! I am not the stupid one,” she bites back, her voice muffled, but she has no chance to say anything more. Stephan has caught up with her, and stands panting in front of them. He says nothing to Fred but only points in the direction of the mill. Fred drags her out into the meadow. On they go, over the exact field where they were together just a few days ago, trying to spot a wolf and finding a nest of kittens instead. There is earth everywhere and they stumble frequently. They don’t halt until they reach the edge of the gully. The sides have been ravaged too, including the place where the necklace was found by Helena.
“Now tell me,” Stephan says, “Where is it?”
“It is not here,” Helena pants, “it is not in this field!”
“Where then? Because we have dug plenty of holes around here, enough to make you disappear into one of them!”
“Stephan…” Fred’s voice is hoarse. Helena can feel his grip on her slackening slightly, and his breath is as short as hers. She feels a sudden pang of compassion for this simple man caught in a complex world.
“Shut up,” Stephan says again, and brushes his hair out of his eyes, “You will cause her to think that I am not being serious. But I am.” With this he shifts the shovel to his left hand and reaches his right into his coat. He pulls out a small gun, the kind that detectives on television show in ladies’ purses. But this is not fiction and Helena knows that it will no doubt do its job of killing a person, regardless of its size. She falls still and stares. She did not see this coming at all.
“Now,” Stephan says, “for the very last time: where is it?”
“Fred,” Helena says, a strange calm has come over her now, “let go of me. If he shoots me, he will shoot you too.” His grip on her loosens further but he doesn’t let go entirely yet, although he moves slightly to the side. “Let go, Fred, so I can show your lover -“ she spits the word out “- where the stone is that will turn him into the human equivalent of a forest fire: blazing everything out of the way without regard for beauty or life, human or otherwise.” She shakes off the last of Fred’s grip. “Although I hope that you will now have the sense to run from him, now that you have seen his true face, and the ugliness underneath.”
“Cut the drama,” Stephan says savagely. “Show me!”
Helena turns her back on him and the gun and begins to walk. They go slowly over the uneven ground. Crows caw and watch them as they approach the mill, then fly up as they get closer.
“Is it in the mill?” Stephan asks, “We searched it yesterday too.”
“It is not in the mill” Helena replies, “but close by.”
“Can’t you just tell me?”
Helena stops. “Fine. I will tell you. But you must let me go. You must let me get to the bike and ride away and you must not bother me about any of this again.” She hesitates for a moment. Then: “And you must stop bullying Fred.”
Stephan laughs. “Let Fred take care of his own marriage,” he says, “getting into bed with me was his own mistake to make.”
Helena nods. “So it was.”
They fall silent for a moment. Helena can hear Fred shifting his weight and taking a few steps on the wet ground, to stand between them and the van. There is no escape, there is no way out, this is it.
“I attached the stone to the underside of the mill with wire,” she says, resigned. “You will find it in a little aluminium box in the mouse hole underneath the south-western foundation.”
“Which one is that?” Stephan growls.
“The one on the right from here,” Fred says.“You go get it!” Stephan barks at him but Fred doesn’t move.
“No Stephan, you go get it yourself.” Fred’s voice is almost unrecognisable.
For a moment Stephan hesitates. “Fine. You guard her!” He tosses the shovel to his husband who catches it in one fluid movement.
Helena and Fred stand in the field. Helena’s hands are empty, clenching and unclenching the air. Fred is standing with his legs apart, holding the shovel in front of him like a sword and a shield in one. They watch as Stephan makes his way to the old mill, gun still firmly in his hand. They see how he uses the mill’s old walkway to get to the other side of the gully. They look how the well-dressed man in the camel coat crouches down and reaches into the little burrow in the ground. A grunt sounds over the field as Stephan pulls the box out, puts down the gun on the wooden structure beside him, and unclips the lid, pulls it open. A cry of triumph as he pulls out a ball of cotton, followed by a bellow of rage. Stephan turns to shout at his husband to grab Helena, but Helena is already at the edge of the field, getting into the van. A shot rings through the natural park but Helena is already gone.
Sorry no poll today! I have been very busy and anyway the story needs to close by now so choices would have been very limited anyway if I want to tie all this together. I hope you don’t mind too much!
Thanks for reading! This is a choose-your-own-adventure style nanowrimo where readers helped me plot an adventure. I will be trying out now stuff now and again, and would love it if you could pop by again sometimes. Subscribe by using the buttons on the right or follow us on Twitter. Thanks!