Autumn was his favourite season. The discoloured leaves emanating warmth against the brisk chill coursing through his body. Munroe traipsed across the rustling ground heading toward his first port of call. Lennox, his black Labrador retriever, had already excitedly run ahead and was now barking for his master’s attention. He always found the quiet of the wood therapeutic in the morning, and now this infernal hound was breaking his calm. As he neared the tree by which Lennox was waiting, he was not prepared for the horrible scene he was about to witness. Foxes are often snared; it’s Munroe’s method of choice. He always carries his trusted CZ.222 rifle for the odd encounter with what he calls the “red devil”, but the snare is the more successful. However, for this poor fox, the snare was only the start of its demise. As Munroe looked down, he could vaguely make out the various organs spread across a 50 centimetre radius. The death of the fox did not surprise him, however, the method about which it had happened did. What perplexed him more was the amount of meat remaining. Most predators would have picked it clean, as they would be unsure of where their next meal would come from, but this seemed like the animal was killed and then left. Normal procedure would be to bag the kill, tag it and record it, but Munroe decided to leave the mess for the birds to clear up. Despite the morbid nature, Munroe enjoyed his job. After a lifetime in the British Army and then the SAS, he was desperate to retire into a quiet job where he could be his own boss. He didn’t have any friends; those he would have happily socialised with were taken from him during tours in the Falklands and the Gulf. However, living alone in a small self-built shack with his faithful partner, Lennox, Munroe could honestly say he was happy. There was no stress, no worries and Mr McKendrick, the owner of the land, was an unobtrusive employer, trusting Munroe’s instincts. Unfortunately, those instincts were to fail him.
She was lying unconscious blanketed by leaves, a pale looking woman in a tattered dress. Munroe stroked his thick beard as he examined her from afar, unsure if she was still alive. As he kicked the layer of leaves away from her face, he noticed her eyes twitch. He looked at Lennox who was sat by him panting, almost as if he was expecting advice from this four legged animal. Munroe removed his Westfield wax jacket and after brushing away the remaining leaves, draped it over her skinny frail body. Throwing the rifle strap over his shoulder, he bent down and slid his arms underneath her. She was so cold; the shock sent a shiver down his spine. Munroe lifted her with such ease he guessed she weighed no more than six or seven stone. A part of him wondered how this woman could still be alive.
Munroe’s shack was not the ramshackle mess the word normally springs to mind. A skilled self-taught carpenter, it was carefully planned and constructed with extensive knowledge of structure and form. Granted it was basic, it was sturdy and had survived turbulent weather. Designed as one room, the bedroom, kitchenette/dining room and living room were separated by the furniture within. On the walls were many photos of Munroe with his battalion, the 40 Commando Royal Marines. During the Falklands, he was one of the first to land at San Carlos on Operation Corporate. Whilst defending the beach head, they were subject to air attacks the days that followed and shot down an Argentine Skyhawk with a machine gun. It was a moment Munroe would never let leave his memory.
As they entered the shack, Lennox headed straight for his basket and curled up, the cold was clearly too much for him. The shack was surprisingly warm, something Munroe insisted on during the design. An Edinburgh lad born and raised, he never liked the cold of Scotland, but he could never deny his homeland or the beauty it has to offer. Now that he was located further north in Fife at the Kirkwood Estate, he could swear the temperatures were always several degrees lower.
Munroe lowered the girl down on his bed, brushing the hair away from her face. Blood had dried around her mouth, most likely from a nosebleed or cut lip. As he moved her arm down by her side, he noticed black spots along the skin. They resembled cigarette burns. He approached the sink in the kitchen and ran a tap, soaking a flannel. The water came from a tank outside that collected rainwater. He was proud of his self-sufficient home. A wood burning fire provided heat and a solar panel provided what little electricity he needed.
He wiped away the dirt and blood from her face as she began to open her eyes. As he stared, she panicked, cramming herself into the corner where the bed met the wall.
“It’s okay,” he said softly in his thick accent. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Her eyes darted around the room trying to understand where she was, pulling the duvet cover over for protection. “What’s your name?” he asked. She looked at him hesitating for a moment.
“Sabina.” She spoke with a thick eastern European accent.
“Where are you from?” he enquired curiously.
“Romania,” she replied still confused as to where she was.
“You’re a long way from home. How did you end up here?”
“Men, take me. I arrive in container. I am to work for them.” As she spoke, the thought of what she was saying horrified Munroe. “But I escape,” she added.
“Did they hurt you?” Munroe asked gesturing to the burns on her skin. She looked down at them and nodded.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be safe here,” he said smiling sincerely.
Munroe wasn’t sure what he was going to do with her. A sucker for a damsel in distress, he was determined to help her, however, calling the police would surely result in her deportation and he wasn’t sure how Mr McKendrick would react to the situation. Munroe reasoned that they had time, at least until she gained her strength and then they would decide on the next step.
Munroe was stirring a batch of homemade tomato soup, his favourite meal, especially on cold days like this. Sabina was still sat on the bed wrapped in the duvet watching him. As he raised the spoon to taste, the sound of voices could be heard outside. Munroe paused. Voices were unusual around here, this was private property and nobody should be trespassing. Sabina pulled the duvet tighter around her, frightened of who may be outside. Munroe put the spoon back in the saucepan and grabbed his rifle. He glanced out the window to see three men walking by the shack.
“Stay quiet,” Munroe ordered. As he approached the door, Lennox stood to attention, ready to follow and, if necessary, protect his master. Munroe opened the door and stepped outside, the rifle lowered by his side. Lennox stepped up beside him. As the three men spoke, Munroe recognised the language immediately, it was one he was all too familiar with, Serbian. As a member of D Squadron of the 22 Special Air Service, he had taken part in Operation Picnic during the Kosovo War. Inserted into Kosovo in the early hours of 21st March 1999, their mission was to identify Serbian units, surface-to-air missile sites and supply lines and positions while remaining undetected. They also scouted possible invasion routes for NATO forces and collected photographic evidence of Serbian war crimes. On 25th March, his unit came across a mass grave in the small village of Bela Crkva, men, women and children all piled in together. The true capability of Serbians was etched into Munroe’s mind, and ever since, he has held a dislike for the country and its people. To find three of them metres from his home did not sit well with him. The three men stopped in their tracks and turned to the armed man standing on the porch of his shack staring at them. The first to speak was stood in between the other two wearing an old 90s tracksuit jacket, his hair was greasy and the five o’clock shadow on his face gave an aura of intimidation.
“Hello, I’m sorry. I think we took wrong turning. We are lost,” he said.
Munroe mustered up a sound of authority in his voice. “Aye, that you are. This is private property and you’re trespassing. I suggest you turn around and head back the way you came,” he replied.
“Thank you, we will do that.” The three men began to turn around, but tracksuit stopped again and turned to Munroe. “You haven’t seen a young girl come through here have you? She is our friend, we are looking for her,” he asked politely.
“No, I haven’t,” Munroe answered trying to sound genuine. A moment of silence followed before a sound inside the shack alerted the three Serbians. They could see the discomfort on Munroe’s face. Tracksuit smiled with a devilish grin.
“Give us the girl,” he demanded. Munroe shook his head.
“There’s no girl here,” he replied trying to stay calm. Tracksuit was becoming impatient.
“Please, do not play with me. If you hand her over, you will never see us again. I promise.” Munroe decided to give up the act and play it straight.
“I can’t do that.”
“Very well,” Tracksuit said as he drew a Glock 19 Pistol from the back of his jeans and raised it ready to aim at Munroe. The gamekeeper was too quick though, lifting the rifle and firing a quick shot to disarm the Serb, severing off his ring finger in the process. He fell to his knees screaming in pain holding his injured hand as the blood dripped onto the leaves beneath him. His friend to the right wearing a leather jacket, with a shaved head and goatee making him look like some sort of nightclub bouncer, moved his arm around to the back of his trousers. Munroe fired a shot at the ground by his feet and Leather Jacket paused.
“Don’t you even dare. Throw it away,” Munroe ordered and Leather Jacket complied, slinging a Glock 19 several metres from him. Munroe then focused his attention to the Serb on the other side. “You too,” he told the man dressed in a denim jacket looking less tough than the other too.
“I have no gun,” he replied lifting up his jacket to show Munroe nothing was tucked anywhere.
“You stupid asshole,” Tracksuit piped up still squeezing his hand tightly to stem the flow of blood. “You do not understand.”
“Oh, I understand fully. Now leave this land,” Munroe ordered, this time with more force. Leather and Denim helped Tracksuit to his feet and they began to head off in the opposite direction, Munroe still with his rifle trained on them.
“We’ll be back, and you’ll be sorry,” Tracksuit called out. Munroe waited for them to disappear within the trees then finally lowered his rifle. He re-entered the shack and looked over at Sabina who was still huddled in the corner, the blanket held up to her eyes.
“We need to leave,” he suggested, placing the rifle up against the wall.
“I cannot,” Sabina replied with fear in her voice.
“You have to.” Munroe grabbed a large blanket and slung it over to Sabina. “This will keep you warm.” Sabina lowered the duvet and grabbed the blanket throwing it around her shoulders. She pulled it over her head, and as she stood up, the end of the sheet reached down to the floor. She was completely covered. She looked up to Munroe.
“Okay, but where we go?” she asked.
“Somewhere safe,” he answered as he grabbed a set of car keys off a hook by the door.
To say Munroe’s Land Rover was old was an understatement. The 95 Defender model had seen a lot throughout its years and although a little rickety here and there, it churned up road like there was no tomorrow. Sabina was sat beside him still hidden within the blanket watching the trees whiz by. Lennox was in the back enjoying a trip in the car as he always did. Silence remained between them, nothing but the ground crunching beneath. The main house of the estate was a couple of miles away from Munroe’s shack. He wanted it to be located far enough that he wouldn’t have to run into Mr McKendrick too often, or his guests, yet close enough that either man could easily visit the other. As the Land Rover pulled up outside the main doors of the house, Munroe jumped out onto the gravel driveway and ran to ring the bell, he then returned to the passenger side door and opened it helping Sabina out, the sharp gravel cutting into her bare feet. Lennox began barking as though asking when he would be let out.
“Stay boy, I’ll be back soon,” Munroe called to him. The door was opened by the main butler of the house, Wilson. Munroe knew him well, but did not like him and knew a petty argument would ensue between them about who the girl was, before he would allow entry. Munroe pushed Wilson aside and stepped in, much to the butler’s protests. In a great ornate living room, Munroe and Sabina waited, Wilson standing by the door staring daggers at them. The fire was roaring and Sabina was sitting by it absorbing the heat. Munroe was pacing up and down near her as Mr McKendrick entered the room tying his dressing gown.
“Munroe, what is it?” McKendrick asked.
“Mr McKendrick, I’m sorry to barge in on you, but I need you to take care of this young woman,” he told him. Mr McKendrick looked over at Sabina who seemed completely oblivious she was the subject of the conversation.
“Who is she?”
“I found her in the woods, several men are after her. She needs somewhere safe to stay, for the night at least.”
“I don’t know, Munroe. How can I trust her?”
“You don’t need to leave her alone. Have Wilson watch her.” Wilson was not happy to hear this suggestion.
“And where will you be?” he cried.
“Protecting my home.”
“What do you mean?” McKendrick asked concerned.
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I have to go.” Munroe rushed for the door.
“But Munroe,” McKendrick turned to watch Munroe leave, confused by his haste. He then turned to Sabina who was still by the fire. “Wilson, ensure she behaves herself.”
“Very well, Sir,” Wilson replied begrudgingly. As Munroe drove back to the shack bouncing along the dirt road, he felt as if he was back in the Gulf War driving along the desert dunes to battle. He knew the Serbs would return and this time with more men and heavier fire power. Munroe would have to use every trick he had learnt from years under Her Majesty’s service to protect himself and his home. Munroe searched the shack for anything he could find that would help hold off the inevitable siege. Along with snare wire, he gathered up every last round for his rifle and came across an old bear trap at the bottom of a wooden crate filled with farm relics. For a moment, as he stared at the rusty teeth, he felt it may be too much, but after his mind flashed back to that haunting mass grave, those doubts washed away. It didn’t take long to plant everything. He knew they would attack from the same direction they originally came and so it was a simple case of creating a defensive line several metres from the shack. This would give enough time, for those that do get through, to pick them off with the rifle. Darkness was falling; this would work to Munroe’s advantage hiding every trap from view. As much as he would want to fight alongside him, Munroe knew this was not Lennox’s war and so shut him inside hoping the walls would stem the penetration of bullets and protect him from any harm. He was never one to put his fellow soldiers in danger, if it could be helped. Munroe perched himself on the roof of the shack in a prone position, rifle lined up. He used the scope to scan along the tree line looking for any movement. With no night vision to hand, he would have to rely mainly on sounds, something he was more than used to.
An hour went by and the temperature dropped several degrees. The lack of movement was making Munroe more and more cold. His hands were shaking and he was struggling to hold the rifle steady. He was starting to wonder if they would actually show up, would he have to stay here all night just in case? Suddenly, he heard the sound of a branch snap, and the rustling of leaves. Peeking through the sight he scanned the defensive line looking for any hint of motion. It was then he heard the sound of the bear trap snap shut and the blood curdling scream that followed. Denim’s leg was in a helpless grip cutting into the flesh. He was crying in agony trying to pull his leg free, but each time he did, the teeth would drag more skin from the bone. He collapsed to the floor on the cusp of passing out. One of the Serbs dressed in a black hoody covering his head ran to the aid of Denim, but tripped on a cord made from the snare wire tied between too trees. He fell forward onto a set of carved wooded spikes protruding from the ground at a 45 degree angle. They penetrated his chest causing him to cough up blood. Munroe could not see what was happening, but the sounds of rustling neared every second. He was almost panicking trying to spot any sign of a human figure, but the darkness was concealing everything.
Leather Jacket, Tracksuit and a third man wearing a long winter coat were only a few metres from the shack. They each had AK47s and cocked them ready to fire. They created a line of fire as they cut up the shack’s walls. Inside, Lennox was going berserk barking and bouncing up and down. The flashes from the muzzles lit up the faces of the three men alerting Munroe to their position. He lined up the sight and fired a shot taking out Long Coat, a perfect shot through the head. As he reloaded, Lennox had managed to get out the door and ran toward the two remaining men, barking loudly. He pounced at Leather Jacket sinking his teeth into his arm. As he roared in pain, he pulled a Glock 19 from his trousers and fired a shot. Lennox yelped collapsing to the ground. Just as Leather Jacket pulled himself to his feet, a shot echoed and he felt a piercing sting in his chest. He dropped to his knees falling forward taking a mouthful of dirt. With only Tracksuit left, he yanked back the trigger churning out round after round splitting the wood of the shack, splinters flying off in all directions. Munroe reloaded the rifle and trained his sight. He fired, catching Tracksuit in the chest. He fell backwards casting the AK47 across the ground. Munroe waited several minutes scanning the tree line again, prepared for any more movements. He suspected they were all down and slowly crawled to the edge of the roof where he slipped off down to the ground. He reloaded the rifle and made his way over to Tracksuit who was panting. As Munroe looked down at him, he looked up.
“You fool. You do not understand. She must die. She is not human,” he spoke under heavy breath. Munroe frowned at him, confused by these words.
“What do you mean?” he asked. Tracksuit gave his last breath and shut his eyes. Munroe looked over toward the main house. Munroe didn’t hesitate to gather up Lennox and put him in the back of the Land Rover. He’d been shot, but Munroe suspected it wasn’t anything too serious. The bullet was through and through, missing any vital organs. It was a simple case of stemming the blood flow until he could get him to a vet. But first he would need to stop by the house. As Lennox lay in the back of the car breathing slowly, but conscious, Munroe was still waiting by the door after having rung the doorbell several times. Past experiences told Munroe it didn’t matter how late it was, someone would always answer the door. He decided he couldn’t wait any longer and used all his strength to kick the door in. It slammed against the wall as it swung open. With rifle in hand, Munroe stepped into the quiet expecting someone to run in questioning the noise, but nothing. He made his way into the living room where the fire was still roaring, unattended.
“Hello?” he called out, expecting some sort of reply.
Climbing the stairs was something he had never done. The upstairs of the household was strictly off limits, but Munroe was becoming more and more concerned by the lack of presence in the home. He made his way across the large corridor of rooms, all with their doors open. Only one at the end was shut. He guessed this was Mr McKendrick’s bedroom, and made his way toward it. He repeated the words of the track suited Serb in his head, “She’s not human.” What did he mean by that? He reached out his hand and turned the door handle gently pushing it open. The hinges creaked, the light rushing into the dark room. As Munroe entered, he was greeted by a familiar scene. Lying on the bed was Mr McKendrick, not looking too dissimilar to the fox that he had discovered that morning. Blood was sprayed up the walls, the bed sheets were soaked. Limbs and organs spread all over. Mr McKendrick’s severed head frozen with a face of pure shock that sent a chill down Munroe’s spine. Down on the floor beside his feet was a crumpled up dress, the same one worn by Sabina. Behind him he could hear the sound of breathing. He carefully turned around and stared into the blackness in the corner of the room. Floating like two laser dots was a pair of red eyes staring at him. His heart began pounding faster than had ever before. She began to make a growling noise. Munroe slowly attempted to cock the rifle. The clicking noise startled her and she lunged out from the corner launching toward him. Munroe raised the rifle and fired a shot.