The Accidental Witness
A former cross-country skier is assigned with a dangerous mission. Lives of thousands of people depend on her success.
Abby flew through the forest. There were fleeting moments of joy as she weaved her way through the snow-covered trees at speed. Moments when she embraced her love of skiing again.
But then she’d remembered she wasn’t alone in the forest. That somewhere behind her were others. And that this was a race like none other. Her life depended on its outcome.
The February days were still short, and the shadows were already lengthening. In the darkening gaps between the trees, dangers lurked and the fading rays of the day urged her to travel faster. To reach the goal before those behind caught up with her.
Her whole body trembled with the effort to keep going, but she didn’t dare to stop or even slow down. Her only chance of surviving was to get to the winter festival at a nearby skiing resort and deliver the envelope with the memory stick inside it.
She wondered if her pursuers were closing in. Being a former three times cross-country world champion, she believed she had the advantage, but only if she kept going.
The earlier shouts that had chased her out from her cabin had long ago faded. That gave her hope. Now the only sound in the forest was the sliding of her skis on the skiing tracks. There was not even a rustle of wind in the trees.
Speeding through the tranquil forest, she struggled to believe she was being chased by vicious men who’d already killed and wouldn’t hesitate to kill again.
Only an hour earlier, she’d been relaxing in her cabin.
After her fall from grace, she’d become the focus of a media circus and suffered a public meltdown. To escape it all, she’d bought a cabin in the woods where she could hide from the world. It was a place where nobody uninvited had bothered her until today.
She shook her head to clear the image of the body on the sofa and the blood seeping into the cushions. Now was not the time to think about the glazing eyes or how the dying man’s breath rattled with each inhale and exhale.
It made her nauseous, and right now she had to focus on getting out of the forest and into a public space. She would be safer once she reached the skiing resort. There she hoped to disappear into the crowds that had gathered at the annual winter festival.
“There she is!”
The shout and a roar of an engine shattered the silence, and a light sliced through the growing darkness of the forest.
Her pursuers had acquired ski-doos. They would catch her in seconds if she stayed on the tracks. Her only option was to get off them and take a more direct route through the trees. It was a dangerous option. The trees were dense, and the light almost gone now.
But it was still better than waiting for the men to catch her and probably shoot her like they’d shot the man who she’d let into her cabin.
She’d been watching an old black and white movie, contemplating opening a bottle of wine, when there was a frantic knocking at the door.
Thinking it might be a skier who’d got lost off piste, she’d opened the door. Next, she’d nearly collapsed under the weight of the man who fell towards her.
She helped him to the sofa, struggling under his weight. Once she let him go, she noticed her left hand was bloodstained. Her right hand flew to her mouth as she retched and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply to quell the dizziness. She hated the sight of blood.
But she couldn’t just stand there with her eyes closed. Still holding her hand over her mouth, she forced her eyes open. The blood stain was darkest on the left side above his waist. He was bleeding from a wound in his abdomen.
The spreading stain and its metallic stench made the pile rise to her mouth again. She fought to keep it down and focus on helping the man.
“You are seriously injured. What happened? Did you have an accident in the forest?”
She grabbed a blanket she’d thrown over the sofa’s arm when she heard the knocking. Bundling it up, she held it onto the wound, applying pressure like she’d seen on TV.
“I’ll call the emergency services. They’ll send a helicopter to get you.”
“No.” The man grabbed her arm.
“But you are bleeding. You’ll die if you don’t get help.”
“No, there’s no time.”
The man’s voice had come in painful gasps, but the hand that grabbed Abby’s arm was strong. She’d tried to wrangle herself free so she could call for help, but his grip had been like an iron vise.
As the engine noise grew louder, Abby cursed her luck and directed her skis down towards the valley and safety through the trees. It was too dense for their ski-doos, and they’d have no chance of catching her if they followed on foot in the deep snow.
Their swearing faded behind her as she sped down, avoiding the trees and low-hanging branches. She knew they’d race her down on their ski-doos. They’d try to intercept her as she came out of the forest. To survive this, she had to beat them to the bottom and deliver the envelope to a man called Billy Winters at the festival.
When the man bleeding to death had stopped her from calling for the air ambulance, she couldn’t understand why. And she’d almost laughed when he told her the ambulance wouldn’t get there before his pursuers.
When he wouldn’t let go of her arm, she wondered if the man was insane. Had she allowed a lunatic into her home? But then she remembered he was bleeding. She swallowed as she turned as pale as the man in front of her.
“Who’s chasing you? Why? Are they dangerous? What are we going to do?” Her questions tumbled over each other.
Nothing made sense. She identified the signs that warned her of an approaching panic attack. The sweating palms, the tingling in her fingers, the shallow, fast breathing. All too familiar following the end of her skiing career.
“I don’t have time to explain. Here, reach into my left breast pocket.”
The man’s command cut through her rising panic, and Abby did as instructed. Inside the pocket was a small brown envelope. There was something sealed inside it. The shape reminded Abby of a memory stick.
“Take that to a man called Billy Winters. He’s at the festival, working undercover.” The man stopped, gathering what strength he still had.
Abby bit her lip, waiting for him to continue as she fought back tears. She was a disgraced ex-Olympic medallist; not someone equipped for espionage.
But what choice did she have? She had a dying man on her sofa who had brought dangerous men to her doorstep.
“When you get to the festival, go to the global beer tent. The bar man there knows Billy and will get him for you. Tell them Tom sent you. He needs to get that memory stick in the next two hours, otherwise the information is worthless.”
This exhausted his energies, and the hand that had gripped Abby’s arm so tight fell limp by his side.
“You need to hurry. What transport do you have?” His eyes were closed again and there was a bubble of blood in the corner of his mouth. Abby knew he wouldn’t last much longer.
“I have my car. But I haven’t used it in about a week…”
“That’s no good,” he interrupted. “You won’t have time to get it started. Anything else?”
“Only my skis.” She still had the skis that had won her her last gold medal. But she hadn’t skied since the Olympic Committee caught her using performance-enhancing drugs.
“That’s better. Please, hurry now.” The man, Tom, pleaded. “Don’t let them catch you. They are merciless. And what is in that envelope is a matter of international security and can save the lives of thousands of people.”
He had barely uttered the words when they heard distant yelling. Abby jumped up, pulling on her coat. Luckily, though she never used them, she kept her skis and boots by the back door. She’d be able to sneak out that way as the men who’d shot Tom approached from the front.
“Please, hurry. I’ll detain them as long as possible. Good luck.”
The chasers were already on the front porch as she stole out the back, put on her skis and headed for the cross-country skiing track that ran past her cabin.
She’d only just made it under the trees when a shot shook the air and sent an owl flying. It hooted in protest. Abby covered her mouth with both hands to stifle her scream. She shook all over and sobbed as she finally realised just how much danger she was in.
Suddenly, the backdoor burst open and a man, so large that he nearly filled the opening, shined a flashlight across the snow and towards the trees. Abby pressed against a tree, hardly daring to breathe.
“He was lying. There was someone else here. These ski tracks are fresh.”
Abby hadn’t waited to hear more, but had headed towards the skiing resort. She hadn’t skied in years. Not since she’d hung up her skis in shame, but it all came back to her and soon she was flying through the forest. Or had been until they’d caught her and forced her off the track.
Desperate to beat her pursuers to the bottom, Abby zigzagged through the trees. She must have been further down than she realised when they forced her off-piste, as soon the faint sound of music entered the forest. Using her poles, she pushed herself to travel faster. The bright lights of the festival were now blinking through the trees.
Only a few meters now, and she’d be out of the forest.
Her heart pounding and cold sweat trickling down her back, she came out of the forest. She couldn’t see her pursuers anywhere. But she didn’t slow down, she wasn’t safe until she found Billy and handed over the memory card.
She pushed on. Towards the crowd, that would give her some protection.
Now, the roaring of the ski-doos intercepted the music. Her pursuers had made it down, too.
But they were too far to catch her before she reached the edge of the crowd gathered in front of the main stage.
She unlocked the binders and freed herself from her skis. Leaving them behind, she belted forward, deeper into the mass of people. She pushed people out of her way, scanning for the beer tent.
She kept catching glimpses of her pursuers through the crowd, and they were gaining on her. They were faster than her on foot. She needed to find the tent quickly.
At last she saw it. She was so close, but so were the men. She sprinted on, pulling from the reserves that had made the difference between winning gold or silver.
From the corners of her eyes, she saw two of her chasers approaching her from different sides of the crowds. No doubt there was another one behind her.
She was in a race again, pushing to reach the finish line. The stakes were high, but she was winning. The entrance to the beer tent was only a few steps ahead, and her pursuers were too far to intercept her.
She entered the tent, panting, zigzagging through the crowd of festival goers to the bar. At the bar, she asked for Billy Winters. Then waited, her eyes nailed to the entrance in case the men had not given up yet.
“I’m Billy.” A tall man with a broad chest and a thick black beard appeared next to her.
His build reminded her of the special forces soldiers she’d seen on TV. She felt safer. She trembled, realising she’d made it.
“Tom’s dead,” she whispered through the tears running down her face. They hadn’t caught her. She was safe. “He told me to bring you this.”
She handed the envelope over, and then everything shifted. Her world disappeared as she fell forward.
When she woke up, she was in a comfortable bed. Someone had taken off her ski boots and outdoor clothes.
The man she’d raced to meet sat in an armchair by the window reading a newspaper.
As Abby stirred, he looked up from his paper. Seeing that she was awake, he smiled, put down his paper and came over to the bed. He sat down on a stool next to the bed which seemed far too small for him.
“I’m Billy.” He introduced himself again.
“Abby,” she mumbled, still dazed. “Am I safe? Do you have the envelope?”
“Yes, we have the envelope. It’s safe and so are you. Now, if I could ask you what happened? How did you end up with the envelope?”
Abby related everything that had happened since she heard the knock on her cabin door. Billy listened without interruptions. Only after she finished, he spoke.
“First, we are really sorry you got involved in all this. And words cannot express how grateful we are. That memory stick you brought us in the envelope contained information about a planned terror attack. A new terror organisation was planning to hit four major cities in Europe tonight. Thanks to your bravery, we got the information we needed to foil their plans just in time.”
Abby folded the newspaper. The cover story hailed the secret service for bringing down a terror organisation. She’d asked Billy not to reveal her part. She had no wish to be part of a media frenzy again.
She walked over to the floor-to ceiling window of her hotel room and rested her forehead against the cool glass. The rush-hour traffic was in full swing on the street below. She sighed and closed her eyes. It took some digesting how her life had changed since the night she’d raced through the forest to find Billy at the winter festival.
A knock on the door interrupted her reverie. A smile crept on her face as she opened the door and greeted the broad-chested man with a thick black beard.
“Ready for your first day at the secret service?” Billy asked.
“Absolutely.” She followed him out the door and towards her new life.