The front door opened onto a magnificent landscape. Right in front of the house, down the set of tall stone steps, was a small square that had been gravelled. A driveway led away straight ahead, and on either side of it were trees; lots and lots of trees. Instead of making for the driveway, where he would be too visible, Tintin headed for the trees and ducked into what appeared to be a private wood. Two more gunshots sounded, but they missed him completely, knocking bark from trees that blocked him from view. In a few minutes, the only thing he could hear was his own footsteps heavy on the crackling, winter brush of the forest floor, and his own breath dragged from his throat.
He had no idea where he was going.
The driveway seemed to be quite long though: he hadn't seen a gate at the end of it. He hadn't seen anything at the end of it: it had disappeared into trees. But if he headed in one direction, he would eventually reach the end of the trees or perhaps a wall he could climb over. Once he was outside of this place he stood a fighting chance. And if he was near a road he was golden: he could flag someone down and get them to take him to the village. Once there, he could find the police station and explain what had happened.
He slowed down and, still panting, bent over and clutched his knees. He had a stitch now, and his heart was hammering painfully in his chest. When he had caught his breath again he walked on, slower now and moving more carefully. He watched where he put his feet, trying to make as little noise as possible. The forest was as quiet as the grave. He couldn't hear the sounds of pursuit, but that didn't mean they weren't coming after them. They'd have to come after him, he knew it for a fact. Not only had he seen their faces but he knew their names and where they lived. And people who lived in a grand old house like Marlinspike Hall weren't the sort of people who could disappear in the middle of the night and leave no trace. They would need time to close up their businesses and sell the house, and a house like that would leave a paper trail for the police to follow. No, their best bet now was to kill him and get rid of the body, so his best bet was to get the hell out of there before they could find him.
In the distance, a bird called. He didn't know what it was, but it sounded large. A crane, perhaps? Was it the time of year for them? He didn't know, and right now he didn't care much either. Something snapped in the undergrowth to his left. He ducked behind a tree and waited. After a few seconds, a bush rustled as something small and hopefully furry and non-threatening ran off. He breathed out and continued on, his ears ringing from listening so intently to the silence around him. Forests and woods had a way of dampening sound; reducing it and turning it into a place of almost-isolation. He doubted he'd hear the road until he came closer to it.
Behind him, a large dog started to bark. He froze and listened. It was a far-away bark, but it was the bark of something big, like a Boxer or an Alsatian. It could even be a Rottweiler for all he knew. He really, really hoped it wasn't a Rotty. There was no way of stopping a Rottweiler in full attack mode. Alsatians weren't killers by nature, and Boxers had a flat skull that could be broken easily with one good punch, but the only thing that stopped a charging Rottweiler was a well-aimed gun, or perhaps a tank.
The barking was getting closer. He couldn't stay here. He needed a place to hide.
"Go on, Brutus, good boy!" Gus held the dog while Max followed, still holding the gun. Brutus, a large brown Boxer with cropped ears to go with his docked tail – a practise that was banned by almost every country in Europe – had his flat face to the ground and was snuffling along happily. Boxers were used and bred for hunting: their faces were wrinkled to allow the blood from their kill to run down to the ground without getting in their eyes. Brutus had been trained as a guard dog as well as a hunter. If there was a trail to find, he would find it.
He raised his head and sniffed the air cautiously before dragging Gus along, his powerful muscles bunching with the strain of forcing the human to keep up with him. Boxers might look ungainly and clumsy, but they were damned fast when they wanted to be. They had to be: they were used to take down deer and elk and boars; fast moving, large, wild animals.
"Seek him, Brutus, seek him!" Gus called, trying to control the dog. Brutus wheezed against the collar and lead that held him. As he got more and more excited he became louder and louder, until he was grunting and panting hoarsely with excitement. Gus looked over his shoulder at his brother. "Aren't you glad we got him trained?" he said smugly.
"Watch where you're going!" Max snapped.
Ahead, Brutus had paused for a fraction of a second before uttering a loud bark and lunging forward. The force of the dog pulled Gus from his feet. He fell heavily to the ground, letting go of the lead. The dog was free! For one second a look of idiotic happiness crossed Brutus's face before he took to his heels and ran for it, following the strange scent.
Hearing the sound of the heavy dog breaking branches and trampling small hedges, Tintin put his head down and ran too. He had to find a place to hide, and he had to find it now! But he knew from experience that he didn't stand a chance against a determined dog. He could break the scent with water but there was none around, and if he climbed a tree he would just be a sitting duck for his pursuers. He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw a huge, brown-coloured Boxer galloping after him, his long legs seemingly everywhere. Damn, those dogs were fast!
He jumped a fallen tree trunk, knowing it would be no obstacle for the dog, and kept going, trying to keep an eye out for somewhere – anywhere – to hide in. But there was no time and the dog was right behind him. He could feel the dog's breath on the back of his legs, even through his jeans, and hear the laboured snorts of the dog's flattened nose.
Then, suddenly, a yelp of surprised pain.
Tintin risked a glance over his shoulder and saw that the lead that was trailing from the dog's collar had snagged on a ragged branch. It had jolted the dog to a stop. Brutus lay on his back, blinking and seeing stars. He slowly staggered to his feet and shook himself before giving Tintin a furiously suspicious look.
"Ha!" Tintin cried. "Saved!"
Saved, yes, but not looking where he was going: he had run headfirst into a tree. Winded, he staggered to his feet and held onto the offending tree for balance while his head swam. The dog started to bark again; heavy, loud shouts of annoyance that would bring anyone nearby straight to them. Tintin thought furiously. If he ran now, they would just let the dog go again and he'd be caught at once. He still had no idea where he was or if he was anywhere near a road or even the edge of their property.
But if he went back…?
It was Max who reached Brutus first. Running flat out, he could see the dog bouncing around furiously, growling and barking. The dog, he thought, was caught on something. Probably a tree or a branch. Something had stopped it, and he doubted it was some kid. Brutus was trained well, as Gus had insisted. He slowed down as he neared the dog. "Brutus!" he called. "Good boy! Down, Brutus, down!" He stepped over a trailing fallen branch… which snapped up at once, tangling at his feet. He went down heavily, landing on his right hand. The gun shot out of his grip and landed a short distance away. Before he could reach for it, Tintin darted out from behind the tree and picked it up.
He levelled it at Max's face. "Hands up," he said in a calm voice. He was flushed from exertion, but his eyes were lit by a strange combination of triumph and justice mixed with righteous anger. As Gus broke through the tree line behind Max, Tintin gestured with the gun. "Stop or I'll shoot him."
Gus stopped at once, his hands automatically rising above his head.
"Get up," Tintin ordered Max. "We're going back to the house."
Max shot a confused look at Gus, who looked equally baffled. This was strange: usually prisoners escaped and didn't want to go back to where they were held. Tintin saw the look on their faces and smiled brightly. "We're going to find a nice place to sit down and chat before the police come," he explained. "And then you're going to give me my wallet and the piece of parchment you stole from me. Now get off your knees and start walking."
Max shot a furious look at Gus. "You had to let the dog go," he muttered.
"Shut up," Tintin said at once. They walked for about fifteen minutes before Gus dared to answer.
"What about Nestor?" he asked as quietly as he could.
"He'll have bolted, the fool," came the soft reply.
"Don't talk," Tintin warned them. "You can still walk if I shoot you in the arm. Remember that!"
Far behind them, straining at the branch that held him, Brutus continued to lunge. The tree shook from the force of him, and the winter season had made the branches skeletal and weak. With one final charge for freedom, the branch snapped and Brutus was free! Free! He capered for a second before stopping short, his little doggy brain working furiously (which, for a Boxer, wasn't that fast at all. They were good at what they did and they had a knack for hunting, but beyond that they were easily confused).
He was hungry, and there was a person somewhere around here that smelled odd. He wanted to smell that person. He was sure he detected the hint of another male dog, and he was very interested by that. And he could smell his primary care-giver; Tall Human Male. Tall Human Male sometimes rewarded him with chicken. So… if he… could… catch? Yes, catch… the odd-smelling person, he might get chicken.
It was perfect dog-logic.
He took off after Tall Human Male and the odd-smelling person, and found them quite quickly.
Tintin turned around when the dog started to bark again. He tried to keep an eye on both the men and the trail behind him, but it was hard. Judging by the thunderous noise from the brush, the dog was free and coming at them. He needed to figure out where…
Brutus appeared at a run from behind a tree, his slobbery jowls ballooning back from the speed of his run and his eyes wide and crazy looking. It was almost comical, if he hadn't been heading straight for Tintin. Brutus gathered his strength and jumped – Boxers had a trick they used when their prey was still on its feet: they body-slammed into whatever they were chasing and, as it staggered or went down, they would swing their front paws mightily, punching the creature or person viciously. It was how they had gotten their name and reputation as fighters.
"Holy crap!" The swear word burst out of Tintin. He unfroze when the dog was almost in the air, dropping to his knees and curling up. The dog, his expressive face now surprised at the fact that his prey had disappeared, sailed over Tintin and body-slammed into Max instead, who had been trying to go for the gun. Man and dog went down, taking Gus with them.
Tintin uncurled and waved the gun in their general direction. He wasn't too sure what had just happened, but he had a feeling he was extremely lucky. "Hold the dog!" he said quickly. "Hold him, or I swear I'll shoot you."
Gus reached out and grabbed the dog's collar.
"Get him Brutus," Max hissed. The dog's head came back up and he started to growl, a low rumble that shook his entire body.
"Don't make me kill the dog," Tintin said, his face grim. "I swear, if you make me kill that dog I'll kill you too."
"You wouldn't," Max said, a hint of uncertainty in his voice.
"Try me," Tintin said flatly. His green eyes glittered coldly. "I'm a real dog person, if you know what I mean. I hate cruelty to dogs and I've never hurt a one before in my life. If you make me kill one now, you'll pay for it."
"Max?" Gus hissed.
"Hold the dog," Max snapped.
"Good boy, Brutus, calm down. Calm down!"
"On your feet," Tintin ordered. "Back to the house. Now! Remember: I'd prefer to shoot you before the dog, so don't try anything stupid."
Author's Note: I'm not going to justify Tintin using the word 'crap' when faced with a charging Boxer. In fact, anyone that's been faced with a charging Boxer knows that 'crap' is probably a very slight understatement to what you feel when you see an insane-looking dog of that size hurtling straight towards you.