The wind was blowing in from the north. There’d been rain overnight. He noticed a damp patch on the conservatory carpet, confirming the storm had found a leak in the roof. Fortunately, his chair had missed the drips. He sat down to put on his walking boots, pleased they too had avoided the damp. He was wearing his well broken-in jeans plus his equally acclimatised “Parka” jacket. He knew it would be cold…extra cold because it was winter.

Reaching for his “Tilly” hat, a present from his late wife, he linked the cord under his chin before pressing the brim onto studs each side. The resulting channels would secure it against the wind. He wasn’t sure how, but they did. Imported from Canada, guaranteed for life (he wondered if that meant his life or someone else’s), the hat was manufactured from white fabric, usually used for a sailing yacht’s sails. Gamekeepers and others recognised him by it, acknowledging his presence without question. In woodland, across valleys, over hills, they left him to roam, accepting he probably knew more of the wild than they did.

He rose to set the alarms, then left his bungalow by the back door. There was purpose in his stride, executed with a near-military precision. Progressing up his drive, along the cul-de-sac, he joined the main road. He carried on past more dwellings until, beyond the town perimeter, he turned into Blackberry Lane. A cottage was perched on the junction where lane met highway. Its rear garden extended along his route. A dog barked at the sound of his footsteps, a head appearing on a section of the stone boundary wall separating man from animal. It was low enough for her to stretch, placing her front paws on top to support a two-legged stance.

She barked again. He fed her a dog biscuit from a selection he kept in a top pocket. Continuing along the lane, it narrowed to a footpath. He managed not to slip on mud caused by the rain, carrying on until he reached a farm gate, set at right angles to the path. Age had collapsed the once strong woodwork, leaving no deterrent to trespass.

Stepping through the gap, he paused until he found the track. Favoured only by a few, perhaps preserved more by wildlife than humans, in places it was barely visible between the long, dying grass of the neglected field. He progressed slowly, taking care to avoid brambles, some hidden at ground level, waiting to trap the unwary. The wind had dropped to a breeze. The rain had departed, yet by the time he’d reached the far edge of the field, his jeans were damp up to the knees from the undergrowth. Undeterred, he found the exit he was looking for. He entered the surrounding woodland.

He knew which way he wanted to go. He’d seen the track on summer excursions. They’d been with his wife. It would have been too much of a struggle for her, so they’d never used it. He had to search for it, the ground having been masked by leaves stripped from trees during the November gales. Small variations in level gave it away. He started down it. Underestimating its gradient, he slipped on the sodden, concealed surface, had to fight to keep balance, avoid a plunge to the depths. Twice on his downward course, he fell. He wasn’t injured. He knew how to fall. By the time he reached the bottom, more damp patches had appeared on his jeans. Mud graced an elbow of his coat.

Not bothered, he stood on the bank of a stream, grazed clear of undergrowth, probably by rabbits or deer. It cut through what was a mini-ravine, little more than a metre wide. The climb up the other side offered greater challenge than the hill he’d descended. Although topped by the ridge he’d reached from various directions many times before, this route was new to him. He liked challenges.

He jumped the stream, swelled by rain after an autumn drought. He grasped a sapling, heaving himself up from the bank. Wind rushing through the ravine had cleared leaves to reveal the steep course to the top. Not as athletic as he used to be, he took care, moving round a fallen branch, testing the ground with each light tread before placing any weight on it. Footholds eased the climb. Trunks of trees that had anchored themselves to ledges offered leverage. It was a struggle but, as usual, easier going up than down; nothing compared to the obstacles he’d faced in his active days.

He reached the top without further mishap: the ridge afforded a clear view of the action beneath. Unlike the climb he’d just completed, the drop the other side was sheer. A wall of rock plunged to the hard, level floor of an abandoned stone quarry far below, death to anyone who jumped, fell, or was pushed. Decades of extraction had left a sizeable gap in the hillside. A public road split the gap in two. The section furthest away, securely fenced, CCTV protected, took less space than the one nearest him, but was greater in activity. Cars were driving off the highway at regular intervals through open, unmanned gates. From his ridge, they looked no bigger than toys.

They formed a queue to be inspected by yellow-coated personnel, as minute as the vehicles. Most drivers were allowed to proceed. They continued clockwise ‘round the perimeter, shuddering over a ramp, prominent with its strips of white. One or two were stopped for what looked like investigation, perhaps identification. Those permitted to proceed could be seen seeking out a stopping point alongside partially sunken waste skips, arranged in order around the inner circumference of the curve.

The moment a vehicle came to a halt, people emerged. They began transporting items from car to container: wood, cardboard, general waste. At his distance, their movements likened them to ants, scurrying from their motors to the metal skips as if their nest was being attacked, depositing burdens then darting back for more. He wondered if they realised or even cared that they were taking advantage of a site provided for civic amenity that would have once been called a rubbish dump. He watched the activity for a while, cherishing the experience of being apart, alone, entertained by the real life performance enacted below.

On the other side of the road, nearer him, a building masked much of the occupied quarry base. It looked even better protected than the amenity area. No vehicles queued at the white-painted barriers of an electronically controlled entrance. Everything looked neat, organised. The only visible hint of purpose came from parked cars and vans. Most supported the logos and attachments of police authority.

He knew the building had been constructed with cladding to deaden sound. Groups would be inside, training, learning to use weapons. He had once commanded a similar group, but not one designed to maintain public order. His had generally been subversive, sometimes confrontational, the aim being to overcome, to kill.

Looking down on the complex and visualising what would be going on behind closed, reinforced doors, he rejoiced at no longer being tied to obligation, living free from orders handed down from one regime intent upon defeating another. His days of death and destruction were over. All links had been severed, the last following the death of his wife. He was alone. He missed her, sometimes terribly. But he didn’t fear loneliness: he cherished it as he did his many memories. He was ready when his time came.

His climb completed, he took a deep, satisfied breath. Searching a pocket in his “’Parka,” he located a plastic bag. Finding the opening, he pushed down until his hand closed over raw meat. He felt the blood oozing between his fingers. He lifted the steak out to hold it over the drop. He waited until he judged the moment right, brought his arm back, and flung the offering high into the air. He watched it hesitate in mid-arc before beginning its drop. It would never reach the bottom.

A dark streak swept down, straighter than an arrow. Claws clasped the meat and wings carried the predator to a safe place where the bird would rip flesh apart to commence its meal. The performance, over in seconds, brought a smile to his lips. He stooped to wipe the blood off his hand on a tuft of grass, still wet from the early rain. He was aware that cameras would be recording his every move. Down below in that building, viewers, watching screens, would be alerted. They would be poised to respond to alarms, activated by the movement. Until they noted the Tilley hat. Then they would relax. No action would be taken against the perimeter invader.

He left his vantage point, choosing a less arduous route down to the stream. He stopped to take in his surroundings, cherishing another moment of peace before commencing his climb up the hill on the other side. He joined the footpath at a lower level, direct from the wood, striding back into Blackberry Lane. He looked for the dog at the cottage, but she was elsewhere. He lengthened his stride, as near as he would ever get to hurrying. He had work to do: a conservatory roof to repair.