The Seven were undecided. ‘We can’t move, as yet,’ concluded Richard Japhet, ‘in the light of this hiccup. It really does puzzle me why they should persist in this pointless obstruction of the natural order of events, events that their principals are well aware of.’
Japhet was now certain that the Sophie-Fleury Order, as they were known in the Elysian Circles, was being secretly funded and abetted by some of the northern chapters. How else to account for their all-seeing omnipresence? They were clearly versed in the decretal lays, most notably through the Ancient and Honourable Guiscard and the arcane orders were never hounded, never hindered, never even mentioned in SFF despatches.
Celeste Iduna had done the reading on them and the perceived wisdom was that they were a novo-oracle of some form, sent for some purpose still shrouded in mystery. Best left alone until the true lie of the land became clearer.
‘Japhet is of the opinion that Albus and Belus must never come together,’ Freischutz put in.
‘Bit late for that,’ urged Jambres. ‘Unless they alter the order of houses at their ‘changeover’, as they call it, then Albus and Belus will soon be together.’
‘But not sentient as yet. There is coition before that.’
Paul and Geneviève were working hard on the communications upon which it would all depend.
What was not apparent to all, only to some, was that Geneviève was highly dependent on Paul but in an operational way which he did tend to misconstrue into something more. Maybe that was because Geneviève was laying her womanhood on him without allowing him consummation.
She changed for bed and came up to where he was on duty, knowing the only way to get anywhere was to command. ‘Hold me.’
‘We’re getting you a partner. You’re not going to be alone, Paul, I care for you too much.’
‘I wish it could be you, Mademoiselle.’
‘I’m flattered but you do see the lie of the land.’
‘I know you have expectations, hopes and I don’t want to lead you into false hopes. I’d love to make love to you but there’s right and wrong, Paul. Will you now become all morose with me?’
‘Why? I’m holding you. I’m kissing you.’
‘Then do it again and this time – mean it. I’ll give you as much as you know I can rightfully give – no more but certainly no less. And I can do this every day until you begin to become impatient and then it must stop. It’s in your court.’
The morning of Hugh’s departure, she tested him on all the codewords that he could send back to her.
‘What do you send if you feel the enemy is closing in?’
‘My underpants are too tight.’
‘Yes.’ Then she paused and looked at him. ‘That’s a very silly expression.’
She sighed. ‘What do you send if you get this flu going around Europe?’
‘Alfred Hitchcock – The Birds.’
‘Yes. These are very silly responses, Bebe. How do you respond to say you’re safe but must lie hidden for some time?’
‘I know that one – it’s from Lord of the Rings. How about if the event was a success?’
‘I get that one too.’
It went on for another ten minutes. Then she insisted on dressing him, from his underpants up, this was the complete service, she explained – she’d send the bill later.
The three of them were finally at the door and Francine spoke. ‘I’ve looked after this one for years, Hugh, it’s not going to stop now. I know how precious she is to you.’
He kissed her, then turned to Nikki and that took five minutes.
Then he was gone.
Jean-Claude was in place, he’d heard Hugh was too, he’d organized the venue, cuisine and dress which they’d don once they arrived, Hugh had taken care of the weaponry and support staff.
Lying on the camp bed under the stairs in his old friend’s townhouse, he was ready.
It was the support people, the ones who’d made all of it possible, who now lifted Niedelmeier and it was they who held him, blindfolded, in a dark room in a warehouse, in the middle of the room, chained four ways to bolts in the floor. The concession was a comfortable armchair with cushions.
The Section had always acknowledged their major role and what they’d been paid covered costs only. Now that it was drawing to a close, there were quite a few nervous Section members, not to mention support staff.
Niedelmeier wondered about the courtesy he’d been extended, he appreciated it but was still a worried man. The chloroform compound had now worn off and he’d been administered tablets to relieve the nausea.
Now it was up to Jean-Claude and Hugh to do the rest.
Jean-Claude had felt, in their preparations, that Hugh was best interviewing the man, presenting himself as Albus and seeing where that led. They had a feeling that this one, Herr Niedelmeier, was something just a little more special than they supposed but they’d like to know more.
Jean-Claude would take care of the arcane side, while Genie had provided him with names to sprinkle through the conversation, including those of the other Council member on whom they had a reasonable fix.
‘Now, let’s get the whole thing straight again, before we bring him in,’ said Jean-Claude.
They sat in the armchair and went over it in detail, what they could expect Niedelmeier to reasonably know, who he might really be and so on and so on.
When they entered the drawing room of the rented lakeside villa, Niedelmeier was looking about, impressed by the decor of the glass, brass and crystal variety, in keeping with his Gianni Campagna, Caraceni suit and Tanino Crisci shoes.
And now here were two who appeared to be of his world – it certainly relaxed Niedelmeier who saw nothing discordant thus far, especially with Hugh. The aristocrat in the armchair to the side though – this man did trouble Opinicus not a little.
The second shock was Hugh’s greeting – it was one of their own handshakes and in acceding, rather than professing ignorance, Opinicus knew he’d made his first mistake.
‘Herr Niedlemeier, delighted. I am so sorry for the way our people left you in that room and for the way you were brought here. I really do apologize. Were you fed and watered? Perhaps we can make it up to you. Please be seated.’
Hugh indicated the best seat in the room, overlooking the panorama through the tall, panelled windows and yet allowing people to pass behind Opinicus’s chair – the latter ploy he knew from experience, he’d try a sense of outrage and see how it went.
‘I suppose you do realize that this will neither be forgotten nor forgiven, Herr -’
‘Albus, simply Albus if you don’t mind, Aian Opinicus.’ Hugh smiled pleasantly and the other man’s jaw closed like a steel trap, the ball was certainly in Hugh’s court.
A scantily clad girl now appeared with drinks and Opinicus was well aware of the less than modest maid’s outfit, not in the least in keeping with the austere freedom fighter image he’d formed of this rag-tag.
‘Forgive me, er, Albus,’ he played around with the word and found it sitting not as distastefully as it should have on his lips, ‘but would you mind telling me,’ his voice now rising, ‘what the hell you want? Who are you people? You seem to be not unacquainted with our own station in life.’
He now glanced across at Jean-Claude, languorously sprawled in his chair, the perfect aristocrat, quietly taking in the proceedings.
‘Opinicus, first things first, if you please. Now we know you prefer a simple schnapps to something more exotic and yet we’d like you to try one of Merovaeus’s own but the decision, of course, is yours.’
Hugh nodded to someone behind Niedelmeier. One scantily clad girl came forward to his left with a box of Havanas and another to his right with the drinks. A third came forward and placed a tray of devils-on-horseback on the sidetable to his right. The thighs and open cleavage remained in Niedelmeier’s line of sight by the armrest and the man could not resist tapping the girl’s thigh and thanking her.
‘Good, Aian Opinicus. She will remain in the outer room for now and you may take your pleasure later, as is your wont of course.’
Niedelmeier was greatly intrigued and still Jean-Claude made no move. What the hell was going on? He took the schnapps which he immediately recognized as a rival for his own and nodded appreciatively. ‘This seems craziness, Albus. We clearly move in the same world or at least have similar tastes. Why would you resort to tawdry kidnapping – surely the cash is not a consideration for you and you know the difficulties with shifting large amounts in the physical sense, the delays.’
‘Firstly, it would be a source of real distress for me, Opinicus, if you had not been accorded the attention appropriate to your station. Has your stay with us been to any extent displeasing, aside from the outrageous temporary curtailment of your immediate liberty?’
‘No, no, it’s all been fine. But what do you actually want, Albus?’
Hugh’s smile dimmed, the girls withdrew and Niedelmeier heard the door close.
‘So, Opinicus, we need the following.’ A young man came in, took a thin file across the white rug and handed it to Niedelmeier. ‘Take your time and we’ll be in the next room. Marie will be here at your pleasure,’ Hugh paused at the desk, pressed the button and snapped, ‘Send her,’ then continued, ‘she’ll attend to your needs. Please consider each request carefully and then we’ll return and negotiate.’
Jean-Claude arose and Niedelmeier noted that the man moved with poise – he was the more intriguing of the two but Hugh’s softly spoken manner also revealed breeding, so again – what the hell had he fallen into here?
The two men disappeared.
Alone, apart from the girl waiting respectfully near the door, Niedelmeier looked about him with appreciation – what he wouldn’t give to own this manor house and its gardens. He could imagine himself retiring to such a place if – well – retirement was not something those such as he would ever reach. His world was genteel but his weariness was profound.
The file could wait. He stood, nodded for her to come over and smiled. Why should there be no pleasure mixed in with his confinement?
In the next room, Hugh drank another juice and Jean-Claude noted, ‘We have one of the bigger fish here, Hugh, he’s beyond my world. We’re an old family but this man is something else – he’s of the families no one has heard – in terms of their real significance, he represents so many generations – our treatment of him today has surely been wise. He’ll forget the demands long after – they’re business, after all – but he’ll not forget our treatment of him, this must remain impeccable to the end.’
‘Is he a gentleman? Could we trust his word?’
‘Not in the least. He’s a beast, pure and simple. They try to separate the lust and reserve it for the high ceremonies, maintaining a veneer of civility for the punters but as you saw, underneath they’re ravening wolves.’
‘How far is that stuff true then – the tearing apart of virgins, drinking them and all that claptrap?’
‘Let’s put it this way – who or what has ever acted to curb their excesses? What moral giant has ever appeared in a thousand years to say, ‘No, this is unholy, unnatural?’ They serve another master and that master knows no restraint.’
‘He’ll be savaging Marie in there but she’s a strong girl.’
As if on cue, she burst through the door clutching between her legs and the two men went back into the main room.
Niedlemeier had recovered his breath and had slipped back behind his veneer. Hugh noted, with a knowing smile and a hand gesture in the general direction, ‘Of course there’ll be time later for that, Opinicus. We really would appreciate if you’d devote the next twenty minutes to the documents and then we can all eat.’
A callow young man in suit trousers and bow tie but wearing no shirt, now carried through an ice bucket and wine. The young man poured Herr Niedelmeier a glass, returned the carafe to the ice bed and took the drink to him, looking straight into Niedelmeier’s eyes.
Niedelmeier’s face broke into an awful smile, he turned to Hugh and nodded once again.
Hugh replied with a knowing grin, equally as appalling, ‘Yes but that also must wait I’m afraid. The documents first please, if you would, Aian Opinicus.’
Niedelmeier shrugged and sat down to study them whilst Jean-Claude and Hugh returned to the sideroom.
When the two re-entered the room, four armed men also appeared in combat greys and balaclavas, taking their places at strategic points in the room and then a lady appeared, holding a tray on which appeared to be an opened box of cigars but what turned out to be a box of – well Niedelmeier wasn’t sure but it looked eastern and nasty.
The lady placed them on the sidetable beside him, in full view, looked at Hugh who nodded and she withdrew.
Now Niedelmeier was aware of two presences behind him, one either side of him. He glanced behind to the left. They were oriental torpedoes, possibly Japanese and their eyes were fixed on the back of his head, standing patiently, awaiting orders.
Jean-Claude was lazing in his chair once again, sipping on his drink.
‘Do you know what is in that box, Opinicus?’
Niedelmeier licked his lips and stared at the box he’d been asked about.
‘They’re probes,’ said Albus. ‘One is rectal, the second and third are for the ladies, the fourth is to tickle your heart and prolong your agony. Yes, we did get the idea from that film, let’s admit it. Take a close look and then imagine the protracted pleasure you will enjoy at the hands of our experts.’
Niedelmeier glanced at them and did not feel like drinking anymore.
‘Now to business, my friend. Have you considered our proposals and can you see your way clear to acceding on any points?’
Niedelmeier had determined to bluff it out but he now rapidly revised his strategy. He’d concede many of the smaller demands, shop one or two of the ones who’d stood in his way previously – gladly he’d do that. Japhet’s real identity was out of the question, of course but Jannes he’d consider.
Niedelmeier licked his lips and made his counter-offer.
Hugh gave a low cackle which unnerved the man and he patiently explained. ‘Opinicus, you know very well what your own people will do to you. You know that even now, according to our information, Jannes is moving in on Regus Oest – you can discover this for yourself when we release you – there are a nice few weeks prepared for you in Stockholm 8, during which you’ll be ‘debriefed’, shall we say?’
Hugh paused to cackle at his own joke and now it was Opinicus who wished he had not. ‘Or you can give us what we ask for. Your decision.’
The man was sweating and snapped, ‘Points 1, 8 and 15 you know full well I can never give you. You know this already.’
Hugh stroked his chin and indicated where the man was to sign … and here please, Aian Opinicaus … and here.
He said, ‘Now for lunch if you please.’ He indicated the double doors.
The places were set for five courses.
They tucked into the fish, which even Niedelmeier complimented and it was a relatively simple matter to serve him drugged wine, he was taken to the van, Hugh and Jean-Claude changed back to their normal attire, the boys, girls and Kurt were paid, the Japanese were paid.
Hugh sent the message, ‘Fatted calf,’ then Jean-Claude and he were gone.
Jambres, whose task it was to assess the fallout, was reviewing Opinicus’s report, slightly puzzled. ‘They demanded so little. They didn’t push on points 8 and 11 but expressed interest in 15, one of your own side-ventures in armaments.’ He’d have to explore that one more.
‘Nos. 4 and 7 should never have been conceded but what’s done is done. Hmmm. The feel of the thing is that we’ve been accorded great respect – Albus, for example, named Japhet correctly but if he already knew this, then why hasn’t he used it before? They’re clearly not interested in our exposure, Opinicus, they play a gentleman’s game. It’s truly bizarre. They’re certainly no ragtag, if your description of Merovaeus is anything to go by.’
‘That was a fabrication, of course.’
‘Oh no, Opinicus, that’s his correct epithet so we’ve discovered. He’s the genuine thing.’
It was almost as though Richard Japhet’s own hand was behind this whole theatre, testing, through this misnamed rag-tag, the loyalties of the Seven. Jambres was sure now that SSF was simply the disgruntled chapter they’d thought all along, it could be given what it had demanded and brought back into the fold to serve the ends of the families. Really, it was not such an insurmountable problem.
Opinicus though would be taken on the morrow.
It was the second day after the Opinicus business that Nicolette received a one word message from her man: ‘Constanze’.
She showed it to Francine immediately, with a smile, and naturally Francine could make neither head nor tail of it, except maybe asking her to be constant … or else he was being constant. Strange message, thought Francine.
They had the net in their house, so Nikki asked Francine to type in ‘Constanze love letter’ in English. After twenty seconds, a site came up which had a rundown on Mozart’s life, then came this:
‘Dearest little Wife of my heart! If only I had a letter from you, everything would be all right…
Dearest, I have no doubt that I shall get something going here, but it won’t be easy as you and some of our friends think. — It is true, I am known and respected here; but, well — No — let us just see what happens. —
In any case, I do prefer to play it safe, that’s why I would like to conclude this deal with H… because I would get some money into my possession without having to pay any out; all I would have to do then is work, and I shall be only too happy to do that for my little wife.
I get all excited like a child when I think about being with you again — If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed. Everything is cold to me — ice-cold. — If you were here with me, maybe I would find the courtesies people are showing me more enjoyable, — but as it is, it’s all so empty — adieu — my dear — I am Forever
Your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul
PS. — while I was writing the last page, tear after tear fell on the paper. But I must cheer up — catch — An astonishing number of kisses are flying about — The deuce! — I see a whole crowd of them. Ha! Ha!… I have just caught three — They are delicious… I kiss you millions of times.’
Francine sat down heavily, her jaw fell open, Nikki was triumphant, as if the letter had been to her, which of course it had been.
‘Now do you understand, Franka, now do you see? That I can make another human being think, feel this way – do you see what it does to my soul?’
Hugh was chuckling and of course Jean-Claude asked. Hugh pointed to the same letter Nicolette had shown Francine.
A broad grin swept across Jean-Claude’s face. ‘Yes, you must work hard that way, Hugh, you must never rest, you must surprise her when she least expects it. Yes, you do see that.’ He nodded approvingly but of course, it brought back memories, sad memories and now Hugh did a second thing.
He’d already poured the cognac for the two of them and now handed Jean-Claude his glass, they toasted to everyone’s safety and the instant the glass came close to Jean-Claude’s lips, he knew.
He was stunned.
Hugh grinned. ‘A conversation with Jules before we departed. I wanted something he knew you’d appreciate … and so here it is.’
He was still stunned. ‘And what do you think about this one, Hugh?’
‘I wouldn’t presume – it was bought for you. Mine is just a Hennessy XO, more than enough for my palate, as I’m mainly a whisky drinker.’
‘You say ‘just a’? ‘Just a’? Oh Hugh.’
‘I can only drink so much cognac. When yours is done, if you don’t mind doing this for me, you’ll then finish the bottle of Hennessy. I know Nikki has a single malt lined up when we meet again.’
‘Ah, one day you must show me the intricacies of single malts as you call them.’
After some minutes, they got down to business. Jean-Claude gave the bad news.
‘I can’t continue to finance all the houses. I’m not saying mine is the only money coming in -’
‘- but it’s the greatest portion – we all know that, we’re all eternally grateful. Nikki and I have an escape route, Francine will now go back to her intended house. What is it currently like with you and Sophie-Fleury?’
Jean-Claude sighed. ‘As I adore her, I wish to make love to her.’
‘I understand. Now tell me the base line – what is going to happen with you two? Nothing will be said to anyone of course.’
‘I’m seriously thinking of going back to the bachelor life, Hugh, I find I need my comforts more and more – that stately home aroused feelings in me too, not that I ever lived in such but … anyway …’
‘Does Sophie-Fleury know?’
‘I think she suspects. She really can’t [he coughed], Hugh. She simply can’t, it is cruel of me to pressurize her.’
‘I was not going to say.’
‘I can live alone without much trouble. I can’t live near her like that.’
‘Ah yes. She has not sealed the compact with him, especially after the business with Francesca. I’m not so sure Genie needs children about.’
‘Oh Jean-Claude, we’ve all been there, in this no man’s land. I’ll say a little prayer for you three.’
‘Three? Ah yes.’
‘What do you miss most?’
‘Many things, going right back into the past. But one is our lunches chez Jules. They were special because we put Jules under pressure. He confessed to me,’ said Jean-Claude, getting up and refreshing the nibbles, then taking both glasses to the two bottles and replenishing, handing Hugh his, ‘he said he was nervous sometimes before the lunch and that he used the idea as a series of specials at Le Froid. He never pointed it out, Hugh, but I knew, that it was Le Froid customers who were subsidising us in Cafe Noir.’
‘I had that feeling.’
‘The thing is, life is routine, life is banal on the whole, so it is up to us to create something out of nothing … as you and Nicolette have done. You’ve created a relationship which is intense even for us, the supposed centre of l’amour, and it has been one Englishman and a girl-for-all-seasons who have been able to create that – it’s been much commented on. One thing the French can recognize is when something very special is in the process of creation and no one would dare touch the process. I would say those days and evenings in your apartment were also special – there was always something happening, something new, not always good but always interesting. The farmhouse was also very special. Those things never go away.’
‘I agree wholeheartedly – two people must create vastly more experiences of a positive nature to outweigh the bad and then you can do some of those again. You have to make them happen.’
‘Without forcing them of course. Love will not be forced.’ There was a lull, they sipped on their respective glasses. ‘I insisted we have this time together, Hugh.’
‘You would have found no argument from me on that.’
‘Good. Glad to hear it. I fear we may not have all that much time left. Plan is that pair by pair or family by family, our members go along their own escape routes which only they know and they must be able to sustain themselves. I have called in many favours these past months and now it is time for me to stop for some time, as I may have to ask again in the future.’
‘Never concern yourself about that – we had what we had, there it is.’
Emma was feeling left out of things and thought this needed to be reversed. It was fine trying her luck with Thierry and she could supply him with all he needed that way, it wasn’t too much of a struggle with Ollie and his girl, Francesca being elsewhere most of the time, as her own child fitted into that scene quite well.
Nikki had felt railroaded by Thierry – everything was taken care of in practical terms, he even did the lovemaking well.
There was just something though, she hadn’t been able to place it for a long time.
Then she’d seen Thierry with his daughter at the farmhouse – many people had seen that disturbing spectacle – and she, Emma, was of the opinion that such things had the potential to blow wide open, to consume two people. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be around that going on – red flags were waving.
Who then? No good had ever come from theft in love – not in the long term.
She sighed. None of them had done terribly well with relationships, she reflected. All the same, with the writing on the wall for the Section, she needed to be close to the people she valued most when it finally came.
And the two people she felt closest to were Hugh and Nikki. Mademoiselle – well, she knew too much. So did Nikki but Nikki did not act like a mother hen. Plus she felt that that was where the action would be.
Sophie-Fleury was awaiting the return of Jean-Claude with trepidation, plus a sinking feeling that she was about to be abandoned.
As someone who knew she’d slept her way up, she could hardly blame him but it was a major sticking point. If she were safe enough, could she live alone? She thought yes, she was so weary now and even at those moments she desperately wanted, she knew she just couldn’t, she knew no man would accept that, she’d had this remarkable reprieve and they’d got some months out of it now.
She hoped Jean-Claude would feel enormous guilt and would provide at least a new start for her. Surely she’d been the dutiful partner so far?
Nicolette asked Francine her thoughts.
‘Just about my future, Nikki. You two must never do anything so stupid as allow your partner to break loose over some desire for something better. I should be with Jean, I’m not with him, he has that young girl. He always had an eye for the young girls – I don’t mean in a bad way, I think he’s good for them, I’m not sure he made love to Charlotte.’
She paused. ‘I don’t think it would be good me always being around you two, not unless I had a partner -’
‘I won’t let you go far.’
‘You say that and you mean it but life has a way of tearing people further apart who are already adrift. I have to go back to Jacques now and then we go the final route after that. I’ll go with him … or not. If not, I must not try to come to you.’
‘I won’t let you go far. Even if you’re at the other end of a town, for safety, we’ll still be geographically close. I also need that as a counterpoint to Hugh and he knows that too, but he fears it will be with a man. He would like to be near Jean-Claude but I’m not sure how that will be possible as Jean-Claude still has his eye on Mademoiselle. Poor Sophie-Fleury.’
‘Then we’ll leave it at that. Do I feel sorry for Jacques? Perhaps he and Jean-Claude could be within range of each other. Jacques will find a girl easily, his tastes are broad. Your feelings for Thierry?’
‘No longer, not after what Emma and I saw at the farmhouse – we didn’t like that. I would not accept that.’
‘What of Emma?’
‘She won’t accept Thierry, nor a family as large as that – I’m surprised she even went with him this time, perhaps she had no choice. She will be looking around and I don’t like the thought of that.’
‘I think it’s now past that, Nikki. Constanze does change things. He would have told Jean-Claude about that too.’
‘I wonder what those two are doing.’
‘Probably what we’re doing, plus alcohol.’ They both laughed. ‘They both needed this break – it’s not good for a man to be around women all the time. It changes him into something less desirable for women.’
‘All right,’ said Nikki, twenty minutes later after laying out her plan for Franka, ‘you’re quite certain you remember all that, our movements, how you get back to the town we’ll be in -’
‘Yes but why would you be in a perfectly good secret place and then leave that place to go into danger again?’
‘Hugh and I will be living in a cupboard three days from now – it seems like a cupboard – and we’ll be in there for three days before we can get to this last house. When we leave there and make our move for the house, we’re on our own for the first time. To answer your question – we must do this because it is only safe for some time in the one place – this is our destiny, always on the run. And if there’s any protection from Above, then we must keep doing the SSF things as our part of the deal.
It’s after we finish at that last safehouse and use that escape route, after we’ve been in our new town for a month – that’s when you turn up at the other end of the town.’
‘Yes, all that’s clear. Who’s the other pair in your last house?’
‘I thought you might tell me.’
‘Only Mademoiselle knows that.’
‘They will not be going with us after that – there are two escape routes from that house, as I said, that pair go one way, we go the other. I’m starting to believe we’re coming into the worst danger of our lives, Franka, I think they’ll try everything to get us after Opinicus. I need Hugh’s craziness just now, we seem to find solutions sometimes when we’re both mad.’
‘You are both mad,’ grinned Francine. ‘And it’s good,’ she hastily added.
They’d had to go straight to their cupboard which was actually under the stairs, accessible from the kitchen only, not from the hallway. The ventilation was fair but it was going to be claustrophobic.
They’d arrived in the dead of night, there were coldcuts and liquid in the cupboard, please leave the remnants in the box and the box near the entrance, which was the back of the kitchen cupboard.
They gave themselves five minutes of frenetic kissing and cuddling and then agreed they needed to sleep.
Next morning, the hostess put her mouth close to the back of the kitchen cupboard and asked if they had eaten. She would take the box.
Nicolette knew what this meant – she was closest, the screwdriver was near, he woke up and took over unscrewing the panels from their side, soon one was lifted away and they saw their hostess. Nikki handed out the box, it was replaced by another. The hostess was most concerned about Hugh’s snoring, they must work out a way that if anyone came into the house, the host or hostess could warn them. If he was asleep, Nikki would have to wake him up.
They sorted out some phrases which would mean a warning. The hostess had also handed them each a moist washer and towel.
The panel went back and was screwed into place.
They flopped back on the bed and had not a lot to say for a while.
Eventually her curiosity got the better of her and she asked about his time with Jean-Claude. He went though all of it, from the cognac to their talk of creating experiences together and it was too much for her, she dissolved into tears.
‘And this is for Constanze.’ She gave him the works now, leaving him in no doubt the effect it had had. She said about Francine saying they were both mad. They smiled at that.
‘This might be our finest moment just now, yours and mine, Moineau. I hope not, I hope many more will come.’
‘Yes, don’t say things like finest moment – it’s chilling. It tempts fate.’
She now explained about the final house coming up, the escape routes, where Franka would come into it, that she didn’t know who the other two would be, only Mademoiselle knew that.
It was all talked through.
It must have been 09:40 when they heard the father in the kitchen and he’d just used a codeword to his wife, quite emphatically, so the enemy was not inside the house yet. They both lay in each other’s arms as they’d always agreed to when danger pressed like this, they dropped their breathing rate, they waited.
It was well after lunchtime when the hostess spoke her word that it was now all right, which was also the sign to unscrew the panels.
She explained in a low voice that there’d indeed been suspicious people in the area. It might be that the two of them would have to move on early – they weren’t due in the new house until the morrow but even that was looking iffy at this moment.
Hugh said that it might even be best if they made a date to return to the safehouse and just looked after themselves for sometime.
‘Dangerous,’ said the hostess, ‘there are eyes everywhere now – we are under the noses of the enemy here, they know you are both in the area. We suspect you have a traitor.’
‘We know we do,’ said Nikki.
‘My husband and I will discuss this but I think he’ll agree that if you two can look after yourselves for some time, then when the raids come and you’re not here, it might be much safer that way. Plus you’ll be able to watch the house for some time. You won’t be totally on your own, our son knows some very good hiding places no one goes – he uses them himself – and he can put food in them bit by bit, so you go from one to the other. I’m sorry it has to be like this but it is starting to look dangerous for all of us.’
‘It’s fine,’ said Nikki, ‘and we appreciate everything. Tonight, yes?’
The lady nodded, took their box and gave them another – their last one they understood – they now screwed the panels back.
Again they flopped back and now it was not a nice feeling.
‘My little wife-to-be, we’re both skilled, we’re trained, we’re not injured, we can run. We both have weapons and ammunition. We only have to survive for seven days with our new arrangement, then the support staff kick in at the house. As you know, our hosts will take care of any messages to the other hosts who will contact Genie.’
‘Those could have been the words I said to you,’ she smiled. ‘Yes, we’ll be all right but that snoring, Bebe – you’ll have to lie in the position I know you don’t snore in.’
‘We might need to do less noisy sex too.’
‘Or no sex, let’s see what happens. Are you up to this, do you feel strong enough? I am if you are.’
‘Then I am. We can always make a prayer before we go. We could do it now’
The son turned out to be a treasure – teenagers knew all the hiding places, all the tricks and more importantly, they knew where not to go. He drilled them in this … and drilled them … and drilled them.
Now it was time they left with him, each in dark hooded tops – he’d leant them two of his.
Climbing over back fences and sticking close to fences down lanes was all in a night’s work for the boy, they were struggling to keep up. Fit?
‘You must use your food wisely. You cannot come out, even at night. My father said that once I had shown you to this first place, that was the end of it but I think you will be caught. You can’t stay in the one place for days, but you also don’t know this area well enough to go from one to the other. I will have to come out and take you to the next one. My father will not be happy but I will explain that you will be caught and we will be too if I don’t do this.’
‘Our lives are in your hands, Georg.’
‘If you do things exactly as I say, you might survive. Water will not be your problem – there is a source in each place. Food is the problem as I cannot carry a bag – everything will be in my jacket. You must expect 24 hours before you get any more. One person must always be awake.’
‘We know,’ puffed Hugh. ‘Are we almost there?’
‘Hier now.’ He suddenly turned left through a gap in a fence and there was a shed. ‘This belongs to my grandmother, so do not come out at all. No one will come to this shed – I do when I mow the grass. You each brought food – make sure you take a third of this when you go to the next place tomorrow. I will come. Here is more food for now.’
He unloaded his pockets, they tried to press money on him but he said no – if he was stopped, it would not look good. One day they could do as they wished.
He bade them auf wiedersehn.
Geneviève had come to a decision – Paul would need to go.
Truth was that she’d kept him close for his technical savvy and his youth but he was now showing all the signs of the very puppy she’d warned him about. The only female left he could be with was Emma.
There was now no communication with Nikki, Francine or Hugh for some days, so she’d have to make the arrangements for the others herself, well aware of the awesome responsibility of arranging people’s lives like this but she’d always done so. Nikki was not quite as onside with her as she’d once been and that upset her.
Georg appeared in the afternoon the next day, he turned out his pockets in the shed and took the lawnmower out, going through the motions of mowing the lawn as he always did, ignoring them completely – he must have felt this lent verisimilitude.
He put the mower back, whispered 02:00 and left through the grandmother’s house.
Munching on a fruit bar, Nicolette then said, ‘I like Georg, nice boy but his idea of what is food …’ She sighed.
‘That’s the problem we have, love.’
‘But we need to eat, Bebe, our alimentary systems must work.’
‘We’ll ask him tonight. I suspect he can’t be caught bringing anything that could be called food – only what a teenage boy would snack on.’
02:00 saw Georg arrive, he seemed to have slipped over the back fence and now he had two wet cloths.
‘You both begin to smell.’
He waited until they had done each other and had dressed in those dirty clothes again, though they were rotating underwear, then he pointed to two apples and two bananas, which they fell upon hungrily. He saw how quickly people were reduced to animals and an idea crossed his mind about food along the way.
Nikki thanked him for the ‘real food’, they really needed that, they were beginning to starve, he was puzzled by her words, his mother had insisted he bring the fruit, knowing Georg would not eat it.
They’d gone down various convoluted lanes, stopped, waited, Georg had gone to the ends of roads and waited, then beckoned them.
By this method they’d made it to some trees behind a row of shops and now he asked them something that had them not knowing whether to laugh or cry. He wanted to know how they liked pizza? What toppings did they like? Nikki was sure there must have been things other than pizza in that place and said so but he shook his head. ‘They know me, it must be what I would order.’
‘If the topping were not your regular one, would they be suspicious of that too?’
‘So, what do you eat, Georg?’
‘Do you ever have, say, peppers on it?’
‘No, peppers, greens of some kind.’
The boy shook his head. ‘The way I must do it is go in and eat mine first, talk to the guys, then take away a large for my breakfast tomorrow morning.’
‘Here, take some money.’
‘No, I said I couldn’t. I always phone first.’ He did just that now and another twenty minutes passed.
He left them and went round to the front of the shops.
About ten to fifteen minutes after that, they saw him walk away from the shop, cross the road on the far side and head off in that direction.
About twelve minutes after that, he appeared from behind them and handed Hugh the box. ‘Keep it flat for now.’
The aroma of that pizza as they now backtracked and took some more convoluted routes was maddening but still they said not a word. Georg probably thought Nikki ungrateful, she was certainly out of sorts and Hugh squeezed her hand, nearly dropping the pizza in the process.
The night was mercifully dark, they could hardly be made out, even with the streetlighting they avoided not all that far away, it was not all that cold but their hoods were still welcome.
Gradually, the streetlighting ended, they seemed to have left the immediate suburbs and were on the outskirts, there seemed to be fields and some other sorts of properties, some industrial. This was a bleak part of town and a slight drizzle had started.
Now Georg jumped a back fence and urged them to just spring over like him, like kangaroos. There was the little matter of the pizza. They put it down, he clasped his hands, she stood on the palms and lifted herself over, then waited near the top for him to hand her the pizza.
She then had a little fall and he heard a stifled shriek.
He listened intently as she recovered and clambered up again, reaching down with one wiry arm which he clasped in a fireman’s grip, he then scrambled up, reaching the top of the fence with his other hand and getting over in a most ungainly way.
On the garden bed was their pizza, upside down, having fallen out of the box. Georg was creasing himself laughing.
She was one tough cookie and both of them now gathered as much of the pizza as they could, turned it the right way up on the box and did not give him the satisfaction of seeing them falling upon it like animals.
They ate with as much decorum as possible and neither said anything. Georg looked on, then observed:
‘You didn’t have to eat it out here you know,’ he smiled, ‘we’re only going in there.’ Hugh looked over and it was a shed on some sort of allotment bordered by a three strand wire fence. After that wooden gate they’d just climbed over, and these fences only being wire, surely, said Nikki, they could have gone round.
‘No, Fraulein, your footmarks would be seen. Here they are not. You need to stay in this shed and not come out, do not make noise. It is safe enough but there are other properties here and the owners do come. You must be very quiet. Here you are.’
With that, he emptied his jacket of its chicken pieces, salad and two tins of cola, said goodbye and was gone.
They just stared and stared, not saying a word.