Geneviève, in her more northerly location, had just done the rounds of the brood, they were all pretty well occupied and she was reflecting on the state of her mind.
In fact, there had been triggers, images had appeared and then … just faded. That in turn gave her enormous confidence and even bravado, she felt she was in better control of herself now and that was going to be necessary. She’d always known there were four that the enemy would have been interested in – herself, Emma, Hugh and a fourth secret person – Paul.
Not Nikki, sadly. No one had ever really been interested in Nikki, until Hugh anyway. And now he was besotted by her, let alone the other way round. She had the feeling, Geneviève, that those two had construed her recent actions as hostile and that was not so, maybe a bit mischievous but not hostile – not that.
She missed both quite badly and wanted to be able to turn the clock back.
Jean Claude and Sophie Fleury had not been able to make the break. There was just something in the way he’d rescued her, there was just something in whom she was.
And they’d recognized that at long, long last. Jean-Claude was now making the sorts of adjustments he had to make, had to have the patience to make.
This was a work in progress. And almost as if they’d overheard the conversations of others, finally they’d tumbled to their being a second entry point he could use – he found it distasteful but as she said to him – she was the one who’d have to do the tasting, not him.
Outside the panorama house, the morning was dull and drizzly but it wasn’t going to dampen their spirits.
It was now an hour and twenty minutes after they’d all risen and forty minutes after one of Emma’s special breakfasts, Nikki went over the fine detail of the ceremony again, who’d do what, also concerning the exodus which would follow.
There was a certain nervousness but it was fine. She and Emma had cobbled together various layers of cloth to make a wedding dress of sorts – she’d look good in sackcloth if she had to, had said Emma.
‘Right,’ said Emma, ‘we only have about fifteen minutes before Pieter arrives, so we’d best get on with it.’
They’d voted to take the risk for that brief five or so minutes, of standing in the living room. They’d been through the litany, it had come in under six minutes, it was also thumbing the nose at the enemy, it did need some sort of openness to it.
Nikki removed her ring and gave it to her betrothed, they’d agreed that when they were near civilization, a new engagement ring would be made, this one would now and forever be the wedding ring.
Paul took on the role of officiant, Emma did the bridesmaid bit and the ceremony, as far as they could remember it … they stepped out into the living room.
When they got to the ‘I do-s’, the happy couple looked at one another, he put the ring on her finger, they kissed and Paul announced, ‘I now pronounce you man and wife.’
‘Do you think this ceremony counts in law?’ asked Nikki at this late stage.
‘It was conducted according to what our support people dug out,’ said Emma, ‘it followed the script, we all said the prayer – I’m sure it counts.’
‘Oh my goodness,’ he said, ‘I’ve forgotten something. Nikki, do you have a garter? I’ve forgotten the garter.’ Her face was a blank. ‘Well, do you have a hair band – something elastic? You have to throw it over your shoulder – do you know this tradition? Whoever catches it is the next married.’
Emma said, ‘I’ve got a scrunchy, I don’t use for obvious reasons,’ she patted her bob. ‘You get it, Hugh, front pack, right side pocket.’
He called out from their bedroom that he couldn’t find it. ‘Oh my goodness,’ sighed Nicolette. ‘Emma, I’d go but you know where your things are – would you?’
Emma strode to the bedroom and immediately saw he was looking in the wrong pack. ‘Hugh, it’s in this -’
All hell broke loose and they both fell back on the floor.
Acrid smoke billowed through what was left of the bedroom and he ran through what had been the wall, along the floorboards still left attached. The glass panorama window was shards, the middle wall was knocked through, the rear wall closest to the hillside was also knocked through, it was smoking and there was almost no floor anywhere on this upper floor. He raced for the gap in the rear wall, looked down and there was what remained of Paul. Of Nikki there was no trace but he had the gut-wrenching realization that she’d also been standing right in the path of whatever it had been.
Now he saw part of her ‘wedding dress’ by the wall and then he saw the thing he’d never wanted to see – her left hand and wrist near sitting across a beam. Of the rest of her, there was no trace.
He couldn’t emote, couldn’t throw up, couldn’t do anything …
Emma was now beside him, she saw it too and covered her mouth, shuffled away a metre and retched into the floor below.
They had to get the hell out of there, he was paralysed, she recovered and shook his shoulder, they stumbled in the direction of the rubbish chute, Emma took both their bags, he took the weapons and now the bags, he put them on the floor and raced back over for Paul’s dragonskin which they’d been silly enough not to wear and lifted her to the suspended rope, she tried to clutch on with all her strength and let herself down that way, there was no time for the full rigamarole.
The rope burned her hands, he was now down below in the skip and as she reached him, he lowered her onto the mattress in the bottom of the skip. Now he clambered back up and took the weapons, throwing them down away from her.
He threw the packs in too, climbed over and dropped, the support staffer now present closed the lid of the skip which was now wheeled out, the loader’s giant arm swung across, the lifted it, turned it upside down and the two of them fell into what looked like the town’s daily rubbish collection, only it was a surrogate loader they’d brought in from a nearby town, kept in a garage five doors down for the duration of the two weeks and instead of rubbish, there were two old mattresses.
The metal lid clanged back into place.
He told her to get over to the far side under the giant hinge and await some real rubbish on top of them, which duly came within five minutes, as the next collection was made. She wanted to throw up but he pointed to the bolt holes and clapped his own lips to them over on his side.
They made four more pick ups but on the fifth, as the skip emptied its contents, he heard Klaus telling them to climb out – schnell!
‘Emma, come now! Emma!’ She moved and he lifted her up, out of the truck, many hands helped, now it was into another skip in which a strap had been attached, which she now grabbed. She knew the drill, he followed.
Inside the rubbish area of the new place they’d been wheeled, the outer door appeared to close and an inner seemed to open. It was Pieter, calling them out of the skip and bundling them into the house. In the foyer, he told them to get out of their gear and wash, throwing Hugh two towels, the bath was already half-filled, at an acceptable temperature for a parturient woman.
Peeling off their gear and leaving it in a soggy pile on the tiled floor, they climbed in and scrubbed and scrubbed. ‘Hugh, about Nikki -’ but he said, ‘Not now. Let’s get out and refill the bath.’
They drained and filled it again.
They got in and scrubbed again, drained the bath and re-ran it a third time.
They got in again and he washed her mop of hair thoroughly.
Pieter’s wife appeared with overalls and other items for him and a jumpsuit for her. She handed them both a stiff drink which they immediately knocked back – modesty the last thing on anyone’s mind. Pieter’s wife had black bin liners for their garments and now took them away.
Eventually they got out, she went through with Pieter’s wife and lay on the bed, he went downstairs.
The soup was warm to hot, not hot, he gulped it down and tore off some bread to follow. He felt he could now control himself until Emma awoke.
‘Any damage to you or her?’ asked Pieter.
‘To me, negative, to Emma, I don’t know. She’ll need medical attention – the baby, you know.’
‘Should we mount a rescue?’
‘Pieter,’ he asked in his faltering German, ‘you’ve fulfilled all you committed to do. If you go near that house, you will be taken and they’ll torture you,’ he used the gesture here, not knowing the German word, ‘to find out where we are.’
Pieter replied in English. ‘We know the places to be and when, we have passages, tunnels. You see, we prepared long ago for just such a thing. We will certainly look and act on what we see. Do you authorize me?’
‘I owe you everything and of course we authorize you.’
‘It’s our pleasure. There are many who wish you to succeed.’
Helga brought the meat dish and Hugh forced it down. Suddenly he remembered and asked, ‘Our combat gear?’
‘Still being washed, of course.’
The next hours were difficult to fill in.
The doctor arrived, went in to see Emma and came out seven minutes later, shaking his head, Pieter whispered, in simplistic English, that they were worried if the baby was still alive, they needed to get her to a hospital.
Hugh was sure that Helga and Pieter would arrange something or try to, the doctor departed, he went to Emma and she asked.
‘He doesn’t know but he’s worried. Problem is we’re now going on a long vigil, a long trip, to get you to a hospital or medical help far from here. This trip was for Nikki, remember, who is more mobile than you – you were to have the easier run out of the village. Can you do it, can you manage it?’
‘I have to.’
Helga had been drying their clothes in the drying cupboard and handed them their still slightly damp outer gear, which they donned, she then ushered them into the garage, where two men they hadn’t met before opened a horsebox, of all things, which was all right in principle, except that there was a horse in it.
The men backed the horse out, Hugh and Emma climbed the ramp and Pieter arrived. ‘Hugh, Emma – get under the blanket, here are your weapons checked over, be ready with them.’
They got themselves covered, the horse got back in, the back of the horsebox closed, the outer door opened and they hadn’t even had time to say thanks. They knew not to move.
The vehicle pulled onto the cobbled road, very uncomfortable for Emma and no picnic for him. All they could do was settle into switch-off mode, which they’d practised, slowing the breathing and becoming nearly inert.
There were some turns and then the vehicle slowed down.
Now they heard a hubbub up ahead and the horsebox slowed to an eventual stop, with German voices all around them. The door was thrown open and a torch pierced the gloom. The horse kicked back and stamped nervously but still the scrutiny went on.
Then the box was closed, they heard their driver climb back up and they moved off again.
Soon they turned into what appeared to be a track and some distance on, the vehicle slowed to an eventual stop.
The back of the box opened once again and they heard the horse being backed out, slowly, down the little ramp.
‘Hugh, Emma,’ called Klaus, ‘Komme, macht schnell.’ They threw off the smelly blankets, made their way out and an earnest conversation took place in simple German.
Hugh turned to her and explained, ‘There are other road blocks ahead – too dangerous to proceed. We need to stay in the forest, in a little gully Klaus knows of, we’ll have security codes to exchange when two other men arrive in five hours.
She nodded and they followed Pieter into the forest, noting his powerful calves as he stomped on ahead with his thick, knotted walking stick.
The gully was reached after about half a kilometre, up hills, down gullies, along little valleys and through some boggy places. ‘Don’t drink the water,’ nodded Pieter, indicating the little brook, he handed them a sports bottle each and with a handshake, he was gone. Emma was nearly dead on her feet but she was persevering.
For the first time, the two of them looked at each other.
‘We’ll survive, Emma, we’ll survive the next hours, then the rest of this day, we’ll go north, we’ll get you to the hospital, can you do that?’
She nodded but was clearly distressed, both physically and spiritually. Five hours was going to be a very long time with nothing to do and they had to talk, now, before the enemy came. They had to go over the procedural things.
First, they needed to check out the surrounding area, by going to the top of the gully and letting their eyes peep over the top – that would fill a good twenty minutes.
The scrutiny from the top of the bank was just as well because in the distance, over a series of hills and gullies, they could just make out some figures coming over a crest – they were uniformed, appeared to have body armour and had dogs. This was not good. Emma glanced across at him but he was just observing.
He beckoned her over and whispered in her ear, ‘They’re going to come from this side and I’m going to keep my gun trained on them but you need to keep your eye and your gun trained on the other side of the gully. If you see someone lift a gun towards us -’
The difficulty was that the search party kept coming over rises and then disappearing into the valley, then rising again – it was as though they were advancing by fits and starts.
Another ten minutes and conversation could be heard in the distance.
Suddenly there was a cry from the party and Hugh strained to hear what was being said, not that he’d understand much of the language but from what he could make out, someone had fallen in – but fallen in to what?
It seemed the others were trying to get him out. He could make out the words Treibsand and Sumpf which meant quicksand or a swamp. When someone called out to be careful of the Marsch, he knew for sure what had halted their progress.
When the three of them had come into this gully, now he came to think of it, it had been via a circuitous route, at times balancing on fallen logs and the like. Though not particularly well hidden, with only medium cover from the trees, nevertheless, they seemed to be surrounded by natural hazards – Pieter had chosen this point for that very reason.
Not only that, but there were countless gullies in which they might be hidden. Just for a moment, it seemed to him that they might get through this one alive. He rested a hand on Emma’s arm to reassure her, smiled at her, then made a little circle with finger and thumb. She grinned and took up her vigilance again.
The party had obviously got the fallen member out and was now skirting round the back, the way they’d come in themselves, and this represented even greater danger. He very slowly shifted position behind a fallen log and rested the barrel on it, taking in the head of the gully fifty metres away, he indicated to Emma, with a sweep of his hand, to cover the other direction again.
He beckoned her and reminded her that if there was any firing from them, they must immediately shift position after each burst, in the direction where the enemy’s last burst had hit.
Did she remember? Good.
There was shouting at the head of the valley – it seemed that the marsh surrounded them on three sides but at the other end of the gully was a cliff face and that was strategically a weak point for them, except that the gully itself curved slightly to the contour of the hill and might cut off the line of sight of anyone on the hill – they had to hope so.
Another possibility he feared was that they’d send a burst of fire through the valley, just on spec.
Against that, again, was that the party had no reason to suppose that Emma and he were even in this particular valley and there hadn’t been firing in any other valley until this moment. Plus again, the gully was curved.
Perhaps they’d pull through, after all – there was a lot of wood around to touch.
Slowly, gradually, the voices faded and they seemed to be skirting round the marshes altogether and heading further up into the hills. Hugh, being the untrusting creature he was, indicated to Emma that there might be one or more rogue scouts still behind the main party, to pick up any late movement from a quarry now feeling itself safe – he indicated for her to be very still but she was more untrusting than him and told him the same.
One smart cookie, Emma was, he wondered what she was dwelling on.
It was as well, as there was a crack of a twig near the cliff top and someone seemed to have almost fallen over – they could hear his scuffle trying to regain his foothold, they heard the lightest of noises from his feet as he finally left to rejoin his party.
Still they didn’t dare move and she was cramping a little – they both were – but they also knew they had to, for life itself.
The weak sun was slightly to the south and this cast shadows in the gully which also aided concealment. He further reasoned that an aeroplane or copter wouldn’t avail the enemy much in this situation, except for thermal imaging but their suits, hoods, gloves reduced the readouts, plus there was wildlife everywhere – no, this cover seemed to have been well chosen by Klaus and Pieter.
Emma indicated that it was time to drink a little of the water – stress takes it out of you.
They did, then the flasks were put away. They brought weapons into position across their chests.
Silence was essential for another forty minutes or so, just to be sure – she knew how to wiggle her toes and fingers to keep the circulation going.
The sun slowly moved across the sky and it became necessary to shift position into the shadows but she was feeling the first chill of inaction and was loathe to leave the sunshine. There was no choice though and they moved further along towards end of the cliff.
He looked at his weapon. Nikki and he had left their main weaponry behind at the island, having only pistols with them when they got to the safehouse, he had grabbed Paul’s FN PS90, only a bullpup semi using 5.7 28mm and available to civilians. It has been an error on his part to have split ammunition but like all things, he’d never considered he’d end up the one with it. Emma had one too.
However, his and Nikki’s pistols were the goods and he showed Emma how hers worked, she kept her own in her pack.
Time to eat. She took out one of the bars and urged him to do the same – they were well within their limits of food and water but who knew what the situation would be later?
Still the afternoon wore on and he glanced at his watch – one hour and forty minutes until contact with the two men. She glanced at her watch and came to the realization as well. They’d done very well up to this point but the dark was going to be another thing – strong girl or not, she was weakened with child and that issue needed resolution very soon, it was not going to be a pleasant time for Emma.
The shadows were quite long now and they were thankful for these multi-layered dragon skins. He took out his cloth cap, took off his head casing and put the cap on, then replaced the casing. She did the same.
Less than an hour now and with it, a certain amount of apprehension of the unknown – would he recognize these men, would they be the right ones, would it be a sudden and swift end for them both?
This was fruitless thinking.
Darkness was almost upon them and with it, the sounds of evening in the far distance – they could hear a train somewhere about two or three kilometres away. She was relieved when he came over and held her to him, hoping a little of his faked confidence would rub off on her and she hoped hers would rub off on him.
Twenty minutes to go and no sign yet of their contact.
Emma was now shivering and he held her lightly, whispering in her ear. She needed this right now but he also needed to be looking after her, to keep his mind off the events.
He could feel her pain, her agony inside, she’d breath in sharply from time to time and he’d just hold her, her bleary eyes would look at his and she’d nod her thanks. Poor girl, shocking thing, all of it shocking. He had to shut out such thoughts for now – far more difficult for her.
Four minutes to go and he indicated, with his arms, for Emma to be perfectly still, so that they could pick up any sound. Suddenly, they both almost had heart attacks as a boyish voice whispered, ‘Herr Jensen?’
When he didn’t respond, the voice sang, in a low voice, ‘I can’t live without you if the love was gone,’ to which Hugh sang back, ‘Everything is nothing if you’ve got no one,’ and then a second boyish voice replied, ‘And you just walk in the night, slowly losing sight of the real thing.’
Emma thought the world was going mad.
‘You were very quiet, Herr Jensen. Schnell, follow us – tread where we tread.’
So began the trek out of the gully, up hills, down gullies on the other side, gingerly stepping along tree trunks in the dark – the taller first, then Emma, then Hugh and finally the shorter and thicker of the late teenage boys.
It was slow going.
After thirty minutes or so they stopped in a gully and the boy at the rear took a package out of his rucksack – meat and cheese sandwiches, the taller took out a flask and it wasn’t water – probably a schnapps mix.
He handed them the sustenance and they felt the warm burn reach the stomach.
Some minutes later, they heard a long convoy of industrial trucks pass through what sounded like a crossing.
Fifteen minutes later, they stopped again, this time on the edge of the forest and the taller and elder introduced himself, ‘Ich heiße Erik, dies ist Karl.’
Salutations were effected and Erik handed Hugh two pouches about the size of his hand. One was full and the other empty. Inside were personal effects and some were clearly Emma’s, which he now transferred to the other pouch, handed it to her and then checked his pouch again. There were various baubles Nikki would have valued, two handkerchiefs, some smalls, nothing else. He came close to losing it, which Emma noted, he put the items back, closed the pouch, and put it in one of the body suit pockets.
Erik continued, in English:
‘Herr Jensen, here is the karta of the railways. You vill jump into the empty wagon when zug slows, you vill get out again where we make kreuz on karta. Use your Taschenlampe only when there is light overhead at crossings. All crossings are marked. You vill get out on the left of the wagon and go down the hill, schnell. There vill be a dark blue Vectra Kombiwagen and you vill climb through the hatch and lie under Wolldecken – er, blankets – you vill not speak. Maria will introduce herself at the end of the journey. The journey will be forty minutes – not dangerous. Verstehen Sie?’
‘Verstehe und vielen dank.’
‘Bitte und viel Gluck.’
Emma picked up the main idea from all that and now they came to the top of an embankment. Erik indicated that they should crouch down and approach the edge, which they did and now they simply waited. Karl took out the second sandwiches and gave them, they both gobbled them down, to the boys’ approval.
Presently, they heard the sound a of a goods train approaching and soon it had reached the bend and slowed down for the crossing, which it took very, very carefully, the line a little suspect at this point, apparently.
‘Jetz, jetz!’ urged Erik and Hugh and Emma dropped down over the embankment and into a half full open container wagon – it appeared to have coal in it. The fall had been about two metres and Emma had worked out a way, not unlike parachutists, to let the legs touch first and quickly crumple, followed by bottom and slewing onto her side.
The problem this time was the uneven coal, with its sharp edges, the positive thing was that coal crumples too. That had worsened the medical situation though, Emma needed attention right now. Hugh started to blacken his face and his clothing and she knew she had to follow suit.
There was still one very light patch above her nose and he dabbed her there with soot. He turned over and she did his back, then she turned over and he did hers. They were now as black as the coal they were sharing the wagon with.
The train went through a second crossing – Hugh flicked on the torch and picked up that there’d be seven crossings, including the one they’d got on at – after that, they’d need to prepare. One by one, they counted the crossings through, until the last had passed and then they prepared for their egress.
The main problem would be the weaponry, Hugh reached for Emma’s gun and detached the magazine, then opened the breach and extracted the round, giving both to her to put in her holster. He did his own next. He indicated that she had to hold the muzzle beside her headgear and the weapon parallel to her body, they were going to slide/shuffle down the hill.
They could feel the train slow, pass through the crossing and then he counted ten, helped her up and over and went over the edge himself. The SMGs dug in as he rolled and he found himself at the foot of the embankment, by a station road, weapon trained above her head.
A car without lights moved towards them down here, almost noiselessly and they heard the rear hatch released. Shuffling round the back with her, they got in as they’d been instructed and pulled the blankets up over them.
It turned out that the precaution was unnecessary and after the designated time, the car turned into a side road and then onto something bumpy – perhaps a field. It came to a stop and someone got out, came round to the hatch and opened it.
‘I’m Maria,’ she said in English.
They got out and heard the sound of rotors starting up. Thanking the middle aged woman, they struggled across to the helicopter, Hugh got in the back, Emma in the front, they strapped themselves in and took off.
The pilot was Pieter.
Twenty minutes into the journey, Hugh decided it was time for the transponder. Opening up the apparatus, he did all the preliminaries and half expected a blue image and drop in temperature – there was neither this time. He One2Oned Genie and awaited her reply.
The helicopter flew on through the night and still Hugh awaited a reply. Then the copter dipped and came down in a field, he knew not where, he shut down the apparatus and they got out, thanked Pieter profusely and transferred to the next helicopter. They didn’t know this pilot but he spoke a strange language and Hugh seemed to think it was Finnish – there were a lot of long ‘a’s in it.
As they flew over water, Hugh decided to try the transponder and there was a reply.
‘WBT. Show absolutely no emotion. Only contact is ARI.’ Aristocrat, he knew that to mean. ‘No others respond. Your situation? PLN.’
Translated, they’d lost Thierry, Olivier, Gemma, Francine, Jacques, Francesca, Jean and Sophie-Fleury, along with their own Nikki and Paul.
So, Jean-Claude had escaped, now incommunicado until he was supposed to go south.
Hugh acknowledged her message, wrote that they’d lost MNO and CGK during the wedding ceremony, ELF needed urgent medical help, he was OK, they would not go to the first house but would meet at the second.
He punched the send button and awaited the reply. It came swiftly.
‘WBT. Horrified. Better second house at due time. PLN.’
Geneviève clicked the One2One shut, ran to the bathroom and vomited.
Emma now turned and asked.
‘That was Genie. Jean-Claude’s somewhere, the others haven’t confirmed as yet.’
They landed and a similar convoluted process took them via a circuitous route occupying another three and a half hours.
The house they eventually arrived at, possibly in Finland, he wasn’t sure, was nondescript and was mainly for cosmetic surgery – one of Jean-Claude’s people – a bit dodgy but good medical staff. It was costing a pretty penny too – Genie was somewhere in the area.
Out of one of the downstairs rooms came a woman in a white coat, wearing sandals over socks. She beckoned them both through and there was another woman who looked important, asking for this and that in coat, mask and gloves and a man also waiting, seemingly of equal status and similarly attired. Three other young women were probably the orderlies.
Hugh hugged Emma’s shoulders, she disrobed without ceremony, was handed a hospital robe and climbed up on the padded table, set at a slight angle for comfort. He went outside.
One of the two doctors came out of the room and shook his head, Hugh put a finger in the air for the man to wait, he took a slip of paper and drew a picture of a mother and a baby and pointed to the mother. The man put both thumbs up and that seemed all right.
He pointed to the picture of the baby, the man turned his thumbs down and shook his head. Hugh felt weak and sat down on the bench behind.
The doctor went back in, then came back out with forms – oh my goodness, the bureaucracy, even in this situation. Fair enough, those people had to cover themselves when the fallout began later.
With no language link between them, the whole thing was done by sign language and with gestures. The doctor indicated Hugh’s picture again on the table and Hugh brought it over to him.
He pointed to the mother and made a gesture of falling asleep, meaning the anaesthetic, then drew a mark on the mother’s stomach, making a cutting gesture, then pointed to Hugh and made a handwriting gesture. He handed Hugh the pen and indicated the forms.
Hugh understood but made a gesture of Emma waking up and signing, the doctor shook his head and showed she was out like a light. He scribbled ‘100%?’ on the paper, showed it, with a gesture of the baby being removed and the doctor nodded.
He made a praying hands sign, then an imploring hands gesture to the man. The doctor put a hand on his shoulder, displaying great sympathy but still shook his head, he reached over for the paper with the drawing and pointed to the baby in the picture, crossing his hands in a gesture of sad finality.
Hugh nodded, made the decision, took the pen and signed … here … here … and here.
That done, the man went back inside the room. A nurse got him to don mask, hair covering and gloves, he went in and sat over by a wall.
Eventually, it was done. The doctor was sewing her up, the two nurses were bent over their task, Hugh was mortified but Emma would now live and the greater danger had passed.
Now came the long wait.
Emma awoke and instantly knew what had happened, Hugh sitting beside her.
Her moan became a low, guttural, inconsolable groan of grief and as she learned he’d authorized the operation, her first reaction was to lash out but hard logic dictated to her, even in her state, that he’d had no choice – the baby had no longer been alive.
She wanted his hand and took it, the pain was near unbearable as the anaesthetic wore off but there didn’t seem to be complications. He’d been given a strict regimen for her and had been told that, when she woke, they’d both have to go to a more secure place.
At her new northern hideout, Geneviève eventually came through to her hosts, an elderly man and wife and they had soup on the table for her. The old chap indicated, with a head gesture, that she should eat and she knew she had to.
Totally alone, with the sense of loss weighing her down, oppressing her, she replayed the incident in her mind, knowing she shouldn’t but not able to help herself. She’d been up early that morning, preparing the breakfast while Thierry had checked systems around the house, ducking under windows and following procedures. The two young ones had been up on the computer, Thierry had gone in to see how they were and that was that.
The first missile had disintegrated the bedroom, she’d run there on the basis that they wouldn’t strike twice in the same place and she was right – the kitchen had disintegrated next. In the bedroom, there were signs of Thierry and Gemma but not of Olivier. Then she saw part of him by the far wall.
The rest had been a tale of following instructions and trying to reach north.
Jean-Claude had a similar tale to tell, if only there’d been someone to hear it. The missile had hit, Sophie-Fleury had caught the blast, he’d spent time desperately trying to revive her, had given it away and covered her, a second blast had him scuttling for the exit and the rest was as it had been for the others, no doubt.
Here he was now, on a two metre by one bed, in a space under the stairs which had been sealed off on the hallway side but he could access it through a kitchen broom cupboard, no one in the house could access him, except through there. He would have to climb through a gap between where he was and the back of the cupboard and then up pegs to the floor above, where he would emerge from a wardrobe. The hatch on the floor of the wardrobe could only be opened from below, so it was not a refuge for anyone in the house.
Perhaps this place had been used during the war by Jews. To his knowledge, there’d been two hostile visits so far, one resulting in a search.
He felt he wasn’t going to be any safer anywhere else, so the thing now was to put it out of mind, exercise on the bed, eat the food and be prepared. His eyes were already accustomed to the near dark.
They moved Emma to a shed and him to a cellar which could only be accessed by the hatch above. The thing was, the hatch itself had rusted into its surrounds, suggestive of a long neglected space. However, the edges of the woodwork in which the hatch sat – they were not solidly attached and so, with some effort by about six people and some grappling hooks, the whole structure could be removed.
Obviously, they didn’t want to be doing this all the time, especially as it would leave tracks and alert sniffer dogs, so they’d left him down there with sufficient cold food and water for two weeks. He also had many packets of French toasts, also powered milk and fruit. No light was permitted and he’d just have to adjust to the near darkness. Far from resenting these conditions, anything promoting safety was a welcome addition in his book. He prayed that Emma’s space was equally safe.
For the first time, still not allowing himself to emote, he reflected on Section Sophie-Fleury – hat it was moribund, well, that was a given. When they eventually got out of this – and he was sure they would – then they would reactivate it in name at least, just to stick it up the enemy.
The thought began to seep through about Nikki, about their future life. He spoke to her now, explained that he couldn’t let go yet, not until they were safely in another place, he had to not think about her until it was time and then he could let go and face it. Did she understand?
For Jean-Claude, the trouble didn’t begin until he got near Frankfurt, one home of the enemy. The front passenger picked up a message on the forces band that they were expecting someone in the Frankfurt area late this day and for checkpoints and local police to be informed, it wasn’t clear whether that referred to Jean-Claude but neither could they take the chance.
A detour was necessary and he’d have to remain on the outskirts of Frankfurt for maybe twenty-four hours. If he could stay in this disused building and keep out of sight, all well and good but he needed to be on the alert the whole time.
If, on the other hand, they were onto him, he’d have to fight his way out. It was more than likely they’d send in a team of three, with backup a call away. One positive was that he knew someone in Frankfurt, an old colleague from his wife’s workplace and one they’d forged a firm friendship with.
In the end, he dropped the idea because it was too insecure and would muddy the waters with his current companions.
Just past the building, they turned left down a lane and he got out, with instructions on the pick up time and the exact place.
He was sitting, curled up on the bare floorboards on the top floor of a disused warehouse, hungry and alone but not cold. They’d left his dragonskin and weapons there for him. He’d come in from the road to this upper floor but he assumed there was a lane outside of the lower floor at the back.
The top floor was actually half a floor over the office below, a metal ladder connecting with the lower. He needed to be on the lower floor but couldn’t go downstairs because of possible ambush. Tiptoeing over to the broken window frame, he stood to the side and looked down, then up again at the rooftop – too obvious.
There was a lot of bric downstairs which would make good spots to secrete himself and an old printing press which might deflect rounds – there were three of these. Logically, if he was behind one of these and they came in, they’d know the presses were the best cover. He liked one of the presses because he couldn’t get a line on it from up here on the landing, meaning they wouldn’t either, whereas any movement from behind the others could be covered by fire from the upper floor.
He could get to it by moving up to the roof frame to his left and along that until he reached above the press. Downside – exposed and vulnerable for now Upside – good visibility of all parts, upper and lower floor. They would know his age and maybe assume he wouldn’t try that tack. His training was still with him and he was in good nick, he felt he could manage the frame.
He had two weapons cocked – the UMP and the FN90 with silencer. Slowly, step by step, he made his way up via the criss cross bracing and it was actually pretty easy to move along the frame. The first danger point was coming into view, in the office and he realized this was going to cost him ammunition. He put a 9mm round into the office in three places.
Some metres on, another possibility was coming into line – through the side door into the office. That received a round.
This went on, step by step, metre by metre.
At his drop point, he uncoiled his line and made a double strand over the girder, letting it drop to the floor. Five minutes of reconnaissance sought any light coming through from outside, any possible hiding points he hadn’t thought of. There was one in the far corner and he put a round in there.
He’d drop slowly, UMP cocked.
Halfway he propped, legs entwined in the line and took another perspective, particularly in order to note any changes above the office.
He dropped to the floor, retracted the cord, which unfortunately dropped dust as well, mainly on his side and he had to think whether to brush it off the press or leave it. Darkness was not far away, so he left it – for an astute searcher, it would be a signpost. The other downside was that if the office and upper storey couldn’t cover him, neither could he cover them. A lobbed device would flush him out and he wouldn’t know when it was coming.
Now he settled down and allowed himself to drowse lightly. It was dark and he heard noises outside which, though innocent, were distracting and prevented him from hearing clearly. He considered these maybe the most frightening moments of his career and there’d been some frightening moments too.
He reasoned they’d take him as an ex-policeman of limited perspective and mobility but with a brain. On that basis, he thought out possible scenarios – how he would do it.
They’d think his exit would have to be the lane, not the road, as the road was open to sniper fire from buildings. Where he now was did protect him from the office and from upstairs but not from the door to the lane. Therefore, he’d concentrate his fire on the lane door with the pistol, which would not give immediate notice to the support group that there was trouble. He’d need to be quick.
The noise reached him as he was yawning and he was lucky to have heard it, his pistol was trained on the door of which he had a clear view, the upper floor door providing muted streetlight.
It was instant, two came through that way, one facing left, one facing right and he took them out with rounds to the head. He assumed the third was on the half-floor he’d been on, he heard a drop to the floor and the person presumably had hidden behind one of the presses.
He stretched out one leg and wiggled the toes on one foot, then the other, he began to allow his eyes to drop for one second, every seven, just to rest them.
There wasn’t the slightest movement from over there and that worried him – then again, that guy was fighting for his life as well. The back-up would have to come in soon and that’s probably why the adversary was keeping perfectly shtum, he clearly had no device to lob and/or was conceding that the press might deflect much of it.
His own support was due in fifteen minutes but even that was not guaranteed. He hoped they would.
Again it all happened quickly – on impulse, he glanced up and at that moment something fell towards him, he fired two rounds, rolled 360 then aimed again but no – the three seemed dead.
He dared to come out and go over to the nearest and took off his headgear – it was a girl of about thirty, dark hair in a bun.
Taking what he considered the most essential of her gear he checked her communication device and there was a request about a status report – in French – to reply or not?
It was now apparent that his companions weren’t coming. They were to place a tape player, with music playing just inside the upper door and that would be the signal that all was fine outside but that had not come.
He had to assume that either his companions had erred or else it was not clear – he had no choice but to assume it was not clear. Suddenly, a voice from the direction of the office called softly, ‘Jean-Claude?’ So much for his cover but his name was known anyway.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Oui, I’m OK.’
‘Jean-Claude, get here now. Ici, ici,’ they turned through a doorway and it was pitch black past it.
‘You speak good French for a German.’
‘Ha. Here’s what’s happening. We’ve put food and drink in this room, we’re staying here for three days, we can bolt this door from inside. Whoever they send will go into the building, discover a trapdoor we seem to have taken, follow it and it will take them to the street – I don’t think that alone would fool them. We’ve also laid a strong scent for the dogs yesterday, hoping the dogs can’t tell their masters it was done yesterday – it was the jacket and shoes you gave me, which we abandoned a little further down the street.’
‘Ah, I thought you were into blood rituals.’
‘We laid your footprints in the corridor but there are many other footprints and handmarks as well – it’s used as a refuge by junkies. That will take them some time. By the way, you have gloves on – keep them on unless you’re eating and let me hand you the food and drink. No light but there is a thin capillary to the roof, which comes out under the tiles. This room was for contraband years ago – my father’s Austrian friend knew of it.
‘We also left a note on a scrap of paper in the lining of your jacket from a mythical Karl that you need to go to a certain address in the city in two days and it gives instructions about where you’ll be – it wasn’t written openly, it’s cryptic. The real meeting I’ll drill you in now, in the next hour.’
‘No wonder we couldn’t catch people like you.’
‘How does it feel to be the pursued for once?’
‘Not all that pleasant, to be honest.’
‘Jean-Claude, it will smell in here but better that and stay alive. There is a drum for those things. In three days or whenever it seems safe to my colleague, you’ll be got away. I need to tell you that you are offering considerably less than the authorities for your head but I do not choose to support them in their cause, besides, yours is gilt-edged.’