It was a matter of two and a half hours later when Nikki and Hugh touched down at the other farm, bumping to a bumpy stop, his knuckles white – he detested flying at the best of times, but this bouncing nightmare was something else again. Nikki observed closely.
Soon they were inside their chalet on one of the more out of the way hills – it would do nicely. They settled in, put the food away, then set to work, checking codes, rechecking, scrambling and so on while he tested the outer defences.
Their secure messaging system, called One2One, had been designed by one of the support team with some embellishments they thought might have been unique to them – it was encrypted so that the senders and receivers of messages were only visible to other parties in the net for thirty minutes, after which that disappeared from the system and the messages themselves had no archive.
Any third party request from outside automatically triggered a destruct and anything in the system went to the ether.
They’d done all the setting up, they now retired to their room for some rest but not to sleep – sleep would be scheduled later, they’d take it in turns. Nicolette lay at an angle, the back of her head against his chest.
‘They could hear us in the main room at the farmhouse,’ she chuckled. ‘Lovely time, very special – that room will never be the same now, that’s our room now.’
She suddenly turned over on him and asked, ‘Where did you get the ring? My grandmother said it has a history and that history has to do with me.’
‘Oh it does indeed,’ he smiled, ‘that ring was always intended for you – it’s been intended for you for twelve years.’
‘I thought it was too perfect, I’m impatient – my Papa, yes?’
‘Yes. There were various things which happened at the same time. When you were with Thierry, they had hopes you’d marry, so your father made that ring you have, wanting him to give it to you. He never told you about it, nor your mother.’
She just stared at him, knowing her father full well. ‘And you did as my Papa asked?’
‘Nikki, the way you asked that is wrong. I always look at variants and choose what seems best overall, no one ‘tells’ me what to do. To say that means the person does not know my character.’
‘I know, I’m sorry. It’s been a sensitive point.’
‘Your father has a name in this business, he knows your style, knows your finger size, he knows you. I felt I could trust him to produce something special. When I heard he’d reset the stones on this one, I was sure it was right.’
‘But you didn’t know we’d be fleeing.’
‘No, I was going to propose to you anyway. Let’s go back in time for a few moments. I was with Genie, right, so I obviously thought ring. This ring wasn’t on the radar at that point but I kept cash in the drawer – did you know it was there?’ Her look of surprise answered that.
‘That tells me something else about you – it’s really quite astounding. The times you’ve had a chance to look -’
‘I’ve looked in drawers of course but I never saw anything like that, just a whole lot of envelopes. I’ve looked right through your computer though – Desperado – and I’ve looked through all your clothes drawers, rearranged them so it all fits, my things too. I’ve looked for signs of women, I admit that. And there’s the basket you throw things in when you come home – keys, bank passbook. I looked at the passbook.’
‘Nikki, you’re the best there is, you know that?’ She decided on a response. She beamed. He continued. ‘All right, so things changed – along came Anaïs, then Franka. At that stage, the cash was there, no ring. Then you arrived and blew me away – I mean that literally and figuratively. That’s when I thought it best to get an interim ring for you -’
‘You decided to do that, to pay for that, before I’d even said yes?’
‘Er … yes, I did, because it was pretty clear why we’d been kept separated, you see, I saw your game plan for me and I knew mine. I wanted to explore rings anyway in general and if you and I had not come together for some reason, then I still wanted to give you something because I was gone on you. It was a vague idea at this stage. We were very intense, Nikki, in those first few days, we gave each other a few affirmations.’
‘Yes we did but Hugh, I wasn’t sure about yours. I wanted to believe.’ His eyes dropped in shame. ‘And Franka?’
‘There’s no one who upsets me more than Franka, even now. I do love her, I’m not going to tell a lie.’
‘That’s part of it, you see – there’s something tragic about Franka and I’m not prepared to let her be unhappy, to be treated badly by someone.’
‘My thoughts exactly, Bebe, don’t forget that. I’m happy you have that attitude towards her – look how long she and I were close. But I was truly shocked when you two became an item though and even more shocked when you let her go. I know you had no choice but still …’
‘And if anything ever happened with you and me, you really would not fly to Emma but to Franka?’
‘I did tell Emma because she asked me that Franka was a closed book now but that she, Emma was a danger. Not just that Emma’s married but her attitude I don’t really go for. But she’s my body type all right.’
‘You call this an interim ring but it’s one of the finest I’ve seen – you actually paid my Papa and you would have given me that ring no matter what?’
‘Nikki, it’s yours alone, it was designed for you. That had not been my plan, my plan had been an interim ring just in case and that’s the truth. But as I saw it, it was clear that could never go to another woman, its design was too specific. If something had happened to prevent us, if there was someone else, it would have to be another ring, that was clear enough. This is where it gets a bit complicated. You see, when we were negotiating, your Papa and me -’
‘Hold on, hold on – how, when, where? You never actually met him before we took you there.’
‘Ah, I see I have to tell you. We had an intermediary – Marie Duchamps –’
‘Marie! You’ve met Marie, my old schoolfriend? I’m just … shocked. Beyond words!’ It took a few seconds. ‘How do you know her?’
‘Francine knows her. I couldn’t involve Genie or Emma, Nadine doesn’t know her, Francine was the only one who could make it happen.’
Nicolette was almost without words. ‘All right, I’ll ask it -’
‘It was the day Francine brought the two videos, I saw the chance in the bedroom with her -’
‘But she never said, you never said -’
‘Well why would we, Nikki? It was a surprise for you.’
‘I’m in total shock. You could have had any number of women in your flat when I wasn’t there.’
‘I could have, that’s true but so could you have had men anywhere at any time, Nikki, each and every day. But why would we? Have we ever felt the other was cheating behind our back? I don’t mean obvious things like Nadine or Thierry, I mean really cheating behind our backs – I’ve not once thought that you were. I mean – why would we? I had all the womanhood around me a man could want, it all came to me. Think that one through. Marie was the direct link, we did the deal, it was done.’
‘She gave it to you at the apartement.’
‘She showed it to me the one day she visited and Francine was there. But Francine and I had no real contact after that, certainly not at the farmhouse. Emma did though.’
‘So Emma’s time with you at the Farmhouse was to give you that?’
‘I’d like to lie to you about that, Nikki and save myself but it’s not so. It was certainly part of it, yes, but the main reason Emma came into that room was to kiss me.’
‘This will sound strange from me, Bebe but that was a bit cruel to Emma – I didn’t want you to hurt her … and it sounds very cruel to Franka.’
‘I’ve apologized to both of and Franka knows if she and I were ever an item again, this ring goes back to your father and she and I would choose another. I mean, it would just have to be that way.’
‘Well, that’s one thing. But there’s another one, Bebe. You did that, but then had sex with Mademoiselle after you knew, in your heart, that I was yours.’
‘Nikki, I understand your horror but actually, it’s not fair. in bed at the apartement while you were at Thierry’s, I wanted her badly for sure but there was no intercourse. Since we first had intercourse, I’ve not had with anyone but you. I told Nadine that’s why I would not. I admit the other failings of course.’
She relented. ‘I’m sorry – I’m on edge, it comes from this crazy love we have. Is there any more to the story, darling man?’
‘Only the envelopes your father gave me.’
‘When, when? I never saw him give you anything and my eyes are good.’ She was furious with herself.
‘Have to keep your eyes open then,’ he chuckled. ‘He can be like you.’ She sighed and looked at the ceiling. ‘Hold on,’ he said, ‘and let me get them.’
She used one of her hairpins to tear open the first envelope and carefully took out the contents – two handwritten pages and what looked like a photo. Sitting crosslegged on the bed, she devoured the letter – he watched her lips forming the words – she examined the photo, tears came to her eyes and she stared out into space.
She then reached for the second and did the same. ‘Hugh, it’s account documents for the two of us, for our account. We don’t have an account.’
‘Yes we do, it’s a trust fund he took out for the two of us. May I see the papers?’
She handed them across, he glanced through, nodded and gave it back. ‘Yep, that’s in order. Your Papa reasoned that anything put in it could only come out jointly, by the two of us signing. He got you to sign one day long ago when he opened other accounts for you, it was also the application for an account you’d signed but it hadn’t been filled in, it wasn’t fraud but it does mean a girl needs to be careful.’
She just stared. ‘We’re not married yet.’
‘True, but in their eyes, this seemed to be the best chance yet and we didn’t know if there’d be another chance. It wasn’t time for maybe or maybe not. If it ended up being not, then that’s life, punishment for what I’ve done. I can’t take funds out of it but you can.’
‘How can I if it’s joint?’
‘Ah, well I sent a letter to the bank and filled in forms that if you were not with me, your father has power of attorney over my half of the account.’
‘But we could steal from you. Whose money is in the fund?’
‘Over half his, a bit under half mine, plus some of your own matured accounts redirected there as well – you haven’t a clue what you have.’ She lowered her eyes and went red. ‘It’s not actually in money – it’s in metals and stones.’
‘That’s so typically my father – even if you hadn’t said it was him, I would have guessed, he plays these games the whole time.’
‘He loves you, ma cherie and we or you might need that. I have my own funds for myself elsewhere, I’m not a total idiot and you do too – we have enough.’
‘How do we get to it?’
‘Your parents are targets in France now, they’re planning to go elsewhere and I promised not to say where, in case the bad guys captured you – you know some of it, I know the other part. The funds are spread – we’d never retrieve it all but we’d retrieve parts of it.’
‘Come here and hold me. I feel secure now and I don’t mean the money – I truly don’t mean the money, you’ve said yourself that I don’t even know what I’ve got. I mean that if you went this far before I’d even said yes, well …’
‘Nikki, you were the one from the day I met you, you just seemed … right.’
‘Same here. But we have another issue, Bebe. Mademoiselle One2One’d me, she wants me to be in a safehouse with Michel, did she One2One you?’
‘This is malicieux, I’m not happy with her. This can only be to break us up, just as Emma was. I’m not going.’
‘I’m two ways. The safest thing is definitely not to go but since when have you and I ever done the safe thing? You need to confront the Michel issue and work through your feelings for him. If I lose you after that, then I lose you but what I fear more is you’ll just be overwhelmed into having sex and then it will be over. I didn’t mind Thierry but I’m not as happy about him inside you.’
‘I wouldn’t do that to you, somehow I’d stop.’ She changed topics. ‘This child we’re having.’
Hugh burst out laughing. ‘Yes?’
‘What if I couldn’t? What if something was wrong with me?’
‘Then we wouldn’t.’
‘We could adopt.’
‘We have to get my plaster off first, OK?’
‘Oui, oui,’ she laughed, ‘first things first.’
She’d almost dropped off when Hugh nudged her awake. ‘It’s time for the others to fly.’
She went to the compactable and opened it up – as neat a piece of technica as you could want – punched in the seven digit code and the signal shot across Europe, via their convoluted method.
Some time later, three cars pulled out from their secure positions and went through an equally convoluted process.
It was now time for the first scheduled sleep and that would be her.
Amelie was the new girl, she was in the Section for a purpose but meanwhile, she would make herself useful and do what needed doing. Paul liked the look of Amelie very much but as he already knew of her purpose, he couldn’t very well start anything with her, his partner was Nadine. Nadine wasn’t sure she needed this competition.
Just then, the signal came.
The signal came in turn for the other two cars and sometime later, three planes softly bounced down onto disused airstrips in three different countries, decanted their passengers and baggage and took off again – the passengers scurrying to redoubts for the duration of Noel.
Francois de Marchant placed the receiver back in its cradle, turned to his secretary and gave her such a backhanded blow that it broke her jaw and dislocated two teeth. She collapsed on the floor.
‘Where have the little birds flown, my dear? What did you tell them?’
She was holding her face as the blood poured onto his rug. ‘You’re – a – maniac. What – are – you – saying? What – are – you – accusing – me – of?’
He stepped up to her and peered down. She could see only the shiny patent leather of his shoes and the perfect hems of his suit trousers. Grabbing her hair and forcing her head back, he hissed, ‘I know your game, souillon and all those who came before you. Do you think we don’t know about your calls to Laurent? Do you think we don’t know where some of their Safehouses are?’
He pressed a buzzer on his desk and four bulky men came through the door.
‘Leave her breathing.’
De Marchant turned on his heel and stormed out. The four men got to work on Sophie-Fleury. After an hour and a half, what was left of the naked, bloodied mess was unceremoniously dumped in a sack and hauled down to a van adjacent to the house.
When they got to Place de la Concorde, the back of the van opened and the sack was dropped off.
De Marchant, meanwhile, was on his way to Sivry, driven by Jean-Baptist Martin, collecting Pierre le Roux and Philippe Legrand on the way. De Marchant turned to his fellow back seat passenger, le Roux and in a voice laden with sarcasm, complimented him. ‘Great operation, Pierre. You certainly nailed Section 32.’
Le Roux maintained his silence and looked straight ahead, past Martin and out of the front window. De Marchant now did the same. The moment they’d turned off the N105, both de Marchant and Martin pulled out guns and shot le Roux and Legrand simultaneously, the bodies slumping against the doors.
Turning into the farmhouse lane, they reached the gravelled area, dumped the bodies and retraced their route back to the main road. Some kilometres on, Martin pulled into a layby where a BMW Series 7 was parked, de Marchant got out. ‘Clean the car, crush it as usual.’
De Marchant now went to the BMW, switched on the ignition and pulled out onto the main road. Debussy was his choice of music, he inserted the CD.
Word came through rapidly, the whole Section numb with shock. Now that the poor woman in the Place de Concord had been identified – they’d left the face recognizable for that purpose, Geneviève was even more horrified to find that their informant had been none other than Philippe’s ex-secretary.
Geneviève had carefully, patiently, pieced together a virtual library of documents, prepared for just such an occasion as this. These were now speeding to their destinations – every security service in Europe, all major news agencies, all alternative agencies, together with piece-by-piece evidence, dates, connections, motivations and means of verification.
People had been primed to phone talk back shows and the internet had been flooded with information. De Marchant’s and le Roux’s names were to be perpetually brought into the public sphere every two days, not every day, in the form of ‘new revelations’ about their conduct and the tabloids had been given the juiciest information – nothing had been held back.
If the Section was to go down, it would go down fighting, with the public onside.
There were other troubles as well. Although the Sophie-Fleury tragedy exacerbated the situation, there were going to be great tensions anyway on the first changeover. Geneviève had made these arrangements:
1. Geneviève, Thierry, Olivier to coordinate
2. Nicolette and Jean-Claude, Michel and Amelie
3. Francine and Hugh, Paul and Nadine
4. Emma and Jean, Jacques and Francesca.
Nicolette had got what she’d secretly wanted, maybe deep down, but to put Francine with Hugh, hoping for something to happen – that was just pure malice, pure spite – it was deliberately designed to break the pair of them up. She asked how he would approach Francine, given his white knight habits.
‘I’d need your permission to make love to her without actually penetrating her – since her disfiguration, Jean has been terrible towards her, he’s clearly lost interest although he can’t outwardly show it. I am yours and Franka understands and accepts that principle – to me, intercourse is a barrier I won’t cross. She knows that.’
‘You can’t say that, she’ll manoeuvre you, you’re hopeless. On the other hand, I have to ensure that neither Emma nor she are a danger to me. If I make love with Michel -’
‘The point is made, Bebe, I know exactly what it would be like. If that happened, Emma would leave him in a flash and you might very much leave me. If you do that with Francine, then there’s always that chance she’d now dump Jean. Even if she’s my partner, even if she is damaged – it might be the last straw, Hugh, it might be the one I do leave you for and you leave me. It could be. Mademoiselle knows it and I don’t like her just now, not at all.
We have a massive dilemma, both of us. You don’t need to know if you prefer Franka or Emma, you already know those things, I do need to know about Michel though, deep inside my brain. You want me to get over this barrier, you calculate I’d never go with him, but as you say, the worst result for you is if I do have sex with him and then try to come back to you or worse – I lie to you and you find out. It’s a nightmare.’
‘Let’s say you do keep Michel out of you but it starts a desire in you, you come back to me but I know something is lost – sooner or later, you and he will do it.’
‘Do it, do it, is that the only way you can think about it?’
‘Yes, it is. For a man, yes.’
’I know that.’
‘Penetration is a major matter if the man is crazy for the woman, I think I’ve earned the right for that not to happen. I think you love me enough not to but you can’t predict the situation that far, not until you’re actually in it. And you have every right for me not to penetrate Franka. I know for you it’s the emotional attachment with her but with me, the two are the same thing – one leads to the other.’
‘I know this.’ She rested her hand on his shoulder. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘You must go to him this once, get it over and done with, not hanging over us, I must not penetrate Franka.’
‘All right, we’ll go.’
Nicolette and Jean-Claude had arrived from different directions and now, with Michel, came the new girl, Amelie, supposedly a former fashion model in sympathy with their plight and Michel’s eyes were all over her – which may have been the least bad situation Geneviève and Emma could have hoped would happen. Not only were his eyes all over Amelie but his arms were too and the tart didn’t seem to mind one bit.
Nicolette had Jean-Claude and though he was a lovely man, well … still, she did get to discuss Hugh with him and that was valuable.
Michel played up to her a bit on the second day and by the end of the first week, was tiring of Amelie.
What had mortified Nicolette was the sound of sex coming from that bedroom – Michel was meant to be Emma’s husband and though they all knew what he was really like, still … to actually hear it was awful, awful.
Now he was making eyes at her, Nikki and what was worse – succeeding. Everything she and Hugh had spoken about came to mind and here she was breaking the very rule she thought she’d abide by.
He was flattering her, giving her that attention, making her feel she was the only one, employing the right jargon which Hugh could never do, then were those large, laconic hands and his couldn’t-care-less attitude.
She felt herself falling.
The denouement came on the second last night when Jean-Claude struck up a friendship with Amelie and to Nikki’s absolute shock, planned to stay in her room the night.
This left her with two options – the divan in the hall or her room with Michel.
He came through to her room and got into bed late, something she’d desired for two decades, she began to discuss things – music, films, whatever but it was clear he was impatient. The thing was, she did want him but not this way – so gauche, so raw. Maybe it was Jean-Claude’s refinement, Hugh’s education – she saw herself as worthy of far better than this.
He was now upon her, pressing his lips to hers and she was falling, he moved into position but when he physically took her left leg and pushed it away from the other, she’d had enough.
She said no, then louder, placing her hand over her privacy and then shouted it.
He was technically inside through her fingers when there was running from the other end of the house and it was Amelie, in nightdress. ‘Nikki said no, Michel. Come with me.’
He looked at Nicolette, climbed off and went with Amelie. Nicolette ran for the door and locked it, stumbled back to bed and lay in foetal position, crying for hours. In the distance, at the other end of the house, she heard Michel’s grunting and Amelie’s shrieking for half an hour but after that, there was silence.
She tiptoed to her door, unlocked it and peered out. Jean-Claude was sleeping on the divan.
‘I don’t want charity, Hugh.’
‘You can stop that straight away – this is costing me dearly, you know Nikki is with Michel and she’s unhappy about me being with you because she says you’ll manoeuvre me into penetrating you,’ there was a slight smile at the corner of Francine’s lips, ‘I’m doing this because I need you in my arms and Nikki knows I do.’
He moved in and started kissing her in bursts, he felt her yielding, but now she suddenly took over and there was instant coition, before he’d even said he couldn’t. They lay inside each other, stunned, not withdrawing, neither taking it further.
‘Oh Franka, I’ve just lost Nikki, I’ve just lost her.’
‘No Hugh, don’t you think I analyse, plan? Nikki will certainly have sex with Michel, I’m not going to call it love – at least ours is love, at least we were partners before. Plus I tricked you and ambushed you, no matter how willing you were. My positioning left you no option, your body was already in motion in that gyps which you no longer need, I watched you moving, mine was moving, it was easy – we docked like two spaceships. This must be the last time, otherwise we all break apart and I’m not your future, Nikki is.’
The next pairings were:
1. Geneviève, Thierry, Olivier and Jean-Claude;
2. Nicolette and Hugh, Jacques and Francesca;
3. Emma and Michel, Nadine and Paul;
4. Francine and Jean coordinating.
Jean-Claude was the fish out of water but he’d be happy enough near Geneviève for the moment.
Nicolette-Hugh was always going to be the interesting reunion and it got down to the topic immediately they had their first time off at night.
‘How much did you know, Hugh?’
‘Truth? Most of it. Everyone knew what he was like except you, Jean-Claude knew this Amelie, a girl with a good heart but maybe a bit loose morally – the idea was to keep Michel away from you until he couldn’t hold it in any longer, nor you.’
‘That’s awful. You were playing games with your wife.’
‘Emma’s marriage was on the line, she had to know too, you had to know, I had to know.’
‘That Amelie’s a whore.’
‘She saved you from Michel, Nikki. You do know she was drugging his drink the whole time? He did manage to penetrate her a couple of times before it hit him and he fell asleep -’
‘That’s awful … for her, I mean.’
‘Nikki, I do know he penetrated you.’
Her jaw dropped, she was mortified, she could not speak, then, ‘How?’
‘Your body language right now, you never were a good liar – you’re being now what we call sheepish in English, penaud in French, you’re being too careful in your reactions. I expected the worst – full-on sex, very messy, soixante-neuf, all of it – I was braced for it, j’étais prêt pour ça. Franka and I also discussed it.
What I don’t like is that you swooned, tu t’as pâmée … you certainly screamed out but by the time they came, he’d forced it in through your barrier. I know you can fight, as you did with le Roux, I think you only half fought Michel.’
She looked away, tears streaming. ‘This is a nightmare, horrible. If he’d been charming, I don’t know, Hugh, would I have made love that night, just that one night? I had not forgotten you in the least – I know that’s not good enough but I’m sure I would have made love for a time and then thrown him out. And yes, I would have tried to come back to you.’
He was silent.
‘I know Franka and you were sure he would penetrate me as you call it, I also know how she ambushed you … exactly how, we talked One2One … but then you went along with it. She told me all of it.’
‘Have I lost you?’ he asked.
‘Have I lost you?’ she asked in turn.
They looked at one another and then tentatively held each other close. ‘I’m not happy, Nikki, nor are you. Promise me no more experiments, no more finding out feelings or any of that.’
‘I was going to say that to you.’
Disturbing news was coming through that some of the safehouses they’d vacated had been stormed. The obvious question was whether any they were scheduled to stay in were similarly under threat.
Emma One2Oned Hugh, puzzled that the enemy did not always have completely up to date information, she suspected that someone inside the team was committed to bringing down the Section as a force but had stopped short of allowing physical harm to the individual members.
Geneviève One2Oned Emma. ‘We need someone in for Jean-Claude but who?’ Emma One2Oned Nicolette, to see if she had any ideas.
‘Sophie-Fleury herself, of course. She’s in great danger in that hospital, she’s alone and probably frightened. It would be even better if we could take her from under their noses but we need Jean-Claude for that and that would help his chances with her later.’
Jean-Claude felt humble. Of course he’d use his connections. Nikki hadn’t stopped there, she’d discussed with Thierry the idea of a mate for Olivier, a school chum. Thierry said he’d put it to Olly who was already in the room by then, having antennae which picked up whenever his name was being mentioned, even from great distances.
‘Olly, do you need a friend to come and stay? Nikki seems to feel that you’re a bit alone.’
‘Depends who it is.’
‘Well is there anyone whose father and mother might not mind him coming into great danger and possible death to provide a companion for Olivier Villeneuve?’
Olivier grinned and answered straight away. ‘Gemma Bisset.’
‘A girl? Not a chance. Anyway, would her parents not object?’
‘We’re famous now, aren’t we? Her Papa always wanted her to do well and he always liked me and all that.’ Thierry looked at Geneviève and Olivier went on, ‘Papa, she’s my friend, that’s all and she has a Wii. I’m not interested in that other stuff.’
Thierry looked at him and sighed. ‘We’d need someone to reach them from outside, someone they trust – Pierre Lefebvre? He was our mutual friend.’
‘I don’t know him,’ said Geneviève.
‘I could be smuggled out of here for one night to talk to them personally.’
‘Too dangerous, Thierry.’
‘No more dangerous than our current situation and shows our bona fides as nothing else could. They’re not on anyone’s radar.’
Geneviève stewed over it.
‘All right, we’ll set it up for tomorrow evening. You’ll fly in and change to a helicopter, the helicopter will lower you and come back in one hour for you, with or without Gemma.’
‘How do we know they’ll be home, that they’ll know anything about it?’
‘We’ll send a message the long way round during this day and a half. They’ll know the score by the time you get there. If we can’t do it or they decline, you’ll be One2Oned and we’ll call it off.’
‘I’ve had a thought, Nikki,’ One2Oned Geneviève. ‘Let’s call the Section Sophie-Fleury – it sums up what we are about, it’s about avenging angels and gives us just enough mystique to intrigue the enemy. Also, it would be a lovely gesture for when she arrives.’
‘We should rescue her first, then name the Section.’
That evening, Nicolette was on the computer, Hugh was on duty patrolling the place and the other two were off duty.
The moment Jacques wandered into the computer room, Nicolette immediately jumped up to find Hugh, leaving Jacques puzzled. And sure enough, there they both were, Francesca and Hugh, in the kitchen. He was in the process of chopping vegetables for a late supper, apron over his combat gear, he’d turned to face her and Francesca was standing less than a metre from him, looking up into his eyes.
It wasn’t what they were saying as that they weren’t saying anything at all and that was the thing which concerned her. Even when she, Nikki, was obviously present in the room, they didn’t alter their stance, Hugh shook his head and muttered, ‘Not good, Chessa, not good,’ she quickly hugged him, said, ‘Thanks Hugh,’ and supposedly went to find Jacques.
He returned to the chopping board, still shaking his head, paused, looked at Nikki and whispered, ‘I’ll tell you later.’
The sight of Thierry air-dropped into the back garden of M et Mme Bisset would have been one to remember if anyone had actually seen it.
He was inside and explaining to the parents within thirty seconds. All sorts of assurances were given and Gemma was technically under Thierry’s guardianship, in the view of the parents he’d die for their daughter as if she were his own and they couldn’t ask more than that. They’d packed three bags of supplies on top of Gemma’s packs.
‘So, Gemma,’ said Thierry, ‘time to say your goodbyes – I’ll wait in the kitchen. By the way,’ he said to the parents, reaching inside to his inner pocket and extracting a plastic bag os something, ‘these are letters, we’d really appreciate it if you could send them.’ The father nodded to put them on the side table, Thierry went to the kitchen.
When all farewells had been concluded, he primed Gemma on what to do and she put on the harness. They went out to the back door and awaited the chop chop of the helicopter. It was a relieved man when it came into position and the cable was lowered.
He attached Gemma and two bags first, then himself with the rest of the gear and up they went. That’s how simple it actually was.
Getting Sophie-Fleury out of the hospital was a split-second affair involving wild goose chases, made doubly difficult by her total lack of knowledge that she was being lifted and by her not knowing the people who were doing it.
It was only a photo of Philippe and Geneviève with her words written on the back that Genie held nothing against Sophie-Fleury which convinced her, although that was hardly proof. They unfortunately had to stun the night orderly but they did get away, mainly as they’d wrongfooted the enemy.
To de Marchant, she’d long ceased to be of interest and was essentially being kept alive as some sort of bargaining chip but exactly how hadn’t been thought through. Perhaps it was that the Section had not been proactive until now, only reactive, the enemy now saw it had erred in this and de Marchant thought through who the active elements in the Section appeared to be. He reasoned that if they could be plucked out, the Section would fold.
The Section played the media of course for all it was worth. Time, Newsweek, Reuters and Le Monde took particular interest, as specific releases to them came through security channels in all European countries. Hugh and Geneviève had spiced it up with the arcane gobbledegook both he and she knew, to leave the enemy in no doubt that they were more than a bunch of rabbits hiding down burrows.
They had now also devised a logo based on her family coat-of-arms and this gave the public something more concrete to focus on. The name Section Sophie-Fleury was liberally bandied about and the press loved it until, one by one, they were gagged.
The remaining free internet then took up the cudgels about what had been sent to which papers and when, with enormous question marks as to why the media weren’t running it.
The press naturally wanted good copy, so Geneviève had secretly arranged an interview involving an overnight train trip for one journalist, with camcorder and it was agreed it would only appear once they were in their new houses.
The gist was:
SSF: We’re releasing the names of five criminals in high office over two weeks and today we’ll begin with the German Government:
It might avail Herr Gunter Eisner, 2nd Deputy Minister of Home Affairs to investigate Herr Erik Holtz, Chief Coordinator, 2nd Muenchen Sektor, on suspicion of murder, extortion and embezzlement, details of which are now being handed to my interviewer.
DS: That’s fine as far as it goes, Mlle Lavacquerie but how can we be sure that this allegation has any substance?
SSF: Keep your eye on the departmental journal in the next few days and that will be answered.
The denials and vilification of SSF came thick and fast and the paper came under fire for running scurrilous and unsubstantiated material but when it emerged that Herr Holtz had, in fact, turned out to be guilty as alleged, the paper knew it was onto a winner and wanted more.
‘Chessa’s not coping, Nikki.’
‘And you think there’s something going on with her and me – she saw it too but she’s too far into her problems to worry about that. So best I tell you.’
‘Jacques is tired of her or else he needs variety or else many things – the bottom line is that their relationship is not 100%. Now you know her better than me so tell me where her eyes are.’
She was way ahead of him. ‘That can’t be – it’s wrong for a start with Thierry. I’ve known it for a long time and he doesn’t set her straight. I’ve spoken to him but he thinks I’m interfering.’
‘There’s nothing …er … like that with him … is there?’
She did ponder. ‘I don’t know, it’s just that they’ve been thrown together for so long … and Hugh – you’re not father confessor to young girls, you’re my man.’
‘Then who is confessor in this case? You know she can’t approach you on this, nor Thierry, Genie would not understand.’
‘I hear all this, Hugh, I hear it, but no – not with Chessa, not with her. She possibly does have this issue but she’s always had issues and agendas when it’s suited her and she’s like a tigress who has tasted human blood. She has a taste for men of maturity and if she finds one who listens, all the better. Will you trust me on this and not think it’s just my jealousy?’
‘You know her better than anyone.’
‘Think why she has no friends her own age, think why she can come up to a man of your age and play the coquette. What does she do when we’re all solving the problems of the world? She observes, thinks of an idea, hatches her plan and puts it into operation. She has Thierry around her little finger.’
‘You don’t like her.’
‘I know girls, Bebe. Chessa and I have never had an argument because I’ve meant freedom for her when I visit – her one criticism is that I only visit three times a year. It’s not dislike, it’s that I know her. You and Emma worry me but you and Chessa are never going to begin, for many reasons.’
‘I’ve no thoughts in that direction.’
‘Good, then that makes it easier. I’ll speak with Jacques and no, don’t even start to think that.’
‘I’ve no thoughts in that direction,’ he repeated.
She was about to repeat, ‘Good, then that makes it easier,’ but thought better of it.
Geneviève lay in bed, Thierry side on to her, listening. ‘Thierry, I’m frightened, frightened it’s me who is doing this.’
‘Unless you get away from me when I’m not looking –’
‘I have many opportunities when you’re not in the communications room, when you’re in the shower. Many opportunities.’
‘But why would you? The Section is you.’
‘Yes but if I am being paid big money to play this charade, to finish the Section without anyone suspecting why – then there would be a point. Maybe now we’re no longer operating in Paris, the paymaster wants to end it.’
‘Yes but the person doing this is also the person who let Melanie be killed. Nothing in our sessions indicates anything like that with you.’
She squeezed his hand and mouthed, ‘Merci.’
Of course, they had their own way of puzzling the enemy too.
Firstly, it gradually became clear that Section Sophie-Fleury was intent on exposing corrupt 2nd or 3rd echelon officials but never ever went higher to the real power.
With each allegation, accompanied by huge press interest, a pattern emerged. SSF had taken to exposing five officials at any one time.
The first two names would always instantly check out and in many cases were known to be corrupt but the other three were difficult to believe. Then, in any set of five allegations, one of the other three names on the list did check out and suddenly the papers were speaking of the veracity of ALL the allegations. To employ the vernacular, ‘it hit the fan’. The public came to believe that ANY name on any list had to, ipso facto, be guilty.
The Club of Trondheim, in its inner sanctum, discussed this curious phenomenon, and came to the conclusion that this ludicrously named Section Sophie-Fleury were playing games with ‘expendables’ and that the Club itself was as safe as houses. It was even suggested that SSF was some mysterious chapter of themselves. Either way, the threat was downgraded and the upper echelons lost interest.
Secondly, SSF also seemed to have a knack of weeding out disinformation planted to discredit them, there was someone inside their own organization and at this time, therefore, it was a game of low returns.
Still, they’d keep the pressure up and throw a few things into the mix along the way, awaiting SSF’s inevitable error.
In the last week of the current sojourn, all houses received, simultaneously, a message from someone calling herself ‘13’. That was all, except that it was encrypted in their own code of the day, which they’d only decided on two hours earlier, and it was signed ‘Thirteen’.
On each of their transponders, which worked not unlike a mini laptop or Black Berry, a hazy blue image now appeared, an image of a very beautiful girl, dishevelled, distressed and seemingly in chains.
Her face turned towards the screen, her lips formed the word ‘Thirteen’ and then the image disappeared. A bit of hi-camp theatrics, according to Hugh but Geneviève was deeply concerned about the security breach, a breach which meant they went to ground, as per procedure.
It was as though life had suddenly fast forwarded.
Hugh’s gyps were due to be removed the next day and they’d brought in one of Nicolette’s family for the job. This, of course, gave the game away that their safehouse for those two weeks was actually deep in France.
In other news, the weapons training stepped up – an allocated officer appeared every few days at each safehouse, turning the place into an urban jungle as they practised the various drills over and over again in one hour bursts.
The basic strategy was response-fire in pairs – one with an armour piercing carbine and one with the soft round carbine. Hugh had designed modifications to the Pinnacle Dragon Skin body suit to accept the carbine clipped to the chest, the pistol holstered and the spare magazines in pouches behind the vest.
Coming back online at the end of the communication blackout which had delayed the changeover, the image of the girl phased itself back on all screens, speaking two words, ‘Desist, Albus’.
Thirteen had returned but now the image had changed. She was as some sort of seated goddess, draped in translucent white folds, revealing a perfect nakedness beneath, and holding an orb and a sceptre, her lips pouted and text then appeared, ‘Desist, Albus. Desist.’
The enemy was most certainly present amongst them.
Geneviève now had a fair idea who the active traitor was but would keep her own counsel until the time was right. She also had a very good idea that Hugh was the Albus of the message but urged Emma and him to say nothing for now.
Thierry quizzed her about Thirteen.
‘She’s a young prostitute, Thierry. She must be, to fulfil their legend.’
‘Is she one of them or is she someone who should be rescued?’
‘She’s programmed, drugged and simply their tool. They’ll have orgiastic rituals with her, using short daggers to draw blood but she’ll live and be used the next time. Eventually they’ll murder her in a ritual, then kidnap a new girl.’
‘Can she be saved?’
‘This is what I’m now turning my attention to.’
Thierry was stroking his chin, thoughtfully. ‘It’s like something from a horror movie.’
‘The other way round. Horror movies sprang from the reality no one wished to confront.’
‘It seems so far fetched.’
‘In this case, I’m sure you’re right – it is far fetched. This Thirteen business is too theatrical – I’d swear it was produced by someone not far from us. There’s a creative spirit in this image.’
‘If it is who you think it is, how do you feel about that person?’
‘Without words, horrified and depressed.’
Thirteen was working overtime and her evening message was more of the same: ‘Expel Albus, who plans your doom – or death will come upon you all.’
Nadine spoke of ‘no smoke without fire’ and now Nikki too had got it into her head that Albus might be Hugh.
There was a One2One awaiting Hugh from Geneviève, saying that it was probably now beyond doubt about the traitor. She ran the following message past him, asking him if her reasoning on this was sound:
‘Basically, it’s like this – Jacques received a message from their grocery suppliers this morning. Procedure demands, as you know, that the receiver repeats to the sender, via the transponder, each letter or number as it’s sent.
Problem was, electrostatic interference today made one or two of the numbers drop out and instead of immediately aborting, Jacques sent back what he thought he’d heard, knowing in advance the correct sequence for the day.
The first mistake passed without incident but on the second, Francesca was passing and observed, over his shoulder, what was going on. She apparently pushed him aside, hit ‘abort’, then told him he’d nearly had them all killed.
Immediately she warned me, their twelve hour transponder jammer came into play – they’re offline at this time. What use is the code of the day to the enemy anyway? To get a geographical fix, of course, which is what’s been happening.’