The cloud cover accentuated the depressing darkness of the night, blotting out the half moon – ideal landing conditions. All scenarios they could think of had been played out and rehearsed.
In dark uniforms, at two different locations, they paddled to shore in black inflatables, which were then deflated and stacked in an enormous tied poncho, shortly to be removed by a cat-rigged boat.
They met and embraced their contacts, went to their respective safehouses – it was all surprisingly clinical, they were on home soil, and it was the end of the summer.
Next morning, it was drizzling outside Nikki and Hugh’s four quartered window with its peeling wooden frame. Not a pleasant day and they recoiled a little from having to face it.
He jumped out of bed first and did the check. She put one foot out from under the covers and pulled it back under again. She pulled the bedclothes up to her chin, her big eyes following his slightly cushioned form around the room.
‘Come on, darling,’ he asked.
With a sigh, she threw off the bedclothes and slipped into the bathroom for twenty minutes. When she came back, there was a breakfast of sorts on the low table at the foot of the bed. They ate in silence, she wrapped in her giant towel.
It was 09:00 and the other two were due in the next hour.
10:05 and still nothing. She filled the kettle again and a few minutes later they were sipping Lipton’s Gold. He suggested they put their outerwear on and leave the swing windows unlatched.
11:10 and Hugh was shifting uneasily. Nicolette looked at him and made a face, he grinned and romanced her for a while.
12:00 came and now it was time to make contingency plans. A rope swung across the window, a dark form slipped down and propped outside the window. ‘Open the window, Hugh, quickly.’
She swung through and took in the scene, nodding at Nikki. ‘There’s no time, we have to go. Julia made contact, right channels, said Frank had left her and not come back, she went to the holding area. Doug told Janine he had to go to her.’
‘He knew not to go – she knew he mustn’t respond. There’s something quite unkosher about this.’
‘But first,’ said Nikki, ‘Doug and Julia must check in by 13:00, those were our rules. If they don’t, we check the news channel.’
13:00 and the signal had still not come in from either Doug or Julia but had come in from Rory and Janine.
In response, he sent the emergency ‘sit tight for now, go in one hour’ code. TVs were switched on, news channels clicked to, almost immediately it appeared. Two schoolkids had discovered a box near their school, two heads were inside. Male heads, fitting the description but not definite of course, pixellated.
The colour drained from Sophie’s face, Nikki ran for the bathroom, he got up in a daze and went to her. ‘We don’t know it’s them but the hair fits. We have to assume it was them.’
It was ten minutes before any of them could clear their minds enough to talk, now in automatic mode. They’d trained and trained to counter exactly this sort of thing, knowing it would be brutal. Thing was, the execution seemed to have been summary, strictly for psy-op purposes, for TV news, not the result of days of torture.
He opened. ‘Why did they break ranks? Who’s lying? Who did it? Sophie, you have some explaining to do – you let Doug go, against all procedure and Doug is known for procedure.’
Sophie looked at both and if innocence was a look, she was innocent. ‘I was appalled when he went. But Mr. Jensen, Mrs. Jensen, surely you knew those two were an item – who suggested Julia for the job?’
‘Right,’ said Hugh, ‘let’s accept that for now as a reason why Doug lost his …’ then he remembered himself, ‘why Doug went off. What about Frank?’
Said Sophie, ‘We can’t know.’
Nikki now said what they all knew. ‘One of us must go north. Julia, if she follows procedure, would make for the northern point early, from where those two would be lifted back to the island.’
No one spoke. Nicolette broke the silence by repeating, her voice querulous, ‘So I ask again – who goes north?’
‘All right,’ said Hugh, ‘the last thing we need now are interpersonal issues but we do need to have this out. And it has to be in front of Sophie, if only to keep me honest.’ Nikki nodded emphatically.
‘Let me do it,’ said Sophie, ‘let me put some things the way I understand them but first I have to know something. Do you both still see me in Mr. Jensen’s employ -’
‘It’s Hugh now -’
‘Hugh and Mrs. Jensen’s empl -’
‘It’s Nikki now -’
‘Thank you. Or as their friend?’
They both kissed her cheek, one either side.
Rory saw it before Janine and as he’d caught only the tail end of it, he tried to get it on the other news but it had gone past the headlines and the channel was onto regional news.
He told her straightout and if he thought Janine would swoon, he was wrong – she just went very quiet and did not respond for some time.
Eventually she turned to him and said, ‘This alters everything, I’d say Hugh will go north to Julia, he won’t risk Sophie. I’d say Nikki might be given the choice – I think she has no choice but to send him.
If anyone knows Doug, it’s me and he would never have done that unless he were trying to prevent further tragedy, although he and she were close of course. We have to assume they all talked before it happened … there’ll be a signal from Hugh now … or not.’
It came through almost immediately, she perused it. ‘Yep, I have to ring my friend to put the ad in.’ She now did that, then closed the phone. ‘Nothing else we can do now, Rory, but stay low, then make the new haven an hour from now.’
Sophie sipped on her tea and spoke. ‘I’m stunned by all of it. How long would it take you to get up there, Hugh?
‘Two and a half hours maximum from here.’
‘Leaving another half hour to meet her. Plus the two left behind here need to be out of this house in about an hour and a quarter, no later, so best I begin.’ Hugh noted the rapid improvement in her idiomatic English.
She went on.
‘If I am your real friend, both of you, then the greatest thing I can do for you both now is to risk this friendship by speaking out when I can see you both sleepwalking into disaster and that’s just what you’re both doing – I see it all before my eyes right now, and for nothing. Each of you knows half the story, I know both halves because I am close to both and have studied you both. So even though you will not like half of what I must say, I know you will listen.’
‘Proceed,’ said he, Nikki nodded her agreement.
‘Let’s start at the point where the four of us were in the northern house in England, that point just after Hugh’s fainting over you, Nikki,’ Nikki smiled, ‘and when Nikki started to look around – what did she see? Two dangers – Marie-Ange and myself. And like any woman, she assessed those dangers. The first thing which alarmed her was that Marie-Ange was the Emma type and I was the Ksenia and Francine type – I heard about them from Emma, from Hugh and from you, Nikki. May I go on?’
Reassured by them, she did. ‘Marie-Ange had four things against her being a danger. First was that she reminds Hugh of Emma, second was that she had killed Emma, third was that she was trying too hard to find a partner, fourth was that the Prime Minister had warned Hugh about me, not about Marie-Ange … but Hugh had seen the first three points. Nikki allowing Hugh to go to London with Marie-Ange, knowing they embraced and sometimes had a quick kiss – that showed that Nikki did not see her as a threat either.
You two are both wildly, madly for each other, as in a fantasy romance novel many women love,’ Nikki smiled again, ‘but you both have some very destructive things in you, just as I do. And there are tensions between you.
Hugh has a susceptibility to women who are kind to him, but Nikki, he also has something far worse – a pathological fear of a certain type of man coming anywhere near Nikki. He doesn’t care about me sleeping with you, Nikki, he will put up with a Thierry Villeneuve,’ Nikki winced, ‘he will not put up with a Michel type, the type who is good looking and not too particular about touching another man’s woman. Tell me I’m wrong, Hugh. Tell me I’d wrong, Nikki.’
There was silence and she went on.
‘It’s worse than that with Nikki though. You know Nikki’s past reputation for the type, Hugh, you know it was intimate very quickly, so I’ve heard, with those two,’ Hugh’s turn to wince, ‘and he doesn’t want a Michel anywhere near Nikki, do you Hugh, and there is a Michel on this trip -’
‘Rory,’ said Nikki.
‘Go on,’ she said.
‘Now, before I get started on Hugh, let’s look at Michel. This was a married man that you, Nikki were going to have sex with, in fact did,’ she paused again and there was silence, ‘after promising Hugh undying love. Doesn’t matter that he was a childhood flame once you’re married … or does it mean nothing?’
Silence. Nikki was quietly grateful though that Sophie clearly accepted the implications of marriage.
‘Now Nikki, just think what constant fear that causes in his mind every waking minute of this trip, especially now at this moment. He thinks he can take her or leave her – but he fears Rory greatly.’
‘ll right,’ she said, looking at both, ‘now let’s deal with Hugh. My question to you, Nikki – do you think Hugh engineered it to go north to Julia now?’
‘Give me a minute to think about that.’
‘While you do that,’ continued Sophie, ‘let me mention the afternoon you first met Hugh. Whose strategy was that? Your Mademoiselle Genevieve’s of course. But you went to meet him with your own little strategies in place, didn’t you – you would of course look magnificent,’ Nikki smiled, ‘but you ran straight into a Hugh strategy and you were not expecting that.’
‘I wasn’t expecting it.’
‘I don’t mean the obvious strategy of the wall-to-wall compliments, all confirming what you had worked so hard to produce – he’s sneaky and he knows how to play on those, he’s done it with me. And they’re always lovely but there is more. Go back in time – Hugh came to France and the women’s defences were down.
Why? Because he had a magnificent woman with him, didn’t he – Ksenia – so he was all right in your eyes, even if he had this devilish question mark – was he trying to break up your Section?’
Nikki groaned. ‘I don’t know, I think not.’
‘That was his free pass, you see, to get into a section of women – he was surrounded by women, his idea of heaven.’
He suppressed a smile.
‘Did he gather those women, manipulate them all? No, he did not. Did he engineer to get with them? No – he was engineering to be with your Mademoiselle and she was doing the same in reverse – that’s the game everyone was watching. But he was also getting great pleasure from all those girls. Clever, clever Hugh. Did he engineer it? And should I stop now?’
‘Don’t stop,’ he said.
Nicolette reflected. ‘That’s certainly one of his strategies. To answer the question though – no, he couldn’t have engineered that but he could see the scenario and take advantage of it. I’d say he decided right then to abandon Russia and try Paris.’
‘Did he engineer the car collision?’ asked Sophie.
‘Of course not. But it certainly made it easy for the women around him to feed him, be around him, all of them carrying out their own little strategies. I see where this is going.’
He said nothing.
‘We come to this mission now,’ Sophie went on, ‘two groups of two pairs. Who engineered that? The Prime Minister did of course, Hugh sat back and watched. Did Hugh suggest it to him earlier though? You, Nikki, engineered the pair idea, because you’d used it in the past and it had worked. Who pushed the pair idea in your Section on your Flight to Egypt? You had, hadn’t you, Nikki? Now what was in that for you? Who did you hope to be with?’
Sophie took another sip and pressed on.
‘Doug engineered for Julia to be taken on, he really pushed the PM but it was obvious anyway – look at her skills. Then Hugh was asked. ‘I have no objection.’ Passive, yes?’
‘Oh yes, he can be passive when he wants.’
‘But at the same time, because he is so obvious, laughably obvious, like in that question about my morals, we smile because we see his tricks, we feel strategically superior and we don’t mind because all he wants is women of quality around – us – we know all that and so we have feelings for him. That way he gets what he wants – but we get what we want too – part of that is stability and protection. We protect him, he protects us.
No, he did not engineer that car collision, no, he did not engineer this mission or those pairs – they were all logical, they had to be that way. Seriously though, think about these pairs – Julia with Rory? Could not be, could it, because Doug and Julia were a secret item. So Julia had to be with the sexless Frank,’ Nicolette smiled again, ‘which is a bit unfair because I’m sure Frank could make some woman happy, and Rory had to be with Janine – her bit of pleasure with a toyboy -’
‘Sophie, you’re terrible,’ grinned Nikki, ‘go on.’
‘Hugh did not engineer those but he was watching the lie of the land all the same and that ability to see the lie of the land has helped us stay alive so far. So we are grateful, aren’t we? How then could he know things would work out this way?’
‘Well he couldn’t.’
‘Yes and no, actually and I’ll get onto that quickly because there’s not much time left. All right, the way each suspected operative must be physically opened up and checked … along with bags and clothes – who engineered that?’
‘Frank did,’ said Nikki, horrified. ‘Because he disliked women and wanted us to suffer. And none of us objected to the policy, how could we, plus we did have hopes. There, I’ve said it now.’
‘You have been honest, Nikki,’ said Sophie, finishing her tea. ‘And I’m going to be gentle. You would, like Hugh, have no intentions of breaking vows but it would still be nice to have an official command from above forcing us to do this checking. Just once, just breifly – at least that’s what we thought when none of us objected.’
‘Like you, Sophie,’ said Nikki. ‘Like you and Hugh … or you and Rory?’
‘Either, both, but mainly Hugh. You see, I know the Rory type you’re susceptible to and … I’m not. So yes, I wouldn’t mind with Hugh, if I was forced to by the rules.’
Nikki just stared at Sophie, then said, ‘Goodness, we are being honest with each other now.’
‘We have no choice. And now I ask the question – could Hugh have quietly engineered the whole thing from a distance? He knew Frank’s temperament, knew the things Frank would suggest, he knows us. He knows he can’t get to me, he wouldn’t do it to you, Nikki, because he wants to keep me close, but he reads Julia as someone different and though he has been faithful to you, he also knows Julia is on this trip and he does have a history with that age girl. Again, just like you with Rory – there’s nothing planned, there’s been no contact, there’s just a vague idea in the back of the head.
So, Julia is placed with Frank who is not on-song with our mission, plus he’s cavalier – the chance of anyone breaking ranks is Frank first. Was Julia already the enemy? Hugh probably wondered,’ he nodded, ‘I wondered but had no proof. She had the skills though which we all needed – Hugh knew she had to go with the team. Now Doug breaks ranks because he’s in love with her. What chance Doug being the lone one at the end going north? None. What chance Frank? None. So, who’s the only one who could ever have gone north?’
‘I have no words,’ Nikki murmured.
‘Now look at us, here – the three of us. If we had a vote, who would Hugh vote for to go north? For me of course, so he can stay with you, good boy, Hugh. But you know, Nikki, and he knows that there is a rule we haven’t talked about yet – the rule of precedence which he did not impose – the PM and Janine imposed that rule of precedence if there’s ever a clash of strategies … and Janine did it so that she could get close to certain males.’
‘I felt so too, go on.’
‘So who actually engineered for Hugh to go north to Julia? Answer is – it really wasn’t him, but equally, he must have thought through the possibilities.’
‘And so he always had to sleep with Julia if something went wrong.’
‘Why?’ protested Hugh, ‘why must I?’
Sophie stepped in and saved Nikki the job. ‘Because you’re truly hopeless with beautiful women wearing full warpaint, Hugh and that’s because we engineer it that way. You would have sex with both of us right now, even after this tragedy, if we engineered you to do it. You’d regret it for Nikki’s sake of course, but you’d still do as we wished you to. Nikki knows this in her mind and that’s why she has tears in her eyes – you are very cruel to her, Hugh, this is the woman you’re supposed to adore. I’m not saying you are planning or even hoping to bed Julia, I believe you will try not to get close, not cross that magic line but the moment you check her, she will use it and I can’t see you resisting after that.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘I do see it.’
Nikki took up the tale. ‘Julia wouldn’t use the sexy young thing strategy, she’d appeal to the white knight, give her some credit. According to your rule book, Hugh, you’d have no choice except to look after her. And I would expect you to in a hostile land, I’d be horrified if you didn’t. And that’s what makes all this so maddening.’
‘So, the biggest question is, Nikki,’ continued Sophie, ‘that you know, we all know, that whichever way we look at this, Hugh is now walking into disaster – either she will have an ambush ready or else she will bed him. The second one is just as damaging to the esprit de corps, is it not?’
‘Oh my goodness. Sophie. The way things happen … it’s frightening.’
‘Hugh would never choose Rory to go on a mission, even though Rory’s skills set is first class. He would not even do that to test you out, Nikki, he simply would not want you anywhere near Rory, the man is a player, like Hugh himself, Hugh recognizes the type.’
‘All this going on.’
‘It’s my hobby – what else have I to do? And now, Hugh, you have three minutes to reply.’
In the Basque country, Jean-Claude Guiscard turned to Geneviève Lavaquerie and didn’t know what to say to her. They might have stayed in London, they had a pleasant waterside villa, both had security work, after their own heart to an extent, and contact with Nicolette and Hugh. He himself had chafed at the bit, of course and that had made his wife more restless in turn.
They’d both given up the chance to see home again after that first visit, but a late evening visitor to Jean-Claude had advised them to get out that night, they’d taken an hour to pack and had hurried out to the waiting Citroen C5, thence to the coast and a waiting fishing craft, owned by the man’s company.
Now, lying low in the Basque country, seemingly the only western European place of any safety any more, they looked at one another.
It was rustic in Biriatou, with the high mountains all about, the white-walled houses with the red trim and their place in a basement, a cellar of a larger establishment with a mixed business and rooms above, in which students and others were often billeted. It was almost acceptable here, the residents spoke French of a sort but perhaps that was their northern attitude to the south.
Look, it was fine – the scenery, the cuisine, the language about them, Basque and French, the border almost right where they were and where they could slip across and revisit home in a way. Today, he’d bought some sea-bream and some bottles of cider, the fish they lightly grilled over charcoal and she made a salad.
‘Genie, we’ll cross the border the moment word comes through from Paris. Maurice is reliable, if he can get word through, he will and if he doesn’t, it can’t be for now. They watch the Lodge routinely and routinely is enough to catch us even appearing in the middle of the night. At least let’s wait for the report.’
She touched his arm. ‘Pauvre. I am not much pleasure to be with, n’est ce pas?’
He took her hand and kissed it. ‘I speak our tongue in the shop, I walk home with les petits pains, les poissons aussi, it is a beautiful view, the air is fresh –’
‘Oui, d’accord, Jean-Claude, mais il n’est pas à la maison, ce n’est pas notre patrie.’
A tear came to his eye and he walked over to the four-paned window. She knew it was over her intransigence that he was chagrined and she spent time now assuring him she would wait. He turned and held her.
She asked, ‘I wonder where Nikki is now? They were not in England according to the last message we had from Carly, they’ve fled and we’ve lost all contact. I’m sure she’ll be with Hugh and they’ll be hiding somewhere, alive, neither in their homeland but both being at home with one another,’ she looked up at him, ‘as we are.’ She was reassuring herself so he just held her close and let it be so.
‘Can we make contact with them?’ she suddenly asked.
‘When the word comes from Paris, that will be our next request.’
‘Good, good,’ she said, visibly relaxing. ‘Good.’
Hugh looked at Sophie and then at Nikki.
‘I can answer this straight away. N1 priority, keep Nikki happy and the supply of nice things she does continuing, I’m being honest. N2 priority is keep Sophie close to us until Nikki decides otherwise. One thing which hasn’t been said so far is that Nikki and Sophie are not averse to being in bed together, they laugh and chat in French – this works for me, not against. Julia is really nothing to me that way, with you two here but equally, someone must look after her if she’s innocent. And no, it does not have to be me.’
‘I can’t,’ said Nikki,’ I don’t know the land, I don’t have the strength, physically, to take on whatever Julia might have waiting. And there is the Rory factor, I know he will go to the next haven but I also know Janine will be there with us. Also, Hugh doesn’t want me travelling alone.’
‘My assessment too,’ he agreed. ‘So it’s Sophie or me. Sophie can do it but do we trust her? I think we trust Sophie but do we trust any personalities in there? On the other hand, were I to leave Nikki here, how safe is she?’
‘Perfectly,’ said Sophie. ‘Out of love for you both. Yes I could go north, yes I know their strategies if she’s guilty, yes, I could find the pick up point and reconnoitre, I could do the job and Julia would not like it -’
‘- but,’ cut in Nikki, ‘you would never find out if she was a traitor, the only way is to see what happens with her and her man target.’
‘Is that Rory talking?’
‘Not on this matter, no. Hugh knows that if you and I both meet up with them, Sophie, that the chances are few – I’d make sure of that.’
‘I know you would, so that should reassure my husband and it then leaves me with the heartache. It’s all horrible, a cauchmar.’
‘Which is why I want Sophie to go. If she’s not on the level, then those two can just be left behind.’ Sophie looked at him sharply, ‘but I would not abandon her, she would see it through with Julia, even if she has to execute her.’
Nikki spoke. ‘I have precedence after Janine, the PM made it that way and Hugh concurred.’ He agreed. ‘Therefore I’m telling you now – there is too much worry with Sophie alone out there and Hugh and I are wasted together – two principals together in flight – not good. If we’re caught, they get one. And I can’t see any situation for Rory and myself with two other women around, even though Hugh is about to tear my heart out. But Hugh must go.’
‘I agree,’ said Sophie. ‘So let’s get ready, you’re outprecedented and outnumbered, Hugh, on this occasion. Please take the final minutes together.’
She took her pack to the bathroom, leaving them standing in each other’s arms. There was really nothing to say, no need for promises, she knew he’d try to engineer a way out of Julia. For her part, she had every intention of staying true.
There were copious tears.
Marie-Ange brought the news to the Prime Minister, he sat down heavily and she had the required whisky at hand.
He was most anxious about the threat it posed for them all, Hugh going north, how it had gone wrong, why Doug had run, how kosher Sophie really was – and there was not a damned thing he could do about it.
Plus he was having issues with Marie-Ange. She hadn’t crossed any line but she was eminently available and he felt himself slipping – she was more and more resembling a wife but unbeknowns to her, there was one in London, secreted into Jamieson’s outfit, whom he had his eye on.
To tell Marie-Ange this now though – he was too old, he felt, for all this sort of intrigue.
Hugh had a bit of a tricky cross country late afternoon, this was where he’d be at his most exposed, it was also his slowest leg, his most careful.
It was nearing dusk when he reached Pickering and he hoped she’d found the Burgate Tearooms all right. They could walk from there to the A169 via Whitby Rd, which would get them to their intended B&B.
The issue, it seemed to him, was what state she’d be in, he did not feel there’d be an ambush, he was on the lookout for possible places, not that that was complete safety.
He got to the Burgate, went in, she was already there but showed no reaction to him, he took a seat on the other side, the lady came over and he ordered.
About three minutes later, she brought the chunky soup, bread and tea.
About two minutes after that, the girl got up and came over to him. ‘Excuse me, I was waiting for a friend and she hasn’t come. Her mobile’s off – battery must be dead. You wouldn’t be going to Whitby after this by any chance?’
‘I am but I’m on foot right now. Car’s at Peter Hall’s. Local man,’ he added. ‘I’ve arranged a lift in about half an hour into Whitby. Could you wait that long?’
‘Yes. Thanks ever so much. She might turn up anyway. Half an hour sounds good.’
‘We’ll need to leave in twenty minutes though. I’m having a dessert – will you join me?’ She nodded and the lady, who’d been listening to everything, came up. ‘Pot for two please and two slices of that cheesecake.’
She smiled and went off to get them. Hugh asked the girl, ‘So you’re not from around here then?’
‘No, I used to live in the south.’
‘Ah, I see – we’ll have to tell each other our deepest dark secrets while we walk.’
She giggled and the conversation was desultory from that point on. They ate and he paid for the comestibles, they thanked the woman and departed, making sure they strolled casually as far as would put them out of sight of the tearoom and then doubled back in a loop.
‘Let’s get straight down to it, Julia, keep walking. OK, what happened?’
She blanched at his brusqueness. ‘It was Frank. For some reason he doubled back to get something from a stall and that was that.’
‘The first morning after we arrived.’
He thought whether to break it and decided to. He told her about Doug too. She went very white, staggered but kept her footing and continued – tough cookie, this one, but then again, that’s why she’d been selected. She thought it through and said: ‘We have to assume Frank talked.’
‘Doug responded to an emergency call from you.’
‘From me? I never sent one – I just hid in a building, I never went to the holding point, I waited, then came here, as agreed.’
She’d passed that one – actually, he believed this part of it. They’d all met up, Janine had confirmed from Sophie while he was heading north that someone had got the code wrong, signal right but code wrong, Nikki had sent a message to that effect.
They took two adjoining rooms as father and daughter, not at the B&B but at a private hotel just off the main drag, better for a getaway.
He glanced at her pack. ‘You’ll have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’ll need to look through it as quickly as possible because of that need to flee.’
‘Mr. Jensen, you told us all that on the island, I can assure you I remember all of it – you can test me.’ She went on, ‘I know you have to check my bag so do it now please. Here, let me tip it out.’
She did that, contents over the bed. ‘And I know you have to check me too,’ she quietly added.
Every little purse or compact was opened, a couple of the places he looked surprised her.
He’d finished, he now looked at her sitting on the bed. She was going to make him sweat for this.
He summarized for her the entire conversation with Sophie and Nikki, she nodded in places – it was as she’d expected.
‘But you’re still going to somehow find it in you to do your duty, Mr. Jensen.’
‘You suggest another way and I’ll do it and I really will do it. You are delectable, Julia, despite the Miss Ice reputation, I’m not going to lie to you, I couldn’t anyway,’ she smiled at that, ‘so there’s no win-win in here, only lose-lose, for every person involved.’
‘Don’t check. Take my word.’
‘You know the answer to that, Julia, don’t play games.’
‘I’m not going to make this easy for you, Mr. Jensen. I know the rules and yes, I agreed to them, I know you didn’t set the search rules – Frank did that – but I also did not see anyone object, I’m still me with a middle-aged, married man here in a hotel room … and I’m still my age. Your Nikki is waiting back there, thinking about this very moment right now. What if I refuse?’
‘You know what I must then do, you know I have no choice. You’ll then cry rape.’
She looked straight at him but still didn’t move to comply. ‘Oh this is rape all right, Mr. Jensen, make no mistake.’
She now reached for the photo he’d kept trying not to look down at. There were about five others but this one seemed to intrigue him. ‘It’s from a fashion shoot five years ago – you know, we all hope to make it as a model.’
‘It’s the look you have,’ he continued, ‘as if you know every move, as if you know exactly what you’re doing but you have that innocent expression with a slight smile. Exactly the same expression you have in your eyes now.’
She did not want to admit that that one had got under her guard so she did the bravado. ‘All right, here’s the deal – unless you want to have to physically overpower me, a fragile 23 year old girl, rip my clothes off and force your fingers into me, then you must accept this deal.’ He sighed. ‘If I open myself to you now, unless you want to explore yourself,’ he shook his head, ‘then you must also take your trousers down and I get to hold whatever’s there. And you must leave them down until I say you can lift them up again. Take it or leave it.’
‘This was not meant to be sexual, there should be no sex between us.’
‘Oh come on, who are you kidding?’ She observed his silence. ‘I mean it, Hugh, take it or leave it. You want to wrestle me? I won’t fight fairly. No, I thought not. You will take them down now and leave them on the bed.’
He nodded, undid the belt, unbuttoned, they dropped. ‘Boxers too.’ He hesitated. ‘Here, I’ll help you.’ She pulled them down and it was hard. She reached out and grasped it with slender fingers, then commented, ‘Not huge but very, very hard. Trousers and boxers on the bed now.’
She summarily removed the bra and threw it to him. He looked at it in detail and put it on the bed. She wriggled the underwear down to her ankles, stepped out and kicked them to him with one foot.
He put them on the bed too.
She put one foot up on the bed. ‘Here goes.’ She pulled herself open for some seconds, then looked him in the eye. ‘May I go to the bathroom now?’
She repacked her bag and went through.
When she came back out, it was without towel and he’d kept his promise, he was standing beside the bed, it had been drooping but now sprang to attention again. Embarrassed, he looked away.
‘Don’t look away, you at least owe me that. You didn’t have to do that to me – what could I have hidden in there? You tell me now, Hugh Jensen, tell me you knew full well I could not have had a weapon in there.’
‘Then you would have been wrong.’ She now put the foot up on the bed again and drew out a sachet by a string and handed it to him – he realized too late he shouldn’t have touched it.
‘You’re as stiff as anything. You’re so wet for me. Put it inside me now.’
‘That I flatly refuse to do.’
She suddenly softened and that was the last thing on earth he needed – she placed a palm on his cheek and smiled a kind smile. She stepped forward and apologized for being so rough on him, his eyes were filled with her and her scent was light but still there all the same.
‘All right, Hugh,’ she almost whispered, ‘Round One is over, you have first sleep. And Hugh, I want you to have this photograph, I know you like it.’ She put a finger to his lips. ‘There’s one thing I want you to promise me – that you’ll keep this photo near you forever.’ He nodded. ‘One moment, I’m going to write on the back.’
She wrote an inscription, he put it in the organizer and put the organizer back in his pack.
It couldn’t have been any longer than an hour when she shook him awake. There’d been noises downstairs and they’d sounded official.
He returned to the land of the sentient and thought it through, hearing them too – they clearly couldn’t afford to take the chance. ‘We have to go.’
She had both bags ready with her, already zipped, he asked if she could reprogramme their door card for Room 304, further down the corridor, which he felt certain wasn’t occupied and would give them access to the rear of the property, where officials might not expect them to escape to.
He watched her dexterous fingers working with the little gunmetal grey box from her pack, the muscles in her neck straining as she gulped from time to time. She put their card against the metal and her box against that.
Would using the reprogrammed card register downstairs? Not immediately – it would be logged and could be accessed at some time. They’d need to get out fairly soon afterwards.
About a minute later she flashed him a smile of triumph, they slipped out of their rooms with their belongings and she repeated the procedure on 304.
He’d prepaid the night and they hadn’t had to leave their false passports – the desk had checked their details. Unfortunately, they only had the snacks from their bags to eat.
They heard a din near the old door and cries of, ‘They’ve gone,’ as someone ran up the corridor, trying every door handle.
A man’s voice called back, ‘Negative.’
The owner whom they had there with them now pointed out that all the doors had electronic access anyway. She added, ‘The man doesn’t fit your description either – he was taller than your suspect and the girl was taller too.’
‘And yet your own guests seem to have disappeared.’
‘They may have slipped out, I was doing accounts for about 20 minutes. The view’s nice from our place.’
‘OK, love, if they comeback, you’ll give us a buzz straight away?’
‘Of course, immediately they return.’
Hugh and Julia had listened to every word. The woman had lied outright and that guff about going for a walk – what, in this rain? Now, there was a turn up for the books – he wondered if it would have fooled the police and how they could recompense the woman.
He asked Julia if she could do the window. Negative. Central system, controlled elsewhere.
‘Then we’ll have to either put the woman out or else pay her. Let’s go.’
The reception wasn’t directly visible from the road so Hugh fronted her and thanked her for protecting them upstairs. The woman nodded and asked outright, ‘Did you abduct this child?’
By way of answer, he stepped aside and went over to some brochures. Julia stepped forward and showed her passport again, hardly a child, wouldn’t the woman say? The woman used sign language while Hugh was still looking away, as if inviting Julia to tell her now if she was in trouble. Julia just said, ‘It’s all fine and thank you for caring.’
Julia called Hugh back and he asked the lady if she’d seen the news some time back about a group of terrorists who looked not unlike them.
She brought out a leaflet from below the desk and blanched as she laid it in front of them. Hugh nodded and asked, ‘Lady, do we look like terrorists? What terrorism have we ever done beyond expose corruption?’
The woman had to admit the validity of this. ‘Then why are your faces on this?’
‘Because the people who issued that are corrupt. Do you remember a Section Sophie-Fleury on the continent some years back?’
She’d heard of them. ‘Weren’t they named after some girl who was mutilated in France?’
‘Yes we were,’ admitted Hugh. ‘She was killed by these same people.’
‘Well I never. You’re meant to be desperadoes trying to destroy the fabric of society. Some sort of anarcho-communists.’
‘Actually, I’m one of the former PM’s security chiefs, even now. You do know he’s alive, don’t you, and in exile. Do you believe he did the things they say he did?’
‘I don’t hold much with politicians but … well, no.’
‘He’s waiting to return and we’re his agents.’
‘Love a duck.’
‘What you actually did tonight, without knowing it, was aid the former Prime Minister who is still legally elected to his seat – they’ve called no by-election. We call him the current Prime Minister.’
‘What can I do? How can I help?’
‘We need to get to some form of transport going north. A truck stop, a transport caf.’
‘Mmmmm. On the A169, there’s one place above Whitby and many of them head north. Mike can drop you there. Let me call him. You need some food?’
‘Do we ever.’
‘Come in the back here and get out of sight. I’ll be back presently.’
It was about ten minutes they waited, he paid for the food, thanked her profusely, left a mammoth tip which he insisted on and Julia thanked her too.
‘Anything else, love? No?’
Ten minutes later, she hurried them out to the backyard, introduced them to her husband and told him everything, while they marked time, waiting for it to be told.
The man nodded, clearly onside.
At the roadhouse, Hugh took in the scene. There was one semi which was pointing north and the driver was inside the caf, making out with the girl behind the counter.
Hugh nudged Julia and they went to the passenger side rear, out of sight of the cabin at the back, undid one of the straps where there appeared not to be cargo, he bunked her up, plonking her bottom on the tray. She scrambled inside and he followed, with her pulling him up the last little bit.
He reached down and tried to redo the strap by feel, two hands finding a space but it was tricky. He couldn’t manage it, she tapped him on the shoulder, he stepped back, she reached through and did the strap.
The driver came out, rechecked his tarp, actually stopped by the strap and then moved forward again.
The next thing they heard was the truck starting up, being put into gear, the airbrakes released and the vehicle hitting the highway.
The rollicking motion of the transport lulled them into a sense of peace and they sat back to back between two packing cases, hearing the rain really starting to pelt down on the tarp.
The truckie stopped at another roadhouse and Hugh judged it might be near Guisborough – there seemed little need for the driver to stop again so soon, didn’t seem to be for fuel. He returned not two minutes later, shuffled around the vehicle, clearly in a hurry to get out of the rain, he tied their strap a little tighter and made for the cab.
Now they heard him stop and come back in their direction at a brisk pace. He went past them and tied another strap further down. Then, satisfied, he returned to his cab and the deep-throated engine roared into life, they were in gear and heading out onto the main road again.
He turned to her. ‘How wet are you?’ She was certainly shivering.
‘A bit. My feet are cold.’
He checked one of the packing cases and suppressed a laugh. Coats and cheap ones at that. Other cases had underwear, toys, skirts – ho hum, it was clear for which megacomplex this lot was headed.
Knowing there was a weighbridge which would probably come up about halfway through the night, he checked his watch, asked her to help him get clothing from two of the boxes for a bed and pillow, while he took some coats out of another for blankets.
‘Take off your shoes and socks.’
She did, he set to work drying her feet, massaging some feeling back into her toes, then tucked a jacket around the feet, indicating to lie down.
Coats ready to pull over them, he undid his jacket and shirt and told her to do the same.
She did, he lay against her, his chest to hers, he was like a furnace, his arm around her and she now relaxed. She lifted other jackets over them. She had no right, even in her own game plan to make this next move but she couldn’t help it.
‘Your belt sticks into me.’ He now removed it and put it outside. ‘Your jeans button sticks into me.’ He opened it. She began to undo his zipper but it got stuck and now came that crucial moment when he sighed and completed the unzipping, she reached inside his boxers, wrapped her fingers around it, also handled his jewels, then took her hand out.
‘That was wrong, Julia,’ he murmured, ‘very wrong.’
‘You were wrong or I was wrong?’
‘It was wrong – me for unzipping, you for responding.’
‘Sorry, Hugh, but I’m not into this faux remorse thing. You knew something like this would happen, you made the chest-to-chest move, I made this one.’
He sighed. ‘Yes. You sleep,’ he suggested, ‘I’ll keep watch and then I’ll wake you when we get closer to the jump off point. Some time later, I’ll sleep and you’ll stop me snoring, OK?’
She smiled, well aware of that and drifted off into a slumber of sorts. He’d been forcing himself not to but now he kissed her cheek. She smiled and drifted off.
The semi slowed down but not at the weighbridge – they were still out of town, the boxes had been repacked, they were near the straps where they’d got in.
Now they realized he was stopping for a hitchhiker, each undid a strap, they scrambled out, huddled behind the semi, the driver put the vehicle into gear and the instant he started to pull back onto the road, they dived for the roadside bushes, bags and all.
They began the cross country to the coastal walkway, which would eventually lead to not far from the pickup point.
The squelch underfoot and mud every single step was tiring but they kept at it and knew that, with a couple of breaks on the way, they’d probably hit the Cleveland Way by dawn.
Drizzly? Yes but they were rugged up sufficiently, they were in light boots and that was the best they could hope for. Hugh knew of a kiosk where breakfast might be available although it was now out of season.
Morning might as well have never broken, it was sickly and the sun had about as much power as a run-down battery. They’d stopped countless times and by the end were propping each other up.
The walkway by the cliff was in good nick – some fairly serious walkers were already moving along it, the two of them already looked the part themselves in their muddy boots and backpacks.
Joining the path moving away from the city, he was determined to keep going until she needed sustenance but she was just as determined and he realized she was never going to stop.
She was an interesting study that way, Julia. Electronics was a sedentary pursuit, yet she was more than capable, matching him step for step here. Willow slender, tallish, those legs had strength even so, she had a whipcord type of strength and that golden brown hair hung down either side of her face, the wisps almost reaching her shoulder blades. Her blue eyes and cheeky smile set off her face. Maybe not a classic beauty but her body cried out to be held.
It would be interesting to see how she’d have kept up with Rory. Rory … yes.
Every time now that they came within view of other walkers heading towards the city, they went off track and admired some piece of scenery, too far away to chat with any fellow walkers.
Nikki and Sophie allowed themselves half an hour in a spaghetti bar on the outskirts. Hugh would have been furious but as it was a chance thing, a spur of the moment decision, they risked the half hour.
They went up for the large super specials and wine but Nikki was still quite down. A call came to her now from Janine, they were on their way, she told Sophie.
Some ten minutes later, through the door came Rory, explaining that Janine was not going to be here, she was heading directly for her holding point.
Sophie immediately shot a glance at Nicolette who was like a frightened rabbit. Fate had dealt them another bad hand and already hope had sprung up in Nikki’s heart, hope she was trying to suppress.