Tuesday, May 5, 2009

France 15 - Island



Chapter 14 here ... Chapter 16 here

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I

At her 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 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.

When she’d got here, they’d had to divert because the safehouse had been sprung. Who had done this? Who knew of them, apart from the Section and support staff? She’d worry about that later.

...

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 escape 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 a kitchen broom cupboard. No one in the house could access him. 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 from 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 French toasts, powered milk and fruit. No light could be permitted and he’d just have to adjust to the near darkness.

...

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 into the Frankfurt area late this day and for checkpoints and local police to be informed. They couldn’t be sure if it 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 off the road to this upper floor but he assumed there was a lane outside of the lower floor.

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, whereas any movement from behind the others could be covered by fire from the upper floor. The office below would also not cover it.

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. 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 into the office in three places.

Some metres on, another possible was coming into line - through the side door into the office. That received a round.

This went on, step by step, metre by metre.

.o0o.

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, on auto.

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 but he wouldn't know whether they were about.

Now he settled down and allowed himself to drowse lightly. It was dark now 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 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 was protected him from the office and 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. The pistol was trained on the door, of which he had a clear view, the upper floor door providing muted streetlight.

It was instant, they came through 1-2-3, one to the floor facing left, one right, one covering above, he took out the face-right in the face and the up-above in the side of the head but the third was behind the far press by now, his major task being whether Jean-Claude was in a group of three or not. Therefore he could hardly move but could text. In a dark room, except for that beam from the upper door, the low light behind the far press was visible.

.o0o.

Time passed.

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.

.o0o.

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.

.o0o.

The top floor door opened and closed. That could mean friend or foe, more likely the latter.

.o0o.

Again it all happened quickly - his foe behind the other press had crept round to cover himself from the upper floor, left his butt exposed, Jean-Claude shot it and at the same time, on impulse, glanced up and at that moment something fell towards him; he fired two rounds, rolled 360 then aimed at the press but no – that adversary seemed incapacitated but not dead. Had to have been pretty incapacitated not to drag himself back out of range.

This one was dead. He took off the 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. There was no guarantee whatever about how many were now in the building. Assuming the girl was not a one-off, there were others waiting.

There was low moaning from the other press and he put another round in at the knee, slightly low so if he missed, it would ricochet into the leg. There was a scream and swearing in French and it was no man's voice. He reasoned he could do that because his own whereabouts were now well known. In other words, he was a sitting duck.

.o0o.

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.

He now openly briefed the other about the live one behind the press, about two others who were dead, about the girl from the second lot who had dropped and was dead, about a possible two others still at large. His colleague called back that Jean-Claude needed to make it to the office, he wouldn't explain why. His colleague called out that there was texting going on behind the other press.  Then shoot her said Jean-Claude, the colleague did immediately, a shotgun no less, there were shots from the upper floor into the office, Jean-Claude used the UMP in that direction and it stopped, which might still leave one.

'Are you all right?'

'Oui. I'm OK. Jean-Claude, get here now. He decided that in his bodysuit he stood a reasonable chance of surviving the run to the office, partly because he'd decided to drop behind a stack of pipes two metres away instead and partly because the adversary had both an UMP and a shotgun to negotiate at the same time, each covering the other.

Lowering his vizor, he fired a burst at the upper floor and ran but immediately fire hit him on the side, there was a shotgun burst and a cry from the top floor, he ran, clutching his side, to the office, his colleague immediately opened the trapdoor and nodded for him to go, he did, the colleague following, down the wooden ladder to the damp and musty corridor clattering along.

'Ici, ici,' and they turned through a doorway, the door bolted from within in four places and it was pitch black.

'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. Whoever they send will go into the building, discover the trapdoor, 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 blood and the jacket you gave me, which we abandoned with your shoes a little further down the street.'

'Ah, is that what it was? I thought you were into blood rituals.'

'In the corridor are so many other footprints as well and handmarks all over the place because it's used 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 and my father's Austrian friend owned it. It's a far enough connection that I feel safe.

This room can't be entered and though they will notice it's been recently opened, I don't think they'll try it because original plans show it is not a room but an electrical cupboard. That in fact is that protrusion on the back of the door. It is a weakness though in the plan. Sorry, we couldn't do everything.'

'No, I think it will be all right because we've always got our people away quickly. You left the jacket and shoes as if I'd abandoned them?'

'With a note in the lining on a scrap of paper to a mythical Karl that he needs to go to a certain address in the city in two days and it gives instructions about where you'll be. It describes a shootout in this building, without details. A girl I know will slip a note into a sleeping tramp's pocket, with some money and a promise of more if he retrieves the coat and takes it to another address. He'll spend a little time with the police, no doubt.'

'Thorough. 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, plus the goodwill for later and theirs is promises.'

II

The Six, while maintaining close contacts with the security services in each member nation, didn’t really place much store by catching the four in transit – they never had before. No, the Achilles heel of SSF was when they were inside the safehouses, then they would try things, they'd relax, two would go off duty and be noticed.

There was plenty of time to reel them in. It would simply require patience.

III

August 2007

A little over ten days later, three people arrived on one of the outer islands of an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean and each settled into a hut with a local woman to keep house. The fourth was still in transit.

Tua was too far removed to be involved in the civil unrest and separatist push on the main island, a dispute fuelled by the collusion of the major powers with local warlords and it kept attention focused on the more populous areas.

The downside of this remoteness was that the island, being also inhospitable to agriculture and possessing no minerals anyone wanted, was largely dependent on fishing and on the occasional boat from the next island across, Lalina, fifteen kilometres away.

It would do for now.

.o0o.

On the second evening of their landing, with dusk about to fall, Geneviève finally arrived and each followed his or her host through the rainforest towards a clearing.

First into the clearing was Jean-Claude, followed by Hugh from another path, he walked across swiftly and the two men embraced.

‘Natives tell me you had a hot time in Frankfurt, Jean-Claude.’    He only got a smile in return.

Next to appear was Emma, a picture in a sort of sari, gathered at the waist. Hugh let Jean-Claude have first kiss and cuddle but when his turn came, the palm and fingers placed on her cheek and hers on his, the very serious look in their eyes, confirmed all Jean-Claude had hoped for.   Now the only person possibly unsure would be Geneviève.

She appeared from yet another track, looking something like her former self, until she saw Emma unparturient, which caused her to break down and cry.  Emma held her close.

‘So,’ observed Jean-Claude eventually, ‘here we are.’

‘What’s next?’ asked Emma, still emotional herself from that sudden forced remembrance.

‘I’m sure our hosts have something in mind,’ said Geneviève.

Two plaited vine ladders now fell, each from a tree on opposite sides of the little clearing, weighed down by short logs tied to the end of the ladder and natives climbed down to the ground.

‘I’m not going up there,’ said Hugh.

‘Oh yes you are,’ contradicted Emma but of course, they couldn’t yet, not until the commitment had been made. Awkward shuffling began, the beaming hosts waited, someone had to speak.

Geneviève spoke. ‘I'd like to hear how everyone feels about who goes where. Who’ll go first?’

‘You will,’ said Emma and the men concurred.

‘Then let’s sit down on the grass, everybody.’

They did so in the fast fading light.

‘Well,’ she looked from one to the other, ‘Hugh came to Paris to secure my hand and things happened to prevent that, yet I believe he still loves me ... and I still love him. Jean-Claude has never made any secret of his wish to secure my hand and I never closed that door either. In fact, that door is looking quite inviting. That’s all from me. Emma?’

Emma’s face became serious. ‘Jean-Claude, you know we all admire the way you’ve handled anything you’ve touched, I personally think you one of the most sophisticated men I’ve ever met and one of the kindest. Some weeks ago, Hugh and I realized that Albus and Belus were not just some ancient legend but two living people. That was a shock to us both and a stress for Nikki.’

Geneviève was listening to Emma make her play and hated the way she was doing it. Such talk, so unlike the Emma who’d been her mainstay in the Section, the one who’d held it all together, the one upon whom she could rely - and here she was, making a play for another woman’s man.

She listened with dismay as Emma finished and asked, 'Jean-Claude?’

‘I think it’s already been said. I’ve never been in any doubt and I’ve never had to consider any other choices, no disrespect to present company. I think that’s all I need to say. Hugh?’

Geneviève looked down at her lap as he chose his words carefully.

‘We've all lost people and we're very shaky.   In my case, I haven’t broken down yet but it’s close.   I need the three of you to talk to, to close things off, to be sure in my mind how everyone feels – I’m afraid I’m not thinking partner at this moment although I see we have to make a temporary arrangement. 

It may end up Genie and Jean-Claude, Emma and me but it’s far too early.  There’s too much to discuss.  I propose this.  Genie and Emma stay in this closest hut until midnight and speak or whatever else they do.  Jean-Claude and I go to the other hut and talk for that time.

At midnight, Emma goes over to Jean-Claude and  I come over here.  We’ll know from the time until midnight what the rules will be.  This isn’t just the farmhouse again – it’s a need for everyone to speak with everyone else one on one.

I'm well aware Jean-Claude does not want me anywhere near Genie but look at it like this.  There are risks but these would always be in that person’s mind and if denied this chance to talk now –’

‘Talk?’ murmured Jean-Claude, drily.

‘Yes, Jean-Claude, talk.  Get things cleared up, remember Nikki and Thierry, the children.  Yes, there’s a risk of other things but that could happen at any time.  We need to be clear tonight of our way forward.’

'We might come down those ladders and not wish to make any commitments.'

‘True and this night will help us come to that decision, to see how things really do stand.  It's a case of temporarily letting go, in the hope of more securely having our chosen partner later.'

Emma had been turning it over in her mind.  She knew Hugh had to have that time with Mademoiselle and here was a chance she'd never had with Jean-Claude.  She was curious rather than worried.  'Yes, that's all right with me but I'd like time with Hugh now for some minutes before we do it.  I'm sure Mademoiselle and Jean-Claude would like these few minutes too.'

'I agree with all of that,' said Genevieve, ‘including the few minutes now.’

Jean-Claude looked evenly at all three. He understood the logic and deep down, knew it was the only real way to secure Geneviève once and for all - and it gave him a chance to find out Emma's thinking too.  Also, would he hold out against the opinion of the majority here?    He saw little choice.

'All right but I'd like those few minutes you spoke of now.'

.o0o.

'What are you really thinking, Hugh?'

‘That Nikki is still my girl until I say goodbye properly.  Then I come to you forever.'

‘It's Mademoiselle’s last chance.’

‘Yes but if you see me coming in your direction tomorrow, the yours will be the final decision.’

She smiled.

.o0o.

Each hut was actually three huts, joined by bridges with solid, matted bases about a foot wide, supported by taut plaited vines to the side at waist height - one hut for sleeping in, one for eating and one for washing.    The eating hut was well stocked.

The conversation was as expected.

At midnight, Emma and Hugh crossed in the middle of the clearing, touched each other's hands but kept walking.

...

'Well well, well,' said Geneviève. ‘I never would have thought it, Hugh ... thank you and you're right, we do need to have this long talk about everything.’

'In each other's arms,' he added, looking into her eyes.

'In each other's arms.   Even though you never asked me if I wanted this night with you.'

'Do you want this night with me?'

...

Jean-Claude asked Emma, 'Will you be with me, Mademoiselle or shall I make a bed in the other room?'

'Of course I'll be with you, Jean-Claude - I need to speak with you.'

Emma put her things on the side table and climbed in beside him - a weird feeling for him but as he was a little disappointed to discover - not something he was averse to.  She was nothing if not alluring in her own way, Emma.

...

In bed in the other hut, Geneviève noted, 'We'll be quite comfortable really for awhile. How long do you think we should remain on the island?'

'How long have you arranged for?'

'Ah well, that's the thing, you see - we're actually on our own now. The last few weeks were the last time, the winding up. We have no support staff any more.'

'W-e-e-l-l-l, it was always going to happen. Anyway, we can discuss those things tomorrow.' He slid across, took her in his arms and asked, 'Still on the pill?'

'Uh-huh.' They both knew he'd have precautions somewhere on him but she could never abide them on a man. 'Just what makes you think that's on the menu anyway, M Jensen?'

'I'm with you here all night and you're lying in my arms. We have a history of grave offences against modesty and it’s such a long time since we’ve been together, a miracle that we are.'

.o0o.

At the critical moment, she said, 'Stop.'    Shocked that he did in fact stop, she added, after a few seconds, 'You stopped so quickly.'

'I'm in two minds, like you. Our libido's fine, we want each other badly, we love each other, no doubt about that and yet we can't.  Even as a last time we can't.'

'No, we can't. So perhaps we have our answer early in the night. I'm glad you suggested it because it makes things - clearer. I could easily have made love to you now. In fact I want you.'

'Genie, I'll make love to you in a second, right now, no questions asked. You give me the word and it begins.'

'Then begin.'

He moved to do just that but she said, 'No. Stop. Stop. We can't.'  She sighed. 'Kiss me, hold me, let's at least have this night together.'

...

Emma liked what she saw of Jean-Claude. She missed Thierry, missed that French touch and the way a Frenchman did things.   Not enough to live her life with this man but all bets were off this night and it might actually be the best way to ease back into the real world.

The very real, immediate problem was that she had actually taken no precautions and to rely on Jean-Claude was going to involve her broaching it with him.  She decided to be blunt. 

‘I have no precautions.'

IV

Next morning, Emma was sitting with her back against the tree, gazing across the clearing.   She saw him come through the washroom and make for the ladder, he stopped halfway, Mademoiselle now went up and they kissed.    There was no ambiguity in that kiss.

Emma was dismayed.

The two climbed down the vines to the ground and walked over.   Emma jumped up, Geneviève put her arms around her and asked, 'Where's Jean-Claude?'  

Jean-Claude appeared from a sidetrack, as if on cue, Geneviève went straight to him, to his unbridled delight, Emma and Hugh made for ‘their’ hut, climbed their ladders and hauled them up after them.

...

Geneviève sat on the grass matting bed cover in their hut. Taking a box meant as a stool, Jean-Claude brought it over and sat near her. ‘This is so difficult for both of us. You’re a proud woman, with reason to be proud and you feel you have 2nd choice here -’

‘Non!’

‘Excuse?’

‘No, Jean-Claude, you’re not 2nd choice. You are the better choice and the only thing wrong was my former desire for the wrong man. Nothing against Hugh but his temperament is not completely right for me – he’d be the first to say it.   Your temperament and everything about you is right.’


In the washroom, Emma just stood, looking at him. He looked at her. 'Could you stand me holding you?'

She quickly stepped forward into his arms but had a question: ''I have to know - did you and Mademoiselle -'

'No, we stopped within minutes but we held each other and kissed and talked the whole night.   I'm not sure I want to know about you and Jean-Claude.'

'We didn't.   It was discussed but we didn't.'  She nodded towards the bed.  'It was here, yes?'

'Let's turn the palliasse over now and ask for a new one when we see the head man.' 

She nodded and helped him.   With everything arranged, they still had some time until the heat of the day meant they’d need to leave the hut, so they lay on the bed a short distance from one another.

'This evening, with your permission, I'll go for a walk to the water's edge and say farewell to Nikki.  When I come back, I’ll be yours if you want me.'

‘It’s more that I’ll tell you about myself, Hugh, tell you many things, so that you can decide better.  Let’s leave it like that for now.  Shall we go down to the others?'

...

Geneviève looked across at him. ‘We need to talk everything out, Jean-Claude, my habits, your habits –’

‘Habits?’

‘'I need you to take less notice of me and not make me feel uncomfortable that way, like a specimen. I know you love me and I shall love you too but Jean-Claude, be the man I met when you interviewed me at the hospital - matter of fact, on top of your game.’

‘Understood. Less of the worship, you think?’

‘Well, not altogether,’ she smiled and took his hand. ‘But a bit less, yes.'

V

The Seven were again complete with the accession of Jubelo.

Richard Japhet was answering a question about how they’d failed to intercept the four on their way to their ocean haven. They're not really our concern at this moment. The woman appears to be barren and they have their own problems. They might even die of malaria. If they attempt to return, that will be the time to act.’

‘We could send someone quite easily.’

‘And make them into martyrs – it will look vindictive in the extreme. But to intercept them attempting to destabilize Europe once again, on our soil - that’s a different matter. The way Trotsky was dealt with only created a legend. No, we can afford to wait.’

VI

They were lying on the beds in their respective huts in the evening cool.

‘Jean-Claude, where would you like to be now?’

‘Home, Geneviève, with my little routines, the cuisine, my friends, my work.’

‘Me too. I suspect that those two over there are quite happy in this tropical paradise.’

‘Don’t get me wrong – I like this too, for a while.’

‘I miss home. Perhaps we can arrange to drop back there and see it one more time. I know it takes money and organization but I have some, Hugh does too -’

‘Et moi aussi. That’s not really our concern; our concern is if we could get back alive.’


‘I’m worried Mademoiselle is going to take us out of here before we’re ready. I know we have to go but I don’t want to go back, not yet, this is all just too perfect for words.’

He chuckled. ‘The way you wear that sari thing, those grubby little feet in sandals – you love it all right.’

‘I do love it. Let’s ask each other some of those questions.  You first.'

‘All right. Nikki was very tactile, as you know, Genie was a listener. What are you?’

‘My deepest secrets?  I’m more like Nikki and you know that - you've already felt it.   They say a woman loves through her ears but you’ll always need to touch me.’

‘Yes.   Now, what about projects?   I think a man should have a purpose and if he doesn’t, he should make one.’

‘Oh I agree. If there’s a project and I think I can bring my skills to it, then that’s great. I’m not much of a project generator but you seem to be.’

They lay there for a minute or so, thinking and the silence was disappointing.

'This is too artificial, Hugh.  Too forced.  We can’t say what we want to say.'

‘I’m going for a walk.’

She touched his cheek and looked into his eyes.   ‘I’ll be waiting.  Take as much time as you need, even into tomorrow.  I’m safe here.’

He dropped the vine ladder and crossed the now cool grass in the direction of the shore. The night was still and even the wavelets barely lapped audibly as he gazed out into the near blackness, lit only by a moon which became obscured, showed itself again and then became obscured again.

Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the night and he knew it was the moment.   He began, in a low voice, begging Nikki’s forgiveness for missing the 9th day, for leaving so quickly with her all in … in pieces ... for not staying there and putting her back together again, the way it was always going to be between them.

He fell to his knees and lost it completely, felt she was here now, was certain of it but he also had a strong feeling, an increasingly insistent feeling now that Nikki wanted him to get back to the hut, to look after Emma, to build a life with her.

.o0o.

'Emma,' he called up to her. He heard her go through the washroom.

'Yes?' she leaned over the edge.

'Can you bring two drinks and come with me to the shore?'

She was silent for perhaps ten seconds. 'I'll be one minute.'

She took a plastic bottle of water, two beakers and some of the native bread to munch on, plus the bedspread.

.o0o.

At the shore, he said, 'Not here. This was where I farewelled Nikki - let's go further along.'

'Here will be fine ... if you can.   It will belong to the three of us.'

They laid out the bedspread, he poured two drinks, they lay down.

'Who's going to start?' she asked.  Then: 'You start.  Ask the things which really puzzle you.  There are things I’m going to tell you too and because of those and because we’re saying goodbye to Nikki tonight, let’s not think of making love.  Will you accept this? '  He nodded and she urged him to ask whatever he liked.

'Hmmmm.   One which has always puzzled me - I once asked Geneviève if all her girls were rescuees and she said to me, ‘All of them.’ Nikki said it too some time later. This meant that every girl in that Section had had some kind of trauma – Genie, Nikki, Nadine, Elaine, Francine. 

I look at you and I don’t see a traumatized girl ... so why would Genie have told me that?  I see a girl who’s no doubt had the occasional trauma in her life, just as I have but basically, you’re well adjusted. I think that’s all I'm trying to say.’

Emma opened her mouth once or twice to speak and then thought better of it. As she was struggling to speak, he said, ‘All right, Emma, let’s not talk about it if it stresses you.’

'No, we must talk about it. This was what I was going to tell you but I didn't know when.   I really didn't expect it so soon but it's better this way I suppose.'   

She gathered herself.   'It may be you won't wish to be with me after this, Hugh.    If that's so, we'll talk to the other two tomorrow and work something out.'

'I think it would have to be something really terrible and even then I can't see it.'

'We'll see. I was a rescuee, that was true but Hugh, I was never a victim.’    She licked her lips and found it so difficult.   ‘I was a perpetrator, une malfaiteuse.’

'Tell all.'

She breathed out slowly and continued.   ‘I procured girls for Le Roux and other men like him, girls my age, also boys.   Do you need to hear this or not?’

‘I need but it doesn't need to be tonight.’

'Yes it does, Bebe, yes it does.   I need the air to be clear between us.'   She plunged into it.   ‘Pierre Le Roux came to Nikki’s home and offered the two of them a ‘job’ but I was the one who’d told him about those two girls.  Just as all the Section was from the Fontainebleau area, so was I.   Earlier, he had come into the same café where I was sitting with two friends and started the usual chat.   He wanted to know who ‘did’ and who ‘didn’t’.   I was one who did.  It went from there.

That’s the thing no one expects from me, Hugh.    I know I have a sweet face, I’m cheerful and men automatically think I’m a ‘good’ girl, that I must be innocent.    Well, I wasn’t innocent.    I had sex with two boys once in a school latrine while other boys watched.   I mean they took turns.’

‘How old were you?’

‘Fourteen and they were sixteen.   Pierre was good looking but he was cruel.   But you know that, of course.   I was attracted to that sort of thing and I might have even become his woman except that his cruelty showed through.   When he had Elaine in there with him, Mademoiselle and Nikki tried to rescue her; I knew about it and didn’t care.   I didn’t even care enough to warn him.

That’s the thing I have to confess, Hugh.    I didn’t care.   I was as bad as him.   Some girls are bad inside, even sweet little mother’s moppets like me.   You came to Paris and saw a different Emma – efficient, charming, pretty and you loved what you saw.   Even now you can’t see the sharp little prostitute I was.’

‘How were you rescued?’

‘By Mademoiselle of course. She and Nikki dealt with le Roux and then they arranged to have me kidnapped.   They kept me in a farmhouse near the Belgian border for two months, under guard – Stefan and Michel.    I had them both and tried to get them to let me go.    Michel said he’d take me back to Paris and I thought he meant to le Roux.

He took me to his apartment instead and raped me over and over.   It wasn’t really rape though because I was willing.   Nikki tracked me down and it was only because Michel seemed to have fallen for me and me for him that they didn’t throw him out of the Section.   Then I saw how he was, what a beast and I thought – I don’t want him like that.   I tried to change him and slowly, I became a better person myself, which he liked and then he loved what he had and then he was terrified of losing me.   So you see, I have a black past.   That will explain much for you.’

She paused to get her breath and then started again.

‘You’re the first proper man I’ve had, I mean the first one who's come to me the right way.   Well, you know what I mean.   I’d never have told you all this if I’d thought you might leave me.   I don’t think you’ll leave me.’ 

Then she lost a bit of her nerve. ‘Please don’t leave me.’

‘You know the answer to that – it changes nothing.   Past is past – it’s only if you went back to it that there might be a problem but I think I would try to rescue you first. What means a lot to me is that you took the blame on your shoulders just now and didn’t try to blame anyone else.   I admire you for that.’

‘You do?’

‘Yep, it's very important.’  

She looked about her.   ‘I’m affected by my surroundings, Bebe - this forest and beach – I love it.  Do you know my name, my maiden name, as you call it?’

‘Go on.’

‘De la Mere.  Of the sea.  I’m not completely of the real world, you know, as much as you might think I am.  The Section was Mademoiselle’s and Nikki’s dream and I liked that dream.  I love your dreams and visions too, so I’ll follow them, as long as you love me.  Now a personal question – how many women have you been with?’

There was utter silence.

Finally, he smiled and said, ‘You’re so ... calculating, Emma.  Far worse than me and I thought I was bad.  You already knew I'd want to know about you and I bet you have your answer ready for me.’

She was looking at him in that way which said, ‘I’m waiting.’

'Let’s start with the kiss – I’ve kissed maybe,’ he thought it through, ‘maybe 300, women and girls, including family.’

‘I don't believe you.’

‘Good, I’m glad you said that. The day you catch me in a lie, you can remind me of this conversation.’

‘300?’

‘I once kissed every girl at a party, so that was about fifty in one night.’

‘Why?’

‘Just to do it.  Falling asleep with a woman or girl – maybe 12, 13, 14.   Penetrated?   I know exactly - 12.’

‘You slept with about 13 women and didn’t make love to them?’

‘Women and girls. My friend's daughter was five and crept into my bed, there were some girls who were just friends when I was a child, occasionally an adult where comfort in time of trouble was the requirement.'

‘25, almost all of them in the early days.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Lovers, Hugh. Does that shock you?’

‘Given what you were like from 14 onwards –’

‘I was 11. It was my father’s friend.’

'Bloomin' 'eck. There's a theory,' he smiled, 'that whatever a woman says about the number of lovers, multiply it by 3 and whatever a man says, divide it by 3.' 

'I've heard that.  Using that rule, it makes 4 for you.  Now, if you count two wives, plus the three of us, plus Ksenia and Anya, that makes the number a bit wrong.'

'And the 75?'

She smiled.  'It was basically the local guys where we lived, I’ve told you the truth.  Does 25 or 250 matter?’

‘I never thought it did but now I'm not sure.  250 is a system, 25 seems to me to be the sort of number most people would experience.  I could take 250 if you were a prostitute and had fallen in love with me.’

‘But only 25 if I wasn’t?’

‘No, that’s not what I’m saying.  I just want to reassure you that it's all right, as long as it’s stopped.’

‘That goes both ways.’

‘I know it does.  Let’s get off this topic, let’s move on to more important things.’

‘All right but you might not like some of my questions to you.’

‘You always frighten me, I don’t know why but you do.’


‘I don’t see any trouble in them – it’s what you’d expect me to ask.  You know my big secret, I need to know if you have one ... or maybe more than one.  And like you, I can’t see how it will change things.’

Chapter 14 here ... Chapter 16 here

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