The Green Side
Justin struggled, but there was no shifting the plastic ties that cut into his wrists. It had been so easy for his kidnappers. With no warning of gangs operating in Rothenia, he had been totally unprepared. He blamed himself.
Yet blame got him nowhere, and this was not the first time Justin had been in such a situation. He shivered when he remembered the days he'd spent at the mercy of the psychopath who had claimed to be his father. But as he had survived that, so he would survive this. He had to. His son was out there waiting for him to come home.
Justin had no idea how long it was before the van came to a final halt, but the last few miles had been over very bumpy ground. At one point, he had been bounced from one end of the van to the other while objects fell on his blindfolded head.
There was a long period of stillness through which he could hear some muffled voices talking, perhaps arguing, outside the van. Then the doors creaked and let in a draught of cool air. He was dragged out by his legs and thrown on the ground, winded. He was then pulled up on to his knees and the bag abruptly removed from his head.
Justin found himself kneeling on the earth in a small forest clearing. The van was on a rutted track which emerged from the woods. There was something odd about them, his mind registered. They did not seem to be like any English woodland he had ever been in. The trees appeared older and more gnarled. There were heavy mossy growths hanging from them, and deep shade gathered under them although the afternoon was sunny. The air was breathless and seemed to press on him. It looked like the sort of wood where you might come upon gingerbread cottages or wolves disguised as little old ladies.
He put aside these peripheral impressions and tried to focus on the group of men around him. It occurred to him that the removal of his blindfold was ominous, as if his kidnappers were indifferent to whether he could recognise them later.
Three men in dark leather jackets stood in front of him, shotguns over their shoulders. On his left a tall, shaven-headed man in an incongruous suit and city shoes was looking at someone over Justin's shoulder. He went to turn, but a hand grabbed him by the hair and turned his head back towards the front. Another hand thrust a rolled-up rag in his mouth, effectively gagging him.
The shaven-headed man, eyes a completely merciless icy blue, looked down his hooknose at his captive. For the first time Justin began to get the message that he was not going to survive this kidnapping. A flood of fear chilled him, to be wiped out immediately by a surge of hot anger. His life could not end like this, a victim of some Eastern European crime ring. There was too much to like about it.
Speaking to whoever was behind Justin, Hooknose growled, 'You know what to do. Do it now!'
An American voice drawled in reply, 'You didn't answer my question. We do our own disposal. We don't trust amateurs. You've heard of epithelials?'
One of the leather jackets who seemed to follow English guffawed.
Hooknose, obviously their leader, snarled, 'I have DVDs of CSI. What is this about?'
'Traces. We don't leave any, so it's we who deal with the body. Nothing will ever be found to link him to us. We asked the lady to insist on this particularly. I hope she did?'
Hooknose looked momentarily uncomfortable. 'Maybe she did. Fine. Have it your way. Just do your job. Now!'
The bag descended over Justin's head again, plunging him into darkness. He heard the noise of a metallic click behind him, then lurched forward as if he'd been kicked by a mule. Before everything went black, he felt a cold trickle of something viscous sliding down his back.
The royal Humvee drew up before the headquarters building in Luchau barracks, which was in fact an eighteenth-century fortress on the outskirts of the city. It was surrounded by the zigzag grass-grown embankments of Vauban's day, where the old artillery emplacements were still to be seen. The parade ground was a vast expanse of tarmac surrounded by brick barrack blocks. The tricolour of Rothenia floated serenely from an improbably tall flagpole.
Ed Cornish lifted the boys down from the back of the vehicle. They followed him to the front of the convoy where the king was talking in Rothenian to a one-star general in battledress. The name tab said ANTONIN. The general looked surprised when they appeared out of the Humvee.
King Rudolf introduced them in English. 'Brigadier, this is Damien and his friend Reggie. You know Damien's father, Justin Peacher-White.'
The general registered the name and smiled, shaking hands with the youngsters. 'I do indeed. Hello Damien. Your father and I saw action together some years back when the king returned, while I was still a major in the Presidential Guard.' His English was very fluent, though heavily accented.
There was a large honour guard drawn up not far from the Humvee, and the king, his staff and the boys inspected them. Damien noticed that Rudolf did not just walk past the men, but observed details of equipment and paused to commend or criticise. The men's lieutenant jotted down his remarks in a note book. Positive or negative though the comments might be, it seemed the troops appreciated the king's attention to detail.
Following the inspection, the party adjourned to a whitewashed briefing room in the headquarters building. Brigadier Antonin had maps of the hills to the north of the city spread out on the table. He stood over them, pointing, as he made his presentation.
The general spoke in Rothenian, which frustrated Damien, as his command of the language was not sufficient to keep up with what was being said. But Reggie's was, so he whispered a translation into his friend's ear.
'He's saying that the brigade is in the north of the Forest of Luchau, in the royal domain, which the army uses for its exercises. There are four battalions involved, and... wow!... helicopter gunships. They've got NATO inspectors there from Brussels, assessing the... er... brigade command structure. Everyone's a bit nervous about that.
'The king's saying we're going to take the off-road vehicles and drive up to the NATO people and see what's going on. Looks like we're off, Daimey!'
The general and all the officers saluted the king, who beckoned to the boys to follow him back to the convoy. This time the king took the wheel of the Humvee, with Ed beside him holding a map and GPS equipment.
'You okay in the back, little ones? It's going to get bumpy.' He grinned when the boys whooped. 'I hope the little prince is as keen when his turn comes to follow me round.' He fiddled in his battledress side pocket and handed them two pills in foil and a bottle of water. 'The queen said you're to take these travel-sickness pills, or you're not going anywhere.'
Damien grumbled, but co-operated.
The king's Humvee drove at the head of the convoy now. For about twenty miles they were on tarmac roads. Then, at Ed Cornish's direction, the king turned the vehicle on to a forest track, along which they went charging up into wooded hills, the convoy following behind. The boys hung on to straps as the vehicle lurched and bounced around.
Despite the medication, Reggie was getting a bit green in the face when they suddenly came upon another road and sped off in the direction of a bare ridge poking above the trees. With a final roar, the Humvee topped the crest and drew to a stop.
Reggie prodded Damien. 'Hear that?'
Damien concentrated. There was a periodic thump and concussion that reached them through the ground. Damien gasped. A flight of gunships screeched and thuttered low over the ridge, firing salvoes of rockets across a valley that spread out below them. Huge explosions billowed up on the opposite escarpment. Then, near at hand, batteries of artillery opened up. It was a maelstrom of fury and noise that made Damien's eyes gleam. This was his sort of fun!
Gus and Danny were studying around a table in Gus's favourite nest in the university library. Danny was feeling happy. The work, although tough, was not beyond his capacities, and he felt he was at last getting somewhere in the Rodolfer. Every time he looked up he encountered Gus's smiling gaze, which filled him with contentment.
Still, Danny realised how much he missed the Wejg, especially the new acquaintances he had made there. For three days now he hadn't seen Pavel, whom he had come to regard as a good friend. On the other hand, he was wary of Pavel since Gus had explained the Russian boy's fixation on him.
It was a measure of their changing relationship that Danny was resorting more to Gus for advice. The boy who had once seemed so remote from ordinary relationships had become a young man of some wisdom and humanity. What Danny had perhaps failed to realise in his modesty was that Gus had begun to engage with people as a result of Danny's impact on him. In loving and learning about Danny, Gus had learned to love and understand others.
So Danny glanced across the table and asked, 'Gussie, how do I go about being friends with Pavel?'
Gus looked up from an article he was reading. 'Hmm?'
'Pavel. I like him a lot as a friend, but I can't be at ease with him.'
'Ah yes, the Yuri thing.'
'Anton, my colleague from the downstairs bar, told me all about that. We struck up quite a friendly relationship while we were working together in Melmoth. He's on the same course as Pavel at the Technische Universität. He texted me this picture. Perhaps you should look at it.'
Gus got out his mobile, skimmed through the directories and produced a digital snapshot which he handed to Danny. It was a picture of a very happy Pavel hugging another boy quite close.
'Yes, that's the chap. Whom does he remind you of?'
Danny was astonished. 'He looks like the bloke I see in the mirror every morning.'
Gus barked his abrupt laugh. 'The Red squirrel.'
'Most amusing. But he does have the same pouchy cheeks, it's true.'
'Also the height, colouring and build are much the same. It's really no wonder that poor Pavel was so smitten with you, turning up as you did in the aftermath of the breakup.'
'So what can I do?'
'I think Pavel is a thoroughly decent human being and a man who could be a good and long-term friend. My belief is that you should try to get him past the fixation. Ring him and see if you can arrange an evening out.'
'Would you come?'
'If you think it will help.'
'I do. You'll be the best reminder for him that I am not in fact Yuri. And he does like you. Right, I'll get to it.'
Danny hit Pavel's number and found him at work in Melmoth. He seemed delighted that Danny had rung, and even happier to hear the suggestion that they meet up. They agreed on Liberation after Pavel's shift ended.
So at nine that evening, Gus and Danny ambled down the packed Wejg. 'I've missed the old place,' Danny observed.
Gus laughed. 'Yes, it's a part of the universe which must be the very opposite of Haddesley village green, don't you think? I never in my wildest teenage dreams expected that I might end up feeling so at home in a road full of drunks, hustlers and strippers. But somehow I do.'
They stood just up the Wejg from Bar Melmoth, neither choosing to acknowledge the two doormen. Danny felt they had been let down when Sven and Albrecht had bounced them off the premises after Danny had been fired, though what else he thought they might have done he could not have said.
Eventually Pavel emerged, pulling on his short, hooded jacket. He gave his fetching smile when he caught sight of them, then threaded his arms through theirs as they turned north towards the Rodolferplaz.
Walking three abreast meant they got jostled on reaching the top end of the Wejg, where it narrowed and the queue for Liberation began. They flattened against the shop front of Erotic Dream City to catch their breath.
'You think the Liberation guys will still let us in free?' Danny shouted over the music and bustle of the road.
Pavel nodded. 'Sure! Jerzy and his squad know you two are friends of Davey Skipper's, and besides, Gus is some hunk. People who look like him get in anywhere.'
'Not like me,' Danny smiled ruefully, at that moment catching Pavel's eyes looking at him through long lashes with a wistful gaze. They must have the Yuri talk soon, Danny realised.
Led by Gus, they moved out under the trees at the south end of the Rodolferplaz, heading for Liberation's side door. The café tables were full. Laughter and conversation filled the space around General Voydek's statue, where many male groups were lounging around with glasses of lager in hand. As a result, Danny was caught unawares when a group of four shaven-headed men came up fast behind them.
A van pulled up at the same time, and Danny felt something sharp in his back. A voice hissed a command in his ear in Russian, but the feel of the knife was all he needed to realise he was being urged into the van's rear. He caught a surprised look on Gus's face as he was shoved into the back, his wrists deftly taped together. Then suddenly there was shouting and a flurry of action behind him. Another body landed heavily on him, winding him. The door slammed behind them and the van took off at speed into the night.
Justin Peacher-White came back to consciousness. When he began to think coherently he realised this was odd. After some moments he put some of the oddness down to the fact that he should be dead. He supposed he had been shot. But despite a distinct twinge of discomfort near the top of his spine, he was self-evidently alive.
There was still some other oddness to account for, however. Justin opened his eyes. He was lying on his back on grass in the dim of an evening. Although the sun was going down, it was quite light still. Trees were rustling their leaves above him. He felt strangely exposed. Was he naked? No, there was some sort of robe wrapped round him, though his shoulders, arms and legs were bare and a little cold.
The air moved over his skin in an odd way. Justin lifted his hand to his head, and then yelped. He sat up. He had lost his hair! His scalp was smooth. As the dark robe which was his only garment moved on him, he realised he had lost more than his head hair. He felt around his genitals: all his body hair was gone, even the dense, dark growth between his legs. His bare buttocks moved smoothly together in a way they had not done since he was ten years old.
A concerned American voice caused him to look round. Two very handsome young men in jeans were sitting close to him. They too were bald - or rather, shaved - but otherwise fully dressed. The man continued, 'I don't know what that stuff does to ya, but I'll bet your mouth is sure dry!'
The stranger held out a bottle of water, which Justin took mechanically. He was indeed very thirsty. Reasoning that the two men could have done what they wanted to him while he was unconscious, there was no harm in drinking the water. As he did, he looked harder at the two. The American was obviously the leader of the pair. His companion, seeming not to want to meet Justin's eyes, gave off an air of indecision and shyness.
Justin swilled some water around his mouth and spat it out on the ground between his bare legs. Even the dark hairs that had curled on his calves were quite gone; it was as if he had never experienced puberty. He coughed. 'So who the fuck are you? And what the fuck have yer done to me?'
The American gave him a quirky look. 'I'm Vedayah and this is Prema.'
'Vedayah. Prema. Well actually, I'm Chris and this is Malcolm, but those are our profession names... they're Sanskrit.'
The man blinked a little pointedly. 'I thought you were bright enough to run PeacherCorp. You're not convincing me here.'
Justin began to feel annoyed, with some justification, he felt. 'Look, baldy. Tell yer what. You explain what happened to me hair and me clothes, and I'll discuss fucking Hindu wiv yer, right?'
The silent one of the two put his hand on the American's arm. Justin caught a glance between the two young men which was enough to tell him they were lovers. Somehow that made him feel a little safer and better disposed towards the strange pair.
The American who called himself Vedayah replied peaceably enough, 'Look Justin... can I call ya Justin?'
'Yeah, go on.'
'Justin, it's like this. Someone wanted ya killed, and Malcolm and I decided to prevent it, which we did pretty effectively... for now. But we can't guarantee your safety for much longer, so we have to hide ya. We haven't any choice but to take ya to our monastery. We're monks... hence the baldness. You're gonna have to be a monk too for a while. No one'll expect Justin Peacher-White to be hiding out in a monastery of the Vedanta order.'
Justin sat quietly as he digested this. The two monks looked at him expectantly. Eventually he asked, 'Who wanted me dead?'
'It's a difficult one, but I guess a guy called Josseran is the one who ordered ya killed, though he was working for someone else.'
'A woman called Marquesa.'
Vedayah gave a quirky smile. 'That an invitation?'
Justin ignored him as his mind moved up a notch. He could very well imagine why Eleanor Marquesa would want him out of the way. She had three children who would benefit substantially from his death. Justin had worked out what Richard Peacher's intentions were towards him; he could see it on the faces of his staff and in the friendly eyes of Peter Peacher. The fact that Mrs Marquesa's children loved him as if he were their brother was neither here nor there to her. Terry O'Brien had - on several drunken occasions - filled Justin in on exactly what she was capable of.
The question that came out, however, was, 'Where's me fuckin' hair?'
Vedayah shrugged. 'Ya gotta look the part. Mal shaved ya, and then rubbed depilatory cream in to delay regrowth. We do it to ourselves.'
'Did yer have to scrape even me arsehole bare too?'
'It's what we do.'
'Fucking great. Me kid'll never recognise me.'
'At least he'll see ya again, if we're lucky.'
'Josseran. I met him before; the bastard's men shot me. I only just recovered. So... how did yer get to know his plans and what did yer knock me out wiv?'
The monk called Prema finally stirred himself to talk. It seemed that he was a Brit. 'I help keep the herd of cows the monastery owns. The local vet leaves a stack of medications and instruments in our barn, including a syringe gun. It looks like a pistol if you don't get too close. Chris loaded it with an anaesthetic and pretended to do an execution shot to the back of your neck. The noise it makes is exactly the same as a silenced handgun.'
Vedayah gave a grin. 'You dropped like a dead dude.'
'But how could yer make it look convincing? Last time I got shot I remembers a lot of blood!'
'Yeah, yeah. Malcolm drew some blood from my arm just before we met up with Josseran.' Vedayah indicated a sticking plaster on his wrist. 'Well, I shot ya through a plastic bagful of it which was taped into the back of your blindfold hood. Spurted nicely, too. S'okay, though, I'm not HIV positive. The main thing was to avoid puncturing your spine. But hey! You're still here, ain't ya?'
'But how did yer two get involved with Josseran? Why did he take yer for assassins?'
'Look, Justin, ya gotta keep this quiet. The cow - I mean Mrs Marquesa...'
'Yeah... she uses our monastery as her sorta... base here in Rothenia. She's compromised our order and our abbot. We found out what the bitch was planning. Ya see, Prema here is a superb hacker. He read her correspondence and used her e-mail facility to send bogus instructions to Josseran. Josseran thought we were hit men she had hired separately to kill and dispose of ya, so he let us do the deed. But - and here's the problem - once he's reported back to her, she'll know her plans have been discovered, and then Josseran'll come looking for ya... and also for us.'
'Well, why the fuck don't yer call the police, for Chrissake?'
Prema looked disapproving at Justin's making free with holy names. He stirred. 'Justin, there's more. Josseran's gathered his forces here in the northern forests. He's up to something big, bigger than the Rothenian police can cope with. That's why he needed the cow's money. We're all of us on the run in hostile territory, believe me.'
Justin's mind was still running on the mechanics of the monks' scheme. 'Listen. I stole one or two cars when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure that people here can trace licence plates. When that arsehole Josseran realises you were fakes and helped me escaped him, his mates'll have ways of tracking your van down. Thought of that?'
There was a trace of disdain in Vedayah's answering look. 'Well, duh! You're not the only dude with a criminal mind. A bit of artistry with black tape and mud, and no one was the wiser. While we were killing you, that "L" you see was an "E", the "P" was an "R" and the "1" was a "4". We pulled off the tape as soon as we got back into traffic. We washed all the mud from the van after we finished shaving you.'
'Fucking odd pair of monks, aren't you?'
Prema giggled. 'I prefer "queer".'
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