The Green Side

XVIII

By Michael Arram

The click of the lock worried Damien as he sat crouched in his refuge. He found the chest, though wrought of iron panels, was lined with an aromatic wood. That and his small size meant he was not in any discomfort.

He had thought he might hear noises from the men he had hidden from, but the chamber outside seemed perfectly still. Eventually he decided to try the lid and see if he could open it a crack to peek out. Bracing himself, he pushed against it with his back. It was heavy but rose soundlessly, as if its hinges had been oiled.

Holding up the lid with his hands, Damien peered through the resulting slit. He blinked. The chamber before him was not quite the same one he had shut the lid on. The bomb and its apparatus were gone. A bright fire lit the hearth, while outside the windows the sun was setting. A woman in a black robe reclined in a great chair, looking straight at Damien.

Since concealment seemed pointless now, he lifted the lid fully and stepped out. The woman gave him a remarkably warm and friendly smile. 'Good evening, child,' she greeted him in Rothenian.

Never the shy one, Damien got right to the point. 'Hullo, missis. Why does I think I knows yer? Who are yer?' Although he spoke his own variety of English, the woman seemed to understand him well enough.

'You've met some of my relatives, I think. Call me Lady Fenice, for that is my name.'

'Where am I?'

'In my fortress of Belvoir in the hills of Glottenburg and realm of Rothenia.'

'How did I get here?'

'You were called. Enough questions, child!' She gave a small laugh. 'You are a curious boy.'

'Ta, missis. Me dad says nosiness is a good thing.'

'Sometimes it is. But listening is important too. Now I have things to say to you, so hear me well. The first message is for you. When you return, you must recall the numbers 6-6-7-7. Can you remember?'

Damien repeated them, and she nodded.

'The second message is for Mendamero.'

'Who?'

'God's warrior in your age. You must find him and give him this.' She handed Damien a small square of folded parchment, with an oval seal in green wax hanging from it.

'How does I find him?'

'Simply ask the king. He will know what to do.' She leaned back and pondered Damien in silence.

He began to feel uneasy. 'Er... how does I get back, missis?'

She smiled again. 'You are a special boy. Are all boys like you where you come from?'

'Hope not. But me mates Mattie and Reggie are great. They're the best!'

She nodded. 'You may tell the quality of the leader by that of his followers.'

'Pardon?'

She stood and laid her fingers on Damien's curly hair. 'I shall give you the blessing.' She pronounced a string of graceful Rothenian words over him, and as she did so her hand seemed to become very heavy on his head. 'Now, into the chest with you. You may feel drowsy for a while, but when you open the lid again you will be right where you started.'

He clambered back in.

'One other thing, child.'

'Yuh?'

'May I have my key, please?'

Grinning up at the lady, Damien handed over the key, which all the while he had been clutching in his right hand. The lid closed, returning him to the womblike, aromatic darkness of the chest. When he felt a sharp corner of the parchment dig into his hand, he stuffed the missive into his pocket. Then he settled himself, yawned, and seemed to sleep.

***

'Nice castle,' commented Reggie.

'Certainly romantic-looking,' added Nathan.

'Yeah, well, let's hope the garrison's on our side.'

'What do you mean?'

Justin scratched his shaved head. 'I'm thinking this would be a good place for Josseran to set up his blackmail bomb. Iss remote, secure and defensible.'

'Blackmail bomb?'

Justin explained Ed Cornish's theory, while Nathan and Reggie listened intently.

'What shall we do, babe?'

'We go see whass to be seen. We got no way of contacting the troops, and time is running out. Sides, I'll bet Damien is in there. He's always where trouble is.'

Nathan nodded resignedly.

The three picked their way down the slope to the edge of the forest. Justin told Nathan and Reggie to stay where they were while he went to scout the main gatehouse to their left.

He was back within a few minutes. 'Armed guards there, babes, which makes me think we got the right place. But apart from me we got no guns, so shooting our way in is not an option.'

Nathan frowned with concern. 'Maybe we'd better get back to the APC. It'll take twenty minutes at a run, but the soldiers can radio Ed Cornish to send help. We can't put Reggie in danger, Justy. You know that.'

Justin shook his head. 'Me babe is in there, and I'm going looking for him. But take Reggie back, Nate. Iss a good idea to get reinforcements.'

'You're not saying that coz you don't think I could be any use, are you?'

'Nate, I wouldn't like to be around when you lost it. No, I'm sure you could do the violent stuff if yer wuz angry enough, but the point is not ter get angry. You loses yer edge if you does, get me?'

Nathan seemed a little mutinous. 'Maybe.'

'Get going, babes. Bring back the cavalry for me and Daimey, right? Now, kiss for luck and away you go!'

With a long backward glance, Nathan took Reggie's hand and trotted off into the gloom under the trees.

Pursing his lips, Justin adjusted his robe and examined the walls. He edged along the eaves of the trees to his right, and in that way came upon the postern gate to which Damien had been led by the white stag.

He ran down the bank of the castle ditch and toiled up the other side. He checked his gun, then slipped into the lane beyond the postern and moved cautiously until he reached the entry on to the green lawn of the central court. He saw three guards chatting and smoking at the gate.

Scanning what he could see of the castle's interior, he found no sign of Damien. Nonetheless, he had little doubt the boy was lurking somewhere on the premises. He was sure his son's cautious nature would keep him from leaping into any situation without scouting it out first. The boy had stuck to Terry O'Brien like a limpet whenever Terry stayed at Haddesley Garden Centre. The two had talked for hours about security, espionage and hand-to-hand combat, the boy gurgling with laughter at his Uncle Terry's risky and funny stories.

Justin was convinced his son was already at GCSE level in security studies, if the examination boards ever got round to setting the subject. He also suspected Terry had been offering the boy some serious training in close-quarters fighting. Justin had caught a wistful look in his former boss's eyes at times, as if he were sizing up little Damien to be his heir. Well, who could say? Justin wouldn't argue against security as a fulfilling career.

Of more immediate importance to Justin, though, was learning how many guards he had to deal with. He could see three men, but the three Land Rovers parked on the other side of the court hinted at a bigger contingent of Josseran's gangsters somewhere round the castle.

He must scout further. He unconsciously took the same route around the eastern range of the castle as his son had done. He also came to the fifth room and, like the boy, used the interior chapel windows to spy on the gate. But unlike Damien, he found nothing within the chapel other than shattered windows and an altar table strewn with dust and litter. Where Damien had been amazed by vivid murals, Justin saw only smudged shapes on stained plaster walls.

Returning the way he had come, he moved stealthily through a broken wall into the western range of the castle. Like its opposite number, it comprised a succession of rooms, one opening off another. These rooms, however, were more ruinous than their eastern counterparts, the roofs fallen in and the floors covered with piles of debris from collapsed internal walls.

It was easy for Justin to dodge from cover to cover, and he was able to get quite close to another group of gangsters without their seeing him. There were four of them lounging around a radio set. One was working over it intently, while the other three smoked and drank spirits, their rifles on the ground beside them. Justin was not at all impressed with their idea of alertness.

So, he now knew of seven he must take out. He had to devise a plan. The three at the gate – who seemed to have a more professional idea of what their job was supposed to involve – were too close for him to attempt to surprise the group with the radio. He retreated into the shadows of a bay window where he could watch both groups.

He was still pondering his options and wondering whether to wait for the Fusiliers to arrive, when the radio crackled to life. He could see the men around it become tense as they listened to orders in a language he could not understand. The operator called out instructions and the three at the gate shouted back. Suddenly they were off, rifles over their shoulders, heading for the stairs to the great keep.

Leaving only the operator in the room, his three companions staggered out to the gate to take the place of the guards. Justin judged them to be pretty far gone in their cups. It took him barely a moment to make his decision. He moved quickly and silently to crack his pistol down on the oblivious operator's skull.

After first detaching a length of flex, Justin found an ancient cistern full of rainwater close by and dropped the radio in it without so much as a splash. He used the flex to tie up the fallen man, whom he gagged with a strip of fabric torn off his robe. One down.

Justin was humming under his breath as he padded noiselessly after the three drunken guards. 'Christ, this is too easy,' he murmured, braining one with a brick while he held the other two at gun point. They stared back at him blearily, wondering what the hell was happening.

'On the ground, arseholes!' he growled. They knelt down, then lay prone, following his motions if not his words. 'Yer a poor set of fuckers, aren't you.' Putting his foot in the back of one, Justin removed the man's belt and used it to secure his hands before pulling his trousers down to his ankles. He repeated the routine with the other. Then he ripped off their underpants and stuffed them in their mouths. He dragged the three bodies into a side room where he stacked them up. He didn't think the one he had clouted would come round in a hurry, if at all.

Neutralising the four drunks had been easy enough. Now he had to deal with the last three, who had impressed him as more alert and better trained than their companions. He looked up at the keep, assessing his chances of approaching it unseen.

***

Time was nearly up. Rudolf of Rothenia, still riding his Pave Hawk command post, had held conversations with his defence ministry, Brussels and Washington. All were agreed that Josseran's terms had to be met.

It was with a certain bitterness that the king admitted he had been outmanoeuvred all along the line. Josseran would escape from the West and with him would go the most advanced technology NATO could deploy. The world would be infinitely more threatened by terrorism. The Rothenian army, for all its courage and responsiveness, would get the blame. But far better that than millions being endangered and killed, and his nation contaminated by the poison of radioactivity.

He called down to his commander on the ground. 'Ed, the chancellor's declared a state of emergency in northern Husbrau and Glottenburg, and Ranstadt's being evacuated. The Chinooks are in the air. We're capitulating, God dammit!'

'I'm sorry, sir.'

'I'll get even with the bastard one day, or my name's not Elphberg.'

'I'll be there cheering you on, sir.'

'If only we had some idea where his bomb is... but there are hundreds of square miles of empty forest to the southeast of Green Side. I'll go down and land next to the monastery to finalise the terms.'

'Sir, I'd advise against that...'

'No. Better I should undergo the humiliation. I have a squad of Fusilier bodyguards with me up here.'

'But sir...!'

'Ed, the point is that I can communicate directly with NATO and speed up the process. Had you thought that the bastard isn't going to give us the information to disable his bomb until he's safely in Belarus? It will be cutting the time too fine. It'll only give us half an hour at most to find the damned thing and defuse it.'

'Good point, sir, but take care.'

'I will. Now communicate to Josseran that I'm coming in.'

The pilot brought the chopper to a deft landing on the lawn outside the monastery in less than five minutes. Accompanied by three of his guards, the king strode up to the terrace, where a knot of mercenaries had gathered to watch him arrive.

Their leader held up a hand to halt his nearer approach. The man, whom he recognised as Amir Josseran, sauntered out, a cold smile on his lips. 'A privilege I had not expected, your majesty.' He gave a mock bow.

Rudolf looked him over appraisingly. 'And more than you deserve, Mr Josseran. But time is a consideration here.'

Josseran inclined his head. 'So you're ready to deal?'

'You can have what you stipulated. The Chinooks will be here in less than ten minutes, and will fly you and your men to the border of Belarus.'

'No heroics then.'

'You know we can't afford it. How do you propose to disarm your time bomb?'

'Simple. Once we cross out of NATO airspace, we'll radio the code to disable the bomb and give you its location.'

'And what guarantees do we get for your good faith?'

'Why none, of course.' Josseran gave a low chuckle. 'I reckon this balances us up, Elphberg.'

'Really?'

'You bust open my gang last year, I take you down this year. Seems like a satisfactory arrangement to me. I get to be famous and you get to be totally humiliated. Rudolf the Outfoxed, descendant of Henry the Lion... or maybe Rudolf the Sheep.'

The king bit his lip, but made an ironical nod of his head. 'As taunting goes, not very sophisticated, Mr Josseran. However, you have had your moment. I suggest you get your men ready to move.'

As Josseran was turning away, Rudolf's helmet radio crackled. 'Ed?'

'Sir, Nathan's just reached my lines. Message from Justy. He's found the bomb!'

A slow, nasty smile spread over the king's face. 'Oh, Mr Josseran?'

The criminal turned back, to experience the shock of the king's fist smashing into his pronounced nose. Blood gushing, his head snapped back. Quicker than thought, Rudolf had him by the hair, a pistol at his temple, while he shouted at the gawping mercenaries, 'Drop your weapons, you arseholes. Game's over. Fusiliers, take them prisoner. Alpha company, get down here!'

Recic alone levelled his gun. Before he could snap off a shot at the king, however, a looming presence in a crimson robe appeared behind him to bring a fist heavily down on the back of his head and floor him. The other monks spilled out and wrestled the weapons away from the mercenaries. With a roar, the IVFs of Alpha company poured into the grounds to round up the demoralised gangsters at machine-gun point.

Rudolf was already rushing down the lawn to his chopper, propelling a cursing Josseran in front of him by the scruff of the neck. 'You fucking idiot, Elphberg!' the gangster was shouting. 'Do you know what you've just done? There's no way I'll give you the disarming code now!'

'Then you'll die along with us, because we're on our way to the bomb site right now. You hear all that, Ed?'

'Yes sir, but... is this wise?'

'If Justy's there, I have a feeling we'll be fine. Get Epsilon company to the site on the double, and send the Pave Hawk the coordinates. Elphberg out.'

'Understood, sire.'

The rotors of the helicopter were already turning as the king manhandled Josseran on board. He had the crew tie the gangster's hands. Taking the controls himself, he opened the throttle all the way and pulled back hard on the collective. The chopper jackrabbited into the air, turning eastwards as it gained height. The navigator indicated a heading and the king pushed his aircraft's nose down to reach maximum speed. As he flashed across the brow of the hill, he saw Epsilon company already in motion into the forest, Ed Cornish's APCs churning tracks through the leaf mould and mud.

'What do you have on the map at those coordinates, lieutenant?'

'It's Belvoir Castle, sire, an ancient monument.'

The king looked surprised. 'Belvoir? How very odd... the place where St Fenice of Tarlenheim wrote her Meditations on the Face of Christ. The castle was a gift to her from her mother, Anastasia of Herakleia, dowager queen of Hungary. It's been abandoned for two centuries at least.'

'It's got a reputation for being haunted, sire.'

'So they say. Now why did you choose such a site for your bomb, Mr Josseran?'

But the Albanian remained mute, an indelible scowl distorting his blood-streaked face.

***

Justin found he had no choice, though it was not the best strategy. Defying the chances of being observed, he raced up the mound and climbed the stairs into the keep. Once through the door, he paused to catch his breath. Morning was wearing on, the autumn sun hot in the blue sky although the interior of the castle was chilly.

After collecting himself, he silently began to ascend the spiral stairs. Somewhere in the castle was the son he loved, and having found no sign of the boy yet, Justin rather feared he had blundered into capture by the gangsters. Oh well, he reflected, at least Damien will be a distracting handful for the bastards.

He concentrated on not making the least noise, knowing the slightest scuff and scrape would be trapped in the stair shaft and wafted upwards. He could hear a murmured conversation echoing down to him. He reached the penultimate floor of the keep unchallenged, but was then at a loss. Clearly, the three guards were still above him. It would have been suicidal simply to burst in on them.

Justin dodged through a side door into the empty spaces of the last floor but one. He desperately wanted the chamber to contain some object or means by which he could get at the gangsters: a cable from a power supply, a side passage or a potential weapon. Instead, it was empty.

He peered out at the great courtyard and castle walls below, half hoping to see Ed Cornish and his Fusiliers come storming in to provide a distraction he might have exploited. Then he groaned to himself, deciding it was far too soon for Nathan to have reached the APC parked on the fringe of the forest.

Justin paced around the chamber for five minutes before realising it did indeed have one feature he had overlooked. A vast fireplace with a Gothic canopy and herringboned back plate was built into the north side.

He walked over to the wide opening and gazed upwards. He could feel a cool breeze sifting past him, so he knew the shaft was not blocked. He wasted no time. Trying not to dislodge any rattling debris, he hoisted himself up and over the bend in the flue. Standing on a ledge, he could see a square of blue sky thirty feet or so above him. He began an arduous, knee-skinning climb.

Halfway up, the main flue was joined by a side passage, which he knew must connect with another fireplace. He edged over to where he could look down into the hearth of what had to be the upper chamber. He held his breath. The voices now were loud and he could hear the discussion. Unfortunately it was in Rothenian. I'll bloody well learn this language if it kills me, he swore. Daimey's picking it up like a dog does fleas!

Having got so far, Justin was stuck. He couldn't just drop down the chimney as if he were a Santa with attitude. He could wait, he supposed, and for once that might be the best strategy. The arrival of the Fusiliers would divert the gangsters' attention and allow him to take them unawares.

For better or worse, the decision was made for him by a hollow crash and a childish obscenity. 'Oh fook!'

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