Angie and Preston had a rather quiet fall season volksmarching in the Eifel, Rheinland and Saarland areas.
During a beautiful hike in Trier, they stopped for a snack on the university campus. While they sat enjoying Bavarian pretzels, Preston’s phone rang.
Gary’s voice was the same casual tone, but he never called for frivolous reasons. “We think it’s time to recruit in the Liege-Maastricht corridor. Are you game?”
Preston asked, “Are we moving again or do you have something else in mind?”
“It would be great if you could set up shop there somewhere, but I’m having trouble finding safe quarters. Who would have thought a real estate attorney would fail to find something decent?”
Preston caught Angie’s eye while he spoke into the phone. “You know, I’ve been thinking about this. I may have a useful solution. Can I get back with you in say, a week or so? I may have to wear out this phone.”
“I’m game,” Gary said.
It was only two weeks later Preston and Angie took possession of a lovely used Dutch houseboat. It took some calls to get access to his accounts in the secretive Caribbean bank, but he had more than enough to buy the boat outright. He worked through his friend Harry, of course. For good measure, he added a slender canoe, mounted on the stern for easy access. There aren’t many places in the Benelux where a canal doesn’t run within a few hours of biking or canoeing.
They picked up the boat where it was moored along the Molendijk in Krimpen aan de Lek. They hired a professional pilot to train them as they journeyed slowly upriver on the Neder Rijn. The pilot left it to them in Arnhem. Through connecting canals, they made their way to Nijmegen and up the Mass. They celebrated their first Christmas together in Maastricht.
There had been dozens of boats for sale as winter began to descend over the land. They never told anyone, but the primary reason they picked this particular boat was a small image, the common European conception of an angel holding an anchor, painted on the stern next to the name: Waterwings.
Grabbing their bags, they made sure to check that everything was as they had found it. Returning the key to the tiny enveloped, they hung it on the door handle, closed the lock on the hasp and strode off into the woods.
They had taken longer volksmarches, some lasting all day. Somehow, this felt like more work. Still, it was more beautiful woodland, hills and valleys. They found their way to the village of Foy. Once again, they wished they could have brought their bikes. Not because hiking was so hard, but they had entered a valley in which the railroad line had long ago been turned into a paved bike route. Instead, they had some dinner at the cafe that also served as bus stop. Eventually a TEC bus came along to take them back down into the Meuse Valley. On the way, they chuckled about passing the chateau where most of the conferees had been staying.
The bus took them northward into Yvoir and stopped just a couple hundred meters from the train station. In the gathering darkness, they caught a train northward toward Namur. It was quite late when they got home in Heerlen.
They woke up early and worked hard with their minds the next two days while their bodies rested and healed. Over the next week they read with some amusement the stories appearing in various media outlets. Some of the stories hit only the tabloids. Preston knew that sometimes the truth is so shocking, no sane person is going to believe it. The whole thing had a cascade effect as the Belgian government collapsed again as it did so often. Election time again.
The links to the stories were passed to them via the email account. In the middle of this, Preston found a message in the dropbox.
Gordy hospitalized and one other with heart trouble from over-exertion. Check out the fall volksmarching in Germany. The Benelux could use the rest.
Gary’s dry sense of humor never failed, nor did the angels or the truth.
From behind, large brown hands grabbed Preston, lifting him slightly off the ground.
Purely by instinct, Preston simultaneous thrust the camera out at arm’s length while kicking where he thought the legs should be on whomever grappled with him from behind. The next instant he was bent over with a huge weight pressing him down as one hand reached for the camera. Preston knew instantly the arms were covered in the fancy suit he had seen Gordy wearing that morning.
Even the best trained fighters were seldom as skillful in combat as they hoped. Preston was barely keeping the camera from the grasping hands. His hat was gone and forgotten. They must have spun around two or three times. Things happened too quickly for him to tell.
Meanwhile, Angie recovered. For just an instant she watched in pain and horror as the dark-skinned giant wrestled with Preston. Suddenly she felt anger, as if all the things ever done wrong to her boiled over all at once. Worst of all, this brute was attacking her man, a capital offense in her world. She could have ripped his head off with teeth and claws if necessary. Hardly conscious of her actions, she simply acted on pure fury. Sprinting a couple of steps toward the flowerpot, she jumped up, planting her left foot smartly on the edge. She wasn’t sure what to do next, but getting up closer to the man’s head seemed an obvious necessity.
At that moment, Preston realized Gordy’s face was behind his head. He pushed back, and then snapped his head forward and backward again with all his might. The crown of his head connected to something not entirely hard. Suddenly the grip on him loosened just a bit. He had planned to spin around and add an elbow strike, but the man had backed off out of reach, standing almost upright, one hand instinctively rising to touch his face where the mouth and nose began bleeding profusely. The attempt still spun Preston around.
It was at this instant Angie launched herself at Gordy. She drew her feet up together and stomped at him with all she had. Her right foot impacted on the joint between his chest and left shoulder. The left foot hit him full in the sternum, driving his tie tack through the fabric and into his flesh. Already stunned from the hard headbutt to his face, he rose up full length and flailed this arms, trying to keep his balance as he back-pedaled.
Preston was already turned and instinctively caught Angie as she rebounded from the impact with Gordy. They watched for the split second it took to see him back forcefully into the railing. On most folks, it was almost chest high, but for Gordy it was just below waist level. Instead of arresting his backward momentum, the high aluminum bar only redirected it. His hands continued arcing back over his head and he flipped over the railing. His body managed to somersault once completely, landing him flat on his back with a very loud smack into the murky water of the Meuse.
Instinctively, Preston grabbed Angie’s hand as they sprinted off the bridge. There was only a slight hesitation as they dodged between two vehicles where they crossed the street. Glancing back, Preston saw a couple more nicely dressed men behind them. Straight ahead was the foot of the ancient stairway up the bluff to the citadel.
Neither he nor Angie hesitated. The entrance to the cable car ride was packed and spilling into their path. They managed to dodge through without hitting anyone and began sprinting, two steps at a time, threading past the tourists not nearly so hurried on the steps. With Preston’s hand pulling her, Angie was able to match his giant strides. Some part of Preston’s mind realized this moment alone justified all those times they had sprinted up the sandy hills of the Brunssumerheide for the past few weeks, repeating it until he nearly puked. He was just a bit faster on the hills than Angie, but she could repeat it more times. With such a lazy morning so far, they had plenty of energy to spare this time.
A bit of yelling behind them signaled the necessity of driving ahead full speed. Apparently none of those in pursuit were in any kind of shape at all. At the top of the first long run, Preston turned to glance back as the well dressed men were struggling to merely walk up the steps quite some distance behind. Preston whipped out his camera and took a quick shot of them, then grabbed Angie and sprinted up the next section. They hit the landing two-thirds of the way up, and without slowing, sprinted around the crowded photographers there and up the final run in the opposite direction. The men in fancy suits had either stopped or were simply too far behind to have any hope of catching them.
Preston got a couple more shots and followed Angie inside the fort. They climbed the interior stairs at a slower pace, then entered the interior courtyard. With so very many tourists and photographers already crowding the place, they simply bypassed the shops and ticket window and walked out the arched tunnel on the far end. They found out how to get out of the place. Hesitatingly they approached the gateway up the terraces, scanning to see if they recognized any trouble ahead. There were no suits and no limos in the parking lot.
They walked at a good hiking pace, already recovering their breath from the run up those four-hundred-plus steps. It was a short walk to the trails and Preston led the way off to the right. Just a short way into the woods, Preston pulled Angie off the trail to one side. He fished out his first aid kit and began dressing her skinned knee. “It’s a good thing you were on my side. Poor Gordy never had a chance.”
Angie nearly collapsed with laughter. Preston kept working as best he could. Then she recovered and asked, “Did he hurt you?”
“Just some bruises and sore spots. Lost my hat, but he apparently didn’t damage the camera any. Even if he had, it wouldn’t have done him any good. We had uploaded it all and I was live streaming at the time. He didn’t even unplug it from the tether. I did that when we got inside the fort.”
In essence they retraced their hike in the opposite direction from the day they had taken the kayak ride. There were a lot more hikers, so they were never quite alone this time.
After crossing La Lesse, they went farther upriver to another set of sluice gates and lock. This was a very broad path zigzagging over an island in the river. Only the part where they crossed the actual gate was narrow. Here the Meuse bent hard around, the far bank ran east and west. Just a short hike downstream toward the city brought them to a low underpass on one set of railroad tracks, then up a narrow lane where a trail permitted them to cross another set of tracks. They were careful to avoid touching any metal parts because this one was electrified, with heavy cables overhead suspended by metal and concrete frames. In the trees on the far side was a trail. Quite steep in places and slippery, they eventually gained the high ground next to the autobahn. There was a grassy cut through the trees along the south side of this all the way down to a farm road running into the backside of a village called Onhaye.
Passing through, they stayed on the small lanes and woodland paths, coming around behind their erstwhile quarters.
It had been a long and beautiful hike, and it was time to go home.
“I think it’s time to remove this hair coloring,” Preston suggested as they started filling the tub.
He looked at the small on-demand water heater common in most of Europe. “This has to be the smallest one they could find.” They had to turn down the flow a bit or it passed through too quickly to be warmed much. Preston decided it was also time for another hair cropping. Angie was glad to help, having already declared a preference for the shorter look on Preston.
They rolled into the hammock that night looking very much like their passport photos again.
The work of processing the images and videos had never been so hard, and with only one computer at that. They reviewed their results again the next morning. Aside from Gordy, they picked out about three dozen people they felt were most likely candidates for attention from the association. Preston loaded a selection of images on his cellphone for quick reference, using humorous pseudonyms for those they couldn’t actually place with a name.
On a hunch, Preston suggested that they pre-pack their stuff. Then they put on hats and left their hideaway north bound. A narrow track eventually brought them onto a slender paved road leading into a village. They passed through along the main route eastward. On the eastern end of the village stood a very old monument that served as the bus stop where they caught a ride down into the northern end of Dinant. Only as they left did they find a sign pointing back into the village with a name: Sommière.
They had donned for the day their hiking gear and broad-brimmed hats against the summer sun. With sunglasses, they both appeared completely different from the previous day, aside from their relative sizes. The bus turned right onto the main route and chugged up a slight incline, stopping to let them off next to a large parking area. At one end was a low, narrow arched passage under the railroad tracks, letting them onto a paved walking path along the river bank. At the water gate they took the walking bridge across and found themselves almost in front of the grocery shop. They wandered over to where the tourists clustered on the north end of a large parking area just off the river bank.
A large tree offered shade at the entrance to a tiny round building. Through the windows, it looked like a library or information booth. Angie and Preston rested a few minutes, discussing their plans for the day.
“What would you bet they moved the limo parking for today?” Preston offered.
“You would win,” Angie countered.
There were far more boats than usual, including several with police markings.
“Maybe we can squeeze into the crowds on the bridge again,” she suggested.
They eventually wandered over to a sandwich deli and got some ham and egg sandwiches with coffee to go. They strolled slowly back toward the walking bridge over the canal lock, eating as they went. Both times across, the lock was pretty busy, as was the pedestrian traffic, so catching the narrow walkway over one gate or another took some patience. They strode slowly along the quayside toward the main bridge in Dinant. They engaged in plenty of lallygagging and acting like tourists.
Space on the main bridge was at a premium. Eventually, Preston handed Angie the better camera and hoisted her up on his shoulders. This worked well enough, giving her a better line of sight over the crowd. The pleasure boats had already tied up just south of the bridge. One was obviously the center of all the attention, very fancy with multiple decks. The other was slightly less opulent, but receiving no less attention. It was this second one Angie focused on the most, while Preston scanned for interesting photographers.
This time the limos were closer together, in three convoys with the usual police motorcycle escorts. With all the boats crowding the water, there wasn’t all that much water visible to the casual observer. Preston had no trouble recognizing Gordy. When he realized Gordy had not boarded with the rest of everyone’s entourage, it made him a little nervous. It was the final excuse he needed to bring Angie down and head west off the bridge. Preston glanced back a few times but lost sight of Gordy, despite the man’s height.
They went back the way they had come and sat on the west bank itself for awhile, feet hanging down on a grassy slope that dropped quickly to the water. They reviewed the footage and still shots for quite some time, matching faces to their previous list. Preston made note of a few new faces. He decided to upload everything via his cellphone broadband connection.
When it appeared things had settled back to a less intense pitch on the other side of the river, they wandered back over the bridge. There were a couple of cafes featuring live music, so they tried to pass the time. They ate some lunch and wandered around a bit, never getting too far from the open plaza near the bridge. As it got warmer, they shed the outer shirts, exposing matching gray tank tops underneath. They rolled up the t-shirts and stuffed them in their fanny packs.
Eventually some of the smaller boats began to return. Cameramen were disembarking and vying for good shots to catch the barges approaching from upriver. The police boats cleared some space against the quay, while the officers on the shore started blocking traffic. It seemed the conferees were going to disembark and walk up the street to the Hall of Justice again.
Meanwhile, the entourage boat edged against the quay first and tied up. The well-dressed occupants got off quickly and swarmed the quay where the fancier boat approached. Preston decided to tether his camera this time and stream the footage live to their upload link. It was downright hot, so the crowd wasn’t quite as thick this time. Preston was hoping he and Angie could get some footage with both cameras without bringing attention to themselves by her riding his shoulders again. They managed to get some very good line of sight on the entourage.
Once the VIPs disappeared down the gauntlet toward the Hall of Justice, and the supporting staff thinned out, Preston walked over to the last of the huge stone flowerpots sitting on the walkway at the east end of the bridge, on the northern side. He was holding the camera down where they both could see it. They were discussing quietly who was visible.
Suddenly Angie was shoved roughly aside, off the walkway and into the street, where she fell on one knee, the other leg splayed out to catch her from going face down.
By lunch time the spectators began showing up.
That is, lots of cameramen scattering across the city looking for advantageous locations, lots of people in expensive suits despite the late summer heat and a few extra policemen in groups talking and pointing. Angie and Preston agreed they would now miss having their bikes. Up to this moment, things had been fine, but with so few crossing bridges and the long stretches between landmarks, the bikes could be really useful. On the other hand, this was setting up to be an even more crowded place than even the worst of normal tourist traffic.
So the next morning they put on their business casual attire and left early so they could take their time. The regular bus schedule was disrupted and they decided to simply walk back into town while it was still relatively cool. The hillside with a good view Preston had found was occupied by a cluster of photographers already setting things up and competing for the best spot. Preston pretended to do a slow panorama but only recorded while aimed at the cameramen and their activity.
At the bottom of the hill on the traffic circle stood, of all things, a shawarma cart. Angie and Preston agreed it was the perfect quick breakfast, and they weren’t alone. The river was extra busy with small motor boats all over the place. A few had cameras mounted on poles or small towers. Meanwhile, a flat bed truck was dropping temporary traffic control equipment to groups of workers and the occasional policeman. Preston and Angie decided to hide in the throng already gathering on and around the bridge.
They had plenty to do working to spot and shoot various people too well dressed for ordinary work or tourism. From time to time they would trade the cameras back and forth for one purpose or another. As the buzz of police motorcycles and patrol cars increased upriver near the gauntlet running into the Hall of Justice, they watched closely to see mostly local officials and opulent cars, but no limos. Preston and Angie worked their way slowly toward the east end of the bridge.
It was two hours before the first limo came. In the lead were the motor officers forcing serious impediments off the N95, followed by the actual motorcycle escort just in front of the oversize car, zipping along and up to the entrance of the gauntlet. Barriers were moved to allow smooth passing, and then quickly put back in place. This got the crowd’s attention and bodies everywhere surged a bit in renewed activity, yet strangely having no real effect on the actual crowding itself. Preston and Angie positioned themselves to watch the departure, which they expected to run back out heading north along the one-way street pattern because of the movable barricades on the plaza. The N95 was split: Southbound was along the water’s edge, while northbound was a block inland. The open plaza at the west end of the bridge afforded a good view from a wide range of locations. They stood against the northern bridge railing, where the southbound half of the highway ran under the bridge and along the quay on the eastern bank of the Meuse.
The first limo delayed longer than they expected at the Hall of Justice, making them wonder if their guessing was all wrong. Eventually it was led slowly past on the northbound lane as police struggled to clear the pedestrians. Preston and Angie crossed the open area to watch where the limo went. A ways down it turned right, at what should have been the long climbing N936. They decided to start moving in that direction. It was a long interval before the next limo whizzed by, so they had already begun the long climb that they had come down just two days ago. Before they managed to get as far as the small trail they had taken down from the citadel, another pair of limos passed together. Preston noted, “I have a hunch they’re parking somewhere near the citadel.” So when they came to the path climbing up through the woods, it seemed a natural choice.
They stopped where the path turned to give them a clear view across the open field, leaving them still rather obscured in the woods. A couple of batches of hikers passed, one group in each direction. The limos came into view just seconds later, heading down the drive to the citadel parking area. Preston backed up a bit and found a track running through the woods, keeping them in the treeline while winding around to the backside of the parking lot. They eventually got where they could see that the police had cordoned off the section of the gravel parking area just along the trees. The limos were being lined up rather like a funeral cortege. They decided to continue watching from the woods for awhile, recording video of the activity around the big cars.
“It’s Gordy!” Preston exclaimed in a loud whisper.
“Who is Gordy?”
They both kept their eyes and cameras trained on the activity. “Gordon J. Bishop. Back when I was in the military, we had a cluster of serious college basketball fans in my unit. There was one player the mentioned who had enough size and strength, and pretty athletic, too, but he never seemed to find his niche. For a few games he was a busy guard, the next a hatchet man…” Angie could see a dark-skinned man considerably taller than the others people milling around the limos. “Among the players, he was only average height, still pretty tall, though. He was drafted kind of low, didn’t adjust well to the pros, and finally ended up playing on some team here in Belgium.”
One of the odd things to Americans visiting Belgium was the Wallonian obsession with basketball. Every tiny village had at least one basketball goal mounted somewhere in an open area. There was as much basketball as there was soccer. Somewhere out around Spa in the Ardennes, Preston once stumbled on a tiny hilltop village where the central open plaza was one big circle. Around the whole perimeter were at least a dozen basketball goals, and some of them seemed busy almost any time of the year. At some point, the Belgian professional ball clubs began drafting pro players from the US who couldn’t make the cut back home. For awhile it was so common that the English-speaking international schools in Belgium always had a few kids whose dads were professional basketball players from America.
Preston explained, “Apparently he never really got comfortable playing here, either. He dropped off the radar. He always was a thug; he’d make the perfect fixer.”
“What’s a fixer? Not a repairman of any kind, I assume. Is he a bodyguard?” Angie asked.
“No, more like chief thug. It’s not so much doing physical violence as threatening it, along with other ugly consequences. They take a high paycheck for the high probability of being arrested on a regular basis, keeping their boss out of trouble. It keeps the lawyers busy, too, but remains an essential part of dirty business.”
They held their location in the trees until sometime after two dozen limos had pulled into two lines and things slowed down a bit. Angie was looking through the back of the small camera at the activity off to the right, near the gate leading into the citadel, when Preston said, “Uh-oh.”
She lowered the camera and turned to see someone walking straight toward their position. At about the same time, there was some noise off to their left from the direction they came. They quickly stuffed their cameras into their fanny packs and started looking for a way of escape. It was pretty thick underbrush to the right and behind, but they began pushing that way. The bluff wasn’t quite so terribly steep here and Preston whispered something about avoiding any ledges. Part of the rock formation formed a wall that forced them down-slope. Somehow, they ended up facing a fence about three meters above the street, but somewhat close to the roof of a building. It was ancient stonework, and Preston guessed it was one of the shrines, squeezed between a business and the sheer stone bluff.
The noise in the brush above them continued, though no pursuit was yet visible. “We’re out of options, Babe.” Preston climbed the chain-link fence and lowered himself down to the clay tiled roof. Angie came right behind him. They clambered down the slope and Preston took advantage of the wire mesh tightly clinging to the rock face, designed to prevent loose rocks from falling. He engaged in a little impromptu assisted rock climbing to get down. Angie was a good bit better at it. While a few onlookers in the open square there expressed a little surprise, no one seemed too excited. That is, except for the sound of cursing voices above and still out of sight.
Still, the adventure had roughed up their hands, and Preston began digging for their little first aid kit as they walked quickly away across the busy square and past the Sicilian cafe they had enjoyed just the other day. Next to it was a narrow cut between the buildings, which led them back down to the busy quayside. They were daubing antiseptic on their cuts as they walked.
“That’s enough adventure for one day. Let’s go back to our dark lair, Babe,” Preston suggested as if bored. Once across the bridge, they stopped just long enough to grab some carryout from a friture and hurried up the hill, across the tracks, followed by a sharp right up the hill toward the boarding school. The long hike back was uneventful.
“We need to remember to carry gloves,” Angie said looking at her hands. Preston’s were worse because the same amount of skin bore a heavier load on his hands.
They entered their hideaway and Preston took off his fanny pack, turned and dropped sideways across the hammock. Angie removed her pack and took his from the floor, moving to the desk to open them.
“Darlin’, I really love sleeping on this thing but it narrows our choices for other activities.” He turned his head back around and grinned at her.
She leaned over and put her finger on his lips, shushing him. Then she replaced her finger with her own lips, kissing him upside down. “We have work before pleasure. Come help me catalog these images.”
The cell signal was poor that evening, so nothing got shipped. They planned to carry the laptop down to see if the city offered enough wifi signal for the necessary traffic. Preston was quite sure there would be something in the dropbox, since they had nothing to indicate any schedule of events for the confab starting the day after next.
The next morning bright and early they walked down into the village, then followed the small road straight east toward Dinant. It was just over ninety minutes of brisk hiking to where the road began seriously descending down over the lip of the Meuse Valley. There were a couple of hairpin turns, bringing them right in front of the boarding school that Francophones referred to as “collége” before it offered a turn back down toward the main bridge. Preston decided to follow a hunch and chased the road farther south to the N936. He turned sharply left back down the hill a bit, then right at the overpass for the railroad tracks. Where the road sloped up toward the lip of the valley, about halfway to the converted monastery that was now a hotel, he stopped.
Preston pointed out they had direct line of sight across the river, down the narrow lane to the front of the Hall of Justice. That building was built tightly against the gray stone bluff. He checked it through the newer camera and zoomed in for a good, clear view of the entrance. He looked up behind him and noticed it was possible to climb up on the rocky embankment that had been cut for the road. Farther up near the hotel the slope was easy enough to clamber up. From there it was a simple matter of walking back along the higher point of view to the same line of sight. It was a beautiful shot, and Angie took a turn looking at it through the camera.
They went back down the road into town and crossed the bridge. This placed them back in the open square next to the cathedral, and at the foot of the stairs up to the citadel. A couple of the cafes were offering a decent breakfast, and they decided it would give Preston a chance to begin scanning some of the hotels and other places likely to offer wifi. His hand held wifi channel receiver hadn’t offered much so far.
One cafe not yet open had a signal too weak from that distance. After breakfast, they wandered south along the river. Most of the signals were encrypted, but up near the Ibis Hotel it got strong. The casino next door had a great open signal. Sitting on the walkway along the river was possible, but there was terrace cafe service there for coffee, so Preston felt it was only fair. Besides, the coffee smelled too good.
Once connected to the Net, they managed to exchange the images and videos taken so far. And sure enough, the dropbox contained a PDF with the itinerary for the three-day conference. There was also an appendix:
Don’t worry about the chateau where they are staying. We have a couple of friends there. Try to catch the limousines where they park and who hangs around them, and be sure to catch the river ride.
They noticed the schedule started with meeting the first day in the Hall of Justice, then a private hotel conference room on the outskirts of the city. The second day was a deluxe barge ride upriver and back, projected to run until mid-afternoon. In his mind, Preston saw lots of police and paparazzi boats escorting them.
Angie asked him, “Are we going to use that spot on the hillside to watch them unload the limos?”
“That would be cool only if we need to catch the big shots with telephoto, but I’d rather be in place to see where the limos go from there. Can’t be that many places to park a bunch of big cars all in one spot.”
They studied a detailed city map they found and noticed the streets were almost all one-way in that part of town. Preston noted, “If we can bank on the cops sticking with the simplest plan, that would mean pulling up in front of the Hall of Justice up that narrow street, unloading, and then turning left toward the cathedral. So when they start arriving, we’ll post ourselves on the plaza and see where the first one goes and take it from there. I rather doubt they’ll all come at once, for security reasons. If they are staggered out enough, we’ll have some time to get an idea where to start looking. I’ll bet they don’t go far.”
For the next few hours, they referred to the agenda and walked around, trying to estimate where the paparazzi and other onlookers would cluster. They found out the citadel would still be open, and expected a few to use that high angle view. Preston doubted there would be any helicopters or other aircraft, though. He joked about camera drones with the private and police ones crashing into each other or dog fighting.
As they stood on the bridge, leaning on the railing and gazing upriver, Angie asked seriously, “What if someone figures out what we are doing and takes exception. Could we be arrested?”
Preston thought for a moment. Turning his head, he met her eyes. “Somehow, I doubt it. We’ll be two out of hundreds of people using cameras. Even if someone gets upset at our behavior, they would have a hard time convincing the police to come after us. It’s more likely they’ll try to come after us themselves.”
She wrinkled up her mouth, twisting one side up without amusement. “I was afraid you would say that.”
While the kayak trip had made their shoulders and arms sore, their legs were itching for a workout.
After lunch and a potty break, they struck out for some exploration. Backtracking a short distance, Preston turned off to the left up a steep ramp. It was an established walking path with railings and asphalt paving. Atop the ridge, the paths went in several directions, but after glancing at at the map, Preston led the way up higher on the ridge. The small country lane opened onto ordinary open farm fields, but rather well kept. Instead, it was the road that was rough. Still, it was a pleasant view.
Preston pointed to the cell tower on the right. “Might get a good signal up here,” he clowned. Cell service was notoriously bad in the Walloon highlands. Ahead a ways was a sharp left. They could hear the sound of heavy highway traffic nearby, and Preston showed her on the map where they were going to cross just under the N97 autobahn. Within a half-kilometer, the path ran past a farm house and into the woods. A short distance later took them under the autobahn and into a recreational area. There were trails and stony open areas all over the place.
The managed to pick out a few thin trails that led them down into the next valley northward. Preston stopped at the road and pondered a bit, scanning up and down the road to orient himself. “I can’t remember that well, but from the terrain, I’m guessing it’s uphill there.” He pointed up the valley. On their left was a long row of townhouses with no break for quite some distance, aside from tiny narrow passage ways.
Eventually it opened to reveal some really ancient houses and well kept gardens, nestled up against the trees that concealed a very steep hillside. On the right the dense forest and brush barely hid an even steeper rise. Eventually a few shallow buildings managed to squeeze themselves into the narrow space along the road on that side. Some of the structures were ancient stonework with tiny shrubs growing from the interstices between the stones. Preston kept scanning to the left and eventually stopped where the road turned hard right. There was a break between a small yard with a wooden fence on one side, and a gravel drive running up to an opulent house behind some trees on the other side. A track ran up the hill where some recent tree harvest had left the ground bare.
After walking around a bit in the inevitable mud left by the logging, Preston spotted a thin trail running up one side of a narrow draw. The trail rambled upward in more or less the same direction until it hit the rocky brow of the hill. There were signs where other feet had sought a break, and they eventually found it. Passing between two rocks they scrambled up some thickly layered decaying vegetation onto another, fairly solid but narrow trail running behind the rocky lip. Preston turned left, back toward the Meuse valley.
There was still a good bit of picking their way among the rocks, but they found a place where the treeline opened onto an unfenced field. There was a broad track running along the narrow opening in the trees back toward some houses and agricultural structures. Eventually they were ushered into a narrow lane running among some very nice houses, some new and some ancient, but all every well kept. On their left was a rare barbed-wire fence backed by a row of very tall pine trees. This continued straight up the hill and to a crossing at the crest.
They turned left and headed down-slope between a stonewalled barn on the left and a more ancient stone fence along the right. The walls gave way to high hedges and newer structures, after which they turned right and headed down an increasingly narrowed lane that ended at stone gate posts. To the right was a rugged walking trail. After a short run through some trees, they found themselves in a mixed rocky and wooded area that had seen a lot of hikers. The primary path wound down onto one of the few streets dropping off the ridge into the backside of Dinant. Preston turned back uphill a few meters to yet another path.
It was coming back to him in bits and pieces, but with the help of the map, they following the narrow rocky tree line between the open private farmland and the bluff. They ended up just above the ancient citadel.
Angie turned and asked in a childish tone, “Are we there yet?” Then she laughed.
Preston turned and said, “One more little goody, then we take a break and go back to our vacation quarters.”
After looking over the fancy garden at the citadel entrance, they went back out past the hotel and turned left down into the woods. “I promise you, this journey is almost through,” he offered.
“Nobody’s whining,” she answered tartly, then grinned.
The trail dumped them out onto a long winding street headed back down into town. It was pretty easy and at the bottom they encountered one of the giant saxophone monuments to its inventor, Adolphe Sax, whose house was nearby. Just beyond this, they turned left down a narrow street named after Sax, running between tall buildings. The houses quickly turned into shops, then a few cafes began appearing. They decided it had been a long enough hike to justify another meal. They passed a tiny Sicilian cafe and the aroma was too much. Heaping plates of pasta made them forget some of their soreness.
They loitered and emptied a bottle of wine between them. Though tired, there was one more stop they wanted to make, and it required a hike back north along the river front. Dinant had restaurants and cafes aplenty, but actual grocery stores were thinly spread. They were growing tired of restaurant food. The nearest grocer from where they were was just over a half-kilometer.
Angie picked out some items that needed no cooking. Upon leaving the grocery market, they decided to cross the Meuse on the walking bridge atop the lock. It wasn’t much of a drop in the river, but barge traffic demanded such controls at long intervals on this part of the Meuse. A little over a half-kilometer south and upriver on the west bank brought them to the transportation hub. The wait for a bus was long, and they decided to spring for the expense of a taxi.
The driver was chatty, but Preston and Angie preferred to let him rattle on with minimal response. They were thinking hard about their hardest assignment yet.
They were ready bright and early the next morning to catch the bus down in the village.
There was a simple connection to another line in the south that ran all the way to the head of the kayak run in Houyet. They were hardly alone among the passengers with the same destination, but the morning was still cool and the crowds would not come until later. With the recent rains, the stream was a bit swollen and fast, perfect for this time of year. The only problem was finding the particular vendor who had issued the ticket, as there were several, each with their own color of kayaks. It was easy to find the guys who rented out the red ones and yellow ones, stacked on tall racks all over the place. They eventually found one with blue and white boats that matched the name on the ticket.
Their ticket included the deluxe paddles and a relatively fancy two-seater. Preston knew from experience he had to sit in the rear. They were launched from a rollered track that ran down into the water. It wasn’t all that different from his experience canoeing in the Boy Scouts back in the States. For the first kilometer or so, he talked Angie through keeping the thing aimed down stream and away from obstacles and other kayaks.
They really weren’t that far into the trip when they saw him. There were a handful of serious kayakers who rode their own equipment, and Gary was one of them. They were facing a tight turn to the left and he called to them from the shadows on the right. There was a tiny stream feeding into the main flow, running out from under a small wooden foot bridge up on the bank. Gary had tied up his orange and black boat to a small but solid tree on the bank facing outward. He extended his line for Angie to to tie off on the loop at the bow of their boat. This made for an odd water-borne conference with him facing them both.
“Glad to see you didn’t waste any daylight,” he started off. “Angie, if I really wanted to threaten Preston, what do you think I would do?”
She glance back at Preston behind her and blurted out, “You would attack me.” Preston nodded agreement.
Gary grinned. “You two are an amazing team. Your level of trust is quite rare in this world. Yet people intending evil are forced to use the same means to their ends. They have to rely on people they can trust on some level. Preston, you helped run a business during the worst of the off-shoring days in the US. How did you stay competitive?”
Preston felt he knew where some of this was going. Without hesitation, “Well, fleet maintenance is pretty hard to do offshore, but a couple of companies tried to bring in foreign workers. We beat them on service. Parts are parts and we were all pretty much restricted to using the same basic equipment with so many suppliers closing shop. But the big thing for us was keeping our people happy and motivated to do better work for the money.”
Gary laughed. “Key word there — people instead of personnel. That says it all. It was the same in the Army, wasn’t it?”
Preston shook his head, “It would have been if the system hadn’t promoted bean counters over genuine leaders. I dare say some units I saw, the soldiers might not be too convinced their own superiors weren’t the enemy.”
Gary nodded. “Even bad guys know that. They might be willing to use fear, coercion and slavery, but there have to be a few insiders who run interference for them. A big shot working on his own has to run himself ragged in micromanagement. Smart bosses always find good people and divide up the workload.”
He took a deep breath and waved at some random passing girls hooting at him. “Kids,” he snorted. “You two don’t look too bad in your dark hair. For this mission you aren’t likely to see too many trafficking victims. In a few days there will be what I call a mini-Bilderberg meeting here in Dinant — politicians, business and labor leaders, big investors, and so forth. As you might expect, at least half of them are mere figureheads. We aren’t too concerned with the big shots. We need to know about their lieutenants.”
Gary shifted in his kayak and pulled on the rope a bit. “The paparazzi will be here, too. Did you ever work with them, Preston?”
Preston had, indeed, tried early on to get work with the freelance news photographers, but decided that was the wrong field of operations for him. “That was a cluster,” he snorted.
Gary continued, “In a crowd of photographers at a media event, how many are actually working for their sponsors? Don’t you find some of them always willing to haggle with the competing interests?” Preston nodded as Gary went on. “Yeah, and there’s always a few who actually work for the people they pretend to photograph.” Again Preston nodded.
Gary turned to Angie, “Can you spot a photographer who isn’t really a photographer?”
“I think so,” she said with some curiosity in her eyes.
Gary leaned back a bit in cockpit of his kayak. “Don’t shoot pictures or video of the big shots. Shoot everyone but them. This thing should take a few days, so you’ll get plenty of time to figure out who is always there, who is playing maitre d’ for the people who get in the news. We are about to publish some big scandalous splash to shake things up, and we need to know who’s doing the real dirty work. Nobody else in the association has the time and energy to work this on the ground, nor anywhere near your talents — not to mention the obvious protection of God. You two are walking miracles. Don’t fling a needless challenge in His face, but don’t be afraid to keep His angels busy if that’s what the situation requires. Also, don’t stop anywhere and tie up your boat and leave it today. Someone will trade you for their less deluxe accommodations while your back is turned.”
Without another word, he turned and released the line holding them all in place and slipped past them into the river.
Angie grabbed the line and pulled the slack end into their kayak. They turned and drifted back out into the mainstream. Gary was already a distant speck zipping down the river ahead of them in his custom fitted kayak. They focused on enjoying the scenery. At places the bank rose up steeply to stone cliffs. There were a couple of fancy chateaus right on the water.
Preston remembered a warning he read in one review: Somewhere beyond the half-way point was a dam with a sluice. When riding down the sluice, it was critical to line up straight and off on the right side, and then stay to the right and paddle quickly to avoid getting caught in the folks dawdling at the bottom to watch others. The right side was a little deeper and most of those who hung around drifted toward the left where it was shallow.
They managed to clear the sluice without getting overturned. It had become quite warm and they removed their light jackets. At the end, the worker on the reception dock directed them to reverse the kayak, point the bow back upstream, and then sidle over to the quay. Strong hands helped them climb out and took control of the kayak. All they had to do was walk away.
It was impossible to avoid getting pretty wet during the run downstream, both from splashing by others and by water running off their paddles. But after glancing into the shower facility and seeing it was unisex with both genders running around nude, Preston glanced at Angie. “Not my scene, Babe.”
“Mine neither,” she assured him as they strolled toward the main street. They had already begun to dry and were quite hungry for lunch. Angie suggested they not grab the first one near the kayak endpoint, but walk out toward the gorgeous cathedral on the main road. The tourists were already out in force, and they drifted across the bridge eastward over La Lesse and along the street until they spotted a cafe with signs suggesting it was a baker-butcher shop. It seemed the right place at the right time, so they turned in there and picked out some sandwiches and a pair of what Belgians called “chocobollen” — a flaky light popover filled with a rich pudding-like cream that wasn’t too sweet, then dipped in chocolate icing. The coffee was superb, as it usually was in these parts.
Preston was describing a few volksmarches he had made in the area during his first stay in the Benelux. Dinant had become one of his favorite destinations, especially the Two Forts March that took walkers upriver on one bank to Givet, France, and then back down the other bank. He mentioned there were lots of trails in the area not on the bike maps.
“Show me,” Angie challenged him.
There was also a date, three days from then.
Preston and Angie had reduced virtually all communications to electronic means. For their pay packets, they decided to set up regular mail retrieval through the PostNL office nearest their apartment. Everything came addressed “Poste Restante” (General Delivery) in their alternative names and they checked weekly to ensure the personnel got used to seeing them. Their pay came twice each month, typically in the form of currency, but was postmarked from all over the Benelux. Aside from a handful of advertisement fliers, nothing was ever pushed through the mail slot in their door.
Until the day after the priest gave them their next assignment, that is. When they returned from their regular workout the next day, there was a fat padded envelope on the floor just about the size for shipping a cheap paperback novel. It bore the marks of some obscure private courier service.
Preston and Angie were justifiably nervous about it, but upon slowly opening it, they found a small, nondescript box of single-wall cardboard. It bore a lone adhesive mailing label from their ostensible employer in Luxembourg City. Inside were two thin packets with French labeling and a cover letter wrapped around some currency. The letter was something dashed off on a computer in a decorative, oversize font.
No camping or bikes this time. Need casual dress, swim and athletic attire. Don’t bother your hosts. See the old barn out back.
Angie translated the writing on the packets — hair coloring kits, including the means to wash it out.
Preston looked at one of them. “I can see doing this to disguise your beautiful red mane, but I’m a little puzzled about mine.” Preston had allowed his hair to grow back out and kept a trimmed full beard. The instructions covered how to darken beards, too.
It would mean slipping out of their apartment before dawn to avoid being noticed with their different coloring. They decided for this trip to simply pack everything in normal duffle bags that had straps allowing them to be worn like backpacks. On the appointed day, it was just a short hike to the train station. There was an early express through Masstricht into Liege. This left just a short layover in Liege for a departure farther along the Meuse to Namur where they waited briefly for their train to Dinant. It was during this segment they each slipped into a toilet and changed from casual to hiking wear. Because these were such important rail links, it wasn’t too far from the scheduled times. They arrived mid-morning at the station.
It was pretty easy to find a TEC bus running close to their destination. They found it a fairly short and refreshing hike up along a stream, mostly through the woods to the north of the village. Near the crest of the terrain was a clearing on the left side of the road. At the far edge of this stood a very old stone farmhouse. The address was the one they had been given. They looked the place over from the road and noticed a narrow graveled track running around the north side of the house.
The place was very quiet and they were understandably nervous about it. Around back was, indeed, an old barn, mostly of stone but apparently patched at some point with bricks. On the far side was a small door set deep into the brickwork. On it hung a tiny brown envelope with a rubber band through a hole punched in to top. Inside was the key to a padlock on the door. They opened it slowly and looked inside.
The ceiling was high, but the rafters slung low. It was clean and free of cobwebs. The interior space was only a few meters across and somewhat farther in depth. A single small window on the left, somewhat dirty, let in a little light. Across from the window on the interior wall was a double sink with a high arched spigot. The plumbing was mounted on the wall in plain sight. Beyond the sink was a toilet with the typical old European style high-mounted water tank up inside the rafters. On the nearer side of the sink was an old zinc-coated, slope-sided watering tank, just big enough to use as a bath. Both the sink and tub drained into an open channel cut into the floor and disappearing under the interior wall.
Opposite this on the wall with the small window was an ancient desk with two metal folding chairs. They had paint splattered on them from long ago, but were still serviceable. What drew their attention most was the hammock. The mesh was woven from strands that were quite thick. Slung on the high end from a rafter beam and tied on the low end to an upright post, it was over a meter across with sturdy spreader bars and the mesh was covered with a rather thin mattress. Angie walked over to the bed and squeezed the mattress; “federbett” she announced in German.
She turned to Preston with a smile. “This should be interesting.”
Preston grinned. “Just getting into it would be some work. Let’s see if we can work this out.”
With practice, they decided for the most part that Preston had to get into it first. He was just shy of six feet and substantial, though not burly. That the hammock was tied close to the gather at the top helped dampen the swinging a bit when they shifted in it. Preston glanced up and expressed a bit of surprise that the wooden framing didn’t creak under the weight of their small movements. They rested a moment and he noticed the desk had a single lamp plugged into a double outlet, the only power visible in the place. In the corner nearest the door was an old hanger rack with the built-in hangers, perhaps a dozen or so.
“This is really a classy accommodation,” he noted.
Turning to look around, Angie spotted something on the desk. It was a simple matter to roll off the side and she went to see what it was. After reading it a moment, she held it up for Preston to see. “Ticket for a kayak tomorrow morning!” She was clearly excited.
That’s because it had rained starting that night after they met with the priest for pizza. In the Dutch flatlands, it was a continuous moderate mist for the past three days, but in the Belgian highlands, Preston had noticed it was a heavier rain. It was just tapering off during their hike up the road from the bus stop. This virtually guaranteed La Lesse would be up to a good depth for their run down it tomorrow.
For now, it was close to lunchtime. There was no kind of wifi anywhere close. Preston tethered to the cellphone and found a decent signal. Between the tourist information maps online and the bike map they had picked up in Monschau, they discovered that the only eatery nearby was to the northwest. It wasn’t a long or unpleasant hike, just not what they expected. They were so very close to a major hub of tourist attractions, yet very nearly isolated in the Belgian highlands not far from the French border. The actual city of Dinant was something like seven kilometers away, mostly a straight line once they got back downhill into the village.
The tiny cafe in Falaën was quite adequate for a surprise lunch. The menu was available in several languages, but Preston let Angie do the talking. They also ordered something they could carry back and have for dinner later. They traded off carrying the bag as they looked around the picturesque village and took a few photos. Then they trudged back to their hideaway.
In Belgium generally, and Walloon areas in particular, there were numerous little shrines, field crosses, chapels and so forth.
Some were quite artistic. A few were frankly disappointing, consisting of little more than a cheap plastic bottle from which the holy water of places like Banneaux had been already drained. The bottle was molded in the shape of any number of famous statues of Mary. Other shrines were dedicated to various saints. Preston’s interest was measured. The artwork was pretty and he took seriously the strong feelings people attached to such things.
However, it was plain to Angie that Preston shared little of those feelings. She remarked, “Most non-Catholics aren’t really into it, I know. Besides, it’s not all that popular in the Netherlands. Maybe you know we have a large rebel Catholic community based in Utrecht called Old Catholic Church. They don’t venerate Mary or the Pope so much.”
They were walking past a collection of icons planted firmly alongside a narrow lane, representing the Stations of the Cross. Angie had stopped at each, was quiet for a moment, then moved on. Their conversation came and went between the stations.
Preston noted, “I remember seeing some posters and signs about that in Utrecht. For me, there’s more to it than that. Obviously, Americans have little of the history available here in Europe. Half of these shrines are older than the United States. You’ve still got Roman Roads in places where we’ve marched. On top of that, we have a cultural revulsion to anything that smacks of feudalism and privilege. But in my own case, it’s no longer a simple matter of reflex. I’m not hostile to the veneration of Mary, but I can’t go there because of very strong convictions based on what I’ve learned about spiritual matters.”
Angie responded, “I know you have always been polite about my devotions. Had you asked me a year ago, I would have certainly said I expect men and women to argue. That’s so common here in Europe, like an unwritten law. Americans have big noises about feminist politics, but here those politics have ruled for a long time. You never said, but I know you don’t agree with much of feminism.”
With a half grin, he noted, “And you seem to be okay with it. I’m not much on arguing and debating. I trust in God and simply obey what I know He demands of me. Feminism is wrong because it’s native to Western Civilization, which is also pretty messed up. The whole thing is based on a completely false set of assumptions. I gave up trying to teach people a long time ago. I just walk in the light I have and let God worry about the details. For whatever reason, you have found yourself at home with my choices.”
She nodded with a firm expression of agreement. “Yes. I don’t know what it is, but it seems to work. I can tell when you don’t like something, but you just let it go. It’s like you know I’m going to run into trouble with it, but even if I don’t, maybe it does no good to argue.”
Preston shook his head. “We have too much else to worry about for me to pick at everything I don’t like. But you’ll notice I take full authority on some things and don’t make room for argument. That’s conscious.”
She grinned. “Yeah, but not for me. When you do that, it seems everything in me gets kind of quiet. I never met anyone like you before.” She put an arm around his waist and hugged him.
He responded in kind, grasping her around the shoulder. “For me, it doesn’t matter what you believe about Mary. I don’t care about the theology and mythology, if you will. What bothers me most is the tightly entangled feminism that comes in the package. When devotion to Mary gets in the way of serving her Son, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t agree with folks who say it’s the same thing. Her Son was a Hebrew man, a very masculine culture. But a masculinity totally different from the European brand or the American brand. When devotion to Mary comes off like heathen idolatry, and especially when it becomes the excuse for perverting what the Bible teaches through these unconscious cultural assumptions about God’s Creation, I get a little unhappy. Since I often can’t explain it without people getting hysterical, I just back off and try to stay on course with my own devotion to God.”
After a few moments, he added, “You do what you have to do to keep a clear conscience. So will I. As long as we can negotiate the differences, we belong together.”
At that, she stopped him and fully embraced him with a firm kiss.
They decided not to antagonize the young priest at Pancratius Kerk over such things, and simply accepted him as a supporter, at least, of the association that employed them. They seldom saw him outside of Sunday worship, but did run into him one evening at the local Pizza Hut.
As they sat together enjoying the uniquely Dutch flavored American franchise offerings of Italian food, the priest made it a point to apologize to Angie for past abuses by the church. She didn’t query how much he knew of her past, but the controversy over revelations that Dutch priests and nuns had abused children was still a warm, if not hot, item in the news. Then he changed to topic.
“I’ve been praying for rain. I’m not so worried about it here in our water-soaked lowlands, but for the Belgian highlands. It would add so much to your next journey.”
Angie and Preston glanced at each other in puzzlement. Was he that much inside the association?
The priest went on. “It’s highly unusual, but I wanted to confer with you about something coming up in the next few weeks.” He paused at the look on their faces. “Yes, I know Gary and Henk. Most of us are constrained in ways you two are not. Perhaps it would amuse you to know what a large number of people in odd places are relying on you for things we’ve often longed to do ourselves, but just could not afford the risks of losing all our advantages.”
Preston offered, “We knew a long time ago not to poke at what’s behind the curtain. We aren’t mercenary about the pay, but as long as everything keeps working out and our few contacts seem happy with the results, we plan to stay at this.”
The priest smiled. “You make this too easy for me. Gary wants to meet with you down near Dinant. As I understand it, you’ll be doing something we believe is more typical of our operations. At the same time, it will add a dimension previously not possible.” He pulled out a pad of sticky notes and peeled off the top sheet. Sticking it down on the table top, he produced a pen from another pocket. Actually, it was a very fine-point pencil, Preston noticed.
After scribbling a bit, the priest pulled it up off the surface of the table and handed it to Angie. “Again, don’t lose heart.” He smiled warmly, then slid out of his seat and left, dodging through the crowd of the busy pizzeria.
On the note was an address in Weillen, Belgium.