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.
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.
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.
(This begins Part 4.)
Things had slowed down a bit for Preston and Angie.
They were ready for that. It was good for them to have a period of adjustment without crises to force the sudden definition and redefinition of priorities in life. Time to think about things.
It was also time to consider a regular fitness program. Both of them had been operating on the strength of previous fitness efforts, but as part of their overall search for a norm, a baseline from which to operate, they felt the need to regain some control. But the private gyms were didn’t feel right. Angie was not used to creating her own guided program, having simply taken advantage of whatever training was included in the various sports in which she had participated. So it fell to Preston to come up with something for them until a better idea came along.
In their explorations and photography forays, they had stumbled across several playgrounds with substantial equipment. They concentrated on those closest to the vast Brunssumerheide, creating workout routines on them. While recent years had seen a lot industrial scraping in parts of it of the heath, there was still plenty of greenery left over and Preston’s memory from twenty years earlier served well. He and Angie established a pattern of mixing upper body exercises on the playgrounds with running in the sandy hills of the heath.
The ride out from Heerlen served as a good warm-up, and it was a decent cool down in the ride back. True to his promise, Preston began adding training in Taekwando. Not that he was really up to par himself, but he used what he could remember. Angie picked up on it quickly, despite her misgivings about the idea of violence. They had several weeks to settle into this routine.
That was largely because their hopes for kayaking in Dinant were squelched by an extended summer drought. There were a number of volksmarches that Preston felt were worth the effort simply to see the countryside. It gave them a chance to see places like Malmedy, Namur and Bastogne. Until further notice, they continued avoiding Liege and Masstricht as advised earlier that summer. But in general, while they were culturally more comfortable among the Flemish, it was the accident of history and geography that placed the most beautiful hiking areas in the hands of the Walloons.
During one of their hikes, Angie decided it was a good time to broach a question that had been tumbling around in the back of her mind. “This work we do is personal for me. At the same time, I’m highly motivated to work with you whatever it is you are doing. What drives you in this work?”
Before he could answer, she went on. “I know you just sort of stumbled into it. I was there. But you seemed to have a mission in your soul already, just waiting for a chance to do something like this.”
Preston grinned. “We don’t often talk philosophy and religion because our instincts are the same on most things.”
He slowed a moment to pet a friendly dog someone was leading on the trail. They moved on as the dog decided to stop for a nature call.
“I went to one kind of church or another for most of my life. Even while I was stationed here, I went to chapel pretty regularly. Back when it was called AFCENT Chapel, the staff would organize an annual retreat at Rolduc Abbey down in Kerkrade. One year we had a speaker who was an Iraqi pastor. Hardly anti-American, he was trying to get the message out that Christians in Iraq were badly hurt by American military activities. There was a lot of political posturing about having him speak to American troops so soon after Desert Storm. They wouldn’t let him come to the chapel, so we had to go outside the system to see him, but something told me to ignore all that crap and go.”
He was silent for a few minutes while they took an arduous climb up a hill. At the top, when he caught his breath, Preston continued.
“There weren’t very many of us there at that retreat, so it was very informal and much more interesting. The man spent a lot of time talking about seeing the world from a non-Western viewpoint. One of the first things he said was, ‘Christianity began as an Eastern religion.’ Then he went on to make the point that you can’t really understand the Bible unless you understand that Eastern point of view. Not like Hindu or Shinto Eastern, but Middle Eastern before Islam. So I did some reading. Most of it I didn’t really understand, but some of it must have leaked into my head, because it changed everything.”
They stopped to admire the view from a cliff overlooking a small river valley.
“American religion in particular is deeply afraid of anything outside the tight control of the conscious mind. Almost the entire field of evangelical religion is too cerebral, and that isn’t what we see in the New Testament. That has its place, but it should serve, not lead.”
Angie reminded him, “The Catholic Church has a wide range of different traditions feeding into it. In the positions I held it was easy to see a lot of infighting behind the scenes, but somehow things manage to keep going. Still, there is more than one grand tradition of mysticism. We have eastern churches I heard about only a little, so I can’t pin it down between east and west. Some of it was like psychobabble, but some of it seemed quite powerful.”
Preston nodded. “If you rely too much on emotion, you’re just an animal. If you rely too much on intellect, you’re just a smart animal. If you learn to listen to something higher, you at least have a chance to get involved in what’s really worthwhile. People who deny that there is anything higher can’t even be called Christian in my book. Even after those papers we read and the work we’ve already done, I don’t pretend to understand this business all that well. But inside of me is a very quiet, very hot fire, and it won’t let me ignore this problem. We already know we aren’t saving more than maybe ten percent of the kids caught in this mess, but there’s something in how we do this, something about simply exposing it, that seems to answer that fiery demand on my soul.”
They agreed it was something strong enough to keep them focused until the next episode.
The biggest shock was inside the wrapper of the camera.
There were two passports from some small Caribbean nation in their fake names and matching Eurail passes. “That should smooth things out a bit, eh Daphne?”
Angie chuckled. “I’ll try to get used to that name. Angie I like, but Daphne feels rather pretentious for me.”
Preston checked and all the proper border stamps were there. Then he noticed the images were current. “Wonder how they did that?”
“I would guess it was that information booth in Rotterdam. It would be easy to hide a camera in all that stuff,” Angie suggested. “I seem to recall there as a blank wall directly behind us.” She pointed to the background in the passport photos.
“Oh well, the less we know, the better it is for everyone.” He stuffed his US passport inside a utility bag inside his backpack, along with his monthly Dutch train pass.
Angie copied his actions with her EU ID card. She looked at her Dutch rail pass and sighed. “It will expire next month any way.”
They spent the evening in their tent examining the two new pieces of equipment. Preston discovered that the camera could upload live video feeds via a long cable to the cellphone. He could keep the phone out of sight in a pocket while uploading. The contacts list included one marked “upload.” He showed it to Angie. “Better than bluetooth, because wireless can be intercepted. Our boss really splashed out some serious moolah.”
Angie was frankly excited. She was enthusiastic about tomorrow, too. She had only heard of Little Switzerland and was itching to try some of the easier climbs.
So the next morning, they pushed their bikes inside the tent and locked them together. Then they hiked across the bridge for breakfast. There were so very many different cafes and restaurants that they just picked one at random and had a fine breakfast of sausages and eggs.
The hike up the valley was just a kilometer or so before it offered access to the wooded trails. They followed it back around the promontory overlooking their campground. Preston experimented with the camera a bit, as always, looking for the most unusual angle. Then he handed the camera to Angie and she tested a few ideas. He told her, “I’m very proud to say, my sweet apprentice, you are just about ready to work without supervision.”
She grabbed him around the neck and they almost slipped off the trail ledge together. They had a good laugh and continued up and down the trails. The place was dotted with stairs cut into the rock face. The early morning rush of climbers was already under way.
Angie started shooting some of the action while Preston watched. She managed a couple of easy free climbs and took a few shots from the top.
The whole time he was trying to think what sort of thing a younger person might do that would give away an American upbringing. With so many of them spouting lines from American films and other popular English phrases, it was clear that wasn’t any kind of clue.
So they spent two days this way, hiking in the mornings around the area with the camera, taking extensive footage. They’d grab lunch on the way back and try to examine all the footage as privately as possible. On the second day, Preston saw something that caught his eye. Angie was at the controls.
“Back up one. Yeah. Now zoom in on that one.” He pointed to one of the faces. The young fellow had his thumb up and pointed back over his shoulder. “Do Dutch or Belgian kids do that?”
“What? The raised thumb? It’s a rude gesture, which means most kids do it.”
“It’s not just the raised thumb, but pointing with it,” he explained.
They began checking other footage and saw him twice more. They also noticed not a single one of the other kids used that gesture in quite that way. “Let’s hope he’s still around tomorrow and doesn’t notice us.”
There really were no other good candidates, so the next day they hunted around the climbing areas where they had caught him every time so far. He wasn’t there. After a long wait, they decided to hike around a bit. No luck. They decided to have lunch at the friture out front of the campground up in Berdorf.
Preston spotted their quarry. He was sitting next to one of the tents, packing up his gear. As carefully as possible, Preston opened the camera, then nudged it around until the young fellow was in the frame and started recording video. The fellow sat chattering more than working on packing his gear. Preston watched as several times the fellow used his thumb to point. Apparently his friends were used to it, though they didn’t copy the action.
Angie and Preston made an effort to avoid any further behavior that wasn’t casual. They took their time, and when the food was gone, they slowly got up chattering in Dutch. Then they took the shortest route back down to the campsite near the bridge. Preston felt a strange sense of needing to hurry. Not because it was the last day they had planned to stay, but something he couldn’t quite identify. He advised Angie to start some of the packing. Even this late in the day, they probably needed to be somewhere else soon.
The open wifi nodes were strong and plentiful down by the river. He processed the video footage into a single file, then added a few still shots from the other shooting. These were bundled and encrypted, then uploaded to the drop box. He added a quick message on the mail server:
High probability in the dropbox. Feel like getting out of Dodge.
Then he finished packing up the rest of the stuff. Angie asked rather quietly, “Where to?”
Preston had been holding something in his mouth while using his hands to fold it. Upon extracting the item, he quietly said, “Trier.”
Keeping to the German side of the river, they pedaled a few kilometers downriver to Ralingen. Just outside the village, Preston steered onto a wood path on the left side. Checking now and then to make sure Angie was keeping up, he geared down and began following a switch back climb up the ridge. It was hard and slow, at times requiring they dismount, but they got over the top and coasted a short way along a paved road into the village of Kersch. From there it was mostly crooked back roads. The route took them down into a valley and over the next ridge, then another valley and ridge. The windmill farm would have been more interesting had they the time to look. As they dropped off the next slope, their lane ran into a major road, past a very large industrial park, and it was almost all downhill into Trier.
At times they rode the brakes pretty hard on switch backs, but eventually got down into the city. It was such a beautiful place, very ancient, perched on the banks of the Mosel. Again, Preston had little time to look around until they crossed the busy downtown section to the train station.
He had Angie negotiate passage for the bikes. They were in luck, because they could ride in the car with them. He consulted the schedule and a map displayed nearby. After a couple of times back and forth, he whispered to Angie, “I think Herzogenrath is a good target. If it feels comfortable, we’ll go on to Heerlen. From there I could find my way home in the dark.”
Once they were on the train, he encouraged her to nap if she could, but she had too many questions in her mind. He closed his eyes, but sleep was far away.
The road south out of Saint Vith ran more or less parallel with an autobahn. However, the autobahn was born aloft on very high pylons, while the lesser route Perston and Angie took dropped rapidly down to the valley floor of the Our River.
Because of the complexity of the route, Angie wanted Preston to lead. He had the measure of her pace and was able to back off just enough for her to keep up. At the bottom of the valley, there was a sharp right onto a gravel version of the Venn Bahn, very well packed and smooth. Preston intended to follow the river as closely as possible. For the first portion of their journey, that meant mostly following similar tracks and trails, winding over nearly level ground on one bank or the other.
After a few kilometers of lovely quiet travel through mostly wooded trails, they were forced onto the main road for a short bit. The river made a series of hair pin switch backs and there were twin villages straddling this river. Oddly, the one farther west was on the German side, the eastern was Belgian. Preston slowed, turned and pointed out the campground had first hoped they could reach. It was packed, so they agreed things had turned out for the best. A short way farther, the paved road ran out into gravel track, which in turn became a narrow woodland trail. Still, it was firm and they had no trouble. They simply enjoyed the picturesque rapid switch backs in the water’s course, stopping now and then to use the camera.
Eventually they ran onto a substantial highway. “That’s the end of the trails,” Preston yelled back. The highway offered a bike lane, which they shared with a surprising amount of hikers and other cyclists. As they rolled along, the wide flat valley turned into a steep draw as the land on either side shot up into hills and mountains.
At about mid-morning they reached a place called Biven where the river nearly bent back on itself. Only a high ridge prevented it forming an island. The ridge jutted northward from the surrounding land, around which the river made this tight loop. Meanwhile, the water course was quite a bit wider, almost a narrow lake. Then they saw the damn which made it so. A short time later found them stopping to admire Vianden Castle. They took their time rolling slowly through the area, as both the natural and man-made scenery were thrilling to behold. The camera simply could not capture what they saw. Eventually the Our River joined the Sûre tumbling down out of the central Luxembourg highlands.
Below Vianden, the river valley broadened again in a few places. At one point they crossed back over to the German side and followed a road which stuck closer to the river bank. Just before lunch, they rolled into the German side of Echternach. Roughly eighty kilometers in less than six hours; it wasn’t so much the workout of cycling, because they were riding a gentle down slope the whole way. It was the saddle soreness of new bike seats which hadn’t yet been worn into the shapes of their bottoms.
At the front desk of the campground, the old woman pointed to a spot on the map that she said in German was reserved especially for them. It was right up against the old bridge below the pizzeria they passed on the way to the entrance of the campground. The camp ground was packed, but when they rode back up to the driveway of the pizza house and were able to find a way down and around to the graveled bank. There were no tents there at the time, so they chose a spot close to the retaining wall.
By the time their tent and other gear was all set up, the smell of fresh pizza was driving them crazy, so it was back up the same way for lunch.
When they returned, there were three new tents not far from theirs. The occupants were all younger. After an initial greeting, the youngsters chattered excitedly about their plans for rock climbing in Berdorf, a short distance back upriver. This part of Luxembourg is known as Little Switzerland because of the many high rocky crags. When the kids wandered off for their own lunch, Preston and Angie lay back on the grassy slope near their tent.
The must have dozed off because someone was asking for them by their alternative names. Preston vaguely remembered only using any names at all with the camp registry. When he opened his eyes, it was a fellow in rather expensive cycling gear, standing back a bit holding his even more expensive racing bike upright against his hip. They sat up and Preston said, “Hello.” The man leaned his bike against the wall nearby, then sat next to them, removing his helmet and gloves. Anyone would have thought him a dashing manly fellow, rather handsome and tall.
“I’m so glad you made it. No one had any idea if you could ride that far, but I was told you two were rather fit, so it seemed a good bet.” He held out his hand and shook each in turn. “You can call me Gary.”
He turned and glanced at their bikes. “I believe you two made good choices for the kind of riding you do. Money well spent.” He turned and regarded them with a benign smile.
“We liked your paper, Gary,” Angie offered.
“Good, good. Can we take a stroll?” He pointed under the old bridge.
They rose and began walking slowly alongside. Gary clasped his hands behind his back. “I did contribute to that paper, and I’m hoping to get translations made soon. I was told one of you could handle French, and apparently it is so. I take it you’re on board with this?”
Preston spoke up, “If I understand things correctly, it would be hard to imagine work we would enjoy more. We guessed it is something rather like investigative photographers plus a little more.”
“Good way of putting it,” Gary said. They were under the bridge, in the shadow and out of earshot from any other people, so Gary stopped and faced them. “I work in an international law firm, and part of my responsibilities include banking law, treaties and publishing. We are private partners sharing the management of several businesses. On paper, you are contracted to the publishing house.” He pulled out a business card with his name, the company name and yet another address in Luxembourg City.
It was then Preston first noticed the man wore rather large a fanny pack. He had slipped it around to one side where he could reach it easily. He pulled out another object in a dark plastic wrapper. “This is a lawyer’s type of cellphone that we use. Some numbers are pre-programmed. In the bag are two extra SIM cards. I’m sure you are be able to figure out when to use them. When it’s off, it’s really off. The encryption is very powerful. No one can track you without special permission. You’ll use it to call us more than us calling you.”
He reached into the bag again and produced yet another darkly wrapped bundle somewhat larger. “This should take care of your camera problems. It’s got a fat hard drive and can hold two extra memory cards. The battery is pretty long life and you’ll have more extensive controls, better lens and better zoom. The lights can be turned off and the screen muted to the point only someone right next to you can see it, yet it can obtain fairly sharp images in the very lowest light conditions. I’m sure you can figure it out.”
He glanced around a bit, and then touched his finger to his lips. “The man you sprayed was partly involved in this awful trade in human flesh. The dead body on the barge was going to blow the whistle. You already know they play for keeps. Had the whistle blower called us first, she might still be alive to talk. Your assailant’s death puts some of their business on hold. Meanwhile, the children are still being brought into the area and sold off to pimps. The bus you saw was a load of them. They clone the names of real travel agencies, but with a slightly different spelling. Thanks to your sharp eye, we know where to look for the latest distribution point.”
Gary paused a moment. “We work though all sorts of various agencies; that’s not your concern. Just get us the info and things will happen. Try to avoid contact with anyone but our people. Fighting for your life is fine, but we have no heroes.”
Preston nodded, “Amen to that.”
Gary chuckled. “One more thing. I need to you spend a day or two hanging out with the climbers in Berdorf. Among them is an American who pretends to be Belgian. He is a new recruit for the bad guys and we need a picture if you can identify him.”
Gary glanced at his watch. Then he grabbed them each by the hand, shaking in the same manner as Mr. Venkman. “Thank you so much. Your hosts back in Valkenburg will cashier your pay.” He abruptly turned and nearly ran back to his bike. In seconds he had his riding gear back on and was walking his bike up to the pavement.
Preston looked at the two packages. “Wow. This is more work than I ever thought I could do.”
The border crossing had become wide open since the Eurozone countries had unified their customs structure, so they were largely ignored as they turned south along a much wider highway. They had crossed the Venn Bahn once already, but it looped around and was in front of them again. Upon crossing the physical boundary, there was a subtle but distinct change as things were much better maintained. It wasn’t much farther to one of the larger bike shops in town. Preston and Angie stood looking in the windows because they had actually arrive a little before the place was opened.
Angie confessed she had only ever ridden the standard Dutch commuter bikes with one speed, and would have to learn how to handle these multi-speed machines. They had time to discuss the merits of one kind of bike over another, but by the time the doors were unlocked, Preston had convinced her the hybrids were probably the best, most versatile choice for as-yet unknown uses. Preston figured the mountain bike he had picked out in Margraten was waiting back at the orchard and there was no sense duplicating it here. And while they still had generous funds left, he suggested they stick with the middle price range. They eventually found a matched pair in their respective sizes. They also picked out matching helmets, gloves and other accessories useful for touring. He saw no reason to shift their luggage onto the bikes, having spent so many years riding with a backpack. He hoped Angie could also get used to it.
The clerk didn’t hesitate to speak English. Once they were ready to pay, he first asked for their names for the warranty forms. “Forttensie,” Preston said.
“Oh, yes,” said a young woman working at a desk near the counter. She turned to her computer and did some mousing and keyboarding. She asked Preston to spell the name and she repeated each letter under her breath with the German pronunciation. She turned and said something in German to her colleague as the printer on a counter between them whirred to life and spat out a few sheets. The man gathered them and brought them back to the counter.
“Yes, Mr. Forttensie, your employer sent a purchase order to cover all this. We’ll just transfer the information from that. All you have to do is sign here and you can ride off into the morning sun.”
Preston took his copy of the order, then showed it to Angie. The address was in Luxembourg City.
Rolling their bikes outside, Preston set the packs down at the corner of the building. He parked his bike in front of them while he talked Angie through the logic of derailleur gears. It wasn’t really twenty-four speeds, but worked out to more like thirteen with some overlap. She was more worried about riding with her body down between such large diameter wheels, but found it quite comfortable. As she circled the parking lot playing with the shifters, Preston made a couple of laps ensuring the seat and handlebar height were okay for him.
After a few minutes, she stopped and said, “So where are we going on these things?”
Preston stopped and picked up their backpacks, handing Angie hers and shrugging into his own. “You saw the address on the order.”
“I thought you would say that. There are a lot of mountains between here and Luxembourg City.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You remember I mentioned the Venn Bahn? That will carry us most of the way there in comfort. When I first explored this area twenty years ago the Bahn was a very rough gravel path and covered with weeds and other greenery. The map says it’s now mostly paved, just like the part we saw in Raeren, and crossed twice hiking down here.”
He pointed her in the direction to the nearest crossing point. She started turning around to head that way. “How long do you think it will take?”
“I’m willing to bet we can do it in two days. I could make it in a day, but it would be a long, hard day. I haven’t seen you ride, and there’s no reason to push that hard in the first place. I would hate to interfere with our honeymooning.”
She giggled at that.
“Take the lead,” he said. “I need to get used to your pace until you feel confident with the gears. Just remember: The objective is to find a comfortable cadence and shift the gears to keep it.”
In less than a kilometer, they were thick in the woods.
How could anyone imagine I don’t promote fitness and well-being? On the other hand, I more often promote not taking this life too seriously.
I take what God gives and try to make the most of it. Not because there is any particular value in those things, but I know beyond all doubt I am accountable to Him for what the opportunity costs of His glory. If you get all wrapped up in seeking, and spending large amounts of money on, the maximum health opportunities, you may be missing the point.
So, yes, I do hope you’ll pay attention to good health advice. Eat right and exercise. However, there are some things more important than “live long and prosper.” If you aren’t seeking God’s face as to the balancing point, you aren’t paying attention to what really matters.
Happy birthday to me!
To celebrate my birthday, I’ve decided to offer a quick comparison. Back in March, I decided to show off just a bit as a test of our new camera. Since that time, as part of my divine calling, I sensed God demanding I get serious about fitness. Aside from simply obeying God’s Laws, I still profess I have no idea why, only that I have the burning conviction it is critical for some future purpose. So I’ve been working on it. Given the camera angle and so forth, the results aren’t stunning, but perhaps you can detect the small changes.
I went from 230 pounds (104kg) on the left down to 215 pounds (98kg) on the right. It’s not a lot, but it certainly feels different at times (that’s 15 stone and 5 for Mark the Trigeek). As of the date of this post, I’m 56 years old, and my typical blood pressure is 116/69, resting pulse usually around 60 bpm.
Perhaps more important are the changes you cannot see. The changes in my diet have been pretty substantial. While I have added back a few carbohydrates, I’m still avoiding all wheat and any GMO grains. I no longer take any acid reducer medications for my stomach. Even my perspiration smells different. The stiffness and tiredness which plagued me for years is gone. I still have arthritic damage to my joints which keeps me from doing any more muscle building, and I’ll never be able to run again, but I can easily keep what I have and make it work better. I sleep better and more consistently, and my mind has a consistent clarity I could not entirely depend on previously.
Yeah, it’s worth doing. Without apology I declare this is due in part to my commitment to obey God’s Laws; this kind of health improvement is a promise of the Laws of God.