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.
Of course, it meant a lot of swing-shift work, as Preston called it.
For the next week, at least ten kilometers in all directions, they rode every road, lane and trail they could find. They took pictures of everything conceivably interesting, uploading them every day to the dropbox. Every unusual sight and oddball character they saw was added to the collection. They had memorized the topography in detail. They even went so far as poking around the fence line of Javelin Barracks. While there were some good telephoto shots, nothing offered a clue they could use.
After dark, they were hardly the only people about, even in the countryside. Each night they observed one or two runs by the MP vans. They counted three different plate numbers. So far, they always ran the same pattern: Running the autobahn to the Roermond-Oost exit, and then turning around under the autobahn just a short ways north. They always dropped into the Burger King on the same property as the Albert Heijn, then back out and back to Germany.
Early in that week, though, Preston struck an acquaintance with a K-Mar sergeant he saw coming out of the firing range area. He waved the van to stop. The driver at first seemed only to be humoring him until Preston spoke in his clearly American English. His first comment was to ask if who was responsible for digging the spent bullets out of the sand backstop on the range. The sergeant was riding shotgun and laughed heartily. After Preston explained his previous use of the range, the sergeant seemed quite interested in a conversation. Preston explained he and his wife were professional photographers on a working vacation. They chatted about the old days when Preston was still in uniform.
Eventually the K-Mar had to go, but Preston got his business card with a cellphone number. Later that evening, he tested things by sending a brief text message. He asked if the sergeant would have time for a dinner invitation, and could he suggest a good restaurant for it. The sergeant demurred, but thanked him. Thus began a conversation mostly by text messages about various military news items.
At one point they crossed paths again on one of the main routes when the van pulled past them, and then stopped as they rode up alongside. During the conversation Preston mentioned seeing American MP vans in the area and the sergeant acted as if it was routine burger chasing, a taste of home.
Preston and Angie had begun to despair of seeing anything different. Perching somewhere different every night, they watched with decreasing enthusiasm. On their eighth night, the van turned off the N280 heading south on the A73 ring road. They lost it of course, but decided to keep heading along the parallel road. It was just a hunch, but they rode up onto the highest overpass overlooking the area where Preston and his associates used to turn into the woods to get to the firing range.
Just at that moment, another MP van passed under and ran down the newest highway laid through the area. His eyes followed the lights far down in the quiet night, while Angie trained the camera on it. She strained to track the vehicle, but the tall trees standing alongside the road hid them after a few moments. They rode as quickly as possible along the same route and somewhat beyond where they had last seen the tail lights. They were now on the north edge of Herkenbosch following the N570. To their surprise, yet another MP van roared past them, turning off on a country lane. The taillights remained visible against the tree line across the fields for quite some distance.
Again they strove to chase it as far as they could. Some distance down this small lane running east, they eventually spotted headlights coming at them. Sure enough, it was one of the vans running in the opposite direction. They knew they had to be very close to the turn-around point where the vans had gone. From previous exploration they knew this wooded area stood just north of a sprawling camping park filled with little trailer houses. These were all pretty much identical, owned by the park management and rented to visitors. In the woods were some carved trees of various mythical figures from Dutch and German fairy tales.
Just ahead, another vehicle came out of the woods on the left. They ducked down a side path and waited, carefully noting where the van had emerged from the woods. Once it was past, they rode hastily to the spot and just past it. Dragging their bikes into the woods, they laid them in the underbrush and began creeping through the gloom toward a lighted area. It was fenced and screened by thick hedges. They were just tall enough to prevent Preston seeing anything but the roof and eaves of a long, low building. There was the noise of some activity and quiet voices.
Preston quietly grabbed Angie, stood her back to him and lifted her on his shoulders. She understood immediately and sat upright just enough and took a short video of what she saw. She tapped him on top of the head and they fled as if their lives depended on it. They continued up the same road to avoid being seen by the last MP van leaving. Just a few hundred meters took them to a bike route running the border back to the highway they had been watching all this time.
It was no surprise they spotted one of the vans heading back into Germany as they rode alongside the autobahn to their small overpass.
On the ride back to their campsite, Angie and Preston discussed this idea.
Angie insisted, “Corrupt officials are one thing. Local politicians are seldom clean any more than they might be anywhere else in the world. But the Dutch police seldom get too wrapped up in corruption. Gemeentes, maybe. K-Mar — I find it hard to imagine.”
Preston came back quickly. “Boy, you sure couldn’t say that about American federal law enforcement. They’re some of the biggest criminal operations in the whole country.”
He paused a bit. “It doesn’t seem the Gemeente police would be running back and forth across the border in their official vehicles that much. So that leaves the German Polizei. That’s pretty complicated. We know for certain they have been used a lot in espionage, or at least someone masquerading as them. I know the CIA has lots of friends in the Polizei. We’ve already discovered the espionage angle to this child trafficking; that’s how we got involved in the first place. But I can’t imagine the Polizei would be running across the border too freely, either. So about the only way I can see it is with them doing transfers along the many small routes in the woods.” He shook his head slowly. “Somehow, that seems entirely too risky and complicated.”
“But it seems for now that’s the most plausible,” Angie countered.
Over dinner outside their tent that evening, they scanned the maps of the border area, both paper and online maps. It became obvious that for quite some distance in both directions, the German side of the border was heavily forested. The Dutch side considerably less so, but there was that one area where Preston and his fellow troops used the firing range owned by the Dutch federal police. The next nearest border woodland on the Dutch side was a bit north of where they were camped, just on the south side of Swalmen.
They decided to divide the border region between north and south of the A52, which was the N280 on the Dutch side of the border. This was the major highway route east and west connecting Roermond with Düsseldorf.
The next day saw them angling from their quiet country hiding place down along the back roads to where the highway crossed the border. There was a farm lane connected to a small pedestrian bridge crossing over the autobahn. They turned left off the lightweight bridge onto a narrow bike path. From there they had less than a half-kilometer to the border marked by an almost unbroken treeline on the German side. It was a very pleasant ride and they were hardly the only cyclists on the trails.
On the one hand, the border was shot through with crossings, most of them south of the Javelin Barracks area. On the other hand, Preston could imagine determined traffickers could get a small van down there, but trucks or buses would be nigh impossible. By mid-morning, they decided to head back through the Dutch villages a kilometer or so off the border. There was still the large forested area and they cut it in half by taking the fairly solid lane running past the golf course. By the time they got to Asenray they were ready for a snack. Stopping at the only cafe, they grabbed a vacant table out front and reassessed the task in front of them.
Preston wasn’t exactly tired, just feeling a little frustrated. “Somehow I get the feeling trying to watch this border area day and night would be way too much. Catching them red-handed seems almost futile. I just don’t get that positive feeling about this. It’s as if our angels aren’t in on that idea.”
Angie agreed. “I think it’s a dead end, too. It seems too inefficient.”
Heading east out of the village, they followed a zigzagging route back to where the little bridge crossed the autobahn. As they rode up over the top, Preston suddenly stopped. He watched a vehicle approach from the east, pass under and cruise off toward the northern end of Roermond. Angie followed his eyes.
It was a UK Military Police car, an Opel station wagon.
Preston looked back at Angie. While his features were nearly blank, he had a very intense look, as if his mind worked furiously. He looked again where the vehicle had gone, then back across the bridge, staring off into space. Angie waited expectantly, but all he said was, “Military Police vans.”
The ride back to the manor and their tent was silent.
They didn’t yet know where the breaking house was, and finding it wouldn’t be simple.
Asking questions would likely cause the mission to abort and utterly fail to identify the carriers. They needed to catch the traffic bringing the kids into the area. Some part of them wasn’t too eager to know right away. It would have been too painful to think about what was going on inside and too tempting to act rashly and to no good purpose. First, they needed to survey the situation in terms of traffic flow.
They had already seen the main highway running east of there across Germany all the way to Düsseldorf. It would have been less than hour’s drive in light traffic. This highway ran along the north side of the old RAF Bruggen, now Javelin Barracks, where the old Dutch guard had told Preston was some portion of the MPs and civilian administrators that had been at Schinnen. From dim memories, Preston recalled there were small NATO installations all over that part of Germany, over a dozen within a short distance either side of that corridor.
Military traffic must be still exceedingly common in that area. He would be surprised if a significant portion of the personnel at Javelin didn’t live right here on this side of the border.
They got their gear set up and made themselves comfortable. The initial ride out from Heerlen was only about thirty kilometers on rather flat terrain, though with a significant load. Preston always carried the lion’s share, but Angie insisted on doing her part. Once the bikes were unloaded, they removed all but the main rear racks. They would need to go shopping at a minimum, and put light saddle bags on each bike. It was time to get a first feel for this ancient city.
But the ancient city had seen a lot of new construction. Preston noticed the standard online mapping services weren’t always up to date. As they headed west from the manor, they discovered the new north-south highway had cut off several ancient paths running east and west. They agreed this was different from what they had seen in most of Europe, where new construction accommodated existing routes, even old walking and hiking paths. Here, they were simply cut in two.
On the other hand, once they went around north to a major route that did cross the new highway, they found a brand new and very large shopping center. Even with the longer routing, this was much closer than running all the way into the ancient city center where the other stores were.
Still, they had wanted to do a bit of investigative sightseeing, especially some of the barge havens. They started on the northern edge of what they took to be Roermond’s sphere of influence, taking pictures rather frequently.
Some of the havens were clearly industrial and they found a few places where houseboats moored. Yet it seemed the majority were crowded with private pleasure boats; easily half were various kinds of sailing craft. After taking the highway partway across the Maas simply to see it all from elevated position, they turned and headed back down into the old part of city just south of there. Along a very old canal, they stopped for lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes.
The pedestrian traffic was quite heavy, plus dozens of bicycles, a great many parked alongside buildings. Almost all of the bikes were the standard commuter models; their mountain bikes stood out. They decided to chain them to a heavy steel barrier protecting one of the few trees that stood in one of the rare parking areas, taking a small table nearby.
After finishing their meals, they decided to vacate their table for some other customers and picked their way across the busy street to the railing along the old canal. Seeing a stairway leading down close to the water, they descended to the ancient stone dock seldom used these days. At the bottom of the steps they passed a man sitting on the last step, smoking a pipe. Were it not for the fine aromatic smell, they might not have paid him any attention. He was very dark-skinned with Asian features; Preston guessed he was Sri Lanken.
They stepped away to the middle of the dock and were chatting about what they could see. It was readily apparent there wouldn’t have been too many options for moving a bunch of kids through any of the normal havens and they wondered how it would been done. They began lining up camera angles.
This was the time of year one might overhear any number of different languages spoken among tourists on the streets. Apparently the pipe-smoker overheard their conversation and understood it. He approached, and Preston noticed the pipe aroma barely hid a strong body odor. This was not uncommon in Europe in the first place, and frankly more so among those from Asian countries. Preston thought the man might actually be living on the streets, because he wore more clothing than even most Asians might for a northern climate, since it was nearly the heat of summer. So while a part of him dreaded the possibility of enduring panhandling, the man addressed their conversation itself.
“You know, up the Roer from the Maas are several places where a skiff could easily be pulled up to a paved boat ramp, right next to major streets. If the freight can be moved easily enough, it would be nothing to smuggle just about anything into these parts, especially under the cover of darkness.” His accent was surprisingly faint, but carried a hint of the Central Asian sound Preston expected.
Angie was too surprised to speak, simply pulling her red locks away from her face where the wind had blown them. Preston decided to humor the man. “You make it sound like you’ve seen it done a few times,” he suggested with a grin.
“Done it,” the man said proudly. “But not recently, and I never trafficked in humans. The damned Euro ruined the smuggling business for me.”
Preston countered, “I’m a little surprised you would be so open about it.”
The man grinned. “Police here don’t use American informants, especially real professional photographers like yourselves. You might be private investigators or reporters, but not police.” It was obvious the man was quite observant and had seen a lot.
Preston decided to play along. “Okay, so we were curious about reports of human trafficking in the area. Want to say anything about it?”
“They ain’t coming off the river these days. Business has been pretty slow these days because Nijmegen has been pretty busy checking everything, not just for children. When cops start looking for something, they’ll be glad to arrest you for just about anything else they can find on general principle of not coming away empty-handed.” The old man’s pipe burned out and he began cleaning it with some small tool he took from a pocket. “That’s about the last of good cheap tobacco I was getting.”
Preston had seen the prices of the highly taxed tobacco in the Netherlands. Most of it was better quality than Americans usually got, but it wasn’t subsidized like coffee. Dutch coffee was the best in the world, and had always been less expensive than the American stuff. Starbucks offered expensive mud compared to what Preston had sampled here in almost every ordinary cafe or snack bar.
Preston had a sudden idea. “In your experience, what would be the best way to transport something so the police would ignore it?”
“Get some other cops to move it for you. They don’t mess with each other.” The old man grinned, then turned slowly and walked away.