Terry stood on a cairn of rocks scanning the opposite hill with Ed’s binoculars. ‘Mmm, bit Tolkeinesque, innit?’
‘Pardon?’ queried Henry.
Justin grinned. ‘What ‘ee means is, it looks like one of them places in Lord of the Rings, sorta ruined and desolate fortress on top of pine-clad hills. Broken arches and shattered walls sorta thing.’
Henry rolled his eyes. ‘Literary pair of action men, aren’t you?’
‘Passes the time on a stakeout. James Bond is a Dressner fan, or so I’d bet. Me, I like contemporary American fiction. You read much Roth?’
Henry grinned. ‘Too nihilistic for me. What do you think, Phil?’
‘I think you crazy men have forgotten why we’re here.’ He buttoned his coat tight against the freezing mountain blast blowing straight from the Carpathians.
Terry went back to scanning the landscape. After a while he called Ed up to carry out a murmured exchange about strategy. Ed had his cap jammed down on his head and the fur collar of his windproof uniform coat turned up. A machine pistol was hanging from his shoulder by a strap.
Ben, hugging his arms round his body against the cold, gasped to Phil, ‘So that’s Kaleczyk, or what’s left of it. The Soviets did a thorough demolition job. I take it that obelisk is the memorial.’ A white pillar on a broad terrace rose out of the remains of the fortress. A green copper hammer-and-sickle adorned the middle of each face.
They were about a mile from the fortress on a wooded hill to the south of the Kaleczyske Horja. To their east, a great saw-tooth massif soared up to block the horizon. Thick snow was already cresting the peaks, beyond which lay the Slovak Republic.
Terry jumped down from the cairn. ‘Awright, me frostbitten babes, let’s make our way down the hill. There’ll be more shelter in the woods below. Ed and I don’t think there’s much chance of getting into the tunnels from the fortress. We’ve estimated on the modern survey roughly where the lower access points ought to be.’
‘Come on Terry,’ Phil objected, ‘they’re bound to be guarded if we’re right about this place.’
Terry acknowledged the point with a curt nod. ‘But Ed thinks there are at least four shafts giving entrance. One might be unguarded or unblocked. The bad guys don’t have our sources of information. Yer gotta hope, inya?’
They toiled down the hillside through the trees. Slippery slopes of shale gave way to an aromatic floor of pine needles and crumbly light soil. They were out of the merciless wind at least, letting Phil begin to warm up with the exertion. He was carrying a backpack filled with electric torches and other items such as provisions and ropes.
Twenty minutes’ descent brought them to a mountain stream tumbling and foaming along its rocky bed at the foot of the Kaleczyske Horja. They had made their climb down in silence.
Ed pointed to the woods on the other side. ‘This torrent is on the surveys. I think the closest shaft is downstream there, about a quarter of a mile along it to the left. If we cross over and take it cautiously, we should be at it in less than ten minutes. Terry and I will scout ahead. Follow us and don’t talk.’
Happy to defer to Ed’s military expertise, they scrambled through the trees. There was not much undergrowth, just the tall dark pillars of conifers stretching up the hillside in the gloom under the canopy. Ed and Terry melted into it.
Where the stream turned a bend to the left, Terry was waiting to halt them. He hissed, ‘Ed’s gone ahead. There’s an entrance alright, but iss covered now by a complex of sheds, like a light industrial plant. There’re people inside, a couple of white vans and two four-wheel drives parked up, so keep it quiet.’
Ed returned silently and almost unobserved by them. He could move in a remarkably stealthy way for such a large man. He motioned to them to return upstream. When they had gone a safe distance he stopped them and announced, ‘The sheds are guarded, and there are security cameras everywhere. But I think it’s an entry to the tunnels alright. Although it doesn’t seem too busy at the moment, with just a couple of Josseran’s men lounging around, it would still be reckless to try that way in.’
‘So what’s next Ed?’ asked Justin.
‘We climb up the Horja, the mountain.’ Ed indicated his plan. ‘If we can find this feature here, an abandoned limekiln, then another shaft is not far off. It should be just below that shoulder of the mountain you can see through the trees. I wouldn’t imagine it will be guarded. The big question is whether the entry’s still actually open and accessible.’
They toiled up the slope, now sweating freely despite the chilly day. At the base of a crag, Ed told them to spread out and look for the old kiln.
‘Wassa kiln look like?’ complained Justin.
Ed shrugged. ‘Sort of circular with a chimney would be my guess, but it’ll be ruined and overgrown nowadays, you can bet. Be back here in half an hour.’
Ben and Phil went off together around the shoulder of the mountain. Ben paused after a few minutes. ‘We have to be logical about this.’
‘Absolutely, baby. What do you propose?’
‘I’ve just edited a book on eighteenth-century agriculture, and it’s fresh in my mind. A limekiln was used for burning stone to produce lime. It was fired by charcoal, so wherever the remains of Ed’s kiln are, it must have one thing to reveal its presence.’
‘An access road for wagons to drag the raw materials up and down the hill. Don’t you see?’
Phil grinned. ‘So we find the rutted track and follow it to the kiln. Baby, you’re brilliant!’ They kissed. ‘Mmm. Don’t suck on my lips too long, Benny. We’ll freeze together.’
Ben laughed. ‘I can’t think of an accident I’d rather have.’
Five minutes later the pair came to a trench in the ground, with the telltale double furrows cut along it by the passing of carts with iron-bound wheels.
They worked their way higher through some dense bushes and eventually broke out into a shallow quarry, overshadowed by clumps of Scotch pines. There in the bottom of the dip was a ring of walls and half the broken stump of a chimney.
Phil grinned. ‘So we’ve found it. You go back and bring the guys up here. I’ll scout around and see if I can locate any sign of a shaft. OK?’
Ben agreed. ‘You’ll be safe enough. There’s no trace that anyone at all’s been here. Just don’t fall down any rabbit holes into Wonderland.’
Phil stood for a moment in the quarry before beginning to poke about the ruins. The inner walls of the kiln were still reddened and chalky with the heat it had once produced. The creeping cold brought on by his inactivity stimulated him to investigate further. He laboured up the precarious slope to the top lip of the quarry, whence he looked around and located himself.
He reckoned he was facing southeast. Through a gap in the trees he could see the hill from which they had earlier surveyed the Horja. He could also see the serried peaks of the massif forming the Rothenian border. All was quiet except for the creak and rustle of branches in the wind and the distant scream of a bird of prey.
He walked further along the shoulder of the mountain to the crag which Ed had been using as a landmark. It was a lot closer now. Phil noticed a group of carrion birds perched on the crag or circling above it. He was near enough to be enticed into checking out what it was that interested them.
When he approached the huddled bundle his hackles rose. What he had thought might be a dead sheep, wasn’t; it was much worse. His heart chilled at the sight of a girl’s dead body. She might have been thirteen or fourteen, though small and undernourished. What remained of her face was paper white. She had been dead for maybe a day, and the crows had found her.
Possessed by a sudden sense of hot anger and despair, Phil picked up stones and lobbed them at the birds. Each missile struck the crag with a crack and rattle. The birds rose into the air, cawing with avian disgust at his unreasonable attitude. He turned and threw up behind a rock. He was wiping his mouth when he heard the calling of his friends. ‘Over here!’ he replied thickly, his throat puckered by the acid of his vomit.
Terry and Ed were first on the scene, Ben fast behind them. He looked at Phil rather than the body. Then he took Phil in his arms and pulled his head into his shoulder. Strangely, Phil did not feel as though Ben had judged him to be weak, only in need of comfort.
When they separated, it was to find Justin and Henry had also joined the group. Justin was pale, licking his lips and looking nauseated. Henry, on the contrary, was as composed and controlled as Ed, the professional soldier. He was frowning as he debated a course of action with Terry, who seemed equally controlled, as if there were no corpse at his feet.
‘We have to investigate how this little mite came to be dead on the hillside. We must also alert the border police and army. Whatever’s going on here, this body is all the evidence we need to call in the authorities. Isn’t that right, Ed?’
‘Yes, little babe, quite right. But has anyone checked his mobile to see if there’s reception up here?’
Four mobiles were flipped before their owners looked at each other and shook their heads blankly.
Ed sighed. ‘I thought so. I doubt there’ll be any signal this side of Wendel. So this is what I suggest. Terry, you’re armed, you stay here with Ben and Phil. Justy and I will take Henry and all the mobiles back to the SUV and drive towards Glottenberg till we pick up a signal. I know the numbers to ring, and Henry knows the people to talk to. Justy can ride shotgun.’
Terry nodded. ‘That’s a good plan. While you’re gone, we can keep watch on this little waif, and also try to work out where she came from. Phil’s got the pack with the drinks, food and torches. It may take a few hours for you to get any response, but we should be alright. Don’t waste time. Take them away, Major Cornish.’
Ed nodded, and led the other two down into the quarry with no further words other than good-luck wishes. They waved briefly before disappearing.
‘So babes. You have a groundsheet in your pack, Phil. Let’s use it to cover up this poor child.’ Phil handed the green plastic sheet to Terry, who laid it tenderly over the dead girl, weighting the corners with large stones.
By now Phil had recovered his composure enough to begin inspecting the crag above them. ‘Terry, this girl came from somewhere close by. She was barefoot. Her feet weren’t noticeably damaged, which means she couldn’t have walked far.’
Terry got up and dusted his hands. ‘What are you suggesting, sweet babe?’
‘I’m suggesting the shaft is still open and she came from underground. Let’s look around.’
Terry agreed. They began by checking the foot of the crag but found nothing. Casting further afield, Phil eventually noticed a torn piece of cloth in a dark thicket. He called them over. ‘This might have come off her coat when she pushed through these prickly bushes.’
‘Then let’s pull them aside. Phil, you’ve got gloves on. Force the bushes back and trample them down.’
Phil complied and, with a little help and quite a few scratches, exposed a dark opening in the shallow dip in the ground. Although it was rather larger than a rabbit hole, it looked like a very tight fit for an adult male.
He stared at Terry. His vision suddenly swam, and someone else’s voice seemed to speak through his mouth. ‘I’m going in there. I’m the smallest of us. I think I can do it.’
‘No, Phil, please don’t.’ Ben was distressed.
‘Not sure it’s a good idea, sweet babe.’ Terry was sizing Phil up with pursed lips.
‘I’m going. We need to know what’s happening down there. Josseran’s men can’t have discovered this exit. Otherwise they’d have pursued the girl.’
‘You think she’s an escapee?’
‘Makes sense,’ Terry agreed. ‘Go then, sweet babe. But don’t do anything stupid. Look around, keep under cover and get out quickly … oh, and the other thing too.’
‘Help is on its way. You doan need to be a hero.’
With Ben’s kiss still warm on his lips, Phil squirmed into the narrow tunnel opening. He had a charged torch lit up in front of him. Only the first foot of the opening was lined with soil. He was soon bruising his knees on stone.
With some surprise he suddenly fell forward on to a cold, flat floor. The torch revealed he was in a square room, with space to stand up. He had wormed into it through the partially blocked embrasure of an old artillery position which still contained the remains of a gun slide. Looking back, he could see daylight framing Ben’s face staring inwards. ‘I’m in and I’m fine!’ he called out. Then he wished he hadn’t when his voice echoed back into the room behind him. He resolved to keep his mouth shut.
It was warmer under the hill, although the air was slightly fetid. Phil went through a black space into a corridor running parallel to the hillside. Several doors revealed further casemates, all blocked to the outside. At last he discovered one opening which led to the hill’s interior. He took it and found himself on a spiral stair going downwards. He counted four hundred steps before he reached bottom. He paused to catch his breath and steady his slightly dizzy head.
There was some noise to be heard through the opening at the bottom. Beyond it was a long corridor full of the plink of water dropping onto a pooled and muddy floor. He splashed through it, noticing in the torchlight as he went the mark of small bare feet in the mud, going in the direction he was coming from. The girl had come this way.
The corridor led into a further room. When he flicked off his torch, he could see a dim light from up ahead. Cautiously, he moved towards its source: a door blocked by old timbers and rubble, with light filtering in from the other side. Somehow the girl must have made her way through the blockage.
Phil got down on his knees. The light was coming through a narrow aperture, barely wide enough for a slim and underfed girl to squirm through, but a challenge to a grown man. He sat and listened for quite a while. Hearing no voices or other sounds from beyond, he decided to work on the gap. With a huge effort, he levered out a rock from the bottom, then a few other loose ones.
He stripped off his upper clothes and, his bare chest scraping the sides, pushed through the hole he had made. He rolled as he dropped on the ground beyond. He still had his torch, but the rest of his gear was on the other side.
Now he was in yet another room, this one stacked with unlidded boxes containing plastic DVD cases. Opposite him was a half-open wooden door. He cautiously peered round its edge.
Terry and Ben sat beside the tunnel into which Phil had just disappeared. ‘There’s something odd about this,’ Terry ruminated.
Ben raised an eyebrow. ‘What part of it?’
‘If the girl actually did escape from their clutches, why aren’t they looking for her? She must have been gone now for over twenty-four hours. They should be worried that she might get away and alert outsiders.’
Ben shrugged. ‘Maybe they’ve not noticed. Maybe they’re still searching inside the hill and haven’t realised she made it this far.’
‘Iss possible, sweetness. But if they’re anywhere near as paranoid as gangsters usually are, they’ll have assumed the worst. The woods ought to be alive with the bastards.’
‘Then maybe they really haven’t noticed.’
‘After twenty-four hours? Oh yes, they’ll have noticed.’
‘What’re you suggesting, then?’
‘That they really are looking for her, just not here. It would explain the inactivity around the entrance complex.’
‘Then you think Henry and the others may be walking into danger if the search comes round the mountain? Oh my God!’
‘We can’t know that. ‘Sides, Ed’s quite capable of taking care of himself, and so is Justy.’
‘They may come up here.’
‘I wonder if they will. If they don’t know about these upper exits, they’ll assume she somehow got out near the road and headed to the nearest houses. That’s where they’ll have begun their search, before doubling back to the hill when they didn’t find her.’
‘What do you suggest?’
‘Let’s wait a while. Then, if we haven’t heard from the others in maybe three hours, we had better assume the worst, and plan accordingly.’
‘Have we got any cards left, Terry?’
The man smiled. ‘As it happens we do, sweet babe.’
Beyond the door of the storeroom lay an electrically lit corridor. Phil guessed he had found his way down to the complex beneath the entrance to the hill. There was the distant hum of a generator and the sound of voices, not close, but still audible.
He wondered if he ought to head back. But having come this far, he wanted to see what was going on here. He moved softly into the corridor and then along to the far end, where he was stopped by a door with a glass pane. Through it he could see an empty area set up for camera and audio equipment, with lights on stands, several dishevelled beds, and sex aids scattered around them. In the corner were a number of sinister-looking frames fashioned in black metal.
He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised, but seeing the evidence that captive immigrants were being forced into pornographic sex caused him to break out in a cold sweat. That girl had been so young. This must have been what she was fleeing. How many more were there? Boys and girls all being groomed for sex slavery, and what else?
It seemed the operation was almost on an industrial scale, with that monster Dressner at the heart of it.
Phil decided not to go any further into the complex. Instead, he tried a few more doors on the corridor. One or two were locked. The rest opened into storerooms similar to the one with the DVD cases.
As he closed the last door stealthily, Phil heard voices nearer at hand. He raced back to the room by which he had entered the complex, ready to make his escape, then paused. The voices were coming from the studio. There was the clatter as a frame was moved, and an unmistakably English voice gave a muffled shout, ‘Get the fuck off me!’
Despite the danger, Phil returned quietly to the glass panel. On an X-frame placed in the middle of the room a young man had been stretched out. He was barefoot and his upper clothing was ripped. Three shaven-headed men were fixing his ankles to the shackles. Although his back was towards Phil, his head was twisting. It was Elijah.
The men laughed, swatted Elijah’s backside and left by a doorway on the far side of the chamber.
There was no time to think. Phil pushed open the door and ran to the boy’s side. ‘Elijah, it’s me, Phil. Don’t ask questions. I’ll try and get you out.’ He fumbled at the ankle shackles, which were secured with pins not locks. The same was true of the wrists. Phil suddenly found himself with an armful of sagging Elijah.
‘Come on. I have a way out. Let’s go.’ He pushed the boy ahead of him back to the storeroom.
‘It’s through that hole. You can do it. Take this torch with you.’
Elijah was staring at Phil bewildered. ‘Phil? How are you here?’
‘Lije, there’s no time. Really. This mountain and Willemin’s enterprise here are about to be busted wide open.’
‘I know that.’
‘I know what your friends are doing. But I’m here for another reason.’ Elijah had calmed down and was in full possession of himself again.
‘What on earth are you on about? What about the other boy?’
‘The one I saw you with last night in Wendel.’
‘There is only me.’
‘Then why are you here?’
‘I have a mission.’
Phil shook his head. There was no time for this religious claptrap. ‘What mission,’ he asked, though he dreaded the answer.
‘To call a sinner to repentance.’
Phil sighed. ‘Rather as I thought.’
‘Look, Phil. It’s you who has to get away. I’m not in danger, believe me. It’s you who shouldn’t be here.’
‘Lije, squeeze through that hole, it’s the way out of this place. While we’re standing here arguing in circles we could be …’
Light suddenly spilled into the room as the door opened. Clive Dressner, accompanied by his thugs, stood there smiling broadly.
‘Dr Maddox. As I live and breathe.’