POLYMER


Guy Blythman


 © Guy Blythman 2017

Also by Guy Blythman in the same series of novels:
Eye Of The Sun God
The Argus Memorandum (earlier version available free on internet)
The Ishtar Stratagem
Piper One
Weekend At Trevenna (available free on internet)
The Greatorex Imperative (Part One)
The Greatorex Imperative (Part Two)
The Ragnarok Dossier (Part One)
The Ragnarok Dossier (Part Two)

Front cover image used under licence from Shutterstock.com
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

To Ian Passingham, as usual, for advice on matters to do with helicopters; also Geoff Lane for help regarding police procedure.


AUTHOR’S NOTE

I would ask the reader to bear in mind that this novel, like much of what I write, is partly counter-factual in terms of the political situation it describes and the motivation of the British characters, due to a certain event which took place while it was in the queue awaiting publication. I have often gone on, with justification, about the difficulties facing independent authors. One of the cruellest is that without the resources of a conventional publisher or agent behind you it may take a while for a book to see the light of day and by the time it does developments in the real world may have rendered aspects of it less topical. This very factor, besides the general inconvenience, meant I was reluctant to hold things up further by a major rewrite. Again, the other themes of the story remain highly relevant and I expect will become even more so in the years ahead. 
 For nothing more than plot convenience I have taken a few liberties with the geology of Dartmoor; as far as I know there are no caves there of the kind I describe. Concerning the sections on ski-ing and mountain climbing, if I understand the text books correctly the information presented is accurate but as with the passages in a previous novel, The Greatorex Imperative, on diving it’s always best to check; obviously I don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting killed! 

Shepperton, Middlesex, December 2016


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Blythman was educated at Millfield School, Somerset, and Southampton University and is currently based in the southwest London/northwest Surrey area. His interests include philosophy, theology, current affairs, classical music and, of course, writing. He goes on long country walks in order to be alone, but isn’t averse to meeting people for a drink and a chat from time to time.  He has at various times been a political activist, a civil servant, president of his school and college debating societies and secretary of diverse committees. 
   He is a member of Walton-on-Thames Wordsmiths, a local workshop group which aims to provide help and support to aspiring authors by offering constructive criticism and advice and suggesting possible markets. He has written for the Doctor Who fanzines Mandria, Time-Space Visualiser and The Doctor’s Recorder. 
Visit his website at www.guyblythman.com.

Part One


Prologue 

Berne, Switzerland, 28th April 1945
Count Klaus von Mencken stepped from the offices of his company on Wilhelm Tell Strasse into the street and turned up the collar of his thick overcoat against the biting wind. For the tail end of winter it was cold, bitterly cold, though at the same time fresh and invigorating. The thought brought to mind what was happening out there beyond the borders of the country that as always had judiciously contrived to keep apart from the conflagrations sweeping the nations that surrounded it. It’ll be a new world, he thought. Have to be, after Hitler. And we came through its birthing pains unscathed. After all, we are Swiss. Here, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the war had never happened.
Mightn’t you? 
 Perhaps as an additional precaution against that ever-present cold he pulled his trilby further down over his head, which had the effect of partly hiding his face from view. 
 Mittened hands thrust deep into his pockets, he set off for where he had arranged to meet his contacts. Around him the city centre was busy, as city centres normally were on a weekday, though the cars were going slowly because of a recent fall of snow which had not yet quite melted. The people on the pavements moved about in a normal fashion, purposive but unhurried. As if the war had never happened. 
 He pushed open the door of the café, causing a bell to jangle, and entered the warmth of the snug little bar to find Langer and Adelmann both there as they had promised, sitting at a table at the far end of the room; not quite in the corner – perhaps that would have made it too obvious – but near enough. The air was thick with a fug that came partly from the central heating and partly from the cigarette smoke. A jaunty Glenn Miller tune was playing from the Bakelite radio on the counter. There were a few other people present beside himself and the Germans: a businessman eating a sandwich, the old man who had been coming here for his daily coffee these last sixty years, a young couple with a little girl, another business type who was buried deep in a newspaper and a young woman who sipped at her hot chocolate and stared ahead with a vague, disinterested air. The brown mahogany furnishings dated back to late in the previous century. 
 The proprietor came forward solicitously. "Count von Mencken? How may I be of assistance?" One or two heads glanced up at the mention of the newcomer’s name, as it was to be supposed you might have done.
 Mencken looked enquiringly at the Germans. Adelmann ordered a croissant, as did he, and Langer a sausage roll, with coffee in each case. Then the Count sat down opposite them. And over their snacks they conducted their business.
 "You got here without any trouble?" Mencken asked, in just above a whisper.    
 They nodded. "Of course," said Langer. "That’s the whole point of your being neutral."
"So," he said briskly, "the goods are ready for collection?"
"Yes," Mencken replied. "They are ready."
 Adelmann saw that Langer was shifting edgily, the look on his face far from happy. "What’s the matter?"  
"I still don’t think we should be talking about it in here." Quietly or otherwise.
 Adelmann gave a hollow chuckle. "You think anyone in this country would care much if they knew?" All the same he glanced at Mencken for confirmation. The Count nodded solemnly. 
 "That’s not to say," Adelmann went on, the tone of his voice changing, "that we should take chances. Not if it can be avoided." 
 "Do you think the Allies know?" Langer asked Mencken, taking a nervous sip of his coffee. 
 "So far my contacts in London and Washington haven’t said anything we need to worry about. Remember, your country has not yet quite been militarily defeated. They are principally concerned right now with doing that, although it’s only a matter of time." 
 Yes, thought Adelmann, and cast his gaze down at the table. He straightened up. "So, the goods are ready. Then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be tonight."
 "Tomorrow night would be better. I need a little more time to get the men, the equipment, into place." 
"Alright." Langer nodded his agreement.
 "I think getting it over the border should be easy," Adelmann said. "I told you we had a suitable place prepared. Now what about after that? We’ll need to act fast. Germany could collapse in the next couple of weeks. And then the Allies will turn their attention to clearing up all the mess." 
 "My friend at the Vatican will see the shipment leaves safely.  Or we could try to do it through Spain. They refused to aid you during the war…" Mencken realised he was starting to talk of the conflict as if it was already over. "But nonetheless there are plenty of people in Franco’s government, including the Generalissimo himself, who are not unsympathetic to your cause."
Langer frowned. "Our cause, surely." 
"I’m sorry?"
"You said “your” cause."
 Mencken frowned back. "You have no reason to doubt my commitment. Haven’t I always supported you, like many in this country?" 
 His obvious irritation seemed to convince them, and the awkwardness was past. "All right, Klaus," Adelmann smiled. "So, what time tomorrow night?"
"I’d suggest about seven."
"Very good. Georg?" Langer indicated assent. 
"And your employees can be trusted? All of them?"
 "Their families have served mine for hundreds of years. Oh, by the way, my son will be helping us move the consignment. There’s a lot of it, I thought we’d need all the help we could get, and he’s very strong. Don’t worry, we can rely on his silence."
"You’re certain?"
 "He’s my son. And he’s always been a great admirer of your leader. Had he not been too young he would have joined your army."
 "He will have the satisfaction of knowing he may yet be of assistance to the Fatherland. Perhaps it is with those like him that the future lies."   
 Mencken took another sip of coffee, Adelmann a deep bite of his croissant. A light drizzle was pattering against the windows. The young couple and the old man had gone; the businessman was still buried in his newspaper. The young woman continued to gaze vacantly into the ether.
 Mencken had fallen silent for a few moments. "I was just thinking; it occurs to me you don’t need the actual goods, not really. I can sell them here in Europe and then send you the money."
 "It might be simpler to stick to the plan we have already agreed upon," Adelmann said.
"I’m just concerned that something might go wrong."
 Adelmann seemed to stiffen. "What could go wrong?" Was there a hint of suspicion in his tone?
"If anyone saw the trucks arrive or leave, they might wonder…"
 "You more or less said yourself no-one in Switzerland would be much bothered. They wouldn’t ask questions. “That’s how we’ve survived,” was what you said. Besides, Klaus, the more time is allowed to pass before our business is safely concluded the more chance there is that something might, indeed, go wrong." The Nazi’s voice hardened just a little. "That’s why I want that stuff shipped out when we agreed. Without delay."
 Mencken saw that he was right. "Of course," he nodded. "Don’t you worry, it will be. And you’re certain no-one knows where the consignment is, or who is supplying it, apart from the three of us?"
 "I’m certain. We thought it was safer that way, in case anyone fell into Allied hands and talked."
 "I would keep to your arrangement with the Vatican," said Langer. "If it is already in place why not make use of it? And as we know, time is of the essence. Forget the Spanish, we − "
 He broke off as he caught the look on Adelmann’s face. His colleague was frowning, and as Langer watched the expression on the sharp features turned from puzzlement to unease, and then to…
Alarm.  
 Langer muttered something in German and turned, following Adelmann’s gaze, as did Mencken. They met the eyes of the young woman, wide and staring at Adelmann in what might be shock. Her mouth was slightly open.   
Then she went back to the paperback book she had opened.
Mencken tensed. "What’s up?" he whispered, trying to stay calm. 
 Adelmann was torn by indecision. If they left now it would only make them look more suspicious, if the girl was what he thought she was. But if they stayed here, went on talking and she overheard…
 "I think she was – no, I must have been mistaken." Adelmann’s manner changed completely. "So, everything is settled then." They went on chatting for a while, still in low voices so as not to arouse suspicion, but about general things: the war (trying of course to sound like disinterested observers),the weather, families, et al. 
 Then they left. Outside on the pavement Adelmann paused, causing the others to do the same. They had to act casual but he risked a brief glance back through the café window, to see the girl still absorbed in her book, apparently anyhow. She was too far away to hear anything they might say out here. 
 "What was all that about?" Mencken asked, struggling to keep his unease from showing. The fabric of his coat pockets twitched with the trembling of his fingers.
 "I think that woman recognised me," Adelmann muttered. "I’ve an idea she might have been Jewish. I can’t be sure on either count but…"
"And if you’re right?" Langer’s face was tight with fear.
 Adelmann looked Mencken full in the eye. "It must be tonight. Do you understand? After this…"
"There’s no need to worry. If the government here won’t do anything − "
 "I was thinking about when we leave Switzerland. What if we’re followed? She might have accomplices. The Jews are quite prepared to act by themselves should they deem it necessary."
 "There can be no backing out, if that’s what you’re thinking of doing. She saw you with us. You may as well go through with it; from your point of view, the damage has already been done."
 Mencken saw his logic. He bit his lip, sighed deeply a couple of times, then nodded. "Very well. Seven o’clock tonight. It’ll be tricky but I think I could arrange it."  
 Adelmann clapped him on the shoulder. "That’s good, Klaus. We’ll see you at the appointed hour. Auf wiedersehn." 
 He stared after them for a moment then headed for the station and home, knowing full well what he must do and determined to do it yet with his heart gripped by a chill even colder and more relentless than that in the air around him.

Schloss Mencken, Eissensberg, Switzerland
Mencken sat at his desk, his chair turned round so he could gaze through the leaded, diamond-paned windows at the Alpine scenery, as if their millions of years of existence had given those rugged mountains a wisdom that could help him find the solution he sought. But they were stolidly silent. 
 The room was large, and lined with books of which some were ancient tomes rarely consulted and there partly for show, others more recent and often invaluable to him in his work. The paintings of hunting scenes failed to relieve the sombre effect of the heavily varnished wood-panelled walls. He found it depressing at times, and had often contemplated redecoration; but today he appreciated it better because it matched his mood. He was literally in what the English called a brown study. 
A cuckoo clock signalled the hour, startling him. Just sixty minutes to go.
 God, he wished he’d never…he felt he had become drawn into something that had got far too big for his liking. What other demands would they make on him in the future?
 Was it true that the gold had been melted down from fillings taken from the teeth of the Jews who had died in the camps? 
 He had heard all the rumours, even seen the photographs someone had smuggled in of the skeletal corpses, the charred bodies in the mouths of ovens, the gaunt emaciated prisoners staring at the world through eyes that were just holes in their skull-like faces. Even without such proof it had been obvious to the peoples of occupied Europe that something had happened to the Jews. Something on a massive scale and terrible in nature.   
 He had never particularly liked the Jews. But this, surely, was going too far. Much too far.
 In time, the truth would filter down to the general public, and there would be no possibility of denial. When that happened, what would the effect be? Perhaps it was too early to say. But if it was known that he had been dealing with people who…
Surely they’d…
 And perhaps it was known. They had tried to keep the Jews out, but it was always possible some had managed to sneak into the country and were being sheltered by other Jews. And what about the ones who had already been here, for hundreds of years in fact? The woman in the café hadn’t looked Jewish, not particularly, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t. If she told the government, they as might be expected did nothing, and she went to the Allies instead…
 It meant he might have nothing to lose, as Adelmann had pointed out. But that was true both ways, wasn’t it? If he backed out now there would be less proof for someone to find of his involvement. Better still, should he confess what he had been doing to the world, betray Adelmann and Langer and their colleagues and maybe by doing so bring them to justice? Would that be even more to his advantage, or…
Or less? 
 Bruno, his eldest son, came in without knocking. This time Mencken, with much to think about, didn’t reprimand him, which failed to register with the boy because his mind was elsewhere. "Papa, you know what they did to the Jews in one of the concentration camps?"
"No," said Mencken evenly. "What did they do?"
 "They made them lick the shit out of the toilets. Great, isn’t it? Don’t you think so?" Bruno gave a long braying laugh. 
 Mencken didn’t know what to say at first. Then he thought uneasily that if he seemed to have misgivings about such an important plank in Hitler’s platform as anti-Semitism, Bruno might inform his clients of it. Like all totalitarian regimes who brainwashed their citizens, they could turn one member of a family against another. That was what happened in Stalin’s Russia, from all accounts.
 It could be fatal. If he was known to have doubts then it was possible he might betray the plan to either the Swiss or, far worse, the Allied authorities. So they’d kill him, wouldn’t they? 
 He must respond to Bruno’s words if he did not want his state of mind to show. "Yes, it was," he agreed. "Sorry, Bruno, I was just thinking."
"What about, Papa?"
"About what will happen in the world now, I suppose. After…after everything."
 "Do you think they’ll come back – the Nazis? Take over Germany again? Maybe start another war?"  
 The prospect seemed highly unlikely. "I don’t know," he shrugged. "Who can tell."
 It occurred to him he ought to keep Bruno out of it. Find some reason for the boy to be somewhere else when they moved out the consignment, in case the Jews or the police came while they were doing it and caught them in the act. He didn’t want him stigmatised as an accessory to the – crime? But Bruno would make trouble, so keen was he to help. And if he wasn’t present, when it had been said he would be, Langer and Adelmann would suspect something.  
 What have I done, he asked himself, beneath his breath. Oh dear God, what have I done? 
He could only hope no actual harm came to Bruno. Even though the boy was a…
A Nazi. 
 Perhaps at a certain age you were bound to find someone like Hitler exciting. Because Hitler had done things, reshaped the world to suit his wishes, had not shrunk from the logical implications of putting his will into practice. Mencken remembered a time when he too had admired the Nazis. Perhaps being of German extraction oneself explained, partly at any rate, why he’d felt such an affinity for them. But it had been more than that.
 He studied his son thoughtfully. Bruno had a broad, not unpleasant face with wide brown eyes, wavy brown hair and a snub nose. Though not especially tall the boy was stockily built and well−muscled for his age. He liked to keep fit, if only because he saw himself as a paragon of Aryan physical magnificence. Nor was brawn his only asset. No, he was a good deal cleverer than he often seemed and if he applied himself a little more there was no reason why he shouldn’t pass his final college examination, opening the door to an illustrious career. Though in the end he would probably join the family business as a matter of course, as all male Mencken children had done in the past.
"You’re all ready to lend a hand when our friends come?" the Count asked.
"Yes, Papa, I’m ready."
"Good. Was there anything else you wanted to speak to me about?"
"Not really, Papa."
 "Then if you wouldn’t mind leaving me alone for a while. I have some work to do."
 "Alright, Papa. I’ll see you later." Bruno stomped from the room, leaving the door wide open. With a scowl Mencken closed it, then went back to his thoughts. 
 If he had helped these people to find refuge, a haven where they might, perhaps, draw up new plans for conquest, for genocide…
 Only Adelmann and Langer were involved on the Nazi side. But they could always bring in others to take the necessary action should he prove unreliable. To punish him. There was nothing they could do to stop him now if he decided to go to the Allies. It was far too late in the day, in both senses. But afterwards…   
 That was what the Nazis were like. Ruthless. Look at how Hitler had exterminated all his political opponents, both before and during the war. Sometimes even killing distant relatives of theirs, just to show how seriously he viewed treachery.
 It was on an impulse that the Count crossed to the bureau in the corner and took from it the Beretta pistol along with the bag of unused cartridges. Loading the gun, he made sure the safety catch was on, then tucked it away in the inside pocket of his overcoat before putting it on. 
 He paced up and down for a while, then sat down again and simply waited, mentally at an impasse, conscious only of the remorseless ticking of the clocks on the wall.
 When the telephone on the desk rang it made him jump, as the clock had done. The receiver almost slipped from his shaking hands as he lifted it from its rest. "Yes?"
 It was Michael, the butler and general supervisor of the Count’s domestic affairs. "The two gentlemen you were expecting have arrived, Sir." 
 "Excellent. Send them up to the house, would you. Tell them I won’t be long." He collected Bruno from his room and they went downstairs to the entrance hall, where Adelmann and Langer had been waiting for them surrounded by suits of armour and the flags and coats of arms of the various Swiss cantons. Both, like the Count and Bruno, wore thick overcoats and leather gloves; they had been told it might be a little cold where they were going, and not just because this was Switzerland. 
 They shook Mencken’s hand, then transferred their attention to his son. "You must be Bruno, yes?" grinned Langer, clapping him heartily on the shoulder. "We have heard much about you. Listen, Bruno, you and I must talk business sometime." Bruno nodded happily.
 "When will the trucks be here?" Mencken asked, impatient to at least get the business over with.
 "As we expected it has proved difficult to arrange the transport at short notice," Adelmann said. "Once the signal is received from our colleagues for it to move, it will be a while before it arrives. In the meantime we may as well start shifting the consignment downstairs. Is there a yard or something round the back where they can be loaded?"
 "Yes, it’ll just be a matter of driving round to the rear of the castle. The mountain should screen us from anyone who might be looking."
 "Come with me." The Count and Bruno led the Germans through a seemingly endless succession of rooms and corridors, and down several flights of stairs, to a steel door with a combination lock. At no time did they set eyes on any other people. The Count had sent his wife along with Bruno’s sister and younger brother to stay overnight with relatives, and made sure those of his servants he wasn’t sure he could trust were busy with things that would prevent them seeing what was going on. It had been necessary merely to say that he was conducting an important meeting with business colleagues, at which confidential matters were to be discussed. 
 The Count spun the tumblers until the door unlocked and opened it, ushering his companions on. They entered a passage cut through the very rock of the mountain, and lit by electric light bulbs in the roof. After what seemed like ages they reached its end, to be confronted by a rock wall in which was set another metal door, gleaming dully in the lighting. It had a panel beside it with a button. The Count pressed the button and the door slid open with a hiss of displaced air. He invited his companions to enter. The lift was big enough to accommodate all four of them, with a squeeze.  
 The Count pressed the “up” button, the door closed and the machinery rumbled into life. Smoothly the lift began to ascend. Adelmann nodded in approval. "Very impressive. You obviously had all this planned in advance."
"Of course." 
 The journey took about ten minutes. They stepped from the lift into another, much shorter rock-walled tunnel. It led into a cave about a hundred feet wide and thirty feet high. As in the tunnels electric lighting had been rigged up. In the cave it was cool but dry, apart from a little trickle of moisture running down the walls here and there. 
 Most of the space was taken up by the consignment. Where the money was concerned each stack was concealed beneath several layers of thick canvas sheeting, fastened in place with metal straps. Due to their nature the other items were wrapped individually.  
 Looks like there’s enough here to keep us in comfort for the rest of our lives, thought Adelmann. Indeed, we’ll be millionaires.
 They had plenty of time on their hands. Langer’s eyes fell on an opening in the far wall, suggesting another cave connected to this one, and curiosity made him investigate, the others following him. The opening was wide and high enough for a man to pass through with ease. 
 It was, indeed, another cave. Here there was no artificial light but they were able to see all around them with perfect clarity. On three sides the walls were rock; the fourth was solid ice many feet thick, where the glacier thrust its way downwards through a great rift in the side of the mountain. It lined the sides of the vast chasm which took up most of the floor and extended, the Count knew, far below their feet, right into the heart of the Zahn (as it was called from its resemblance to a huge, broken tooth). The lighting in the main cave reflected off it, giving it the appearance of crystal.
 They heard a creaking, groaning sound and there was a flurry of snow from above. Sometimes the ice moved; you could hear it within the main cave, on the mountainside and occasionally, the Count fancied, from the castle. The more superstitious attributed the sound to the spirits of climbers who had died on the mountain.
 They ventured as close to the edge of the abyss as they dared. Looking down, Adelmann murmured something beneath his breath, impressed. "That must be hundreds of feet deep. If not a thousand." He raised his eyes; it was like standing inside a cathedral of ice and gazing up at its soaring roof. Though what appeared to be the top probably wasn’t; they couldn’t quite be at the summit here. There was a practical limit to how high up a mountain you could build your home, much as the Menckens liked their solitude. 
 They returned to the main cave. "Let’s make a start," said Adelmann. "The money first." They unbuckled the straps holding down the topmost layer of canvas covering each stack, removing first it and then the other layers to expose something which gleamed brilliantly in the overhead lighting; something over which men had fought and died for centuries. The yellow metal; gold. 
 The plan was to load the bars onto the trolleys standing by the far wall and wheel them down the corridor to the lifts. Outside, the bullion would be stacked in the yard to await the arrival of the trucks. Assisted by Langer and Adelmann’s colleagues, along with a few of the Count’s domestic staff, they would load it into the backs of the vehicles, after which Langer and Adelmann would then climb into one of the trucks and before driving away bid them farewell, for the time being anyhow.  
 "If there is any money left over, once you have enough to provide for your basic needs, what do you intend to use it for?" Mencken asked as they placed the bars carefully side-by-side on the trolleys.
 "I expect most of it will be needed to fund our transport to South America and our establishment there. If you were thinking that any of it might finance the creation of the Fourth Reich; well, perhaps. Give it time and things will change. The West will soon see it is Russia who is the real enemy. We will come back, don’t you worry."   
 Mencken pondered this. After slaughtering God knows how many people, and occupying half of Europe against its wishes then bleeding it dry…no chance.
In a hundred years’ time, maybe. 
But he wasn’t concerned, right now, with what might happen in a hundred years.
 No-one knows where the consignment is, apart from the three of us. Four now, actually. But no more than that.
Just the four of us.
 But in time, over the years, that number might grow. Things could leak out. A slip of the tongue, an overheard conversation, a scribbled note carelessly left in the wrong place… 
 If he could shoot Langer and then, while he had the advantage of surprise, Adelmann…
Then there would be no danger to Bruno.
Just the four of us.
He couldn’t bring himself to kill a man in cold blood. Even a…Nazi.
 Bruno had passed through the doors and was already halfway down the corridor to the lift with a fully laden trolley. Adelmann was behind him with another.
I can’t do it, it’s too risky. If anything should go wrong…
Langer turned towards the door with his trolley.
 And the gun came out of Mencken’s pocket. In more or less the same instant he turned the safety catch.
He aimed the pistol at Langer’s back.
No, he couldn’t do it. 
His finger tightened on the trigger.
No…
 He put the gun back in his pocket, forgetting to turn the safety catch back on. 
But he stayed where he was while they disappeared through the door and down the corridor, not realising that he wasn’t with them or assuming there must be an innocent reason for it. Half an hour later they returned with the empty trolleys. Bruno wasn’t with them, having been delayed for some reason, but Mencken could just hear him coming along the corridor.
 The three of them loaded a trolley each, and the Germans started to move off with their burdens. Bruno was still some way down the corridor.
 They paused. "Rudi, we could really do with some help," said Adelmann. "Is anything wrong?"
 "No," said Mencken flatly. "There’s nothing wrong. I’m just resting for a moment." He was a little older than the others so it was conceivable he might find the work a little tiring, although it depended on how heavily loaded each trolley was. 
The sound of Bruno’s footsteps came closer.
It had to be now.
 "Are you sure, Rudi?" This time the note of menace in Adelmann’s voice was unmistakeable.   
They knew. 
 He whipped the Beretta out, just as Adelmann was reaching into his pocket for what must be a gun. Langer didn’t see this; he had turned and was moving to stand by the door, drawing his weapon, to take care of Bruno if necessary. 
 Mencken fired. Adelmann twitched and staggered back, a jet of blood gushing from the hole in his shirt. He folded in two and keeled over. 
 At the shot Langer, halfway to the door, spun round to see what had happened. Bruno appeared in the doorway and saw his father with the pistol in his hand, turning to deal with Langer, the German facing him with his own gun and, Bruno assumed, intending to use it. 
 With a powerful shove he sent his trolley shooting forward, to slam into Langer and send him reeling. Langer lurched, almost losing his footing, and the Count’s bullet missed him by a fraction. 
 As Langer reorientated himself, and the Count took aim again, Bruno with all the thoughtlessness of the young ran at the German in a shoulder charge, knocking him over. Overbalanced by his momentum Bruno fell too, landing on top of Langer. 
 He tried to grab Langer’s gun, and saw that it had slipped from his grasp and skidded a short distance. Before he could make to snatch it up Langer twisted, throwing him off, and dived for it. As his fingers brushed the cold steel Bruno jumped on the SS man’s back, digging his knees in and at the same time pinning down Langer’s arms. 
 He shouted to his father to get the gun. The Count made to do so, then with a burst of strength Langer broke free, knocking Bruno off and in the process rolling over onto his back, increasing the distance between himself and the gun. He tried to right himself but Bruno jumped on him again and the pair rolled across the floor, locked in combat. 
 The Count hesitated. They were fighting too viciously to be separated. A warning shot might break it up, but he was worried the bullet might ricochet off something and kill him or Bruno. He waited for his chance.  
 Langer and Bruno rolled over and over, their rollings taking them through the opening into the ice cave. Bruno planted his knees on the German’s chest and dug them in, then seized Langer by the throat and tried to throttle him. Langer retaliated by clawing savagely at his eyes, causing the boy to scream in pain and loosen his grip. Hovering in the opening the Count watched the struggle, unable to fire at Langer because Bruno, crouched on top of the German, was in the way. He shouted at them both to stop but they were too far into the fight now, unwilling to heed the slightest distraction in case it proved fatal. 
 Langer drew up his right leg, knocking aside Bruno’s left, and kicked the young man hard in the stomach, flipping him up and back. Bruno fell, jarring his spine painfully, but then sprang to his feet again, once more blocking the Count’s aim. 
 Bruno charged Langer again, and vice versa. The two met half way. Since they were too close together for an exchange of punches Langer grabbed Bruno around the upper torso, pinning his arms to his sides, and twisted in a bid to overbalance him. Bruno stood firm, and the two of them lurched and staggered in a parody of a waltz.
They staggered close to the lip of the glacier.
 The Count froze in horror. If they went over it…there was no option, he’d have to shoot.  
 They swung round, presenting Mencken with a clear shot at Langer’s back. He fired. Fortunately, instead of going through the German and into Bruno the bullet lodged in Langer’s spine. Langer jerked, gave a short gasp of pain and let go of Bruno, crumpling. Bruno got to his feet and stood looking down at him as he lay on the floor moaning and writhing in agony. A second shot rang out, the sound echoing from the walls of the chamber, and a little shower of blood jetted from the German’s scalp. Then he went limp, and it was over.
 Mencken turned the safety catch of the Beretta, and hurried over to his son. "Are you alright, Bruno?"
Bruno’s breathing gradually returned to normal. He nodded dumbly. 
 "We must get rid of them," Mencken said. His eyes went to the crevasse in the floor of the chamber. 
 "But what about their friends? Won’t they want to know what’s happened to them?"
 "I told you, apart from themselves no-one knew where they were going. And only they, Michael and a few of the servants knew the consignment was ever here." The staff at the bank had been told that the money was to be physically transferred, but not where to, nor would they feel the need to ask. "We’ll be quite safe."
"Shouldn’t we tell the police?"
 Mencken seemed uncertain for a moment. He pursed his lips. Then, with a weary sigh, he made up his mind. "Bruno, you must say nothing of this to anyone. Anyone apart from Michael, do you understand?"
 Bruno nodded. "Yes, Papa. I understand. But…if we tell the police what we were going to do, but that we killed them…" Then his face changed. 
 "No," said his father. "It wouldn’t be a good idea, would it? We might be forgiven…but then we might not. Even in Switzerland…and as for people outside it…I’ve a reputation to maintain, business contacts…" 
"So everything that’s in the cave…"
 "It must stay where it is. And the stuff we’ve taken out of here must go back. No-one must know about this business. No-one at all."
 He glanced down at Langer’s corpse, thinking. He knelt beside the body. "Now help me, please." Between them they lifted Langer and carried him to the edge of the glacier. They swung him to one side, then the other, and let go. Peering down, they thought they saw the body hit the bottom but couldn’t be sure. 
 Adelmann followed. Now all that remained was to dump the Germans’ car somewhere; risky, because someone might see them and be suspicious, but Mencken guessed it could be safely accomplished if they were careful enough.
 The two of them returned to the castle, neither saying a word on the way, until the Count paused just before stepping through the door with the combination lock and addressed his son. "Remember, Bruno, no-one at all. Ever. Ever…"

Grand Hotel, Madrid, April 30th 1945 
The man lying on the bed in room 276, arms crossed beneath his head, thinking of a glorious past and an uncertain future, looked up as his colleague entered the room, stiffening in anticipation. Then he saw his expression and frowned. "Any word from Georg or Jurgen?" asked Jochen Linne, uneasily. 
 "No," said Gustav Prohl. He pulled out a chair and sat down. Collecting his thoughts he turned to Linne, meeting his eyes. "You remember what we agreed."
"They could have been delayed. Some unforeseen complication."
 "Of course that is quite possible. But we decided that if we had not heard from him by now it would be assumed something had happened and we should get out immediately." 
 Linne breathed hard, his lips pursing. "That consignment could be of enormous value to us in the years ahead."  
 Maybe, thought Prohl. But he doubted they could use it for anything more than their own comfort and security. Whatever some of his more fanatical colleagues, who weren’t concerned with just saving their own skins, might think. "You realise they could be talking to the Allies this very minute."
 "They wouldn’t do that. As for the Swiss, they’re always loyal to their clients, loyal in every way. It’s the logic of neutrality."
 "Their contact could have decided to betray us to the Allies. He might have thought things would go better for him if he did. He’s panicked, that’s what he’s done."
 "That doesn’t explain Georg’s failure to call. There hasn’t been enough time for the Allies to do anything and they’d have to get past the Swiss first, anyway. Of course Berne will do nothing. It might as well be them who arranged the deal in the first place. As far as they’re concerned, business is – "  
"I still think it’s suspicious Georg has not rung. It can’t just be coincidence."  
"He could have met with some accident."
 "Would it be wise to assume that? And that’s not all. If the contact has gone to the government they might be inspired to act on his information and claim the credit for capturing us. Curry favour with the world." After all, given what the world now knew… 
 The two men fell silent. Both knew that if they ended up in the Allies’ hands their fate would be life imprisonment at least. And most probably, execution.  
 "Shall we give it another hour?" suggested Prohl, though his tone made clear he thought even this wasn’t a good idea.
Linne nodded slowly. "All right. Another hour it is."
 When they failed to hear from Langer or Adelmann after that deadline had passed, there was no further scope for delay. It was time to get out. The rendezvous was called off and the other members of the group alerted. If Langer and Adelmann were still free, and tried to contact Madrid but received no answer they knew what to do. They’d just have to make their way to South America as best they could.
 The group would be making its journey without the consignment. Things would be hard without it but they’d manage. In what were still relatively young nations, needing help to build themselves up, and with an already large German community of long standing they were sure to find a welcome. Like the Swiss, the governments concerned wouldn’t ask too many questions. 
 The same day Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Fuhrerbunker in Berlin, with the Allied armies advancing remorselessly on the German capital from all sides. Within a week came the final surrender of all German armed forces, and the Third Reich passed into history. There emerged a new world order in which Europe had lost its previous power and influence, its ability to cause international wars, and affairs were dominated by the ideological division, expressed in a nuclear arms race, between the USA, representing free enterprise and liberal  democracy, and the Communist, totalitarian (despite its claims to be otherwise) Soviet Union. Alongside this East-West divide there developed a North-South one, between the relatively wealthy, mainly white nations of the northern hemisphere and the often poor, mainly non-white peoples of the southern, the so-called “Third World”; a gap that in some ways widened after the Eastern Bloc, weakened by its stagnation and inefficiency, collapsed, Marxism was discredited and the West, feeling itself vindicated, became even more obsessed with free-market capitalism and the prosperity it generated. This caused new conflicts, new divisions, to replace old, filling the vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. Islamic fundamentalism challenged the status quo, protesting not only at the lack of social and economic justice but also the increasing aimlessness of a world where religious belief and moral standards were declining, and personal material gain was all that mattered. Fears grew that the unbridled expansion of Western science, Western technology, Western capitalism was damaging the natural environment, perhaps threatening the very survival of the human race. Politically correct liberalism, seen by some as just as much a nuisance and a tyranny as anything it had been designed to replace, became dominant in many areas. The global balance of economic, if not yet political, power began to shift towards the strongest “Third World” nations, India and China, creating fears about the West’s future.  
Throughout all this, the glacier kept its secret.
One

Nicola Ransome took another indifferent sip from her glass of sherry and wondered if she should go to bed now. You could think while you were in bed. 
 Had Duncan and she simply grown apart? There had been no adultery, as far as she knew, and as long as it was purely physical it wouldn’t, though undesirable, have been the worst damage you could have inflicted on a marriage. Sensible women had always appreciated that, and Nicola liked to think she was sensible. She still couldn’t understand, not entirely, how all the trouble had started. But…
 Duncan was too immersed in his job, and that was why when the problems had begun he hadn’t given enough attention to them. He was overworked, like too many people in Britain today, and she didn’t reckon the pay was high enough, especially given the stress and the fact that they saw so little of each other. But he couldn’t seem to break away from it, or wouldn’t.
 Then there were the kids. They had had a decent innings without them and no longer considered parenthood an infringement of one’s freedom. That wasn’t really the issue. Even though they hadn’t been born yet, there had already been disagreements over their education. Duncan had wanted to put them down for a private school. The one he had in mind had a preparatory school for 5-12 year-olds and he wanted them to get used to the experience of boarding from an early age. It also had a long waiting list, because it was a good school and therefore popular. It wasn’t how things should be but you could usually guarantee a better education at a private establishment and you owed it to your children to make sure they had one. But Nicola didn’t see it as performing a good service to her child to have it educated within an environment that wasn’t representative of mainstream modern society, leaving it cut off from it to some extent. To this Duncan had replied that it would depend on what kind of individuals they turned out to be, whether they were spoilt by the experience. Nicola didn’t want to take the risk. Though it wasn’t as if, going by Duncan’s present salary, they’d be able to afford the fees. 
 Thirdly, when Duncan’s company had relocated its head office it had meant Nicky giving up her own job, in which she was happy, and moving to a new house in a rather soulless and unfriendly area, where she wasn’t.  
 The trouble had coincided with that stage in a marriage when things do begin to pall a bit, the novelty wearing off. They had started rowing. Started to notice faults in each other’s characters which hadn’t been fully apparent, or seemed all that important, before. Each disagreement became for both parties a matter of honour, with neither deigning to apologise or to concede defeat because it would be an infringement of their dignity, as well as deceitful, if they did so while remaining unshaken in their belief that they were right.
 Marriage shouldn’t be like this. Nicola remembered her wedding day, how happy she had been, so radiant, the joy of friends and family for her, the feeling that her life had embarked on a wondrous new stage which she could never regret whatever trials and tribulations might lie ahead. The thought of it tugged at her heart.
 It might help if they tried counselling, but she knew that everyone had their own idea of how to manage relationships and different counsellors might give different advice. As for Duncan, he wasn’t turned on by the idea and she knew she couldn’t make him go to a session. So that particular avenue was closed off. 
 Eventually she had decided she needed to get away, to avoid distractions which would encourage her to procrastinate over finding a solution. By mutual agreement, they’d agreed to separate for a while. What they now had to decide was whether the separation should be permanent. Such a choice needed to be made when you had some peace and quiet and could think clearly.
 And so she had taken her holiday early and come here, to the little cottage on the edge of Dartmoor where her father had lived, and which had been bequeathed to his children on his death. Dad had been an artist; his soul liked to wander for hours in that vast wilderness under the immensity of the overarching sky, communing with nature, setting the world to rights. Now she was trying to do the same.
 Earlier that day she had gone for a walk, a long walk. Even though, to be honest, the Moor scared her. Its sheer extent was terrifying. There were paths, and if you had a map you should be alright, but still the thought of getting lost, unable to find your way home in the dark, in danger of freezing to death if you couldn’t find some sort of shelter, was constantly on her mind.
 There were other perils too, if you believed all the stories. She didn’t, and yet something sent a shiver of primeval fear down her spine whenever she thought about them.
 In fact while out on her walk she had once or twice had the feeling she was being watched. But she’d put it down to the whole spooky atmosphere of the place, and the legends, making her imagination run away with her. 
 When she returned home at the end of the week she would hopefully have made up her mind concerning Duncan. Had the break been long enough, achieved its purpose? It would seem both sad and silly if she’d spent all that time on the moor and nothing had come of it. And she certainly didn’t feel like another long perambulation there. 
 He had called once, asking briefly how she was. It was about time she returned the compliment. They had to make the effort. 
 She went to draw the curtains. It was well and truly dark now and somehow the night wasn’t something you liked to let into your living room. 
 She turned off the TV, which was preventing her from doing the thinking she needed, and a little later picked up her mobile and dialled him. "Duncan?"
"Nicky."
 "Duncan, there’s something I’d like to say. I’m willing to compromise about the school. Not everyone who goes to one of those places turns out a stuck-up bastard. I suppose if we’re going to be good parents it’s up to us to teach them that there are children less fortunate than themselves. And I guess they could turn out to be selfish and inconsiderate, though I hope they won’t of course, even if they went to a comprehensive. But you’re not going to get your wish anyway, if you don’t find a job that pays better."
"Everywhere’s cutting wages. It’s the recession."
"Not everyone’s doing it." 
"But regarding the job, it’s either you or it, that’s what you’re saying?"
She took a deep breath. "Basically Duncan, yes."
 He digested this, while she waited patiently for his response. "Nicky," he said finally, "I’ll try and meet you half way, OK? As soon as you get back we’ll talk, yeah? And sort something out. We’ve already made a start, haven’t we?" She agreed that they had.
 They chatted for a while, exchanging news. Then they said goodbye, affectionately enough, and Nicky sat back. She suddenly felt isolated and lonely here on the moor, yearning for Duncan’s company. She hadn’t had much to do with the local people the last few days, if only because she was preoccupied with trying to sort out what was on her mind. 
 Well, as he’d said they’d made a start. She felt immeasurably better as a result. Opening the sliding doors, she stepped out onto the patio and stood breathing in the cool, fresh night air, listening to the sweet trill of birdsong. The calm and stillness of it all seemed a universe away from the stress and strain of London: that overcrowded, hectic, fearful, violent city.
 A cup of tea, she thought, then bed. She made the tea, returned to the living room and sat on the sofa to drink it. Thinking about nothing in particular – she’d gone through enough emotionally wearing angst that night – she just let the warm liquid soothe her. The ticking of the clock was monotonous in a comforting way, and for the first time in a long time she felt relaxed and at peace.
Thud. 
 She jumped, startled, the tea sloshing around the rim of the mug. What the hell was that?
 At first she wasn’t sure whether the sound had been inside or outside the house. Then it came again. Thud.
Outside. 
 It sounded like footsteps. Heavy footsteps. Made by someone, or something, very large.
Something? Don’t be stupid.   
 Not for the first time she had the unpleasant thought that in a remote rural district you might actually be more vulnerable than on some rough inner-city estate. Was someone out to burgle the cottage, even do her harm? 
 The sound was getting steadily louder. She felt a sick pang of fear as she realised that whatever was making it was coming towards the house.  
Thud thud thud thud thud thud THUD
 She recalled a childhood nightmare in which she was lying in bed and heavy footsteps, not she was sure those of her father or mother or brother, were climbing the stairs to her room. Now it seemed to be coming true.
 A savage resolution filled her. No. Whatever you are, you are not going to get me. I am not yours. 
It was on the drive now. 
 She’d ring the police. Of course it would be ages before they got there, particularly in an area like this.
Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to come here after all.
 She’d ring the police. And then she would hide upstairs. She grabbed the phone and dialled 999.
 She almost gabbled the words. "Police. It’s urgent. I think someone is trying to break into my house." She described what she had heard, explaining that she was alone in the place. Her obvious terror seemed to galvanise them into action. She gave the address. They told her to try to find somewhere to hide and that someone would be with her as soon as possible. 
 She could try to escape through the back door, run round to the car and drive off. But she was terrified by the thought of not getting there in time, of being caught by the intruder before she reached the vehicle. 
 It was clear they would be in the house long before the police got here. She must shout out that she had called them. That would make the intruder think again, surely. She was nonetheless terrified of attracting attention to herself – it might not know she was in the building – but there was no choice. 
 She would have to open a window and lean out. And she was afraid of what she might see. 
The legends…
Surely not…
She flew up the stairs to the main bedroom, flung open the window. 
And screamed.  
 The first thing she saw, couldn’t have failed to see, was the eyes. Tiny points of red light, which grew larger as the thing came closer. Became huge; huge and red and glowing.
Just like the legend said.
Like hot coals.
 The rest of it she couldn’t make out clearly, not in the dark. It gleamed in the moonlight, but dully. Something with arms and legs, and walking like a man, only it wasn’t a man. 
Wasn’t it? Someone in a suit, playing a sick joke on her. It must be.
Must be.
That was bad enough. "The police are on their way!" she shouted. 
It kept on coming.  
 She had a sudden urge to ring Duncan for help only there was no way he, far away in London, could do anything, she’d only succeed in filling him with horror and alarm. And she might give away her position to the…Thing. 
 Shutting the window, she searched for that hiding place. The best prospect was the wardrobe in the corner. She scrambled in and closed the door, plunging herself into darkness. She crouched down as low as possible behind the piles of underwear and shoes, the hanging shirts and blouses. 
 She could only wait, her heart seeming to pound in time to the footsteps. Whatever it was was big and heavy but moving fairly fast. What the hell could it be?
 Her one hope was that she could stay hidden until the police came. When they came.
 That splintering crash could only be the door being smashed in. The strength, the violence behind it petrified her.              
 Then the sound of the footsteps changed. The thing was in the house. 
 Next moment it was as if a thunderstorm of terrifying ferocity had broken out. All she could hear from downstairs was the sound of things being hurled about, smashed, shattered into tiny tinkling pieces. It had gone berserk, lost itself in a mad frenzy of destruction.
 "Please," she whimpered. "Please leave me alone." Oh God no, this can’t be happening. 
 It occurred to her that maybe it was looking for something. And perhaps when it had found it, it would go away. 
 She heard it enter the bathroom, the study, the kitchen, in each place smashing everything up as before. It finished in the kitchen and then the footsteps came back down the hall a little way before changing direction and…
The creature was on the stairs. 
 She could hear them creak and groan beneath its weight. She clasped her hands tight in prayer. Oh God, please help me…please…What had she done to deserve this? She had tried to patch up her marriage. She had made that call to Duncan. If this was some kind of punishment it wasn’t fair. 
 She listened for the police sirens. They must be able to do something when they got here…they must…
Thud thud thud
 It had reached the landing. It went into the bathroom, whereupon things fell silent for a moment or two. There weren’t many places there someone could hide. Then the other bedroom. More sounds of destruction.
 Desperately she fought to stifle a moan of fear, reckoning it was now close enough to hear her.
 Still no sign of the police. It occurred to her that when they did turn up they might not be able to do much against this…whatever it was…
The creature moved on. 
Only this room left.
Oh God…
 She curled up into a ball, face buried in her legs with her arms wrapped around them. Because she knew it was too late now and there was nothing she could do to save herself, she called out Duncan’s name. 
 The door was wrenched off its hinges and flung aside. Once more, the noises of destruction. Splintering wood, some glass object breaking, a crunching sound she couldn’t identify. 
And then it was going towards the wardrobe.
 Something punched through the door as if it was wet cardboard. A swishing and scraping as the items hanging from the rail were pushed aside. "No!" she wailed. "Whoever or whatever you are, I mean you no harm! Please don’t hurt me! If there’s something here you want, please tell me what it is and you can have it! Please! I don’t want to die, I don’t…"
 Because her head was down and her face buried in her hands Nicola Ransome never saw her killer. And she barely felt the blow which came down on her skull with the force of a pile driver and burst it like a rotten egg.
What it was looking for was her. 

It felt silly using a phone box in this day and age, when mobiles were almost universal and even the landline at home would have been less bother, but Abdullah Ashraf felt he had no choice. He couldn’t shake off the fear that they knew, even though there was no particular reason he could think of why they should.
 He knew he mustn’t glance around all the time as he made his way down the high street because he would look shifty, frightened, nervous. People would wonder what it was he intended that he didn’t want others to know about. So he didn’t glance around. But it took all his willpower, all his self-discipline and mental strength, to look normal and at ease.
 "So," Ibrahim had said, "it will be on Tuesday the 23rd of this month. That day will serve as a reminder to the infidels that we are still here. They think it’s all over now Osama is dead, but it isn’t, right?" All loudly signified their agreement. 
 "Two weeks from now. That leaves us plenty of time to prepare ourselves and we must make use of it. Does everyone know what they have to do? OK, that’s great. Let’s run through it again…Naz, you’ll be in charge of getting the actual gear." 
 At first when he had fallen in with Ibrahim’s crowd on moving to a new area, a new mosque, he had liked what they were saying. It had seemed both justified revenge and a way of relieving the boredom of their dull, depressing existence in this run-down part of the capital. Then he had seen the folly of it. At best it could only make things more unstable, as the objects of their anger and hatred naturally fought back. And it would be even more depressing to be in prison.
But he knew what would happen if he was found out. 
 These people are not Muslims, he told himself for the umpteenth time. There is no question here of one Muslim betraying another, betraying the faith, because they are not Muslims. They are giving Islam a bad name. What I am doing is for our sake, not just the infidels’. 
 It would help if those infidels knew what he had done. But if they knew, so would others.
 He could have made the call from the house using either his mobile or the landline, choosing a time when he was alone. But what if he wasn’t alone? What if one of them was hiding somewhere, listening? Spying on him? 
Did they suspect him? They had given no sign. 
 He could have chosen some remote spot, like a patch of waste ground, provided there weren’t any kids there playing football or just mucking about, or somewhere on the Common. But he could never have been sure someone, not necessarily one of the cell, wouldn’t overhear him. The trouble with places like those, you were either too exposed – anyone who saw you might wonder why you should prefer to make a phone call from such a lonely spot – or not exposed enough. The vegetation which concealed you might also conceal them. They needn’t be spying, they might be having a dump or birdwatching or just seeking a quiet place in which to reflect, maybe have a doze. Even on the waste ground, you could never be sure that someone who you couldn’t see couldn’t see you. If not from the cell, they might, depending on who they were – a sensible adult, a not so sensible adult, or some thoughtless kid – go and excitedly tell all their friends what they had heard and seen, not thinking what the consequences might be. 
 It was with something like relief that Abdullah saw the familiar shape of the booth next to the bus stop outside the post office. He quickened his pace.
 He wanted to get it over with, but knew that if he didn’t turn back, if he went on and did it, the betrayal and the knowledge of what Ibrahim and his friends would do if they found out would torment him night and day. Because afterwards, if no-one was to get suspicious, he would have to go back to the house. How long would he be able to keep it up for? The pretence?
 There was someone in the booth. Cursing, for he had been psyching himself up and now all his careful mental preparations were wrecked, he waited, hoping that during the wait he wouldn’t change his mind. 
 After a minute or so the woman came out. Sweating a little, Abdullah went in and closed the door behind him. Now he felt safe, insulated from anyone who might hear him, the walls of the booth hopefully muffling his voice.  
They could have followed him here.
 Ah, shit, get a grip on yourself man. He sighed, his face hardening as he steeled himself to do it, and picked up the phone.  
 "My name is Abdullah Ashraf. I wish to speak to a member of the security services." He was put through and gave the name of his contact. "Listen, I have some urgent information for you." 

Count Bruno von Mencken drained the last of his coffee and sat back contentedly in the morning room of the castle near Eissensberg, reflecting on his life as old men were wont to do from time to time, however many years on earth seemed likely to remain to them. The room occupied an annexe, of modern construction, with large windows designed to give a clear view of the Alpine landscape. He spent a lot of time there these days; sometimes gazing at those mountains for hours on end, and thinking.  
 The windows also acted as doors which could be slid back and the Count, rising a little stiffly from the comfortable armchair, ventured onto the terrace to breathe in the mountain air. At his age it was dangerous to be out in the cold too long, but as long as you weren’t it could be healthy, invigorating, one reason why he remained in excellent physical condition despite being past his eighty-fifth birthday. Of course he was no longer as strong or as quick in his movements as he had been in his youth but his heart and lungs gave no trouble and he could still take long walks in the forests on the lower slopes of this and other mountains in the area, another way to get the exercise needed to stave off decrepitude. He did a few press-ups each morning, though it was a little harder these days to get up afterwards, and later spent an hour or so in the castle gym though he never attempted anything too strenuous. And generally, living up here in the Alps preserved your fitness and wellbeing. In appearance the Count would still have been recognisable to a long-lost acquaintance who had not seen him since his youth, despite the wrinkles and jowls that most people acquire with old age. He dyed his hair, which would otherwise have been grey, but that was the only concession he felt he needed to make to vanity.  
 He was still chairman of and major shareholder in Mencken International, the family firm. Though in practice he took little part in the day-to-day running of the business, decisions significantly affecting its interests couldn’t be made without his approval. The head office was in Berne as it always had been, and easily accessible by rail from Dreisengratz a few miles away, but he was quite happy to fly to somewhere further afield when required. He would take a foreign holiday twice a year. But he spent most of his days, when not walking in the woods where once his ancestors had shot wolves and bears, at the castle, in the laboratory he had set up there or poring over books in his extensive library, keeping his mind alert. 
 In his castle on his mountain overlooking Eissensberg he was lord of all he surveyed, or so it amused him to think. His wealth, both earned and inherited, enabled him to live comfortably attended by a retinue of servants and to ensure the upkeep of the castle, both preserving the ancient family home for the sake of sentimentality and meeting his obligations to maintain a scheduled ancient monument. 
 The Menckens’ noble lineage dated back to the Middle Ages, when they had been court officials of the Holy Roman Empire, later playing an important part in the Swiss struggle for independence from Austria. Today about four hundred and fifty aristocratic families remained in Switzerland. They no longer had any legal privileges but did enjoy an honorary status which could be as useful in getting them what they wanted; were held in a respect which gave them influence. They kept their titles, which continued to be used in social relations out of tradition or personal respect. This high standing was as much due to their professional activities as anything else; for Switzerland had always had a tradition of social equality, as part of which the aristocracy did not balk at involvement in trade. In past times they had been artisans, craftsmen. In the modern world the Menckens had developed an interest in science, and in particular chemistry; from the late nineteenth century their chemical and pharmaceutical business had grown to become one of the largest and most profitable in the world (and done so, the Count told himself proudly, without being part of the EU economic system). Accordingly they were seen as having contributed to the wealth and prosperity of the nation, and rewarded with a certain degree of deference. 
 The family had occupied the castle, which remained essentially the same building despite alterations and improvements over the years, since the thirteenth century. As the eldest son, and thus given preference by tradition, Bruno had inherited it along with the business on his father’s death in 1983. When the time came it would pass to his son, and then his son’s son. In the meantime, the current Count saw little of his family. He had become alienated from them, his marriage breaking up and his children blaming him for its collapse, because of his devotion to his work, the long hours spent in the lab or in the library consulting scientific textbooks. Apart from weddings, baptisms, funerals and Christmas the only time he saw his heir, Berthold, who was also his Managing Director, was on company business, and their manner towards each other was always cool and formal. It was the same with other relatives, contact with whom was even less frequent where they took no part in the business and chose instead to live as playboys or -girls in London, Paris and New York.      
 They all thought he was odd living here like a recluse, but there were reasons for it. The remoteness of the castle and the cold fresh air, which he found enabled him to think clearly, were vital for the important work the company was doing; for the Count was still engaged in the active scientific research that a firm like Mencken depended on to perfect its products and test new ones. 
 His isolation also, he sometimes thought, mirrored that of Switzerland; though Switzerland wasn’t entirely isolated, being the location of all manner of international organisations which were part of the UN (that august body should have its headquarters here, and not in America which had treated it with such contempt over Iraq and ignored its resolutions on that and other Middle Eastern matters). And although these days Brussels was set on drawing as many countries as possible into its orbit, it was quite happy where money was involved to do business with one that wasn’t, he reflected sardonically. He could enjoy being a citizen of a country which maintained a proud tradition of independence – for the Count was undoubtedly a patriot – while remaining prosperous and wealthy.
 He regretted the estrangement from his family, and once he had some time on his hands must do something towards healing the breach. Otherwise, at the moment all seemed to be going well. 

Inspector Colin Hedger had lived and worked in the countryside all his life, and had always considered himself to be fortunate that way, especially on a bright, fresh morning like this one. He felt healthier, less shut in, than he imagined he might in the city. It didn’t necessarily, however, result in any diminution of his workload.
 Hedger’s patch was divided roughly equally between the wide open spaces of Dartmoor, and the villages on its eastern fringe, and the more built-up environs of Exeter along with the city itself. In urban areas there had always been crime, and it was increasing generally as the town slowly but surely swallowed up the countryside despite the Green Belt. He didn’t like what was happening to the communities he had served as a police officer for over thirty years. And of course, although serious crimes had always been rarer in rural areas they did happen there. Sometimes the loneliness of a place invited it. There were cases of farmhouses raided at dead of night and the occupants tied up, robbed and maybe  shot or set on fire. 
 There was no arson involved in this one; other than that, though, it wasn’t quite clear what had happened at Hawthorn Cottage. All Hedger knew was that the occupant, a woman, had called the station in a state of panic, reporting that someone was trying to break in. She’d sounded almost hysterical. When his colleagues had arrived they found the place in a right mess, looking as if a hurricane had hit it, and the woman, or rather her body, even worse. One of them was now receiving counselling.  
 Aggravated burglary – they assumed the motive had been theft – amounting to murder. That was what it looked like, and it obviously had to be investigated. If this didn’t fall within the category of serious crime, what did? 
 DS Stuart Birrell, Hedger’s younger colleague, was driving. He  turned off the main road down a lane which led through fields that gave way gradually to moorland, by which point it had become a bumpy uneven track. On the very edge of the Moor was the little cottage, nestling at the side of a small wood – really just a large copse – with the group of police vehicles around it. Parked on the gravel drive was a Range Rover which they guessed had belonged to the murder victim. It was more suited to traversing the surrounding terrain than most cars,  or no-one would live here. Christ, it sure was a remote spot. No wonder uniform hadn’t been able to get here on time. And no wonder the victim had been so vulnerable in the first place.
 The premises had been cordoned off with the regulation blue and white tape. As they drew closer they could see that the front door was missing. There was a heap of splintered wood in the garden which had been it. Otherwise, the building looked undamaged; on the outside, at any rate. Some of the Forensics team were on their hands and knees combing the garden, the moorland within a hundred yard or so radius of the house, and the wood. 
A young constable came towards them as they got out the car. "Morning, Sir." 
"Morning, Drake. A nasty one, I gather."
"Very nasty, I’m afraid Sir."
"Next-of-kin been informed?"
 "That’s under way, Sir. The thing is, we can’t be entirely sure it’s her. We’ve sent away her teeth for identification."
"Her teeth?"
 "Only way, Sir. And we had to pick them up from the floor. Yeah, the body was so smashed about it was barely recognisable as one. Took us ages to find all the bits. No wonder Shane Weaver had to go off sick. SOCO’ll put you in the picture."  
 The Scene of Crimes Officer, Stan Mason, had already come up beside Hedger. PC Drake resumed his guard duties. "What time did it happen?" Hedger asked Mason.
 "The call was received a few minutes after ten. They got round there as quick as they could. Of course a place like this, way out in the sticks, it took time. When they arrived they found the place an utter wreck. And the poor bitch smeared all over one of the bedrooms. My guess is that’s where she was hiding from the…burglar." Mason mopped his brow. "We managed to find all the pieces. But it’ll take a long time for the mortuary to put them back together again." 
"Would there have been any witnesses? I don’t suppose – "
 Mason swung an arm to indicate the surrounding countryside; wilderness would have been a better word. "You suppose correctly. The next house is over half a mile away. There would have been a lot of noise, but they didn’t hear it. Perfect place to commit a crime, I’d say." 
"Was there any money in the place?" asked Birrell.
 "Only what was in her wallet, on the coffee table in the living room. Two hundred pounds in cash and a credit card. They’re still there." 
Which meant…"So robbery wasn’t the motive?"
"No," said Mason quietly. "It doesn’t look like it was." 
 For a long moment Hedger pondered this. So smashed about the body was barely recognisable as one... 
 "What do we know about the dead woman?" If next-of-kin were traceable there must have been a personal organiser or other item in the house from which some details could be gleaned.  
 "Nicola Ransome, age twenty-nine, married, no children guessing by the lack of photographs of them anywhere. There’s one of her and her husband, at least I guess it’s him. We found a card giving him as the person to be contacted first in an emergency. Where he was at the time I don’t know. She wasn’t a local woman, so she must have been down here on a business trip, or visiting a friend or relative. That’s all we can say until we’ve spoken more fully to the husband.
 "I’ve just about finished here. Dr Nesbitt will take over now." Vicki Nesbitt was Devon and Cornwall Police’s chief pathologist. This must be something out of the ordinary if they’re handing it over to her, Hedger thought. He nodded politely at the bespectacled woman with frizzy brown hair, clutching the obligatory clipboard, who had just joined them.
 "I don’t envy you this one," he said. "Going to be hard to work out what happened – from the body at any rate."
"Forensics isn’t just a matter of bodies," Nesbitt reminded him.
"But she can’t have been a pretty sight."  
 "I think if she’d been a bit more intact it would have been horrific," Nesbitt said. Hedger supposed this was true. "But in a way, it’s the total dismemberment which is the shocking thing. Shall we go inside?" Donning protective clothing to avoid contaminating the crime scene, they entered the building. Plastic sheeting had been laid over the floor in the hallway and all the rooms, and over all items of furniture. Forensics were swarming around taking measurements, and checking for fingerprints and other traces, with probing instruments and specimen bags.
 In the living room, Nesbitt removed the plastic sheets from some of the furniture. Hedger took a step back in astonishment. As his composure returned he whistled softly, impressed. Chairs and tables overturned or flung against walls and smashed to splinters. The TV on its side with the screen shattered, fragments of broken glass all over the floor. A heavy grandfather clock knocked over with ease. 
 "She was in one of the bedrooms when she was killed." Nesbitt led the way upstairs. Everything in the room was covered in blood; the floor, the walls, the bed, the dressing table, the one chair, virtually every object large or small. "At a guess she would have hidden in the wardrobe over there. Not that it did her any good."
"But the body was dismembered." 
 "It’d not only been dismembered, it’d been pulverised, crushed, squashed, flattened, whatever word you care to use. Even the bone was pounded into dust. My team could identify particular kinds of tissue, of course." Brain, muscle, fragments of internal organs, an eye. "But without a close examination nothing was recognisable. The body had been so thoroughly mutilated, so completely disassembled that I doubt I’ll be able to identify the actual cause of death."  
 Hedger was still trying to take it all in. Well they had to start somewhere. "Whoever did all this," he said slowly, "had enormous strength. We know that from what he did to the furniture. But the damage to the body itself; some of it could have been inflicted, before or after she was killed, by anyone who was sufficiently…mad, angry or whatever. Or had the right tools. She could have been cut up after death, the killer using saws or scalpels to dissect her with a little more precision, and the bits then scattered about."
 "I don’t think there was any precision to it at all. And why would he take such care over it, and then just – scatter the bits about?" 
 "Point taken. Did you find anything that might be the murder weapon, or weapons? I mean, I doubt if he did it with his bare hands." Didn’t he, bearing in mind all they’d seen?
 "We haven’t, yet. That may mean he took it with him when he left, to avoid leaving any clues behind, if he was thinking straight. But she certainly wasn’t cut up with care. You’d get some spillage, of course, but look at the way the blood’s got everywhere." 
 "That could happen in, say, a frenzied axe attack. Any tool capable of cutting through flesh and bone, if the killer was crazed with hate towards their victim…after the initial onslaught was over, he…" Hedger checked himself, then realised that a woman couldn’t possibly have the strength to cause such devastation, to both furniture and human bodies, as he was seeing here. Even if she was fuelled by madness or drugs; and he had known women under such influences cause a surprising amount of damage. 
 "Well I suppose that’s what we’re dealing with here," Nesbitt shrugged. "A frenzied axe attack, or something like it." 
She met Hedger’s eye. But you’re not quite sure about that, are you, he thought.
 Folding her arms she paced about, trying to put her own thoughts in order. "It’s certainly…unusual. The pattern of distribution of the blood, as well as the amount of it, the general violence of the attack. Then there’s the damage to the furniture and fittings. I think the killer was clearing things out of the way in order to find her. But the strength employed…" Tough as Hedger knew her to be, Nesbitt shuddered. "I think she was just ripped apart where she was, bit by bit. I think we’re agreed it suggests someone consumed by rage. Or just very strong and determined to get what they came for. But…again it’s their strength which is the most striking thing."
 She nodded to where one of her team was prising a shred of bloodstained clothing from the carpet with a pair of tweezers. "I think we can rule out any sexual motive because her clothes were still on her when she was…butchered. They were in the same state as the woman herself. That would take some strength in itself, but considering what else was done to her it’s not surprising."
 "Whatever happened, it looks like someone broke in with the specific intention of killing her," said Birrell.  
 "Maybe not her," replied Hedger. "Meaning it could have been a random attack. God, or a psychiatrist, knows what the motive was." 
 Nesbitt appeared to come to a decision. "A musclebound psychotic with a grudge. It has to be that. It can’t be anything else, surely."
 But there was still puzzlement in her face. And something else, too, though she was trying hard not to show it. Fear.
Bone pounded to dust. They were deluding themselves, surely?
"Obviously you’re testing for fingerprints," said Birrell. 
"We haven’t found any yet." 
 "They could have been wearing gloves. That wouldn’t have got in the way of the job." 
 Nesbitt realised that one of her assistants was hovering nearby, waiting to speak to them. She turned.
 "We found these on the door frame." The assistant handed her a small plastic bag sealed with tape. At first it appeared to be empty. Nesbitt studied the contents closely, then held it up to the light so the two policemen could see. They made out a few grains of some reddish-brown substance. 
 "I’ve no idea if it means anything," said the assistant. "But it looked interesting enough to bag."
"What is it?" asked Hedger. 
"I don’t know. We’ll be able to tell once it’s been fully analysed." 
 Nesbitt handed the bag back to the assistant. "Shall we see how they’re getting on outside?" she suggested. Still wearing their protective suits, the three of them emerged from the cottage and surveyed its environs. "Drive’s tarmac, I see," said Hedger. "Wouldn’t have taken footprints. What about the moorland?"
 "We’re still searching there. But I don’t think we’ll find any prints. The ground in the vicinity of the cottage is too dry; you might still get an impression of where a foot had been, but the turf’s had time to spring back into place." 
 "So we can’t say which direction the killer approached the house from?" said Birrell.  
"Not for sure. But it looks like he may have come, or left, by the wood." 
 Nesbitt led them to where the vegetation directly bordered the drive. At the first tree they came to she pointed. The end of one of the branches had been broken off, and lay at their feet. 
  The trees grew quite close together, so that there was no real path and they had to take care to avoid tripping over the roots. It wasn’t ideal ground for prints anyway, and additionally was covered with a thick layer of fallen leaves and humus.
 On each tree they came to some of the branches had been snapped off to allow an easier passage, leaving jagged edges, hanging strips of bark. Hedger did some thinking. In her call to his colleagues Nicola Ransome had just said she’d heard footsteps on the drive. She hadn’t, it seemed, heard the sounds which would have been produced by a violent passage through the trees. "If our killer did this, it looks like he didn’t approach the house by the wood. But this suggests he left by it, alright." It made for a trail leading all the way through the wood to where the moor started. From then on the terrain was covered with a layer of thick, springy grass; as Nesbitt had said, not the sort of ground which took prints. They stood looking out over the desolate landscape stretching to the horizon. After a few moments, Nesbitt called each of the three teams combing the ground for prints and asked if they’d had any luck. At each answer she turned to the two policemen and shook her head. "We’ll extend the area of the search," Hedger said. 
 "Do you think he’s out there somewhere?" asked Birrell. "On the moor? That’s what it looks like." Although of course they’d search in all directions, to be on the safe side. 
 "Surprising, really. It’s not what I’d have chosen to do, would you?" If Hedger had been the killer he’d have left the crime scene by an easier route rather than enter such an inhospitable, and sometimes dangerous, environment. 
 "Could he have been hiding out there already? Waiting to make his move as soon as it got dark?" 
"You mean he didn’t come by the main road, from Buckfastleigh or Ashburton?"
 "He might have thought it was too risky that way. Someone might have noticed something that made them suspicious, even though it was dark."
"Possibly."
 Hedger assessed where the investigation stood. Once they knew more about the murdered woman, they might be able to say if there was anyone in her past who had a grudge against her. As for the way she had been killed, he still thought that given enough time, someone could have produced the devastation they had seen, both to flesh and to inanimate matter.
But one thing puzzled him. 
 The killer might have known that the trail would end when the wood did, and deemed it safe to go by it on a whim. But it  only bordered one side of the house. It didn’t make sense that he would go to the bother of forcing a way through it rather than take the much simpler course of going across open country. 
 Perhaps he hadn’t been working to any particular plan, any strategy. Perhaps once he’d killed the woman he had just…left.  
 Hedger considered the broken branches. A madman…or someone who had not found the wood an obstacle in any case because they had the strength to simply smash a way through it?  


Two

Whistling cheerfully, Duncan Ransome put the finishing touches to his redecoration of his lounge, pressing into place the last strip of wallpaper, and stepped back to survey the result with a satisfied feeling. A house, like a life, was being put in order. He had already cleaned out the other rooms, consigning accumulated bric-a-brac to the dustbin, and mown the lawn. The place no longer resembled the usual male pigsty, which was what it had become without Nicky to run things.
 Happening to glance down and see his belly, he patted it ruefully. He’d been letting himself go a bit, spending most of his evenings scoffing pizza in front of the telly. But now it looked like the beginnings of a rapprochement with Nicky, he was in a much better mood. Time for another attempt at a diet.  
 He regarded the wedding photo on the mantelpiece, the other photos of them together. This time it gave him a buzz rather than a bitter pang of sorrow.
 He felt he couldn’t go back on the agreement he’d made with her the night before. Not after that sense of reconciliation, of a new beginning. She was right; he’d become too immersed in himself, even if she must bear her share of the blame for getting so catty about it. They needed to start again. Make sure they did things as a couple. He’d look for another job, even if it paid less. He had become dehumanised in thinking that his work was more important than his marriage. 
 When Nicky got back he’d take her out to dinner and then they’d make love. Or maybe he’d go down to Devon instead and they’d have a nice dirty weekend at the cottage…
 He heard the doorbell ring and went to answer it, still humming happily to himself. 
 Standing on the threshold were two figures in uniform, a man and a woman. Police. He felt a pang of unease as many do in such situations. His first thought was of his mother, still active and among other things driving competently even if sometimes she was more forgetful than she used to be. There was nothing physically wrong with her… 
"Mr Duncan Ransome?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "Er, can I help you?"
They showed their ID cards. 
"Mr Ransome, we’re police officers. May we come in?"
 His stomach turned over and a dryness spread from it throughout his body. The two officers saw the blood drain from his face and the muscles pull it tight. 
 A death in the family, obviously, unless they’d made some ghastly mistake. Who? Well he guessed he had to know. His heart pounding, he stepped aside to let them enter. Closing the front door, he gestured helplessly towards the living room. He fell into rather than sat in the armchair. The two police took the sofa and he turned to them expectantly, his expression fixed and staring. 
 "Mr Ransome, I’m afraid we’ve some very bad news for you. We’re very sorry to say that your wife was found dead last night at her cottage in Devon." 
 "Dead?" Initially he didn’t seem to understand; a common reaction. He felt first a sense of disbelief, then a sort of cold daze. The next stage might have been an angry refusal to accept that the news could be true. Instead however he just stared blankly at them, until he finally found a voice. "What…what happened?" 
 "I’m also sorry to say she appears to have been murdered. Obviously the local police are carrying out an investigation and you’ll be kept informed of developments." The man’s voice was kind, of course, and he spoke slowly and calmly. It still didn’t seem to Duncan that this could be real. The policeman’s voice sounded disembodied, ethereal, coming to him from a very long way off.
 Initially, in cases like this, the “significant other” was always the prime suspect, so they arrested him as a matter of course, questioning him on his whereabouts at the time of the killing, while searching the house for clues. Although it would have been quite possible for him to have gone down to Dartmoor after finishing work, done the deed and then got home in the time that had elapsed before they called, they soon released him, convinced by his state of numbed shock, which clearly wasn’t feigned, that he was innocent. They were very nice about it all, though of course it didn’t serve to make him feel any better.   
 "The local police will be calling on you shortly, in case there’s anything you can tell them which may be of use to the investigation." He nodded mechanically. 
 "We’ll be calling on your wife’s parents in due course. May we leave it to you to contact the other members of the family?"
 Again he nodded, though he hadn’t really heard the words. "Yeah…yeah, OK." His voice sounded hollow in his own ears.
 "There’ll be a press release in connection with the enquiry. In the meantime we can arrange for someone to be with you if…"
 He didn’t want company until he had put his thoughts in order. "No; no, it’s OK. I’ll be alright." 
 They drove him back home. "We’ll be in touch, then," the man said as they dropped him off. "There’s a number you can ring…" Duncan was handed a leaflet. "But I expect you’ll want to be on your own for the time being." He didn’t reply. 
 They saw him in. "Goodbye, Mr Ransome. Nice to have met you. Again, we’re very sorry." Rehearsed spiel, though not insincere. "Take care."
 Then they were gone. He went into the living room and sat down, remaining for a long time perfectly still while he continued trying to decide if it was all real. No. Not Nicky. Not now. Not after…
 In a flash the pain, the rage, the grief broke through his subconscious and he sprang from the chair, his emotions bursting out in a cry of sheer anguish. “NICKY!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

It could be a lonely life up here at the castle. But the job paid well, for Count von Mencken, like the more prudent of his ancestors in the days when aristocracies enjoyed real political power, knew that survival depended on rewarding your employees for good service. 
 Michel Doumer had served in Switzerland’s army and later its police force, until a scandal over certain unauthorised and indeed illegal payments, along with the beating up of a North African immigrant accused of car theft, led to his dismissal and a short prison sentence. He had then been out of work for a time until a man approached him in a bar in Zurich and made a job offer over a pint of Carlsberg. A wealthy aristocrat and businessman, who lived in a castle in the Bernese Alps, had a vacancy Doumer might be interested in. The successful applicant would supervise the domestic staff, the maids and housekeeper, who were still needed in a big place like Schloss Mencken especially now all the family had departed except the Count himself. He would be performing the role that the butler did in aristocratic houses in a previous age, though with exceptions for nowadays the Count prepared and fetched his own meals. He would also make sure essential repairs and maintenance were carried out, whether by the Count’s live-in odd-job man or outside contractors. And be the chief security guard, managing a small team of subordinates. There were plenty of antiques, many of them hundreds of years old, and other precious items which must be protected from burglars. The Count also carried out research for his company, the details of which might be coveted by industrial spies, on the premises. When shown what the Count was currently engaged on and told the particular reasons why it shouldn’t for the time being be publicly disclosed he had no qualms. He had been well chosen. 
 The Count’s people knew that Doumer’s having been caught out was down to bad luck and didn’t suggest he was a security risk. And he would be even more careful now. He knew that if he did talk his life would be forfeit, but this caused him no resentment. That was the way these things went. The other security guards had been recruited in much the same way and on the same kind of understanding.
 As well as the money Doumer appreciated the chance to wear a uniform again, even if it wasn’t much, basically a military-style pullover with shoulder patches, the legend “SECURITY”  stencilled beneath them and on the right breast. Then there were all the other benefits: comfortable quarters on the premises, with en suite kitchen and bathroom, TV and DVD player, drinks cabinet and personal computer; use of a gym, heated indoor swimming pool with sauna and jacuzzi, and games room; the excellent food prepared by the Count’s chef. And the management of the neighbouring ski resort allowed him and the other guards to use the facilities there whenever they liked. On his days off he could go ski-ing or into town for a drink, picking up attractive tourists or local girls, though somewhat to his annoyance he was never allowed to take them back to the castle. All in all, life was pretty good. 
 At the moment, having nothing much else to do, he was sitting in his office with his feet up on the desk reading a wargames magazine. He would have liked it to have been a porno, but the Count didn’t allow them in the castle. This puritanism somehow seemed strange when you considered the woman at least fifty years his junior who called on him every few days and often stayed the night, but he supposed old men who rarely saw their families needed some kind of companionship other than that of their employees. 
 The phone on the desk rang. It wasn’t normally his job to act as the Count’s secretary; this was a special line reserved for special matters. Doumer listened to what the caller said, then promised to pass the message on at the first opportunity.     
 Replacing the receiver, he breathed out long and hard, his face tightening, and his fingers began tapping slowly on the edge of the desk as he considered the implications of this news. The Count was out walking on his extensive estates, getting the peace and quiet he needed to think. Doumer doubted he would appreciate being disturbed right now. But he would have to be told as soon as he got back about what had happened on Dartmoor.

It needed more of the red thing, and it knew where it could get it from. 
 It knew because one of the Not-Us had accidentally injured itself once, and the red thing had come out of it. It was the same colour, more or less, as what it was given when it did things for the Not-Us. It presumed that they took it from their own bodies, although its source wasn’t what really concerned the creature just now. 
 It needed the red thing because when it got it it felt…good. For a while the Not-Us had not given it the red thing, and it had felt bad.  
 Almost its first memory was of being given the red thing and finding that it was good. Then it had been shown one of the Not-Us at work, and after it had stopped working it was given some of the red thing. The creature suspected that it had not really been the red thing which the Not-Us had eaten, but some similar-looking substance; the aim had been to make it think it would get the red thing if it did what the Not-Us wanted. 
 It still did not fully understand why it had chosen to leave the big place where most of the Not-Us seemed to live. But it had, and it also knew it could not go back there. It did not want to in any case. And because it had gone away instead of stayed and worked for the Not-Us they might not give it the red thing. So the red thing had to be found somewhere else. 
 After a while it had seen a Not-Us who was not carrying one of the things that killed and was also dressed differently from the Not-Us at the big place. This Not-Us was on its own. It did not see the creature. The creature decided to follow it. It realised that if it moved carefully from one hiding place to another, and the Not-Us did not turn round, the Not-Us would not know it was there. 
 The Not-Us went inside a building which was like the place where the other Not-Us lived, but also different somehow. The creature wondered if there were any other Not-Us inside this place and whether it would be safe for it to go in. Maybe, maybe not.
 But it needed the red thing. And as far as it knew at the moment there was only one source of it. 
 Uncertain what to do, it had stood for some time trying to come to a decision. At one of the openings in the side of the thing which was like the place where the Not-Us lived but also different, the Not-Us it had seen reappeared. Again it did not see the creature, because it was not looking in its direction, but the creature saw it. It pulled some kind of material over the opening and the creature could not see it any more. 
 The creature continued to hesitate. This Not-Us might tell the other Not-Us it was here, or somehow make it go back to the big place although the creature did not see how because it did not have one of the things that killed. And it knew what might happen if it had done something the Not-Us did not want it to, or tried. But the risk had to be taken. It must have the red thing. 
 So it had gone into the place which was like the place where the other Not-Us were but not quite, and found the Not-Us which lived there. There were no other Not-Us there and it did not keep one of the things which killed in the place, or it would have used it. That must be why it had hidden when the creature had come. This was useful to know.  
 The creature had got the red thing from the Not-Us. When it did the Not-Us seemed to fall apart, and afterwards the pieces of the Not-Us were all over the part of the place where it had been hiding. That, it seemed, was the end of the Not-Us. So if a Not-Us did not have one of the things which killed, the creature could destroy them without risking harm to itself.   
 But it did not know which of the Not-Us would have the things which killed, and which would not. If the Not-Us at the big place had them, so might other Not-Us elsewhere, though not all. It did not know how many of the Not-Us there were altogether or which of them had the capacity to destroy it. Should it take a chance and go back to the big place? 
 It occurred to it that because it had destroyed the Not-Us at the small place, those at the big place might be angry and perhaps destroy it with the things that killed. It seemed more likely than there not being some more, at least, of the Not-Us and who did not have the things that killed. And so it went looking for them. It wasn’t going anywhere in particular. It was just exploring, in the hope that it would find what it was looking for. 
 Ahead of it it could see tiny points of bright yellow light, scattered at random. They grew larger as it drew near them and it saw that they came from places like the one in which the Not-Us which did not have the things that killed had lived. 
Maybe these places were safe for it.
Easy prey. 
 The further it went, the more of them came into view. Not-Us, many of them. And the more of them there were the greater the likelihood, by its reasoning, that some would have the things that killed.  
 It knew what the things that killed could do. They had been demonstrated on one of the Us so that the Us would know they must always do what the Not-Us wanted, including staying within the big place, the Inside as it had thought of it. The creature was still afraid of them, and hoped that if the Not-Us did recapture it they would simply make it go back to the Inside rather than punish it for its…disobedience. 
 It heard a slight sound, somewhere near ground level a little to its left, and looked to try and identify the source. In a patch of light from the Pale Thing it saw something dart across its eyeline before vanishing into the darkness from which it had come. The creature should still have been able to see it but couldn’t, so it must be hiding behind something. 
 The creature had considered. It was too small to have been a Not-Us but the fact that it had been moving by itself suggested it was like them somehow. It was a Not-Us, but not the same kind of Not-Us, so it might not have the things which killed. And maybe there was more than one of it, as with the Not-Us. Could it get the red thing from them too? 
 It considered the places where the Not-Us lived. The closer it went to them, the more it sensed danger. That there might be something there that would destroy it, or perhaps get the Not-Us from the big place to.  
 So it had turned away and headed in the opposite direction. Deeper and deeper into the heart of the moor, where it might be harder for them to find it. 

Deciding she needed a little fresh air, Vicki Nesbitt stepped outside to savour the mellow autumn sunshine. 
 Hers was a depressing job at times. She did it from scientific interest and because if her work helped to catch a murderer and prevent them carrying out further killings it obviously made the world a better place. But this particular case wasn’t just depressing, it was frightening. She wondered if some freak, localised atmospheric disturbance could have the effect which they’d witnessed on a human body, as well as on trees and items of furniture. But unless the disturbance was (a) very localised and (b) selective in its effects the house would not be structurally intact and the damage to the trees would not be confined to just one part of the wood. No, what they were looking at was a trail left by a person, or something like one, which had been to the house, killed Nicola Ransome and then left by a particular route. 
 One of the team who had been searching the wood came up to her. "More of those grains," he announced, holding up the bag.  
 In the wood too. She wondered if that was significant. Had the grains, whatever they were, adhered to the killer’s flesh or clothing, so that they were left on things he touched, previous to his coming to the cottage or were they something which had been present in the house and picked up there? 
 She took the bag and went back inside, informing her chief assistant of the find. "I don’t know how much more of the stuff we’ll turn up but it’s time I had a look at it in the lab. Call me there if you need to." She placed the bags containing the samples, along with some other items, in a special container and carried it out to her car. Minutes later she was on her way to the forensic laboratories at Plymouth. 
 At the cottage her team continued with their work, unaware of the man studying them through a pair of binoculars from the cover of a copse several hundred yards away. The man lowered the binoculars, breathing hard. He called the people he took his orders from and described what he had seen. 
"You’re certain this is it?" they asked.
 "Judging by the damage, yes. But it’s just what we were afraid of, they’re all over the place. We’ve got to get in there, and fast."  

Paul Kenward, Chairman of the communications and IT consortium Euronet – the largest business conglomerate outside the United States – was home for the weekend. A can of beer in his hand, he sat watching the football with his wife while his two young sons absorbed themselves in their computer game. Occasionally he would gaze idly out the lounge window at the flat East Anglian landscape amid which their ultra-modern house, built only a couple of years before, was situated. It had everything one might want, including a swimming pool, games room, riding range and miniature golf course. It was a little isolated, but why should that bother him when the telephone, car, private plane and internet could put him in touch whenever he wanted with any big city in Europe? He had never intended to mix much with the locals anyway. In fact he didn’t care for unsolicited visitors at all. The intercom and CCTV served to vet them and the high fence around the property to keep them out. In years to come the leylandii he’d planted would further assist in screening his domain from prying eyes. 
 As well as the house there was the old windmill, which he wouldn’t let anyone near. The mill had been a particularly fine specimen of its kind, and within it most of the old machinery was still intact. There were many who argued that it should be leased to a trust and restored as a working museum. Kenward had already converted the lower two floors to extra living accommodation and recreational facilities and was confident of getting his way in a year or two’s time when he argued that as part of it had already been so altered they might as well do the same to the rest. The only ones who’d make a real fuss about it would be a small group of loony hobbyists, who Kenward had no time for whatsoever; and besides, people needed somewhere to live. 
 Altogether Kenward had nothing to complain about. He was a bit out of condition, though; his muscles were becoming slack, turning to flab. He needed to diet and to spend some time on the exercise bike in the gym. Apart from anything else he liked to be in the right kind of shape for sex, whether it was with Jodie or anyone else. 
 His mobile rang. He checked the number and with a scowl of annoyance left the room and went into the kitchen to answer the call. This was private business.
 "So one of them’s escaped," he said quietly. "Well then we’d better do something about that, hadn’t we?"
"It’s in hand." 
 "Good," said Kenward. "But all the same I think we’re going to have to sit down and discuss the implications of this, yes?"

They paid him well, and he was genuinely interested in his work, fully appreciating why the company considered what it was doing here to be so important. Yes, thought Dr Gavin Habgood, it was a rewarding job to be in. Except when things went very badly wrong the way they had. 
 Someone knocked on the door of his office and he told them to come in. Since he hadn’t expressly told them not to, chief scientist Li and chief security guard Mollison took their seats. Habgood leaned back in his chair, fixing his eyes on them. "Alright. How did it happen?"
 "I think we’re looking at an unfortunate coincidence," Mollison said. "I mean, you get them and there’s nothing much you can do about it."
 "You can make them less likely by aiming at maximum efficiency, and taking sensible precautions against possible security breaches. So what was this – unfortunate coincidence, exactly?"
 "There was a fault in the alarm system at the same time that one of my lads wasn’t doing his job as well as he should. If he had been, it wouldn’t have been able to get as far as the fence in the first place." 
"And when it did, the sensors weren’t functioning and the current was off." 
 "That’s about it. The trouble is, it’s less expensive to have them controlled from the same point. We need to cut costs same as everyone else. With the money that’s already gone into this project, most of it required for the research side…and of course there are less people about the place at night anyway."
 "There should be enough of them to prevent serious incidents. Provided everyone does their job properly. Didn’t you check on each of the guards at some point?"
"At some point, yes. But I can’t be everywhere all the time."
 "Of course," Mollison went on, "as soon as we realised it was missing we acted to contain the incident. We made sure the others were all where they should be." 
"Yes, I’m sure you did."
 "We mounted a search. Unfortunately it already had a head start on us and that’s why it was able to kill the woman at the cottage. We had to call off the search before daybreak in case we attracted too much attention."  
 Habgood entwined his fingers. "So…a blown fuse in the electrical system, and a guard who wasn’t at his post when he should have been. Has the fault been repaired?"
"As soon as it was discovered, more or less."
"And the guard?"
"I’ve taken care of that." Mollison bit his lip. "He knew where he stood."
 "He certainly did." A cockup so big had to be a sackable offence, and you couldn’t sack people from something like this without the risk they’d then go and tell all. "Have we got a replacement?"
"Yep. He’s reliable."
The fault had been repaired, alright. 
 Habgood slumped a fraction lower in his seat. "This is absolutely disastrous. It is the worst thing which could possibly have happened."
 "The damage limitation exercise is already under way," said Mollison. "I’m sure we can rely on our friends to make sure nobody finds out too much."
"What will the public reaction be to the killing?" Li asked.
 "They’ll be shocked, of course. People usually are by violent murder. But all things being equal, it’ll eventually be forgotten, or at least pushed to the back of the mind."
"There will be rumours…"
"That’s to be expected."
"But if there are any more deaths…"
"We’ll just have to try to ensure that there aren’t," Habgood told them.
 "So the main thing is to recover the creature," said Mollison firmly. Rather than indulge in recriminations. 
"It may already be too late. If that thing’s loose in the countryside…"
"Where do we think it’s gone exactly? Li?"
 "Not too far from the moor. If my guess is correct it’ll wish to avoid people. It won’t go too close to any populated area."
 "Unless it has to," said Habgood. "Because of what it needs as much as any other living thing."
 "It can find food on the moor. And its instinct to avoid danger will at least balance its requirement to eat." 
 "Strictly speaking that cottage isn’t on the moor. If it can get its food elsewhere then why – "  
 "It may not have learned yet that it can. But it does seem it’s playing safe for the time being. There haven’t been any further deaths reported."
 "True." Habgood’s face tightened. "If it’s confining itself to the moor then we have a chance. We can contain it there and hunt it down." 
Mollison nodded. "Yes, I’d say we’ve got a chance."
 Habgood drew himself up thoughtfully. "There’s something I’d like to know. Is there any significance in the fact that the escape took place at night?"
 "You mean it might have worked out that security would have been just that little bit less tight? Nah. It’d never seen daylight, after all. And none of the others have tried it, have they? Besides, I don’t think it’s got the intelligence. I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t believe we need to worry about it much."

Hedger couldn’t get the case out of his mind. He thought about it all through the morning, at times finding it hard to concentrate on his other duties. It wasn’t just the fury of the assault which struck him; he still couldn’t fathom why the killer had chosen to leave by the moor. Unless he was used to such environments; some deranged back-to-basics survivalist, perhaps? Or had been intending to mislead the police and doubled back later. 
This was certainly going to be interesting, whatever else it might be called.
 Returning to the station from his lunch break, he called into the main office to see if there were any messages for him. "There’s someone to see you," a telephonist said. "A gentleman from the government." Hedger assumed this meant the Home Office. "He’s waiting for you upstairs." 
 He found a youngish man in a suit standing at the door of his office. The man looked round at his approach and smiled. "Inspector Hedger?"
 "Yes, I’m Colin Hedger." They shook hands. "What exactly can I do for you?" He opened the door and gestured for the man to enter. Inside, Hedger waved him to a chair. 
 "I understand you’re in charge of the Dartmoor murder investigation." Hedger was struck by how fast they’d got down here once the press release had been issued, so much so that the man’s failure to introduce himself didn’t register. They might almost have known about it already. 
"That’s right," he confirmed.
 "There’s one or two things we need to discuss. I understand there are certain…unusual features about the murder."
 Hedger frowned. All the press release had said was that a woman had been murdered, where the crime had taken place, and that the matter was being investigated. "There was a break-in. The body was mutilated, and property damaged." 
"But the violence used was exceptional."
"It was a particularly shocking crime."
"A frenzied attack…"
"It does appear so."
"By someone or something unusually strong."
"Someone, I presume. May I ask how you knew – "
 "I’m not at liberty to tell you, Inspector. But the situation’s this. The government’s afraid that once the facts get out it might unsettle the public. Because it does look as if some...superhuman force was involved." He studied the policeman’s face. "Even though I sense you’re reluctant to admit it." Hedger stiffened, which the government man, if he noticed it, no doubt took as proof his hunch was correct. "Whatever the explanation, the business is sufficiently unusual to scare people. We want to avoid that, if possible."
 Hedger drew himself up. "We can’t be sure yet that this isn’t just a particularly brutal murder, unusual or not. But are you asking us to drop the case?"
 "For the moment. The incident will be investigated by a special government department. Your forensic team are to stop working at the site immediately and any evidence they’ve already found be handed over to us."
Hedger stared at him. "Do you have the right to do that?"
 "Actually yes, we do. You can confirm it with the PM if you like." In reality what would happen would be that Hedger’s superiors, if they felt the same way about it as he did, would approach the Prime Minister’s office and the Prime Minister dither until time caused the whole business to be forgotten about. Or the approach would somehow fail to be relayed to him in the first place. The result would be the same. "Of course, I can understand why you may not be happy to have the case taken from you. When a serious crime is committed on your patch…"
"I’m still collecting my thoughts on the subject, Sir, to be honest."
 "Well there’s one thing we need to be absolutely clear on. It’s vital neither you nor any of your team talk about this to anyone. In fact I’m imposing a total security blackout on all those who’ve been concerned with the investigation, including the two officers who first found the body. It comes under the Official Secrets Act."
Hedger’s eyebrows shot up. 
 "When the time is right the woman’s body can be released to the undertaker. But I don’t want any of your lot near that cottage, is that understood?"
 Hedger sighed. "If that’s what you want, I’ll see everyone gets the message. I presume you’ve spoken to the superintendent? The Chief Constable?"
 "We’d need to have done. But I thought it would be best if you got it straight from us."
 "Just to emphasise the point," Hedger muttered. "So, you think there’s a public order issue here?"
 "There are legends about the place, you know. In country areas in the past there’s been a lot of superstition, and although I think all that’s more or less gone now, if it did look as if the stories might be true…" 
 He changed his tone of voice. "Of course if you do happen to find out anything, we’d be grateful if you’d let us know." Oh yes, thought Hedger. Certainly. "We have a right to expect your full co-operation in a matter where there may be danger to the public."
"With respect, Sir, I do know my duty."
 "I’m sorry. Oh, one other thing. Some people may wonder whether the killer might be hiding out on the moor. They’ll expect you to be searching for them. Well you can leave that to us. As long as everyone thinks it is you. Meanwhile, we don’t want members of the public just wandering about there – they won’t if they think there’s a murderer on the loose, but I’d rather you had the place cordoned off, with warning notices telling people they enter at their own risk." 
"I’m sure your instructions will be complied with," said Hedger woodenly.
 "You can say you’re suspending the forensic examination at the cottage too. As far as the public is concerned you have searched the place thoroughly and found no clues."
"If that’s what you want. I hope you don’t mind if I ask you something."
"Go ahead."
"Are you concerned something like this could happen again?"
 Hedger’s visitor rose. "I hope not. Naturally if we can catch the perpetrator there’s less chance that it will. Goodbye, Mr Hedger." His lips twitching in a fleeting smile, he let himself out.
Hedger phoned Vicki Nesbitt at the lab. "Vicki, those samples you found…" 
 "I was just about to ring you. They’ve been requisitioned by the Home Office. At least, I’m assuming it was them. Anyway, I was just getting the equipment ready to do the analysis when I got the phone call. Don’t touch the stuff, we’ll do it in our own labs. I thought I’d better do as they said. Less than half an hour later all the evidence was collected and taken away by two guys. In the meantime the mortuary rang me to say I needn’t bother examining the body parts."
"They’ve gone too?"
 "Yes. Because there might be more of those grains on them, at a guess. In fact, all the evidence to do with the case…"
 "I’d expected it, actually." He described the meeting he’d just had. "They’re probably security services, whatever they say they are." He wondered if there was a mole somewhere in the Devon and Cornwall force; in every police authority in the country. If so, by the very nature of what seemed to be happening it would be impossible to expose them.
 Nesbitt was disappointed and angry. "I’d have really liked to get to the bottom of this one."
 "Well, as long as someone does." Ultimately Hedger’s feelings were mixed. He resented being denied the challenge it had presented him with, like a football player all keyed up for a crucial match which was then suddenly called off. At the same time another part of him sensed it would be better not to have anything more to do with it. 
 "One thing’s certain," he said. "If these people, whoever they are, are involved then it must be something out of the ordinary. So whatever that might be exactly, I only hope they know what they’re doing."


Three

It was a sunny afternoon, ringing to birdsong, with a very slight chill in the air. The villa was located quite a distance from the high metal gates at the end of the long drive leading off the minor road by which she had got here from the village. From this point you could just about glimpse the building through the trees which had probably been planted with the very purpose of hiding it. On both sides a high concrete wall, with CCTV cameras at intervals, stretched almost as far as the eye could see.
 She parked a few yards from the gates. Already a man was emerging from a little hut and making towards her, his face hard. He was big, balding and somewhere in his early forties. The butt of a handgun jutted aggressively from his trouser pocket.
 The woman got out of the car and smiled at him. She was not yet thirty, about the average height for her sex – perhaps a fraction taller – and of slim build, with a heart-shaped face and shoulder-length black hair. 
 The man was staring at her interrogatively, although she guessed he must know who she was and why she was here. "I’m Debbie Armstrong," she reminded him. She used to call herself Jennifer Vane when doing this sort of thing, but sooner or later someone would have twigged and so she had dropped the name, which was a pity because she had rather liked it only it wasn’t good practice to use the same one all the time, and if she had gone on doing so she might not now be alive. 
"I had an appointment to see Mr Georgevic."  
 He stared a moment longer. "Wait here," he ordered, and went back into his hut. Through its single window she saw him make a phone call, then sit at a desk, pick up a magazine and flick idly through it, seemingly forgetting she was there. She waited, as she had been told to, the birdsong and the scent of the flowers relaxing her to some extent. 
 A door in the wall opened and two men appeared, one heavily moustached, the other clean-shaven and sharp-featured. The man with the ‘tache gestured curtly to her and she went to join them. They stepped back to let her enter, and once she had done so moved to stand on either side of her. One nodded curtly to signify she should come with them. She noted that both had handguns in their pockets, like the man who had first greeted her (if greeted was the right word to describe his manner). The three of them set off down a path which led through the trees, and as they emerged into the open the villa came into full view, a concrete building of two storeys covered in fake pebble-dash. There were a TV aerial and satellite dish on the low roof. There must be a swimming pool round the back as she could hear someone splashing about in it. 
 Their bodies at no time less than an inch from her, they steered her towards an annexe at the side of the villa. Sensing their approach a dog, a big one by the sound of it, began barking furiously somewhere within the house. 
 The clean-shaven man unlocked the door of the annexe and they went in, passing down a corridor to a further door which gave onto a featureless room devoid of furniture except for a chair, a table and an old-fashioned filing cabinet. A woman came forward and proceeded to frisk her quite intimately, making her strip to her underwear, and also searched her pockets. She’d been warned to expect this. And at least it was a woman – a concession to decency made for the sake of public relations – though she still found the experience disagreeable.  
 In any case she submitted to it without complaint. After all, she’d had worse, some of which had been done purely for its own sake. As always she tried not to think about that. 
 Once more she told herself that if anything went wrong, he’d just throw her out. Nothing worse could happen, not these days. At a guess it wouldn’t have happened before, because he’d wanted the world on his side, however much his actions were unlikely to win it over.
 When they’d satisfied themselves she wasn’t carrying any concealed cameras, tape recorders or weapons of any kind they escorted her through yet another door and down yet another corridor to the study. One of them knocked and waited. "Come in," a voice shouted. 
 The room was more a general private living area. As well as a desk it contained a sofa, coffee table, widescreen TV, drinks cabinet, and a sideboard on which sat a DVD/CD player. Two or three magazines lay on the coffee table. A single window looked out over the grounds.
 The man behind the desk rose, and fixed Debbie Armstrong with his hard grey eyes. She smiled politely, with a hint of nervousness in case he saw her refusal to be fazed as insolence. 
 He was around fifty with a fleshy face, tending to plumpness, and thinning, neutral-coloured hair. He nodded at her escorts to signify they were dismissed, then waved the British woman to the sofa. 
 The door closed behind the two heavies. "Well, thankyou for agreeing to see me, Mr Georgevic," she opened.
 He nodded in acknowledgement, then spoke, his English heavily accented but fluent. "It’s important of course for me to give my side of the story to the global media." 
 "Naturally," she agreed. "It’s what good journalism should be about. Presenting both sides." Though the diction suggested a good middle-class education, her accent was pure London. 
 "Yet your media is not really interested in balance, it seems. I am portrayed as a war criminal, a mass murderer, a tyrant, a monster."
"And in your view you’re none of those things?"
"I was acting in the legitimate interests of my country. Would you like a drink?"
"Yes, thankyou, that’ll be nice." 
 Over their glasses of Slivovitz he asked her a few questions about herself. "Debbie Armstrong…is that a common name among English women?"
She shrugged. "Fairly common, I suppose. Debbie’s short for Deborah."
"And how long have you been a reporter for?"
 "Eight years now. I started not long after I left university." He would check the statement, of course, but would find nothing to arouse his suspicions. Her real employers – she supposed they were her employers on this occasion – would have made sure of that. 
  After a while the small talk ran out. Her glass being a little over half empty, she decided it would now be acceptable to get down to business, and produced a notebook.  "So, you don’t think the treatment of you in the world’s press has been fair?"
 "You would think we Serbs were all demons," complained Georgevic, "from what everyone was saying about us." She was inclined to sympathise with him there. Whatever the origins of the war, reason suggested an entire people couldn’t be thoroughly depraved, could not possibly be worse than any other member of the human family. She was glad that a move to brand the Serbian nation collectively guilty on account of the war and the atrocities committed during it had failed.
 She noted that Georgevic was avoiding the issue of his personal guilt, burying it within that of a whole country’s. 
 "It’s not as if the Croats, for example, didn’t commit their own atrocities," he pointed out. Another evasion, even if true. 
"What do you think caused the war?" she asked. 
"Serbia needed territory to protect itself."
"From who?"
 "Our enemies. It was they who tried to take more land than they were entitled to, not us." 
 She wasn’t quite sure about that, although the whole issue of the wars in former Yugoslavia and the reasons behind them seemed too complicated to be understood easily. "But during the Communist period all the different ethnic groups, nationalities, whatever lived together perfectly happily. If it could be like that under Communism surely it could be like that at other times?"
 "Once Communism collapsed, there were those who saw the opportunity to take the rich pickings."
Like you? she thought.
 "During the Bosnian war, certain incidents occurred for which it is claimed you are responsible. Incidents some people would call war crimes." She was referring, in particular, to the massacring, internment in brutal conditions, and general persecution of Bosnian Muslims – many of whom, she had been surprised (whether or not she should have been) to see were blond, and little different in appearance from a lot of people in western Europe, though she wasn’t sure in what way exactly that was relevant. 
 "If someone is a Croat they will support other Croats. We need territory to protect ourselves and if the enemy is actually living there then obviously they must go." 
"Ethnic cleansing," she commented.
 "You call it that, I call it self-defence. And that is something we have a right to, every country does."
 "Why couldn’t you just have deported them?" Not that they would have liked that, but it’d’ve been better than genocide.
 "It would have been a costly and difficult exercise. And since they would have resented the deportation, and would have sided with their own kind anyway, they would have constituted additional soldiers for the enemy to use against us. Naturally we did not want that to happen."
 There was a kind of horrible logic to all Georgevic was saying. She found she didn’t want to explore the question of whether or not it justified his actions.
 "So you admit that you did do it?" On the one hand Georgevic was denying that he committed the massacres, on the other he seemed to be saying that he did but it was a legitimate act of national self-defence. 
 "I did not say I did it. Only that in certain situations such actions may be necessary. There is a difference."
"You implied that you did it."
 "You can say that if you wish. But you have no proof." It was the same with the captured US soldiers and the relief workers. He had been filmed at the scene of their murders just before and just after they took place and was known to be in charge of the units which had taken them prisoner. She reminded him of this, to which he replied that as no-one had tape-recorded him giving the actual order to open fire it was an unjustified assumption that he was responsible for such deplorable and tragic incidents. 
 He would always say something like that. The press had made much of it, soon labelling him “Mr No Proof”. It was his stock reply when accused of having committed this or that crime against humanity: you have no proof. 
She persisted. "But the conditions in which some of the prisoners were held…" 
 "We were fighting a war. There were many demands on resources and we did not always have time to spare for other matters, such as maintaining proper conditions within the prison camps. It is often like that in war."
 "I understand. But there’s film showing your troops actively ill-treating the inmates."
 "The people responsible for them were punished." She refrained from pointing out that on a previous occasion he had denied the film was authentic in the first place.
"How were they punished?"
 "I don’t remember the details. After all, it was a long time ago. But they were punished."
 "Changing the subject slightly; since you believe that your actions during the war were justified, I take it you don’t accept the West had a right to intervene in the conflict?"
 Suddenly Georgevic flared up. "What concern was it of theirs? We were hardly likely to annex parts of Britain or America. And don’t those countries commit their own atrocities? Look at some of the things Britain has done in Iraq, the torturing of prisoners. You have no right to consider yourselves better than we are."
 The girl before him seemed to consider her next question, flicking her pen from side to side as if to clarify her thoughts. "OK. If we could turn now to the allegations that you ordered the murder of Eleanor Cutler, the daughter of the British foreign secretary?"
 Georgevic frowned, looking totally bewildered. "Now why would I have done that?" he shrugged. 
 "Because the daughter of Josip Pavlos, a leading Serb militant – if you don’t mind me describing him in those terms – and a colleague of yours, was killed, along with quite a few other people, in the bombing of your headquarters in Belgrade by the RAF during a NATO air strike." As one of the key figures in framing EU and NATO policy towards Serbia during the war, Marcus Cutler had been a prime target for a revenge hit. And Ellie, vivacious and beautiful, high-spirited, sometimes wild, and popular; a society figure, and also because of who her father was a media personality, very much in the public eye…particularly useful for getting the point across.
 "An eye for an eye, and all that. That’s what a number of people have suggested. Of course, I’m not saying you did do it. But what’s your response to those who lay the blame for the killing at your door?"
 Georgevic smiled benignly. "I say they are mistaken. I mean, is there any evidence whatsoever to support their claims?"
She seemed to accept this. "Then who do you think was responsible?"
 Again the warlord’s shoulders twitched. "I have no idea. But I thought someone had already been arrested for the crime. The man…he is supposed to have had, what is the expression, a “crush” on her. He was a…stalker." 
 "It’s been commented that there are gaps in the evidence. Things which don’t add up." To Debbie’s mind, Gary Bardens didn’t come over as a likely killer. He didn’t exude that kind of aura. Granted, you didn’t always know when someone was capable of murder. But there were times when you knew if they weren’t. He had seemed lost, baffled, helpless. At worst, he was an irritating nutter. At best, someone you might feel sorry for – rather than revile. 
 "I understand he lied to the police about where he had been at the time of the killing."
 “He was in the area, yes. But someone who’s not very bright might well lie in the kind of situation we’re talking about. They don’t realise it’ll only make it look more likely they’re guilty." In addition Bardens had been frightened, confused. "It could be he just panicked."
 "Perhaps. It’s a tragic business. But I was not responsible for it. A man comes up to a girl at the door of her house, puts a gun to her head and shoots her. There are various reasons why he might do so. Jealousy, mental illness…he believes he is in love with her and that she has spurned him. He cannot face the idea of her being anyone else’s and so he kills her to prevent that ever happening."
 "It had the marks of a professional killing. A hit that was carefully planned by someone who knew what they were doing. That person must have been sane, rational, in the clinical sense at least."
 "She was related to an important person in her government. And people in public life often make enemies. That’s all I can say."
 "It may not have been you," Debbie Armstrong said. "But it could have been another Serb."
"Why should it have been a Serb?"
"Because of what happened during the war."
Georgevic frowned. "Well…it’s possible, I suppose."
"And you don’t have any theories as to their identity?"
 He laughed. "Now come, Miss Armstrong. You surely cannot expect me to say who I think they are. They would kill me, wouldn’t they? In any case, would they not have claimed responsibility for the murder?" 
"They wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know they did it."
Again Georgevic laughed. "Then what would be the point of it in the first place?"
 "They may have felt they didn’t need to claim responsibility. I mean…well if you don’t mind, Mr Georgevic, let me start by saying yours is a very violent society and always has been. Old scores, vendettas, being settled by murder. By bloodshed. Perhaps that explains the recent conflict."
"We Slavs are a passionate people."
 She adopted a thoughtful posture, elbow on knee, chin in hand. "I suppose they thought people in England could have worked out for themselves why it happened. They expected the British public to put two and two together. As long as nothing could be proved there’d be no danger. The perpetrators would have achieved what they wanted, got the message across, made someone suffer, at no cost to themselves. Thing is, it rather backfired." She explained what the expression meant. "I think the killers, if they were Serbs, misunderstood the English people. After all, although at the time Britain had its problems with crime it wasn’t like former Yugoslavia or the Middle East, just as it isn’t now. Outside certain areas, certain cultures, vendettas and revenge killings weren’t a way of life. To be shot on your front doorstep was rare in Chelsea, in most places, however common it might sadly have become in Brixton, say. Perhaps we aren’t better than you, just different, but nonetheless that’s the way it goes. So although there might be rumours, conspiracy theories, the British public wouldn’t necessarily have made a connection between Eleanor Cutler’s murder and the deaths of Danuta Pavlos and the others in Serbia. As far as most folks in the UK were concerned it might as well have been Gary Bardens. At best they’d have seen the killing as part of a trend towards more crime, without giving it a political motive. There’d be nothing in their eyes to distinguish the truth from mere conspiracy theory. Sometimes when you murder someone you don’t want to make it blindingly obvious you were responsible, because of the hassle you might have as a result, but you do want to leave a reasonable suspicion in people’s minds that you did it. Here there’s not enough of a reasonable suspicion. There might be in Serbia, where things like that happen all the time, but not in England. You could say it makes the killing rather pointless, in the end." She sat back, having finished for the moment.
 For the best part of a minute Georgevic said nothing. Then suddenly with a jerk he sat bolt upright, angry again. "Oh yes? Is that how it is? All right then, what if I did kill her? If English people are so stupid that I’m going to have to spell it out for them, then so be it. They should think about what they did in my country before they start crying over the Cutler girl. How would they like it if their daughter was killed by people who had interfered with their sovereignty and had no right to do so, no right at all? Uh?"
 He suddenly broke off. After a moment he slumped back, the lines of his face relaxing a little, though he still looked tense and drawn. Debbie Armstrong appeared to him surprised, startled, a little alarmed. Finally she regained her composure. "Is that an admission, Mr Georgevic?" she asked with professional evenness. 
 The warlord studied her through narrowed eyes. Then his lips twitched, forming a sly smile. "Ah, you have no proof," he sneered. 
 "I don’t suppose I do," she conceded. "But you don’t mind me quoting you on what you just said? Or do you?"
 She felt the tension which always accompanied moments like this. Moments when it seemed as if she might be staring kismet in the face. Gazing into the abyss. A queasy sense of teetering on the edge of a thousand-foot drop. Had she just put her life in the balance?
 "You have no proof," he repeated. "Go back to London and tell all your friends there I did it, if you like. Since it seems they need telling. I can say you are only trying to cause a sensation, so everyone will think you are the woman who solved the Eleanor Cutler case, who unmasked the murderer of that poor sweet innocent young girl. How are they going to know you are right?"
"I don’t suppose they would," she said. "So perhaps we’d better leave it at that." 
"If that is your wish. Is there anything else you would like to ask me?"
 She grilled him for a while on international politics, his taste in the arts and popular culture, his private life in so far as he was willing. Then she stood up. "I think I’ve got all I need. Thankyou again for agreeing to see me, it’s been a most interesting interview."
 "I have enjoyed it too." He pressed a buzzer on the desk and almost at once the two heavies appeared. "Show the lady to her car, would you. Goodbye, Miss Armstrong." 
 "Goodbye, Mr Georgevic. I’ll make sure you get a copy of the article before publication."
 They escorted her to the car, and with a friendly smile at them both she got in and drove away. 
 That night she received two visitors in her hotel room in Belgrade. By then she had removed the pads which had puffed out her cheeks to change the shape of her face and also helped disguise her voice, washed the dye from her naturally blonde tresses and rubbed off the greasepaint which had made her skin look darker to match the hair. 
 One of her visitors, a Spaniard named Carlos Moreno, was from Interpol; the other, a woman called Rachel Savident, from MI6, the British external security service. Rachel was there because “Debbie Armstrong”, who had no connections with Interpol, had needed some kind of liaison with them and the intelligence agencies, with which she did have connections – Rachel was her former controller – seemed the best prospect, since the work they did was similar in some ways.
 Caroline Kent turned towards them, eyes shining, grinning broadly, and clenched her upraised fists in triumph. She spoke in her normal, precisely modulated Home Counties voice. "All on camera." The device had been small enough to be concealed within one of the buttons of her blouse. "On sound as well." The extremely sensitive listening device had picked up every word of the conversation between herself and Georgevic. "We’ve got the bastard! Once this is circulated to every newspaper and TV company in the world the Serbs will have to do something, however we got the information. They won’t want to make themselves more unpopular than they already are." And despite the fact that Caroline and her colleagues couldn’t possibly testify in court themselves. "And while he’s standing trial for ordering Ellie’s death, maybe he can stand trial for all the other rotten things he’s done, too."
"Maybe," said Rachel. One could only hope.
 Before she went home tomorrow Caroline would visit the memorial to Danuta Pavlos and the others killed in the air strike and pay her respects. It seemed right somehow. The trouble was, of course, it wouldn’t bring any of them back. 
 She became aware Rachel was speaking. "You took better care this time than you did in Tokyo. All the same, it was a bit of a risk." 
 Caroline looked pensive, then turned slowly to look at her. "Do you know why I did it?"
"I think so. Because you felt you had to."
 "Ellie was my friend," Caroline said quietly. Suddenly a note of bitterness entered her voice. "If you’ve never been to a public school, a boarding school, you don’t really know what it’s like there. People tend to think it’s just a bunch of snobs, a club for rich little boys and girls who don’t give a damn for anyone else."
"I’ve never thought that," Rachel responded.
 "I know. But there are plenty who do. The thing is…well, sometimes they’re right. But when there are lots of you living under the same roof, eating meals together, sharing rooms, comforting each other when you’re homesick…because those places can be grim at times…you’re all in the same boat, cut off from your families, having to adjust to a new environment…when it gets to you and brings you down low, you appreciate the support, the friendship. And it’s not something you ever have again."
 Rachel patted her on the arm to show that she understood. Because despite the gulf between her own experiences during one’s formative years and Caroline’s, she thought she did. 
 Carlos Moreno, who like her had never known the pleasure or otherwise of being educated at an English public school, looked nonplussed. He confessed as much. "I have only one question to ask. The tape recorder…it’s too big to be concealed within a button or a brooch. And you say Georgevic’s men searched you thoroughly. May I enquire where you hid it?"
 Caroline’s eyes glinted, and she gave a wicked smile. "You don’t want to know," she said. 

You developed a certain affection for particular mountains. Ron Koenig and Doug McCann had been on the Zahn many times but still it represented a challenge; they liked to think they could know every ledge, every crevice, every outcrop of rock on it even though this was practically impossible. And since they had not in fact climbed this particular face before, even though others had, as part of the curious mentality of the enthusiast they simply must make up that deficiency. It was the last they hadn’t yet attempted, apart from the one that was out of bounds. 
 As for mountaineering in general, they liked it because once you had got to the top you had a sense of achievement, of having mastered your environment; you could stand on the summit and look down at the clouds like the guy in that famous painting. Then there was the healthy effect of the physical exercise, along with the comradeship, the helping your buddy out whenever he got into difficulties or simply needed a hand.  
 The ascent could be accomplished in a day, perhaps two. In case it did stretch overnight, as Alpine climbs often did, they had taken a heavy-duty polythene survival bag, large enough when unfolded to serve as a tent for them both. They wore tracksuit trousers and leggings, fleece pullovers and windproof smocks, and the lightweight but stiff-soled boots called Klettershuhe with a pair of the more rugged rock boots in reserve for when the going got tougher as they climbed higher. It was not yet quite the tourist season and the snow hadn’t begun to fall, which would make their task easier, and safer. But they donned helmets to guard against falling rocks and stones – an ever-present hazard – with fittings to secure torches if required. In their rucksacks were the nylon ropes used in ascending or descending, their first-aid kits, a map and compass, and some food and drink. They weren’t going high enough to require a supply of bottled oxygen. 
 The rock of which the mountains in this part of Switzerland were composed was dolomitic limestone; fairly easy, at first, to climb by hand, with plenty of fingerholds. From time to time they tested with a sharp rap of the fist whether the rock was loose, and always took care to distribute their weight evenly.  
 The further they ascended, the steeper the slopes became, and the smoother, so that it was difficult to gain a secure hand- or foothold. So they started using a rope, threaded through runners hammered into the rock as they climbed and attached to their harnesses. McCann, in the lead, placed the runners and paid out the rope and Koenig fitted it to his harness. Pitons inserted by McCann in what cracks and crevices were available acted as steps on which they could place their feet.
 After a while they reached a ridge which was wide enough to stand on comfortably. 
 "Let’s see how far round this goes," said McCann. Much as they both loved climbing it was a relief to be on level ground for a while and he wanted to make the most of it. 
 The wind wasn’t too strong so there was no danger of being blown over the edge; all the same, since it could get up suddenly, they hugged the rock wall as they worked their way carefully along it, McCann in the lead.
 Coming to a vertical fold in the rock, McCann paused. He probed the edges of the fold with his fingers, and encountered empty space. "There’s a fissure here. Wonder if it leads anywhere?" 
 He studied the opening carefully, trying to gauge its height and width. It would be quite possible to squeeze through it easily and then find you couldn’t get out. 
"You sure you wanna try it?" asked Koenig.
 "Yeah, I think it’s safe." Ducking slightly, McCann slipped through the gap, his friend following him after a brief hesitation.  
 McCann found himself in a small cave about as wide and as high as a decent-sized living room. One wall was a sheet of solid ice, terminating more or less at the floor. It must mark the lower extremity of the glacier. Other than that there was nothing of note; he’d come across caves like this before when mountaineering, and there didn’t seem anything exceptional about this one. Then he saw that the wall opposite him seemed to bend, suggesting the cave was larger than at first looked the case. He followed the bend round, and came to a dead end.
 But the cave certainly was bigger than he’d thought. There was enough space between the wall and the glacier for him to avoid being crushed if the ice should suddenly shift. He stood looking up at it for a moment, then decided he’d seen enough. 
 He sensed Koenig come up behind him. "We’ll make a note of it," he said. "But there’s nothing much to see. Let’s go."
 Koenig didn’t respond, and McCann turned to him quizzically. He saw his friend was staring at the ice face in shock; staring at something McCann hadn’t noticed. He followed his gaze, and stiffened, catching his breath sharply.  
 Faintly visible within the ice was a shape. A human form, with arms and legs and a head. A body.
Two bodies.
 Koenig took a closer look. They were like divers somehow suspended motionless in the water, their arms and legs spread out in the attitude assumed when swimming. Both were in a perfect state of preservation. Examining the first body, the two Americans had no idea how long it had been there for, they weren’t experts at such matters, but it could have been decades although the clothes looked reasonably modern. It was a white man, with the bluish-pink tinge to the skin that came from entombment in ice. His lips were slightly parted, his eyes  wide open and staring. He was about fifty at a guess but the preservative effect of freezing made his skin look smoother, younger. He still had a full head of dirty blond hair, heavily streaked with grey. He wore a thick overcoat over a roll-neck pullover, denims, and sturdy hobnail boots. 
 The other body’s hair was darker and it was more slightly built, as well as a few years younger. It was similarly clothed and the expression on its face was the same, too. There was nothing more to be said about the corpses except that they were pretty obviously that. Koenig continued to stare, awed by their intact state and by the fact of being confronted with a dead human being. "Shit," he said simply. 
 "I think that’s all for today," McCann said grimly. The climb had proved eventful enough. And any discovery of a body on the mountain had to be notified to the authorities at once. "Let’s go home." 
 As one the two men turned away. Just before they did, McCann thought he noticed a small hole in the fabric of the first body’s overcoat, roughly where its heart would be. Such as might have been made by a bullet.   


Four

Like many men of wealth Count Bruno von Mencken was nothing if not security-conscious. However, he could afford to take the necessary measures to counter electronic eavesdropping and so far had no reason to suspect that the people with the know-how to get round them were interested in him. So he had no reservations about discussing certain matters over the phone with Dr Clive Habgood and Paul Kenward.
"Well, what is the latest news?" he demanded.
 "X5 should be here in force soon," said Habgood. "They’ve already taken over at the cottage. The police have cordoned off part of the moor and our friends will see to the rest." 
 "Needless to say, the creature must be found and recaptured immediately. There are implications not only for the viability of the project but also its security."
 "I’m sure our friends have everything in hand. At this end: well, we’re reviewing our security procedures. I’ve taken on extra staff from the pool of those we’ve identified as trustworthy, and impressed upon all personnel what’ll happen to anyone who allows the error to be repeated."
 "There’s still the question of how the thing could have got out in any case," said Kenward darkly.
"I thought we’d already discussed that. There was a fault in the – "  
 "That’s not what I meant. Why would it have wanted to escape in the first place?"
 "Some…mistake in the biogeneration process, I suppose. After all we’d never want them to escape." 
 The Count drew in his breath. "This has implications," he repeated. "Whatever its cause. The whole project may have to be reviewed."
"Are you considering abandoning it?" Kenward asked.
 "No, I am not. It’s far too important. Instead I want Dr Habgood to look again at the process to see if any rebellious desires can be anticipated and prevented. The trouble could of course be something particular to this one individual. I hope so, at any rate." 

"No, I don’t know of anyone who’d want to hurt her," Duncan Ransome told DS Birrell, his voice distorted by grief. Throughout the interview it was to vary from a dull monotone to more or less a cry of pain.
 He was unshaven, haggard, and appeared to have been drinking. There were a couple of empty beer bottles on the floor. 
 The policeman’s eyes strayed to a photograph on the sideboard which he assumed was of Ransome’s late wife. He saw a not unattractive young woman with a pleasant smile and short fair hair cut in a businesslike bob. 
"So she had no enemies?" 
 "Not that I know of. She didn’t always tell me things, not recently. But…well, she always knew what she wanted and was prepared to fight her corner. I suppose she could have upset some people that way. But I doubt if they’d go so far as to kill her. She was a kind, decent person…" His eyes were glistening. 
 Birrell nodded. "Do you think there was anyone who might have had the wrong sort of interest in her?"
 Duncan reacted at once. "If anyone had tried it on with her I’d have bloody well killed them."
"But was there?"
 "You always get a few who come on too strong. But I don’t know of anyone who’d go all the way down to Devon to do it."
"May I ask what she was doing there? Just in case it has any bearing on the crime."
 Haltingly, embarrassedly, Duncan told Birrell about their agreed separation. Birrell just nodded politely as if simply acknowledging a set of facts. 
 "I don’t like to ask, but we have to consider every potential line of enquiry. Where were you last night?" They must have worked out that it was possible for him to have been there, committed the murder and got back here before they arrived to tell him about it. 
"Like I told the people in London I was here, watching TV."
"Is there anyone who can confirm that?"
 "Well, the people next door would probably have heard the telly through the wall. I can hear theirs."
 Birrell didn’t seem to want to press the point. He could tell that Ransome’s grief was genuine.
"Well, I think that’s all we need to ask you for the moment," he smiled. 
 Duncan looked up, biting his lip. "Can…can I see her?" he whispered. He didn’t like to think of the stress it would put him through but it seemed respectful somehow.
 Birrell chose his words carefully. "I’m afraid that wouldn’t be a good idea. The body was…mutilated." The pause was necessary if sensitivity was to be shown. 
 Duncan winced sharply, physically knocked back in his seat. For several moments his face remained screwed up in a mask of pain. 
"Why?" he whispered.
"We can’t say at this stage, I’m afraid." 
 Duncan wanted to rail at them to stop saying “I’m afraid” all the time. But that would have been unreasonable. Gradually he recovered something of his composure. "But surely…I mean, I heard that these days they can do a pretty good job of putting people back together again after…"
"Not in this case, I’m afraid. The body was very mutilated."
"Ah God," Duncan exclaimed, drawing in his breath.
For one thing it meant he couldn’t see her just one last time. To say goodbye. 
"It’s very distressing, I know. I don’t suppose words can fully express…"
Always a cop-out, saying that. But true.
 "That’s all, Mr Ransome – Duncan. I’d better be on my way now. Thankyou for your co-operation." Again Duncan stayed where he was, not out of rudeness Birrell knew. The policeman saw himself out. Vaguely Duncan heard the door close behind him.  
 Then he broke down, crying it seemed for hours. Oh God, if they hadn’t separated she wouldn’t have gone to stay at the cottage… she wouldn’t have been…
Oh, Nicky. I’m sorry sweetheart, I…
 It’s your fault, you stupid fucking worthless moron, he told himself. You killed her. You wouldn’t talk, you let things slide, and now this has happened. You’ve lost her. For good. 
 He lashed out in rage and frustration and smashed a beerglass against the wall. None of the old areas of disagreement mattered any more and there were no obstacles to getting back together with her. The trouble was, she wasn’t there. 

The Count and Francoise were returning from one of their walks in the latter’s car, passing the journey in companionable conversation. 
 "You say I’m well-preserved," the old man was saying. "But the fact is, I’m always terrified my good health and fitness, mental and physical, will suddenly break down one day. I find being well-preserved makes me all the more obsessive about not losing it." 
 "You won’t lose it, my love," said Francoise soothingly, patting him on the arm. "But if you do, I’ll be here to look after you."
 It was dubious comfort. And no you won’t be there, he thought. Or at least you’ll find some other man, someone younger, and the two of you will be out on the town or screwing yourselves silly while I’m safely tucked up in bed. Not that I can really blame you. 
 But she would look after him, he told himself, even if the nature of their relationship must necessarily change. She did genuinely care, even if he wasn’t sure it was quite the same kind of love as a wife had for her husband. Was she just a former PA who while in the job had conceived a proprietorial affection for her boss, that went a little beyond the norm in its intensity? At any rate, although he was still left feeling she was not a replacement for what he had lost, hadn’t quite filled the gaping hole there had been in his life, she undoubtedly showed him more kindness and loyalty than had Amelie most of the time.  
 "Are you worried that you may not have achieved as much as you’d have liked at the end of the day?" she asked, sensing his thoughts. "That your life hasn’t worked out quite the way you wanted?" 
 He sighed philosophically. "Life never does, not entirely. But…oh, I think I’ve achieved enough. I’ve helped keep this country rich and prosperous; given a lot of people employment. Of course we’ve been hit by the recession like everyone else, but we’re surviving. It’s all I can ask for." 
 They turned into the courtyard and saw that Michel was by the door. Mencken stopped the car, got out and walked over to him, Francoise following. "Is anything wrong?" he asked, hoping that there wasn’t, not when events at the British lab had given him quite enough to worry about. 
 Michel looked significantly at Francoise. "Excuse me a moment, my dear," said the Count to his friend, and he and Michel disappeared round the back of the building, leaving her by the car. She wouldn’t complain. Like all the Count’s entourage, she knew her position depended on not asking too many questions.
"Well?" enquired the Count once they were out of sight and earshot. 
 Doumer took a deep breath. "I thought you should know," he said, speaking quietly even though there was no danger of their being overheard. "They’ve found two bodies on the mountain." 

In the communications room at MI5 they sat listening to the flow of talk from the young Asian man on the phone to his friend, typing out the key words on the computers before them although their earpieces were recording the conversation in full for when the case came to court. 
 "Listen, Saif couldn’t get enough fertiliser so we’ll need the peroxide as well – what’s that? You already got some? How much? Right…yeah, should be enough. It just needs Riz to sort out the electronics then that’s it. I’m a bit worried about Abdullah, he seems pissed off a lot of the time though he’s trying not to show it…but it’s often like that with these things, y’know? I mean, shit man, nobody wants to die even when they got to, it’s like, a natural instinct to go on living, right? You can’t help it. We’ve just got to steel ourselves, yeah? Remember why we’re doing this. Me, I can’t stand living among all those slags any longer. And if we take a few of them with us it’ll get their loved ones thinking. Like, what could have made us do such a wicked thing, yeah? I mean, they gotta face it, they gotta realise how shit the whole set-up is, how it’s their fault there’s so much injustice, so much racism, so much fucking greed, inequality…then maybe they’ll treat us with more respect." 
"You got it. So, you hit on a date yet?"
 "No, we’ll discuss that when we get together tonight. We got to leave some time for Abdullah to make himself ready, you with me? We got to help him, pray with him, do all we can to give him strength right now. That’s how it’s got to be with these things. You got to support each other…"  
 Meanwhile, a workman employed by one of the multitude of private companies now in existence to whom public services were subcontracted was carrying out repairs to a streetlight roughly opposite the house where the young Asian man lived. It would look to passers-by as if he was mending a crack in the concrete of its supporting structure, filling it in with new mortar. They had no way of knowing that the company was actually a front for MI5 and that he was fixing in place a tiny camera, invisible to anyone who wasn’t specifically looking for it, which over the next few days would keep the house and its approaches under careful observation, filming anyone entering or leaving it.

Duncan Ransome plodded about the park, hands in pockets, doing his best to shut out the cries of children at play because of how they made him feel. 
 Autumn had very definitely arrived. It had suddenly got colder these last few days, and the leaves were starting to fall, his feet scuffing them with a monotony that contributed to his mood.  
 By now he had spoken on the phone to all Nicky’s close relatives. Those who hadn’t known were rendered speechless with shock; others, like her mother, had screamed abuse. None of them were exactly pleased with him, for they guessed, having read between the lines, that he and Nicky had been going through a bad patch and that was why she had “gone away for a few days,” to the place where she was killed. At least Nicky’s younger brother Iain, who had become a good friend, was sympathetic, realising that his grief was sincere and that he needed some time to get over it. Duncan’s boss had let him have until the end of the month off, if only because an employee suffering from the traumatic loss of a loved one was not likely to perform well. A date had been agreed for the funeral and there would also be a memorial service at the church near where Nicky had lived as a child, despite her not having been of late particularly religious.  
 Uncomprehending anger had given way, most of the time, to a constant black depression, alternating with moments of pain which reduced him to tears. He kept on thinking of things they had always wanted to do together but now never would, or that had happened and been good but now made him feel sad because those moments could never be repeated. He never knew when such thoughts would come and that made the feeling of being slowly being pulled to pieces worse.
 He searched for something which would give him comfort, make it easier for him to pull through. It would have helped if he could have sat by her body and had a few minutes with her, saying he was sorry and how much he loved her, still. But it seemed that wasn’t possible. 
 What tugged at his heart most painfully was that there had been no kids. He might in the end find someone else, but he had wanted to have children by her; the fruits of their love.
 One thought gave him a kind of solace. Seeing the person responsible for her death brought to justice would be some consolation. But suppose they couldn’t? 
 He wanted to find the bastard who’d done it. Who’d hated his lovely wife so much that he had to rip her to pieces.
 If nothing else, even though he’d been there several times since meeting her he felt he needed to see the place where she had died. 

The police statement was worded as follows: “Last night a woman was found dead at her home at Lower Oakington, Devon. The victim appears to have been bludgeoned to death. This was a particularly brutal murder for which there appears, at the moment, to be no motive. Obviously we are continuing with our enquiries. So far we have no clues as to the identity of the killer. Any member of the public with information they believe might lead to this person’s capture is urged to contact us immediately.” 
A number was given. 

Walking down the high street of Lower Oakington on her way to the post office to collect her pension, Marjorie Branscombe thought not for the first time how fortunate she was to be living in a place like this; indeed, to have lived there all her life. 
 It seemed comfortably remote from all the nasty and violent things, the war and unrest in the Middle East and other trouble spots, going on in the rest of the world. Things like the 7/7 bombings or the London riots had not seemed to touch it, had been a galaxy away. Life went on at a slower pace than in the town, as it had for hundreds of years. There was still a sense of traditions being preserved and not ruthlessly swept away by the march of so-called “progress.” 
 Down here Marjorie felt safe, insulated from a political correctness which would make her fearful as to what time-honoured custom she’d be expected to abandon next. There were a few ethnic minority people of course, like Mr Sharma at the corner shop, but so far the community remained overwhelmingly white. Though she often felt guilty at the thought, Marjorie was grateful for that. She supposed it was because there were so few blacks or Asians here that A wasn’t too fussy about what B should say or do in case it offended C. What she didn’t think was that it was OK to object to people simply because they were a bit different from oneself. She found her faith recoiled from that sort of thing. For over sixty years Marjorie had worshipped in the local parish church, and she currently served as one of its wardens, giving her a seat on the PCC, but she liked to think her Christianity was more than just a matter of ritual, or administration.  
 Of course it wasn’t just Mr Sharma and his family who hadn’t lived in the place all their lives. She was reminded of that when she saw coming towards her a tall woman of around fifty with a pearl necklace and short peroxided blonde hair, clad in a windcheater, pullover and slacks; with beside her a shorter woman of about the same age whose fair locks were real, but greying, and a lined face. Laura Truman was the Chairman of the Residents’ Association and the other woman, Louise Knatchbull, its Secretary. Laura was often seen around the church, attempting to enlist its support for this or that local project. She would attend weddings and funerals if it was someone important in the community, or whom she knew. Out of politeness Marjorie returned her smile as they drew near to one another. 
 She had been hoping Laura wouldn’t stop her, but she did. "Marjorie, darling, how are you?" She lowered her voice. "What do you think about this murder then? Isn’t it dreadful!" Her accent was pure Esher.       
 Marjorie froze, genuinely shocked. There had been no such incidents in Lower Oakington within living memory. "A murder?" 
 "Yes. Happened yesterday, so I gather. Woman was down from London. Staying at Hawthorne Cottage out on the Moor."
 "That’s a lonely spot," commented Marjorie. She shivered at the thought of how remote it was.
"On holiday, I suppose. Somebody Ransome."
 "I think I’ve seen her around the place. Came to our craft fair and bought one or two things. I didn’t have much to do with her but she seemed quite nice."
 "They say he cut her up. The young policeman who found her was in shock afterwards." 
"Do they know who she was?"
 "She was the daughter of someone who used to own the cottage, came down here every summer. Some writer or other…" Laura frowned, trying to recall the name.
 "Donald Fairley," said Marjorie. "Yes, I remember him well." Though he hadn’t lived there all the year round Fairley had nevertheless with time become a well-known local character. "Oh, she should have said."
 Marjorie asked if Nicola Ransome had been killed in the house. "I’m not sure," she said. "It was Bob Dixon who told me about it." She shuddered. "I wouldn’t live out there. Mind you, I understand the father was rather an odd man."
 Marjorie smiled affectionately, remembering. "Yes, he was. They don’t know who did it yet, I suppose?"
"I don’t think so."
 At that moment a man passed them, a tall powerfully-built man in his late thirties with dark hair and a gaunt face which seemed to lack all expression. Laura drew away instinctively, with a visible shudder. Marjorie too felt an unpleasant sense of…what could it be, fear?  
 Laura murmured something her companions didn’t quite catch. The look on her face made it quite clear she thought the man with the gaunt face might have been the one who committed the murder. No-one knew for sure because he didn’t have much contact with anybody, living alone in a cottage on the edge of the Moor, but it was thought Mark Horgan had served with the SAS. It was probable that while doing so he had killed people and in Laura’s estimation that only made it more likely he had killed Nicola Ransome. 
 "Do they know why she was killed?" Marjorie asked. "Was it robbery? Or did he – have his way with her?"
"I’ve no idea. Some people, though…"
"You don’t think he’ll do it again, do you?"
 "I hope not. Though I suppose it’s easier for things like that to happen in places like this." Her expression showed she might now be regretting moving to the countryside in order to find a bit of peace and quiet. 
"There’s more murders go on in the town," said Marjorie.
"That’s because there are more people there," Laura pointed out.
 "We should be alright here in the village," Marjorie said reassuringly. "It’s not quite so lonely as the Moor."
 "Well, I’ve no doubt the police will do their best to catch the culprit," sighed Laura. "In the meantime we’d better all be on our guard. That means not letting in anyone we don’t know, especially at night." Marjorie could see her making a mental note to bring up the subject at the Association, or even call an emergency meeting. 
 She felt sad for a moment, thinking of a time within living memory when people could leave their doors unlocked without fear of unwelcome intruders who had theft or worse on their minds. 
 "You don’t think it’s got anything to do with those people who went missing, do you?" she asked.
 "Doubt it," said Laura. "They got lost and died of exposure somewhere. Out on the Moor, it couldn’t have been anything else." She spoke as if she were an expert on such matters.   
 Her face changed. "Oh, I was meaning to ask, are you on for the WI outing to Brighton next month? We need the money by next Thursday." 
 "I’m sorry, Laura, I’d quite forgotten. Yes, I’ll be going. I’ll pop the cash through your letterbox sometime today."
"Great. Well, I’ll be seeing you. Come on, Louise dear."
 Laura and her companion moved off. Marjorie remained standing there for a moment or two after they had gone, why she wasn’t quite sure. A thought pricking at the back of her mind…a vaguely remembered childhood terror…
 It grew as she hurried on her way home, and with the strange telepathy that had once been common among old country people she knew it wasn’t confined to herself. Laura at any rate seemed convinced, on the face of it, that she could sort the trouble out if it came to the worst; but however much you tried to ignore it there was no mistaking the brooding sense of dread, of foreboding, which had descended on the village.


Five

The press conference was held in the village hall at Lower Oakington with DI Hedger and DS Birrell, plus Duncan Ransome and a few other members of Nicky’s family, present. Hedger reported on progress so far before the assembled media, of whom some represented regional and national TV companies/newspapers, and some themselves.
 "After a thorough search we have almost completed our investigation of the crime scene," he announced. "However I am afraid that there are still no clues to the identity of the killer.
 "The possibility cannot be ruled out that they have escaped onto the Moor. Consequently it will be cordoned off and searched and we are seeking the assistance of Army personnel in this. In the meantime I would advise the public to be vigilant and to take all the usual precautions."  
 Birrell whispered into Duncan’s ear, asking if he wanted to speak. Ransome nodded, stiffly. "I just want to say; she was a lovely girl who never did any harm to anybody and there is no reason, no reason at all for anyone to have killed her in this horrible way. If anybody knows anything, anything at all, which could help the police find whoever did it could they please let them know immediately. That’s all." 
 Hedger and Birrell took questions from the press. "So you’re concentrating your search on the Moor, Inspector?" asked the man from the East Devon and Dartmoor Herald. 
 "Not necessarily. As I have already stated, we are asking people throughout the area to remain vigilant. And we will be making house-to-house enquiries."
"But the Moor is the most likely prospect?"
"That may be so."
 "Do you think the killer’s got a secret hideout there somewhere?" chipped in another reporter, trying to make things sound lurid. 
 "There are certainly places on the Moor where a person could hide for some time, yes."
"Do you think there is any connection with the recent disappearances?"
"We have no evidence to suggest that at present, Sir."
 "What about the prison, have you checked there to make sure no-one’s escaped?" A violent criminal would certainly be more likely than most people to carry out an unprovoked assault on a defenceless person – although to Hedger’s mind, in this case its savage nature suggested Broadmoor rather than Dartmoor.
 "That would have been one of our first lines of enquiry," said Birrell. "Although we would have been notified if there had been any such incidents. As it is we’re able to confirm that the last escape was five years ago, and the prisoner concerned was recaptured." 
 By now Duncan Ransome had left. He had nearly broken down when delivering his little speech, as people did at these meetings, and nowadays you saw that kind of thing on TV. It seemed an invasion of his privacy, a violation amounting almost to rape, for his emotions to be so openly on display. Besides, he had things to do. 

New Scotland Yard
DI Geoff Marshman worked for the Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Crime Directorate, which, although Britain did not have a single unified police force, was sufficient of an authority in the areas falling within its brief that it had effectively become the national body for them.  
 The Directorate’s remit was very wide. It dealt with many offences which sadly were not uncommon in the modern world: armed robbery, drug and people trafficking, kidnapping, paedophilia, prostitution rackets, serious sex crimes, certain kinds of pornography. Apart from the satisfaction of an actual conviction Marshman never liked dealing with such things, no sane person would but of course someone had to. Fortunately the SCD’s responsibilities covered ultimately an even wider area, and Marshman was often shifted between its different branches as people retired or were transferred for one reason or another. It had other responsibilities in addition to those mentioned and some of the cases you had to deal with were of an exotic, rather charming kind, and certainly not dull. Being with SCD was an eye-opener, to some extent making up for the tedium of the paperwork and serving as an antidote to the more depressing and distressing aspects of the job. 
 At one-thirty that day Marshman returned to his office from his lunch break. Jo, his secretary, greeted him with her usual cheerful smile. She told him that a gentleman had called to see him, and was currently waiting downstairs in interview room 3. 
"What’s it about?"
 "I’m not entirely sure. He was a bit incoherent; one of these upper-class types who, let’s face it, sometimes find it hard stringing a simple sentence together. And I think he’s a bit nervous, a bit frightened, which doesn’t help. But it’s definitely one of ours. Actually, I think you’ll like this one." 
"What’s the fellow’s name?" 
"Giles Fenton. Nice enough bloke."
 Marshman entered the interview room to find a florid-faced young man in his early thirties, tending slightly to plumpness, with a quiff of fair hair falling over his forehead. He rose to greet the detective, his expression indeed one of anxiety.
Fear, even.
 In fact the man was visibly trembling. Marshman introduced himself with a smile, shaking hands. "Mr Fenton? I gather you think you may have information which could be of assistance to us." 
"Yes…I don’t like to do this, but…" Fenton seemed out of breath. 
 Marshman spoke kindly, trying to put him at ease. "Mr Fenton, I can’t make you give information to me if you don’t want to. If you wish to withdraw your offer of assistance you have a perfect right to do so. However if you do have knowledge which may be of use in detecting and preventing criminal activities, and were willing to share it, we would of course be very grateful. I should advise you that anything you do tell us will be acted upon as with any other criminal investigation."
"I, I understand…meanwhile, you…you will keep this confidential, won’t you?"
 "Of course, Sir." Marshman assured him that to do so was standard police procedure. "Shall we sit down?" 
 And so Giles Fenton told his story, in the kind of accent redolent of Downton Abbey. 
 "A few weeks ago I went to a party hosted by an old school friend of mine at his house in the country. His name’s Gus van Ruytenbroek, you’ll probably have heard of him." 
 Marshman thought he had; some millionaire or other, a big name in the city, owned several companies and a football club plus a fleet of luxury yachts and villas in diverse exotic locations. Recently the subject of a messy and expensive divorce case. He made no comment. 
 "There were a lot of us, and the party started to spill over into some of the other rooms. I wandered off, into a part of the house where I don’t think many people go. It was a big house. Anyway, the unfamiliarity of my surroundings made me curious. I was a little bit nosy, I’m afraid. At random I chose a door, tried it and found it unlocked. I opened it and found myself in quite a large room. 
 "There was a painting in the room; in fact there were quite a few paintings, old ones. One of them in particular struck me…it was some king or emperor or whatever in armour, on a horse. 
 "I admired them for a bit, then I got a guilty conscience and headed back to the party. I hadn’t got far before Gus appeared, and he wasn’t very pleased. Someone must have been watching some kind of concealed CCTV and seen me go into the room with the paintings. He wasn’t rude, but he was certainly…agitated. Enough to be sharp with me. "Giles, what the hell did you think you were doing? That room’s private."
""Sorry. It wasn’t locked so – " I realised this was a feeble excuse. 
"Was it shut?"
"Well, yes…"
 "So how did you know whether it was locked or not unless you’d tried it? And it wasn’t your business to, was it?" He was trembling and breathing hard, and from his face…well it looked to me he was as much worried as angry, though he was doing his best to hide it. 
"Sorry. I’m sorry, Gus, honestly. Next time I’m here I’ll bear it in mind. Sorry."
 "The stuff in there is extremely valuable. If the wrong people knew I had it they’d try to steal it. I didn’t realise Katya had forgotten to lock the door." Katya was his Polish maid and I had an idea she might now be in for a hard time.  
 "He managed a friendly smile and patted me on the arm. "Look, Giles, just bear it in mind, like you said. We’ll say no more about it. But not a word to anyone, alright?"  
 "That seemed to patch things up, and as we’d agreed I said no more about it. Then, a few weeks later, I happened to be browsing through a book on art and it had a photograph in it of a painting of this king or emperor in armour on a horse. I recognised it as the one I’d seen at Gus’ place, in that room no-one – except Gus himself, and presumably Katya to do a bit of cleaning – was supposed to go in. In itself that didn’t strike me particularly, but then I read the caption below the photo. It said the painting, Henry VIII On Horseback by Holbein, had been stolen by the Nazis from a museum in Holland during the Second World War and now nobody knew where it was.    
 "I imagined there’d been copies made of it at some point, and the photo in the book was probably of one of them. But if the painting at Gus’ house was a copy, why would he be that worried about anyone stealing it? Why’d he be so keen to keep it under lock and key? I don’t know that much about art but from what I do know, I gather originals of paintings are much more valuable than copies." 
"That is certainly the case," confirmed Marshman. 
 "The thing is…" Fenton’s face clouded. "I suppose it’s possible Gus might not know the history of the painting…that it was looted by the Nazis from its rightful owners. But…well, the lengths he’s gone to to hide it from people. He’s worried about criminals stealing it if they knew he had it, but the same could apply to a lot else in that house. There’s all sorts of stuff he’s bought over the years, antiques…and his manner when he found I’d been in that room, it was as if something had got out that shouldn’t have."  
 Marshman assimilated all this. "So you think Mr van Ruytenbroek may be knowingly in possession of stolen goods?"
 "Well…" Unhappily Fenton inspected the floor. "I don’t like to say it. I mean, he’s a friend…despite his faults. Not very nice when you cross him though, he never has been. I could tell you some stories from school…but the point is, he must know he’s not supposed to have that painting. And if he has got it; well it’s not right, is it? Not when you consider what the Nazis were like, the things they did…they stole lots of art treasures, many of them from wealthy Jews they’d sent to the concentration camps. I just felt I ought to come and see you…they told me your department handled these things so…" Marshman headed the Art and Antiques Unit, a sub-division of SCD’s Economic and Specialist Crime branch. "You’ll be careful, won’t you? As I said, if you get on the wrong side of Gus…if he found out that I…"
 "You did choose to come to us of your own accord, Sir," Marshman reminded him gently. He’d known the risks. "However we will of course try to keep your name out of it if we can. You realise though that that may not be possible."
 "Gus is a powerful man. He can interfere with witnesses, he knows where to find the lawyers who can get him off."
 Marshman hoped Fenton wouldn’t panic and retract his story. "You can be sure we’ll give you maximum protection should you decide to testify." 
 The young man smiled wistfully. "I suppose I asked for this, didn’t I? And now I’ve started it I’d better go through with it." Some vestige of the code of honour which the upper classes had once subscribed to, or liked to think they subscribed to, still lingered within this representative of the present generation. "It’s the right thing to do. 
 "Don’t be too hard on the maid," he added. "She probably doesn’t have any idea just how valuable the painting is and where it’s come from." Marshman thought this was probably true. 
 He asked if Fenton had anything more to add. Fenton replied that he hadn’t. He was then requested to provide a written statement plus contact details. Once he had done so the inspector showed him out, before returning to his inner office where he discussed the business with his deputy, DS Greensmith. 
 He smacked his lips. "Well…Nazi loot. If it really is that we’ll obviously have to give the case a high priority." 
 "If I were Van Whatsisname I’m not sure I’d touch something like that. I couldn’t show it off because it would be risking a lot for anyone to know I’d got it."
 "Oh, they’d buy it, believe me. You haven’t been in this job long enough to know these people like I do."
 "It wouldn’t surprise me if the other paintings in that room were stolen too. Van Ruytenbroek’s always been a bit dodgy, only we’ve never been able to pin anything on him." 
 "Like all criminals, he’ll concentrate on making sure there’s only one person’s word for it. Then he doesn’t have to do anything much, apart from generally being extra-careful from now on." 
 "What about the maid? If he decides to sack her for incompetence she becomes a security risk. If our theories about van Ruytenbroek are correct, it’s just possible she might end up dead."
"We’ll keep an eye on her."
"So what about the painting?"
 "We want him under surveillance." They could raid the house, confiscate Henry VIII On Horseback and arrest van Ruytenbroek, but he might not tell them who supplied him with the painting. And if other people who’d bought stolen artwork, or the dealers, heard about the raid they might panic and destroy the paintings. Altogether they’d be more likely to learn something from the surveillance.  
 Their task was to not only bring van Ruytenbroek to justice, and return the old master to its rightful owners, but also to find out who the millionaire had got the painting from. Marshman felt a little overawed; he had been involved, usually successfully, in dealing with a variety of art thefts and frauds but it was the first time a case had come along involving Nazi loot. There was clearly an international dimension to the affair. "I want you to get onto our friends at Interpol, liaise with them," he told Greensmith. "I don’t know how many hands that painting has been through since it was nicked, but if anyone who’s been peddling it is still around and not too old to bang up we need to find out who and where they are. We can’t be sure, but if that’s where it was stolen in the first place, my hunch is the clues in this case are to be found somewhere in Europe."  

Except that a computer and a modern push-button phone now stood on the massive mahogany desk the study looked little different from in 1945, with the same book-lined shelves and varnished wood panelling. There was a painting of Bruno’s father, with an Alpine landscape behind him, on the wall. 
 The Count and Inspector Gunther Kirschen of the Criminal Police Force for the canton of Zweichen took their seats. "I hope this won’t take up too much of your time, Count," apologised Kirschen. 
 The old man’s shoulders twitched briefly. "It’s your job. Now, you said two bodies had been found on the mountain."
 Kirschen nodded. "What you may not have known is that they’d both been shot. At least, that’s what it looks like."
The Count raised his eyebrows.  
 "I presume they were dumped in the glacier through a crevasse. It was not a recent killing. There’s yet to be a full post-mortem so we don’t know how long they’d been there for, but we found documents, including passports, identifying them as American citizens and date-stamped April 1945. Other than that I can’t say anything until the post-mortem is complete."
 The Count’s expression was what might be regarded as normal in the circumstances: intrigued, yet also saddened by the thought of any violent, untimely death. Kirschen paused. "If there is any information you may have that could help us in our enquiry…you will understand that even though the deaths took place over sixty-five years ago, we still have to investigate them thoroughly. As they took place in the vicinity of your home it would have been courtesy as well as a matter of procedure to have notified you."
 "Of course, inspector. I and my staff will be pleased to co-operate. So, two bodies…"
"That’s right." 
"1945…" Again the Count shrugged. "I was only sixteen at the time."
 "You don’t remember anything happening then that could have a bearing on the matter?" 
 "No, inspector. Of course, it was so long ago…and I’m an old man now, my memory isn’t what it used to be." Tactfully Kirschen gave an understanding smile. 
"So it couldn’t have been a climbing accident," the Count mused.
"It doesn’t look like it. In any case, they weren’t wearing mountain gear."
"Oh?"
 And if they hadn’t been climbing, the only reason they would have for being on the mountain was to visit the castle. That was the question Kirschen was too polite to ask without more evidence to back his suspicions, as the Count knew. 
 "Well, if anything comes to mind, obviously I will let you know at once. I wonder what they were doing there, then?"
"We hope to find out. Thankyou for agreeing to see me." 
 They rose, and the inspector was escorted to his car, the Count bidding him goodbye with a firm handshake. After he had gone Bruno sought out Michel, whom he found busy on a rowing machine in the gym, and told him what had been said at the interview. "We need to talk about this."

“All the stuff’s there at the house,” he’d said. “They’re just leaving a few days to psych themselves up.” But no more than that, because it would allow time for someone to change their minds in. 
 At 5 am the two police vans turned into Ferriby Road in Luton. They stopped outside number 22 and the armed unit jumped out. They split into three groups. The first used its axes to break down the door, the second positioned itself at the rear of the house so that no-one could get out that way. The third group remained on guard at the front. 
 The occupants of the house were caught by surprise. In minutes they had been rounded up and were being led out in their underpants or pyjamas with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Of the four men one was sullenly silent while the others poured out a seemingly endless torrent of abuse towards the police and the society they represented. Stony-faced,  ignoring the venom as they had been trained to do, the officers bundled them into the back of one of the vans, which then drove off, siren wailing, towards London and Paddington Green police station. 
 And of course they found the fertiliser and the peroxide and the rucksacks and the other things stored under the floorboards in Ibrahim’s bedroom.
 The houses of the remaining two members of the cell were also raided, and although nothing was found the occupants were arrested and taken to Paddington Green where, along with their friends, they were formally charged with conspiring to bomb the Palace Nightclub in Hackney.
While Abdullah Ashraf breathed a sigh of relief. 

When Duncan returned to his room at the guest house he had booked into, which lay down a pleasant little side street off the main thoroughfare of the village, the first thing he did was to make himself a cup of tea and sit down to drink it. 
 After he had finished it he continued to sit for a very long time, thinking. Finally he got to his feet and went out to the car, face grim yet reflective at the same time.   
 The process of putting Nicky’s affairs in order, which he knew would be long and acrimonious, had begun. Just before he left for Devon the family had turned up uninvited to reclaim some property of hers, including items she had wanted him to keep if anything happened to her, unfortunately not putting the request in writing. He had only just managed to hang onto them without an unpleasant scene. Her will was a true reflection of her wishes, he was sure, but he was certain they’d contest it on the principle that anything in it they didn’t like must be due to his browbeating her. Fortunately it seemed they couldn’t be bothered to go all the way down to Devon to sort out the cottage; most of its contents had belonged to her father and besides were in their opinion a load of junk. As for his desire to spend some time in the area, that suited them because the less they saw of him the better. And vice versa.  
 On the way to the cottage he considered his immediate future. As much time as you want, the boss had said. Only Duncan doubted if the boss really meant it. Sooner or later he would need to know when Duncan was coming back, or at least find someone to stand in for him, who might as well become permanent once they’d been in the job long enough, provided their face fitted. You didn’t allow members of your workforce to be absent for an indefinite period during which they were paid for doing nothing. Duncan knew he would be expected back after a couple of weeks, which was the normal period of leave allowed at any one stretch, at most. 
 Quite frankly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to come back at all. If it hadn’t been for the job then Nicky might still be alive. 
 He turned off the main road down the lane to the cottage. He didn’t get very far before he found it blocked off by a fence made from some plastic mesh. He tried all the other approaches and it was much the same. On the Moor sides the fence stretched far into the distance, so far he couldn’t see where it ended. It went right up to the main road that skirted the western edge of the Moor. Whether they were still searching the cottage itself for clues he’d no idea, but it seemed the cordon around the moor had now been put in place and the building was well within the restricted area.  
He sighed. 
 What would happen to the place now? It really belonged to Nicky’s family and he doubted if legally they would let him have any say in the matter. Which was only fair, perhaps. Maybe they’d let it out to others who needed solitude in order to sort out their affairs, or wanted to commune with nature for its own sake. But sometimes a place where a bad thing had happened was pulled down and cleared away, the site grassed over to remove all visible trace of it; he certainly wouldn’t have any objection to that in this case, sad thought it would be in some ways. 
 He had no idea how long it would be until they found the killer. But until they had and he could see the place of Nicky’s death he was reluctant to leave here. He decided to stick it out until those two weeks were up, at least. 
 He thought he might be able to see the cottage, though only just, from the main road. So he drove along it, from time to time glancing to his right. Unfortunately the fence blocked his view. On the left an area of high ground came up, and he slowed and turned off the road along an abandoned farm track. When he thought he might get a good view of the Moor he stopped and got out. But although he could now see over the fence it was too far away for him to make out any particular object with clarity. 
 A faint droning sound drifted on the gentle autumn breeze. Looking up and around, he saw some way over to the west a tiny black speck high up in the sky above the Moor. A helicopter; looked like a big one. As it came closer he recognised it as a Chinook. An Army job, a troop carrier. Well they’d said they’d be seeking help from the military. It had been done before. Somewhere like the Moor, they probably needed all the help they could get. The police had marksmen but soldiers were the best trained in survival work. Better at operating at all times of the day, and in all weather conditions, in an arduous environment, and in guessing what their quarry’s actions might be if he was somewhere out there. Maybe they were SAS. 
Good luck to them, anyway.  

The two forensics experts emerged from the wood to be met by a third who had been standing in the doorway of the cottage, waiting for them. "That’s it," one said. "Did you find anything?"
 "I’ve been over every millimetre of the place. That’s the last of the stuff accounted for."
"Are you sure?"
"I said every millimetre." 
 "Not getting at you, but we can’t take any chances. I think we should burn the place down."
 "But then people would want to know why that had been done," said the second expert. 
"We could say it was an accident."
"Not fair on the police, it’d make them look a bit incompetent."
 "It doesn’t matter that much anyway," said the third forensics person. "If whoever lives there next finds more of the stuff they won’t know what to make of it. They’ll assume the police did their job and would have realised if it had been anything important."
 "Depends how much of it there is. A few grammes might not excite undue interest, but if there was much more…"
"I’m not that bad at my job."
"Point taken." 
 Before leaving the three forensics people, who themselves were not members of the police force at all, glanced briefly towards the horizon, at where the Chinook was coming in to land. A second helicopter appeared in the distance, making for the same spot. 
 The first Chinook settled, the downdraught from its twin rotors flattening the grass and sending a rippling motion through it. The ramp in the rear of the fuselage came down, and some twenty or thirty figures in khaki battledress, berets and sturdy boots emerged from the Chinook’s hold, followed by a couple of Land Rovers.  
 A sergeant barked a command, then led a group of about four or five soldiers off to the west. The others waited, talking among themselves, while the second helicopter made its approach. From its belly hung the first of the Portakabins which were to serve as the unit’s command post and barracks while here. It hovered, and lowered the prefabricated concrete and steel structure onto the area of level ground which had been identified as the most suitable site for it. The soldiers then proceeded to fit it out, humping the necessary equipment inside to the shouted orders of the officers and NCOs, their voices distorted slightly by the wind blowing across the Moor. 
 The helicopters bore the markings of the RAF, and the troops would have appeared to anyone watching them at work to be ordinary soldiers; but a closer inspection would have shown that the insignia on their berets was not that of any of the regiments officially listed as comprising the British Army and its affiliated units.  

Taking his first good look around the village, Duncan thought it would be a nice place to move to; to retire to. If it hadn’t been where Nicky was killed, or near enough. 
 It was a picture-book affair, with a cobbled high street on either side of which stood handsome Georgian buildings, some painted white and some with the warm red brick exposed, plus a few older, half-timbered ones here and there. There were craft shops, art galleries, swinging inn signs. Off the street were narrow lanes which buses and heavy lorries negotiated with difficulty. Each was flanked by rows of cottages with cob walls and slated or thatched roofs. The venerable grey tower of the thirteenth-century church at the top of the hill stood over it all like a mother hen, as if still offering a protection which many these days had decided they no longer needed.  
 The village was a large one, almost a small town, and a market was in progress in the central square, just as it had been on at least one day of the week, barring exceptional circumstances, since mediaeval times. The cold, clear autumn air rang to the traders’ cries. The place still had some life to it, was a community in its own right and not a dormitory area for Exeter or Plymouth. Duncan could make out several different accents. Only the older people seemed to have undiluted West Country burrs. The middle-aged spoke with a strange mixture of Devon and Cockney or Home Counties, and the young one or other of the latter two. 
 He had lunch in a little tea shop with framed sepia photographs on the walls, images of the village in times past. When he went in the place was empty apart from the buxom fortysomething woman behind the counter. He asked for a cup of tea and a fruit scone. "Are you local?" the woman enquired in a friendly manner as she took the order. "Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before." 
"I’m from London," he said. "Thought I’d get away from it all for a few days." 
 "Only you do look a bit familiar – " Realisation dawned. She must have seen the press conference on TV. She seemed uncertain whether or not to mention the subject. "But maybe I’m wrong."
 "It’s alright," he said. "I’m the man whose wife was murdered on the Moor." It had come out more or less on impulse, but he knew there was a school of thought which thought it was best to be honest in such situations. 
 She looked embarrassed, making him feel guilty, then composed herself. "So you are," she said just as he was about to apologise. "Here, you can have your meal for free, OK?"  
"No, honestly…"
"Go on."
"Alright then." He found a seat. "It’s…very kind of you." 
"No trouble at all, love."
 He looked at the pictures on the walls, not really taking in their details, until she came over with the order. "It was a terrible business," she remarked as she placed the tray carefully on the table. "That you should have that happen to you." She had a soft, motherly voice.
 "Yes…it was." It was all he could think of to say. He could feel the tears coming on again and didn’t want to embarrass her further, even though it was clear she wouldn’t have minded in the slightest.
"Vicar’ll be glad to talk to you, if you want." 
 Duncan didn’t know whether God, if He existed, was cruel, indifferent or had some other reason, which could only be guessed at, for allowing Nicky to die. But he wasn’t yet in the frame of mind to discuss complex questions of theology. "Maybe," he said politely, aware she was only trying to help. 
 "I shouldn’t keep going on about it. But it’s fair put the wind up us all, I can tell you. Aren’t there some sick people about." Duncan nodded. 
 "Tell you one thing, that Moor can be an evil place sometimes." She went quiet, realising such a remark wasn’t likely in the circumstances to cheer Duncan up.  
"Go on." He supposed he was intrigued. 
 "It’s all there in that book." She pointed to a rotatable stand on which hung a selection of publications of local interest. Predictably one was The Hound of the Baskervilles, which after all had been set on the Moor; the place was trading on it to some extent. Another was Ghosts and Legends of Dartmoor. "Go on, take a copy if you’re interested." 
"Thanks." 
 He started on his snack. A thought suddenly popped into his head. "Those missing walkers…" Nicky had told him about them.  "How long ago was that?"
"About a year, maybe a bit less."
So not too long ago, then. "What happened?" 
 She hesitated, not wishing to put ideas into his head, then continued. After all, the police said they didn’t think there was a connection. And maybe an interesting mystery would help him take his mind off his bereavement.
 "The first were two men from London…mist came down and they got separated. One was found by the Mountain Rescue team; his friend’s still out there somewhere, dead or alive. A month or two later there were a couple from Exeter…said they’d be back after a couple of days but weren’t. It’s happened quite a few times to be honest. People have always got lost on the Moor. It goes back hundreds of years. They always say they searched everywhere for them…but it’s such a big place, I don’t see as how they can have. They’d have to still be doing it now. Plenty of caves and things…holes in the ground nobody knows are there. Some of them could hide a body forever. Or it could be they got caught in quicksand; you get it out on the Moor. Wouldn’t be surprised if they’re never found, not in this life anyway."
 The bell above the door rang as it opened, and she turned to deal with the customer. Duncan got on with his meal. Afterwards he thanked her again, took the book and left, depositing a few coins on the counter despite her protests. 
 Back at the guest house he threw himself on the bed and for a while just lay there, overcome once more by depression. Then, for the sake of something to do, he picked up the book and flicked through it morbidly. It was by a prominent local historian. The front cover depicted a giant hound-like creature along with witches, goblins and a white shrouded Ku Klux Klan figure, all against a bleak landscape dotted with stunted trees.
 As he’d expected it didn’t do much to raise his spirits, and eventually he tossed it to one side and lay back, to dream both of the past and of a future that now could never be. 

DS Greensmith’s first action on being delegated to take charge of the investigation into Gus van Ruytenbroek was to establish the rightful ownership of Henry VIII On Horseback. Sold off by George IV to meet his debts, it had eventually been acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, from where it was later stolen by the Nazis. 
 He felt this was a very special case, one where he was somewhat out of his depth. He needed to bone up on the subject of Nazi loot as much as possible. His desk was soon overflowing with books and Wikipedia print-outs. 
 During the period from 1933 to 1945 millions of pounds’ worth of money and priceless artefacts were seized by the Nazis from museums, art galleries, libraries or private individuals (the latter often from wealthy Jewish families like the Rothschilds). This took place in Germany itself once the Nazis came to power, and in Poland and Czechoslovakia after they were occupied in 1939, but when the Second World War broke out in earnest and Hitler became master of most of Europe west of the Urals the Third Reich had virtually a free hand to plunder the conquered nations as it pleased. Some items were destroyed as decadent (in the Nazis’ opinion anyway). Some were sold to raise money which could be turned into guns or otherwise benefit the Nazi economy and war effort. Some found their way into the private collections of the Nazi leaders, most notoriously Hermann Goering. Backed up by bureaucratic efficiency and officially described as “confiscation” – the aim, ostensibly at any rate, was to include the artworks in Hitler’s projected (but never realised) Fuhrermuseum – the  looting was carried out by the SS and other military units under the direction from 1940 of an organisation called the Einsatzab Reichsleiter Rosenberg fur die Besertzen Gebiete (The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories) (ERR),Alfred Rosenberg being one of the leading Nazi Party officials.
 The ERR was divided into a number of branches, each responsible for a particular sector of Occupied Europe. To take one example the western branch was located in Paris and covered France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The spoils were collected and taken to the Musee Jeu de Paume in Paris where art historians worked to inventory them before exhibitions could be held at which the leading Nazis would take their pick, dividing up the collection between them. 
 Under Rosenberg and Goering’s leadership the ERR seized 21,903 art objects from German-occupied countries. In Poland, the total cost of these thefts was estimated at 20 billion dollars. By the end of the war over 516,000 paintings, sculptures, rare books and manuscripts, and other items of immense historical and cultural value had been accumulated from Germany, France, the Low Countries, Poland, Russia, North Africa and elsewhere.
 Articles not snapped up by the Nazis or their clients remained in storage at locations such as the Musee Jeu de Paume and the Nazi headquarters in Munich. As Hitler began to lose the war they were moved out to protect them from bombing and the advancing Allied armies, no doubt with a view to what might happen after the end of hostilities when they might come in extremely useful. They were hidden in locations, usually within Germany itself, like salt mines and caves where the temperature and humidity was such as to preserve the paintings in perfect condition. Most were recovered after the war and returned to their owners, though this process could take decades, some museums not realising that items in their collection had gaps in their provenance and had been acquired directly or indirectly from those who had obtained them illicitly. But many remained unaccounted for. In some cases the items were still held by the German government and legal controversies had so far prevented their repatriation. In others no-one knew where they were because the Nazis had either managed to spirit them away to South America or the secret of where they were hidden had been lost. The work of cataloguing everything that had been stolen, so that it could be known precisely how much was missing and what, was still going on. But to give some idea of the scale of the problem, by 2008 over a million items had been listed as disappeared in Russia alone. In Europe proper the figure was around 100,000, including some objects of particular cultural significance. 
 Towards the end of the twentieth century greater efforts were made to secure restitution for the original owners of the looted artworks. New laws were passed towards that end. Books and articles by investigative journalists helped focus attention on the matter. Political changes, especially in the former Soviet Union, and the expiry of privacy laws made new information available. There were court cases. Dealers as well as museums and galleries were expected to carry out detailed investigations to establish, as far as they could, where the treasures in their possession had come from. It was a lengthy and time-consuming business. Of the masterpieces which were recovered very few were found in public collections, suggesting that most of the remaining missing items, if they had not been lost or destroyed to hide the evidence when the net closed in, were in the hands of private individuals. Who either genuinely didn’t know their true provenance, which was possible, or did and didn’t care.
 Greensmith also noted, in case it proved to be of relevance, that during World War Two over 550 million – the exact figure remains unknown – US dollars’ worth of assets in gold, looted from occupied countries to help finance the war, were transferred by Nazi Germany to overseas banks in neutral countries. Some of this, in the form of personal possessions – watches, bracelets, cufflinks, false teeth  – had been taken from victims of the Holocaust or their bodies. Where all this gold now was had been the subject of various books and conspiracy theories. But the vast bulk of it, approximately 316 million dollars along with over 120 million which had been obtained legally, was lodged with the Swiss National Bank, Switzerland being neutral in the conflict.     
 Greensmith thought about what he was reading. They’d go through with the investigation, obviously, because it was their job. But despite all he knew about the Nazis the theft of a painting, when compared with all that was troubling the world today – terrorism, poverty, civil and political unrest, climate change – the matter didn’t seem very important. However vile Hitler and his activities had been they must be put in their full global, historical perspective, and especially where it was objects that had been stolen rather than people who had been killed. You were talking about something which had happened over sixty-five years ago and, although it might have legacies, didn’t now represent a threat to human survival and/or wellbeing in the way so many other things seemed to.
 It was a tragedy of course, and a crime. But it all seemed like yesterday’s news, yesterday’s concerns, yesterday’s business, to him. 

The two corpses had been brought down the mountain in body bags and driven to the mortuary in Eissensberg, where the post-mortem was carried out. It was estimated they had been in the ice for between sixty and seventy years, which tallied with the date on the passports. The autopsy confirmed that they had not died from falling into the glacier, though the fall might have occurred as a result of death. The cause of the latter had been bullet wounds to the head and back of one corpse, and the chest of the other, which would have proved fatal either instantly or within a few minutes through internal bleeding and damage to vital organs. The bullets were extracted and examined and found to be of a type common in the 1940s, as was the make of gun from which they were probably fired. 
 Meanwhile a search had begun for the next-of-kin, if any. It proved fruitless. For no-one with the IDs stated on the documents the bodies had been carrying seemed to have existed at that time. 
 It might have been possible to trace the gun. But if Inspector Kirschen’s theory as to what had happened was correct, and if the weapon had not been disposed of long ago, that would require an extensive search of the castle, permission for which he somehow doubted he would ever obtain. 

The baronial hall of the castle was used occasionally for meals – on special occasions, banquets – and as a ballroom. Centuries ago it had been the scene of meetings between the Count and his estate officials or the other powerful nobles of the region. Something like that was taking place now. The Count occupied the throne-like chair at the head of the table, beneath the elaborate coat of arms which overhung the massive fireplace behind him. Also present were Michel Doumer; Mencken International’s chief research scientist Volker Erhardt, who when required assisted the Count in his laboratory; and Joachim Waldersee, a high ranking member of the Swiss government. Paul Kenward, detained by business matters in Germany, had simply told them to get it sorted out or they’d all be in trouble before ringing off. 
 "I didn’t think there was any other way into the glacier," said the Count. It was, they knew, an appeal for things to have been otherwise; a futile one, of course.
He hadn’t expected something like this to happen. Or had he?
 "The mountain is riddled with thousands of crevices and fissures," said Erhardt. "Some are tiny, others large enough for a person to enter through. But they can easily be missed." Unless inspected carefully at close quarters they would seem to be just folds in the rock. "I say it now this has happened, but perhaps we should have done an ultrasonic scan, then arranged for the larger ones to be blocked somehow."
"Impossible," the Count grunted. "As you say, there are thousands of them." 
 We should have dumped the bodies somewhere else all those years ago, he thought. And there had been ample opportunity during the past eight decades to get the corpses out of the glacier and dispose of them somewhere no-one could possibly find them. A factory furnace, perhaps a rubbish dump. Only Klaus von Mencken, and his son after him, had been too scared something might go wrong between the corpses leaving the castle and their final destination. 
"Fortunately they don’t seem to know about the cave," said Doumer.
 Erhardt cut straight to the bone. "Do we really think there’s anything we need to worry about?" 
"You were not responsible," said Waldersee, looking at the Count.
 "No," sighed the old man. "But I was involved. I was a party to the disposal of the bodies. Not to mention all that I have been doing subsequently.
 "Look, the situation is clear. In view of my father’s…sympathies, and the known connections between elements in this country and the Third Reich, the world would wonder what two Nazis were doing here."
"There’s no proof they were Nazis." Which there wasn’t. Swiss neutrality notwithstanding Berlin had chosen to fake its representatives’ ID rather than let them travel under their real names, preferring not to trust too much to providence.
 The Count found he could barely remember what their real names had been. A sign of old age, or simply the passage of time? 
"I still think it’s enough to arouse suspicion," he said. 
 "But after so long," said Doumer, "is anyone going to be bothered? Even if they do find out the truth?"
"They will want to know why I have been covering it up all these years."
"Loyalty to your father? It’s understandable, surely."
 "Some would agree. Others would not. Even now there are still those who believe that anyone who ever had anything to do with…Nazis is forever tainted. You’d think that after so long they would be more forgiving but they’re not. If anything they’re terrified that with anno domini the world is going to forget that whole business, so they’re all the more hysterical in their attempts to focus attention on it."
"Why don’t we just tell the truth?" suggested Erhardt.
 "We would have to pay massive compensation. And we need that money. Our research is still incomplete." 
 "Is it? I wouldn’t have said so. We have succeeded in our primary objective, which was to – " 
 "There’s still much that needs to be done. And we need to find out the reasons for what happened at Dartmoor, or it might be dangerous to continue with the project. Have the people there still no ideas?"
"No. But they’ve only just started their investigations." 
 The Count returned to their main concern. "Thirdly, if I could sit on the truth for nearly seventy years people would wonder what else I might be keeping secret. They’d certainly ask what I’d been spending the money on."
 "They may ask to search the castle," Erhardt said anxiously. "We can’t have that."
 Waldersee told him not to worry. "They won’t do that unless there’s more proof in the first place." 
 "All the same, there will be rumours. And investigative journalists, always trying to find out what the government would prefer stayed secret. People already wonder why we are so security-conscious here, and the disappearance of the climbers will not have helped matters."
 "But climbers have always disappeared on the mountain, ever since the Alps were opened up to tourists in the nineteenth century. Accidents happen all the time." 
 "People won’t leave it at that once certain ideas have been implanted in their heads. They’ll take more and more of an interest in this place and we can’t afford for them to." 
 For a while the Count was sunk in gloom. Then he pulled himself together. "I think Joachim is right, they haven’t enough grounds to search the castle. And after a while public interest will die down." 
 Erhardt changed the subject slightly.  "I would be happier if we had a few more subjects for the research programme." 
"It’s too risky. But remember, we don’t have to find them here." 
"Finding them anywhere is risky," said Doumer.
 Waldersee leaned forward. “If it really looks like we’re in trouble, I and our other supporters in the government will do our best to help. We know what you’re doing and how important it is; to this country and in the long run, the world." 

Their temporary headquarters having been fully assembled the soldiers, their numbers now increased somewhat, regrouped and Colonel Roy Parsons, in overall command of the operation, addressed them. "OK lads. You know what you’re looking for." It was just a recap; they had been extensively briefed, and the whole business planned in minute detail, before leaving HQ. "We don’t know what exactly the creature’s intentions are, but at all costs it must be prevented from breaking through the cordon. The second objective is to capture it. If it comes quietly, well and good. If it doesn’t, kill it. It’s as simple as that. Now you have an advantage in that you’re armed and it’s not, but remember it’s still dangerous so take care. Alright, carry on."
 Half of them stayed at base as reserve, to take over at night so that those who had been searching during the day could get some rest. The remainder split into five groups of six, each led by a sergeant or Warrant Officer who consulted a map of the Moor on which the zone his squad was to cover was marked out in red. Altogether the area was divided into five sectors, one for each group, radiating from the command post like segments of a cake, widening the further the distance from it but never more than a few miles across at maximum extent. Within each sector particular places where it might be possible for the creature to hide were highlighted. 
 The rotors of the Lynx helicopter, equipped with nightsights, which had joined the Chinooks earlier started up and it took off to assist the soldiers in their mission by surveying the Red Zone, as the scene of the operation was termed, from the air.  
 Sergeant Gerry Mathieson finished studying his map, then raised his voice above the wind. "Right. Singh, Walters, Daneman, take the perimeter. Jenkins, Holt, Lacombe, go your separate ways. Everyone keep in touch with each other and with me at all times. OK, let’s go!" 
 Unslinging their rifles from their shoulders, they moved off. Each man had a backpack containing his Satnav, rations, first aid kit and binoculars, plus a belt pouch where he kept his radio, compass and other navigational equipment for use should anything go wrong with the Satnav, along with a knife and other smaller items which might need to be used at some point. 
 The rifles were Heckler and Koch MP5s; basically, anyway. They were no longer ordinary rifles, not quite. They fired bullets in the conventional fashion, but for this particular operation the arms department had made one or two modifications. Attached to the barrel and linked to the trigger was a foot-long white cylinder which tapered inwards at the front end to a narrow, pointed nozzle.

MI5 HQ, Thames House, Millbank, London
He thought it best to choose a time when no-one else was in the building, so it was less likely he’d be spotted, and suspicion created. 
 He had the e-mail and postal addresses, of course. Along with the telephone numbers they were all in the files, manual or electronic, and in some cases had been for years. Entering the room where they were kept, to which his pass gave him access, he went to the cabinet where the discs were stored, unlocked the drawer and sorted through the contents until he found what he wanted. Extracting it, he seated himself at the nearest computer, switched it on, and once it had booted up inserted the disc in the slot in the tower.  
 He called up the list of e-mail addresses on the screen, then, working from it, sent a message to each with the relevant file attached. By way of a precaution, in case someone’s internet connection should be down or the message fail to reach them because of some other glitch of the sort computers were prone to from time to time, he also printed off the information, put it in envelopes and posted it to the head of each cell. Belt and braces.
 In each case the message began: “Greetings in Allah. I am sending you this information so you should know the identities of those who are betraying the glorious faith of Islam by spying on their brothers and reporting the faithful warriors of the jihad to the infidel authorities. May vengeance be swift and sure. Insh’Allah.”

Six

The restaurant in the King’s Road was reasonably priced, and so tended to be frequented by all classes of society except perhaps the poorest. But people being what they are, whatever their ancestry or level of income no-one gave much thought to the man sitting by himself at table number 10 until it was realised, after he’d paid his bill and gone, that he’d left his briefcase behind.

At 4.30 the train from Reading pulled into Staines as usual, and those passengers whose journey ended there got off. Not long after the train resumed its journey to Waterloo nine-year old Taylor Keegan, accompanying her mother Mandy and sister Kylie on a visit to relatives in the capital, noticed that something was lying on the vacated seat beside her. 
 It was a red folder stamped with an important-looking seal. Overcome with curiosity, she picked it up and started leafing through its contents. 
 Mandy turned, saw her daughter with the file and realised what had happened. "Don’t look at that, Taylor, it’s someone else’s. They must have forgotten it. We’d better hand it in at the next station. Here, give it to me." 
 Reluctantly, Taylor handed over the bulky document. Mandy studied the cover to see if there was an address on it, realised what it was and froze in horror. 

The following morning a package was received at the London offices of a leading national newspaper, addressed to a well-known investigative reporter who was currently on its staff. 
 Reading its contents in astonishment, he realised he was faced with a difficult decision. He knew what the consequences of publishing the information might be. On the other hand there was the news value. This wasn’t something which could simply be ignored.
 Eventually, after much heartsearching on his part and on his editor’s, a compromise was agreed. The document itself would be returned whence it had evidently come, as seemed the responsible thing to do. A piece would be printed on the front page of the next edition of the paper saying more or less what the document had been while leaving out its actual details. Thus everyone’s conscience was appeased, more or less. 

Duncan was reading Ghosts and Legends of Dartmoor again. 
 There were many stories surrounding the Moor. That wasn’t surprising; he’d walked there a few times with Nicky, she having suggested a short holiday in the area for the two of them with the cottage as their base, and it was the kind of place where your imagination ran wild. 
 There were witches, ghosts, strange lights, and what had become known as the Monster of the Moor. Reputedly glimpsed by a number of people including a naturalist and former big game hunter, it was said to be a giant grotesque human figure, not unlike the Grey Man who haunted Ben Macdhui in Scotland, with glowing red eyes. According to one version of the legend it was a lost soul condemned to roam the Moor till Judgement Day preying on unwary travellers and dragging them off to Hell. In its previous life, back in the seventeenth century, it had been a local landowner, a notorious rake and profligate who took women and turned tenants off his land, leaving them to starve, at his pleasure. He virtually kidnapped a local girl to whom he had taken a fancy and raped her on the steps of the local church. The priest rebuked him for this and all the other wicked acts he had committed, urging him to repent, and when he refused cursed him with the words “May the devil take you.” The following day he disappeared and an extensive search found no trace of him. Not long afterwards, a man vanished while crossing the Moor from Oakington to Saddleford. And he was only the first.   
Preying on unwary travellers…the missing walkers, Duncan thought. 
 Only of course where they were now, physically or in any other sense, if dead was anyone’s guess. And his imagination was running away with him. How could he have thought some supernatural being had killed Nicky? Perhaps because the circumstances of her death, the lengths gone to to dismember the body and the strength employed, were strange. But an ancient folk legend…he couldn’t credit it.
 He crossed to the window and looked out over the rolling moorland in the distance. Above it the sky was turning black, clouds gathering. 
 What about a big cat, an escapee from a private zoo? Exmoor had had its own Beast, which was rumoured to be such a creature, so why couldn’t there be one here? But could any animal slaughter its prey in such a destructive fashion that it didn’t just break bones but shatter them to powder?
Not any species he’d heard of, at any rate.
 One thing he felt sure of. If it was a human, they’d been motivated by hatred of a quite chilling intensity. If it was something else, that something had to be unlike any creature known to science. 
 Had he been reading the book for some other reason than to pass the time? No. He very much doubted Nicky could have been killed by some legendary ogre. But one thing was clear. There was a monster out there on the Moor alright, of one kind or another. 

The various members of the cell had not all found their way to Britain by quite the same route. Some were second, third or even fourth generation immigrants, although their families had been in the country long enough for “immigrant” to be not really the appropriate way to describe them. Others had arrived more recently. All had come, or their forebears had come, to fill jobs the indigenous population did not want to do – weren’t able to, where they had been killed in the Second World War – aiming to build a better life for themselves in a more prosperous country. But some had additional motives; Naseem had been attracted by “Londonistan”’s already large and growing – and in his view discriminated against – Muslim population, which placed it in the forefront of the culture clash, the developing global conflict, between the West and Islam. There was work to be done there.  
 After prayers and a short meal they got down to business. All the group were present, except for Tewfiq. There was a reason why they had not invited Tewfiq.
 Sayed held up what he had printed off from his computer earlier that day and circulated discreetly to his colleagues. "You’ve all seen this, yeah?" Everyone nodded. 
 "It must be genuine. It must have come from the security services as how else would they have known my e-mail?"  
 "It is the only thing that can explain their remarkable success rate against us," said Ali. A more recent immigrant than Sayed, he still spoke a formal, precise kind of English, his diction often better than that of the white majority. "A network of informers. We have long suspected it, and now we know."
 "You’re probably right about there being a network. But the thing that’s worrying me, right, is it could be a sting. They’re trying to trap us."
 "That would only work if we did not think it was the security services who had sent the information. As we are agreed, it must have been them. By the same token, the information must be genuine and accurate."
Naseem spoke. "So you’re saying we’ve got a friend at MI5? A sympathiser?"
"Perhaps that is what MI5 want us to think," someone muttered.
 "We have nothing to lose. MI5 don’t need to sting us, they’re doing very well as it is." Yusuf was bitter. "We were lucky on 7/7. So far we haven’t been able to repeat it; every time a cell meets and a plan is drawn up, the police seem to know. So they jump in and arrest everyone before we can do our stuff. There must be informers. At best they wouldn’t need to try a sting. At worst they’d be throwing away a crucial advantage."
 The conversation died down as they sought to weigh the pros and cons of the matter. After a minute Sayed tried to steer them towards a decision. "So what’s it gonna be, boys? This could be a fantastic opportunity we’re passing up, you know?"
"I think Yusuf and Ali are right," said Naseem. "We’ve got nothing to lose." 
 After some hesitation, the others came round to this point of view. "OK," nodded Sayed. "So it’s agreed. I think we should have a little word with Tewfiq."

They were looking for any sign of footprints, or vegetation that had been disturbed. As well as the actual creature, although Private Zack Jenkins doubted it would be so obliging as to show itself. The aim was to search all day if necessary, with breaks for lunch – to be taken wherever you happened to be at the time, just as you might have to perform your bodily functions behind the nearest rock or bush when the need arose – or snacks. Each squad would return to base around six for evening meal and the “night shift”, as it was known, take over. At all times they would take care to keep within their designated areas.
 Jenkins knew he must be careful not to give himself away by moving too fast or too noisily, crashing clumsily through foliage, or appearing too suddenly from behind anything that had concealed him from view. He also knew it was surprisingly easy to hide in what looked like a patch of level ground covered only thinly with vegetation. He bore in mind, for his own safety as much as any other reason, that that vegetation could obscure hollows, depressions where something roughly humanoid in shape could lie unseen. And as for those thick gorse bushes and clusters of bracken…
 So he moved slowly, cautiously, glancing all the time from side to side, his rifle with the curious attachment held out rigidly before him. The satellite imaging equipment on the helicopter, plus his own, was making a detailed and accurate scan of the terrain and relief surrounding him so he could be warned if he was in danger of falling down some pothole, although he preferred to trust his own judgement and go by what he could see on the ground. He avoided the softer, boggy areas where quicksands could easily trap and suck down the unwary. Maybe it’s gone into one of those and is finished, he thought. He searched everywhere else within the three square miles that had been allocated to him, looking behind rocks and probing bushes. All the time he was keyed up to react to the slightest movement, tensed to jump out the way if the creature suddenly appeared and went for him. Its composition meant that it wasn’t particularly fast-moving, but he wouldn’t allow that to make him complacent. 
 As well as afraid, though of course the fear was suppressed – the soldier who has no fear, even if it may not be of the same kind a civilian might feel in the same situation, is either a fool or something downright disturbing – Jenkins was lonely. Much as his mates got on his nerves at times, he missed their company. The nearest of them was some distance away. Even when standing on a high ridge with a view across the Moor for several miles he couldn’t see any other human being, apart from the occasional glimpse of a tiny ant-like figure. Budgetary restrictions and the need not to disseminate certain knowledge too widely meant the overall number of personnel available to X5 was small compared to conventional army units. The organisation had to be careful not to commit too many soldiers to one theatre of operations in case its presence was needed somewhere else at the same time. It meant the force searching Dartmoor was spread very thinly, even when augmented by reinforcements from the other national sections, with more on the way. So it would take longer to find what they were looking for, if they ever did. 
 When a sector appeared to have been thoroughly searched above ground and no trace of the creature found, one or more soldiers were withdrawn from it so that two could explore one of the many old mine workings on the Moor – it was always risky sending just one man in there in case the thing was lurking inside ready to pounce. If the creature returned to the vacated sector after they’d moved on, it would just have to be hoped the helicopters spotted it.  
 Jenkins supposed the moor had a certain savage, desolate beauty. And its bleakness was relieved by clumps of purple heather and yellow gorse, along with other scattered flowers.  But the tors and other rock formations seemed to form sinister, threatening shapes, like prehistoric monsters, and every so often he felt a shiver of primeval dread.  
 He heard the drone of the nearest Lynx and looked round for it. It was several miles away but he found the sight of it comforting. Depending on its exact position, it could be with him in just a couple of minutes to lend whatever assistance was required; he wasn’t so alone after all. Besides the pilot and the observer the Lynx carried three other soldiers, each fully armed. 
Except that a couple of minutes might be too late. 
 Safe and warm in its cabin, the crew of the helicopter continued to watch for any sign of the creature so they could radio the nearest of the squads on the ground and direct them to where it had been sighted. They felt less exposed to danger but were also, to be honest, very bored. Panning over vast stretches of ground until you chanced to spot the objective could be crushingly monotonous. For a time the beauty of the landscape, which was spectacular both from the air and from the ground, had made up for this but it was now beginning to pall.  
 Still nothing; but it was relatively early days yet. And they were sure to get lucky eventually. Meanwhile they had no option but to get on with what they had been told to do. Because they were soldiers, whatever else they might be.  
 Over to the west Zack Jenkins, having made sure there was nowhere nearby from which the creature could sneak up on him, stopped to relieve himself. Then he resumed his search, from time to time establishing his position by the Satnav. 
 He found himself on higher ground, where outcrops of granite poked out from the gorse and bracken and the flanks of ridges. He climbed one of the ridges towards a tor, one of the rock formations, usually rounded and boulder-like, which topped many of the hills of Dartmoor; with the more panoramic view he would have from there he might get lucky. As he approached its summit he heard the wind whistling among the rocks and around the strangely-shaped monolith, whose alien appearance unnerved him more than a little. 
 The helicopters couldn’t cover the whole area at any one time, separately or together, so there was still a chance a man might spot what they had not. Zack took a look through his binoculars, slowly turning a full circle, keen eyes searching for the slightest movement.  
 Nothing. He came down from his tor and pressed on towards the northern limit of the sector. After a while he decided it was time to see how the other members of the squad were getting on. It would relieve the loneliness. He called Holt first. "Steve, it’s Zack. Any luck?"
"If I’d had we’d know about it, wouldn’t we? You?"
"If I’d had we’d know about it, dickhead." 
"Fair do’s." 
 Holt’s voice dropped to a blood-curdling whisper. "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound…"
"Yeah, very funny."
 Sergeant Mathieson cut in sharply. "All right, you two can stop playing games. The thing might hear us coming, mightn’t it? Uh?"
 "Sorry, Sarge," said Jenkins. In a normal regiment he wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with calling Mathieson “Sarge.” But the special nature of X5 meant among other things that it was somewhat informal. 
 "Give us a shout as soon as you see the reds of its eyes. Otherwise not a peep out of you, got that?" 
"Right, Sarge," they chorused. 
Then Jenkins breathed in sharply. "Sarge!" 
"What is it, lad?"
"I dunno…hang on a moment…" 
 Zack had come to a point where the ancient trackway on which he’d been walking intersected with another. A short distance from there he could see some marks on the ground which excited his curiosity. He went to take a closer look.
 A series of imprints, huge, squarish, like massive shapeless feet which lacked proper toes. It could have been some vehicle, rugged enough to negotiate terrain like this, but he had been taught to recognise the tracks left by the different types and these were something different. 
 "Footprints, Sarge," he reported. "At least I think they might be." He described them. "Something with two legs, but not human unless it’s wearing some kind of special boots. Not quite the Hound of the fucking Baskervilles but…"
 The Sergeant told him to hold on, calling back several minutes later. "Yeah, that’s it all right. Do they look fresh?"
"Reasonably, Sarge. Still can’t tell how long they’ve been there, not exactly." 
"What’s your current position?" Jenkins gave it.
 One of the Lynxes changed direction, travelling towards him. Using the Satlink it was able to pick out the footprints and follow them, while Jenkins continued to track the creature on the ground. Mathieson decided it was worth diverting Holt and Lacombe to join up with him. If the creature was cornered it might get nasty and it would have been dangerous to leave him to deal with it on his own. Mathieson also called Colonel Parsons, who instructed the sergeant in charge of one of the other squads to follow the prints in the opposite direction in case the creature had some hiding place where it stayed most of the time, venturing out whenever it needed food, and they might be led to it. 
 Jenkins swallowed, wondering what he’d find at the end of the trail. The thought of danger led him to reflect how he’d come to be in this business, in X5, in the first place. 
 In Britain, X5 was officially a branch of the Special Forces. The same was the case in the other countries from which it drew its membership. The contributing states allowed it to operate on their territory because key figures in their political establishments understood the importance of its work. It had formerly come under the auspices of the United Nations but that body for various reasons no longer wished to be associated with it, which suited the national governments because they had never liked having to haggle with Geneva over just what exactly X5 was allowed to do. It recruited by placing talent spotters in the national armies. It left the navies and air forces alone, though able to call on their help when required, because X5 didn’t have its own air- or seaborne branch at present. It made its choices at random because there was no difference, more or less, between one seasoned member of the SAS or Paras and another. Either would know what they were about or they wouldn’t have been in those regiments in the first place. But Special Forces were preferred because the nature of their operations meant they were more part of the culture of secrecy. Candidates from other regiments, including the Paras, had to undergo intensive questioning, indeed a whole series of gruelling psychological tests, to establish their suitability. They were asked how easy they found it to keep secrets if they had wives or girlfriends and, if so, whether those partners could be trusted to keep their mouths shut should they ever find out the true nature of their loved one’s  occupation. The questions were repeated once the recruit had been told more fully what X5 did and shown the evidence that proved there was no question of a practical joke. Fortunately, there was no need to take action against those who might have been a security risk since if they did talk it was quite possible they would not be taken seriously. 
 Zack had been a Para and was now officially listed as with the SAS, who weren’t expected to talk about their activities anyway. They themselves knew what was going on and co-operated with the deception, which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. 
 He felt privileged to be among those entrusted with secrets of such a fantastic, incredible nature, and he enjoyed the solidarity with fellow X5 members, which was if anything greater than that between regular army troops. The fact that, like the SAS, they were not supposed to talk outside of barracks about what they did cemented their sense of comradeship. They were a tightly knit circle, like a secret society. And the bonds between them were only reinforced by the knowledge that if they did spill the beans to the public most of it wouldn’t have believed them anyway.  
 When they had been shown the proof it was disorientating, but they took it in their stride. Like all soldiers they just got on with the job. In the nature of things they weren’t allowed to keep trophies but they took a certain pride in what they did and talked about it in the canteen afterwards, with sadness or with laughter. They formed friendships, relaxed in the bar when off duty. When not on active service they did morale-building exercises, helped out with public works projects. They held auctions of someone’s kit when he, occasionally she, died. Except when the particular nature of an operation called for specialist, cutting edge (if not beyond it) technology this equipment was much the same as that used by ordinary soldiers, from whom the only thing that differentiated X5 was what they knew.
 Zack continued to follow the footprints, constantly aware of the wind wailing around him. Whenever it dropped there was an eerie silence, and total stillness, which if anything was even more spooky.
 At a rock the footprints changed direction, skirting it. On the other side of it Zack stiffened, and then relaxed, although what he saw made him whistle in awe. The deer had been thoroughly mutilated, completely dismembered, just like the woman at the cottage. The dried blood on the grass and rocks told him the animal had been killed some time ago. Not a good sign. 
 He saw other dead animals, or the remains of them. Something that by the bloody tufts of reddish fur must have been a fox, and something else he couldn’t identify. A heap of feathers.
 Beneath his feet the ground was soft and muddy, but the footprints were losing their outline, ceasing to be recognisable. In a short while they petered out. After the creature had been this way rain had obliterated its spoor, and now the trail was cold. "Lost it, Sarge."
 "Just keep on looking, lad. Just keep on looking." That was what it was often like in this business. 

56 Westland Drive, Leeds
So far there had been no definite plans laid. Haroun’s pulse quickened at the thought that perhaps the meeting Hassan had called for tonight would be the one where they decided where they were going to strike, when, and how. They had talked about how much they hated the West’s permissiveness, its greed, its imperialism, and once it was realised they all shared the same views towards the host community, and with the same degree of passion, they had been emboldened. One night Hassan called a meeting at which he proposed they carry out a hit sometime in the near future. 
 Hassan’s philosophy was somewhat different from that of many other radicals. He wasn’t into suicide bombing, not because he was a coward or secretly thought all that stuff about martyrdom and virgins was crap, but for sound practical reasons. There weren’t that many of them, all told, who in the end were prepared to kill in support of their beliefs. And the police and security services were currently enjoying a very high success rate in anticipating and exposing plots before they matured – the reason for which was now known. They therefore couldn’t afford to lose too many of the faithful. If you were dead you wouldn’t be around to deliver the next blow against the infidel. But as Hassan saw it you didn’t need suicide bombings. If you simply blew something up, making sure you were well away when the bomb went off, or went into a pub or nightclub and blasted away at everyone in sight with a rifle, then that would have as much effect. You would have succeeded in demonstrating to the infidels that unless they changed their ways, they had a problem; that the faithful would no longer tolerate the permissiveness and corruption of the society in which they had to live, plus its arrogation of all the world’s wealth and prosperity to itself, its unquestioning support of the most despicable nation on Earth, Israel. You would have sowed the seeds of communal tension and drawn the dividing lines which were needed if there was to be jihad. You might not be doing the movement much of a favour if you got arrested, but if you weren’t, or you managed to escape, you’d live to fight another day. 
 Hassan probably had in mind a shooting. He had plenty of contacts within the criminal gangs – whether black, white, Asian, or mixed in their ethnic composition – in this part of the capital, and many of them had access to guns. Two or three members of the cell, wearing balaclava masks, would burst into a pub when it was at its most crowded and blaze away until their ammunition was exhausted. They’d make sure that the clientele was predominantly white middle class, not just because Hassan hated such people – the ruling elite, though it was simple jealousy rather than Marxist ideology which motivated him – but also because he was too clever to bite the hand that fed him.
 When Haroun entered the living room he found the others already there, except for Tariq. He made to sit down.
 "Just a minute, Haroun my friend," said Hassan. His tone was too calm and friendly to be naturally so.
 Haroun froze, breaking into a cold sweat. That told them all they needed to know. 
 Then he realised that Tariq had been standing to one side of the door, waiting for him to enter. Because someone now stepped behind him and wrapped a length of ducting tape round the lower part of his head, covering his mouth so he couldn’t cry out. Then they all piled on him and wrestled him to the floor. In moments he was lying bound hand and foot, and gagged with the tape, at their feet.  
 Hassan lifted him up and slammed him against the wall. Keeping him tightly pinned to it with one hand he thrust his face into his, screaming and shouting in uncontrollable rage. "You betrayed us, you…" Every other word was “fuck” or “fucking”; it made him seem like some demented, clucking chicken.
 Letting go, Hassan stepped back and put out a foot, tripping him. He fell flat, and then they were all over him, treating him as if he was a football, kicking him in the head, face, teeth, stomach, chest, genitals. By the time they had expended all their energy he was badly bruised and barely conscious. He tasted blood, swallowed something small and hard and smooth. 
 Furiously he shook himself, aware he had no chance of coming out of this alive unless he had his wits about him. But he found he couldn’t stand; there were the ropes around his ankles and additionally it felt like something somewhere was broken.    
 He saw Hassan reach into his pocket and take out a knife. "Now I’m going to show you what we do to informers, you fucking worthless piece of shit."


Seven

One Portakabin, the largest, served as a dormitory for the ordinary troops and NCOs, where they slept in sleeping bags on camp beds (as did the officers),also containing a communal toilet and shower. Another housed the two senior officers, Colonel Parsons and his second-in-command Major Helen Brant. A third was stores, a fourth the canteen although unless it was dark the idea was that the soldiers ate their meals sitting outside on the grass, having cooked them using portable stoves. The interiors of the living units were for the most part plain and functional. Even the officers’ quarters were spartanly equipped. The Portakabin was divided into two sections with a partition between them; each had a sleeping area, with little furniture apart from the camp bed, a toilet and shower unit and an office with a single chair and a desk with a computer and telephone linked to the satellite dish on the roof. In the way of creature comforts Parsons and Brant had permitted themselves photographs of their families and one or two treasured possessions they always carried around with them, but no more. 
 In the office Parsons, a big man in his fifties with greying fair hair, was discussing tactics with Brant, who acted as his adjutant but was also a combat soldier in her own right, and a highly effective one. She had shortish dark hair and was attractive in a steely sort of way, as women in the armed forces often were. 
 In a conventional military unit there should have been at least one captain, or their equivalent, serving beneath them but as often with X5 money, plus the nature of what was essentially a small elite organisation, meant this level of command had been missed out.    
 "There are various places it could hide," Parsons was saying. He tapped a section of the map spread over the table. "Those caves, that’s what’s worrying me the most." Dartmoor rested mostly on granite, which was less easy for water to erode, but this gave way to limestone towards its fringes. The caves, formed by a process which had been going on for millions of years, were a well-known feature of the Moor, popular with skilled potholers though despite that largely uncharted. "I understand they go on for quite a way. Have we any idea how far, exactly?" 
 "No-one seems to know, Sir. Over the past hundred years, longer in fact, there’ve been occasional attempts to survey them properly. Trouble is, the cave system is so vast it’s easy to get lost in it. One guy wasn’t found for weeks and when he was, he’d gone out of his mind. Another wasn’t found at all, so the story goes."
"It should be easier with ultrasound equipment, surely?"
 "Of course, Sir. But there’s a theory the tunnels, some of them, aren’t dead ends and that they don’t come out on the Moor. One of the exit points is thought to be quite close to the village. It means there’s a potential danger of our being spotted. And however much care we take, there’s still a safety risk to our personnel. Radio and mobile phone signals wouldn’t be picked up so easily underground. And we know how important it is, in an environment where you can easily lose your bearings, to stay in touch with one another."
 "Yes I do know how important it is, Helen. Best thing was always to stop the creature from getting in there in the first place. Hopefully we’ve already done that." Apart from the danger of losing oneself they could be seriously overstretched checking the caves, depending on how far the system extended. Putting a guard on the two known entrances had been among the unit’s first actions on arrival. Only problem was, that left all the ones they didn’t know about, whose number could only be guessed at. 
 It would have been nice if they could have just let the creature go in and then watched the exits on the basis that it would have to come out sometime. But if they didn’t know where the exits were, that was a non-starter.  
  "In addition, as we know, there are probably all sorts of potholes and things on the moor that no-one is aware of," Brant went on. "Even though it’s been extensively mapped, the main features anyway, new ones still keep turning up." 
 Parsons looked at the map again. "What about these old tin mines I see scattered about?"
"They’re a possibility. But they’ve mostly been blocked up."   
 Parsons decided they weren’t a priority at the moment. "Uh-huh. Now what if it got caught in quicksand and sucked down?"
 "I had a word with Dr Habgood about that. It wouldn’t suffocate but it would starve sooner or later. The thing is of course that we might not know it was there. We’d have to drain all the boggy areas and that would take time."
 "But at least we know where they are. The real problem is if it literally decides to go underground – into the caves, I mean. It should be fairly easy to locate it, sooner or later, on the open Moor, especially with the helicopters."
 "That might depend on whether it hides during the day, and is only active at night."
"Why would it only be active at night?"
 "It escaped at night in the first place, didn’t it Sir? It must have realised it stood less chance of being detected."
 "Habgood says it doesn’t have the brains, and I suppose he knows best. He’s a scientist and we’re only soldiers." Though Parsons didn’t sound entirely convinced. "In any case I hope you’re wrong, Helen. We’ve got our nightsights but the thermal imaging wouldn’t be much use, except at very close quarters. It doesn’t give out the same signature as you and I, for instance, would." 
The conversation reached a hiatus. Parsons took a sip from a mug of tea. 
 "Of course we could be here for months," Brant said, echoing his own thoughts. "Perhaps even longer." 
 "Let’s hope we’re not," growled Parsons. "Thank God it’s stayed on the Moor. The difficulty may be ensuring the very hunt for it doesn’t make it go somewhere it isn’t meant to. I don’t want to be responsible for that." In particular he was troubled by the thought of the creature hiding in the caves and then getting out through an exit somewhere beyond the Red Zone. That could be disastrous.
"And if it hadn’t stayed on the Moor, Sir?" said Brant, quietly.
 "Then the cat would have been out of the bag, wouldn’t it?" replied Parsons, equally quietly. 
 Brant took a deep breath. "I know I’ve said this before, Sir, but don’t you sometimes think it would be better if it was?" Then X5’s existence could be officially admitted to, and Brant suspected she wouldn’t be the only one to be relieved when the burden of secrecy was finally lifted. Though it would be sad if the organisation was disbanded, the national governments concentrating on making sure the equipment and resources of the conventional armed forces were adequate for the job that currently only X5 did. If it wasn’t there would be the question, in today’s world a particularly controversial one, of whether it should be broken up and absorbed into the different national armies, navies and air forces or continue in existence as an international body. 
 "Yes, I do sometimes think that, Major," answered Parsons, after a moment or two. "But this particular business is too close to home. It’s something we, or some of us, created ourselves. There’s too much dirty linen which influential people don’t want washed in public."

It was as good as place to do it as any. Delinquent teenagers did meet there at this time of night, to get drunk, sniff glue, smoke cannabis or inject themselves with heroin but the three occupants of the car weren’t unduly bothered by that. 
 The vehicle stopped on the patch of waste ground and Hassan got out and opened the boot. Khaled joined him and together they lifted out the black plastic bin bag, carrying it a few yards from the car before dumping it among the discarded cookers and fridges and washing machines, Muhammad lighting their way with his torch. Lots of people dumped their rubbish here; so there was no particular reason to suppose that this bag, as opposed to any of the others, contained a body. 

Duncan decided he wasn’t going to mope around until something happened to make him feel better about things. He guessed that although Nicky would have been offended if she’d thought he wasn’t sufficiently upset at losing her, she wouldn’t have wanted his grief to crush him either. He could be forgiven for doing whatever took his mind off it enough to make it easier to cope with. So he decided one morning to drive northwards to look round Okehampton and Torrington, maybe check out one of the potteries.  
 He had found out what he could, from local gossip and an internet search on his Blackberry, about the affair of the missing walkers. The police investigation seemed to have been faultless, although given the nature of Dartmoor it could never be as thorough as was preferable without becoming too severe a drain on money and resources. If all things were assumed to be equal, though, Sarah Walker and Rob Lesterson had passed out of the sight of men, along with their camping equipment which could not be found either. They had left behind them not the slightest trace of their presence. When last seen by human eyes they had been enjoying a snack and a drink in a pub in one of the villages on the edge of the Moor. They had said where they were going during a casual conversation with another customer. What had happened after that? Perhaps the camping trip was a blind and they’d run off to start a new life with a new identity somewhere. If not they must be down some pothole, which could be located using ultrasonic equipment only there were so many potholes to search. No-one was around to hear them and eventually, starving, they’d lost the energy to call for help. It was possible. But he thought it most likely they’d strayed from the tracks beaten over hundreds of years by the feet of other walkers and got stuck in quicksand. Loaded down with all their camping gear they had sunk fast. He wondered if it was practical for the authorities to try to drain all the bogs on the Moor. 
 In any case, he wasn’t inclined to think that whatever had killed Nicky had killed the walkers too. Or it would have left their dismembered remains lying about, as it had hers. 
 This didn’t deter the papers who were happy to imply that the two incidents might be connected, as part of the general hype. Their front pages were emblazoned with “Hunt Goes On For Dartmoor Fiend”; “Did He Kill Missing Rob And Sarah?” and other sensational headlines. They made connections also with the Hound of the Baskervilles, the various legends and ghost stories. One article, covering almost a double-page spread, on the subject was accompanied by a drawing of a monstrous dog-like creature with slavering jaws, filled with wickedly pointed teeth, and red pupil-less eyes, roaming a bleak moorland landscape in which the occasional cottage was intended to emphasise the possibility that human beings might at some point become the creature’s victims. 
The forensics search of the cottage had ended without finding any clues. 
 Duncan’s route north took him along the western edge of the Moor, the way he’d gone when trying to spot the cottage. As he drove on, what looked like a complex of buildings, high enough to be seen above the fence erected by the soldiers, came into view on his right, clearly visible across the Moor. It was situated about a couple of miles from the road but its perimeter fence extended to just a few yards from it. The police cordon stopped there, and resumed where the fence ended.
 The buildings were rectilinear blocks of featureless grey concrete. Their grandeur came entirely from their size; otherwise like much post-war architecture they were ugly, plain and entirely functional in purpose. Some were connected by overhead walkways. Most seemed to have been built within the last thirty years but a few looked older, 1950s or 60s, though he couldn’t tell for sure. He could make out tall pylons on which, at a guess, were CCTV cameras. The latter were also positioned at intervals along the fence, which was about twenty feet high with three strands of razor wire running along the top of it. It bore warning notices advising that members of the public were barred from entering the premises on pain of criminal prosecution, and here and there were large billboard-type signs bearing the legend “MENCKEN INTERNATIONAL PLC.” 
 He passed a break in the fence in which a pair of high barred metal gates were mounted, with a sentry box beside them. From the gates a long drive led across the Moor to the complex. 
 As the place had its own security arrangements they could simply blend in with the cordon. The staff must have been told what was happening and warned that a killer was on the loose, although from what Duncan could see he’d have a job to do breaking in anyway. 
He wondered vaguely what was going on in there right now. 

Roy Parsons’ family had a tradition of serving their country which went back hundreds of years. They had fought at Bleinheim, Waterloo, Ypres and Passchendaele, El Alamein, the beaches of Normandy, the Falklands, the Gulf. Now that tradition was being continued, in a slightly different form. A couple of years ago one of his old school friends had called on him at Hereford and asked if he would be interested in joining a new elite unit which was being set up. Parsons was puzzled; they already had the SAS, why did they need another? The friend explained that this new unit was of a very special nature, one which meant it had to be even more secretive about what it did. Intrigued as much as anything else, Parsons felt he had to know more. 
 He had never regretted his decision to bite. For one thing, as with other important jobs someone had to do it. X5’s role could have been performed by new units within the conventional armed forces, but this was not considered desirable because they would be dealing with things the public weren’t supposed to know, not yet anyway. Sometimes this might be a good idea because their reaction couldn’t be predicted and there might be mass panic. But since X5 depended on the goodwill of the national governments it co-operated in keeping things secret. Sometimes the heads of those governments didn’t know the full story themselves. They knew of X5’s existence and understood the reasons for it, authorising coverups so that the organisation could operate without hindrance, but didn’t know that it might on occasions be an accessory to things they hadn’t authorised. 
 This was one case where Parsons sensed that even those in the usual loop didn’t know what was going on. But because X5 didn’t get involved in politics, something Kenward, Habgood and the Count all knew, it made no difference to him. They’d known what they were doing when they contacted X5 to notify them of the project. There were advantages in it for Mankind and so it deserved to be protected from security lapses and other hazards.
 Parsons had never doubted that in itself, his calling as an X5 officer was an honourable one. The enemy might be home-grown, or it might not, but in either case he was protecting what he loved, just as his forebears had protected it against Hitler, or the Soviets, or al-Qaeda. The fact that it was part of a global concern made it even more important and more noble. Where the threat was home-grown (not necessarily in the sense that it had originated here in Britain)…well, there were certain things which, should they get out of hand might be a danger to the public whether the latter ought to know about them or not. 
"Your people have definitely finished at the cottage?" Habgood was asking.
 Parsons nodded. "They’d have done a pretty thorough job. It’s safe to return the place to its owners. Not that anyone’s going to be able to get in there just yet, as it’s within the Red Zone."
 "For someone looking for evidence, the creature itself would constitute more than enough of it," observed Habgood. "So, have you had any luck yet?"
 "No steer to where the thing might be just now. But we’ve found plenty of proof it’s been around. Dead animals of various kinds. Seems it’s not in the caves, thank goodness."
 "Yes, thank goodness. And it clearly hadn’t moved beyond the Red Zone before you got here. As I said, I don’t think it’ll travel very far. It’ll concentrate simply on staying hidden, where possible – and like any other life form, alive." 
 Parsons took a chair. "And you still don’t know why it decided to escape?"
"No." 
"Our scientists might be able to help you correct the aberration."
 "I’m sure. But we’ve been involved in the project from the start and they haven’t."
 "Rest assured I’m not going out of my way to interfere, Dr Habgood. I would advise you to tighten up your security, though you say you already have done." 
 "Yes, we have. By mutual agreement everyone on the project accepts the consequences of making too big a mistake." 
The grunts do anyway, thought Parsons. 
 Habgood must have registered his expression. "You are convinced of the importance of what we’re doing here, aren’t you?"
The Colonel nodded. "I’ve no reservations on the matter, Dr Habgood."
"Call me Clive."
"Alright. Clive." 
 "You’re welcome. So, you’ve no way of knowing how soon it might be before the creature’s found?"
 "I’m afraid not. I’ve already explained the difficulties in the way of that objective, the need to cover all potential hiding places. Another factor is we’re short of personnel. We’ve had troops drafted in from the other national branches, but I could still do with a lot more. There aren’t that many of us in the first instance, purely because the bigger we are the more noticeable we become, and the harder it is to keep things confidential." 
 "To be honest, Colonel, I wouldn’t have brought you in at all if it could have been avoided." 
 "But it couldn’t. Your own security guards have the equipment, and they won’t talk, but they can’t hunt for the creature and look after the research centre at the same time. Furthermore you’ve created something whose properties, abilities, you don’t fully understand, as the business of the escape shows. It’s not strictly true to say that our scientists wouldn’t have any advantage over you in the matter. Because of the kind of things they’ve had to deal with in the past, they have experience which may assist them in knowing what to expect. It’s a kind of instinct, I suppose."  
"In that case, what do they think the creature’s going to do now?"
"Well, how clever is it?"
 "I told you, not very. Unless anything goes wrong they’ll simply act in accordance with their conditioning. Nor can they learn from their experiences, we haven’t given them the ability. The creature can only perform tasks we have specifically taught it to." 
"You said “unless anything goes wrong.”" 
 "It’d be the exception that proved the rule. An accident is just that, an accident. It doesn’t indicate conscious planning because by definition there wouldn’t be any. Look: the creature didn’t need to think to get out of this place, it just wandered off out of curiosity and then an inefficient guard and some faulty electricals gave it its chance. It wasn’t acting from some abstract belief in the right to individual liberty."  
"That suggests it could just as easily come back. So far it hasn’t."
"It won’t until the aberration is corrected, I imagine."
 "So if you’re right in what you’re saying, the creature’s aim is simply to avoid capture," Parsons said. "In which case, unless there’s anything further you want to discuss, I’ll simply get on with making sure it doesn’t." 

Crouched down low behind its rock, the creature kept very still, listening to the deer feeding.
 It was familiar by now with the sounds made by each animal species; it knew this creature’s kind and that if caught they could provide it with a substantial meal. But they had keen senses, sometimes seeming to be aware of its presence without having seen or heard its approach. 
 It must let the animal get as close as it was going to, then move as fast as possible, catching it before it could react and bound away into the distance, outrunning the creature. 
 It waited until the sounds were near enough to suggest it stood a chance. Should it take the risk? It hesitated for a moment, and then the sounds started to move away.
Take the risk. 
 It ran out from behind the rock and at the deer. Startled, the animal took off. The creature caught up with it while it was still gathering speed; a second later and the chance would have been lost. It sprang and its weight bore the animal down, causing it to lose its footing and fall on its side. Before it could rise the creature had scrambled on top of it, pinning it to the ground. The creature gripped its neck in both hands and twisted, tearing the head right off. A gout of the red thing spurted from the ragged stump, spattering onto the creature. The decapitated animal thrashed convulsively, its legs kicking up and down. The creature began tearing it apart, scooping out great chunks of bloody flesh. In its eagerness to feed it ripped off limbs, snapped tendons and muscles and ligaments, broke bones, tore out internal organs. But the attack was less frenzied, more methodical, than that on Nicola Ransome. It now knew which bits contained the red thing and which didn’t. It noted with interest that the insides of the deer were similar to those of the first Not-Us it had killed, though they were clearly not the same kind of creature. 
 It didn’t stop until the deer had been stripped to the bone. Then it straightened up and waited while the red liquid soaked into its body through the pores, invigorating it, making it feel strong and healthy.
 It looked around. The day was bright and sunny. The creature remembered the first time it had seen the darkness of the Above-And-Around grow lighter, streaks of orange-red appearing, spreading and joining up until the whole colour had changed. Then that colour had gradually paled to a clear blue. The light seemed to come from a patch of pale yellow high up in the blue, over to the east. Masses of some grey-white stuff were moving slowly through the Above; briefly one of them obscured the pale yellow thing, causing it to darken slightly.  
It had been fascinated. This transformation must mean something, but what?
 The Above-And-Around was not solid, like the surface it was walking on, though both seemed to go on as far as it could see. Its nature in the big place of the Not-Us had been different; there the light had come from lots of smaller yellow things in the surface which there had appeared to mark the limit of the Above. 
 The whole nature of the Outside, as it might be called, was different to the Inside, the places where the Not-Us lived. It presumed the Not-Us could move around in the Outside too; there were already lots of other creatures there, like the one it had just killed. The surface was covered most of the time with a material, not always the same colour and sometimes found in thick bunches, which was unlike anything it had seen in the big place of the Not-Us. The texture, the smell, the whole feel of it was entirely dissimilar. It was soft, to a greater or lesser degree, and yielded easily to pressure, but none of the red thing came out when it was squeezed although occasionally there was a little trickle of some colourless fluid.  
 The creature moved on, in search of more food. Other than avoiding capture, eating and thus staying alive was all it could do, all it was interested in doing. 
Was it? 
 It had only known, without really understanding why, that it wanted to be free of the Inside and see what lay beyond it. And to do something different from what the Not-Us told it to. 
 A little later something up in the Above, a long way away, caught the creature’s eye, interrupting its thoughts. The object was moving, but it was not one of the grey-white things; more like a tiny black speck, and it was travelling faster, making a sound as it went, a sound the creature thought it had heard before. 
 The creature could only assume it was something like the small animals which could lift themselves right up into the Above, doing so whenever they sensed it coming and therefore making it very difficult to catch them. Only they did not make quite the same noise. It must also be bigger, if the creature could see it from this far off. There was something about the way it moved, too, that was different. The creature couldn’t be sure from this distance but it seemed the object was travelling in a perfectly straight line, with no perceptible veering from side to side. It spoke a different language to, had a different signature from, any…living thing. But like a living thing, it moved. 
 It changed direction, onto a course that took it towards the creature, which was uncertain for a moment what to do. Its size maybe made the flying object dangerous. The question was, did the object have anything to do with the Not-Us, and if so, in what way? It decided not to take any risks. Something told it there was danger in letting the flying object see it – if the flying object saw, or could become aware of its presence in some other way. It looked all around but could see nothing behind or inside which it might hide, not for some distance. Going by the speed the flying object was travelling it would be close enough to see the creature, if it hadn’t already, before the creature had reached cover.   
 The creature lay down as flat as it could, pressing itself into the ground, and kept still. 
 The sound the flying object was making continued to grow louder. Then it seemed to change, and from then on steadily receded. It was going away from the creature. The sound faded until the creature could no longer hear it. The creature got to its feet and walked on. 
 It froze. In the middle distance it could see a figure, from its outline looking like one of the Not-Us. It seemed to be wearing different clothes from any Not-Us the creature had seen so far. It was, however, carrying something which might be one of the things that killed. It was not looking in the creature’s direction but might at any moment. 
 Not far away was an area of long grass. The creature moved stealthily towards it. Careful to make as little noise as possible, it lay down inside it, burying itself as deep in the vegetation as it could. 
 The soldier’s footsteps grew louder, then began to die away. Once it could no longer hear them the creature slid out from its hiding place, crawling along the ground on its belly. 
 The soldier paused to get his bearings, looking about him. He thought he saw a movement in the undergrowth about fifty yards to the east, and wondered if he should investigate, then checked himself. Just the wind rippling it.
He moved on.

New Scotland Yard
The face in the blown-up photograph was little more than a pair of eyes staring out from a mass of raw meat which had just been skinned. Unsurprisingly, because that was more or less what had happened to it.
 Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Horne was director of SO13, the Yard’s counter-terrorism branch. Before attaining that position he had served in a variety of capacities, beginning his career as an ordinary beat constable and rising up through the ranks. It would have been trite to say that he had witnessed some unpleasant things in his time. All the same…  
"This was Tewfik Saleh?" The deputy head of SO13, Michael Sawalha, nodded. "The others aren’t much of an improvement," he informed Horne grimly. 
 Haroun al-Alawi’s throat was a mass of red scarred tissue, caked with dried blood, where his head had been almost severed from his body. Rashid Zakariah, the one they’d found in Leicester, looked much like anybody does after they’ve been doused in petrol and set on fire. 
 "I see what you mean." Horne bowed his head, eyes closed, for a moment as a mark of respect. "Poor bastards."
 "They cut out al-Alawi’s tongue before disembowelling and almost decapitating him. Zakariah; they gouged out his eyes, castrated him and then…well, you can see." But the burning seemed almost an anti-climax. 
"Charming," muttered Horne. "They’re getting even more vicious. Any clues?"
 "None yet, though Forensics are still working on it. Saleh and Zakariah were dumped on waste ground, probably at night. In Saleh’s case someone heard a car driving away fast, and voices, and saw torches being flashed about but they were too scared to investigate. Al-Alawi ended up on a landfill site; if the sack he’d been stuffed in hadn’t burst and one of the workmen noticed an arm hanging out we’d probably never have found him."
" Well, we know who must have killed them. The trouble is, there’s insufficient evidence for arrests unless it’s from the infiltration campaign, and right now we’re trying to deny that one exists. And all of them were on the list that was left lying around in that restaurant, and on the train? As well as sent to the Messenger?"
"That’s right. MI5 have just confirmed it."
 "And they can bloody well clear up the mess, especially as the leak must have originated from there. They were the ones holding the information." 
So it’s over to them, he thought ruthlessly. And thank God for that.

Duncan interrupted his stay in Devon for Nicky’s funeral, which proved every bit the ordeal he’d expected. Despite his breaking down several times her family’s attitude to him, with the exception of Iain, was unsympathetic. They didn’t speak to him at any time, leaving without saying goodbye, nor make eye contact. 
 It made him even more determined to get away from it all, so he was glad to return to Lower Oakington and might have decided to stay there permanently had it not been for the painful memories that would be associated with it. He felt the urge to roam the Moor, losing himself in his thoughts there, but most of it was out of bounds right now and anyway he’d no wish to bump into whatever it was that had killed Nicky. 
 He had visited the resorts on the north coast, Ilfracombe and Bideford and Barnstaple. Not to laze in the sun, it was the wrong time for that in every respect, but just to look around, spending some time in the little local history museums which every coastal town in Devon seemed to possess. Now he was driving back to Oakington from one such expedition, with the Moor to his left and a vista of wooded hills on the right. 
 He saw a van, coming from the opposite direction, turn into the short drive that led up to the gates of the Mencken International place. It was a butchers’, probably delivering to the kitchens. He guessed there was a canteen on the premises for the staff.
 In the village he parked the car in the yard of the Green Dragon pub and went in. The memory of the funeral and the awkwardness there was still fresh and he needed a drink or two.
 The interior of the bar still retained its old-fashioned atmosphere and character. It was warm, friendly, welcoming. There was red leather upholstery on the seats, horse brasses on the walls, and exposed timbers, gnarled and knotted with age,  in the ceiling. An open fire burned. Silence fell when he walked in but it was a respectful silence, and not the hostility often shown in the past towards outsiders in rural areas. They thought he might prefer to be left alone. By now almost everyone knew who he was and why he was in the area. 
 So nobody approached him, because they didn’t know what to say and would feel rude if they were sat next to him and didn’t make conversation, false if they did but didn’t mention the bereavement. He just sat drinking his cider and listening to the babble of the other customers, the crackling of the logs in the grate. 
He pitied the soldiers out on that cold, wet, windy moor. 
 The bar began to fill up, and it became more difficult to avoid the company of his fellow humans. Within a short time the other three chairs at his table were occupied. He caught the eye of a man in his fifties, in cloth cap and overcoat, who raised his beerglass in salute. 
 "You alright then?" the man asked. Either this was a stock greeting or he’d decided that some attempt at communication would be the more sensitive approach. Ransome felt he should respond. "Yeah, I’m alright thanks." 
 The woman beside the newcomer whispered a few words into his ear. He looked embarrassed, his face falling. "I’m sorry," he said to Duncan, quietly. "I didn’t know…"
 "It’s OK. Honestly." Duncan had decided he didn’t want to put up barriers between himself and others. It wasn’t the best way to find comfort. "She’s dead and that’s a plain fact, nothing anyone can do about it." He spoke with a kind of savagery which he instantly regretted, not wanting to spoil the convivial atmosphere. "But life must go on, I suppose," he added, sounding a wistfully philosophical note. 
"Oh aye, that it must."
 "It’ll take a while, but sooner a later I’ll start to put things back together again. Meanwhile…well somehow I don’t like to leave this place. It’s quite nice…I know it’s where she died but maybe that’s why I feel so drawn to it." 
 "Know what you mean," said Cloth Cap. "So, your boss given you time off work, has he?" Duncan nodded. 
"What you gonna do down here, then?" 
 "Whatever comes to mind." He told them about his excursions to the coast. "I’d rather like to explore the Moor, but that’s right out at the moment, all those police and soldiers swarming over it. Suppose there are other walks I could do." A question popped into his head. "Oh by the way, what’s that big place there you can see from the road to Okehampton?"   
 "Oh, that. It was a government thing originally…for weapons re-search. And bacterio…bacteriological. Put up during the, what’s it called, the Cold War. Then when all that business was over and the MOD decided they didn’t need it any more it was closed and some company or other bought it." 
 Mencken International. Duncan had heard the name before; weren’t they something to do with pharmaceuticals? Whatever they did, they must be very security conscious indeed to have built their factory or research centre or whatever it was in such a remote place. "I suppose the people who work there must come in from Exeter or Plymouth. Or are some of them local?"
 "Might be," a woman said. "Although not from this village. They come in here sometimes, but they don’t talk to anyone, at least hardly ever. Keep themselves to themselves."  
 "They’re obviously not supposed to discuss their work." Which meant they couldn’t discuss a lot else either, in case they wandered onto the wrong subject. "Afraid of industrial spies, probably. Guess that’s why they wanted to set up a factory way out here. We’ve all got our secrets, I guess." 

Conference Room 2, MI5 HQ
They entered and took their seats in silence. "First of all I want to discuss the security implications of this matter," began the Director-General, John Shawcross, rather unnecessarily. "Which are obviously very serious."
 With him were his deputy, Sarah Newbery, and the head of the Terrorism Analysis Centre, Paul Concannon. Simultaneously both were entertaining the same thought. You can say that again.
"What’s happening to Abdullah Ashraf?" Shawcross asked. 
 "He’s at a safe house," said Concannon. "Meanwhile the other surviving informers are clamouring to be given protection and I honestly don’t think we can refuse. They’re threatening to reveal some of our dirty secrets if we don’t oblige."
 "I guess you’d better see to it," Shawcross grunted. "Sarah, let’s recap. How’s the damage limitation exercise going?"
 "We’ve issued an official denial. There’s no proof, as far as the public know, that the murders are connected to the security leak. Nobody actually read the file, apart from the Messenger journalist and they’re at least having the sense not to reveal its precise contents." 
"How do the public know that the file hasn’t been read?" Concannon said.
"Exactly," Shawcross sighed.
 Newbery continued. "Fortunately they won’t know about the e-mails to the cell heads." 
 "But the files; that is known. Rumours will get around. And once they do it’s going to be hard to build a new network of informers."
 "I guess they took all three copies of the file in case just one failed to do the trick. It could simply have been handed in without being read. Or thrown away – that wouldn’t surprise me nowadays. And the Messenger might have decided the stuff was too hot to touch."
 "Thank God the others had the sense to hand them straight to the police," said Concannon.
 "That won’t make an awful lot of difference now the press have got wind of it," replied Shawcross. "I think the main aim of stealing the files and leaving them lying around in various places – because I don’t believe someone here did that out of carelessness and just isn’t owning up to it, not in all three cases – was to give credence to the matter in the eyes of the terrorists. And anyone who might be thinking of informing on them at some point."
 "But we were going to discuss the security risks." Newbery put to the meeting the question which must right now be on the lips of the whole country. "How high are they?" 
 "There’s no immediate risk," answered Concannon. "It’ll take time for whatever plots they may be hatching to mature. These things need planning, careful material and psychological preparation." 
 "But what can we do in the meantime to expose them?" the Director-General asked. "After these murders fewer people will be willing to come forward to give information." 
 "Not all our intelligence comes from informers. We’ll just have to carry on being vigilant and ask the public to do the same. See if we can track down the leaders of the cells. That’s about it. Unfortunately, finding the killers may not be easy. True, they were attracting attention to themselves by killing the informers. They may have felt the insult to Islam was too great to go unpunished, also that if it put off anyone else informing then the benefits outweighed the risks. But all the suspected cells seem to have broken up, dispersed. Their members have probably found new homes and new identities elsewhere in the country, or overseas. There’s no telling when or where they’ll strike again."
 "Now," Shawcross grunted, "the next most important question. How the hell did the information come to be leaked in the first place?"
 "At the moment we can’t say," Newbery replied. "Obviously there’ll be a full enquiry. And we’ll be sharing information with the European intelligence services, who right now are carrying out their own investigations." The same alarming security leaks had occurred in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Sweden. 
 "Our enquiry may as well start here. It’s pretty obvious the terrorists have a sympathiser within the Service." It was something they could never entirely discount and had always dreaded. Because it had the potential to blow Britain’s entire anti-terrorist strategy sky high. "And I mean to find out who it is."
 "Are you suggesting it was one of us three, John?" Newbery clearly didn’t care for the idea, which was understandable. 
 "Well, we’re the ones with the authority to go into the TAC and consult any file we want, anytime. Sarah and I because of our senior positions and you because of your particular brief."
 Concannon grinned. "If it’s you, you’re trying to sow suspicion and create confusion."
 "Yes, well we’ve got to start somewhere so for the sake of our sanity let’s assume for the time being it isn’t me." 
 "But that’s precisely what you would say if you were trying to divert suspicion from yourself." Concannon decided it would be better to drop the subject. For the time being. "But you and Sarah wouldn’t necessarily have known which particular file to look for. The leak, and therefore probably also the thefts, must have originated within TAC."
 Shawcross got a bit of his own back. "You’re focusing suspicion on yourself, which may be a double bluff."
 "Fair enough. But in fact it’s possible I might not have known which particular file to look for either. The most likely people would be the five staff under me in Domestic Terrorism, who actually handle the daily flow of information coming into the office. Three are analysts, the other two basically computer operators; but any of them could have been responsible."
 "Then I want them all interviewed immediately, with Sarah and I present." Just in case Concannon was the traitor, it might not be wise to leave the task entirely to him.  
 "You realise our computers could have been hacked into by someone outside the Service?"
 "We have means of finding out if that had been done," Newbery said. "It hadn’t."
"A hacker who was clever enough could avoid detection."
 "Perhaps. There’s no way of knowing for sure whether it was an individual or an organisation, perhaps a foreign intelligence service, behind it. But it still wouldn’t explain the theft of the physical file."  
 "And we’re agreed there’s no way our thief could have got into the building without our knowing it?"
 Newbery nodded. "Such a massive security lapse is unlikely, unless someone deliberately let them in, which means there already was a traitor within the Service. Who might as well have done the job themselves."
 "Is it even possible anyone here would betray us to the likes of al-Qaeda?" asked Shawcross disgustedly. 
 "It’s always possible," mused Newbery. "If you could have traitors within MI5 working for Russia in the Cold War days, you can have traitors working for al-Qaeda."
 "Who would they be?" wondered Concannon. "Westerners? We’ve recruited more Asian members lately…"
 "An Asian person living in this country is a Westerner," said Shawcross. His tone was one of reproof. But almost as soon as he said the words he realised he was being judgemental, and a little fatuous. For most British Muslims, perhaps, the assertion held true, even if they also had other loyalties which mattered just as much to them. But there were some to whom it didn’t. Only geographically. And sometimes such people were dangerous.
 "There’s no Muslim in a senior enough position in this organisation to be able to do it."A part of him cringed as he said this; it seemed like an admission that the Service’s equal opportunities policy had failed to entirely achieve its aim.  
 Or was it only being prudent? Muslims of course were human beings; but that very truth meant that as with anybody else you couldn’t tell which of them were the good guys, and which the bad, just by looking at their faces. 
They wouldn’t have to be that high-up. "Paul, your staff…"
 "One of them is a Muslim, as a matter of fact. Nadim Khursandi. But the lad’s thoroughly reliable."
 How do you know? Shawcross thought. Even more alarming, if there was a Muslim in a more senior position, not necessarily in MI5 or 6, who was a traitor, unsuspected as Philby, Burgess and Maclean had been…it was quite possible. "Well whoever he or she is, I want the person or persons responsible found and brought to account. People have died because of them." He glanced at his watch. "We’ll see the suspects individually, starting in an hour’s time, in here." He’d also order a new security check on Concannon, perhaps put him under surveillance. There could be no assumptions, just because he’d worked for the Service for twenty years and had no obvious sympathies with extremists. If he wasn’t guilty he probably wouldn’t object.  
 Shawcross realised that political correctness was preventing him from rejecting Concannon as a suspect just because he was not a Muslim, and so unfairly targeting those who were. 
 When the meeting broke up, and Shawcross had time to reflect on the situation, he was conscious as never before of the weight of his job, of his responsibility, bearing down on him. He was filled with dread for the future. He thought he could hear, reverberating inside his head, the death knell of…of something. And that at heart he knew what it was. 


Eight

The creature went on its way, dropping flat and lying still whenever it heard the helicopter or saw one of the soldiers. It now knew the Not-Us were actively hunting it. It had nothing to lose by travelling as far as possible, in the hope of finding some place where it might be safe from them. 
 It might be able to find more food there, too. The small animals on the moor, plus the occasional deer, did not provide it with quite enough nourishment. The soldiers would, but if it got close to them then they got close to it. 
 At one point it had seen an opening, a large one, in the side of a hill and thought that this might be a good hiding place, but two of the soldiers were standing on guard there.
 It realised it missed the company of its own kind. It knew it was like them because it had once seen its own image reflected in the shiny surface of a control console. The other Us had, like it, been imprisoned in the big place of the Not-Us. Did they too harbour the urge to escape from there? The thought made it feel a sense of kinship with them, which it found comforting. Maybe it should return and release them sometime, if that ever became possible. 
 And how many of the Not-Us were there? Were they to be found everywhere or only in a few special places? Why were they different from the Us and what made them want to imprison its kind, make them do things for them? Had they, or the Us for that matter, always been around or had there been a time when they did not exist? There were so many questions it did not know the answers to.  
 But it wanted to know them. Because they might be useful to it; and because it just did.
 It considered the Not-Us again. They were a danger to it because they sought to enslave it. But were all the Not-Us like that? If not, it somehow seemed wrong to be killing them for their red thing.   
 It halted. Ahead it had seen a barrier of some kind stretching across the moor. It glanced from left to right and saw that the barrier extended to the horizon in both directions. Not only that, but then it saw a soldier, and another, and another. It could have broken through the fence easily enough, going by the one which had surrounded the big place of the Not-Us, but there were more soldiers there than anywhere else because the Not-Us were trying to confine it to a restricted area and the barrier represented the limit of that area, through which they did not want it to break. 
 Any moment now one of the soldiers might see it, even though they were a long way away. It darted behind a nearby hillock and lay down. When it didn’t hear any of them come in its direction it guessed it had escaped being spotted. After a while it crept away.  
 It felt droplets of moisture patter on it, coming down from the Above, soaking into its pores. Like many of the other sensations it had experienced in the Outside, this was not disagreeable. It so much preferred to be out here, and not just because of the sense of…freedom. There was so much that was new to it, that it wanted to explore further. That might tell it more about the world it inhabited and perhaps identify some reason why it was here.
 Faintly it heard the helicopter, somewhere behind it. It judged the craft was too far away to spot it for the moment, but kept listening for any change in the pitch of the sound.  
 The little black dot appeared in the sky some way ahead of it, and for a moment it was puzzled. Then it realised there were two helicopters. Looking back, it saw the first flying low above the Not-Us’ barrier. It watched it, eyes following the craft as it travelled the length of the barrier then swung round in a wide arc onto a new course, again going in a more or less straight line.   
 The creature saw what it was doing. The barrier must go round in a circle, effectively penning the creature in, because it would not make sense for the Not-Us to cover only some of the directions it might be making in and so allow it to escape simply by going another way. The helicopter was following the barrier’s course, patrolling it so that it could help the soldiers stop the creature breaking through it. 
 The creature couldn’t be entirely sure that the barrier went all the way round, but the closer it went to it in order to make certain the more likely the soldiers or the helicopter would notice it. It wasn’t worth the risk. 
 What was it to do? Nothing except concentrate on staying free, for the time being at least. 
 Coming over a rise, it saw a soldier a short distance away. He hadn’t seen it but might if he changed direction. Feeling overall too visible here, it turned and scrambled back down the rise. 
 There seemed to be more soldiers now, not just near the perimeter. The creature felt suddenly very vulnerable and exposed. 
 The helicopter again; closer this time. The creature took cover behind a rock, after a moment peering out cautiously. The helicopter seemed to be making a series of sweeps across the moor in a zig-zag pattern, trying to cover as much of it at the same time as possible. Again, it fortunately turned away just before it would have been near enough to see the creature.  
 The creature resumed its wanderings. There were soldiers not far away, for it could hear the rustling movements they made, carried to it on the wind, however much care they took not to alert it.  
 Earlier it had passed an indentation in the side of a hill, partly filled with vegetation. The entrance to an old mine, although of course it could not have known that. It extended a short distance below ground. The creature made its way back to it and slid down into the hole, hoping that the soldiers didn’t hear the rustling as it did so.  
 It squatted down low. Waiting, it heard the soldiers pass close by its hiding place, then out of its hearing. It had taken a chance that they would already have searched here, and so assumed that they need not do so again. That chance seemed to have paid off. 
 But it was aware it could not evade capture forever. The Not-Us must know what they were doing and the loss of its liberty could only be a short time away. Again it tried hard to think what it should do in order to stay free. Some minutes passed.
And then something very strange happened to it. 

"Everyone know what they’ve gotta do?" said Jamie. 
 Four of them, himself, Shaz, Rory and Olly, had gathered in his Clapham bedsit to discuss plans for the big day. Their surroundings weren’t particularly salubrious: the room was untidy and the central heating – like the TV and sometimes the cooker, fridge and washing machine – didn’t work properly. Some of that was Jamie’s fault, while the rest might be seen as a symptom of the kind of thing they had pledged to fight against. 
 "So, let’s recap. The signal goes off at half two. If we succeed in breaking out the one group will split into three and each group target the area allocated to it. You’ll all be with Zig’s on the day. Make sure you’ve got your gear, yeah?" By gear he meant anything they might need to disguise themselves or to break something. 
"You’re gonna get the message out on Facebook, Rory?" said Shaz.
 "Yeah, I’ll do that." The aim was to use coded messages which would look like some new internet chatsite abbreviation, but to those in the know signified what should be done, where, when, and how, to turn the event scheduled to take place on October 5th into the biggest manifestation of popular discontent since the Peasants’ Revolt.
 They would also be making a few phone calls and personal visits. But using e-mail was a cheaper way of doing it in these times of financial hardship.  
 It was agreed that Olly would do the phone calls, Shaz the personal visits. Rory would get hold of the gear for anyone who said they were short of it. Jamie would be overall co-ordinator, remaining at the bedsit during the actual uprising – as he termed it – so he could perform this role without the risk of being arrested and locked up. Among other things he would monitor the news and alert the protestors to any developments which they ought to know about. 
 "Great," he grinned once these different tasks had been apportioned. "We’re ready to roll, guys."
 On the day, people would come in from all over the country. It would be one of the biggest popular protests ever seen in Britain, motivated by the anger, frustration and fear for the future felt by many of the younger generation. Their rage at the crass, almost unbelievable injustice of the system. Ostensibly it was meant to be a peaceful affair, designed to send a message but in an orderly, non-violent fashion; they’d cleared everything with the cops. But at a prearranged signal the demonstration would suddenly depart from what had on the face of it been its objective.  
 They knew the police were overstretched. They would find the weak points in the cordon and exploit them to break through it. The Old Bill would try to kettle them but if things moved fast enough they wouldn’t be able to. 
 All the time the organisers on the ground would be in constant communication with each other and Jamie, co-ordinating the protestors’ actions and the response to those of the police forces by internet and by mobile phone.
 They would go down Oxford Street and Regent Street, smashing in the windows of all the posh restaurants and department stores. They would also hit the swanky residential districts of Chelsea, Mayfair and if they could get that far, Notting Hill. One group would break into the House of Commons and the headquarters of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, causing as much damage as possible and either stealing or destroying any official documents they found, to render the task of government – as they saw it, misgovernment – difficult and at the same time apprise themselves of any plans the politicos might have for making their lives even harder.   
 While the police were occupied trying to contain the disturbance similar outbreaks would occur in other parts of the capital as well as in Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. 
 The aim was to cause millions of pounds worth of damage, to smash and loot and burn on as wide a scale as you were able to. They would keep at it until they were arrested or simply got tired and packed it in. Later there would be the problem of disposing of what had been stolen without arousing suspicion. But the organisers knew that once word of what was happening got out plenty of people would jump on the bandwagon. And some of them would see no problem with nicking whatever they could lay their hands on. Because they lived in areas where there was poverty and deprivation, where the police hardly ever dared venture and crime ruled, creating its own unofficial economic system. Areas which had suffered from government policies that favoured the rich and imposed ever greater hardship upon the poor. 
 So far as they knew they were not already under surveillance. As for what happened after the riots had broken out, all they could do was put on their disguises and hope that by doing so they would avoid identification. The risk of arrest was always there whatever happened; it was a choice whether or not they took that risk, and one most of them had already made. As they saw it they were desperate. They had little hope of getting jobs and not enough money to realise their aspirations and do the things that gave quality to their lives. The students among them could barely afford to repay their loans and some had had to jack in their courses. All they could see was themselves getting poorer and the rich getting richer. They were having such trouble making ends meet that they might have to give up their rented accommodation and move back in with their parents, which they didn’t like because it compromised their independence. All because of the fat cats and the way they’d screwed up the economy. Even some of the posh people were suffering, and it was reckoned they’d be quite happy to lend a hand when the time came. 
 "You know the gen," Jamie was saying. "Don’t say anything until you’ve spoken to a solicitor. You know your rights. Make things as difficult for the bastards as possible."
"What if too many people chicken out on the day?" Rory asked.
 "They won’t, believe me. But as long as there’s enough of us to make a difference, we go ahead. We’ve gotta do something, Rory. If nothing else it’ll be fun."  
 And if the devastation was even half as extensive as they intended they would, indeed, be sending a message, letting the government know it would have a major headache if it didn’t change things bigtime. It didn’t feel it had to make concessions because nowadays it could simply shelter behind the CCTV and all the other apparatus of the security and surveillance industry. If they could show that they weren’t deterred, that they would do their stuff despite the CCTV and were quite prepared to risk arrest, then they’d get the concessions. Or set the streets on fire trying to.  

"Christ, this place is getting on my nerves," said Private Joe Marks. "And I’ve been in some spooky places in my time, I’m telling you."
 The reply crackled from the radio. "Yeah, mate, we all have. Let’s just get on and find the fucking thing, then we can go home can’t we?" 
 Then Sergeant Purchase’s voice. "Wilkins here’s got some sense, it seems. Get to it, lad. Any luck?"
 "’Fraid not, Sarge. Hope we’re not gonna be here forever." Because they couldn’t be.
 "So do I. Out." The radio went dead. And once again Marks felt cut off, isolated, vulnerable. What creeped him most about the bleak landscape was that it was so exposed, so open, yet you still got that feeling anything could be hiding out here, lying in wait. That a thousand eyes were watching you from all sorts of little hollows, crevices, holes in the ground which you couldn’t see.
 How long could they stay here for, Marks wondered. Sooner or later someone would ask questions. But the operation could not be called off while there was the slightest chance the thing was still alive. And it took a lot to kill its kind. Again the possibility it was lying at the bottom of one of those bogs crossed the mind; but that if anything was the worst case scenario, because they could be searching for weeks, months, even years without knowing there was no need to.
 The boffins reckoned it had enough food. It wouldn’t be troubled by the weather, by the rain and mist which at one point had been so heavy it had forced them to abandon the search for a time. And if the snows came in the winter it would survive them. Jeez, hope we’re not still playing this mug’s game then, Joe thought. 
 Because that was what it was starting to feel like, even though X5 were now as fully committed here as was logistically feasible and the more soldiers on the ground the greater the chances of finding the creature. Day after day of fruitless searching…they’d found more footprints and followed them to a long-abandoned quarry but although they’d searched it and then staked it out for a time the thing hadn’t showed. It was moving from hiding place to hiding place, probably reasoning that if it stayed in any one for long enough it’d eventually be discovered there.   
But it couldn’t reason, could it? That’s what they’d said at the research centre. 
 Marks was now approaching the limits of his endurance. And it was starting to get dark. He called the Sergeant and announced he was returning to base. "Don’t blame you, lad," Purchase said. "So get your arse over here and we’ll all have a bloody great nosh-up."
 Marks orientated himself, consulting the Satnav so that he knew where he was in relation to the base. Then he set off.
He frowned. Something about the landscape to his left bothered him. 
 It was on the Satnav, so he couldn’t be seeing things. He’d been at this too long, it was making his brain a bit fuzzy. But he could almost have sworn that big rock, that tor, on an eminence two or three hundred yards away hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. 

Scotland Yard, DI Marshman’s office 
The Art and Antiques Unit was meeting to assess progress in the case of Henry VIII On Horseback. Marshman asked DS Greensmith what he had learned so far. 
 "We’ve been tapping de Ruytenbroek’s phones, hacking into his computers, everything. We haven’t learned much. You were right, Guv, if our man is in possession of stolen masterpieces he doesn’t talk about it much in case it gets back to us. The only people who know he has them are the ones who sold them to him. He just likes to gloat over them in private, or maybe it’s just knowing that he can that gives him the buzz.
 "There is however one item of interest." Greensmith nodded to the third member of the team, DC Pattani, who spoke. "A week from now van Ruytenbroek is due to visit a Swiss businessman, Count Bruno von Mencken. I’ve done some research into Mencken and it turns out his father was a Nazi sympathiser before and during the war. He – the father that is – was pretty friendly with a lot of the leading Nazis and there are rumours he helped hoard money and art treasures they’d stolen. His banking house acted as receiver for the money, though so did a lot of Swiss businessmen, and was reputedly sitting on billions of dollars’ worth of gold, some of it taken from Jews who had fled from the Nazis or ended up in concentration camps." 
 The story was that much of the jewellery and artworks purloined by the Nazis had been sold in Switzerland, from the outbreak of war onwards, by German officials and businessmen or by SS officers, being driven into and out of the country in trucks. Promises made by the Swiss government towards the end of the war to prevent this traffic were not kept. At the same time valuables stored in Swiss warehouses and in deposit boxes placed in Swiss banks for safe keeping by their Jewish owners mysteriously disappeared. The stolen items were shipped to South America, where many former Nazis and SS soldiers were fleeing, via Spain, whose Fascist government was to a greater or lesser extent pro-Nazi. There was a sudden increase in diplomatic mail – which protocol prevented being opened – between Madrid and Buenos Aires, Asuncion, La Paz. Other loot crossed the Atlantic in the holds of fishing boats, hidden from prying officialdom beneath the mounds of ice with which the fish were preserved. Not all of it made the journey, for one reason or another. At the end of the war British intelligence found fifty-three stolen paintings in Switzerland, but information from sources within the country suggested there were a lot more. Perhaps some of them were still there. 
 Marshman nodded appreciatively. "You’ve done your homework. What do we know about this Count?"
 "He’s head of a big international pharmaceutics company. They make medical drugs, contraceptives, lipsticks, perfumes, all sorts of things. Doing well right now, despite the recession. Mencken’s a multi-millionaire. Very secretive, lives on his own, apart from his domestic staff, in a castle high up in the Alps. Doesn’t have much to do with his family, although they run the business for him. Altogether a man of mystery."  
 "Hmmm. So, the father was a Nazi. Anything that can be proven in the son’s case?"
 "Nazi links? No, actually. But if he’s been hoarding goods he knows were stolen, it runs in the family. If he’s been flogging off Nazi loot to his mates, it’s clear where he got it from." Pattani told his colleagues about the discovery of the two bodies on the mountain. "There’s no proof, but it looks like a deal that went wrong. It doesn’t exonerate him."
 "Maybe not, though it doesn’t follow he’s bound to be a criminal – morally if not legally – just because his father was. Anyhow, I agree with you that it does all look very suspicious."
 "He must be careful," said Greensmith, "to make sure the people who buy the stuff don’t then sell them on to anyone who might blab too much. Either he chooses his clients very carefully or he warns them they’ll be in big trouble if the truth should out." 
"Although the longer the trail is, the harder it’ll be to follow it back to him."
 "He probably doesn’t sell to dealers – doesn’t use middlemen, in effect – either. The fewer who know the better."
"So what do we do now, Guv?" asked Pattani.
 "Now? Well we’ll work with them where necessary, of course, but I suppose it’s over to Interpol."

At one point the creature had wondered if it might be better to look for food only when the Darkness came; it felt altogether safer that way. It had guessed the Not-Us found it harder to see in the Darkness because when it came they used those special devices that shone lights. Other lights came on on the thing in the sky. For its own part, it had no need of such assistance. But if it waited until the Darkness it might be found before then. However, it now knew it could wait a little longer than had previously been wise, provided none of the soldiers saw its footprints and followed them. 
 There was a danger of being seen whatever happened. But it had at least managed to get this close to the barrier. And at the moment the helicopter was not travelling in its direction, so couldn’t have seen it, nor were there any soldiers near enough to have done so. 
 And it was very hungry, even though it suspected it could go rather longer without food than the Not-Us. It could only hope that if there were Not-Us on the other side of the barrier they didn’t know of its existence and would not be hunting it. 
 But then maybe the soldiers had come from there. If they had, then the other Not-Us beyond the barrier, or some of them, might also have the things that killed. 
It decided to take the risk. 
 It tore through the metal and plastic of the fence with ease. As it walked on it could hear the sounds of the night, little  rustling noises in the undergrowth as small animals scurried away from it.
 The terrain was gradually changing. The material with which the ground was covered was thicker, more resistant to the passage of its feet. There were less and less rocks scattered around, and more and more trees. The area around the habitation where it had killed the Not-Us had been like this. 
 It saw a collection of similar, though some were larger, buildings and wondered if it should go there and take the red thing from the occupants. Risky; because they might have the things that killed. Only if it was to feed that risk must be taken. 
 In the outhouse where he slept, farmer Frank Armitage’s border collie Flash woke suddenly, cocked his head and growled.
 The creature heard sounds it could not identify, and hesitated. Two different kinds of sound; they did not seem to be made by a Not-Us but whatever was making them might still be hostile. Certainly they indicated hostility, to its mind, or at any rate agitation. But it decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. 
 There was another barrier between it and the collection of squarish buildings. The material was relatively flimsy and the creature smashed it away as easily as it had the fence around the moor. As it moved on the unfamiliar sounds grew more frenzied. Its approach was causing fear, perhaps a kind of anger. In the darkness it could make out white shapes in motion, fleeing from it in panic as it appeared. Animals of some kind, four-legged, and large, though not as large as the deer. It guessed they must have the red stuff in them because in its experience everything that moved did. There was only one way to find out.
 In his bed the farmer stirred, muttering. He heard the dog barking and realised that was what had disturbed him. Something had rattled Flash. The sheep were going crazy too by the sound of their terrified bleating. Christ, what the hell was going on? 

The creature tried to estimate its chances of catching one of the sheep. They moved fast when they needed to, but so did it. Then something came hurtling towards it from out of the darkness, another animal with four legs but different from the white things. The creature did not yet have the words to describe the noises it made but they were obviously intended as a warning. 
 The creature was trying to decide whether the dog presented any kind of threat to it when he saw it in full, saw its eyes, and skidded to a halt. With a whimper he turned tail and shot off, yelping hysterically. In the farmhouse Frank Armitage listened to all the commotion, trying to work out what exactly was causing it, and to decide if he should call the police. 
His wife was awake now. "What’s going on?" she asked anxiously.
 "Quiet a minute," he snapped, and thought. Clearly something was worrying the sheep. If the intruders were human, probably out to steal his livestock, they would either have dealt with the dog somehow or been deterred by it and given up. Instead something else seemed to have happened. He had heard Flash peg it in panic. Whatever he’d seen could not have been human because he would have reacted differently. He might have tackled the intruder and been shot for his pains, or gone back to warn Armitage. But he wouldn’t have been afraid. A fox couldn’t have produced that effect, so it must be some larger animal. The Beast of Exmoor, or rather Dartmoor? An escaped big cat…  
 He made a decision. The police would take too fucking long to get here anyway and they’d need proof the thing was what he suspected before they bothered to get together the specialised personnel and equipment they’d need to handle it. But if he took his gun and dealt with it himself he wouldn’t by his reckoning be exposing himself to any danger. The thing wasn’t going to shoot back. 
"Something’s got in," he told his wife. "Going to sort it out."
"Be careful," she urged. 
 Snatching up a set of keys from the bedside table, he put on his dressing gown and slippers and hurried downstairs, to the bureau in the living room. He unlocked a drawer and took out the shotgun he was licensed to carry, along with some ammunition. Loading the weapon, he sprinted for the back door, desperate to catch the killer, whatever it was, before it ripped the sheep to pieces.
He could hear the bleating rise to a peak. 
 Outside in the field the creature was bent over the sheep it had killed, covered in the blood that had spurted from it. Dipping its hand in the gore, it began to smear the red substance over its face and body. 
 A couple of minutes later it rose, the blood on it glistening in the moonlight. The other white animals had vanished, no doubt hiding from it somewhere. It was about to go in search of them when something moved at the corner of its eye. It turned so that it could see it fully. A Not-Us was approaching from one of the square buildings. It halted, facing the creature. In one hand it held one of the things that shone beams of light and helped its kind to see in the darkness; in the other some long, narrow object which might be one of the things that killed. It couldn’t be sure at this distance, excellent as its eyesight was even in these conditions, so it decided it had better go. It ran back the way it had come. 
 Armitage had frozen on seeing what looked like tiny twin points of red light, set close together, amid the blackness. Eyes…surely they were eyes? Then they vanished and the moonlight fell on a human-like figure, slipping away into the dark. That was all he saw. He dropped the torch, gripped the shotgun with both hands and raised it. "Stop! Stop or I shoot!" he shouted. He couldn’t, of course, that would be against the law and these days he’d probably end up in jail for murder. But the intruder would probably be frightened enough not to take the chance. 
 They weren’t. The figure kept on running, towards the fence which separated the field from the Moor proper. Armitage yelled out a warning again, this time punctuating it with a shot into the air. The figure still didn’t take any notice. 
 That was about all he could do. He thought of going after it but he was hampered by the gun – which the intruder might grab and wrest from him in a struggle. Lowering the weapon, he stared after the figure until it was swallowed up by the night.  
 Retrieving the torch, he went to inspect the fence, wanting to see how it had managed to break in. It had probably gone out by the same means it had entered so he took the direction he had seen it go in, shining the torch before him. 
 Armitage was puzzled. He had reckoned the intruder had been an escaped panther or something similar, probing until it found a weak point in the fence and worrying at it until it could get through. But what he’d seen appeared to have the form of a human and had moved like one, more or less. What kind of man or woman could have terrified a dog so much on sight? 
 He could only think that the intruder must have been wearing some mask or costume which had spooked Flash. There was no way of knowing because he’d only seen their rough outline, the moonlight glancing off an unidentifiable surface which gleamed with something that might have been blood. 
 A little later he arrived at the wood and wire fence and saw where a section of it had been torn down. He examined it closely by the light of the torch. And stared at the broken wire in astonishment. He could have told if they’d used cutters because he’d had to deal with rustlers before. But it didn’t look as if they had. He could only conclude they’d snapped the wire with their bare hands. And if they could do that they must have ripped away the wood in seconds, like it was wet cardboard. 
 The strength required would have been phenomenal. Now it made more sense Flash being frightened. What kind of creature could…
 A chill spread through his body. He consoled himself with the thought that at least it had not felt bold enough to attack him, buggering off even before he had fired the warning shot. All the same, Armitage was uneasy. And scared. 
 He went to see to the sheep. They’d all gone off and hid except for one, which was dead. Very dead. 
 There was blood, gleaming in the light from the torch and the moon, over quite a wide area. Fleece, flesh, bone and organs all lay strewn around by something that had ripped through the animal’s body like tinfoil. It had been torn to pieces, totally dismembered. Just like the woman at the cottage. 

They had met at University, not long after the start of the first term; got talking at a party, and realised they liked each other’s company. When he plucked up the courage to ask her for a date she accepted, and from that point on they were an item. 
 For some reason her parents weren’t enthused when she took him home to meet them. Of course the days had long since gone when young people were guided by their parents’ wishes where relationships were concerned, but it still hurt her, as it did him, even though their love was strong enough to cope with such things. 
 Halfway through the academic year they decided to give up their studies, whose cost was proving a problem anyhow, and rent a house together, for which they had just about enough initial capital, afterwards raising the money through part-time jobs. Life was hard, as for many young people these days, but they managed to survive; they had each other and that helped them to endure living sparingly in order to afford the bills while devoting much of their time to a fruitless search for more permanent and better paid employment. She suspected there would be a baby on the way before long, but with child benefit they’d probably cope. Since, when not in work, they both did their best to find it the authorities would surely look kindly upon them. They didn’t have enough money to get married, certainly to afford the white wedding the thought of which somehow appealed to her, but maybe sometime in the future…though of course their love shouldn’t depend on laws. What did hurt was meeting their old student friends in the street, because they knew their company was missed at the College, but they’d made their decision and it was too late to go back on it now.  
 Their dropping out of Uni had further estranged their parents from them but nonetheless Sarah’s folks grudgingly agreed to provide the money for a walking holiday that summer. Rob was an outdoor type and she picked up the bug from him. He suggested the West Country, with a day or two on Dartmoor, and she agreed.
 She liked the idea of Dartmoor. Amid its solitude they could think, drawing up plans for the future. Or simply forget all their troubles and revel in the beauty of Nature. The vastness of the place scared her when coupled with its bleak, desolate character, but she knew she would be safe with Rob there beside her. 
 It had been great. Laughing, the wind in her face. Racing each other to the tops of the tors, snapped by him standing on the one which marked the highest point on the moor with her arms spread wide in exhilaration, queen of all she surveyed. Collecting wild flowers so he could thread them through her hair, make a garland out of them to hang round her neck. Covering almost half the extent of the place in a day and then, tired but happy, settling down to eat and to erect their tent.  
 They sat up late watching You-Tube and a couple of films on his laptop. When it was time to go to bed he suggested with a dirty grin that they make the two sleeping bags into one. She grinned back. 
 Afterwards they drifted off with her head nuzzled into his shoulder, enjoying the beautiful warmth of each other’s bodies. It was true; the best hot water bottle was another person. 
 It had happened a little later that night, maybe in the early hours of the morning, she hadn’t been sure at the time and it didn’t seem important now. She had woken suddenly to the sound of tramping feet, men calling to one another. She gave Rob a shake. 
"What’s going on?" he mumbled, bleary-eyed.
"I don’t know…soldiers on manoeuvres, maybe."
"They shouldn’t mind us being here, should they? I mean, no-one said…"
"If they do mind that’s their business. I’m not moving till I’ve got to." 
 There seemed to be about half a dozen of them. They sounded as if they were making towards the tent, though that didn’t mean they would stop there. After all, as she had said there wasn’t any reason one could see why anybody should object to their presence here.
 They were making for the tent. She gripped his arm fearfully and he squeezed it back in an attempt at reassurance.
 The zip was pulled down and the flap jerked aside. The lights from the torches blinded them. They screwed up their eyes and twisted their heads away. 
"All right you two, out," a rough voice ordered. 
 "Who are you?" Sarah demanded, both frightened and angry. "What’s going on?"
"You’re in a restricted area."
"Hang on, we didn’t see any signs," Rob protested.
 The man ignored them. "Come on." In the torchlight his face seemed heavy and brutal, and the eyes were cold.
"But we haven’t got any – I mean – " 
"Then get them on. Quickly!" 
 They dressed, then nervously emerged from the tent into the full glare of the torches. In it they could see that the men wore uniforms and peaked caps. Security guards, by the look of them. And they were carrying guns, which were pointed straight at Rob and Sarah.
 They presumed they would simply be moved on to where it was considered acceptable for them to camp. "I presume if we can’t stop here you’ll be good enough to show us where we can?" asked Rob acidly.
"We’ll need to take you in for questioning."
"What for?"
"In case you saw something you shouldn’t have. Security."
 "But we didn’t see anything." Apart from the paths, at the time they’d set up tent there’d been no evidence of Man’s presence for miles. 
 "We demand to know why we’re being arrested," said Sarah. "Do you have the right to do it?" 
"If you’re in a Restricted Area, yes." 
"But we saw no – "
"Will you come with us, please."
"Can I just make a call – " began Rob.
"I’m sorry, that won’t be possible."
"Why not?"
"For security reasons."
"I understood that if you were arrested you had the right to call a solicitor."
"This isn’t an arrest."
"What is it then?" Sarah asked.
"It’s for security reasons."
"Who are you?" Rob repeated. Again the question went unanswered.  
 "If this isn’t an arrest then there’s even less reason why we can’t ring someone, isn’t there?" Sarah pointed out. 
 Rob took out his mobile, but immediately it was snatched from him. "Yours too," a guard ordered Sarah. 
 "I haven’t got one," she lied. Roughly one of them frisked her, despite Rob’s furious objections. He found the phone and pocketed it. She could only glare at him, trembling with anger and distress. Rob moved protectively closer to her.   
 "At least let us ring our families," he pleaded. Even though they’d be sure to worry. 
 The one who seemed to be in charge gestured with his rifle to indicate they should get going. They decided there was no choice. "There’ll be complaints about this," Sarah vowed. The guards were unimpressed. Everyone moved off, Rob’s arm around Sarah’s shoulder. 
And now…
 Sarah had lost track of how much time had elapsed since it had happened. She only knew that there was no prospect of escape or of getting a message to the outside world. She had tried several times but the guards were watching them too well. There was no way of knowing how long they were going to be here for, what would eventually become of them. They had been told that their families knew they were alive and well and that they would be reunited with them sometime, but she had no idea whether or not this was true.  
 It had been explained to them, more or less, why they were here and that made it a little easier. But not much. Although they were well treated, provided they behaved themselves, they were still prisoners nonetheless.   
And everything felt so strange. 
 She couldn’t decide whether she liked the sensations or not. The worst thing, in a way, was when she was taken to see Rob. She was glad of course that they were allowed contact with each another, though they only made that concession as a way of persuading her to behave. But whenever she reached out and touched him and regardless of the love with which she did so there was always it, that barrier between the two of them which she couldn’t break down no matter how hard she tried.  

Nine 

"I’m not making any of this up, I swear," said Frank Armitage, spreading his arms helplessly.
"And I’m not saying you are, Mr Armitage," DS Birrell replied. 
 Nearby several Forensics experts were crouched over the remains of the sheep, taking samples. Further away two others were examining the damaged section of the fence. Birrell and Armitage stood at a distance from the crime scene to avoid contaminating it. 
"So you’ve no idea who they could have been?" Birrell asked.
 "I’ve already told you, no," Armitage snapped. "He was a pretty big bloke but apart from that…although…you said “who”, but…" He checked himself.
Did he mention the eyes? If that was what they’d been.
 Birrell spoke kindly. "If you’ve any information, any at all, which could help identify the person responsible please feel free to share it with us, however strange it may seem." 
 Now why is he saying that? Armitage thought. However strange it may seem…they know something funny’s going on but they’re not saying what it is.
 "Well, the way it frightened the dog. The way it pulled that sheep to pieces...a big cat could have done that, but it wouldn’t have smashed through the fence in one go however strong it was. Like I said, I didn’t see its face properly…" He shivered. "But something’s telling me I should be glad I didn’t." He looked Birrell full in the eyes. "It’s the same…person as killed that townie woman, isn’t it?"
"There would appear to be similarities between the two cases, yes."
 "It’s the same," Armitage insisted. Again he met the policeman’s gaze. "And I can see you think so too.
 "I’ll be in the yard if you want me." He started to move away, then paused, turned back and stared hard at Birrell. "You were supposed to have cordoned it off. To keep us safe."  
 Then he was gone. Birrell went over to where Vicki Nesbitt was examining something which had adhered to the end of the spatula she was holding. "More of those grains," she informed him. 
"So they’ll probably be on the fence as well."
"I should think it’s likely."
 "At least we’ve got footprints this time." He took another look at them; they weren’t that clear but it was evident from their size that the intruder must have been, as Armitage had reported, a big bloke. Wearing from the shape of the prints special boots of some kind, rather clumsy. 
 PC Drake, who had been detailed to see where the prints led, approached. "They end at the cordon." Which meant they couldn’t be followed any further. "It broke through that as well." Now Drake, too, was saying “it” and not “he”.
 Faintly Birrell heard a car pull up on the forecourt of the farmhouse. He met Inspector Hedger halfway there, and filled him in. "Obviously it’s the same perpetrator."
 Frankly Birrell was glad Hedger was here. "It’s bad news, Sir. If we can’t contain the situation…"
 "Someone will make sure it is contained," Hedger said grimly. "On past evidence. They probably know about this already."
 "Do we analyse the evidence at the labs and make our findings public? They haven’t said we’ve got to keep quiet about this incident."
 "Yet. But maybe if we move fast enough…" Hedger deliberated with himself. "No, it’s too risky. I’ve a feeling we’d just be getting ourselves deeper into murky waters and if these people are ruthless enough I might be responsible for someone getting hurt. That wouldn’t be fair on them." He bit his lip. "No, it’s too risky," he said again. "But I think we need to express our concerns to the Home Office, if that’s who they claim to be working for." And then, he thought, we’ll see what they have to say for themselves.

Parsons was on the phone to Habgood from the command post. "I just thought you ought to know," he said flatly. "It’s broken through the cordon." 
 “What?” snapped Habgood. He made an effort to calm himself. "How did that happen?" he asked more evenly.
 "God knows how it got past our lads. Bad luck, I guess. Again, it’s too big an area and I’ve got too few personnel at my disposal."
"So where is it now, have you any idea?" 
 "If your theory that it’s playing safe is correct it won’t have gone too far from the Red Zone. We could extend the cordon…"
"You’ll leave that to the police, won’t you?"
 "To avoid unnecessary contact with the public, yes. There’s a security risk either way. But I’m thinking – what if the thing’s become a little bolder? I mean, you guys didn’t think it would try to escape in the first place, and yet it did."
 "We’ll just have to hope that isn’t the explanation. I suppose if there are any more killings we’ll know for sure." 
 "There could have been killings last night. Lucky it was only a sheep. Anyhow we’ll be monitoring the news for anything of interest." 
 "Of course. But if you’re going to be responsible for dealing with this matter, Colonel, you’d better make a good job of it because we don’t want the public getting restless. You can’t afford to slip up again."
"It’s by no means certain that we “slipped up.”"
 "Alright, alright. Just keep us informed as soon as there are any developments." Habgood cut off. 
 "Well, Major Brant, it’s just possible you might get your wish," sighed Parsons. "If that thing’s seen by too many people…"
"The breakout appears to have occurred at night, Sir." 
 "Stealth. Habgood’s wrong: it’s realised we’re less active after dark, or at more of a disadvantage then, unlike itself. It’s doing what we’d do in its situation, minimising the chances of detection. But it’ll still be harder to contain this business in a more populated area."
 "I suppose, Sir, if the matter does become known to the general public we’ll just have to take things as they come."
 "They certainly will," Parsons muttered, nodding in the direction of the research centre. "We’re bound to get complaints – indirectly, of course." He peered at her keenly. "I know you’d rather everything was out in the open. Is that because you have doubts about the ethics of what the Count and his friends are doing?"
 "I think it’s justified, Sir, ultimately. But it wouldn’t be for me to say, anyway. As it wouldn’t if we were a conventional military organisation engaged in conventional military activities."
 "You got it. We have to do what the politicians tell us, whether we like it or not. And I often don’t like it, Major, believe me. Which is why personally, most of the time, I tend to steer clear of…politics." 

After leaving work that evening, Rachel Savident took the tube to Tottenham Court Road, and found a little café near the station where she had a baguette and coffee. 
 Over her snack she went through the forms she had received in the post that morning. They asked her to give her personal details, including her occupation, and interests before setting out what she was looking for in a prospective partner in terms of age, physical characteristics and personality. A recent photograph was to be enclosed.
 She wondered if doing it this way would really make any difference, given the particular problems that people working for the Service experienced, always had experienced, in sustaining other than professional relationships. She couldn’t, of course, say very much about her work but then she didn’t need to. If she just put down that she worked for the security services – “the government” would be too vague – and gave them some idea of the problems people in her job faced in these areas, that ought to be enough. They’d get the message, hopefully. 
 She’d say that she needed someone who could understand, who could cope with the secrecy and her inability to talk much about the job, to even say what she did in the first place beyond euphemisms. Someone who would simply relish the times when they were together and accept her need to compartmentalise things, loving the Rachel he saw, which was a part at least of the real her, and not being particularly bothered about the one he would never see. It might take a very special person, but surely this outfit could find one if they were as good as their reputation suggested?  
It was worth a try, surely. 
 She knew they’d keep the fact she worked for MI6 at all hidden; after all confidentiality was their watchword. You didn’t survive in that business if you couldn’t be trusted to observe it.
 She filled in the form, put it in the envelope along with the photograph, paid her bill and left. Turning up the collar of her overcoat against the autumn chill, she set off down the street to a post box where she deposited the letter. Then she  crossed over and went down a little by-street past tall Georgian houses with iron railings separating them from the pavement to a broad landscaped square with more grand eighteenth-century buildings, some still lived in while others served as offices or art studios, on each side. 
 The one she sought had originally been the town house of a wealthy country gentleman. The door was shut but Rachel pressed the button on an intercom and spoke into the grille, giving her name. It unlocked and she stepped through into a carpeted foyer. She saw the man at the reception desk who ticked her off on a list and pointed to where a portable sign directed people upstairs. On the second floor another sign pointed towards the open door of a function room, from which a babble of voices issued. 
 The room had varnished oak panelling – original, from the way it was pitted in places with age – and reproduction Victorian wallpaper. There was a slight musty smell. Feeling embarrassed and out-of-place, like someone who’d wandered off the street into Buckingham Palace, she noted the plush red carpets, curtains and upholstery. The attendants moving among the gathering with trays of cocktail sausages and champagne glasses, and indeed the number of gentlemen in suits and ties, suggested the club which in fact this still was. For some at least the meeting was a social occasion as much as anything else. Though during the evening she was to note a surprising number of exceptions, most of the accents were upper-crust. She knew the sort of things their owners did for a living, the company they kept. She had never felt entirely comfortable with such people; they were an exclusive set who guarded their way of life, the different culture which in effect they belonged to and which she had never quite succeeded in joining, jealously. 
 She noted some well-known academics, a best-selling novelist. Plenty of foreign accents could be made out amidst the chatter; French ones, German ones, Greek ones, Scandinavian ones. And contrary to what she might have expected – in fact, to her considerable and not unpleasant surprise – not everyone present was white.
 She saw an elderly man shuffling towards her, leaning on a stick. "Rachel, how lovely to see you!" beamed Sir Derek Winlett, former Director-General of MI6 and president of the club, whose guests many in the room were here as. As much as the stick would allow he enfolded her in an affectionate hug, which she returned. "Keeping well? You look fabulous, I must say."
"I’m fine. Your leg…"
 "Recovering from a hip op. That sort of thing’s to be expected at my age. Had a slight mishap doing a spot of DIY." He sighed resentfully. "Doctor’s told me to take a rest from that sort of thing. Permanently. Always afraid that’d happen one day." He looked glum and she could see in his face the fear of decline, of not being able to do the things which kept you fit and healthy. "Anyway, grab yourself a drink." Winlett called for a waiter, who promptly appeared. "Some refreshments for this lady." 
 "What would you like, madam?" Rachel selected a lime cordial from the tray. She and Winlett talked, while the air continued to ring to the chatter of the guests and the clink of the glasses. Then the noise started to die down as one of the attendants was observed setting up a “meeting in progress” sign in the corridor, signifying that the serious business was about to begin. The door was firmly closed.
 A club official called for quiet and invited everyone to take their seats at one end of the room where several rows of chairs had been laid out, and a table set up at which the leading lights of the organisation which had called the meeting were taking their seats. 
 A little unsteadily, Winlett moved to stand before the  microphone which had been set up on a dais. He cleared his throat.
 "Thankyou all for coming here today. I hope this will be the first of many meetings – as many as are needed, anyhow – on the issue we’re gathered here to discuss. Thankyou in particular to those representatives of foreign intelligence services who are present. Most of the people in this room are British because we happen to be in Britain. It’s this country’s turn to act as host. But it is important to recognise that this is a continental movement, because it has to deal with what has become a continental problem.
 "We’re here today because we’re all agreed on one thing. That in recent years the European Union has become far too powerful, as well as corrupt, and is seeking to establish – has already established – an influence over the affairs of its member states which can’t possibly be consistent with democracy. I’ll begin by taking an overview of the situation.
 "When the EU, or the European Economic Community as it then was, was set up in 1957 its aim was to promote peace between the nations of Europe – and in particular France and Germany, the two greatest powers on the European mainland, whose rivalries had been an important factor in bringing about two world wars – through economic co-operation. That, in itself, was fine. Some people still didn’t like it when this country joined in 1973. But the real harm was done much later." 
 He was well away now, as when giving the Reith lecture a few years back on the role of espionage in the modern world. "In the years that followed the EEC became the European Community and then the European Union. But names aren’t the issue. The last three decades have seen a striking increase in its power and an extension of its influence into areas other than economics. First, in 1986, there came the Single European Act, by which a single market was set up within Europe from 1992. I don’t know what Margaret Thatcher was thinking when she signed it on behalf of Britain. 
 "Since then there has been a further development. It seems the EU is setting out to be not just an economic organisation, but also effectively a political one. We see this in the way it has sought to subordinate the domestic legal systems of the member states to its own. National legislatures have become integrated into EU law, and the ultimate arbiter in an increasingly wide range of matters is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, the EU has become dominated by the kind of people who take liberalism too far and in this country in particular have done enormous damage. The result is restrictive bureaucracy and absurd rulings on matters of health and safety, as well as those affecting law and order. It’s political correctness writ large, imposed continent-wide. It puts the criminal before their victim, resulting in lenient punishments because anything else infringes their human rights, and prevents us building a society where people are morally responsible, deterred from committing crime, and can develop any initiative, any moral fibre." 
 Nor was it entirely successful in what it sought to do, thought Rachel. It hadn’t stopped Britain, an EU member, from passing anti-terrorist laws which were considered damaging in their impact on individual freedom.
 "Then there are the immigration and employment laws. Under them, the citizen of any EU state has the automatic right to move to any other EU state, to live and work there. This only adds to the population pressures on societies which are already becoming overcrowded and expensive to run; there are more people in each country at any one time, even if many of the workers don’t intend to stay permanently. They may be regarded as a source of cheap labour and preferred by employers over the indigenous jobseeker, who as a result feels marginalised and excluded. They receive social security handouts which are the envy of disadvantaged people among the native population. And while most of those coming in are at least honest in their motives, there are too many who are not. Who are bad characters – criminals. Because criminals are opportunist, and therefore attracted by “open door” policies like this. Once here they run protection rackets and fraudulent money-making schemes. Some are guilty of rape and even murder.
 "No doubt there are plenty of horror stories which on close examination turn out to be exaggerated or untrue." Winlett wasn’t so stupid as to believe everything he read in the right-wing papers. "But enough is true to give rise to valid concerns. I know of a British man who was stalked for several years by a mentally ill woman from a certain EU country not particularly poor and with a perfectly good social security system. It was very distressing for him and he eventually had to move house, which he didn’t want. Officially the woman was classed as an economic migrant. In reality, although she could have been cared for perfectly well within her own country she had been dumped here because it was a lot more convenient for the authorities there, a way of taking pressure off themselves. 
 "Then there are what may be called the psychological consequences of loss of sovereignty. I don’t believe we can transfer our loyalty, our national self-consciousness, to a multinational organisation like the EU, especially when it is discredited by corruption and the absurdly high salaries paid to its officials. That is why moves towards the creation of a single European defence force worry me. There is no focus for patriotism if our institutions are not our own. And armies, navies and air forces provide that focus because of their historic role in the defence of the nation and of the values it believes in.
 "Realistically, in a world where the global balance of power is shifting, I think some loss of national sovereignty is inevitable, however we may regret it. But there has to be a limit. One of the most chilling things I have ever heard was a recent statement by a prominent EU official that the nation state was now redundant. It was chilling because the nation state is a necessary counter to supranational bodies like the EU itself, a check on their becoming too powerful. Brussels and Strasbourg are trying to impose a rigid, bureaucratic uniformity on a host of different countries each with its own culture and traditions. At the same time, because of its nature a supranational body will inevitably be remote from the citizens of individual countries, even more so than their own governments are – which I have to admit is saying something.
 "The nation state, a relatively recent phenomenon, though it effectively existed, in the sense the inhabitants of different regions had of their own identity, long before it was given official expression in the nineteeth century, has not yet outlived its usefulness. In fact, it never will because it is always necessary, for the reasons I’ve given. 
 "I was surprised, indeed astonished, to learn that citizens of all EU and Commonwealth countries can vote in British local elections, even though they may only reside in this country for short periods or for business purposes. Someone not normally resident in a country, indeed able and willing to flit between countries in the way the EU allows, may not have a sufficient understanding of its needs and problems, its way of life, and doesn’t therefore have the knowledge to make an informed decision as to which party or individual to support. Their vote may therefore cause harm to the interests of those who are long-term residents, fully fledged citizens, and who are therefore most likely to be affected by the policies of a government or local council. It also dissolves the spiritual ties to a national home which long-term residence creates, and which are essential for true citizenship. Ultimately it destroys the whole point of having different countries over whose affairs only their own citizens can have jurisdiction. It’s quite extraordinary, and it only makes sense if one sees it as part of a philosophy which rejects the whole idea of national sovereignty anyway; attempting to establish the principle that Europe is one nation rather than an association of different independent nations, and acting as if such is the case. And that is dangerous. 
 "Obviously those who are racist, or excessively jingoistic or insular, will be most likely to object to it. We need to examine our consciences from time to time and be careful what company we keep. But you can object to what is happening without being something disagreeable." 
 Listening to Winlett, Rachel thought he’d lost none of his wits, nor his fire. The aged Cold War warrior paused for breath, and to gather his thoughts, then returned to his theme in reflective, yet at the same time impassioned and forceful, manner. "When I joined the Service back in the 1960s, it was to protect this country’s liberty. The same reason why my father fought in the Second World War and my grandfather in the First. Not to see it destroyed by a very different form of totalitarianism which, while the symmetry is not exact, can be just as relentless, just as uncompromising, and just as dangerous. 
 "We all suffer from the way the EU conducts its business. Not only are the pressures on overheated and overpopulated economies increased but the moral tone of everything is lowered by the corruption. The perks, the junkets, the financial scandals…" He cited a number of recent cases. "And it’s all being subsidised by the taxpayer. 
 "All efforts to get the EU to reform have so far failed, either because it is bureaucratically too unwieldy and inefficient or because it does not want to reform. Those pressing for change are simply not listened to in the European Parliament. Brussels and Strasbourg don’t want to abandon cherished liberal principles or offend powerful economic interest groups.
 "What’s needed is for the British Prime Minister, say, to threaten to take his country out of the EU, or allow its citizens a referendum on the issue, unless the reforms are implemented. In fact he has more or less done so. But as on so many other matters where he has failed to deliver, it would be foolish for us to expect him to keep his word. So somehow, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to do it all ourselves."  
 With this Winlett ended his speech, which was greeted with sustained clapping. Nodding politely to his audience he sat down, leaving the floor to the other alumini, the French and German and other politicos, who more or less endorsed everything he’d said. Then the representatives of the French, German and Italian secret services – whose superiors thought they were on other business – came on. Each stressed that they were proud to consider themselves European, among other things recognising common European values which had contributed enormously to human culture and progress, but still did not believe there had to be a single continent-wide superstate. Their philosophy was “love Europe, hate the EU.” (For his own part Derek Winlett was later to declare to Rachel, "Spiritually I’m a citizen of the world. Politically I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and don’t you forget it.") And if they firmly believed in their own countries’ right to be truly independent, by the same token they acknowledged Britain’s too. All true patriots respected the patriotism of others.
 All the “foreign” people here, and not just rogue spies…it proves it isn’t just a British thing, thought Rachel. Not just a case of us being a bunch of reactionary dinosaurs who won’t join the party.
 The Italian made the point that the wars which the EU had in the first place been set up to prevent had often broken out because a country, or a territory which aspired to be a country, had felt its freedom and independence were being threatened. It was therefore ironic that the EU was itself encroaching too far on the sovereignty of its members and so encouraging just the kind of conflict it sought to avoid. 
 At this point the meeting became more of a seminar. The spies were followed by a distinguished German academic, an expert in politics and economics, who gave a talk on how the long-term effect of EU policies would if anything damage international unity and economic efficiency rather than promote it. He reported that as a result of the current financial crisis many Germans were now disillusioned with the Euro and wanted to return to the deutschmark. They had become suspicious of decisions made in Brussels. Similarly, claimed the Greek representative, nostalgia for the drachma was extremely strong among his countrymen and women.
 A defence consultant argued that if the rationale behind the EU was to avoid war, it was pointless since armed conflict was unlikely to break out in Europe when of the three most powerful European nations Britain and France both had nuclear weapons and Germany did not. Germany was unlikely to attack Britain and/or France when it would only result in her own annihilation. Nor, for the same reason, would France attack Britain or vice versa. And it was hard to see any reason why Britain and/or France should attack Germany. Ideally, what we wanted was not an overpowerful continental government but a peaceful association of independent sovereign states. The First and Second World Wars would not have happened in any case if national leaders had pursued sensible policies; if Germany and Britain had come to a proper agreement in the 1900s as to how many battleships each should have, or if the western powers had not been too harsh on Germany at Versailles, creating discontent Hitler was later to exploit, and then too slow to rearm in the face of Nazi expansion. Of course, people could not be relied on to be sensible. But that nuclear weapons provided an ultimate safeguard against a revival of past conflicts, that they worked as a deterrent, was proven by there having been no wars – including nuclear ones – in western Europe, or between western Europe and Russia, since 1945, even at the height of the Cold War. 
 "Assuming we need go so far as to dismantle the European Union, it is not as if we would be turning our back entirely on international co-operation. Each country would still be a member of the UN, have obligations under international treaties. There would still be cultural links, bodies for international understanding which would give grants. As Sir Derek pointed out, these days it is impossible to be entirely isolationist."
 A well-known British historian described, citing numerous examples, how history showed that international organisations which had tried to override the independence of individual nations had never worked, the attempt ending in failure and often bloodshed. The historian was renowned for his right-wing views but Rachel had to admit he was making sense, everything he said made sense, even though she felt uncomfortable at finding herself in agreement with him. 
 Having outlined the problem the meeting now addressed the question of what to do about it. It seemed no-one really knew. It was true there were political parties in the member states, and in the European Parliament, which wanted to pull their country out of the EU, and the UK British Independence Party, at any rate, was starting to do well in local elections. But it was doubted whether the BIP’s leaders had enough experience of government to make a good job of it – which they would have to do, EU or no EU – and many of them were cranky and distinctly undesirable. Secondly, it was one of a proliferation of what might be called single-issue – although they did have policies on a variety of others – parties, like the Greens, whose effect might simply be to split the vote and let the government in. Thirdly, there were undoubtedly economic arguments for staying in the EU, even if many felt they’d got to the stage where the political factors had to be considered more important. If the economy were to improve, people might not want to risk the slightest possibility of losing that new-found prosperity. They might support the BIP at local elections, but not at national; the protest vote.
 Aware of the more unsavoury elements within the anti-EU movement, a Professor of Politics at a leading British university told the meeting that the issue needn’t be seen as a racial one, and hopefully would not turn into it. "There have always been, throughout history, disagreements over how much power to give the localities as opposed to the centre. You’d get them whether a country had a wholly white population, a wholly non-white one, or something in between."  
 He felt that reforming the EU, rather than leaving it altogether, was probably the sensible approach. If it was feasible. A murmur of agreement rippled through his audience. 
"But it all depends on us for the time being," Rachel said. 
"Yes," nodded the academic. "It does."
"Should we try to widen our membership?" someone asked. 
 "Not for the time being, I think, unless we’re very careful indeed," said a former British cabinet minister. "It may mean bringing in people we can’t rely on, who might betray us or will act as moles. I’m confident there are no security risks at present but we don’t want to push our luck." 
 "But are there enough of us to be effective? From all accounts those prepared to play an active role amount to no more than a hundred people, spread among different countries and organisations, at most." 
"Perhaps it’s not how many of us there are but what we do."
"What do we do?"
 It was Winlett who answered. The old spymaster looking at things the way a spymaster did. "We want to know what Brussels are up to. We need to find something that discredits them and increases the hostility towards them, the pressure for change, on the part of the European public. Any evidence of dodgy dealings; advance knowledge of policies people may not like so they can’t be sprung on us. Anything which exposes the EU for what they are."
"I take it you mean espionage?"
 "What else? That’s what many of us are, after all. Spies. We’ll have to be very careful, though. Our governments and fellow agents presumably wish to preserve the current state of affairs, through conviction or cowardice, and the logic of it means that if they knew what we were doing they’d try to stop us.
 "But if anyone finds out anything that could be of use to us, they’re to let us know immediately. I can’t emphasise it too highly. Anything…"

Exeter Police Station
"My livelihood’s under threat," said the farmer. "I mean, how often is this going to happen?"
 "I understand your fears, Mr Armitage," said Superintendent Prothero. "I can assure you there will be a full enquiry into this latest incident." 
 "I don’t just mean what’s happened, I mean how. We were under the impression he was out on the Moor somewhere. That’s why the Army were all over it, that’s why your lot put up that fence."
"It could be of course that the intruder approached from another direction – "
 "Which means you’ve been looking for him in the wrong place, haven’t you? I thought he was holed up on the Moor. Don’t you think it makes the whole thing a bit of a joke?
 "I mean, it must be the same bloke. Why he’s changed to killing sheep I’ve no idea but…"
"We don’t know for sure this is the same person who killed Nicola Ransome." 
 The statement was true enough. But there was something in Armitage’s face, his narrowed eyes, which suggested, despite all the urbanisation of the past hundred years or so, a trace of that – how to describe it, intuition? – that country people used to have. Suspicion, certainly.
 "And there’s something…weird about the business, as well." Those eyes. Those red eyes.
"How do you mean exactly?" 
 "Well, how could it – he have ripped through my fence like paper, the way he ripped through that woman and my sheep?"
 "The manner of the killings would certainly seem to indicate unusual strength." At that they both seemed to agree to drop the matter, Armitage because he felt silly suggesting there was something superhuman about the killer. The Superintendent because…Armitage couldn’t be quite sure of the reason.
 "Of course since they were searching the Moor the matter is partly the responsibility of the Armed Forces," the Superintendent said.
"So maybe it’s them I should be going to see?"
 The Superintendent looked uncomfortable at this. "I don’t think there’s any need at this stage. You could complain to the Ministry of Defence. But since we’re liaising with them over this matter, I’ll take it up with them myself, and let you know if I get any feedback." 
 "I should hope you do get it," Armitage said. His tone changed as he grew angry again. "You were the ones who decided he was on the Moor in the first place, not the soldier boys. Why else would you have put up a bloody great cordon around it?" 
 "It’d be wise, I suppose, to look into the possibility that there is a second killer, or that the original one has moved elsewhere. Meanwhile if your livelihood has suffered as a result of an oversight on our part, I can only apologise." Prothero guessed Armitage was thinking “compensation.” "We need all the facts at our disposal and that may not happen until the killer, or killers, are caught."
 Armitage stared at him for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Alright." He rose, meeting the policeman’s eye. "But if you let it happen again there’ll be trouble, I’m warning you." 
 As soon as he was gone the Superintendent picked up the phone. He’d already known that the cordon had been breached and that there might be repercussions. The people who had told him would now need to know at once about the incident at the farm, although it was always possible they already did. 
 He thought of all the hassle, the awkward questions, once the press got to hear of it. He would try and see if the person he’d been told to liaise with at the MOD could ensure they took the flak – after all, it was their mistake – instead of his own people. It could be argued that if they were worried about public confidence being undermined, greater damage would be inflicted if it was known the police had committed such a fundamental error as to put the cordon in the wrong place. If that was what the problem was. 

Ten

Schloss Mencken
"I have told you," said the Count, "we need to find the reason for what happened on Dartmoor and make sure there is no repeat of it. I don’t suppose you’ve had any luck?"
 "Not yet," said Habgood from one of the videoscreens. "It may mean spending more money." 
 "I could arrange that easily enough," Mencken told him. "But to return to our more immediate problem. Colonel Parsons, your people can arrange for the cordon to be extended?" 
 Parsons was sitting beside Habgood in the former’s office at the research centre. It was debatable whether the Count needed to have dealings with him personally, rather than go through X5’s International Command, but Mencken felt so much depended on the outcome of events at Dartmoor that he needed to be in contact with the man on the spot.
 "I expect they can," the Colonel replied. "But one or two people will have to move out of their houses, including the farmer. Apart from any danger to themselves, if they stay they may see something we don’t want them to."
 "They won’t like it," Volker Erhardt said. "Even if we say it’s being done for their own safety. The farmer especially." 
"They’ve no choice," said Parsons. "And it is being done for their own safety." 
 "For one thing, if they become a security risk…" The Count left the sentence unfinished. 
 If they became a security risk something unpleasant might happen to them. Something which could always be blamed on the creature. After all, by staying they would have chosen to put themselves at risk. 
 Colonel Parsons was saying nothing. He tended to leave this side of things to those in the Ministry of Defence and intelligence services who knew of X5 and co-operated in its work. That way, at least it would not be his finger which pulled the trigger. 

All in all, the murder out on the Moor had not disturbed the even tenor of life in the village that much. Because Lower Oakington was a village, it was bound to be a shock. But everyone had got over it, though it was bound to remain a topic of conversation for years to come. There had been murders in rural areas before. A church service, which Duncan attended in silence, had been held at which prayers were offered for the soul of the murdered woman and also for her killer, who was obviously in need of God’s grace. In his sermon the vicar told his audience that the killing, though an evil act, proved in a way the existence of a loving God because evil was the shadow cast by the light of His goodness. And that, apart from the precautions against unwelcome visitors which would be taken for some time by those living in the more remote parts of the area, was that. Or so everyone had thought.    
 It seemed every adult resident of Lower Oakington, apart from the elderly and housebound, was present in the village hall; there weren’t enough chairs to go round and a few people had to stand. Sitting in a row behind the table on the stage were Laura Truman, the vicar – still an important figure in a  community like this – a couple of the local Councillors, Superintendent Prothero and Inspector Hedger, a Ministry of Defence official, the other members of the Residents’ Association committee, and Louise Knatchbull who would be taking notes on her laptop.   
 Those on the platform were still conferring with one another, establishing that all the necessary arrangements were in place and perhaps deciding what ought to be said and what ought not. A member of the Association with the most technical knowledge was checking the microphone to make sure it worked properly.  
 The public meanwhile chatted among themselves. "Red eyes, that’s what I heard. Glowing eyes. Just like in the old story." 
"You don’t think – "
"Probably just someone playing a joke." 
"Pretty sick joke if it was. He killed the woman, don’t forget."
"We don’t know it’s the same man." 
 "They say she was down there because she’d separated from her husband. Not that that matters now. Poor lass. Him too." The speaker, who had lowered their voice for a moment, glanced to where Duncan Ransome was sitting.
 Laura Truman stood, went to the microphone, and having made sure that everyone could hear her opened the proceedings. "Thankyou for coming tonight, everybody. We all know why we’re here. I called this meeting because of growing concern about certain incidents which have taken place in the area recently. You may be aware of what happened on Tuesday night at Whitehorses Farm. 
 "It seems our livelihood is not safe. Who will be attacked next? I have expressed our concerns to the local authorities and am grateful that they have agreed to be present tonight." She introduced the various dignitaries, plus the two policemen. 
 Apart from the fact that they needed to give account of themselves for their failure, Hedger and Prothero were there because they were afraid things might get out of hand. The media frenzy hadn’t helped; the press had dubbed the killer the “Dartmoor Fiend” and the features they were printing on the case were getting more and more lurid.  
 "I’ll be handing the meeting over to the floor in a moment," Laura said. "I’m sure the panel will be happy to answer any questions you may have. But first, I believe you’d like to say one or two words, Frank."
 Armitage went up to the front and stood at the mike. He described how his livelihood had been affected by the temporary closure of the farm and the relocation of himself and his stock. "Our livelihood or our lives. One or the other will be in danger the longer things go on like this. Any one of us here could be next to suffer if the police and army can’t be trusted to catch who’s doing it or keep him penned in."
 Another villager added his support. "It does seem to me that the authorities are clearly unable to handle the situation if it’s necessary for people to leave their homes in order to be protected." 
Murmurs of agreement. 
 Laura glanced briefly at the representatives of authority. "I think we do need to ask why the killer was allowed to evade the Army cordon and strike again." 
 "Evidently he kills sheep as well as people," someone commented. They were obviously sceptical that the incidents were both due to the same person. 
 "There do appear to be similarities between the cases," admitted Inspector Hedger, echoing Birrell’s words to Armitage earlier. He wasn’t losing anything by reminding people of this. Whether it was the same person or not there had still, it seemed, been a major slip-up. "In both the killer seems to have had – unusual strength. We can’t be sure there is no connection with the murder of Nicola Ransome." 
 For a moment everyone looked at Duncan. His attention remained focused on the dignitaries on the platform.
 Questions started coming thick and fast from the floor. For a moment Laura seemed overwhelmed, in danger of losing her control of the meeting. 
 "What about the missing walkers? Can we be sure whether there’s a connection to them?"
 "That cannot be ruled out," conceded Hedger. "However there is at present no evidence to support it. The disappearances were of course fully investigated – "
"They never found them. That doesn’t seem like a full investigation to me."
"It is difficult to search the Moor thoroughly, as you can appreciate."
 Marjorie Branscombe raised her hand. "If they were murdered, and it was the same man, why didn’t he leave their bodies like he did with the woman and the sheep? I mean, I’ve heard tell you could only just identify her…" Duncan Ransome winced. "Not that I like to bring that up. But…anyway, I’m saying there was a body, even if…"
"Wild animals could have eaten what was left," someone pointed out. 
 "And if we can’t find the bodies then we don’t know how they died. So we can’t be sure it wasn’t the same man."
"That big place up the road – Mencken something other."
"Mencken Pharmaceuticals."
"How do we know they didn’t have anything to do with it?"
 "Are you suggesting they’re breeding some kind of monster in there, Sir?" Superintendent Prothero was getting annoyed. "I can hardly authorise a raid on the place on the allegation that they are."
"It’s a bit suspicious that they don’t talk to anyone." 
"There’s no evidence it’s anything to do with them."
"Whoever’s responsible, I want action now," demanded Frank Armitage.
 Throughout all this the councillors said little apart from the occasional banal remark about “needing to get together to sort things out”. Mark Horgan, the man with the gaunt face who lived alone and of whom everyone was scared was sitting still and silent in the way that always caused people such unease. If he was conscious of all the eyes that kept turning to him it didn’t show. 
"We want to know what’s really going on," a man shouted.
 Laura continued to look somewhat taken aback by the way things were going. She opened her mouth to say something but the vicar beat her to it. "I think we need to keep calm. We must have no hasty action. Obviously if there are any more incidents we’ll need to think carefully about how to take matters further. But until then we don’t want to get too worked up about this."
 The man from the MOD spoke for the first time. "Well, we still don’t know how the killer managed to break through our cordon. An investigation is being carried out. In the meantime all I can do is express my deepest regret at this latest incident and offer Mr Armitage my sincerest apologies."
 "Money," Armitage said loudly. "I’m talking money. Who’s going to pay for the damage to my business?"
"Something can be arranged." The official told him who to contact. 
 "There is a possibility the killer could be a former member of the Armed Forces, maybe ex-Special Forces. It’s been known, unfortunately." 
Once again the eyes shifted their gaze to Mark Horgan.
 "I wouldn’t want you to think we’re all mad in the Armed Forces, or become mad after leaving it. But it can’t be ruled out. And if he is an ex-soldier, who may perhaps have served in the SAS, he might have the skills to avoid those searching for him."
 “He’d have used wire cutters to get through your fence and mine, that sort of thing. Instead he just smashed his way in." Armitage let this hang in the air. He was scared of openly saying what he really thought, because he wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Would he? 
"For that matter, why would he kill sheep?"
"Why would he kill at all? He’s mad. Who knows what a psycho thinks."
 Yet it made no sense that someone would stealthily and skilfully avoid the army patrols combing the Moor for them, but just use brute force to rip through the fence, not having bothered to equip themselves with cutters. Unless they were strong enough not to need them. 
 "The police were patrolling the approaches to the cordon twentyfour-seven. Didn’t they spot anything?"
 "The moor is a big place, Sir," said Hedger. "You’re talking quite a few miles of fencing. It’s not possible to cover all of it all the time.
 "All I can say is, we will continue to do our best to catch the killer. We are pursuing the possible line of enquiry that he may be ex-Armed Forces and hope that it may lead somewhere."  
 From the expressions on the villagers’ faces, or rather the lack of them, they weren’t too impressed by this. It was clear what everyone thought. You’re stonewalling.
 "I have to say, it isn’t good enough," Laura declared. "We need to complain – all of us. If we all send a letter or e-mail to the Ministry of Defence in London that’ll be a start. I’ll be letting the papers know what I think of all this. And if there is a further incident I’m considering some form of public protest. Obviously we’ll be careful how we go about it. That’s about all I’ve got to say."
 The representatives of the press were hammering away at the keyboards of their laptops, looking pleased with themselves.
 Laura sat down, and the meeting began to break up. Mark Horgan was tight-lipped as he made his way out. None of this would solve anything, he thought. All he’d heard was drivel and dissimulation. 
 "I still think it was him," one woman said, meaning Horgan. "It wouldn’t surprise me if he killed those walkers. A lot of people say they’ve met him out on the Moor. Spends whole days there, he does. Camps out overnight. He killed them and dumped their bodies in a bog." 
 It was noted that the police and the MOD official were leaving by the back door. Armitage stared after them long and hard as they filed out. They had had to close down the farm and evacuate him and his family. Normally in such cases the procedure would be to give them extra police protection, while security measures at the farm were tightened. But they were going further and actually moving everyone out. You didn’t normally go that far when there was a murderer on the loose. Unless of course they were no ordinary murderer. 
 The man from the MOD was trying to assess how things had gone. He had said as much as he could. The bit about the killer maybe being Special Forces had hopefully given the official line – he supposed it was that – a bit more plausibility. All the same, he wasn’t sure how far they’d swallowed it. 
 He’d told the police more or less what he’d told the meeting, that he was sorry it had happened, that it was due to the logistical difficulties of patrolling all the Moor all the time, that an investigation was being carried out. But they weren’t happy with the turn things had taken either. Mentally he addressed the X5 troops searching the Moor. Come on, guys. Find the thing soon. Before it kills again. 

They had extended the cordon, spreading themselves even more thinly. Not that that made a lot of difference to the creature. The way it could use its new-found abilities was limited. Besides, although it had bought itself some time it knew its luck was bound to run out eventually. It had been lucky up until now, mainly due to the sheer size of the Moor. But sooner or later…
 So it had little option but to go back to the Moor. It couldn’t in any case return to where it had found the white creatures because the soldiers would be patrolling the place to see if it did. 
 One thing was clear to it. If it was cornered, it would have no option but to fight back. And if it had to kill the Not-Us it may as well take their red stuff. Because in the end, Dr Habgood hadn’t been far wrong; it was driven, like any other living organism, simply by the urge to survive. 


Eleven

Caroline Kent trotted down the corridor to the office of the Managing Director of International Petroleum Ltd with a laminated folder tucked under her arm, her high heels clicking on the parqueted floor as her scissor-like legs crossed over one another with perfect symmetry. 
 She had worked at the company’s head office in Hammersmith almost since leaving university. She was a constant presence there, not altogether unpopular but certainly ubiquitous; a familiar sound around the place was her precise, clipped Home Counties voice, which held not the slightest suggestion of a glottal stop. You could almost see the irritation in her face whenever such control slipped in the slightest.  
 She knocked. Marcus Hennig looked up with a friendly enough smile as she entered the room. "Good morning, Caroline. As always, a tonic to see your pretty face at the beginning of a hard day’s work." She didn’t know whether he was genuinely in a good mood or being sarcastic. 
 "Here you are," she said, and laid before him the annual report from the European Zone, for which at the moment she as one of IPL’s team of international troubleshooters had responsibility. 
 "Ah, thankyou," he said, flicking through the folder. "Before time. A nicely presented document, put together with your usual efficiency." She smiled noncommittally. 
"Where did you go for your leave?" he enquired.
 "Former Yugoslavia. Now things have calmed down there, more or less, it’s a tourist destination again. Somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit."    
 "I’m sure you have," he muttered. She knew then that he suspected the real purpose of her “holiday”. MI6 had been impressed by her actions on behalf of the company against a South American drug baron who was trying to sabotage its operations so he could be the region’s only source of wealth, and had recruited her as an agent on an unofficial basis. She’d been moonlighting, in a way. At first Hennig, when he found out, had not been pleased but then he had seen ways it could be turned to the company’s advantage. Caroline replied that she saw no harm in his proposal provided it was IPL who was the victim of dirty tricks and not the other way round; she would not under any circumstances engage in industrial espionage against a competitor. He could have kicked her out there and then, but didn’t because she continued to be indispensable as a troubleshooter. For her part, Caroline had had her own reasons for responding positively to the security services’ entreaties and once they no longer applied, promptly resigned. However as she had never officially been a member of the organisation in the first place it was questionable whether or not she had actually done so. Her links with them continued because she had a knack of finding trouble and they came in useful in getting her and others out of it. Sometimes, what threatened the interests of IPL had also threatened those of the world at large.    
With a polite nod she turned to go. "Oh, Caroline?" he said, checking her. 
"Yup?"
 "I’ve been speaking to one or two people, and they’re inclined to agree with me we should update our image a little."  
"In what way?"
 "Don’t you think it’s high time we changed the name of your department to Human Resources?"
 Caroline felt a not unfamiliar sense of dread creeping through her vitals.  This was a subject which kept coming up from time to time and on which she suspected she couldn’t go on fighting her corner indefinitely.
 "I mean," Hennig continued, "IPL UK must be about the only big company, for all I know the only company, in the country not to have one."
"Not to have what?" 
"A Human Resources department."
"But we do have one."
"No we don’t. We have a Personnel department."
"It’s the same thing."
 "No it isn’t. At least, not in their eyes." He cast his own upwards as way of referring to the Board of Directors.
 Ah, she thought, does that mean you think it’s silly too, but you don’t have the guts to say so to their faces?
"It sticks out like a sore thumb. This is the twenty-first century." 
 And do you really think, Caroline thought with an inward sigh, that the vast majority of people would give a damn what it was called? What mattered was that her departments were run in a professional manner and that everyone, herself included, handled disagreements in an even fashion whenever they came up. By and large her staff had no complaints. 
 "You know that won’t be good enough for them," Hennig said when she told him so. "It’s something they’re clamping down on…"
He changed his tone. "Caroline, why are you so much against this change?"
 Caroline tolerated political correctness, call it that, as long as (a) it made sense and (b) it left you with some degree of choice. (This applied, among other things, to matters of gender. Originally she was going to be a Ms, but then when she applied for a job and was asked to fill in the form she found that was the only option given females being asked to state their title. It occurred to her that she was being told what to think, what she should consider appropriate and non-sexist, just as feminists had once seemed to be insisting she should not explore her sexuality because it amounted to pornography and was degrading. She had promptly stuffed the form in the bin. Besides, “Miss” suggested to her something prim and proper, perhaps slightly old-fashioned, with a dignity that had to be lived up to while inviting respect from others. Which was how she liked to see herself.)  
 Rather than simply saying what a department – personnel or finance or admin – did “Human Resources” had a metaphorical, poetical ring to it. Somehow such language made things seem surreal, unreal, divorced from plain fact; as indeed they were becoming. It appeared a retreat from reality, from commonsense, and thus a sign of terminal decline, decadence after a fashion, in a society. She tried to explain this to Hennig, but didn’t think he got the point, or was prepared to press it with the Board.
 She refrained from suggesting that descriptions like “Human Resources Manager” had been invented in the first place to make someone or other feel more important. Or they didn’t have anything else to do but think up such silly names and some excuse had to be found for keeping them on the payroll.  
"I’d just feel daft saying it, or being called it," she told Hennig.
"It’s almost universal nowadays."
"That doesn’t make it right."
"It seems a little…eccentric somehow."
 So calling things by daft and pointless names isn’t eccentric but objecting to it is, she mused. "I just think we should make a stand."
"You mean you think you should." 
 She made no comment. "You can have something which is called by, if you don’t mind me saying so, fancy names but is run extremely badly."
 Hennig shrugged. "There’ll always be some people who don’t come up to standard."
 "So then what difference does it make changing the name? Look, Marcus, I think I’ve succeeded in running my department in both a sensitive and an efficient manner. I’ve always made people feel welcome when they join the company, defended them against unfair dismissal" (at the last bit she coughed as if at some embarrassment). "I’ve done all that without saying “Human Resources.”"  
 "I’m sure you’ll be a good Human Resources Manager as much as a good Personnel Manager."
"But I don’t want to be a “Human Resources Manager”."
"What if I say you’ve got to be?"
 "It’s not you saying I’ve got to be, it’s the Board. I don’t know why it should matter so much to them anyway."
"Whether it does isn’t for you to decide."
"I suppose not," she agreed.
 "There’s the matter of your other department as well," he said. "Public Relations."
"What about it?"
 "I know you won’t be pleased to hear this, but they think we ought to make a clean sweep and change the wording to Communications. I mean, PR has something of a…negative image these days."
 "Because spin makes things seem more honest, and more efficient, than they really are?"
"Well, some would say that…"
 "You think “Communications” is less dirty a word? Alistair Campbell tarnished it enough, I’d have thought. And he was the government’s head of “Communications”." 
 "I’m not going to discuss politics. Look, Caroline, just give some thought to the matter over the next few days, will you?" Like hell I will, she thought. "Yes of course, if that’s what you want." 
"I just don’t want us to look like a bunch of dinosaurs."
"Then may I say one thing?"
"Your wish is my command." 
 "You said “dinosaurs”. The dinosaurs lasted for 165 million years; a lot longer than we have so far, or are likely to." Her lips twitched once and then she was gone, not exactly slamming the door but closing it with just enough force to make her point.

I’m the king of the castle, thought Joe Marks, looking down from the ridge upon the vast, trackless waste before him. The thought, along with the breathtaking view, lifted his spirits but as he descended the slope carefully to level ground they began to sink again. He whistled a cheerful tune in a bid to keep them up.
 He thought longingly of the cosy interior of some local pub, but knew a celebratory booze-up would have to wait until they’d actually caught the thing. In any case it wasn’t beer he craved for right now. He needed some hot food, beans and steak, inside him. There were the rations in his kitbag but he ought to make them last until lunchtime, still several hours away. 
 This awful loneliness…and yet the Moor hadn’t always been uninhabited, he knew that from the maps. Hundreds of years ago there had been tin mines, now long worked out; maybe whole villages. The ghosts of the people who lived there, could he hear them on the wind? Drop it, he ordered himself. You’re spooked enough already.
 He heard a rustling from a nearby mass of undergrowth and stiffened, nerves on edge, his rifle rock steady in his hand. He spun round to face the source of the sound. A rabbit burst from the bush and bolted right in front of him, its white tail bobbing as it streaked away into the distance.
Christ, he’d almost shot the bloody thing. Could have had it for supper tonight. 
 It occurred to him that the rabbit might have left the bush because there’d been something in there that had scared it. But he searched and found nothing. 
 Something on the ground caught his eye and he took a closer look at it. It was a brick of some smooth, shiny, dark brown substance, about a foot long and to the touch both hard and soft at the same time. He recognised it from the briefing they’d had at HQ. He called Sergeant Purchase to tell him of the discovery, giving his approximate position. If any of these objects were found they had to be collected at some point in case anybody came across one and took it to a scientist for identification. The scientist might possibly be able to work out what it was. There must be quite a few of them scattered around by now, it was reckoned, and probably not all could be accounted for but they had to make the effort.   
 Although he could see no footprints the object’s presence showed the creature had been here, that he was on the right track. He pressed on, and an hour later found another of them. 
 He passed a boulder on which some orienteers, or schoolkids from Millfield or somewhere like that doing the Ten Tors, had left a white cross to guide them. 
 He climbed a short rise, at the top of which the path formed a T-junction with another. And froze again on seeing a line of the square footprints, stretching into the middle distance. Fortunately the prints had been left after the ground was made muddy by recent rain, and before more rain obliterated them. 
 Seeing nowhere nearby where the creature might be hiding, he called Purchase again, keeping his voice low just to be sure. "Found more prints, Sarge. Pretty fresh by the look of them." 
"Position?"
 Marks consulted the Satnav, reading out the bearings. "There’s a rock not far away with a cross on it."
 "Hang on, lad." Purchase went away and was back a couple of minutes later. "One of B squad was there several hours ago, but that’s too long to give us any clue. What’s the ground like, wet or dry?"
"Looks like there’s been some rain, that’s why they took."
 "The Met Office say the last shower was an hour ago, not long after B squad were there. No telling whether you’re likely to come across it out in the open, or if it’s hiding. Follow the prints as far as you can, and I’ll alert everyone else in case we’ve got a lead, see you get backup. Keep in touch."
 "Right, Sarge." Feeling a growing sense of excitement, Marks set off in the direction the prints led. They travelled in roughly a straight line towards a hill three-quarters of a mile away, on top of which the gaunt outline of a stone circle  stood out starkly against the sky. It was made up of five tall standing stones with one big horizontal one resting on top of them. Marks wondered who had built it and how long it had been there for. 
He heard one of the helicopters change direction. 
 On his right he could make out another member of the squad heading his way; on his left, one of Sergeant Mathieson’s.  
 The radio clipped to his belt crackled and Steve Holt’s voice came through. "I can see you, Joe."
"Uh-huh."
 From time to time he saw Holt and the other soldier, who he had an idea was Zack Jenkins, stop to scan the area with their binoculars. 
 The helicopter arrived. It hovered above the stone circle, the pilot using it as a reference point, then flew off to the west. Like the soldiers it was scanning a radius of three miles with the circle as its centre. 
 The footprints seemed to lead up the hill to the circle. Marks started to climb it. At the top he tensed, since for all he knew the creature might be hiding behind one of the stones of the circle waiting to jump him.
 It would take about ten minutes for Holt to reach him; Jenkins, roughly the same time. 
 Meanwhile Zack Jenkins paused again to take another look through his binoculars. He frowned. The circle…somehow it looked different. What was it? He tried to think. There was something about its outline…
Marks was now about ten feet from it. 
 When Jenkins had first taken a scan with the binocs, he had got a good look at the circle. And in the intervening time, something had changed. It couldn’t have done but – 
Marks was five feet from the circle.
Suddenly Jenkins realised what was bothering him about the structure.
There were five upright stones holding up the horizontal one.
But previously there had been four. 
He must be imagining it. Surely. 

Just before reaching the stones Marks changed direction, moving to the right. He walked round the side of the circle to see if there was anything hiding behind it.
Nothing.

Five stones, thought Jenkins. But how could that be? How?

Marks paused and scratched his head, puzzled. There were no footprints on the other side of the stones. It was as if they ended at the circle. The thing couldn’t have vanished into thin air, could it? He stood with his back to the circle, trying to work it out.
 Jenkins was still attempting to decide if he was seeing things. Five stones. Impossible, unless…
And then he saw that one of the stones was moving.
He yelled into the radio. "Joe, look out! It’s – "
 Marks felt a sudden rushing motion, then something cold and hard slammed into him and sent him reeling, at the same time smashing the gun from his hand. He just had time to correct his balance, but before he could fully react the creature’s arm swung into his head and snapped it clean off. 

Headquarters of the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol),200 Quai Charles de Gaulle, Lyon
The film had been taken using a video camera with a telephoto lens from a helicopter which had flown over the castle ostensibly on its way to carry out a mountain rescue. It showed a group of people, mostly in business suits but a few casually dressed, gathered on the terrace at Schloss Mencken, all with drinks in their hands. Some were standing on their own looking shifty but the majority chatted companionably. 
 These days, on the whole, Switzerland was more accommodating concerning investigations into its actions during World War Two. Albeit a little reluctantly, the authorities had given their consent for surveillance to be mounted on the Count von Mencken, and offered their full co-operation. They didn’t feel they could refuse. They had of course insisted that there must be a reasonable amount of proof before any arrest could be made. 
 Alphonse Remy was head of the branch of Interpol dealing with cultural crimes – that is, the theft or forgery of works of art of whatever kind. Basically he was in the job because he had to pay the bills somehow. But since it made that job a little more rewarding he did try to take a genuine interest in the work. He told himself that objects of cultural value should be on public display; if stolen ones were located and returned the opportunity should be taken to seek an agreement with the owners for reproductions to be made, where none existed, and hung in museums at the latter’s expense.  
 He tried to feel a sense of anger at the Nazis which would motivate him. As a Frenchman, it ought not to be too difficult. His grandparents had told him what it had been like during the Occupation: the fates meted out to real or suspected collaborators, the brutal executions by the Gestapo, the way the Germans had bled the country of its resources and given it nothing in return. Yet it was difficult, and getting more so as the years went by, now that France and Germany were friends and the two most important powers within the European Union, effectively running it together. 
 Along with his deputy, a Dane named Oskar Grundvik, he studied the film carefully as the camera panned across the gathering. 
 "There’s Mencken," he observed. Into view stepped a tall, youngish man with prematurely silver hair. "And Gus van Ruytenbroek."
 Grundvik nodded. "And Peter Stradling. Oleg Bukharev. Ravi Sekhar, Gunther Wallenberg, Marco Valletta, Paul Kenward, Vladimir Krykovsky." He continued to rattle off the names. Texan oil billionaires, Italian football magnates, Russian oligarchs; the Count certainly had some impressive connections. Mind you, they were the sort of people he probably would know. 
 The film came to an end and Remy switched off the projector. "We couldn’t see what was going on in the castle itself," he  said, "but I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point the Count was auctioning off certain items in his private art collection to the highest bidder." 
 "All very wealthy people," he commented. "Some of them close friends of Mencken’s. And all of them suspected at one time or another of criminal activities. Stradling and Valletta were actually convicted of fraud and insider trading a few years ago. Your thoughts, Oskar?"
 "It looks highly suspicious. But just because the Count is associating with a group of people most of whom are criminals, or probable criminals, that doesn’t mean that he himself is doing anything illegal. Nor does the fact that he is a very secretive man, and that his father may have been involved in illicit activities during the Second World War." 
"But coming on top of those dead Nazis, it’s surely too much of a coincidence."
 "It’s not enough to satisfy the Swiss."  On seeing the film they had expressed the opinion that it was insufficient evidence. All it showed was a wealthy businessman meeting socially with other wealthy businessmen. 
 "We need someone in there," said Remy. "But it’s going to be difficult. The Count guards his privacy jealously." Mencken vetted anyone proposing to enter his employment very closely indeed. After all, he had a lot of valuable items in that castle of his, whether legally acquired or not. 
"Do you think we’ll learn anything from maintaining the surveillance?"
 "Maybe. But the mountain conditions often interfere with electronic listening equipment. And if the Count is selling off the Nazi loot his father acquired all those years ago, I expect he lets his clients know in person or non-electronically whenever there’s to be a sale, probably using coded messages. Which will make our task a lot harder.
 "We’ll keep working at it. Tell the British and the other national police forces what we’ve found and suggest they monitor all the people who were at that meeting. And yes, we’ll keep up the surveillance. Let’s just hope it continues to reap rewards."

"It’s killing him! It’s – ah, God!" 
 Then Jenkins got a grip on himself and snatched out his radio. "Sarge, I’ve got it!" he shouted. "It’s just killed Joe! It’s at the stone circle – " Almost gabbling, he read out the data from the Satnav. 
"OK, go and get it. We’ll be with you right away. Out."
 Jenkins started running towards the stone circle, just under a quarter of a mile away. Meanwhile Mathieson was shouting into the radio: "Calling all units. Have sighted creature at 325 north, 221 east, repeat 325 north 221 east. One personnel dead. Assistance required. Those at the perimeter of the Zone remain where you are. All other units proceed to position stated."
Jenkins heard the helicopter bank and change course again. 
 The figure at the stone circle straightened up from Marks’ remains and seemed to turn slightly. It stood looking in Jenkins’ direction for a moment, then disappeared behind the circle. 
The helicopter appeared at the edge of his field of vision. 
 He remembered what he had forgotten to tell Mathieson in his shock. "Sarge, it’s a shapeshifter."
 "Shit," Mathieson said. That always made things difficult. "So it’s been fooling us. What did you actually see?" 
Jenkins described it. "It was...horrible."
 "All right, lad. You’d better take care." Mathieson needed to make sure everyone else did, too. He sent out the warning.  
 A shapeshifter; perhaps they should have anticipated it. Only it wasn’t alien, not in one sense, and nothing native to Earth had that ability. So they hadn’t.
 At the circle, Jenkins paused to get his breath back. His rifle with its strange attachment at the ready, he edged slowly round the other side of the circle, eyes darting constantly from left to right. Across the vastness of the Moor he could see his comrades converging on the circle. 
 There were a number of rocks embedded in the ground a few yards from where he stood, sticking up like giant fangs. Any one of them could have been the creature.
 Or rather it couldn’t. You saw me, didn’t you chummy? So you know I saw you change. I’ll be on my guard now so there’s no point in you trying it again.
 It might have been hoping that he’d run past the rocks without thinking, so it could jump at him, catch him unawares. Only from what he’d seen it needed a moment or two to make the change, shapeshifters usually did. There would therefore be enough distance between the two of them for the attack to carry a risk. All he had to do was sense its approach, turn and fire for it to be screwed. But was it thinking that? Could it reason the way a human might? He hoped not because that made it a dangerous adversary.
Some hope. It had been cunning enough to fool Marks, hadn’t it? To set a trap.
 He remembered that their mission was to recapture it, safely or not, and supposed he shouldn’t take chances. "All right, you don’t fool me, mate," he told the rocks. "Give it up or you’ve had it."
He felt pretty stupid talking to them.
 The pilot of the helicopter was scanning the ground a hundred feet below him through both eyes and Satnav. Beside him, a pair of headphones on, sat Major Brant, taking a break from staff duties. For the moment Parsons had delegated to her full control of the operation in the air and on the ground.   
 The pilot gave a shout. "There it is, Ma’am!" He’d seen the tall figure moving in its strange, awkward, jerky run. He radioed its position to all troops on the ground.
 Jenkins was wondering whether the creature could understand what he was saying anyway. From all they’d been told, probably not. But tone of voice and inflection could carry as much meaning as words and the creature might understand that. Possibly.  
 He wondered if he should use the weapon, because that was the only way to make sure and they couldn’t put a guard on every rock lying about the place in case it was the creature. The worrying thought came to mind that if it changed into a different form the device might not work on it. But did it know that? 
 Then he got the chopper pilot’s message. Being still the nearest, he broke into a run again, heading for where the  creature had been spotted. 
 He saw it just before it vanished behind a hillock. It was unclear whether it was trying to hide or not. No problem, he thought. We’ve got you now. It’s only a matter of time.

Once again Bruno von Mencken and Volker Erhardt in Switzerland were holding an international videoconference with Dr Habgood, joined this time by Li and Mollison, and Colonel Parsons at the research centre. "At least this means the creature’s moved back into the Red Zone," Parsons said.
 Mollison was frowning. "I can’t understand why. Surely, if it really can…shapeshift, it’s got the advantage. It could disguise itself so that no-one would know it was there. If it waited till it was dark and then returned to its proper form and…you with me?"  
 "That is probably what it means to do anyway," Erhardt said. "Camouflage itself during the day by pretending to be a boulder, maybe something else, and at night revert to its true shape and go in search of food. But as to why it returned to the Red Zone – a relatively limited area, being actively searched for it – which in some ways was making things more dangerous for itself…I don’t know."
 "I think I have the answer," Li announced a little smugly. "It has only just realised it has the ability, and is not sure how to fully make use of it. Suppose for the moment it can only change into something fairly simple, like a rock."
"Go on," Habgood said.
 "All the rocks are to be found out on the Moor. There are none in the woods or in the fields, something it has no doubt found out by now. If you did come across one it would look out of place, and you’d start to wonder what it was doing there. My guess is the creature is thinking it would actually be increasing its chances of being discovered."
 Habgood’s nose had wrinkled sceptically.  "I keep saying, it’s not clever enough to reason like that." 
 "It’s the only explanation I can think of why it has gone back to the Moor. We can’t be sure that it won’t learn to imitate more complex objects, including living ones. But so far it hasn’t."
 "So why doesn’t it just change into a stone? You see them lying about everywhere. A stone, however big it is, is just a smaller kind of rock." He hesitated, suddenly uncertain. "If it can control its shape can the thing control its size too? Does it work that way?"  
 "I don’t know. There are problems to do with mass and energy…or perhaps it is possible, but the creature hasn’t learned how to do it yet."
 If they weren’t sure on either score, it was conceivable the creature could grow to virtually any size. None of them found it a particularly comforting thought.  
 "Given how the creatures were created, perhaps it’s not surprising it can change its shape," Li said. "If you think about it…it’s a side-effect, of course, in that we didn’t anticipate it."
"Does it mean the DNA is unstable?"
"Not necessarily. The signs are the creature can control the process."
"That doesn’t make this any less dangerous for us," said the Count.
Mollison nodded. "What if the others learn how to do it too?" 
 "We still have ways of making sure they do as they’re told or pay the consequences," Habgood said. "And it could be some further adjustment to the DNA will remove the problem."  
 "Meanwhile, we must expect it to use the shapeshifting ability again," said Li. "It wouldn’t always work, we’d notice a rock that shouldn’t be where it is, for example. But we don’t know what the location of every single one on the Moor should be. The creature may guess that." He ignored Habgood’s scowl. "I think it is just trying every means it can think of to defend itself. Like any hunted animal.”
"How did it know it could do it?" the Colonel asked.  
 "Some species already have the ability to change colour or imitate dangerous animals to scare off predators," said Erhardt. "They know they can do it. That may not be true in any conscious sense. But it’s something implanted by nature; not the act of a reasoning being, any more than when a spider spins a web or knows when it does to avoid the sticky bits so that only the prey gets trapped."   
 But then this whole matter was never one of nature, thought the Count. At least not entirely. "I hope you’re right," he said. "Because otherwise, the implication is that this thing really is a lot more intelligent than we intended it to be."

How it could do it the creature didn’t really know. It had been afraid, afraid that time was running out for it, and perhaps the thought had flashed into its mind that if it had some different form, could make itself look like something else, the soldiers would not be able to find it. Then it had changed. 
 How much advantage this new-found ability gave it was debatable. The helicopter was tracking it all the time, and could see what it was doing. Including where it decided to hide, so hiding was pointless. 
 It could keep running for hours if sufficiently nourished, which it was, having just fed. But it had no idea of the range of the things that killed, having only seen them used once, at close quarters. So at all costs it must keep well ahead of the soldiers, and avoid being surrounded by them. Then maybe, if enough of them had been diverted from patrolling the perimeter in order to catch it, it could evade them and break through the barrier, taking its chances with whatever lay beyond it. 
 More and more soldiers were appearing, distant figures drawing gradually nearer, while all the time the helicopter flew low over it at reduced speed, changing direction whenever it did.   
 By now the helicopter had stopped notifying the soldiers on the ground of the creature’s position, because they could all see it clearly and were gradually closing the net around it. But the ‘copter still kept it in sight in case it was needed. 
 No, won’t be long now, thought Brant. Be a relief to the Colonel. At least there’ll be no more deaths. Though he’d tried to hide it he’d looked and sounded as if he felt guilty. Yes; perhaps because it had originated here on Earth, their own planet, it had seemed less alien to them and they had failed to consider the possibility it could shapechange. The other explanation for the oversight was that it hadn’t been intended to, therefore the probability had seemed to be that it couldn’t, if those carrying out the project knew what they were doing. 
But a man was dead. Which was why the Colonel felt guilty.
"It’s giving us a run for our money," she heard the pilot say.
 The creature had intended to make for one of the remaining gaps in the net but now the soldiers were too close, to it and to one another, for it to avoid capture. But it had nothing to lose, and continued to run towards them, going over any hillocks and along any ridges which lay in its path.  
 Zack Jenkins would have been the first to reach it, but he had had to detour to avoid an area of quicksand and so lost time. The nearest soldier to it was now Private Felipe Valdez of the Spanish division of X5. He was just less than a hundred yards away, and didn’t have to worry much about what happened when he finally caught his quarry. All he had to do was indicate that it should follow him or it would get a blast right in its face. It might obey or it might not. The range of the device attached to his MP5 was about ten feet, which meant that if it lashed out at him in desperation it’d be dead instantly.  
 Once back at the research centre they’d try and correct its rebellious tendencies. So that hopefully this business wouldn’t start all over again.
 He lost track of it, and got out the binoculars. He saw the creature reappear, scrambling up the side of a ridge.
 It ran along the top of it for a short distance. Then suddenly Valdez saw it vanish from sight. It seemed to plunge vertically below the viewfield of the binoculars, in a single sharp movement which told him what had happened. 
 There did seem to be a slight depression in the ground where it had been. "It’s fallen down some hole," he shouted to Zack Jenkins as the latter came running up. 
 The Lynx landed a short distance away. Major Brant jumped out and ran to join them, while one by one their other colleagues arrived on the scene, surrounding the pothole.
They heard a faint slithering, scraping sound from inside it, then silence. 
 Brant spoke her thoughts aloud, a way of bringing her subordinates on board. "It looks too narrow to climb down with our gear on. We could take some of it off, but…"  
"What if the thing’s waiting for us at the bottom, Ma’am?" someone said. 
 "Exactly. We could throw in a grenade but we wouldn’t know if we’d got it, and we’d also bring the sides of the shaft down so we couldn’t go in to find out." Needing further orders, she radioed Colonel Parsons. "Tell them to have two personnel watch that hole until further notice," he ordered. "Just in case it decides to come back up." The creature had probably survived the fall. It might be stuck down there. But if it wasn’t…"Meanwhile I want everyone to check those potholes we did know about, in case any lead to a cave system. Because this one might too, and if the tunnels are all interconnected…"  
Blast, he thought savagely. It isn’t over. Not yet… 

In fact the creature had slid rather than fallen down the narrow vertical tunnel. Knowing it was unlikely to be harmed anyway it did not seek to arrest its descent, because it wasn’t intending to climb back out. 
 Around it the soil gave way to solid bedrock. Ten feet or so later the “chimney” came to an end and the creature dropped a little further to find itself in a dark, narrow rock-walled passage, whose walls dripped water in places.
 It had not known about the pothole beforehand, and had not seen it until it was too late to avoid it, because it had been concentrating only on getting away from the soldiers. It wondered whether they would come down the pothole after it. Probably not because it could kill them one by one and they wouldn’t waste their lives like that. They would try and find some other, safer way into what it decided to call the Beneath.  
 For its own part it must find out if the Beneath provided an escape route to somewhere safe, perhaps a part of the Above where there were no Not-Us. Or if there was anywhere down here it could permanently hide. So it set off down the tunnel, keen to see where it led. 

Interpol HQ
"Something you ought to see," said Oskar Grundvik, and tipped a batch of still photographs, printed off a computer, onto Alphonse Remy’s desk. "As you instructed we’ve been keeping up the surveillance. These were taken at the Count’s castle just a few hours ago." Something in Grundvik’s tone made Remy stiffen. 
 He glanced at each of the photographs in turn; his astonishment, and unease, growing all the time. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been entirely surprised at what he saw, but still…
 He thought he recognised a few of the people from the film shot earlier, and peered a little closer. Yes it was them, undoubtedly. But this time it wasn’t only wealthy businessmen who made up the group congregated on the terrace of Schloss Mencken, chatting to one another over their drinks and laughing companionably. He whistled.
 There must have been about thirty of them, from almost as many countries, and all familiar to him from the news. European Commissioners from most of the leading member states; he noted a Briton, a Frenchman, a German, an Italian, an Irishman, a Dane, a Dutchman, a Spaniard, a Belgian and a Swede. Other prominent Brussels bureaucrats, people fairly high up in some branch of the administration of the European Union. Euro-MPs, members of the Council of Europe, government ministers from the member states, heads of major European companies and financial consortiums. Some of them he had met during the course of his work, as part of necessary contact with the authorities. He noted the tough-looking young men in uniforms, probably security people, standing in the background.  
"Now what exactly," said Remy slowly, "are we looking at here?"
 There had been nothing in the news about such a meeting. So what were this collection of leading European politicians and businessmen doing at the castle? "An unofficial summit?" suggested Grundvik. "They do happen."
 "That there was nothing in the media about it suggests to me something was going on the public weren’t supposed to know about. I doubt if we were supposed to know about it either."
"That’s not unusual." 
 "Besides, Oskar; look at their expressions, their body language. Like they’re all friends together." Various equivalents of the English phrase “partners in crime” flashed into his mind. 
 "Perhaps they are friends together. I mean, they’d probably all know each other…"
 "You know that’s not what I meant." Remy pored over the photos again. Some of the people looked pretty solemn; maybe they were solemn people. But others were slapping each other on the back, on the arms and shoulders, and grinning broadly. "This is obviously more than just a social call. They must have been discussing something important as well. But their whole behaviour; we’re looking at people who’ve thought up some grand scheme they’re very pleased with and which only they know about. Something’s going on here. Some deal has been reached behind everyone’s back."
 "Better we stay out of it. As I said, it’s not the first time such a thing has happened. And the world’s still here, despite all that’s going wrong with it right now." 
 "But fraternising with a politician who may be involved in a series of art thefts?" Now Remy really did feel angry. "Who’s sitting on a hoard of Nazi loot? Nazi loot."
 "It’s nothing new for corrupt politicians to associate with corrupt businessmen. The EU is riddled with corruption. I won’t mention our friend the Prime Minister of – "
 "All the same, I don’t like it. I want to find out more. At the very least, we have a duty to warn our VIP friends who they’re mixing with, for the sake of their own reputations. They may not know about the Nazi loot thing."
"There’ve been rumours." 
 "But now there’s more evidence to back them up. The Count is linked to Gus van Ruytenbroek and Marshman’s informant saw the missing painting at Ruytenbroek’s house. No, I think we ought to advise these people that it might not be a good idea to hang around with the Count, as he’s associating with so many dubious characters, and may be hoarding stolen artworks as well as who knows what else in that castle of his."
"They may not care."
 "They might if anyone found out. There are politically influential members of the Jewish community who would object to it most strongly. I think a lot of decent people would, for that matter. It would scare them if they knew we’d discovered their links with the Count. Maybe they’ll drop him like a hot coal."
"No harm in trying. How do we make the approach?"
 "Through the police forces of the member states. They’ll speak to the private offices of the ministers in question, their spin doctors. Will you see to that?"
 Grundvik nodded, and went off to make the calls. Leaving Remy to study the photos again, trying to decide exactly why he was so very worried about this whole business.

By now, Mark Horgan was used to being constantly shunned by the other inhabitants of the village, in so far as it had bothered him in the first place. As part of his training he’d once spent several weeks locked in a vault with enough food to keep him going, but without sight or sound of another person.  
 He could sense the suppressed – sometimes not all that suppressed – fear in the assistant at the village stores as she served him. So what? If she wanted to be like that it was her problem.
 Returning to his cottage from one such stocking-up expedition, he parked the car and unloaded his purchases. Enough tinned meat, fruit and veg to feed a small army. He put some of it in the larder or the fridge and the rest, the vast majority of it, in the chest freezer, one of several, in his cellar. 
 Once the balloon went up it would be enough to last him months, if not a year or two. He was running out of space to put it all in. But he didn’t think he’d have long to wait before he needed to start eating it. You could feel it in the air, in your bones. The coming crisis. The riots, the recession, the trouble in the Middle East and North Africa, and of course global warming were all unmistakable signs. Meltdown, Armageddon, Ragnarok, call it what you will. He would survive at least until they managed, hopefully, to restore some semblance of order. If they didn’t, then he’d just have to go out and hunt for his food as Man had once done many thousands of years ago. Even if it meant killing another human being to get it.  
 Which reminded him. He went through a door into another part of the cellar, which he’d had specially enlarged, doing most of the work himself. Here were stacked bags of fertiliser, cans of petrol, bottles of peroxide, electrical components. Equipment for making some pretty effective home-made bombs. And crates full of rifles and ammunition. He opened one and cast his eyes briefly over the contents.
 Some of the stuff he’d made himself. The rest wasn’t too hard to obtain if you had the right contacts, the right knowledge, visited the right websites. If necessary it could be shared with like-minded people with whom he could work to re-establish law and order. 
 He had always been worried that the police might find it. Perhaps they would interview him on suspicion of being the Dartmoor Killer, and search the premises. Only they hadn’t. Because of course they knew the real killer was out there on the Moor. 
 The money to buy the stuff and at the same time pay his bills and afford the necessities of life had come from generous relatives, who didn’t necessarily know what he was spending it on, or suspected but continued to fund him because he was family. You didn’t get a lot from the Army when you left it, especially if you had done so under a cloud. He had also managed to save a great deal by living frugally. 
 Apart from the occasional survivalists’ convention he never left the cottage unless it was to visit the shops or to spend a few days on the Moor, testing his ability to live out in the wild. If they ever cut his benefit he’d live on the food he’d stockpiled. To keep himself in top physical condition he exercised regularly while eating sparsely, saving the bulk of the food for when it would most be needed, and rose early. It was the kind of regime he’d become accustomed to in the Army. His spare time was spent reading war novels.
 He had tried to get a job as a policeman, security guard or fitness instructor. But he had effectively a criminal record and besides…yes, people were scared of him. Even though he said all the right things at interviews, he just didn’t project the right image. Despite the aching regret it still caused him – he hadn’t actually been in the SAS, to join whom was what he’d really wanted, but had come pretty close to being selected for it – he didn’t really blame the Paras for kicking him out, they’d had no choice. After all, striking your commanding officer was just about the most serious disciplinary offence a soldier could commit. He knew he had only himself to blame for that one rash, impulsive, throwaway action, even if it had been committed under pressure. What hurt and angered him was that nobody had ever really allowed him to make up for it. 
 He wondered if it was really his business who the killer on the Moor was. But it was obvious from what had come out at the public meeting that the murderer had unusual strength and also that the army and police were proving singularly unsuccessful at finding him. They couldn’t even contain him within the cordon. While this business went on the local community, including himself, was in danger. It needed a protector. 
 If there were no more incidents then gradually people would conclude the danger was over and things return to normal. But if his part in dealing with the problem did get out…well, he’d have shown them a thing or two, the people who’d thrown him on the scrapheap and prevented him from serving his country, just because of that one silly mistake, when they couldn’t fucking well do their own jobs properly.  
 Then again, if there was something unusual about the killer maybe that explained why they couldn’t catch him…or it. What infuriated Horgan so much was the refusal to tell the truth. He knew there were conspiracies, cover-ups, concerning all sorts of things. This, he sensed, was just one more. It was another aspect of the system he so despised, another sign of its bankruptcy. If you told the truth then people would know where they stood; they wouldn’t have to live in fear. A proper response to the threat could be organised.  
 He selected an AK47 from the assortment of rifles and loaded it. It was possible he was placing himself in greater danger than by taking on a normal adversary. But something had to be done. And as far as he knew the thing wasn’t immune to bullets. He’d take along some explosives as well, to be on the safe side.  
 He knew he could do it if anyone could. He was a good soldier; the best. Still. Because he hadn’t really left the Army. As he saw it, you never did.

Twelve

Interpol HQ
When Alphonse Remy returned to his office from an interdepartmental meeting he found Oskar Grundvik waiting for him at the door. "What’s up?" he asked, noting the Dane’s expression.
 Grundvik nodded at the door, as if what he had to say had better be confined to the room beyond. They went in and Remy closed it, turning to Grundvik expectantly.
"We’ve been told to drop the case," he said.
 Remy said nothing for a moment, then nodded. In truth, he wasn’t entirely surprised. "Go on," he muttered. 
 "The surveillance is to cease immediately. They’ve even confiscated the film we took of those meetings at the castle, along with the stills."
"Who has?"
 "The French secret service. They came while you were out. There was a diplomat with them, I think he was from the EU."
 Remy’s lips twisted. "I see. So this order to drop the investigation, who exactly did it come from?"
 "The various intelligence services." There was, as yet, no single European intelligence agency, though some enthusiasts for greater integration thought there should be. "In a joint e-mail. We’ve also had telephone calls from London, Berlin, Madrid and Rome. I assumed they all knew what they were doing. Of course we could go over their heads and appeal to the member state governments."
 "You know that’s pretty pointless," sighed Remy. The EU nowadays had so much power that individual countries were effectively subordinate to it in a wide range of matters. Nor was Interpol supposed to involve itself in politics. And it had no jurisdiction over either the heads of national governments or, by extension, a supranational body like the European Union, if they chose to ignore its concerns.
 If we reveal all to the public some way will be found of discrediting our story, and us too, Remy guessed. "I don’t suppose there’s anything more we can do." He breathed out hard. "What reasons did they give?"
 "They all said more or less the same thing. There were sensitive issues, questions of international security, involved. Political aspects, which of course we’re not meant to concern ourselves with. They didn’t elaborate. Said they would be working together to handle it and we needn’t worry."  
 If the Eurocrats did know about the Nazi loot, they would no longer need to be concerned for the sake of their reputations, thought Remy. "But they want us to drop the investigation into the stolen artworks thing itself. In case it leads to us finding out things we aren’t meant to? Is that right?"
"I think that’s the essence of it."
 Remy fell silent. "Nazis," he murmured, almost to himself. "I really thought they’d be a bit more concerned about it than they are. Maybe that sort of thing just doesn’t matter to people anymore." Which was possibly dangerous, he reflected.
 "It must be something very important to justify their ignoring that particular aspect."
Remy snorted. "We’re assuming their motives are altruistic." 
 "Well," Grundvik sighed, "if those Eurocrats want to risk the damage to their careers should anything leak out…" But he wasn’t sure it would bother them unduly as long as they had a decent pension to retire on. 
 "Maybe they will handle it – the intelligence services. If they’re aware of the situation, its implications…but it’s the way they specifically told us to drop the art theft investigation. I mean, they could have let us carry on with it, while warning  their masters to stay clear of the Count in future. Unless their masters have been buying the stolen paintings too." 
 "Uh-huh. But something tells me there’s more to it than that. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what." 

The mug on the bedside table in Duncan Ransome’s room at the guest house in Lower Oakington was growing steadily colder.
 Not that it was a sightseeing expedition in any case, but Duncan was running out of things to do while he was here. And they seemed to be no nearer catching Nicky’s killer. He still couldn’t understand why it was taking so long to find him. Though it was obvious this was no ordinary murder investigation. The meeting in the village hall hadn’t served to uplift his spirits, in fact had made things worse by raising so many questions which so far weren’t being answered. 
 The boss had rung him that morning on his mobile asking if there was any chance he would be returning to work soon. Duncan couldn’t give him a definite answer, which Ransome suspected wasn’t going down too well. 
 He knew he was messing up his life the longer he stayed down here. But he had to know. He had to purge it all from his system; the anger, the grief, the sense of loss and of being lost. He had to get over this, somehow.
 He’d checked out Mencken International on his Blackberry. Word was they did a certain amount of confidential work for the government, which might explain why they had built a laboratory in the middle of Dartmoor. It’d certainly do no harm, if you wanted to keep things as secret as possible. 
 They might not be anything to do with it. But there was certainly something going on that the public weren’t being told about.
 A decision on his immediate future couldn’t be delayed. He knew Nicky wouldn’t have wanted him to make things any worse for himself by losing his job. Give it a couple more days, he decided. Then if nothing turned up he’d just have to go home and leave Dartmoor and everything to do with it behind him. To move on.

Headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6),Vauxhall Bridge Cross, London
Rachel Savident was watching the TV in her office while eating her lunch. The picture showed a hooded and handcuffed Milovan Georgevic being bundled into a police van, while other policemen struggled to keep back an excited crowd some of whom were shouting out messages of support while others indicated their disapproval of the man who in their view had dragged Serbia in the mud and earned it the condemnation of the international community. People started punching and hurling abuse at each other. 
 They’d been afraid he’d try to flee the country, as indeed he did – try to, that was. Even if he’d succeeded he’d have been a hunted man with the police forces of the entire world looking for him. But as it happened someone had seen through a hastily applied disguise and got suspicious. Keen to assist Serbia’s rehabilitation by bringing the mass murderer to justice, they had immediately notified the police, who arrested Georgevic at the border.  
 He must be stunned by what had happened. In time of course he would work out how it had been done, but there was little he could do from a maximum security prison cell. At any rate his hatred would be directed against the police or intelligence services, rather than against “Deborah Armstrong”, who didn’t exist anyway. For “Deborah Armstrong” had presumably been one of them. As indeed she was, to some extent anyhow.
 Rachel’s desk phone rang; it was Carlos Moreno, the Spanish Interpol officer she’d worked with on the case. "You saw it on the news?" There was a grin in his voice. "We got him, alright. Your friend really has delivered the goods."
"She certainly has. Thanks again for all your help."
 "I guess we can leave it to The Hague now. A review of the case will be ordered and this time they’ll decide there’s sufficient evidence to prosecute. For all the killings, not just the Cutler girl. We’ve definitely managed to achieve something."
"Makes the job seem worth it, doesn’t it?" remarked Rachel, smiling to herself. 
 "That’s true," Moreno agreed. She heard him sigh wearily. "It has its disappointments, certainly. Do you know…you’ll keep this confidential, of course, if it isn’t supposed to be too widely known. We found links between quite a few top European politicians, and officials of the EU, and a Swiss businessman we think is dealing in artworks stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. They’re involved in something with him, what it is God only knows. For the sake of their reputations at least we thought they ought to be told he was under investigation. The spies, including some of your colleagues, told us to drop it. I expect they were afraid it’d cause too much of a scandal if the public knew. Wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened, of course. I won’t ask if you were aware of it." 
"No," said Rachel after a moment. "I wasn’t."
 "But that’s the kind of world we move in. The police and the spies have always collaborated to keep things from the public. I guess there’s no point in asking too many questions." In intelligence work, there had always been a tacit understanding between friendly organisations that if one was requested by its superiors to keep some important matter quiet the others would do so too, unless secrecy would affect the common interest too adversely. Moreno knew the understanding  existed, and that Rachel knew it existed, and that Rachel knew he knew it existed, which was why he’d felt free to tell her what he just had. After all, corruption in the EU was no new thing.
 "Probably not," Rachel sighed. "Intriguing as the business sounds, it’d be more than my job’s worth to probe too deeply. Ah well…no, it doesn’t surprise me at all. Still…"
"Well, goodbye Rachel. It was nice to work with you."
 He cut off. She remained holding the handset for a moment or two, then replaced it and sat back in her chair. Thoughtfully.

It was a typical Monday morning on the concourse of Waterloo station. A seething mass of commuters, all making for the exits or for the Tube or for the overland platforms. The digital clock above the information boards read 8:05. 
 Everyone was packed so tightly that nobody really noticed the young man with the rucksack. But when suddenly he raised his head and shouted "Allah Akbar!" they knew what it might mean. He had deliberately allowed them a few seconds in which to realise, to their fear and distress, that they might be about to die. If there had been armed police on the concourse, or MI5 agents with guns, his giving himself away might have ruined the whole plan, but there weren’t. The budget didn’t allow them to be everywhere all the time, even though security had been extra tight after the theft of the files from MI5.  
 Some thought it might be a hoax, a sick joke. For a number of them, this was the last thing they did think. 
 Insurance consultant Alicia Channing survived, but would never be able to recall what happened without freezing in terror at the memory. She was about halfway across the concourse, making for the information displays to check the time of her train. She was conscious of a deafening “bang” like a clap of thunder and of being knocked to the ground as if she had been punched by a giant hand. She banged her head and was briefly unconscious. Several people landed on top of her and when she came round it was to find she couldn’t breathe. Panicking, she struggled out from underneath them. Dazed and shaking, she managed to stand and look around. It took her a few moments to realise that the man sitting on the floor a few feet from her had no head. 
 The air rang to screams of terror, pain and anguish. Some were running in panic, and one person was knocked to the ground and trampled to death. Others just stood and stared, not yet fully comprehending what had just occurred. And some lay on the floor in conditions ranging from shock to complete physical dismemberment.  
 The blast had wrecked coffee stalls, kiosks and indicator boards, reducing the latter to twisted metal. It  brought down part of the new balcony and shopping arcade which had been constructed along the wall of the concourse. The damage was of course greatest to living matter, and had been maximised by the density of the crowd. Within a radius of twenty feet from where the bomber had been the concourse was a blood-spattered carnage of severed limbs and heads, mangled limbless torsos with entrails streaming from them. 
 Of course the section of the Transport Police trained to deal with terrorist incidents had officers stationed at Waterloo and once they had got over the initial shock they were bound to experience went into action organising the response to this one. In less than five minutes the first ambulance siren was heard. All trains were cancelled and the station closed to the public while the medics wrapped the dead in body bags and saw to the injured, despatching the most serious cases to hospital. 
 As the reality of what had happened began to sink in, a single thought occupied everyone’s minds. The memory of 7/7. 
The terror had returned. 

"Shit," murmured Olly as the drama unfolded on the TV in the bedsit in Clapham. "Shit."                                      
 The excerpt from the video one of the suicide bombers had made to explain his motives left no doubt as to what kind of incident this was. 
 "Shit," Olly exclaimed once more. It wasn’t just shock at the crime itself. "Ah, this is gonna like screw things up bigtime, guys." 
"Ah, fuck," said Rory.
 Jamie decided they’d seen enough. "Listen, we gotta sit down and talk about what this means. We’re not gonna be very popular if we go ahead with the plan now." Being undoubtedly under attack, if not the same way as in 1940 for example, the nation would pull together. It would be seen as unpatriotic and antisocial to be starting major civil disturbances.
"You reckon we should call it off?" said Rory.
"Not call it off, just postpone it."
"Same thing."
 "It shouldn’t make any difference," said Shaz suddenly. Jamie looked a little startled at this.
 "The Muslims are protesting against oppression. They suffer from marginalisation just as we do. From a system that’s racist and elitist. We should show solidarity with them."
 "Shaz, if you’d been caught up in that bombing you wouldn’t say that. Or if it had been your Mum or your Dad or little brother." 
 Olly wasn’t too happy about the Muslims, the genuinely devout ones anyway. They seemed wankers: no sense of humour, wouldn’t touch alcohol, and if they had their way would stop you boozing and pulling the birds. They didn’t seem to know how to have fun. Once again, of course, it was religion at the heart of all the trouble. However, awareness that historically they had been the victims of western and Christian prejudice always stopped him from saying openly what he thought of them (where he could have got away with it, anyway). He ought to be on their side, and yet given the fanatical, almost genocidal attitude of some of them it seemed dangerous. He found the situation very confusing. 
 Shaz shrugged. "It could happen. But then again they could get knocked down by a car, couldn’t they?"
"That’s different."
"We need to talk to the other groups."
 "Sure," Jamie nodded. "But I know what they’ll say. It’s off. For the time being, anyway. You think about it."
 Leaving the others sitting where they were on the sofa, he went to his room to send the e-mails urging a conference. Olly glanced at Shaz. Her face was cold and hard, set in a look of suppressed fury. There was something in those narrowed, staring eyes he didn’t like. She stood and stalked from the room.
 Rory smiled ever so slightly as she disappeared, making sure Olly couldn’t see it. Let them put a hold on things if they thought it wise. But there were others like Shaz, he knew. It would ensure that the riots were bound to break out should the people he was really working for want them to. 


Thirteen

Of course the public reaction to the atrocity at Waterloo was one of horror, however muted it might be by English restraint. And of course the politicians, including Muslim community leaders, condemned it. Inevitably questions were asked as to whether it could possibly have been avoided. The security services  insisted they had done all they could; they had just been unlucky. There was a certain amount of recrimination.
 There were some racist attacks; more than after 7/7, which was worrying. But again most people kept calm, as of course they should have done. The official approach was to try and present the terrorist threat as being like the Blitz or the IRA bombings. An ever-present danger, something bad you knew was going to happen from time to time but had no option but to endure, to face with courage, and indeed would, as the population of London had in both the cases in question. But there was an underlying fear of a kind which had not been present then. It was not like the Blitz because the enemy was already here, living in our midst. And it was not like the IRA because the war between the West and radical Islam was one between whole cultures in a way the Irish question had never been, besides having far more of a global dimension. 
 The bombing was a topic of discussion in the staff common room at IPL, as in many other places. "Well, they said they were sure it would happen again some day," a woman said. "Of late we’ve been lucky. Too lucky maybe." 
 "As long as we don’t get it too often." Maybe if there was a sufficient interval between each incident it would cause less fear, less unrest, less hatred.
"Who do they think did it? Al-Qaeda?"
 "Maybe," said Caroline Kent. "But there’s lots of different Muslim terrorist groups." 
"I must say, I thought al-Qaeda were finished. In the West, anyway." 
 "Not overseas. They’ve been jumping on the bandwagon in the Arab Spring, though so have a lot of similar groups like Islamic State." 
 "But I think it was a psychological blow to them when Bin Laden got his just desserts."
 "Of course there are some people who are saying it wasn’t really him the Americans killed. Not that we should believe all these conspiracy theories."
"He’s dead," said Caroline firmly. She thought it best not to say how she knew. 

Throughout the drive down from London Rachel’s thoughts had been bleak. She couldn’t get what had happened at Waterloo a few hours earlier out of her mind. In themselves the bombings of July 2005 had not, fortunately, led to communal violence on a large scale within Britain. But nobody had liked to say what would happen if they were repeated. She recalled a time when, with Caroline’s help, they had foiled a plot to carry out further atrocities on not just a national but a global scale, affecting the whole of the West. Disaster had been averted; but was that good work now about to be undone? 
 Investigating this new bombing was MI5’s business until it could be established whether or not there was an international angle. Had the organisers of the atrocity received help from militant groups overseas? There had already been a briefing at which she and her colleagues had been told to follow up any possible leads, liaising with Five night and day. 
 The investigation was only in its very earliest stages and at the moment there wasn’t much to go on. Which was why, although wondering sometimes if she shouldn’t nonetheless be making it a priority, Rachel had taken the opportunity to put it on hold for a while and pursue another matter of concern to her, under the pretence of visiting a recently recruited agent to give them a pep talk. 
 Though he also had a holiday home on the Cornish coast, Sir Derek Winlett lived mostly at his cottage overlooking what had once been the harbour of Chichester, Sussex, a major port in centuries past. He had a yacht moored at the marina a mile or so down the coast, in which he frequently went on excursions with friends. But generally his spare time was spent painting, birdwatching, writing his memoirs or simply sitting down to tea with his wife for the two of them to enjoy the simple pleasure of each other’s company.
 Rachel was visiting Winlett in person because she couldn’t be entirely sure that if she phoned him the “wrong people” would not be listening. She parked her car on the cobbled quay and walked past a row of other Georgian houses to Winlett’s home. She rang the bell, and Winlett’s wife admitted her with a smile, showing her into the living room. 
 The old man had been watching a wildlife documentary on TV. "Rachel! Nice to see you as always." He rose and pecked her on the cheek. "To what do we owe the pleasure this time?"
 "I’m glad I found you in. Something’s happened which I thought you ought to know about right away." 
 With a knowing expression Lady Winlett withdrew to the kitchen, just as she had done on many occasions when her husband was still working for the security services and important business had to be transacted.  
 He sat down again, waving Rachel to the sofa. "It isn’t anything to do with what happened this morning, is it?" She sensed the gravity beneath his cheerful manner.
 "No, it isn’t, awful as we’re all feeling about it. I guess however many terrorist bombings there are, this problem we’ve got with the EU will still be there, and it won’t cease to be an important issue."
 "Right. At least most of the potential terrorists are immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, not the EU. To be fair. Anyway, shoot."
 She described her conversation with Carlos Moreno the previous day. "I didn’t think it was wise to probe him too deeply, so I don’t have the exact details. I imagine they had the Count under surveillance and saw these people visiting him, maybe monitored his phone conversations. My impression was Moreno didn’t think it’d make a lot of difference if the public were aware of the matter."
 "Maybe it would, maybe not. But anything, anything at all we can find to use against Brussels has to be seized upon. I’m sure you’ll agree this could be an ideal opportunity to discredit them." Winlett’s eyes were gleaming. "The more scandals are uncovered, the more pressure there’ll be on the EU to change the way it operates. If nothing else we might persuade it to clean up its act a bit."
 "Moreno’s words were, "they’re involved in something with him." It suggests there might be more to this than just ordinary corruption, if there’s such a thing."
 "Maybe we can find out what it is. And if it is anything dubious, we’ll have even more ammunition."
 "Let’s find out what we can about this Count. I’ll have a word with our colleagues on the continent." He slumped back, face clouding. "What’s most worrying about this is the involvement of the security services. It didn’t look before as if they were prepared to take on the growing power of Brussels. But this proves they’re actively attempting to suppress the truth." 
 "Do you think people like Sophie are involved?" Sophie Cameron-Davies was the current MI6 Director-General, Winlett’s replacement and Rachel’s ultimate boss. 
 "I doubt it. Sophie isn’t that bad. It’s just that in my estimation she won’t believe Brussels is up to anything damaging to the public interest. She’s one of those who think the EU should be untouchable. What we have to do is convince her and for that we need hard evidence. Until then she’ll do what Whitehall tell her to. And Whitehall do what Brussels tell them to, most of the time anyway."
"They still haven’t managed to force us into the Euro," Rachel pointed out.
 "Yet," Winlett said darkly. "They won’t do it under our present Prime Minister, I imagine. But who knows what the future holds. Of course, the Euro’s alright for those who want it. I’m just not sure I do."
 "No, evidence is what we need," he said thoughtfully, returning to the matter in hand. "Evidence…"

At half-past eleven a.m. the following day a British Pakistani man wearing a rucksack stuffed full of fertiliser and peroxide blew himself up on a crowded pavement in Oxford Street, killing thirty other people and permanently disabling scores more. The blast also did massive damage to property, transforming the scene into a kristallnacht of shattered glass. Later that same day a powerful bomb left on a train at Clapham Junction wrecked it and several other trains and killed or wounded dozens on Platform Twenty-One. Britain’s largest and busiest railway junction was paralysed, causing massive disruption to the whole network.  
 Over the following weeks similar scenes were to be repeated in other European cities. Explosions ripped through a crowded market place in Cologne; shopping centres in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Brussels. A plot to blow up the Eiffel tower was narrowly thwarted. There was a further attack in London, this time taking place in the departure lounge at Terminal Two, Heathrow airport. Needless to say the death toll was by no means negligible. And a man walked into an East End pub and riddled the clientele with bullets. 
 The racist attacks continued to increase as the fear spread throughout Europe like a creeping black cloud, bringing with it a festering hatred and suspicion.

International Videoconference
"I still think it was a mistake," said the Count. "Effectively we’re bringing the plan forward. And the world still isn’t quite ready for – "
 "We knew it would take time for any plots the cells were hatching to mature, once the surveillance more or less collapsed," said Peter Stradling. "In this case we were right to make an early start."
 "I’d say the plan is well under way already," said Marco Valletta. "We’re already starting to see results. People are worried, there’s a massive security clampdown in place; we may as well take things to their logical conclusion. We don’t want them to lose their momentum. Without the other elements in the plan…"
"You wanted it to be brought forward anyway," said the Count accusingly.
 "What we’ve done won’t be enough on its own," said Gunther Wallenberg. "There aren’t millions of these Islamic terrorist cells in the West. And with time this new bombing campaign will stall. As the authorities fight back…" 
"So implement the rest of the plan now," urged Paul Kenward.
"It’s too soon, I tell you," the Frenchman protested.  
 They took a vote, and by a narrow margin agreed not to do it just yet. "Looks like you don’t have anything to worry about," Kenward told the Count and his allies. "But you’re making a big mistake." 
"We know we can’t yet risk coming out into the open," said the Irishman. 
"How long exactly before we can, then?" asked the German.     
 "There’s no exact date, or even an approximate one. There can’t be with these things. But what I’m getting at is, the longer we delay the greater the chance something will go wrong. If we’re exposed – "
 "Our mole’s got their cover story. They don’t have to give the real reasons why they did it."  
 "There are all sorts of ways something can misfire. Bringing the plan forward would prevent that." 
Kenward shrugged. "But if that’s the way you want it."
 Wallenberg changed the subject. "One other question that keeps coming up, in my mind at any rate. Do we tell anyone else about what we’re doing – the Americans, for example? The Russians or the Chinese? I don’t see why they should object, not if we share the knowledge with them. After all, it could be to their benefit too."
 "Not yet," said Kenward. The nodding heads around the table showed that most of his colleagues agreed with him. "I imagine they wouldn’t tell. But the more people know about it the more chance there is of something leaking out. So keep it in the family."

The operation had taken a certain degree of planning, but now Mark Horgan thought he had everything he needed. His gun and a supply of ammo, a couple of grenades. The materials to make Molotov cocktails and other explosives. Nightsights and a torch. Knife, medical kit, some food, and an assortment  of other stuff he might require. 
 As he crammed the heavier items into his backpack his thoughts kept turning to the wave of terrorism that seemed to be sweeping Europe. Probably it was a far more important business than what was lurking about on the Moor. Another sign of the End…but this was good practice. The killer was a threat to him and to the other members of the community, and there would be plenty of other menaces to deal with once things really started to fall apart. 

This time the meeting was being held in France, at a chateau belonging to an aristocratic right-wing politician, Baron Jacques d’Epignan. D’Epignan, who because of family and business commitments had not been able to attend the London meeting, was in fact the overall leader of the group. Winlett was not there because with age he found foreign travel less easy these days, but as before serving members of the intelligence services were present, along with sympathetic politicos. There were no academics this time. This conference was for operational planning alone.
 A member of the Swiss security services, Reinhold Gunther, was speaking. It was not of course surprising that there should be many people in Switzerland who sympathised with the movement’s aims. They feared their country would before very long be pressurised into joining the EU, sacrificing the centuries-old independence which it valued, and in the past had fought for, so much. Countries which had held out for many years against joining, like Austria and Sweden, had now finally done so and they felt that in one way or another this would make it even harder for them to stay out. They were also, of course, anxious about  immigration and its possible consequences. The current wave of terrorist attacks across the continent had only reinforced their determination to stay apart from the EU and the liberal policies that went with it. 
 Gunther was telling the meeting about Count von Mencken. "The man has a past." He detailed the allegations of Nazi connections, the discovery of the bodies on the mountain.  
 "By some ancient legal clause the family own the mountain, and the Count has banned climbing on the south face. He says it’s too dangerous, a claim which is disputed by experienced mountaineers. But then the Count is a powerful, wealthy man, held in high esteem by the government because of his contribution to Switzerland’s prosperity, and can do almost anything he likes without having to give a reason. He allows climbing on the other faces as a necessary PR gesture. 
 "My instinct tells me there is something on that south face he doesn’t want people to see. Several tourists have vanished on the mountain in recent years. They could have met with an accident but it’s also possible they were climbing where they shouldn’t have been and saw too much. At least two are thought to have been attempting the south face. The Count claims that if they were, it proves he’s right about it being too dangerous. He couldn’t have prevented there being a search if someone had gone missing, but he may have used his influence to make sure it wasn’t too thorough, or was carried out by people loyal to him who would say they had found nothing. He’s managed to ban all helicopter flights in the vicinity of his castle, to protect his privacy, although he wasn’t able to do this in the case of mountain rescue. There are things even he can’t get away with."
 "But we’re all agreed we should do it?" asked a French secret service agent. "Try to penetrate the Count’s security and find something which would incriminate him, and by extension his friends in Brussels?"
 Everyone nodded. "We have the knowledge, the expertise," said Albert Kleistmann, a former German government minister and the third of the group’s leading members after Winlett and d’Epignan. "During our careers with our respective agencies we have built up a network of contacts who can help out if necessary, and supply specialised equipment if it is not available commercially. Either they won’t ask questions, assuming that we are working on some legitimate operation, or will sympathise with what we are doing."
"Does anyone else want to say anything?" asked d’Epignan. 
 "Even if the officials are only buying the stolen paintings from Mencken, and there is no other dimension to the affair, it is still a criminal act," said Magda Johanssen, a Danish Eurosceptic MEP. "Especially when the EU is supposed to have been set up to guard against the kind of tyranny the Nazis represented. I think the potential for destroying the power of Brussels is considerable."
 Maybe, thought Rachel Savident. But…she supposed it was rather sad. Hitler and the war that had had to be fought to stop him had taken place over sixty years ago, in the first half of what was now the last century. Those who had fought against him on land, in the air and at sea, or been maltreated almost to the point of death in Auschwitz or Belsen, who had lost loved ones as a result of military action or persecution, were all now elderly, and slowly but surely dying off with the remorseless passage of time. That plus other evils, other dangers…she wondered if anyone these days cared about such things as much as they used to. 


Fourteen

It was getting on for Halloween, the thought of which didn’t help much towards improving Duncan Ransome’s mood. But the horror masks, pumpkinheads etc somehow seemed not so much in evidence in the shop windows this year. Perhaps because just now there really was a horror roaming the Moor, casting its sinister shadow over the village below it.
 Duncan wandered for a few hours, had a bite to eat at the tea shop. Said goodbye to the proprietor and a few other people he’d become friendly with; they seemed genuinely sorry to see him go. Drove around until he found a hillock from which he could look down on the Moor, although it was too far away for him to see anything that was going on there, and lose himself in his thoughts.
 Inevitably perhaps, he wondered how far his own pain mattered when you thought of the terrorist atrocities and the people who had died in them. But all unlawful killing was wrong and the perpetrator had to be found. 
 Are you out there somewhere right now, he thought. The man who killed my wife. Why did you do it? Do you feel any remorse?  And will they ever find you? How can you live in the wild like that, and how long will you be able to keep it up for? 
 Still not quite ready to give it up himself, he took a walk in the woods that bordered the Moor on its eastern edge, for as far as the police cordon allowed. Something always drew him back to the Moor. He lost himself among the trees, whose leaves had turned the beautiful golden-brown of autumn. He thought of past walks like this with Nicky, and his mind became as the trees would be in a month or two’s time.
 An idea occurred to him. It kept him here for ages, his feet kicking up the carpet of fallen leaves beneath them, although he wasn’t sure how to find what he was looking for or even if he was looking for it, in truth. After all, he could hardly search for the killer and when he found him, tackle him, on his own. That would be far too dangerous for an unarmed civilian.  
 But…caves, someone had said. Was the killer hiding in them most of the time, and did that explain why it was so difficult to find him?  
 The theory, which Nicky’s father had entertained but never actually investigated, was they ended beyond the actual edge of the Moor, probably somewhere in these woods in fact. If he could find a way in…
 No, it was a daft idea. All the same, he found his eyes drawn to every hollow and dip in the ground, in case…
 Suddenly, some primeval instinct made him stiffen. He had the crawling sensation he was being watched. He remained very still, listening, conscious of the beating of his heart and the cold sweat forming on his skin.   
The police? 
 Perhaps some small sound they’d made, barely registering with his conscious mind, had given them away. Whatever the reason he was convinced someone – something? – was concealed among the trees, their eyes following his every movement. 
 He turned this way and that, looking for some sign of them. There was nothing. Should he call out, challenging the watcher to show themselves? If they were the killer that might be the stupidest and most dangerous thing imagineable. The safest was simply to head back to the village. But if his back was to the hidden watcher, and their intent murderous…maybe if he glanced behind him every few moments…
 His mind was made up for him when a figure stepped out onto the path in front of him from between a tree and a bush. A man carrying a gun, which was pointed in his direction. Ransome froze. 
 The man’s expression scared him. He almost panicked, then realised that if the man wanted to shoot him there wasn’t much he could do about it. "It’s OK," he said calmly, though he wasn’t exactly in a position to harm the man, as opposed to the other way round. 
 The guy was big and sturdily built, with short dark hair greying slightly at the edges. He wore a flak jacket, pullover, jeans and stout army-style laceup boots and on his head was crammed a battered felt hat like a cowboy’s. On his back was a bulky rucksack. Something about his face seemed familiar…with a queasy chill Duncan realised who this was. The guy who lived on his own, hardly spoke to anyone, was regarded as a bit of a nutter and strongly suspected of killing Nicky and the missing walkers.
Oh shit. 
 Though Duncan didn’t believe in making assumptions, the guy had looked the type. It had led to a feeling of hostility towards him which Ransome had not been able to shake off. And now he was at his mercy.
 The man smiled. It was a cold smile, but friendly in its way. "You’re frightened, aren’t you," he said. "There’s no need to be. I’m not going to hurt you. It’s quite legal, you know, the gun. I’ve got a licence. Belong to a shooting club." His expression changed. "All the same, you won’t tell anyone you saw me here with it, will you?" The implication was that if Duncan did tell anyone, the man might indeed hurt him. Or maybe that was what he was meant to think. Duncan wasn’t taking any chances. "Of course I won’t," he assured the man. 
 Again the man smiled, slyly this time. "You were looking for those caves, weren’t you?" 
 "I suppose so," Duncan said. He had a flash of intuition. "So were you – am I right?"
 At first the man didn’t answer this. "I know who you are. I saw you at the meeting. You want to try and find the guy who did it, don’t you? You don’t think the cops and the soldier boys are making a good job of things. Well as it happens I agree with you.
 "But when I saw you and realised what you were about I had to keep an eye on you. You’re not a pro. I was a bit worried that if you did find the caves, and went in looking for whoever sliced up your woman, you’d get yourself killed." The man went suddenly silent and still, seeming to go dead apart from his eyes, and Duncan was scared until he realised he was being sized up.
 He saw the man relax, apparently satisfied, and tentatively offered his hand, which the other accepted. "I’m Duncan Ransome."
 "Mark Horgan." Horgan looked around for a moment, as if the police might be in earshot. He seemed to decide they weren’t, but lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I wasn’t really looking for those caves, because I know where they are. How to get into them from here. I found the entrance a couple of years ago. Was on my way there when I saw you. Yeah, the caves are one place where the killer could be hiding."  
"You thought you’d have a go at catching him yourself?"
 Horgan nodded. "Army boys are probably in there already. They’d know about the entrance on the Moor. But there’s something funny about this murderer, isn’t there? And I figured that might be why they couldn’t catch him."   
"So what makes you think you’ve got a better chance?"
 "I probably haven’t. But someone’s got to do something, before any more people die. And there’s another reason why I’m going in there, Duncan. They’re not telling us the whole truth, are they? The authorities I mean. If I can get some evidence of what the killer really is and show it to the right people I can blow their little coverup wide open." 
 Once more Duncan felt Horgan appraise him. "We’re of like mind, aren’t we Duncan? You think there’s a coverup too. And that it’s wrong." 
Slowly, Duncan nodded.
Horgan said, "I’ve got a proposition to make to you."
 "Oh yes?" Duncan tried to sound enthusiastic. Because he still didn’t quite trust this guy. Or think it wise to let it show. 
 "There are others like us, who know things like this happen but are covered up. And want to expose them. Some of those people have the same background, the same skills, that I do. I really need their help in this but I don’t want to get in touch with them. Because the government’s probably got them under surveillance and that way it’d know if I showed any interest in them. Then the government would be interested in me. 
 "Just a photograph of the killer might be enough. But I don’t want to do this on my own, Duncan, not if I can help it. It’s probably too dangerous. There should be at least two of us. You ever fired a gun before?"
 Now Duncan really was frightened, and Horgan sensed it. He compressed his lips sardonically. "Might be your only chance of finding out what killed your missus, Dunc. And making sure there aren’t any further tragedies. But you’re going to need the help of someone like me. A pro."
 Duncan shifted uncertainly. The trouble was, he still wasn’t convinced that if he walked away from this Horgan wouldn’t shoot him once his back was turned; probably the rifle had a silencer. If he didn’t go along with it he’d become a liability to him. And the survivalist’s proposition was in many ways an attractive one.
 The word sounded strange to his own ears, as if said in someone else’s voice and from hundreds of miles away. "Alright."
"Good stuff, Dunc. So, have you ever fired a gun before?"
Duncan confessed the answer was no. 
"Then we’ll have to do something about that, won’t we? Come with me." 

The villa on the shore of Lake Como belonged to another supporter of the group, a prominent Italian businessman and financier with notoriously right-wing views. A man who was rumoured to be anti-Semitic, who had certainly made some unwise and extreme remarks about ethnic minorities in the past, and whose views on gays made even those of the old school like Derek Winlett uncomfortable. However, if you were serious about the cause you were fighting for you sometimes had to get into bed with some unsavoury people. Rachel just hoped she didn’t catch anything. 
 This time the meeting was of intelligence personnel alone. The villa’s owner left them to it, thankfully. Present were Albert Kleistmann, members of the German, French, Swiss and Italian secret services, and Rachel Savident who was representing MI6, not officially of course. A map of the area around Schloss Mencken was spread over a table.
 It was the intention that each meeting of the group be chaired by a different person. This time it was the Swiss intelligence agent, Reinhold Gunther. "Getting into the house itself is going to be difficult," he was saying. "We could plant someone among the castle staff but it would probably mean dirty tricks – killing somebody, or putting some form of pressure on them, in order to ensure there was a vacancy – and that might leave a trail." Somehow he found he had no taste for doing it that way anyway. "Also it would be disastrous if they were found out. We need to concentrate instead on establishing what it is on the south face of the mountain that the Count is so determined to hide. So we’re going to have to do some climbing."
 They agreed this was the right strategy, with some reservations. "It’s possible, of course," said Rachel, "that what happened to those climbers could happen to us."
 "So we’ll need guns. All of us are licensed to own them in the course of our duties, or know someone who can supply them, so it shouldn’t be a problem."
 The Count employed a dozen or so security guards at the castle, though it was not thought all were on the premises at the same time, and it was quite likely that they carried firearms. Switzerland had universal conscription, as part of which all able-bodied males aged between 20 and 34 kept guns at their homes in case of a sudden call-up. In addition Swiss citizens were allowed to purchase combat rifles for use in shooting, a popular sport in all cantons. Stricter controls had been rejected in a recent referendum. It was quite likely the Count had a gun himself, and could still handle it with skill. 
 "Now the question is, who is going to undertake the operation?" asked Kleistmann. There weren’t many active members of the intelligence community they could call on. Consequently only one or two members of the group had the right skills. There were a couple of people in the French special forces who might help. Unfortunately they were on an assignment and not currently available. They couldn’t be constantly AWOL from their regular duties or it would  attract attention. Rachel was able to be involved as she happened to be officially on leave.
 "I could go, I’m a qualified climber," Gunther said. "And I have a few days’ leave due to me. But there will have to be at least two of us."
 "I’ll do it," said Rachel. "I did some climbing as part of my training." There had been refresher courses since, and it would help that her companion was experienced in the business.  
They now set about planning the operation in more detail. 

Duncan had thought Horgan might make him walk in front of him, so he could be shot immediately if he made a break for it, but the ex-soldier was happy to take the lead. Of course if Duncan did try to get away Horgan would hear him immediately as he disturbed the leaves, and react. 
 He wondered if Horgan had said he had a licence to shoot purely in order to put him at ease. And plenty of people held one only because nobody had realised just how cracked they were. 
 Probably he thought that if he found and took care of the man who’d killed his wife Duncan would be beholden to him.  
 The interior of the cottage was scrupulously tidy, all the gun catalogues, the books and DVDs on military history, the shooting trophies and the software packages for the wargames Horgan liked to play on computer, being neatly stacked on shelves or in cabinets. In the living room they shared a couple of beers, over which Horgan revealed something of his past life, relating with bitterness how the Army had decided to dispense with his services, and how he had failed to find a lasting job afterwards. Then they went into the garden, where Horgan set up a row of targets in the shape of empty drink cans. There was no time for an intensive course in marksmanship or survival techniques, which would take weeks at least. Horgan could only teach Duncan the basics, getting through as much as possible before it began to grow dark. 
 He learned how to hold the gun and when to fire it, the difference between the safety catch and the trigger. "All the other things you’ll have to be taught on the job. Do what I tell you to and memorise every fucking word of it. We’ll have food for a couple of days at least, before we have to come back here to restock. In the Army you know how to get by on just a little snack every now and then. But I’ve also got a stock of food hidden in one of the caves. Just hope they don’t find it."
"Is it easy to get lost down there?" Duncan asked.
 "We won’t get lost. I’ve got a map of the caves I can let you have in case we get separated. Don’t need it myself, I know those caves now like I do my John Thomas. I once spent three whole weeks in them."
 Three weeks, Duncan thought. Without daylight. Christ, what kind of man could…
 "It’s not cold down there, and anyway I’ve brought thermal blankets. One of us will keep watch while the other sleeps. We’ll take it in turns." 
"How long will it take to search the whole of the tunnels?"
 "Months." If Horgan noticed Duncan’s expression he didn’t show it. "But with any luck we won’t have to be there that long. I don’t think the soldiers know just how far the tunnel system extends, about the parts of it nearest to here, so that’s probably where our killer is. Let’s confine ourselves to that area. 
 "Whatever happens we mustn’t let them catch us. Depends on how much we’ve seen, I guess. But if we see too much they won’t let us live, Duncan. They’ll want to keep the lid on the conspiracy. They might try to brainwash us into forgetting everything. Now me, I’m trained to resist that sort of thing, maybe I could make them think it’d worked when it hadn’t. But they might still see through it. And you, Duncan, you wouldn’t stand a chance. If they thought it hadn’t worked they’d kill us."
All this cheered Duncan up no end. 
 "I could drive you back to the village, but it might be better if you stayed the night here." Duncan wasn’t happy about that, but he felt it was unwise to refuse the offer. Horgan was taking extra precautions against his betraying him to the authorities. 
"OK," he nodded, trying to sound enthusiastic. 
 "Cheer up, Duncan." Horgan gave a sly wink, showing that he knew exactly what was going through Duncan’s mind. Duncan wasn’t sure if it made him less uneasy, or more. 
 They spent the evening watching some of Horgan’s DVDs, in silence. Occasionally Duncan’s eyes strayed to his companion; whether Horgan noticed it wasn’t clear for he maintained the same deadpan expression all the time, staring fixedly at the screen. 
 Horgan went to bed fairly early, so he could rise early no doubt, and Duncan wondered if he shouldn’t slip away now he had the opportunity. Except that it wasn’t an opportunity. He somehow knew that Horgan would sleep lightly, had probably been trained to, and would wake at even the slightest, almost imperceptible sound. So he retired for the night in the spare room at the back of the house, trying hard not to think about the following day because he’d need all the sleep he could get if he was to cope with it. 

Rachel caught an Easyjet flight from Luton to Berne and there, once she’d collected her luggage, found the café where she’d agreed to meet Gunther, waiting for him outside. 
 She normally wasn’t apprehensive before going on a mission or during it; but this time she was. It was probably something to do with the fact that this one wasn’t authorised by her superiors; the unease communicated itself to everything else. There was a constant sense of double danger. 
 Gunther came, and they had some cherry brandy, kirsch as it was called here, plus a selection of sweets and pastries, with coffee. Apart from the usual pleasantries they didn’t talk much, not about the mission anyway. Partly it was for security reasons. But each was well aware of the tension in the other.
 They took a long-haul bus from the airport to Eissensberg, where they had booked separate rooms in the Hotel Wilhelm Tell, not far from where the ski slopes began. Through the windows rolling grassland, not unpleasant to the eye, gave way gradually to the foothills of the Alps. The scenery became more and more impressive as they progressed deeper into the heart of the Bernese Oberland. The lower slopes of the mountains were densely wooded, the trees sweeping majestically down to the floors of the valleys between them. Rivers, some no more than little streams, others broad and fast-flowing, gleamed brilliantly in the sunshine as they snaked their way through the pines. 
 The first traces of snow were appearing on the upper slopes. It wasn’t quite the tourist season, that started in November, but there was no reason why they shouldn’t be climbing; people climbed all the time. The relative scarcity of other climbers might make them more conspicuous, or it might not. They would stay in touch at all times with their colleagues, some of whom had booked into hotels in the area, and the thought of backup was always comforting. But it might increase the risk of blowing cover; and they were nonetheless venturing into unknown, closely guarded, probably dangerous territory without official protection and in the full knowledge that those who had done so before them had not been seen since. 

They breakfasted on porridge, toast and marmite, orange juice. Then Horgan had his keepfit session which he insisted Duncan join in, because then he couldn’t then creep off while the survivalist was doing his push-ups. Duncan wasn’t used to such  intensive exercise and had to be allowed some time to recover. It was all doing him some good though, he supposed. 
 They got kitted up and set off. Horgan had lent Duncan a spare flak jacket and pair of Army boots. Their kitbags contained all the medical, direction-finding and other equipment they would or might need on their expedition. Both had Kalashnikovs, at the moment folded up and stowed away in the kitbags so the sight of them wouldn’t attract suspicion. 
 Duncan suspected the items he’d seen Horgan putting in his kitbag earlier were grenades. He wondered just how much of the stuff he kept at the house Horgan was legally allowed to possess; certainly, he suspected there was a lot more of it than he’d been allowed to see. 
 On their way through the woods Horgan would stop and cock his head from time to time, listening, and turn slowly through a full circle with his eyes probing the trees and undergrowth for any sign that someone might be close enough to spot them. Each time it seemed no-one had. This early, most people were probably still in bed, having breakfast or getting ready to go to work.   
 Horgan led Duncan to a large hollow in the ground, with tree roots protruding here and there through its sides, in which were a number of rabbit holes. Against the bank of earth leaned a sheet of plywood. They sat on the edge and levered themselves over it, sliding down a short distance on their backsides. At the bottom a few used Coke cans and other litter were scattered. Horgan moved aside the plywood to reveal a hole just big enough for a human to pass through though without standing up properly. "Looks just like something kids are using as a den," he grinned.
 He waved for Duncan to go first. He suggested Ransome might find it more comfortable to wriggle forward on his belly than to crouch. Again wondering what he was letting himself in for, Duncan lay down and worked his way along in a series of short sharp jerks. He heard Horgan start to follow him. The smell of mould filled his nostrils. 
 He wriggled on, further away from the daylight. As the darkness closed around him he had to suppress a feeling of panic. On he went, aware he couldn’t chicken out now because Horgan was blocking his exit. He knew he must not show fear because he would become unreliable in Horgan’s eyes and then who knew what the man would do.
 After a while it got easier to breathe comfortably. "We should be able to stand up now," said Horgan. Gratefully Duncan rose. "Right, helmets on," the survivalist ordered. Fumbling in the gloom, Duncan unstrapped his kitbag, bergen his companion called it, and took out a potholer’s helmet with torch built into it. He put it on and fastened it in place using the plastic chin straps. Switching on the torch, he saw the tunnel they were in had widened, and the roof was higher, allowing air to circulate more freely. The floor had also begun to slope. 
 In the light of his torch Horgan consulted the map. "Not that we really need this," he whispered. He’d told Duncan they should speak in whispers. "Like I said, I know every inch of these tunnels. But it helps." 
 If his memory was really photographic when it came to the topography of the caves and the linking tunnels, so much the better. They couldn’t leave fluorescent markers on the walls, the modern equivalent of Ariadne’s thread, as a guide because the soldiers would see them. And the location of the food cache was marked on the map so they knew where it was should they need it. 
"Where do we start?" asked Duncan.
 "Here. You go first and I’ll be navigator. We’ll go on until we’ve covered the whole system." 
"There’s a lot of ground to cover." 
"Then let’s get started."
 They moved on, their Kalashnikovs now out and unfolded, ready to use at the first sign of trouble. Duncan hoped Horgan didn’t expect him to shoot at any of the soldiers because he just wasn’t prepared to go that far. 
There was a camera in Duncan’s belt pouch, its battery fully charged.
 They moved slowly and carefully, anxious not to make the slightest sound. Although with any luck, there weren’t any soldiers down here yet. If there were, and they got caught, it might be possible to pass themselves off as nutters – if fairly methodical ones – who had decided to “have a go”. Duncan hoped so. 

Zack Jenkins liked it down here even less than he had being out on the Moor. The cool dampness was not unpleasing and the drip-drip of water had a certain comforting monotony about it. But it was dark in the caves, and more confined. And you had to be watching the walls all the time, because you couldn’t be sure that…
 That was the reason they were searching the tunnels in groups of three. Colonel Parsons wanted no repeat of what had happened to Joe Marks. While the creature attacked one soldier the others would kill it, hopefully in time to save his life. 
 In “human resources” terms they could afford to deploy themselves in this way. Because the space was more confined, even if they had no idea how far the tunnels and caves went on for there was less danger of their forces being too widely dispersed. They’d be sure of finding the creature eventually, as long as they covered all the exits. Trouble was, they could only cover the known ones. 
 The ultrasound imaging did seem to indicate that the cave system extended beyond the fringes of the Moor. How far exactly they didn’t know. For the moment, since Parsons couldn’t in any case disperse his forces over too extensive an area, the map each squad had been issued with covered only the bit of it they did know. It had been divided into a number of sectors, to each of which one of the three-man teams was allocated.   
 The area around the pothole down which the creature had fallen was being regularly watched, but so far it hadn’t reappeared. As before the principal danger was of the creature emerging from the caves at a point beyond the cordon. So far it seemed it hadn’t, or there might have been more – incidents. That either meant there wasn’t such a point or the size of the cave system meant the creature hadn’t found it yet. They had to locate it as soon as possible in case it did. 
 The soldiers now wore helmets with torch attachments that enabled them to see where they were going – and also see the creature, whose eyes would give it away in the dark but only if it was facing them. They had attached fluorescent pads, a different colour for each squad, to the walls to help them find their way out of here when the time came.
 The two men with Zack were Jacques Lacombe and Pete Jablonski. "To tell you the truth, I’ve never been more fucking scared in all my life," he told them. 
 "You are not the only one, mon ami," whispered Lacombe. Though from Lyons, he spoke English as it was the lingua franca of their international organisation. 
 Jenkins’ foot struck something on the floor of the tunnel and he looked down to see one of the bricks of smooth shiny material. "Well it’s been this way, anyway," he muttered. 
Sergeant Mathieson called in. "Any luck, lads?"
"Found some more of its shit, Sarge," said Zack. "We’re getting warm."
 "That’s not gonna help us," Jablonski said to Lacombe. "Down here, it could be anything. How are we ever going to catch it?"
"It’s got to come out and eat sometime. We’ll get lucky eventually."
 "Yeah, eventually." They had already searched the sector several times without success. 
 On they went, a step at a time, the fluorescent pads helping to light their way. The walls of the tunnel gleamed dully in the beams from the helmet torches. 
 With terrifying suddenness there was a flurry of wings and a shape flew out of the darkness, making them jump. A bat. 
 After a moment they moved on, grinning at their jitteriness. Behind them a section of the wall detached itself from the rest and crept off down the tunnel in the opposite direction.

Fifteen

"Here it is," said Horgan, as the tunnel broadened out into a cave. It was a small one, but big enough to move around in comfortably. On the far side was a weird-looking rock formation, like a mis-shapen human figure. Duncan followed Horgan over to the space between it and the wall. There he saw a bulky, squarish object covered with a tarpaulin. Horgan twitched the tarpaulin aside to reveal a number of metal containers. He produced a key and unlocked one of them. It was full of tins of food, a store from which the supply in their belt pouches could be replenished. "So they haven’t found it," Horgan observed. "Great." 
He asked Duncan if he was tired. 
 They had been searching miles and miles of cave and seeing little other than bare rock. From time to time Horgan pointed out unusual geological features in which Duncan tried to take an interest. Nonetheless Ransome was not only tired, but bored as well. "You could say I am," he confessed. And how much more of this would he have to take? 
 Horgan was sensible enough to make allowances for his not having had military training. "Alright, then we’ll kip down now." 
"Are we going to sleep here every night?"
 "Best if we choose a different cave each time. The more we keep moving the less chance the soldier boys will find us."
 "We’ll be sleeping for…let’s say five or six hours each night. What if during that time the soldiers happen to find us?"
 "They’ll be sleeping too – most of them. Of course, there’s still a risk. So we’ll just have to find what we’re looking for before they find us, won’t we?"
 "You’re mad."  Immediately Duncan froze, sweat glistening on his brow, as he realised what he’d said.
 But Horgan just laughed. His reaction was only a little less chilling than the thought of what it might have been. "Of course I’m mad. All soldiers are mad. Why do you think we choose a job where we stand such a chance of getting killed?"
 And if we do get caught, Duncan thought, how am I going to explain my involvement in this? Though I’ve a feeling that’ll be the least of my worries. 
 They took off their bergens, unpacked their sleeping bags and crawled into them. As before Duncan considered the idea of slipping off and rejected it. For one thing, he was sure he’d only get lost, the map regardless, and he’d an idea that unless the soldiers were in the caves, and found him, it was quite possible he’d starve to death. 
 He feared that if he stayed down here too long he’d go as crazy as Horgan. But as long as he was down here, he was tied to the man by an unbreakable bond. Trapped. 

After unpacking Rachel spent some time in the bar of the hotel with Gunther, then retired to her room until seven, when the evening meal was served. She went down to the restaurant. The feel of the place was not unlike that of an English pub, though with bunches of herbs on the walls instead of horse brasses. There were exposed beams in the ceiling which had the appearance, at least, of age. A real log fire roared and crackled in the hearth.  
 She chose the melted cheese known as Raclette with boiled potatoes, cold meats and pickled onions. Gunther, like a typical German, tucked into a plate of sausages and the fried shredded potatoes known as rosti, accompanied by a fried egg and green salad. 
 The place was fairly full up; mainly local people, as would be the case at this time of year. Though this was a predominantly German area, Rachel could hear about five different languages being spoken: the others were French, Italian, Romansch, and English which a fair number of Swiss used on a daily basis along with their mother tongue, whatever the latter happened to be. It showed how “multicultural” the country was in some ways.  
 The popular perception of them was of a sober, hard-working, rather boring people, who lived peaceful, well-ordered lives in a democratic state where important issues were resolved by referendum and the constitution devolved power from the centre to the cantons and the municipal governments. Theirs was a society where trains and buses ran on time and everything was clean and tidy. Where art, culture and science could flourish – this had been the homeland of Hans Holbein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paul Klee and Albert Einstein – along with finance and industry. The nation sold itself through tourism, the result being a somewhat stereotypical image of it – cuckoo clocks, Alpine milkmaids, chocolate, watchmaking – which Rachel suspected was not the whole truth. Foreigners and natives alike could ski and sample the wholesome mountain air, as they had done since the mid-nineteenth century. But the conditions which made this prosperity possible had come after hundreds of years of political instability and strife. With the adoption of a federal constitution in 1848 the Swiss had finally succeeded in uniting together in a peaceful relationship four different language groups and nationalities, but even now there were still tensions beneath the surface. They did not want anything to upset that painstakingly achieved and perhaps delicate balance and that was why they didn’t want to complicate the situation by allowing large-scale immigration. It might be that with that in mind, they had looked at things like the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots in Britain, the furore over the Satanic Verses, seen the social tensions caused in other Western countries by the rise of large and growing ethnic minority populations, and thought “No thankyou.” As a result no such problems disturbed the serene, perhaps rather dull – maybe stability had been bought at a price – tenor of Swiss life. For many years very strict regulations were imposed on entry to the country. Nonetheless, Algerian and other Muslim immigrants were now beginning to appear in Swiss cities, but many people weren’t happy about that. Atrocities by Muslim terrorists elsewhere tended of course to confirm Swiss people in their view of “multiculturalism.” 
 Whether one regarded this as racism or pragmatism was a matter of opinion. But all the international organisations that had bases in Geneva seemed to prove that not being a member of a body like the EU or following a liberal immigration policy didn’t mean you were a racist isolationist. Something else which couldn’t be denied was that Switzerland, with her strong economy particularly in the fields of engineering and pharmaceuticals, hadn’t suffered from being outside the EU. It suggested that other people might not either. 
 Rachel looked up as a couple of men came over to their table, at which two chairs were unoccupied. "Do you mind if we join you?" She glanced at Gunther, who nodded. They must appear open and friendly, and not like people who preferred to keep to themselves.
Rachel smiled. "Be our guests." 
 One of the men was Italian Swiss, the other a French national. They were friends and like so many others were in the area to climb, the snow not yet being thick enough for ski sports. "What are you here for?" asked the Frenchman. 
"Like you, my cousin and I fancied a spot of mountaineering," Rachel said.
"Where are you planning to climb?"
"On the Zahn."
"Which face?" 
"The northern."
 "It’s legal there. But you need to be careful of that Count, though." The Frenchman’s tone was dark. 
"Why?" asked Rachel innocently.
 "He’s a very powerful man and will make things difficult for you if you stray even slightly from the designated area. Or his guards will."
 "I’ve got nothing against him," said the Italian. "He’s done a lot for this country. He’s a very generous man, gives quite a bit to charity..."
"But he’s fond of his privacy, it seems."
"He’s earned the right to it."
A waiter came and took the newcomers’ orders.
"Still, it’s a shame we can’t climb all of the mountain," Gunther said.
 The Italian nodded. "You know, there’s supposed to be a secret passage through it to the castle."
Rachel and Gunther’s mental ears pricked up. 
 Again Rachel tried to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. "I suppose the theory is the entrance to it is on the side that’s out of bounds. If the Count values his privacy he wouldn’t want anyone to find it."
 The Frenchman nodded. "Right. It doesn’t mean he’s up to anything he shouldn’t be. Of course, if you’re secretive all sorts of stories get told about you anyway. The concealed passage is just a rumour. Like the mountain being haunted."
"Is it?" said Gunther. 
"Like I say, it’s only a rumour."
The Italian seemed less sceptical. "But people have seen – "
"Ah, that’s just the Brocken spectre." 
"The what?" Gunther asked. 
 The Italian was about to explain, but with a mischievous grin his friend stopped him. "Let them find out."
 Rachel looked absent. She wasn’t sure if she believed in the supernatural or not but talk of it had stirred the memory of something she’d read in the autobiography of a famous actress who had been in Switzerland, at a hotel at a ski resort, making a film back in the 1960s. She had happened to glance through the open door of another guest’s room and seen a mountaineer sitting on the bed taking off his boots after returning from a climb. As she watched, he vanished.
 "It’s the ghosts of all the climbers who’ve died on the mountain," the Frenchman said, more or less pulling their legs. His tone became grim. "A few more have joined them recently."
Rachel frowned. "Is the mountain supposed to be dangerous, then?"  
"This is the first time you’ve climbed there?" She nodded.
 "It’s OK if you’re careful. But sometimes people aren’t and even if they are, accidents happen." He grinned. "I hope I haven’t put you off, all this talk about…"
Rachel smiled politely. "Oh no," she laughed. "Not at all." 
 After the meal she went for a walk round the town. In the main street a colourful masked parade, a local custom which had been going on since the Middle Ages, was in progress, with dancing. Those taking part were dressed as figures from the Bible and from Swiss history, including William Tell. She allowed herself to be caught up in the celebrations, all the time smiling tolerantly. Back at the hotel she and Gunther met with some of the other agents involved in the operation for a recap. 
They went into action first thing in the morning. 
 On its side the helicopter bore the emblem of the Mountain Rescue Service. Mountain Rescue was of course not something the Count could decently object to. He didn’t know that the emblem had been painted on a couple of days before or that the helicopter was being flown by a member of the French secret service. And no-one else was likely to get suspicious. For people to get lost or into difficulties in the Alps was far from an unknown occurrence. 
 Nobody was supposed to be climbing on the part of the mountain they were interested in anyway. But to get to the part where people were allowed to climb the helicopter, coming from where the Mountain Rescue Team HQ was located, had to pass the part where they weren’t. The equipment they had was good enough to scan the rock face in sufficient detail without having to go as close as would arouse suspicion. And the body of the helicopter would of course obscure what they were doing from anyone watching. It not yet being the tourist season, there weren’t that many people around anyway. And as the castle was on the other side of the mountain its occupants would be unable to see them from there.
 They were just about level with the summit. "OK, take her down a few hundred feet." 
 They descended slowly, taking photos at the right intervals so as to be sure of covering every part of the southern face. If anyone did see them it would look as if they were trying to locate a stranded climber, or investigating reports of one. Even though nobody was supposed to climb here in the first place that didn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t, as past evidence showed. Perhaps the crew of the helicopter were acting as police for the Count; he was powerful enough for a request that they look out for those trespassing on his property while they were going about their normal business to be acceded to. 
 They couldn’t go too far down because beneath a certain height a climber even if in difficulties wouldn’t need Mountain Rescue. Below that point the flank of the mountain could be surveyed from the ground. "I think that’s enough for now," Rachel said. "Let’s be getting back." 
No trapped climber; just a false alarm. 
 Later they talked about the assignment and other things over coffee in Gunther’s room at the hotel, while at the desk in the corner Professor Rudolf Schreiber, a geologist contact of the group’s, was examining the blown-up photographs of the mountainside. There were nearly a hundred of them. It was a painstaking business; but his keen, practised eyes, assisted by special scanning equipment, examined every shadowed area that might be what they were looking for. It took almost the whole evening, and at one stage they left him to it, retiring to the bar and remaining there until it closed. When they returned he was still scrutinising the images intently, face wrinkled in concentration. They waited patiently, having run out of talk. Whenever anyone did say something he looked up with a scowl, glaring at them, and they fell silent again. 
 Rachel was just beginning to drop off to sleep when he gave a cry of triumph. "There! Look at that." They went over to see.  He pointed to a dark patch above a ledge between two outcrops of rock. "There’s an opening there, I’m sure of it. Goes in further than the others."
"You’re positive?"
 "I said so. But how far it goes in is something we can only find out by being there, not by looking at a photograph." 
 They discussed exactly how they were going to carry out the operation. They could be lowered onto the summit of the mountain and then work their way down, but were uncomfortable about using a helicopter because too many instances of one operating in the vicinity of the castle would arouse the Count’s suspicions. Even if they did it at night, someone might hear the chopper and gauge its position from the sound. 
 It would have to be from ground level. There were risks involved in that too, but as they all knew risks were something no operation, clandestine or legitimate, was without.  


Sixteen

Early the following day, at a hopefully safe distance of several hundred yards from where the mountain began, Rachel and Gunther drove along the rough track in their 4 X 4, Rachel studying the view through a window with a telephoto lens. Ostensibly they were on their way to climb on thce western face of the Zahn, where it was legal. 
 At intervals along the rock face at the base of the mountain were warning signs in English, French, Italian and German proclaiming that climbing was forbidden. There were also CCTV cameras, each situated near one of the signs in order to reinforce the point. They swivelled to give themselves as wide a field of view as possible. Fortunately, the distance had been judged too great for it to be practical to build a fence right round the mountain. 
 Through the lens Rachel carefully noted the position of each camera and warning notice, marking it on the diagram she was drawing on a pad of foolscap. 

The creature saw and heard the water dripping from the roof of the tunnel, and stood directly beneath the point it was coming from. For a minute or two it stayed there while the droplets of liquid soaked into its body.  
 A little later it paused again. The slurry oozed from its pores and trickled down it onto the floor, forming one single mass which began gradually to solidify. It moved on. 
 There was a fluttering sound and a bat flew along the tunnel towards it. The creature moved fast, and just managed to catch the bat as it skittered past. Its fingers closed around it, squeezing. It heard the little bones crack, and the bat stopped struggling. Holding it in both hands the creature lifted the bat above its head and squeezed tighter. The blood spattered onto it like red raindrops. It continued to wring the liquid from the crushed little body until every last drop had gone. The Red Thing soaked into the creature through its mouth and the pores in its “flesh”, leaving a dark stain which would fade in time. It moved on again. 
 Next it saw a mouse, a tiny furry body scurrying away from it along the base of the tunnel wall. Again it was lucky, pouncing on its prey before it could disappear into a crack in the wall, and the mouse went the same way as the bat. It also caught a spider, although that didn’t provide it with much of a meal.
 But down here food was generally harder to come by. And it seemed there were more of the soldiers in the caves than there had been in the Outside. Not only that but they were hunting it in threes, which meant it would be harder to surprise and kill them without risking its own safety. It had the advantage that it could blend with the rock all around it whenever it heard them coming, and they wouldn’t see it. But it feared that sooner or later, especially as so many, perhaps most, of them were down here, they would be bound to come across it while it was looking for food, and if it had merged with the rock they would spray everything with the substance that killed until they got lucky. 
 Outside though it would be more exposed, with fewer opportunities for disguising itself. Perhaps it should stay here and just concentrate on evading the soldiers for as long as possible. 
But did it not want to do more than that?
 So far it had failed to find an exit from the caves. Looking for one was made difficult by the need to constantly avoid the soldiers. And if there was an exit, there would probably be soldiers there to catch it when it came out. Was there one they didn’t know about? 
Stay down here. For the moment. 
 Its keen ears detected movement from around the bend in the tunnel up ahead. The soldiers. 
 The sounds were coming towards it. It positioned itself against the wall and morphed. 
 The soldiers came into view. They halted, peered down the tunnel, saw nothing. "I’m sure I heard something," frowned one. And then there’d been the remains of the bat, plus more of the hard shiny bricks. He’d been certain they were on the right track. 
 A short distance away a side tunnel led off this one and they took a look down it. Still no sign of the thing.
 A soldier was about to aim his gun at the wall and fire, but another stopped him with a curt movement of his head. "We don’t know which particular bit is our friend," he whispered. "If any is. You could just waste the stuff, and then if the thing decides to show we’ll be in deep shit."
 Accepting the sense of this, his friend nodded, scowling in frustration. "Guess you’re right," he sighed. "But we ought to get fucking overtime for this."

Rachel’s thumb came down at a point on the sketch she had drawn. Though not on a direct vertical line from the ledge beneath where the crevice was, it was near enough to such a line for their purposes. "I suggest we make the climb from here. We’d be just out of range of the nearest camera." Fortunately it wasn’t practical to have one every few yards, even with the Count’s money. "And since there’s no climbing allowed there we won’t get people noticing us and wondering what we’re up to."
 They had considered making the climb at night, which might afford even greater security, but Rachel didn’t have the necessary experience and there was no time for her to gain it.
She saw that Gunther was frowning. "What’s the matter?"
"To me it seems too easy somehow."
 "The Count’s relying on people being deterred by all the security. They won’t dare to go climbing at that point. He’s probably not even bothering to watch the CCTV. And he doesn’t know there’s a group within the European intelligence services working to expose him. 
 "I suppose it depends how badly we want to get back at the EU." She looked at Gunther and he shrugged. The meaning was clear. There were reasons for what they were doing and if she was prepared to go ahead with it, so was he. 
 She bit her lip. The trouble was, there were all sorts of good things which might come from Europe, beneficial laws which national governments, not least Britain’s, didn’t seem to want to pass, where they had freedom of choice on the matter. Laws that would ensure proper regulation of banks and big business so that there was a limit to how much money an investor was allowed to borrow, avoiding recessions and the misery and deprivation they caused. Laws to prevent the incompetent and greedy from being awarded astronomical salaries they didn’t deserve. Laws that would prevent “hiring and firing” by restricting use of casual employment and fixed-term contracts and giving all workers the same rights against unfair dismissal whatever their status and length of service, therefore allowing people who lived constantly under the threat of joblessness and poverty a decent chance in life. 
 But then again, Brussels also sought laws which would, for example, give prisoners the right to vote. And that was the kind of measure commonsense told you was foolish, period.  Some prisoners might be repentant enough (it was that which mattered, rather than how clever or clinically sane you were – for criminals weren’t necessarily mad or stupid) to deserve it. But others wouldn’t, whatever the face they chose to present to the world to increase their chances of getting out. And how would the public know? 
 Those criminals who weren’t repentant lacked the judgement you needed to cast your vote wisely, for the simple reason that crime was wrong. Giving prisoners all the civil rights that everyone else had was a threat to law and order and to morality because it was the taking away of those rights that signified punishment for disregarding those things, and therefore how important they were. The whole thought of the proposal, of anyone seriously suggesting that it be implemented, made Rachel feel sick. It was grotesque. 
 She thought of the murderer of her cousin’s teenage son, who it had been supposed would serve life but in fact was let out after only five years.
 As for the more sensible of the employment laws; well if national governments ruled as wisely and humanely as they ought to there’d be no bloody need to appeal to Europe for justice in the first place.
Did she really want to clobber the EU that much? Yes, she thought, I do. 
 
Duncan Ransome and Mark Horgan stopped dead as they heard a faint rustling somewhere ahead. The sound grew steadily louder. 
 "What’s that?" said Duncan nervously. Horgan could feel him start to tremble.
It was like the flapping of hundreds of pairs of wings. "Bats," Horgan told him. "Relax. They can’t hurt you."
"Sounds like there’s a whole swarm of them." 
 "Something’s disturbed them." The sound was accompanied by a continuous high-pitched screeching. They sidestepped against the walls of the tunnel. 
 A solitary bat flew into the light from their torches and past them, its wings brushing Duncan’s cheek. Then it seemed the air was a seething, screeching mass of the creatures. Instinctively Duncan covered his face. He waited until the bats had gone, the screeching receding into the distance, then took his hands from his eyes. "Phew," he breathed. "What spooked them?" 
"I’ve an idea," said Horgan quietly. "Let’s move on."
They wondered if the soldiers had heard the commotion.
 A few minutes later they came to an opening in the wall. Horgan motioning to Duncan to make no sound, they stepped through it into the largest cave they had come across so far, a huge and echoing vault like the nave of a cathedral. As in the tunnels they could hear water dripping, and the air was cool and damp. 
 Cautiously they explored, rifles levelled and ready to fire. Duncan guessed what Horgan had been thinking. Bats normally slept in caves, didn’t they, hanging upside down from the roof. This must be where they’d come from. Something here had spooked them – and maybe it was still there.  
 Littering the floor were the dismembered remains of bat bodies, heads and wings and limbs. Which told them what they wanted to know. 
 Although currently in a fairly basic form – rock, at least that was what it appeared to be on the outside – the creature  was aware of their approach, and saw them as they came within its visual range, because it had retained the specialised cells that acted as sensors picking up vibrations and performed the role eyes and ears did on a more advanced life form. That was how it had known Marks was there. After all, although it didn’t yet fully realise it it could reconfigure its structure almost any way it liked. 
 It saw Duncan and Horgan. And it saw the things they were carrying. Long black sticks which might be weapons of some kind. But they weren’t the same as the things which the guards at the research centre, and the Not-Us soldiers, carried, the things which killed, because the white cylinders were absent. 
Did that mean they couldn’t harm it? 
It was hungry.
It weighed the odds.
And came to a decision.
 It must still aim to surprise the two Not-Us because unless it caught them unawares one of them might have time to run while it killed the other. So it let them walk on past it. 
 Something, some sixth sense – or perhaps there was a slight sound as the molecules shifted and rearranged themselves, a rushing noise like sand pouring into a hopper – caused them to turn. 
 Duncan screamed in fright. He just couldn’t help it. What he saw was a rock, a rock with two red, glowing eyes, coming forward, coming out of the wall at him. 
 Hearing the scream Privates Stuart Merriweather, Ray McCormack and Wouter de Haan of X5, a couple of tunnels away, froze. Then they galvanised themselves into action, running in the direction it seemed to have come from. 
 Panic seized Duncan and he blasted away at the creature, not registering that it was now growing arms and legs, becoming a human-like form about six feet tall. Horgan might have fired too if Duncan hadn’t been in the way. He could only gape at the figure in astonishment, quite unprepared for the actual sight of something like this. It looked like it was made of rock, living rock. The outline was human but it had no hair, skin, nails or teeth. Its flesh, though that didn’t seem the right word, consisted of ridged stony plates a dull grey-brown in colour. Taller and broader than the average man, it gave an impression of tremendous strength and power. The hands and feet, the latter toeless, were huge and square. The head, resting on a short stumpy neck, was rounded and featureless except for those huge red eyes, although there seemed to be a slight protrusion suggesting a nose, and a fold in the “rock” where the mouth would have been on a human. 
 A little deliriously it registered with him that the thing had a number on it, engraved on its chest. Seventeen. 
 His wits now fully recovered, Horgan saw that Duncan’s bullets were simply bouncing off the creature’s body, some of them ricocheting dangerously from the walls of the cave. He was more likely to harm himself and Horgan than it. Except that the creature’s eyes…they looked like red-tinted spectacle or camera lenses. Because they were meant for seeing they were more sensitive, and therefore more delicate, than the rest of it.  
"Get down!" he shouted. 
 As the creature was now almost within arm’s length of him Duncan threw himself backwards, landing on the cave floor with a jarring impact that jolted the rifle from his hand. Horgan took aim at one of the eyes and fired. 
 It shattered like glass, exploding in a shower of gleaming shards. The creature halted, swaying as if in pain or disorientated. Horgan shot out its other eye, as Duncan scrambled away from it and ran to join him. 
 There was still a glimmer of red in one of the eye sockets. The creature remained where it was, still swaying gently, not apparently in any distress but simply unable to see.
 Duncan was still staring at the creature in sheer amazement. "The camera," Horgan snapped. They must have the evidence.
 Then they heard the running feet coming down the tunnel towards the cave. At the same time they noticed something else. The eye-holes were filling up with some white filmy material, which as they watched changed in colour and texture. The eyes were regenerating, reforming. 
They could keep shooting them out – until they’d wasted all their ammunition.
 They hesitated. Then Horgan whispered fiercely to Duncan to hide. If he could keep disorientating it for long enough Ransome might be able to find a place of concealment where he’d be safe from both the creature and the soldiers. One of them, at least, would live to tell his story.  
 Though brief, the delay while Horgan considered what to do proved fatal. Several things happened at once. Duncan dodged to one side as the creature lunged at him, those eyes again blazing redly. Horgan’s rifle came up to point at its face but it was already within reach of him, thrusting out an arm. The edge of its hand caught the barrel of the rifle, knocking it aside a split second before Horgan could pull the trigger. Then it wrenched it from his grasp with the ease of a child plucking a petal from a daisy, and tossed it away. The arm rose above Horgan’s head. 
 The three soldiers burst into the cave. Intent on killing Horgan, the creature didn’t notice their arrival.
 The first thing they saw was the creature looming over Horgan, arm lifted to strike. In the same moment that the arm descended, they instinctively aimed the guns with the strange cylindrical attachments and fired.
 From the nozzles of the cylinders shot jets of smoking grey-white liquid. They struck the creature in the side and immediately it was enveloped in a cloud of dense vapour. 
 The blow had missed Horgan’s head as he twisted aside, instead landing on his arm and breaking it at the shoulder. He lurched away from the creature, clutching at the injured limb and screaming in pain. 
 Droplets of the liquid were running down the creature and dripping onto the floor. A dull stain began to spread over its body. Then it started to sway and stagger, throwing up its arms in a curiously human gesture of distress. Cracks appeared in it, spreading and widening and linking up. Little fissures opened, vapour pouring from them. Several large chunks fell off it and a groaning, crunching sound came from within its body. 
 Horgan had fallen to his knees and was staring at the sight before him, though it was barely visible through the tears of pain that clouded his blurring vision. 
 The creature too had gone down on its knees – it did have knees, more or less. It was losing its shape, gradually disintegrating into a heap of fine granules. Part of one arm broke away. One eye went dull, then shattered, the other fell out. It was like watching ice cream melting, or a sandcastle being washed away by the tide. 
 The soldiers went to Horgan. The creature’s blow had shattered bone and torn through muscle and tendon, almost severing the arm which hung limply at the survivalist’s side. There was a lot of blood. 
 "You thought you’d have a go at catching it yourself, didn’t you mate?" said Merriweather. "Not a very wise thing to do."
 Horgan looked up at him. He saw a black man, somewhere in his thirties, who had spoken in a British accent with a slight trace of the North. Although who the guy was didn’t really matter right now. "For fuck’s sake do something," he hissed through clenched teeth. "I could die if I don’t have…surgery…soon..."
 The soldiers looked at each other, then back at Horgan. They considered the fallen rifle, the gear he was wearing, the general look of the man. "You ex-Forces?" Merriweather asked. 
"Till they kicked me out…bastards…ah God, help me…"
"Why did you do it?"
 "You can’t…hide the truth…people have gotta know…for Christ’s sake will you fucking do something about…"
"All right, mate," said Merriweather. He spoke kindly. 
 Again he exchanged glances with the others. It would be simplest to leave the man to die, but also callous. De Haan radioed the command post and explained the situation. After carefully considering the available options Colonel Parsons gave his decision.
 It looked as if Horgan was about to pass out. He’d keeled over onto his back and his eyes flickered fitfully as he struggled to stay conscious. 
"Army," said Merriweather. "A lot of us were, too. Still are, officially."
 He thought Horgan could hear him, if only just. "I’ve no doubt you were good once, mate," he said softly. "But you lost it, didn’t you?"
Horgan’s face spasmed in agony.
 "We all know the longer we stay in the game, the more our luck’s bound to run out eventually. You played it and you lost. Sorry, mate."
 He was sure he saw a flicker of understanding, a recognition of comradeship, in Horgan’s face, breaking through the pain. The man’s lips formed what might have been a faint smile. Then his eyes closed.
 De Haan made the adjustment that would enable his rifle to fire ordinary bullets. Then he levelled it at Horgan and shot him once through the heart. 
 Horgan twitched, trembling convulsively, his eyes springing open again. He went still and De Haan bent over him and gently closed the lids. He straightened up and for a little while the three X5 men stood in silence, heads bowed. 
 Nothing now remained of the creature except a small heap of dust in a steaming pool of the greyish liquid. Soon a few more X5 soldiers were on the scene, one of them equipped with a small trowel, a pair of gloves and a metal canister. Colonel Parsons watched him carefully scoop up the pile of grains, making sure not a single one was left, and deposit it in the canister. The liquid could be left to dry.  
 Lying where he had thrown himself flat behind a boulder, Duncan Ransome could only wait, hardly daring to breathe. Their attention focused on the creature and Horgan, the X5 men hadn’t seen him dive for cover when they came in. Now he must make sure he didn’t make any move or sound that could give himself away.
 "Impressive weapon," he heard someone say. "We need plenty of them for the armoury in case we come up against something like this again."
 Two soldiers carried Horgan’s body off between them. Afterwards Parsons took a brief look around the cave. 
 They really needed to find out more about the dead man, who he had been. That could be left to the Intelligence branch. And how he had got into the caves; although Parsons supposed that didn’t really matter now. 
 "Well, I guess that’s that," he sighed. "We can set Dr Habgood’s mind at rest. Come on then, lads." 
 One of them taking Horgan’s rifle, they trooped out of the cave, the sound of their footsteps ringing hollowly. Gradually it died away. 
 Duncan thought it safest to wait a few minutes before leaving his hiding place. When he emerged there was no sign of Horgan or the creature. He saw the pool of liquid, which by now had stopped steaming, and couldn’t remember if it had been there before. Was it anything to do with…it? He went to investigate, touching it gingerly with a fingertip. It stang. 
 He supposed he should take a sample of it but he had nothing to put it in. He didn’t even think it was worth photographing.
The camera. Shit, he hadn’t even managed to get any pictures.
 He turned his attention to the blood; there was plenty of it, and it was human. He tried to piece together what had happened from the sounds he had heard and from what the soldiers had said. The exact course of events could only be guessed at but it was obvious both Horgan and the creature had met violent deaths. 
There was no evidence. No trace of the creature whatever. 
 Jesus, what was that thing? Had it really killed Nicky? If so, she was avenged. But his head was still a whirling confusion of thoughts he would need time to arrange in some sort of order.  For the moment the main thing was to get out of here. From his fear of getting lost he had in fact made sure to memorise the route he and Horgan had taken, so far as that was possible. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to remember when the time came but he found he could recall most of the turnings, the junctions between tunnels. And then there was the map. He moved stealthily in case there were still some soldiers around. By now they’d all have had the order to return to their base, but if they’d been searching the whole of the cave system, and it was vast, the risk of running into one or two stragglers couldn’t be ruled out.
 But it didn’t appear they were actively searching for him. So far he’d been able to keep his existence a secret. 
 He crept along one tunnel after another, more or less certain he was heading in the right direction. A little while after leaving the cave he heard brisk footsteps, the sound of someone walking fairly fast, coming towards him. They were some way off so their owner wouldn’t hear him suddenly halt as if wary of him and be puzzled, perhaps suspicious. But as the soldier, he assumed it was a soldier anyway, drew nearer he must find somewhere to hide and quickly.  
 There was an opening in the wall a few yards behind him. A tunnel at a right angle to this one. He made towards and then down it as fast as he reckoned he could without making too much noise. There was a bend in it twenty or thirty yards from the junction and if he could conceal himself behind that he would not be seen should the soldier happen to glance down it.   
 The straggler paused. He was sure he had heard, just for a few moments before it died away, a sound from somewhere ahead or maybe down a side tunnel. 
 Just water, he decided. Or one of his mates on their way out of here, like him. He did glance down the side tunnel as he drew level with it, but saw nothing.
 When he judged it was safe Duncan moved on. He took a few wrong turnings, but by retracing his steps was able through elimination to find the right way out. He knew he was OK when the tunnel started to slope upwards.
 Twenty minutes later, knocking aside the plywood sheet which Horgan had replaced after him when they went in, he stumbled into the daylight, collapsed against the trunk of a tree and slid down it onto his backside, sobbing with relief. 
 When he got himself together the first thing he did was to fire his rifle into the air until it was empty, thanking Heaven for the silencer, before digging a hole in the soil with his hands and burying it as best he could. 
 He returned to the B and B where he threw himself on the bed and stretched out. 
If that creature had killed Nicky then its destruction was a catharsis, but insufficient. He wanted to know why it had killed her. 
 Had the thing been intelligent, in which case it surely ought to have known better? He supposed that if it could do something like change its shape it must be pretty clever. But some insects, for example, deliberately camouflaged themselves. It was the same thing, surely, and yet insects weren’t intelligent. But could there be other forms of sentient life than Man, beings which could alter their molecular and cellular structure? 
 If the creature had been wholly mindless, a mere animal, why had it needed to kill his wife, since Duncan could see no reason for its doing so other than hatred, aggression. Food? It hadn’t eaten her. Fear? Did it think of humans as a threat to it in some way, and why? 
 Where did it come from? Had it originated here on Earth, some unknown but terrestrial species? Was it possible for such home-grown monstrosities to exist without anyone knowing about them? Or was it an alien? If it was, it must have got here in some kind of spacecraft. That it was intelligent enough to build one suggested it had killed Nicky out of cruelty alone – not that he knew how an alien’s mind worked. Unless the occupants of the spacecraft had kept it as a pet and it had escaped. Why hadn’t they tried to recapture it? Perhaps the ship had crashed and only it had survived. Was the wreckage out there on the moor somewhere? 
 What of the idea that the creature had originated in the Mencken research laboratory? But Mencken’s business was drugs and chemicals, not biology. Officially, anyway.   
 Yet there was the evidence of that number seventeen, which only now fully penetrated his consciousness. It seemed amusing. But it suggested that someone had made the thing. And the numbers had been Arabic. Human numbers. 
 Perhaps most importantly, were there more of these things around, or likely to be in the future? One thing was clear. The soldiers had been hunting it. That was why they’d cordoned off the moor. The public hadn’t been told the killer’s true nature. Maybe if they knew the Earth was being visited by aliens who were hostile to humanity there’d be mass panic, which would make the politicians’ job harder because they were basically concerned with control, with preserving peace and order. He could understand the motives behind the cover-up even if he didn’t agree with it, and that made it easier for him to accept that Horgan had been right, damaged though the guy undoubtedly was. If there was a crashed spaceship involved then it was now probably under lock and key at some military base or government research establishment, along with any bodies.
 He still wanted to know more. If there remained any danger to the public, the public should be told about it. Apart from his own personal motives. 
 Those soldiers, who were they? One had told Horgan that many of them were ex-Army. Recruited for some special unit intended to deal with – unusual threats? 
 Most seemed to have been British, but he’d heard other accents too, enough of them to be significant. Dutch, Spanish, French, Russian. Why would they bring in international troops? Maybe because it was an international conspiracy. Whatever it was it had enough clout to poach people from the national armies and to take over an investigation from the civilian police. There must be some people, at least, in various governments who could assist them in getting what they wanted. 
 He’d no idea what he could do about it, and he had a feeling that what had happened to Horgan proved he’d be risking his life if he probed too deeply. Let me just know, he decided, for the time being. What I do is something I’ll address myself to in due course.
 Nowadays the Internet was the quickest way to find essential information on a particular subject. If necessary, he’d fill in any gaps later on by consulting printed sources.
 He had his Blackberry, which Nicky had given him as a birthday present, but might need to print something off. Tomorrow morning he’d go into Plymouth or Exeter and book a terminal at the main library there. That would be the start.


Seventeen

Rachel and Gunther had avoided drinking any alcohol the night before their climb, and made sure to take the right medical equipment even though they were unlikely to encounter  any hazards – natural ones, that was – provided they used their common sense. They weren’t going quite high enough to get altitude sickness, nor was there enough snow for the sunlight’s reflection off it to damage their eyes and skin. 
 Like that needed for the climb itself, the equipment had been either supplied by their contacts or purchased in local shops. 
 They had radios so they could keep in constant touch with their colleagues, who would therefore know if anything had happened to them.
 This time they dispensed with the 4 X 4 and walked to where they would begin their ascent. With the bulky packs on their backs it might have looked if they were going camping rather than climbing. What those who saw them as they set out certainly did not guess was that the packs also contained respirators, stun grenades and handguns. 
 The trees gave you a certain cover, at one or two points, until you were quite close to the foot of the mountain, so you wouldn’t be in the range of one or more of the cameras before disappearing from them, giving a clue to where you’d gone. They were confident they’d reached the point where they intended to start the climb without being spotted. 
 Rachel encountered no difficulties during the climb, remembering everything she’d been taught on the various courses. She still needed to take exceptional care. Climbing was an activity where if you literally put a foot wrong it could result in plunging to your death, perhaps dragging your companion down with you. Gunther, the more experienced mountaineer, acted as leader and she as second.  
 They made the ascent in stages, pausing for a rest whenever they reached a ledge. Finally, they were standing on the ridge which ran below the fissure Schreiber had identified on the photograph. It was more of a plateau, long and wide, and big enough to move around on without going dangerously close to the edge.   
 They were not quite at the summit here, but not too far below it. For a moment Rachel stood looking down into the mist-shrouded valley beneath them, like in that painting by Caspar David Friedrich, enjoying the view. What seemed to be a shiver of movement in the sky above her caused her to look up and with a sharp intake of breath she froze, startled. 
 Imprinted on the clouds was the enormous, shadowy outline of a human figure. Around its head was a halo, a corona formed by rays of brilliantly coloured light. She stared at it in amazement, awe, even a tinge of fear. Then she remembered what it was, grinning at her own foolishness. She recalled the conversation in the hotel bar a couple of days before. She swung her arm up, and the giant figure did the same. The Brocken Spectre. The vastly magnified shadow of a person, in this case herself, produced by atmospheric conditions when you were looking down from a mountain into mist with the sun, reflecting off the clouds, behind you. The phenomenon might be observed anywhere those conditions were found, such as the Brocken, a peak in the Harz mountains of Germany from which it took its name.  
 A perfectly natural, scientific explanation. All the same, it had given her quite a turn at first.
Gunther was standing beside her, grinning too. "Quite a sight, ja?"
"Ja," Rachel smiled. She continued to study it in fascination.
 "Rachel, we must get going," Gunther said, in that earnest, almost apologetic tone Germans often use when reprimanding someone. Rachel turned from the edge. They clambered over the plateau towards the jutting outcrop of rock with the crevice in it. 
 Once there, Gunther stepped aside, gesturing for Rachel to go first. "Or would you rather I – " He had remembered she wasn’t quite so experienced at potholing, which was what it amounted to. "Maybe you’d better," she agreed.  
 The opening began just a couple of feet above the plateau and by planting their toes in it they could lever themselves up and into the crevice. Scrambling forward, Gunther found himself in a natural tunnel, a kind of horizontal chimney, through the rock, its walls fairly smooth. The temperature had dropped a little; it was warmer in here, and snug, but although the passage was fairly wide and there seemed no danger of getting stuck the ceiling was low and there wasn’t quite enough room to stand. They decided that moving along in a crouch was more awkward and uncomfortable than wriggling forward on their stomachs, and so opted for the latter.  
 Of course, thought Rachel as she wriggled along, the rumours might be no more than that. The passage might come to an end without having led anywhere interesting. If so, what would they do then?  
 Gunther radioed their principal contact, the French Special Forces man Valdin, now back from his assignment and enjoying a few days’ leave, at his hotel. "We’re in the tunnel."
 He could only see so far ahead, but after a few minutes the passage did indeed seem to come to an end. He could make out a dull grey surface blocking it right across. A different colour from the rock around it, and so probably artificial, human-made. This looked promising. 
 As he came closer he saw it was a kind of steel bulkhead with a recessed rectangular hatch, at least it seemed to be a hatch, in it. Someone, at some point, had decided the passage might be a useful way of making a secret entry to, or exit from, the castle should it be desired. 
 Just above the hatch a CCTV camera was mounted so that it faced squarely towards anyone coming along the tunnel. Like them. 
 He told Rachel what he’d seen. She sighed. "We were afraid of this. But we’ve already gone to the bother of getting this far. Let’s risk it." 
 Michel Doumer noted the mixture of caution and alertness in their body language. "I think they’re professionals," he said. "So they must have had some idea what they were looking for."
 The Count swore. This was worse than someone doing it because they considered the mountain public property and felt they could climb any part of it they liked. Doumer felt him stiffen, going cold. 
 "A rogue element within the European security services." From the Count’s point of view it was a rogue element. "That’s the most likely explanation." 
"Could be they just heard the rumours and are here to steal what’s in the cave."
 "You’d need more than two people, and special equipment. No, it’s not that, I’m sure of it. This is serious, very serious."
 "What do we do with them?" Doumer asked. "Two more suspicious deaths on the mountain…"
 "There are ways of making it look like an accident. There always have been, you know that."
 Mencken studied the figures on the screen. "They must have thought me complacent." 
But he never took chances if he could avoid it. 
"So do we kill them?" prompted Doumer. 
The Count shook his head. "There are certain things I need to know."

"There’s a hatch but it’s covered by a security camera," Rachel was saying into the radio.
 Valdin’s voice crackled back, muffled and distorted by static. The weather was fine, but all the same conditions up here in the mountains were interfering with reception. "I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. Would you repeat it please?"
 She had to try several times, speaking loudly and clearly, before he understood. "Right. Are you going in?"
 "We may as well. They’ll have seen us anyway." If it came to the worst they could use the stun grenades to overpower anyone who came at them with a gun. They put on the masks, which would have the effect of insulating them from the shock. 
 There was a button on a small control panel beside the hatch. It looked like you could open it from the outside, though if someone didn’t want you to get in they would have provided some means of overriding the controls.
 Gunther tried the button. Slightly to his surprise, the hatch slid aside. "It worked," he announced. He wriggled through the opening.
 On the other side the roof was higher, allowing them to stand, which they did with some relief. They drew their handguns.
 After a few feet the tunnel became a cave. They paused at its threshhold, taking stock. The chamber was about a hundred feet wide and long, with a door just visible in the far end, and twenty or thirty high. They heard the hum of air conditioning, and there was a pale yellow glow from the lights hanging from the roof. Though the cave was a natural feature by the look of it, it was being utilised for human purposes. There was a device on the wall which looked like a humidifier. Something in here, Rachel thought, needs to be kept in good condition. At a guess, whatever lay beneath the thick plastic sheeting in the middle of the chamber. They could only make out a number of bulky, squarish shapes. 
 An electronic warbling filled the air, and they glanced at one another. An alarm? 
No, it didn’t sound like one somehow. "I think it’s some kind of signal," Gunther said. 
"To what?"
 "I don’t know." He shrugged and they started forward, intending to inspect the sheet-covered objects in the centre of the room. 
 At this point they were still within the tunnel. They were about to step from it into the cave when the walls flowed and rippled like a liquid and put their arms around them, holding them tight in a grip they could not break. 

"We couldn’t have trusted him," said Parsons. "We didn’t really want to do it but I don’t think there was any option."
"How are you going to explain his disappearance?" Habgood asked.
 "That’s fairly simple. His body will be found on the Moor by campers or walkers, decomposed and partially eaten by wild animals – out here, it’s a safe bet they’ll have a go – which will make it impossible to tell the exact cause of death. We’ve already removed the bullet. As for what he was doing there when the place was supposed to have been out of bounds to the public, well…" 
Habgood got the idea. "The Dartmoor Killer will have been found."
 "Yes…altogether a very sad story. Hopefully, along with the lack of any actual evidence the creature existed, it’ll put an end to public speculation about the affair and allow us to keep the whole business under wraps."  
 "Horgan was obviously mad," Parsons continued. "I would imagine everyone round here who knew him thought so too. They’ll have no trouble swallowing the idea that he could have been the murderer."  
"So does this mean you’re finished here?"
 "Not just yet. We’ve only just dumped the body. If it’s found before the foxes etcetera would have had time to do their stuff, it’ll arouse suspicion. So we’d better hang on here until they have, and the cordon will meanwhile remain in place."
 "I think you’ve done as much as you can to tighten up security here, and we’ll be on call to deal with any further trouble." He nodded briefly. "You may see me around the place, you may not. I’ll be on my way now. I’ve matters to attend to."
 Parsons went out to his helicopter. As always at the end of an operation there were things on his mind. For one, the loss of Joe Marks. It was always difficult explaining the deaths of personnel on active service. Since the creature hadn’t left much of him, it would have to be a faulty grenade or other explosive device. Or perhaps Marks had been crushed by a tank while on manoeuvres. The death would have occurred while serving with the regiment, equivalents of which were to be found in a host of countries, which acted as X5’s front in addition to its other duties. Whatever the official story, of course, it wouldn’t make bearing the pain any easier for his relatives.
 But the death that affected Parsons the most was Mark Horgan’s. The Dartmoor Killer…that was how the man would be remembered. There were times when he really hated this job.

"What did they have on them?" asked the Count. 
 Doumer described the results of his search. "A map of the area, all the other gear you’d expect someone to take with them when climbing. No passports or other identification, probably left it in their hotel rooms. They were using CB radios to communicate with their friends. Sometimes it’s safer to do things the old-fashioned way. They didn’t take mobiles in case we could work out who it was they last called. I definitely get the impression they knew the legitimate security services were backing us." 
"Well, let’s see what they have to say for themselves."
 At least they were fairly gentle about it, Rachel thought. After the bodysearch, which was bound to be disagreeable, the security guards bundled them down a corridor to a lift, keeping a firm grip on them during the descent to the lower levels. They were then taken down several more corridors to a room which was laid out like a cross between a laboratory and – ominously – an operating theatre. It was white-walled and functional in design with couches, an operating table, a workbench and racks for surgical instruments. They were made to lie on the couches, their arms pressed flat by their sides, and then fastened down by straps round their wrists and ankles. 
 At the workbench a man in a white smock was filling a hypodermic needle with something from a plastic flask. From her present position Rachel guessed at sodium pentathol, or something like it. Their captors could try to torture information out of them but would have no way of knowing whether what they said was actually true. The drug was meant to relax the higher functions of the brain, those involved in scheming and lying.
 A tough-looking blond guy who was obviously the chief of the guards entered and stood before them. A moment later Count von Mencken appeared, taking up position against the far wall,  behind his subordinates. He said nothing, his face grimly dispassionate. With a cold feeling Rachel realised they almost certainly would never leave here alive. He wouldn’t want her colleagues, or the world at large, to know what he had done. Unless perhaps he was relying on his influence to protect himself from prosecution. That meant they might survive, and so she clung to the thought. 
 Whatever happened, she wouldn’t have minded knowing what it was that had held her and Gunther pinioned while the Count’s men took their guns. It had felt like stone, yet not like stone; soft but hard.
 The blond man addressed them. "I don’t imagine you will willingly tell us what we need to know. So I’m afraid we’ll have to use certain…methods of persuasion. It needn’t be too painful." 
 Two more men in white coats entered wheeling before them a trolley on which rested a large black box, not unlike a video recorder in shape, with dials and an LCD. They placed it on the floor close to the two captives, and one of them produced a lead with which he plugged the device into a socket on the wall. Then electrodes from the machine were attached to their temples and to inflatable rubber grips the medics had fastened around their arms just above the wrist. All this must be for monitoring the effect of the drug on their metabolisms, by blood pressure, heartbeat, brain activity. 
The man at the workbench finished filling the syringe and came towards them. 
 It was possible to resist truth drugs, whose effectiveness had always been questionable, but only if you knew how; fortunately they both did. Rachel’s principal worry was that if the technique worked, the Count might decide he had nothing to lose by trying something more painful.  
 The guards rolled back their captives’ sleeves, baring a few inches of forearm. Then the scientist or doctor or whatever he was pressed the point of the needle gently into Rachel’s flesh. 
 She stiffened, but not from the mild pain of the injection. A blank look came over her face which the onlookers attributed to the drug as it took effect, or to something else. Volker Erhardt studied her for a moment. He consulted the readings on the machine, and Doumer saw him frown. "What’s wrong?"
"I think she’s resisting the drug."
"She would do," Doumer told him. 
 Rachel kept her mind focused on negative, disturbing, horrifying images. Concentrated on the harmful things which might happen if she told her interrogators all. The idea of any harm coming to Derek Winlett, which pricked at her heart. Following the thought of answering the questions truthfully with that of anything unpleasant which came to mind. Someone defecating in public. A savage dog, teeth bared in a vicious snarl, eyes gleaming black pools of hate. It went for her, biting and tearing at her flesh with its fangs. Being eaten by a giant spider. Having petrol poured over you and burning to death, your skin bubbling and melting, sizzling and popping, like fat in a pan. 
 No, the images were too distressing. If anything they might only serve to break down her resistance. 
 She changed tactics. Tried to think of her mind as something divorced from her body, from the physical part of herself, on a different plane and thus unaffected by the drug. 
She thought she heard a tape recorder being switched on.
 Doumer stood over her. "What is your name?" he demanded, harshly but in a controlled manner. He’d had experience of this kind of thing before, been trained in it. 
 Allowing in any other thought than the undesirability of answering their captors’ questions might cause her to lose her guard. Savagely she forced herself to concentrate. They saw her face twist, the lips tightening, the eyes narrowing.
 She could feel the drug relax her, whispering soothing things into her ears. Telling her there was nothing to worry about and everything would be fine as long as she did what it told her. The people who were giving her the drug knew it was for the best. They were good people…good people…
 "What is your name?" Doumer repeated. "Why did you enter the cave? What were you looking for?" 
 He went on bombarding her with the same questions, his voice gradually rising, a decibel at a time, until he was shouting. 
Still Rachel’s face didn’t change.
"No good," he muttered.
 Erhardt looked up from his machine. "There’s little effect. They’ve been taught all sorts of special techniques to help them hold out. Our friends warned us we might encounter this problem." It was those same friends who had supplied the machine. 
"How long can they keep it up for?" 
 "I don’t know. But repeated doses of the drug might have dangerous side-effects."
"I see. Well, you know what to do."
Erhardt pressed a button on the machine. A needle quivered on a gauge.
 Rachel’s concentration was suddenly broken as power coursed through some of the electrodes linking her to the device. She jerked convulsively in her restraints, crying out in pain. 
Doumer waited a second or two. "What is your name?"
 She could feel the drug creeping in, insinuating itself into the centres of her brain which governed decision-making, free will.
No! She mustn’t!
She gritted her teeth even tighter.
Erhardt began to turn a dial.
The shock was greater this time. Like a bee sting magnified twentyfold.
The pain…
“What is your name?”
The pain…
“What is your name?”
The pain…
The drug…
“What is your name?”
The pain…
“What is your name?”
The pain…
The drug…
“Who are you working for? Who within the intelligence services is spying on us? How much do they know?”
The pain.
The drug.
The pain.
The drug.
The pain…
 It was getting worse; rising to a point where for all she knew it could be fatal. Better that than to…
The pain.
It was so intense she couldn’t think about anything else. 
The drug…
"Rachel Savident…"
"Truthful response," said Erhardt.
"What were you looking for in the cave?"
"We…wanted to find out…links with…Nazis…Nazi gold."
"Truthful response." 
"Who are your superiors in this? How much do they know? Tell me more."
She rallied. "No…"
The pain.
“Tell me more!”
The pain…
She screamed with all the breath in her lungs.
 Erhardt turned the voltage down. Rachel’s body shuddered, then she seemed to relax. Her eyes closed and a low moan issued from her. 
The drug…
"Tell me more." 
 After a moment she spoke, her voice thick and slurred. "Discredit EU…Nazi links…bodies in….bodies in glacier…climbers…the climbers…they disappeared…"
"Truthful response."
“Is that all?Who is behind all this? What are their names?” 
"No…that’s all…we did it on…on our own."
"Untruthful response," said Erhardt. 
The pain…
“Is there anyone else?”
"No…"
“I want their names! Now!”
"No..."
The pain…
The drug…
"Winlett…Derek Winlett…former head of MI6…and…"
 The names poured from her lips like a diaorrhea. "Anyone else?" asked Doumer when she seemed to have finished. 
"No-one else…that I know…"
"Truthful response."
"What are they planning to do next?"
"No plans…hoped it would be enough…discredit European…Nazi gold…"
"Truthful response." 
"OK. Let’s try the other one and see if he confirms her story."
 Gunther did. After they had finished interrogating him Doumer glanced at the Count for instructions. 
 "Lock them up," Mencken ordered. Doumer nodded to the other guards, who unfastened Rachel and Gunther’s straps and helped them to stand. They were walked from the room, their heads slumped on their chests, their feet dragging on the floor.  
 The Count dismissed the two medics. A quick conference followed between Mencken, Erhardt and Doumer. "We’ll just have to try and be even more careful in future," the Count told them. "With any luck if these two don’t come back they’ll take it as a warning." 
 "Shouldn’t we eliminate all the people Savident mentioned?" asked Erhardt. "That’s the only sure way to deal with the problem."
 The Count shook his head. "We are ourselves something of a secret faction, are we not? And we want it to stay that way. The heads of the security services, those who aren’t members of our group, will be puzzled by a spate of obvious assassinations of intelligence or former intelligence personnel which they did not themselves authorise. They’re sure to conduct an enquiry." 
 Doumer said, "You realise they were probably travelling on false passports? When the authorities try to contact their next-of-kin, they’ll find out they don’t exist. That’s going to look interesting. If it seems as if the security services were investigating us, people will wonder why." 
 "It should be possible for our colleagues to block the investigation somehow. And they’ll warn the relatives off if they work out what’s happened and decide to cause trouble." 
"Alright. So what do we do with the two of them, eventually?"
 "Keep Gunther for a day or two, make sure he doesn’t come to any harm. Give him enough to eat and drink. We want to allow time for the drug to have passed out of his bloodstream, so there is no trace of it – you understand?"
Doumer smiled thinly, to show that he understood. "And the woman?" 
 "I have a use for her. I don’t know how she’ll feel about it, but it’s a lot better than dying." 

"Rachel, are you there? Rachel, can you hear me? Are you alright?"
 Still no answer. Valdin tried Gunther, with the same lack of result. After several more goes he gave up.  He switched off the radio and stowed it away. "Nothing," he told his colleague, Bouvier. "We’ll give it until tomorrow morning. If neither has made contact by then, we must assume something’s happened to them." 

Exeter Central Library
As yet Duncan had no name of an organisation or individual to work from so he just typed in “alien conspiracy theories”. A list of sites came up; since there were many thousands of them, he could only book the terminal for an hour at a time, and it was getting harder to find an internet café these days because so many people were accessing the web through their mobiles, he selected the most interesting-looking items and printed them off until he was in danger of overloading the hardware and had to be asked to stop. 
 That evening he sat down and went through what he’d found. Lots of stuff about UFO sightings, some of them involving actual encounters with alien life forms, and alleged top-level coverups starting with Roswell in 1947 and going right up to the present. Eyewitness accounts and artist’s impressions. The creatures in the drawings were mostly humanoid in shape; one or two of them could have been the thing he saw but he couldn’t be certain. He’d also consulted a few sites to do with cryptozoology, the study of unknown (that is, rumoured to exist but not officially recognised) animal species such as the Loch Ness Monster and Yeti, but nothing there seemed to match what he was looking for. 
 He didn’t know what the overall implications would be of proving the existence of Nessie or Bigfoot, but they presumably weren’t political. The aliens were another matter. The coverups and disinformation exercises were supposed to be orchestrated by secret government agencies, perhaps operating under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence of the country concerned. For some reason most of the alleged sightings took place in Britain or the United States.    
 A lot of the sites mentioned something called X5. Officially it did not exist. As far as most of the public were concerned it was no more than a rumour, supposing they were aware of it at all. It had been operating since at least the 1960s, though there was some evidence that secret organisations for investigating the extraordinary and unexplained went back several centuries. In its time it had had many names; in its current moniker the “X” no doubt signified its concern with the unknown, or at least the confidential, the 5 no-one knew what. It had once been a branch of the United Nations, and able within limits to overrule the governments and police forces of that body’s member states. What it did was never stated other than through vague remarks about international security. Most people probably thought it was like the SAS or some similar bunch. Later it had been officially disbanded, it wasn’t clear why, but the word among conspiracy theorists was it was still around and very much active. Its purpose was to deal with threats to “international security” that might be of an unusual nature, beyond normal human experience and thus including aliens among other things. These problems could not be solved in the conventional manner, with conventional equipment; or perhaps, in view of the political considerations involved, it was just that an organisation was needed which, like the SAS or Delta Force, would have to keep very quiet about what it did and indeed could be trusted to. X5 certainly used state-of-the-art gear on their missions, where it was required; indeed it was rumoured that some of it was far in advance of anything officially admitted to exist.
 Current thinking was that X5 had an intelligence branch, a military branch, and a scientific branch. It was international because the things it had to deal with might threaten all humanity, not just a particular nation or region. The problem might start in, and even be confined to, that part of the world and so would initially at any rate be dealt with by the local branch of X5, but it might be necessary to call on help from the other national divisions from time to time. For X5 had branches in most developed nations. It recruited its personnel from the host country’s own armed forces. 
 It operated in conditions of total secrecy; those rumoured to work for it were shadowy figures some of whom might have been aliens themselves, so little was known about them. Its security was protected by a network of agents in important positions in politics and espionage throughout the world. Who funded it was a mystery; as was the identity of its leading personnel, although some of the websites offered suggestions, with photographs. The conspiracy theorists reckoned it had been “disbanded”, at about the same time that the UN had  disowned it on account of its treading on too many people’s toes, because if it didn’t appear to exist there would be less enquiry into its activities. 
 Duncan tried to take stock of what he’d found. He sensed he was finished at Lower Oakington for the time being. But something had been begun which he wanted to take further. No doubt some of these websites were run by nutcases, but there was no way he could dismiss everything he’d read out of hand, not after his experience in the caves. Perhaps a little further research was needed.

The foursome from the British Climbing Association had decided it would be a suitable test of their skills to see if they could break the record for ascending the Zahn. They were now about halfway up the eastern face, and making good time. They decided to stop for lunch as soon as they were safely on the next ridge. 
 Siobhan Clelland, in the lead, was squinting upwards to see where the next piton should go. She frowned. "There’s something up there," she shouted.
 "What sort of something?" called back Roy Sterling, immediately below her on the rope.  
 "Dunno yet. But it looks as if someone’s been here, not long before us. They’ll have had a head start…"
"Bugger," said Sterling. "Oh well…"
  Since all of them were engaged in an activity which was potentially dangerous and required considerable care and skill, there was a kind of camaraderie among climbers, which cut across differences of nationality and language, or personal ego. The prospect of meeting another climber caused none of them any concern and even being beaten to the top by them was all part of the game. 
 "Trouble is, it’s right in our way. No, hang on, it’s a little to the left." As they continued on up they would be able to see what it was. 
 The closer they got to it, the more uneasy Siobhan became. What she saw looked like a rucksack on the end of a rope. Not a good sign. Why would they have left their gear just dangling there? Then she realised that the sack had arms and legs, and since it hadn’t moved in the time since she first set eyes on it…
 Of course they abandoned their climb and called in the mountain rescue authorities, who were able to carry out a closer examination. The badly battered body hung upside-down on the end of the rope the climber had used to scale the rock face. They could only assume that the rope had somehow come free and the man had fallen, being repeatedly battered against the rock as he fell. In some climbing accidents it wasn’t unknown for not much to remain afterwards except a bloody torso with the harness still attached to it. Certainly, in this case not enough was left of the head to reveal to the world that someone had put a bullet in it.
 
*

Once Reinhold Gunther’s body had been filed away in the vaults of the mortuary at Eissensberg, the police enquiry into his death got underway. The exact circumstances leading up to it had to be ascertained. When several tourists told Inspector Kirschen’s team that they remembered a man and woman, the former answering Gunther’s description, setting out one morning the previous week from the Wilhelm Tell, and said it had looked as if they might be going climbing, a search immediately began for Gunther’s female companion. The hotel was asked to account for all women guests currently staying there, and informed that concern was beginning to be felt about one, a Briton named Louise Feather. No-one recalled seeing her about the place for the last three days, even though she wasn’t meant to check out for another week. 
 The coroner would eventually return a verdict of misadventure, though the exact causes of the accident which had killed “Hans Schmidt” would never be known. Meanwhile an intensive search of the mountain was ordered for “Louise Feather,” who was presumably still there somewhere, alive or dead. It was called off after a week by the authorities for the canton, no trace having been found of the missing woman. 
 Kirschen discussed the case with his subordinate, Muller. He, like his boss, was certain the body was somewhere on the mountain. "She’ll be dead now, of course, or not far off. You told me they hadn’t taken enough food or water to last them more than a couple of days. But she’s there, you can bet on it." 
 "There are all kinds of fissures and crevices on the mountain into which a man might fall – or a woman. More than can be counted. Little cracks that don’t seem very dangerous, but can easily deceive the unwary eye. We know plenty of people have tried to survey them all in the past, and given up. There’s simply too many." 
 "You’re right in thinking they’re dangerous. Even if you couldn’t comfortably walk through one, and that might not be a good idea, you could still slip through it. And fall, like you say."
 Muller shuddered. People occasionally became trapped in a crevice and were not rescued until days later when someone fortunately heard their cries; assuming they were rescued and did not starve to death. 
 "Or they might end up in the glacier," Kirschen said. "And not be discovered unless a crevice happens to be found which leads into it. Like those two people back in 1945."   
 "Yes," Muller agreed. "But they weren’t climbers, were they?" He hadn’t been the first one to bring up that point, nor would he be the last.


Eighteen

Sir Derek Winlett, Baron Jacques d’Epignan and Albert Kleistmann were holding a three-way telephone conversation.  "I’m afraid we must assume something has happened to her," Kleistmann said. "The man found dead on the mountain had Gunther’s fake ID. It doesn’t look good."
 "And not only for Mademoiselle Savident," muttered d’Epignan. "If they’ve interrogated her and Gunther, they’ll know about us." 
 Winlett knew what would happen next from his four decades in the trade. "They’ll probably just warn us off for the time being. Anything more than that and they risk leaving too much of a signature." D’Epignan and Kleistmann agreed. 
 "Perhaps they just killed her, like Gunther," said the Baron. Winlett felt his heart twist at the thought. He’d come to regard Rachel as something like a daughter. Then he brightened a little. "Then why wasn’t her body found with his? They’re  keeping her there, I’m sure of it. I don’t know why they would. But I’m sure of it."   
 "I think you’re right," said d’Epignan. "Well, we can only hope she’ll come out of it unharmed, somehow. But she’s not our main concern right now. I’d have interrogated them, if I’d  been the Count. He and his colleagues have been alerted to our existence. Even if they’re not actively seeking to harm us, we will have to think very carefully about how we proceed from now on."

The best of the sites was by a group who operated mainly over the Internet, though they also met once a month at a pub near Waterloo station to touch base over a few beers, retiring to an upstairs room to discuss the more confidential aspects of their business. They had been collecting information on UFO incidents, and on the authorities’ attempts to suppress knowledge of them, for over thirty years. They weren’t too keen to advertise postal addresses or phone numbers, but there was an e-mail link on which Duncan clicked. In case Horgan had been right he didn’t say exactly why he was contacting them but confined himself to saying he was interested in joining the group and wouldn’t mind meeting up with its membership sometime. He got a friendly reply from a man named Gareth Meadows, who suggested they meet outside the Festival Hall the following evening at around seven. 
 Meadows was in his late forties, with something of a pot belly. He wore glasses and a cowboy hat and sported a beard and pigtail, which were now greying. On his faded blue denim jacket were emblazoned an assortment of badges proclaiming membership of various sci-fi fanclubs and organisations for vintage transport enthusiasts. He drove Duncan across London to his home in Ealing, one of a row of terraced Victorian houses down a nondescript, fairly respectable sidestreet. 
 Meadows showed Duncan to the living room, fetching a couple of lagers from the fridge for them to drink while talking. The room was fairly tidy, but nonetheless starting to overflow with Doctor Who, Star Trek and X-Files DVDs. On the wall were posters depicting flying saucers and goggle-eyed, bulb-headed aliens and proclaiming “The Truth Is Out There”, etc. Meadows shared the house with his girlfriend, also a member of the group, who helped run the website.   
 Meadows started a tape recorder running, having first assured Duncan that absolute confidentiality would be preserved. They sat down. "OK," Meadows said, looking at Ransome expectantly. "Shoot."
"Well," Duncan began, "I’m don’t know if you’re going to believe this or not…"
 Meadows grinned. "To us that’s a bit like saying a keen angler mightn’t believe in the existence of fish. Don’t worry, mate. None of what we’re sitting on most people would believe, unless the government decided to finally come clean about it." He looked round the contents of the room, reflectively. "Most people think we’re a bunch of anoraks. Maybe we are. But that doesn’t mean we’re wrong." Though maybe sometimes it helped if the authorities didn’t take Meadows and his friends too seriously. "Anyhow, fire away."
 Meadows listened carefully to Duncan’s account of the events at Lower Oakington. Of the thing he had seen in the cave. Afterwards he assessed it all for a moment or two. "Yeah, I’d say that was X5, as they now call themselves, alright. We managed to get an MP who was sympathetic to us to ask a few questions about them in the Commons; he just got the usual denials. Of course, if they’re protecting the public by what they do then I’ve no quarrel with them as far as that goes. I just think people have a right to know what’s going on, especially if they really are in danger. I’m sorry about your missus." 
 Meadows seemed a decent sort, and Duncan nodded his thanks. "You’re welcome. But as for the alien, or whatever it was…"
 Meadows put forward a few suggestions as to what the creature might have been. "’Course it doesn’t help that you don’t have any physical evidence of it. And no photos."
"I’m sorry about that. I can’t help thinking I slipped up." 
 "Don’t blame yourself, mate. You went through a rough time in there. And they’d still say the pictures were faked."
 He asked Duncan if there was anything else he had to say which might be of help. Duncan replied that one of the soldiers, the guy in charge, had mentioned a Dr Habgood.
"We’ll see what we’ve got on him." 
 Duncan glanced at the filing cabinet in the corner, the desktop computer. "It’s all in there," confirmed Meadows. "You wouldn’t believe how much of it there is. X5 have been busy these last forty years."    
"Why are they keeping the whole thing quiet?"
 "They’re afraid of mass panic, of not being able to handle the socio-political consequences of the culture shock. And the more they cover up the worse it’ll look for them when the truth finally gets out, so it’s self-perpetuating. Gives them an incentive to keep doing it. It’s probably the politicians who are to blame rather than X5 themselves. X5 suspect that if they showed signs of not wanting to play ball any more, they’d be the ones in trouble."
"And if they did talk to the public?"
 "Wouldn’t do any good without the physical proof. It does exist but we think the governments hold it now, not X5 as used to be the case. It helps them to control the situation."
Duncan asked how Meadows’ group got their information.  
 "Some of it’s from members of the public, some of it’s from insiders, people in X5 or the national governments who’ve decided to sing. We’ve got our own spies, too, though information’s restricted to such a small number of people that it’s difficult for them to find out much. And we can’t have them everywhere, there aren’t enough of us for that. So we didn’t know anything peculiar had been going on at Lower Oakington until you told us; it takes time for these things to filter down."
"Has anything happened to the – insiders who contacted you? You said – "
 "They’re only in danger if they’ve got the evidence with them. If X5 or the government can arrange for it for disappear without harming them in the process, so much the better. We think a few people have been killed, but we’re not sure. One guy was frightened enough to go into seclusion at a monastery in the Himalayas; maybe that’s what the others did, or something like it. The group itself; well, there’ve been one or two death threats. So far no-one’s actually been harmed, but I guess there’s always a first time.
 "All we can do is go on collecting information, doing our best to expose the truth until one day we finally get lucky. So –  we’ll keep an eye on Mencken’s place at Dartmoor and tell our contacts at Whitehall to let us know if anything interesting is going on in the corridors of power. And we’ll stay in touch, Duncan. Drop us an e-mail if you manage to find out anything."
 Meadows drove Duncan back to the station, and there left him to reflect on the meeting. He still couldn’t quite credit it all, but it was quite obvious that Meadows sincerely believed all the stuff about aliens, or whatever, and top-level conspiracies. Also that the man wasn’t mad, which made the whole business far more scary than if he had been. 

X5 command post, Dartmoor
"He’d been in there before, obviously," Major Brant told Colonel Parsons. "We found a crate full of food supplies. And the police say there are footprints in the wood leading to an entrance to the caves." 
"Only way he could have got in," said Parsons. 
He stiffened at her next words. "There were three sets of prints, Sir."
"And?"
 "They traced two back to Horgan’s cottage. The third leads away from the tunnel entrance and towards the village, where the trail gave out. Horgan’s companion, coming back alive from their expedition whereas Horgan didn’t."
 "So we’ve no idea who they were or where they are now. And how much they saw. Well, I don’t suppose it’s a problem. As always, they’d need some physical trace of the creature and there isn’t any."
"Are the cops to keep quiet about the other set of prints, Sir?"
 "I think they’d better. The public won’t be happy if it seems the killer had an accomplice who might still be at large. We need to make sure that as far as they’re concerned, the case is well and truly wrapped up."

*

“Was ex-SAS man Dartmoor Killer?” asked the headline on the front of the East Devon and Dartmoor Herald. That was clearly what it, along with other local and national papers, was suggesting. Inside, a further feature was headed “Crazy world of sad loner.” 
 One of the soldiers had found Horgan’s body and informed the police. When the discovery of the corpse was made public a number of people contacted them to say they thought it was Horgan from the outfit it had been wearing. Two officers called at his cottage and got no answer. Later he was identified from his teeth and a distinguishing birthmark on his forearm which could just be made out still which could just be made out still. Due to the condition of the body it was impossible to establish the cause of death but on the grounds that suspicious circumstances could not be ruled out a search was made of the cottage for any clues which might assist in establishing what had happened. The food and arms caches were found and photographs of them accompanied double-page spreads on the case in most of the newspapers. The weapons were confiscated. Finally once the post-mortem was complete Horgan, who had seen almost nothing of his family these last few years, was returned to them in death. 
 At around the same time the authorities announced that since no-one else had been found on the Moor, alive or dead, they were calling off the hunt for the Dartmoor Killer. The cordon was dismantled. The police and Army stated that they had searched everywhere a person might be hiding and found no trace of him, unless he was at the bottom of one of the bogs in which case, although they did not put it quite so bluntly, the problem was solved. The clear implication was that the killer had been Horgan, and the press certainly helped in establishing that idea in the minds of the public. The footprints in the wood showed that Horgan had used the caves to move between the Moor and his cottage, and by that means had avoided detection.  
 Maybe he had been daring the Army, his former colleagues against whom he nurtured such bitterness and resentment, to find him, playing a cat-and-mouse game. And when he felt they were closing in on him he’d taken his own life, rather than be caught, as deranged loners with a persecution complex often did. 
 "Told you so," was Laura Truman’s comment on it all. And a lot of other people’s. 
 "That Ransome bloke can get some peace of mind now," said Mr Sharma. "It’s probably not quite what he wanted. But it’s closure, of a sort."
 "They’re not actually saying for sure he did it," pointed out Marjorie Branscombe.
 And the farmer, Frank Armitage, continued to be sceptical. Horgan – the madman – might have been wearing some weird costume and used some gadget which made his eyes glow red. But he’d never received a satisfactory explanation how the killer was able to break through the cordon, smash straight through his fence and kill his sheep. He was a lot happier now he was back at his farm and had his compensation, but there was always the fear that sooner or later there’d be another – incident. 
 Everyone else preferred to regard the matter as closed. There was the complete dismembering of the bodies, but who knew what a madman thought? A fanatical survivalist who had stockpiled food and guns against the time when law and order broke down, anarchy reigned and no-one was safe?  
 It was a simple, believable explanation. And gradually over the weeks that followed life in Lower Oakington returned to normal. There was no longer that feeling of dread lurking at the back of everyone’s mind. Even Armitage got over it. There didn’t seem any need for a march on Whitehall, much to Laura’s disappointment. It helped that there had been no more incidents since the killing of the sheep. And when there continued to be none, that of course made it more likely that the police had been right and the Dartmoor Killer had been found.
And so, thought Duncan Ransome, it had. 

Part Two


Nineteen

Schloss Mencken
"I’m worried," said the Count. "I’m not happy at all. Look at this." 
 He turned on the TV and pointed the remote at it. The screen flickered to show a talking head of a middle-aged woman at home in her living room. "I still think we have not been told the whole truth about what happened to Emil," she said. "I can’t believe that by now no body has been found. There remain questions which someone or other does not want answered." 
"Who do you think that someone might be?"
 "I don’t know." But it was clear, going by the Count’s sources, that a lot of people had a pretty good idea.
"Who’s that?" asked Erhardt.
"The mother of one of the climbers." 
"Which climbers – the two from the security services?"
"No, the first two."
"So are you alleging foul play?" asked the interviewer.
 The woman hesitated, her mouth half open, then answered him. "I just think something happened that day on the mountain which we are not being told about."
"Like what?"
Again a moment’s silence. "I don’t know. But it happened."
 The picture cut to film of a man getting out of his car in front of a house in a tree-lined drive in suburban England. "Ross Bellamy, whose sister Samantha disappeared on the Zahn nearly a year ago along with her companion, Dutchman Gjert Walschaerts, also believes the authorities are conspiring to cover up the truth. He’s pressing for the investigation to be reopened."
 Another talking head. "Hardly a day passes without you remembering something they said or did, the things you enjoyed together…she was – is – a great sister. I know this has been a great strain on our mother and father and that it would help to make things much easier for them if we knew the facts."
"What do you think is the reason for her disappearance?"
 "They may have been climbing where they weren’t supposed to." Which in fact was the truth. It had already been mentioned that the face of the mountain the climbers had been on was owned by the Count and had been placed out of bounds to the general public. Several witnesses had reported seeing Samantha Bellamy and Gjert Walschaerts attempting to scale it in defiance of the warning signs. It was well known that many objected to the prohibition, and they had either been making a stand on principle or simply thought “what the hell.” 
 The Count and his companions knew there was another unspoken question here, whatever people’s opinions on the ethics of the matter. That the missing persons had gone where they weren’t supposed to seemed somehow significant even if these days you didn’t kill people just because they had trespassed on your property.   
 "If they broke the law, I’m not condoning that," said Ross Bellamy. "I just want to know the truth. Whatever the facts of the matter Samantha was – is – still our daughter, sister, friend. 
 "Maybe she did have an accident; it could have been someone else’s fault and they covered up the truth rather than admit to it, maybe she met another climber who killed her, I don’t know why…I don’t know what happened, but of course I want to, even if it’s not going to bring her back."
 "There are thousands of fissures and crevices on the mountain. The opinion of experienced climbers is that it would be quite possible for someone to fall into one." And be killed, or trapped until they starved to death. "Couldn’t that be what’s happened in this case?" 
 "If the rescue authorities had searched everywhere, as they should have done, we’d know for sure." This might have been a little naïve. If the south face was anything like the rest of the mountain a really thorough exploration of every human-sized opening in the rock would have taken so long as to be impractical. It wasn’t unknown for searches to be called off for that reason. 
 Bellamy’s next point was more telling. "It might have happened in one case. For it to happen in every case is too much of a coincidence."
 Then a group of the relatives together outside the coroner’s office for the canton, holding a press conference at which they called for a reopening of the investigation.
 "Now look at this." The Count wound the tape on a little. The clip was of a well-known investigative journalist being interviewed in his book-lined study about the Nazi loot rumours, and calling for a high-level inquiry into the Count’s activities. "The discovery of the two bodies in the glacier is highly suspicious in the light of all the rumours," the man was saying. "It’s likely Bruno von Mencken knows something despite his claims to the contrary. The big question is, if he’s in possession of illegally acquired funds then what is he spending them on, since he’s wealthy enough not to need them financially? Is the money going to extreme right-wing organisations, for example?" 
Oh I see, thought the Count bitterly. Like father, like son.
 "Jewish groups are also pressing for a further investigation," went on the voice-over. An interview with Switzerland’s chief Rabbi and the President of the Swiss branch of the World Jewish Congress. 
 Reference was made several times to the tight security in operation at the castle and its approaches. The question, not openly asked but clearly implied, was: what is he trying to hide? The reasoning was that so many perplexing things – the vanished climbers, the known Nazi connections of the Count’s father, the rumours about what he might be hiding in that castle of his, the bodies in the glacier, his particularly jealous guarding of his privacy – could not when taken together be a coincidence. Making it look as if those last two, the spies, had had an accident hadn’t made any difference and might even have increased suspicion. 
 "The rumours are going all round the country, all round the world," said the Count. "Those who aren’t bothered by the Nazi thing are bothered about the missing climbers."
 "However many questions people ask, they still won’t get anywhere," Volker Erhardt said.
 "I’m not so sure. Switzerland isn’t quite the same as it used to be. Eventually the government will have to do something. They’ll search here; and probably the authorities in every country where we have laboratories will search them. That could mean the end of everything we’ve worked so hard on over the years." The Count looked at Joachim Waldersee for confirmation, and the politician nodded gravely. "It can’t be ruled out." The Count had neglected to build up his power base at Berne even further, for the reason that he had assumed he wouldn’t need to. 
He sank into moody silence. "We must do something," he muttered finally. 
 "You know what I think it should be," said Paul Kenward. "If not that, then what else would you suggest?" 
 "I don’t know right now," the old man sighed. He seemed to physically shrink down into his chair, crushed by the weight of his years.
 On a whim, he decided to see what was on the news, morbidly wondering if he would see more accounts of growing suspicion about him, more demands for action. It should be coming on round about now. He hit the button for the country’s principal TV channel. The first item concerned a major rail crash in Japan, which was very sad of course but had no bearing on their situation one way or the other. 
 Joachim Waldersee was speaking. "Remember, this isn’t a EU country nor is it very sympathetic to Brussels. We may not be able to protect ourselves when the time comes."
 Doumer answered. "There are enough people in the government who know that what we’re doing is right." 
 "There’s an element in Switzerland who want to make a big show of proving its anti-Nazi credentials," said Paul Kenward. "In fact they think you should wash all your dirty linen. Suppose they’re the ones who come out on top in the end?"  
 With that he walked out. A little later Doumer and Erhardt left too. The Count sat watching the images on the TV without really taking anything in, sometimes mulling over the problem which faced him, without result, sometimes just staring blankly at the screen. 
 A new item had just started. He listened to it for a while without interest then, suddenly, certain words registered with him and something clicked inside his head. His lips formed the beginnings of a smile.
He’d got it. The very idea. 

Elaine Strickland wasn’t in the mood to suffer fools gladly, particularly at the present time. Trouble was, she couldn’t be sure, nowadays, that if she shouted down the phone at the young man what she really thought of him there wasn’t some law she would be prosecuted under. "I’m sorry, but I definitely do not want glossy. You see, a lot of photographs aren’t as good quality as they used to be because…well it’s probably something to do with global warming or the ozone layer, it’s the kind of sunlight you get nowadays. Yes, I know there’s nothing you can do about that. But they tend to look a bit blurry and if on top of that the photos are glossy it further reduces the quality, do you see what I mean?" The girls might not mind, but Elaine did. "And what I’m concerned about more than anything else is that you promised you would make them matt, but you didn’t. I ask you to do them again, then half still come out glossy and you say it’s because you don’t have enough of the right equipment anyway. You can understand why I’m not exactly happy right now. Will you please see that they’re done as I requested, or I regret there can be no possibility of payment in the near future."
 Eventually he gave in. "Alright," he sighed, his irritation obvious. They all sighed when you forced them to back down. "We’ll have it done for you by Friday."
 "Thankyou, goodbye." Cutting him off, Elaine sat or rather slumped back in her chair with her eyes closed. Even these days persistence paid, but it was getting increasingly wearing. It seemed you couldn’t rely on anyone to do their job properly. 
 Pouring herself a glass of sherry, she sat on the sofa in the living room of her house by the Thames at Shepperton looking out at the river and reflecting on how much had changed since she’d first taken on the task of organising the competition with her husband over a half-century ago. Yes…things had been very different then. Now age and increasing infirmity had forced Roger to take a back seat. He was getting more and more forgetful, pottering around the house with no clear idea, sometimes, what he was doing. Right now he was doing nothing at all; through the window she could see him sitting on the bench in the garden with a vague expression on his face. Perhaps just basking in the current unseasonal spell of sunny weather, or… 
 He was almost certainly in the early stages of dementia, senility to use a now politically incorrect expression. It occurred to her that senility was in some ways the more appropriate term because dementia carried the risk of confusion with demented, meaning mad, which of course was a different thing altogether. But maybe you weren’t supposed to say “mad”, or “insane”, either now. They were somehow just as degrading. She suspected you were meant to use the blanket term “mentally ill”; the trouble was, that meant that someone who was suffering from severe depression, but remained sane, was being lumped along with those who really were “mad”. It constituted an insult of the kind she thought PC was supposed to avoid. Though in the end she didn’t care what they called it as long as John got the medical care he was entitled to in his last years, and could be happy however much he understood of what was going on around him. 
 But political correctness…she felt a sudden surge of anger, her eyes blazing. It had ruined the competition. It had been old-fashioned prudishness, rather than PC, which led to the wearing of bikinis being discontinued very early in Miss Planet’s history, in favour of less revealing one-pieces. Though initially annoying, the matter hadn’t really bothered Elaine in the long run. What happened later was something very different, and much more of a threat to the competition’s survival.
 By the 1960s and 70s, its golden age, it had grown into a phenomenon, a multi-million-pound success story with a global appeal which, in a worryingly undemocratic fashion, its detractors had completely ignored. It attracted nearly a billion viewers around the world and in many countries was more popular, when screened, than any other television programme. After a while there had been some concession to less sexist attitudes with the introduction of intelligence tests for the entrants, suggesting it wasn’t only the women’s physical characteristics which mattered. That was fine by Elaine; secretly she was rather irritated by those contestants whose looks seemed their only asset. But it hadn’t appeased the…what was the right word for them, political correctionists she supposed (she knew some who might suggest not very polite alternatives). Because there was no male equivalent of the competition – Mr Universe didn’t receive quite the same attention – they thought it was discriminatory and a sign of men’s political and economic domination of society, which ensured that everything revolved around their interests, their tastes. Well, perhaps that was true to some extent. But maybe Miss Planet (no-one had ever dared suggest to her it should be called Ms Planet) just reflected the different ways in which male and female beauty were perceived. And if it wasn’t the men who were on top, so to speak, it would be the women and then the women would oppress the men. Some would say that was now beginning to happen. 
 Entirely resistant to such counter-arguments, a small, vociferous and increasingly powerful minority – not all of them women, but that didn’t really make any difference – had begun calling for the competition to be banned. For God’s sake, the way they seemed to regard it you’d have thought she was some kind of brothel madam. Was she supposed to have some evil influence over the girls, which enabled her to procure them for immoral purposes? She had been incensed by the business and still was. Couldn’t they see the girls were just having a good time? For some, particularly if they won, it was the happiest moment of their lives. An ambitious girl, and you couldn’t blame anyone for being ambitious, would see it as something to be proud of even if their subsequent life didn’t work out as intended (which she had to admit was often the case). The perks that went with being a contestant, the visits to exotic locations; they might not ever have those things again, so it was all the more important to savour the experience of a lifetime. And if it was really something exploitative, degrading, did you imagine for one moment they’d do it? Not all of them were stupid, by any stretch of the imagination. And those who knocked the competition ought also to consider the money it gave to charity, the boost it had provided to tourism in the host countries.
 Banning things like Miss Planet wasn’t how you dealt with the problem of sexual inequality. That was best done by taking on those in big business who thought it should be an exclusive boys’ club and treated their female colleagues appallingly. But even there…if the situation was that bad, then she wouldn’t have become world Managing Director of Miss Planet would she? Only that didn’t count with modern feminists because she was a lackey of the system, a woman using her power to exploit other women. Obviously. 
 There was so much about the whole thing she found disgraceful, infuriating, pusillanimous. She had once looked up the Wikipedia entry on the competition and seen the comment, “with social and political changes in recent years it has come to be regarded as old-fashioned and politically incorrect by many in the West.” But how big a number was “many”? As big as you wanted when you embraced PC or felt constrained to pander to it. 
 People weren’t even honest about the way it had been done. Initially TV producers claimed the competition was downsized for financial, technical or contractual reasons. Twenty years later they felt safe admitting, "well, of course it wasn’t quite acceptable in a more politically correct world, so it had to go…" It wasn’t clear whether they actually agreed with the PC brigade or had concluded that even if the latter were wrong it would be prudent to give way to them. Certainly one local authority faced with protestors against the competition whose demonstrations were becoming a public nuisance had been thoroughly spineless in its approach to the issue. With presumably unintentional double entendre a spokesman had told the media, "So the problem is people knocking Miss Planet…well if you get rid of Miss Planet, you get rid of the knockers." 
 For several years the show was not broadcast on any major terrestrial TV channel in Britain, the country where it had originated. Not everyone was prepared to accept this and eventually the political correctionists decided to go for one of the shabby little compromises PC preferred, which were really just another means of getting one’s way. They wouldn’t ban Miss Planet outright, they would just lower its profile. Now only one of the channels, Six, aired it, instead of none at all. Elaine was grateful for that, but the competition was no longer quite the occasion it used to be. 
 And now, on top of everything else, there was a real possibility that this year it would not take place at all. The African country which had been selected to host it was about to execute a high profile campaigner for democracy. Not good publicity. Furthermore, the country was half Muslim and there had been a recent upsurge in violence by Islamic extremists, who among other things had objected to the pageant as decadent and immoral, issuing death threats to its organisers and to the contestants, who they no doubt regarded as shameless whores. Concerns over both security and the public image of Miss Planet had grown until its organisers had reluctantly decided they must find another venue.
 Whatever happened, Elaine vowed, Miss Planet would go on, even in its played-down form. She’d been doing it for too long to stop now. It wasn’t just the foreign trips, though they had been fun, or the money Miss Planet netted for all those concerned, herself included. It had been her life. Rooting for the girls, looking after their every need, forging close friendships with some of them. The affection she felt for her charges and they for her.  
 Partly, perhaps, it was a symptom of growing old. But it was increasingly often these days that she found herself reminiscing about the past of the competition, and casting a fond eye over the photographs on her mantelpiece of herself with former winners. She wondered if any of them had now died, which was quite possible; yes, it was incredible to think over fifty years had passed since she had first become involved in the competition as a very young wife and assistant to Roger. And others would have lost their looks with the relentless progress of time. 
 Elaine herself had not been unattractive in her younger days. All that was gone now, partly due to the stress of organising the competition, coping with the obstacles it was increasingly facing, on top of her worries over Roger. Stress made nonsense of the trend for better diet and health care to slow down the ageing process. In the mirror she looked haggard, and her once glossy black hair was now heavily streaked with grey. 
 The telephone on the table rang, interrupting these gloomy reflections for the moment. It was Malcolm Lemesurier, her PA and the one responsible for the day-to-day administration of Miss Planet International while she made all the executive decisions.
"Elaine? I just might have some good news for us."
 He sounded guarded, but all the same her heart leapt. "What’s happened?" she demanded, tensing.
 "Some Swiss Count has heard we’ve run into a spot of bother and he’s offered his castle as a venue for the competition."
 She felt her spirits soar. It was a lifeline, a godsend. "Oh, Malcolm, that’s fantastic! A castle…in Switzerland?"
"That’s right."
How wonderful, she thought. "Is it on a mountain?"
"Yes, actually. Not quite on the top, but…"
"Where in Switzerland are we talking, exactly?"
 "The Bernese Alps. In roughly the centre of the country, but not too far from the Italian border."
 Her eyes sparkled; no-one was in the room to see them do so, but she could feel it. Just the thing! A romantic location in one of the world’s most popular tourist spots. Then something penetrated through to her consciousness. "But you said it might be good news. What exactly did you mean?"
 "The Count in question is called Bruno von Mencken. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him."
"Vaguely, I think. Go on."
"Well, he’s perhaps a little dodgy."
"Hmmm," murmured Elaine, her lips compressing. "In what way?"
 Lemesurier explained about the Nazi loot rumours, the missing climbers, etcetera. She said nothing while absorbing it all,  her face falling somewhat. "Not good," she muttered. 
"No, when you think about it. I mean…do we take him up on the offer or not?"
 "I’m not interested in what his father did. It’s not his fault, is it? But these other allegations, is there any proof?" 
 "I haven’t have had time to do detailed research. But I imagine if there was he’d be in prison."
Again she fell silent. 
"Elaine, I think we need to make a decision," she heard him say eventually.
 She galvanised herself into action. "I’ll call an emergency meeting of the governing board. It’ll be decided then, at any rate. After all, time isn’t on our side."
"What do I tell Mencken’s representative in the meantime?"
 "That we’re grateful for his kind offer and we’ll get back to him in the next couple of days. OK?"   
 It was all they could do, while she chewed over the dilemma in her mind. And hopefully found some good excuse for not turning the invitation down.  

At the latter’s house, Gareth Meadows was showing Duncan Ransome some photographs. 
 "Gavin Habgood…research scientist. Used to work at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist until he joined Mencken about five years ago. He has a degree in biology as well as chemistry."
"Would you need that in a pharmaceuticals laboratory?" Duncan wondered.
 "Biology? Well you’d need medicine, maybe. But general biology; I suppose not. I think he just happened to have both qualifications; but then maybe that was why they picked him." 
"And the other two?" 
 “David Li. Basically a chemist like Habgood; was engaged in active research at the University of Birmingham until he got kicked out for falsifying the results of an experiment. Also has a degree in physics."
"And they both work at the Dartmoor place now?"
 "Uh-huh. The third guy’s Barry Mollison, chief security guard there. That’s his professional background, security. Was a  soldier for a while, then a copper. Got a criminal record for using excessive force when arresting suspects or challenging an intruder. So, what do you think?"
"It all adds up. If only we could get in there."
 "Like I said, we’ll keep chipping away at it. Anyone been on your back, by the way? Any funny phone calls?"
"No. I think we’re OK as long as we don’t try and probe too deeply." 
 "Trouble is, that’s not going to get us anywhere," said Meadows. "You’re right, though. Whoever does investigate this business is going to find themselves walking a tightrope. And I don’t give much for their chances if they fall off."  

The ten-strong governing board of Miss Planet were mostly people connected with the media, fashion, PR, photographic and modelling industries or with the administration of the company, of which each of them was a director. They were meeting right now in the conference room at the London offices of 20-20 Media, the company’s parent body, near Soho Square.  
 "I don’t think he’d be proposing we hold the competition there if he had something to hide," said Yves Depardieu, the leading fashion photographer. "All the publicity there’d obviously be would make him extremely uncomfortable."
"It could be a ploy," suggested the couturier Angela Rudzki.
 "But if it is, he’d do it whether he was up to something crooked or not. Either way he wouldn’t want anyone to think he was doing something dodgy. So it’s possible he isn’t, that’s what I’m getting at."
"And if he is?"
 Giovanni Marcello, vice-president of the company, chipped in, clearly troubled. "Even if he’s only rumoured to be, it could attract...opprobrium to the competition. Those who think it’s sexist and exploitative would regard it as being further tarnished by its association with a…criminal. Especially when Nazism is involved, even indirectly."
 Elaine decided it was time to give voice to her thoughts. "There’s one thing uppermost in my mind right now, and that is we’re running out of time. The competition is usually held at this time of year. We might postpone it until, say, March or April, which could lead into a permanent change to a spring date. But I just have a feeling that even a postponement wouldn’t look good for us. I know we don’t get the coverage we used to have anyway, but after the problems we’ve already been encountering it may look to the public like another defeat, a further sign that we’re on our way out. And you never know, we might not be able to find a suitable venue next year either. 
 "Every year there’s been a Miss Planet, even if we haven’t lately been able to give it the high profile it once enjoyed. I want that to remain the case." They all agreed an outright cancellation was out of the question.
 "Even at this late stage I’m confident we could change the venue, but it would need a lot of organising. We have to make a start pretty soon. If we’re to have the competition this year at all we can’t, by my reckoning, delay making a decision more than a week or two at most.
 "Furthermore, if we don’t seize our chance now it may not come at all. Who knows, the Count could change his mind."
 "I don’t think that’s very likely," said the actress Greta Schneider. "He seemed pretty keen for it to go ahead."
 "But some unexpected complication might arise which meant he couldn’t host the event. Even if anything does go wrong, though, he’s less likely to pull the plug if it was already signed and sealed."
 "So you’d be inclined to accept Mencken’s offer?" asked the organisation’s publicity guru, Felipe Santander.
 "I would. Two things come together to convince me it’s the right thing to do. One, the unlikelihood of there being anything really crooked going on at that place if he’s prepared for an event like Miss Planet to be staged on the premises. The PR people, the girls themselves, the film crews…Two, well, it seems to me the world at large is becoming more and more unstable. Switzerland is hardly the sort of place where you can expect social unrest, political instability, fighting in the streets. Say what you like about the Swiss, they’ve managed to avoid a lot of the problems other people get. Their country is a haven of peace and order. In fact, I’m thinking of making it the permanent venue for the competition." 
 "It could send out the wrong signals. A lot of people think the Swiss are racist because of their past attitudes, their harsh immigration policies up until now, plus some of the things they’ve said lately about Muslims. And we’ve already got something of a credibility problem."
 "Only with some," Elaine reminded him. "The ones who unfortunately control society nowadays. Besides, in other ways Switzerland has always been a very international country. Which makes it an appropriate venue for an international competition. 
 "And finally, I doubt if anything nasty will happen at Schloss Mencken while we’re there."
 As usual she got her way. When they took a vote on the matter, it went in favour of holding the competition at Schloss Mencken by seven votes to three.
 The tension eased now, Felipe Santander grinned, even though he’d been one of those against the motion. "Not much scope for wearing swimsuits in Switzerland." 
"It’ll be indoors."
 Giovanni Marcello sighed feelingly. "Like you said, Elaine, it’s still going to be a problem reorganising the whole event at short notice."
 "Then I’ll have Malcolm start on it right away," said Elaine briskly, and rose, thereby declaring the meeting over. 
 All decamped to the bar of Selfridge’s Restaurant, relaxing now that the decision was taken and all the hassle over with. Elaine was jubilant. Now at last they knew what they were doing and no longer had that great black cloud hanging over their heads.
Miss Planet would continue, as always. 

The venue this time was Albert Kleistmann’s country home, a few miles south of Berlin. 
 "There’s still no word from Rachel Savident," the Baron d’Epignan informed the meeting. 
 "The good news is that it doesn’t look as if they’re on our case," said Derek Winlett. Surprisingly at first, there had been no approach by anyone trying to warn the group off. Certainly none of its members had met what were euphemistically called unfortunate accidents. "It looks like my hunch was correct, they don’t want to risk showing their hand. And since there’s no point in issuing a threat unless you’re prepared to carry it out, they haven’t even bothered to put the frighteners on." 
"Might they be keeping us under surveillance?"
 "Not much point in that unless they’re prepared to act if they see us do something they don’t like. And since that might mean killing someone…no, for the moment I don’t think we’re in any danger. They’re concentrating instead on making sure we don’t get hold of the evidence we’d need to expose them."
 "And we’ve got to concentrate on making sure we do get hold of it," said Stavros Kalizelos, a Greek parliamentary deputy. It was when they did have the evidence that there would be danger. 
"But how?" asked Magda Johannsen. 
 "It seems to me that our only chance now is to try and plant someone in the castle, after all," Albert Kleistmann said. "Our agents have to find out what they can about the Count’s retinue and whether there are any vacancies likely to come up in the near future. Or if any of the castle staff can be suborned." 
 The Baron nodded smartly. "Eh bien. I would recommend that we all look among our supporters to find someone who is prepared to take on this assignment. Now is there anything else anyone would like to bring up?" 
 "Yes," said Kalizelos. "Has anyone seen this?" He held up that day’s edition of a leading newspaper, open at the second page, and pointed to one of the headlines. It read “Miss Planet saved at last minute: Swiss venue for international beauty competition.”  
 The Baron pulled a face. "To be honest I don’t see how that helps us much." Then his eye fell on the Count’s name and he took a closer look. 
 "That’s interesting," he commented once he’d read the item. It informed its readers that reclusive Swiss aristocrat Count Bruno von Mencken had offered his mountaintop castle as the location for this year’s Miss Planet competition. It mentioned all the rumours about him and made it clear that the choice of venue was bound to be a cause of controversy. But no more so, d’Epignan thought, than having it in a country whose human rights record was suspect. And in the opinion of Elaine Strickland MBE, the woman behind Miss Planet, it would be wrong to pass judgement in the absence of any evidence to confirm the rumours. Accepting the offer, she expressed her gratitude for the Count’s generosity. All the same, if her words were being reported accurately they did seem designed to stress that her decision, made after “careful consideration”, was the only one that could have saved the competition – suggesting that if there had been an alternative they might have preferred to go for it.  
 "Looks like he’s opening up," Kalizelos said. He read out the item for the benefit of the others.
 "He’s probably just trying to deflect suspicion from himself," said Magda Johannsen. "Because you wouldn’t have thought he’d have wanted the publicity, not with what people are saying about him. It’s certainly a remarkable change of heart." 
"So you think it’s a ruse?" Magda nodded.
 "It’s almost certainly one," agreed Albert Kleistmann. "He needn’t have anything to worry about. He can easily arrange things so that no-one sees what they shouldn’t." 
 "There’s only one way to be sure, and that’s to continue with our investigations," said a Spanish secret service officer. 
 The Baron’s face clouded a little. "There’s one thing I think we need to be clear on. If we have to create a vacancy on the Count’s staff, by killing someone or contriving some disabling accident, do we do that? Put simply, do we hate the European Union that much?"
 The meeting fell silent while everyone collected their thoughts on the matter. "If they have not scrupled to kill Rachel – supposing that’s what’s happened – then we should not scruple to kill them if necessary," said Kalizelos. "It’s they who have opened hostilities, who have laid down the rules of the game. That’s fair, don’t you think?" 
 Derek Winlett took a sip of Dom Perignon. "In my view, entirely fair," he nodded. "But I can’t say I like the idea." Maybe it was because he’d been retired for too long, and spent so much time painting and gardening rather than ruthlessly ordering people’s liquidation. 
 The Spaniard was tight-lipped. "If we are serious enough about what we’re doing, then in the end we must be prepared to kill for it. But I suggest we first wait to see if it is necessary to achieve our aims, and then make a decision. If it really is the only way, killing I mean…"
 "In this case, it might not be," said Winlett slowly. "Except maybe in self-defence, if anything goes wrong. If we’re thinking of an inside job…"
His eyes went to the newspaper item.
The Baron realised what his colleague was suggesting. "You mean…"
 "There are difficulties involved. But what I’m thinking is that this Miss Planet thing could represent the perfect opportunity to get inside there and find out what Mencken’s up to. And what’s happened to Rachel." 
 "I don’t see it working. As Albert said, the parts of the castle the Count doesn’t want anyone outside his retinue to enter will be out of bounds."
 "The whole point of an agent is to get past obstacles like that," Winlett reminded him. "And if we pick one with a good record in carrying out assignments successfully…"
"Is the idea that they pose as a reporter, or a member of a film crew?"
 "My hunch is that the Count will be particularly wary of such people. After all, it’s the media’s job to probe into anything that seems interesting or unusual. Even if Miss Planet is a beauty competition and no more, and he’s not supposed to be doing anything wrong, he’ll be keeping a particularly close eye on them." 
 The Frenchman nodded, seeing his reasoning. "Alright. So in that case…it’ll have to be someone of really stunning looks, model quality. Now let’s see, where would we find that kind of glamour in any of our organisations?"
 Winlett pondered this question, after a moment looking up with a twinkle in his eye. "I think I know." 

Caroline Kent sat on her living room floor warming her stockinged feet by the fire, her cat and a mug of tea beside her. She stared at the flickering shapes formed by the artificial flames, trying to identify a pattern in them. She found this soothing.
 She heard the doorbell trill, and rose. Had she had company at that moment, they would have registered a slight, a very slight, tensing on her part, as if she was on her guard. It would have seemed as if she herself was unconscious of it. It was something that had been learned, or perhaps just evolved, over several years of moving in the kind of extra-curricular circles she did. 
 Jack the cat lifted his head to gaze after her as she padded from the room, incuriously.
 She peered through the peephole to see who it was. It might have been an idea to install CCTV, but that in itself would have attracted attention; it carried a whiff of the very kind of thing she wanted people to think she wasn’t involved in. 
 Two youngish men in suits. Peering closer, she studied their faces, their manner, keenly for a moment before deciding it was safe to open the door to them. In fact she knew, from plenty of experience, who they were and why they were here. 
 The men had been studying the sign on the door, which proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the occupant of the property did not wish to receive junk mail nor cold callers and that anyone purporting to be from the police or any other organisation carrying out a public service must carry ID as well as agree to her checking their authenticity with their superiors. She undid the chain and opened the door, fixing them with a quizzical stare. They were mentally undressing her, of course, but most men did at some point or other.
 "Can I help you?" she smiled. Her demeanour, though cautious, wasn’t unfriendly. 
 The older of the two spoke, his voice lowered. "Miss Kent? We’re from the security services. Is it possible we could have a word with you?"
 "I guess so." She stood aside, indicating they could enter. She closed the door and they followed her into the living room. 
 The three of them sat down. A momentary doubt troubled Caroline and she frowned. "I hope you don’t mind, but perhaps I ought to check with Vauxhall Bridge that – "
The younger man smiled wryly. "Actually, we’d rather you didn’t."
They saw the blue eyes harden. "And why not?" She stiffened, cat-like, and they could see her thinking, trying to decide if this meant any kind of threat to her and if so what she should do about it. 
 Then she relaxed. They were intelligence people, she was sure of it, whatever their game might be. If they knew where she lived, and wanted to bump her off, they could have done so quite easily before now. They wouldn’t have to concoct some elaborate ruse. 
 "It concerns Rachel Savident," said the senior agent. "We believe she may be in danger."
 At once they had her attention. Her expression changed, signifying she was concerned. "How is she in danger?"
"Let me begin at the beginning." 
 They noted how she perked up when they talked about how overmighty the EU was getting and how some in the security services of various European countries had decided enough was enough. As they had guessed, she wasn’t the sort who liked to be told what to do by some remote bureaucracy in Brussels. 
 "If you like we’ll introduce you to some of the other people in our group. Derek Winlett could vouch for us. Shall I  arrange a meeting with him?"
 Derek Winlett. That certainly made a difference. It was Winlett who had backed Rachel when she’d gone against the wishes of his superiors in government in order to save Caroline from the Americans, who wanted to lock her away somewhere, probably for good, to prevent certain inconvenient truths coming out. 
 She decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. "You might as well. But I think I’ll bite, if Winlett’s involved."
 They explained how she could best be of use to the cause right now. At once they saw her eyes light up, and her frosty expression melt into a beatific smile. She drew back a little, mouth agape, bowled over by the thought.
 "There’ll be danger, of course, if you should be found out. You don’t have to do it, of course."
 And if you’re a rogue faction, you can’t kill me or something if I refuse without risking blowing your cover, she reasoned.
 But if she pulled out because there might be danger, she’d look a coward. She’d become something of a legend within the Service, and thought it would be a shame to tarnish that image.  And then there was Rachel. Rachel, who had stood up for her in the past, protecting her both from the enemy and those on her own side who had wanted to abandon her. Rachel without whom she’d almost certainly be dead. The Stannington code was to never let your friends down, which involved repaying favours; though she reflected that had she been born in some tough working-class district where personal loyalties, to fellow gang members for example, were vital to survival it would have been much the same. 
 "But if anyone can get themselves out of a tight spot you can. You’re a competent agent, in both your company’s interests and ours." Caroline was glad they didn’t know about the time when she had broken into somewhere, having decided its security arrangements were lax enough for her to be able to defeat them easily, without realising the whole thing was a plot to trap her. Then there was the business in Tokyo. 
"All right," she said. "I’ll do it."
 Delight at the thought of the whole lark was mingled with concern for Rachel; and vice versa. She’d help out her friend, and have some fun at the same time. 
 "You do realise," the agent said, "that you’ll have to do this as yourself. As Caroline Kent. If you’re exposed, whether or not the Count really is up to something, then it’ll take quite a bit of explaining. Your cover will be blown."  
 Oh shit, thought Caroline. She’d actually forgotten that in her euphoria. She couldn’t take the risk, surely? The consequences for her career, her physical survival even, if it did go pear-shaped didn’t bear thinking about. 
 They obviously appreciated how potentially dangerous the situation was. For themselves too, unless they decided to disown her. Then she realised they were relying on her feelings of loyalty towards Rachel. Exploiting them.
 Bastards. But that was what these people with whom she’d chosen a while ago to involve herself, and who it seemed she couldn’t quite shake off, were like.
 They must have read her feelings from her face. "I say again, you don’t have to do it," the agent said impassively.
 Bastards. Because in the end, there was only one answer she could possibly have given.

At the club, over a sherry or two, Derek Winlett was outlining the plan to two other British members of the group, the Conservative MP Sir Frederick Palmer-Lawrence and retired MI6 officer Keith McIntyre. McIntyre was sceptical. "But won’t Sophie and Co get suspicious? I can see how they might work out that someone is using Caroline behind their backs." 
 "Equally, they might not. It could go either way. Anyhow I think it’s worth taking the risk." 
 "And that’s not the only problem. Caroline’s already been a media celebrity in the past, though only for a short time. When she got kidnapped in South America, and again in Saudi."
 "I think they’ll do it rather than be left without a Miss Britain at all. Anyway, everyone forgot her after all the fuss died down. Glamour puss or not. It’s the way things seem to go." And fortunately, as well as perhaps surprisingly, Caroline had not gone to particular trouble to lap up the publicity on either occasion when the world knew she had become drawn into, and survived, a lurid and perilous situation. (This was leaving out the numerous such occasions which it didn’t know about).
"What about the current Miss Britain?" asked Palmer-Lawrence.
"We think we can take care of that."
 "Will she get hurt?" If there was any likelihood of the girl suffering death or injury Caroline would have doubts, at the very least, about taking part in the operation. 
"With any luck that won’t be necessary."
 McIntyre was still sceptical. "You realise we can’t guarantee Caroline will actually win the Miss Britain competition? I mean, there’ll still have to be one. I imagine so anyway." 
"We can make sure she gets it. By using a little…persuasion."
"Bribery, you mean?" McIntyre said. "Or threats?"
 "Perhaps both. The bribery, if we’re going to call it that, will probably be sufficient. We all know what society is like these days." It wouldn’t be the first time international sporting or fashion competitions had been rigged. "And we – the security services, that is – haven’t hesitated to use such methods in the past when it’s suited us." 
"Do we involve the Miss Planet authorities?"
"No. They’d never stand for it."
 McIntyre smacked his lips thoughtfully. "I have my doubts about Caroline anyway. In some ways, she’s not a proper agent. She only joined because she thought it would help her find the people who killed her brother, and resigned as soon as she got what she wanted. Afterwards Rachel was very insistent we didn’t use her unless it was with her own consent." 
 "There’s some sense in that; Caroline works best when she isn’t being pushed into anything."
"All the same, she’s slipped up on occasions."
 "She won’t slip up on this one. She and Rachel are good friends. If there’s the slightest chance she’s still with us, being held somewhere in that castle, and can be rescued Caroline won’t want to throw it away. She’ll at least want to find out how her pal died and where the body is. So we’re in business."

In most ways Stephanie Moxon was a fairly ordinary girl. Except for her stunning blonde good looks, and of course the fact she was Miss Britain. 
 She had won enough beauty contests to attract the attention of Miss Planet’s talent spotters, and for someone with her face and figure, her charm and poise, it seemed that winning Miss Britain followed inevitably. She was excited by the whole business, which injected some glamour, some fun, into what was rather a dull and uneventful life and by the thought of perhaps being not only Miss Britain but Miss Planet; relishing both the attention, even if there wasn’t so much of it as there might have been in the past, and the money she was earning and would add to considerably if lucky enough to bag the Big One. There had been an upset when it seemed this year’s competition was going to be cancelled, only to be saved at the last minute. What a hectic time it had been! But everything was back on course now. 
 The salary she earned as Miss Britain wasn’t quite enough to pay for all the bills – Miss Planet would be a different matter – so she continued to work as secretary to a Surrey insurance company, spending each workday taking phone calls, sending e-mails and entering data on a computer. The monotony was relieved only by her lunchbreak which she usually spent with a colleague down the local pub. Today however that colleague was on holiday, so Stephanie took a walk down to the little park by the river where she found a bench and sat down to eat her egg and cress sandwiches. She could have had them in the office but her boss didn’t approve. 
 Though she herself was well wrapped up, it being a cold day many people had elected to stay in their homes and offices, and the park was deserted apart from herself and two men of whose presence she became aware when, halfway through her snack, she sensed someone come up to her. "Excuse me," one said, "are you Stephanie?"
 "Yeah," she said uncertainly, and looked up. Two men in casual clothes stood before her, their hands in the pockets of their windcheaters. They were probably in their early thirties. 
"Is it OK if we have a word with you?" 
 Immediately she felt uneasy. Their tone and body language were not overtly aggressive, but nonetheless disquieting. She nodded distractedly, still trying to decide what to do. 
 One of them sat down beside her. The other remained standing, glancing around every few moments as if on watch.  
 The seated man could clearly see she was on edge. "It’s all right," he smiled. "You needn’t come to any harm. Just listen carefully to what I’m about to say."
 He lowered his voice. "We’ve a proposition to make to you. As everyone knows who takes an interest in such things, you’re the current Miss Britain.
 "The fact is, we have a client who is looking for their first big break in this area – modelling, glamour – and something like Miss Planet would be a major boost to her career. She’s very keen and deserves a chance. We’d like her to have it." 
 She wasn’t so dumb she didn’t know what they were suggesting. "Are you asking me to give it up just for her?" 
The man nodded. "I won’t beat about the bush. To put it bluntly, yes we are." 
 "Are you kidding? This is the chance of a lifetime. You think I’m going to do that, you need a reality check."
 "I can understand why you wouldn’t be very happy about it, Stephanie. The thing is this: we like to think we have our clients’ best interests at heart and so it’s very important to us this girl has a chance to be Miss Britain. Only a chance, that’s all we’re asking for. She might not pass the audition, or win the contest if she does. But if nothing else it’ll all be vital experience for her.  
 "How about it if we offered you a lot of money to withdraw from the competition? Even more than you’d have got if you’d won." He told her how much and her eyes widened. He saw her face change, and change again, as her mood alternated between anger, fear, defiance and uncertainty. 
 "I hadn’t really wanted to say this, but if you don’t do it you could end up getting hurt. We’ve got the contacts. You could apply for police protection until the contest was over, but that won’t help you. You’d still be in danger from us, always, because we have to show we mean business. We’ve a reputation for being hard and we’ve no qualms about that. It’s the secret of our success."
 Stephanie’s mind was a crazy, whirling tumult of conflicting thoughts and emotions. Who were these people? Should she ignore the threat and go to the police? Did they really mean to carry it out anyway? Should she call the bluff – if it was that? 
 She still couldn’t quite believe this was happening. She looked shellshocked, her world suddenly turned upside down. These things did happen, but…
 When the man spoke again he sounded kind, reassuring, solicitous for her welfare, like a benign father. "I’d take the money if I were you. You’ll be safe and well then, and a lot richer into the bargain.
 "We could pay it straight into your bank, although it might be difficult to explain that much money turning up suddenly in your account. Much better if I give it to you in cash."
 For a little while she said nothing, confusion still reigning in her mind. Then slowly her manner changed to something more thoughtful, collected. And they saw the blue eyes go cold and hard.
"How will I know the money’s genuine?"
 "I can give it to you now if you like. Don’t let anyone see you with it. You can check it’s not forged and once you’re satisfied, keep to your side of the bargain.  
 "Whatever happens, don’t even think about telling the police, or selling your story to the papers. That could get you into big trouble. There might be a risk to us if we got caught but the fact we’re taking that risk should make clear how important this is to us."
 Blank-faced, fingers tapping a gentle rhythm on the arm of the bench, he waited for her decision. Stephanie knew one was needed. What mattered more – the money or the fame?  
 "The police can’t protect you forever, Stephanie. They’re suffering from manpower shortages, budget cuts."
 It would save her a whole heap of bother. If these people did seriously intend to harm her unless…
"All right," she said. "I’ll take the money."
 They heard a group of people come along the path. The man waited until they’d passed, then reached into his pocket and produced several thick wads of banknotes. Stephanie tucked them away in her carrier bag, then without a word stood and walked off. 
 She told herself the novelty of being Miss Planet would wear off after a while. A year at any rate. She’d end up forgotten, maybe sink into poverty as happened to some celebrities once their allure faded and they were upstaged by newcomers. The competition wasn’t what she understood it used to be, anyway, so maybe it wasn’t worth the whole bother. The money, on the other hand, would last if she spent it wisely. To survive in a harsh world meant being practical, perhaps ruthless. All she had to do was get through the media frenzy over the bombshell she was about to drop, wait till the fuss died away. Then everything would be alright, thankyou very much.

"You’re not going to like this," began Malcolm Lemesurier nervously. It had been bad enough trying to reach Elaine when she was almost constantly on the phone to the authorities in Switzerland discussing all manner of security and administrative matters. And now…
"What’s happened now?" demanded Elaine. 
 "Miss Britain’s pulled out. It’s on Channel Six News this minute, actually. Happened within the last half-hour or so."
 Elaine dropped the phone and rushed to the TV. She hit the button for Channel Six and saw a man who was presumably a member of Stephanie Moxon’s family, or perhaps a lawyer, reading out a statement. "Stephanie Moxon realises that her decision will cause disappointment to many but is convinced that it was the right one. After giving careful consideration to the matter Stephanie does not feel that she can reconcile the pressures of being Miss Britain, and certainly Miss Planet, with the demands of a full-time job. She has however enjoyed her time in the role, and would like to thank all those who voted for her, along with everyone at Miss Planet International, for making it possible. Coming to this decision was not easy and she would like to express her gratitude to friends and family for their support during this difficult time. Thankyou."  
 Immediately Elaine rang Stephanie’s home to try and argue her out of it, offering whatever support she could. Getting the answerphone, she left a message, to which there was never any reply. The following morning an e-mail was received from Stephanie in which she formally withdrew from the contest, and all further attempts to contact her proved futile. 
 Though it was a setback, Elaine like a true professional tried to put it behind her. Perhaps Stephanie’s reasons were understandable. And there had already been a number of calls from hopefuls offering themselves as contenders for the Miss Britain title. She phoned round all the members of the Board. There was just enough time to go through the proper procedure. 
 "It’ll still be a bit rushed, but I think we can do it," she told the emergency meeting of the Board. Problems nonetheless remained. "One question," said Giovanni Marcello. "One of them’s this Kent girl. You know, the one who got herself kidnapped by drug barons or something in South America, and then later by some sex ring. Lost a brother in the Air America bombing." 
 "Oh, yes," said Elaine, recalling the incidents now that he had mentioned them. "I can see what you’re getting at. She’s already been in the media spotlight on a number of occasions. She’s also appeared on TV as spokesperson for this oil company she works for. I suppose…I suppose if she’s already had a fair amount of exposure, and everyone knows she’s attractive – because she is – then it seems strange for her to be in the competition. As well as unfair on all those unknowns who ought to be given a chance." 
 "She’s not that much of a media star," Yves Depardieu said. "I don’t think she went out of her way to seek the limelight at any time. Rather downplayed the publicity. I think she didn’t like being fawned over just because she was good-looking. Makes it a bit odd she now wants to do Miss Planet. Though according to all the rumours, she doesn’t hide her beauty under a bushel either. And she’s not without ambitions." 
"I’m not sure I know what to make of her," Elaine said.  
 "But remember, all the fuss over her exploits died down after a while, especially when the media realised she didn’t want to play ball. I think a lot of people felt a bit cheated, some rather resented it. Now enough time has elapsed for it all to have passed from the public mind. And she only appears on TV for her company when something goes wrong. Plus they banned her from doing it for a while after an incident with one of the nastier environmental protestors. The two of them had an…altercation."
 "I’m not sure that doesn’t rather disqualify her from taking part in the competition," Elaine said worriedly. 
 "It wasn’t quite an assault. And they certainly aren’t very nice, some of those people, whatever you think of their views."  
 "I’m not going to get drawn into a debate on political ethics," said Elaine. "What’s bothering me is, if it’s even known she’s auditioning for Miss Britain, it could jog people’s memories. The press are sure to bring up past events and it’ll make her seem less like a newcomer then." She scowled in frustration. There had been too many complications, too many things going wrong. Too many issues over which it was difficult to make up one’s mind. She couldn’t stand it any longer. "On the other hand…well, attractiveness isn’t just a matter of physical beauty. That’s one politically correct principle I’m quite happy to endorse. Maybe now we’ll get a chance to see what she’s really like.
 "So let her come for an audition, at any rate. It all depends on how good the others are. We’ll just not let Miss Kent’s previous activities be a factor, put any thought of them out of our heads. Agreed?"
 In truth the others were as fed up with the constant problems, the constant delays, as she was. This time they didn’t even bother to vote on it. The row of bobbing heads before her told Elaine they just wanted to get on with the bloody job. And so they would. 

Twenty

"And what would have happened," said Caroline, "if she’d refused to go along with it?" 
 She was sitting in Derek Winlett’s living room with the former spymaster and Keith McIntyre. Winlett answered her question, in so far as it was an answer. "Let’s not go there, Caroline."
 "Exactly," she muttered. She told them that if any harm had come to Stephanie she wouldn’t have taken on the assignment. She would have kept the fact she’d ever been asked to confidential. But she wouldn’t have taken on the assignment.
"Even for Rachel’s sake?" asked McIntyre.
Caroline opened her mouth then shut it again.
"Exactly," countered Winlett. She glared at him, face tightening in helpless fury.
 It occurred to her that if Rachel turned out to be dead, which was quite likely, Stephanie Moxon’s own death or incapacitation would have been less justified. Whether it could have been excused by the other reasons they wanted her to do the job was a moot point. 
 "Mind you, if she was happy to take the money I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her," she said disgustedly. "I wouldn’t have done." Her mind was made up on that at least.
 She decided to change the subject. "Where did you get it from anyway? Service funds?"
 "That, plus donations from a few of the faithful. Fortunately we know enough about computers…well, the younger among us anyway…" Here Winlett smiled ruefully. "To prevent our colleagues discovering the transaction. Hopefully our group will have achieved its objectives, more or less, by the time anyone does."
 Caroline put down her glass of Bacardi. "You realise it’s not a foregone conclusion I’ll win it?" She meant Miss Britain, not Miss Planet. She would be a bit miffed if she failed to bag the latter, but it wasn’t what mattered for the assignment’s purposes. "Is there anyone else you’re intending to bribe?"
 "Well, not Elaine Strickland herself. I’ve a pretty good idea what she’d say if we tried." 
"But what if she gets suspicious at any time?"
"She’ll have to be warned off." 
 "And if that doesn’t work? You realise that what applies to your – enemies, because that’s what they are at the moment – applies to you too? If you kill anyone you draw attention to yourself, because even if you can make it look like an accident people will still wonder."
"That’s a risk we’ll just have to take," McIntyre told her. 
"But you do intend to bribe someone," she persisted. 
 "If we have to." Winlett didn’t say how, and when, he would know whether or not they would have to. "We’ll do what’s necessary for the sake of the assignment. We’ve no choice."
 "Oh, right," she said flatly. "And another thing. If the Moxon girl does decide to tell all to the press, that she stood down so that someone else could be Miss Britain…well, that someone was me, wasn’t it? It’ll look like I’m personally benefiting from something unethical."
"Stephanie Moxon," replied McIntyre, "knows which side her bread’s buttered." 
 Winlett drained the last of his Tia Maria. "So, are you happy now, Caroline?" he asked heartily. Caroline said nothing.
 The old man contemplated her with fatherly affection. He viewed her in much the same way as he did Rachel. That was what the two of them were to him, daughters. And she had been of such value to them in the past, at great risk to her own life. When she didn’t really have to do it. 
 "You realise you’ve been subjecting me to emotional blackmail over this business, through Rachel," she said.
 "You know, my dear, provided your life isn’t directly threatened you can be charmingly naïve at times. You’ve worked for the Service yourself. You know the sort of methods it’s sometimes forced to use." 
"I don’t think anyone actually likes it."
 "They’re not expected to. I used emotional blackmail as a psychological device for forty years against the Russians, I’m not going to stop doing it now."  
 Caroline’s face assumed an enigmatic expression he thought might be intended to convey a grudging regard for him. Rachel must have told her how he’d put his job on the line, and in fact lost it, for her sake. "Well," she said finally. "I think I’d better be getting home now." 
 When she arrived there she found waiting for her, in the form both of a letter (because Miss Planet liked to do things in style) and an e-mail (because they didn’t like to take chances with the once excellent but now sadly decayed postal service),an invitation to attend the first round of auditions for Miss Britain. 

*

"I’m not sure this is a very good idea, Caroline," said Hennig. 
"Good publicity for the company," she suggested. 
 "It’ll mean too much publicity for the company. Reporters at the gates, constantly ringing up to see if you’re available for interview. Trying to sneak onto the premises past Security, probably." 
 "I don’t think Miss Planet attracts that much attention these days," she told him. "Sadly." 
 "You’ll also have to take time off from work. The equivalent of a month, I understand. That’s a bit much. Of course if you win you can shake the dust of IPL off your feet and retire."
"I didn’t say I wanted to do that. The money wouldn’t last, anyway."
"You’d use up a substantial chunk of next year’s leave, as well." 
 "While I’m gone Chris can deputise for me at Personnel, and Mark Goodison at PR. They’re both competent." 
 "So we can do without you, Caroline, is that it? Alright then." She looked up sharply, suddenly alarmed. Noting her reaction, he didn’t entirely succeed in suppressing a sardonic smile.
 "Well, can I do it?" she said, a little more abruptly than she’d have preferred. She knew what was at stake here. It all depended on Hennig’s decision, and if he refused…
It’s not worth it. Rachel’s dead, she must be. She found out too much.
 "Yes, you can do it," he said. His manner seemed suddenly to have changed. It was probably because he’d reflected that it meant she’d be off his back for four weeks.
"Thankyou, Marcus, I appreciate that."
"I should hope you do," he grumbled.
 And indeed she did, not just for Rachel’s sake. She’d taken part in beauty contests before, and won. But Miss Planet…
 "And you already being a megastar, you don’t think that’ll adversely affect your chances of winning then?" 
 "I wouldn’t say I was a megastar," she said modestly. "Just the head of Personnel and PR at International Petroleum Limited." 
"And a very good job you make of it, I’m sure."
"You’d know whether I made a good job of it or not, you’re my boss."
 "Oh, am I? I always thought you were a law unto yourself." She looked nonplussed. "But I thought everyone knew about the exciting adventures of Caroline Kent, fearless oil troubleshooter. Didn’t they?"
 "You’d be surprised. It’s not entirely a bad thing if they don’t. You’re right about too much publicity sometimes being bad for the company." Even so, a part of her often wished she’d made more of her exploits. If she hadn’t, was that because she knew the attention would in the long run be more than she could cope with? As it was, she had told the world’s media that her work for the company did not permit her to give much time to interviews; and the nature of her ordeal in Saudi was such that it would surely be understood if she chose not to talk about it. 
 But she had been a sensation, for a short time anyway. When she’d returned from South America the Daily Telegraph had plastered pictures of her all over the front, and a few of the inside, pages of successive editions. Private Eye had responded with one of its spoof news items headed “Attractive woman rescued from drug runners in Amazon”, with a footer reading “Inside: no pictures of ordinary unattractive-looking women who have just been rescued from drugrunners in the Amazon.” She wrote and told them acidly that considering what had happened she was personally quite glad to have been rescued, attractive or not.
 Hennig was studying her keenly. "It’s the sort of thing you’d do," he remarked a little disparagingly, referring to the whole Miss Planet thing. "But bearing in mind the damage it could do to your career here, along with the fact that you’re far from unintelligent and must see the downside of it, I don’t think you would be doing it unless it was for a very special reason. It’s something you’ve cooked up with your spook friends, isn’t it?"
"We’ve been quite happy to use the “spooks” in the past when it’s suited us."
 "You know, Caroline, you’ve been getting more and more lippy of late. I don’t like it."
"Sorry," she said flatly.
 "You’re welcome," he replied in a similar tone. "But you haven’t answered my question."
"All right, yes it is."
 "And is it something really important? Something that justifies my Human Resources – terribly sorry, Personnel – and Public Relations Manager once again being away from her desk on extended leave?"
 "It may be. For one thing, someone’s in trouble, big trouble – if they’re still alive. I can’t say more, I’m afraid." 
 "And no doubt if I did find out the whole story I’d end up mysteriously dead somewhere." 
 "I’m not saying that. But with respect, it would be wise not to enquire too closely into the matter."
 "You can rely on me," he said manfully. "However, you realise the Board won’t like it." And she wasn’t on as good terms with them as she’d been in the past.  
Tough. 
 The first stage of the audition, held at the Miss Planet offices, was an interview at which Elaine and her colleagues were clearly trying to find out whether Caroline could stand the pressure of media attention and demanding schedules. In fact they had few doubts on that score. She was a mature, if still young, business executive who coped with stress on a regular basis {at least, she liked to think she did}, and had come through the traumatic events in Saudi Arabia and Camaragua and the loss of her brother remarkably well. 
 "It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, to be honest," she replied when asked the reason for her interest in taking part in the competition. She was also angry at its scaling down by political correctness, partly because it would diminish her moment of glory. "I feel that in the post-modern world the feminist movement is if anything limiting women’s freedom of choice by restricting their right of self-expression." Thinking of the IQ tests she would have to pass later on, she hoped the statement sounded suitably intellectual. 
"So essentially you’re making a political statement?"
 "Not just that. I heard you were having a spot of bother, that the reigning Miss Britain had pulled out unexpectedly. I just thought I could help and, as I said, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do." The more reasons she could think of, the more plausibility she could lend her candidature, the better. 
"But you wouldn’t mind appearing in a swimsuit, for example?"
 "People can see me in a swimsuit on the beach," she pointed out. "One rather more revealing than I expect I’ll be wearing for the competition."
 Were her family supportive of her in this? Yes they were. She was sure her parents would be very proud if she won. In the end they skimmed over the question of whether she would be happy with being in the limelight, guessing that as part of her job involved PR she wouldn’t object to all the media interest. In any case the general downplaying of Miss Planet for political reasons meant there would be less of it than in the past. Which from the point of view of Derek Winlett and his associates was probably a good thing.
 There followed the intelligence test. She had misgivings about such exercises, since they could give a false result if you were better at some subjects than others or your mind happened to work in one way rather than another. In the end, she just scraped into the highest bracket, an outcome she felt to be reasonably satisfying.
 The next day she drove to a studio by the banks of the Thames in rural Berkshire, where in a dress rehearsal for the contest she was photographed in various poses and costumes – including swimsuits (optional) – and sporting a range of hairstyles. Of necessity it was indeed a little rushed, but she didn’t let that bother her. Nor did she let her inner fears about the dangers of the assignment show as this would spoil her performance and also arouse suspicion. But she couldn’t banish them altogether from her mind. The result was an enigmatic, introspective expression which suggested depth and which some people liked; it seemed in tune with the greater emphasis on intelligence and intellect. The organisers felt there was, indeed, far more to this woman than what they had already seen on TV. She now had an opportunity to emphasise both her physical beauty and her general attractiveness, by gesture, expression, poise,  mannerisms. Soon they were all under her spell – as her MI6 friends had anticipated. 
 She was nearer than the other candidates to the age limit for participation in the competition; but perhaps these days the limit should be revised upwards, as people were generally wearing better. She had a confidence, an aplomb that the younger girls mostly lacked; but since she was within the limit, still, the organisers couldn’t let that influence them on the grounds she had an unfair advantage.
 In fact she saw little of the other contestants during the selection process, beyond passing them in the corridor with a friendly smile and nod. With one or two the smile wasn’t so friendly, on their part, or they never got round to it in the first place. Perhaps it was because they knew she was going to walk it. 
 You think I’m going to steal the big prize from you, don’t you, she thought. Well I’m sorry, dear, but it’s a tough world. Even if that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change it for the better, where we can. 
 The contest was televised live, on one of the Freeview channels – not on any of the major ones, Caroline noted. The girls paraded on the catwalk in an assortment of sexy but tasteful costumes. The guests, who included Caroline’s parents and a few of her work colleagues, mingled with the contestants while the judges retired to decide on the winner. The atmosphere was pretty tense. Everyone chatted nervously until a famous actress and pop singer took centre stage to announce the verdict. 
"And the winner is – Caroline Kent!"
 Caroline and those around her exploded with delight. She hugged Chris and her parents, beaming broadly in a way that seemed to light up the whole of the vast auditorium. It really was a proud moment. Mark Goodison broke open a bottle of champagne with such enthusiasm that some of it splashed over Caroline’s neighbour, Julie, who had come to lend her support, and her Uncle Derek. 
 Elaine Strickland looked on and smiled, glad that the last stage in the process before the competition itself was now complete. And so to Schloss Mencken.  
 At the club afterwards Derek Winlett reflected on Caroline’s performance. "We didn’t need to bribe the panel in the end," he said. "She’d’ve got it anyway."
 He spoke with absolute conviction. Which was probably justified, thought Keith McIntyre. "Do you think she’ll get the big one?"
 "Hard to say," Winlett mused. "The voting’s often political. If they want a black girl to show they’re not being ethnocentric in what’s supposed to be an international thing, they’ll get one. Caroline will be allowed to get so far and no further. Then if they think they’re coming over as too PC they’ll give it to a white girl next time." 
"In any case…beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all that."
 "Undoubtedly." Winlett turned off the TV. "But of course, it isn’t what really concerns us. I’m more bothered about whether the opposition are likely to twig what we’re trying to do."

Again the meeting was being held by live videolink, via satellite. It was the best policy because if, for example, the head of a powerful private company was seen visiting the offices of a branch of the security services it might lead to uncomfortable questions being asked by both the public and the media. 
 "It just strikes me as odd," Grant Sadler, a senior officer in MI6, was saying. "Too much of a coincidence. Just after the venue’s switched to Schloss Mencken, the reigning Miss Britain pulls out of the competition to be replaced by…Caroline Kent." 
"It was never a foregone conclusion she would win," said the Count.
 "If someone wanted her to badly enough, someone with the right knowhow and contacts, they’d make sure she did."
 Mencken nodded slowly. "You think this is an operation someone in your Service is running without our permission?"
"I’m saying that can’t be ruled out."
"I don’t like it," frowned the Count. "I don’t want a spy here at the castle."
 "It’s a bit of a long shot for them, surely," said Paul Kenward. "After all, in the past she’s already been something of a public figure." 
"But that was a nine-days’ wonder," Sadler reminded them. "On both occasions."
 "The woman’s just as likely to do this sort of thing out of ego as for any other reason. There may be nothing to worry about."
"Or there might. So what do we do? I’ll say it again, I don’t like this."
 The Count’s face wore an anxious, furtive expression, like some hunted animal. "If I suddenly cancel Miss Planet or tell the organisers we don’t want her here…I’d have to give a reason for either. It would look very odd otherwise."
 Paul Kenward’s face twisted impatiently. "There’s no need for this exercise in PR. Bring the plan forward. It’ll be nice to have a lot of pretty girls around the place but…"
 Joachim Waldersee agreed with him. "I’ll say this again. The more time goes by before we make our move the greater the chance something’ll go wrong and what we’re up to will be discovered." Kenward nodded.
 "I would remind you that we still haven’t found an explanation for the incident at Dartmoor," said the Count. "Until we can be sure there is no danger…"
 "There are plenty of other useful things we could be occupying ourselves with, as long as we’re in the right position to do them."
 "You mean the plan?" said Sadler. "We did bring it forward, part of it anyway. Probably shouldn’t have done. But it’s run out of steam." 
"There will be more bombings eventually."
 "What if something goes wrong in the meantime?" said Kenward. "We need to inject some new life into the plan. We know how we can do that."
 The Count shook his head fiercely. "It risks disrupting our whole timescale. I have always suspected that the conditions in which our wider scheme can mature may take longer to realise than you seem to think."  
 "We’ll just have to keep an eye on this Kent girl," said Kenward, again putting the question to one side. 
 "If it’s obvious we’re doing that the other girls will notice it," Michel Doumer pointed out. "It could lead to questions being asked as to why we seemed wary of her. People will work out that she’s some kind of spy and wonder who for. If they realise the intelligence services, or even a rogue element within them, are taking an interest in us it will seem to confirm all the rumours about the castle. I’ve been talking to people in the town and at the Wilhelm Tell and there are already stories going around that Interpol used a fake rescue helicopter to get near enough to the castle to film some of our meetings." 
 "The whole point of having the Miss Planet competition at your place would be ruined," said Kenward. "And if all goes apeshit and she does find something out, there’s no way we can have another disappearance."
 "We’ve got CCTV at the castle," Michel Doumer said. "We’re sure to know if she gets up to any tricks. For the same reason none of the other girls is going to wander off and see what she isn’t meant to." 
 "I still don’t like it," repeated the Count. "If she’s worth her credentials as a spy she’ll find some way round our security. I still don’t like it."
There didn’t seem to be any solution to the problem.

Caroline was the centre of attention in the staff room at IPL the following morning. The constant stream of congratulations got tiresome after a while, but she appreciated it all the same. There had been some press attention; she managed to deal with all the questions patiently. Underneath she was a bit concerned at the ease with which the papers seemed able to find out where you lived these days. It would make things even more problematic if her cover was blown.
"So how do you feel about it all?" asked Sheila, her secretary. 
 "I expect it’s going to be a lot of fun, even if I don’t win," she said. "It’s the sort of thing you ought to do before you die, if you get the chance. While you’ve still got it." “It” being her looks and figure. "I mean, we’re only young once. As far as we know," she added thoughtfully. 
I might get to know sooner than I expected, if I’m not very careful, she mused.
 "You won’t get to wear a bikini, I’m afraid, now that they’ve cleaned it up a bit," said Chris. 
"There’s nothing unclean about wearing a bikini," she said curtly.
 Chris noticed that Laurence Pelham from Accounts, a tall bearded man, had a frown on his face. He pointed out to Pelham that he didn’t look very happy.  
Pelham shrugged.
 "Come on, out with it. You don’t really approve of what Caroline’s doing, do you?"
"It’s sexist. It’s exploitation of women."
 "And you think I would approve of that sort of thing?" Caroline said, allowing a hint of ice to enter her voice.
"I’m sure I’m allowed to express my point of view," said Pelham stiffly.
"Anyway, as Chris has pointed out they’ve cut out the bikinis."
 "It’s still sexist. It’s regarding women as purely decorative and making money out of it."
"Get a life," Caroline sighed. 
 "I second that," said Chris. "Honestly, Laurence, you’re the sort of person that got the Benny Hill Show cancelled." That programme had been axed in what, alarmingly, could only like the downplaying of Miss Planet be a curtailing of the consumer’s right of choice for political reasons. 
 "And you object to that?" Pelham’s tone of voice was what in other circumstances he himself would have regarded as unacceptably confrontational.
 "I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with a pretty girl showing what she’s got," Caroline said. By the look on Chris’ face he wasn’t inclined to disagree. 
"I personally thought it was offensive rubbish," Pelham continued.
"The girls enjoyed it," Caroline claimed.
"Because they were paid well."
 They might have been. But somehow, it seemed improbable to Caroline that all decent women were fanatical feminists unwilling to accept any other opinion on the subject than Pelham’s. 
 "In any case, it’s encouraging people who would do it for the wrong motives," he said.
 "The only sure way to stop people doing something for the wrong reasons would be for nobody to do anything at all," Caroline retorted. 
"But we have to set an example."
 "We have to be careful we’re doing the right thing in the first place," Chris said. "Or we can end up becoming little Hitlers." 
Pelham gave him a sharp look, then stalked off. 
"Careful," Caroline warned. "He’s in with the Board."
Chris nodded. "I’ll watch myself." 
 "We all have to, these days," Caroline sighed. She asked Sheila what she thought of Benny Hill and things like that.
 Sheila shrugged. "Boys will be boys, I guess," she said resignedly. "I can’t say it makes much difference to me as long as nobody actually indecently assaults me and I’ve got a decent standard of living."
 Sexual licence, if you called it that, might of course encourage certain people to rape. But it was itself probably the result of being too sexually restrictive in past ages. The equal and opposite reaction. At any rate, there seemed something more warmly human about Benny Hill than those bureaucrats and activists who were always banning something or other because it was considered offensive in some way, not necessarily acting with the approval of the silent majority. Who, Caroline wondered, was committing the greater sin.   

Conference Room 2, MI5 HQ
"It looks like it’s all fizzled out for the moment," said John Shawcross. There had been no new atrocities for the past few weeks. 
 Paul Concannon was glum. "These things do. It’ll start up again eventually, we just can’t say when. Once it does the lack of informers is going to be a problem."
 "We’ll just have to rely on generally tight security to keep ahead of the terrorists. It works, some of the time anyway." Several plots had been foiled through monitoring of internet traffic and telephone calls rather than use of an informer. It occurred to Shawcross that what had helped of late to foil crimes large and small was the growth in the surveillance industry. There didn’t have to be CCTV on every corner and of course there couldn’t be, it was far too expensive. You just needed to think that there might, at any rate, be one on yours. It was proving very effective at doing its job; but since Shawcross’s was to defend liberties, it caused him no small measure of unease. 

"Morning, Caz," called out Chris cheerfully.
"Morning," she replied, looking up briefly from her paperwork. 
 Something about her desk seemed different. He looked again. A collection of Benny Hill videos and DVDs sat very prominently on it. He guessed she’d ordered them all from Amazon during the last couple of days. 
"Ooh, can I borrow these?" he asked. 
 "Later," she replied vaguely. She wanted enough people to see them. Chris grinned, and got on with his work.
 No-one seemed to openly object to their presence. They grinned a little nervously, and one or two raised their eyebrows in a quizzical fashion, but that was all. The even pattern of work in the PPR office continued undisturbed. Then later in the day Hennig came in to return some files he’d needed to borrow. There was no-one in the room at the time apart from himself and Caroline. 
 He saw what was on the desk, studied it thoughtfully, and after a moment gave a little cough. "Caroline…"
"Yes, Marcus?" she said evenly.
"I’d lose all that if I were you."
 She affected to look puzzled. He smiled benevolently at her, then started to move off. She stopped him. "Er, Marcus?" 
He paused and turned, an eyebrow raised enquiringly.
"What exactly were you referring to?"
"Well…all this, of course." 
"Can I ask why?"
 "It’s not really the done thing nowadays, is it?" he replied, again with that broad benign smile.
"Is your position that it’s sexist and exploitative?"
"A lot of people would say so."
"Has anyone complained?" She thought she knew very well who had.
 "I’m not saying that."  Meaning that he was. "But these days…we have to take into account modern sensibilities…"
"I’m a woman," she pointed out.
"I’d noticed." 
"If I’m a woman there can’t be anything wrong with it, can there?"
 "I don’t want it here," he said firmly. "I don’t want to make this a disciplinary matter, which I will if I have to. You just take those things home and leave them there, OK?" He turned away again. 
 She scowled at his back, breathing in just softly enough for him not to hear it, and scooped up the offending material, stacking it away in her briefcase.
 Back in his office Hennig closed the door carefully, then crossed to the bottom drawer of his desk. Opening it, he selected a copy of Penthouse from the pile of magazines within and sat down to read. 

*

Caroline was sitting with Derek Winlett, Jacques d’Epignan and the two French Special Forces soldiers, Marc Bouvier and Pierre Valdin, in the living room of Winlett’s house. She gave the two Frenchmen a friendly smile, which they reciprocated with brief but polite nods. She guessed they must have an interest in her as an attractive woman, but Special Forces people were so tightly disciplined she didn’t pick up the vibes the way she usually could.
 "Obviously, if you should find out anything we’d want to know of, you must contact us right away," Epignan was saying.
 "But ideally," continued Winlett, "we need you to knock out the CCTV so Marc and Pierre can get into the castle undetected. Then hopefully there won’t be a repeat of what happened to Rachel." 
"What are they to do once they’re in there?"
 "Get proof somehow that the Count is sitting on Nazi loot. For one thing. He doesn’t really need to sell the stuff off, his family’s always been fabulously wealthy. He doesn’t want to just give it away or he’d have done that already. So he must need the money for something really big, something his legitimate wealth isn’t enough to finance on its own. Probably  we ought to find out what it is anyway, but if it’s anything controversial, and the secrecy suggests it is, the effect will be to discredit the EU by association. 
 "We’re going to splash it all over the world’s media. And I’m afraid it means we’ll have to go public. Reveal who we are and what our aims were in exposing the Count. It won’t work otherwise. We’ll say elements in the intelligence services and political establishment – it could only be done with the co-operation of leading politicos, even if we don’t know who all of them are – were orchestrating a cover-up. The implications of it all will be earth-shaking but I can’t see any alternative. We’re more likely to be believed given the suspicion there’s been of the Count, for various reasons, in the past. It’ll look like he was hosting the Miss Planet competition in order to fool people he had nothing to hide.  
 "We’ll keep your part in it a secret of course, Caroline. And our third objective during the actual operation will be to get you to safety should you have run into any trouble. Once you’ve turned off the CCTV, it might be best to just go back to whatever you’d normally be doing and keep calm. We’ll see how it goes." 
"And if I can’t find a way to get to it in the first place?"
"Then you can’t. We won’t blame you for that."
 "I won’t let Rachel down if I can help it. Do you think the people at the castle will have guessed what I’m really there for, though?"
 "They can’t be sure. And they can’t keep too close an eye on you without exposing themselves. They might bug your room, but what if you discovered the bug by accident and made an indignant complaint to the competition organisers? No, I should think you’ll be OK." 
 Caroline nodded. She fell silent for a moment, suddenly tired. "Well, I’d better be getting home now. I have to be off early in the morning, as you know."
 "Before you go, the usual box of tricks in case you should need any of them." He handed her a small metal and plastic case. 
 "Well, good luck. I don’t just mean the mission. You never know, you might even win while you’re at it."


Twenty-One

The relative downplaying of Miss Planet meant there were fewer journalists and photographers gathered outside Caroline’s house to see her off; still, the turnout was impressive. She was undoubtedly, because of her looks, a sex symbol, and currently in the public eye to some extent because of the competition. She wondered if she hadn’t been responsible for a certain revival of interest in it. 
 She made sure she was packed and ready well before nine when the company car came to pick her up. She had a last cuddle with Jack, assuring him she would be back safe and sound in a few weeks’ time, and that meanwhile Julie would feed and otherwise look after him. It seemed to pacify him to some extent. Of course whether he understood, in his own cat way, what she was saying was impossible to tell. Though it had always been her theory that he did. 
 As she left the house flashlights went off and the photographers shouted at her to “look this way.” She turned to beam at them, travelbag over her shoulder and a suitcase in each hand, so they could publish some picture of her captioned “Miss Planet hopeful Caroline Kent is all smiles as she sets off for what could be the experience of a lifetime, blah blah blah.” It seemed rude and surly not to comply; after all, she told herself, they were only doing their job. Besides, if this was going to be a convincing cover for her other activities then she had to act the part. 
 And she genuinely was pleased to be doing it. I mean, when you thought about it, Miss Planet…crikey…
 She took a few questions. She said she was looking forward to the competition and reasonably confident of winning, although of course it was not something you could guarantee, was in the lap of the gods etc. Then one of the minders told her he thought they ought to get going. She loaded her luggage into the boot, climbed into the car, and they drove off with Caroline giving the paparazzi a last cheery wave through the window. 
 At Heathrow she was met by Elaine and the minders and PR people who made up the British Miss Planet team. Elaine asked how she was feeling and she replied patiently that she was fine and looking forward to taking part, etcetera. There were a few more publicity shots, then after a bite to eat the party boarded the special plane which had been chartered for them. 
 She spent the flight chatting to her minders or to Elaine and Co., reading a paperback, or just sitting and thinking. 
 The fact she was basically doing this as a cover for something else gave a sense of unreality to the situation. She felt like an impostor. 
 Don’t think like that. You told yourself you were going to have some fun doing this and so you will. 
 One other thought kept coming to mind. If she left aside the real reason why she was doing it then a beauty contest seemed far removed, surreally so, from all the turmoil going on in the rest of the world. 
 She was looking forward to being in Switzerland. As she could speak both French and German, plus some rusty but passable Italian, she shouldn’t have any problems with the language. In fact they were so closely chaperoned, seeing little of the country apart from the airport, the castle and bits of Eissensberg that in the end the problem didn’t arise. All they would see was the picture-book image of Switzerland, which they were only serving to enhance by their stunning looks, staged PR exercises and glamorous poses. 
 They touched down at Berne where, running the gauntlet of the press again, they were escorted to the function room in which everyone was to congregate so that the organisers could make sure they had turned up safely. One by one the contestants arrived, but after two or three hours by no means all were accounted for. Some had been “delayed”, causing Elaine considerable annoyance. It seemed Miss Spain and Miss Jamaica in particular were notoriously unpunctual, laws unto themselves in this and other ways. Eventually Elaine decided to go ahead without them. After another brief photo session the girls were shown to where the first of a fleet of helicopters, some of them belonging to the Count, was waiting to take them to the castle. Caroline shared one with Misses Italy, Russia and China, with whom she made friendly enough conversation during the flight.  
 Gradually the rolling countryside beneath them became more and more hilly, until they saw the white-capped peaks in the distance, their summits vanishing into cloud. She caught her breath at the rugged grandeur of this noble landscape formed so many millions of years ago. An hour later they saw the castle, nestling in a fold in the flank of the Zahn, its grey limestone walls, its towers and battlements seeming indistinguishable from the rock of the mountain as if hewn directly out of it; overlooking a deep valley between the Zahn and the mountain on which, about halfway up, the Piz Helvetia ski resort stood. Together the two peaks were known as the Sentries, because of the way they stood on either side of the pass like guards. At the foot of the Zahn was the town of Eissensberg, from this height resembling a set of toy building bricks. It was the tourist season now; the snows had come and the mountains and the trees and the town lay under a blanket of white like icing on a Christmas cake. The cable car, reserved for the Count’s personal use, which linked the castle to Piz Helvetia was in motion, suggesting that one of his staff was intending to make use of its facilities. She had no idea whether the Count still skied himself. 
 One by one the ‘copters landed on the ledge jutting out from the mountainside in front of the castle which served as a helipad, and unloaded their passengers. Most of them then took off again, not to return until the contest was over. A few of the Count’s staff, who would be taking over the job of minding them for the duration of the competition, were there to greet them, dressed smartly in suits and ties under their thick anoraks. As each girl, well wrapped up against the chill, arrived she was greeted and shown through a pair of sliding doors into the lounge, then down the corridor to the banqueting hall. Their luggage was collected and taken to their rooms.
 The banqueting table had been dismantled and temporarily stored in a spare room, allowing maximum space in which everyone could mingle. On smaller tables at the sides were drinks (all non-alcoholic, for fear of offending Muslims) and a selection of snacks, mostly vegetarian (although a couple of tuxedoed waiters were going around with trays of sweetmeats, nothing too fattening was on offer in case it ruined their figures). Caroline reflected on how the competition made it impossible for those taking part to do the things they really wanted to, and the strain this must cause at times. What are they really in it for, she wondered? Not because Miss Planet is such a big deal these days, but because it looked good on their cv and represented a step up the ladder in the modelling industry. 
 The hall rang to the chatter of those present, was alive with the sound of over a hundred people moving about. She knew these big old places could be cold and draughty even with central heating, but the warmth of all the bodies in it raised the temperature of the room comfortably. She gazed round it. One wall was adorned with an impressive collection of stag’s heads – hunting trophies, no doubt. On another was the Mencken family’s coat of arms, with that of the canton beneath it. There was a bearskin carpet with the bear’s head still attached, its jaws gaping open in a dying snarl, showing white fangs. Twin suits of armour flanked the great stone chimneypiece, in which a friendly-looking log fire burnt. Glancing up, she saw the place even had a minstrel’s gallery, although it wasn’t clear whether this was the real thing or a nineteenth-century reconstruction. She decided everything else about the place was genuine. 
 The Count appeared through the doorway from the entrance hall. It was obvious who he was from the body language of his staff, who immediately stiffened like soldiers standing to attention, their eyes turning towards him. 
 Caroline studied him with interest. He had not shrunk with age like most men in their eighties; he was still a big guy, in some ways like the bear, and heavy-featured, and formally dressed in suit and tie, often the hallmark of the older generation. 
 He spread his arms and beamed at them. "Welcome." The girls smiled back, some of them a little nervously. He went over to talk to Elaine and her team. A middle-aged woman with short brown hair appeared in the doorway and stood looking round the hall for a moment before moving away, as if deciding, despite not being unhandsome herself, that she would be out-of-place and feel uncomfortable among all these gorgeous younger girls. That must be the Count’s current squeeze, Caroline thought. She did turn up again a little later, chatting with the Count and his friends but merely smiling at the girls, not from hostility but because the fact she had aged well merely served to remind her, when faced with such a display of youthful beauty, that she had once looked even better. Caroline felt genuinely sorry for her.
 English was still an international language, something on which Caroline reflected with pride, and everyone spoke it at least passably, avoiding communication problems. It helped that they had a name badge saying who they were and also, in the girls’ case, which country they represented. Caroline introduced herself to a few of them. Everyone compared their experiences as a Miss Planet contestant, otherwise just making small talk, inconsequential except as an ice-breaker but agreeable nonetheless. 
 They were of all races and most nations, but a sense of comradeship cut across differences of ethnicity, culture or nationality. There was a sense that they were rivals but also friends. 
 About halfway through the evening Miss Spain and Miss Jamaica finally turned up. Meanwhile Caroline found herself next to Miss Germany and Miss America. The usual pleasantries were exchanged. With them was Ingrid Faltskov, Miss Norway, a tall girl a shade blonder than herself, with milk-white skin and blue-green eyes. "Hi, I’m Caroline Kent," Caroline smiled, extending a hand. 
 Abruptly Miss Norway turned away, her face expressionless, and went to get herself another drink. Caroline raised her eyebrows, while Miss America looked embarrassed and Miss Germany shrugged. At first Caroline was annoyed, then she was puzzled. What’s up with her? She doesn’t know me, we’ve barely met and yet –
 Then she saw it. The blonde bombshell spot is mine, OK? Oh well, have it your own way, she thought. She felt a sudden dislike for Scandinavians, the way so many of them seemed cold, stiff and offhand, then told herself it was irrational. Maybe the climate up there did have that kind of effect on a person, and in any case they couldn’t in truth be much worse than any other member of the human family. Besides, she probably owed her own golden good looks partly to an infusion of Viking genes somewhere along the line.
 What Miss Norway and others ought to bear in mind, of course, was that where sex appeal was concerned some people might prefer a tall blonde, others a short brunette. Beauty was, indeed, in the eye of the beholder; one reason why some people considered the competition pointless and silly, though she wasn’t inclined to agree with them.
 Malcolm Lemesurier called for quiet, and Elaine made a speech of welcome, expressing the hope that everyone would enjoy themselves thoroughly while they were there, whether or not they won. "Now you’ve all got your welcome packs…" These, which included a map of the castle in case anyone got lost, set out the schedule for the two weeks ahead, which would culminate in the final competition, to be held here in the banqueting hall. They also laid down a few house rules, which Elaine felt she ought to stress here and now. It would be appreciated if the girls could keep to their rooms, the lounge or the gym and avoid the private chambers of the Count and his staff. Clearly you weren’t supposed to just wander around the place at will. Any breakages would have to be paid for by Miss Planet and would be met out of the girls’ own personal allowances. It was a reminder that the castle was full of precious objects accumulated by the Count’s family over hundreds of years, and if anyone damaged anything neither he nor the organisers of Miss Planet would be particularly happy. 
 Any announcements, such as additions or changes to the day’s schedule, would be made at mealtimes, which would be taken in the banqueting hall though coffee and snacks were available at certain times in the lounge.  
 "Don’t forget you’re free to speak to Michel here or your national organisers at any time if you have any questions or you’re not happy about something. I would prefer it if you didn’t approach me as I’ll be very busy over the next fortnight, but in the last resort I am available through Malcolm, my trusted PA." Lemesurier waved and smiled by way of identifying himself. "Well I think that’s it for the moment. See you all here at eight tonight for dinner."
 Everyone was shown to their rooms, into which they were being allowed some time to settle before eating. They were escorted down the main entrance hall to the staircase giving access to the upper floors. Oak-panelled corridors, lushly carpeted, led off each landing. There must be hundreds of rooms in the castle, for Caroline’s, on the third level, was number 172. The flunkey unlocked the door, opened it wide and with a smile gestured for her to enter. After giving her her own key to the room and expressing the wish that her stay here would be a happy one, he left her to her own devices.  
 There appeared to be a certain degree of confusion as to who was in which room, and Caroline could hear someone loudly complaining. She had some idea who it was. 
 Closing the door to shut out the noise, she stood looking round the room for a moment. Another suitcase, another hall.
 To her delight there was a genuine old-fashioned four-poster bed; the rest of the furniture seemed modern. There was a chair, with a dressing table where you might sit to write postcards to your family, wardrobe, mini-bar, bedside table with reading lamp and a few books and magazines, a television and a DVD player. It was just like a hotel; the Count had gone to great lengths to ensure his guests had everything they might want. There were facilities for making coffee, or a cup of good old English Breakfast tea, with biscuits. Everything possible had been done to make the girls feel comfortable and welcome. A connecting door led to a bathroom and toilet with shower unit. 
 She gazed through the leaded windows at the now darkened sky. Someone had forgotten to close one of them properly and a little gust of cold air blew into the room, carrying with it a few flakes of snow, which settled for a moment upon the carpet before melting away. 
She shut the window, and started to unpack. 
 The meal, for which the big table had been returned to its usual position, provided a further opportunity for getting to know one another. Afterwards some entertainment was laid on, with a troupe of musicians playing accordions, yodelling impressively and blowing through an Alpenhorn. Then there was a party in Miss Canada’s room, though it didn’t go on for very long as they all had a heavy schedule tomorrow and needed to be up fairly early. After an hour or so everyone went to bed. 
 Following a breakfast of muesli, rye bread and coffee the girls sat in the lounge talking or, like Caroline, outside on the patio taking the Alpine air and admiring the majestic mountainscape stretching away into the distance. Once she felt suitably invigorated Caroline went back inside, passing Ingrid Faltskov on the way and flashing a friendly smile which went unacknowledged. 
 She found an unoccupied chair, deposited herself in it and moped for a bit. To tell the truth she was feeling a bit lonely and ostracised. There had been a gulf between her and the other girls at the banquet. Now that initial warm glow of camaraderie had worn off she sensed a lot of them resented her because she was a little older, apparently more self-possessed and confident, and therefore by their reckoning more likely to win. Suddenly she was being made to feel ancient, and didn’t care for it. However Miss America and Miss Germany continued to be friendly. She also liked Miss Israel, a decent person who saw herself as promoting the cause of peace and international co-operation by what she was doing. Poor girl, Caroline thought. Before long the politicians and the generals will have wrecked any good you’ve managed to achieve.
 While she was lost in her thoughts someone took the chair next to hers. She  happened to turn slightly, and caught their eye. They were a brown-skinned girl, Arab or perhaps Indian, with long, straight, glossy dark hair. Her badge proclaimed her as Miss Pakistan. "Good morning!" said the girl loudly, thrusting out a hand for Caroline to shake. "I am Joumana Jamil."
"Oh – er – pleased to meet you," Caroline said.
 They made conversation for a while. "It seems strange to see you here somehow," said Caroline.
Joumana raised her eyebrows. "Why?"
 "I don’t mean to be rude, honestly…" Because she didn’t. "But…well, it just…doesn’t seem a very Muslim thing. I didn’t think you went in for this kind of business."
 "There are Muslims and there are Muslims," Joumana said. "Not all of us think you have to cover up everything. There are some things I don’t think people should do. But if God created the human face, and made it nice to look at, oughtn’t it to be seen?" 
"I guess you’re right. What do other Muslims think about what you’re doing?"
"Some don’t mind, others do. I’ve had death threats."
"I’m sorry to hear that. Do you think you might be in any danger, then?"
 "Not here, I don’t think. Not with all the security, and Elaine looking after us so well." 
 Joumana might be in some danger afterwards, supposed Caroline, although in time the fuss would probably die down to some extent. It helped that Miss Planet had changed and was not quite what it had been in the past. If Joumana was courting disapproval, or worse, merely by showing her face and hands Caroline didn’t like to think what the reaction would be if she appeared in a bikini.  
"What do you think you’re achieving by being in the competition?" she asked. 
 "What am I achieving? Showing the world that not all Muslims are the same. That not all are…extremists. Presenting a…positive image of us."
"And why not."
  In time, the sense of distance between Caroline and her fellow contestants began to disappear. She suspected she herself was making too much of the age difference and that was partly the reason why she felt segregated from them. Before long she was again on good terms with everyone – well, nearly everyone.  
 By now the press and TV crews had arrived and been allocated their rooms. They were busy setting up their equipment in readiness for the big day. The contest would be by live international televised vote-in. It would be held in the ballroom, where a backdrop was being erected with giant blown-up photographs designed to show the Earth in all its natural beauty. With current concerns about the environment the name Miss Planet had acquired a new significance. On the night the contestants would each be posing next to a giant model globe, as they had posed with baby seals and tiger cubs. None of them of course were allowed to wear fur coats. 
 Each day was a round of photoshoots, publicity stunts and interviews, the action mostly taking place either at the castle or in Eissensberg. Several girls posed with a St Bernard dog – a bit of a cliché, for St Bernards weren’t actually used very often in mountain rescue, contrary to what most people outside Switzerland thought. Others took part in promotional sessions for environmentally-friendly products, or opened supermarkets in the area. From time to time some, including Caroline, did a song-and-dance routine dressed in traditional Swiss costume with bodice, skirt and hair tied in pigtails.  
It was a bit of a grind. All the same, Caroline was beginning to enjoy herself. 
 In the evening there were discos, excursions into town for slap-up meals. And while at the castle they were allowed full use of the recreational facilities, including the gym and swimming pool, since Elaine wanted her charges to be in first-rate physical condition. If any put on too much weight they’d be at an unfair disadvantage on the catwalk, which she didn’t want. 
 They saw little of her personally during all this; she preferred to delegate the day-to-day care of the contestants to capable subordinates. But it was obvious she did care about them, genuinely, and Caroline respected her for this and for her overall professionalism. There did seem to be a certain awkwardness between the two of them but she knew this was because Elaine needed to make clear she wasn’t paying her any more attention than she did the others because she was British. Miss Planet had never been like that. 
 One night Caroline was relaxing in her room, listening to something on her I-Pod, when Elaine knocked on the door. "If I could have a word?"
"Come on in," said Caroline amiably.
 Elaine closed the door so no-one could hear them, then sat on the bed. She paused, as if about to change her mind, then unburdened herself of what had probably been bothering her for some time now. "I think I’d like one or two answers, if that’s alright."
Caroline frowned. "I’m sorry, I don’t understand."
 Elaine leaned forward. "It could all be coincidence, of course. But Stephanie’s resignation, then you stepping in to take her place when it might be considered, for various reasons, a rather strange thing to do…is something going on that I don’t know about?" 
"I gave my reasons for taking part at my interview."
"Only that wasn’t the full story, was it?"
"I’m afraid I still don’t understand. What do you mean, the full story?"
 "I can only think it’s some kind of undercover operation. But you’re not police, are you? You don’t seem the type. What are you? How did you persuade Stephanie Moxon to make way for you? Are we under investigation for financial irregularities? There aren’t any, as far as I know. And if you thought there were you should have come to me with your suspicions at the outset."
 For a moment Caroline wondered if she should brazen it out. Then she decided it was better to level with the woman. There was no telling what she might do otherwise.
 So she gave her the gen, thinking it wisest not to reveal that the operation was being run without the knowledge of the management at Vauxhall House. Or that it was designed to get back at the EU, and not just to expose dodgy dealings involving Nazi gold, in case Elaine felt the competition was being used for political reasons. "We think Mencken hosting the competition here was a ploy and that he’s up to something. We need to find out what it is."
 Elaine physically reeled, almost falling off the bed. "I don’t believe it," she exclaimed. Her face set grimly as she tried to absorb it all. Finally she decided Caroline was telling the truth. "Well I suppose it makes sense. But couldn’t you have found some other way of doing it?"
 "We decided this was the best. I mean, you can see how tight security is here." 
Elaine breathed hard. "So that’s what you are. A spy."
"It’s just something I do in my spare time."
"Oh – I see."
 "I’m all sorts of things," Caroline said, sounding somehow wistful Elaine thought. "But I don’t do what I do without a reason. Usually." 
 "I’m sure you don’t, but you didn’t answer my question about Stephanie. Was she threatened in any way?"
Caroline winced, and looked down ashamedly. "Yes, I suppose she was."
A stony silence fell. 
"Hmmm," said Elaine. "Not a very nice business, is it."
 Hazel eyes could be very penetrating sometimes. Elaine’s bored into Caroline. "And you’re inclined to agree with me there, aren’t you?"
Caroline looked away.
"How could you be sure you’d win the Miss Britain contest anyway?"  
 "I don’t know if they put pressure on any of the judges or not. They wouldn’t have told me if they had in case I didn’t approve."
 "Interesting," Elaine commented. "You’re being honest with me, you really wouldn’t have liked it?"
 "No-one in their right mind would have liked it," Caroline snapped, not quite answering the question.
 Elaine sighed. "It’s clear to you, I take it, that I’m not entirely happy about all this. What would you do if I decided to blow the whistle? If I told the public, through the press, that Miss Planet is being used as a front by the intelligence services for some murky spying operation?" 
 Recovering her composure, Caroline returned Elaine’s gaze without flinching. "Please don’t do that," she said. "For your sake as much as anyone else’s." She bit her lip. "I can’t be certain, but if they’re capable of threatening people, and the stakes are high enough, they’re capable of carrying out the threat. Which means they won’t baulk at harming you if you spill the beans, just to set an example. No – I’m not entirely happy about all this myself. But they have their reasons. That’s all I’m going to say. Look, Elaine, it’s best you just stay out of it, and keep quiet if you do…notice anything. Make sure the other girls do the same, which they will if they’re sensible." She’d nearly said if they know what’s good for them but it conveyed a different impression, sounded like a threat and a nasty one, and she wasn’t comfortable at the realisation it had almost been on the tip of her tongue.       
 "You do your job, and I’ll do mine. With any luck both Miss Planet and the general good will benefit." 
"You’re here on false pretences."
 "I could still win." She looked searchingly at Elaine. "And it is something I’ve always wanted to do, honestly." Elaine was sure she spoke sincerely.
"But what if someone gets hurt?" 
 "There’ve been plenty of Mickey Mouse operations in the past. But the people who planned this job know what they’re doing." Which they did, rogue decision or not. 
 "And they wouldn’t do it," she said softly, "if there wasn’t something very big at stake here. If there wasn’t a chance of rather more people getting “hurt” than just us two." 
 Elaine held eye contact for a moment longer, her expression blank. Then, again breathing hard, she left Caroline to lose herself in her music, putting the conversation behind her.


Twenty-Two

The Count would occasionally drop into the lounge to make conversation with any of the contestants who happened to be there; it was obvious that like many elderly men he relished the company of pretty girls. Caroline guessed Francoise was resigned to it. 
 One day he came along and plumped himself down beside her. They were the only two people in the room. "Enjoying your stay here?" he enquired.
"It’s lovely, thanks," she smiled. 
"Were you familiar with Switzerland at all, before now?" 
 "I’ve been here a few times. Seen Geneva, Berne, Zurich. Oddly enough I’ve never done any ski-ing, though."
 "We thrive on tourism, of course." His face darkened morosely. "That’s why we’re worried about global warming."
"Of course; if it goes on getting worse it’s going to melt all the snow, isn’t it?"
 "I only hope it doesn’t get worse. People would still come here, of course, to see museums, and castles like this one, and other historic buildings. But it wouldn’t be the same." 
"Have you ever thought of opening this place to the public?"
"It’s an idea. But I guess I value my privacy too much."
 He seemed uncertain what to say next. Then he turned to her and smiled. "Perhaps you value yours too. You are a woman of mystery."
"Thankyou! Lends me a certain appeal. Maybe it’ll help me win."
 "Yes, a woman of mystery. And I sense you would prefer to remain so." He seemed genuinely intrigued by her; whether he was also testing her at the same time wasn’t clear. 
 "A lot of people are surprised that I suddenly decided to do something like this. But I wanted to before I was too old." The explanation would make sense.
 She put on a quizzical face. "But aren’t you a man of mystery? You more or less admitted it. And living up here in your castle…it makes it easier for people to say things about you that aren’t true."
"Perhaps," said Mencken. "Do you believe them?"
 She shrugged. "I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m here to take part in the competition and win, hopefully. Have a good time, if nothing else. That’s all."
 The Count rose, drink in hand, and made to leave the room. Somehow she sensed she was meant to follow him; he wasn’t being rude. She accompanied him down the corridor to the baronial hall, the two of them talking as they went. 
 He nodded at the carpet. "That was one of the last wild bears shot in Switzerland, by my grandfather in 1901."  
 At this they ran out of conversation. "Of course I know all about the – allegations," she began hesitantly. "Everyone does. But you’ve nothing to blame yourself for. The father isn’t the son." 
 Briefly she thought of something in her own family’s past that caused her some embarrassment and disquiet whenever she dwelt on it. 
 She didn’t press him on whether the stories about his father were true. Apart from anything else it was hardly a tactful business to raise with your host.  
 He turned to her and smiled warmly, genuinely touched she thought. "Thankyou."
 A reflective mood came over him. "For my own part I only hope I have managed to do some good for Mankind…of course one can become too buried in one’s work…" He must be referring to the extent to which he’d become estranged from his relatives because of it. 
"How do you think your work benefits Mankind?" she asked.
 "Well, I suppose it does. Tablets for use in medicine…not just cosmetics. Of course beauty is still important. It is not everything. But it adds quality to life and is one reason why the human race wishes to survive."
 His heavy features fell again. "But the way the world is, I sometimes wonder whether it does wish to survive. Certainly, whether or not it will."

*

Considering they were in the Alps it would have been odd if at some point the suggestion hadn’t been made they do some ski-ing. A few of the girls, about twenty in all, took it up, Caroline among them. The cable car took them to the Piz Helvetia, and a chair lift from there to the ski slope. They wore anoraks and sweaters over polo-neck T-shirts, long johns and thermal underwear; woollen ski hats, goggles, thick gloves and  plastic lace-up boots. The goggles would protect them from the wind and from the sunglare reflecting off the snow, though it was also deemed wise to apply several layers of suncream and lipsalve. 
 At the chairlift station they were met by their instructor. The area had been cleared, reserved for their own special use, apart from the press as this was basically a publicity exercise. A van arrived with all their gear, and each found a pair of skis and ski poles. The skis were made from an amalgam of plastic, fibreglass and polyurethanes, resulting in a material that was durable but flexible. Each had an adjustable toe- and heel-piece, moulded so it would fit snugly around the toe and heel of your boot. The poles were essential for support when walking about and as a balancing aid when ski-ing. Made from a light alloy with a plastic handle and steel tip, they had wrist straps or plastic handgrips enabling you to keep a tight hold of them. 
 They walked to the piste, carrying their skis over their shoulders. At one point Miss Norway, reacting to something one of the paparazzi had shouted out to the girls, stopped and turned round, clouting Miss Poland sharply on the head with hers.  
 Following their instructions, each chose a flat area of snow, put down the skis and without sitting down stepped into them, first kicking off any snow from the soles of their boots. Leaning on her poles for support, Caroline pressed down hard and the bindings locked around the boots, securing her to the skis in a way she at first found disagreeably restrictive. The whole arrangement, boots and skis, felt heavy and awkward. But then it must take time to get used to them. 
 They proceeded in an awkward shuffling motion to where the slope began. It was a fairly gentle one, and short, the first of a series designed for beginners. As Elaine had assured them, they didn’t have to do anything particularly dangerous or strenuous, just slide down the fifteen feet or so to the flat patch of ground at the bottom while the cameras flashed around them. Nevertheless Miss Jamaica and Miss Spain were clearly terrified, although they knew they couldn’t chicken out in front of the media and had to go through with it. Their expressions were quite remarkable. Keen to show she wasn’t scared, unlike them, Ingrid Faltskov shot down the slope, going a little too fast for the instructor’s liking. He shouted at her to slow down but by then she had gathered too much momentum. Suddenly her feet slipped from under her and she covered the remaining few yards on her bum, red-faced. Everyone laughed, Caroline loudest of all. From her expression the girl was clearly angry, for the first time showing emotion rather than an icy unspoken contempt. The more so because her unfortunate mishap had been recorded on camera and within the next few minutes would be broadcast across the world. 
 Next it was Caroline’s turn. To tell the truth she was as nervous as some of the others, at first anyway. She steeled herself, her eyes tight shut. She tensed, then launched herself forward. All she had to do was keep her legs together, and hold the ski poles so as to balance herself, until gravity brought her to a halt, which it did quite safely. She tried it a few times more; it lost its novelty even before Elaine decided the object of the exercise had been achieved and called a halt.
 This is no challenge, she thought. She felt almost insulted. And the germ of an idea began to form in her mind.

*

Later that day Caroline went to see Elaine in her room. "Um, you asked earlier if we fancied trying a bit of ski-ing." 
"And you did," Elaine reminded her.
 "It’s whetted my appetite. I feel I’d really like to do it; properly, I mean. They have classes for beginners, don’t they?"
 It was clear from Elaine’s expression that she wasn’t at all happy with the idea. "May I remind you we’ve got a heavy schedule to get through?" She reconsidered. "Well, I suppose if we can spare you…"
 By now Caroline was tired of the endless round of parties, press conferences, photocalls etc. She wanted to do something on her own initiative. And they were in Switzerland, so why not?  "We’re allowed several hours’ free time each day. If I can find out when the classes are – "
"What happens if you get hurt? That’ll mess things up just a little, won’t it?" 
 "I won’t get hurt," she insisted. As always she resented the implication she couldn’t be trusted with her own safety. She had never liked being cosseted. 
 Elaine thought hard about it, the situation clearly causing her some irritation. Caroline was beginning to feel guilty, and just about to back down when Elaine finally spoke.              
 "Alright. As I told you, you’re here on false pretences anyway. Do it if you want to, it’s not my fault if you end up in hospital. But you’ll have to sign a form indemnifying Miss Planet against any blame."
"Fair enough," said Caroline.
 "I should tell you that if it comes to it, in my opinion it’s better to have the competition without a Miss Britain than not have it at all. If you injure yourself – you could even be killed, it’s been known to happen – you lose the chance to represent your country, in addition to which the people you’re working for will have to find someone else to spy on the Count. And I suppose you expect me to provide the bodyguard too?"
Caroline shrugged. "I’ll be quite happy to go on my own if necessary."
 Elaine didn’t want that. "Alright then. I can find out for you when the next class is being held and arrange for a minder to be present."
"Thanks," said Caroline. "I’m really grateful."
"Not at all," said Elaine flatly. 
 Caroline left the older woman gazing after her and fuming. At length Elaine’s anger gave way to a feeling of puzzlement. She must know what she’s doing to be working for the security services, and yet she’s so – irresponsible, if you ask me. I just don’t understand it.
 Who are you really, Caroline, she wondered. What are you. Perhaps it’s better not to try and work it out. 
Maybe you’re just…you. But I still can’t work it out.
 It transpired there was a class every morning at the piste between ten and twelve. Caroline doubted she’d get through the whole course in the time she had, but there was no harm in trying. She took the cable car to Piz Helvetia and then the chair lift as before, accompanied by her minder who would be looking on all the time, and thinking, no doubt, that it was her own silly fault if she got hurt and messed up the contest. He was being paid for this, after all. 
 Apart from her there were ten others in the party, most of them tourists. Fortunately the instructor spoke good English, and had a friendly and understanding approach to his charges. 
 They did a few stretching and limbering-up exercises to warm up. Then a few sessions simply going down the slope, as at the photoshoot, to build up their confidence. One or two decided not to take things any further but most graduated to the next stage, where the slope was slightly steeper and longer. They used the poles as brakes to slow themselves down as they neared the bottom, pressing the tips hard against the ground. 
 The faster she descended the slope the further she was going away from help. She knew she had to conquer the fear that she would get something wrong and injure herself, perhaps permanently. But as she gathered speed, it mounted.
 Don’t panic…keep calm…otherwise, it will happen, won’t it? Or at least it’s more likely to.
Remember the poles are a brake. 
 It was with a sense of heartfelt relief that she reached the bottom safely. She repeated the run a few times, her confidence growing the longer she avoided any nasty mishaps.  
 She came back the following day, and the day after. The next slope had markers, flags, which you had to learn to turn around. There were other obstacles you had to look out for: natural ridges and bumps in the ground, rough patches of snow. It meant maintaining balance and co-ordination over a longer period. Each time the instructor of course went first, having explained briefly what they had to do, and before following him they studied his movements, his body shape, in order to copy them.  
 Bend your legs, lean forward and while keeping a tight hold of the handgrips tuck the ski poles under your arms, so they stick out behind you, remaining in that position until you needed them. Then let yourself slide off. 
 She learned how to use the poles as levers to increase her speed, as well as brakes. All the time she kept the soles of her feet flat on the slope so as to minimise resistance. 
 It was important to judge the right moment to turn. When it came you put your weight on both feet evenly, bent your legs along with your body from the hips upward and twisted to one side or the other, leaning outward at a certain angle. At this point the ski poles were used both for stability and to steer yourself around the marker. 
 Take a little weight off the left or right ski, depending on which direction you want to turn. Pressing down on the right ski turned you to the left, and vice versa. 
 She realised that her skills as a dancer, which many people had commented on, would help her. Dancing was all about balance, agility, co-ordination. 
 If you couldn’t avoid a bump in time, bend the legs so that they would absorb the shock. When you needed to slow down on approaching the bottom and were going too fast for the poles on their own to be effective in reducing speed spread your skis into a V-shape, which also had a braking effect.    
 She was quite frankly terrified each time a marker approached, but once you were shooting away down the slope you had no choice but to concentrate on remembering all the instructor had said and putting it into practice, if you wanted to avoid just the sort of accident you most feared. That helped. 
 She completed one such run successfully, then it was time to pack up for the day. Unfortunately this would be the last session as the Miss Planet timetable didn’t allow any more. She returned to the castle with her skin tinged a healthy pink by the cold, and her spirits high. She was quite pleased with what she’d achieved. But would it be enough? She was sure that on several occasions she’d been a fraction from hitting the marker or skidding sideways across the slope and going over. If nothing else she’d enjoyed the camaraderie with the other members of the class, most of whom had been equally terrified. When they each laughed at the others’ mistakes it was a form of bonding, not of malice. Within a short time she’d struck up enough of a rapport with her fellow pupils to be sad that she’d probably never see them again.
 She thought of what the Count had said about global warming, and wondered how long people would be able to go on doing things like this anyway. Well, she was glad to have had a go while she could.
 That night the girls went out on the town again. A special meal had been laid on for them at the Wilhelm Tell, with a selection of fruit and veg and an Alpine cheese board. Caroline had little doubt everything had been carefully chosen so that the cholesterol content wasn’t high enough for them to put on weight.
 At the table next to theirs one diner, scowling fiercely in concentration and to the accompaniment of shouts of encouragement from his companions, was indulging in the time-honoured custom of dipping a cube of bread on a fork into a fondue, a mass of melted cheese in which it was easy for it to get lost. If anyone did lose theirs they bought the next round of drinks or, in Geneva, got thrown in the lake. 
 Caroline was sitting next to Joumana Jamil. "How are you feeling as the big day approaches?" she asked. 
Joumana smiled. "Nervous. But God is with me."
"You think He wants you to do this – to take part in the competition?"
"So that I can be an ambassador for my country and for Muslims, yes."
 Caroline looked round the room, at the people laughing and chatting while they ate, the accordion troupe playing away merrily. The Swiss seemed to know how to have a good time, despite their rather dull image. "There’s a lot I like about them," she told Joumana. "But quite honestly, do you think they’re racist?"
Joumana pulled a face, thinking. "Maybe. But then everyone is, in a way." 
"You mean there’s a certain natural bias towards one’s own kind?" 
 "I guess so. But we all have to make the effort to live in peace with one another. That’s what matters."
"So them trying to keep out immigrants, and all that fuss about mosques…"
 "They’re scared of change. They don’t want anything which is going to challenge their way of life, their traditions, too much. You can’t blame them. I suppose I would feel the same way in their situation."  
 And personally Caroline was glad that there was at least somewhere which was free from silly Euro-laws, from the increasing power of Brussels and its impact on everyday life. 
The shouts from the fondue table grew louder. 
"What do you think of the Count?"
"He seems OK." 
 Caroline lowered her voice a fraction. "Have the rumours about him ever bothered you?"
"There’s no proof. And the competition means a lot to me."
 Miss America, sitting on Caroline’s other side, grinned. "I think it makes it all the more exciting." 
The noise from the next table was almost deafening.  
 Caroline was thinking if that if she succeeded in exposing the Count it would probably wreck the competition. Perhaps a way could be found of carrying on; Elaine would certainly try to do that, despite all the hassle and setbacks she’d already had. But if it did wreck it she’d have ruined not only her own chances of winning but all the other girls’ too. She didn’t feel at ease about that. But…
 Cries of derision went up from nearby. "Throw them in the lake!" someone shouted. A couple of minutes later they heard a loud splash from outside. They weren’t in Geneva, and were some distance from a lake, but the hotel swimming pool could be pressed into service as a substitute. Fortunately at this time of year it was heated. 
 It would be better to wait until after the contest, thought Caroline. But then everyone would be packing up and going home. No, she’d have to do it before. And with only three days to go now…
 They could postpone the revelation maybe, certainly time things to try and make it look as if Miss Planet had not been the vehicle for the operation. If before the competition she had to skedaddle she guessed they’d go ahead without her.
 She already knew how she would go about things. She had tried to think of alternatives but none had come to mind. It was time now for her to make her move. 

Twenty-Three

If there was something at the castle the Count and his staff wanted to keep hidden they wouldn’t go out of their way to assist her in finding it. But it helped that in order not to start people thinking the Count and his staff weren’t keeping a particular eye on Caroline. It would make it much easier for her to do what she had in mind. 
 She was going to have to make absolutely sure she didn’t make the slightest wrong move. Because this time, for her, the stakes were higher than they’d ever been. Not only was there the possibility of personal danger. If her cover was blown, whether or not the assignment was successfully completed, she’d be finished not only with MI6 but possibly IPL too. 
 She had tried to carefully probe, ask the staff innocent-sounding questions about the castle and the Count’s work which might lead to them unconsciously giving something away, but she didn’t learn anything. They were on their guard, or genuinely ignorant. She’d have to be more direct than was wise. As for physically trying to locate the evidence it was likely most if not all of the castle was covered by CCTV and if she went anywhere she wasn’t meant to…well, you couldn’t tell when they were bothering to watch it and when they weren’t. 
There was only one way, in the end, of doing it that might just possibly work. 
 On the first night, when everyone was mingling and having drinks in the banqueting hall, the security guards had looked on with faces that were impassive, at best solemn. At least they were trying to, more or less with success. For she sensed they appreciated, as most of their sex would, being in the presence of beautiful women. 
 She had cast her eyes over them, her gaze lingering on each just long enough to size him up without him or any of his colleagues guessing what she was trying to do. 
 Should they meet that gaze, she would smile and look away – as you would, because you wouldn’t want to appear rude or too inquisitive. And wait for another opportunity. 
 It was only just detectable, but one of the guards seemed from his body language, his expression, the gleam in his eye, to have slightly more difficulty suppressing his thoughts than the others. The latter either hadn’t noticed this or were prepared to forgive him it – being men themselves, they understood and didn’t feel qualified to condemn.
 He was a big, powerfully-built man, like his fellows. He had dirty blond hair and blue eyes and was neither ugly nor devastatingly handsome. 
She waited for her chance. 
 Simultaneously with considering the alternatives she had tried to work out the best way to engineer a meeting. So far the right opportunity hadn’t come along. Then, halfway through the afternoon and three days before the competition, it did. 
 She left the lounge to go to her room, and on the way passed the guard, who was on his regular round of the place, in the hall. She realised that his route would take him to the lounge, which had been empty apart from herself. No-one there to hear what passed between them, and maybe get suspicious. 
 She walked on a little, then returned to the lounge, where he had by now arrived. At the moment his back was to her and he couldn’t see her thinking, establishing which chair was closest to where he would pass on his way out. She picked up the newspaper on the table beside it and started to read. 
 She heard him turn away from the window and make towards the door. She tossed aside the newspaper, as if she had not found it particularly interesting, and sat with one knee over the other looking relaxed, in the way of someone who didn’t have an awful lot to do right now but wasn’t yet bored.  
 The guard caught her eye, and they exchanged smiles. "I don’t think we’ve met before," she said in a casual but friendly manner.
"I haven’t had the pleasure."
"I’m Caroline Kent." She stood, offering her hand. 
 "Hello, it’s nice to meet you." She could tell he was thrilled that she was taking an interest in him. "Are you enjoying it here?"
 "Yes, it’s lovely thanks. It’s like a dream. Although…" She fell silent for a moment, her head bowed. 
"Although what?" 
 "It does get very tiring at times, all the things we have to do. Still, it’ll be worth it if I win."
"Do you think you will?" he asked.
"Who can tell." 
"You would earn more money than I do each year!"
"Is it that bad?" 
"Well, we’d all like to be millionaires I guess." 
"I won’t quite be that," she laughed.
"But there must be many girls who dream of being a supermodel."
 "It’s not as glamorous as people think it is," she replied, sounding resentful, her face clouding over. 
"No?" 
 She slumped lower in her chair. "I suppose this is…the same thing. And I’d done some modelling before." Which in fact was true. "As I said, it’s tiring…they always want you to do this or that, to look pretty, to be smiling and cheerful all the time. You don’t know how much of a strain that can be. And the media following you everywhere, you don’t get any privacy. You can’t be yourself." She went silent again. Then she resumed talking bitterly about how exploitative she knew the modelling industry to be, how she felt despite the way the world had changed in the last few years that she was still seen only as a means of making money for the agencies, expected constantly to perform for the cameras, often got out of bed at an unsociable hour to be taken to a shoot because it had to be done under the right conditions. 
"I am sorry," he said.
 She sensed it was working. He couldn’t resist the tug on his heart strings of a pretty blonde looking crushed and miserable.  
 "I thought it’d be so much better than my day job, an escape from a dull life. But it’s just as bad, maybe worse."
"What is your day job?"
 She described the pressures of working for a high-octane (in a manner of speaking) international oil company, the jetlag, the strain at times of sorting out problems with conservationists, contractors, disaffected employees; the low pay compared to male colleagues, the still very sexist environment in which she operated, the office politics, and Hennig. It was all exaggerated to some extent, but her anger was real enough to lend it credibility. Nice to have a chance to get things off her chest. 
 "Still, life is never perfect." The tone of her voice changed a little. "What’s your name?"
"Hans."
"Hi. So do you like working here?"
 "The Count is a fair employer, and in truth he pays well. The work itself…well, it is dull most of the time, to be honest. Necessary. But I don’t have anywhere near as exciting a time as you must." He checked himself. "Although from what you say – "
"Maybe you’re the lucky one," she laughed. 
 The conversation continued in a light-hearted vein. They talked about their jobs, their leisure activities, the competition, any matter large or small that came to mind. She showed interest in his affairs, sympathy for his problems, found the same things amusing that he did. From time to time she would touch him lightly upon the arm; she knew the gesture delighted him, like a pleasurable electric shock. 
 He started to look awkward, because all this was keeping him from his duties. Now or never, she thought. 
 "Why don’t you come along to my room later? I often get together with some of the other girls for a drink or something. I’m sure they’d love you to join us." He would be less likely to suspect her motives if it wasn’t just her present, if she was merely inviting him to a party. There might still be a chance of scoring. In fact, a whole bevy of beautiful women, possibly rendered more forthcoming than they might otherwise be by the influence of drink… 
 It was clear the thought had occurred to him. "How about tonight? I’ll be off-duty, but I could always say there was something I had to do here." 
 For Caroline’s plan to work, he would have to be on duty. "I’m going to be a bit busy tonight. There’s another photoshoot to do in town."
 He was thinking he might not get another chance before the competition ended. "Tomorrow night? I’ll be on duty then, but I don’t suppose it’ll matter."
 Then he hesitated, face clouding, as he remembered the risks involved. "If anyone sees me going into your room I’ll get into trouble." Both the Count and Elaine had made it abundantly clear that the castle staff were not allowed to fraternise too closely with the girls at any time during the run-up to the contest.
 "Spoilsports," sniffed Caroline. "They ought to let you have a bit of fun. Anyway, they won’t see you if you’re careful."
 "There’s CCTV here," he pointed out. The guard entrusted with watching it would only leave his post to visit the toilet and you couldn’t of course know when that would be.
 "That won’t be a problem," she said, and grinned slyly. "I know what to do. Listen…"
 A little later she found a quiet corner and texted Pierre Valdin. "I think I’ve done it." 
 She had already made a rough calculation of how long it would take to put her plan into operation. "Be on the mountain, where the secret passage is, at around ten p.m. tomorrow." 


Twenty-Four

In the office used by the security guards Benito Alessandri sat watching the CCTV screens and sipping from a mug of coffee.  It was past ten o’clock now and apart from himself and Hans – the one patrolling the night-time corridors, the other manning the CCTV – the rest of the staff were either in bed or, in the case of those not resident on the premises, at their homes in Eissensberg. The Count would have long ago retired to his bedroom where he and Francoise were no doubt busy enjoying each other’s company. The girls of course kept to their rooms, as did the representatives of the press. If any of the latter did start snooping around Benito would soon spot them. 
 It wasn’t really necessary for Hans to be walking about the place, only for him to be available should his assistance be needed. The idea was that if one of them saw something amiss on the cameras he could alert the other, who would deal with it if he could. If he couldn’t they would sound the alarm and wake Michel. 
The door opened and Hans came in. 
"How’s it going, Benito?" 
Benito shrugged. "All quiet. Nothing happening we need to worry about."
 They talked for a bit. Benito sounded jaded; after all, it was a boring job, to stay sitting watching a TV screen when most of the time nothing interesting was going on and you’d rather be on the town with your girlfriend. "Want me to relieve you for a bit?" Hans asked.
 Benito brightened a little. He would still have to stay on the premises keeping an eye on things, but was glad of the chance to stretch his legs. "OK. How long for?"
 Hans glanced at his watch. "May as well take over until Kurt comes along at four." 
 "Great. Thanks for that. See you later, then." Hans took Benito’s place at the screen. Benito got together his belongings, nodded to his colleague and went off. 
 Hans waited for about twenty minutes, continually looking at the screens to check on Benito’s whereabouts. He saw Benito enter his room (the guards all had homes in town, but had also been allocated quarters at the castle for use while on duty). It was in a part of the castle some way from the guest section, meaning that if he moved fast enough Hans could get to Caroline’s room without bumping into him should he decide to go on walkabout. Probably, though, having stretched his legs Benito would stay in his room reading or watching a DVD unless there was an alarm. 
Hans left the room.
 He had discussed the matter in some detail with Caroline and decided that there shouldn’t be any danger if he was careful. Benito might decide to pop into the CCTV room for a chat and find him absent, but if he did would probably conclude Hans had merely gone to relieve himself. Offhand, Hans couldn’t think of some more serious matter which would require him to hang around until his colleague returned. Altogether, both of them felt the risk was sufficiently slight to be worth taking. 
 He knew he shouldn’t be doing this. But he couldn’t spurn the company of such a gorgeous, captivating woman. And he liked the thought of being able to say he’d screwed Miss Planet; he could always pretend he’d done it after the actual competition, if she did win. 
 In her room Caroline had put some music on and was sitting waiting for him. Reflecting that Elaine would not be particularly pleased if she discovered the assignation, but would at least guess why she was doing it. She smiled at the thought of how the matriarch of Miss Planet would have reacted otherwise. 
 She heard him knock and opened the door. "Hi," she smiled. "I don’t know what’s happened to the others." She looked round the otherwise unpopulated room with a disappointed sigh. "Come on in! You may as well. Would you like a drink?"  
 "That’d be nice," he said, stepping over the threshold and closing the door carefully. She crossed to the minibar. "What will you have? Some Schnapps?"
 She poured drinks for them both. Letting him have the chair, she seated herself on the bed instead; a natural enough thing to do if she wanted to show courtesy towards a guest in her room, which was what he was she supposed. 
 They talked. From time to time she would lean forward and touch him on the arm, as before. They were just about close enough to one another for it to be possible. 
She earnestly hoped he wasn’t married.
 "Yes, I’ll be glad in a way when the competition’s over. I can relax for a bit. It’s been fun, some of the time…I’ve made some new friends, had a good time with them…"  
"But once it’s all finished, things can get back to normal?"
"I guess so."
"How are you going to spend the money?"
"On charity, probably. It won’t last anyway. I don’t suppose I need it that much."
"Even though they don’t pay you as much at IPL as they do the men?" 
 "It isn’t fair. But I don’t want to become too greedy. I don’t want the money to mean too much to me. That way life loses all its soul." 
 "And that would be a terrible thing," Hans agreed. "Tell me, what do you really think of these conservationists you were talking about…" 
 "Oh, I don’t mind them, especially not these days. They’ve got a job to do same as we have." She went on about how she tried in her work to achieve a balance between concern for the environment and ensuring economic prosperity, as well as to see that employees and members of the public affected by the company’s operations were treated fairly, and how it upset her when the cut-throat nature of the trade got in the way of that.
 "If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?" He still seemed puzzled that someone in her position needed to go in for Miss Planet.
 "I considered being a model, or an actress – something in showbiz, anyway – when I left college. I didn’t go for it. I’ve often wondered whether I made a mistake." This also was true, which enabled her to say it with conviction. "And now it’s too late," she said, again looking sorry for herself.
 "It’s not too late. Everyone is ageing better these days. There are women much older than you who can still look good in a bikini."
"Oh, you’re so sweet!" She touched him on the arm again.
 "And your employers should value you more, Caroline. Because you are a good person. You care about others, unlike so many."
 "I care, yes. But whether I’m always a good person…" Again she grinned mischievously.
 "So you don’t care that much about the money? Is it the fame, the recognition? The chance to be Miss Planet?" 
 "Guess so. Everyone will forget about me eventually, of course. But it’ll be fun while it lasts."
"So what are you going to do with your life in the end? Will you stay with IPL?"
 "Maybe, I don’t know," she shrugged. "Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy ourselves. We’re only young once. Have fun while you can, that’s what I say. Another drink?" He nodded. She made it, at the same time replenishing her own.
 "What are you going to do with yourself in the end, Hans?" she asked as she handed it to him. "What do you like?"
 "Well, in my spare time I read...watch TV...ski. Spend some time in the gym or the pool here. Go out on the town some nights. It’s a good life and I like it." 
"That’s what counts most – being happy."
 They went on chatting. A few more minutes passed. Pretending she was a bit tipsy – only a bit, or he would be more likely to think he was taking advantage of her, and have a fit of conscience – she giggled playfully, and brushed her hand over his crotch. 
 Again thrilled by her apparent interest in him, along with her beauty, and perhaps under the influence of drink to some extent, he didn’t protest. She felt him twitch through the fabric of his trousers, hardening. 
 Now she had indicated that she wanted to go further than just flirtation; that she was willing to give him what he really wanted. Which was to take this beautiful golden goddess, this blonde Venus who oozed sex from every pore, and enjoy her to the utmost.
 He rose slowly to his feet, as she did the same, and reached out for her. His hands cupped her breasts and fondled them through her blouse, feeling for the nipples. She undid the top button of his shirt. 
 She judged that the walls were thick enough to muffle the sounds of animal passion. 
 Breathing in short, sharp gasps, they started to undress, kicking off their shoes. Hans peeled off his socks, then ripped away his shirt with such force it almost tore. Removing her dress, Caroline reached behind her back and unhooked the clasp of her bra. Hans fumbled helplessly with his belt, so keen to get things going he couldn’t concentrate on the task. Deliciously, she did it for him. His trousers collapsed to his knees and he lifted his feet free of them. 
 Topless now, Caroline undid the belt of her skirt and it fell to the floor. Hans yanked down his underpants and his massive erection sprang free. 
 Caroline took off her stockings, then finally her knickers. It was clear Hans would have forced himself on her where they stood, overcome by desire. As he lunged forward her hand shot out, enclosing his penis and grasping it firmly. He moaned in pleasure, deciding to concentrate on the sensation as she masturbated him. She reached with her free hand for the drawer beside her and took from it a sachet of condoms. 
 She’d have to let go of him to tear it open and was afraid he would take her before she could get the condom on him. Deciding it was the lesser risk, she dropped to her knees and took him in her mouth. If that brought him to orgasm they could always try again a bit later. She managed to get the condom out of the sachet while doing it, and withdrew. Expertly she unrolled the Durex down the length of him. "You’d forgotten that, hadn’t you," she said with a schoolmistressy reproach which turned him on. 
 She climbed onto the bed, spread her legs and lay back, breasts jutting towards the ceiling. Her mouth was partly open, her eyes wide and shining. "Come fuck me," they said. 
 He threw himself on her, his body smacking against hers with a force that made her gasp. Then he was thrusting in and out like a piledriver. Rather than feel degraded by it the best thing was to give as good as she got. So she rammed herself to his hilt, writhing and twisting and squirming beneath him, digging her nails into the flesh of his back and shoulders, her thighs gripping his when the time came with savage tightness. 
 It was over in a couple of minutes; nonetheless Hans seemed happy enough. They lay beside each other, drained for now. "Alright?" she asked. 
 He wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "You were so good the condom didn’t make any difference. In fact I forgot I was wearing one."
"You’re very kind," she said. 
"Do it again?" she suggested a little later. 
"You bet."
 Now it felt different; better. His initial craving for her appeased, he was willing to take longer over the business. The foreplay didn’t cause him to come prematurely as she was afraid it might. She did all the things she knew men liked, trying all the tricks she’d learnt from a prostitute, making both the preliminaries and the act itself more enjoyable. She rendered the whole thing less sordid and more pleasurable for herself by imagining it was someone she loved. 
 It was done with the same passion but with more care, skill, and inventiveness. But finally, having thoroughly explored all the possibilities, they threw restraint to the winds.
 She felt her breasts swell, the nipples hardening. He rammed harder and harder, as their hands moved with increasing speed over each other’s bodies and her skin flushed with the exertion, the excitement. His muscles flexed and pumped beneath her touch as he entered her again and again, filling her with his rock-hard manhood, a red hot poker burning out her vitals with a delicious fire.   
 They had a good innings, but finally he could contain himself no longer and the warm sperm filled the teat of the condom. She orgasmed a moment later, a shuddering spasm travelling the length of her body, the fire sweeping through its every cell and leaving her exhausted but happy in its wake.  
 "Oh, James," she whispered, and was briefly sad. But it passed; and she really had enjoyed the experience. It had been some time since she’d last had a man.
 Fortunately Hans hadn’t heard her. His eyes were closed and there was a beatific smile on his face. "Jesus," he murmured. "You are one dirty bitch, you know that."
He was still in a kind of pleasant post-coital stupor. "Drink?" she suggested. 
 "Mmmm," he replied. She selected an Aste Spumante from the minibar, pouring the contents of the bottle into the glass. He didn’t see her pick up the small white tablet, which had been among the items given her by Winlett before she set off on her mission, from the side and drop it in. While it dissolved she poured a Bacardi for herself, then took both glasses and rejoined him on the bed. 
"That was fantastic," she told him. 
"Mmmm," he said.
They sipped at their drinks mostly in silence. After a while he started snoring.
 She got out her mobile and texted Valdin and Bouvier again, fearing the reception might not be good enough for them to hear her properly. "It’s Caroline. Listen, I’ve made sure no-one’s watching the CCTV. It should be alright for you to move in now." 
 Bouvier texted back. "Well done. We’re not quite in position yet, but we should have enough time. What will you do now?" 
 She had already decided on her next move. It might be safer to stay where she was. If she were caught it could blow the whole plan. But a two-pronged attack had its advantages. It made sense for her to save Bouvier and his companions having to blow or cut open a door or two, if she could. If they used plastic explosive someone would probably hear it go off, and cutting would take time during which they might be discovered. 
 Hans should be out until shortly before four, which was the time Benito was supposed to have been relieved by Kurt. If she was back in the room by then, returning Hans’ keys before he realised they were missing, there’d be no problem. She would have to be careful to avoid Benito, but she doubted if he’d bother to be prowling around if he thought someone was watching the CCTV. Most probably he’d be relaxing unless and until he was called to say his services were required. 
 She told them of her intentions. Bouvier agreed it made sense. But take care, came the reply. 
Will do, she typed. Au revoir.
 She went to the pile of Hans’ clothes and removed the keyring which had been attached to his belt. Each of the guards had a complete set of keys – a forest of them, in fact – and swipe cards in case they needed swift access to any part of the castle. It was a sensible arrangement. One of the keys must be a master, but she couldn’t tell which. She guessed from the size of the building that there were more rooms altogether than there were keys, but the latter must give access to the most important places, at least.   
 Caroline dressed and left the room. She stood trying to think where she would be most likely to find what she was looking for. Presumably nowhere near the guest rooms, as the Count wanted to minimise the possibility of an outsider stumbling upon it. 
 She started to wander around, the agility and smoothness with which she glided across the dance floor also helping her to move about the castle quietly. 
 Someone had turned the lights off at some point, wishing to save energy; she found the switch and turned them back on again.
 As expected she didn’t hear Benito. She did of course from time to time hear the small sounds of the night; floorboards creaking as they expanded, water gurgling in pipes, a scurrying which might have been a mouse. And at one point, even through the solid mediaeval walls, the wind howling around the turrets and spires and battlements of the castle as if bemoaning the ineffectiveness of its assault on the massively thick stones.
 She turned a corner and found the corridor blocked by a locked door. The key to it was on the ring. She relocked it behind her and surveyed her surroundings. Another corridor, which seemed to go on quite a way. Dimmer lights were on and she turned them up, until a yellow glare illuminated the passage. The walls were not wood-panelled here but plastered, probably over bare concrete. 
 The corridor seemed to lead right into the heart of the mountain. She crept along, pausing every now and then to listen, and taking even more care to be quiet on the uncarpeted floor. 
 Whenever she came to a door she listened carefully to make sure there was no-one in the room, then searched among the keys and cards until she found the right one. 
 Storerooms, toilets, a little office. The storerooms held either equipment used in cleaning and maintenance, or scientific supplies. The latter came as no surprise because the Count was known to be a scientist, his research directed mainly towards perfecting the products of his pharmaceutical companies, and it was no secret he had a laboratory here, though tight security was imposed in order to keep out industrial spies. One room housed a generator, a big one, which she guessed supplied power to the lab. 
 In each room she searched thoroughly, always taking meticulous care to put everything back the way she’d found it. There was one which did contain something interesting. Really a large cupboard, it seemed to be an armoury with a collection of rifles, M16s etc, within. Among the more conventional weapons were several rather unusual looking guns with butts, handgrips and triggers but otherwise more like the sprays used in gardening or agriculture. The barrels were white cylinders each ending in a nozzle like that of a hose. 
 She arrived at an important-looking pair of double doors recessed into the wall. She suspected this was the lab. It seemed unlikely that gold bullion or antique paintings would be kept in a laboratory but it’d be as well to make sure. She swiped the lock with the card, a green light came on above the doors, and they swung slowly open. Stepping through them, she groped on the wall for the light switch. 
 The place was vast. The lab would have started out as a relatively small room within the castle itself, but over the years it seemed part of the mountain had been hollowed out, probably by the previous Count, to accommodate the equipment required. The room was open plan, with workbenches down its centre and at the sides, interspersed with vats, centrifuges and masses of complex ultramodern machinery whose purpose she probably couldn’t have worked out even on closer inspection. Everything gleamed with a bluish sheen in the strip lighting. She went around taking photographs of whatever looked sufficiently important.
 The room seemed as long as a football pitch, its roof as high as a cathedral’s. In particular, space had had to be found for the massive piece of apparatus on the left, a ridged metal cylinder the size of a railway carriage and accessed via a ladder and catwalk. As she looked up at it in awe, she had a feeling she ought to know what it was. 
 Something sitting on one of the benches caught her eye and she went to inspect it. A lump of rock, at least that was what it looked like; the size of a football and dull brown in colour with lighter patches, strands of a silvery-white matter more crystalline in appearance, that linked up like a network of nerve-endings. She picked it up; it felt like rock, but warm. She realised there was a thin coating of some kind of powder, or dust, on the object and on the bench where it had rested. Some of it got onto her hand and she brushed it off. 
 She put the object down and moved on. More benches, and more of the big steel vats, which were connected to some sort of pumping machinery. And… 
She frowned. What the heck was that?
 Standing on a low dais, it resembled some weird abstract sculpture, a strange thing to have in a laboratory. A column of the rock-like material, about eight or nine feet tall and as thick as a tree trunk, featureless but with a rounded section at the top which looked vaguely like a head. Its surface was made up of a number of planes with ridged edges. 
 It felt hard and smooth – stone, or something like it. And with that warm feel again.
 Looking down, she saw that a few tiny grains of the powder had stuck to her fingers. Her eye fell on the nearest work station, where there was a microscope. It was a huge, complex-looking affair, but she had some basic idea of how microscopes worked from science classes at school, plus a toy one (which actually worked) that she had been given as a child, one Christmas or birthday. She plugged it into a junction box and switched it on. There were instructions for operating it in German and French, as well as Italian. Thank God it wasn’t in Romansch.
 Gently she eased a few of the grains of – it was not unlike sand, with a similar colouring – onto a slide and placed it under the microscope. She bent over the device and squinted through the eyepiece. She couldn’t see much, so increased the magnification. 
 What she saw was a structure not unlike a crystal lattice. But there was something about it…that thing there, surely it was…from pictures she’d seen in scientific textbooks it looked like…
She could be mistaken. But if she wasn’t…
It was the nucleus of a cell.
 There was a computer next to the microscope. Probably access to the data it contained was by password, which she wouldn’t know, but she thought she’d have a go. 
 Switching it on, she got a screensaver. What it was meant to be she had no idea at first. She saw twisting, multicoloured shapes continually winding around each other, then unwinding, then uniting again in a tight embrace. 
It was beautiful. 
 Fascinated, she peered closer. At the strands of light weaving about, undulating, curving, twisting like snakes into a…
Into a spiral. 
That hourglass shape, those things like the rungs of a ladder…
 This wasn’t just a pretty picture. It was a projection, a diagrammatic representation of something. 
The DNA helix.
 Only…the “rungs” were arrangements of proteins, weren’t they? Proteins and amino acids. And yet here each was made up of lots of little interlocking shapes which looked like snowflakes. Yes…like the crystals of snowflakes. 
A crystal lattice.  
 Everything she’d read told her it wasn’t possible. And yet the shapes she’d seen under the microscope proved otherwise. 
"It’s a life form," she murmured, fascinated. "A silicon life form."
 And then the door of an office cubicle opened, and a man stepped out into the main lab. She’d seem him hovering in the background a few times over the last few days, at the photoshoot and other events, as well as on TV back home. Not sure of the name, but he was some big businessman, wasn’t he? She had presumed his company was one of those sponsoring the competition. 
 He was followed by the chief security guard, Michel, behind whom appeared the Count. Michel was carrying a handgun, which suggested it might be unwise to try and make a break for it.
 She waited without expression as they approached. She saw the thin smile on the businessman’s face. "Seen enough, Miss Kent?" 
 

Twenty-Five

She decided she might as well try to bluff it out. "I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep, went for a walk. The door was unlocked and I was just being nosy, really." 
"A likely story," he said. "Considering all we know about you."
She frowned. "I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean."
 "What I mean is that you’re connected with the security services. You use them whenever you need to, just as they use you."
"I don’t have the slightest – "
"We have friends in the world of intelligence. They gave us all the gen."  
 Clearly there was no point in keeping up the pretence. She decided instead to change the subject. "You’re a businessman, aren’t you. Are intelligence matters really your concern?"
 "Come now, Caroline, you aren’t some naïve innocent. There’ve been links between big business and the spooks in the past. Take MI6, for instance; it’s always been part of its brief to protect British interests abroad, and that means helping those UK companies which operate internationally whenever they run into a spot of bother and can’t get out of it by themselves."
 "A smokescreen," Caroline said. "To protect the company from any unpleasantness should dodgy deals be exposed. By doing its dirty work for it."
 "Hasn’t your beloved IPL used the security services whenever it’s suited it to do so?"
 "Not with my approval. And what you’re doing is pretty big, isn’t it? So big some people might not like it, so you have to get anyone who discovers the truth out of the way."
 "You got it." Kenward registered her expression. "Not too happy about your cover being blown, are you? Cheer up, sweetheart, it doesn’t matter now."
 What did he mean? She saw that the Count was looking uncomfortable, worried. She wondered if she ought to ask Kenward to elaborate, if he didn’t do so himself, but was afraid it would only unsettle her. No sense in that. She’d find out what was in store for her in due course. 
"How did you do it?" the Count asked. "How did you breach our security?" 
 Well it was quite simple really, Caroline thought. But she didn’t want to get Hans into trouble. 
Kenward shrugged. "It’s not important now." 
 "It is," said Doumer. He bore down on Caroline. "How did you do it?" he repeated, voice harsh and threatening. 
 "I got the keys off Hans while he was sleeping." Solemnly she handed them over. "Don’t be too hard on him." 
 The CCTV should still have spotted her, Doumer thought. He’d have to have words with the Count about that.
 Kenward spoke. "Like I said, it doesn’t matter now. But I made a bet with the Count here. We had a bit of a problem; we suspected you, but we couldn’t tell Miss Planet we didn’t want you on the premises without explaining the reason, or follow you around without people noticing and wondering why we were doing it. You might have noticed it yourself, and been put on your guard. And if you disappeared it would be even more likely to set alarm bells ringing. It could be argued we had nothing to lose. 
 "Some of us, including myself, thought the best way to get round the problem was to bring our plans forward. Others, like the Count here, disagreed. Eventually I hit on the right solution. Me and the Count reached an agreement. If you couldn’t get past our security, there’d be no damage done from his point of view. And security here is pretty tight. Bruno didn’t seem to think it was very likely you could breach it. 
 "But if you did, we’d move the plan forward. Normally the key turns off the alarm. But we rejigged things so we’d know if you did manage to get in." She must have broken a light beam at some point and caused a sensor somewhere to flash, perhaps activating a hidden camera at the same time.   
 "You made doubly sure I saw what you wanted me to," she said. "Just so you could get your way."
 The Count glanced briefly at Kenward, and it seemed there was resentment in his face. Doumer’s was expressionless.
 "Had you been camping out in that office all this time?" she asked. "Such dedication."
"We’ve been taking it in turns to keep watch," said Doumer. 
 "And all because of…" Again she studied the tree-like shape; the silicon life form. "It’s…remarkable." 
"You understand what it is?"
She nodded. "How did you do it?"
"Do we tell her?" Doumer asked his companions.
 "We might as well," said Kenward. "She knows enough as it is." He nodded to the Count. "You’re the scientist, you explain."
 Mencken addressed himself to Caroline. "I don’t know how much you know about biochemistry, above a basic level." 
"Try me."
 "Silicon has many chemical properties similar to carbon. It is in the same group, number four, on the periodic table. Our own bodies are, it should be noted, not entirely organic. Minerals like calcium make up our bones and teeth, and we need iron in our diet as a protein, a nutrient. Organic materials evolved in the first place out of inorganic ones. It has been suggested that the first living organisms on this planet were a form of clay mineral. Some simple life forms on Earth today, such as diatoms and corals, have a silicate skeletal structure. Silicon – in the broader sense of any inorganic material – is essential for the functioning of life on Earth and played a vital part in its creation. 
 "The possibility of silicon life forms, here or on another planet, had been raised by scientists, and of course science fiction writers, since the late nineteenth century." Unconsciously he adopted a lecture-hall tone. "In 1893 the British chemist James Reynolds suggested that the heat stability of silicon compounds might allow life to exist at very high temperatures which in an organic form it could not survive. In the 1920s another British scientist, J B Haldane, put forward the idea that life might be found deep within the surface of a planet in the form of partly molten silicates – compounds in which silicon is the primary ingredient – the oxidation of iron providing the energy it, like any other organism, needed. 
 "On the face of it there seemed no reason why there should not be a silicon life form somewhere in the universe. Silicon is common throughout it, and its basic chemistry is similar to that of carbon, on which all life on Earth including you and I is based; its molecules can combine with those of certain other elements to build a wide range of different structures. It forms silanes, chemical compounds of hydrogen and silicon that are analogous to certain hydrocarbons. Both elements form long chains of molecules, or polymers, in which they can alternate with oxygen – a substance vital, of course, to the functioning of organic life." 
 He looked enquiringly at her. She nodded, signifying to him to continue. Though she wasn’t a scientist by training, and had to struggle a bit, the essence of what he was saying was comprehensible. 
 "And yet, the simple fact was that there were no silicon life forms – silicoids, as I have decided to call them – in existence. We couldn’t be entirely sure, of course. Because of the different biochemistry we might stumble over one and not recognise it for what it was. It could look just like an ordinary lump of rock, especially if it its form was simple. An entire planet could be a silicon life form. But scientists knew why they couldn’t find any evidence for non-organic life anywhere.
 "The product of the respiratory processes of a carbon-based life form is carbon dioxide – a gas, the result of oxidisation, which is fairly easy to remove from the body and so is expelled in breath. Now although we depend on oxygen to survive, silicon actually has a more powerful affinity for it. That itself is a problem. When it oxidizes, the result – silicon dioxide – bonds with oxygen atoms to form a solid substance which would be difficult to remove and would gradually accrete, blocking any pores in a silicoid’s skin through which it breathed. It may be that it does not need to “breathe” in the way we do. But even if that were the case it would still find itself, before long, encased in an ever-growing cocoon of rock, or something like rock, that would impede its movement and leave no room for anything else in its vicinity. 
 "Secondly, although silicon can bond with other elements, including the ones from which carbon-based life is derived, it cannot bond with as wide a range of them as carbon, to form the highly complex arrangements of molecules that are the enzymes and proteins – or in a silicoid, their equivalents – governing the chemical reactions in which the body produces energy from food and sunlight and expels the resultant waste products, water and carbon dioxide in an organiform, from its metabolism. It cannot manufacture fatty acids, cell membranes, hormones, sugars. It’s partly because its molecules are made up of fewer atoms – the largest found has only six – than carbon ones, which may consist of thousands, in the first place. And they are unstable, reactive. It takes only a small difference, a small change in the position of one molecule to prevent silicon from forming complex organic – in the sense of being alive – structures. Silicon atoms are much bigger than carbon atoms, with a larger mass and atomic radius. Unwieldy things which lack versatility. And on their own chains of silicon molecules, which have been known to spontaneously decompose, are even less likely to form stable living organisms. 
 "None of this may apply on other planets, where conditions are different. And yet even there silicon life does not seem to exist, as the absence of silicanes in meteorites and the failure of telescopes and space probes to find any on planetary surfaces or in stars seems to prove. And in any case, I wanted to create it on this planet.
 "A life form might contain silicon elements; take our bones and teeth, for example, which are primarily calcium. But a complete silicon life form…it occurred to me, however, that an artificial silicon organism might be another matter. If we could work from outside nature, to manipulate and reshape it so as to create a new kind of life from scratch…
 "It must, I think, be both a scientific and philosophical truth that everything in the universe ultimately comes from the same basic substance. Otherwise, two or more things could simply happen each to exist, or come into existence spontaneously. Which to me as a rational scientist seemed impossible, absurd, strange and puzzling as the universe undoubtedly is. There must be some basic ingredient common to everything, some mutual ground it occupies. Are you still with me?"
"Uh-huh."
 "I already knew there was some molecular affinity between silicon and carbon, between organic and inorganic matter. Because they have some elements in common it is possible for one to become the other, as when living things fossilise after death. Life evolved from non-living material in the first instance, so the building blocks for a silicon life form might be said to already exist. What I needed to do was give the process a push. 
 "I needed to find a particle which was common to all matter, organic or inorganic, and by influencing its behaviour change the nature of the atoms, and thus the molecules. It could only exist on the sub-atomic level – hence the cyclotron." He waved a hand at the huge cylindrical machine. "A cyclotron accelerates particles, bombards other particles with them so they can be split, allowing you to get at what’s inside and tinker with it.
 "In a sense we were trying to go back to the earliest moments of creation, to the point when simple particles first began to combine with each other to form more complex structures. And then getting nature to do something different. The exact means by which we were able to achieve it is complex and difficult to describe, besides which I would rather it remained a trade secret for the moment. But essentially, by understanding how the basic particles interacted with each other I could influence the process, stimulate it so as to get the molecular combinations I wanted. Form polymers in which the organic and non-organic elements were not only in the correct ratio to one another, but compatible, neither inert nor reacting adversely with each other. Alternate chains of carbon and non-carbon atoms that were stable. It meant having to become a physicist as well as a chemist, but I did it. After many years’ study and hard work, I did it." His eyes gleamed. 
 He contemplated the silicoid. "Actually, it’s not strictly speaking a silicon life form, but rather something of a hybrid. Part organic, part not. A true silicon life form – one virtually made out of living stone – would not be very mobile, very flexible. There would be a limit to the number of actions it could perform, unless it was just going to sit there. Of course even that might be useful, if it was to be employed as building material, or ornamentation. Which in fact is something we are working on."
"But you wanted to do more than that, I sense." 
 "Yes, as I will outline in a moment. That’s why they’re really more like a kind of plastic, in some ways. Plastic is such a highly versatile substance. It can take an astonishing number of forms and be used for an astonishing range of purposes.
 "I altered the atomic structure of small quantities of whatever substance I wished to use, to give it this quasi-organic character. I then grew it on a lattice in the manner of a crystal; after all you can grow crystals in chemistry, although normally the process is not akin to the birth and development of a living organism." 
 "It’s all very clever," she said sincerely. "But what are you going to use them for?" She nodded towards the lump of “rock” on the workbench. "Paperweights?”
 "These – " The Count waved an arm to indicate both the object on the bench and the statue-like silicoid on its dais. "Are experimental versions. I can control the growth process to produce creatures of much greater complexity." He led her to a corner of the lab where she stopped dead at the sight which met her eyes, previously concealed from view by a bank of machinery. Two figures, humanoid in rough outline, lying on a bench. With plates of a stony material in place of flesh, and red-tinted crystals for eyes.  
"They’re very resilient," said the Count. "They don’t tire. They’re living rock, or something like it. They can withstand extremes of temperature better than any human. In fact most things that would kill us wouldn’t have the slightest effect on them. And they don’t need to sleep, or to breathe."  
 "Do they eat?" Caroline asked. "All living things need food of some kind, don’t they?"
 "Yes, or they cease to function and die, just as we would. Being partly organic and partly inorganic, they require a substance which is organic in origin but with a certain mineral content, including elements such as iron."
 "Which would be…" She tried to think. "Something like…" An uneasy look came over her. 
"Yes," said the Count. "That’s right. Blood." 

Valdin and Bouvier had preferred to wait until it was dark before they left their hotel in their hired car, found a secluded woodland spot and changed into their Special Forces and climbing gear. That and the climb itself delayed them several hours. But as Valdin had estimated, they should still have enough time. 
 It was more dangerous to climb by night than by day, but they had done it before as part of their Special Forces training and the torches on their helmets, along with their infra-red goggles, enabled them to see with sufficient clarity. It took a surprisingly short time for them to reach the ledge above which the mouth of the passage through the mountain to the castle was located. 
 They climbed through the opening and wriggled along the tunnel with ease. They had come equipped with cutting tools, including a blowtorch, should they need them but in the end Bouvier simply pressed the button on the panel by the hatch and they squeezed through it into the cave. 
 With an instinctive stealth that came with their profession, they started to move around, exploring. Noted the grille in the wall, a series of louvred slats from which blasts of warm air came, and the bulky objects covered in canvas sheeting. Valdin went to one of the stacks and was about to cut through the straps holding the sheeting in place when the two Frenchmen stiffened, hearing footsteps from behind the door in the far wall. They crouched down behind the stack, drew their M16s and waited. In addition to their Kevlar assault suits they now wore balaclava helmets with built-in respirators, in case they needed to use stun grenades, and radios for communication with one another.
 The door opened and a uniformed man, one of the security guards, entered the cave. He was carefully carrying a plastic bowl, filled with a red liquid, in both hands. 
 The guard was unarmed and they could easily have killed him, but there was no need to if he didn’t know they were there. It might merely lead to their presence being discovered at some point. But Bouvier glanced out cautiously from behind the stack as the guard passed it, watching as he crossed to the point where the tunnel opened into the cave. The guard dashed about half the contents of the bowl against the wall on one side, and the rest over the other side. He then turned and left the cave.
 Where the blood had landed the walls began to glow with a faint golden light. Slowly but surely, the blood started to disappear as if it was being absorbed into the very rock. Bouvier stared in spellbound astonishment. "Merde," he gasped. "Sacre bleu."  
"What is it?" whispered Valdin. "What did you see?"
 Bouvier told him. Valdin was impressed; the last person to have fantastic hallucinations was a Special Forces soldier.    
 The pair examined the last remaining traces of blood as they faded from view. "What do you think it means?" Valdin asked.
 "I don’t know," muttered Bouvier. "Maybe we’ll get a chance to find out later on."
 They turned their attention to the sheeted objects, cutting away the straps and then heaving aside the canvas. They saw what they had expected to. 
 Three stacks of rectangular blocks shaped not unlike bars of chocolate and fashioned from solid gold, which gleamed dully in the lighting. Each was stamped with an eagle carrying a swastika, surrounded by a wreath of oak leaves, in its talons. The unmistakeable emblem of Nazi Germany. 
 And paintings, old paintings, laid one on top of another, each within a gilt-edged frame. Bouvier recognised the first from one of their briefings. It had been missing for over seventy years. It was Raphael’s Portrait of the Contessa di Vicenzi, looted by the Nazis from the Polish National Museum in 1939 when they invaded the country. Everyone had been looking for it ever since. 
 There were only about half a dozen of the artworks, the remnant of what must once have been a great collection, albeit stolen. It seemed the Count had been saving the best until last. All were old masters, depicting festivals, battles, scenes from the Bible, dignitaries of the time and their families. Presumably originals and no doubt worth millions of Euros, pounds or dollars, assuming one could put a price on them at all. 
"So," murmured Bouvier softly. "Now we know. For sure."
 The miniature cameras they had been carrying had been filming everything, and would continue to. One was incorporated in Valdin’s mobile phone, which was automatically sending the images to the personal computer of a fellow French member of the Group. It was the film which was most vital, since it could prove the gold and the artworks were found where the Group said they had been, once geologists and mountaineers confirmed the location of the ledge and the passage through the rock above it. 
 Bouvier texted Caroline. When after a minute she had not responded he glanced at Valdin. They exchanged shrugs.
Let’s just hope she’s alright. 
 Bouvier beckoned Valdin towards the door through which the security guard had appeared. It opened into a rock-walled corridor which ended in a lift. Let’s see where this takes us.

"Not necessarily human blood, I hasten to add," said the Count. "Any sort will do. It can be obtained quite easily from a butcher’s or a slaughterhouse. We just say we need it for research purposes." 
"Er…if they eat does that mean they also…"
 "Crap? Yes, it does," grinned Kenward. "That’s the one thing wrong with them. You have to keep cleaning up after them." Caroline thought of the powdery substance she had got on her hand from the object on the bench, realised what it was and pulled a face. 
 "So…any matter that’s inorganic – any mineral – you could turn into something living?" she asked. The Count nodded.
"Anything living? A bird, for instance? Or a fish?"
 "Yes, I suppose I could. Mammals, reptiles, insects, whatever. Although it is not my brief to create completely organic, in so far as a life form is, beings. A creature with some, at least, of the characteristics of a silicoid would be far more useful for what I intend to do, as I will explain later."
"Could you turn one into a human? Intelligent life?"
 Just for a moment the Count hesitated. "They are not programmed with intelligence. Since I created them in the first place I can also control their development at every stage. They’re virtually mindless; at the moment they are simply lying where they are because no-one has told them to do anything else. Nor do they have emotions as we do. A rudimentary concept of pleasure and pain, perhaps, such as is seen in certain of the higher mammals. But no more than that. They are not sentient."
Briefly he met her eyes.
 "It’s fantastic," she said softly. "But where did all the money come from? I mean, turning inorganic into living matter, creating a whole new life form rather than just adapting it…" She thought back to that business where another millionaire with scientific connections, Sir Edward Greatorex, had succeeded in altering kidnapped human subjects by surgery and gene therapy to give them gills, webbed feet and other characteristics of aquatic life forms so they could more easily live, breathe and move about underwater. This was going even further. "It’s beyond the cutting edge. To fund all the research, build the equipment, perfect the whole process…I know you’re a very wealthy man, Count, but the cost would have been astronomical, even for someone like you. I have to ask, where did all the money come from?"  
 Kenward smiled sardonically. "Can’t you guess? If your bosses in London, and I don’t mean IPL, had no idea what he’s been sitting on all these years you wouldn’t be here. The money came from selling off…certain assets his Dad acquired during the Second World War." He was telling her things it was dangerous for her to know; deliberately adding to the reasons why they couldn’t just let her go, why they had to…bring their plans forward. She saw the Count glare at him again.
 "You mean Nazi gold, don’t you?" she said quietly. "And paintings; stolen paintings. Stolen by the same people who banked the gold. In fact some of the gold was stolen too, wasn’t it? From the Jews, or the fillings in their teeth." 
 She looked hard at the Count. He bit his lip, lowered his head briefly, then pulled himself together with a sigh. "Yes, he does mean that. It was a case of the past benefiting the future. My father was, as you know, sympathetic towards the policies of the Third Reich. And Switzerland, a neutral country during the war, acted as receiver for Nazi money, much of it in the form of gold bullion. Father went further and offered to help fugitive Nazis establish themselves with new identities in South America after the defeat of Germany. To that end he acted as receiver for artworks stolen by the Nazis from the occupied territories, as well as stockpiling their gold reserves, prior to organising the shipment of all these – commodities to Brazil. The gold and the paintings would be needed to fund the establishment of the fugitives in their new homes, in conditions of at least reasonable comfort and security." Plus some Eichmann or Barbie, ensconced in their ranch in Bolivia, would no doubt like to be able to gloat over a collection of priceless old masters. "In this case my father’s…associates preferred not to leave the money in Switzerland in the long run, so it was removed from the vault of the company’s bank in Zurich and stored here until all the arrangements were in place. The intention was that on arrival in South America the gold would be melted down and recast without the Nazi insignia. There were enough Nazi sympathisers in the region for someone to be found who would be willing to do it.
 "Unfortunately, from the Nazis’ point of view, the plan went wrong when my father realised at the last moment that he could not go ahead with it." 
 "He killed someone," said Kenward. "The two Germans he’d been dealing with over the business." The Count winced, then resumed his story. "No-one ever found out what had happened. Apart from the pair who died the Nazis didn’t know who was supplying them with the money and the paintings. Of course there never was a Fourth Reich, so no-one ever came calling to recoup their investment. And the authorities had no inkling. Many times my father and I wondered what we should do with the stockpile. Should we reveal that we had it, and arrange for its return to its rightful owners? My father’s initial crisis of conscience was caused by the realisation just how monstrous, how wicked, Hitler’s crimes had been along with the fear that if somehow the world found out what he’d done, that he was in effect an accessory after the fact, the consequences for us would be…unfortunate. As it was we probably had no need to worry." He gave a short laugh. "Switzerland never let its conscience be troubled about its Nazi links during the war. Nor for that matter did any of the other neutrals. But Berne has always protected those of its citizens who had financial connections of any kind with the Third Reich. That didn’t make any difference to Papa as a person, because for him it was a matter of honour and he didn’t want the world to know he’d besmirched the family name by his association with mass murderers. It might have been more honourable for him to have confessed all, but he was afraid that despite his change of heart he would still be regarded with suspicion by the world; tarnished. 
 "He wouldn’t sell off any of the paintings – it would have compounded the offence, and we had enough money as it was –  but nor could he return them to their rightful owners without questions being asked. As for the gold no-one, in Switzerland at any rate, was enquiring what had happened to it and perhaps it was better if things stayed that way. 
 "By the time things began to change, with the pressure on the World War Two neutrals to come clean proving difficult to resist, my father was dead. He never told my mother, indeed I didn’t, about our arrangements with the Nazis and what had happened that night in 1945. 
 "By the 1960s I had become interested in the project whose fruition you have just seen. I realised that it would, indeed, require a vast sum of money to carry out, more than even a wealthy aristocratic family like ourselves, at the head of a vast business combine, possessed. A part of the funding could come from our already existing reserves. The rest would have to be met from other sources."
"So you started selling off the paintings and the gold, gradually over the years." 
 "Yes. It took some persuading before my father agreed to it but once he was convinced it was in a good cause, his conscience was appeased, to some extent anyway. We had to do it discreetly, of course, laundering the money and…" His face twisted as if he was in pain, or had a nasty smell under his nose. Again Kenward looked sardonic. "And making sure we sold the goods to people, not necessarily members of our organisation, who were unscrupulous enough not to enquire into their history. We’ve always had a network of agents throughout the world who can be relied upon to establish the right contacts and preserve confidentiality."
"Besides which you must have taken care in picking your accountants."
 "He did," said Kenward. "They wouldn’t be too bothered where the money was coming from." 
 "What about the scientists working on the project? I mean presumably, Count, you didn’t do it all by yourself?"
 "Of course I didn’t. I mostly recruited people whose research grants had been cut or who were not well paid in their current positions. Maybe they had become disillusioned and taken early retirement. Officially they are working for my pharmaceuticals company."
 "We ought to be grateful," said Kenward, clapping the Count on the shoulder with a force that made him jump. The old man scowled. "He found a use for people who might have defected to the Soviets or Saddam Hussein."  
 "All the same, I can see why you’ve preferred to keep it a secret," said Caroline. "These silicoids. I mean, it’s not really ethical, is it?" 
 "Creating life?" replied the Count. "Then I suggest we bring a charge against God, if there is such a being. He is obviously guilty."  
"Maybe He knew what He was doing."
"And you think that for Man to do it is wrong?"
 "As long as what’s created is happy, I don’t see a problem. Are they happy, the silicoids?"
 "They are not sentient. Therefore the question doesn’t arise. It also depends why one is doing it. To create life just to satisfy scientific curiosity...yes, I admit that seems somehow unacceptable, immoral. But what I have done is different. You asked what the reason was behind it all…" 
 Kenward interjected. "What’s the one thing the world, or Europe anyway, needs right now, Caroline?"
She thought. "Europe…"
"And Western Europe in particular."
 "Well, its economy isn’t looking good at the moment. Nor are a lot of other people’s, though. You were talking in economic terms, weren’t you?"
"Yeah."
 "Our heavy industries are in decline, have been for years. We’re losing out to China and India, which frankly worries me. They need reasonably prosperous trading partners, but I think they’re secretly pleased they’re now in a stronger position relative to us, because they’re getting their own back for the Raj and all that."
 Kenward shrugged. "Everyone’s racist these days." Meaning that what she had said fell into that category in its spirit.
 Her eyes flashed. "Thanks a lot. I love you too. I think actually the problem is that a small number of people are being too politically correct and the rest of society’s getting increasingly angry at having to put up with them."
"Are you saying no-one’s racist, then?"
 "No. I’m not saying it isn’t still around, or that it’s right. But I think we sometimes make too much of a fuss about it when the real problem is that things have swung too far the other way."
 "It’s OK, chill out." The muscles of his face twitched and she suddenly realised he’d been winding her up. Going by her expression she wasn’t appeased.
 "You’re not far wrong. In actual fact, I agree with you absolutely." He seemed sincere and she found herself experiencing a strange feeling of surprise.        
 "Anyway, carry on. You were saying Europe was declining in economic power, in prosperity, vis a vis India and China. Well it’s the whole of the West that’s in that situation; but the thing is, it is in that situation. Its mineral resources have been more or less worked out, while China’s are only just starting to be tapped."
 Suddenly it hit her. "These silicon creatures…you’re going to breed them as a source of power?" The thought seemed grotesque and her face twisted involuntarily in revulsion. 
 "Well, it’s something we’re working on," said the Count. "It would be no different from breeding animals for food – which we do because not everyone has the metabolism to be a vegetarian – or using their bodily tissues for any other practical purpose." 
 He might actually be right there. And the idea of the West being able to hold its own industrially and economically against its emerging competitors appealed to her, because she wouldn’t fear the Indians and Chinese then and therefore wouldn’t be tempted to hate them. As long as these silicoids really weren’t…sentient.
 "I don’t know what the animal rights people would say about it. Because I suppose that’s what they’d be classified as. I mean, they’re not plants. And they’re certainly living. You must admit it could lead to some very interesting ethical issues." 
 Kenward looked as if he found the idea amusing. But he told her it wasn’t their principal aim right now. "The problem of stopping the West’s decline is a long-term one and as yet no-one’s been able to come up with a solution. Maybe one will emerge in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, there’s another issue we may as well be engaging with. You want a strong economy, what do you need to create it? Not just a power source, whatever it is, but the technology to harness it, plus…" 
"A workforce," she finished.
Oh my God.
 She looked at the two silicoids lying immobile on their bench. Waiting for instructions. 
"Yes, that’s right," said Kenward. "Them."
"Slave labour," she murmured. 
"If you call it that." 
"And they’ll do anything you tell them to?" 
 "They can be taught the same way one trains a dog," said the Count. "If you allow the crystals to grow to a certain degree of complexity you get a creature which can respond to certain signals, obey simple commands, carry out simple tasks, without necessarily possessing a reasoning intelligence. Co-operation is assured by means of a system of punishment and reward, the bestowal or withdrawal of privileges."    
"Why not try to develop robots instead? Go for complete automation?"
 "If it had been possible to use robots then that is what I would have done. But a robot can malfunction, irrespective of its programming, and that happens more than one would prefer with technology as its complexity increases. Whereas a trained animal will always do what it is told. Nature is always better at doing these things than we are."
It’s debatable whether what you’re doing is natural, she thought. 
 "Besides, sometimes the physical carrying out of a task needs something as adaptable, flexible and versatile as the human body, and it so far hasn’t proved possible to build machines which can, for example, walk like a man for more than short periods. Better to have something which copies the human form and reproduces its properties and functions, but is more resilient. Workers who don’t need to rest and can labour round the clock, who are incredibly strong and in fact almost indestructible, which means there is less need for expensive and tiresome health and safety measures. They can regenerate damaged tissue, within limits. They do not die, so long as they receive a regular intake of blood, so they don’t need to be replaced. They can venture into environments where humans would need protective clothing – which again has to be paid for – and even survive indefinitely in the heart of a furnace."
 They could even change their shape so as to perform different functions, something Rachel Savident and Reinhold Gunther had found out to their disadvantage. But there were reasons why the Count didn’t want to tell Caroline that. 
 "And finally, they don’t need to be paid. You can see the attraction from the economic point of view." 
 "And it’s not just about saving money, or increased efficiency," said Kenward. "Western Europe is facing a serious labour shortage, and the EU knows it. It has an ageing population, and although we’re wearing better as a rule these days, retaining our skills longer, there’s still a problem where work that requires a lot of physical effort is concerned. And there are too many young people who don’t go for the jobs where they’re needed, or jack them in after only a few days because they don’t like them. The downside of having personal freedom. I could add poor training and education, but those are issues you could conceivably do something about, even though it seems to be difficult at present. You can’t make people have more children so that you end up with a younger and more fertile population. Living as they do in a part of the world that’s still relatively affluent, our people are accustomed to a decent standard of living and don’t want to lose it. Having to look after kids lowers the quality of life because there’s no way your time would be your own, apart from the general stress. Nor can you decide for people what jobs they’re gonna go into, the way some of the Communist countries used to. That’s simply not going to happen. It goes right against the free market. We rejected that kind of state interference in our lives years ago. Look how inefficient industries were in the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellites.
 "But with the population ageing, and not enough people going into vital jobs, your society will collapse, or be permanently inefficient and impoverished, at a disadvantage to other societies, other economies. Unless you do something about the problem. Like what?"
The answer seemed obvious. "You recruit labour from overseas." 
 "Exactly. And immigration’s become a bit of an issue in European politics lately, hasn’t it?"
"I guess it has."
 "Some of the new workers will come from Eastern Europe, from countries that have only recently joined the EU and whose citizens can work in any of its member states they choose." He smiled thinly. "Another bone of contention, one that causes enough trouble. However the real issue is this. In the long run, the majority of immigrant workers will be African and Asian. From countries with a young population, and where the standard of living is lower. For cultural or economic reasons they reproduce faster and on a bigger scale than we do; perhaps they need more breadwinners. And they’ll do the job, and stay in it, where young white people often won’t." 
True, thought Caroline. 
 "We’ll have no choice but to let them in, unless we want our economy to decline until we starve to death, or massacre each other in food riots. But the culture shock…at the present rate, it seems likely that by 2050, if not before, the white population of Western Europe could have gone down to about one-third of the total. All this economic migration is coming on top of what’s been a demographic trend for some time. 
 "You’re talking about a replacement of an ageing, relatively speaking, white population by a younger non-white population. Of course the whites won’t die out entirely. But they’ll become a minority; perhaps a large one, but a minority nonetheless. Something we can’t foresee may happen to reverse the trend, but we’re gonna have to go by what the current predictions say until we know better.  
 "It’s probably not a good idea for change to go too far too fast, even relatively." Caroline supposed it wasn’t, indeed, sensible to let cultures become diluted beyond a certain extent, unless the change happened very gradually. "There are plenty of people who don’t like it, whether or not they’re just being racist. The young might have a different slant on things, but who’s to say they won’t change their way of thinking as they get older. It happens.
 "There’s also the issue, a culture clash I suppose, which the West has with Islam. You can’t deny there is one. We saw it in the furore over the Satanic Verses and those cartoons in a Danish newspaper which were seen as offensive to Mohammed. The murder of Pim Fortuyn. It’ll all work out if people are sensible but the trouble is they often aren’t, whoever they might be." True. "Most Muslims aren’t crazies, but the more of them there are in the first place the more extremists there’ll be among them, if you see what I’m getting at. And a very large proportion of future African and Asian migrants will be Muslims. In the worst case scenario…rivers of blood, like Enoch Powell forecast. I suppose you’re too young to know who I’m talking about." 
 "Oh, yes, I remember Enoch," said Caroline, feeling patronised. "My uncle used to go on about him."
 "There are practical reasons for being worried, too. We need to fill jobs and care for an ageing population which will eventually suffer from physical incapacity or dementia. But while the immigrants are helping to relieve the pressure on society to some extent, they’re also adding to it, just by being here. More mouths to feed, you see. They can help to provide essential services but they themselves will need those services sooner or later. We’re like a bloke running on the spot. What’s given with one hand is taken away with the other. Of course we could try eugenics, weeding out the old and the sick…" He glanced at the Count here; another dig at the family’s Nazi past. Mencken was studiedly impassive. "But even if we did I’m not convinced it’d solve the overcrowding problem." 
 A workbench was between himself and Caroline. He leaned forward and rested his hands on the edge of the bench, facing her across it, eye to eye. Once more that thin sardonic smile. "Everyone’s supposed to be politically correct now. Everyone in important positions in society. Businessmen or politicians or educationalists. Of course the views of the public can be safely ignored. Multiculturalism and immigration are good things, don’t you know, so good you can have as much of them as you like, or as someone else likes, and if you don’t agree then you’re…yes, you’ve guessed. Something nasty beginning with “r.”"
 The tone of his voice changed. "You’d be surprised. Actually I don’t think that. I’m a hard-headed, practical person. A businessman. I’m not really bothered about the colour of a person’s skin, or anything else that makes someone just a little bit different from me. Not in itself. They’re people, whatever they are. Anyone with any common sense can see that. Thinking otherwise was always far more trouble than it was worth. Look at all the hassle it’s caused over the centuries. Not just for its victims. If it wasn’t for the racism of the past we wouldn’t have to put up with political correctness now." 
 "You want the ethnic minorities in the system, as employees and consumers," Caroline said. "Part of the market. You’d lose out otherwise, wouldn’t you?"
 "Of course. The issue’s numbers, as it always was. You really think I’m blind to the dangers of letting too many people into a small country like Britain that’s too full up already, bursting at the seams? That I’m stupid enough to think the only motive for objecting to it is prejudice? Business is like politics, it can only be concerned with the possible. Or in the end it falls apart.
 "The Count here has a particular interest in avoiding that. He doesn’t want Switzerland to go through all the hassle multiculturalism has caused everywhere else. And he’s afraid it will, especially if it finally gives in to pressure to join the EU." 
 "Fortunately, creatures that are not sentient will not concern themselves with things such as religion, for example," said Mencken. 
 Caroline decided it was time to collect her thoughts. "I understand everything you’ve said to me. Your fears, your concerns. But surely this isn’t the right way to address them. I know why you’ve gone to such trouble to keep it a secret. I mean…I still think it’s…" 
 "Unethical?" finished the Count. "No different from using a horse as a beast of burden, surely?" He moved closer to her. "Besides, there’s another reason why we’re doing it. Something I haven’t mentioned until now. Something which may well be more important even than matters of race or immigration or the politics of national survival."
 He began to walk about the room, slowly, keeping within her earshot because it was important she heard and understood what he was saying. "There’s been a great deal of concern lately about the impact on the Earth of climate change, of global warming. Strange weather patterns, floods, famine, hurricanes, desertification, causing disruption and death in both the developed and the Third World. What the ultimate consequence will be we can’t say yet. But it is set to worsen in the future and it seems likely that the result will be a major deterioration in the quality of life everywhere. Perhaps even the extinction of the human species? No-one in the West ever mentions that possibility, because death has become a taboo subject in our comfortable, secure – until now – society where we enjoy prolonged lives the quality of which is much better than in previous centuries. But how can we be sure it won’t happen, if the damage to our physical environment is sufficiently great?
 "But what has begun to concern me above all is this. It is possible, although unproven and therefore a matter of much dispute among scientists, that the global warming we are currently experiencing is no more serious than any the Earth has gone through in the past – for the phenomenon has happened before – and that however severe the upheavals, the danger will eventually pass leaving some of us, at any rate, still here to rebuild civilisation. 
 "Only along with the floods and the hurricanes and the famines, there have been other things too, that we will all be aware of from the news over the last few decades. Other things that are on the increase. 
 "Volcanoes and earthquakes, Miss Kent. They can cause devastating tidal waves, like the Asian tsunami of 2004. And in themselves, if they were to happen on a large enough scale…as they are doing. The number occurring each year continues to rise. 
 "Now CO2 emissions and other forms of pollution may or may not explain global warming, but they don’t cause earthquakes. They don’t account for this geological instability. Some insist that it is not a new thing, that these violent fluctuations of the planet’s crust are merely better observed and recorded than in the past. I’m not sure I believe that. I think there is another explanation."
 His voice echoed hollowly in the vast room. "The Earth is getting old, Miss Kent. Senile. That is why there are the earthquakes and volcanoes and quite possibly the global warming as well. To be the only planet, so far as we know, in our solar system, quite possibly the galaxy, to support life it has to be very carefully constructed in its geology, its climate, its weather, everything. That fine balance cannot be maintained forever. Sooner or later, perhaps with the assistance of human activity, it starts to break down. 
 "To build a machine that could halt the process, that could prevent the earthquakes and volcanoes and regulate the climate and weather; it would be a mammoth project and perhaps not technically feasible. And besides, the thought of such a device in the wrong hands…" He left the sentence unfinished.
 "Whether the planet will actually physically disintegrate I don’t know. But it may well become uninhabitable by human life. It will be like Venus or one of the outer worlds, too hot or cold to sustain us. Geological turbulence might make an ordered society impossible even if not combined with other factors.
 "We may be contributing to certain aspects of the problem ourselves, but that does not take away our right to survival. I have little confidence that the human race will mend its ways. But where it’s not our fault, but rather something that happens to a planet like the Earth after a certain time, we can’t do anything about it anyway. Unless, of course, we move somewhere else.
 "Unfortunately, there is a major obstacle in the way of such a solution. There is no planet within our solar system where the right conditions for life as we know it on Earth to exist are found. Of our closest neighbours Venus, as I have said, is too hot. With Mars the converse is the case; in any case the latest theory is that a manned mission there would be impossible because the spacecraft would have to pass through a belt of solar radiation from which it could not be shielded and which would cause the crew’s bodies to disintegrate. Those planets we have so far discovered in other solar systems are even less hospitable. 
 "We could perhaps Terraform a planet to make it more Earth-like, habitable by human beings. But for one thing, that would mean altering its orbit, its distance from the sun. Whether the technology to shape things on such a scale will ever be possible I don’t know; certainly we must assume it will not be available in the foreseeable future, and it might have catastrophic consequences if we got things wrong or it was used for destructive purposes. I have no doubt it would be possible to alter the planet’s atmosphere and climate artificially, which after all is only what we are doing here on Earth, but it would be very expensive and if you can’t even get there in the first place…" 
 In a flash Caroline saw what this was leading to. "But the silicoids could? Is that what you’re getting at? They’d be able to stand the radiation?"
 The Count nodded. "We have carried out tests. It wouldn’t have the same effect on them as it would a fully organic life form. Their tissue is comparable to a form of heat-resistant plastic."
 "I’ve read somewhere that radiation does nasty things to microcircuitry. Wouldn’t the computers on the spaceship – "
 "Not if the spaceship itself were made of ceramic – a possibility NASA has not, I feel, fully investigated in the past. Or some form of living silicon: made from a similar material to the silicoids themselves, and able to respond to instructions. 
 "Silicon life can take a variety of forms. None of them sentient, just as a computer isn’t except by analogy. But constructed and programmed to act in just the same way that metal, plastic and wiring do. 
 "I do not imagine the destruction of the Earth, or its becoming uninhabitable, will happen in just a few years. Most likely it will be a gradual process, taking place over a couple of centuries. But although that is a long time we can’t be sure we will by the end of it have developed some means of stopping the decline, or of saving ourselves from its consequences. I have done, and the silicoids are the result. I first became interested in the possibility of creating silicon life forms for use in space exploration, or industrial processes, in the 1960s. Global warming was not such a concern then, but there were already fears that we would exhaust our natural resources and run out of living space. I have been working on the project ever since, with the result that you now see before you. The first of the silicoids were created here and I still have some of the original material they were manufactured from. Whenever I want to I can grow myself some new ones. 
 "The silicoids will play a vital role in the colonisation of the solar system, perhaps eventually the galaxy. They will carry out a series of missions to a selected planet during which they will set up, operate and maintain machinery for Terraforming it, pumping oxygen, or carbon dioxide, or whatever is required into the atmosphere until there is the right amount of each substance to create an Earth-like environment. Enough carbon dioxide will result in a benevolent greenhouse effect by raising the temperature until it is within the tolerance levels of humans. Enough oxygen will make it breathable by them. If it is necessary to colonise the planet before the process is complete, the silicoids will construct artificial habitats for the human settlers to inhabit until the atmosphere is fully transformed. If required, they could function in the vacuum of space itself. 
 "They can survive the extremes of temperature found on Mars, Venus or Mercury. Their biology, if that is the right word, will suit them to conditions on those other worlds and allow them to operate there, as well as in open Space, without expensive protective clothing. 
 "The cost of such a mission would be considerable, but having it conducted by silicoids, directed from Earth by remote control, would considerably reduce it." The Count looked hard at Caroline. "Do you object to me trying to save the human race, Miss Kent?"
 She bit her lip. "Perhaps…perhaps the thing to do is let people know what you’ve got in mind and then they can decide if it’s right or not."
 "By the time the project’s completed no-one’s going to care," said Kenward. "Society, or the people that run it anyhow, are increasingly more concerned with profit than morals and that process is ongoing. There’s a lot going on that isn’t strictly ethical, Miss Kent. People either don’t care, or they do care but they’ve simply given up trying to change things. Apathy. Apart from what’s still a relatively small minority of anti-capitalist protestors, who not everyone is happy about. Since Maggie Thatcher money’s shouted loudest. That’s just the way it is. Nowadays the people who put profit first are the ones who boss the show, like it or not. People are afraid of trying to change the system because it means having to use violence and they don’t want to end up in prison. It means they’re becoming inured to it all. They just accept it, as they ought to. Let’s live in the twenty-first century; it’s just the way society has changed, a stage in our historical development. And if people can accept that business is business they’ll accept that the silicoids are necessary if they help us to survive, and not just because someone can make a fat profit out of them. In, say, five or ten years’ time…
 "People accept a lot of things nowadays they used to think were immoral. Gay marriage, for example. We’re all throwing away the restrictions we used to live under, happily or not so happily. Greater informality in speech and dress is a sign of that. Take beachwear, for example. It’s gradually become more and more revealing. Someone said not long ago that they reckoned people wouldn’t be wearing any clothes at all on the beach before long, and I think that’s true. I mean, what’s wrong with your body or mine?"   
 I think you’d like to see me naked on a beach, Caroline thought. She wasn’t sure about gay marriage; it was a controversial subject. But she did know she wouldn’t be happy if all beaches were nudist ones. She felt safe, comfortable, with some measure of restrictiveness, of rule and regulation – taboo, shall we say. And the good thing about a bikini was that it exposed nearly, but not quite, everything. Doing away with it seemed disastrous from the point of view of both decency and eroticism. A step too far. "Liberalism can sometimes take us into dangerous areas," she said. "But about your silicoids. I’m not convinced people will ever just…accept things the way you suggest, without questioning the ethics of them."   
At least, she hoped not. 
 "Particularly when you’ve killed to protect your secret. I mean the guy Rachel was with, Gunther. And the missing climbers. Not to mention Rachel herself. What have you done with her?" 
"Those people aren’t dead. We’ve found a use for them."
"Like what?" 
Kenward and the Count exchanged glances. "We may as well," the Count nodded. 
 "You said something about your plans being brought forward," Caroline said as they steered her towards the door. "What did you mean?"  
 "There’ve been enough explanations," said Kenward. "You’ll find out in due course."
 They escorted her from the lab and a short way down the corridor to another door with a swipecard facility. Behind it was a corridor parallel to this one, with a series of doors in the wall facing them. They were spaced quite widely apart, suggesting the rooms beyond were large. Again entry was card-controlled. Doumer opened one of them, and ushered his companions in. 
 "I should warn you, your friend’s undergone one or two changes since you last saw her," said Kenward.
Caroline stopped and turned to him. "You implied she was safe and well."
"Oh she is, believe me," he smiled. 
"Did you torture her to make her say who was working to expose you?"
 "We had little choice. But she shouldn’t come to any more harm, not if everything goes according to plan."
 They were in a small antechamber. Again Doumer used the swipecard and the inner door slid back. The room was quite luxurious, with a carpeted floor and TV and a proper bed; a side door must lead to a bathroom and toilet. Although the spotless, gleaming whiteness of everything made it look like a medical ward rather than personal living quarters. A figure was sitting in a chair reading a book, its back to them. Caroline recognised Rachel’s shoulder-length, lustrous black hair, with its slight reddish tint.
 The figure didn’t move as they entered, just went on reading. "Rachel?" said Kenward. "Cheer up, you’ve got a visitor. We’ve brought a friend to see you." 
Rachel rose, started to turn. 
And as her face came into full view, Caroline screamed. 

Twenty-Six

It was Rachel, without a doubt; the profile of the face, its expression, were the same. But Caroline took a moment or two to see that. Because she had, indeed, gone through one or two changes.  
 The flesh of her face and hands – presumably of her whole body – was composed of hundreds of facets like those of a diamond, glittering in the light. They were opaque but clear, and silver-white in colour. Her eyes were still green-brown but had turned to a hard, shiny material that was difficult to read. The hair was sculpted waves of some solid substance of one piece with her head. It remained smooth and glossy – but then it would do. 
 As far as it was possible to tell, she looked well. She wore a sweater, slacks and trainers. 
Caroline turned to the Count and his colleagues. "You’ve…"
 "Yes," the Count nodded. "We can do it to existing people as well. Once I learned how to transmute minerals into something quasi-organic, it was relatively easy to reverse the process. I turned whatever substance was required into a virus and injected the subject, of whatever species, with it. It alters the host’s body to its own molecular nature, just as conventional viruses would transform it on the cellular level although here the process goes much further. 
 "These advanced silicoids have much the same properties as the workers, although they’re not necessarily as strong, depending on what exactly they’re made from. They can do anything an ordinary human can, and more besides. They have the same bodily functions and can survive on the same food that we eat, though they’re not dependent on it. They should be able to breed with each other and with fully organic humans – essential, of course, if what we’re concerned about is the survival of the species."
Caroline regarded Rachel. "So how would you classify her biologically?"
 "A living jewel," smiled the Count. "The hair is mostly jet, as seemed appropriate. With an element of ruby, and thus impure. Jet is dead material, but as is implied by everything I’ve told you, our science is capable of reanimating it. I suppose I could have used onyx."
 Caroline went to Rachel and they hugged. She didn’t feel as hard as expected. But she was cold to the touch, smooth, slightly slippery. "Are you…OK?" Caroline asked.
"I’m not – ill," Rachel replied. "At least, I don’t think so."
 Her voice retained inflection, accent. But it sounded harsh, metallic…cold. Like the rattling of ice cubes. 
 "Have they hurt you?" Caroline asked, deciding not to take their captors’ word for it.
 "They did, at first." Caroline glared at them. "And now…well I suppose what happened then overtook it." Rachel’s head drooped. "I couldn’t help it, but I told them everything…Derek Winlett and the others, are they alright?"   
 "They were the last time I checked. These people didn’t want to attract too much attention by bumping them off."
Rachel closed her eyes and sighed in relief, a soft hissing sound. 
 Again Caroline stared at her, trying to take it all in. The facets of her face, like scales, gave her a reptilian appearance. 
 "There’s always the possibility some catastrophe might suddenly overwhelm us," the Count said. "I had to know if it was feasible to create a form in which we might survive it and a silicon-based one seemed the best option. Whenever I was able to acquire subjects for experimentation, I did." 
"So the missing climbers…"
"Yes. That is what happened to them."
 Some of them, Caroline thought. The disappearances went back a long way. The others had probably got too interested in the contents of the cave. "I guess they must be here somewhere. And how are they adjusting to the change?"
"I think it’s taking some time to get used to. That is what you’d expect."
 "I…don’t know," Rachel said, almost wonderingly. "It’s strange…just strange. I couldn’t begin to…describe it…"
"What happens if they don’t get used to it?" Caroline demanded. 
"We can reverse the process if necessary," the Count told her. "They know that." 
 "All the same, when they get to hear about it the public certainly won’t be happy about this." 
"We’ve taken steps to protect ourselves," said Kenward. 
"And what exactly did you mean by that?"
"Like I said, you’ll find out."
 "Caroline, it’s great to see you," Rachel said. Her features scintillated with her smile, the movement of her face causing it to catch the light. "I suppose the Service called in a few favours."
"And how! If I ever get out of this I might be Miss Planet."
"Uh? Tell me more."
 "Not now," said the Count. "Miss Kent, as you can see your friend is being well looked after. You yourself will remain here until we judge that your release will not endanger our security. During that time you will not be harmed." He motioned to Doumer, who after frisking Caroline and confiscating her camera and mobile, along with the other equipment MI6 had given her, frogmarched her out of the room. The Count and Kenward backed away slowly, keeping a close eye on Rachel. Mencken shut and locked the door. 
 Doumer unlocked the next room. He let go of Caroline, and ushered her forward. 
 Like Rachel’s the room was comfortably furnished. In it was a man in a male nurse’s uniform.  
And he was holding a hypodermic needle. 
 Doumer and his colleagues followed Caroline in, pushing her gently before them. Tensing, she dug in her heels. "You’re going to turn me into another of those things, aren’t you?"
 "We need subjects," answered the Count. "You’ll be pleased with the result, I promise you. And as I said, we can reverse it if you’re not happy with it in the end."
"You’d still have done it without my consent in the first place." 
 "Interesting philosophical issue," said Kenward. "Just be grateful you’re still alive, darling."
 "I’ll help you see to her," he told the Count. "Then I’d better be going. Got things to do."
The Count nodded, finally accepting defeat. "Yes, alright," he sighed.
 Erhardt came forward. "There may be an initial reaction to the injection. Giddiness, nausea, brief unconsciousness. After that you should be fine. It will be a few days before it fully takes effect and the transformation begins. The process may be traumatic…" 
"Make my day, why don’t you."
 "But once it is past you will experience no pain or discomfort." He brandished the hypo. 
Kenward and Doumer held her fast.
 "Something I want to say, in case I don’t get another chance," she began. Erhardt rolled up her sleeve and pressed home the point of the needle. She winced. 
 She nodded at the Count. "He can’t help who his father was. And at least he’s doing this partly for altruistic motives, even if he’s still wrong and the way he’s funding it stinks. He’s afraid of immigration and its consequences, but then so are a lot of people. Not necessarily out of prejudice."   
 She twisted her head to look at Kenward. "You…I know who you are. What you are. I know…your sort…"
 She was feeling a slight drowsiness, and shook herself in an attempt to clear it. "You want big business to dominate everything. To be wealthier, more powerful than actual governments – which can’t be right – to be the government itself. Which it is as long as politicians do whatever it says because they’re too afraid of upsetting it. You want it to be free to hire and fire, whatever the damage that does to people’s lives. To put a price tag on everything. To charge ever higher prices for shoddy goods."
 "You know why the prices are high?" said Kenward. "Because a lot of commodities are in short supply. Raw materials are running out. Won’t matter as long as Bruno’s silicoids can find us something to replace them on Mars or wherever."
 They released her. She staggered, and would have fallen had not Erhardt grabbed her by the arms, supporting her. She had lost any ability to move her body, co-ordinate its actions. But she could just about keep her mind alert. 
 "You’re making it worse," she told Kenward. "You want everything to be seen in commercial terms…profit and loss…even where it’s inappropriate…everything taken over by the private sector, even if it’s a public service, something that should be held in trust for the community." 
His face was expressionless.  
 "I read the other day…pressure groups and charities…being stopped from campaigning on political issues…important issues…but you can…lobby on things which…affect your profits…still not enough…not enough regulation…" The drowsiness was returning. Her face twisted with the struggle to think straight. 
"You don’t even ask about the…ethics of the…silicoid thing," she accused. 
 "I just want the human race to survive. You heard what Bruno said about us dying out."
 She seemed about to black out, then with a savage effort rallied. "Well of course you want to save your own skin," she shouted. "So you can go on making money. Working your employees too hard…causing stress…"
 "Should you really be working for a private company, with views like yours?" said Kenward thoughtfully. 
 "You don’t understand what’s happened to capitalism…thinks it can do what it likes…" 
"Business has always been a dog-eat-dog affair, sweetie."
 "It’s got worse…gone too far…too much power…too much influence…but you just can’t see that…or won’t…"
 "Oh now come on, sweetie. All these rules and regulations on health and safety, the environment, and just about everything else." A lot of which originated from Brussels; the downside of being in the EU, Kenward had to admit. "Everyone knows it’s the state that’s got too much power." 
 No, thought the Count. She’s not wrong. We’ve just got the worst of both worlds, that’s all.
 "Everyone’s got to think commercial…if they don’t you’re not really interested in them…they’re not…“one of us”…you make commerce into a…religion…you put Adam Smith on the £20 notes because it’s a homage to…to…an economist. Not a…statesman or a scientist or a writer. It’s a way for Mammon to…celebrate its victory. Getting too fond of its…ego...it’s grotesque. And scary…" It was possible Smith wouldn’t have approved of it himself.
Her vision was blurring. 
 "Plutocracy…we live in a plutocracy…laws that protect the company from the customer…and you can get away with it all, can’t you…you live in big posh homes in the countryside…the countryside that you’re building over, destroying, because you can’t be bothered to think of any other way out of the recession…surrounded by high walls and tall trees…intercoms so you can keep out all the grotty plebs, the ordinary members of the public…you go around in big cars, big luxury yachts, just so you can show what you think of them…"
 Every word was painful to utter now. "You only have contempt for those who…not as successful as you…those who want to change things…ideology of the fr…free market…" For it was an ideology, however much they sought to replace the term with “narrative” because ideology was a dirty word now. And along with political correctness it was the dominant one, going from strength to strength, even though many of its founders were now dead or in old age and a generation had grown up which had not been born when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. "Didn’t see…where it was leading to…different kind of…monster…but for you the company is supreme…has to be…and any other way of thinking…you despise... " 
 She looked from Kenward to the Count and back. With one final effort she screamed the words out. "Who…out of you two…is the Nazi? WHO? WHO? WHO? WHO? WHO? WHO…” 
And then she knew nothing.  


Twenty-Seven

Rachel lay on the bed in her room, lost in thought.
 Again her mind went back over the past few weeks. To the ascent of the mountain, the entry into the cave. Being seized and held fast by something that had seemed to come out of the wall. Then the interrogation, the battle with the drug. Finally giving in. Waking up in this room, the Count speaking to her. "For the time being I’m afraid you must remain here, Miss Savident. But you should feel privileged." He explained to her more or less what he was doing and why. "You’re about to take part in a vital experiment. Designed to create a new form of human being, one stronger and more resilient. Perhaps the next stage in human evolution, in that it was humans who developed the scientific ability to create it."
 She was naturally apprehensive, but kept calm, deciding to cope by trying to find the experience interesting. After all…a new form…
 She was given another injection, which had caused her to pass out. The Count had told her that the change would be fairly gradual, to avoid the physical shock killing her. It could take place rapidly, but only in cases where this was not thought likely to be fatal. After a day or two she noticed a coarsening of the skin; it was becoming scaly, like a lizard’s, and harder. She felt heavy, as if she was turning to stone. Sometimes her breathing seemed constricted, but she had an idea this was because of how her mind, and thus body, was reacting to the experience and tried to stay calm. She suspected that allowing it to freak her out might be dangerous both mentally and physically.    
 The transformation was complete in about a week. It was, indeed, interesting to observe her eyes turning to jewels, her flesh to diamond, her teeth and nails to a material like crystal in composition and texture. She was conscious of something like a heart pumping her altered blood around her body, and the rise and fall of her chest as her lungs drew in air from her environment, although unlike before the former process would go on indefinitely, allowing her theoretically to live forever, and the latter at most only supplemented her new metabolism, which enabled her to breathe through tiny pores in her…skin.  
 She sensed temperature in much the same way as previously, though fluctuations in it caused her no discomfort. She saw in greater definition, with a vividness that was almost overwhelming. Crystal clear. Her hearing too was more acute, the crystals resonating with sound and acting as amplifiers of it. She feared at first she might be overwhelmed with sense-data but this didn’t seem to happen, perhaps because of changes in the brain that were occurring at the same time. 
 She really only needed nourishment about once a day. She could eat in the normal fashion but this wasn’t strictly necessary except for pleasure. In fact she didn’t really “eat” at all; all she needed to do was absorb blood through the pores, though in practice it was drunk from a cup which seemed more civilised. She could take in water the same way; this, since it contained minerals, was a useful supplement to a silicoid’s diet though it wasn’t quite so essential for nutrition. The blood she had to admit tasted rich, warm, and invigorating, though she thought she could get by without it if there had been an alternative. Her excrement was a viscous, odourless slurry, her urine thin and colourless, still with that strong smell of ammonia but more acidic. She felt fully functional; everything was there, only  different. She slept mainly out of boredom, not requiring it much otherwise. 
 While her vision and hearing were unchanged except by being made more efficient, and her sense of smell remained the same, touch and taste were another matter. Eating normal food wasn’t in fact a pleasure; she found it flat and stale. And whatever she touched felt strange, alien, unfamiliar. She still thought more or less the same way, despite any physical changes there may have been to the brain structure, and this meant that if she read a good book, or watched something on the TV that was interesting or funny, she enjoyed it. It was one of the things which made this bearable. But other kinds of pleasure no longer seemed possible. It was a retreat from all that she was familiar with and liked. But she went on keeping calm. Maybe it was a temporary thing; they’d said it would be hard to adjust to at first, implying she would be quite comfortable with it eventually. And they’d also said it was reversible.  
 Could she ever get used to the way it looked? Because looks were another thing, and they did matter. 
It was…striking, at any rate. 
 Generally she was well looked after, Erhardt and the Count treating her considerately enough. The guards met her needs with an unsmiling, soulless efficiency. But she wasn’t allowed out apart from walking up and down the corridor a short distance, all the time under close supervision – and as a silicoid she didn’t actually need the exercise. Most of the time there was nothing to do except read and watch TV or just lie on the bed. Her use of the internet was restricted, a trademark of any system seeking to exercise control over human beings. And she was permitted no contact with any of the Count’s other captives. 
 She felt better knowing Caroline was here. But Caroline was still a prisoner, like herself, and would probably be turned into another silicoid. Maybe Derek Winlett had had a back-up plan, which Caroline would obviously not have mentioned in the presence of their captors. If not, there didn’t for the moment seem much hope for either of them. 

After about fifteen minutes the lift had come smoothly to a stop and the Frenchmen stepped out. Another corridor, much longer this time. The distance and the need to move slowly meant it was ages before they reached the point where the doors began. 
 Bouvier and Valdin had begun checking each of the doors. The first two were unlocked and contained nothing much of interest, just odds and ends. Then they came to one you needed a card to open. Which as Bouvier commented, suggested there was something important within. 
 Valdin’s MI6 was silenced. He aimed at the lock and fired. Smoke poured from the blackened and dented metal, but the door refused to open. Sometimes these things needed to be done with a bit more precision. He got out an oxyacetylene torch, turned on the gas and began to cut away the area around the locking mechanism. The glowing red hot line had to pass through the box with the slit where the card was inserted, as it was almost flush with the wall. As it severed the wiring there was a bang and a flash, followed by smoke and an unpleasant stench of molten metal and plastic. Valdin winced, drawing back, but his assault suit protected him from being burnt, while the oxygen mask filtered out any toxic fumes. 
He hoped no-one had heard the bang.
 The box fell away to hang half off, still attached to the door by a few wires and cables. Valdin ripped them out. He pushed the door open and the Frenchmen stepped through it.  
 More doors, about ten of them in a row. All locked and needing a card to open them.  
 If he had to use the torch on each it would slow them down. He took a chance and blasted the first with the rifle. The design of the lock was less complex than the one on the main door, and it worked, the door retracting into the wall. 
 They saw a figure rise to greet them, and took involuntary steps backwards. "What – what are you?" gasped Bouvier. It looked like some statue made out of diamond. 
 Its smile was human. "It’s me, Rachel Savident. I believe you’ve come to get me out of here." 
Bouvier frowned. "What happened?" 
 "That’d take too long to explain. Where’s Reinhold Gunther, do you know?"
 "He’s dead. We think they killed him." Rachel winced, the fabric of her face crumpling like cloth. 
 "They told me he’d be alright." She collected herself. "Caroline’s here. She may be in one of these rooms, if they’ve decided to do to her what they did to me. The missing climbers will be around somewhere, too."
 "If we have to look after too many people it could cause problems, especially if we’re detected and have to make a fight of it," Bouvier said. "They’d better stay where they are for the time being. But one of our objectives was to get Caroline out safely. Come." They tried the door of the next room, Valdin doing the honours with the lock. It opened to reveal Caroline, standing in the middle of the room regarding them with surprise turning to delight. 
 She had been lying trying to imagine herself like Rachel was now, how it would feel, so that the change would be easier to handle. When the lock had been shot out she had jumped up in alarm. 
 Bouvier studied her, ascertaining she was unharmed. "They injected me," she told him. "It’s going to – change me, like Rachel. Apparently there’s an antidote somewhere, we need to see if we can find it." 
 "I think we have tempted fate enough," he said. He didn’t know if the weapons they had would be enough to overpower the Count’s guards and take over the castle. "Let’s get out of here with what we know. Then we’ll see if anything can be done to help you and the others."
 Caroline saw the sense in this. "OK. But before we go, there’s a lab next door where all the stuff gets done. We need to get some pictures of it." And the antidote could well be in there. "I photographed everything with my mobile but they confiscated it." 
 "Then let’s make up for that." Bouvier led them from the room. The lock on the lab looked pretty sturdy so Valdin used the torch. Once inside they wandered around taking photographs of the vats and other equipment, the cyclotron, the three kinds of silicoid, and sending the images to their colleague in Paris. Valdin and Bouvier stared at the two silicoids on the bench. "C’est fantastique," whispered Valdin. "So they are making these…these creatures…"
 Caroline told them what it was all about. "I’m not convinced there isn’t another way. Whatever happens, people have got to know about it. But we’re going to have to be very careful about how we release this to the world. And what to do next, who to approach, if the newspapers decide it’s a hoax."

Something was nagging Michel Doumer. 
 The more he thought about it, the more it seemed suspicious that Caroline could have managed both to steal the keyring off Hans and get past the CCTV. Too much of a coincidence. It was bad enough that Hans had been sleeping on the job; he was in for a very severe reprimand. But at the same time Benito had not been paying attention to the cameras. Doumer knew his staff weren’t so inefficient that two of them should be slipping up so badly at the same time. It somehow did not ring true. 
 He needed to know what had happened because he didn’t share Kenward’s optimism that nothing could go wrong. 
 He rang Hans’ mobile but there was no answer. He tried Benito’s and was told that Hans had relieved him about a couple of hours before. 
 Why wasn’t Hans answering his phone? Still sleeping, perhaps. But where? Doumer went to the CCTV room. And was shocked and horrified to find it empty.
It looked like no-one had been watching the CCTV screens at all.
Shit.
He checked them. Something on one of them caught his eye. 
 And he saw the two men in their black assault suits and balaclavas exploring the laboratory, Rachel Savident and Caroline Kent with them. 
He cursed savagely. They should never have let the Kent girl in here. 
He slammed his hand down on an alarm button. 

When the alarm sounded throughout the building Miss Jamaica and Miss Spain went on sleeping blissfully, but nearly everyone else woke, put on dressing gowns and slippers and congregated in the corridors, blinking blearily, still sluggish and half asleep. As they collected their wits the mood was one of unease. "What’s going on?" someone asked Elaine, as if she would automatically know.  
 "I don’t know," she said. She told a Miss Planet steward to see if he could find one of the staff.

Doumer saw the group on the screen hesitate. What would they do now?
 He could only imagine they had got in by the secret tunnel to the cave as otherwise they might have been spotted, CCTV or no CCTV. They would probably attempt to leave that way, and be caught by the silicoids in the cave. If they didn’t?
 He pressed another of the buttons on the desk. Another alarm went off, but this time the pitch was different, and it was heard only inside the laboratory. 

The Count, awoken like everyone else except Hans by the alarm, called Doumer. "What’s going on?" 
Doumer told him. "Tell Hans to get our guests out of the way," he ordered.
"I can’t find him." 
 "Alright, I’ll see to them myself. Meanwhile our guard dogs will take care of the uninvited ones."
In the bed Francoise was sitting up, eyelids fluttering. "What’s happening…"
 When the Count didn’t answer she simply sighed, closed her eyes, turned over and went back to sleep again. She had learnt to be discreet.  

"I’ve heard that sound before," said Rachel. Although with the silicoid form body language was harder to read, they sensed her stiffen. 
The two silicoids on the bench slowly sat up, their eyes lighting up redly. 
"Come on," yelled Valdin.
 But Bouvier hesitated, causing Caroline and Rachel to do so too. The silicoids must be capable of catching up with them, at least, if they ran, and of harming or overpowering them once they did. Or their enemies would not have sent the creatures against them. And you didn’t present your back to an enemy.   
 He levelled his M16 at one of them. "Keep back!" he shouted. Whether or not the thing understood him he’d no idea, but at any rate it took no notice. The creatures suddenly rushed towards him and he scrambled back, blasting away with the M16. He saw the round of bullets spang harmlessly off their rock-like bodies and stopped firing, afraid the ricochet might kill someone. Caroline had already thrown herself on the floor, pulling Rachel down with her. Valdin joined them. 
 Like Mark Horgan before him Valdin tried shooting out the eyes, only for them to reform. "Run!" he shouted to the others. He ran with them part of the way to the door, then turned to face the silicoids, unstrapping his kitbag and going down on one knee. He fumbled in the bag for a grenade. 
 He thought of using the stun version but it occurred to him there might not be any effect on their non-human metabolism. In which case it would be a waste of equipment that might be better employed later on.
 Bouvier pulled out the pin and flung the grenade at the creatures. With a dull “crump” the explosive went off. One of the silicoids staggered back and fell, an arm and half its head shattered to fragments. It lay on the floor twitching, a steaming slurry pouring from its body and forming a thick puddle. Its right leg disintegrated as the Frenchmen watched, and they saw that its body was riddled with smoking cracks from which the grey-white substance oozed. The other silicoid faltered, most of its left arm gone to leave a ragged, smoking stump. 
 Bouvier was taking out a second grenade to finish it off with when he checked himself. The cracks in the first silicoid’s body were closing up, vanishing. And before his very eyes the creature’s head, the missing arm and leg, were regrowing, new “tissue” forming in a matter of seconds. The second silicoid meanwhile kept on coming, its shattered arm already starting to regenerate. Encroyable, Bouvier gasped.  
 In the corridor, Caroline and Valdin turned to run in the direction of the cave, but Rachel stopped them. She explained what had happened to her and Gunther there. 
 "The Count’s got a helicopter here, we’ll get away in that," suggested Caroline. At that moment Bouvier joined them. "This way!" she shouted, running off in the direction of the castle with Rachel and Valdin close behind. With the silicoids on his tail Bouvier decided there was no time to ask questions, and sprinted after them. 
 "Grenades don’t harm them either!" he panted as he caught up with them. "And they’re gaining on us!" Despite their clumsy, lumbering appearance the silicoids could move fast when they needed to.
 Caroline skidded to a halt. "Wait a moment!" She regarded one of the doors on their left. "I’m sure they were in here."
“Quel?” he demanded, stress making him revert to his own language. 
 A thought had occurred to her. "Guns…strange-looking." She’d never seen anything like them before. They had to be for some specialised purpose, so was it possible that…it twigged.  "I think they’re for keeping the silicoids in order." 
 The door had an ordinary Yale lock, which Valdin shot out. He took one of the odd-looking weapons, Bouvier another. They examined them. Well, a gun was a gun…safety catch here, trigger there…
 The silicoids, now fully reformed, were only a few yards away. They saw the strange guns and halted. Caroline’s theory was confirmed. The creatures knew the weapons could kill them. 
 Bouvier had no idea of their range so he stepped a little closer to the silicoids. He aimed the gun at the silicoid on the left and pulled the trigger. A jet of fluid shot from the gun’s nozzle and splashed over the silicoid’s chest, or rather where a chest would be on a human being. As it started to soak into the creature’s body cracks appeared, multiplying rapidly. The light in the silicoid’s eyes dimmed, went out. It careered all over the place, arms flailing helplessly, the mineral slurry pouring from it in increasing quantities. The other silicoid turned and headed back towards the lab. Ruthlessly Valdin shot it in the back, and it too began to disintegrate.
"Hey, we can get out through the cave now we’ve got these," Valdin said. 
 Rachel shook her head. "For all we know there could be hundreds of the things. Any part of the wall could be a silicoid. We might run out of the stuff trying to kill them all, and then…" They hesitated. 
 "She’s right, let’s not chance it," said Bouvier. They ran down the remainder of the corridor to the door, Bouvier and Valdin shouldering their rifles and keeping a tight hold of the anti-silicoid guns because they couldn’t be sure there weren’t more of the creatures lurking around somewhere. There was no provision for opening the door from the inside, so Bouvier shouted to Valdin, who had the plastic explosive, to get it out. Valdin slapped the wad of colourless material against the door and taped it in place. He attached the timer and fuse, set the explosive to go off in one minute and retreated. They all ran back along the corridor. The explosive went off, the sound reverberating down the passage, and the door disappeared in a cloud of smoke, which cleared to show that it had been blown from its hinges. 
 Anyone standing behind it waiting to catch them as they ran out would have been injured or stunned, giving Bouvier and Valdin a chance to overpower them. Temporarily abandoning the spray guns and unshouldering their M16s the Frenchmen ran forward, ready to fire before the enemy recovered their bearings, but there was no-one there.
 Meanwhile the Miss Planet contestants and staff, along with the press, had returned to their rooms, where the Count had told them to stay while whoever had broken into the castle was dealt with. The police had been called. The sound of the explosion alarmed and terrified them; obviously this was no ordinary burglary. But all they could do was wait to see what happened.  
 Caroline and her companions ran along the main downstairs corridor of the castle to the lounge, intending to break down the doors which opened onto the helipad. As they burst into the room they heard the sound of the helicopter taking off. They supposed their enemies were making sure they couldn’t use it.
"Merde," spat Bouvier. 
 "I presume there are cars here?" Valdin asked Caroline. "A man like the Count must have quite a few. If we each stole one – "
 "They’ll have made sure the keys aren’t in the ignition. The cable car that links the castle to Piz Helvetia, it’s our best hope. If we can get there alright." 
"Can you take us there?" 
"Uh-huh." They followed her from the room.  
 The same thought was in all their minds. If they tried to use the cable car the power could be shut off, leaving them stranded. There would be a control room with a generator in it and Bouvier or Valdin would have to stand guard there  while the others got away. That meant the silicoids, or the Count’s guards, or both might find and catch them. Would the car have reached Piz Helvetia soon enough to allow them time in which to make their own escape?  
 Bouvier thought they should get to the cable car station OK. They really ought to be kicking open every door, throwing in stun grenades and knocking out anyone who happened to be there in case someone came bursting out from their hiding place and mowed them down from behind. But only two of them had the right Special Forces skills and those two couldn’t possibly have carried between them all the equipment they’d need, assuming they could have got hold of it in the first place. Not enough Special Forces people were members of the Group and there was a limit to the amount of hardware which could be sneaked out of wherever it was kept without anyone noticing. And the residential part of the castle, where they were now, had too many rooms in any case. However, it helped their chances that even the Count couldn’t get away with stationing a whole army here. There were only the three security guards, who had guns but nothing else. 
 It was just as well. They were hampered by having to carry the spray guns, which had no shoulder strap, in their hands. If they had to start shooting they’d need to unshoulder the M16s first and the delay might be fatal.
Bouvier hesitated, then waved them on. 
 They came through a door into the entrance hall. Caroline led them down a passage on the left to a pair of double doors, which Bouvier forced. Inside there was a smell of oil and grease. A gentle but chilly breeze brushed their faces.           
 Bouvier turned on the light. The room was dominated by the rectangular shape of the cable car, a steel-framed box with toughened glass windows which could hold up to a dozen people, and the bullwheel around whose flanged rim the cable fitted. Tools and cans of lubricant were stacked against one wall while in another was a louvred door bearing danger signs warning against electrocution; behind it must be the generator supplying power to the mechanism. 
 On the right as they had come in was a control panel, and hanging on the wall above the console a set of keys. Bouvier used them to unlock the sliding door in the side of the cable car. He opened it and motioned roughly to the others. "Get in. You’re responsible for them now, Pierre. When you get to Piz Helvetia, send the cable car back for me."  
 They climbed in and Bouvier shut the door. He examined the control panel. He was enough of an engineer to be able to work out what was what. He threw a chunky switch and there was a “clunk” as the mechanism started up, gears clanking and grinding. The cable car lurched, shuddered, then began to move off. 
Bouvier turned to face the door, spray gun in one hand and rifle in the other. 

The Count radioed Doumer in the helicopter. "Alright, Michel, they’ve taken the cable car. Now get back here straight away."  
 "OK. You realise one of them has probably stayed behind to make sure we can’t cut the power?" 
"Get back here, and pick up Benito."
"If we cut it at the other end before they reach the resort…"
"We’d need special equipment to get them down, and we don’t have it."
"But once the plan gets under way we can – "
 "It might lead to too many people knowing about the silicoids. Don’t argue, OK? All we can do is make things as difficult for them as possible. That means just keeping an eye on them and making our move when the chance comes. No pitched battle just yet, they’ve got equipment we haven’t, Special Forces equipment." The Count cut him off.
 Next Mencken made a telephone call. It was to an Algerian immigrant and former actor who when called upon to do so could mimic with proficiency, because it was how he spoke most of the time, a thick Arab accent. 

"We’ve got to call the police," said Caroline. "The Miss Planet people could be in danger."
"The thing is, do we tell them about the silicoids?" Rachel asked.
 "We may as well," decided Valdin. "Your – condition cannot be kept a secret forever. Besides, they will need to know what they are facing." 
 "Is it wise for the authorities to have that information?" Caroline wondered. They weren’t necessarily any more saintly than the Count and his circle. 
 "Better on the whole if we do it through Sir Derek and the Group," Rachel decided. "As long as it’s not me who makes the call. I’d sound a bit strange on the phone right now."  

Bouvier could hear someone in the corridor, but didn’t react. He was already keyed up to shoot the moment they came in. 
He heard a shout.
 "You in there! Come out now or we’ll start killing the Miss Planet lot. The girls, their minders, the PR and press people. Everyone. 
 "You saw the silicoid creatures, didn’t you? We’ve got more of them here, you know. We can make as many of them as we like. They’re strong enough to tear a human being to pieces. And if you don’t come out of there now with your hands up we’ll let them loose on our guests."
 "Not until my friends have got away safely," he shouted back. "Sorry, for us there’s too much at stake."  
 "OK, if that’s the way you want it. It doesn’t matter, we can pick them up later. As for you, you can stay there as long as you like. You’ll have to come out eventually."  
He heard the man turn and walk away. 

One advantage of middle- and old age was that not being so physically active you needed less energy, and therefore less sleep. Therefore you could be up and about at a time many younger people were still in bed. Nonetheless, that was where Derek Winlett was when the phone on the side rang, for like everyone else he still needed, and relished, those few hours of oblivion. 
He grabbed the receiver. "Hello? Oh, Caroline! What news?"
 She put him up to speed. "That’s it, in a nutshell. Do you believe me? It might help if you spoke to Rachel – "  
 "It’s alright, Caroline. Going by some of the things you’ve been mixed up in in the past I can well believe it. Look, you say they said something about bringing their plans forward…and they know who the leading members of the Group are…I don’t like the sound of it. I’m going to have to call you back. Meanwhile, it’s good to know you’re both safe and well."
"We are for the moment, anyway," she muttered. 

Gently Winlett shook his wife awake. She struggled into a sitting position. "Derek…what’s going on? What’s the matter?"
 "No time to explain, Charlie. We’ve got to go for a little drive. Not sure where, at the moment."
 She stared at him blankly. "Oh, I see. I thought we’d seen the back of all that when you retired. Anyway, when you were Director General you used to leave it to the agents." A sudden fear gripped her. "Has anyone – "
 "They might. Like I said there’s no time to explain. Just get dressed and pack enough for, say, a couple of weeks’ holiday. Just the basics, clothes and toilet things. And be quick." 

The warning was posted on the internet, along with a film of the man claiming to be the group’s leader delivering his message. Phone calls were made and e-mails sent to the Swiss authorities and to a dozen news agencies around the world.
 "We the Islamic Brotherhood have acted to secure the venue where the event known as Miss Planet is being held, in protest at its decadence and the corrupting influence it seeks to exert over Muslim women. This action is part of the heroic jihad against the Western and Crusader hegemony, which still struggles to maintain its world supremacy even though it knows its days are numbered. We will destroy the hostages at the end of two weeks if our demands are not met. Those demands are the withdrawal of all Western military forces and financial institutions from Islamic countries in Africa, West Asia and the Far East, and the freeing of warriors of the jihad from prisons everywhere. All Muslims in western countries are to be subject to sharia law only and to be exempt from obeying that of infidels. We’ll kill all those slags, you know? If you don’t {expletive deleted}do what we say. Or if police or soldiers go anywhere near the castle or the ski resort." Because there was a cable car system linking the two places. "You get out of our countries or we’ll treat them like slags deserve." 

Old people could also move fast when they needed to. Having loaded a couple of suitcases into it, one in the back and one in the boot, Derek and Charlotte Winlett jumped in their car, Charlotte taking the wheel, and drove off into the countryside. 
 A couple of minutes after they had gone another car pulled up outside the house and four men got out. One of them started to pick the lock on the front gate. 
  
"They just threatened to kill the Miss Planet crowd," radioed Bouvier. "I don’t know if they were serious. Of course it didn’t make any difference."
 "It couldn’t have done," said Valdin. "Alright, we’ll let you know as soon as we’ve reached Piz Helvetia." 
 The three of them were sitting against the wall of the car with their knees drawn up to their chins. "I hope Marc’s going to be alright," said Caroline.
"He’s a soldier," replied Valdin. "He knew the risks."
 But she wasn’t just worried about him. There was a time bomb ticking away inside her. Before long, when exactly she didn’t know, something would happen to her that she might not find easy to cope with. 
 Just then, to make matters worse, they heard the sound of the helicopter. "Looks as if it’s making for Piz Helvetia," said Valdin. "To cut us off." Being a little faster than the cable car it would get there before they did. "Can they shut down the system from there?"
 "At a guess," said Caroline gloomily. Maybe it would have been better to have taken the road after all. "Ah well, too late now."
 Assuming they didn’t shut it down: "You reckoned we’d only have to deal with about three of them," Valdin said. "Not counting that Hans if he’s still out of it. And they don’t have our equipment."
 "We’ll still have to be careful," Rachel said. "According to our sources a lot of the Count’s henchmen are ex-military. Trained soldiers, maybe a few Special Forces people among them."
 "Why do that sort always seem to end up working for megalomaniac millionaires?" wondered Caroline. 
"Because they can’t adjust to normal civilian life," said Valdin.
 His radio bleeped. It was Derek Winlett. Caroline updated him on the situation. "Has there been anything on the news which could give us a clue to what they’re up to?"
 "Not yet. But apparently Muslim terrorists have just taken over the castle and are holding the Miss Planet contest hostage." Joumana, thought Caroline. "You can guess what kind of demands they’re making. But it’s obviously a deception."  
"We’ll have to make sure everyone knows that."
 "Will they believe any of this? We could distribute the pictures we’ve got but we’d have to show they weren’t just clever fakes. You and Rachel are the proof. We need to get you medically examined."  
 "A lot depends on what the Conspiracy meant by “bringing the plan forward.” It must be something pretty big or they wouldn’t have risked taking the Miss Planet people prisoner. They must know you can’t prolong a hostage situation forever."
 "Assuming we can handle it, what’ll be the next step, after the doctors and the scientists have confirmed our story? Will that be the end of the Count’s scheme?"
 "I’m not sure. We’ve kept looking for anything which might expose him, watching the news, researching his background, generally keeping our eyes and ears open. There’s something else…we didn’t give much credence to it at first but after what you’ve told me…"
"Carry on."
 "Let me just check the details." They waited while Winlett consulted his Blackberry. "Here we are. A month or two ago something funny seemed to be going on near a research lab the Count’s company had built here in England, on Dartmoor. A woman was killed, also a sheep belonging to a local farmer. The rumour is that the killer had unusual strength – he’s supposed to have ripped the bodies apart with his bare hands and broken through a fence the same way. What’s puzzling is that after the sheep was killed the farm was evacuated and the farmer and his livestock temporarily relocated. As if this was no ordinary psychopathic murderer but something possibly far more dangerous. He managed to break through a cordon put around the moor by the police and army, who were searching the area quite intensively for him. It put the wind up the locals who went so far as to call a public meeting. Some of them seem to have thought the Mencken laboratory was the source of all the trouble, as if they’d been breeding something nasty there and it’d got out. Certainly security at the place is tight and when you think how remote and unpopulated Dartmoor is...staff at the place are very secretive about their work. That could be because it does projects for the British government, but…
 "If the silicoid project is reasonably advanced, I doubt if most of it is being carried out at the Swiss laboratory. That was where the initial research was done, but the location makes servicing it difficult. You could fly in all the stuff you needed by chopper. But it’d generally be a lot easier to operate in fairly low-lying country with a reasonably good road network which could take the equipment more or less to your door. Somewhere remote, for security reasons, but not right up in the mountains like the castle.
 "The killings were blamed on a mad survivalist type who lived in the area. We’ve no way of proving he didn’t do it. And if the Conspiracy’s scheme is exposed the authorities will probably raid the place. Still, I guess it’s something to bear in mind."  

Twenty-Eight

Wearing gloves and face mask, David Li gently laid the samples of granite in the casket which he had earlier filled with a quantity of the mineral slurry, carefully measuring it out so there was just the right amount. Then he opened the hatch in the side of the particle accelerator and placed the casket within it. The machine was also a centrifuge, mixing the various substances at the same time that it altered their nature.
 Closing the hatch, he moved to a console and began operating the machine’s controls, gradually boosting the power up to maximum. Studying the readings, making adjustments where necessary. A kaleidoscope of lights flashed and the equipment’s low humming rose to an almost deafening roar. 
 After about ten minutes Li shut down the machine and took out the casket. He knew that inside it the volatile mix would be bubbling and seething, giving off flashes of multi-coloured light.  
 He passed through a door into a huge room where thick pipes led from tanks full of the slurry to each of a row of vats. He opened valves, turned wheels, pressed buttons, and the slurry began to flow into one of the vats with a gurgling sound. When it was full Li opened the casket and poured its contents into the vat. The viscous fluid surged and sizzled, spitting steaming gobbets onto his protective suit. He crossed to another console and consulted the data on a VDU. Everything was going well; each substance was present in exactly the right quantity. He touched a control and the apparatus suspended above the tank was lowered into it. The apparatus consisted of a pair of elements from each of which protruded the end of a live cable, sparking and flashing and crackling. Again the mix bubbled and seethed. The brilliance of the flashes would have blinded Li had it not been for his goggles.
 Electrolysis. Within the vats a localised electrical storm was being created, a miniature version of the one which might have caused the chemical reaction that turned primordial slime into the first living organisms. That had been the theory Dr Frankenstein had worked on.
Dr Frankenstein... 
 In the next vat the process was at a more advanced stage. The screen on the console showed the crystal lattice in process of formation, the snowflake-like shapes multiplying, locking together. Amid the bubbling fluid you could just make out a metal frame in the approximate shape of a human body, within which an outline was forming: head, torso, arms, legs. When it was complete the frame split open down the middle, retracted. The elements were withdrawn and a worker silicoid rose up, dripping with slurry. Li drained the residual fluid from the tank, then activated a portable control device, like a TV zapper, which he carried in his pocket. The nodules which served as ears picked up the signal and the silicoid climbed out of the tank to stand swaying gently, for the moment doing nothing much else. In time it would receive its training, a simple demonstration sufficing to show, with the aid of sign language, that if it worked hard it would get a taste of the blood which they had correctly estimated it would find nourishing and therefore desirable. They had been designed to have enough basic intelligence for each to learn how to behave, which included realising, when one of its kind got too inquisitive about its surroundings, wandered off and was blasted with an acid gun, that you should keep to your place. 
 These would be the last two lowgrades to be created. They now had all they needed. 
 Li returned to the main lab. Here, a monitor screen showed the lowgrades at work in another part of the building under the guards’ supervision. To test their ability to function as a labour force, they were constructing an underground bunker in which humans could survive should the Earth’s surface become uninhabitable due to global warming, nuclear war, socio-political-economic collapse or a combination of all those things. Once that task was complete the lowgrades would go back into suspended animation, not being needed again in the immediate future. 
 They lifted the heavy components, the steel sheets and girders, with ease, for they had a similar mass and weight to, and thus the strength of, living rock. 
 On a console monitor screens and VDUs, along with charts and X-ray photographs on the walls, showed the anatomy and metabolic processes of both the highgrade and lowgrade silicoids. The banding and veins which served as nerve clusters, arteries, organs in the lowgrades. The more delicate internal workings of the highgrades, protected by their tough outer skins. Crystalline organs and nerve endings, ceramic arteries along which their hearts pumped the chemicals which were their lifeblood. Lungs made from an inflatable, specially tough form of rubber. Fine threads of material like fibre optics which enabled the silicoid to see and hear far better than any organic life form. The existing bone structure had been retained, since it was already mineral, but absorbed into the subject’s new metabolism, made even harder and more durable than before.   
 Racks held samples of tissue and bodily fluids, including waste matter, from both kinds of silicoid, as well as of the different minerals used to create them.  
 Dr Habgood was sitting at his desk playing idly with one of the lumps of rock which were the most basic form of silicoid. And losing himself in his reminiscences. Five years ago the Count, having done his homework well, had contacted him and  explained what he was trying to do, showing Habgood the samples of living rock as proof. For the following stages in the process, involving the creation of more advanced life forms including sentient ones, he really needed help. As a government scientist Habgood already had experience of projects that were meant to be kept highly secret; plus he was sufficiently angry at his pet projects being axed, and at subsequently being made redundant, not to mind when the Count gently hinted that if he refused the offer, and then told someone else what Mencken and his associates were doing, he might live to regret it – or rather wouldn’t, so to speak. 
 And so the Dartmoor lab was constructed, with the aid of Mencken’s sympathisers in the government and business sector. It reproduced what had already been achieved at the castle – where the research could continue in tandem with the British operation, if desired – with the advantage that regular access was a little easier, not everyone wanting to negotiate a steep mountain road (unless like the Count they were used to it) or being unafraid to use cable cars or helicopters.
 They struggled to develop and perfect the process until, over the course of the last two years, they had created first the worker silicoids, using either rock from quarries or cement, sand and concrete supplied by a building company, and grown from just a few hybridised cells, then the highgrades, and tested them to make sure they could do what was required of them. They had been immersed in liquid, dropped from a great height, electrocuted; put in furnaces, giant presses, cold stores and vacuum chambers, given massive exposure to radiation. Generally they survived. They were impervious to the white hot flames licking at them, to temperatures which would have vaporised a human or charred them into a heap of ashes, to cold which left them with ice crystals clinging to their bodies but caused no real harm. The radiation test meant a lengthy period of decontamination, but that was not a problem now the test had been successful and didn’t need to be repeated. The only hitch was that intense heat caused the substance the eyes were made of to shatter; they would regenerate once the temperature returned to normal but that wasn’t much good. Fortunately Li was on the point of developing a material tough enough to withstand it while being sufficiently sensitive to enable superior vision that encompassed the whole length of the spectrum. 
 The lowgrade silicoids had experienced no distress when subjected to the tests. But then they probably wouldn’t. The highgrades were another matter. After all, they couldn’t know they were going to survive. In fact, since no-one was perfect there had been one or two cases where…but he tried not to think about that.
 The parallel development of a virus which killed the silicoids was considered a wise precaution against either kind stepping out of line or the workers turning actively hostile. They had been created by manipulating the basic particle so that it could form a wider range of substances, turn inanimate matter into living. The virus reversed the process. Like an acid in its composition and effects, and fast-acting, it entered through the pores and broke down the molecular bonds which held the silicoid together, dissolving it quicker than it could regenerate. They reverted to basic molecular form and dispersed beyond any hope of recreating them. 
 The gun was a wasteful method of doing it, but Habgood doubted you could get close enough to a hostile silicoid to inject it. It might have seemed better to use a dart impregnated with the liquid containing the virus, but darts might fail to penetrate their tough, resilient bodies whereas the liquid could find its way in through the pores that inorganic matter did have and which allowed certain viruses to pass through a china bowl. 
 He looked up as Li appeared. "Still no idea why number seventeen rebelled?" asked his deputy. They had been working overtime trying to find the answer.
 "No," Habgood sighed. "The problem is that we can’t examine the creature itself because X5 had to kill it. Looking at the others, I can’t detect any physical factors which may have caused the trouble." Since they themselves had created the silicoids and been in complete control of the process from the start, they knew what each of the creatures’ chromosomes was for, and had a complete map of their DNA. "I haven’t detected the appearance of any structure whose purpose might be to co-ordinate things such as reasoning and abstract thinking, like a cerebrum."
"It can’t be anything mental. They don’t have minds." 
 At least that’s what we assume, Habgood thought. If it was a mental characteristic it was presumably carried, like physical ones, in the genes. And with a complete chart of the silicoid genome…but was it that complete? Despite what scientists claimed Habgood wasn’t entirely convinced they had succeeded in mapping the human one.  
"If the problem was confined to that one individual…"
 "We can’t be sure it was. If the others haven’t tried to break out too that may be because we haven’t given them the chance." Extra guards had been taken on, and more frequent checks made of the surveillance equipment. The new personnel had been told in no uncertain terms what the consequences of any slip-up would be. 
 Habgood was determined to find the answer. "Something we did during their initial creation…"
 "Let’s face it, we don’t know," Li said. "It could be years before we do. Because we don’t fully understand the universe in any case. There are always gaps in our knowledge. And silicon life forms don’t occur naturally, on this planet anyhow. It’s an open rule book that’s still being written." 
"But we made the silicoids. We ought to be able to…"
 "Inorganic machinery often does things its designers didn’t anticipate and can’t figure out. Even with the simplest of tools…each individual one will have its own unique characteristics, tiny variations in its molecular structure which can affect its performance. And when you consider that in addition we’re doing something entirely new, something that had never been tried before…there’s bound to be unexpected consequences." Basically they had been trying to reproduce the development of life from the simplest forms, a single cell, to more complex creatures with some degree of awareness; but with inorganic, silicon-based matter. Did they fully understand the process where organic life was concerned? And with this new technology had they somewhere along the line made a mistake, unleashed forces they didn’t fully comprehend? 
 "And the shapechanging facility? Are we any nearer to finding out how that developed?" Li asked. 
 "Well, I have a theory. If you think about it…if we created them by identifying and then stimulating the particle that’s common to all things, determining how it combines with others to make new forms…then it’s a consequence of that. A by-product, one we didn’t foresee. After all, if the particle exists it must be possible for anything to change into anything, provided you’ve the right skills and know-how. Fortunately we can control the metamorphic process." Volker Erhardt, together with another of the scientists at the Dartmoor lab, had managed to identify the gene for the shapeshifting faculty and devise a way of triggering the process. "The fact that they couldn’t stop us doing that, assuming they saw the need to, proves we’ve nothing to fear."  
"Unless they all develop free will like seventeen."
"They won’t."
"Could they really change into anything? You said…" 
 It was another of Habgood’s fears. "I don’t know. At first the silicoid would probably go for something similar to itself, and also fairly basic, like a rock. Whether it could progress to more complex forms, like a person, I really couldn’t say at present. We’ll keep on working at these problems."
 Li glanced at a CCTV screen which showed a highgrade silicoid in her room, lying strapped to a couch silently regarding the ceiling. Wires led from pads attached to her arms, legs and head to the equipment which was monitoring her pulse, respiration and brain activity. "What about them?" 
 "Well, earlier she threw a tantrum and smashed everything in sight. Attacked Bryant and nearly killed him, they’re quite strong when they’re angry. That’s why we’re now having to restrain her. The others aren’t much better. The results from Switzerland are the same." 
 "They naturally resent not having any choice in the matter. That’s why they resist adapting to the change. It’s partly involuntary, subconscious."  
"I certainly don’t think we can try to acquire any more subjects."
 "No. It’d be too dangerous. I just hope we’ve got enough of a representative sample. But if…if it doesn’t work, in the long run?"
"Let’s worry about that when we know it doesn’t work," Habgood said.
 Li went off to see to the new silicoids’ training. Again Habgood’s mind wandered, as people’s minds sometimes will when they are worn out trying to resolve a difficult problem. 
 His gaze lingered on a storage compartment built into the wall. Without quite knowing why he opened it and briefly cast his eyes over the contents, in particular those on the top shelf. Three canisters, each with lids of a different colour. One green, one blue, one red. 
 After a moment he closed the door of the compartment, turned from it and went off to get some much-needed sleep. 

Meanwhile the worker silicoids went about their tasks as normal. Their lives were all toil, apart from the breaks for feeding every three hours and at nights when they rested (which meant simply standing around doing nothing, although occasionally they might withdraw into a kind of suspended animation from which the call to work would arouse them when the time came). At the end of the day they would be herded into a special room which they knew they were not allowed to leave until the guards opened it up in the morning. 
 For them nothing had changed since they had first acquired a dim awareness of themselves and their surroundings. Apart from the fact that one of their number was no longer with them. But any thoughts they might have had of following its example and trying to escape were overridden by the knowledge of what would happen if they did. So they just got on with their work, assembling the lighter fittings with a surprising dexterity. Normally they would be “asleep” by now. But Habgood was determined to get the fallout shelter completed so that once the problem of the eyes was solved, the creatures could be mothballed. Somehow, he felt a lot safer that way. 


Twenty-Nine

"What are you going to do now?" Caroline asked Winlett.
 "Find some layby and stay there until the hotels and B and Bs will have opened. Then go and look for somewhere to stay. We’ll try and get out of using the electronic banking system in case the Conspiracy are monitoring it somehow. Hopefully, we’ve got enough in paper cash to pay our keep for a while. But we can’t contact anyone else in the Group or any of our usual friends and associates because that’s where the Conspiracy will be looking for us. By the way I’ve told all the other leaders of the Group to disappear as well. They’ll contact you if they need to.
"I’ll sign off now. Love to Rachel, and good luck."
 "Good luck." Caroline told her companions all Winlett had said. "I just hope he’s OK. I just have this very uneasy feeling that we might not be free to do what we need to."

The Count could travel between the castle and Piz Helvetia by helicopter whenever he liked. But it seemed odd to the night concierge that he should do so in the early hours of the morning. When he heard the helicopter touch down on the forecourt of the resort he decided to investigate and see if there was anything wrong. He left his office and went down to the foyer. As he approached the door it opened and he saw Michel Doumer, the Count’s chief security guard. One of Michel’s colleagues, Benito wasn’t it, appeared behind him. The concierge realised that both men were carrying rifles, and froze in astonishment when they came up to cover him. 
 "Sorry about this, Max," said Michel. "But don’t make a sound or you’ve had it, OK?"

Caroline had rung her parents to say she had managed to escape from the castle before the terrorists took it over, and would give them the full details later.
 The ride was a smooth one, with hardly any sensation of movement, although occasionally the cable car juddered as a strong gust of wind buffeted it. Through the windows they could see the outlines of the mountains, shrouded in darkness, and in the distance through a gap between two of them the lights of Dreisengratz. 
 A thought came to Valdin. "It occurs to me that you may be rather conspicuous once it’s light," he told Rachel. 
 Just then the car began to slow as the braking system engaged. "I think we’ve arrived," he said.
 With a clunk they drew to a halt. Valdin opened the door and they scrambled out. He called Bouvier. "OK, we’re here. Now get out of there by the mountain road; you’ll just have to watch your back. I’m not going to send the cable car over in case they come here and put the mechanism out of action. You’ll either be stranded in mid-air or it won’t arrive in the first place." He’d thought of telling Bouvier to smash the equipment at the castle end so their enemies couldn’t take the cable car to the resort, but there wouldn’t be much point as they’d simply use the helicopter. 
 Caroline led them to the other cable car station, which served Eissensberg. There, they stopped dead. Someone had ripped the casing from the control panel and pulled out a number of wires, also wrenching off the starter lever. 
From outside they heard the helicopter take off. 
 Valdin swore softly. The damage would need an engineer to repair and he didn’t quite have the necessary skills and knowledge. He searched for spare parts anyway, but didn’t find them. They’d have made sure to take them with them.
 It was still dark and Caroline didn’t fancy making her way down the mountain on foot. She asked Valdin what he thought of the idea. "I don’t like it," he said. "We’d need torches, flares, to see our way and the helicopter would spot them." He tried to weigh the pros and cons.
 Caroline yawned and her eyes closed for a moment. She suddenly realised she hadn’t had any sleep for nearly a whole day. In fact, she’d almost nodded off once or twice when in the cable car. "Pierre, I need a rest," she said. 
 Come to think of it, he could do with one himself. Their enemies had known, of course, that they couldn’t stay awake indefinitely.
 "Sorry…" Her voice slurred. "No good…" Again her eyelids flickered. She sat down at the base of the wall and curled into a ball.
 Valdin cursed. He came to a decision. "We’ll stay here and fight it out with them if necessary. Prepare ourselves for a siege."
 "I’ll keep watch and wake you if they come," Rachel said. "I don’t need quite so much sleep." 
 Valdin called their colleagues in the area and told them to stay away from the resort for the time being. Fortunately the Conspiracy hadn’t moved against them yet, as Winlett had feared, although it might be unwise for them to return to their homes for the moment. 
 He instructed Bouvier to find somewhere to rest and await further developments, once he was clear of the castle. Both of them had learnt the art of snatching sleep in instalments, gaining just enough to keep themselves refreshed and active. And they might well need it. 

Bouvier finished dismantling the trap he had set at one point, involving plastic explosive, to make sure nobody could get in and cut the power while he was using the cable car, and hurried on his way.   
 Doing alright so far, he thought a little later. Another couple of corridors and he would arrive at one of the outer doors. And at the moment they weren’t coming after him. It was what might happen outside that caused him the most anxiety. 
 He turned the corner and found himself face to face with half a dozen silicoids. As they lumbered towards him he opened fire with the spray gun, sweeping it round in a wide arc while keeping his finger tight on the trigger. All but one of them were hit, staggering as they started to crumble into smoking dust. Then a few more appeared behind the survivor. 
 Merde, he thought. It must be possible to create them in just a few minutes, fully-formed. And in enough numbers for a whole army. 
 Still they kept on appearing. And more were coming up behind him. He had to blast a few of them at once, then turn to face the other direction and deal with as many of those attacking from there as possible, all the time using the spray gun like a fireman’s hose.  
 They didn’t seem to be deterred by it. These new-born silicoids had not yet learned, had not yet been taught, that the gun was dangerous, nor had time to evolve any fear of it. Each just blindly obeyed its programming, the control signal the Count was sending out, which served the same function as a dog whistle. Never mind that its fellows were disintegrating all around it. 
Sooner or later one of them would get lucky.
Then the jet of fluid from the gun wilted and collapsed. He’d run out. 
A stony fist struck him on the forehead and he lost consciousness.
 The remaining silicoids moved away from Bouvier. A minute later the Count and Volker Erhardt appeared. They stripped Bouvier of his assault gear. The Count examined the bullet-proof Kevlar suit, the helmet with its built-in mask and respirator, and the contents of the kitbag, the smoke and stun grenades. He grinned at Erhardt. "I’ve a feeling all this could come in useful." 
 "Do we really need to bother about them now?" Erhardt asked. "With the plan being brought forward – " 
 "I told you about keeping certain things in the family. Besides, they’ll know that what’s about to happen was caused by us. They’ll need proof but I’m not going to take any chances." 
They went out to meet the helicopter. 

Hans’ eyes flickered open, blinking at the ceiling. It was several minutes before they could properly focus. He shook himself fully awake and sat up. There was no sign of Caroline. He supposed she was in the toilet or something. Well, he’d had his fun and now he’d better be getting back to his own room before anyone realised he was missing. He glanced at his watch; just a few minutes after four.
 He dressed. And discovered when he made to put his trousers on that the keyring was missing from his belt. 
Realisation dawned.
The bitch…
What a stupid fool he’d been. 
 He flung open the bathroom door; she wasn’t there, but then she wouldn’t be. 
He called Benito, and was told everything that had happened while he’d been asleep. "You may be needed. Meet Michel and me at the helicopter, with a gun. Kurt will be joining you shortly." 
"Alright."
 "So she drugged you, took your keys…where did this happen? We didn’t find you in your room." 
 "Let’s not worry about that now," snarled Hans. He was livid at the way he had been tricked and desperate to make up for it. He had a score to settle with that blonde. 

By now all the leading members of the Group had disappeared into the countryside. Some were later caught, and not all had had time to go into hiding in the first place. 
 None of those who fell into the Conspiracy’s hands were ever seen again. They were hostile to their captors’ plans and what they knew could only harm the Conspiracy if it came to light. Therefore there was no identifiable reason for keeping them alive. If any members of their families happened to be with them when they were kidnapped, and had to be disposed of too to prevent them talking, that was just too bad. 

They could at least release the part of the film that showed the Count had been hoarding Nazi loot. In fact that had already been done. But for the moment at least no-one was going to go anywhere near the castle while the Miss Planet team were being held hostage. Whether or not they believed the “terrorists” were really that. 
 Once again Rachel’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the helicopter. She went to wake Caroline and Valdin. 

Doumer, Hans, Benito, and Kurt who was to have relieved Benito at the CCTV, alighted from the helicopter and moved stealthily towards the main building. Doumer was wearing Bouvier’s assault suit and carrying his kitbag. 
 The night concierge, Max, had been bound and gagged and shut in a cupboard until such time as it was considered safe to release him. 
 Someone was bound to hear something or notice it, sooner or later. But the police had been warned off, more or less. And the Count would arrange to have the landlines from the resort cut, and the nearest mobile phone and radio masts blown up. 
 Rachel’s acute hearing detected their approach. "They’re coming," she whispered. "Four of them." 
 Valdin waited until he too could hear their footsteps. He sensed three of them halt while the other continued on towards the cable car room.
 Briefly he thought of throwing out an explosive grenade but the corridor would act as a tunnel amplifying and channelling the blast and they might get hurt too, or trapped in the room as the walls and ceiling came down and blocked the door with rubble. 
 He whispered fiercely to the women to keep back. Then he took a stun grenade from his kitbag and primed it. He crept to the door, braced it and flung it open wide enough to lob the grenade through. 
 No sooner did it leave his hand than another went arcing through the gap and over his head. It landed on the floor behind him and went off with its characteristic bang and flash. 
 Rachel jumped, but remained standing. The effect of the grenade on a human metabolism no longer applied to her. But Caroline slumped to the floor, semi-conscious.
 Valdin stood facing the figure before him, the figure in Bouvier’s black assault suit. The mask and helmet had protected it from the effect of the grenade. 
Valdin opened fire with his rifle. So did Doumer. 
 A bullet could penetrate an assault suit at close range, which this was. It was Doumer who got lucky. Valdin fell, hit pointblank in the chest. Doumer shouted to his colleagues, who came running to join him.   
 He ripped off his mask. "All right, come out of there," he shouted to the girls. "Where I can see you."
 Caroline and Rachel stepped out into the corridor, Caroline still groggy from the effect of the stun grenade. She saw Valdin’s body and was shocked back to full awareness, feeling a pang of distress. 
 Hans and Benito both had their rifles levelled. But Kurt was covering Rachel with one of the spray guns.
 The weapon could kill her too, Caroline realised. But not an ordinary rifle. Or he’d be using that. 
 Suddenly she gave a cry of pain and folded in two. She crumpled sideways to the floor where she lay thrashing in agony, screaming. For a moment everyone was puzzled, then Doumer shook his head dismissively. "It’s the change," he said. "She’ll be alright in a while. I’ll see to her; get the other one to the helicopter." 
 Doumer saw the spray gun Valdin had taken from the castle lying on the floor in the cable car room. He went to get it. 
 Then Caroline sprung to her feet, ran at Kurt and snatched his spray gun from him. As he turned to deal with her she reversed it and squeezed the trigger. A jet of the fluid spurted out and struck him in the face. It couldn’t kill him, but he screamed and doubled up with his hands over his eyes, blinded. Rachel turned to see what was going on. 
Doumer swung round and took in the situation. 
 Hans aimed his rifle at Caroline, but in the same instant that he pulled the trigger Rachel stepped in front of her. They saw the bullet rebound harmlessly from the MI6 agent’s body, off a material that was as hard as diamond. 
 Rachel grabbed the spray gun from Caroline. "Get down!" she ordered her friend, and blasted Hans with it. He screamed and dropped his rifle. Doumer dived for the other spray gun but as he did so Rachel dropped hers, snatched up Valdin’s rifle and shot him in the back. 
 Go for her eyes, Benito thought as she turned her attention to him. It’ll disorientate her, for a moment or two anyway. Then I can get the rifle off her. But aiming at the eyes needed just a little more precision than the torso, good shot that he was, therefore it took a fraction longer. Rachel fired before he could pull the trigger. His dead body joined Doumer’s on the floor. 
 Kurt had recovered his wits and was pointing his rifle at her, likewise intending to shoot out her eyes. But his own were still bleary and stinging and he couldn’t focus properly. Rachel fired again, and he died. 
 His vision now cleared, Hans straightened up to see Rachel covering him with the rifle and Caroline the spray gun. He scowled. 
Rachel smiled at Caroline. "Well done."
"Never fails," grinned Caroline enigmatically.
 She had been taking a bit of a chance there. She must have guessed what Rachel would do. The MI6 agent must have worked out, like her, that ordinary bullets couldn’t harm a silicoid, assuming she hadn’t known already.  
 They looked at the bodies, Rachel breathing hard. Caroline imagined she hadn’t liked having to kill them, just found it a little easier. She was, after all, a bona fide agent in a way Caroline wasn’t. 
 Caroline caught Hans’ eye. "I’m sorry," she said sincerely. "I mean about…you know. But in my line of work…it’s what we do sometimes."
 He looked hard at her, but she sensed he was a little mollified, at least. After all, perhaps it was he who had been at fault and not her. 
 "I did enjoy it," she told him. "Honestly." He shrugged. His expression was hard to read.
 Rachel searched in Valdin’s kitbag until she found several coils of twine and some ducting tape. She used them to gag the Swiss and tie his hands. Caroline covered him while she rendered useless all the rifles except her own, ejecting the cartridges and emptying them. She tossed the bullets out the window. 
 She contemplated the spray guns. "Nasty things," Caroline remarked. But they might come in useful at some point, so it was best to leave them intact. 
 Rachel put on Valdin’s assault suit, which could fit a woman though with difficulty, and helmet. She didn’t want an inch of her bare flesh to be visible. If she needed to speak it would probably be assumed her voice was distorted by the respirator. 
 Walking Hans before them at gunpoint, they went in search of somewhere to lock him up. At one point the door of one of the rooms opened a fraction and a woman’s face peered out. Rachel made an abrupt gesture with the rifle and the face disappeared with a gasp of fear, the door closing.
 They didn’t see a night porter at any time. The Count’s men must have taken care of him somehow.
 Eventually they found a suitable storeroom and left Hans there. "Well, now what?" said Caroline. "I need some more sleep."
 "Then get it. Hopefully we’ve sorted out the Count’s heavies for the time being. We’ll move as soon as you’re fully recharged. If everything seems OK we’ll call in the Group’s local agents to pick us up."
 "Do you really think the Conspiracy will be going about rounding us all up?" Caroline asked.
 "It would only make sense as part of a much bigger operation. Something to give them control of the situation. But maybe that’s exactly what they’ve got in mind. In any case it’d be best to see how the land lies before contacting the authorities. Fortunately I didn’t know everyone who was in the Group, just the top people. And they didn’t bother interrogating you on the subject because they figured they’d already got enough information for their purposes."
"They must have got Marc," Caroline remarked. 
"Uh-huh." 
 "I’d prefer it if we avoided the police. Fortunately they’ll be staying away from here for the moment. But at some point we may find we’ve got no choice. We’ll just have to concoct some kind of story that’ll satisfy them for the time being." 
"Yes." 
 They returned to the corridor that led to the down cable car station, where Caroline lay on the floor and went to sleep. Rachel kept watch as before, her eyes staring out through the visor of her mask, unblinking. 


Thirty

At 5.00 local time, a man broke into the apartment of the Swedish Foreign Minister and shot him through the head while he was sleeping. 
 At 06.00 local time, a house in an upmarket residential district of Paris exploded. It belonged to a senior politician who was in the building at the time along with his family. They were just starting to get up when several powerful bombs, planted at strategic points a couple of hours before, ripped through the house and blew its occupants into small pieces. Simultaneously, other such incidents occurred in Spain, Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. 
 An hour after that a Danish and a Belgian government minister were shot dead as they left their homes to go to work by snipers concealed in nearby buildings. 
 Muslim terrorists claimed responsibility for all these killings. In Switzerland the atrocities had been carried out in protest at the anti-Islamist policies of the Swiss government and people, who had revealed themselves to be enemies of Allah by their comments about mosques and their hostility to immigration from Muslim countries. 
 At 08.30 hours the second wave of attacks began. This time the target was the public. Because by now the latter were thronging the concourses of rail and bus stations, commuting to work, appearing on the streets of towns and cities. The first bomb reduced a bus station in Stockholm to rubble. It was followed by others on the Paris Metro, the London underground, a railway station in Oslo, the departure lounges at Schiphol, Amsterdam, and Tempelhof, Berlin, airports. An office building in Rome. A train on its way from London to Birmingham. Shopping centres in Cologne – where a Christmas market was the main target – and a dozen other major cities in Western Europe. 
 The British Prime Minister called an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis, for that was what it seemed to be. It would be followed by a session of COBRA with police chiefs, anti-terrorist experts, representatives of the security services, and the head of the Army General Staff. 
 At around half-past nine the ministers filed into the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street and took their seats. The Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and several other key figures were not present. It seemed something had delayed them. "We can’t possibly go ahead without them," the Prime Minister sighed. Why the hell weren’t they here? He reminded himself that transport, along with everything else, was in a state of disruption at the moment. He made a few calls to try to find out where they were but nobody seemed to know. "We’ll wait a few minutes more," he told his colleagues. "Then I’ll have to suspend this meeting and go straight into COBRA. We just can’t hold things up any longer."
 The words were barely out of his mouth when there was a deafening bang, a flash of fire and something like a very powerful blast of wind ripped through the room, driving the breath from everyone’s lungs. The Prime Minister was hurled backwards out of his chair and dashed against the wall. At first his feeling was one of surprise. Then he became aware of a searing pain in his legs and lower torso. He screamed once, then blacked out. 
 The echoes from the explosion died away. Downing Street staff ran about in panic and confusion, which turned to a numbing feeling of shock and horror as they realised what had happened. Someone called the emergency services. The Downing Street chief of staff, conquering his fear of what he might find, and a few colleagues went to see what they could do for the injured. They found the door of the Cabinet Room hanging from one hinge and smoke pouring from within. As it thinned out they could see a couple of people stumbling about in confusion, coughing and spluttering. Someone was shrieking in pain. 
 The Cabinet table was shattered to fragments, along with most of the chairs, and the windows were blown out. Much of the panelling had been stripped from the walls along with the paintings that had adorned them. The table had absorbed the main force of the blast but that had not prevented jagged splinters being driven into bodies. By one of those miracles which often occur in such situations some were not only alive but unscathed apart from shock and a few cuts and bruises. Some were dead but intact, killed by the force of the blast alone. The others’ injuries ranged from severe laceration to total dismemberment, depending on how near they had been to the bomb. Everything seemed covered in blood. The Prime Minister had been stripped of his trousers and his shirt and suit were torn to shreds. His eyebrows were singed off and his hair partly burnt away. More seriously one of his legs was missing and his right arm little more than a mangled strip of flesh. It was an incredible stroke of luck he was alive at all, when others weren’t, as the bombers would have wanted to kill him in particular and would therefore have planted their device as close to where he would be sitting as possible. Later it was concluded that his lucky escape had been due to sheer chance. 
"I can’t get up," someone wailed pathetically. "I can’t get up..."
"My legs…can’t move my legs…"
"Help me! Help me, please!"
 Of course the cabinets of all the other nations of western Europe had been meeting at roughly the same time. And in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Scandinavia the story was the same. No sooner had the ministers sat down to debate the crisis than powerful bombs went off, killing or injuring everyone in the room. The French President and the Italian, Dutch and Swedish Prime Ministers all lost their lives and the other national leaders were gravely injured. 
 Meanwhile, the Swiss police had identified suitable vantage points from which to keep both Piz Helvetia and Schloss Mencken under observation. No suspicious activity could be detected, but that didn’t mean none was going on. 
 Their task was twofold. If possible they had to deal with the terrorists, who they had no reason as yet to think were not genuine. They also had to apprehend the Count, acting on the apparent proof which had just been supplied of his hoarding Nazi loot. If anyone attempted to leave the castle they would be followed. In case the Count had another secret passage somewhere which emerged some distance from the castle, and used it to escape the terrorists, all police forces in the area were instructed to keep a lookout for him. 
 The cordon which had been placed around the foot of the mountain on which Piz Helvetia stood in case the terrorists turned their attention to the resort meant the staff there were unable to turn up for work. A priority was to get all the guests evacuated but worryingly, all telephone calls to the resort, which had a few employees permanently on site, were going unanswered. The lines just seemed to be dead. The police were in the middle of discussing what to do when the spate of bombings and assassinations changed the whole situation. All available manpower and resources were to be devoted to tracking down the killers and tightening security around VIPs and government buildings. There wasn’t much that could be done except leave the cordon in place, unmanned, to show the public that they were not to go anywhere near Piz Helvetia for the foreseeable future. If the terrorists were in control there too, no-one wanted to panic them into doing something nasty. 
 There was no time, as yet, to investigate rumours that the assassinations had been staged by powerful friends of the Count in order to distract attention from his criminal activities. Order had to be maintained and public fears appeased by the swift apprehension of the culprits and the closing of any security loopholes. That was the priority. And although there seemed incontrovertible proof the Count was up to no good, it was going much too far to suggest he would go to such lengths to protect himself. It had to be a coincidence, whatever else about him might be true. Certainly the new personnel brought in to replace those killed or hospitalised in the attacks were said to be of that opinion. 
 The police chief in Eissensberg was troubled by certain aspects of the case. The hoax call had stated that Muslim terrorists had taken the Miss Planet contestants hostage. And one of the Swiss ministers had been murdered because he had made statements claimed to be offensive to Muslims. However, the police chief had no evidence to back his suspicions and so decided there were no grounds for taking  them to higher authority.

Under police escort, the ambulances conveyed the Prime Minister and the other survivors to hospital. The Prime Minister’s life hung in the balance. He was suffering from severe internal injuries, accompanied by massive loss of blood, where the blast had forced his shattered ribs inwards. His damaged arm had to be amputated. Of course the staff worked hard to save him. Within a few hours he was out of danger, but remained unconscious and on a life-support system. Of the injured some died later. Others would clearly be incapacitated for a long time. 
 For an hour or so government was in total disarray. Since it obviously had to, the COBRA meeting went ahead without the relevant ministers, a new venue having been hurriedly arranged. The police, spies and military would go to the politicians with what they had decided later. Meanwhile, no other figure of sufficient seniority being available, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had now been located (having genuinely been held up by a traffic jam, though it was not realised that the accident which caused it had been staged),became Acting Prime Minister. With half the Cabinet dead and the rest, with three or four exceptions, out of action for the foreseeable future representatives of the parties making up the Coalition hurriedly met to form a caretaker government, which would logically include those who had survived the bombing unharmed, or had fortuitously been delayed so they had not been present when the device went off and now expressed their shock and horror at what had befallen their colleagues while thanking their lucky stars for their own narrow escape. As no doubt were those members of other governments who also, because of the confused situation which prevailed, had avoided being blown up. And who now stepped in to fill the breach and take over the leadership of their respective countries.
 The intelligence services in each country were also targeted and lost a number of their leading personnel. At MI5 John Shawcross, Sarah Newbery and Paul Concannon all died. So did most of the senior management at MI6; which meant that there was nobody to contradict certain official statements which would be released to the press later that day. 


Thirty-One

Caroline sat up, yawning and stretching. She noticed it was daylight. "What time is it?" 
"About ten," said Rachel.
She stood up stiffly. "Any sign of trouble?" 
"Not that I can see." 
 They heard footsteps and turned to see a man approach them nervously. "Please, can you tell us what is going on? Where are the staff? The cable car isn’t working, nor are the phones. We’re stuck here and there is no food…" 
 "Go to your room and stay there. It’ll be alright." Rachel’s tone would have sounded menacing enough to carry the right note of threat. After eyeing her uncertainly for a moment the man shuffled off.
"Sooner we’re away from here the better," Caroline said.  
"Yes. I imagine the guests will be OK in the long run."
 Caroline called the two Group members in the vicinity. Her mobile didn’t seem to be working, so she tried the GPS set in Valdin’s kitbag and got through. Fortunately the Group helicopter used a satellite telecommunications system which wasn’t affected by the sabotage. "You can come and collect us now."
"Right, we’re on our way."
 They waited anxiously, well aware of the growing unease and tension among the guests. 
What would happen if Hans was found? 
 The mobile rang. It was one of the Group agents, a Greek named Emmanuelos. "Listen, we’ve just spotted three other helicopters, heading in your direction." 
Caroline didn’t like the sound of that. "Who are they?"
"Too far away to tell. We thought it was safest to avoid them."
She conferred with Rachel. "I think we’d better get out of here, fast." 
 "Agreed. We’ll keep in touch with the helicopter and have them rendezvous with us as soon as it’s safe." 
 "Makes sense," said Emmanuelos. "But there’s something else you ought to know." He told them about the new wave of terrorist atrocities and the attacks on the various national governments. 
 "Caroline," said Rachel once she’d got over her initial shock and found a voice. "It’s too much of a coincidence. This must be it. The plan they said they were going to bring forward." 
 Caroline agreed. "They’ve brought these attacks about somehow. They’re trying to distract attention from themselves." 
 Rachel nodded. "We’ll have to think how we’re going to respond to this. But for now let’s concentrate on finding a safe haven." 
 She shouldered the rifle and picked up Valdin’s kitbag, along with one of the spray guns. Caroline took the other. 
"Could we take the Count’s helicopter?" Caroline suggested. "Do you…"
"Know how to fly it? I’m afraid not. I take it you don’t."
"Right-a-roonie." 
"Let’s go, anyway." 
 Since Caroline wasn’t suitably dressed for outdoors at this time of year they had to break into a couple of rooms and search the wardrobes. In the second they found a pair of ski boots, ski pants, a thick pullover, gloves, a woolly hat and anorak. 
 Rachel would be OK in the assault suit. In any case she could probably have stood the cold. A diamond was cold. 
 "Sorry about this," Caroline told the rooms’ terrified occupants before leaving. "Believe me, it’s not our fault. Enjoy the rest of your holiday." 
 They found a door out onto the patio, which they followed round the back of the building to where a metal fence with a gate in it marked the limit of the property. Beyond it the rocky ground sloped to where the treeline began a mile or two below the resort. They scrambled down it, anxious to reach the cover of the trees before one of the helicopters spotted them. 
 Two of the helicopters, each carrying five men, landed at Piz Helvetia while the third remained in the air. One team started to make its way down the mountain while the other searched the resort.  For the second time that day the guests were terrified by the appearance of men with guns, who ordered them sharply to stay in their rooms, although this time they wore parkas rather than assault suits, as if they weren’t too bothered about concealing their identity. However they wore no insignia proclaiming what organisation they belonged to. All carried rifles or sub-machine guns. They found and released Hans, took away the bodies of Kurt, Benito and Michel Doumer. They freed Max the night porter but told him in no uncertain terms to keep out of the way. 
 One of the crew of the third helicopter saw Caroline and Rachel making for the trees. As he watched they vanished into them. He radioed their position to his comrades, some of whom went after the two girls, the rest joining them once they’d finished at Piz Helvetia.  
 In the wood Rachel stopped Caroline. "Listen, I think we ought to split up. They’ll probably do the same. But it makes it a bit less likely we’ll both get caught. I don’t think we’ve much of a chance anyway so there’s little to lose."
"Good thinking. But…well, I mean…right now, you’re a – "
 "So will you be soon. I’ll have to get help too, somehow. We’re both in the same boat."
"Good luck, then."
"And to you." 
 Rachel handed Caroline the kitbag and Valdin’s radio, also the film of the silicoids. "You’d better have these." She herself was equipped with the kitbag from Bouvier’s assault suit, and his radio, neither of which Doumer would be needing now.
 They set off in their different directions, Caroline heading straight on down the mountain while Rachel went to the left across the slope before turning after a while and likewise going downhill.  
 The thick vegetation would make it almost impossible to spot them from the air. Caroline hoped it went all the way down to the town. 
 She wondered how much of a start she had. She could only keep on going. The need not to trip on the fairly steep slope slowed her down but it would be slowing her pursuers too. She thought she could hear them but that might just be nerves. 
The cold air stung her eyes.
 Her pursuers fanned out, each man separated from the next by about a hundred yards. All the time they listened carefully for any sound of rustling foliage. 
 On Caroline went, descending the mountainside as fast as she could without losing her footing, from time to time wondering how Rachel was getting on. She heard the helicopter and stood under a tree, its branches shielding her from sight, while it passed overhead. 
 In time the slope became a little less steep. She was grateful for this but not so grateful when the trees suddenly came to an end. She wondered if she should go to the left, deeper into the forest. But she’d have to leave its cover at some point or her pursuers on the ground would eventually catch her. 
 She saw that the wood picked up again about two hundred yards ahead. Keeping just within cover, she listened to the sound of the helicopter. At the moment it was moving away from her position. She waited until it was as far off as she reckoned it’d ever be, then started forward. When she was halfway there she sat down and slid the rest of the distance down the snow-covered slope on her backside. It was faster, quite enjoyable, and also safer; she who is down need fear no fall, to paraphrase Bunyan. It meant she’d have a bit of a wet bum but the thick pants would prevent her catching some dangerous chill.   
 In the sky in the far distance she thought she could make out a tiny black speck which must be the Group helicopter. 
 The sound of the enemy chopper didn’t change. It thought she was still in the wood. She plunged into the next patch of forest and carried on until it, too, petered out. 
 This time there was further to go before the trees began again. She might be exposed long enough for the spotter chopper to see her. She glanced around for inspiration and saw, a couple of hundred yards to the right, a cluster of buildings which marked the beginning of one of the ski runs; probably the third, going downhill in one of a series which for most of the time, but not all, was flanked by the trees. The buildings looked deserted; the police would have evacuated the area, told everyone to get out.  
 An idea occurred to her. Speed might be the key factor in avoiding capture. Could she…
 Again she listened until the helicopter seemed to be a safe distance away. Then she made for the buildings in an awkward, jerky semi-run diagonally across the slope. She slipped and fell a couple of times but managed to reach them safely. As she had expected one of them was a store selling ski gear. 
 The helicopter sounded like it was much closer now. She looked round and saw it start to change direction, onto a course that would take it towards her. She ran round to the rear of the shop, listened, and when she judged the moment was right ran back to the front again. The aircraft flew on without apparently having sighted her. 
 She fumbled in Valdin’s kitbag until she found what she knew from having worked with Special Forces before was a lockpick. Opening the door of the store with it, she scanned its contents until she found what she wanted. A pair of skis and ski poles, crash helmet and goggles. 
 At the top of the piste she put the gear on, along with the kitbag with the spray gun jammed into it, and stood unhappily trying to psych herself up, her courage having suddenly wavered. Had she absorbed enough of what she’d been taught? Had that crash course been enough? This slope was longer, a little steeper, and more difficult than any she’d tried before and although it would take her closer to where she wanted to go, could she maintain her nerve, her concentration, over that distance? 
 Though there was no-one around to see she would feel very humiliated if she didn’t do it. And very captured, possibly. 
 Once she was away down the slope she mustn’t lose her nerve. That could be fatal. 
 She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and dug the points of the ski poles firmly into the ground, levering herself forward to where gravity would come into operation. In a moment she was shooting downhill, crouching forward with the poles held out straight behind her in order to achieve the right balance, weight bearing squarely on both skis and pressing them hard against the slope.
 The helicopter was sure to spot her, but hopefully that wouldn’t matter quite so much now. 
 The slope twisted like a snake, with bends at short intervals. Her reactions had to be fast. All the time she looked out for the bumps which might be big enough to knock her over, veering to the left or right in order to turn around them and when doing so, or negotiating a bend, straightening and digging the ski poles in to act as leverage and steer her around any obstacles. Putting most of her weight on the left or right ski, depending on the direction she was turning. That was it, wasn’t it? And distributing it evenly between skis to slow herself before turning; judging distance from a bump and thus the right moment at which to turn. She could let the gravity do the rest.
 As her confidence grew her movements became more fluid, her reactions more automatic and instinctive, needing less conscious thought. Whenever she swept round a bend her body leaned outwards in a manner that would have seemed graceful to an observer, but of which she was entirely unaware. 
 She felt the displaced air brush her face, grinning at the exhilarating sensation, and at the thought she was leaving the enemy far behind her. Bet they hadn’t expected she could do this. 
 She negotiated another bump. The slope suddenly steepened sharply, taking her by surprise. She skidded sideways, nearly panicking, then regained her composure, digging in and controlling the skid so that it slowed her, at the same time spreading her weight in such a way as to preserve her balance. 
 The snow in the centre of the run was packed quite tightly and she was afraid she’d bounce off it and go head-over-heels. She steered herself to the side where the looser snow gave vital friction without risking a nasty accident. 
 The slope gradually levelled off and when the moment was right she braked, cruising gently to a halt. She took off the skis, shouldered them and with the poles clutched in her other hand crossed to the start of the next run. 
 This and the following slopes were easier, especially now that she was psychologically over the hill where ski-ing was concerned. It seemed to take a surprisingly short time for her to reach the bottom. 
 She glided to a stop. Before her were the cable car station, on the right, and a row of shops and cafés plus a car park on the left. Between them were a pair of locked gates and beyond that the road to Eissensberg. 
But no police. When you’d have expected them to be there.
 They’ve been recalled, she realised. Resources needed elsewhere. Despite her wariness about contacting them she felt a creeping unease.
 She became very aware of the pitch of the helicopter’s rotors. It had been flying low and now sounded like it was coming in to land. They would have radioed their friends her position. But they might nonetheless try to tackle her themselves, leaving the others to concentrate on finding Rachel. 
 She wanted the Group agents, Emmanuelos and an Englishman named Smythe, to pick her up. But even if she escaped capture, the enemy helicopter could follow theirs and see where they were going.  
 There was one possible way out. She stood glancing this way and that, so that it would look as if she was uncertain what to do; make for the trees on the left side of the ski run or, tired of hiding, risk taking the open road towards Eissensberg. In fact she was trying to work out where the helicopter was going to come down. Somewhere ahead of her and to the left. She ran for the gates. 
 The helicopter hovered, descended, settled. As if realising they would cut her off before she got to the gates, she darted to the right and took cover behind a caterpillar-tracked snowplough which stood, for the moment unattended, on a level area of ground. 
 It sounded like there were two of them. She heard them approach the snowplough. "Don’t give up, do you honey? But you might as well. We’re in control now, you see. There’s nothing you or your friends can do."  
 At the angle from which they were approaching the snowplough they couldn’t see her at present.  
 They would stalk her around the snowplough, splitting up with one man making for the rear of the vehicle and the other the front, the aim being to trap her between them.
 She crept along the side of the vehicle to the front end, crouching low so they couldn’t see her through its windows.  
 She heard them split up, the two pairs of footsteps moving away from each other. Still crouched down she listened carefully, trying to work out roughly where each man was, how far from her. 
 She took a stun grenade and the spray gun from the kitbag, removed her ski helmet in case it trapped and intensified the sound waves, and waited.
 As the first man appeared around the front right hand side of the snowplough she stood up and squirted a jet of fluid from the spray gun into his face. He doubled up screaming. She heard the second man running to his aid, up the other side of the snowplough. She waited a moment or two, primed the stun grenade, drew back her arm and stepped a few paces forward. Her arm swung round in the direction the other man was coming from, and as he came into view she threw the grenade. 
 She covered her ears and shut her eyes. The grenade exploded with its weird howl and he collapsed, face twisting.
 She grabbed the first man’s rifle, then ran to the second man, snatching up his weapon before he could recover. The first man would have recovered his wits by now; what would he do on finding himself weaponless? "Come on out," she shouted to him. "Or I’ll shoot your friend and then I’ll come after you." 
 After a moment he appeared. She backed away to a point from which she could cover both of them, shouldering one rifle while the other was aimed at a point roughly between them. 
 "Either of you have a radio on you?" she enquired. "If you say you haven’t I’ll assume you’re lying and shoot you anyway." 
 One of them tossed it on the ground. She turned to the other, who stammered out an incoherent denial, his face white. She saw he was much too terrified to be telling anything but the truth, and nodded to show she believed him. 
 "Just get out of here," she ordered. They started to move off towards their helicopter. "Not that way," she said, firing a warning shot over their heads. "You’re going to leave us your chopper." She nodded to indicate the snowfield behind her, which stretched some way into the distance. They trudged off. 
 Hopefully their friends wouldn’t arrive on the scene just yet. She pocketed their radio, then called Emmanuelos and Smythe on Valdin’s, filling them in. "You can come in now." 
"What about Rachel?"
 "I don’t know," Caroline sighed. "She may have gone to the police and taken it from there. But if we go looking for her we only risk them spotting us." She closed her eyes. Rachel was alone, hunted and with a condition that had to be kept from the public at any cost. And it wouldn’t be long before someone noticed something. You couldn’t go around everywhere in an SAS assault suit, either.   
 While she waited for Smythe and Emmanuelos to arrive Caroline got busy. She used the lock-picking gear to break into the snowplough’s cabin. It took her a few minutes, but eventually she managed to suss the controls. Or thought she had. When she pulled the starter lever the thing shot backwards, jarring her painfully against the driver’s seat. She moved the lever forwards and the snowplough responded accordingly. Its engine growling, she drove the rugged vehicle towards the helicopter. She reversed, drove it round in a half-circle until it was facing the helicopter side on, then stamped hard on the accelerator. There was a crunch as the two machines collided. The snowplough began to push the helicopter along. Again she changed direction and the snowplough veered to the right, continuing to propel the helicopter forward, to where the mountainside suddenly fell away to create a deep natural hollow. 
 The helicopter pressed against the safety fence running along the edge of the dip. It smashed through it and Caroline saw the aircraft flip over and vanish from sight. She trod on the brake and the snowplough shuddered to a halt, just in time. She heard a crash and the screech of rending metal. Jumping out, she ran to the edge of the dip and looked down. The helicopter lay on its side some fifty or sixty feet down, several of its rotor blades twisted out of shape. She grinned triumphantly.
 A few minutes later she heard the sound of the Group  helicopter and ran to meet it. Glancing around idly while waiting for it to touch down, she saw three or four figures on skis appear over the crest of the piste. 
She tensed.
 They were still some way off and in the meantime they couldn’t ski and fire guns, if they had them, at the same time. But they were closing the distance fast. She could only wait until the helicopter settled and Smythe threw the door open, shouting for her to jump aboard. As if she needed any prompting.
 Thirty seconds later they were in the air. Fifty yards away the skiers scraped to a halt, their leader glancing skyward and pursing his lips as the helicopter rose higher and higher, out of range of their bullets.  

The Miss Planet contingent were all gathered in the banqueting hall while the Count addressed them.
 "You will all be aware by now of the situation within Europe. For your own safety it would be best if you were each to remain here for the time being rather than attempt to return home." That was true enough. "At the moment conditions are too confused, too unstable. There’s too much disruption of transport and other essential services. And I’d imagine that as a security measure all airports have been closed." 
 He smiled apologetically. "I am afraid it seems inevitable that the competition will have to be postponed." 
 Elaine Strickland could scarcely believe it. Then she sighed resignedly. She was getting used to this kind of thing. 
 Miss Norway, Miss Jamaica and Miss Spain looked particularly annoyed. The other girls were obviously disappointed but seemed to take the setback in their stride. After all, this didn’t necessarily mean the end of the competition. It could pick up again once things had calmed down. In the meantime they were staying here as guests of the Count in conditions of luxurious comfort. 
 "We have plenty of food, and of course all the facilities are at your disposal. As before I would ask you to avoid the private areas of the house."
 Well, so far so good, thought Elaine. But there were one or two things which were bothering her. Who were the two dozen or so men in ordinary civilian clothing, but carrying rifles, grouped around the Count – and obviously there to impress upon everybody the need to do what they were told? Apart from Hans, who could be seen hovering in the background looking rather grim, none of the Count’s regular security people were present. What had happened to them?  
 Then there was the disappearance of Caroline Kent. At any rate Elaine couldn’t see her anywhere. "I think one of us is missing," she said. "Does anyone know where Caroline is? Miss Britain?" 
 Everyone looked at each other and shrugged or shook their heads. 
 "I can only presume she became alarmed by the disturbance last night and left," said the Count. 
 Then why hasn’t she come back now that things have calmed down? thought Elaine. 
 "Excuse me," said Miss USA. "But I’ve heard that a group of Islamic terrorists are supposed to have taken over this place and are holding us hostage." She looked round the room, making the point that there weren’t exactly a lot of probable Islamic terrorists in sight. 
 "I can confirm there was a terrorist attack on the castle last night; it was foiled by members of my staff some of whom lost their lives in the process, while others are in hospital. However in the present situation rumours are sure to abound. Miss Kent must have heard them on the television, which further alarmed her, and decided to slip away. While, in the current confused situation, the rumours may for all anyone outside this building knows be true, she is unlikely to return."
"But the terrorists were Islamists?" asked Elaine. 
"I believe so." 
"Who are the gentlemen with the guns?" 
 "They are members of a special government security organisation which is taking on the responsibility of guarding the castle, since it seems to be a potential target, while the emergency lasts." 
"Has the government told the public that the attack’s been foiled?"  
 "I believe the message has not got through. The terrorists have caused some disruption to communications within the area." That must be why none of the telephones, including their own mobiles, or TV sets at the castle could get a signal. But if there was such disruption, thought Elaine, how would the Count know there had been a major outbreak of terrorism across Europe? 
 Something about it didn’t ring true. And when she reflected on what Caroline had told her about the Count…what had really happened to that girl, by the way? 
"So we’re cut off from the outside world?"
"For the moment it seems, yes."
 Elaine wondered what the consequences might be if she voiced her suspicions. She could sense the unease growing among the girls, too. As did the Count. Who knew very well that he couldn’t keep this up forever.
But then, he didn’t intend to. 

Meanwhile the bombings continued. And they took place not just in major centres of population but in small towns and villages scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe, including places that seemed obscure and not the sort of target terrorists would waste time on. Except that if it was terrorists behind all the atrocities, theirs was a very clever and very effective strategy. Nothing could have been more likely to convince each individual member of the public that nowhere was safe, that this really was a continent-wide crisis, that their whole society, civilisation and culture was under attack, that they might be the ones to be shot or blown up at any time of the day or night. That one of those bombs or bullets had their name on it. 
 Wherever the bombs were planted the people who did it, like true fanatics, seemed not to have been deterred by the fear of being caught on CCTV acting suspiciously. 
 The police did their best, of course. But the suddenness and the scale of the attacks took them by surprise, and severely tested human and other resources which were already under strain. The bombings went on long enough to give the impression they and the emergency services had lost control of the situation. 
 The first race riots began around mid-day as people desperate to protect themselves attacked those they saw as the most likely suspects. Most of them were unemployed, because they had the time to do this sort of thing, but they were joined by a number who had gone AWOL from their jobs. All over western Europe homes and mosques were broken into and vandalised, sometimes firebombed. The faithful – or anyone who had a dark skin and therefore was probably a Muslim – were beaten up, dozens being fatally injured, when they tried to resist. The violence happened on too large a scale for the authorities to be able to contain it, not when they were having to deal with the bombings at the same time.
 In their rented accommodation in Clapham two financially challenged students got together to discuss the possibilities inherent in the situation. Whatever your feelings towards the Muslims there was no doubt it provided an opportunity to settle a few old scores. 

Fate smiled on Rachel Savident, and she was able safely to reach the edge of the woods at the mountain’s foot. Before stepping fully out into the open she paused to take off the helmet of the assault suit. She breathed in a few mouthfuls of the cold winter air, felt its kiss on her face. A light shower of rain began, the gentle drizzle pattering on her…skin?
It wasn’t that, was it? And therefore rain didn’t feel as rain should. 
 She was aware of all sorts of little sounds, made by animal life; and of the movement of more than one human body over ground. She couldn’t yet tell if her pursuers really were close or it was just the effect of her improved hearing. 
 She cut through the fence the police had erected with a pair of wire cutters from Bouvier’s kitbag. Seeing no sign of anyone she came to the same conclusion as Caroline. She could only try to find a doctor in town and hope that they would help her get the truth out. As well as meet her need for blood before it became a problem. 
 She headed in what she hoped was the direction of Eissensberg, keeping just within the cover of the wood and from time to time peeping out cautiously. She knew she was close to the road from the occasional sound of traffic. 
 The trees came suddenly to an end. A hundred yards on was a house, a two-storey building at the end of a short drive from the road. No cars were parked in the drive and the place generally looked, and felt, as if there was nobody about. Presumably they were at work. Choosing a point when the road seemed to be empty of traffic, she emerged cautiously from the wood and hurried along to the entrance to the drive, then down it and round the back of the house where she would not be seen from the road. She smashed one of the kitchen windows with the barrel of the rifle, reached in and undid the latch. 
 In one of the bedrooms she opened the wardrobe and a chest of drawers and searched until she found just what she wanted. 
 She needed clothes which were all-enveloping, showing as little of her “flesh” as possible. But what sort of person would – ah yes, of course. They did have them in Switzerland, she knew that. 
It was the only solution.
 In the wardrobe hung a black crepe dress, and there were other black items which when combined with it would provide the kind of disguise she desired. Hunting around, she found some dressmaking tools, including a sewing machine, and in the kitchen a pair of scissors and some cellotape. She set to work, cutting things up and sewing the pieces on to cover the areas the dress would not. Finishing, she put the costume on over her own clothes and surveyed herself in a mirror. She was clad from the top of her head to her ankles in a long black garment broken only by a pill-box slit to allow her to see. 
 Her eyes. They mustn’t see her eyes. She found a pair of dark glasses and put them on. Perhaps she suffered from a condition in which it was dangerous for her eyes to be exposed directly to sunlight.  
 Black gloves hid her hands, and she was able to locate a pair of shoes which more or less fitted her. Feeling more comfortable now – the garment was moulded to the shape of her head, which had remained the same, but loose-fitting enough not to feel too claustrophobic – she left the house. 
 If someone dressed as she was now were seen carrying a weapon, or what looked like one…after making the rifle safe she stuffed it and the spray gun into a rubbish bin, along with the rolled-up assault suit and helmet. 
 Twenty minutes later she had reached the outskirts of Eissensberg. Here there were a few rough areas, run-down housing estates where children desultorily kicked footballs about. They did have them in Switzerland; the tourists never saw them, of course. 
 She paused to get her bearings, trying to work out which way the town centre would be from here. And moved on again, a little uncertainly. 
 A group of young men were coming along the pavement towards her, talking loudly and laughing. She felt a sudden urge to avoid them, stepping to one side into the road until they had passed. In the end she decided to brazen it out. She stopped and waited for them to divide, passing on either side of her.   
 One of them stopped. "Were you looking for somewhere just then?" he asked, helpfully. 
 She couldn’t speak of course. Maybe he’d assume she didn’t know any of the main Swiss languages. She shook her head and hoped that the folds of the material covering her face had shifted enough to suggest a smile.
He seemed to stare at her. After a moment she carried on her way. 
 The man remained where he was, frowning. Trying to make sense of something he’d seen, or thought he’d seen. A woman wearing one of those all-over black dresses, he’d forgotten what they were called. And dark glasses. So? But he could have sworn that in one of the places she could not cover up, in the space between the glasses and the veil where flesh should be, there was… 
 Rachel hurried on. She could see larger, grander buildings in the distance and knew she was getting warm. But where would she find a doctor? She should have taken the risk and asked that guy back there if he knew where the nearest one was. But she could find a library, if a small town like this had one, and consult the Swiss version of the Yellow Pages. Of course it might all be on computer now and you couldn’t just get it off the shelf. If there was a terminal free and you could just sit yourself down and log in without asking anyone…
 A man stepped out from the mouth of an alleyway, blocking her path. She was about to try and move round him when he was joined by another man, and another. 
 "It’s you lot who are causing all this new trouble, isn’t it," the first man snarled. "You hate us, don’t you?"  
 "Care to tell us what you’re wearing that thing for? ’Cause it’s giving me the fucking creeps, you know that?" His friend came towards her menacingly. She turned to run but the third man moved to cut her off. "What are you trying to hide?" he demanded. "Well let’s see, shall we?"
 She tried to make a break for it but one of them grabbed her and held her fast, twisting and kicking. The material of which she was made was hard but not particularly heavy or strong, and she couldn’t succeed in struggling free. She might have made an ineffectual attempt to keep her makeshift veil in place but her arms were pinned by her sides. The first man yanked away her glasses, in his haste not noticing what had been behind them, then grabbed a fold of the veil between thumb and forefinger and pulled. It tore, peeled away. 
 He let go of it, staring at her for a moment and then screaming in utter horror. He spun on his heels and ran. The second man, also screaming, sprinted after him. The third, realising something about her had spooked his companions, felt afraid and in an instant was gone, somehow not caring to find out what the problem was.  
 She retrieved the glasses. The veil was hanging down on one side of her face and she thrust it back into place, both hands pressed against it to keep it there. The torn material was still just about covering everything but it kept on slipping and apart from anything else obscuring her vision, with or without the glasses. She’d just have to manage as best she could. Her hearing would save her from being knocked down by traffic. 
 She knew that people would be staring at her, and every so often someone approached her asking if she was alright. Guessing it was because the veil had somehow ripped and she did not want to go against her way of life, one or two said they had something with which she could cover herself instead. She ignored them; she had no choice. 
Most people were avoiding her, in any case.
"Mummy, there’s a funny lady over there," she heard a child say.
"Why is she funny, dear?"
"She’s dressed all in black and she’s got her hands over her face."
 It took her twenty minutes to reach the centre of the town. In the square a small group of people were spending their lunch hour watching an organ grinder perform, as accompaniment to a puppet show. There was one young mother with children, two little girls, among them. Some people, at least, were determined not to let events in the country, and world, at large stop them from having fun. That was the Swiss for you.   
 Rachel stumbled into the group. They drew back with shouts of anger, then turned from her and got on with watching the show. Realising she was on the verge of panicking she stood very still, trying to calm herself. 
 The young mother realised that one of her girls had gone over to Rachel and was looking up at her with a mixture of puzzlement and concern. "Are you alright?" the child asked.
Her parent made to pull her away. "Come away, liebchen."
 Then someone knocked into Rachel, accidentally or otherwise, and her hands fell away from her face, the remains of the veil with them. 
 At once the child screamed, high and clear and piercing, and threw herself into her mother’s arms, sobbing hysterically. “Mummy! Mummy…” 
 Rachel staggered away down the street, clutching the last few shreds of the veil to her face, thinking the police must be here soon, wondering if she should give it up, come clean, which she’d have to do in the end anyway. Then she caught sight of the big Baroque building where perhaps she should have gone in the first place.
 The heavy old oak door stood slightly ajar and she squeezed through it into the echoing interior of the church, immediately feeling the sense of peace and calm which permeated it. She sensed a woman helper moving towards her, alarmed but recognising a duty to help. "What is the trouble? Can we – "
 "I must see the priest," Rachel replied, still not taking her hands from her face. "The pastor." 
 The woman was briefly fazed by the strange voice, then collected herself. "Of course. If you’ll wait here." Closing and securing the door, she went away and Rachel found a bench and sat down, letting the atmosphere of the place relax her. The sweet smell of incense was cloying but not unbearably so. A Catholic church, but that didn’t matter; she’d been a Catholic herself, long ago. There were candles everywhere, an illuminated Christmas tree near the entrance and a Nativity scene, a group of painted wooden statuettes, by the high altar. 
 A round-faced, bespectacled, balding man in his early fifties, in clerical garb, came and sat down beside her. "Hello," he said, his manner wary but kind. "You wished to speak to me. I’ll certainly help if I can. But what exactly is the problem?"
"I suppose you could say I’m seeking sanctuary," Rachel said.
 She must have one of those electronic artificial larynxes. All the same, it wasn’t like any human voice he had heard before. "Why?" he asked. "What from?" 
 "Count von Mencken has been using his Nazi gold to fund…experiments. He…do you have a strong stomach?"
 The pastor hesitated, uncertain whether his faith would enable him to endure what he might be about to see, because he was only human. "Very well," he said at length, steeling himself. "Show me."
 Rachel removed her hands, and the veil, from her face and turned towards him.
"Oh, my God," he shouted, drawing back sharply, quite involuntarily making the sign of the cross. "Holy Mother of…Patrie, filis et spiritui sancti…"
 A skin condition? No, that couldn’t be it. The flickering candle flames were reflected in the gleaming facets of her face like a myriad tiny fires. It looked to his mind like a skull, a crystal skull. He stared into the glassy, unblinking eyes and fought to suppress his rising gorge. She must be wearing some kind of horror mask, surely…and yet he knew in his heart that was not the case. "What – what did he do to you?" 
 Rachel explained. "It’s incredible," he whispered. "If I hadn’t seen it…it really is the truth? Silicon life forms…"
"The best way to convince people would be by a medical examination." 
"I can help you find a doctor. You say there is this political conspiracy…"
 "The terrorism is a part of it. They want to make sure the European governments are too busy to investigate them. We can’t let that happen. If we make sure the whole world and not just Europe knows about it, we stand a better chance of stopping this."
 "What has been done to you is wrong by any standard," the pastor said. "It is a crime against nature. Against God. Yes, it must be stopped." 
 "We’ll need to be careful. Somehow I’ve a feeling the Conspiracy mean to go further than just distract people’s attention from them. What’ll happen once the crisis has passed?" 
 The pastor looked unhappy. He was considering where he stood. "I can give you sanctuary, certainly." Whoever or whatever this poor creature might be, she was or had been human. A child of God. "But yes, we must be careful. If what you are suggesting is true we might only bring disaster upon the church, and upon you. For now, the best way of finding the safety you seek may be to concentrate on staying hidden."
 He might well be right, Rachel thought. "I have friends who know what’s happening. They might be able to do something, if they’re still at liberty."
 "Perhaps your best hope is to trust in them. And in God. But in case it does become possible for you to leave the building, we need to find some other disguise. At the moment – " 
 The pastor glanced round sharply on hearing rapid footsteps ring out on the stone floor. Several pairs of them, at least. He went to deal with the newcomers, only to stop dead as he saw the guns, one of them strangely designed, which they were carrying.  
 "What is this?" he demanded, anger getting the better of him. "You can’t possibly come in here and – "
 Ignoring him, they made straight for Rachel. He planted himself in front of her and one of them shoved him roughly out the way. Rachel had got to her feet but saw the spray gun and realised there wasn’t any point in resisting. Two of the men grabbed her and bundled her towards the rear of the church. 
 Their leader nodded to the remaining pair, one of whom aimed his rifle at the pastor. Thinking he was simply being warned to stay where he was, the pastor obeyed. The man shot him several times in the chest. With a scream of horror the woman helper, who had been looking on from a doorway at the side, turned to run but a burst of gunfire cut her down instantly. 
They’d seen too much.
 "It was Muslim extremists," the leader said. "A Muslim woman was seen in the area earlier, and observed going into the church." It was the disturbance in the square which had led them here. "Probably intending to bomb it. You reckon that’ll be enough?" 
His companions nodded. "Those Muslims," one sighed. 

Thirty-Two

"I think we should land now," Caroline said. "If they’re in the air they’ll spot us before long."
 Emmanuelos nodded, and started looking around for a suitable spot to touch down. "Who were they?" asked Smythe. 
"Not the normal security forces, I think. Friends of the Count, anyhow." 
 "We may as well abandon the helicopter. We can’t go back to the airfield, anyway." 
 "Assuming Sir Derek was right about the Conspiracy moving against members of our group."
 "D’Epignan and Kleistmann have gone into hiding. We can’t contact Magda Johannsen. Either she’s just being extra careful or…"  He shrugged. "The rest are OK as far as we know. But are the Conspiracy powerful enough to harm them with impunity?"
 "If the authorities are too busy dealing with the current crisis, maybe. I think the terrorists are either fake or they’re being manipulated."   
 Emmanuelos selected a clearing within a large wood to the west. The helicopter banked and headed towards it. 
 They had heard nothing from Rachel. Caroline thought of calling her but if she’d been captured, that might not be a good idea. She wondered if the Conspiracy as they had begun to call it could monitor their enemies’ telephone communications. They couldn’t have the resources, surely…and yet…
Again she felt a cold, crawling unease. 
We’re in control now. 
 It was a paradox. If her suspicions were correct it would be dangerous to contact their friends; but they’d have to take the risk because they’d need as much help as they could get. She called Winlett. 
 "No answer," she frowned. She tried her companions’ mobiles but got the same lack of result.
 D’Epignan had a satellite phone at his home. Only he wasn’t there right now, and wouldn’t be for the foreseeable future. 
 In any event they needed to know what was happening Europe-wide. Smythe turned on the radio, but no sound came out.
 "I think we need to get as far away from here as possible," she said. "Hopefully the disruption is only local." 
 They touched down. "Now what we need is a car," Emmanuelos said as they alighted. He led them through the wood towards the road. Caroline left the rifles in the helicopter, knowing it would only increase suspicion if they were seen walking around with them, but took the spray gun which might perhaps be mistaken for some revolutionary kind of defoliant. 
 As they walked to the road the three of them fell into general conversation. Caroline asked her companions what had motivated them to join the Group. "We Greeks have always been proud of our independence," Emmanuelos said. "Look how fiercely we fought for it against the Ottomans, and others. Now the EU is screwing up our country..." He was referring to the recent Eurozone crisis. "We should never have joined it. Now look what’s happened…"
 She decided she liked Emmanuelos. He was swarthy, like many Greeks, with a round, pleasantly ugly face and a rogueish twinkle in his eye, which was particularly evident whenever he looked directly at her. Well, boys will be boys. She didn’t really object to it. In fact, if she got to know him a little better… 
 Smythe was a little younger, early thirties at the most she guessed. And of that type, still turned out by English public schools, which had been brought up to believe in Britain’s greatness and the need to defend its freedom, cherishing its traditional way of life and looking back to a time when it was easier to preserve its liberties and identity. Although she didn’t want the Empire back, supposing that was possible, neither did she blame him for the way he felt about things.  
 Emerging from the wood onto the grass verge, they carried on until they came to a house with a couple of cars parked nearby, at the side of the road. Presumably one at least belonged to the owner of the house. The spray gun was probably unpleasant enough in its effects to serve as a threat – they had no option but to be ruthless – but as it happened no-one saw them. Caroline used a lockpick and a coil of wire to break into the car and trip the ignition. Smythe jumped in the driving seat.
 They decided to head for the French border, or as near to it as the amount of petrol in the tank allowed. After a while Caroline rang Winlett again. She got the dialling tone, but again no-one answered. Like D’Epignan, he was being careful. 
 Smythe tried the radio, and this time they got a news bulletin; there was to be one every twenty minutes. It was in French but each of them had a fairly good understanding of the language. 
 "A state of emergency has been declared across Europe. In the wake of the terrorist attacks which occurred earlier today riots have broken out in towns and cities across the continent. All police leave has been cancelled and the armed forces of each EU nation are on standby. There has been widespread looting with shops and businesses being set on fire. This follows an outbreak of racial violence which has seen mosques in various countries burnt down and worshippers attacked. So far a total of one hundred and fifty people are believed to have died. In Paris and Rome…"
Caroline closed her eyes. "It’s horrible." 
 "So," said Emmanuelos. "First terrorism, then race riots, and now social unrest…"
 "The authorities are in a state of confusion. Everyone who’s dissatisfied with how things are is seizing their chance. The unemployed, those on low incomes, anyone who’s suffering in some way from austerity policies. And all sorts of suppressed feelings are coming to the surface. If people are actualising their fear and suspicion of the Muslims they may as well attack the other things they don’t like at the same time." Her lips tightened. "Kenward and the Count must have banked on this happening. They’ve a lot to answer for." Not that she didn’t sympathise with those who really had been pushed almost beyond the point of endurance by marginalisation and deprivation. 
Their attention returned to the radio.
 "Emergency sessions of the British House of Commons and French Chamber of Deputies have voted to suspend habeus corpus and bring in detention without trial for an indefinite period for anyone suspected of inciting social violence." Well, thought Caroline, as long as it’s only temporary… 
 "An international warrant has been issued for the arrest of British businesswoman Caroline Kent, on suspicion of involvement in the terrorist attacks."
She stiffened. Her companions glanced at her. 
 "She is believed to be somewhere in Switzerland, where she had been representing her country in the annual Miss Planet contest. It’s understood she is suffering from a serious illness and may try to seek medical help. Members of the public are advised not to approach her but to notify the authorities immediately she is spotted."
 "This proves it," she said quietly. "They weren’t just trying to create a smokescreen. They are in control. The best way of protecting their secret. Kenward must have had it planned for years, and made sure it went right to the top. They’ve arranged things so that those of their members who are in important positions in government can step in and take over." A lot of time must have been spent getting such people into those positions in the first place. 
 "And with emergency powers, they’ll be able to do whatever they like," said Smythe. 
 "The more it seems everything’s falling apart the more excuse there’ll be for it," added Emmanuelos. 
 "Do you really think they’ll swallow it – you, a terrorist?" Smythe asked Caroline.
"The people who know me, probably not. But they aren’t the ones in charge."
 They could still try and look for a doctor, but what if they were spotted and arrested? In any case the Conspiracy could now prevent them getting the truth out, whether about the silicoids or all the political machinations, just as it could rubbish the allegations that the Count was hoarding Nazi loot, even if they appeared to have been proven. There was a possibility they might not achieve anything except put the doctor in danger. 
 Believed to be suffering from serious illness…so that if she started going on about silicoids people would think she was mad. And so that any doctor or scientist she might go to would be on the look-out for h