Plainly, normal border crossings were now completely out of the question for reasons of safety and security. The mental spanking David endured while he slept, when Ithis angrily entered his mind uninvited to prove a point about careless talk and Nick’s welfare, clearly had the desired effect on him. He resolved that from now on and in the future, he would keep his mouth shut regarding the artefact locations when dealing with his network of informers and contacts, not wishing to incur her wrath ever again. For the next few days, Nick and David poured over a large map of continental Europe spread out on the dining table, working out the best route to take, avoiding all manned border crossings between France, Belgium and the Netherlands. For the first time since the whole operation had begun, Nick relaxed for a few hours while David organized the guides necessary for the long trip north to Borger-Odoorn in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands, close to the town of Assen in the province of Drenthe.
“How fit are you?” David enquired absentmindedly one day, as he constantly checked and rechecked the main route to be used, plus the two others chosen as alternatives, in case of trouble.
“Reasonably so, why do you ask?” Nick replied suspiciously.
“Hmm? Oh nothing,” David began, “Just thinking ahead, covering all contingencies. Forget it. It’s not really a problem…” His voice trailed off as he channelled all of his attention to the problem of organizing a waterborne mode of transport for part of the journey. Obviously he was still rattled after Ithis’ invasion of his mind the other night regarding Nick’s safety. He worked tirelessly for the next several hours, checking and rechecking every step of the forthcoming perilous journey he and Nick would be taking, until he was satisfied that he had dotted all the ‘I’s’ and crossed all the ‘T’s’ to Ithis’ satisfaction. The one factor he could not guard against however, was the unknown.
The following morning saw David driving a rusting Citroën 2CV borrowed from his host’s garage, with Nick seated alongside carefully navigating their circuitous route across the northern French countryside to avoid all the main roads. Instead, they relied on the secondary country roads with little traffic that passed through small rural towns and villages, as they drove steadily towards Maubeuge in north-eastern France, close to the border with Belgium. This was where they finally ditched the car in one of the town’s backstreets, before locating the barge that would take them unseen on the second leg of their journey along the river Meuse to Charleroi, and beyond through Belgium.
The barge’s skipper and owner Frederick Messier was the fifth generation of his family to make his living transporting goods along the river’s twisting course through Belgium’s countryside close to the border with Germany, and on into the Netherlands via the connection made by the canals to the north. Over the next few days, David and Nick took turns at the wheel at night. During the day, they occupied their time below deck in the tiny galley in the comfortable accommodation area of the barge’s cavernous stern, making copious cups of coffee and meals for all on board. Frederick had never met David until now. But like many within his willing network, he had been recruited to the cause by his blog ‘Time Reversed’ plus his firm belief in what David had uncovered about the whole concept of time slowing down, or as Nick had put it – controlled decay. He was fascinated by the fragments of the endeavour that Nick fed him. He took especial pleasure over Nick’s obvious enthusiasm for the ancient Sumerian sites he had visited in the Middle East years before, and his extensive knowledge gleaned during his postdoctoral days, while working in the British Museum’s dusty vaults. All this open conversation between Nick and Frederick was too much for David to endure as he now feared some kind of further painful retribution from Ithis.
By the end of the week, the barge’s blunt wooden bow was steadily pushing northward along the Kanaal Wessem in southern Holland to the small town of Helmond, just outside Eindhoven, where Frederick’s cargo would be discharged. A few kilometres south of Helmond, he briefly slowed his barge’s progress and ran close to the eastern bank of the canal allowing his two passengers to jump ashore unseen, thanks to the thick fog covering the canal and the surrounding countryside, before he continued on to his destination. Nick and David headed across country through the welcome mist that shielded them from curious eyes, crossing lonely country roads and the railway line at Deurne during the early hours of darkness. At last in the distance, they saw the prearranged welcoming light from a small paraffin lamp left in the upstairs window of a small cottage, signalling that it was safe for them to approach. The cottage’s door was quickly opened and closed behind them as David’s Dutch contact Willem de Lange welcomed his guests into the warmth of his home. His wife Gerda had laid out a sumptuous meal for them before excusing herself for the night as the three men discussed the immediate task of getting Nick safely to Borger-Odoorn. Willem’s worried frown gave a hint of what he was about to say even before he spoke. “Our police know of your presence here in the Netherlands my friends, or at least they suspect you are close to arriving,” he said as his brow creased even more than normal, accentuating the heavy lines in his weather-beaten face.
“What makes you say that Willem. Do they know about Borger-Odoorn?” Nick enquired.
“No. But with the Interpol alert and Davies’ goons stepping up their search for possible artefact sites, and given that we have several ancient megalith sites like Borger-Odoorn here in the Netherlands, it will only be a matter of time before it is targeted,” Willem stated, emphasizing the point by smashing one large gnarled fist into the palm of the other. “To succeed we have to move you quickly Nick. David must stay here hidden in our loft until you have reactivated the artefact. I have arranged for him to be taken across the border to Germany where he will be hidden until you re-join him. Don’t worry; my brother Jens will accompany you Nick. If there is any fighting to be done, Jens will take care of it. Now get a few hours’ sleep. We have a predawn start tomorrow.” Willem then showed them to the loft where two comfortable beds beckoned them for the night.
The next morning, Jens’ refrigerated DAF truck drove through the early morning gloom of central Holland, heading for the Rhine crossing at Nijmegen. Nick lay uncomfortably cramped and shivering, despite the faint heat transmitted through the thin aluminium sheeting of his hiding place in the pod above the cab, from the truck’s chiller unit outside. Behind the insulated partition that shielded him from the worst effects of the truck’s chilled interior holding its cargo of cut flowers, Jens had installed a single red light bulb; not for Nick’s convenience, but to warn him if they were driving into trouble.
Inevitably the time came when the truck was flagged down by a policeman dressed in a day glow yellow jacket. Jens slowed to a standstill at the temporary roadside police vehicle inspection point, moments after he had flicked the light switch twice to warn his passenger. “Odometer check – papers!” the police sergeant in charge demanded abruptly, as he held out his gloved hand. Jens handed over his international driving license, the truck’s tax disc paperwork and registration as well as the cargo waybill for inspection. He watched from the truck cab’s side mirror, feigning disinterest while the sergeant closely inspected the paperwork looking for any irregularities. A second police officer made a cursory inspection of the odometer at the centre of the rear wheel before quickly disappearing behind the truck. Seconds later he indicating to his sergeant that the rear door of the truck’s chilled interior was firmly locked.
“Out!” the sergeant barked. “Unlock the back for inspection. Move yourself!”
Jens climbed down from his cab and went to the rear of the truck where he unlocked the heavy padlock and opened the door. “Don’t take too long officer, my cargo will spoil,” Jens pleaded, hoping he sounded convincing, as he was roughly pushed aside by the second officer armed with a torch and a riot baton. From his hiding place Nick could hear the policeman roughly shoving his way through the trays of delicate flowers frantically searching the entire contents. Then he heard the door being slammed shut and locked, and soon the light came on as Jens continued his journey. The tattoo on the sergeant’s wrist, which was exposed as he handed back Jens’ paperwork had not gone unnoticed. His negative report would not please Davies or Interpol.
After Nijmegen, the trip north via Arnhem and Zwolle was largely uneventful. By the early hours of the following morning, Nick was suddenly woken by the screech of the truck’s wet brakes as Jens turned off the main road just south of Meppel and headed east to Hoogeveen before finally heading north, eventually stopping behind a house on the outskirts of Assen. At long last he could finally stretch his half frozen and bruised limbs in front of the roaring fire in the cosy kitchen, while Jens and the owner of the house spoke quietly for a few moments. “Nick, this is Jacob. He will take you to the site. I have to continue on and get rid of my load. I’ll be back tonight to take you to your next destination.” The uncertainty and concern shown on Nick’s face made him add, “Don’t worry my friend, you’re in good hands. Jacob will protect you with his life I promise you. I’ll see you tonight.”
Jacob led the way silently across country through a system of pathways along the top of old dykes and across waterlogged meadows to the ancient megalithic monument at Borger-Odoorn. The pile of giant stones was arranged in a large T shape, with the entrance at the end of one arm of the T. Jacob hid himself just inside the entrance, armed with a shot gun and a Second World War German luger pistol that his father had liberated from a dead SS officer, after he had killed him in the latter stages of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, while Nick moved to the monument’s centre. According to David’s notes, the entrance this time was beneath a square stone block that stood at the centre of the T. Nick sat for a long time staring at the stone’s sides and top searching for some kind of clue, before finally noticing a tiny indentation at the centre of the stone’s top surface surrounded by a swirling continuous pattern. Carefully he cleared away the centuries of dirt that had accumulated in it, burying the indentation, hiding it in plain sight. Then he climbed onto the top of the stone and squatted down on his haunches with his torch firmly trained on the now relatively clean indentation. About two centimetres below the surface of the stone, his torch revealed two finger sized holes approximately four centimetres apart. Steadying himself he inserted the first two fingers of his right hand into the holes. Almost immediately the stone began to slowly sink below ground level until it was well below the dark passageway inside the monument. Once it had stopped its descent Nick swung his torch around the chamber that he now found himself in. In one corner was another booster substation just like the other two he had already reactivated. Ithis watched with satisfaction as he brought it back to life once more, before climbing back onto the stone for the return trip to the surface via the use of the fingertip operated mechanism of the stone.
That night back in Jacob’s house, Jens told Nick about the arrangements made for the next leg in his search for the network artefacts. He also reiterated what happened with the Dutch policemen in the inspection fiasco, laid on courtesy of the Order and the Dutch police force, who were clearly stopping every suspect vehicle in the hope of getting lucky. If only they had known that he was on board. Jacob opened a bottle of Schnapps and the trio silently toasted the continued success in the long race still ahead of Nick and David, to prevent the countdown to destruction. Jens would take Nick to the northernmost town of Delfziji for the Ems estuary crossing by ferry to Emden in Germany in two days’ time, after he had secured safe passage for him to where David would be waiting anxiously.