Spoiler alert!!!! Don’t read this if you haven’t read The Eagle’s Covenant.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Conor was sitting beside Joanna in the noiseless interior of her Mercedes. Behind them, secure in his baby car cot, was little Manny. The three of them were like a small family and Conor found himself surprisingly content with that.

They had left behind the frenetic highways of the industrialised heartland and were motoring gently on well-made roads that turned and twisted through the beauty of the Black Forest. The lush green of the pine and cypress trees dipped their foliage against the the strengthening wind and lined their route in graceful symmetry.

Conor had no idea where they were going. Joanna had been surprisingly reticent about revealing the details. He had been even more surprised when she had suggested, in emotional, faltering tones, that they go away together. She hadn’t wanted it this way, she’d told him. It appalled her to think she felt even a trace of emotion for him, but she felt the need for his company. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere peaceful.

Naturally, Conor showed no reluctance at all. In his wildest dreams he would never have imagined that Joanna felt something for him. The realisation elated him, and he was quite happy to ride the wave to its blissful conclusion.

After their battle on the field of computer technology, he had embraced Joanna. The adrenalin rushes had driven them both to a high degree of warmth and good feeling. It had been this, Conor decided, that moved Joanna to ask him to come away with her.

They wasted little time. That morning, the day after Joanna had planted the software time bomb in Schiller’s system, she had gathered up her son and told her staff she would be away for a few days. None of them were told where she would be.

Conor wondered how she intended to continue her battle with Schiller and how she intended to resolve the outcome. It was then she told him how she had planted the identity code of the Volkspartei computer in the machine Conor had been using.

“I hacked into the Volkspartei HQ.” she explained. “I was able to go in legitimately using Hansi’s communication protocol. I used the piggy back to extract the data I needed. So, when they were trying to trace the source of the software time bomb, I let them find you. They thought they had found the culprit.”

Conor whistled through his teeth. “Clever girl. So Schiller will go after the Volkspartei with all guns blazing. And that means Franz Molke.”

“Should sort them out,” she had remarked laconically.

Conor watched the trees flashing by in silence. His thought wrapped around the beauty beside him. The intelligence of the woman staggered him, and she had shown tremendous mental agility that would have matched any physical prowess shown by many of his previous comrades. He was looking forward to their association and hoped it would be more than just a fleeting affair.

Joanna had not spoken for some time. She seemed nervous. Conor thought he could understand why. She had asked him to be patient; to show some understanding. It wasn’t going to be easy for her under the circumstances. But he had made up his mind to follow her lead; not to push. He knew his patience would be more than justly rewarded.

“Is it far?”

Joanna almost jumped out of her skin. In truth she wasn’t too sure just how far they had to go yet. “I don’t think so,” she answered hopefully. “Last time I came this way, Hansi was driving.”

He let it go. What did it matter how far they had to go? He asked himself. So long as he was with her, he would travel as far as she wanted.

“You’re taking a bit of a gamble though, aren’t you?”

The question startled her. She could feel moisture gathering on her fingertips. “Why? What do you mean?”

“You’ve left Schiller with no control over his satellites. So what happens now?” He watched her driving as he spoke. Her eyes did not leave the road. She flicked a quick, nervous glance at him.

“How could you do that if you denied them their codes?” he asked.

Joanna smiled a little lopsidedly; almost triumphantly. “I lied,” she told him. “I didn’t deny them their codes. But they will spend the next week tearing their hair out wondering how on earth I could when the truth is, I can’t. What I have done though is to sow a seed of doubt. It’s like putting a virus into their collective minds. They will spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. All I did was to put a message on their screen before we left; let them think they only have control for a while.”

She raised her chin in a kind of superior gesture. “I decided to let them stew a little. I worded it with enough Volkspartei arrogance to convince them who was running the show now. And I extracted enough data to get back into their system again before the end of the week. If I want to,” she added.

He smiled and looked back through the windscreen. The road curled languidly, following the line of trees, past fast flowing streams rushing over rocks that churned the water into minor rapids. The car ate the miles up effortlessly and smoothly. Above the forest canopy, storm clouds were gathering as the thunderheads piled up menacingly.

“Will you make contact with Schiller?”

The first drops of rain pattered on the windscreen.

Joanna shook her head. “Someone else will do that.”

“Who?”

“It’s best you don’t know.”

He let it drop. Joanna knew what she was doing. Whoever she asked to make contact with Schiller would need a lot of clout. Schiller was like a man without his crutches; capable of standing, but not capable of walking. But the endgame was disposal of Schiller’s empire in a more parochial fashion. Conor knew that Schiller would have to agree terms. One word to the national press and all hell would break loose. Once the Arabs got a whiff of Schiller’s plans there would be bedlam. He would have lost the advantage and be accused of being a threat to world peace. Any label attached to him would stick. Yes, he decided, Joanna knew exactly what she was doing.

The road ahead forked. Sitting at the beginning of the fork was an old man. He was wearing a Loden cape which Conor thought was wise considering the deteriorating weather.

Joanna’s heart skipped a beat when she saw him. She could feel her mouth drying and she prayed Conor would not ask her a question because she didn’t think she would be able to speak.

She took the right fork, looking nervously now for a track on the right-hand side of the road. It appeared after about one hundred metres. It was exactly as she had been told. She could almost hear the voice over the phone.

A clap of thunder sounded above them. Joanna glanced up nervously, then signalled and slowed. She made a brave attempt at small talk but the words piled up against her arid vocal chords. The noise she made was more of a croak.

“What’s up?” Conor asked.

“Nearly there,” she stammered.

“You’re nervous, aren’t you?”

“Mmm!” It was all she could manage.

Joanna drove the car along the track which climbed lazily through the trees. Eventually they came to a hunting lodge. It looked a trifle incongruous in such a setting; a throwback to days of German aristocracy. But it still looked magnificent despite the strong wind blowing through the trees.

Conor had seen places like this in many parts of Germany and Austria. Stout, log built lodges, pine smoke drifting from the chimney, mingling with the scent of the forest. It seemed perfect for a secret tryst with Joanna.

She swung the car round in front of the lodge and stopped so that the car was facing back the way they had come. She took a deep breath and turned the ignition off. The gentle throb of the engine, barely discernible in the plush interior of the Mercedes, died. Joanna sat back in her seat, her hands stretched out on the wheel.

“Here we are,” she said at last.

Conor unbuckled his seat belt. “It looks magnificent.”

Joanna retrieved her purse from the door recess beside her and opened it. As her hand touched the barrel key, its coldness seemed to rifle through her. She trembled and fumbled with her seat belt.

Conor touched her gently. “Don’t be nervous,” he said softly. “I won’t rush you. Take all the time you need.”

Joanna threw him a half-hearted glance and a wan smile. She then opened the door and got out of the car. Conor followed her. They hurried up a narrow path leading to a few steps. Joanna felt her legs shake as she climbed each step. She wondered if she would make it to the top without collapsing.

They stepped on to the veranda, their footfalls noisy on the wooden floor. Joanna approached the front door and inserted the key. She hoped Conor couldn’t see how violently her hand was shaking.   

The door swung open, helped by the wind and creaked on its hinges, to reveal a magnificent lounge made entirely of pinewood. Around the walls were various hunting trophies, the pride of which was a huge boar’s head over the magnificent fireplace. Joanna walked to a beautifully carved coffee table and dropped the key on to its top. She straightened.

“Kiss me, Conor.”

He needed no second bidding. He stepped forward and took her in his arms. She melted in to him, her stiffness softening as their lips met. He crushed her mouth beneath his and drew her against his body so that he could feel every, soft curve of her flesh. Another clap of thunder slammed the forest as the first flash of lightning flickered and crashed to the forest floor.

She pulled away. “I’ll go and get Manny. He’ll need feeding.”

He let her go and watched as she closed the door behind her, the vision of her loveliness held like a photographic still, black and white, fixed in his brain.

“Hallo Conor!”

The deep voice shattered the moment and Conor spun round. Facing him was a man he recognised. He was standing with his legs apart and his arms thrust outwards. Between his hands, Conor recognised the silenced barrel of a Browning 9mm. automatic. He felt the thud of two bullets in his chest before the sound came to his ears. The force of the shots threw him backwards and he crashed into the coffee table. He slid off the table and sprawled on the polished, wooden floor.

Conor turned his face to look upwards and opened his eyes. His vision blurred, but he was vaguely aware of a second SAS man standing over him. Conor knew what was coming. But before he felt the impact of the bullets, he thought once more of Joanna and then he died.

Joanna hurried down the steps, tears streaming down her face. She didn’t hear the thud of the silenced gun. Hoffman was standing beside the car. He was alone, the Loden cape discarded. Joanna couldn’t bear to look at him. She reached the passenger door which he was holding open and climbed in. Hoffman got into the driver’s seat. He looked at Joanna. Her chin was pressed deep into her chest and she was sobbing uncontrollably. He waited patiently until she had calmed down. He said nothing but put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

When she felt able, she reached into her purse and took out an envelope. Inside was the computer disc with the satellite codes on. It also contained all the information he needed to wreck the Volkspartei’s chance of forming the next government and ensure that Franz Molke would be discredited and forced to abandon his political career.

Joanna gave him the disc. From that moment, Hoffman held the key to Schiller’s empire. He slipped the disc into his pocket, moved the gearshift forward and the Mercedes rolled quietly away from the hunting lodge.