Thanks for joining me!
Sacred Retribution, set in Queenstown. War Correspondent Kheelan Sledge stumbles upon a gruesome murder which propels him into the horrific world of child abuse. As Catholic priests responsible for sexual assaults are horrifically murdered Sledge must follow the clues left by the assassin. Revealing the churches involvement and cover-up of sexual abuse by the clergy Sledge now faces life-threatening danger from both the assassin and the church. A graphic and fast-paced murder mystery.
A sneak preview of the first five chapters. My new e-book will be available at the end of July 2018.
By Ricky Balona
Queenstown, New Zealand.
Alone at the camp site Father Connelly inspected the Parishioner’s work. The boys would be arriving in approximately three hours’ time. Neat rows of tents lined a lush green section of the riverbank. Gone were the days when campers slipped into the thickets with a roll of toilet paper and a spade. Health and Safety insisted on a Portable Toilet, it stood at the far end of the camp.
Crystal clear water flowed from the melting snow peaks of the majestic mountains surrounding Queenstown. Father Connelly scanned the trees lining the riverbank, small waterfalls cascaded down into the gently flowing river. He looked toward the heavens, it promised to be a warm one. In the low mist blowing through on the slight breeze he thought he saw a small black bird skimming over the treetops.
It sounded like no birdsong he had ever heard. A low metallic whirl filled the air as it shot over his head. “Must be one of those new drone things, damned tourists too lazy to walk upriver.” He slipped on a wet stone drenching his lower legs in the icy water. Using language not associated with a priest he cursed the owner of the drone for distracting him.
Sitting on a rock he took off his sodden shoes and socks. Swirling in the sudden breeze the mist descended over the river.
Out of the mist a lone figure emerged slowly but purposely walking toward him. For a moment Father Connelly thought it was some kind of joke. Dressed in a black monk’s habit, the hood hiding his face the man appeared sinister. Father Connelly attempted a weak smile but something in his gut told him it was no joke.
Captivated, Father Connelly allowed the monk to get within an arm’s length before realising he had made a fatal mistake. A ray of bright sunlight pierced the mist momentarily blinding Father Connelly. When he looked up it seemed as if the sunlight shone like a halo around the monk.
From the folds of the monk’s sleeves a razor-sharp knife glinted in the sunlight. It flashed toward Father Connelly’s face. He felt the cold steel bite into his cheek. Slashed open from ear to mouth, blood gushed from the wound. Panic stricken, Father Connelly turned and ran.
Father James Connelly stumbled along the tree lined riverbank. Early morning sunlight sparkled on the crystal-clear waters. He lurched sideways glancing at the menacing figure closing in on him. Warm blood seeping from the gash in his cheek ran down his face and neck.
The fifty-three-year-old Catholic priest struggled for breath. He ran blindly through the neatly set up rows of tents.
Between the boy’s tents and Father Connelly’s own, larger tent stood an open-air chapel. A Crucifix with the figure of Jesus was prominently displayed in the centre.
He tripped and fell heavily. Like a hunter stalking its prey the robed figure followed closely behind. Overweight and out of breath he knew he had no hope of outrunning his assailant. Bending down the monk caught hold of Father Connelly’s lower leg. The knife flashed through the air once more, slicing through Father Connelly’s Achilles tendon. His screams were stifled by the Monk shoving his face into the river sand.
Fear coupled with adrenaline rushed through Father Connelly’s sweat soaked body. Clawing at the lush grass he pulled himself along, hoping by some miracle he would find safety at the foot of the Crucifix.
Exhausted, Father Connelly turned to face the man slowly closing in for the kill. He felt sick to his stomach. He stared up at Jesus on the cross. Jesus seemed to look down on him with an accusing expression.
“Suffer the little children who come unto me!” Father Connelly felt his blood run cold. It was the first time the robed man had spoken.
Now, as he watched the monk attach a length of sturdy rope to the trunks of two trees he began praying.
He stopped praying when the monk dragged him over between the two trees. “Kneel, Fat Bastard!” Father Connelly obeyed wondering if this man had been one of the boys in his church. It was open knowledge the boys called him “Fat Bastard” behind his back because of his size.
Slipping the ropes around Father Connelly’s wrists the monk pulled them tight. On his knees, arms outstretched Father Connelly felt utterly helpless. He began pleading with the monk. His pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears.
“Why are you doing this? I have done nothing to you. Let me go now!” Father Connelly sobbed. “If this is some kind of joke it has gone far enough.”
Roughly the monk cut away the priest’s clothes leaving him naked. Father Connelly caught a glimpse of the steel dagger smeared with his own blood and what looked like a small battle axe. The monk roughly stuffed a small memory stick wrapped in plastic into the priest’s mouth breaking a tooth in the process. Father Connelly heard a rasping sound. A thick layer of Duct tape muffled his cries as the monk wrapped layer after layer of tape around his mouth.
Shuffling into his view with slow deliberation the monk held the knife and axe close to Father Connelly’s panic-stricken eyes. He then took up position behind the priest.
Painfully slowly the monk cut through skin and a thick layer of body fat. Father Connelly’s screams were stifled by the Duct tape. His eyes bulged with pain and terror. With practised ease the monk cut the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings onto Father Connelly’s back.
Blood ran down his back soaking the grey river sand a muddy red. One by one the monk hacked the ribs from Father Connelly’s spine with the small battle axe. He was still alive when the monk pulled the bones and skin on each side outward to create a pair of wings on Father Connelly’s back.
Out of the corner of his eye Father Connelly caught a momentary glimpse of what he thought was a small angel. It fluttered back and forth then hovered inches from his terrified and bloody face. He stared into the cold metallic lens of the drone capturing his death on video. The monk slid his hands into the wound gripping the priest’s lungs. He pulled them from the huge gaping wound and laid them on the priest’s shoulders so they looked like the folded wings of an eagle. His exposed lungs fluttered as he took his final, dying breath.
Kheelan Sledge trudged upstream swatting at sand-flies. “Bloody annoying little bastards!” He muttered. For a moment he stood in awe at the beauty surrounding him. He imagined what life must have been for the pioneers who founded Queenstown during the gold rush. He shuddered at the thought of the hardships they must have endured.
He moved easily through the bush. His slightly tanned, athletic body glided silently as if he were out on patrol in some distant jungle. Women found his rugged good looks interesting, attractive.
His sharp blue eyes stared at the river bend ahead. “Is this what it has come down to?” He muttered. Here he was, a renowned War Correspondent trudging upstream in search of tourists panning for gold. Wiping a trickle of sweat off of his forehead with his shirt sleeve Sledge ran his fingers through his military style light brown hair.
After a harrowing tour of Afghanistan, Sledge had returned home for a short rest before setting off to one of the worlds many hot-spots. He searched for that one in a million photograph which would place him amongst the greats of his field. God knows he had captured the tragedy of war up close and personal.
He made a comfortable living selling his photos to the highest bidder but this assignment was different, amateurish. Interview people panning for gold along the Shotover River, the date and time had been included in the cryptic e-mail he received two days before.
He passed the usual groups of unsuitably attired tourists digging at the first place they set foot in, expecting to find nuggets the size of tennis balls. After all, that is what the people selling gold panning equipment had said.
Shotover Jet boats sped past with their compliment of tourists screaming as they flew down the river at high speed narrowly missing overhanging trees and boulders. Locals would always mutter under their breath, “bloody Americans” when they heard the whoops and hollers from the jet boat passengers, they were the only ones so vocal when the jet boats screamed down the river.
Sledge carried on past the tourists pushing on further upstream. After two miles he stumbled across the occasional group of locals swilling beer while they shoveled classified dirt through their sluice boxes. A mile further and he spotted movement, serious gold diggers used illegal dredges hoping not to be caught by the Department of Conservation.
For a second, he imagined the same blokes distilling moonshine along the river bank in Copper piped stills listening to AC/DC and Copperhead Road, he smiled to himself. He and his mate had done a science experiment at school using his mother’s pressure cooker and copper pipes to distil alcohol. A few liters of Peach Schnapps and a copy of the recipe was all it took for the teacher to give them an “A” grade. Still not at the co-ordinates e-mailed Sledge carried on preferring to use a map and compass as opposed to the usual Google Maps.
“Probably just another useless goose chase.” He muttered. Twigs snapped up ahead. Sledge froze out of habit, his military training subconsciously taking over. A movement to his right caught his eye. He waited scanning the tree line. For a moment he wondered if he was hallucinating.
A young woman rushed through the scrub. Sandy blonde hair in a pony tail, a leather satchel on her shoulder. The young woman struggled through the thick bush. He smiled watching her vainly attempting to keep her shoes dry as she drew closer to the riverbank. Stylishly dressed she seemed out of place this far upriver. For a heartbeat their eyes met. Sledge thought she looked familiar, then she disappeared into the scrub again.
“Bloody strange, what is she doing around here?” He checked his position with the compass. “Only another hundred meters or so and we will see what this is all about. Better be something good.” He scratched his lower arm. The sand-fly bites were already turning red and inflamed.
Breaking through the undergrowth Sledge stopped dead in his tracks. Staring open mouthed at the scene before him Sledge fumbled for his camera. He watched the scene unfold before his eyes through the lens. Cautiously approaching the murder scene Sledge took photo after photo of the dead body tied to the stakes. He zoomed in on the terrible wounds inflicted on the victim’s body. Circling the corpse, he sniffed at the familiar stench of death and blood.
Sand stained dark by blood, images of Afghanistan and I.E.D’s flashed in his mind, he breathed heavily. Kheelan felt his body become taught, like a tripwire. His mind subconsciously raced searching for potential threats.
He had seen worse than this but it had been in warzones. In the last century Queenstown had been the scene of one murder, a domestic turned terribly violent some fourty years ago. No-one locked their doors, keys were left in the ignition and lost wallets or cell phones were handed into the Police Station. Headline news was when the occasional drunk teenager entered the wrong apartment and fell asleep on the couch, most times after pissing on the floor.
Perhaps it was the light breeze but Sledge swore he thought the exposed lungs moved slightly. Dropping his camera Sledge tore at the Duct tape over the victim’s mouth. Kneeling down Sledge opened the priest’s mouth running a finger inside searching for anything which could possibly impair breathing.
He knew it was a futile gesture, the man was dead. “What the bloody hell is this?” Sledge pulled a blood smeared plastic wrapped object out of the mouth. He wiped away a thin layer of blood and spit mingled with vomit. He stared at the memory stick. A shiver ran down his spine.
Lifting the camera Sledge was about to take a few more photos when two land cruisers burst through the bush disgorging members of the Armed Response Unit. Staring down the barrel of a loaded assault rifle Sledge dropped the memory stick into the sand. He ground it underfoot as he obeyed the instruction screamed into his ear by a black masked policeman.
Dropping to his knees he clasped his hands behind his head. Sledge made sure the memory stick was buried in the sand. Slammed down onto the ground he felt handcuffs snapping around his wrists. A metallic click and he was hauled up onto his feet.
“You are one sick bastard mate!” Sledge lifted his head. He stared into the rugged face of a police inspector. “I’ve heard a lot about you Sledge, couldn’t resist killing one last time, could you?” The inspector’s hard eyes bored into Sledge’s.
“I didn’t do it mate. I was on an assignment following a lead when I came across this.” Sledge retorted. A young policeman bent over and vomited into the river. “Stop walking all over the crime scene you idiots!” The inspector waved at the rest of the team signaling them to halt where they stood.
“Inspector Rees, and you are nicked mate!” He sneered. Rees snatched the camera from around Sledge’s neck. He frisked Sledge then bundled him into the back of a land cruiser.
Police officers set up a perimeter around the crime scene, while detectives scoured the crime scene. Inspector Rees called to his unit. They hurried into their vehicles.
Sledge rocked back and forth on the drive downriver. He stared out of the wire mesh covered window of the land cruiser at the tourists ambling down the streets when they drove onto the road leading to Queenstown. Standing on the corner talking on her cell phone was the blonde girl he had seen earlier upriver. She glanced momentarily at the police vehicles then turned and walked away.
Inspector Reses drove around the back of the station. Inspector Rees finally removed the handcuffs. Sledge removed his shoes which were placed in a wooden storage rack. He was ushered into the Police Station’s cell block consisting of three neatly arranged single units. One cell had plexi-glass instead of a small door and concrete walls, for the more extrovert drunks who might need a little surveillance. There was another larger cell mostly used on New Year’s Eve which could hold around ten people.
“Busy morning Inspector, he will have to take the third cell. The other two have people in them already. Number one is a tourist we found passed out on the pavement, he is sleeping it off still. The other is a nutcase we arrested at St Joseph’s Catholic Church. Found naked kneeling at the altar. Covered in sand-fly bites he was.” Shaking his head, the policeman laughed. “Says he has no idea how he got there and what he did for the last two days. We have called in Mental Health to sort him out.” Rees nodded.
He shoved Sledge into the cell before slamming the door. Sledge heard the lock mechanism turning over. “How the hell did I fall for a setup like that?” He thought sitting down on the narrow bed. The cell reeked of disinfectant.
Lying on the plastic covered mattress on the concrete bed Sledge stared up at the white ceiling with its bright electric light in the center. He ran through all the information he had received through the e-mail. It was not much to go on, he decided. An address, probably through the Deep Web.
The grid co-ordinates and the time indicated someone knew what would happen at a very precise moment. To pull off a well-orchestrated crime involving a victim, one or multiple killers, an unsuspecting witness and the police arriving when they did was indicative of a professional.
“Who called the Police? They must have been tipped off if they arrived minutes after I got to the crime scene.” Sledge jumped off of the bed. He began pacing the tiny cell like a caged Tiger. “Who was that blonde girl I saw upriver then again in town?” He tried recalling when they had previously met.
Sledge heard footsteps in the corridor outside. He stared at the door but heard the adjacent cell being unlocked. Hours dragged slowly by. A pie and a bottle of water were handed to him sometime during the evening. There had been no word from the Inspector, no interrogation by an officer.
Sledge curled up on the bed pulling the rough blanket over him. Outside he could hear the tourists enjoying the night out at one of the many pubs and restaurants opposite the Station.
Dozing on and off Sledge heard the garbage truck emptying dustbins filled with empty bottles. “It must be around five in the morning. Damn, I need a cigarette.”
Turning to face the door Sledge expected to see a policeman as the keys rattled in the lock. Inspector Rees burst into the cell. He glared at Sledge. “Get the hell out of here you bastard!” He stood with clenched fists watching the surprised expression on Sledge’s face turn to amusement.
“I don’t know how you did it but I have been ordered to let you go. From the highest authority, they said.” Inspector Rees snarled. He stood staring at Sledge, his face pressed close. One of the town leading “Footy” players Inspector Rees cut an impressionable figure. Six feet three, built like a brick shithouse with rugged features, he could have been a Kiwi Crocodile Dundee lookalike. “I’ll be watching you Sledge. One wrong move and you will take up permanent residency here.” He turned and walked briskly down the corridor.
Sledge followed him through a second door and into the Charge Office. His shoes, camera, cell phone and wallet were returned to him along with his backpack.
Walking out into the early morning sunlight Sledge lit a cigarette. He crossed over the street walking past the stone church with its stained-glass windows. Continuing down Church Street, Sledge stood for a moment beside the Memorial Arch which bore the names of Queenstown’s war dead from the First and Second World Wars. He scanned the names with sadness, for a small town the number of names on the white memorial was devastating.
He had seen similar memorials in small towns in France and Germany. “All because of the damned politicians.” He thought. “And the bankers with their Elite cronies who enrich themselves at the expense of your average person.” He thought about a story he had covered in the Middle East.
A multitude of “radical and not so radical” groups supplied by the same countries which sent their troops to fight against. It linked up with American companies during the Second World War who supplied both sides with aviation fuel, factories in Germany which were never bombed because they had branches in the United States.
Checking through his backpack Sledge breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the photos on his camera had not been deleted. It brought him back to reality. Sitting down on the pebble beach beside Lake Wakatipu, Sledge watched the century old steamer “Earnslaw” heading out with a full complement of tourists for a trip to Walter Peak.
Paragliders circled in mid-air after having launched themselves off of the nearby mountain. Jet boats roared across the lake while people crowded into the cafés for breakfast. The ebb and flow of the waves on the lakefront entranced him.
“What a wonderful life they have.” he smiled. He Googled Queenstown and then New Zealand news. Flipping through the latest headlines he saw no sign of the murder. This was big news, major news and no-one had reported it. He had the photos, but no story behind or the reasoning. One thing he despised were journalists who expressed their own opinion through “sources who did not want to be named” articles.
His car was still down by the river. There was the memory stick he had buried in the sand. Would it reveal the reason behind the murder? Slipping his phone into his pocket Sledge turned to walk toward the bus stop when his phone beeped.
“Meet me at Ferg’s” Was all the message said. “When do you want to meet and who are you?” He replied to the sender listed as “Private” There was no reply. Sledge ambled off toward Ferg Burgers, the only place in Queenstown where there was a crowd.
Sledge shook his head as he stood across the street. Tourists lined the sidewalk even at this early hour waiting for a burger which was supposedly one of the best in New Zealand. If not in the world. Tourists lined the sidewalk proudly wearing their newly acquired t-shirts emblazoned with various extreme sport logos from skydiving to river rafting and bungy jumping.
“Hi Kheelan, remember me?” Sledge turned at the sound of the voice. He stared in amazement at the girl with blondish brown hair tied back in a ponytail. Her radiant smile brought back childhood memories. “Um, Janice is it?” He smiled awkwardly. She laughed shaking her head. “Close, my brother Robert and you were good mates at school.”
For a second Sledge stared at her mischievous smile and the twinkle in her brown eyes. “Jasmine! Of course, I remember you.” He unintentionally looked her up and down. “Wow! You turned out alright.” Instantly regretting his tactless comment, he blushed slightly. “Um, thanks, I think.” Jasmine replied with a smile.
“Great to see you again, last time you were only an irritating twelve-year-old little sister.” He took out pack of cigarettes offering her one. He lit her cigarette then his own. “That, may I remind you was ten years ago Kheelan. You were the annoying friend of my equally annoying older brother, I guess things change as we get older.”
“How’s Robert? I haven’t heard from him in years.” He noticed a sudden sadness in her eyes. “Haven’t seen him for quite a while, I suppose he is alright.” She shrugged.
“Can I get you a coffee or something? I have a few things I’d like to talk to you about. What were you doing up the river yesterday and how did you get my number to message me a few minutes ago?” Sledge took a step toward the curb. There was a coffee shop across the road.
“I never messaged you. I don’t even know your number.” Jasmine stared up at Sledge. “Talk about synchronicity or co-incidence but I honestly, simply bumped into you this morning?” She burst out laughing. “Do you think I am stalking you or something?” Her smile and laughter were captivating.
“I wouldn’t mind if you were. How about breakfast?” He nodded at the coffee shop across the road. Jasmine’s smile transformed into a look of panic. Sledge spun round. Two men crouched in the open side door of a black van. Their guns pointed menacingly at Sledge and Jasmin. “Hand it over, right now!” Both were similarly attired in dark suits. “Get in now! Be quick about it! Hand the damn thing over.”
“Let her go, she has nothing to do with whatever you want with me.” Pushing Jasmin to the side Sledge toyed for a split second with the idea of grabbing for one of their guns. “Okay, no need to make a fuss.” He stepped up to the van holding onto the sliding door as he was about to bend forward and get in.
Slamming the door, he heard one of the men scream out in pain as his ankle bore the full force of the door slamming against it. “Up there!” he held Jasmine’s hand running across Shotover Street. Darting between throngs of tourists crowding the sidewalk Sledge turned into a crowded café further down the street. He knew it well. They walked in through the front entrance “Two coffees please.” Said to the smiling waitress. “And two croissants as well.” He added.
Glancing at the newspaper on the vacant table beside them Sledge pointed to a large picture of a Viking in full battle gear on the front page. “Could be worse I suppose.” Buttering a croissant Jasmine looked at him and shrugged. “We could have that lot after us!” He chuckled stirring his coffee. “I have seen that picture before, that’s strange.” Pointing to the front-page picture of the Viking.
“It must be some sort of advertisement but there is no write up or explanation at all.” Keeping a watchful eye out for their would-be abductors Sledge squinted at the picture for a second then finished his coffee. “Okay, let’s go.” He waited while Jasmine hurriedly finished her coffee then he led her out the other side of the café into Earnslaw park.
“What’s happening Sledge?” More than a little stunned Jasmine held tightly onto his hand. He shook his head. “To be honest, I have no idea.” He turned to her. “What were you doing so far up the river yesterday?” She turned away. “There they are again!” She said. He spotted the black van cruising slowly down Beach street. “Leave me and go home Jasmine, I have already involved you way too much in whatever is going on. Let me handle it from here.” He turned to walk across the crowded park. “How do you know they were after you and not me? Perhaps it is me they are looking for, or both of us for that matter.”
She held onto his arm. “I received a weird text message while I was at work, something to do with my brother and the old mine shaft we used to play in when we were kids.” His face lit up. “Yes, I remember that place, we spent many a summers day up there.”
She tugged at his sleeve. “My car is around the corner, let’s get out of town. I want to go home.” They drove in silence out of Queenstown. She drove fast, as if attempting to outpace their pursuers. “What if they are waiting for me at home? I don’t want to go back there if that might happen!” Jasmine held the steering wheel tightly.
“A short way up ahead there is a Bed and Breakfast, turn in there.” Sledge said. “It used to be a farm.” He wondered if they would be waiting outside his place. “Five minutes’ drive outside of the centre of town and it is all farmland and wilderness. I don’t think they will find us out here.” He smiled.
The car crunched over the gravel driveway. A spacious Colonial style farmhouse almost a century old stood amongst the neatly trimmed hedges and pine trees. Ducks quacked in alarm as they drove past a small pond. Sheep and Alpacas grazed peacefully in a green meadow. Jasmin parked beside a beat up old Dodge with gun racks.
They entered the homestead, it smelt of wood polish, fresh coffee and bacon. Sledge rang the bell on the wooded desk. “Bloody hell, they must be doing alright.” He pointed at the small sign indicating the price of a room in the main house or a more expensive option for a small stone cottage toward the back of the property.
Footsteps clumped down the passageway. “G’day mate, the missus will be with you in a bit. Bloody possums been tearing up the Apple trees down by the river.” He patted a rifle he held casually in one hand. “Going off to sort the buggers out now!” He smiled and waved jumping into the old Dodge. Two dogs scampered across the yard and jumped into the back.
“Look at what the old bastard has done to my floor! If I’ve told him once I’ve told him a million times to leave his bloody muddy boots outside.” A well endowered elderly woman suddenly smiled adjusting her glasses.
“Honeymoon couple out here on your first visit to New Zealand, are you?” Glancing up at the pair she pointed to the stone cottage. “I have just the perfect place for you, private and romantic. Would you like to see the cottage first?” In their late sixties the old couple made more over the last ten years renting out rooms in their spacious house or the old cottage than they had farming sheep for the previous thirty years.
“Not really, we would like a little peace and quiet for a day or two, that’s all. We are not newlyweds” Jasmin blurted out. The old lady glanced at the two of them intently. “Wait a minute, I know you. Your Molly’s little granddaughter!” She smiled widely. “All grown up now. How’s your gran?” Jasmine blushed. “She’s alright, getting on a bit now though, Mrs. Mac Dougal.”
“Tell her I send my love won’t you when you see her.” She drew closer to Sledge. “And you, you are Harriot’s grandson, Sledge as I remember.” Everyone called him Sledge instead of Kheelan at school. “Yes Mrs. Mac Dougal, I am sorry about what happened when we had that party at the cabin by the lake you used to have when we left school. I promise you it wasn’t me who pissed in your steam iron.” He looked down at the muddy footprints on the polished floor. “Had I caught the little bastard who did that I would have given him a right good bloody walloping. But all that’s in the past.” Hang on a minute. Mrs. Mac Dougal bounded off into a nearby room.
“Now where is the old bastard? Thinks he can pull the wool over my eyes. Possum hunting my ass. Everyone knows possums only come out at night, bet his drinking a tinny behind the shed.” One moment my dears. Mrs. Mac Dougal stepped outside.
“Oi! get your backside back here now!” She screamed. “I have something more suitable for you two. Ah, young love. I remember when the old bastard and me would swing from the chandeliers all bloody night!” She smiled coyly as she rummaged through a desk drawer.
“Too much information.” Sledge whispered nudging Jasmin. “Way too much information.” She giggled. “Ah, got it, come with me dears.” Mrs. Mac Dougal stormed out of the front door holding a key. The Dodge pulled up showering gravel over them, the dogs leapt out slobbering over Jasmine.
“Remember Molly’s granddaughter and Harriot’s grandson?” She pointed to Sledge and Jasmine. “Yeah, thought they were local.” He jumped from the driver’s seat reeking of beer. “Good on you mate.” He whispered nudging Sledge. “She’s a looker.”
“Follow the old bastard, he will take you down to the cabin. Hide, I mean park your car around the side. No one will know you lovebirds are here, trust me.” Jasmine turned to Mrs. Mac Dougal. “How much is it.” Mrs. Mac Dougal smiled shaking her head. “Your practically family, no worries. Stay a few days, no charge but if anyone pisses in my steam iron I will thrash them!” Sledge busied himself with parking the car around the back. Mrs. Mac Dougal chuckled returning indoors to clean her muddy floors.
Following Mr. Mac Dougal down a dirty path between Birch and Oak trees they came across a stone cottage hidden from view by the trees. Jasmine smiled with delight. “This is awesome, I never knew this place existed before.” She walked over the small stone bridge straddling a small stream.
Mr Mac Dougal pushed the wooden door ajar. “Make yourselves at home. There is Tea and Coffee in the kitchen but I’m afraid anything else you need you will have to go into town.” He winked at Sledge. “Enjoy your stay mate.”
“Dirty old bastard!” Jasmine laughed. Sledge went briefly through the cottage. A small kitchen, a bathroom, cozy lounge with fireplace and one bedroom.
“Fancy a cupper Sledge?” He nodded sitting in front of the fireplace.
He looked at her intently. “Okay, Jasmine. Tell me why you were up the river yesterday? You said it was something personal. Let’s hear it.” She slowly sipped her tea. Okay, if you must know, I received a weird message on my phone. My brother, Robert disappeared a few years back. Just after you up and left to join the French Foreign Legion.” She slapped him playfully on the shoulder.
“Thanks for all the bloody letters you sent.” She smirked. “I did reply to one or two. You know I did.” He felt a little awkward. She had been in her early teens while he was fighting in far off countries. “What was I supposed to do, send you postcards of Mali, Afghanistan and Rwanda?”
“Robert had been acting very odd for a while. He seemed haunted by something. Mum tried to get him to talk to Father Connelly down at the church. Robert exploded saying he would never go back to a church now that he could decide whether to go or not. He said something about being forced to attend church when he was a boy.” She nodded toward the pack of cigarettes on the table. Sledge handed her one then lit a cigarette himself.
For a few moments they sat in silence. “Mum didn’t understand any of it. Father Connelly had always been there for his congregation. Why Robert suddenly shunned the church has always bothered her.”
“As I said, I received a message telling me to meet near where we used to play at the old mine shaft. When I got there all I found was a key to a post office box and the number. I have it here.” She dug into her jean’s pocket pulling out a small silver coloured key. “Did you have a look at what was inside the box?” Sledge asked stubbing out his cigarette on a log in the unlit fireplace. “No, I was on my way when I bumped into you.”
Sledge was still undecided as whether or not to believe their meeting up again was pure chance or not. “And you, why were you arrested? What were those men after earlier?” She drew closer.
“Same as you, I received a message. My grid co-ordinates were different to yours. There was also a small photograph of what looks like a painting of Viking warriors.” She looked puzzled. “You were sent to a specific place, the old mine shaft. I had to find my objective using a map.” She nodded reaching out for his camera on the small table beside the fireplace.
“Wait, don’t look at the photo’s Jasmin.” He reached for the camera. She slipped playfully out of his reach. “Why not, what am I going to find? Compromising pictures of your girlfriend, is she showing some skin?” Giggling Jasmin turned the camera on. She stopped as if she had been miraculously turned to stone. All Sledge heard was her finger franticly clicking from one photo to the next.
“Oh! My God Sledge. What did you do to this poor man?” She shrieked. For a second, she stared up at the old hunting rifle above the fireplace wondering if it was loaded. “I never did anything Jasmin. Please believe me.” He looked at her.
“I have never seen anything like this before, it looks like something out of a horror movie.” She looked deathly pale. “Hypothetically, if we are unwittingly being drawn into something lets at least be honest with each other.” She held out her hand to Sledge. He hesitated for a second. “Alright, we share information and see what we can come up with.” They shook hands in a very uncharacteristic fashion. “That was way too formal.” He held up his hand for a high five.
“Okay, firstly we recover the memory card I buried then we take a look at what’s in your post box.” Touching her hip gently with one hand he led her out of the cabin. “What memory card Sledge?’ They walked back to the car. “I’ll tell you about it on the way. Ask the Mac Dougal’s if they need anything from town. Might as well bring the old boy back some beers.”
Walking carefully through the thickets Sledge led Jasmine toward the scene of the crime. For the last thirty meters or so they crouched, walking very slowly, creeping up so as not to be seen. The last few meters they crawled stealthily camouflaged in the bush.
Yellow Police tape tied between the trees cordoned off the area. A detective and two policemen sifted through the sand looking for clues and taking photographs. “Damn, we won’t even get close. Maybe they will be gone by this evening, that is if they don’t find the memory stick.” They lay behind a rocky outcrop slightly overlooking the crime scene no more than ten meters away.
“I have an idea, get ready to move when they are distracted.” She patted Sledge on the leg. “What the hell, wait Jasmine!” Before he could stop her, she darted along the riverbank disappearing into the tree line.
Nervously waiting to see what would happen next Sledge peered through the foliage at the Police team working, blissfully unaware they were being observed.
“G’day mate! Can any of you boys show me the way back downriver, I got separated from my friends. They walked over there somewhere.” She pointed in the opposite direction from where Sledge lay. For a moment the policemen hesitated. “You can’t be here, this is a crime scene.” The senior of the trio warned sternly.
“Okay, but I really need to find my friends. If you see three girls tanning topless around there tell them I am looking for them.” Pointing in the general direction of the far side of the campsite Jasmin gave them her “Damsel in distress” look.
“Three young girls tanning topless out here might be dangerous, where did you say they were.” The senior policeman suddenly lost interest in the crime scene. “Maybe we can spare a minute or two to help you find your friends, what do you say boys?” He turned to see the other two already scouring the bushes with binoculars where Jasmin had indicated her friends might be.
Seizing the opportunity Sledge darted forward raking through the sand where he had hidden the memory stick. Franticly he searched, nothing. He heard voices approaching. In a last desperate effort, he clawed around the area where he had been when the police erupted on the scene.
“Sorry miss but we can’t spare any more time. You are welcome to wait here with us until we are finished. We can give you a lift back into town if you like.” “Bloody hell, where is the damn thing!” Sledge was about to turn and dart back into the bush when he hit pay dirt. “Bloody beauty mate!” he slipped quickly behind the rocky outcrop as the first policeman returned to the crime scene.
Jasmine looked directly at the area where Sledge lay watching. He broke cover for a second holding up the plastic wrapped memory stick then dropped down again. “Thank you so much for your help officers, I am going to have a look down there and if I don’t find them I will come back here. Your offer of a lift back into town is very kind.”
“Wendy, Jane, where are you!” She began calling leaving the police officers a little bewildered. She continued walking along the riverbank calling out until Sledge whistled softly from a dense clump of trees.
“Jesus, that was bloody brilliant Jas. I couldn’t have done it without you.” She flashed him a dazzling smile. “We have our ways, us girls sometimes.” Wading across the river through knee deep water they headed back to the car. “I won’t go back for my car if you don’t mind. Someone might be watching it.” Jasmin nodded her head in agreement.
“Might as well make it a round trip, next stop the post office.” Sledge held the memory stick tightly in his hand. He remembered finding it in the priest’s mouth covered in blood and spit. He dropped it into his pocket and wiped his hands on his trouser leg.
Driving along through Arthurs Point and along the scenic Malaghan’s road with Coronet Peak on their left. In a few months the entire mountaintop would be covered in a blanket of snow. Hordes of tourists would flock to the slopes skiing or snowboarding for a few weeks. Heading toward Arrowtown they past the lush green fields and multimillion dollar homes of the rich and famous scattered along the pastoral countryside.
“Turn right down Hunter road Jasmin, it will be quicker.” She gave him a dark stare. “That was what I was about to do, I grew up here too you know.” He smiled. “Sorry, I should have left it to you. Any idea what we might find in the post box?” She shook her head.
They drove along in silence listening to Rock music on the car stereo until they reached Frankton, a residential suburb of Queenstown on its Eastern side. “Here we go Sledge.” Jasmin parked her car at the small intersection by the traffic circle. “Let’s go and find out what horrors await!” She smiled when she said it but Sledge could not help seeing the worried look in her eyes.
Sledge held the door open for Jasmin as they walked into the small narrow room with post office boxes running along the wall. “Box number 446 is the one we are looking for Sledge.” Jasmin held up the tag attached to the small silver key. “Could it have something to do with Robert and his disappearance?” A look of hope flashed across Jasmin’s face for a second.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up Sledge, I miss him so much.” Sledge glanced at her. “You didn’t say he was missing before, only that you hoped he was alright and you had not seen him for a while.” Looking down Jasmine whispered. “He went missing nearly three years ago. No-one has heard from him since. There the one day, gone the next.” She scanned the numbers on the boxes.
“Was he involved in anything weird?” Sledge pointed to box number 446. “No, unless you call a community group that helped build houses in the countryside for the elderly and underprivileged kids weird. He spent most weekend away with them. They were as shocked as we were at his sudden disappearance.”
“Right, here we go.” She placed the key in the lock. The door creaked open. “What the hell is this?” Jasmin pulled out a Manila envelope. “Feels like there are papers or something inside. Let’s open it at the cabin, I am not sure if I want to know the contents right now.”
Taking Frankton road toward town they stopped at a supermarket before carrying on to the Arthurs Point area. “Got you some beers mate, hope the missus won’t mind!” Jasmine placed the box of beers on the back of Mr. Mac Dougal’s truck. “Bloody beauty! Thanks, time to go hunting possums again.” He leapt into his truck.
They walked into the homestead. “Mrs. Mac Dougal, some flowers and a box of chocolates for you. Hope you like them.” Sledge handed her the flowers. “Ah! Reminds me of when the old bastard would bring me flowers, seems so long ago.” She pointed at the rooms and the cottage outside. “Fully booked tonight so you can join us or stay put in the cabin tonight.”
They looked at each other. “I think we will get an early night, don’t want to bother you or your guests.” Jasmine smiled. “Thought you might say that. Well, have fun you two.” She laughed. “We are just friends Mrs. Mac Dougal, honest.” Blushing Jasmine made for the door. “It always starts out like that my dear.” Mrs. Mac Dougal cackled all the way to the kitchen where she prepared afternoon tea for her guests.
Settling into the cabin Sledge poured them both a glass of red wine. “Okay, let me open this.” Jasmin drank deeply from the glass before slowly prying open the envelope. Her fingers trembled. Tearing off the envelope flap she poured the contents onto the small wooden table. A dozen or more photographs spilled out. “What the hell is this?” Sledge picked up one of the photos.
His cell phone shrilled loudly scaring the hell out of both of them. Jasmin screamed. Sledge picked up his phone. “Just a message, let’s see what it says.” He had a bad feeling when he clicked onto the message icon.
“I hope by now you have retrieved the envelope. The photos are to be taken to Inspector Rees as soon as possible. Await further instructions.” They stared at the message.
“Why are we doing this Jasmin. As far as I am concerned I am finished with this bullshit. I am no-one’s messenger boy.” He flipped through the photos again. “Bloody sick bastards. Don’t really feel sorry for the fat bastard now.” Jasmin gathered up the photos replacing them in the envelope. “Don’t you realize that this is evidence. You will be cleared of any suspicion Sledge. This must be the reason the priest was killed. Do you know the other one?”
Sledge stared at one of the photos Jasmin took out of the envelope. “I don’t know who he is but I have seen him around somewhere, he must be a local or someone who has stayed in Queenstown for a while.” Staring at the photo Sledge nodded his head. “Okay, we will take the photos to Inspector Rees and then that is the end of it. We have been setup and I want to know by whom, I will find out by myself”
Storming to the front desk of the police station Inspector Rees glared at Sledge. “You’ve got a damn nerve coming back here after what happened. What the hell do you want!” He fixed Jasmin with an icy stare. “Who’s she?” Jasmine attempted a weak smile.
“She’s a friend Rees, there is something we think you should see.” He nodded toward the closed door leading to the offices. “Whatever it is I can look at it here, no point in wasting even more of my time.” He reached for the envelope.
“Not here, trust me Inspector.” Jasmine looked at two young teenage girls who were handing in a set of car keys they had found down at the Village Green.
“This had better be good. Follow me you two.” Inspector Rees disappeared for a moment. A side door opened. He led them to his office. “Okay, let’s see what you have here. Take a look at that Sledge.” Pointing to the local afternoon paper he stabbed a finger at a small article. Jasmine stood beside Sledge as they read the report from the Catholic Church. “Oh, my God!” Can you believe that.
“They say Father Connelly slipped and fell in the river hitting his head. He died by drowning.” Jasmine shook her head in disbelief. “Yeah, they also go on to say what a wonderful, caring person he was. Always taking care of the local kids. Lying bastards.”
Inspector Rees looked up at them from his desk. “That’s the official version, for the moment.” He opened the envelope. He flicked through the photos one by one. The dates and time are all on the back of the photos. Where did you get this from?” Reaching for the phone on his desk Inspector Rees dialed a number.
“Please Inspector, we were told where to find the envelope and given instruction that they be delivered to you. We don’t know who is behind all of this.” Jasmine blurted out.
“Yes, the weirdo in cell number two, is he cuffed?” There was a pause. “Well bloody cuff him and I want one of you posted outside his cell twenty-four seven. And get Forensics down there on the double, I will explain when I get there.” He slammed the receiver down.
“From what I see here old Father Connelly abused the boys while the other restrained them or watched. Sick bastards.” Rees clenched his fists. “You do understand I will have to detain both of you until this is sorted out?” He looked up at Sledge and Jasmine.
“We could have simply left them at the front desk if we wanted to. We are not going anywhere, you know where to find us.” Sledge took Jasmin by the hand and guided her toward the door. “I’ll leave matters in your capable hands Inspector.” There was a hint of sarcasm in Sledges voice.
They walked out of the room expecting to be called back at any moment. Standing in front of the locked door leading back into the front desk they heard a metallic click as Inspector Rees pressed a button under his desk. The door opened. Stepping out into the early evening air Sledge kept a wary eye out for the mysterious van which had attempted to kidnap them earlier.
“I’m starving, fancy something to eat?” They walked down Beach street amongst the tourists pouring into the restaurants or drinking beer at tables outside Cafes. “There is a good place for ribs and steaks up there.” Jasmine pointed to a crowded restaurant. “Sounds good to me, let’s go.” He held the door open for her as the mouth-watering smell of B.B.Q ribs wafted out to greet them.
“What do we do now Sledge” Sipping at a strong cup of expresso coffee Jasmin felt a little more relaxed after the meal. “I need to find a computer and check out the memory stick.” He lit a cigarette on the balcony of the restaurant. “Some clean clothes and a toothbrush would be good right now. Should we stop off at my place while I grab a few things before we go back to the cabin? Staring out at the lights reflecting off the still waters of Lake Wakatipu, Jasmin waited for Sledge to answer. “Okay, can we swing by my place afterwards. I need my laptop and printer. I think staying at the cabin would be the safest option.”
“No! who could have done this!” Her small apartment had been turned upside down. Clothes, books, all her most personal belonging were scattered across the room. “No sign of forced entry. Does anyone else have a key, your boyfriend or someone?” She shook her head. “No, and I am not seeing anyone at the moment either.” Sledge nodded secretly relieved to hear she did not have a boyfriend.
Hurriedly, Jasmine shoved clothes and other necessities in to a backpack. Walking out to the car Sledge felt the adrenaline rushing through his body. They drove down the street where he lived, a black van was barely visible partially hidden under a tree in the dark night.
“Turn off the headlights and wait here, I’m going to pay out friends a little visit.” Opening the car door, he was about to get out when Jasmin grabbed his arm. “No, leave them, we know they have guns. Please Sledge, let’s just go through to the cabin. The death of Connelly, the photos, they are all pointing to something bigger. Let’s go back to the cabin, Mrs Mac Dougal must have a computer at the Homestead. What’s on the memory stick might be vitally important.” He hesitated for a second then got back into the car and closed the door.
Sitting at the reception desk of the Homestead Sledge slipped the memory stick into the computer port. Downloading the file, he printed out the two pages saved on the computer. He then pushed the memory card from his camera into the computer port. Quickly he downloaded a phot file before sending it off to the e-mail address of their mysterious contact
“What happens now?”
“I don’t know Jas, perhaps this is all we have to do.” He shrugged but knew they were in it for a while longer.
“Quiet Jasmine, we don’t want to disturb the old couple.” He whispered as Jasmine knocked a wooden pole with a heavy metal object on top.
“What the hell is this? It looks like a banner or something” She bent down to examine the cloth covered object she had stumbled over behind the desk.
“It looks like a replica of a Roman army standard.” She looked at Sledge then shook her head.
“Roman Legionnaires carried a standard or banner bearing a golden eagle with their unit’s number on a red cloth hanging down, pretty much like soldiers do now days with a flag. It was a symbol of pride and a rallying point when in battle. See the Roman numerals on the cloth XIV. The Fourteenth Legion.”
“Oh, great.” She replied not the least bit interested.
“Okay, all done. Let’s go back to the cabin.” He led the way outside.
Lighting a cigarette and pouring a glass of red wine each they looked at the papers. “A list of names and a map. There is a grid reference on the side.” Sledge pointed to the small map. “From what I can see on this map there is nothing at the grid reference, only open fields and brush.”
Running her finger down the list of names Jasmin gasped. “Two of the names here have been crossed out. James Connelly and Craig Matterson.” She stared up at Sledge.
“Do you think the other man in the photos was Craig Matterson Sledge?” Running his fingers through his hair, he looked for names he recognized. “Know anyone else on the list?” He asked.
“No, some of them might be from around here but not anyone I know personally. Look there is another picture at the bottom.”
She took a closer look. It’s a woodcut, taken from an antique Hungarian book. Vladu Voda Tzepeshu as it says here.”
Sledge stared down at the black and white picture of richly dressed noble.” Don’t shrug like that Sledge, you know him well.” He smiled at Jasmine waiting for her to explain.
“Vlad the Impailer or Count Dracula. The real Dracula was a prince who impaled his victims on wooden stakes. The Hollywood version of a blood sucking, handsome and mysterious vampire only came about much later.” Sitting in silence for a moment Sledge stared at the picture of Vlad the Impailer.
His cell phone beeped. “Another message?” Jasmine slipped closer to him. “Good job on the photos. You are required to conduct a reconnaissance tomorrow from 14H00 at the grid co-ordinates on the map like in the old days of your training in the Legion. Rations, vehicle and uniform will be provided. Send list of other material needed in one hour.” Slamming his drink down on the table Sledge held his hands in his head. “And what if I don’t? Maybe I don’t want to be involved in your little games.” He messaged back.
There was a short pause before the message icon flashed again. “I had the police release you, I can so easily put you back in their cell if you don’t follow my instructions. You wouldn’t want anything happening either to the old couple, would you?”
A shiver ran down his spine. “How the hell do they know we are here? I have heard about people tracking someone through their cell phone.” He thought of the Mac Dougal’s, they were innocent, they had no part in what was going on.
“What does this all mean Sledge?” She placed her hand on his shoulder. “When I was in the Foreign Legion I was trained as a Sniper shortly after signing up. During the training course we would have to march for miles and miles in the dark to a position indicated on the map.” He refilled his glass then hers.
“Once in position we would hide in the bush and observe the target area for hours on end. Dead tired, hungry and half asleep we watched for the three or four second one of our guys dressed as the enemy would step out from a rundown farmhouse or building.” He lit another cigarette. “That was the moment, if it was in a war we would have put a bullet through the targets head. In training we radioed having spotted the enemy. Most times we were given another target location miles away and did the same thing again.”
“And in the real situation, did you ever have to do it? I mean shoot someone?” He shrugged. “I have less than an hour to think of what I need. Have you got a pen please?” Jasmin didn’t press the issue further. Handing him a pen and paper she finished her wine.
“I’m exhausted, do you mind if I get some sleep?” She yawned. “No, off you go. I’ll sleep on the couch, you take the bed.” He watched her walk to the shower and close the door. “Let’s see how far they will go to get their desired results.” He thought to himself, he began writing down the list of items he would need.
Halfway through compiling the list Jasmin walked to the bed dressed in a snug fitting T-shirt, he looked up at her. She smiled coyly. “If this has anything to shed light on my brother’s disappearance I will be forever grateful Sledge.” She moved closer to him. “And Sledge, thank you for being a gentleman, you have no idea how good it feels to be treated with respect by a man.” Bending forward she kissed him on the cheek. “Sleep well Jas, see you bright and early tomorrow.” Trying in vain to put the image of her standing in front of him in her thin T-shirt he went back to the list.
Awaking to the shrill beeping of his cell phone Sledge tumbled off of the couch. “Take a walk with the young lady a mile down the track heading East. You will find what you asked for there.” He stared at the message.
Jasmin yawned and stretched. “What’s going on?” She stared at the old clock on the wall. “Six in the bloody morning, you’ve got to be joking!” Covering her head with a pillow she dived back under the covers. Sledge showered then shook Jasmin awake. “We have to go, get dressed. I will meet you outside.” He walked around the cabin looking for footprints or anything out of the ordinary.
“Okay, what’s going on Sledge?” Jasmin stepped outside. “It seems we are going for a walk, about a mile down the track.” He pointed to a narrow dirt path threading through the pine forest. They set off in the dawns early light, both wondering what the day would bring.
“This must be the vehicle. Check the wheel hub for the keys.” Hidden in the bush to the side of the track Sledge had spotted a brown Land Cruiser. Jasmin found the keys. “Got them, looks like there is quite a bit of stuff in the car. Is it from your list?” She asked unlocking the door.
“Let’s see what we have here. High powered binoculars, night vision goggles, two gillie suits.” Jasmin frowned. “What’s a gillie suit?” Sledge unwrapped what looked like a long bundle of grass and twigs. “You wear it like this.” He slipped on the gillie suit like an overall. He lay down in the grass. “What the hell, I can’t even see you from here.” She laughed. “Camouflage suit, helps you become invisible.” He stood up taking off the gillie suit.
“There’s camo cream, army issue ration packs and what’s this?” He reached out for two small envelopes. Their names were written on them. “Here’s yours Jas.” Tearing off the end Sledge whistled. “There must be at least ten thousand dollars in here.” Holding up a thick wad of notes he looked at Jasmin. “I’ve got the same.” Eyes wide with excitement she stuffed the notes into her pocket.
A satellite radio crackled into life on the back seat. The voice was metallic, somewhat sinister. “You will find what you asked for and more.” The person on the other end was using a voice distorter. “Go now to the place marked on the map and break radio silence only when the target has been positively identified. We will call him Mr. X. Is that clear?” Sledge pressed the “send” button “Clear.” He replied curtly, his military experience kicking in.
Another larger envelope held a photograph of a man in his mid-fifties, another of the red Humvee he drove and the last was of a four-bedroomed farmhouse. “There is a note attached” Unfolding the note Jasmin held it between them. “For services rendered so far, $15000 each. More to follow. You will find a high-powered camera in the glove compartment, I will need photos of the surrounding area, visitors and whomever is living at the house.”
“Oh my God, Sledge!” Dropping an early edition of the morning paper onto the hood of the vehicle Jasmine pointed a trembling finger at the headlines. “
“Pedophile priest brutally tortured to death!” Under the dramatic headline was a full-page story complete with gruesome photos of the priest’s body.
“It doesn’t say who the article was written by, nor any credits for the photos. It goes on to describe Father Connelly’s sexual abuse and testimonies from many of his victims as well as the list of same names we received last night.” Sledge said.
“Do you remember this?” He tapped a picture on the bottom of the page. “It’s the Viking picture that we saw yesterday at the café. There is a caption underneath, what does it say?” Jasmine lit a cigarette, waiting for Sledge to finish reading.
“We tried to tell you but you did not listen. We cried out for help but we were ignored. Vengeance will be ours.”
“And right beside it is the picture of Vlad the Impailer, I’m sick to the stomach imagining what might happen next. Do you think Inspector Rees know something about what seem to be clues pointing to the next murder? Jasmine whispered. Hugging her tightly Sledge opened the Land Cruiser door for her. “We will have to speak to him later.”
Driving for just over an hour on the highway heading toward Invercargill they joked and talked but as they grew closer to the area indicated on the map they became more serious.
“The area we are supposed to watch is over the hill. Let’s hide the Land Cruiser in the trees over there. We’ll walk the rest of the way.” Cautiously driving the Land Cruiser as deep as possible into the small forest Sledge spread a camouflage net over it.
“Right, I’ve packed everything into this backpack. Time to get all dressed up.” He helped her put on the gillie suit then took out a small box of camouflage face paint. Dipping his fingers in the thick paint he daubed Jasmine’s face in shades of green, brown and black. Standing close he took longer than he normally would applying her camo cream. Looking into her big brown eyes he gently ran his fingers aver her face, she stared up at him with a twinkle in her eye.
Once he finished Sedge got himself ready then shouldered the backpack. “Here, take the camera Jas, I will let you know when I see someone. Take photos of the area when we get there, okay?” She nodded feeling a twinge of excitement.
Walking up the hill Sledge held up his hand as they approached the ridgeline. He lay flat signaling Jasmin to do the same. Slowly they inched forward until they crested the rise. Down below they saw more than an empty field indicated on the map.
“Would you look at that.” He whispered. Around two hundred meters further down the gently sloping hill stood the four-bedroomed farmhouse, beside it was a newly built shed. Another one hundred meters further on Sledge scanned a long building divided up into ten small rooms each facing the lake to the left. The entire area was surrounded by a high fence with cameras mounted at what looked like a small guard house at the gate.
Squinting through the camera lens Jasmin took photo after photo. Zooming in on the building with the separate rooms she tapped Sledge on the arm. Lying side by side in the bush Sledge peered at the camera’s digital screen. “What the hell?” He whispered. Every room has a spa pool in the front. God knows what else they have here but it definitely isn’t your average sheep farm.”
“Well, who do we have here?” See the guard house by the gate? Look who is hanging around outside.” Jasmine gasped, it was the men who had pulled the guns on them in town and tried to force them into the black van.
Long hours passed. Turning to Jasmine, Sledge smiled when he saw she had fallen asleep. Out of habit he kept a constant eye on the building. His patience was rewarded. A dozen children emerged from the shed and began playing around. He nudged Jasmine’s elbow. “I’m awake, really I am.” She mumbled. “You’re dribbling out the side of your mouth Jas, you fell asleep.” He chuckled. Running her hand across her mouth she playfully elbowed him in the ribs. “Look down there by the shed. Take photos, as many as possible, close ups of the kids.” She snapped away.
“What are they doing all the way out here? This place looks more like a five-star prison than a farm.” Her voice trembled with emotion. A bell rang from within the compound. Hurriedly the children rushed back into the shed.
From time to time expensive looking vehicles would drive up the dirt road leading to the compound. Jasmine photographed the occupants and the cars. “Do you think this is what I fear it might be Jasmine?’ He turned to look at her. Tears streamed down her face. She sobbed quietly. “I’m afraid I do Sledge, we have to do something for those poor little kids.” In the distance a red Humvee roared at speed down the dirt track, clouds of dust billowed in its wake.
“Looks like our target is here, I wonder if he is the bastard in charge of this place.” Reaching for the radio, Sledge peered through the binoculars. Braking sharply the Humvee showered the men at the gate with dust and small stones. Swinging the gates wide open the men brushed the dirt from their faces.
Jasmine snapped photos of the man climbing out of the Humvee. “It’s him alright.” Breaking radio silence for the first time Sledge announced the arrival of the Mr X. “Perfect, now listen closely.” Replied the distorted, metallic voice.
“Wow! This is so amazing, I can see as clear as day with these.” Looking left and right Jasmine adjusted the brightness on her night vision goggles. “It takes a bit of getting used to in the beginning, especially seeing everything in shades of green and grey.” He let the Land Cruiser freewheel down the dirt track toward the compound.
With the engine off they managed to roll to within a few meters of the thicket adjacent to the back fence. At two in the morning nothing stirred. Occasionally they caught sight of rabbits or possums foraging for food. He stood on the roof of the Land Cruiser observing the wooden deck built onto the rear of the farmhouse. Jasmine waited for his signal. Sledge had already slipped silently under the cover of the dark night to cut a hole in the wire perimeter fence.
Twenty minutes later Sledge tensed as the light on the deck was switched on. He gave Jasmin a nod. Picking up the radio she held her breath, this was utter madness but she believed Sledge could do it. A figure stood in the doorway fumbling in his pocket. Stepping out of the shadows into the light he puffed on a cigarette staring absentmindedly out into the dark. Tapping her gently on the shoulder Sledge gave her the thumbs up. “Eyes on target, moving in.” She spoke softly into the radio. “Affirmative.” Was all the mysterious person on the other end said in reply.
By the time she looked up Sledge had already entered the compound through the gap in the wire. Crouched low he moved swiftly toward the deck staying in the shadows all the time. “He is so agile, like a lion stalking its prey.” Jasmin thought watching him slip silently to the side of the farmhouse. For a second her heart missed a beat. Mr X walked to the end of the deck staring to where Sledge had been. She no longer had eyes on Sledge. Slowly Mr. X turned around and began pacing toward the other side of the deck.
Darting around the corner onto the deck Sledge crept up on Mr. X. Jasmin bit her nails watching Sledge get to within two feet of him undetected. Wrapping his arm around Mr. X’s neck Sledge simultaneously kicked Mr. X in the back of the knee. Dropping him to the floor. Holding his grip for a few seconds longer Mr. X suddenly ceased his frantic struggling. His body lay limp on the deck.
He gave her the thumbs up while he secured Mr. X’s legs and hands with cable ties. Grabbing him under the arms he hoisted the deadweight over his shoulder. Jasmine jumped out of the Land Cruiser rushing to help Sledge.
Throwing Mr. X onto the back seat none too gently Sledge got into the driver’s seat. “Well done Jas, we got the scumbag.” Flooded by feelings of relief he hugged her across the gap between the seats. “You did it all Sledge not me, well done to you. I’m impressed.” She leant forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Ugh, I forgot you were wearing camo cream, it tastes like shit!” She blurted, smiling warmly.
Her mood suddenly changed. “Is he dead?” She glanced at the body slumped on the seat. “No, I cut off the blood supply to his brain. If you time it right they lose consciousness for a few minutes.” Jasmine looked at Sledge. “And if you don’t and you keep them in a strangle hold too long what happens?” She knew the answer before Sledge shrugged his shoulders.
Driving slowly, they reached a dilapidated shed a mile down the road without turning on the headlights. “Bloody marvelous things these night sights” He reached for the radio. “Target delivered.” There was a brief crackle of static then the metallic voice replied. “Confirm target delivered.” Sledge pressed the “send” button. “That’s a positive, Mr. X delivered.” He waited for a moment before dragging the unconscious man from the back seat.
As arranged he secured Mr. X to a wooden beam with a length of rope. “Proceed to the compound, the police will be arriving in approximately ten minutes. Change the frequency to the police channel. Your friend Inspector Rees is awaiting your call.”
“God damn it, what the hell! He never said anything about Rees or a police raid. But I suppose that is the only way to rescue the children.” Slamming his fist against the dashboard Sledge drove toward the compound.
“Rees, this is Sledge. Do you copy?” Waiting on the dirt track Sledge searched for the lights of an approaching vehicle. “Sledge this is Rees, we are two minutes from your location. I have no idea what this is all about but by God it had better be worth it, for your sake.” The radio went dead.
Five police vehicles came to a halt next to their Land Cruiser. Sledge recognized the sturdy silhouette of Rees in the headlights as he jumped out of the lead vehicle. Storming to the driver side window he shoved his head through the window. “Right, let’s have it. What the hell is going on? I have dragged out half the police force in the area. This had better not be a wild goose chase Sledge.” Yanking open the car door he motioned Sledge to get out.
Clicking through the photos on the camera Sledge explained what they had seen, leaving out the part when they had abducted Mr. X. Rees briefed the police team before driving slowly down the dirt track to minimize engine noise.
“You two wait here, and what the hell do you have camo paint all over your faces?” Rees shone the torch in their faces. “Bloody hell, off to a fancy-dress party, are we?” He pointed to their camouflage uniforms and boots. “Nah mate, we were going duck hunting when we stumbled on this place.” Sledge replied sarcastically.
Driving up to the gate Rees flashed the torch while a policeman cut the padlock. Swinging open the gates the police vehicles drove into the compound splitting up into small groups so they would be able to cover all the buildings.
Minutes ticked slowly by. Sledge stared at the compound watching the police search each building. “Who are they?” Jasmine pointed to three scantily dressed women protesting loudly. Half an hour later Rees stormed back to the car.
“What the hell are you playing at Sledge?” He slammed his hand down hard on the car bonnet. “Nothing there except a bunch of high class prostitutes and a couple of pimps. This is a place where wealthy businessmen come to for a massage and spa, and extras.” He added.
“Didn’t you find the kids Inspector, you have seen them on the camera.” Jasmine gasped. “Nothing, nothing at all. Did you Photoshop them into the photos?” He turned to glare at Jasmin but she was already running through the open gates. “Bloody hell, stop her!” he shouted but it was too late.
Bursting through the farmhouse door Jasmine came face to face with the three prostitutes. Sledge bolted after her followed by Rees and two police officers.
“Where are they you sluts? Where are the kids?” Jasmine pulled open a wooden cupboard. “Are you out of your mind, you bitch?” A prostitute who seemed to be in charge pushed Jasmine aside. “Get her out of here or we will lay a complaint against the police department. We have some very influential customers, you know.” Sledge moved between Jasmine and the prostitute.
“They are here Sledge, I know it. Listen carefully.” Holding up her hand Jasmine pressed her ear to the wall. “Right, I’ve had enough nonsense from you two bloody clowns. Get back to the vehicle now!” Rees grabbed Sledge by the arm shoving him toward the door. A police woman advanced toward Jasmine menacingly. “No, they are here!” Jasmine screamed. One of the prostitutes looked down for the second time at the large coffee table standing on a rug in the middle of the room.
Desperately evading the police woman Jasmine overturned the oak table. Seconds later the police woman pushed Jasmine down onto the rug attempting to cuff her hands behind her back. Reaching out Jasmine flung the corner of the rug over. “Look there, let me go damn it!”
Rees stared at the trapdoor previously undetected. “What’s down there?” He growled. “Nothing, only old furniture.” Visibly shaken the prostitute stood on the trapdoor. “Get off right now or you will be charged with obstructing justice.” Ordered the police woman. Standing her ground, the prostitute stared at the police woman. “Oh, damn it!” Jasmine muttered.
Spinning round she slammed her elbow into the prostitute’s jaw. Reeling backward under the violent force of the blow the prostitute fell across the overturned table. Sledge yanked at the metal bolts securing the trapdoor and flung it open.
“Stand aside, I’m going in first.” Rees pushed past Sledge and dropped straight down. A sound of furniture breaking came from the depths of the trapdoor entrance. “Might want to use the ladder, nothing here but old junk!” He shouted out from below. Sledge shook his head, he was sure the children were still on the compound grounds.
He climbed down the ladder with Jasmine following closely. “Turn your torch off Inspector.” Sledge tapped Rees on the shoulder. For a second, they stood in the dark. “There, see that sliver of light, at the far end?” Pushing past Rees, Sledge tapped on the far wall. He aimed a heavy kick at the wooden wall. His foot went through the timber. “All brawn and no brains, why not open the door?” For the first time since they arrived at the compound Jasmine smiled. She slid back two heavy metal bolts from the catches.
Rees fumbled for a light switch on the wall. For a second all three stared in horror at the two rows of narrow beds. At least a dozen children stared in terror at the people who had burst into their dank and cramped room. “Arrest the bastards up there now, each and every one of them!” Rees screamed into his radio. Heavy footsteps echoed on the wooden floor above.
One by one the unnaturally quiet children emerged from the trapdoor entrance. Shuffling together the children looked toward the prostitutes for instructions. “Take them away, call an ambulance and a Forensic team now.” Rees ordered as he roughly handcuffed one of the pimps. “Can we add attempted kidnapping and housebreaking to their list of charges Inspector?” Sledge asked.
“Let’s get the kids sorted out first Sledge, then we can look at other charges for this lot.” Rees nodded. “Good on you mate, well done for tonight.” He said it so softly that both Jasmine and Sledge wondered if they had imagined it.
“How did you know where to find us Rees?” Sledge quietly whispered. “At first I thought it was a prank. I received a call a couple of hours ago, someone using a voice distorter.” Sledge listened intently. “I went to the patrol car parked outside and found a radio on the back seat. They gave me instructions to meet you here. Said it was a matter of life and death.” He clapped Sledge on the shoulder. “Don’t think that you are a hero Sledge, there is still a homicide investigation and you are one of the prime suspects.”
“Okay Sledge, tell me how you feel about last night.” Jasmine asked as she began cooking eggs and bacon on the old stove in the cabin. Sledge thought for a moment while he melted the butter for the Béarnaise sauce he prepared to go over the pouched eggs. “It was cool getting into military mode again, I miss it. But, in the end we saved innocent kids from a fate worse than death.”
He began toasting four English muffins. “Do you think the prostitutes started off like those poor kids?” She remained silent while she fried tomatoes and mushrooms. “What about the implications?” Jasmine asked as she dropped hash browns into a small pot of boiling oil.
Sledge shrugged. He looked at her wondering where this was heading. “Do you realise we are now accessory to kidnapping and possibly murder?” Jasmine slammed the spatula down on the table.
“You might be used to a different set of rules Sledge. You join the army, they give you full consent to kill and do whatever it takes to do their bidding. But here in civilian life there are another set of rules. We can’t simply abduct someone and leave them to the mercy of a person we know is psycho killer.”
Slamming down two plates she rummaged in the 1960’s cupboard for knives and forks. “This is not a mission to capture an enemy soldier or something. You know there are consequences to your actions, you are being manipulated.”
They ate in silence for a while. Sledge felt angry. “Holy shit Jasmine, what more do you want? We rescued kids, caught the man responsible for their abduction and shut down a pedophile ring capturing the records of the clients.” He took a deep swig of the Champaign and orange juice which was supposed to be their celebratory drink.
“Right, tell me something Jasmine. Those people who held the kid’s prisoner, those people who did and allowed others to do the most despicable acts with innocent children, are they governed by the same rules?” He pushed his plate aside. “One rule for them, one rule for us.” Sledge stared at her wondering why she did not feel the same way as he did.
“Once you cross over the threshold, once you break free from the norm you see things differently.” He poured himself more Champaign.
“Well as far as I see it you will end up in prison because of someone else. They have their agenda, you are their tool and you are the one who will suffer the consequences in the end Sledge All I want is to find my brother, Robert.”
“Oh, really Jasmine.” Sledge drew closer to her. “Tell me something, how do you explain me seeing you at the river just before I discovered the body. And then again when the police arrested me and we drove past you?” She looked shocked.
“How was it arranged so that we met up right after I had been let out of the police station?” He pointed an accusing finger at Jasmine. “Even this place, very convenient and of course they remember you from years ago, Mr. Mac Dougal and his wife, are they in on it too?” He pushed his plate aside. “What about your brother Robert? Is he the mysterious person leading us on, where did he get the money for all of this?”
Jasmine stared at Sledge for a moment or two without saying anything then she exploded. “Are you actually accusing me of being part of the setup, do you think I lured you in simply to use you?” She stood up pushing the chair roughly aside. “You are the one who dragged me into this mess, had I not bumped into you in the street none of this would have happened. Is this some sick game you and your army mates are playing?
I remember an article in the newspaper you wrote about a year ago. You covered a story on a father who found out that his son had been abused by a priest. The father killed the priest and went to court on a murder charge.
The Vatican wanted the father punished to the full extent of the law but refused the justice system access to child abuse files in their possession stating that any irregularities between priests and children were to be handled only by the Vatican. Did you decide to become a vigilante and administer your own form of warped justice knowing that the clergy close ranks and protect each other?”
“Only a totally sick bastard could have killed someone by the Blood Eagle method, have you not seen enough killing and death Sledge?” Her eyes burned with contempt.
“Blood Eagle, what the hell is that Jasmine? You seem to know a lot about the murder.” He watched her body language hoping she would become defensive.
“Bloody hell Sledge, did you ever watch the television series Viking? They did the blood eagle in one scene. Is it not some type of symbolism? They killed someone who had betrayed their own people.” She shook her head, rolling her eyes in frustration. “The Viking photo you claim to have received, well it is from a painting of Ivarr the Boneless. It is the same picture we saw on the front page of the newspaper.” Sledge stared at her blankly.
“It is a depiction of one of the Nordic Sagas. It is called Ragnar’s Saga. It describes in great detail how Ivarr the Boneless executed the Northumbrian king Aella when the king attacked his stronghold in the town of York in the year 867.” She stared out of the window watching the trees swaying in the breeze. “Do you know how Ivarr killed Aella?” She waited impatiently for an answer. “Well I’ll tell you Sledge, he died a long and painful death known as the Blood Eagle!”
Walking toward the door Jasmine shot Sledge a withering glance. “I am going to go home Sledge. I don’t want anything more to do with this sordid affair. I was happy in my little world. Let me be and don’t come knocking on my door, ever.” Dropping her unfinished breakfast into the sink Jasmine gathered up the small number of personal belongings she had and rushed through the door. He sat in stunned silence then the door burst open. “Take your filthy money too! You are a dumb brainwashed soldier!” A wad of notes hit Sledge on the chest.
“Well as far as I am concerned Its game set and match. The pervert killed the priest in a jealous rage and it’s over.” He stabbed his knife into the table. “We both know the idiot dressed as a monk like something out of the “Scream” movies killed him and the police have him in custody. End of story.”
Jasmine stormed out of the cabin and sped off in her car.
“Too easy, she knows too much about the murder. Robert built or renovated homes in the very same area the children were being held prisoner. Seems a little fishy to me.” Sledge thought. He walked out to the land cruiser.
Climbing into the driver’s seat he wondered what course of action he should take. Fumbling for the keys in his pocket he lit a cigarette then roughly shoved the key in the ignition. He thought about driving to Jasmine’s house, there were still a few questions he had for her. For a fleeting second, he wondered if he should go to Inspector Rees and find out what he thought about the whole affair. Sledge decided on neither option. Instead he opened the door and climbed out of the vehicle. He dropped his cigarette butt on the loose sand at his feet before crushing it underfoot.
Staring down at the marks in the sand Sledge noticed boot prints around the vehicle. He pressed his boot against the sand then looked at the imprint. The prints around the vehicle were about two sizes larger with a different pattern on the sole.
He froze. Thoughts of tracking enemy fighters in the deserts of Africa by following their footprints resurfaced. Cautiously he circled the vehicle. Apart from the coming and going of the footprints the majority of tracks were around the hood of the vehicle. Sledge lay on the ground. Wriggling forward he inspected the bottom of the vehicle. “Sick bastards, what the hell have we here?”
He stared at a block of plastic explosives taped to the bottom of the vehicle under the driver’s seat. He followed the wires leading from the detonator to the car battery. Slowly he unwound the wires, pulling the detonator from the block of explosives He looked closely at the detonator. “Bloody idiots!” He threw the thin metal bolts wrapped in tin foil on the ground. “Who would wire explosives to a car and then use fake detonators?” Sliding under the entire length of the vehicle Sledge minutely inspected the chassis for signs of additional explosives. Finding none he wiped the sweat from his face. “Someone is sending me a message, a warning” He sat there in the dirt mentally going through a list of suspects.
Following the tracks, he headed a few hundred feet into the bush where they were lost in the tall green grass. Returning to the cabin Sledge polished off the remaining Champaign then lay down on the unmade bed. Drained from the recent events he slept soundly. It was dark outside when he woke.
Rummaging through the fridge he made himself a sandwich and grabbed a packet of chocolates out of the cupboard. Washing the meal down with two Bourbons and Coke. Sledge could not stop thinking of Jasmine.
He hoped like hell the police would not be running random roadblocks with breathalyzer tests as they so often did. He was still perfectly sober but the alcohol content on his breath would set the breathalyzer buzzing.
Driving up to Jasmine’s house Sledge scanned the perimeter out of habit. He flicked his cigarette butt out of the window then pulled into her driveway. Wondering what her reaction to seeing him again would be Sledge rang the doorbell. He was not sure even if she would be home, it was after eleven at night, perhaps she was out on the town.
Footsteps echoed down the wooden passageway. Her face appeared in the window beside the door for a second. Pushing the door open Jasmine walked back down the passageway without a word.
“Okay Jasmine, I am sorry and I think we both reacted badly under the pressure. There was something you said which set me thinking about everything that has happened and why.” He walked down the passage to where she set about making tea.
“You said we were brainwashed soldiers, maybe the murderers were brainwashed too.” She looked at him questioningly. Sledge nodded as she held up a cup. Holding up two fingers Jasmine scooped two spoons of sugar into his cup.
“There is a process called M.K Ultra. It alters the mind of the victims rendering them susceptible to instructions from their handler, even to the extent where they will commit murder and not even blink an eye.” Jasmin poured the tea then nodded toward the couch. Sinking into the soft couch Sledge sipped his tea before continuing.
“And why should I believe you Sledge, maybe this is just another excuse to cover up your psychotic behavior?” Dropping a tin box of shortbread biscuits on the table between them Jasmine waited for his reply.
“It started in the early fifties. A Canadian doctor by the name of Donald Cameron began a series of test on unwilling patients. These tests consisted of correcting schizophrenia by erasing existing memories and reprogramming the mind of the patients.
Jasmine dunked a biscuit into her tea then swore as part of it broke off and meandered aimlessly in her cup.
“His experiments on willing and mostly unwilling patients consisted of drug induced comas, for weeks at a time playing the same repetitive comments over and over again. Most of the patients lost part of their memory, became incontinent and even forgot who their parents were. This void was replaced by distinct instructions.” He set his empty teacup aside and walked out onto the deck to light a cigarette.
“What happened to these poor people Sledge?’ Jasmine walked out onto the deck and stood beside him.
“Cameron used electro shock treatment and drugs such as L.S.D which obviously had terrible effects on the patients. But by totally breaking his patients down psychologically and mentally he was able force them to obey certain instructions.”
“The C.I.A were using his research if we can call it that to train people. They succeeded in programming a woman to shoot another when a command was given. Which she did. Hundreds of people were brainwashed in this manner.” He dropped the cigarette butt into a tin can on the balcony.
“Another method was to submerge a subject in water set to the same temperature as the human body. They were left to float in a blackened-out mask with earphones and an air supply. Imagine being weightless, no sensation of temperature or feelings, all your senses are null and void. Then you hear a voice in the dark as you wake from your drug induced stupor commanding you to do something you would never normally do. Do you think that you are dead and hear the voice of angels?”
“These guys did what can only be termed as the scientific foundation for the CIA’s two-stage psychological torture method,” He clenched his fists. “This is first to create a state of disorientation in the subject, and then second creating a situation of “self-inflicted” discomfort in which the disoriented subject can alleviate their pain by capitulating.”
“You know that we are being brainwashed all the time?’ Sledge said.
Looking up in surprise Jasmine waited for Sledge to reveal the next shocking disclosure.
“When you go to the supermarket, what do you see?” He smiled. “Go through the aisles, all you see is packaged produce promoting health benefits, sugar free, low carb bullshit. Look at the quiet space, the aisle on the outside. That is where you find the real nourishment. The fresh fruit and vegetables. Natural and pure but with no banner headlines and marketing. I’m not a bloody Vegan but even I know the difference between chemically enhanced products and the food our ancestors ate for thousands of years before big business took over the market.”
“Okay, I trust you now, I am sorry I suspected you of being somehow involved in an elaborate hoax to do your bidding.” Sledge laughed “And I too am sorry for thinking that you are using me for your own ends.” She smiled. “And you know that I am right, don’t you?”
“Oh, and I suppose when we are married you will hope I say, yes dear, you are right dear all the time.” He joked. She looked at Sledge in a way he had not seen previously. “If and when that day comes, remember what you said.” She laughed.
I have something for you, I got the tickets online I wanted to surprise you at breakfast but it didn’t turn out like I had imagined.” Dropping two tickets onto the table Jasmine watched his astonishment turn to excitement.
“Holy shit, two tickets to the Rugby match in Dunedin tomorrow night, at Forsyth Barr Stadium. New Zealand versus France!” Jumping up he wrapped his arms around her. “Bloody hell woman, you sure know how to make a bloke happy!” He kissed her on the cheek.
“Do you dare go into the lair of the beast Sledge?” Playfully tugging at his sleeve Jasmine smiled. She pointed at the church spire visible in the moonlight.