Our three musketeers swiftly let us in on their plan for exposing the dark secrets of The Hub. The black holdall, it transpired, carried digital recording equipment which Porthos and Athos were to use to film the plight of the stricken passengers. Meanwhile, Aramis intended to hack into the communications network situated in an office just down the hall so that the images, once uploaded, could be simultaneously broadcast across every screen and noticeboard within the complex. By working through the night when the offices were empty they figured they would be in a position by morning to ensure every passenger in the airport woke up to irrefutable evidence of the risks they were running in the name of corporate greed.
It was a neat plan, carefully worked out to the very last detail, but having been out of the loop for so long the plotters had not expected to be confronted by quite so many stricken travellers. So in the end, despite Aramis’ continued reservations, the addition of Michael and me to the gang proved quite useful. The problem of the extra workload was resolved by dividing into teams; whilst Aramis went about her business in the Comms Room, Porthos and I handled the recording in one ward and Michael and Athos covered the second.
It proved to be an eerie affair, recording film of one lifeless face after another, with only the steady pings of the heart monitors to provide an uncanny soundtrack. Porthos assured me there was little chance of our being disturbed – the company, he said, confident that there was little chance of any change in the patients’ conditions, rarely bothered to check on them overnight. Yet I couldn’t help but feel edgy to begin with, jumping at every unexpected or imagined sound. Matters weren’t helped by the propensity of Aramis to burst in on us every five minutes, temporarily abandoning her work on the communications network in order to check up on us.
But Porthos was a genial character and his soothing chatter soon put me at my ease. Once we’d settled into a steady pattern of work he gave me a sly nudge and said, “Go on, you can tell me. What are you and your mate really up to sneaking around down here?”
I hesitated for just a moment and then, with a certain sense of déjà vu, plunged into yet another account of Sturridge and the 273 doors. I concluded by expressing the hope that when we were done exposing the evil machinations of unscrupulous energy companies Porthos might be willing to help us check through the doors along the corridor.
There followed a long pause during which Porthos looked at me with wide eyes. Finally he erupted with a snort, “Look if you don’t want to say then that’s fine by me but you can’t expect anyone to believe that load of guff.”
I opened my mouth to protest but then shut it again with a shrug. On reflection I could hardly blame him for finding the whole story a little on the unlikely side – there were times when I scarcely believed it myself. So we switched the conversation over to more neutral topics and got on with the business in hand.
We’d been at it for over an hour and I was hunched over the camera, checking the focus on a long shot across a row of beds, when I heard the door to the corridor opening once again. Assuming it to be Aramis, checking on our progress for the umpteenth time, I didn’t even bother to look up as I called out, “We’re still at it I tell you! What do you want now?”
“I want you to step away from that camera and stop what you’re doing at once,” a deep male voice came unexpectedly in reply.
I whirled around in alarm to find that Aramis had indeed entered the ward but she was accompanied by two stern-looking security guards and wearing an expression of pure dejection. Porthos, turning at the same time I did, caught sight of the guards and instinctively reached inside his overalls to pull out his pistol. The guards didn’t flinch. Whilst one remained by the door with a cautioning hand laid on Aramis’ arm, the other took a swift and determined step forward.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” he said in the same deep commanding voice. “Hand it over.”
Porthos hesitated with his gun half drawn. From what I could see the security guards were armed with nothing more lethal than batons but there was something in their calm, efficient manner that brooked no dissent and, for all his bulk, I’d long since realised Porthos was essentially a big gentle puppy. His eyes flicked helplessly from Aramis to me and back again in search of some direction. Eventually, on receiving a sober nod from Aramis, he glumly held the pistol out in the flat of his hand for the security guard to collect.
“That’s better,” remarked the guard briskly, slipping the gun into his pocket. “Now, step away from that camera please.”
Both Porthos and I edged reluctantly backwards. To be honest, my mind was not on the camera equipment but was thinking primarily of the door to the second ward which stood a little way to our left and behind which Athos and Michael were supposed to be recording. Were they aware of the sudden appearance of the security guards? And if not might there still be some way of warning them without alerting the guards themselves?
Unfortunately, I hadn’t got very far with these questions before all my speculations were rendered null and void by the abrupt opening of the door in question. Through it Athos and Michael were marched into the room under the custody of another pair of security guards. I immediately recognised their custodians as the two guards we had last seen hauling the curly-haired traveller with the missing wife off to places unknown. Having lined Athos and Michael up alongside Porthos and I, the guard with the Sergeant-Major moustache reported, “That seems to be all of them.”
“You checked the length of the corridor?” asked the deep-voiced guard who appeared to be in charge.
The moustachioed guard nodded sharply.
“The area is now secure sir,” the deep-voiced guard then called out to an unknown figure in the corridor. “All the intruders have been apprehended.”
“And what a funny little gang they are,” an oily voice wafted through the door, followed a moment later by an equally oily figure. I’m not sure whether it was the sleek hair and the expensive shoes or the offensively proprietorial air with which he regarded everything and everyone in view but I required no introduction to realise I was at last in the presence of the notorious Van Damm.
He paused just inside the door and gazed disdainfully at Aramis. “Do I presume that you are the ringleader of this sorry troupe, Dr Hoy?” he said. “Oh, how the mighty are fallen.”
Aramis said nothing but merely scowled in reply.
Unperturbed, Van Damm glided smoothly on towards our little line-up, pausing first in front of Porthos. “Hello Tom,” he said with a sly smile. “You didn’t really think you could pull off an adventure like this without getting caught, did you? You, of all people, should know what a tight operation I run. After all, it’s only by weeding out the flabby likes of you that I’ve been able to hone such an efficient security force.”
Porthos flushed deeply under Van Damm’s frank appraisal of his girth and stared down at his shoes. Van Damm wheeled away in oily triumph.
“And I’m quite certain this is no place for someone in your condition,” he went on, turning to Athos. “You really ought to be sitting at home, knitting booties, rather than getting yourself mixed up in something like this.”
“You…!” spluttered Athos. But before she could find a suitable epithet Van Damm had moved along the line and his gaze finally rested upon Michael and me.
“Which just leaves the pair of you as the unknown quantity in this affair,” Van Damm mused, looking us thoughtfully up and down. “Now, who exactly might you be and what exactly is your business here?”
“Us?” I replied breezily. “Oh, we’re just checking out the facilities.”
“You might just think of us as naturally curious,” threw in Michael cheerfully.
Van Damm stood and glared sharply at Michael for a moment. However, finding his menacing pose a little difficult to maintain due to the fact that he was giving away several inches in height, he swiftly broke away and began pacing the room.
“Not that it really matters who you are,” Van Damm insisted airily, addressing his remarks to no-one in particular. “All that matters is that you are all trespassing on private property. And here at The Hub we are obliged to take the issue of trespass seriously.” He paused and allowed himself another sly smile. “Very seriously indeed.”
“Oh, you can spare us the bluster Van Damm,” retorted Aramis irritably. “You’re not scaring anyone.”
“If not that’s only because you fail to understand the position you’ve put yourselves in,” snapped back Van Damm. “I don’t think any of you people have the slightest grasp of what exactly you’re taking on here. What did you really hope to accomplish with a few poxy cameras?”
“You can’t hope to keep this quiet for ever,” asserted Aramis defiantly. “The people have a right to know.”
“Oh please! Since when did the great unwashed masses ever give a monkeys about anything?” spat out Van Damm. “It’s always been the same old story – they won’t care to look in the abattoir so long as you can guarantee the meat will arrive on their table. Don’t fool yourselves – they wouldn’t thank-you for showing them what goes on down here… Even if you could.” And he illustrated this last point by knocking over our camera with a petulant sweep of the arm.
Aramis glared furiously at the smashed camera for a moment. “You can knock down our cameras but you won’t find it so easy to knock us down,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Won’t I?” taunted Van Damm with a sneering smile. “You’ll be surprised what I can do. Disposing of a few rabble-some trouble-makers will be the least of my worries.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” insisted Aramis though her tone seemed to have lost just a little of its certainty.
“Wouldn’t I?” returned Van Damm. “I’m afraid you can only push me so far. And, let’s face it, who’s going to miss any of you?”
There was a moment of profound quiet as the rather uncomfortable answer to Van Damm’s question slowly dawned upon each of us. For a start, I was quite certain there was no-one in this landscape to miss either Michael or me. And whilst I couldn’t speak for my co-conspirators a quick glance at their expressions didn’t offer much hope from that direction. My eyes drifted nervously in the direction of the security guards. They were all standing sharply to attention with disturbingly expressionless faces.
It was Athos who finally broke the silence. “Whatever you do to us there will still be all these people lying here to stand silent witness to your villainy,” she asserted defiantly, indicating the patients lying motionless in their beds. “Whatever you do, you’re bound to get found out sooner or later.”
Van Damm pointedly took a moment to consider Athos’ suggestion. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said slowly. “Perhaps it really is time I got rid of all these sorry specimens too.”
“You can’t!” exclaimed Athos.
“It seems to me that my problem is I’ve been altogether too soft-hearted in this business,” Van Damm mused, clearly enjoying his own performance. “I think now it really would be better for all concerned if these poor wretches were put out of their misery once and for all.”
“You couldn’t,” insisted Aramis with a desperate shake of her head. “Not with this many people. You simply couldn’t.”
“I’ll tell you again – you’ll be surprised at what I can do. And never forget – it’s your interference that forces me to take such drastic action,” snapped Van Damm. “I was willing to do what I could for these poor people. I’ve taken care of them… after a fashion. But if their presence threatens to put my operation in jeopardy… Well, you had better believe that I will do whatever is necessary to protect my interests.”
Athos suddenly launched herself towards Van Damm with an anguished yell but she was swiftly caught by the ruddy-faced guard. There was a brief struggle before she tore herself away and collapsed, sobbing, into Porthos’ arms. The rest of us could only look on in a somewhat dazed fashion.
Van Damm glared disdainfully at us all for a moment or two. “Well then, I think we’d better get on with this,” he finally said with a nod towards his chief security guard.
“Just a minute!” I suddenly cried as the guards moved in, startling myself almost as much as the others. “I think you’ll find you’re making a big mistake.”
Van Damm turned to me with a particularly nasty sneer but before he could say anything I hurried on, determined to finish expressing the idea that had suddenly popped into my head before I had time to think it over and my nerve failed me. “You asked my friend and I a little while ago who we were. Well, I’ll tell you,” I said. “We’re undercover reporters. We’ve had our eye on you and your business for some time, we’ve already got a whole bundle of hard evidence of your malpractice and if you try and do away with us you’re only going to make things a whole lot worse for yourself.”
At the finish I breathed out slowly, hoping that somehow my story had sounded less rushed and desperate than it had in my head. Van Damm stood stock still. He eyed me sharply for what seemed like an age then he slowly turned his gaze on Michael.
You have to hand it to Michael – as an actor you only need to give him a role and he’s ready to run with it. “That’s right – we’ve been working on this story for months,” he loftily informed Van Damm, taking up the challenge. “Our editor knows exactly what we’re up to and if we don’t report back to him first thing in the morning, in person, then you’re going to have every news organisation in the country on your trail in an instant.”
Van Damm began to pace slowly around us in a circle, deep in thought. “If you really are reporters then why are you wearing passenger wristbands?” he challenged after a moment.
“Well, that would be the undercover part,” I retorted sarcastically.
“You would hardly expect us to go around with press cards tucked into our hatbands, would you?” added Michael.
Van Damm said nothing but resumed his thoughtful pacing, circling around us once more. I concentrated on standing still, trying to project an air of hard-bitten reporter-dom that was hard to maintain while my stomach was doing somersaults and my heart was threatening to burst right out of my chest. The rising tension seemed to be slowly sucking the air right out of the room and nobody else dared say a word for fear of breaking the spell. Finally Van Damm came to a fresh halt in front of us. His face broke into that sneering smile of his and my heart plummeted.
“It’s a nice try but I don’t think so,” he announced loftily. “Whoever you are I don’t think you’ve got a scrap of evidence on me or my business and I’m pretty sure there’s no clued-in editor waiting for you back at the office.”
“What makes you say that?” Michael asked warily.
“Those biometric monitors you’re both holding,” replied Van Damm confidently. “You both have red marks behind your ears which tell me that you’ve been wearing those for quite some time. And I think if you really had any clue as to the dangers they pose you wouldn’t have worn them for as much as a minute.”
“Yeah, well, that’s just what you think,” I blustered. “You have no idea what we’d risk to get a story.”
But Van Damm dismissed my bluff with a casual gesture. “I don’t think you’d risk ending up a vegetable,” he said.
“That’s quite an assumption for you to be chancing your whole future on,” said Michael, making one last ditch effort at keeping up appearances.
Van Damm merely shrugged. “You don’t build up an enterprise of this scale without being willing to take a chance or two,” he replied. “Now then, let’s get on with this, shall we?” He signalled to his guards who moved in a little closer. “I think it’s time we all took a little journey to the launch site.” He paused for another of his odious smiles. “Do you know they tell me that the temperature in the blast area during take-off is sufficient to incinerate a whole human body – bones, teeth and all? Nothing left but a pile of dust.” Van Damm allowed himself one final dramatic pause, savouring the moment. “I’ve always wanted to put that theory to the test.”
To be continued…