Last time Bill collected Anatoly and two other agents from an airstrip in Austria and they began the final part of their journey to the valley.
Soon they were coming into land at the valley that Philip pointed out. The silence when the engines were killed was almost deafening. The agents, seat belts off, guns out, waited to see if any if the men Philip had told them about came running out.
After a moment, when no one came to see about the noise, the agents then pushed open the doors and dropped to the ground silently. Anatoly gripped his gun as he landed and waited on tenterhooks for his orders from Bill.
Bill left the controls of the plane and climbed out, with Philip following him, and issued his orders, “Scatter, search down here, keep your eyes open for anyone higher up.”
Like the well-practised agents they were they fanned out, keeping their eyes peeled. Nothing stirred. The air was still, everything was still and almost unnaturally so.
Anatoly picked his way up a slope and had just caught sight of a distant building of some sound before a cry went up. One of his colleagues had found something. Clutching his weapon he hurried back the way he had come to see Smith leading a dishevelled man across to Bill.
On Bill’s orders Smith took the man over to a wooden hut and locked him in, pocketing the key. He winked at Anatoly as he returned to the group. “Better luck next time, Petrov.”
“There are still seven men to be accounted for,” Bill was saying. “Right. Well, now – we’d better set off to these treasure caves. Look out, men, in case there’s any ambush. We don’t want to be shot up without warning.”
The men, nodded, Bill directing the men in line with Philip’s instructions from behind. Anatoly was moving stealthily bringing up the rear, not wanting to take a chance that someone might still be down below.
They passed several burnt out homes and a half-burnt cowshed. It was eerie, how deserted the place was. The mountains loomed high all around, making the space feel quite enclosed despite being several miles across.
They marvelled at the waterfall when they reached it. Anatoly was sure he’d never seen such a large one, nor one that spouted so suddenly from inside the rock. He listened as Philip described the route they would take, explaining how they had followed Otto Engler’s map. It took them above the waterfall, on rather a precipitous path, then down the other side to where a curiously bent birch-tree stood.
“The next part’s a bit rough going,” Philip said apologetically. He hadn’t exaggerated, Bill thought as they scrambled along a cliffside, using bushes and trees as hand-holds for at least twenty minutes, until they came to a smooth expanse of black rock, and then on to a tiny burbling spring. From there they could easily see the rock that looked like a human figure, and Bill had them all hunker down. They watched for a few minutes, four men using field-glasses to scan all around as they had been doing for the whole journey.
“Not a soul,” Thompson reported, stowing his glasses back on his kit belt.
“Where are they all?” Anatoly dared to wonder out loud as they all prepared to set off again. “I was expecting this place to be swarming with men.”
“They must all be inside the treasure caves still,” Bill said. “But I don’t like it either. Let’s keep a low profile anyway, we’ve no idea when they might reappear. Can you see the entrance from here, Philip?”
Philip squinted at the rocky cliff, lined with shelves of rock. “I can’t make it out from here, but it’s about halfway up.” In ones and twos the men crept closer and closer to the strange statue-like rock, all on high alert. Bill had Philip wedged between himself and another burly man, ready to shove him to the ground if necessary.
“The cave’s just there,” Philip pointed as soon as they were close enough. They all looked up, several guns pointing in the same direction.
“All right,” Bill said in a low voice. “Anders, Patterson, Ainsley, I want you down here covering us as we climb up.”
“Shall I go first? I think I’d better!” Philip asked Bill as Anatoly readied himself next to Bill, his gun cocked in the same direction as everyone else’s wondering what was going to happen next. This place was giving him the the chills, it was too quiet.
“I don’t think so,” Bill said firmly. “I’m not having you climb up first and have your head blown off if there’s someone just inside. You can wait down here, and I’ll give you the signal when it’s safe to come up.”
“Oh, but Bill!” Philip grumbled as Anatoly moved forward and muttered to Bill;
“Should I lead the way, sir? That way you are less likely to get injured if they are waiting for us, or there is a trap.”
Bill cast an eye over Anatoly, and thought for a moment. It was a dangerous thing to do, to go up first and pop one’s head over the ledge. On the plus side Anatoly had quick reactions and could make the climb no problem. On the down side, he was still young and inexperienced.
“I want two of you to go up together, a little way ahead of the rest of us,” he said at last. Stop as near the cave as you can, and listen for anyone waiting. Thompson, you and Petrov can be up front on this one. Petrov, you’re to wait for Thompson’s say so before making any moves. Got that?”
Anatoly nodded, a little disgruntled on the inside, but mature and well trained enough not to argue with Bill at this point. He could risk himself being sent back to the plane if he played up. He waited for Thompson to nod his head and then they two of them moved forward to the ledge.
At the last moment they tucked their guns back into their holsters to leave both hands free for climbing, and relying on their colleagues to provide cover, they began to climb. It hadn’t looked a particularly long way from the ground, but it was a considerable climb. Both men were hot and sweating by the time they pulled themselves up to the penultimate ledge below the cave, a low whistle from the ground warning them they had reached the last safe spot.
They could hear the rest of the men climbing up below them, small rocks skittering down as they were knocked or broke away from the main cliff. Thompson peeled one hand from where it was clinging on and motioned for silence.
A cool breeze ruffled Anatoly’s curls as they waited, ears straining for any sound inside. All he could hear was the pounding of his own heart. Apparently Thompson couldn’t hear anything untoward either, as a moment later he gave the signal and they heaved themselves up and over onto the wide ledge.
To be continued…