Besançon, Eastern France. August 2018.
The four-person extraction team was well prepared. They’d been observing the target for three weeks before getting the order to proceed. She was predictable in her movements. What they knew of her background didn’t indicate that she’d be giving them too much trouble physically. No military or forces background. No special training to worry about.
Even better, she liked to run long, remote trails early in the morning, so she was making it easy for them. Literally running right into their hands. Two behind in the vehicle, two in front to engage. But the order was strictly not to physically hurt her, and no eyes on the take down. Fast, silent and gentle. No suspicions aroused. A precious cargo.
The two couples came down to reception at the hotel at 5am that Sunday morning, dressed for hiking. No staff to worry about apart from Alex, the night manager. The morning team started at 5.30. A nod of recognition and a smile. He was already used to their early starts. They liked to make the most of the day. Routine stuff.
They left their room keys on the counter and smiled at Alex. He looked up and wished them a good day: “Passez une bonne journée messieurs dames”.
“A demain.” See you tomorrow. They took the stairs down to the parking garage.
The team had switched vehicles from their usual rental car to a Renault Traffic van. Two rows of seats and plenty of space in the back. They’d loaded their things the night before and cleaned down the rooms. No trail. The support team would deal with any hotel security footage later from the base in St Petersburg, just a routine hack for them, waiting to press the delete button.
The small backpacks were loaded onto the second row of seats, along with Viktoria and Gregory, and before long they’d left Besançon and picked up the quiet road west for the twenty-minute drive to La Garde. In the back seat, while the rest of the team sat in silent contemplation, Viktoria went through a final check of her equipment.
Chateau de La Garde Estate
Lisa Gilbert slipped on her running gear and made her way out into the courtyard of the chateau to warm up, as she did on most Sunday mornings while the rest of the village was waking up to get ready for weekly mass at St Martin’s, La Garde’s only church.
The two-sided chateau formed an L-shape, with its back to the north and east, so Lisa had to move further across the courtyard to get the morning sun on her face as it cleared the roof of the east wing of the building. Starting with a stretch using a low stone wall at the edge of the yard, she closed her eyes and felt the morning breeze gently warm her face. It was bliss, and she couldn’t help shaking her head in disbelief at how lucky she was to live there.
Henri de Boisson, her landlord and the resident of the rest of the chateau, along with his young family, owned most of the land to the north and east of the village and when she had approached him for advice on running trails he had been enthusiastic in his encouragement to take advantage of the estate, even taking time to pore over his detailed IGN map collection with her.
Although it had been averaging around 25°C most days, Lisa wore full length running pants and had her long dark hair drawn back through a baseball cap. Although there were some paths, she’d also found herself deep in the forest, and the first time she had gone in shorts her legs had come back scratched and stung.
Lisa’s route took her out of the gate of the chateau that emerged onto the quiet main street of the village, left across the bridge over the La Garde brook, and left again to access the road that would take her behind the chateau, down past a small lake, and then into the forests of the estate.
It was rare for her to see anyone at that time, even at the local cafe that was on her right as she jogged gently past, so was surprised to see the dark grey Renault van pulled over to the side of the laneway at the rear of the chateau. As she passed, she glimpsed a couple in the front, kitted out in distinctively bright walking shirts, seeming to look over a map. Presumably from nearby Besançon or visiting for the weekend from further afield. Nothing like an early start.
Lisa pressed on, effortlessly picking up speed, her stride naturally starting to lengthen as her body warmed up. She ran lightly and naturally, landing on her mid-foot and virtually silent apart from the gentle sound as she used her toes to propel her forwards. The only sound was from the waking birds, dominated by the unmistakable song of a wood pigeon. Occasionally she heard the gentle rustle of leaves as a light breeze caressed the dense forest around her.
The road was a gentle uphill at this point, before it would drop away again down to one of the estate gates, giving access to the fields and forest beyond. As she crested the brow of the hill, she saw two more walkers, in similar gear to the couple in the van, standing at the gate. They were talking in low, urgent voices in a language she couldn’t make out. Maybe Eastern European. Both carrying small backpacks. They suddenly looked up as they became aware of her drawing closer. Lisa assumed they had come from the same van and volunteered to check out where the road went whilst the others got ready. Easy to lose your bearings on these small lanes, as she knew from experience. Maybe she could help.
Lisa slowed down to a walk as she approached and gave the couple her best helpful smile. The girl smiled back, her boyfriend looking on. Grumpy. So many people fell out over directions. Lisa decided she’d use English as the couple clearly weren’t local.
“Can I help you?” she asked. “Are you lost?”
The girl offered her hand, smiling. “I’m Vicky.” She spoke clearly with only the hint of an accent. “We didn’t expect to meet anyone out here at this time. Especially speaking English! So lucky – we were just checking where the road went while our friends back in the van argued over the map! Now the answer is nowhere it seems.”
Lisa smiled. “Nowhere is about right. Unless you’re looking to explore the forest but it’s mostly private land.”
“You see Greg?” said Vicky as she turned to her companion. “It’s the wrong road. Anyway, here come the others”.
Lisa turned to see the van coming slowly over the crest of the road. The vehicle pulled up in the narrow lane, both doors opened, and the other couple got out and came towards the little group.
As Lisa went to introduce herself, she sensed Greg and Vicky close behind her, hopefully ready to make the introductions. She hoped it wouldn’t take long; she had just got warmed up, and a five-minute delay meant starting all over again. As she reached out and took the girl’s hand to shake, she felt Greg take a gentle but firm grip of her left arm from behind her.
Suddenly feeling claustrophobic and hemmed in, Lisa panicked and tried to pull her right hand away from the girl opposite her, but it was in a firm grip. Now she was scared but as she was about to yell out a large hand came from behind and clamped over her mouth.
Her reflexes kicking in, Lisa instinctively leaned and tried to push herself forwards, with half a plan to escape the grip from behind and somehow take down the girl in front of her. She almost managed it too, twisting away from Greg and then quickly using both hands to pull the girl’s arm nearly out of its socket. But her intended escape route over the gate was blocked and she ran straight into the second male of the group. The equivalent of a brick wall.
Before she could plan her next move, she felt a cold needle on her neck, and was overcome suddenly with drowsiness and lethargy. As she felt herself go limp, she heard the low, alien voices of the group of strangers. Then everything was dark.