The alarm went off as usual at four-thirty in the morning. Andre Fireson hit it, rolled out of bed, and switched on the lights. He stretched like a tiger rising from a nap and looked up at the portrait of his father that hung on his bedroom wall.
Time to go win another day.
Andre went straight to the punching bag that hung in the corner of his expansive bedroom. Gloves on, he began methodically working the bag to get his blood going. As he worked, he chanted to himself:
“You’re the boss. You’re a killer. You’re a king.”
The bag was knocked further and further with each swing. Soon he was sending it reeling and buckling with each blow. Andre had worked hard to make his body as powerful as his mind. Also (though he would never admit it), it was a way to compensate for the fact that he only stood about five-foot-five at best.
Finishing his morning workout, Andre toweled off and went to breakfast, which, as it was a fine morning, was being served on the balcony overlooking his back garden. Andre’s house stood at the top of a large hill on the outskirts of Los Angeles, giving him a spectacular view of the distant skyline. The house itself was a stately stone affair that had been built to dominate the hilltop and draw the eye of any passing motorists.
On the balcony, Andre sat down to his usual meal of eggs and toast, prepared by his valet, cook, and manservant, Marco Benton. Marco was so skilled at his job that he had learned to time his cooking perfectly so that the meal arrived, freshly cooked, at the exact same time as his employer.
“Morning, boss,” he said, bestowing his customary chipped-tooth grin on Andre.
“Morning, Marco,” said Andre, settling down to his meal. Marco had a body like a fridge, a face like a sledgehammer, and hands like cannonballs. When he was a young man he’d first put his talents to work as muscle for the mob, before a chance encounter had awakened his love of cooking. He’d gotten out of the criminal racket, entered the hospitality industry, and by degrees had found his way into the employ of the Fireson family under Andre’s father. In wake of the elder Fireson’s untimely death, he had acted for a time as legal guardian for Andre, who was then sixteen years old. Now, ten years later, though they maintained the relationship of employer and employee, they were really much more like close friends, despite their wildly different backgrounds and personalities.
“Here’s your paper,” said Marco, spreading out the LA Times before him. “I marked off what I thought were the most interesting stories.”
“Any word on the African situation?”
“Nothing new,” was the answer. “Seems the President – that’s our President – he’s sending some ambassadors to try to set up another round of peace talks.”
“Seventh time’s the charm, huh?” Andre muttered, skimming the story. He shook his head. “I suppose they have to keep up appearances, but they’re not fooling anyone; least of all Kananga. We’ll have war by the end of the year at the latest.”
Marco made a noise of commiseration as Andre flipped to another story. He’d expected nothing less. As the president of an expanding armaments firm, he had lots of contacts in the military and they had all warned him long ago that this war was coming. The situation in Africa had been a powder keg ever since the formation of the East African Coalition under the barely-concealed hand of the Soviets. Now General Kananga, president of Tanzania and de-facto head of the coalition, seemed hell-bent on setting it off. It was disgusting, but there was nothing Andre could do about it. Stopping the war wasn’t his job; his job was selling the best weapons possible to the US Military so that at least the boys on the ground would be well equipped for the job.
Assuming, that is, he could land one of the contracts the Army was passing out. Andre had already invested a hefty amount of capital towards that end in terms of lobbying and creating new projects. A long-term deal with the military could mean big things for Firebird Arms.
About this point the doorbell rang. Marco answered it while Andre read a piece on the Presidential campaign. So far Senator Alphonso Taft was in a dead-heat with former Secretary of State Howard Taylor.
He looked as Marco came in, accompanied by two men; one a stocky, square-jawed man who looked just the other side of fifty with iron gray hair a deeply lined face. The other was younger; about thirty-five or so, tall and with slick, black hair and a belligerent expression.
“’Scuse me, boss,” said Marco. “But these guys are from the police.”
“Police?” said Andre, laying down his paper in surprise. “What brings you here?”
The older man held out his badge.
“Detectives Crane and Archer,” he said. “Mind if we ask you a few questions, Mr. Fireson?”
“Would it matter if I did?” Andre asked.
“Only to you,” said Archer.
“Then have a seat,” he said, gesturing. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks; this won’t take long.”
The two men sat down and looked at the businessman. Then Detective Crane started right in without any further preamble.
“Don’t suppose the papers have gotten hold of it yet, but there was a bad shooting in Pacoima last night.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Gang warfare,” Crane explained. “Won’t bore you with the details, but the point is that a heavily armed compound run by a Mexican cartel was hit by a group of men linked to the Gallano crime syndicate. Almost everyone inside was killed. They got some shots off of their own, took out a goodly number of the attackers; about ten people dead in all. That’s not counting the one civilian that got hit by a stray round.”
“That’s terrible,” said Andre. “What’s it got to do with me?”
“Our CSI boys were confused at first, because it looked as though the first few victims were taken out behind a blank wall with precision, high-power shots. As if whoever hit them could aim right through it. Then we took a closer look at one of the guns recovered from the scene:”
He pushed a photo across the table. Andre stared at it. It showed a sleek, powerful rifle with a bulky scope attachment, and blazed onto the stock was the scarlet and orange emblem of Firebird Arms. Not that he needed it; he recognized the gun at once and swore aloud.
“One of yours, then?”
“Damn right, one of mine,” said Andre, who was growing angrier by the second as the full implications of the photograph sank in. “That’s the XR-7 rifle: we’re developing it for the Army, but it’s not on the market yet. He’ll, it’s not even out of development.”
“It shoots through walls then?”
“It uses thermal imagery and an onboard computer to track targets behind concealment,” Andre explained. “Then it fires a high-powered round to go through it.”
“Yeah, it certainly did that,” said Archer. “It went through two walls, then traveled three blocks before piercing another wall to hit an old lady named Mrs. Nochez in her kitchen. I kind of would like to know why you thought the world needed a gun like this, Mr. Fireson.”
Andre fixed the detective with a cold eye.
“In case you don’t watch the news, Mr. Archer, we’re about to get into a war in Africa; I think our soldiers will appreciate being able to spot the enemy through jungle brush.”
“Never mind that now,” said Crane, giving his partner an admonitory look. “What we’d like to know, Mr. Fireson, is how this gun wound up in the hands of Mr. Gallano’s people?”
“Oh, you want to know that?” said Andre in a fierce tone. “Let me tell you something, detective; there are exactly three guns in the world like this, and all of them ought to be locked up in my research department. So I too would very much like to know just how this is possible. Can you suggest anything?”
“So far, only that you ought to have better security,” said Archer.
On the way to the office following his interview with the two detectives, Andre brooded over the unexpected crisis. The more he thought about it, the less he liked it.
First and foremost, of course, it was infuriating to learn that his weapons, which he’d intended to protect the American people, were instead being used by gangs to terrorize them. That was unacceptable.
From a purely business point of view, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. A security breach like this, where the weapons weren’t just stolen but used in a violent crime, was the last thing the Army would want from its suppliers. If he didn’t get a lid on this soon, he could forget about landing any kind of contract for the near future.
But most important of all was the simple fact that this meant that one of his employees had betrayed him and sold or given one of his guns to criminals. That was more than unacceptable; that was personal.
The trouble was, he had many employees, though not too many with access to the prototypes. If he started looking around the company, then whoever the culprit was might bolt before he could lay hands on them.
He thought about it, then, just as they were arriving outside the building, he reached his decision.
“Marco,” he said. “Get in touch with Mr. Gallano. Find out his phone number, or if you can do that, see that he knows to call me.”
If Marco thought it at all strange that his employer was asking to speak to a crime lord, he didn’t show it. He merely nodded.
“I’ll have him call your office,” he said.
The world headquarters of Firebird Arms was a somber, modern building that wore no airs and gave no sign that it was anything but a normal office building, save for the scarlet and gold logo on the front door. As soon as Andre arrived, he went straight to his office on the top floor, where his secretary, Ida Turner, was already hard at work.
“Little late today, aren’t you, Mr. Fireson?” she said in a perky voice as he came in.
“Ida, cancel my meetings for this morning,” he said in a sharp tone. “And have Dr. Bortel send me a full report on the prototype XR-7s immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with slightly alarmed expression.
She set to work. Andre paused before his inner office door and turned to look at her. Ida was a lovely girl, he thought: rich brown hair, a regal, intelligent face, and a form that made an ordinary gray suit look as glamorous as a ball gown. And she was a good secretary: always upbeat and efficient. A nice girl. He hadn’t meant to snap at her.
“Also, Ida?” he said in a softer voice.
“I might get a call this morning from a…disreputable person. If he does call, make sure you don’t give him any personal information.”
She raised her well-formed eyebrows.
“I don’t usually give out my home number to callers,” she said dryly.
“I know,” he said, a little embarrassed, but taking care not to let it show. “But just in case he asks, don’t even give him your name. He’s a dangerous man.”
“And you aren’t?” she said.
“Only sometimes,” he said. He checked his watch and scowled. “Send that notice to Dr. Bortel, will you please?”
“Right away, boss.”
Andre passed into his office, sat behind his desk and passed his hands over his face. What a day this was already!
He looked up at the two portraits that hung on his office wall: one was of his father, Louis Fireson, who had founded the company back in the 1940s, starting with nothing but a workshop and two assistants grinding out fine-crafted hunting rifles. The other was the Duke Andre Duroc, the last survivor of an ancient line of French aristocrats stretching back to the Crusades: near relatives of the Bourban dynasty, and noblemen all. Most of the family had been killed in the Revolution, and the Duke had finally fled France following the fall of Napoleon III. He’d wound up in America, where he vowed to rebuild their stolen wealth and shattered position. He’d changed his name to Fireson to reflect his phoenix-like aspirations, and from then on each son in his turn had fought to bring the family a little further back to their rightful place.
Andre didn’t really care that much about money. It was the family name that mattered to him. Wealth was only one way of honoring that. He shared the aspirations of his ancestors, the honor of their lineage, and he wanted more than anything to protect it. And now, thanks to this unexpected crisis, the name of Fireson might end up associated with barbarians like this Gallano or the cartels.
Dr. Bortel arrived soon after, a round, abstracted kind of man with white hair and small, round glasses.
“I don’t understand!” he wailed. “We were running tests on them only last Friday! I locked the safe myself…”
“How many are there now?”
“Just one,” he groaned. “We didn’t need to take them out or check on them for the past few days; that is why we didn’t notice the loss. But how could this have happened?!”
“That’s what I would like to know,” said Andre. He was alarmed to learn that there was a second XR out there in the city somewhere. Even with all his resources, it seemed doubtful he could recover it before the police called on him again with another shooting.
A few minutes after Bortel had left, while Andre was contemplating his predicament, Ida buzzed to let him know that Mr. Gallano was calling.
Andre glanced up at the painting of the Duke, then picked up the phone.
“Hello, Mr. Gallano.”
“Mr. Fireson,” came the voice of the crime lord. “I am surprised to hear you wish to speak to me.”
“Not as surprised as I was to learn that your people have been using my property,” Andre answered.
There was a pause on the other line.
“I…do not understand…”
“Oh, I think you do,” said Andre. “Your people hit a compound of the Mexican cartels last night, and they used one of my prototype XR-7 rifles to do it. I’ve seen the photos, Mr. Gallano, and I know my own work.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Gallano with maddening calm.
“Listen, I am not working with the police,” said Andre. “I’ll leave any legal matters up to them. Right now all I am concerned about, Mr. Gallano, is to know how you got your hands on my property. Because if I have a leak in my organization, I need to know about it right now.”
“I understand that, Mr. Fireson, but I do not think that I can help you.”
Even across the phone, Andre thought he detected a smug smile. Gallano, the feared crime boss, didn’t think he had anything to fear from the blustering young businessman. Well, perhaps it was time to correct that notion.
“Let’s put it this way, Mr. Gallano,” said Andre. “You’re a business man, you know what it’s like when you have a very important deal that’ll mean a lot of money for you and your operation. And you know how delicate something like that can be. Well, I am working on something like that right now. And if it that falls through because of this mess, then I’m going to have to find some new clients to make up my losses. Maybe I’ll start looking somewhere south of the border. Understand me?”
Gallano was silent. Andre sensed that, for the first time, he was truly paying attention.
“You wouldn’t dare…”
“Oh, you think not?” said Andre. “You know as well as I do, Mr. Gallano; you don’t rise to the top in any business by making empty promises. Just think on that.”
He slammed down the receiver without waiting for the gangster’s response. That would ruffle Gallano’s feathers a bit. Even if he didn’t give up details on the theft, he’d think twice before doing it again. Andre pulled out a cigarette and was pleased to see his hands were as steady as ever.
The fact was, his threats were empty. Andre wouldn’t dream of selling to the cartels; he’d burn the company to the ground himself stooping so low. But he’d found that when dealing with corrupt people, it was usually a good idea to make them think you were every bit as dirty as they were.
Feeling somewhat comforted by having taken the first steps toward solving the problem before him, Andre set to work dealing with the usual business of the day. Gallano, he was sure, would call back. He was a businessman too, and would recognize when the time had come for negotiations.
Sure enough, when Andre returned from lunch, Ida informed him that Gallano had called and left a return number. Andre grinned at her.
“Knew it,” he said.
“What are you doing, boss?” she asked. “You’re not getting mixed up in anything too…shady, are you?”
“Just the opposite,” he answered with a wink as he went into his office to call the crime lord.
“Mr. Gallano,” he said. “I got your message.”
“I thought about what you said,” came the answer. “And it occurs to me that maybe this is best dealt with in person. Man-to-man.”
Andre had already given this possibility some thought.
“I think you’re right. Where shall we meet?”
“I have a little restaurant not far from your office, I think. Perhaps we meet there about…eleven o’clock? After closing time, when we can speak privately.”
The restaurant was a small, elegant affair down a little-used side street in the downtown area. During the day, this street of shops, cafes, and other businesses would be busy with foot traffic, but by night it was almost abandoned save for the odd pedestrian hurrying home.
“Stay sharp,” said Andre to Marco as they got out of the car.
“Always do, boss,” came the answer. Both men regularly carried pistols, and tonight they’d taken the added precaution of donning light body armor under their suits.
Glancing up and down the deserted streets, Andre knocked. The door was opened by a gorilla in an ill-fitting jacket, who glared over the two men before beckoning them inside. He felt them over and relieved them of their guns before gesturing towards the back of the restaurant.
Eugenio Gallano himself sat at a table that stood against a blank wall, out of view of any of the windows. He was not a tall man, though he had at least a head over Andre, and he was very thin, with pale, wrinkled skin, thin gray hair, a long, bony neck, and a pinched face with a hooked nose. He reminded Andre of a vulture. He did not stand up to greet Andre as he came in.
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me,” said Gallano. “Please, sit.”
Andre did so. Marco stood behind him, exchanging glares with Gallano’s bodyguard like two rival dogs itching to prove who was alpha.
“I confess, I did not know quite what to make of your phone call,” Gallano began. “You see, I did not steal your rifle.”
“Oh? Then how did your people get hold of it?”
“I purchased it,” said the crime lord.
“Yes, I received a notice in writing from your office last week offering me an advanced prototype rifle being designed for military use. It was in your name, and bearing your signature, so I naturally thought it must be legitimate.”
“Why would I see military-grade weapons to…well, to you?”
“According to the message, you wished to see how the rifle performed in real combat conditions, but I assumed the exorbitant price was the true motive.”
Andre leaned back in his chair, digesting this.
“And you paid that price?”
“I did. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, with these Mexican animals trying to set up shop my territory. I thought the weapon as described would put the fear of God into them.”
“Well, here’s the problem, Mr. Gallano; I didn’t make any such offer,” said Andre.
“So I have gathered from your behavior, but that makes me wonder who would have done such a thing in your name?”
“Someone looking to make money, I suppose,” said Andre, frowning. That explanation, even as he said it, seemed to fall flat. There was too much effort put into this scheme for it to be a mere money grab.
“Why didn’t you mention any of this on the phone?” he asked.
Gallano smiled. It lent no warmth to his face.
“I have learned it is not wise to say too much over a phone line,” he said.
“I suppose not,” said Andre. “I’d like to see this message you claim to have received. Do you have it?”
“Of course,” said Gallano, reaching into a briefcase by his side. “I knew you would wish to see it.”
He drew out a sheet of paper and passed it across the table. Andre reached for it…and then hesitated. Something that Gallano had said suddenly stuck him as important.
“You said you purchased a rifle. One rifle?”
“Yes,” said Gallano, confused by the hesitation. “As you will see, that is what the agreement was for.”
“But I’m missing two.”
For a moment, time seemed to stand still. Andre’s eyes went from the contract on the table to the painted wall right next to them.
“GET DOWN!” he shouted, and even as he did so the green drywall blossomed white as the huge bullets tore through it.
Andre threw himself under the table. Marco was right beside him. He heard Gallano cry out, then a sickening wet impact sound and something heavy hit the floor.
He looked up, still hugging the carpet. Gallano was on the ground across from him, his face spattered with white plaster dust. Next to them, Gallano’s bodyguard lay sprawled on his back, face up, with quarter-sized red holes in his chest and stomach.
All this he saw in the blink of an eye, for almost no sooner had the dead palooka hit the ground than the whole restaurant was rock in an explosion. The bullets had not just been piercing the outer wall, but finding no other obstacle they had broken through into the kitchen, and the final two shots had struck the gas stove. The kitchen erupted in angry yellow flames, sending the swinging doors flapping like banners in a wind. Almost immediately, the fire caught, feeding on the oak rafters overhead and the wooden countertops as it spread greedily outward.
“Get him out of here!” Andre ordered Marco. “Call the police! I’ll take care of this.”
Marco was too loyal a servant to question him. He didn’t even pause to acknowledge the command, but seizing Gallano by the arm he dragged him to a crouch and hurried for the back exit before it was cut off by the flames.
Andre rose gingerly to his feet. He had helped design that weapon; he knew its capabilities and its weaknesses. With a raging fire at his back, the thermal sights would be overloaded and his own body heat would blend right into the background. At least, so he hoped. It would give him time to get out the front door, behind the cover of one of the parked cars, and hopefully get an idea of the would-be-assassin…
But there was no need. Even as he approached the door at a crouch, it was kicked open and a short, slim figure in black came in, cradling the missing XR-7 rifle.
Had Andre remained where he was by the table, he wouldn’t have had a chance. As it was, though, he was already almost on top of the man. Before the surprised assassin realized what was happening, Andre closed the remaining distance, seizing the barrel of the rifle with one hand and the stock with the other and twisted it free of the man’s grip before body-checking the assassin against the wall. Pinning him there, Andre took the chance to tear his mask off.
Only it wasn’t a man at all.
“Ida!” he exclaimed.
She fixed him with a glare of stinging hatred, and the next thing he knew she’d jabbed him in the stomach with a tazer. He stumbled back, she dove for the rifle, and he threw himself on top of her, preventing her from bringing it around to aim at him. Meanwhile, the fire that had started in the kitchen was spreading; the inner wall was crumbling, and the flames were already climbing the nearest booths.
The rifle went off once more, the powerful bullet slamming through the front of the shop. If this kept going, they were going to kill someone.
Andre hit Ida on the back of her head, hoping to knock her out, or at least take some of the fight out of her. It worked; she gave a gasp and went momentarily limp. He took the opportunity to haul her up and drag her to the door, away from both the rifle and the rapidly spreading flames.
As though some superhuman spirit was driving her, however (or perhaps because he hadn’t wanted to hit her too hard), Ida recovered her senses much too soon. With an animal-like snarl of rage, she twisted in his arms like a snake, slipping his grip before he could tighten it, turning and dropping an elbow direct onto his nose, which shattered with the impact. Momentarily blinded, Andre grabbed at her, catching her by the arm as she tried to make one more grab for the gun. This time he wasn’t as gentle, but threw her bodily in the direction of the door.
Eyes still watering from his shattered nose, charged after her, trying to regain his grip before she could recover her balance. But she seemed to have given up the idea of the rifle, which in any case now lay among growing flames. Instead, she fumbled for the door and staggered out into the street, away from the growing smoke. Andre, coughing, pursued her.
Ida crossed the empty street like a deer, and Andre raced after her, following her down an alleyway just in time to see her vanishing through the back door of one of the buildings. He charged in behind her.
As Andre cleared the door, his foot caught something in his path and he pitched forward, tried to recover, and was struck on the back of the head by something hard and blacked out.
When he came to, Andre found himself in an unfamiliar, bare room. His hands were cuffed behind his back, fixed to a radiator. There was no furniture in sight, only pale, dirty carpet. The lights were off, but a faint glow from a streetlamp shone through a barred window. There was the sound of soft footsteps and faint splashing coming from a door that seemed to lead to a short hallway. But what he chiefly noticed was the smell.
The room reeked of gasoline.
A moment later, Ida came in. As she stepped into the light, Andre was shocked to see how much of a change had been wrought in her lovely face. It was so suffused with hatred that it was almost grotesque.
She was dressed all in black, her brown hair hanging loose and unkempt about her shoulders, her eyes fixed intently on Andre. In her right hand, she held a pistol.
“Why,” she snarled, “did you have to make this so difficult?”
Andre shook his head, trying to clear it. Ida was obviously deranged and meant to kill him. He would need all his wits about him if he meant to come out of this alive. The first thing to do was to keep her talking: to buy himself time.
“So, it was you,” he said, trying to work out the sequence of events in light of this revelation. “Of course, you’d have the means to get yourself access to the prototypes in my name. And to make out the contract for Gallano so he thought I meant to deal. But what I don’t understand is why?”
She shook her head and laughed.
“Of course you don’t,” she said. “You didn’t even realize who I was, did you? The whole thing had completely out of your mind, I’m sure.”
“What whole thing?”
“You remember Norris Tanner?” she said. “Tanner Technologies?”
Andre didn’t, as a matter of fact. At least not…
“Oh, right,” he said. “That…that’s the company we acquired back in seventy-four.”
“Acquired?!” she shrieked. “You destroyed it! You drove it into the ground!”
“They were competitors to us,” he said. “We made better product cheaper…”
“Because you had the money to do so,” she said. “Because you were already so damn rich that you could operate at a loss for three years just to ruin my father’s work!”
“No, that’s not how…”
“Shut up!” she shrieked, jabbing the air with her gun. “Did you know that after you ruined him, he completely fell apart?” she went on, clearly relishing the chance to spew her anger. “He started drinking. Staying out late. Gambling. Then, one night, he came home and ate a bullet.”
“I’m sorry,” said Andre. “Really, I am; I didn’t know that. But you can’t blame us; we paid your father handsomely for his company. Offered him a job if he wanted one. It isn’t our fault that he…”
“Yes, it is!” she shrieked, sounding totally deranged. “You ruined him!”
In the midst of his anger and his fear for himself, Andre felt pity for the girl aiming the gun at him. She so desperately needed this to be so that she was deaf to reason.
“So, just as your family destroyed my father’s work, so I’m going to destroy yours,” she said, sounding a little calmer now that she was explaining her purpose. “Of course, it would have been so much easier if you’d just picked up that damn contract!”
“You wanted my fingerprints on it,” said Andre. “To have me discovered killed by my own weapon, holding a sheet of paper linking me to Gallano.”
“That was the idea,” she said. “Although even without that, you’d still be dead now if your damn guns could shoot straight!”
“They’re prototypes,” he said. “Of course they don’t work perfectly.”
“There you go; you are so smart, aren’t you?” she snarled. “Just so right about everything, except you weren’t right about me, were you?!”
“No,” he said. “I thought you were a nice girl.”
She worked her jaw convulsively, as though her anger was too large to put into words. It seemed to Andre that his distraction strategy was rapidly running out of steam and he hadn’t come up with a way out.
After glaring at him for a few moments, her hand twitching as though she longed to just shoot him right now, Ida drew a deep breath and holstered her gun. Then she checked her watch.
“I’ve got to be going now,” she said. “I’ve set an ignition device in the other room, on a timer. It’ll go off in about ninety seconds.”
Andre felt a sick lurch of fear. Helplessness was something he wasn’t accustomed to, but now it seemed to stare him in the face. It couldn’t really be that there was nothing he could do to save himself, could it?
“You know,” said Ida, leaning in close for a final word. “In some ways, I like this better. This way, you get to die thinking about how everything you ever worked for is about to go up in smoke. Just like you are!”
He didn’t know where the idea came from. Maybe just from her getting so close, or just a flash of instinct. Andre swept his legs out, one foot hooking behind her knee, the other kicking her ankle. Ida fell forward with a shriek of surprise, and her head struck the radiator hard.
She slumped, unconscious, next to him.
Knowing he had bare seconds to act, Andre twisted his hands out as far as they would go, wedging the right-hand cuff into the slats of the radiator to get every inch of distance he could.
In this way, he could just reach his left hand into Ida’s left pocket. He felt around, turning it inside out, but no key. Painfully aware of the vanishing moments, Andre hooked one leg over her body and tried to turn it over. The first time failed. The second he managed to get her halfway, grabbed her belt with his hand and pulled her the rest of the way. Only now she was too far on top of him and he had to push her off a little in order to reach her pocket. But again there was no key.
Andre realized that, not intending to let him go, she must have thrown it away as soon as she’d cuffed him to the radiator, perhaps anticipating that he might seek to take it from her.
For a moment, just a moment, Andre teetered on the brink of despair. Then he noticed the gun riding her hip.
Hastily, using his feet, he pulled the unconscious girl into a position from which he could draw the weapon. At last he had it.
As the precious seconds ticked by, Andre carefully turned the gun around in his hand. Despite the danger, he didn’t dare move faster: he might drop the gun, or worse, accidentally put a bullet through his own back.
At last he brought barrel around enough that it was pointed direct against the chain that linked his cuffs. He fired, and the slide jerking back cut into his wrist, but he was free. Andre scrambled to his feet. No time to find the way out; the bared window had an emergency release handle, tucked up where no one could reach it from the outside. Andre pulled the handle, kicked out the bars, and climbed out the window, carrying the unconscious girl with him.
He had not even reached the street when the house exploded behind him.
“So,” said Detective Crane in a weary voice. “It was your secretary.”
“We’d done a full background check on her, of course,” said Andre. “For a while I couldn’t figure out how we missed her connection to Tanner. Then I realized she must be using someone else’s name, and I found out the real Ida Turner had been working at the same secretarial firm as Ida Tanner, but had gotten married and moved to Alaska not long before we hired Tanner. She got ahold of her friend’s resume, made a few edits and presented it as her own. My people are working on ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Crane sighed and looked at hospital room door behind which Ida was being treated for a concussion under heavy police guard. Detective Archer was in there reading her rights.
“So the plan was to link you with Gallano, then kill you both in what would look like a gangland shooting,” he said. “That’d pretty much destroy any chance your company’d have of getting that contract you’re after, or any others in the foreseeable future, not to mention basically destroy your reputation.”
“About that,” he said. “If possible, I’d like to arrange for her to go into protective custody.”
Crane gave him a surprised look.
“What do you mean?”
“She took a pot shot at Gallano; killed his bodyguard and burned down his restaurant,” Andre pointed out. “He’s not gonna accept the insanity plea and just let her sit out her time at the asylum. However long she goes away for, I’d like for her to live to see the end of it.”
The detective looked at the businessman with new respect.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Though I’m rather surprised to find you taking this attitude.”
“Nobless Oblige,” he said. “It’s a family tradition.”
Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:
–Construction of Crime featuring Sarah Rockford
-A series of deadly and suspiciously convenient disasters leads idealistic reporter Sarah Rockford to ask whether someone didn’t manufacture the incidents purposefully.
–The Clown featuring Cosmo the Clown
-Frank Catelli is an expert kidnapper of rich children, but his latest crime brings him face-to-face with an enigmatic clown who doesn’t like what he’s been doing.
–Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.