Sarah Rockford returned to consciousness with a throbbing headache and a very dim recollection of what had happened the night before. She sat up, rubbing her head and trying to figure out where she was. It obviously wasn’t her own apartment; her whole place probably could have fit in the bed alone, and besides, this room was much too fancy. The bed on which she lay had very soft, silken sheets of an exquisite pattern. Elegant, dark wood furniture filled the room, and there was a large, curtained window covering most of one wall.
She remembered being at Walter Deaney’s party yesterday afternoon…had she passed out there somehow? No, she remembered leaving. Or rather, being forcefully ejected by one of Deaney’s partners in crime. The memory of that made her angry, which caused her head to throb harder, but also brought back more of the night before. She’d gone home, changed, written down her notes, had dinner, and had been working on compiling a usable story when…
Sarah remembered everything at once: the knock on the door, the attack from behind, the sweet, sickly smell of chloroform. She threw off the covers and leapt out of bed as if she expected it to trap her. For a moment she stood in the middle of the room, trembling a little, trying to think.
She’d been kidnapped; that much was clear. By whom? Probably one of Deaney’s people. Had they brought her back to his house? She went to the window and pulled back the curtains to reveal a spectacular view of the Los Angeles skyline. Deaney’s house was surrounded by trees and a wall; this definitely wasn’t Deaney’s house.
Then where? And, come to think of it, if she had been kidnapped, why hadn’t they restrained her in any way?
Hubris, she decided. Or perhaps they didn’t think they needed to.
She went half-heartedly to the door, which of course would be locked. Except it wasn’t. More and more confused, she pushed it gently open, expecting to find a sentry or something, but the hall was deserted.
Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and resolving not to be lured into complacency, she slipped along the passage in her bare feet, moving as silent as a beam of light, her ears straining to hear any sound that might indicate pursuit or ambush.
The upstairs hall ended in a glorious double staircase under a gorgeous chandelier. Tense and frightened as she was, Sarah couldn’t help admiring the décor. The walls were richly paneled and hung with paintings; all of a classical school. Most showed scenes of battle and heroism, but a few were portraits. They were so lovely and so interesting that she wished she could have had time to examine them properly. But while escaping from people who’ve drugged and abducted you is really no time for art appreciation.
She padded down the steps, uncomfortably aware of how exposed to view she was on the stairs. If anyone entered the hall, they’d see her at once. At the bottom, three corridors led off in different directions, while another staircase led down. Since Sarah didn’t know where to go, she selected the corridor leading directly away from the staircase on the idea that it might lead to a door.
In this, it transpired, she was right. The corridor led to a kind of conservatory, which led out onto a glorious patio centered on a circular pond surrounded by lush garden. The flowers and exotic plants were spectacular, and so placed as to create the impression that they grew from the building itself. Again she wished dearly that she could have paused and admired them. Whoever had abducted her, she thought, at least had excellent aesthetic tastes.
Yet, at the same time, she wondered again why she had been left alone. She began to mistrust her run of good luck; surely it wasn’t natural for anyone to be this careless? The fear she had felt upon realizing that she had been abducted did not diminish upon finding herself apparently alone in the house. On the contrary, the longer she went without seeing any kind of guard, the more nervous she became. She felt as though she were being led on, lured into a trap. Yet there was nothing to be done but to keep going; to let herself be drawn on to her doom.
Sarah shook herself; thinking like that wouldn’t help. She slipped out into the garden, and the glorious smell of flowers and fruit was all around her. The pond was lined with lilies, and there was even a very lifelike model of an alligator lying beside it to give the impression of a real tropical pool. And on the far side of the garden, under the limbs of what appeared to be a peach tree, she saw a gate.
Sarah hurried forward eagerly, hoping to be through and gone before anyone noticed. But when she reached the gate, she found that it was chained and padlocked. She looked about, but the fence was too high to climb and none of the trees in the garden were tall enough to get over it (and even if they were, she’d only break her leg trying to get down on the other side).
Heart hammering, sure that someone must have noticed her efforts to escape by now, Sarah turned to go back to the house and try to find another way out. It was at this point that she made a most unwelcome discovery; the alligator by the pond was not a model after all, but a living, breathing reptile. It had stood up on its four stubby legs and was walking toward her, mouth half open, green, slitted eyes fixed on her.
“Morning, detective,” said Andre. He had slept little the night before, expecting every minute for either the police or the mob to come knocking at his door. He, his man Benton, and Liu Sho, the gardener, had sat up most of the night with rifles in hand just in case it came to a fight. But no one had come so far, and Andre wondered whether he dared to hope the two crooked detectives hadn’t been able to identify him as he ran off carrying their unconscious would-be victim to his car.
“Mr. Fireson. To what do I owe this early pleasure?” Detective Crane groaned.
“I had a idea that a warrant might be issued for my arrest,” said Andre.
That seemed to make him sit up.
“Is that right?”
“Yes, you see, I kidnapped someone last night.”
There was a pause.
“Is this a confession?”
“Not exactly. I only did it because two of your people were on the way to do much worse. See, I was at a shindig being thrown by Walter Deaney yesterday for reasons of my own and I happened to run into this girl…”
“Short, blonde, and much too confident for her own good?”
“You know her then.”
“Unfortunately yes,” growled Crane. “And I explicitly told her not to mess around with Deaney.”
“Well, she didn’t listen to you.”
“She’s safe,” said Andre. “She’s the one I kidnapped.”
There was a pause.
“I’m going to assume there is a way that will make sense.”
“Deaney figured out what she was up to and sent some people to get her, so I had to get her fast. There was no time to explain, so I just chloroformed her and threw her in my car.”
Crane gave a low whistle.
“I appreciate your looking out for the kid,” he said. “She has a tendency to get herself in over her head.”
“So I’ve noticed,” said Andre. “Something you should know, though; the men Deaney sent after her were cops.”
“Plainclothes detectives. I happened to hear him making the plan; orders were to take her to someone named Mistretta, and…”
“What did you say?”
“I said Deaney ordered two cops to take her to Mistretta.”
“So Deaney’s mixed up in it too,” he muttered.
“Mixed up in what?”
“Never mind,” said Crane. “Can’t tell you now. Look, who were the two cops? Did you get their names?”
“Benton’s the one who saw them,” said Andre, but at that point he heard a piercing scream from the patio.
“And I’ll let him tell you,” he said. “Sounds like my guest is up.”
He handed the phone off to Benton and hurried out to the patio. Liu Sho followed him, rifle in hand, no doubt to ensure his beloved flowers were safe. They came out of the conservatory, saw the scene before them, and both exploded into laughter. Sarah Rockford was crouched precariously on one of the higher branches of the peach tree while a large alligator stood below, looking up curiously at the stranger who had wandered into his domain.
“Good morning, Miss Rockford,” Andre called. “I see you’ve met Richelieu.”
He walked up to the gator and patted his flank affectionately. The girl was too frightened, too confused, and too angry to answer right away. She just clung to the tree branch, giving him the most withering glare she could manage from her position.
“Don’t worry; he’s mostly harmless,” said Andre. “I think you just surprised him is all.” He patted the alligator behind the head and the beast shut its eyes contentedly. “Would you like some breakfast?”
“Are you asking me or him?” she asked, nodding at the alligator.
About fifteen minutes later, the two of them were sitting opposite each other at the table on the upstairs balcony. Benton, after finishing his conversation with Detective Crane, had produced mouth-watering omelets with his usual infallible skill, while Sarah had been given a chance to change into spare clothes that had once belonged to Andre’s mother. The dark blue frock might have been rather out of date, fashion wise, and was a bit large for Sarah, necessitating the use of safety pins to keep it in place, but he thought the color suited her very well.
She sat rigid and suspicious as Benton brought the food out to them, not even touching the steaming mug of perfectly prepared coffee even as Andre sipped his gratefully.
“As I said,” he began. “I can explain everything.”
“You drugged and kidnapped me,” she said. “How do you explain that?”
“Listen and you’ll find out,” he said. “But if you’re thinking I brought you here just to poison you, you’re mistaken. Besides, Benton’s cooking is worth being poisoned over.”
She glared at him, then, as though with reluctance, picked up the coffee and sipped it. Her expression changed at once.
“Oh, I see what you mean!” she exclaimed.
“Benton is one of the most gifted chefs I’ve ever met,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it to look at him, would you? He used to crack heads for the mob.”
“And now he cracks heads for you?” she asked, taking a forkful of omelet and gasping with delight as she tasted it.
“Sometimes,” Andre said. “But I’m not a criminal, Miss Rockford.”
“Then I suppose that was your twin brother I heard conniving with Deaney yesterday?”
“I was lying to him,” he said. “Pretending to be crooked in order to find out how crooked he was. I find it’s a useful tactic for straining the scum from my pool. My company, Miss Rockford, is bound up with my family name, and I will not have that associated with any kind of low or criminal activity. We had everything stolen from us once; that is not going to happen again.”
She looked at him with some surprise. Evidently his earnestness surprised her.
“So how did you catch me at the safe?” she said.
“I meant to crack it and get the ledger myself so that I could turn Deaney over to the police,” he said. “Same as you, I’d guess. By the way do you even know how to crack a safe?”
“I know the theory,” she said.
“I know the theory of an atom bomb; doesn’t mean I can make one,” he answered.
“Okay,” she said after a few moment’s consideration. “I’ll admit that your story would explain a lot of things I wondered about, like why you threw me out instead of…of doing anything else. But then why kidnap me?”
“Because Deaney was onto you,” said Andre. “One of his people saw you from the backyard. You were standing in the window, remember.”
“Oh!” she said with a shocked expression. “I didn’t think of that.”
“No, I guessed you didn’t,” he said. “So he sent some of his dirty cops over, and they were going to take you away to torture and murder you. Since I didn’t have time to explain all this last night, I just knocked you out and took you home.”
Sarah looked at him with an odd, far away expression as she absorbed all of this.
“I see,” she said. “Then I guess I should thank you, shouldn’t I? But…just so we’re clear, you’re not going to torture and murder me or anything, are you?”
“Probably not,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
She smiled, a little uncertainly, and they resumed eating.
“I hope you slept well,” he said by way of turning the conversation to more general matters.
“Yes, I always sleep well when I’ve been chloroformed,” she said.
“Benton’s done his share of abductions,” said Andre. “He suggests that I might have overdone the dose slightly. My apologies.”
“I’m sure you’ll get it right next time.”
The conversation then turned to the house, and she asked about the paintings and the garden, and this carried them through the rest of breakfast. After they’d finished, however, they resumed discussion of the day before, and Sarah told him her side of the story, while Andre filled her in on some other details, including the whole conversation he’d overhead between Deaney and his associate.
“That was probably Mr. Cummings,” she said. “He’s the only one I really spoke to, and the only one I told my cover name.”
“So, there’s Deaney and Cummings,” said Andre. “Then Mistretta, whoever that is, those cops…what were their names, Benton?”
“Detectives Tyzack and Aldrige,” he answered.
“A nice little conspiracy,” said Sarah. “’Noted businessman and mathematics professor head smuggling ring.’ Probably have to punch that up, but it’ll make one heck of a story.”
“Detective Crane seems to think it’s all part of something he’s working on,” said Andre.
“You know Detective Crane?” she said in surprise.
“We’ve met,” said Andre. “He was glad to hear you’re safe.”
“That was sweet of him,” she said. “He was pretty adamant about my not going after Deaney.”
“And he was right; you nearly got killed.”
“’Nearly’ is the important word,” she said. “Still here.”
He frowned at her.
“Your story on Hunar Contractors said one of them tried to bury you alive in concrete. That actually happen, or was it just to spice up the story?”
“No, it really happened,” she said. “Didn’t have to embellish it at all; it really was that close.”
She spoke lightly, but her tone didn’t quite match her eyes, or the way she fingered her fork nervously.
“So, you’ve almost been killed twice in, what, the past week or two?”
“Pretty much,” she said. “But, like I say, I’m still here.”
Andre looked at her. He felt a curious pain about the region of his chest. Sarah had turned her head to watch where Liu Sho was tossing bits of meat to Richelieu in the garden below. Andre was struck again by how lovely she was, and how young she seemed. Though only twenty-six himself, he often felt older than he was, what with running a company and carrying the responsibility for his family name. He now felt responsible for the girl across from him, almost as if she were his daughter…no, not like that. Not like that at all.
“The question is,” he said, trying to shake off the feeling. “How do we keep it that way?”
“We catch Deaney,” she said. “Break up the conspiracy.”
“I was thinking of a more immediate solution,” he said. “Why does Deaney want you dead?”
She looked at him in surprise.
“You know that as well as I do,” she said. “I heard him talking to you and sharing all his dirty little secrets.”
“Right,” said Andre. “He wants to kill you before you share what you know with anyone who might do something about it, and he wants to find out just how much you do know. So it seems to me the way to stop him would be to just tell what you know.”
“You mean, go public?”
“No, I mean tell the police. Once they have our statements, the damage will be done and Deaney and his crew will be too busy dodging the cops to want to go after you.”
“Except you said the cops are working for him.”
“Not all of them,” said Andre. “Crane certainly isn’t. We may not know how many of the cops are dirty, but he can’t own the whole department.”
“That might work,” she said. “Especially if we could swear it out to Crane.”
Andre called for Benton to bring the phone, and the valet appeared at once. Andre dialed the detective’s number. Crane must have been expecting a return call, for he answered on the first ring.
“It’s me again, detective,” said Andre.
“Been expecting you,” he said. “Tyzack and Aldrige haven’t said a word about what happened last night; didn’t even put in a report. You haven’t had any visitors this morning?”
“Hmm, that’s odd,” said Crane. “I can’t believe you gave them the slip this easily. They must mean to get at you somehow, but I just don’t see…”
“We were just thinking about that,” said Andre. “Listen, the reason they want Sarah dead is that that she’s a witness to Deaney’s corruption. So am I. But if we swear out a statement at once, damage will be done and they’ll have no reason to go after us.”
“That’s probably your best bet, short of actually putting them in jail,” Crane agreed. “We’re at the station now; how fast can you get here?”
“We’re leaving right now,” said Andre, nodding to Sarah who was already standing up and draining the last of her coffee.
“Watch yourselves,” said Crane. “These guys are smart. They might be waiting for you.”
“They’ll be sorry if they do,” said Andre.
A few minutes later, Andre and Sarah were in the backseat of his sedan as Benton drove out of the gate surrounding the mansion.
“Can you handle a gun?” Andre asked, opening a hidden compartment under the floor to reveal two rifles and four handguns.
“Sure,” she said, accepting a small automatic, checking the magazine, and racking the slide. “What do you do; run guns?”
“Of course not,” he said rather sharply as he closed the lid so that it blended perfectly with the carpet. “But I do make them and there’s no sense in making guns if you don’t have them handy. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to tangle with some nasty people. Car’s modified too; it’ll stand up to most things, at least long enough for us to get out.”
Sarah nodded, getting the gist of what he meant.
“You think they’ll try to ambush us on the way?”
“I think we’d be stupid not to expect it,” he answered.
They drove out of the hills and down in the direction of the precinct. It was a Sunday and traffic was comparatively light. Even so there were a good number of cars on the road. Andre and Sarah eyed each of them suspiciously as they passed, watching to see if they made any strange moves.
“So how did you get into the arms dealing trade?” Sarah asked.
“Family business,” he answered. “My father started it after coming back from World War II: made custom hunting rifles out of a workshop, built it up from there.”
“Now you make guns for the military.”
“Partly,” he said. “We mostly target the civilian market, but with the African situation we’re looking to cut a deal with the government.”
“Does it bother you at all, making weapons? I mean, the morality of it.”
He frowned at her suspiciously.
“Just journalistic instincts,” she said. “Have to ask that kind of thing because the readers would want to ask it.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “Because at the end of the day all law, all convention, all civilization in fact comes down to the use of force. I think it’s as honest a job as any to try to ensure the right side has the power to back itself up when it comes to the point.”
She looked at him with admiration.
“That’s a good answer,” she said. “I actually would like to do a story on you sometime.”
“I appreciate that. Now let me ask you something; you’re, what, eighteen? Nineteen?”
“I’m twenty,” she said a little defensively. “Almost twenty-one.”
“Well, even so, how’d a girl like you end up chasing down stories like this?”
She sighed and gave a little shrug of her shoulders.
“Just trying to survive.”
Andre looked at her, and as he did so he noticed a large semi truck pulling alongside them in the right hand lane, and another pulling up in front of them.
“All things considered,” he said, drawing his own pistol. “I think you might be in the wrong line of business.”
Sarah swallowed and tightened her grip on her gun.
“Benton,” Andre said.
“Sorry, boss,” he said. “Came up too fast…”
All at once, they found themselves boxed in by three large trucks; one in front, one behind, one to the right. On their left was a guardrail and a drop down a steep incline.
“We’ll be coming up on smoother ground soon,” said Benton. “I’ll peel off there. Don’t think they’ll expect us to go off road.”
Andre, however, suspected they wouldn’t be allowed to get that far.
“In the meantime,” he said. “We’re not going to play around.”
He rolled down the window, leaned out, and began shooting at the tries of the rear truck. He got off three shots before he realized that there was another vehicle in play. A large helicopter was swooping low over them, something large and circular dangling from beneath.
The truck’s tire blew out under the assault of bullets and the driver had to pull sharply to the right to avoid going off the edge of the road.
“Clear behind!” Andre shouted.
But it was already too late.
The helicopter swung overhead, and the device dangling from its belly snapped onto the roof of the sedan with a bang as loud as the gunshots. It was a giant electro-magnet.
A moment later, the sedan and its passengers were lifted clear off the roadway and into the sky.
Sarah screamed. Andre and Benton both swore. The helicopter swung around, sending the car’s occupants tumbling about, and headed for the ocean.
“They’re gonna dump us!” Benton shouted.
“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do!” Sarah said.
Andre looked around, thinking. It looked bad; there was no way to detach the car, and even if they did it would just crash against the ground below. They couldn’t reach the helicopter from here; they were at the end of a twenty-foot cable. They had absolutely no control over the situation.
Like rats in a trap, he thought bitterly.
He turned to Sarah, who seemed to be reaching the same conclusion. Her face was pale and frightened, and her breathing was coming quick. Once they were out over the ocean, they were doomed. The car would be dropped, they would ride it down, down to shatter upon impact, either killed outright or knocked unconscious to drown inside the broken vehicle…
Then Andre had his inspiration.
“Out of the car,” he ordered, holstering his gun.
“What?” said Sarah.
“Climb onto the roof,” he said. “Onto the magnet.”
“Oh, I see what you mean, boss,” said Benton enthusiastically as he rolled down his own window.
Andre stuck his head out the window and found a precarious handhold where the roof of the car met the rear window. He pulled himself gingerly up, holding tight against the wind, braced a foot against the window base, then began straightening himself, reaching for the great hook connecting the magnet to the cable. It was almost in reach.
The car shuddered as they hit a burst of air turbulence and he was nearly thrown free. But as he bounced up he made a snatch for the cable and caught it. It was greasy and the metal scratched his palm, but he held tight and pulled himself up onto the magnet itself.
Toward the front of the car, Benton was heaving his huge bulk out of the driver’s seat and reaching for the magnet. Andre caught his outstretched hand, braced himself against the cable, and strained to pull his massive valet up out of the car. Between his own strength and Benton’s the huge man soon sat alongside him on the magnet, gripping tight to the wire.
Meanwhile, the coastline zipped past below them. They were over open water now. Any second the car would drop.
Sarah poked her head out of the window, her blonde hair whipping about her face.
“Come on!” Andre shouted. “You can do it!”
She reached as far as she could, got a grip on the back of the car, and stood on the window base, then reached for Andre’s outstretched hand. They were almost touching.
Then the car dropped.
Sarah sprang clear just as it fell. For one terrible second she hung suspended in mid air, arm outstretched, hair flying, her mouth open in a disbelieving scream. Then Andre, reaching as far as he could, seized her arm in an iron grip. It was a lucky thing that she was so light. There was a painful jerk on both their shoulders, but she didn’t fall. Sarah seized Andre’s hand in both of hers and hung precariously beneath the magnet, while two hundred feet below the sedan hit the water with a terrible splash.
“Are you okay?” Andre called over the wind.
“I’ve been better!” she called back.
Andre pulled Sarah up onto the magnet and a got a grip about her waist with one arm while he clung to the cable with the other. A moment later, the magnet was hoisted up by a winch beneath the helicopter, so that the three were now crouched directly below the undercarriage.
Meanwhile the helicopter, apparently oblivious to its new passengers, banked around and began flying parallel with the coast maybe a half-mile out. It also began to descend.
“Where do you think it’s goin’, boss?” Benton asked.
“No idea,” Andre answered.
The helicopter continued to descend. They had started out about two hundred feet up. Now they were half that and still getting lower. There were a number of boats out today, and it briefly occurred to Andre to wonder what they thought of the sight of three people clinging to an electro magnet slung below a large helicopter.
Then he spotted one ship in particular; a large, elaborate yacht growing nearer every minute. A yacht with a helipad on the stern.
So that was where they were headed, and he thought he could guess whom it belonged to.
The helicopter was now about fifty feet over the ocean and maybe a quarter mile from the yacht.
“Can you swim?” Andre asked Sarah.
“Well, yes, but…”
Andre turned to Benton.
“Go with her and make sure she gets to Crane.”
Benton was too good a servant to argue the point or to fail to understand. He simply nodded.
“Hold on, what are you…” Sarah began.
“Keep your legs tight together and try to fall straight down,” he said.
“No, wait…!” she began, but it was too late. Andre threw her off the edge of the magnet and she fell with a shriek into the ocean. At the same time, Benton saluted and jumped off after her.
The plan was a desperate and possibly foolhardy one. But Andre Fireson wasn’t the type of man to let people chase him all around Los Angeles. He meant to go straight into the lion’s den and see what he could find there.
The helicopter arrived over the yacht and descended to land. Andre sprang clear before he was trapped under the machine and ducked out of sight beneath the edge of the pad. The helicopter landed, and a tall, slender figure emerged from the deck, accompanied by two guards. Andre recognized him at once.
Throwing caution to the winds, he stood up and strode forward. The guards drew their guns, the helicopter pilot swore, and the central figure started visibly, but Andre merely nodded as though he’d just walked into a board meeting.
“Good morning, Mr. Gallano,” he said. “I see we meet again.”