They sat across from each other, as they had done once before, just prior to a hail of gunshots that had killed Gallano’s bodyguard and ended up setting his restaurant on fire. Andre thought the mobster had grown even more vulture-like in the intervening week or so.
“You place me in a most awkward position, Mr. Fireson,” said Gallano. “You arrive here, on my own boat uninvited, and during such a delicate time. How do you expect me to respond, I wonder?”
“As for that, you did destroy my car and kill my chauffeur,” Andre answered. “Not to mention nearly killing me.”
“I had nothing to do with that,” said Gallano hastily. “I was not told the whole plan; only that it would require the use of my helicopter.”
“Does that mean you’re not the one in charge?” Andre asked, sensing weakness. “Should I be speaking to someone else?”
“I am in charge of my own operation,” Gallano snapped. “However, I do, occasionally…cooperate with certain others for our mutual benefit.”
“Walter Deaney, perhaps?”
Gallano scowled at him.
“You seem very well informed, Mr. Fireson; so much so that I wonder you need to ask any questions at all.”
“I make it my business to be well informed, Mr. Gallano, as I am sure you do as well. Now, these others you cooperate with…”
“You are not in a position to ask me any questions on that matter, Mr. Fireson,” said Gallano. “We are only having this chat in order that I may decide what to do with you now that you are here. Because you saved my life, I do not like to kill you, but, on the other hand, I cannot permit you to possibly interfere with…with an event taking place tomorrow.”
Andre’s eyes rose with interest.
“Oh? What event is that?”
“One that you may read about after the fact,” said Gallano. “I have made my decision; you will remain on the Fulmine as my guest for today and tomorrow, after which my men shall take you ashore and we shall never meet again. I will then consider my debt paid. However, if you attempt to leave this vessel, or to interfere with my plans in any way, you will leave me no choice but to order your execution. Do I make myself clear?”
“Quite,” said Andre. “I don’t suppose you’d listen to a counteroffer?”
Gallano hesitated. He was, after all, a businessman at heart and always liked to know his options.
“I…will listen,” he said.
“Hand over everything you know about your co-conspirators, especially any cops on your payroll, tell me what you’re all planning, and I will provide the means for you to flee the country and disappear.”
The drug lord stared at him and then laughed.
“That hardly seems an appealing offer,” he said.
“Beats prison,” said Andre.
“Yes, but, you see, I am not going to prison, Mr. Fireson. I am quite well protected. The present…unpleasantness is merely a temporary obstacle. Within a week, it will all be behind me.”
“I’m sure your boss would be happy to hear that,” said Andre.
Gallano’s face twitched.
“This conversation is over,” he said. He nodded to one of his men. “You, take Mr. Fireson to his cabin. See that he is comfortable and that a guard is placed on him.”
A short while later, Andre stood gazing out of the porthole in his cabin at the LA skyline. His room was very comfortable, but he had no intention of staying there. He had found out some interesting facts and had shaken up the old buzzard, both of which had been worth the effort to come aboard. Now he needed to find a way out.
He thought of Sarah and wondered whether she’d made contact with Crane yet. He trusted Benton to look after her, and yet he found he couldn’t prevent himself from worrying. Had he really done the right thing, leaving her like that? Was what he had learned worth the risk?
There was a rap at the door and one of the stewards came in bearing a tray.
“Your lunch, sir.”
“Didn’t order any,” he answered.
“Compliments of Mr. Gallano,” the steward answered, laying the tray on the table. It did smell good, Andre had to admit. He would probably need to keep up his strength if he meant to escape.
The steward bowed and withdrew, closing the door behind him. Andre went to the tray and found it contained a dish of fried chicken, rice, and vegetables, a piece of bread with butter, and a glass of water. The meal wasn’t bad; not up to Benton’s cooking, but then few things were.
He’d almost finished before he noticed the folded piece of paper tucked beneath the plate.
He drew it out and unfolded it. It was a plan of the Fulmine, with his own room and usual positions of the guards marked off in red ink. Along the side of the paper was a message:
I have a plan. Leave after dark. Wait for my signal.
Andre felt his heart hammering with excitement, but his mind was troubled. Evidently, he had an ally onboard. But who? And what was his plan? Most importantly, what was the signal going to be? Presumably he’d know it when it came, otherwise his friend would have been more specific.
In any case, this was good news; better than he could have hoped for. He tucked the plan into his pocket then rang for the steward to take away the tray. Once this was done, he began methodically to memorize the plan as best he could.
He had been at this for less than twenty minutes, however, when there was a heavy thud from the corridor. Andre hastily tucked the map away as the door opened and the steward came in. Only, he didn’t look like a steward anymore; his round, somewhat drooping face was flushed and he moved, not with the rapid deferential step of a waiter, but the confident, direct motion of a soldier. He was taller than Andre, but something about his sloping shoulders and hunched posture made him seem much smaller than he was.
“Hello,” he said. “Change of plans.”
“What?” said Andre.
“We’re not waiting for dark anymore. Have to go now.”
“Basically the whole plan, but I’ll tell you on the way. Can you give me a hand with this?”
He indicated the guard who had been stationed outside of Andre’s room; a hefty figure with a huge scar on one cheek. He now lay slumped against the opposite wall.
“What’d you do to him?”
“Whacked him over the head,” said the other conversationally as they hauled the brute into the room. “I was in a hurry. Still am, as a matter of fact. You any good with guns?”
“Rather,” said Andre dryly.
“Good. You take this,” said the other man, handing him the compact assault rifle the guard had carried. “Don’t like guns myself. Bad experiences.”
“Wait, who are you anyway?”
“Nick Windworth,” said the false steward, holding out a hand. “Friends call me Breezy.”
“Andre Fireson,” he answered, taking it.
“Knew that. Good to meet you,” said Nick, dropping the guard’s sidearm into his pocket. “Now we need to get off the boat and quick.”
“Friend of mine needs a hand, and quickly. But don’t ask questions; just follow my lead. It’s not gonna be as easy as the night escape would have been, but then we don’t have as far to go either.”
Andre didn’t understand what he was driving at, but kept his mouth shut and checked the rifle magazine and chamber. It was fully loaded. He grabbed a couple spare mags from the guard’s pockets, as well as his radio, then followed Nick’s lead into the corridor.
They made for the fore stairs, then took them down into the lower decks, where the luxury vanished and the work began. Nick evidently knew his way around the ship very well, and they followed a winding, twisting path through its bowels, making, as far as Andre could tell, for the stern. They didn’t meet anyone along the way.
“So how do we get off the ship?” he whispered as they hurried past the engine room.
“Originally, I meant to take one of the lifeboats,” said Nick. “Figured we’d slip away and they wouldn’t realize we were gone until morning. But that’s not gonna be quick enough this time.”
“What do you mean, quick enough? And what else is there?”
Nick gave him an appraising kind of look.
“I don’t suppose you can fly a helicopter, can you?”
“Afraid not,” said Andre, seeing the idea at once. “Can you?”
“Well, I haven’t done it in a while, but I figure it’s like riding a bike.”
That was not encouraging.
Near the stern they found the after stairwell and began to ascend. Andre’s heart was hammering. He felt sure their luck was bound to run out soon. They couldn’t possibly get away without being spotted, could they?
They came onto the main deck; the helipad was just outside a set of plate windows. And the pilot and one of the guards were standing right beside it, talking.
“No time for finesse,” said Nick in a low voice. “I’ll take the one on the left, you take the one on the right? And if you have to shoot, make sure you don’t hit the chopper.”
Andre nodded. Keeping low, they slipped through the door and out before the helipad, their guns raised.
“Hands up!” Nick ordered. “Up where I can see ‘em!”
The two men started, froze, but the guard’s rifle was pointed out to stern, and he sensibly saw that he’d have no chance at all to bring it to bear before he was shot. They raised their hands in surrender.
“Cover them,” said Nick. He relieved the guard of his weapons and the pilot of his keys, tossing the guns overboard.
“Now take a swim,” he ordered.
“Not in a mood for arguing: there’s the water. Get in.”
He forced them down to the side of the yacht and onto the gunwale.
“You’re never gonna get away with this,” said the pilot.
“Yeah, that’s what I was going to say to your boss,” said Andre, and together he and Nick shoved them off. The two men hadn’t even hit the water before they were racing back to the helicopter.
“Not gonna take long for them to realize what we’re doing,” said Nick as he started up the rotors. “Then they’ll alert their allies in the police, and they’ll have choppers of their own in the air.”
“Then remind me why we’re doing this?” said Andre
The chopper lifted into the air. As it did so, several armed guards came rushing out onto the deck or onto the balcony above, aiming at them. Nick banked hard as the bullets pot-marked the chopper, but most of the rounds missed. Andre leaned out the side and returned fire. He was rated an expert marksman, but even so he had trouble landing a shot. But he did force the men back under cover, and that was something. A moment later, they were flying full-tilt toward the city.
“As for your question,” said Nick, speaking as calmly as if he’d merely been distracted by a matter of protocol. “Like I said, a friend of mine needs help, and she needs it fast.”
“Can be a little more specific?” said Andre.
“I was hanging around old Gallano when he got a call. Couldn’t hear too well, but I was able to gather that Mistretta, who seems to be the main dirty jobs man of this little conspiracy, anyway he’s gotten his grimy mitts on a couple of people they were looking for. One of whom’s Detective Karen Stillwater; friend of mine. Crane’s partner.”
“You know Crane?” said Andre.
“Everyone knows Crane in my line of work,” said Nick.
Andre was about to ask what that line was, but the mention of Crane suddenly put another idea into his mind.
“Who was the other one? The one they caught?”
“Don’t know. Someone named ‘Rockford.’”
Andre swore aloud.
“She and I were on our way to see Crane and his partner when we got grabbed.”
“Ah, got it,” said Nick. “Well, Mistretta’s got them both, and Crane’s been arrested.”
“Sounds to me like they’re done playing around. Whatever’s happening tomorrow, the want to make damn sure we don’t interfere.”
Andre nodded abstractedly. He was thinking of Sarah, captured by a gangster. Why, oh, why had he ever left her? It was stupid, arrogant, irresponsible. And what happened to Benton? Was he dead, or perhaps arrested? Nothing else, he was sure, would have made him abandon her.
He shook his head. He couldn’t worry about that now. They needed to focus on saving the girls.
“You know where they’re taking them?”
“I’ve got a good idea,” said Nick. “But we’ll need to ditch the chopper first.”
They were well into the city by now, heading north and east. Nick was leaning forward, scanning the buildings below them, looking for a likely spot.
“Try my building,” Andre said. “On 7th and Randolph; shouldn’t be far from here.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Nick, banking in that direction. “Don’t suppose you keep spare cars there?”
“Can borrow someone’s,” Andre answered. Then he remembered it was Sunday; no one would be there.
“Never mind; sure to be someone parked nearby,” said Nick.
Andre quickly identified his building and watched it draw nearer. He wondered whether it would be his much longer; even if they survived today, with the police against them he might end up arrested on trumped up charges, like Crane.
So be it, he thought. It wouldn’t be the first time his family had been wronged by a mob. He thought of his ancestor, the Duke, forced to flee France in the wake of the Terror while his brother and sister went the guillotine. To die falsely accused and striving to uphold the right would at least be a fitting end for one of the Duke Duroc’s descendants.
Nick landed the helicopter expertly on top of the Firebird Arms building, and the two men flew out almost before it had stopped moving. Andre’s passcodes got them into the empty building and down the elevator.
“Mr. Fireson!” said Lou the security guard as they flew out of the elevator into the lobby. “What are you doing here? And…”
“No time, Lou,” said Andre. “It’s an emergency. I need to borrow your car.”
“Of course, sir,” said Lou, eying the rifle in his hand and passing him the keys. “Should I call the police?”
“Absolutely not,” said Andre. “If they come by, you didn’t see us. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” said Lou. “I hope everything’s alright, sir.”
“It isn’t,” Andre answered as he and Nick flew into the parking garage.
Sooner than Andre would have thought possible, Nick nodded at a run-down garage on a grim street corner.
“That’s it,” he said, driving past without slowing down.
There was no one in sight save for two tough-looking customers standing by the door.
“How do we do this?” Andre asked as they turned the corner.
“We try to go in guns blazing, he’s liable to cut their throats just to spite us,” Nick said. “We’ll have to be smart.”
He parked out of sight around the corner and got out. Andre followed him, the rifle tucked out of sight in his jacket. Nick turned down an alleyway behind the garage and, motioning for Andre to keep low, drew his automatic.
“No entrances back here,” he explained in a whisper. “So should be no guards.”
The alley was filthy, damp, and full of trash from a Chinese restaurant next door. It stank horribly.
“If there are no entrances, how does this help us?”
Partway down the alley there were a couple sets of of bar-covered windows looking in on the garage. The first of these showed the main garage.
From here they could see the two women. They were each tied hand and foot, arms overhead and bound to the car elevators, which were raised high enough to stretch them to their full length. Their feet were bound to weights on the floor, leaving them almost immobile except for their heads.
Directly between them there was a work table, on which was laid an assortment of knives, drills, saws, pliers, blow torches, and other implements of torture. Mistretta sat beside it with his back to the window, idly fingering each instrument in turn, holding it up and turning it about so that the two women could see it clearly and imagine just how much it would hurt.
“Well,” he said. “Now that we’re all settled, let’s get started. The two of you have been making a lot of trouble for some very important people. So what I want to know is, how much you know, how you found it out, and who else knows about it? First one who talks gets to walk out of here alive.”
He held up a rotary saw and flicked it on. It spun with a high-pitched whine for a moment before he flicked it off again.
“Go to Hell!” Sarah spat defiantly. Karen said nothing, but her face was set even as her breathing came fast and shallow.
“Can you hit him through the window?” Nick asked a low voice.
“Maybe,” said Andre. There was a good deal of clutter in the way, and firing through glass would throw off his aim.
“Well, try, and if you can’t, make him think you can, at least for a second. I’ll go in the front. As soon as you hear trouble, start firing and keep him away from the girls.”
It wasn’t a good plan, but it was the only one they had time to make. Andre nodded and shouldered his rifle, sliding the barrel between the bars into the clearest section of glass he could find. Nick slipped off out of the alley Inside, Mistretta had set down the handsaw and instead picked up a long, thin knife. He fingered it a moment, then turned to Karen.
“Let’s start with you, Chiquita,” he said. “I want you to think hard about my questions.” The woman stiffened, but glared defiantly at him. Mistretta started toward her, idly twirling the knife…
As he left the alley, Nick Windworth fell into a stumbling, weaving gait. His head lolled about and his arms waved meaninglessly. Typical drunk, like you see every day in this kinda neighborhood. He staggered down the street toward the guards, who watched him keenly.
“Hello,” he gulped as he came right up to them. “Would one of gentlemen point me in the direction of…”
They weren’t fooled. In a flash two pistols were drawn.
Oh, well, Nick thought.
He darted forward as quick as a striking snake and caught the wrist of the nearest man, forcing the muzzle of his gun down, and shoved all his weight against him. They were both bigger than he was, but they weren’t expecting this maneuver and so the first guard stumbled back against the second. With and expert hand, Nick twisted the wrist that held the pistol until it was pressed against the guard’s own abdomen, and before the man had quite realized what was happened, two powerful shots split the peace of the afternoon.
The man dropped, clutching his stomach, and Nick took his pistol. The second man tried to pull free as his partner slumped back on top of him. He stepped out of the way of the falling, mortally wounded man and looked up just in time to see Nick level the stolen pistol into his face. A third shot ended the affair.
It had all happened so fast that only now did Nick hear the bark of Andre’s rifle. Hoping that was enough to keep Mistretta distracted, he opened the door and slipped into the garage.
Almost as soon as he did so, more gunfire sounded. Of course; Mistretta had guards inside as well. Two of them, both pouring fire into the window through which Andre had been firing. Nick should have reckoned on that. The window shattered under the assault and there was a hail of dust and sparks as the bullets bounced off of the bars and tore into the bricks.
But he’d done his job; Mistretta had been momentarily forced to duck for cover back behind his table of torture implements. The two girls, unable to move or duck, shut their eyes and winced, trying to block their ears with their shoulders as the gunfire roared around them.
Nick, from his position behind a workbench, took careful aim at one of the guards and fired two quick shots. Them man dropped. The other heard and turned. Nick moved from the table to a metal tool chest, which rocked when the bullets hit it.
Mistretta, meanwhile, had figured their game. He crawled out from behind his table and ran over to Karen, standing so that she was between him and Nick. She gasped as he pressed his knife to her chest, but he didn’t stab her yet.
“That you, Breezy?” Mistretta called. “I know it’s you! You’re sweet on this cop, aren’t you? Wouldn’t want to see anything bad happen to her, right? That’s why you’re here. Come on out, or I’ll gut her slow!”
His ruined face twitched. Nick didn’t doubt for a second that he’d do it. From outside all was silent. It seemed Andre had been hit by return fire. His plan had never been a very good one, and now it was time to face the fact that it had failed.
“All right Mistretta,” he called. “You win.”
“No, don’t!” Karen called. “Stay…”
Her words were cut off in a shriek of pain. Nick leapt to his feet, all his long experience and training suddenly vanishing in anger at the sound of her agony. Mistretta, he saw, had dug his thin knife into Karen’s chest, just below the collarbone. But at that same moment there was another sound. A crumbling, shattering sound.
Mistretta, Nick, Sarah, and the last guard all turned to look at the window. The bars had been torn off. The salvo of gunfire had not only shattered the glass, but had torn chunks out of the brick work, which hadn’t been particularly strong to begin with. That meant Andre was still alive.
Nick registered all this information as he sprang over the table and rushed at Mistretta. He couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting Karen, but he closed the distance within seconds, and as Mistretta turned back in his direction he threw a punch with his left hand that tore open half the stitches on the gangster’s face. Mistretta screamed in pain and fury, dropping the knife, but before Nick could shoot him he came back, caught the wrist that held the gun and forced it upwards. Mistretta was incredibly strong; more like a chimpanzee than a man, and his first blow staggered Nick and would have dropped him to the floor had Mistretta not been holding him up by one arm. The gun fell from Nick’s fingers in the shock of the blow, then he rocked and nearly passed out when Mistretta hit him again. Then Mistretta picked him up and threw him bodily into a tool bench, which was knocked over backwards with the impact.
Nick was dazed, racked with pain, but training and long practice allowed him to focus nonetheless. Mistretta, half his face a bloody mess, was hurrying forward to finish him off. Nick seized a heavy wrench from the floor and threw it at him. It struck dead in the center of the forehead and Mistretta staggered back, clutching at his skull.
Meanwhile, from the corner of his eye, Nick saw that another struggle was going on; Andre had climbed in through the shattered window and attacked the guard while the man had been distracted by the fight with Mistretta. They were struggling for control over the rifle.
But he couldn’t pay attention to that battle; he had his own fight to deal with. Taking advantage of Mistretta’s momentary incapacity, Nick grabbed another wrench, the largest he could find, from the pile on the floor, and staggered to his feet. In the time it took him to rise, Mistretta had recovered. He saw the weapon in Nick’s hand and hesitated, licking his lips. Nick held the wrench out before him, and the two opponents circled each other. Mistretta was far the stronger of the two, that had been well proven, but Nick guessed he was the better trained and he had a weapon. Call it an even match.
There was a sudden bark of gunfire. Mistretta looked around, and Nick struck. He darted in and swung for Mistretta’s temple, but the gangster’s animal-like reflexes were too good; even seeing from the corner of his eye was enough to allow him to block the attack, though not well; the wrench, instead of cracking his skull, instead shattered his wrist. Mistretta yelled in pain, but even as did he caught the hand holding the wrench with his uninjured hand and bent it cruelly back until the weapon fell to the ground. He then swung around and threw Nick against a yellow ‘flammable contents’ locker, which rocked with the impact.
Mistretta charged after him. Nick turned the handle on the locker, opened it, and threw the first thing his hands touched at the oncoming gangster. This turned out to be a plastic canister filled with some kind of oil, and it broke with impact, splattering its contents all over him. Mistretta gasped and sputtered, blinking the stuff out of his eyes and gritting his teeth as it seeped into his wounds.
That gave Nick an idea. He grabbed another bottle from the cabinet, hastily unscrewed the top, and threw it directly into Mistretta’s face. The gangster roared in pain as it got into his eyes, and charged blindly forward. Nick stepped out of the way and he slammed into the cabinet, causing more of its contents to spill out onto the floor. Mistretta turned after Nick and began taking wild swings in the air at where he imagined Nick to be. Nick dodged left, then back, then stepped aside and stuck out his foot. Mistretta fell forward and struck against a set of gas canisters that fed the welding torches.
Meanwhile, Andre knocked the guard out by slamming his head into a workbench, then rushed to join Nick, out of breath but still game.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Been better,” Nick answered, rubbing his bruised and tender cheek.
But Mistretta didn’t seem to have much fight left in him. He staggered, blinded, his left wrist shattered, his face a mass of blood and oil. The two men watched warily as he rose slowly to his feet. Then, both at once, they saw he was holding one of the welding torches.
“No, you idiot! Don’t…” Nick began, but it was too late. The torch flared to life in his hand, and instantly the oil that had coated Mistretta, and which he had dripped and smeared onto the torch as he had fallen on it, burst in flames.
The two men and two women all cried aloud in horror, but their yells were drowned in the scream from Mistretta as his whole body was immediately set alight. He ran, blind, maddened by pain, his arms waving, and all the oil and other materials that had spilled out onto the floor were set alight.
“We gotta get out of here!” Andre shouted. He ran to the table, seized the rotary saw, and began cutting Sarah’s bonds. Nick was right behind him, took a knife, and cut Karen free.
Mistretta was nowhere to be seen, that entire side of the garage was in flames. Once it reached the gas canisters, the whole place would go up. And worse, the flames were blocking the door.
“Out the window!” Andre shouted as he cut Sarah’s ankles free. He didn’t stop to see whether she could walk, but lifted her lightly in his arms and sprinted across the garage to the shattered window.
Nick, for his part, didn’t trust his ability to lift Karen and still run full speed. She was stiff and in pain, but could walk, and he threw an arm around her as together they limped across the garage. It was filling with smoke now, and they coughed as they went, eyes and throats burning. The fire was near the canisters.
At the window Nick lifted Karen and passed her out to Andre’s waiting arms before climbing out himself. The four of them sprinted down the alley and around the corner, and Andre (who was last) had no sooner turned onto the main street than the entire interior of the garage exploded in flames, shattering every window and tearing the doors off their hinges.
People had begun to arrive. Sirens wailed in the distance. Nick led the four of them down the road to where he’d parked their borrowed car. He and Karen got in the back, Andre and Sarah in the front, and a moment later they were driving as fast as they could away from the garage.
“Thanks,” said Sarah as soon as she had breath to speak. “That’s two I owe you.”
“Now what?” asked Karen. Then she yelped as Nick applied an impromptu bandage consisting of his handkerchief and a torn part of his shirt to her wound.
“First thing to do is switch cars,” he said as he worked. “Then find somewhere safe to regroup and decide what to do next.”
“We can use my place,” said Andre.
“Won’t they expect us to go there?” said Sarah.
“Yes, but I’ve got places there we can hide,” he answered. “Call it paranoia, but I like to be prepared.”
“Except they’ll be watching for us on the way,” said Karen. “Staking out the road in front of your house.”
“Then we won’t use the road. Trust me.”
A few blocks away they left the car parked in front of a multilevel parking garage. They walked into the structure and ‘borrowed’ a different car from the second floor. Andre took a long, winding route out of the city, but they saw no sign of pursuit. It seemed they had finally shaken the police. Along the way, they shared their stories of what had happened that morning.
“I hope Benton made it at least,” Andre muttered. “Doesn’t sound good.”
“What were you doing on Gallano’s yacht in the first place?” Karen asked Nick.
“After I’d annoyed Mistretta so much, I figured I ought to go into hiding,” he answered. “Gallano doesn’t know me, and Mistretta’d never think I’d be hiding right under his boss’s nose. Thought it’d be the last place he’d look.”
Karen smiled slightly. “And you still wanted to help,” she said.
“Nothing to do with it,” said Nick.
“Liar,” she replied.
They drove out of the city, and the Fireson mansion loomed into view on its height like a medieval castle. But Andre turned off the road the lead up to the hilltop and instead skirted around its base, where there was a wide thicket.
“I own all this land,” he explained. “Use it as a nature preserve. Good PR.”
They passed a sign reading ‘Duroc Nature Preserve: Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints.” Andre parked the car in one of the few spots then led the others out onto the walking path. It was very pleasant, and if they weren’t all exhausted, sore, and tense with fear they would have enjoyed it.
Andre led them off the path, through the thicket, and finally to a spot where a hoary old tree grew right against the side of the hill. Then, to their astonishment, he reached onto the tree’s side, which was hidden behind a thorny bush, and pulled the entire front of the trunk open.
“That’s a neat trick,” he said.
Inside there was a short tunnel, at the end of which was a heavy metal door and a keypad. They slipped in, closing the ‘tree’ behind them. Andre entered a code, turned the latch, and pulled the door open to reveal a stairwell.
“It’s a bit of a climb, I’m afraid,” he said.
That turned out to be an understatement. The stairs wound back and forth so many times that they lost count, ascending straight up into the center of the hill. By the time they reached the top, the two women were nearly dead on their feet and had to be half-carried by their male companions, who were staggering themselves.
At last they reached the top landing, where there was another heavy door and combination lock. Once through this, they found themselves in a low-ceilinged, but otherwise spacious chamber. Crates and boxes lined the walls, sofas stood in the middle, and there was a table with chairs in a kind of kitchenette in one corner. A cluster of television monitors stood at one end, and a set of cots at another.
“Welcome to my safe room,” said Andre, breathing hard. “Bathroom’s through there if you need it. First Aid over there. Room’s sound-proof and not on the original plans, and the entrance is pretty well hidden, so I don’t expect we need to worry about any visitors.”
He went at once to the monitors and began flicking through them. Evidently, he had a closed-circuit camera system in his house.
“But,” he said. “It doesn’t look like we have to worry about that.”
Sarah joined him, while Nick set about giving proper treatment to Karen’s wound.
“How does it feel?” he asked as he finished.
“I think I’ll live,” she said. She kept drawing deep, steadying breaths. Nick eyed her thoughtfully.
“Bathroom’s through there if you need any privacy,” he said.
She looked at him, swallowed, and nodded. She got up and, slightly unsteady, hurried for the door.
Nick watched her go. He bit his lip, then winced when he found it swollen. His mind was racing with ideas, but none of them related to their current predicament. He’d surprised himself a lot these past few days, but now he was positively stunned by his own thoughts.
Don’t be an idiot, he told himself. You’re way past all of that.
He sighed and stood up. Sarah passed him on her way to the kitchenette. Nick went over to Andre, who was still sitting by the monitors.
“Nice couple of girls,” he muttered.
“They certainly are,” Andre answered.
Nick thought a moment, then asked in a low voice, “Sarah…she your girl?”
Andre turned to look at her, and the expression on his face was answer enough.
“More or less,” he muttered. “I kidnapped her.”
Nick considered this.
“Makes it official, then.”
The two men looked at each other, then began to laugh.