Sarah Rockford returned to consciousness by slow degrees, resisting the process at every step, for the more aware she became, the more her head pounded and her muscles ached. She dimly hoped that she was dreaming, and that when she did finally become fully awake it would be to discover that she was in her own bed in her own little apartment, with these cramps nothing more than the result of a weird sleeping position. Or even better, maybe she’d wake up to find she wasn’t alone in her bed, and…
Sarah didn’t usually have dreams like that, and the realization of what she was thinking about jerked her fully awake. She wasn’t alone, but neither was she in bed. The pounding in her skull re-doubled, and her cramped muscles seemed to scream at her. She was sitting on a cold floor with her back against what felt like a slender steel girder. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her arms held high over her head. An exploratory tug told her that here wrists were shackled in place. A strip of tape covered her mouth, while more of the same stuff affixed her waist to what felt like a steel girder.
She shook her golden head to clear it and looked around. The place where she had found herself was very dim, but not quite dark. She was able to see that she was bound to one of the support beams of a huge shelf that stretched from one end of the space to another and almost up to the ceiling overhead. It was clearly one of many in the building, and her legs stretched out into an aisleway between the shelves. She couldn’t quite make out what was on them; thick cylinders and crates by the looks of things.
Sarah turned her gaze along her own shelf and saw that there were other figures bound in the same way all down it; her friends. The one to her left was looking back, his eyes glittering slightly in the gloom. It was Andre. On her right, she saw Karen, who was either still unconscious or else slumped over in despair, while on Karen’s other side she could see the dim outline of Nick, who seemed to be sitting quite still.
Between her and Karen was the only clear spot of color in view: a red, luminous digital counter. Sarah squinted to try to make it out. It read four-minutes, forty-one seconds. Forty seconds. Thirty-nine…
With a sudden, sick jolt, Sarah remembered everything; their disastrous mission to Deaney’s house, Mr. Cummings’s ambush and revelation of his plans. This must be the chemical supply warehouse owned by Centron Farms, and that was the bomb that would unleash the cloud of poison gas over the city.
Say rather the bombs. As her sight adjusted to the gloom, Sarah perceived that the one with the digital read out was only the trigger; there were wires running from it all along the shelves, glinting a little in the dim light. She could feel one with her fingers as she flexed and pulled on the handcuffs. The whole shelf was lined to blow, and to take them with it!
Sarah screamed aloud for help, momentarily forgetting her gag. It did no good, of course. Karen turned to her, and Sarah saw blank despair in the other woman’s glittering dark eyes. Of course, Karen knew how hard it was to get out of these handcuffs better than any of them, and the cuffs were cruelly tight. Meanwhile, the counter continued its unwavering march towards zero: three-minutes fifty-five seconds. Fifty-four. Fifty-three…
Sarah was quite right in her assessment of Karen’s thoughts. She had woken up a little before Sarah and identified their position. A quick assessment told her that there was no chance at all for them to escape in time; the handcuffs were too tight. They were separated one from the other by about five feet, so there was no chance of collaborating. They couldn’t even try to work out a plan together, since their mouths were taped shut. A quick exploration with her fingertips revealed nothing within reach that might be able to pick the lock, and the odds of their being rescued were about zero. And the bomb was counting down rapidly.
Karen wasn’t the kind of girl who gave up easily, but she also had a very logical mindset, and pure, cold logic told her that they had no chance of escaping.
She struggled hard to think of something, anything to avoid that conclusion, but it was no good. Death, which she had cheated one way or another so many times over the past few days, had at last caught up with her, and with her friends as well. The terrible thoughts of ‘what would have happened,’ which had broken her formidable self-control when she was out of sight of the others, were now being realized. There was no hope; they were really going to die. And she was more afraid than she ever would have admitted as she watched the clock counting down; three-minutes eight seconds. Seven. Six…
Meanwhile, Andre Fireson’s fear was almost completely swallowed in anger. It wasn’t right that they should go out like this after all they’d been through. He looked down the row at Sarah, her bright gold hair shining even in the darkness. Had he saved her life more than once just to have her die here? And Karen and Nick too. That wasn’t right. He wouldn’t allow that.
And it wasn’t right that Cummings should get away with it after all. Dammit, they had a responsibility to the people of the city! All the innocents who would die in this ‘accident,’ and he didn’t meant to shirk that duty; not as long as he could still breathe. He thrust back the creeping despair that threatened to envelope his heart and twisted his cuffs, thinking that maybe he could break them off against the metal of the shelf.
Two-minutes, thirty-two seconds. Thirty-one. Thirty.
Nick Windworth sat very still, weighing their options. It wasn’t looking good; not good at all. Of course, there were things one could do to get out of handcuffs…or try to at least. Why had he gotten involved in this whole mess in the first place? He could have been well out of town by now, if he’d been smart. Safe and gone, leaving the problem to others. He’d done his bit and more long ago, hadn’t he? And hadn’t he decided to wash his hands of this sort of thing once he realized he wasn’t the same stupid, idealistic kid anymore? So what madness had possessed him to get involved this time?
He looked to his left and saw Karen Stillwater slumped against her bonds, her black hair hanging limp over her face like a shroud, but the richness of her figure outlined in the gloom.
Ah, who’re you kidding? He thought. You’re still a dumb kid, especially if you’re feeling that. And at your age!
The thought took him back to the things he’d learned when was still young; the things he’d had to do, and which he’d hoped he’d never have to do again. But the sight of Karen, slumped in fear and despair, gave him the resolve to at least try.
A sudden clang echoed through the warehouse as Nick slammed his hand as hard as he could against the support beam he was shackled against. A groan of pain escaped his gagged lips as the metacarpal of his left thumb snapped and dislocated.
So far so good, he thought grimly. The others were all looking at him now. He could see Karen’s glittering dark brown eyes, and there was puzzlement as well as fear in there now. Nick forced himself to look at her while he tried to work his hand – now misshapen from the blow – out of the tight cuffs.
One minute, twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen.
The broken bone ground against the steel edge of the cuff, and Nick’s nerves screamed at him. He groaned back, biting down hard on the wad of cloth in his mouth. But it was coming through. One more thought of Karen, and with a final burst of pain he yanked his hand free.
Forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty-five.
Nick didn’t waste time on the gag, but set to work at once on the tape holding him to the base of the beam. He flipped the now-empty cuff through the lock so that the pointed tip swung free and, holding it in his one functional hand, used the point to tear through the tape.
Thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.
Nick pulled free, stumbled as the torn line of tape snagged at him, ripped it off and threw it aside as he hurried to the digital counter.
Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen.
Nick drew a deep, calming breath, trying to think through the pain in his hand. He couldn’t see the controls well, so he picked up the bomb, carefully, and pulled it back a little into the comparative light.
Ten. Nine. Eight.
There were three buttons on the side, and no time to work out which of them did which. No time to play ‘eeny-meeny-miney-moe’ either. He pressed the first one.
Five. Four. Three.
Nothing at all happened, so he pressed the second. The timer stopped a two seconds left.
Nick let loose a sigh of relief, gingerly set the bomb back, and ripped the gag from his mouth, spitting out the blood-soaked bits of cloth.
“Piece of cake,” he said.
It took a few minutes for Nick to find a crowbar with which to break the handcuffs and free the others, and when he had they gathered around in a huddle, where of course the first thing they wanted to know was how Nick had escaped.
“You broke your own thumb?” Andre exclaimed.
“Well, yeah,” said Nick with a shrug. “If it’s a choice between a thumb and life, it’s not really that hard of a call to make.”
Karen stared at him, but he couldn’t make out her expression in the gloom. His hand was swelling up badly.
“That was good thinking,” said Sarah. “Thanks!”
Everyone echoed her sentiments, and Nick felt rather pleased with himself.
“So…now what?” she asked. “Go to the police?”
“No,” said Karen. “Things the way they are, they probably wouldn’t believe us and we’d just end up in jail.”
“I’m sure Cummings will have anticipated we might break out,” said Andre. “He’s probably got a back up plan. As a matter of fact, he’s probably putting it in place as we speak; they obviously know something’s gone wrong by now.”
“If I were Cummings,” said Nick thoughtfully. “And the bomb didn’t go off when planned, I would assume that we had gotten free and stopped it somehow, as in fact we have. What’s the next step?”
“The obvious thing to do would be either to go to the police or to try to get out of town,” said Karen.
“And his next move would be to simply start the bomb again,” said Nick. “He does that fast enough, the gas might kill us before we can get out, and even if he doesn’t, his plan’s gone off, so to speak.”
“That means he’s probably sending men over to do so right…” Andre began, but then froze. They had all heard it; the door to the warehouse opening.
Nick gestured to the others, and they all hurried down the row in search of a place to hide, but not before Andre grabbed the wires leading from the trigger and yanked them out. They could see several flashlights shining from the far end of the row, casting irregular shadows as they streamed in and out among the shelves. The four of them reached the far end of the aisle and pressed themselves against the end of the shelves on either side: Nick and Karen on one, Andre and Sarah on the other.
The men came without caution, talking aloud. Andre glanced down the rows and counted three; all with flashlights and it looked as though they all carried pistols as well.
“Any sign of them?”
“Nope; here’s where they were.”
“How the hell’d they get out?”
“Gallano’s gonna be furious about this.”
“Doesn’t matter; they can’t have gotten far and once the bomb goes off they’ll be dead anyway. Now hurry up and get it going again.”
Suddenly, Andre had an idea. It came to him all at once: complete and perfect.
“Sarah,” he whispered. “Listen very carefully…”
The three men examined the bombs and one of them (who looked more like a banker than a thug) sighed.
“Took out the triggering wires,” he said. “Probably figured the whole thing couldn’t be detonated that way. Too bad for them I always come prepared!”
“Yeah, yeah; just get on with it. We don’t need to caught here when the cops show up.”
“Who says they’re going to?” said the bomb expert. “Way I understand it, Gallano and Deaney’ve got them well in hand. If those four losers go to the cops, they’ll just stall ‘em until it goes off.”
As he spoke he drew out a line of wire from his pocket and started to attach them to the trigger.
The three men whipped around. Detective Karen Stillwater was striding up the aisle, cool as could be, aiming what looked to be a pistol at them.
“Drop your weapons and put your hands on your heads,” she ordered.
Her voice had such confidence that two of the men began to do as she said.
“Hold it,” said the bomb expert, frowning at her.
The other two froze.
“I said drop them, now!” she snapped.
“Where’s you light, detective?” asked the expert.
“You’ve got until three to drop your weapons and put your hands on your head,” she ordered, ignoring him. “One…”
“Shoot her!” shouted the expert, as he ducked.
Karen swore as the other two rose and aimed their guns at her. With no better options, she ducked and threw the pair of pliers that she’d been trying to pass off as a gun straight at the nearest thug’s head. She had a good arm, and the man was forced to dodge, throwing off his aim. Even so, it would have been bad for her had she been alone.
As the second thug took aim at her, he was suddenly tackled from behind. The whole time Karen had been bluffing the three men, Andre Fireson had slipped as quietly as he could down another aisle and come up behind them while they were focused on her. He drove his man to the ground, and the gun went spinning out of his hand and under one of the shelves. Andre didn’t wait to finish him off, but sprang up and went for the other one, who was turning to fire on him. Andre knocked the gun to one side, and the warehouse echoed as it went off. In the confusion of the flash and the sound, Andre’s fist caught the thug on the side of his jaw, then a blow to the stomach, then another to the face, backing the man against the shelves, the contents of which rattled with the impact.
The expert, meanwhile, was backing away from the fight, reaching for his own pistol. But even as he drew it, Karen came flying like a gazelle and caught the weapon as it came out of his holster, then drove her knee up into his crotch before twisting his elbow hard, forcing the weapon from his limp fingers. She took the gun, elbowed him on the back of the neck to drop him. She gasped in pain as the blow caused the knife wound in her chest to open again, but for the moment adrenaline kept her going as she turned back to the fight.
But the thug Andre had tackled to the floor had risen and was on her even as she turned. He caught her wrist, which was slender in his beefy hand, and twisted hard. She yelled and the gun dropped to the floor. The man dove for it, and Karen kicked it away, sending it spinning under the shelves.
Enraged, he hit her hard across the face. Her head swam and she tasted blood, but long training and practice kept her aware as he seized her dark hair with one big hand and pulled her head back thinking, no doubt, that he would hold her up while he beat her. Instead, as he yanked her head back, her hand came up and raked her nails across his eye. This wasn’t enough to make him let go, but he did pause in his assault to yell and clutch at the injury, and while he was so distracted Karen lifted her foot and stomped hard onto the side of his knee. She weighed probably half of what he did, if that, but caught unawares and from a weak angle the man went down hard onto the concrete floor. Unfortunately, he didn’t let go of her hair until she’d been pulled off balance as well. She caught herself and as he looked up she kicked him hard in the face.
While all this was going on, Andre was trading blows with his man, seeking to put him down. His opponent was tough; he had about a foot on Andre, and the muscle and weight to back it up. Even so, Andre’s hard, well-trained body was up to the challenge, and he dodged and weaved, pounding the man’s core while the other tried to land a knockout blow.
The thug threw a big swing, Andre leaned back out of the way, then countered with a jab to the nose, then an uppercut to the gut and a cross to the jaw. The thug reeled, and Andre pressed his advantage with another, harder blow to the jaw, then finally a powerful blow to the temple. The thug dropped.
Andre whipped around in time to see Karen kicking her man hard in the face. He growled and blood flew, but he still rose, aiming an uppercut at her as he did so. She stepped back out of the way just in time. Andre charged in from behind and drove his fist up into the man’s kidney. The man howled in pain and tried to turn to face him. That gave Karen the chance to run up behind him, leap up, and bring her right elbow down on the back of his neck, knocking him out.
“Not bad,” said Andre, breathing hard as he surveyed the three unconscious or feebly stirring men. “You okay?”
Karen could feel her face swelling up, and she was gripping her searing chest wound but nodded. “You?”
He rubbed his jaw and grinned. “Never better.”
“You might want to reconsider that, Mr. Fireson.”
They turned and saw a tall, slender figure coming down the aisle, flanked by two more men, but with pistols drawn.
“Mr. Gallano,” said Andre as he and Karen slowly raised their hands in surrender. “Didn’t expect to see you here. Deaney and Cummings have you running errands now, huh?”
“I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty, Mr. Fireson,” the drug lord answered. “It was I who tied you all in place. I frankly enjoyed the experience and hoped it would be the end of our relationship.”
“Still, it’s a little risky, all things considered,” said Andre. “A man of your stature doing wet work like this? Especially when your enemies are on the watch.”
Gallano hesitated, and Andre could tell he’d touched a sore spot.
“Your concerns are precisely why I was chosen for this…duty,” he said. “Mr. Cummings considered that I was the least likely person to put myself into such a position and hence would make discrediting any potential witnesses that much easier.”
“And of course you do whatever Cummings tells you,” said Andre.
“Enough!” said Gallano. “You’ve wasted too much of my time as it is. You two,” he gestured to his men. “Bind them again and re-set the bomb.”
Then he paused, shining his light on the floor, the up and down the aisle.
“Where are the others?” he demanded
“Running an errand,” said Andre. “In fact…”
The overhead lights suddenly blossomed to life. Gallano whipped around and found himself covered by six uniformed police officers, plus two men in ragged old suits, one of whom snapped a picture just as he turned. Behind the line of cops, was a round-shouldered, nondescript man, and beside him, hardly to be seen, just the top of a head of shiny gold hair.
Gallano and his men froze in utter astonishment, so stunned by their sudden change in fortunes that they couldn’t take it in. Then a hand, slender but strong, took hold of Gallano’s wrist and twisted his arm behind his back.
“Eugenio Gallano, you are under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder,” said Detective Karen Stillwater.
“I still don’t get it,” said Earnest Marlin of United World News to Sarah while Karen and Andre directed the officers in handling the bomb and the disposal of the suspects. Sarah had already given him a summary of the conspiracy and the bomb plot. “How’d you bring us here just in time like this?”
“Once Nick and I slipped out the back, we just went to the nearest payphone,” she said. “I called you, and you very sweetly decided to trust me,” she beamed a radiant smile on him. “Nick called the police and told them there was a robbery in progress next door, just in case one of the bad guys were listening and would have gotten suspicious if he’d mentioned Centron Farms. Then when they showed up, he just directed them over here. But we didn’t really expect to catch Gallano himself, did we?”
“You’re not supposed to say that,” Nick admonished her. “When a con goes off better than you expected, you say you planned it that way from the beginning.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, the way we figured it, Gallano’d send those three to re-set the bomb. Andre and Karen stayed here to ambush them, then we’d hand them over to the cops and they would roll on the conspiracy, see? It was kind of a gamble, since who knew whether they would talk, but at least it would draw attention to the plot and they couldn’t cover that up. Plus it would certainly stop the bombing.”
“And you say Walter Deaney’s involved in this?”
“He’s one of the ringleaders,” said Sarah, nodding. “But not the leader: that’s James Arthur Cummings.”
“Never heard of him.”
“You will,” said Nick. “From the looks of it, Gallano can’t wait to tell all he knows. After all, if he keeps quiet, odds are one of his former employees down at the precinct will see to it he has an ‘accident’ in his cell. Oh, that reminds me; I called someone else too.”
DA Chen had just arrived, looking breathless and staring as he saw Gallano sitting handcuffed in a police car. Nick went up and offered his uninjured hand.
“District Attorney,” he said. “We’ve never formally met, but I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter while she was in the hospital. A lovely girl. Did you know Mr. Gallano here tried to have her murdered to get you off his back? Detective Crane can give you all the details.”
By the time the four of them left the warehouse in the company of the police and district attorney, the conspiracy that Mr. Cummings had been so proud of the night before was in the process of unraveling. Captain McLaglen and detectives Tyzack and Aldrige disappeared from the precinct, but Detective Crane and Marco Benton – who had been run down at last about a mile after dropping the two women off – were released from jail on the recognizance of the District Attorney. No one knew where Cummings was yet, but as Gallano disappeared into an interrogation room with Crane and Chen, it seemed only a matter of time.
As she sat in the precinct lobby with Andre, Karen, Nick, and Benton, Sarah Rockford felt safe for the first time since she’d learned of Deaney’s existence a few days before.
Nick was looking over Karen’s bruised and discolored cheek.
“You sure it doesn’t hurt too much?”
“I’ve been hit in the face many times before,” she said. “It’s a small price to pay.”
“I still say it should’ve been me,” he grumbled.
“You were in no position to fight with that hand,” she pointed out.
“I’ve fought with a broken thumb before,” he said.
“Oh? Where was that?”
She cast him a suspicious look, then sighed.
“Well,” she said. “At least we’ve all come through it safe.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said Sarah. “And that reminds me; I’ve gotta go write this down! I promised the Spinner a piece for the evening edition.”
“Do you have to go right now?” asked Andre.
“Won’t be long,” she said. “Just a quick write up.”
“Very well, but after that, I am inviting you all to dinner at my house to celebrate,” said Andre. “That is, if you are feeling up to cooking, Marco.”
“Boss, this ain’t the first time I’ve been in stir,” said the hulking valet. “Of course I’m gonna cook! I’ll cook you all a meal that’ll make you sing!”
“None for me, thanks, I don’t sing,” said Nick.
“Oh, so we’ve found something you can’t do,” said Karen.
“There are lots of things I can’t do,” he said. “Hold down an honest comes to mind.”
Sarah laughed, but Karen didn’t.
“I’ll be just across the street,” Sarah said. “Be back in a little bit.”
“Hold on,” said Karen. “You shouldn’t go anywhere alone just yet.”
“Come on, it’s over,” said Sarah. “Besides, who’s gonna do anything right in front of a police station now that they don’t have any cops on the inside?”
“Just to be safe,” Karen answered, standing up. “Anyway, I can help you fill in the details.”
Sarah looked at her and saw there was more to it than that. So she shrugged and the two women waved to the men and left together.
Across the street in the little café they ordered coffee and Sarah took out the pen and notepad she’d borrowed from the precinct, but didn’t start writing. Karen obviously had something on her mind, and Sarah composed herself to be the perfect listener, as she often did when taking interviews.
“So? What’s on your mind?”
Karen thoughtfully ran one finger around the rim of her mug for a minute.
“Have you begun to think of what will happen next?” she asked.
“Not really. I mean, apart from writing it out and so on.”
“I mean where we all go from here.”
“Well, I hope we stay friends,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been hostages together! Twice! You can’t buy that kind of bond.”
“I’m sure we will; if only because I’d hate to miss sentiments like that. What I meant was…I suppose it’s early to think about it.”
“I am a detective, Sarah; I notice things. I’ve seen the way you and Andre look at each other.”
Sarah, who had been taking a sip of her coffee, choked.
“I…” she coughed. “You…I don’t…”
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Karen added hastily.
Sarah used a coughing fit to gain time to collect herself.
“Well, I…wait, did you say he looks at me, like…”
“Sarah, of course he does; you’re beautiful!”
Sarah knew that of course, but for the first time felt rather shy of the fact.
“So are you,” she said.
Karen gave a shrug and a rueful smile and said, “No, I’m not.”
“Of course you are! Look, if I took a shot of you right now, even with your face all busted up and your chest bandaged, and I sent it to a dozen magazines, I guarantee you’d have twice that many photographers knocking on your door by lunch time tomorrow.”
That made Karen laugh.
“I don’t believe you, but you make me feel better,” she said. “What I really wanted to talk to you about was whether…whether you think one of us would stay around if…if I asked him.”
Sarah knew what she meant at once. Quite apart from the obvious clues, such as the exchange she’d witnessed only a few minutes before, there was only one of their number who might be expected to disappear.
“I’m sure he would,” she said. “I don’t really know what goes on with him, but I get the idea he’s just…just waiting for a reason to stick around somewhere and go straight. And you’re a pretty good reason!”
“Let’s not go too fast,” said Karen. “I only want to…to have a little time.”
“Well,” said a male voice. “In that case, I suggest you keep very still, detective.”
The two women froze. The voice had come from the patron sitting behind Karen, whom Sarah had barely noticed. His head turned slightly, and she saw the profile of Captain McLaglen behind sunglasses and a baseball cap. Then another voice came from behind Sarah.
“Believe me, ladies, there is almost nothing I would like better than to kill you both, so don’t tempt me.”
It was the voice of Walter Deaney.
“We’re going to walk out of here,” he said. “Together. Easy and friendly. There’s a car waiting just around the corner. We’re going to get into it.”
“And then?” Karen asked in a low, tense voice.
“That’ll depend on your boyfriends, won’t it?”