The Ordinary King

In a far-off land, there lived young prince. He was very forward thinking in his views, having read much and mixed much among the common people, whom he loved dearly. He swore that, when he became king, he would make their welfare and their happiness his first priority.

In the meantime, he thought less and less of the nobles and courtiers he had to spend his days with, thinking them haughty, arrogant, and vain. He came to despise the pomp and show of court, and even to think less of his own father, the king. Again, he swore that when he became king he would put a stop to all that nonsense, or at least reign it in a good deal. As is the way of things, the more time went on and the more he thought on these things, the more radical he became in his views.

In due course, the old king died, and the prince ascended the throne. The very first thing he did was to reduce his coronation from a fine, expensive spectacle at the cathedral to a quiet ceremony in the palace chapel. In his first address to the people, he assured them that the days of autocratic, exploitative rule was over: “For I am but a man; a common, ordinary man like any other, and I shall act like it.”

He was as good as his word, riding a common horse, wearing common clothes, and eschewing his retinue. The money that would have been spent on all this went to doing good among the poor and destitute. And though the nobles grumbled, the king was happy and well-loved by the people.

One day, while the king was on his daily ride, he came across two men quarreling. Stopping his horse, he inquired as to the issue. He learned that they were brothers, and the elder had denied their father’s dying wishes and disinherited his brother, who had a young wife and child.

“This is intolerable!” said the king. “I order you sir, to render your brother his due inheritance.”

The hard-bitten farmer leaned back and fixed his eyes on the king.

“You order me, do ye?” he said. “Ye go about ridin’ an ordinary horse, with not but a common man’s clothes on yer back. You even announced at yer coronation that ye were naught but an ordinary man. Well, I don’t give a straw for what an ordinary man tells me to do.”

The Abolition of Harley Quinn

Like everyone else, I haven’t seen Birds of Prey, and I have no intention to. However, I have seen a few reviews of it, read about it, and have a fair idea of what the story is. And as someone who loves the DC universe, I have a thought or two.

See, as I gather it the premise of the film is that Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and the film is about her proving that she can stand on her own without him, to the point where she blows up the Ace Chemical plant as a sign that their relationship is well and truly over. The film apparently is a ‘strongly feminist’ tale casting Harley in the role of the strong, emancipated woman who doesn’t need a man to define her.

Here’s the problem; Harley doesn’t fit that role at all.

I don’t know what genius thought that Harley Quinn of all characters would be suitable for a feminist parable. Probably they just saw ‘popular female comic-book character’ and didn’t even consider the idea that she might not work as a female empowerment figure. But of all the women in the DC universe, Harley is preeminently the one who absolutely does need a man to define her. It’s frankly what makes her interesting in the first place.

One of the few things I thought Suicide Squad got right was its image of Harley’s deepest desire, which turned out to be for a normal married life with the Joker. I think that’s spot-on. Fundamentally, Harley is the woman who has fallen in love with the wrong man: a man incapable of truly caring for her or anyone else. Ultimately, she wants nothing than to be with him, and to that end she’s sacrificed her whole life, her sanity, and her soul.

That’s, quite frankly, what makes her a compelling character and the reason why people remain invested in her: that she became a villain through love. The kind of abusive, obsessive, self-destructive love that is inexplicable to anyone on the outside. When Harley’s done right, you always feel sorry for her, even as you despise her for what she does, because the thing she is doing it all for – the love of the Joker – is so patently impossible. Horrible as she is, you can’t help hoping that one day she’ll wake up and leave the Joker for good.

The thing is, though, once that happens, her story is over. There’s nothing more to tell about her after the Joker is out of her life, any more than there would be anything to say about Romeo if he lived on past Juliet (when the Joker died for good in the DCAU, the writers wisely wrote her to have quietly disappeared). You could write a story of her in mourning or obsessed with revenge, as that would still be her in relation to the Joker. You might even, conceivably, write of her falling for another man (she is, to paraphrase Mr. Knightly’s appraisal on Harriet Smith, “the kind of woman who must be in love with someone”). But the idea of an independent Harley; a Harley Quinn who doesn’t want to be defined by the Joker or any other man, is simply nonsensical.

Which brings up another problem. As noted, the only reason people sympathize with Harley at all is because of her hopeless, tragic love for the Joker: because she is so passionately devoted to an illusion. It adds a degree of pathos to her villainy. Take that away, and she’s just another villain.

In short, to emancipate Harley from the Joker is to abolish her as a character. There’s simply nothing left of her to care about.

On another note regarding Birds of Prey, who on Earth decided to cast a Black actress as Black Canary, one of the quintessential blondes of the DC universe? Were they really so thick as to think that ‘Black’ had to refer to race? (Kind of extra bitter on that, since I liked Black Canary quite a bit in the DCAU; she was cool, a delightful study in contrasts, and her romance with Green Arrow was a lot of fun. Then Arrow thoroughly botched her, and now this. Seriously, why is it so hard to get her right? ‘Short, leggy blonde with a minor superpower is also one of the best martial artists alive’).

The point here is that in writing characters like this, it’s important to keep in mind who and what they are, and, equally important what their story is. Some characters can exist comfortably in multiple roles across multiple stories, but even then there are certain things that they must maintain. Godzilla can be either hero or villain, but he cannot be timid (even more than the awful design, this factor alone showed the creature in the 1998 film to not be Godzilla). James Bond can survive the loss of any supporting cast members, shifts in personality and tone, but he can never be anything but a British man.

It isn’t just that trying to do otherwise would show poor craftsmanship; it would raise the question of why? Why are you even writing this character if you don’t care enough to even try to get them right? It is, if I may put it so, offensive to muse: it shows that you think of the character as nothing more than a tool that you may do with as you like.

 

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Common Thread

 

 

            “Phone call for Mister Fireson.”

Andre looked up. He had been reading the latest reports over Detective Crane’s shoulder. The police were busy trying to sort out all the information coming in regarding the conspiracy and working to track down Cummings, Deaney, and the others. It was interesting to follow, and though he had no official part to play in these proceedings, he was determined to see it through to the end.

But he had other responsibilities, and he’d been away from them for the past few days dealing with this adventure. Now that it was finally being wrapped up, he expected the phone calls to start coming in. So there was no surprise or suspicion in his mind when he took the phone from the junior police lieutenant and said, “Fireson speaking.”

“Mister Fireson,” said the voice on the other end. “I know you are a practical man, as am I, so I will not waste your time. I am currently holding Miss Rockford and Detective Stillwater in your house. Informing the police or failing to do exactly as I say will result in their immediate deaths. Do you understand?”

Andre’s hand tightened on the phone and his keen mind immediately focused on the problem.

“I understand,” he said, trying to affect a casual, businesslike tone.

“Good,” Cummings answered. “Now listen carefully. You will proceed to your office on a plea of urgent business. From there, you will order a helicopter – a Bell 214, and fully fueled, – to arrive at your estate at four o’clock today. The helicopter will be carrying five hundred thousand dollars in unmarked bills, and will transport my associates and I to a location that I will provide to the pilot. Once we have arrived, I will send the two women back with the helicopter.”

“That might be tricky to arrange,” Andre answered. “Short notice, isn’t it?”

“Very, but that is your fault, Mr. Fireson. You could have stayed out of this and instead chose to destroy my work. If you find it is too much trouble, then I suppose that is your right and your friends can take the consequences.”

“Can I get assurance of that?”

There was a pause.

“Sorry, Andre,” said Sarah’s voice. “He’s telling the truth. At least about us. Sorry; we probably shouldn’t have let our guard down like that.”

Andre’s mind raced, trying to judge how best to take the initiative.

“Both of you?”

“Both of us.”

“Is that all he has to offer?”

“I…what?”

“Let me talk to him again.”

“Andre, what are you…”

Her voice faded as Cummings took the phone back.

“Are you satisfied, Mister Fireson?”

“Not quite,” he answered. “The price seems a little steep. Perhaps we can negotiate.”

There was a pause.

“Could you repeat that?” said Cummings.

“I said the price is a bit more than I’d care to pay for the merchandise,” said Andre in a slightly raised voice. “Maybe we could negotiate a little. Especially on the timeframe.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Sarah’s voice shouted, sounding as though Cummings was holding the phone out so they could hear.

“Would you care to reconsider?” Cummings asked.

“Maybe, but remember, you stand to lose as much as I do if this deal goes south,” Andre answered. “I’ll give you a call back when I get to the office.”

A pause.

“I am surprised to find you taking this attitude. But as you will; I will await your call. No tricks, Mister Fireson.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Andre answered.

There was a click as Cummings hung up. Andre carefully replaced the phone then immediately strode over to Crane.

“Get Windworth and come to my office, now,” he said in a low voice.

Crane looked at him in surprise.

“Something come up?”

He nodded.

“Can’t talk about it here. We need to move fast.”

###

            Cummings drummed his fingers on the telephone, frowning. Sarah Rockfrod wondered what was going through his mind. Evidently, the conversation hadn’t gone as he’d expected.

That’s because he doesn’t know Andre like I do now, she thought.

They were in what could only be the master bedroom. Sarah felt indignant on Andre’s behalf that his privacy was being so violated, and oddly shy of being forced into such an inner sanctum, though under other circumstances she would have been glad to see it. It was a wide, airy room with a high ceiling, paneled, as most rooms in that house were, with reddish-brown wood and with a magnificent bay window looking westward over the city. There was a rich red and gold rug covering most of the center of the room, a four-poster bed, a great, carved desk that looked at least a century old under the window beside a shelf full of books and a fireplace complete with mantelpiece. On the other side of the room there a small exercise area with a heavy punching bag, a set of parallel bars, and some weights. The walls were hung with several paintings in ornate frames. It was a beautiful room, stamped through and through with its master’s personality, which made the present situation seem all the more intolerable.

Sarah and Karen sat side-by-side on the floor at the foot of the bed, their wrists tapped behind their backs, knees and ankles bound tight together in front of them. Deaney was taking out his aggression on the punching bag, while McLaglen stood beside the two women, gun in hand. Tyzack, Aldrige, and Booker Sarah knew, were posted somewhere in the house, watching the doors.

For a brief moment when Andre had claimed the price was too steep, Sarah had felt shocked, betrayed, scared…then she remembered how he had behaved when they first met; the mask of unscrupulousness and cruelty that he had put on while dealing with Deaney. It was, she guessed, his strategy for keeping Cummings off-balanced, uncertain. Buying time.

“You don’t really think he means it, do you?” said Deaney, delivering a swift kick that sent the bag swinging.

“Perhaps not,” said Cummings thoughtfully. “But he was correct about one thing; if we kill them, we lose our bargaining position.”

Sarah’s eyes kept being drawn to the portrait of a dignified, middle-aged man that stood in pride of place over the mantelpiece. From a strong resemblance of face and expression, she guessed this must be Andre’s father, or at least one of his relatives.

“I’m telling you, he’s bluffing,” Deaney insisted.

“He’s not,” Sarah put in.

They looked at her. So did Karen.

“If Fireson helps you, it’ll tarnish his family name,” she said. “He cares more about that than he does about anyone.”

“Even you?” said Cummings.

Sarah swallowed.

“Oh, he doesn’t really care about me,” she said. “I mean, really, we’ve known each other for, what three days? And I’m just a nobody; he’s a tycoon and aristocrat and all the rest of it. Trust me, if it’s between me and his legacy or whatever, I’m not even going to rate a consideration.”

“Is that what you think?” McLaglen asked Karen.

Sarah looked at Karen, who seemed to be scrutinizing her.

“No,” she said. “I think he genuinely cares for her, and that he’s bluffing.”

“I’m telling you he’s not,” said Sarah. “Trust me, I know when a man is into me; he isn’t.”

“Well, this is enlightening,” said Deaney with a groan. “I say we test it; kill one of them to prove we’re serious.”

“No, no!” said Sarah hastily. “You don’t have to test anything! I’m telling you…”

“Yeah, if you do that, that’s the end of negotiating; they’ll figure they have nothing to lose and come at us with all they’ve got,” said McLaglen. “I’ve done this game from the other side, trust me.”

“Okay, so we don’t kill them;” Deaney said. “There’s other things we might do to get the point across.”

He cracked his knuckles, and Sarah swallowed as he turned a nasty, almost hungry face in her direction.

“That will have to be considered,” said Cummings. “For the moment, however, he won’t be stupid enough to involve the police, which buys us some time…”

He glanced at the two women thoughtfully, then beckoned to his companions.

“Deaney, McLaglen, will you come with me for a moment…”

“What about them?” McLaglen asked, nodding at the girls.

“They aren’t going anywhere, and this won’t take long,” Cummings answered.

The three men left the room, not without some suspicious and uncertain looks.

“Why didn’t you back me up?” Sarah muttered under her breath as soon as the door was closed.

“It would look too neat if we agreed,” Karen answered. “This way they don’t know what to think.” She hesitated. “You didn’t…really believe that, did you?”

Sarah bit her lip. Her own arguments for what she thought was a bluff suddenly sounded uncomfortably convincing in her frightened, uncertain state of mind.

“Well,” she muttered. “If it is true, at least it won’t hurt for long.”

###

            “This is intolerable,” Andre growled, pacing the floor of his office like an enraged leopard in a small cage. “Who the hell does Cummings think he is, going into my house, trying to extort money from me?”

“I suspect that was the point,” Nick put in, sitting casually on Andre’s desk. “Classic humiliation scheme; Cummings gets what he wants, but he also gets his revenge on you in particular.”

“Do you think he’ll do what he says?” Crane asked. “I mean, let the girls go when he’s got what he wants?”

Nick’s face seemed to sag as though with weariness.

“Well,” he said. “Perhaps, but we wouldn’t like their condition if he did.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Andre. “Since we’re not giving him what he wants. He is not getting away with this, damn it.”

“None of us want him to,” said Crane. “But we also don’t want to lose Sarah and Karen, do we?”

“We’re not,” Andre said. “We’re going to save them and bring down Cummings and Deaney and the rest of ’em.”

“Excellent!” said Nick. “I fully agree. Now how are we gonna do this?”

“That’s what we need to figure out,” he said. “You’re the con man; can’t you come up with anything?”

“I’m working on it, but these angry tirades aren’t really helping things. Do we have anything more practical, like a plan of the estate?”

“Sure thing,” said Marco Benton. He went to file cabinet, drew out a roll of paper, and spread it on Andre’s desk. “’Course, the safe room ain’t on this one, but it’d be about here.”

They all bent over the plans, studying them carefully.

“Hm,” said Nick. “Not a lot of good options.”

“No, I purposefully made the house difficult to assault,” said Andre.

“I’m sure that seemed like a good idea at the time,” Nick answered.

“Obviously, I didn’t count on being forced to attack it myself,” Andre snapped. “But we do have one in; don’t forget the escape hatch.”

“That is something,” said Nick. “And we have another as well.”

“What’s that?”

“He wants a helicopter. Helicopters come with pilots, and if it can carry all of them out it can carry other people in.”

Andre nodded, seeing his point.

“I think,” said Nick after a moment’s thought. “That I have an idea…”

###

            “There it is,” said Cummings as he hung up the phone. “Fireson has capitulated. The helicopter, with the money, shall be arriving in twenty minutes. Or so he says.”

He tapped his fingers on the desk, thoughtfully looking out the window at the city.

“There lies my domain; stripped and left for others. ‘Of comfort no man speak; Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs. Let’s choose executors and talk of wills, and yet, not so; for what can we bequeath save our deposed bodies to the ground?’”

He sighed and turned back to the room.

“This is it, gentlemen. Remember what we discussed. Anything goes wrong, you know what to do.”

Karen saw Deaney looking in their direction and grinning.

“McLaglen, send your boys up to the helipad to greet the chopper. Tell Booker to be on the alert.”

The ex-police captain nodded and left to attend to the orders.

“Mr. Deaney, if you would get our guests ready to move,” Cummings said.

“I would be glad to,” he answered. He drew a pocket knife, knelt beside the two girls, and set to work cutting the bonds on Sarah’s legs. He let his other hand rest appreciatively on her thigh as he did so.

Meanwhile, Karen Stillwater’s cool, methodical brain was working through the possibilities. It was unlikely in the extreme that Nick and Andre wouldn’t make some attempt to rescue them. That was rather embarrassing, since they had already done so more than once, but there was no helping that now. It was equally unlikely that Cummings wouldn’t anticipate that and so have some kind of plan in place. Therefore, it would be a question of who was the better strategist: Nick or Cummings. And they had already had an answer to that, hadn’t they?

Deaney turned to her now, running his hand along her thigh as he cut the strands of tape binding her. It made her stomach fairly boil with anger and humiliation, though it also allowed her to feel just how powerful this man’s hands were. It felt as though he could break her legs just with his hands alone. The desire to kick him in the face – or somewhere else – as soon as she was free would regrettably have to be set aside.

“There you are,” said Deaney as he finished. “Just don’t go anywhere.”

He waved the knife in her face. She didn’t flinch.

“Why would I?” she answered, her strange half-English, half-Mexican accent becoming slightly more pronounced with the force of her suppressed anger. “I still have scum like you to arrest.”

Deaney’s face briefly registered surprise and anger, then he smoothly turned it to a grin.

“We’ll have to see about that,” he said. He put out a hand and gripped her injured shoulder hard as he stood up, causing Karen to gasp and wince with pain.

Deaney strolled over to speak with Cummings. Sarah turned a furious face to Karen.

“Bastard,” she mouthed. Karen didn’t reply. She was thinking rapidly. Cummings had a plan, and likely it was better than what their friends would come up with. But it would also necessarily be based on what he knew. If they could somehow change the script without him realizing it…

She gave Sarah a serious look to let her know that she had an idea. Sarah glanced at Cummings and raised one quizzical eyebrow. Karen nodded slightly, then tilted her head to indicate that Sarah should do what she did. Sarah looked a little confused, evidently not quite getting the meaning of the signs, but she nodded, hopefully to say that she’d follow Karen’s lead.

Karen gathered her feet under her and stood up, a little unsteady on her cramped legs. Sarah tried and failed to do the same.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Deaney demanded.

“If you want us to be able to walk later, you’d best let us exercise now,” said Karen.

Cummings allowed it. So far so good, but they’d be watched. Sarah got up on her second attempt and together the two women paced the spacious bedroom, keeping as far away from the two men as possible.

“Now what?” Sarah mouthed when their backs were to their captors.

“Do what I do,” Karen mouthed in answer.

She drifted over to the ornate desk and leaned against one corner, flexing and stretching her legs. Meanwhile, she carefully and deliberately drove the tape binding her wrists against the corner of the desk, where the woodworking rose into a blunted point. It wasn’t much of a tool, and she had to work slowly to avoid making too much noise, but with a couple tries it was enough to tear a good-sized cut into the duct tape. Enough to start on. Duct tape, she knew, is very strong, but only as long as it retains its integrity. Once start a cut, and you usually can finish it.

Karen didn’t dare stay long by the desk, but resumed her aimless ramblings. Sarah, having seen what she did, opted to try the same thing by leaning against one of the bedposts. The four-poster was as richly carved as everything else in the room, mostly in soft curves, but near the base of each post was a trio of fleur-de-lis with gently pointed tops. It was lucky that she was so short that she could reach them without drawing attention.

The two women drifted over to the window and sank down onto the seat. Sarah’s eyes were bright with excitement, while Karen, her face outwardly calm, felt as though she were full of static electricity.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

###

            At the top of the escape shaft, Andre had one hand on the latch of the heavy door leading into the safe room, the other held his Glock at the ready. He didn’t think that Cummings could have discovered the safe room, but he meant to be prepared just in case.

He glanced at Benton, who nodded, holding a shotgun at the ready. Andre turned the latch and they burst into the room to find themselves covered by compact assault rifle. But it was in the hands of the loyal Liu Sho.

“Mister Fireson!” the gardener exclaimed, lowering the gun at once and bowing. “My humblest apologies, sir, that your house has been defamed in this manner, and that your guests has been mistreated under your own roof. I saw them coming, and as you have always instructed, I retreated, and only then did I see that they had the young ladies with them.”

“That’s quite alright,” said Andre, holding up a hand to stem his apology. “You did the right thing. Now, what can you tell me about what’s been happening?”

“Two men were waiting in the hall. They have gone up to the helipad. A third man – big like Marco – he was here,” he pointed to one of the screens of the closed-circuit tv system. “But I have not seen him in some minutes. Three men are in your master bedroom, with the two women.” He pointed to the screen showing the closed door to his master’s inner sanctum. Andre’s blood boiled and he had to exercise great control not to immediately rush out there.

“Don’t worry boss; I don’t think they’d be doing any bedroom activities,” Benton put in. “It’s only amateurs do stuff like that, leastways, unless they’re feelin’ pretty safe. Situation like this, what with it bein’ your house and all, they’ll want to keep on the alert if they got any sense.”

“I actually had not been thinking along those lines, but thank you for putting it in my head,” Andre growled.

“Sorry, boss,” Benton shrugged.

Andre drew a deep breath. His fears for his friends were not helping. They could be dealt with later. He pushed them aside, into the room in his mind where he kept matters that he couldn’t attend to straight away, and then returned his attention to the matter at hand. It was just another puzzle; another mental challenge for him to overcome.

“Watch the helipad and the door to my room,” he ordered. “When they come out, that’s when we come out.”

“And keep an eye out for that goomba, Booker,” Benton put in. “I don’t like not knowin’ where a beef cut like that is hidin’.”

###

            “You know what I like about flying helicopters?” Nick Windworth said as he maneuvered the chopper in its approach to Fireson’s mansion.

Detective Crane, who was trying to stay focused on the mission and to recall all the tactical training he had learned in his younger days, was not in the mood for riddles.

“What?” he demanded shortly.

“Not a blessed thing,” Nick answered.

“Thank you, Windworth; that was very helpful,” Crane growled.

“Just making conversation,” the con man answered. “Oh, will you look at that? There’s a welcoming party.”

“Terrific.”

They flew in low over the mansion. Below them, former Detectives Tyzack and Aldrige stood waiting, pistols in hand. Nick turned the helicopter and lowered it gently to the deck.

Now came the tricky part.

Without powering down or turning off the blades, Nick suddenly threw off his seatbelt and rushed to the back of the chopper, threw open the side doors and started shouted and gesticulating wildly, waving for the detectives to come over. He looked as though he were close to panic. Tyzack and Aldridge exchanged a confused glance, then as Nick’s gestures became more frantic and he started pointing at the cockpit and then up at the blades, and then back into the chopper, as though trying to tell them something, though what they couldn’t imagine, they started for the chopper. Nick waved them on, as though urging them to hurry, and they picked up the pace.

“’Bout time, what’re you waiting for?” he shouted as soon as they came within earshot under the heavy throbbing of the propellers. “Come on, we got a big problem here.”

“What?” Tyzack shouted.

“I said, we’ve got a big problem here!” Nick screamed in his face.

“No, idiot, what’s the problem?”

At that moment, Crane turned around in his seek and aimed a gun at Aldrige, while Nick suddenly stuck his pistol under Tyzack’s chin.

“Two dirty cops, that’s the problem,” Crane snarled.

###

            “Here they come,” said Andre, pointing to the screen. The door to his master bedroom opened and McLaglen came out, leading Karen by the arm and covering her with his pistol. Next came Cummings, and last of all Deaney, and Andre felt his heart turn over as he saw that he was leading Sarah.

“Let’s go,” he said, hoisting his weapon. “Hit ‘em fast and hard.”

Marco Benton and Liu Sho nodded, guns at the ready. Andre pulled back the safe room door and stepped out into Marco’s gleaming kitchen, making for the servants’ staircase. Liu Sho was right behind him.

There was a crash and Andre whipped around to see his gardener fall, bleeding from the head. Edmond Booker was standing over him, a heavy iron skillet in hand, and before Andre could bring his rifle to bear, he swung it again, knocking the gun out of his hands and advancing like a tidal wave of muscle.

But he had acted too soon. From behind him, Benton (unwilling to shoot for fear of hitting his master) slung his rifle around Booker’s neck and pulled. Booker roared and grabbed at the gun, driving Booker back into the stainless steel refrigerator so hard it dented with the impact.

“Go on, boss! I’ll take care of him!” Benton called. Booker twisted around in his grip and the two hulking figures set to like a couple of enraged bears.

There was no time; probably the sounds of the fight had already alerted Cummings to their presence. Andre didn’t even pause to pick up his rifle, but drew his pistol as he ran up the stairs, taking them three at a time until he burst out into the upper hall.

The upstairs of his house was shaped like a cross with a curved bar; a long, crescent-shaped corridor servicing the two wings, while the main upstairs hall reached back to the rear of the house. Andre came out midway along the north wing, near the entrance to the patio over the gardens. He turned left and raced down the corridor.

“Hold it right there!” he shouted as he came in view of Cummings’ gang.

They had been caught right at the top of the grand staircase. From the other direction came Nick and Crane, both with pistols drawn. Deaney and McLaglen were turning about, gripping their hostages, looking from one side to the other. Andre felt a surge of triumph; they had done it after all.

Then Cummings held out his hands as though in surrender, and two small, dark objects dropped from them.

Andre realized what was going to happen a split second too late.

There was an explosion like a high-caliber gunshot, and at the same time a burst of blinding white light. Andre had been through tactical training and knew what to do here. Temporarily blind and deaf, he ducked and rolled out of the way. Beyond the sharp ringing in his ears he heard the dull throb of gunshots, and he prayed that they had been directed at him and not the hostages.

Then, as he came up, squinting and trying to blink the light out of his eyes, he smelled burning, and became aware that there was smoke all about him. For a second he thought his house was on fire, but then he realized that this was the other device that Cummings had dropped; a smoke bomb. He backed away, coughing, trying to get out of the cloud so that he could see.

It didn’t reach far, and he was soon able to breathe more freely. But as he stood in the corridor, gasping and trying to focus through the light in his eyes and the ringing in his ears, he realized he now had no idea where the others were. Cummings had played them after all.

###

            When the flash had gone off, Karen had found herself instantly blinded, deafened, and soon choking on smoke, followed by the impression of being half dragged, half carried down a long flight of steps. Coughing and trying to blink the light and the tears out of her eyes, she analyzed her position; she must be going down the main staircase. Clean air allowed her to breathe again, at least. McLaglen hit the front hall and turned right. She didn’t know what was in this direction. It felt like a long way, then, as her sight returned, the blurred impression of passing through a doorway into a large, airy room. Another blink and she had the impression of a library.

McLaglen was heading straight for one of the high windows. So that was how he meant to get out.

“Cummings, you’d better be right about this,” she dimly heard him muttered as they crossed the room. Karen, however, had no intention of letting him off that easily.

She twisted her wrists hard, snapping the last frayed remnant of the tape binding her hands, pulled one hand free of the sticky substance, heedless of the pain, and before McLaglen knew what was happening, she had seized his gun hand and was twisting it back.

McLaglen swore and tried to throw her off, but she held on grimly. She’d made a mistake; the grip was wrong. She couldn’t get the right leverage to bend his wrist, which meant they were just fighting on pure muscle. She seized his hand with both of hers and tried to force it back, but he was a lot stronger than she was. He grabbed her by the hair, down by the roots, and pulled hard, forcing her head back and causing her to gasp with pain, but she didn’t let go. He drove her back against a desk, pressing against her, preventing her from kicking him, and Karen was suddenly aware of how badly she had bungled her attack. He had her pinned in a vulnerable position and now slowly, inexorably, he was forcing the barrel of the gun back around to point at her.

Karen fought with every ounce of strength she had left, but it was no good; McLaglen simply had more to give, even with one arm. Her dark eyes widened in fear as the gun turned. The barrel seemed to be growing as it drew nearer; the black hole through which the killing bullet would emerge loomed larger and larger, until it had consumed the whole room, the whole world. There was nothing but that black pit aiming up under her chin, seemingly prepared to swallow her whole.

Then, all at once, a hand shot out and grabbed the slide, and the spell was broken. The gun dwindled to its normal size, and she was aware of Nick Windworth, one hand on McLaglen’s gun, the other pressing his own to the dirty cop’s temple.

“I’m trying to think of a reason not to pull this trigger,” he said. “And I’m coming up dry. Can you suggest anything?”

###

            Sarah felt herself being dragged along the corridor. She had heard his gun going off even over the piercing hum in her ears, and she thought she’d cried out, but she couldn’t hear herself.

Please let him have missed, she thought.

The first thing she could see was that he was taking her out onto the patio. There was, she knew, a metal staircase leading down to the garden; he must be heading for that. But…they seemed to be alone. Where was Karen? And where was Cummings?

As soon as she was aware of her position, Sarah stuck her heels into the concrete floor and tried to stop, or at least to slow Deaney down.

“Come on, you little snot,” he said, giving her arm a savage yank that pulled her off her feet, though she was light enough and he was strong enough that she didn’t fall. The power she could feel in his hand was terrifying: she though he’d likely be able to snap her arm just with a twist of his wrist.

Speaking of which

They were approaching the gleaming, top-of-the-line grill set. Almost without realizing what she was doing, Sarah snapped the remaining tape that bound her wrists, pulled her left arm free, seized the prongs and, turning, drove it head-on into the underside of Deaney’s right forearm. His hand opened involuntarily and the gun dropped at once as he screamed. She tried to pull it back out, to stab again, but before she could Deaney released her arm and backhanded her hard across the face, knocking her back against the grill. Her head swam with the impact and she tasted blood. Then his hand closed about her throat, he lifted her – one armed off the ground, then threw her straight down onto the floor. The awkward angle at which he threw her, so that she landed on her side, was the only thing that saved her from cracking her skull open like an egg on the flagstones.

He ripped the prongs out of his arm and brandished it over her, his face alive with rage. He looked ready to stab her to death and was only hesitating as to where to start.

Then the door to the corridor burst open and Andre flew out, gun raised. He fired, but missed. Deaney was already turning to meet him, and he was still disoriented from the flash bang. Deaney threw the prongs at him, and Andre had to duck to avoid it as Deaney came charging right behind the missile. A roundhouse kick and Andre’s gun flew off the edge of the patio, then Andre ducked the next attack and drove at Deaney in a football tackle. As Deaney rained blows down on him, the two slammed into the railing and, still locked together, tipped over the side.

Sarah screamed, staggering to her feet, aching all over. There was a great splash and she realized they’d landed in the pond. Stumbling, she headed for the stairs.

She needed to help Andre…somehow. And what about Karen? They must have taken her somewhere else, and Cummings…

Midway down the stairs, Sarah suddenly understood. She didn’t work it out step-by-step, but saw the whole thing, the whole plan. So simple. So obvious. So…so petty.

She also saw at once what she needed to do. There was a split second of hesitation, of doubt as she looked at the churning waters where the two still fought; should she let it go? Stay and help?

No, Andre could handle himself. All her friends could. She could count on them for that much at least, now that she had the chance to end this once and for all…if it wasn’t already too late.

While Sarah had her revelation, Andre hit the surface of the pond with a painful smack, and all at once the warm, murky water consumed him, disoriented him. Something, a foot, struck out and hit him hard. Andre struck back, his knuckles hitting flesh. He surged upward and broke the surface. Deaney was right beside him and he hit out as hard as he could.

“Son of a bitch!” he coughed as he rained blows on him. “Come into my house! Attack my people! Who do you think you are?!”

His punches were weaker than he would have liked. In the water he couldn’t use body mechanics or brace himself; he only had the strength of his arms alone, and not even all of that. Deaney blocked his latest attack and kicked him hard in the stomach.

“Self-righteous little prick!” he gasped. He kicked him again, knocking the little remaining wind out of him. Fighting in the water was a losing proposition.

Andre pulled back, kicking out for the side of the pond, flailing as best he could with no breath. Deaney had had the same idea.

Aching all over, Andre pulled himself up out of the water and onto the gravely path of his garden; the path he had helped to build with his own hands. A few yards away, he saw Deaney, gasping and panting, rising to his feet. He glared at Andre with murder in his eyes. Andre forced himself to rise to meet him, but Deaney gave a sudden explosive leaping kick, knocking him back to the ground.

“This won’t change anything, Fireson,” he snarled, kicking him savagely in the ribs. “You’ve only bought her a little time. Whatever else I do, I’m going to snap that little blonde tart’s neck, but not before I…”

He never finished. Probably in his rage he hadn’t noticed the green lump laying in the shadows by the pool, watching the battle, but it had seen him. It had seen him kicking and hitting its master. And with a sudden roar, Richelieu the alligator lunged forward and caught Deaney’s waist between his jaws. Deaney had time to utter a single shriek of pain and surprise before toppling into the pond with the enraged alligator on top of him.

Andre staggered to his feet, wincing at every step, and watched as the churning green water turned to red and became still again. The alligator poked its long, blunted snout of the water, bits of something hanging between its teeth.

“Good boy,” Andre gasped.

###

            Cummings took the spare jumpsuit down from the wall of Andre’s garage and stepped into it, then pulled a dirty cap down over his eyes. His movements were swift, but precise. The old battered gray van they had brought the two girls here in was waiting for him. It would take time for Fireson and his people to figure out what had gone wrong, then more time for the police to arrive, and by then, he would just be another work truck driving on his way; practically invisible. In a few hours, he would be over the border in Mexico, and from there he could make his way anywhere in the world.

He pulled open the van door, settled in the driver’s seat, stuck his gun down in between the seats, and started up the engine.

“Where’re we going this time?”

Cummings whipped around, reaching for his gun…but it wasn’t there. Instead, he found himself looking at Sarah Rockford’s lovely, smiling face, framed by its halo of golden hair, his gun in her small hand pointing right at him.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Cummings had nothing to say.

“I just saw it,” she said. “All at once; the common thread, the tell of all your little schemes. You’re a very clever man, Mister Cummings, but you always, always look out for yourself. Your whole master plan was basically just turning the city into a glorified mirror to admire yourself in. Now that things are falling apart for you, well, I just realized that you absolutely would send your friends off to lead us on a merry little chase while you slip off in the confusion and save your own precious skin. Because that’s what you do. It’s all you do.”

He gave a weak smile.

“It’s all anyone does, Miss Rockford.”

“My friends and I have been doing nothing but putting ourselves on the line to try to stop you for the past few days. You’ve given us plenty of chances to get away, but we haven’t, because you needed to be stopped. That’s the real flaw in your master plan, Mister Cummings; it isn’t about motive and opportunity, it’s about right and wrong. Sooner or later, there was going to be someone who wouldn’t tolerate what you were doing. From the moment you started this conspiracy of yours, it was only ever a matter of time.”

He looked at her, and she saw cold hatred in every line of his face.

“You wouldn’t really shoot me,” he said. “You aren’t the type.”

Before Sarah could answer, someone pulled open the driver side door, leveling a service revolver at Cummings’s head.

“She’s not,” said Crane. “But I am.”

 ###

            Andre Fireson loved his great house in the hills. But it wasn’t his only home. Every so often, he felt the need to get away from the city altogether, and for that purpose he had purchased about a hundred acres of secluded beach-front property some distance north of Los Angeles, on which he had built a modest cabin of sorts, surrounded by trees and facing out onto the Pacific.

It was the perfect place to escape to after their adventure.

The warm ocean breeze blew in on the patio overlooking the dock. They had just gotten back from a little light swimming (light due to the fact that most of them were still injured one way or another), had a mouth-watering lunch prepared by Benton (who was still mourning the granite countertop he’d broken while subduing Booker), and now they sat together, the four of them, watching the waves rolling over the beach, while Liu Sho (a bandage about his head) tended to the sea-side flowerbeds.

Or rather, Andre was sometimes watching the waves. More often his eyes rested on Sarah. She was wearing an open white shirt over her sky-blue swimsuit (Andre had provided both, as they were nicer than anything she had at her old apartment), and looked, to his mind, like the sun-drenched sea personified. A clever girl too; clever and brave and principled. He intended to spend more time with her, now that they had the chance. A lot more time.

Karen’s suit, meanwhile, was black, the exact same shade as her hair, and she had a dark grey shirt on over it. The sea at night, under a cloud-dressed moon, Andre thought with smile.

“All things considered,” said Nick, sipping his drink as he turned his face to the Pacific and his eyes to Karen. “I think I’m glad we didn’t die after all.”

“I think I have to agree,” said Karen with a faint smile. “And that reminds me; how did you know McLaglen would take me to the library?”

“I saw the plans to the house while we were strategizing and, well, that’s what I would have done,” he said. “A side exit, not too obvious, allows him to slip away into the bushes and avoids any potential ambushes at the front door while still giving access to the main drive.”

She stared at him, then shook her head in amazement.

“Not bad for a small-time crook,” she said. She contemplated him for a moment, eying his broken and bandaged thumb, and then broke. “That does it!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been dying to know; where did you learn all this? Who are you really? And please tell the truth this time; no more jokes.”

He looked at her, all black and grey and tan, yet almost luminous in his eyes, and it was as though the youth he’d lost long ago had momentarily flickered to life. For the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, he found he felt no reluctance to tell the truth.

“The truth, if you really want it, is nothing too special. I just a guy who did a few tours in Vietnam is all, and you pick up these things.” He sipped his drink, then added. “As a matter of fact, I was one the first American troops to enter Hanoi, back in ’68, if you can believe it.”

Karen frowned at him.

“Hanoi fell in 1970,” she said.

He looked steadily at her, smiling slightly.

“I know. What’s your point?”

There was a brief pause while they digested this. Sarah got it first.

“You were special forces!” she exclaimed.

“If you want to call it that,” he shrugged. “Put it that I did the things no one was allowed to talk about and that I didn’t want to think about, and when I got home I just…kept doing them. There didn’t seem to be anything else worth doing.”

Karen nodded. Though she had no personal experience even close to what he described, she thought she understood.

“And now?” she asked.

He thought a moment, then shrugged.

“Now I’m going to drink and enjoy the view,” he said, leaning back in his chair and fixing his eyes on her. “Everything else can wait.”

Andre laughed.

“Amen to that,” he said.

A few minutes later, Detective Crane appeared.

“Detective!” said Andre. “We were hoping you could make it. Sit down; have a drink. You missed lunch, but I’m sure Benton could whip something up for you if you like.”

Crane smiled and took his advice. They chatted a bit as the late lunch was prepared, but Crane seemed oddly distracted. It didn’t take long for him to share why.

“I was just doing some follow up,” he said. “Now that Deaney’s dead and Cummings is in jail, Roper Shipping is getting bought up by Centron Farms.”

“Is it?” said Sarah. “Looks like Cummings’s effort to keep them out of L.A. backfired on him.”

“That’s not all,” said Crane. “You know how he said they were running a third of the city? Well, that’s an obvious exaggeration, but not as much as you’d think. This case is already making waves in the business community; most of those who did business with Deaney are selling out as fast as they can. And guess who’s doing most of the buying?”

Andre sat up, suddenly alert.

“Centron Farms,” he said.

“But that’s not all,” Deaney went on. “That warehouse they were going to bomb? Well, we found out that it had hidden cameras watching all the rows. So, the thing is, even if the bomb had gone off, their plan would have backfired on them, because the company would have been able to show sabotage, and might have even been able to identify the perpetrators.”

“It’s good to know they wouldn’t have gotten away with it, even if we had all died,” said Karen.

“Right, but think about it,” said Crane. “Centron Farms moves in, starting a shipping and receiving branch and challenging Deaney directly. Cummings tries to deal with it, and in so doing he alerts us to his activities, all the while they have it set up so that, even if he succeeds, they have the last laugh. And now Centron Farms are taking over most of his old territory. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, the Mexicans under El Jefe start a war with Gallano, at great cost and seemingly to little benefit. Now between the two of them, the whole system’s gone and they’re both moving in.”

“I see what you’re getting at,” said Nick. “What’re the odds that two powerful, outside forces would just happen to challenge Cummings’s organization from two ends at the same time?”

“You mean you think this was all planned?” said Sarah

“That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” said Karen. “I mean, no one could possibly account for everything we ended up doing, right?”

“He didn’t need to plan for that,” said Nick thoughtfully. “All he had to do was stir the pond and something would come to the surface. Move in, put pressure on them to either sell out honestly or fight back dishonestly, at which point either someone notices something wrong, or they themselves secretly get the evidence they need to take Cummings down. Diabolically simple, actually; nothing illegal about it, unless, of course, he was also working with the cartels, which, if no money exchanged hands, would be all-but impossible to prove.”

“But who…” Sarah asked.

“Xander Calvan,” said Andre. “He’s the head of Centron Farms. Has a reputation for ruthless brilliance in more ways than one. I’ve met him; if anyone could pull off a strategy like this, it’s him, and I don’t think he’d scruple to deal with the cartels either.”

“If all this is true,” said Karen slowly. “What does it mean that this man is now taking over all that Cummings and Deaney had?”

A chill seemed to sweep over them. Then, suddenly, Sarah laughed.

“Never ends, does it?” she said. “You know what, though? I’m not going to worry about it. Maybe there’s nothing to it, maybe there is, but whatever happens, we’ll deal with it. Right?”

Andre grinned.

“You’re something, you know that?”

She flashed him a radiant smile.

“You have no idea.”

Crane chuckled good humoredly.

“I suppose that’s the best attitude we can take,” he said. He lifted his glass. “In any case, he’s to you all; case closed.”

The four of them raised their glasses. The future would come when it came. For now, though, life was good.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Trap Closes

 

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?”

“Beats me.”

“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.

“Hold it!”

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?”

“Country club.”

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.

Sarah shrugged.

“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.”

Karen laughed.

“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.”

“About what?”

“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…”

Karen smiled.

“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.

Deaney smiled.

“That’ll depend on your boyfriends, won’t it?”           

Happy St. Valentine’s Day: Some Favorite Couples

And Saint Valentine said [unto the Emperor Claudius]: Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God, and if thou believe in him, verily thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies.
The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
Chaucer, The Parliament of Foules

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, “when every bird chooses himself a mate.” In celebration, I present a sampling of a few of my personal favorite animated couples:

-Robin and Starfire, Teen Titans
Image result for robin and starfire
These two make for a great ‘opposites attract’ couple: super-sweet, innocent, naive Starfire, who is emotionally vulnerable and embraces every new thing she encounters with delight, and brooding, ultra-serious, single-minded Robin, who was raised by Batman and who obsessively focuses on the mission. The two balance each other wonderfully: Starfire brings joy and sunlight into Robin’s dark life, while Robin acts as an emotional anchor whom she can always rely on to guard her and keep her focused. Plus I love the fantasy aspect that he’s an orphan from the circus and she’s a princess from another world.

-Kim and Ron, Kim Possible
Image result for kim and ron hug

Amid all the gadgets and spy antics, the heart of Kim Possible is the relationship between Kim and Ron as it grows from lifelong friendship to romantic love. Again, they are very much an ‘opposites attract’ kind of couple: Kim is an overachiever, straight-A student, and boasts that she “can do anything.” Ron is an underachiever, slacker student, and can’t seem to do anything. But all the while underneath they’re actually much closer than they appear: Ron is shown to be very capable when he needs to be, suggesting that his problem is more a lack of confidence, while Kim is actually very self-conscious about her image and puts up something of a false front to try to maintain her status (there’s a significant episode where they’re both hit by a ray that forces them to tell the truth: Ron’s success soars while Kim’s takes a hit). Again, the two complement and support each other very well, with Kim encouraging Ron to improve himself and Ron preventing Kim from taking herself too seriously.

-Phineas and Isabella, Phineas and Ferb
Image result for phineas and isabella hug
One of the many running gags of Phineas and Ferb is that Isabella, the super-cute leader of the Fireside Girls, is head-over-heels in love with Phineas and not at all subtle about it, but Phineas somehow never notices. He likes Isabella a lot, regarding her as his best friend outside the family, but he really doesn’t get the whole ‘girls’ thing very well (e.g. his idea of a romantic dinner for two involves dumping a huge pile of rose petals onto the table). So, it isn’t that he doesn’t return her feelings, it simply that he doesn’t think about it. Unlike the previous two couples, these two are more of a ‘birds of a feather’ matchup: both are overachievers, eager to make the most of life, with a great love of learning and creating, and they share a wonderfully natural, easy relationship. Isabella isn’t as brilliant, but more attune to normal life and emotions than Phineas, which means that in the rare times when he gets into a funk, she’s usually the one the pull him out of it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

AMDG

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Mastermind

 

Sitting on the edge of the table, kicking her feet and looking more like a schoolgirl on recess than she would have cared to know, Sarah Rockford looked around with interest in the strange group she had found herself in.

There was Andre Fireson, whose mansion she had woken up in that morning (was it really that soon?) and whose safe room they were now gathered in. He was short for a man, but compact, powerful, and possessed of amazing energy and lightning judgment. She had noticed that when he threw her from the helicopter. He was pacing the floor in a restless fashion, like a leopard caught in too small a cage.

He’s just dying to be out there again, she thought. To be making things happen, taking the fight to the enemy.

Then there was Detective Karen Stillwater: cool, logical, and focused (not to mention drop-dead gorgeous in just the way powerful men of action like, Sarah added mentally to herself, admiring the other woman’s shiny black hair and excellent physique). She stood before a white board on which they had pieced together a plan of the conspiracy, as well as they understood it, studying the diagram as though triple checking that the information was accurate.

She’s worried, Sarah thought. Worried she might have missed something. Her coolness isn’t natural, but a skill she’s worked to develop. Kinda silly of her; I mean, we’re all in the same boat anyway.

This caused her eyes to drift over to Nick “Breezy” Windworth. He stood a little apart from the others, arms folded, leaning against the wall. He was the oldest one there, with sloping shoulders and a somewhat silly face that created the impression of a thoroughly average, somewhat stupid kind of man.

But he isn’t, Sarah thought. Judging by what Karen and Andre have said, he’s probably the cleverest one among us, and certainly the most experienced. I wonder where he got that experience?

At first, Sarah thought that Nick was looking at the whiteboard as well. Then she realized that, in fact, he was looking at Karen. Looking very hard at her too. That made Sarah feel oddly relieved, though she wasn’t quite sure why.

That made her think of herself; a twenty-year-old freelance reporter getting by on nothing but her charm and her pen who had exposed one conspiracy, gotten a swelled head, and gone for a second, with the result that she’d survived three attempts to kill her in less than twenty-four hours. She was five-foot-nothing (to be generous), blonde, and good-looking enough not to feel self-conscious in describing herself as such.

Now it turned out that all four of them, in their own way, had each been chasing down a piece of the same conspiracy, the full extent of which they still didn’t know. One by one they had crossed each other’s paths, and now they were all here, and all (if she could judge by her own case) determined to see the thing through to the end.

“Okay,” said Karen in her odd, but charming accent that was part Mexican, part British. “Let’s go over it one more time. Gallano runs the drug trade. Deaney manages supplies via Roper Shipping. Gallano employs local crooks like Mistretta as enforcers, and to preempt any local competition. According to the files we recovered from Mistretta’s office, he has enforcers like that all over the city. Each pursues his own operations, while reinforcing and supporting the others. The organization employs dirty cops, including Captain McLagen to sabotage any police investigations before they can get too close to the truth. And the whole thing is run by at least one mastermind, whom we do not yet know.”

“I still think it’s Deaney,” said Sarah.

Andre shook his head. “Deaney’s smart, but he’s not that smart; he’s taken too many blows to the head for that. In fact, if we’re right, he doesn’t even have to be as clever as I take him for; I imagine this mastermind takes much of the credit for building his company. Besides, I heard him taking orders from someone at the party: that’s how I knew they were coming for you.”

“Anyway,” Karen went on. “As far as we know, the conspiracy worked fine until fairly recently, when El Jefe’s cartel began to move in on Gallano’s trade. And now they’ve arranged for some kind of ‘event’ to take place tomorrow, which is so important that they have been willing to risk exposure to ensure that we do not know about it. They brought out trumped-up charges against Crane and I – sure to attract attention – tried to kidnap and interrogate Sarah rather than just kill her purely in order to find out if she knew anything, and then tried to murder her and Andre in a very dramatic manner, again simply on the possibility that they might know something. From all this we can deduce that whatever they’re planning, it’s big and it’s vital to their operations.”

“Could it be some kind of strike on the Mexicans?” Sarah asked.

“Considering they used a grenade launcher on them last week, I don’t think they’d be so worried about keeping any of their operations against them a secret,” Karen answered.

“You didn’t find anything in those documents? No crimes that couldn’t be accounted for or anything like that?” Andre asked.

Karen shook her head. “No, it was all pretty straightforward. I doubt Gallano or the others would trust Mistretta with that sort of information anyway; not unless they had to.”

“Where are those files anyway?” Nick asked. “I’d had to think they went to waste after all the trouble we had getting them.”

“The originals are at the precinct,” she said. “But Crane and I made copies and I hid mine back at my apartment. But don’t worry; I’ve practically memorized them.”

“We can go get them later if we have to,” said Andre. “In the meantime, the question is how can we learn what they’re planning before tomorrow?”

“I think,” said Nick. “The question whether there is a way we can learn what they’re planning before tomorrow.”

“I think that was implied in his question,” said Sarah.

“Are the semantics really helping?” said Karen.

“As I said,” Andre declared, raising his voice. “How can we discover their plan before tomorrow? And I am not gonna accept that there is no way to do so until you prove it to me.”

He had a commanding presence, in spite of his short stature, and the others felt it. At once they began considering possibilities.

“Not to sound cruel or anything,” said Sarah. “But could we do what they tried to do to us? You know, grab someone – McLagen for instance – and interrogate them?”

“Kidnapping someone isn’t as simple as it looks,” said Nick. “Especially not a high-ranking police officer who knows to be on his guard.”

“Besides,” said Karen. “As much as would like to take some electrodes to that…man, we can’t even be sure if he knows anything. As far as I can tell, Deaney and Gallano are the only ones we can say for sure know about this thing, apart from the unknown Mastermind.”

“That’s something,” said Andre at once. “Deaney and Gallano know about it. How can we use that?”

“If they know, they might have records of some kind,” said Sarah. “Plans, diagrams, expense reports, anything of the kind.”

“Almost certainly,” said Nick. “In my experience, if you’re going to plan a major operation, you are going to have documentation of some kind or other. That has to go somewhere, if they don’t burn it, which I doubt they would do the day before. They’d need to double-check, do last minute reviews, make alterations.”

“So there is evidence,” said Andre. “Physical evidence that we can find and get at.”

“It won’t be any use for convicting them,” said Karen.

“I don’t care,” said Andre. “We can worry about convicting them later; right now, I only want to stop them.”

“Well, then,” said Nick. “It seems fairly obvious; if that’s what you want, then we either search on Gallano’s yacht or in Deaney’s house. Unless, of course, anyone can think of any alternative location where either or both might keep his secrets.”

“His safe!” Sarah exclaimed.

“Sorry?”

“I mean, Deaney’s safe; the one you and I tried to get into,” she said to Andre. “You said he had a bunch of other documents in there, that he didn’t show you, right? I’ll bet that’ll include just what we’re looking for!”

“I bet you’re right,” said Andre with a fierce gleam in his eye. “If only we’d gotten into it earlier.”

“I would have if you hadn’t interrupted me,” she said, unable to resist.

“No, you wouldn’t; they had already seen you, remember? I would have gotten in if you hadn’t been sneaking around.”

“We’ll agree to disagree on that,” said Sarah with a dignified toss of her head that sent her bright yellow hair flashing. “The point is, that’s got to be where it is, right?”

A reluctant smile twitched at the corners of Andre’s mouth and he let it go.

“No,” said Karen. “That is one likely place where it might be, assuming such a thing exists.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” said Sarah. “Go in and look.”

“We’re going too fast,” said Karen. “First let’s see if we can come up with any other possibilities.”

After a good quarter-hour of further discussion, however, nothing occurred to them. The only viable alternative, which Karen suggested, was to take what evidence they had and go to the FBI.

“Only we don’t have much in the way of hard evidence,” Andre pointed out. “And besides, while we’re doing that, these guys will be carrying out whatever they’ve got planned for tomorrow, and I don’t intend to let that happen.”

“Me neither,” said Sarah.

“Of course I don’t want that either,” said Karen. “But if they knew the feds were looking into them, mightn’t that scare them off?”

“Yes, if we could get a full-blown investigation going by tomorrow,” said Nick. “And as one who has witnessed several Federal investigations up close, I can tell you that they’re usually not that quick.”

“And if we get ourselves killed chasing a dead lead, that won’t help anything either,” said Karen.

“Oh, I don’t think we will,” said Nick an odd, absent tone. “After all, we’ve each shown ourselves to be rather good at surviving, one way or another. And in any case, we’re fortunate enough to have one of the more courageous young officers I’ve happened to meet on our side.”

Karen blinked in surprise at that. She opened her mouth to reply, then seemed to have second thoughts and closed it again. Nick laughed.

“Detective Stillwater, you are young, brave, and beautiful; you really need to get better at accepting compliments.”

She blushed and looked away, but he had succeeded in teasing a smile from her face. Sarah caught Andre’s eye and they both grinned.

“What the hell,” said Karen. “I don’t suppose I’ll find a better lot to die with anyway. So what is the plan?”

###

            Andre Fireson, millionaire, heir to princes and keeper of his family legacy, had never expected to find himself slinking through another man’s property at night, dressed as a catburglar and intent on robbing his safe. Strange the things that duty called one to.

The night was pitch dark; a blanket of cloud covered the moon and stars, casting all that lay outside the glare of streetlamps into total blackness. Outside of Walter Deaney’s residence, lamps illuminated the iron gate and flooded large sections of the garden, but most of the tree-lined grounds were as dark as the deepest forest. Andre stayed low, moving with cat-like stealth across the well-kept lawn.

There was no one in sight. Deaney evidently didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention by keeping visible guards on his property. But Andre did not, for that, assume the approach was unwatched.

He waited in the shadows, breathing with the light wind that sighed among the bushes. Four slow minutes ticked by.

Suddenly, there came a shout and sound of a struggle from the front gate: not loud, but clear in the quiet night. Flashlights blossomed inside the darkened house, and two figures – on of whom a veritable giant, whom he guessed to be Deaney’s man, Edmund Booker – came out. They swept their lights over the lawn, but the bush concealed Andre from their beams. Then the two men hurried off in the direction of the gate. Just as Nick had said they would.

“The best way to trick someone,” he’d explained. “Is to let them think they’ve caught you.”

So far, so good, Andre thought, as he rose and darted across the brightly lit patio to the house. He didn’t bother trying to go inside; the doorframe was flanked with sheetrock, providing easy handholds. He’d done his share of mountaineering – his twenty-second birthday gift to himself had been to climb the Matterhorn – and so the ascent was no difficulty.

The second floor window above the patio looked into Deaney’s office. It was going to be locked, of course, but Benton had long ago showed Andre how to use a flatheaded screwdrive to push the latch back from the outside. It was tricky to do while hanging from the side of a building, but Andre was up to the challenge.

In a few moments, the window slid back and Andre stepped softly into the office, behind the big oak desk. All was quiet inside, but he could hear the faint sounds of the guards searching the grounds. He had to be quick.

Summoning to mind the image of the room as it had appeared when he last was there, Andre slipped noiselessly across the carpet to the Renoir painting and pulled it away from the wall. Only now did he employ his small flashlight to illuminate the dials. This was it…

The lights switched on.

“I think that’s far enough,” said a familiar voice.

Very slowly, instinctively keeping his hands up, Andre turned on the spot. Walter Deaney was sitting in one of the armchairs, dressed in a silk smoking jacket and looking quite at his ease as he pointed a pistol straight at him.

“Mr. Fireson,” he said. “I’ll admit, I was wrong. I had you pegged as a smart man; someone who would know when to leave a thing alone for his own good.”

“Must be hard to admit that,” Andre answer. “That you were wrong, I mean.”

“Not as hard as you’d think,” he said, with a grin. He rose to his feet, crossed the room, and relieved Andre of his own weapon and pocketed it. Then he jerked his pistol at the door. “I’d much rather not have to shoot you in my own house, so if you wouldn’t mind…”

Andre obediently exited the room, his hands still held up above his head.

“So, where are you planning to shoot me?” he asked.

“Maybe nowhere,” said Deaney. “All depends on you.”

They descended the staircase and into the living room.

“You don’t really expect me to believe you’ll let me go?” Andre asked.

“Why not?” said Deaney. “We’re both businessmen; I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement.”

“I doubt it,” said Andre. “You see, unlike you, I’m not just a businessman. I’m also a gentleman.”

Deaney laughed.

“That’s good!” he said. “I’ll have to remember that one. Alright, just sit there by the bar. Pour yourself a drink, if you like.”

Andre sat on one of the stools and lowered his hands. Deaney sat down on the arm of the sofa, watching him intently.

“We’re just gonna wait here until my boys get back,” he said. “And here they are now!”

Booker and another man of much the same build appeared, carrying something between them.

“Found him, boss,” Booker grunted. They tossed the object they had been carrying to the ground and it rose to its knees, groaning. It was Nick Windworth, and his face was badly bruised.

“Well, that could’ve gone better,” he muttered.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” said Deaney. “You’re that con-man, aren’t you?”

“Depends on which con-man you mean, Mr. Deaney,” he answered.

Deaney chuckled.

“You all seem in good spirits, all things considered,” he said.

“I was thinking the same thing about you,” said Nick, sitting back against the end of the bar and massaging his face. “What with all that’s been happening, and your big to do tomorrow, I’d figure you to be a bit more…anxious.”

Deaney looked down at him, sizing him up.

“Trying to fish for information, I see,” he said. “Not bad. Now let me try; what happened to the two girls?”

“You really think we’d bring them along?” said Andre.

In his turn, Deaney looked hard at Andre, then laughed.

“No, of course not,” he said. “Not the sort of thing a gentleman would do, is it? But I am going to have to insist knowing their whereabouts.”

His eyes went back to Nick.

“I don’t think you’re quite as much of a gentleman, are you?”

“Not as such,” said Nick with a shrug. “I lie and cheat all the time.”

But before he could say anything more, there was a sudden sharp crack while at the same time a small cloud of dust burst out of the wall. Deaney swore and ducked under the couch, twisting ‘round to see where the attack was coming from. Booker dived for cover as well. The other man swayed a moment, feeling at the ragged red hole in his chest, then toppled to the ground.

Andre seized his chance. While Deaney had his back to him, he launched himself onto the other man, seizing the hand that held the gun and twisting it. The pistol dropped, but almost at once Andre received a sharp elbow to the rips and Deaney twisted in his arms with the speed of a snake, striking quick, powerful blows at his face and solar plexus. Andre wasn’t helpless; he could ward the worst of it off, but Deaney was far faster and more precise than any man he’d ever fought.

Outside, in the garden, hidden under a guile suit, Karen Stillwater racked another bullet into the rifle chamber. Just as Fireson had warned her, the XR-7 thermal-imaging rifle’s accuracy was badly off; she’d been aiming for Deaney. At least she’d given them a chance to escape. Only now the four heat signatures were moving too fast and too close for her to dare risk another shot. It was hard to even see the hot pads that Andre and Nick wore about their ankles and necks so that she could identify them.

Karen drew a deep breath and pushed her fears aside. Her friends needed her to be cool and collected. And so she concentrated on watching struggling figures through the thermal scope, waiting her chance to act.

Meanwhile, Andre and Deaney bobbed and weaved about the living room, Andre more struggling to hold the other man off than seeking a chance to injure him. He was a skilled fighter, and a powerful man, but Deaney was a professional athlete on his own ground; a little out of his prime, but still far out of his league. Andre tried to dodge in close enough to punch him, but Deaney easily accounted for his movement and delivered a brutal kick that Andre only just managed to ward off, but Deaney followed it up with a second, then a back fist that caught Andre under the eye. Andre countered, landing a blow in Deaney’s hard stomach that made the other man flinch, but when he tried to capitalize on this, Andre found himself quickly reversed and hit with another blow to the head, then Deaney launched himself off his front foot and kicked Andre square in the face.

The blow sent his head ringing, and the next thing he knew, he was on the floor, only the floor seemed to be moving as well. Deaney loomed over him from all directions at once, grinning and saying something he couldn’t understand. Then something bright and glittering flew through the air and struck the side of Deaney’s head. He staggered and fell onto his hands and knees. A moment later, Nick Windworth had snatched up the fallen pistol and was pointing it at the master of the house.

“That’s enough of that,” said Nick. “Hands up, both of you.”

Deaney sullenly raised his hands, blood trickling from the side of his face from where the glass ashtray had hit him. Booker, who had been clutching a broken nose from where Nick had smashed his head into the bar, likewise raised his hands in surrender.

Andre shook his head to clear the cobwebs and sat up, forcing himself to focus through the pain and haze. He retrieved his own pistol from Deaney’s pocket and joined Nick.

“Pays to have a backup plan,” he said.

Then to his discomfort, Deaney grinned.

“It does indeed.”

###

            Sarah Rockford had followed in Andre’s shadow as he’d crept across the yard, then darted across to the shadows under the window as soon as he’d climbed up. She’d waited there, heart hammering, while he entered the room. Then the lights had gone on and she knew he’d been caught. She’d listened through the open window as Deaney led him out of the room, and as soon as they were gone started up the side of the building.

She wasn’t nearly as experienced a climber as Andre, but she was lithe and athletic, and in any case she was very light, so she ascended with little difficulty. The room was still lit – Deaney hadn’t turned the lights off when they left – and clearly empty.

Sarah slipped in; all in black, her bright golden hair hidden under a black cap. Her small feet made no noise on the carpet as she stole across to the safe.

Out came a stethoscope. Heart hammering, she began to turn the knob, just as Nick had shown her earlier that day, when he’d given them all a crash course in safecracking.

A sharp crack from bellow, followed by shouts and the sounds of fighting, momentarily distracted her, but she had the first number. She started over, focusing past the sounds of combat and trying her best not to think of what might be happening to her friends below.

She had the second number. The sounds of fighting died down, but what that might mean, she couldn’t say, and daren’t speculate. Then the final number. She tried the handle, and with a heavy click the door swung open.

“Most impressive.”

Sarah whipped around. A man was sitting in an armchair, watching her. A broad-faced, genial-looking man of about sixty, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

“I must congratulate you all; that was a very good plan,” he said. “I honestly didn’t expect it to go this far. I suppose we have Mr. Windworth to thank for that. Unsurprising, considering his background.”

“Mister…Mister Cummings?” Sarah said, dimly recognizing the man she’d met at Deaney’s party.

“I’m glad you remember me, after all you’ve been through since,” he said. “It’s Miss Mitchell, isn’t it? Or is it Miss Rockford?”

Sarah didn’t answer, but stared at him. Cummings didn’t appear to be armed, but something about him warned her that she was in mortal danger.

“Do you mean you knew, all along?” she said.

“Well, of course I knew that you were likely to make an attempt on Mr. Deaney’s safe tonight; that was the only logical move you had left, unless you intended to simply give up, and I certainly didn’t expect you to do that. So I made sure Mr. Deaney and Mr. Gallano were here to welcome you.”

“Mr. Gallano?” Sarah gasped.

Outside, on the lawn, Karen continued to watch the scene unfolding in the living room. Nick and Andre had come out on top after all; they had Booker and Deaney at gunpoint. Now she just had to make sure no one else came in, or…

Something hard, round, and cold pressed against the back of her head.

“Good evening, Detective,” came the voice of Eugenio Gallano.

All around her, a dozen of Gallano’s men rushed to the house, rifles in hand, to surround the two men.

“Nick! Andre! It’s a…” Karen screamed, but a moment later Gallano had struck her on the back of the head, and she knew no more.

Inside, the two men heard the scream, and heard it cut off suddenly. Nick whipped around in a sudden alarm at the sound, but before he could do anything or ascertain what had happened, the doors burst open and they found themselves surrounded by rifles.

Upstairs, Sarah heard all of this without realizing quite what was happening, but knowing that it meant she and her friends were caught.

“It’s you, isn’t it,” she said. “You’re the mastermind.”

Cummings laughed.

“If you want to call me that,” he said. “I developed the scheme years ago. You see, the problem with any extra-legal business opportunities is that sooner or later someone traces it back to you, if you have motive and opportunity. You can put some distance between yourself by paying someone, but that still leads back to you. But what if you had a vast, mutually beneficial organization where the only common thread was a single mind directing all? They would seem to have no connection and, hence, no motivation to help one another, leaving nothing for the police to grab on to. Why should an Italian drug lord turn to a local thug, or a respected businessman transport drugs he doesn’t even sell?”

“But you benefit from it all, I imagine,” said Sarah.

“Immeasurably,” Cummings agreed. “But not so much financially as you might think; most of that goes to my people. It is the challenge I enjoy more than the money. That, and of course the contemplation of that fact that I rule about a third of Los Angeles.”

“What?” she gasped. “What do you mean?”

“Roper Shipping isn’t the only company that sends Deaney a paycheck,” he said. “It’s just the only one he pays taxes on. One way or another, thanks in part to Gallano’s influence, he runs about a dozen different companies. Oh, I don’t mean he sits on the board or anything, but if he tells, say _ automotive to go one way, they do it. They know that if they don’t, something unfortunate is liable to happen to one of their ships.”

“Which means that you run them,” said Sarah.

“More or less,” he admitted. “Quite a good scheme, don’t you think?”

Sarah licked her lips. She was wondering why Deaney was spending so much time talking instead of just shooting her. But then, she realized, it wasn’t as if he had anyone else to boast too. He’d probably been dying to tell everyone how clever he’d been for years. Perhaps she might be able to stall him until…something.

“It’s impressive,” she admitted. “Only, it seems to be kind of coming apart at the moment, doesn’t it?”

“Hardly,” he said. “It is true we’ve had more police attention than we would like with this unfortunate tussle with the Mexicans, not to mention you four running around town like rats seeking out crumbs. But after tomorrow we’ll be able to start returning to normal.”

“Why? What’s so special about tomorrow?”

“That, as you no doubt have guessed, is why we’ve had to take some extra steps with you people. It’s a rather delicate situation, you see.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“No? I’m not surprised. Well, the truth is that the Mexicans have not been the only ones trying to, I believe the phrase is ‘muscle in on’ my business. Centron Farms out of San Ignatio has been expanding into Los Angeles. Specifically, into shipping and receiving. I wouldn’t worry about it ordinarily, but quite frankly, Centron Farms has the resources to put serious pressure on my business. They’ve already begun making offers to buy Roper Shipping, the kind of offers that raise questions when you refuse them.”

“Then what do you intend to do?” asked Sarah.

“Centron Farms has a chemical supply warehouse on Welmat Street,” he said. “Tomorrow, there will be an explosion: a minor one, but enough to unleash a cloud of chlorine and hydrogen-sulfide gas into the air above northern Los Angeles.”

“But…” Sarah stared in horror. “But that will kill hundreds, thousands!”

“Yes, very tragic,” said Cummings. “Of course, the subsequent investigation will reveal that, had the building been built up to code, the tragedy would never have occurred. Centron Farms will be fortunate if they survive the ensuing investigations, and certainly will not be in any position to expand any further into my territory.”

Sarah turned to the door and saw, to her dismay, Andre, Nick, and Karen being brought in. Andre and Nick had bruised faces, and Karen walked unsteadily, leaning on Nick, a trickle of blood coming from beneath her dark locks. Sarah instinctively rushed at Andre and hugged him, and the four companions stood at bay before Cummings. Behind them, Deaney, Gallano, and their people stood covering them with guns, Deaney and Booker both bleeding from the head and looking vindictive.

“So there you all are,” said Cummings. “I was just telling this young lady what to expect tomorrow.”

“Why bother?” Andre demanded. “Why not just kill us here?”

“We try not to have murders take place in our homes,” said Cummings. “It raises questions, and as recent events have amply demonstrated, not all police are reliable. Much better that your remains be scattered amid a wasteland of other evidence, none of which will be linked to me.”

He nodded to Gallano.

“Take them away, Eugenio, and try to do it right this time.”

Gallano scowled, but obediently ordered his men to bind their hands and blindfold them. Sarah’s last view of that house was of Cummings’s smiling, triumphant face beaming on her before everything went dark.

Book Release: Spring and Fall in the Old Dark House

Just in time for Halloween is this nice little ghost story about two friends – super-smart, super-sweet, irrepressibly lively Jenny Spring and taciturn, dour, extra-stoic David Fall – who end up having to explore a (possibly) haunted house, where they learn a thing or two about how much they still have to learn.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

When twelve-year-old Jenny Spring is asked that question by her best friend, David Fall, she insists that she doesn’t. She’s the smartest kid in school, and she knows exactly the right arguments to prove that there are no such things as ghosts.

But when the actions of a bitter classroom rival force them to enter and explore the creepiest house in town, Jenny and David find themselves forced to reconsider; what if there are such things as ghosts?